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Longtime Lyric Opera marketing chief to step down at year’s end

Fritz Mayer Susan MathiesMayer director marketing communications for Lyric OperChicago 2002 event. | Bob Black~Sun-Times

Fritz Mayer and Susan Mathieson Mayer, director of marketing and communications for Lyric Opera of Chicago, at a 2002 event. | Bob Black~Sun-Times

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Susan Mathieson Mayer, a legendary figure in North American arts marketing and a fixture at Lyric Opera of Chicago for 25 years, will be leaving Lyric at year’s end to pursue independent consulting, the company announced Wednesday.

The director of Lyric’s marketing and communications department since 1988, she will work with her successor at the Civic Opera House, expected to be named within several weeks, through the calendar year. Afterward, she will continue to work with Lyric as a consultant on marketing and media.

“It is a big, tough job that has been both a great honor to hold and a great responsibility,” Mathieson Mayer said in an interview Tuesday. “When I came to Chicago, it never occurred to me that this position and Lyric would become my life and my family for 25 years.

“It did, though, and I loved every minute of it. Now I want more flexibility so I can spend more time with my other family — my husband, Fritz [Friedrich Mayer, from Austria, an international banker], who’s now retired.”

Mathieson Mayer joined Lyric after a 1988 international search, but working in Vancouver, B.C., she had already met the great guru of not-for-profit subscription sales and one of the handful of people who put Lyric Opera on the international map from its founding, the late Danny Newman.

Working with Newman and his “Subscribe Now!” philosophy at Lyric, Mathieson Mayer presided over 16 consecutive sold-out opera seasons in Chicago from 1989-90 through 2004-05, a unique accomplishment in the performing arts.

Even today, following economic downturns, Lyric has 25,000 season ticket holders, and is an industry global leader in subscription sales and audience development. In fact, Lyric recently announced a 15 percent increase in attendance for the 2012-13 season over the previous year.

“I still believe in subscriptions,” Mathieson Mayer said. “They are our bedrock — at 25,000 sold, they are our bedrock-plus. They make possible the security and support for everything that we do.

“But people forget: They still have to be sold and they have to be sold each year. To have a renewal rate of 75 to 80 percent in the current environment is enviable and an endorsement of Lyric and what it does. But it’s also a lot of very hard and constant work.”

Newman, who died in 2007 at 88, often referred to Mathieson Mayer as “my proudest achievement.” She carried over his innovative ideas and bulldog methods in turn.

“Susan was a wonderful mentor,” said J. Philip Koester, vice president for marketing and sales at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, who worked two stints totaling more than eight years for Mathieson Mayer at Lyric.

“She has a brilliant mind for marketing and communications. She has such a keen understanding of the art and science of arts marketing, of how to write copy and build a campaign. She is hands down the greatest arts marketer of the last quarter century, anywhere.”

Indeed, in 2000, Mathieson Mayer was the only arts professional named by Advertising Age named as one of the country’s Top 100 Marketers.

From sharply designed brochures to Lyric’s trademark multi-tiered information-stuffed press releases to celebrity-focused posters for the annual Lyric WFMT Radio Operathon to a first-ever 2011 billboard campaign “starring” Lyric creative consultant and internationally renowned soprano Renee Fleming, Mathieson Mayer had her hand in anything that came out of the building with Lyric’s name on it. More recently this extended to working with Spanish-language media and teaming with The Second City to bring in new audiences for comedy and opera evenings.

Among high points of her career, Mathieson Mayer recalled working to sell the new and highly contemporary Peter Sellars’ new and highly contemporary “Tannhauser” -- (characters were recast as corrupt televangelists and one act took place in the then-new United Airlines terminal at O’Hare) in 1988 as a part of her first full season at Lyric. “It was such a new way of thinking about an opera and staging, and such an encounter with a pure intelligence.” She also cited Lyric’s first-ever full Wagner “Ring” cycle, launched in 1993 and performed in three full cycles in 1996. “So intense and so beautiful and so much fun.”

Referring to Lyric’s current general director and board president and CEO, “I’ve loved working with Anthony Freud and Ken Pigott,” Mathieson Mayer said. “I’ve loved the new projects, and the energy to reach and hold new audiences. I’ll keep helping out on those things as an independent. And now I’ll also have more time for such perks as watching [music director] Andrew Davis lead a rehearsal or attending a performance without mentally counting the house.”

“Susan magnificently filled and has filled the big shoes left to her by her mentor Danny Newman,” Freud said. “Now she will leave similarly big shoes for her successor.”

A native of Edmonton, Alberta, Mathieson Mayer, who is in her late 50s, studied advertising and journalism. She started her career writing ad copy at a radio station and working at an ad agency before starting her own arts marketing firm and heading marketing for the arts festival of the 1986 Vancouver World’s Fair, which sold out 102 of 106 events. While at the Vancouver Symphony in the 1980s, where Newman had been a consultant, she built the world’s largest orchestra subscription base at the time with 42,000 season ticket holders.

After she steps down, she and her husband will remain based in west suburban Willow Springs.

Andrew Patner is critic at large for WFMT-FM (98.7).

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