The Departure from LOW
The relatively successful 1998 season had come to a close with the American premiere of Kalman's operetta The Duchess of Chicago receiving great press and putting yet another feather in the company's cap. A chamber season had been started and all in all, the company seemed to have settled into a growing maturity.
Philip Kraus was finishing up his vocal teaching on a fateful February afternoon. Before venturing out to dinner with friend and accompanist Jeff Richards, Kraus called his home answering machine to retrieve messages. On the machine was a message from LOW board president Frank Soberski that Kraus' services would no longer be required at the company he founded and that it was a final decision of the board. Kraus was stunned. As far as he was concerned at the time, this had come completely out of the blue, although there were cogent forces at work behind the scenes that had propelled the board to the decision.
Kraus decided to continue on to dinner and investigate later in the evening. Upon returning home he called managing director Bridget McDonough who confirmed the board's action and additionally made it quite clear to Kraus that this was solely a board decision and didn't involve her. The next day Kraus reached Frank Soberski by phone and demanded an explanation. Soberski would offer nothing further than that the board had terminated his services. Kraus, at that time, was not a member of the board and requested a special board meeting to at least let grievances be known and at the very least have an opportunity to defend hinself on whatever disatisfaction the board had found with him. Soberski indicated he would poll the board on the request.
Several days past during which a certified termination letter arrived from the company which Kraus refused to accept. Soberski finally got back to Kraus and told him flatly that the board's decision was final and they had no interest in meeting with him. Kraus was equally stunned by this lack of civilized fairplay. Here he was, with 18 seasons under his belt, with a company he had founded and nurtured with much personal sacrifice, and he seemed to be out on a whim. Later that week board members Larry Freeman and Harry Clamor offered to invite him to lunch as a possible way of saving face, but Kraus rejected this invitation as useless waste of time.
It became apparent that the company had really not thought through the ramifications of such a unilateral move. The company had hoped to keep the event under the radar, but within weeks it was in local papers; both rumors and a terse formal news release. Kraus continued to press Bridget McDonough for an explanation. She would do little but to tell Kraus that it wasn't the end of his relationship with the company, and that special projects and directing assignments would be offered in the future. It was little consolation and proved to be a complete fabrication.
An unnamed rogue board member, obviously embarrassed by the entire fiasco, sent Kraus a letter simply containing board minutes from a "secret" meeting held at a Russian restaurant in Skokie. These minutes made it abundantly clear that McDonough herself had called the meeting and urged for Kraus' termination for the good of the future of the company. It now became clear to Kraus just what was going on. A long standing disagreement over repertory and company mission had incited the managing director to go behind Kraus' back and poison the board against him; and this from a long standing friend and colleague. Shakespeare could have made it into a play!
Kraus could no longer trust what anyone from LOW would tell him. He proceded to engage a lawyer and former LOW chorister and board member, Jonathan Geen who negotiated a contract between Kraus and the board. The essence of the agreement stipulated that Kraus would serve as Artistic Director Emeritus for ten years and would be given a modest severence payable over three years. In addition, he would be offered special engagements at the discretion of the company. In exchange, Kraus was to be silent about the termination and was not to criticize or liable the company or it's board for an equal period of time.
It had become clear just why Kraus had been ousted. He saw the the company's mission as one which produced operettas and in a lesser capacity, classic American musicals deserving of a revival with superior musical scores. McDonough had become convinced that the company could not survive on this repertory and preferred to do a greater number of "commercial" musicals and fewer operettas. With Kraus out of the way, and an artistic director she could more easily manipulate, this would be possible. It was a classic play for power and she had won.
McDonough was stuck with Kraus' planned season for 1999. She had purposely waited for Kraus to finish the arduous season auditions before getting him dismissed. Guest director Peter Amster, hired for La belle Hélène insisted Kraus be hired as a consultant for the production as he felt he needed an operetta expert at the artistic helm of the company. McDonough reluctantly agreed and gave Kraus a short contract to oversee the production. That would be Kraus' final curtain with company. He had planned to direct the Rose-Marie production and was offered a contract for that. When he insisted on also being paid royalty fees for his edition of the operetta (made for previous LOW incarnation of the work in 1987), the contract was rescinded. Finally, he was offered the title role in The Mikado at the end of the season which on the advice of his management, he declined.
Broadway director and choreogropher Lara Teeter succeeded Kraus as Artistic Director. They would find themselves cast together in a production of Kurt Weill's
Street Scene at Lyric Opera in the fall of 2001. Teeter, who had never met Kraus, proposed they have lunch together. At the luncheon, Teeter revealed to Kraus that the company had only related the circumstances of Kraus' departure literally minutes before Teeter signed his contract. To his credit, Teeter apologized on behalf of the company for the entire episode, the only official member of the company ever to do so. Additionally, as a sign of personal reconciliation, Teeter hired Kraus to play the Major General in The Pirates of Penzance for Michigan Opera Theater in 2004.
Kraus has not worked with Light Opera Works since. Promises of future projects and special engagements were bogus. Teeter related to Kraus that he himself had suggested that Kraus be engaged to stage direct some of the operettas at the company, but McDonough had shot down the idea at every turn. The title of Artistic Director Emeritus was also an empty gesture. Kraus' name would remain on the program title pages for the term of the contract and yet he was never once invited to a single opening night or event save for a 25th Anniversay benefit. Current Artistic Director Rudy Hogenmiller has made no attempt to engage or contact Kraus.
Curiously, Kraus would not be the only founder of a long established artistic venrture to be thrown under the bus by a misguided board. Founder and conductor of Music of the Baroque Thomas Wikman would suffer the same fate in the same city of Chicago.
That McDonough and her a board handled the entire situation badly, is not in question. But like many things in life, there were more respectful alternatives and solutions which unfortunately were never explored.