Blog Post: Oct 28, 2021
Opera Theatre of Saint Louis Ends Fiscal Year 2021 with Sold-Out Season, Commitment to EDI, and Successful Tenure of Board Chairman
Following the conclusion of its 2021 fiscal year on September 30, Opera Theatre of Saint Louis (OTSL) announced preliminary results that include a sold-out outdoor season, marked engagement of digital audiences, and vibrant philanthropic support for the company. A comprehensive audit will be completed and published in February of 2022.
A key component of the 2021 fiscal year was OTSL’s return to live performances following the devastating disruption of the COVID-19 pandemic. The company pivoted from indoor performances in its usual venue (the 987-seat Loretto-Hilton Center) to its first-ever outdoor season, building a 290-seat venue in a parking lot on Webster University’s campus. This landmark season sold out less than a week after going on sale to the public, a first in OTSL’s history. Despite the challenges of producing outdoors, the 2021 Outdoor Festival Season was an unqualified popular and critical success that not only reinforced the value of shared artistic experiences, but also revived a long-neglected work (Highway 1, U.S.A.) by William Grant Still and introduced no fewer than three world premieres with the New Works, Bold Voices Lab. The season marked the 44th year of OTSL’s unique partnership with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, whose members graciously joined Opera Theatre on the parking lot to make a socially-distanced outdoor season possible.
The 2021 Outdoor Festival Season also marked the beginning of “Phyllis’ Seats,” a new free ticket initiative named after OTSL’s late board member Phyllis Brissenden, one of the company’s most generous donors. At every performance, 30 tickets were offered to the community; at least 39% of Phyllis’ Seats users were new to Opera Theatre and another 10% had not attended the opera since 2015 or even earlier. The ground-breaking program — the first of its kind at a major American opera company — will expand to 50 tickets per performance for the 2022 Festival Season.
Opera Theatre’s contributed support in 2021 exceeded $7 million, a 4% increase over contributed support in the 2019 fiscal year. Revenue from new donor households increased by 140%, with 311 new donor households contributing an average gift of $425.
With the close of the 2021 fiscal year comes the end of Noémi K. Neidorff’s tenure as Board Chairman, which began in October 2015 and concluded on October 26, 2021. Focusing particularly on active board engagement and inclusion, Neidorff encouraged smaller groups of board members to participate in regularly held, open dialogue in intimate, informal settings. During her tenure, Neidorff also led the search that resulted in Andrew Jorgensen’s appointment as Opera Theatre’s General Director in 2018; spearheaded fundraising that ensured 50% compensation for all seasonal employees when the pandemic forced the cancellation of the 2020 Festival Season; and championed issues of equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) for OTSL with an assessment of the company’s past practices, the establishment of a new EDI board committee, and a continued focus on diverse board recruitment. These measures will assist OTSL in creating and assessing metrics for accountability in future years.
Noémi Neidorff and her husband Michael Neidorff have provided inspiring leadership support for Opera Theatre’s programming, and Neidorff led fundraising efforts for Opera Theatre that totaled more than $93 million during her six-year tenure as chairman, including the generous bequest of $48.4 million from Phyllis Brissenden.
“My time as Board Chairman at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis has been one of the most fulfilling experiences of my life,” said Neidorff. “I am so inspired by the OTSL staff and my fellow members of the Board of Directors, who have always gone above and beyond to bring people together through the power and beauty of opera. It has been a joy to help Opera Theatre grow and succeed over the last six years, and I look forward to continuing to support this company for many more years as an executive committee member, volunteer, and audience member.”
Succeeding Neidorff as Board Chairman is Kim Eberlein, who has served on OTSL’s Board since 2005 and the Executive Committee since 2006. Eberlein holds a master’s degree in public health administration and served as a senior administrator at several Harvard institutions before moving to St. Louis in 1999. Her work with OTSL’s Board of Directors has included serving as chair of the 2021-2026 strategic planning process, in addition to chairing the Corporate Sponsorship Committee and — along with her husband Dr. Tim Eberlein — the 2019 Spring Gala. In addition to her advocacy for Opera Theatre, Eberlein’s other notable philanthropic work includes serving as board member or chair of Safe Connections, the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, the St. Louis Art Museum, the Missouri Historical Society, the St. Louis Visionary Awards, the Washington University National Council for Student Affairs, and the Washington University Women’s Society. She has received much deserved recognition for her work in the St. Louis community, including the 2012 St. Louis Visionary Award as Major Contributor to the Arts, the 2013 Woman of Achievement Award, and “Champion of the Arts” from the Arts & Education Council in 2016.
