As president of the Lyric Opera of Kansas City board of trustees, I read with interest the Kansas City Star editorial (Aug. 2, 2015) acknowledging the recent shifts in arts leadership that sometimes require “evolution, upheaval and excitement.” While the Lyric Opera was mentioned, our comments regarding recent events were not included. On behalf of the board, I want to address the patrons, donors, volunteers and artists who make the Lyric Opera a cornerstone of the vibrant Kansas City cultural scene.
In 2011, three major events paved the way for international attention to the Lyric Opera: the opening of the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, the opening of the Lyric Opera Production Center and the retirement of General Director Evan Luskin. The board was keenly aware of this rare opportunity to elevate our commitment to the highest standards of artistic excellence and wanted to secure a general director with both a deep music background and outstanding administrative leadership skills. As there were no suitable candidates within the organization, the search extended nationally.
We were incredibly lucky to find Deborah Sandler, a talented leader, with two degrees in music, who has served as an artistic and general director for more than 25 years. Sandler has had overall artistic responsibility for the Lyric Opera since her tenure began three years ago. Opera attendees can attest to her commitment to artistic excellence, as she has been responsible for securing more international artists, designers and directors for some truly thrilling operas.
Based on organizational need, the board ultimately came to the difficult decision to eliminate Ward Holmquist’s artistic director position and reorganize, distributing certain responsibilities internally and adding artistic support staff. The board decided that maintaining a separate artistic director position duplicated duties and made the organization top-heavy with significant expenses.
Holmquist was notified a year in advance, in accordance with his contract, that his contract would not be renewed. We proposed a negotiated transition agreement with Holmquist and ultimately made him an offer that included all of his requested terms except his demand for significant financial compensation in addition to continuation of his salary through June 30, 2016. But he declined our offer, leaving us without the opportunity to thank him for his service. We continue to honor his contract and pay him his full salary until next June 30.
We wish Holmquist well in his future endeavors. But the board has a responsibility to the community to be the best steward for the organization, and I have no doubt the board made the right decision. While we understand this is sad news for some, we sincerely hope that your faith in the Lyric Opera extends beyond one person. Like you, we all love Lyric Opera of Kansas City and want the best for its future. My hope is that Holmquist would want that as well.
The Lyric is well positioned for the future under Sandler’s leadership and her talented staff. We ended the year with record assets. Two of the city’s largest donors renewed their commitments, and we have secured commitments from a new major donor as well. We have exciting seasons set for the next three years. Sandler will have major news to announce as well, which will extend our presence in the community — on the Kauffman stage and beyond.
With the outstanding leadership, staff and deeply committed trustees, I am confident that the Lyric Opera is in very good hands and will continue to be one of the crown jewels of Kansas City.
Kenneth V. Hager is president of the board of trustees of the Lyric Opera of Kansas City. He served as chief financial officer and vice president of DST from 1988 until his retirement in 2014.