Surprise gift from frugal opera superfan: $1.7 million for the arts

Lois Kirschenbaum, a culture lover who was a fixture on the Metropolitan Opera’s platform for more than half a century, died in 2021 at the age of 88, and tributes poured in from celebrity singers. Fans paid tribute.

But that wasn’t the end of Kirshenbaum’s relationship with art.

Although not even known to her closest friends, Kirshenbaum, a former switchboard operator who lives in a rent-controlled apartment in the East Village, had planned to donate a significant portion of her life savings, about $1.7 million, to cultural groups. after her death. After years of legal battles, donations of $215,000 each have begun arriving, surprising groups including the New York City Opera, American Ballet Theatre, Carnegie Hall and the Public Theater.

“I’m just surprised,” said John Hauser, one of the recipients and president of the George and Nora London Singers Foundation. “I didn’t know she had that much money.”

Kirschenbaum had no spouse, siblings or children and lived a modest life, working as a switchboard operator for the humanitarian aid organization the International Rescue Committee until his retirement in 2004. Get free or cheap tickets there before the show starts.

Elena Villafane, the attorney for the estate’s executor, said Kirschenbaum had an “extremely frugal lifestyle during the Great Depression.” Villafane said her father, an optometrist, died in 1990. Both his first and second wives preceded him in death.

“She doesn’t take cabs, her furniture is old, she doesn’t spend money on clothes, she doesn’t go to Bloomingdale’s,” Villafin said of Kirshenbaum.

“Whatever money she spent,” she added, “she spent it on art.”

Kirshenbaum has been a doyen among die-hard opera fans at the Metropolitan Opera for decades. Blind since birth, she often watches the show from the top balcony using large binoculars. After the curtain call, she rushed to the stage door with a bag of signed memorabilia—photographs, recordings, sheet music—and asked for autographs.

American Ballet Theater artistic director Susan Jaffe, who was the company’s principal dancer from 1983 to 2002, recalled seeing Kirshenbaum often after performances.

“In the world of ballet, Lois Kirshenbaum was more than a devoted fan, she was a silent force and an unwavering presence outside the stage door,” she said in a statement. “Little did we know that behind her humble demeanor she had the ability to surprise us with a wonderful legacy gift.”

Kirshenbaum’s dedication helped her meet opera stars such as Beverly Hills, Renee Fleming, Luciano Pavarotti and Plácido Domingo. Dutifully signing one’s belongings has become a rite of passage for some singers. As they chatted, Kirshenbaum gathered information about their upcoming performances and compiled them into lists to distribute to other opera lovers.

She left behind a cache of memorabilia—thousands of shows, many autographed, and even ballet shoes—which she directed to be donated to the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center.

The library has not yet received her items, but rare books and manuscripts librarian Bob Kosovsky, who knew Kirschenbaum and helped pack her items, called the materials “documents of a super fan.” ”.

He points out the notes she often takes on the margins of the show. In 1978, the New York Philharmonic performed three programs featuring the final act of Strauss’s opera “Salome.” “Even better than the first performance,” she wrote in a concert program.

“You really get a sense of her personality,” Kosovsky said.

Kirschenbaum’s estate totals about $4 million, divided evenly between 18 nonprofits and one individual, a woman who helps care for her and her father. In addition to donating to cultural institutions, she has left money for Jewish groups like the Simon Wiesenthal Center and nonprofits that help blind people like the American Foundation for the Blind. She also donated to her former employer, the International Rescue Committee.

Although Kirschenbaum was enthusiastic about performing at the Met, she left no gifts for the opera house. Friends speculate that she may have been angry at the company’s decision in the early 1990s, around the time she made her will, to ban her backstage and relegate her to the stage door.

Instead, she donated to other opera groups, including several that help young singers: the London Foundation, the Richard Tucker Music Foundation, and the Opera Index.

The London Foundation, named for famed baritone George London and his wife Nora, announced this week plans to honor Kirshenbaum with a prize in a competition for young singers next month. Kirschenbaum met the Londoner backstage at the Met and was a regular at foundation events.

“She’s the absolutely perfect spectator,” said the foundation’s Hauser. “I can’t think of anyone else who loved opera as much as she did. She was just a huge opera fan. It was really the most important thing in her life.

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