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Late Board Member's $45 Million Donation Will Boost Opera Theatre Of St. Louis

Figaro, right, keeps the schemes moving crisply along. 5.23.15
Ken Howard | Opera Theatre of St. Louis
A 2015 production of "Figaro" at Opera Theatre St. Louis. Fans can look for "more spectacular" productions following a $45 million gift to the organization, its general director said.

Opera Theatre of St. Louis announced the largest donation in its history today.

A $45 million bequest by philanthropist and board member Phyllis Brissenden will boost the opera’s endowment to $80 million. Opera officials describe the gift as one of the largest ever made to an American opera company. Its largest single donation previously was a gift of $2 million.

“I sort of fell out of my chair when he told me the number,” general director Andrew Jorgensen said of his meeting with the executor of Brissenden’s estate a few weeks ago. “We knew that Phyliss had planned a gift to Opera Theatre. We had no idea the scale of her generosity.”

Opera Theatre of St. Louis, headquartered in Webster Groves, covers about 20% of its annual budget through ticket sales. This year, 17% of its operating expenses will come from investment income from its endowment.

Jorgensen said the organization will need to have many conversations before determing exactly how to deploy the enhanced resources. The organization had already begun developing a new strategic plan. 

“We’re not going to get lottery winner’s syndrome. We’re not going to go out and buy a boat,” he said.

Opera Theatre of St. Louis General Director Andrew Jorgensen with Phyllis Brissenden at last year's spring gala.  [2/6/20]
Credit Opera Theatre of St. Louis
Opera Theatre of St. Louis General Director Andrew Jorgensen with Phyllis Brissenden at last year's spring gala.

Beyond enhancing the opera’s long-term financial stability, Jorgensen said, the money will make possible “additional programming, greater artistic excellence, more civic impact, more involvement nationally and locally. The sky’s the limit.” 

Jorgensen doesn’t expect to expand the performance season, which typically lasts about a month, but he’d like to see additional programming during the offseason. He also said audiences may see “more spectacular” productions in the future.

Brissenden had supported Opera Theatre of St. Louis since its inaugural season in 1976. She led its National Patrons Council from 2010 to 2017 and was named a lifetime board member. She traveled from her home in Springfield, Illinois, to see the opera’s performances. 

Opera officials estimate that she donated $2.5 million to the organization during her lifetime, much of it anonymously. A lifelong music lover, she had also served on the board of Illinois Symphony Orchestra. 

Opera Theatre of St. Louis’ upcoming production of “Susannah,” a favorite of hers, will be dedicated to Brissenden.

Jeremy can be found on Twitter @jeremydgoodwin.

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Jeremy is the arts & culture reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.