February 6, 2020
With fortuitous coincidence, Opera Theatre of Saint Louis (OTSL) is celebrating its 45th anniversary with a $45 million bequest, by far the largest gift in its history and also one of the largest ever recorded for an American opera company. Donated by the late Phyllis Brissenden, an OTSL board member and generous supporter of the arts, the $45 million gift will more than double the company’s current endowment.
Mrs. Brissenden was a founding supporter of OTSL and chaired the company’s National Patrons Council. She is fondly remembered for instructing caterers to prepare her own family recipes for council meetings. She made several trips to St. Louis each festival season from her home in Springfield to see as many operas as possible. She was named a Life Board Member in 2016.
Opera Theatre of Saint Louis is known for its commitment to commissioning and producing new works and innovative productions. Since 1976, OTSL’s spring festival has attracted visitors from all 50 states and more than 17 countries.
The 2020 festival season, May 23-June 28, consists of the world premiere of Tobias Picker and Aryeh Lev Stollman’s Awakenings; the company premiere of Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah, directed by Patricia Racette (notable for her previous portrayals of the title role); Bizet’s Carmen; and Strauss’s Die Fledermaus.
When Mrs. Brissenden died in December, at age 86, this was the lead in Sarah Bryan Miller’s obituary in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:
Phyllis Brissenden, animal lover and environmentalist, was a famously generous philanthropist with a sharp sense of humor. Once, former OTSL general director Charles MacKay recalls, she came to his house in Lafayette Square for a cup of tea and a cookie.
“I told her there was something I wanted to talk about. She said, ‘Oh, dear, it’s the fundraising moment.’ I launched into my pitch; my cat, Pushkin, sat at her feet, hoping that she would give him a morsel to eat. Phyllis listened — it was a big number — and then looked down at Pushkin and asked him, ‘Do you think I should give him the money?’
“Pushkin immediately went, ‘Mrroww!’ Phyllis said, ‘I take that as a yes,’ and agreed. It was her biggest underwriting to that date.”
“We are profoundly humbled by and grateful for this extraordinary gesture of generosity,” says OTSL General Director Andrew Jorgensen. “Phyllis was a member of our company from the very beginning. She often referred to Opera Theatre as her family, and she always spoke with particular affection of the deep friendships that she built with my predecessors Richard Gaddes, Charles MacKay, and Timothy O’Leary.”
To put the $45 million donation in perspective: when SF Opera Board Chair John A. Gunn and his wife, Cynthia Fry Gunn, gave SF Opera a commitment for a $40 million gift in 2008, it was the largest single gift by individual donors in the company’s history, then believed to be the largest ever made to any American opera company.
In 2011, not long after the end of the Great Recession, the Metropolitan Opera reported receiving a total of $182 million, a record amount of contributions for the fiscal year.