Evan Luskin was flat on his back.
He was on the floor in a small practice room at the Opera Center — the Lyric Opera’s gleaming new rehearsal studio and production facility at 18th and Charlotte streets — as a visitor arrived for a scheduled interview, but Luskin assured his guest that there was no cause for alarm.
“I’m just doing my back exercises,” Luskin explained. “This is why I’m retiring.”
Saturday night “The Barber of Seville” opened at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. The show is the last production of the Lyric Opera’s season, and it’s also the final opera on Luskin’s watch as the company’s general director.
This inveterate music lover has guided the Lyric with one eye on the money and another on the company’s artistic growth since 1986. When he arrived in Kansas City, the Lyric’s budget was $1.5 million. This year, it’s more than $6.4 million.
He oversaw the company’s transition out of the old, barely adequate Lyric Theatre and into the state-of-the-art Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. And he raised the money to consolidate the company’s rehearsal studio and scenery, costume and wig shops in one downtown building.
Now it’s time for Luskin, 66, to do something else, and later this spring he’ll turn the reins over to Deborah Sandler, an opera company veteran whom the Lyric board hired early last month.
Luskin and his wife of 19 years, Andrea Kempf, plan to stay in Kansas City. He wants to volunteer for Head Start, continue studying Japanese (which he has done on and off for years), start taking piano lessons again, spend more time with family and travel.
“I think I’m going to stay very busy,” Luskin said. “You saw me doing my back exercises. As you get older you realize it’s not just your mortality, but how long will you be healthy enough to do what you want to do?”
Luskin is a native of Philadelphia. His parents, both of whom played piano, lived downtown.
“Right in Center City,” he said. “A very urban kind of upbringing. We walked to everything because you couldn’t drive, the traffic was so dense. And we could walk to the American Academy of Music.”
Indeed, Luskin and his siblings were exposed to music virtually from birth. His father had studied to be an accompanist at the prestigious Curtis Institute of Music, a conservatory with extremely high admission standards, and graduated in 1939.
But he had also studied chemistry, and when World War II broke out he was recruited by a chemical company. Ultimately, he never pursued a career in music.
“But half the Philadelphia Orchestra had gone to Curtis with him, and they would have friends over to play chamber music — piano quintets, and trios and sonatas,” Luskin recalled. “So as a little boy, we would all have dinner and go upstairs, ostensibly to go to bed, but there was all this music in the house. But not opera.”
Indeed, Luskin had no particular interest in opera until one day in his junior year of college, when his father invited him to a performance of Rossini’s “La Cenerentola” (“Cinderella”). The effect was transformative. It was as if he’d been hit by a falling anvil.
“The next day I bought a season ticket,” he said. “Absolutely overnight I became an opera buff, an opera nut. I couldn’t get enough opera. I saw everything I could in Philadelphia. The next year the Met toured, and they brought about eight operas to Philadelphia, and I went to every one of them.”
In his senior year, he was in New York researching a paper one weekend, and he went down to Lincoln Center on a Saturday afternoon and snagged a ticket to a Metropolitan Opera matinee of “Madama Butterfly.”
“This was the new Met,” he said. “They had just moved to Lincoln Center. To walk into that building, it was like if you’re Catholic and you go to the Vatican. I couldn’t believe I was there.
“I had a seat downstairs in the orchestra in the front row, which is not ordinarily where I would choose to sit, but I didn’t care. I remember when the opera was over I had to get to the train station as fast as I could because I had tickets to the Philadelphia Orchestra that evening.”
Luskin earned his liberal arts degree from the University of Pennsylvania in 1967. Then he had to decide what to do next. He was accepted in the doctoral program at the University of Wisconsin in African history, but after two years it became clear that exacting research wasn’t for him.
“It’s one thing to be an undergraduate and go to interesting lectures and read interesting books,” he said. “In grad school you start doing research. And I didn’t enjoy that. I liked reading the results.
“And I have the greatest admiration for people who do it and can ferret things out, but it wasn’t me. So I went back to Philadelphia not knowing what I was going to do.”
Luskin got a job as a substitute teacher in an early childhood development program called Get Set, which he said was similar to Head Start.
“To my complete and total amazement,” he said, “I walked in the first day and found that I loved little kids and, surprising to myself, I seemed to have a real ability to work with them.”
Luskin stayed with the program for more than three years. At the same time he took piano lessons — and virtually every music course he could find — at the University of Pennsylvania. Eventually he decided to enter the graduate program.
“I figured I’m not a singer, I’m a director, I’m not a conductor, but I love opera. What can I do?” he said. “And I thought, ‘Well, let me get a doctorate in musicology, I can specialize in opera, and I can teach people about opera and share my enthusiasm.’ ”
But right away, Luskin encountered a familiar problem: He hated doing research. One year he attended the annual American Musicological Association convention in Washington, D.C.
“And the paper that everyone was talking about was about the French Renaissance composer Guillaume Dufay,” he said. “And even though he was a major composer, they actually knew very little about his life. And so this man got a grant and sat in this little French town and spent a year going through the church records and found 17 references. And from that he was able to build a basic biography. And I remember thinking, ‘Oh, my God, I don’t want to do that.’ ”
Luskin was in his late 20s — not too young to have a career crisis. The main question he faced, he said, was what to do once he grew up. Then one day in the music building he saw something on a bulletin board: The University of New York at Binghamton was offering a Master of Business Administration with a specialization in arts management. It was as if his prayers had been answered.
“I thought, ‘That’s it,’ ” he said. “I could work for an opera company.”
The rest, as they say, is history. While earning his degree, he interned with the New York City Opera, which gave him valuable hands-on experience.
His first job was at the Tulsa Opera as an assistant to the director. The company, it turned out, was well-funded, thanks in large part to oil money, and even though the company staged only two operas a year, it upheld high standards.
“The brochures had to be beautiful,” he said. “People had to dress nicely in the office. In effect, I was the bookkeeper. I deposited the checks. I wrote the checks. I put together the monthly statements. You don’t learn that in grad school. I think it was a wonderful foundation for me.”
After two years, Luskin moved on to an opera company in Chattanooga, Tenn. After that he found a position at a company in Detroit. Then, in 1986, he came to Kansas City.
In the early days he worked with the Lyric’s founding artistic director, Russell Patterson, and later was instrumental in hiring the current artistic director, conductor Ward Holmquist.
But Luskin was always more than an administrator. Lyric audiences will remember him for, among other things, his comical, self-deprecating pre-show comments on opening nights. Often he would wear part of a costume from the production he was introducing, something only a true opera fanatic would do.
From Luskin’s perspective, the artistic life of Kansas City has evolved since the mid-1980s.
“It just feels as though the organizations have really matured,” he said. “I don’t like to say we’re better. I just think we’ve matured. As much as people used to complain about the Lyric Theatre, I often felt as though, you know, when the Lyric (Opera) bought it, we spent 20 more years there, and we grew up.
“That’s where we really got our act together, and we were ready when we moved into the new performing arts center. All of us are performing on a much higher level. I think the audiences are more sophisticated. The arts have really come of age here.”‘The Barber of Seville’ KCOpera.org