For more than half a century, almost every prominent singer scheduled to perform at the Metropolitan Opera could expect to be approached behind the scenes by a wispy woman in thick glasses who was holding stacks of memorabilia to be signed while she was doing them the performance in a scratchy Brooklyn accented accent.
This was Lois Kirschenbaum, one of New York’s biggest and oldest opera fans, and an integral part of the opera since the late 1950s, before Lincoln Center was built, when the Met was in Midtown.
Few opera performances took place at the Met without being watched through Mrs. Kirschenbaum’s large binoculars (she was legally blind from birth), usually from a seat on the top balcony that was secured for little or no money, by recruiting operatives at the entrance shortly before the opening curtain.
And few celebrity singers went home without signing numerous articles for Ms. Kirschenbaum, whose constant desire to get behind the scenes helped her befriend some of the world’s most famous opera singers, from Beverly Sills to Plácido Domingo.
Ms. Kirschenbaum died of pneumonia and kidney failure in a Manhattan hospital on March 27, her longtime friend Sally Jo Sandelin said. She was 88 years old.
Ms. Kirschenbaum’s reputation at the Met and the New York City Opera was so great that the singers were only half joking that they had only really made it onto the New York opera scene after being approached by Ms. Kirschenbaum after a performance.
“It was like a special kind of admission,” said mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade. “I’ve never met anyone who didn’t welcome her backstage and want to hang out with her.”
She added, “We would always be on the lookout for her and bring her in early if we could because everyone loved her and she had a hundred things to sign.”
Bassist Samuel Ramey said that immediately after his first major role as Don Basilio in “The Barber of Seville” with the city opera at the end of 1973, Ms. Kirschenbaum approached him for the first time in his dressing room.
“I was told, ‘You did it now – Lois asked for your autograph,'” he recalled, adding that Ms. Kirschenbaum became a constant presence behind the scenes after his performances and that the two became good friends.
“She was different – she was always on the backstage list,” he said.
Ms. Kirschenbaum, a wise woman from Flatbush, defied the stereotype of a high-Falutine opera lover. Until she retired in 2004, she worked as a switchboard operator for the International Rescue Committee, the humanitarian aid organization. She lived for most of her adult life in a rent-controlled apartment in the East Village from which she would travel by subway and city bus to Lincoln Center while carrying a huge purse full of photos, programs, and recordings that are signed have to.
If she couldn’t get a free or cheap ticket right before the performance, she often slipped in with the help of a friendly member of staff.
“Everyone knew her, from the workers who cleaned the bathrooms, to ticket takers, the administration and of course the singers,” said another long-time friend, Carl Halperin. “All you had to say was ‘Lois’ and everyone knew who you mean.”
Ms. Kirschenbaum was the grande dame of a group of hardcore fans who flocked to the backstage door for autographs and chats.
With the help of her impressive handbag, she quickly found her way to the top and approached singers with free and detailed reviews of their performances – from that night or from years before.
“She could tell you everything that was going on in your performances on a particular evening – this or that particular sentence and what it meant,” recalled soprano Aprile Millo. “For a singer, it made you feel like you were heard.”
“She was as much a part of New York operatic history as the lovers of La Scala,” said Ms. Millo of the Milan Opera House.
By working at the switchboard, Ms. Kirschenbaum was able to call singers and opera insiders to be informed about news such as line-up changes or the cancellation of shows. She would then pass this information on to other opera fans.
“For opera, it really was the internet before the internet existed,” said Ken Benson, manager of opera singers and another longtime friend.
And before the Met began posting detailed schedules months in advance, Ms. Kirschenbaum became known for the homemade lists she was putting together of upcoming gigs and singers.
During hiatus, she distributed copies to other fans while enjoying the coffee and sandwiches she routinely smuggled in to avoid the cost of buying mead-priced food.
“People would say Lois’ list was more accurate than what you would get from the press,” Ms. Millo said.
Ms. Kirschenbaum gathered much of her information while asking for autographs from singers.
“She would ask them: ‘When are you coming back and what are you singing next year?'”, Mr. Halperin recalled. “And while Luciano Pavarotti was signing something for her, he would say that next season he would sing ‘La Bohème’ and ‘Tosca’. And she would collect it all. “
Ms. Millo said Ms. Kirschenbaum could have up to 20 memorabilia signed at a time. “It was a way to keep you occupied – it was smart of her,” she said.
Lois Kirschenbaum was born on November 21, 1932 in New York City to Abraham and Gertrude Kirschenbaum. Her father was an optician.
An only child, she grew up in Flatbush and graduated from Thomas Jefferson High School in Brooklyn.
Ms. Kirschenbaum was an avid Brooklyn Dodgers fan, but when the Dodgers left New York for Los Angeles in 1957, their obsession with opera shifted after hearing a recording by soprano Renata Tebaldi in a record store.
In her later years, Ms. Kirschenbaum alternated between looking for tickets and autographs on the sidelines of the Met and being honored as a special guest at unusual galas held by opera organizations.
On her 75th birthday in 2007, she was celebrated at a party by singers such as Marilyn Horne and Renée Fleming, as well as the Met’s musical director James Levine – “Jimmy” to Ms. Kirschenbaum – who gave her a ring and an autograph from the opera score “La Bohème”.
In 1980, she won a raffle to see Beverly Sill’s Farewell Gala at City Opera after singing every role but one in New York for 25 years.
“Beverly saw me after it and said, ‘Lois, it was fixed,'” Ms. Kirschenbaum told the New York Times in 2012, laughing.
In the past few years, Ms. Kirschenbaum had started using a wheelchair and only went to the Met sporadically. She continued to listen to opera (and Yankees games) on the radio.
Friends said she never married and never spoke of surviving family members.
It was unclear what would become of the amount of autographs, programs and photographs that were left in Ms. Kirschenbaum’s apartment.
“There was no one more devoted to opera and the artists she loved than Lois,” said Ms. Fleming. “She was a beloved member of the Metropolitan Opera family, like a favorite aunt. I will miss knowing that she watches from the balcony and then sees her at the stage door. “