“I’m incredibly honored to be stepping into this role, and it is a real pleasure to follow in the steps of a leader as dynamic and inspiring as Noémi Neidorff,” said Eberlein. “Being involved with Opera Theatre has already been such a gift, and I look forward to working more closely with this remarkable staff and board. I’m committed to expanding Opera Theatre’s efforts to connect and engage our communities, while continuing its legacy of artistic innovation and fiscal accountability.”
This moment of leadership transition comes at an exciting time as OTSL continues to evolve its tools for discovering and engaging new audiences. Digital streaming became an important vehicle for reaching new audiences in 2020–2021; OTSL’s educational program Opera on the Go! pivoted from in-school performances to virtual classroom presentations and ended up reaching more than 87,000 children in all 50 states and 11 countries, including South Africa, Kazakhstan, and Germany. The 2021 Outdoor Festival Season also marked the first that was professionally captured on video for on-demand streaming; sales from that content reached 46 states and nearly 59% of those streaming audiences were new to Opera Theatre.
Even international audiences were introduced to Opera Theatre of Saint Louis via the Metropolitan Opera, which opened its 2021-22 season with Terence Blanchard and Kasi Lemmons’ Fire Shut Up in My Bones and broadcast the same title to movie theaters across the world through its Met in HD series on October 23, 2021. This opera (the Metropolitan Opera’s first-ever production by a Black composer and Black librettist) was originally commissioned by OTSL and co-commissioned by Jazz St. Louis and premiered at Opera Theatre in 2019. Fire Shut Up in My Bones has garnered rave reviews from the national press. Fire Shut Up in My Bones is slated to appear at the Lyric Opera of Chicago in March 2022 and LA Opera in a future season.
Despite the interruption of COVID-19, OTSL has continued to deepen its commitment to EDI, with one of its most notable endeavors being the launch of the Clayco Future Leaders Fellowship, a program designed to cultivate future leaders in arts administration who come from underrepresented backgrounds. OTSL also partnered with Washington University’s Center for the Study of Race, Ethnicity, & Equity to host a two-night symposium exploring the canon of Black composers and the current reality of the Black experience onstage and behind the scenes. Entitled “Belonging in Opera: Learning from Our Past, Engaging with Our Future,” and led by Naomi André, Professor of Music at University of Michigan, the discussion included acclaimed scholars, artists, composers, and opera administrators. Other efforts to expand accessibility included the addition of audio description services for the blind and visually impaired in the 2021 season. In addition to continuing audio description services, the 2022 Festival Season will introduce American Sign Language interpreters at select performances for those who are deaf or hard of hearing.
“This year at Opera Theatre has presented remarkable opportunities for learning, growth, and innovation,” said General Director Andrew Jorgensen. “We’re grateful to the adventurous audience members who joined us outside for an entirely different kind of season, and to our generous donors who helped make this work possible. I’m thankful to our board for their steadfast commitment to OTSL, and particularly to Noémi Neidorff, who led us with grace and strength. I’m looking forward to welcoming Kim Eberlein, with whom we are all excited to work, and who has the organization’s utmost confidence and respect, as our new Chairman of the Board. And last, but certainly not least, I am so thankful for our wonderful Artistic Director James Robinson and all of my incredible colleagues, who inspire me every day with their dedication, hard work, and creativity.”
Opera Theatre’s 2022 Festival Season runs May 21 – June 26 and features Bizet’s Carmen, Mozart’s The Magic Flute, the world premiere of Awakenings by Tobias Picker and Aryeh Lev Stollman, the world premiere of the new performing edition of Stewart Wallace and Michael Korie’s Harvey Milk, the annual Center Stage concert showcasing OTSL’s young artists, and a concert celebrating Black Music Month, curated by soprano Adrienne Danrich. Subscriptions for the 2022 Festival Season start at just $46 and can be purchased online or via phone. Single tickets are available starting at $25. For more information about the season, visit ExperienceOpera.org, or call the Opera Theatre Box Office at (314) 961-0644.