Opera’s Largest Fan Leaves Behind a Sprawling Time Capsule

“To Lois.”

For many of opera’s greatest stars since the 1950s, writing this phrase before signing an autograph has been both a rite of passage and an honor. After finishing a long performance at the Metropolitan Opera, singers like Beverly Sills, Luciano Pavarotti, Plácido Domingo and Renée Fleming knew that Lois Kirschenbaum would be waiting at the stage door to greet them. The artists admired them almost as much as the other way around.

Kirschenbaum was a Flatbush, Brooklyn telephone operator who became perhaps New York’s biggest and longest-running opera fan – and an obsessed autograph collector. For over half a century she spent about 300 nights a year at the Met and other music and dance performances. Legally blind from birth, she usually sat on the top balcony and watched the action with large binoculars that always pushed back after the curtain – programs and headshots in hand – to collect signatures.

Until her death last month, aged 88, she kept her memorabilia in a guest room in her rent-controlled East Village apartment as it became what may be the largest collection of its kind any fan had collected firsthand.

“It’s a musical time capsule of what was going on in New York for over 55 years in classical music,” said Carl Halperin, a longtime friend. “She didn’t even know what was in there anymore – it was just so much.”

Another friend, Sally Jo Sandelin, was in the apartment one afternoon cleaning and sorting Kirschenbaum’s belongings. “Lois didn’t throw anything out,” she said. “And since she went to gigs every night and worked every day and was legally blind, that stuff just piled up.”

The guest room had long since become a knee-high paddling pool, said Sandelin, who a few years ago began packing everything that was still disorganized into dozens of boxes.

The collection impresses with its abundance as well as its randomness. Each box in itself is a seemingly endless treasure trove that includes both smaller singers and well-known names. Their signatures are spread across magazine articles, reviews, and promotional photos. But above all programs and mostly from the Met – the pages on which the cast of each performance is listed with autographs. “Plácido Domingo” was edited royally on February 22, 1982 in a “La Bohème” program. “Luciano Pavarotti” in a photo is a meandering sine wave.

Kirschenbaum ruled as the grande dame of a group of hardcore fans who occupied standing room in the opera house and flocked to the stage door to sign autographs. It was an exercise that helped her befriend some of the world’s most famous opera singers who were only half-joking that they had really made it onto the New York scene after being approached by her after a performance. The mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade said in an interview that she asked for an autograph as a “special kind of approval”.

That permit came in large doses, as Kirschenbaum often asked Singer to sign stacks of items pulled from the oversized purse she had filled with programs, photos, newspaper clippings, and other memorabilia. The soprano Aprile Millo remembered that Kirschenbaum could give her 20 pieces each for signature.

Despite being a slightly built woman, she was known for charging to the top of the line like a linebacker for an autograph. This impressive handbag served as a locking device. Sandelin, a stage door itself, said with a laugh: “We all have bruises from this bag.”

If Kirschenbaum has often received dozens of autographs a night, simple arithmetic suggests that she has amassed more than 200,000 over the decades. Her will, drawn up in 1992, referred her collection to the Lincoln Center Research Library, likely a reference to the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center, said Elena Villafane, an attorney representing Kirschenbaum’s estate.

The industry’s prized opera collection contains the earliest known recordings of Met performances and rehearsals, as well as scores commented on by many great singers. The general manager, Jennifer Schantz, said the library is “excited and honored” and added, “We look forward to reviewing the collection and learning more.”

However, since the library does not accept all such donations, Kirschenbaum’s friends still fear that the material will be thrown away. “Nobody wants paper these days,” said Halperin. “They want everything to be digitized.”

Kirschenbaum grew up in Brooklyn and became an opera lover after her previous obsession with the Brooklyn Dodgers decamped to Los Angeles in the late 1950s. Her first love was the radiant soprano Renata Tebaldi, then in her fame. After only a few years of nightly performances, Kirschenbaum had amassed thousands of autographs.

One reason she asked for multiple signatures from singers was to take the time to ask about their upcoming performances. She carefully compiled this information into detailed, typewritten schedules and made copies to distribute to other fans hungry for information about what the Met and other companies were up to.

Those faded lists abounded among the stacks of autographs, many of which were annotated by hand. Kirschenbaum also often scribbled her own brief reviews of the performances in her programs. After a performance by “Aida” on May 6, 1964, she found that the soprano Birgit Nilsson in the lead role was “much better than before” and that the mezzo-soprano Rita Gorr was “not in the best voice, but very exciting” as Amneris .

Halperin reeled off a few treasures that reminded him of Kirschenbaum that were probably buried in the boxes somewhere: a program signed by James Levine, the Met’s longtime music director, after his debut in 1971 under the direction of “Tosca”; another from Beverly Sill’s Met debut in 1975; Maria Callas’ autograph, secured after a concert at Carnegie Hall in 1974. When Kirschenbaum turned 75 in 2007, a party was held for her, at which stars such as Fleming, Marilyn Horne and Levine performed, who gave her a baton and a signed score of “La Bohème”.

Her friends have speculated that Kirschenbaum’s refusal to spend money on trash cans was one reason her collection remained so disorganized. She was a notoriously frugal woman who insisted on taking the bus and subway to and from Lincoln Center, even late at night and in blizzards.

Instead of buying tickets, she would pick up opera agents at the entrance for extras or ask the Met staff who she knew should let them in. To avoid the mead’s food prices, she snuck into peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and a thermos of coffee.

In the end, however, it was clear that money was not a problem for her: Kirschenbaum died with savings of around $ 2.5 million, said Martin Hermann, the executor of her estate. She was an only child who never married or had children and never spoke of surviving family members. Her will requires her money to go to three people and a variety of arts and other nonprofits.

But the Met, which was the center of their universe for decades, left them nothing.

Halperin wondered if this had to do with a time when Kirschenbaum was making her will in the early 1990s, when she was banned from the backstage of the Met and banned to the stage door for her overzealous pursuit of autographs.

“That hurt her deeply,” he said, adding that she was merely following the autographs as an “icebreaker”: a way to gain access to the stars that were like oxygen to her, in the glow of Pavarotti or Beverly Sills or to bask in Plácido Domingo. “

The signatures “were souvenirs,” said Halperin, “a wonderful night.”