Lyric Opera opens new act with a new general director

Deborah Sandler will be among the few women leading major opera companies in the U.S.

03/01/2012 6:00 AM

05/16/2014 6:11 PM

The Lyric Opera of Kansas City, in the middle of an upswing season, has named a new leader. Deborah Sandler, who has headed Kentucky Opera and the Opera Festival of New Jersey, will become the Lyric’s general director effective July 1, company officials will announce today.

The Lyric Opera of Kansas City, in the middle of an upswing season, has named a new leader.

Deborah Sandler, who has headed Kentucky Opera and the Opera Festival of New Jersey, will become the Lyric’s general director effective July 1, company officials will announce today.

She joins a handful of women who lead major opera companies around the nation and will come to Kansas City at a time of extraordinary cultural renewal, sparked by the opening last fall of the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts.

“The Lyric Opera has a phenomenal record, a deep relationship with the community and a fantastic educational program,” Sandler said. “I would like to continue what they do and look for ways to deepen our relationship with all of these people and at the same time try to broaden our audience.”

Sandler, who met with board members and donors Wednesday in Kansas City, succeeds Evan Luskin as the Lyric’s chief executive and will work with the Lyric’s artistic director, Ward Holmquist, to shape the company’s vision, programming and profile in the community.

Luskin, who announced his retirement last year, was general director of the Lyric for the last 14 of his 26 years with the company. He will step down on June 30, after the close of the Lyric’s high-profile inaugural season at the Kauffman.

The Lyric’s budget grew to $6.2 million for the current season, up almost 30 percent from the previous year, in order to stage some of the biggest and most challenging works it has ever mounted.

So far this season, Lyric productions, virtually sold out, have received admiring notices from New York and regional critics. Subscription sales were up 25 percent, and ticket revenue has far exceeded anything the company experienced in its longtime previous home, the Lyric Theatre.

Next week the company launches its first production of the major modern work “Nixon in China,” whose physical requirements made a local staging unthinkable until the completion of the Kauffman Center’s Muriel Kauffman Theatre, the Lyric’s new performance home.

Aside from the company’s artistic achievements, Sandler will take over at a time when the Lyric is also raising funds and constructing a new headquarters and production complex at 18th and Charlotte streets, less than a mile away from the Kauffman Center.

“She will build upon the successes we have enjoyed during the first season performing in the Kauffman Center,” Lyric board President Richard P. Breuning said in a statement. Sandler, he added, also “will expand our robust educational offerings to reach more Kansas Citians and will continue the company’s tradition of responsible fiscal leadership as we complete the capital campaign for our opera center complex.”

Sandler is well regarded in the field.

“She has strong ideas about the art form and about the role of an opera company in its community,” said Marc A. Scorca, president and CEO of Opera America, a national service organization that counts about 125 member companies.

“She is a dynamic leader, an articulate spokesperson for the art form, and I am just delighted that Lyric Opera, now that it has such extraordinary facilities, has a leader that will promote a compelling vision for the way they can enrich the art form and enrich the local cultural community.”

Sandler is clear about the challenges facing arts organizations today. Most have to do with a fragile economy, technological change and the unrelenting transformation of how people choose to spend their recreational time.

“Any organization that sells an entertainment product is competing for dollars,” Sandler said. “That’s the ground-level assumption you begin with. And because of the explosion of electronic distribution methods, we compete even more.”

For performing arts groups in particular, digital technology has made it possible to bring live concerts from the world’s culture capitals to local movie screens and soon, no doubt, to homes. That puts added pressure on local and regional opera companies, orchestras and theater groups to make their offerings compelling, relevant and irresistible.

“There was a very interesting report several years ago,” Sandler said, “about audience participation and engagement, and the question was, ‘Is it really true that fewer people were engaging and participating with the arts?’ The answer was, no it’s not true, but fewer people were doing that in traditional venues.

“If we’re the producer of a professional product that’s perceived by some people to be not accessible, we have to ask, ‘What can we do to invite people in and participate in a more hands-on way?’ ”

Consider, for example, the possibility that the Lyric could present or produce smaller programs at its new rehearsal space in the east Crossroads.

And Sandler mentioned, for example, topical discussions and art exhibits that Kentucky Opera produced in conjunction with specific operas and in collaboration with other groups in Louisville.

“What you do specifically depends on each community,” she said. “And how we become relevant to our community is specific to the character of our community. That is something I will really jump into.”

Sandler is a native of Philadelphia. She played piano and sang as a youngster and was heading toward a degree in math before shifting gears and earning a bachelor of arts in music from Temple University, followed by a master’s and doctoral studies in musicology from New York University.

In her musical interests she admits to being a latecomer to opera. She started out loving Mozart, who became her desert island composer, she said, and her tastes evolved to just about everything, including new works.

“Really, I like it all. I like it to be beautifully sung. And when people ask what my favorite opera is, I say it depends on which day you ask.”

Scorca noted that Sandler will be joining a company with a long history of producing American operas.

The Lyric, he said, was “historically a trend-setter” and “as the company seeks to do some new and interesting work, it is going to be consolidating a history it helped create.”

Sandler has been away from the opera business for a few years, devoted to family obligations and working as a consultant and fund-raiser. She had headed the Opera Festival of New Jersey, in Princeton, for 10 years and served as general director of Kentucky Opera from 1998 to 2005. Now she is eager to return to the opera world and to take up the challenge in Kansas City.

“It’s my passion,” she said. “I missed producing opera. I’m very excited about working in opera again.”

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