Winds of Change – How Deborah Sandler & Joanne Burns Are Transforming The Lyric Opera of Kansas City

By Hilary Stroh


The winds of change are sweeping down the plains. Bring them on, say the directors of The Lyric Opera of Kansas City.

Given the chance to re-invent itself with the opening of the Kauffman Center in 2011 and new production-facilities buildings shortly thereafter, the Lyric has grasped the opportunity with an impressive energy, wholly characteristic of the region’s revival. Key to this coming of age has been the appointment in 2012 of the dynamic Deborah Sandler as General Director and CEO. With Joanne Burns taking over as President of the Board of Trustees this summer, the Lyric is now the only company within its budget category in the Mid-West with dual female leadership at the helm.

But what would this mean for opera in the region and how could this company make its presence felt in the opera scene as a whole?

Bringing In A New Perspective

“I’d never actually been to an opera before my appointment to the board three years ago” admitted Burns in a recent interview with OperaWire. Burns is an outsider to opera, serving as Chief Strategy Officer at Cerner, which is headquartered in North Kansas City. “What I’ve always believed in is the role that the arts play in what it means to be a thriving community. It’s a whole community asset.”

Burns also spoke about her fundamental drive as being to help people understand why opera was important, why the continued success of the Lyric was bound up with the revival of the city as a whole.

To paraphrase the old American cliche, part of the business of opera is business.

For people who have long loved the art form (and who would, no doubt, have approved of Nero fiddling while Rome burned), this is not a case they even need to make, but Burns was clear that others would take more convincing. In troubled and polarizing times, one needed to make the case for opera very clearly so that the art form would continue to flourish in the real world, and not be squeezed out by economic pressures, cultural prejudices and false but persistent perceptions about its innate elitism.  In short, Burns is not going to be the sort of leader who would let the company rest on its laurels.

Moreover, she talked about the invisible barriers to participation. There were, she said,  “comprehensibility issues” and the art form seemed somehow “unreachable.”

Sandler has been out to change all that. Innovation and diversity are words that are invariably going to crop up in virtually every conversation focusing on the present and future of opera, but for Sandler, they were more than just glossy terms happily in tune with the zeitgeist. Impatient with generalities, she swooped right into the particular.

“What precisely does innovation look like in Kansas City?” she asked during a talk with OperaWire. She emphasized that it wasn’t the same as asking what it looked like in New York or San Francisco.

“How do we use the resources of our company to best advantage, to carve out our own niche, to keep our ‘legacy’ audience but at the same time attract a new one,” she continued. These were specific metropolitan questions and regional ones first and foremost, her words suggested, but also ones that, if answered effectively, would add value to the national scene.

Start local; think national, indeed global.




Making A Mark

Compared to the giant companies in the American opera world, the Lyric operates on a more modest scale. Working with an average yearly amount of $7 million, they frankly don’t have the budget to commission an expensive new production, for instance.  But they could, she argued with shrewd realism, do the industry a service in two main ways.

“First, we can put on a second performance of a production,” Sandler noted.

The company did this successfully with Joby Talbot’s “Everest” in 2017; later this season, it will perform “The Shining,” an opera based on Stephen King’s horror story and later the famed Kubrick film. There is more in the pipe-line for the following season, but Sandler was not yet at liberty to reveal details. In a region where tastes skew traditional, these are brave undertakings, and they have paid off.

“Second,” Sandler went on, “we can do something that creates an aura of energy.” A real way in which the Lyric can contribute to the opera scene nationally was to provide a forum for new or re-imagined contemporary works in a more intimate setting. This they have done by establishing the Explorations series in 2016.

“There was no ‘second stage’ series before that point,” Sandler commented tellingly. As its name implies, the series sets out to be an adventure into the lesser known, an attempt to push the boundaries. In practice, this has meant taking chamber or small-scale works and adapting them or even commissioning new ones.

Song cycles have been particularly successful. Elvis Costello’s “Juliet Letters (2016)” and Sarah Kirkland Snider’s haunting “Penelope (2019)” were striking works fusing old and new. This season, the company will feature the world premiere of Laura Karpman and Kelley Rourke’s “When there are 9,” a song cycle celebrating the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, which gave women the right to vote. It will be preceded by a panel discussion involving historians and legal experts: another way of integrating the vocal art form with the wider conversations that flow from these works.

Powerful Women

For Sandler, this sort of innovation is central to her goal. “I want to establish a whole culture of artistic excellence,” she noted. She is particularly cognizant of the need to champion the excellence of talented creative women. A member of the steering committee of the Women’s Opera Network, she remembers a time when there were just a few female trailblazers, but no network where women could support each other.

“We just didn’t do a good job of it before … now there’s more solidarity,” she revealed.

This season, two of the operas are being directed by women: Alison Moritz for Mozart’s Abduction from the Seraglio and Kathleen Smith Belcher for the upcoming La Bohème.

Of course, while women at the podium or running the show on stage might be a relatively recent phenomenon, women performing in opera are not. But there might well be a problem here too, albeit of a different kind. Was Sandler at all concerned by the feminist critique that much opera represented the undoing and victimization of women?

“I’m not sure where I stand on that one… I don’t really buy into the whole of that narrative. Yes, lots of them come to an unhappy end, but many of them are such strong women, and they are given a chance to tell their own narratives,” she stated.

The matter remained suspended in the air, more a concern for the theorists and academics than directors perhaps. In any case, opera changes as society changes, she added phlegmatically. “The flourishing of contemporary opera gives us more diverse stories,” she concluded.

As women leaders, Sandler and Burns appeared particularly conscious of the need to encourage diversity in other ways also, notably age. Everyone worries about the greying of audiences. How will opera seize the imagination of millennials and the multi-lettered generations that follow? Both were so serious about addressing that question that they admitted that they were currently considering the possibility of bringing a millennial representative onto the Board. It had not been done before, but why not?

To create pathways for the young, Sandler has also employed Dr. Robert Bucker, an expert in the field of musical education, to review and develop the Lyric’s Educational Programs: he will report back in January.

What else was part of their strategic plan?

“Don’t under-estimate the power of influencers – evangelists – in the community,” Burns commented. But getting to those evangelists in the first place is crucial. Orpheus, the Lyric’s branch for young adults, with its 50 members and 700 followers, provides another aura of energy throughout the season.


Behind the ScenesInterviews