Arts & Culture

Lyric Opera’s leader will step down

Nearly 25 years after taking the management reins of the Lyric Opera of Kansas City, Evan R. Luskin has announced he will retire as general director of the company at the end of the 2011-12 season.

That, of course, will be the Lyric’s inaugural year in the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, a formidable career capper for Luskin.

His departure, disclosed Tuesday afternoon to the Lyric Opera board, marks another leadership transition for one of Kansas City’s major cultural organizations. In the past year, new directors have been chosen at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art and the Kansas City Art Institute. Lyric officials say the search for its new executive director begins today.

"I never thought it would happen," Luskin told The Star, "but I felt it was a good time for the company, and I thought it would be helpful to have me here for the move and the change."

Luskin, who will turn 65 on Sunday, also mentioned two personal milestones that got him thinking of joining his wife in retirement: "I just got my Medicare card a week ago, and I’ve had my hips replaced in the last eight months."

Luskin, a Detroit native, joined the Lyric Opera in June 1986 after stints with opera companies in Tulsa, Okla.; Chattanooga, Tenn.; and Detroit.

Over the next quarter century, he helped build a $10 million endowment and, with artistic director Ward Holmquist, helped take the company to new performance and audience heights. Luskin’s annual budget has more than tripled. When he began, it amounted to $1.5 million, which financed a five-opera season plus an outstate tour. In the coming season at the Kauffman Center, the budget for four major shows, and no tour, totals nearly $5.5 million.

"I like to think we’ve really upgraded what we’re doing," Luskin said. "I think the growth in the budget is reflected in what you see onstage."

The Lyric is on the verge of presenting its final show, "The Marriage of Figaro," at its longtime home, the Lyric Theatre. In recent years the opera company sold that building and bought three buildings at 18th and Charlotte streets to build a new production and education complex.

Luskin’s tenure also saw significant growth in its educational programs, and a transition from the Lyric’s founding principle to perform works only in English. Luskin said that opened up the field to bring in better and more accomplished operatic voices.

"And ultimately that’s what opera is about," he said, "the singers."

As for education, the Lyric holds a summer camp as well as programs in the schools. In the coming year, Luskin revealed, it’s involved in a partnership with Minnesota Opera to commission a new work from composer Susan Kander, based on Lois Lowry’s popular young adult novel "The Giver." The opera is destined for its world premiere at Rockhurst High School in January 2012.

Richard Bruening, president of the Lyric board, praised Luskin for his even-keeled management style.

"He always was conscious of two things," Bruening said: "One, we want to make the best quality presentation, but, two, we would not overspend doing that. As a result I think we have been one of the best-managed groups around. We have never gotten in over our head."

As a result, Luskin will leave the Lyric on relatively sound financial footing, given the general worrisome state of cultural funding. And candidates to become the new director can’t overlook the fact that they would be stepping into an enviable role to handle a company on the upswing and whose performing and production spaces will be brand spanking new.

"I’m going to be handing my successor a physical plant second to none," Luskin said.

To reach Steve Paul, senior writer and arts editor, call 816-234-4762 or send e-mail to Follow him on Twitter at