Since its establishment in 1976, Phyllis Brissenden is believed to have contributed a total of $2.5 million to the Opera Theatre of St. Louis

By Joelle Goldstein
February 06, 2020 05:41 PM
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phyllis brissenden
Credit: Suzy Gorman

A woman who spent her life supporting the Opera Theatre of St. Louis is being praised for her “extraordinary gesture of generosity” after she left behind $45 million for the company in her will.

Phyllis Brissenden was 86 years old when she passed away from heart failure in December, NBC affiliate KSDK reported. However, prior to her death, the philanthropist designated millions of dollars from her estate to go to the company.

The generous donation, which marks the largest gift that OTSL has received and one of the largest that any opera company has been given, will be used to give the theatre more “financial stability” as they prepare for their 50th anniversary in 2025, OTSL said on their website.

Andrew Jorgensen, the Opera Theatre’s General Director, explained that an endowment was expected from Brissenden — she had been supporting the company since its very first season in 1976 — but certainly not to that extent.

“We are profoundly humbled by and grateful for this extraordinary gesture of generosity,” Jorgensen said in a statement on OTSL’s website. “Phyllis was a member of our company from the very beginning.”

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Phyllis Brissenden with Grammy award-winning composer Terence Blanchard and wife Robin Burgess
| Credit: Brissenden Estate

“We knew Phyllis was planning to leave a bequest to Opera Theatre, but we had no idea just how significant it would be,” he added. “We feel deeply fortunate that this gift allows us to reach for even greater levels of artistic excellence and community impact.”

Brissenden grew up in Springfield, Illinois, but quickly developed a love for the OTSL, which is located 97 miles south of her hometown.

Despite the distance, Brissenden would make frequent trips to OTSL, often driving to St. Louis eight times in three weeks to see every Opera in the theatre’s season. Some shows, she’d see more than once.

Throughout her lifetime, Brissenden led the Opera Theatre’s National Patrons Council from 2010 to 2017, served on the board of the Illinois Symphony Orchestra for more than 20 years and was an Opera Theatre life board member, the website states.

She also made lasting friendships with many of OTSL’s general directors, board members, and staffers — in part due to her ability to connect with others despite “wide-ranging different spheres of interests and activities.”

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Phyllis Brissenden with OTSL’s former general directors

“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,” the website reads. “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.”

The theatre estimates that over the course of Brissenden’s life, she contributed a total of $2.5 million, part of which was given anonymously.

Her new gift of $45 million will more than double the theatre’s general endowment, which is supported by more than 1,000 donors. It will also majorly impact the theatre’s sustainability, as ticket sales only cover less than 20 percent of their annual operating expenses, according to the website.

“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,” the website states.

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Phyllis Brissenden with a former OTSL general director
| Credit: Brissenden Estate

Speaking to Brissenden’s passing, OTSL Board Chairman Noémi Neidorff remembered his colleague as an “extraordinarily humble” woman and “devoted fan” of the opera.

“Phyllis championed Opera Theatre from its very beginnings, and remained a loyal, devoted fan and supporter throughout her life,” Neidorff said in a statement on OTSL’s website. “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,” Neidorff added. “My fellow board members and I count ourselves fortunate to have known Phyllis. We will forever cherish her memory.”

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Prior to her death, Brissenden had made it known she was particularly excited to see OTSL’s upcoming production of Susannah in June.

However, two days before she died, she announced she likely wouldn’t be able to drive and would need a ride to get there.

Unfortunately, Brissenden wouldn’t live to see the spring production, but OTSL revealed on their website that Susannah would be dedicated in memory of Brissenden, with a celebration of her donation planned for later this year.