In the fall of 1957 Russell Patterson, a young conductor, proposed to transplant the European opera-theater pattern to a more or less typical American setting. A number of local opera buffs welcomed the idea, but there were many qualms including: Would Kansas City accept opera so unorthodox by the prevailing national standards without stars or spectacular stage investitures? Friends told them it could not be done. The company has been proving the friends wrong ever since.
The initial hurdle proved to be locating an available venue for rent. The Rockhill, a 40-year-old motion picture theater was selected. There, on the night of September 29, 1958, the Company presented La bohème, as the first performance of a four-week repertory season. In the early 1960’s, such auxiliary groups as the Women’s Committee (formerly known as the Lyric Opera League and now merged with the Guild) and Lyric Theater Guild (now Lyric Opera Guild) had formed. By 1965, the Company began touring to nearby towns, first in Missouri and later in Kansas, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Arkansas and South Dakota; touring ceased in fall 1992.
After the close of the 10th season, a fire gutted the Rockhill and the company was offered use of the Uptown Theatre on Broadway. The destruction of the Rockhill ended an era for the Lyric. Over the previous decade the company had mounted more than 200 performances of 30 different works. In the process, Kansas City had become one of the very few American communities where it was possible – even if only during a brief period every year – to see four different operas on as many successive nights of the week. Time magazine had pronounced the company as “a valid and important part of the American operatic explosion.”
In 1970, after a second season at the Uptown, the Capri Theatre at 11th and Central became available with a larger auditorium and traditional theatre and backstage facilities. Here, during the succeeding years, the Lyric presented such contemporary works as The Saint of Bleecker Street, Of Mice and Men, Die Kluge and a world premiere of Captain Jinks of the Horse Marines along with such established masterpieces as Aida and The Magic Flute. By 1974 the company had come into exclusive possession of the Capri under a long-term lease, consolidated offices there, and changed the name of the theater to the Lyric and the Company name from the Lyric to Lyric Opera of Kansas City. In 1991, the Lyric Opera purchased the theatre.
In 1989, the Middle-America Opera Apprentice Program was born. The program is a collaboration between the Lyric Opera of Kansas City and the Conservatory of Music at the University of Missouri-Kansas City that prepares exceptional young singers for a professional operatic career. For the final season in his forty-year career as head of the Company, Russell Patterson presented the second World Premiere for the Lyric, the 1998 production of Coyote Tales, by Henry Mollicone, with libretto by Sheldon Harnick. Upon Maestro Patterson’s retirement at the end of June 1998, Evan Luskin became general director, after twelve years as managing director. Also at that time, Ward Holmquist assumed the post of artistic director of the Company and instituted the practice of performing in original language with English subtitles.
Today, the Lyric Opera brings high quality live operatic performances to the people of the Kansas City area and five-state region. Repertoire choices encompass original language performances of standard repertory as well as contemporary and American operas. The Company seeks to mount productions that enrich the community it serves, as well as reflect the highest artistic standards of the profession.
In its history, the Company has produced five recordings: The Taming of the Shrew issued by CRI in 1969; The Sweet Bye and Bye issued by Desto in 1973; Captain Jinks of the Horse Marines issued by RCA in 1976; The Devil and Daniel Webster issued by Newport in 1995 and Coyote Tales issued by Newport in 1998.
Recent artistic highlights for the Company include the Kansas City premiere of Kevin Puts’s Silent Night (2015) marking the 100 year anniversary of the WWI Christmas Truce that inspired the story, an all new production of Turandot (2011) starring Lise Lindstrom and Samuel Ramey, the world premiere of John Brown, by Kirke Mechem (2008) and the critically acclaimed productions of The End of the Affair (2007), Aida (2007), Tosca (2009), Rigoletto (2010), The Turn of the Screw (2005), the company debut of Norma (2010) and Carmen (2010). Notable artists such as Donnie Ray Albert, Daniel Belcher, Joyce Didonato, Richard Paul Fink, Greer Grimsley, James Maddelena, Ana Maria Martinez, Marie Plette, Peter Kazaras, John Packard, David Pomeroy, Gary Simpson, Sandra Piques Eddy and Jianyi Zhang have appeared on the Lyric stage.
The Lyric Opera offers innovative programs designed to further music and arts education both in schools and in the community. The education staff works directly with teachers, parents and young people in a collaborative effort to create award-winning programs such as Opera Heroines and Opera Heroes. Other innovative programs include Head Start With Opera, Star Tech Apprentice Program, Opera For Captive Audiences and Summer Opera Camp. In 2012 the Lyric Opera jointly commissioned the World Premiere of The Giver with Minnesota Opera in celebration of the Lyric Opera Education department’s 25th anniversary. Other commissioned works include Joshua’s Boots, Never Lost a Passenger: Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad and Somebody’s Children. During the 2000-2001 season, under the guidance of the Lyric Opera, Kansas City became one of six regions participating in the Metropolitan Opera’s Texaco Quiz Kids, an educational program in quiz format for schools.
When the Lyric Opera began in 1958 it had a very modest budget of $34,000. Today, the Company has a budget over $5,000,000 and has moved to Kansas City’s East Crossroads neighborhood, after building new production, office and rehearsal spaces. The Company moved its performances to the state-of-the-art Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts during the Lyric’s 2011-2012 season and continues to perform on the Muriel Kauffman Theatre stage.