CHICAGO (AP) — When Anthony Freud was 14, his favorite pastime was going to the opera in London and then, on the train ride home to Wimbledon where he lived with his parents, "dreaming about how I could do it better when I ran a company of my own some day."
He's gotten his chance, not once but three times: first in Wales, then in Houston and now in Chicago, where he has been general director of the Lyric Opera since 2011.
Freud is only the fourth person to run the 60-year-old Lyric, and the first, after founder Carol Fox, who didn't come up through the ranks. Fox established the company's reputation for artistic excellence, but it was her successors, Ardis Krainik and William Mason, who stabilized its finances.
Lyric long enjoyed a subscriber base that was envied throughout the industry, but that has slipped in the wake of the economic meltdown. Changing tastes and competing demands on people's time also have contributed to a decline in ticket sales.
Despite these problems, Lyric ended last season in the black on a budget of more than $70 million. Meanwhile, the similar-sized San Francisco Opera and New York's Metropolitan Opera — five times as big — finished in the red.
But, as Freud was quick to point out during an interview last week in his office on the fourth floor of the Civic Opera House, though Lyric is financially sound for now, "Stability is also fragile, especially post-2008."
"Arts organizations the world over went through a period of existing in hermetically sealed bubbles," he said. "We felt we were doing a good job ... and if it ain't broke, why fix it? Those assumptions gradually proved less and less reliable, to the point where they became almost irrelevant."
Keeping Lyric relevant is much on Freud's mind these days. And his proudest initiative is Lyric Unlimited, an outreach to cultural and community groups that previously had little or no exposure to opera.
For starters, he brought to Chicago a mariachi opera, "Cruzar la Cara de la Luna" ("To Cross the Face of the Moon") that he had commissioned in Houston. It played one performance at the 3,600-seat Civic Opera House and several more in neighborhoods with large Mexican populations.
A second mariachi opera is to have its world premiere in March, and next year will also see performances in smaller venues of a klezmer opera commissioned in conjunction with performances in the main house of the Holocaust-themed opera "The Passenger." Freud has also engaged composer Matthew Aucoin to create a children's opera called "Second Nature" that will premiere with a free performance in the Lincoln Park Zoo and then tour to schools.
"The days when community engagement was thought of as, 'Here is La Boheme, come and see it, you should enjoy it' ... that's what I call colonization rather than collaboration." Freud said. "I've been really clear with our board that the justification for investing in Lyric Unlimited is NOT to build our subscriber base. If we wanted to invest half a million dollars to sell more full-price tickets, we wouldn't do projects in economically deprived areas."
Not that he's neglecting the main house. Lyric's next season will include its first new piece in more than a decade, an adaptation of the Ann Patchett novel "Bel Canto" by composer Jimmy Lopez. That work has been nurtured by Lyric's creative consultant, soprano Renee Fleming, who also has sparked a collaboration with the improv comedy troupe Second City.
A series of Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals that play after the regular season is proving a financial boon as well as bringing in potential new customers for opera. Last season's "The Sound of Music" played 30 performances and drew 71,000 people. More than 40,000 of those said they had never been to the opera house before.
He is also commissioning new looks at standard works, like the Robert Falls production of Mozart's "Don Giovanni" that opened the current season. Upcoming is a new production of Wagner's "Ring" cycle by director David Pountney, and on his wish-list for the future is Berlioz's epic "The Trojans," never performed at Lyric, as well as the five-act version of Verdi's "Don Carlos."
Overall, Freud is optimistic that Lyric and opera in general will survive, despite rapid changes in viewing and spending habits.
"What is opera, after all," he said. "It's telling stories through words and music. And that's utterly universal, transcending continents and centuries and cultures."