Opera in Kansas City traces its roots back to at least 1868 when the Fiaries Great Comic Opera Company performed at Frank's Hall located at Fifth and Main Streets. Initially, opera performances in Kansas City took place at several opera houses and theaters that no longer exist, such as Frank's Hall, Coates Opera House, Gillis Opera House, Warden Grand Opera House, Grand Theatre, and Convention Hall. However, during those early years, opera productions were mainly presented by traveling companies passing through Kansas City.
The landscape of opera in Kansas City changed in the autumn of 1957, thanks to Russell Patterson, a young conductor and French horn player in the Kansas City Philharmonic. Patterson proposed the establishment of Kansas City's first producing opera company. Together with community members, Patterson founded the Lyric Theater Kansas City. The inaugural performance of the newly formed company took place on September 29, 1958, featuring La bohème, at The Rockhill Theatre located on the corner of Troost Ave and Brush Creek Blvd. Initially, the company operated as a repertory company, staging multiple operas simultaneously and presenting them over a specific period. Notably, all operas were performed in English.
Despite the limitations of the small and inadequately equipped Rockhill Theatre, the Lyric Theater Kansas City produced significant works such as Carmen, Tosca, Don Giovanni, Otello, and many others until the end of the 1967 season. In 1965, Missouri became the second state, after New York, to establish a state-funded arts council. The Lyric Theatre took several productions on tour to towns in Missouri, including Chillicothe, Fulton, St. Joseph, and Maryville. The company also toured in Kansas, Nebraska, Arkansas, and South Dakota. However, touring operations ceased in 1992.
Following a devastating fire that destroyed the Rockhill Theatre in October 1968, the Uptown Theatre on Broadway offered the company the use of its facilities. The destruction of the Rockhill marked the end of an era for the Lyric Theater Kansas City. Over the previous decade, the company had staged over 200 performances of 30 different works. During that period, Kansas City became one of the few American communities where it was possible to witness four different operas on consecutive nights of the week, even if only for a brief period each year. Time magazine hailed the company as “a valid and important part of the American operatic explosion.”
In 1970, after a second season at the Uptown Theatre, the Capri Theatre at 11th and Central became available. It offered a larger auditorium, a more traditional stage, and improved backstage facilities. In the following years, the Lyric Theater presented a mix of modern works such as The Saint of Bleecker Street, Of Mice and Men, Die Kluge, and the world premiere of Captain Jinks of the Horse Marines, as well as established masterpieces like Aida and The Magic Flute. By 1974, the company had acquired exclusive possession of the Capri through a long-term lease, consolidated its offices there, and changed the theater's name to the Lyric, while the company itself became known as Lyric Opera of Kansas City. In 1991, the Lyric Opera purchased the theater outright.
In 1998, for the final season of Russell Patterson's forty-year career as the head of the company, he commissioned and presented the Lyric's second world premiere, Coyote Tales. Based on Indigenous music and stories, the opera featured music by Henry Mollicone and a libretto by Sheldon Harnick. After Patterson's retirement in June 1998, Lyric Opera announced the appointment of its second General Director, Evan Luskin.
The Evan Luskin years saw many successful new productions at Lyric Opera, including Britten's Billy Budd and Strauss' Salome. Luskin also oversaw the production of two of Carlisle Floyd's operas, including Cold Sassy Tree and Of Mice and Men. The 2007-2008 season marked the company's 50th anniversary and featured its third world premiere, Kirke Mecham's John Brown, based on the controversial American historical figure.
As the company grew and plans for the new state-of-the-art Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts were announced, Lyric Opera realized it needed a new home for rehearsals, production needs, and administrative offices. Consequently, work began on a new production facility and offices in the up-and-coming East Crossroads neighborhood.
In September 2011, the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts opened its doors, providing Lyric Opera of Kansas City with a new performance venue. The company presented a landmark season featuring Turandot and the Kansas City premiere of John Adams' Nixon in China, a significant moment in Kansas City's performing arts history. Evan Luskin, who had been with the company for twenty-five years, announced his retirement at the end of the season, and the Lyric appointed Deborah Sandler Kemper as its new leader.
Under Deborah Sandler Kemper's visionary leadership, the company soared to new artistic heights, infusing each production with unparalleled passion and innovation. In 2013, Lyric Opera presented two breathtaking new productions: The Capulets and the Montagues and a visually stunning collaboration with acclaimed artist Jun Kaneko of The Magic Flute. Sandler's tenure also brought the Pulitzer Prize-winning opera Silent Night to Kansas City in 2015, gripping audiences with its powerful storytelling. Another significant milestone came in 2016 with the introduction of the groundbreaking Resident Artist Program, a platform that nurtured emerging talents, fostered collaborations with renowned guest artists, and offered comprehensive professional training in all aspects of opera.
In 2016, Lyric Opera pushed boundaries with a new production of The Marriage of Figaro, alongside the Kansas City premiere of Dead Man Walking. They also introduced the Explorations Series in the 2016-2017 season, featuring innovative programming that combined classical and popular music genres, commissioning new chamber opera works, and attracting diverse audiences to their state-of-the-art production building in the East Crossroads neighborhood. The 2017-2018 season included a visionary interpretation of Eugene Onegin and the contemporary opera Everest, and in September 2018, they achieved record-breaking box office success with a sold-out run of the timeless classic West Side Story, which marked the start of the 2018–2019 season.
In March 2020, the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic forced the company to cancel the remainder of its season. Adapting swiftly, Lyric Opera embraced online and outdoor performances, ensuring that the power of opera continued to resonate with audiences. In December 2020, an innovative puppet version of Menotti's Amahl and the Night Visitors premiered digitally, enchanting viewers with its imaginative storytelling. As the pandemic subsided, Lyric Opera presented Amahl in person at the production arts building in the East Crossroads neighborhood in December 2021 and 2022. In March 2021, the company achieved yet another milestone by presenting its first full-scale opera since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs, a remarkable co-production with Atlanta Opera, Austin Opera, Utah Opera, and Calgary Opera, captivating audiences with its thought-provoking narrative.
In 2022, the Lyric unveiled new education and community engagement programs. A significant investment in initiatives crafted to promote societal artistic literacy in Kansas City was made, ensuring an engaged and passionate arts-going audience for the future. One such initiative is Opera Unlocked, a comprehensive and sequential in-school education program. As part of this program, Lyric Opera regularly commissions new works for students and intergenerational audiences. The first work created was Sketchbook for Ollie in 2022, which toured elementary schools throughout the Kansas City metro area. In 2024, The Haberdasher Prince will receive its premiere with performances in community spaces where families gather, thus removing barriers to accessibility.
After a three-year delay, Lyric Opera triumphantly presented the long-awaited Kansas City premiere of The Shining in March 2023. Based on Stephen King's bestselling novel, this remarkable opera by Pulitzer Prize winners Paul Moravec and Mark Campbell enthralled sold-out audiences at the Kauffman Center. Notably, Lyric Opera also produced the first-ever recording of this extraordinary American operatic classic, scheduled for release on the Pentatone label in the spring of 2024, further cementing the company's artistic impact.