Opera Theatre Receives $45 Million Bequest from Life Board Member Phyllis Brissenden

Following the passing of beloved philanthropist and Opera Theatre life board member Phyllis Brissenden on December 17, Opera Theatre of Saint Louis announced today the news that Mrs. Brissenden has bequeathed the company a transformative endowment gift, estimated at $45 million. This gift, the largest in Opera Theatre’s history and one of the largest ever recorded for an American opera company, will offer OTSL a new level of financial stability as the company prepares for its 50th anniversary in 2025.

OTSL Board Chairman Noémi Neidorff paid tribute to Mrs. Brissenden, saying, “Phyllis championed Opera Theatre from its very beginnings, and remained a loyal, devoted fan and supporter throughout her life. Smart, knowledgeable, witty, and extraordinarily humble, Phyllis truly considered Opera Theatre her family. Every season, she made frequent trips from her home in Springfield, Illinois so as not to miss any performances, board meetings, master classes, rehearsals, or workshops. My fellow board members and I count ourselves fortunate to have known Phyllis. We will forever cherish her memory.” 

Phyllis Herndon Brissenden was born on March 31, 1933 to Obed Lewis Herndon and Marian (Matheny) Herndon. Raised in Springfield, Illinois, she studied at Sweet Briar College and spent part of her career working for United Way. A music-lover her whole life, Mrs. Brissenden supported Opera Theatre from its very first season in 1976. Her modesty inspired her to give anonymously for decades, but OTSL estimates that she contributed a total sum of $2.5 million dollars to the company during her lifetime. 

Mrs. Brissenden also led Opera Theatre’s National Patrons Council from 2010–2017, encouraging opera lovers from around the country to support the organization. While Mrs. Brissenden was quick to support exciting productions, including the upcoming 2020 production of Susannah, her greatest source of enjoyment was getting to know the singers and staff of Opera Theatre. She showed the same kindness to volunteers, ushers, and garden staff as she did to star singers, and often shared news clippings and family recipes with her OTSL friends. She built deep and lasting relationships with each of Opera Theatre’s general directors, all of whom remained lifelong friends until the time of her passing. 

“We are profoundly humbled by and grateful for this extraordinary gesture of generosity,” said Andrew Jorgensen, Opera Theatre’s current General Director. “Phyllis was a member of our company from the very beginning. She often referred to Opera Theatre as her family, and she always spoke with particular affection of the deep friendships that she built with my predecessors Richard Gaddes, Charles MacKay, and Timothy O’Leary; our long-time Managing Director of Advancement Nicole Freber; and so many other members of our company across the decades. We knew Phyllis was planning to leave a bequest to Opera Theatre, but we had no idea just how significant it would be. We feel deeply fortunate that this gift allows us to reach for even greater levels of artistic excellence and community impact. As we continue our work on our next strategic plan, which will chart a course to our 50th anniversary, Phyllis’ passion for this company and this art form will be one of our guiding lights.”

Mrs. Brissenden’s gift is designated for Opera Theatre’s general endowment and will more than double that endowment from $35 million to approximately $80 million. Less than 20% of Opera Theatre’s annual operating expenses are covered by ticket sales, which makes the generosity of the company’s contributors an important part of its sustainability. The annual support of more than 1,000 donors is supplemented by OTSL’s yearly endowment distribution, all of which helps make possible its mainstage productions, year-round civic programming, artist training, and nationally acclaimed educational programs. Because the company’s annual distribution is based on a three-year rolling average of endowment performance, it will take several years before OTSL will feel the full impact of Mrs. Brissenden’s generosity. 

“Phyllis was a woman who created loyal friendships throughout the many of her wide-ranging different spheres of interests and activities,” said John Hayes, Mrs. Brissenden’s lifelong friend and executor. “I first met Phyllis about 70 years ago when we were both attending Springfield High School, and we served together on the board of the Illinois Symphony Orchestra for more than 20 years. She was utterly modest and private concerning her many generosities, but it was no secret how much she loved Opera Theatre of Saint Louis.”

Opera Theatre of Saint Louis will dedicate its 2020 production of Susannah in memory of Mrs. Brissenden, and is planning a fitting celebration of her transformative gift to take place later this year.