An Interview With Sally S. Levy, 2017 Visionary Awards Major Contributor To The Arts Recipient
Over the last several decades, Sally Levy has found joy and fulfillment in volunteering and supporting Opera Theatre of Saint Louis in the organization’s mission to bring world-class opera and community programming to the city. A mother of three, grandmother of six and great-grandmother of eight, Levy’s dedication to the arts and love of opera has inspired generations of opera aficionados across the city. Later this spring, one month before her 91st birthday, Levy will be honored at the 2017 Visionary Awards as this year’s Major Contributor to the Arts recipient, for nearly four decades of philanthropy and involvement in St. Louis’ opera community.
Levy recalls falling in love with opera when she met her late husband at the age of 17. She quickly developed an appreciation for the art form that continued to grow steadily over the years. Now with a building in her name—the Sally S. Levy Opera Center—and a $1 million Sally S. Levy Family Fund for New Works, Levy’s status as a beloved member of the Opera Theatre family and as a major contributor to the St. Louis’ arts community is a foregone conclusion. She celebrates her birthday, which falls in the middle of the opera season, with a party organized and hosted annually by Opera Theatre. “Opera Theatre is like a family, but also unlike any other organization,” she explains with a warm smile. “It’s quite amazing. It really draws you in and hangs on. I’m very lucky to be a part of it.”
What was your first reaction to finding out that you were a 2017 Visionary Awards recipient?
A total surprise, and certainly a great pleasure. It was extremely unexpected, and when I heard who the other recipients were, I really was stunned. I’m more than thrilled to be part of this honor.
How long have you been involved with Opera Theatre St. Louis? How has it changed or grown over time?
Well, I was on the board originally—so it’s 42 years now. It’s grown from being a small regional company with a limited budget to an internationally known organization. That’s really one of our missions: developing premier works. We’re on the international scene.
Looking forward, what’s your vision for Opera Theatre St. Louis, or for the future of opera in St. Louis, in general?
I think it’s exciting there are more opera companies. My vision, personally, for part of it is commissioning new works and influential opera events to St. Louis, instead of having them in other cities. A strong component of the mission today is to keep young composers in St. Louis, and that was true at the beginning, too. People who were international singers and directors and conductors who were young—well, obviously young when they started—many of them are having fabulous careers now. I guess my vision is that we continue with the wonderful work we’ve done.
Could you tell us about the Sally S. Levy Family Fund for New Works? How does this endowment push opera in St. Louis forward as an art form?
I feel it’s very exciting at my age to be involved with something that’s going to go on a long time after I’m gone. In a sense, its function is to create new operas, commissions, brand new operas, or sometimes revive something that’s old or has only been performed once. I think the only way to continue to have opera be the live, ongoing, wonderful thing that it is requires involving the younger generation. Classics are wonderful, and I love them, but new works are stimulating, exciting and definitely aimed at the younger generation.
According to Opera Theatre’s press release, the fund “will also support community programs that engage the region in conversation about each opera and its subject matter.” Can you explain that more?
That means things like bringing composers and librettists to St. Louis—they’re sort of in residence for several weeks. For something like “Death of Klinghoffer,” we involved the community, and it was quite a wonderful thing—bringing in lecturers and things like that. We hope to really broaden the scope of new work and activities that relate to them, and hopefully bring in new listeners as well.
Your entire family seems to be huge supporters and dedicated fans of Opera Theatre. What does it mean to share your passion for opera with your children?
My children are very much involved financially. Their vision for the opera is very much mine, and vise versa. It changed their lives. I always said while other kids were singing commercial jingles, they were singing opera, because that’s what they were hearing. They were going to rehearsals every day and that was the music that was in their head. Now we’re involving the great-grandchildren! Opera theatre has a summer camp. It’s just a week, but they make up an opera, and they go to an opera, and they have a week of just involvement and learning all about the opera. So we’re working on the next generation. It’s about as important as it can get.
Sharing my interests makes it a great deal more fun, and it’s lovely to know you’re passing on your passion to your children and being involved with them in the activities. There’s something really wonderful about going to the opera with four generations. It’s very special when your children are involved.
The Visionary Awards celebrate the contributions, specifically, of women in St. Louis. What kinds of female leaders inspire you?
I’m always inspired by some of the leadership—a lot of the leadership in St. Louis, actually. I think women have a pretty respectable representation in this community as far as leadership. I’m inspired by the whole community of music and am thrilled that so many women are a part of it.
What’s next for you?
A large group of us are going to Washington, D.C. because they’re doing “Champion” at The Kennedy Center, which was composed by Terence Blanchard and commissioned by Opera Theatre. “Champion” is one of the great operas; it’s just fabulous. And it will be with almost all of the original cast. It’s a very exciting trip. And I’m looking forward to the upcoming Opera Theatre season and the gala, but mainly to the season. I’m also excited about “The Grapes of Wrath,” composed by Ricky Ian Gordon, who writes gorgeous music.
The 2017 Visionary Awards will be 6pm Monday, April 24 at the Sun Theater. Feature image taken by Jacqui Germain.