Ten Years with Timothy O'Leary

BY ANH LE

“Within the first minute of meeting Timothy, I felt I could be exactly who I was and I could do exactly the kind of work I wanted to do,” says Ricky Ian Gordon, composer of both The Grapes of Wrath and “27.” “What I was met with was love, excitement, and encouragement. Tim is impossibly unusual in his spaciousness that allows everyone to feel welcome, comfortable, seen, and heard.”

Over the last ten years, Timothy O’Leary’s tenure as General Director has furthered Opera Theatre’s reputation among the world’s top festival companies. His success adds to the legacies of the two legendary leaders who preceded him, Richard Gaddes and Charles MacKay. In July 2018, Tim will become the new General Director of the Washington National Opera at the Kennedy Center. While Opera Theatre mourns the loss of its beloved leader, it also feels tremendous pride in his appointment to lead one of the nation’s most iconic opera companies. As Charles himself puts it, “Tim is truly one of the hottest stars in the operatic realm.”

Tim began his tenure at Opera Theatre when he was only 32 years old. Music Director Emeritus Stephen Lord looks back on those early days fondly. “Tim O’Leary was the first boss in my life younger than I. I welcomed his freshness and new cultural references. He was the first person I knew who ever used the word ‘hip’ as an adjective!” However, Tim’s journey with opera began much earlier. Tim first encountered opera as a high school student, when he was recruited to be an extra chorus tenor in The Magic Flute with Yale Opera. As Tim recalls, “I really fell head over heels... In time, I started to understand that this was not just something that was beautiful, but something that really was meaningful and important.”

After graduating from Dartmouth College, Tim made his way to New York City, where he developed a promising career as an assistant stage director. However, Tim began to realize that he was most passionate about enabling other artists to thrive and achieve their best work, so he returned to New York City to freelance as a grant writer. The defining shift in Tim’s career trajectory came when he attended a performance at the Henry Street Chamber Opera — later to become the Gotham Chamber Opera. Tim was intrigued by the dramatically intimate and musically excellent work. He offered his services to Artistic Director Neal Goren, who just happened to be searching for a managing director. Tim quickly secured the job. After two and a half years at Gotham, Tim transitioned to New York City Opera to become its Administrative Director, working under General Director Paul Kellogg and Executive Director Jane Gullong.

In 2007, Tim moved to St. Louis to fill a newly-minted Executive Director role at Opera Theatre. Looking back on that time, OTSL Artistic Director James Robinson recalls, “I recommended to Charles MacKay an aspiring young administrative type named Tim O’Leary. Tim was a diligent assistant director for me over several years. Was he destined to be a great stage director? Who knows? But he remains one of the most wonderful people in the business, as both advocate and cheerleader for the art form.”

Charles hoped from the outset that Tim would become his successor at OTSL, but thoughtfully planned for a period of overlap so the young administrator would have time to get to know the company and community. When the transition became official in 2008, Tim was already well-prepared for success, thanks in large part to his relationships with Stephen Lord, James Robinson, hundreds of OTSL supporters, and a board led first by now-Chairman Emerita Donna Wilkinson, followed by Immediate Past Chairman Spencer Burke.

Since 2008, Opera Theatre has only continued to grow its reputation as a center for innovative programming and community building. Artistry and civic dialogue have gone hand in hand, beginning particularly with the 2011 production of John Adams’s The Death of Klinghoffer. “In other cities, outrage at The Death of Klinghoffer has caused picketing, controversy, and, sometimes, canceled performances,” wrote the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “In St. Louis...it has caused an outbreak of interfaith understanding and civility.” Similarly, when Tim, Stephen, and Jim launched the New Works, Bold Voices cycle in 2013 — a series dedicated to telling stories that resonate with diverse, contemporary audiences — Tim assiduously ensured that expert community partners were always part of the conversation.

The first opera in the series, Champion by Terence Blanchard and Michael Cristofer, was co-commissioned with Jazz St. Louis and has become the best-selling world premiere in OTSL’s history. Gene Dobbs-Bradford, President and CEO of Jazz St. Louis, recalls of that partnership, “Working with Tim to create Champion was one of the most enjoyable experiences of my career. The reason he makes such a tremendous impact in St. Louis is that he genuinely cares for the community and believes in the power of the arts to make a positive change.”

The New Works, Bold Voices series has since continued with the world premieres of “27” by Ricky Ian Gordon and Royce Vavrek in 2014, Shalimar the Clown by Jack Perla and Rajiv Joseph in 2016, and An American Soldier by Huang Ruo and David Henry Hwang in 2018. As Board Chairman Noémi Neidorff puts it, these premieres have been among the company’s proudest moments during Tim’s decade-long tenure. “Among those operas, there were some very relevant and very sensitive subjects. Somehow, Tim has the knack to reach out to all cultural, religious, and ethnic groups and get a dialogue going. I think that is his greatest strength.”

