Lyric Opera Believes In Igniting Transformation Through Art

Discover, Science of Story September 3, 2016

Lyric Opera Believes In Igniting Transformation Through Art

Andy Swindler
Conscious businesses prosper through purpose-driven people-first practices, but many still struggle to tell their courageous stories. I help connect the dots.

Chicago’s Lyric Opera is one of the most prestigious opera companies in the world, if not the absolute greatest of all time (hey, we’re biased). And while most of our research deals with how profit-driven businesses tell their stories, we were immediately fascinated since Lyric is in the business of telling stories with the highest caliber production values.

Lyric has been an incredible asset to the Chicago community since its founding in 1954, providing more than sixty years of world-class performances, but many people still don’t know who they are or what they do. That’s not surprising. When you think about opera, what comes to mind?  Is it soaring music, riveting drama, gorgeous costumes and sets?  Perhaps you imagine yourself enjoying a captivating performance. Or are you one of the 99% of the world for whom opera has no relevance?

Lyric Opera

Photo courtesy of lyricopera Instagram

When Lyric set out to discover their Why, they knew they needed to become more relevant and they were willing to recreate their own story from the inside out to accomplish that. About halfway through listening to stories from our new friends, we suggested that Lyric Opera’s Why is igniting transformation through art. The energy in the room immediately changed, and there was an electricity around the table. We all felt it. That’s what happens when you find your Why. It’s a reflection of who you already are.

Lyric’s general director, Anthony Freud, explained it this way. “I think one of the reasons why it struck such a chord with me is because it’s very much a reflection of my own life and my own sense of personal transformation through art.” When Anthony was a young teenager growing up in London in the early 70’s, he realized how opera could transform his life and how important it was for the audience to be engaged with the performance rather than just observe it.

He went on to say, “It was in those days that I thought, well, if my life can be so transformed by engaging with great art, then I want to make sure that as many other people as possible achieve that level of transformation for themselves. That led me to believe that a great performing arts company was something that could be life changing, that could change the world in which we were living, that could make our society better. And ultimately I don’t want to live in a society in which the arts and culture have no relevance.”


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Once Lyric had their Why, they set about using it to ignite the people within their Opera company behind a common purpose. That’s a challenging task because Lyric is a diverse opera company and they have struggled to find a regular means of communicating with everyone, but using their Why as a guiding north star has helped to unite their company behind a shared goal. As Deputy Director of Communications Holly Gilson told us, “Everything we do gets measured against the Why.” She admits there have been some struggles along the way as they try to get everyone on board and focus on their Why. “We’re not quite there yet,” she said, “but it’s coming together and following our Why gives everyone a reason to unite under our director’s leadership. We work together well, but this will allow us to work better. ‘Igniting transformation through art’ are four words everyone knows and this is the direction in which we’re sailing.”

And they are fully aware that the course they are setting has to include not just their opera company and their valued ticket holders (without whom they readily admit they would not exist) but also members of the audience who might never buy a ticket for an opera but who Lyric still considers part of their audience. Lyric is determined to reach out to that 99% for whom opera has no relevance. As Anthony Freud puts it, “Our audience consists of everybody whose lives we touch through our activity.” As conscious capitalism would put it – those are their stakeholders.

That’s a lot of people and so Lyric has been busy looking for ways to engage their audience and become part of people’s lives while also trying to find ways for people to take part in the life of Lyric. According to Anthony, “We have to do more than great opera, of course great opera is the heart of what we do, but that is not enough. We have diversified what we do considerably.”

One of the ways Lyric has diversified is performing a musical each year. It’s been a successful way to bring in new audience members because of the 60,000 tickets, roughly 50% of the audience has never been in an Opera House before.  Lyric has also joined forces with Second City to perform an original comedy musical. Their collaboration is just one of the many innovative ways their Lyric Unlimited programs have helped more than 126,000 people learn about, participate in and explore ways to make Lyric Opera relevant to their lives.

Getting people to visit their historic landmark Civic Opera House is one thing, and getting opera out to the people is still another, but getting their audience to participate in a performance is quite another thing. Still, it’s important because Lyric is committed to finding ways for people to use their own voices. That harkens back to their goal of encouraging audiences not just to observe but to become engaged in the performance as a means of igniting transformation through art.

Perhaps it’s not surprising that Lyric uses singing as a way to engage their audiences. During a Lyric’s annual free concert at Chicago’s Millennium Park, the performers encourage their audience to participate in a sing-along. Imagine having the chance to sing with some of the best voices in the world?  That would get you singing – and talking. And what better way to talk about that experience than through social media? So Lyric created a page in their program book for people to share their social media posts.

One bold idea was to create Chicago Voices as a way for people to tell their own stories of community. Lyric provided professional guidance and experience so three groups could shape, stage and ultimately perform their productions at the Harris Theater. Lyric’s first step was to identify eleven semifinalists who wanted to tell their story.  The public then cast 13,000 votes to determine the final three groups who would move forward. Their performances ranged from traditional music, to navigating life with disabilities to a production about seniors. Chicago enthusiastically embraced this idea and the 1500-seat theater sold out quickly.


Lyric Opera of Chicago

Photo courtesy of lyricopera Instagram

Lyric has accomplished much and they have plans for much more. As Anthony Freud says, “igniting transformation through art is so potent and so perfect an encapsulation of why I do what I do and in turn what Lyric does what Lyric does. Our job is to ensure that that impact is as profound as possible, as broad as possible and as relevant as possible.”

Lyric has discovered their Why and will continue to search for new ways to engage with and impact the lives of the people they touch. And because we’re living in a complicated, confusing and disturbing world, Anthony Freud believes it’s more important than ever that Lyric reach out with great art to help people “grapple in a more effective way with some of life’s complications. And that, of course, brings us right back to our Why, which is igniting transformation through art.”

What does your business believe?