SFOpera - Once Gifted a Trip to the Opera, Board Member Sylvia Lindsey Now Gives Back

Once Gifted a Trip to the Opera, Board Member Sylvia Lindsey Now Gives Back

The pharmacist was on the verge of what would become a nasty divorce. Needless to say, his wife would not be joining him for Tosca that night at the Metropolitan Opera. So he turned to a friend to accompany him: future San Francisco Opera board member Sylvia Lindsey.

Now in her 70s, Lindsey remembers the circumstances well. Because that would be her first night at the opera—a spark that launched a passion, as well as a tradition of service.

Lindsey is now a mainstay in the Bay Area performing arts scene. She is a founding member of the Cal Performances Board of Trustees. She volunteers with AileyCamp in collaboration with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. And she works with both San Francisco Opera and its sister nonprofit, the Merola Opera Program, spearheading efforts to bring young people into the art form.

But on that first-ever trip to the opera, Lindsey didn’t even know what to wear. She lived in New Jersey at the time, working in nutrition and food services for the Veterans Affairs (VA) Medical Center in East Orange. Her friend, the pharmacist, advised her to put on her Sunday best, so she settled on one of the fancy dress suits she normally reserved for church.

Looking back, Lindsey says she probably would never have gone to the Metropolitan Opera on her own. And when she moved to the Bay Area, it was yet another friend who introduced her to San Francisco Opera, sharing his box seats with her.

In other words, it was the generosity of others that brought her into America’s great opera houses. And it’s generosity she hopes to give back.

Over the past four decades, Lindsey has ushered generations of low-income students into the opera house. She’s offered free tickets. Hosted pizza parties at events like Opera at the Ballpark. And even guided some to on-stage opportunities as extras in productions like Show Boat.

“You have to show them something to give them some hope,” Lindsey says. She often tears up when she hears that the students she’s mentored have been accepted into institutions like Harvard and Yale.

The only girl in a family of five brothers, Lindsey was raised on a farm in Bricks, North Carolina, a community so small, it doesn’t register on most maps.

Formerly a plantation run on slave labor, Bricks eventually became the site of one of the first accredited schools for Black students in the state. It was against that history of segregation that Lindsey grew up.

Her father, a Navy recruit, left the family when she was young, Lindsey says, leaving her mother to raise all six kids, plus two nephews. The farm kept them busy. When Lindsey wasn’t tending to the chickens, she was helping her mother with the cooking. Favorite dishes included fried chicken, macaroni and cheese, collard greens, and ribs.

Those recipes now fuel her outreach work. Whether she’s cooking for visiting students or holding massive backstage dinners for performers and staff, Lindsey mobilizes the power of food to break down barriers and make everyone feel at home.

“People are just more relaxed” when there’s food around, she says. She’s seen divas tear into ribs and stagehands decimate dishes. The conductor Sir Donald Runnicles, she confides, is a beer man.

In a new interview, Lindsey shares her experiences growing up—and how her volunteering led to her position on the San Francisco Opera Board of Directors.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: You grew up in Bricks, North Carolina. Can you describe Bricks?

LINDSEY: Bricks is a farming community. I was born and raised on a farm. It is 15 miles from Rocky Mount, North Carolina, and Rocky Mount was the big tobacco factory farm. It's 125 miles from the Virginia borderline.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: How would you describe yourself as a kid?

LINDSEY: Just a regular farm kid. That’s it. A regular farm kid. You went to school. The first school I went to, we walked to school, which is about three miles from where I lived. But then after that we rode the school bus, passed all the white schools to get to our school. It was the way you were raised in the South.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: You say “just a regular farm kid.” Does that mean you woke up at five in the morning?

LINDSEY: When you're on the farm, you have certain chores. My chore was to take care of all the chickens. So I was responsible for gathering eggs and feeding the chickens and keeping the hen house clean. Some of my brothers were responsible for feeding the pigs. And then there was another one responsible for milking the cows and everything.

So it was a regular working farm. And then, during the harvesting, with the tobacco and everything, I worked with the tobacco and was handling the tobacco for it to be looped and all.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: Were you eager to do your chores? Or did you drag your feet? I imagine that it’s a lot of work.