Tim is passionate not only about programming, but also about building new audiences. Over the last ten years, OTSL has re-invigorated its commitment to reaching the next generation. During Tim’s first year as General Director, OTSL offered a pilot Young Friends event during the season that reached 80 or so young patrons. This season, the program is expected to engage more than 700 audience members under the age of 45. For the past three years, Opera Theatre has been one of four US opera companies to win a major grant from The Wallace Foundation’s Building Audiences for Sustainability initiative, supporting OTSL’s work to build Generation X and Millennial audiences, with an emphasis on diversity.

Tim has also been an active advocate for OTSL’s nationally renowned young artist programs. Together with Stephen and Jim, he has invited back several young artist alumni for leading roles. One such singer, soprano Laura Wilde, credits Tim’s “unwavering support over the years” for helping her to establish an international career. “Tim is kind, honest, open, and unashamedly enthusiastic about opera. He started his time with OTSL during my first summer as a Gerdine Young Artist and since then, I have grown to deeply value his authentic interest in the young artists, his warm and thoughtful leadership, and his easy, infectious laughter.”

Another former young artist, bass-baritone Aubrey Allicock, had this to say: “I first met Tim at the Metropolitan Opera National Council District Auditions during my graduate studies at Indiana University. Since then we have become great friends through my seasons spent with OTSL. I’m so proud of him and proud to come from ‘his era’ at OTSL!”

In 2012, Tim established OTSL’s Engagement & Inclusion Task Force (at the urging of Director of Marketing and Public Relations Joe Gfaller) to help the company tackle issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion both onstage and in the audience. “His sincerity, thoughtfulness, and compassion are clear in everything that OTSL does,” says Adrienne Davis, a member of the task force as well as an OTSL Board Member and Vice Provost of Washington University. “Under his vision and leadership, Opera Theatre has become the exemplar for diversity and inclusion in the arts within the St. Louis community and across the field of opera.”

Although Tim is best known for his humorous demeanor and relentless pursuit of artistic excellence, he is also an accomplished fundraiser. With his departure, Tim leaves the company in an exceptionally strong financial position, thanks to his partnership with OTSL’s board and the tireless Development staff. Since the start of his tenure, the Opera Theatre endowment has more than doubled in size — from $16.5 million to more than $34 million. The company’s ratio of endowment to operating budget is among the strongest in the nation and is a crucial ingredient in the company’s ability to lead the field through groundbreaking new commissions and audience-building initiatives. Contributions to OTSL’s Annual Fund have also grown by more than 46%, and now exceed $6 million per year.

During Tim’s last two years at OTSL, he has served as Chairman of the Board for OPERA America. Reflecting on Tim’s appointment in Washington, OPERA America’s President and CEO Marc Scorca said, “It is not surprising that a leader of Tim’s caliber should be recruited to lead the company in our nation’s capital. OTSL is one of the country’s most outstanding companies in terms of repertoire diversity, artistic quality, financial health, and civic practice.”

When the announcement of Tim’s appointment at WNO went live last September, the national press was quick to agree. “Washington’s Opera Taps a Champion of New Work from St. Louis,” wrote The New York Times, while the Washington Post headline read, “Washington National Opera Lands a Star.” Tim will officially begin his duties at Washington National Opera on July 1, 2018. “Timothy’s impressive stewardship of OTSL has been a model of visionary and inspired management of a modern American opera company,” says Robert Downing, President of the WNO Board of Trustees. While Opera Theatre is sad to lose this visionary, talented, and thoughtful leader, the company wishes Tim and his family all the best for the next chapter.

Asked to reflect on his tenure at OTSL, Tim grew contemplative and said, “There are no words for how grateful I am to the whole Opera Theatre family. Family is really the word. When Kara and I moved to St. Louis, we couldn’t believe our good fortune as we got to know everyone in the company, which includes the audience, board, donors, volunteers, staff, and partners throughout the community. Every accomplishment of the past 10 years, and of OTSL’s whole 43-year history, is the result of incredible teamwork among all those people. One thing is for sure, the O’Leary family — which is now larger by three little people than it was in 2008 when we moved here — intends to remain part of this wonderful OTSL family, visiting at least every June to attend the season and reconnect with all our wonderful friends. Other than that, all I can say is thank you.”

As for the OTSL family, our feelings are best captured by the words of Board Chairman Noémi Neidorff: “The future of Opera Theatre is indeed bright — and is all the brighter thanks to the partnership of this incredible community and the sterling legacy of fiscal prudence and artistic innovation that Tim will leave behind.”