LOCAL HERO: Armed with Midas touch, Patterson built KC’s opera company from the ground up
By Paul Horsley
Russell Patterson was a “player,” and not just in the musical sense. Anyone who played tennis or bridge or even poker with the Lyric Opera of Kansas City’s founding general director, who died October 1st in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, at age 85, knows that his single-minded goal was to win. “That’s why I never played tennis or bridge with him,” says his widow, Teri Patterson, with a smile, “because he had to win.” Indeed it was that very competitive spirit that drove Russell to succeed in everything he did, and Kansas City’s cultural life is forever the richer for it. “He was an entrepreneur, a musical entrepreneur,” says Beth Ingram, a longtime friend and Lyric supporter. “Wherever he saw a need, he would fill it. He would say, ‘Somebody needs to start a Sunflower Music Festival,’ and he started it and he did it.” (The Topeka-based festival is about to enter its 28th season.) The former KC Philharmonic French horn player, who studied at the New England Conservatory, also founded the Missouri River Festival and the Buzzards Bay Musicfest in Marion, Massachusetts, and was the first music director of the new Kansas City Symphony when it rose from the ashes of the Philharmonic in 1982. “He was very ambitious, very friendly,” says Tiberius Klausner, concertmaster of the Philharmonic and the Symphony during the transition. “He felt strongly about the city’s need to have an orchestra. The fact that he was a musician gave you a chance to admire him. He liked to work. He had drive, he was a leader, he had a good beat. I enjoyed working with him.”
But Russell’s greatest achievement was the Lyric Opera, which together with Mike Berbiglia, Henry Haskell, Morton Walker and others he formed in 1958 and built into one of the nation’s most significant opera companies. As the Lyric’s general director he advocated things about which he was passionate: that opera in the United States should be sung in English, that American companies should foster opera by American composers, and that singers had to not only sing well but also look and act the parts. “It was theater set to music,” Beth says. “If they couldn’t act, they weren’t at the Lyric.” All these elements are standard fare in opera companies today, but in 1958 they were progressive, even edgy, ideas.
Russell’s dedication to advancing classical music and his passion for opera as drama are both illustrated in the story of his first encounter with the Cuban-born Teresita (“Teri”) in the late ’70s. Their 35-year relationship started with an argument over – you guessed it – singers. Teri, who traveled for Employers Reinsurance at the time, met some friends at the Woodside Tennis Club for drinks, and they’d invited Russell because they felt the two should meet. Later, at dinner, the topic of sopranos came up. “I am a fanatic of Tebaldi, he was of Callas,” Teri says, “and we had a small battle royale as to who was better and why.” Clearly the way to Russell’s heart was a good fight over singers. “My friends told me, ‘You know, he’s the general director of the opera,’ and I said I couldn’t care less if he’s the King of England.”
The essence of that argument was critical: Teri liked Tebaldi’s glorious voice, her clarity: “When she sang a high C it was as clear as a bell, there was no change, no break.” Callas, on the other hand “completed the theatrical experience. She was not just a form with a voice, she actually created the character. Which I agreed with, too, but as I said, she still has a wobble that drives me up a wall.” The distinction was telling: That “whole experience” for which Callas was revered, her ability to become a character, was the essence of Russell’s operatic ideal. “That’s what he was all about,” Beth says, “ ‘theater set to music’ was what he wanted.” Russell continued in his attempts to convert Teri. “He’d play recordings of her and he’d say, ‘Teri, what do you think of this?’ And I’d say, it sounds like a cat that had its tail stepped on.”
Russell’s relationship with opera began during a Fulbright year in Germany in the mid-1950s, when he played horn in opera orchestras and studied conducting. “That’s when he started falling in love with opera,” Teri says. “It included music, it included theater, it included ballet. … It was a total thing for him. And that’s when he decided this is the perfect art form, because it combines all of them.” It was also during this time Russell formed his conviction that opera should be performed in a country’s native tongue. “He noticed that the kids who came to the opera were hanging on every word that was being sung,” Teri says, “because it was in the language of their country. Which happened to be the case all over Europe.” Opera in English waned in the U.S. during the period of supertitles, but it still has its proponents around the United States and it might be experiencing a comeback: At the Lyric’s recent Magic Flute not a single critic batted an eyelash at the use of Andrew Porter’s fine English translation.
One of Russell’s other visionary ideas was to have Walt Disney create a series of cartoon operas using his well-known cast of characters. “Russell’s idea was, that’s how you can bring children in!” Teri says. He also pushed for opera that was already in English, staging works of Douglas Moore, Carlisle Floyd, Gian Carlo Menotti and Henry Mollicone, as well as those of Gilbert & Sullivan. The latter were favorites of the late Richard J. Stern, a longtime friend and Lyric supporter for whom the Lyric’s Opera Center is named.
The energetic conductor was also known for fostering careers of young singers, many of whom now find themselves in prestigious places. Tenor Darren Keith Woods, general director of Fort Worth Opera, has always given credit to Russell for his mentorship here in Kansas City, as has world-renowed Metropolitan Opera mezzo-soprano Victoria Livengood. “Russell gave me huge opportunities early in my career,” Victoria wrote on Facebook after Russell’s passing. “I sang one of my first Carmens there, my first Dalila, my first Desideria in Bleeker Street, and so many roles that would remain in my repertoire for years to come. Russell was an incredible friend and champion for opera and he will be deeply missed.”
Russell was awarded one of the most coveted conductor’s awards in the country from the Alice M. Ditson Fund, and he served for many years on the board of OPERA America. In addition to performances locally he guest conducted in New York, Seattle, Cincinnati and several European cities. “He was very intense,” Teri says. “He worked in his mind all the time.” But it is for his work with the Lyric, and his friendly nudging-forward of Kansas City’s cultural life, that we will most remember him. Without Russell there would be no Lyric Opera, and probably no Kansas City Symphony. Moreover, Beth says: “He was fiscally responsible. He made all of these things work without running into deficits.”
Russell is also survived by his sons, Richard Russell Patterson and Christopher Leonard Patterson and his stepchildren Daniel J. Fiallega and Maria Victoria Fiallega. A memorial service was held November 11th at Visitation Church.
To reach Paul Horsley, performing arts editor, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org or find him on Facebook (paul.horsley.501). For more information about the Lyric Opera and upcoming performances go to kcopera.org.
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