A thrifty opera superfan's surprise gift: $1.7 million for art

When Lois Kirschenbaum, a cultural icon who was part of the Metropolitan Opera's standing room section for more than half a century, died in 2021 at the age of 88, star singers paid tribute and fellow fans offered memories.

But that was not the end of Kirschenbaum's relationship with art.

Unknown to his closest friends, Kirschenbaum, a former switchboard operator who lived in a rent-controlled apartment in the East Village, planned to give most of his life savings — about $1.7 million — to cultural groups. On her death. After years of legal action, donations of $215,000 apiece have started coming in from groups such as the New York City Opera, American Ballet Theatre, Carnegie Hall and the Public Theater.

“I was surprised,” said John Houser, president of the George and Nora London Foundation for Singers. “I didn't know she had that much money.”

Kirschenbaum had no wife, siblings or children, and worked as a switchboard operator for the humanitarian aid organization International Rescue Committee until his retirement in 2004. Most nights, he traveled by bus and subway. Lincoln Center, where he got free or cheap tickets before shows started.

Kirschenbaum had an “incredibly frugal, Depression-era lifestyle,” said Elena Villafane, the estate's executor's attorney. His father was an optometrist who died in 1990, said Villafane; His first and second wives predeceased him.

“She didn't take a cab, her furniture was old, she didn't spend money on clothes, she didn't go to Bloomingdale's,” Villafan said of Kirchenbaum.

“Whatever little money she spent, she spent on art.”

For decades, Kirschenbaum was the doyenne of hard-core opera buffs. Legally blind from birth, he often watched the performances from the upper balcony through large binoculars. After the curtain call, she rushed to the stage door for autographs, carrying a bag full of memorabilia — photos, records and scores — to sign.

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American Ballet Theater artistic director Susan Jaffe, who was a principal dancer with the company from 1983 to 2002, recalls seeing Kirschenbaum often after performances.

“In the world of ballet, Lois Kirschenbaum is not just a devoted fan — she is a quiet force, an immovable presence beyond the stage door,” he said in a statement. “Little did we know that behind her modest demeanor, she had the power to surprise us with an amazing legacy.”

Kirschenbaum's devotion helped him befriend opera stars including Beverly Sills, Renee Fleming, Luciano Pavarotti and Placido Domingo. Dutifully signing her possessions became a ritual for some singers. As they chatted, Kirschenbaum gathered information about their upcoming appearances and compiled it into homemade catalogs, which he distributed to fellow opera enthusiasts.

She left behind memorabilia — thousands of programs, many of them autographs, and a few pairs of ballet slippers — which she directed be given to the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center.

The library has yet to receive her belongings, but Bob Kosowski, a rare books and manuscripts librarian who knew Kirschenbaum and helped organize her belongings, called the item a “super fan document.”

He often pointed out notes in the margins of his programs. In 1978, the New York Philharmonic gave three performances of a program that featured the finale of Strauss's opera “Salome.” He wrote in the program from a concert: “Better than 1st perf.”

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

The total distribution from Kirschenbaum's estate, about $4 million, is divided equally between 18 nonprofit organizations and one individual, a woman who helped care for him and his father. In addition to his donations to cultural institutions, he left money to Jewish groups including the Simon Wiesenthal Center and to non-profit organizations such as the American Foundation for the Blind. And he gave it to his former employer, the International Rescue Committee.

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Despite his enthusiasm for the Met performances, Kirschenbaum did not leave a gift to the opera house. Friends speculate that she may have been angered by the company's decision in the early 1990s — around the time she made her wish — to bar her backstage and push her to the stage door.

Instead, he gave money to several opera groups that help young singers: the London Foundation, the Richard Tucker Music Foundation and Opera Index.

The London Foundation, named for George London and his wife Nora, announced this week that it plans to present an award in Kirschenbaum's honor at a competition for young singers next month. Kirschenbaum, who knew the Londoners from backstage at the Met, was a frequent guest at the foundation's events.

“She was the consummate audience,” Hauser said from the foundation. “I can't think of anyone who loved opera as passionately as she did. She is an opera superfan. It was actually the most important thing in her life.

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