Opera Theatre of St. Louis’ Big New Reason to Celebrate
During its eight-week summertime season, Opera Theatre of Saint Louis is both a social gathering point for people from all backgrounds—thanks to its pre-show picnics and post-show cocktails—and a leading American opera company. Over its 45-year history, OTSL has built a reputation for staging evocative productions of familiar operas as well as commissioning innovative new works.
One of its staunchest backers was Phyllis Brissenden from Springfield, Illinois, who passed away in December 2019 at the age of 86. Throughout OTSL’s eight-week season each May and June, Brissenden would make frequent trips to see its productions on the campus of Webster University. Her enthusiasm for opera extended to the artists, staff and other guests, and she was a staple at post-show parties and other functions. As a founding supporter of OTSL and a life member of its board, Brissenden was also influential in steering the company’s direction.
Brissenden’s $45 million gift, announced on Feb. 6, will more than double OTSL’s current endowment and bring a new level of financial stability to the company. “We are profoundly humbled by and grateful for this extraordinary gesture of generosity,” says Andrew Jorgensen, OTSL’s general director. “Phyllis was a member of our company from the very beginning. She often referred to Opera Theatre as her family.
“We knew Phyllis was planning to leave a bequest to Opera Theatre,” Jorgensen continues, “but we had no idea just how significant it would be. We feel deeply fortunate that this gift allows us to reach for even greater levels of artistic excellence and community impact.”
Phyllis Brissenden with fashion icon Isaac Mizrahi, director and designer of “The Magic Flute,” in 2014.
Preparations for the 2020 season were already in full swing when news of Brissenden’s bequest was announced. The season opens May 23 with “Carmen,” followed by “Die Fledermaus” on May 30. Brissenden’s favorite opera, “Susannah,” was already on the schedule, too, with an opening date of June 13. The 2020 production will be dedicated to her.
One of OTSL’s most unique characteristics is its dedication to expanding the canon of operas. It has produced 29 world premieres and 27 American premieres—which may be the highest percentage of new works in the repertory of any U.S. opera company. Since 2013, its “New World, Bold Voices” series has featured works by American artists that address contemporary issues.
This season, OTSL offers the world premiere of “Awakenings” by Tobias Picker and Aryeh Lev Stollman, a musical saga of memories, loss and life rediscovered, based on the true story of Dr. Oliver Sacks. In the opera, a brilliant young doctor discovers a revolutionary treatment to cure thousands who succumbed to a mysterious sleeping sickness that rendered them immobile for more than 40 years. They awaken into a world they no longer recognize.
Julia Bullock in “Fire Shut Up in My Bones” in 2019. Image courtesy of Camille Mahs.
Among the events leading up to the 2020 season are five Opera Tastings—on March 11, 12, 16, 18 and 22—where those who may be new to opera can enjoy a culinary concert of food and drink designed to complement the flavors of the music. The intimate concerts are each held at a different venue with a unique menu designed by one of the region’s top chefs.
Although the performances and special events OTSL offers are consistently popular, less than 20 percent of the company’s annual operating expenses are covered by ticket sales—which makes the generosity of the contributors like Brissenden (who had already donated an estimated $2.5 million to OTSL over the course of her lifetime) an important part of its sustainability.
Because the company’s annual distribution is based on a three-year rolling average of endowment performance, it will take several years before OTSL will feel the full impact of Brissenden’s generosity.
Featured image, courtesy of Eric Woolsey: Aubrey Allicock and Monica Dewey in “The Marriage of Figaro” in 2019.
All images courtesy of Opera Theatre of Saint Louis.