Ardis Krainik, Chicago's Musical Penny Pincher, Saves Her Opera from Its Gotterdammerung

updated 12/13/1982 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/13/1982 AT 01:00 AM EST

As a teenager she would hole up in her Wisconsin bedroom, counting her baby-sitting dollars, dimes and quarters over and over. Then one summer she worked in the parcel post room at Mirro Aluminum. Every penny of her pay and all of her savings went for a sheared raccoon coat. Though never impoverished, Ardis Krainik has always been frugal, and the latest benefactor of that trait is the Lyric Opera of Chicago, of which she has been general manager for the last two years. Previously on the financial skids, its endowment fund flattened, its warehouse mortgaged, and $300,000 in arrears, the Lyric has made an astonishing comeback under Krainik.

While analysts predicted it would take three smash seasons to turn the Lyric around when its founder and manager, Carol Fox, left in 1981, Krainik has actually put it $281,764 in the black in only one year. Reviews have been raves, and on a typical evening the opera house is 97 percent full. "Ardis is what we needed," says Angelo Arena, president of Marshall Field & Co. and chairman of the Lyric's fund raising. "It has been a remarkable turnaround. Her enthusiasm is infectious."

Having been with the Lyric for 27 years as a secretary, singer and assistant manager, Krainik knew exactly how to take over when Fox, perilously ill from bone degeneration and increasingly cranky in her final seasons, was asked by the Lyric's board to step down. (Fox died six months later.) Though the Lyric had maintained its place as one of the nation's top three companies (with the Metropolitan in New York and the San Francisco), financial disasters like the 1978 world premiere of Krzysztof Penderecki's Paradise Lost (which cost $1.5 million, or about $1 million more than the average opera) had scared off major contributors. Krainik's plan is to continue experimenting with new works while keeping the evergreen favorites in the repertoire. "You can't go overboard with modern opera," she contends, "because with only seven operas a year, people want to see Boheme, Butterfly and Aïda, and they deserve to see them with great artists singing in them." Accordingly, this fall's season features Tosca with Placido Domingo and Grace Bumbry, Luisa Miller with Luciano Pavarotti, and a lively Madama Butterfly with Broadway producer Harold Prince directing. Aïda—without elephants—will open next fall's season.

The elephant ban is an artistic decision, though, not one of the belt-tightening measures that Krainik has instituted at the Lyric. In house, the costume department and the wigmasters are making everything they can. When set designer Pier Luigi Samaritani wanted to purchase three masks for $1,500 for last season's Don Quichotte by Massenet, Krainik said no. The artist anguished only briefly before making the masks himself. Says Krainik, "Luigi just got into the spirit of things like everyone else." Technical director Roger Hull proudly points out that bolts, which now cost $1 apiece, are rethreaded when they get worn down, rather than discarded.

Krainik's secret, friends say, is the proverbial iron hand in a velvet glove. "The manager of an opera company has to be an absolute son of a bitch," says Lee Freeman, the Lyric's general counsel, "but Ardis is personally frugal and a loving person. Her staff wants to make Ardis a success."

Krainik began her penny-pinching in her hometown of Manitowoc, Wis. The daughter of a Mirro executive and an adoring mother who found her precocious, Ardis' energies were channeled into piano, voice, golf and tennis lessons. She majored in theater at Northwestern and returned to study voice. When Carol Fox founded the Lyric in 1954, she hired Krainik as a secretary, not because she could sing but because she could type.

In 1955 Krainik made the chorus at the Lyric, and later she sang minor roles for five years until Fox made her assistant manager. For 20 years Krainik did "whatever Carol didn't want to do that day. There wasn't a single department I wasn't involved in." Ardis was 51 and considering an offer to head the Australian Opera when the Lyric board offered her the top job. In deciding, Krainik, a devout Christian Scientist, concluded, "I am going to put my hand in the Father's and I am going where He takes me."

Because she doesn't allow smoking or drinking in her elegant apartment near Chicago's lakeshore, she seldom entertains at home but loves to party elsewhere. Unmarried ("This is the kind of job you've got to give all of yourself to") and gregarious, Krainik socializes with women friends from her church and the opera board and is escorted by opera-loving bachelors. She does allow herself one personal extravagance—a mink coat. "You have to have one in this business," she rationalizes. "It's like a uniform."

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