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An Opera Superfan’s Surprise Gift: $1.7 Million for the Arts

When Lois Kirschenbaum, a cultural aficionado who was a fixture at the Metropolitan Opera for more than half a century, died in 2021 at 88, star singers gave tributes and fellow fans offered remembrances.

But that was not the end of Kirschenbaum’s relationship with the arts.

Though even her closest friends didn’t know, Kirschenbaum, a former switchboard operator who lived in a rent-controlled apartment in the East Village, had made plans to give away a large share of her life savings — some $1.7 million — to cultural groups upon her death. After years of legal proceedings, donations of $215,000 apiece have started to arrive, surprising groups like New York City Opera, American Ballet Theater, Carnegie Hall and the Public Theater.

“I was just astonished,” said John Hauser, the president of the George and Nora London Foundation for Singers, one of the recipients. “I had no idea that she had that kind of money.”

Kirschenbaum had no spouse, siblings or children, and lived a no-frills lifestyle, working as a switchboard operator for the International Rescue Committee, a humanitarian aid organization, until her retirement in 2004. On most nights, she traveled by bus and subway to Lincoln Center, where she secured free or cheap tickets just before performances began.

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