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PASSAGES: Luskin will step down from top Lyric Opera post at end of first Kauffman Center season

Evan Luskin, who joined the Lyric Opera of Kansas City in 1986 and has  been its general director since 1998, announced on March 15th that he would retire at the end of the 2011-2012 season, the company’s  first year in the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. Luskin, who led the Lyric from a small regional company to a significant organization with a national profile, turns 65 this Sunday and says that the move to the Kauffman Center is a good time to let new blood take over. “This will be one of those times in the history of the company when the Lyric has an opportunity to take another major step,” said the Philadelphia native, who worked at Tulsa Opera, Chattanooga Opera and Michigan Opera Theatre before coming to Kansas City. “And it just seemed that it was appropriate, as I’m getting older, to let a younger person lead the company forward.” New technologies and social media outlets are bringing new opportunities for arts groups, he says. “Someone who is more at home with all of that, and grew up with it, would maybe be better suited, in this day and age, to lead the company.”

Evan’s tenure with the Lyric has been witness to great change. The company moved from performing in English to productions in original languages, grew its annual budget from $1.45 million to $5.5 million, increased its endowment to more than $10 million and built an education program that reaches 20,000 children each year. A capital campaign has made possible the purchase of the Opera Center, a new space in the East Crossroads for rehearsal, storage, set design and administrative offices. The company purchased the Lyric Theatre for its use and that of the Kansas City Ballet and Kansas City Symphony, and later sold it in anticipation of moving into the Kauffman. Its subscription base, which has increased for the last three seasons, is currently at its highest level since 1997.

The Lyric has much to offer a new general director, Evan says: a new performing arts center, a new Opera Center, a cutting-edge education program, a devoted local following and—last but not least—a balanced budget. “Good candidates are going to be very excited,” Evan says. “I think the board, in looking for a replacement, is going to be doing it from a position of strength.” A lover of opera since childhood, Evan studied history and musicology before earning an MBA at SUNY-Binghamton, with a specialization in arts management. “I’ve learned a great deal about opera,” he says, “but my primary strengths have been financial, and I have felt good about the fact that pretty much all the companies where I have worked have enjoyed a good level of financial stability. … When you think about the business of a company you think about its long-term survival: You want to be there tomorrow and day after tomorrow. That financial stability gives you the base from which you can grow artistically.”

Lyric Opera president Richard Bruening says that the Lyric will form a committee to conduct a national search for Evan’s replacement. “Evan has been a great asset to the Lyric Opera. After a quarter of a century we understand his desire to move ahead to the next phase of his life. … The Lyric will be moving into a world class performance facility, and Evan leaves the company in a strong position both artistically and financially.” Evan says he feels the Lyric has remained true to its mission for the half-century of its history: to perform opera in an accessible setting, to hire young American singers and to perform operas by Americans. “And I think 53 years later, you can say that’s what we’re still doing,” he says. “We’ve remained true to that original vision—a vision that was somewhat new and radical in 1958.”

One of the primary signs of growth in the company, he says, is its ability to attract top young singers who regularly appear at other major companies—such as Alyson Cambridge, Sandra Piques Eddy, and Lise Lindstrom. “Agents are starting to pay attention to the company,” he says, “and they’re willing to let some of their better singers come here to sing roles. To me that’s a sign.” But Evan says he’s not comfortable taking too much credit for the Lyric’s advances in artistic standards, budgetary advances and education programs. “All of these things I’ve participated in and helped coordinate and oversee, but truly I try to have a collaborative management style, and a lot of this has happened because of a great staff, a very supportive board, and great volunteers and donors. There’s an institution there.”

Evan says he looks forward to traveling, playing more piano, volunteering for programs with kids and—of course—attending opera. “I’ve always said the best place in the opera business is to be sitting in the audience,” he says, “and I’m going to get to do that again, without having to think about, ‘I hope he makes the high C,’ or ‘can we move this set in 30 seconds so we don’t go into overtime.’ I can just sit back and enjoy the opera.” He says the arc of his career has far exceeded his expectations. “I thought I would be a good numbers cruncher who could go to rehearsals, and it’s been so much more than that. And I’m very thankful for that.”

To reach Paul Horsley, performing arts editor, send email to phorsley@sbcglobal.net.

Paul Horsley, Performing Arts Editor 

Paul studied piano and musicology at WSU and Cornell University. He also earned a degree in journalism, because writing about the arts in order to inspire others to partake in them was always his first love. After earning a PhD from Cornell, he became Program Annotator for the Philadelphia Orchestra, where he learned firsthand the challenges that non profits face. He moved to KC to join the then-thriving Arts Desk at The Kansas City Star, but in 2008 he happily accepted a post at The Independent. Paul contributes to national publications, including Dance Magazine, Symphony, Musical America, and The New York Times, and has conducted scholarly research in Germany, Austria and the Czech Republic (the latter on a Fulbright Fellowship). He also taught musicology at Cornell, LSU and Park University.

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