Houston Grand Opera receives historic $22 million gift, renames HGO Studio in honor of Sarah and Ernest Butler

L-R: Maureen Zoltek, Butler Studio Music Director; Brian Speck, Butler Studio Director; Ernest and Sarah Butler; Khori Dastoor, HGO General Director and CEO; Stephen King, Director of Vocal Instruction

Last Friday, Houston Grand Opera announced the largest donation in the company’s history: a $22 million contribution by Austin couple and longtime HGO patrons and donors, Sarah and Ernest Butler.

Khori Dastoor, Houston Grand Opera General Manager and CEO, called such major gifts in the arts “rare” and “transformative,” in her remarks to an audience at the Wortham Center.

“They give us an opportunity to dream bigger, to go further into our vision, to celebrate the past with a hopeful future,” said Dastoor. “For what is so often a narrative of decline in the arts, moments like this prove to us that the arts are as vital and as hopeful as what we heard on this stage tonight.”

Dastoor publicly announced the gift during HGO’s Concert of Arias. Now in its 35th year, the annual concert serves as the culminating finals round of the Eleanor McCollum Competition for Young Singers – a flagship event of the company’s young artist training program, HGO Studio – whose winners were named that night.

The location and timing of the announcement were appropriate, as the Butlers’ gift is earmarked for HGO Studio – which the company has since renamed the Sarah and Ernest Butler Houston Grand Opera Studio in the couple’s honor.

“The two of us have followed the HGO Studio since its inception, watching its graduates go on to successful careers in opera,” said Ernest Butler in a statement.

“We’ve decided to create a new fund within the HGO Endowment that supports the program, because we’ve seen the endowment’s careful fiscal management firsthand,” Butler said. “We have tremendous confidence in HGO and want to help this great company expand its mission and its reach, throughout our region and beyond.”

Established in 1977, HGO’s Butler Studio is “one of the most respected and highly competitive young artist programs in the world,” according to its website, and “provides comprehensive career development to young singers and pianist/coaches” with subsidized residencies and major performance opportunities for up to three years.  Its alumni include Jamie Barton, Joyce DiDonato, Denyce Graves, Nicole Heaston, Ana María Martínez, Ryan McKinny, and Nicholas Phan. The program recently welcomed a new Music Director, Maureen Zoltek, who began that role this past September.

During Friday’s announcement, Dastoor noted the Butlers’ dedication to the operatic art form, acknowledging that they “have made the drive from Austin and back for the Sunday matinee of every production in the HGO season” for the past 35 years as subscribers. When the COVID-19 pandemic made live performances unsafe in 2020, the Butlers donated $1 million to help create the company’s online platform, HGO Digital, the Sarah and Ernest Butler Performance Series. HGO Digital – a subscription-based arts channel that includes free content – has continued post-pandemic and is now in its third season of virtual programming.

According to a press release, Sarah Butler is a retired educator, and Ernest Butler is a retired otolaryngologist who founded the Austin Ear Nose and Throat Clinic, as well as Acoustic Systems. Together, they have been active participants and philanthropists in the arts and sciences.

“With our investment in HGO’s future, Ernest and I want to support the organization through the next century … This gift is a strategic one, because the artistic excellence at HGO supports and elevates cultural endeavors both within, and far beyond, Houston,” said Sarah Butler in a statement.

HGO’s historic gift is one of three milestone donations to Houston Theater District performing arts groups in the past 10 months, including a $25 million matching grant to the Alley Theatre from an anonymous donor in June 2022 and a $10 million donation to Houston Ballet by Margaret Alkek Williams in May 2022.

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