LINDSEY: You had a lot of work to do, so you really didn't drag your feet, as such, because you had to get your job done.

Kids raised on the farm back then, they’re raised differently from kids today. You had your chores to do. You knew what time you had to finish your chores. So you didn't mess around. You got your chores taken care of.

And I did a lot of cooking because my mother, if she was out in the fields, she would show me what time to turn the pot on and what time to take it off, how many times to stir it and all. So you were just raised differently.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: Do you remember listening to music as a kid? And if so, what were you listening to?

LINDSEY: Well, most of the music we listened to was more gospel music. And all of my brothers were in the marching band, so I'm the only one who can't carry a tune. I did not play an instrument.

I liked to read, so I used to do a lot of reading. And I still read now. I used to get outside of the bed—it’d be cooler there, on the floor—and prop my feet up on the bed and read.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: You’re such a presence in our Company. How did you start to enjoy the performing arts? What was your first exposure?

LINDSEY: Well, the first opera that I saw was at the Met. I worked for the government, the VA, the Veterans Administration. And when I transferred here, there was a doctor who had season tickets to the opera. He used to invite me to go to the opera.

So I started going to the San Francisco Opera with box seats. [Lindsey laughs.] That’s probably why I have a box seats now! Because I got used to sitting in the boxes and all.

I find in opera that you have the orchestra, you’ve got the chorus, you’ve got solo singers. There are just so many things that are on that stage. And I like to see it all. So you have several things that you can get involved in—the acting and different things.

So if something's bothering you, you can just forget about it and enjoy the music or get involved in the costumes and everything.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: How did you get involved with the opera board?

LINDSEY: Well, Harriet Quarré, who founded the Medallion Society, was a board member. Harriet passed about four years ago, four or five.

She would always talk to me when I’d come to operas. She would always come up and just speak to me.

And then one night I got a phone call and she said, “Sylvia. This is Harriet Quarré.” I said, “Harriet, how are you? What a pleasure. It’s some surprise to hear from you tonight.”

And she said, “I want you to know that I nominated you for the Board of Directors of the San Francisco Opera. And you were voted in.”

But I said, “Harriet, wait a minute, wait a minute. I don't have any money. I don’t have any money to give to the opera.” And she said, “I didn't nominate you because of money. There are lots of other things you could do for this board. Now, I’ve nominated you. You've been voted in. And you're not going to embarrass me by saying no.” So that was how I became a member of the board.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: Do you remember the first time you brought kids to the opera? What was the opera?

LINDSEY: Porgy and Bess.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: Who were these kids and how did they like it?

LINDSEY: It was the Young Musician Choral Orchestra group from Berkeley. They loved it and I brought them and we had the dinner over at the Green Room [a mint-colored hall in the War Memorial Opera House complex]. There were 17 of them, and they came to dinner.

They were so decked out at night. They were better dressed than I was. They were decked out! And I thought, “Well, they’ll put you to shame. Oh, well. Too late now!” They really had a good time.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: What’s been the most memorable reaction that you've received from one of the kids?

LINDSEY: Well, one of the things is when they tell me that they have been accepted into college. One of the things that happened to me, I was just in tears there. It was at a Cal Performances assembly for the AileyCamp.

At the grand finale, one of the kids—there was one who had been in the AileyCamp a few years before. He walked on the stage and he said, “Hello, everyone. My name is so-and-so.” He says his name and he says, “A few years ago, I was sitting where you kids are sitting now. I am on my way to Harvard, full scholarship.”

That's when the tears started flowing. And so we were sitting on the side. People turned around and looked at me. They started cheering and everything and applauded me. I said, “You applaud him.”

That was worth it. If you just get one out of each class every year, or even every other year, with a full scholarship to Harvard or Yale, to me that’s worth helping these kids. If you keep them busy, they don't get into gangs.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: What’s your favorite opera?

LINDSEY: Porgy and Bess.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: Why?

LINDSEY: Because there's so much that goes on in Porgy and Bess. And the fact is that when George Gershwin wrote Porgy and Bess, he said that it had to be all Negro singers, other than the police officers. They gave singers a job years ago when a lot of Black singers couldn't be hired. So somehow I’ve just always liked Porgy and Bess.

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