In Memoriam: Lyric Opera Colleague and Friend John Salyers

John Salyers was the colleague everyone wants, the friend everyone needs and the Mensch everyone strives to be. There aren’t many like him these days and although we are all better for knowing him, we are all diminished  in his passing. John lost his battle with cancer on August 16, 2019. Throughout the fight he was strong and determined. And when the end was inevitable, he showed courage and grace.

John brought his keen sense of joy and infectious humor to everything he did. Whether dressing principal artists at the opera house, photographing random streetscapes of Chicago, ushering patrons at White Sox games, or just socializing with friends on a weekday evening. “John was always willing to sit and listen to my stories and how I spent my days between performances,” said tenor Frank Lopardo, a principal artist that John regularly dressed. “We talked about the book he was currently immersed in and how he looked forward to the upcoming baseball season”.

And John’s attention to detail was a hallmark of his work. “He kept change on hand so he could get me an ice cold Diet Coke right after every first act,” Frank remembers. “He also knew when I needed him, when I was particularly anxious.”

John grew up in Cincinnati, Ohio, the youngest sibling of four older sisters. As a teenager, he began working at the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, where he eventually worked for 14 years as a house manager, facilities manager, box office and company manager. It was there that he began his lifelong friendship with Peggy Stenger, a member of Lyric Opera’s stage management team. “We share a love of all things Cincinnati,” said Peggy. “Like Graeter’s ice cream and, of course, Skyline Chili. When I arrived at Lyric in fall of 2002, I was delighted to find that he then worked there.” Peggy and John quickly discovered they shared many common interests, including history, architecture, the city of Chicago, art, plants and flowers, photography, and books.

“John and I both loved a great adventure and a good laugh,” remembers Peggy. “We went on many wonderful adventures together over the years. Every time you were with John you had a wonderful time and you laughed a lot. That’s what I will remember and miss most of all– the laughs”.

John began his career as a dresser at Lyric Opera in 1996. As a member of the union IATSE, he served faithfully as Lyric’s wardrobe steward for 19 years. But it was his work as the principal male dresser where he found the greatest rewards and satisfaction. His calm demeanor, attention to detail, gentle humility and dry sense of humor served him well in this capacity. During performances, John could be seen following closely behind a principal singer with his arms full of capes, coats, shoes, a bottle of water and a flashlight, ready for anything.

Tenor Matthew Polenzani, a regular principal artist that worked closely with John for many years, remembers John fondly. “What I will always remember about John is his unrelenting positive outlook,” said Matthew. “He was always so solicitous and uplifting — always with an attitude inclined towards help, and making sure I had everything I needed to step onto the stage. I don’t mean just with costume or props. I also mean that his attitude always made me feel that I was going to be fine, and that everything that needed to happen was going to happen, because I was in caring hands. With John taking care of me, every little detail would be attended to, and I didn’t have to worry”.

Throughout his life and career, John amassed an army of friends. At the opera house, everyone– from his colleagues in the wardrobe department to the stage crew, from administrative staff to the chorus– counted John as their friend and ally. “I worked with John for many years at Lyric Opera,” said Laureen Wysocki, a soprano in the regular chorus. “We became better acquainted over a decade ago when he reached out to me after hearing me sing the national anthem before a White Sox game.”

“John had a magical way of making everyone around him feel special,” continued Laureen. “In my instance, he would have an elevator waiting as I exited the stage. He always had a big smile on his face as I exclaimed, ‘I love you, John!’ He made me feel like a very important person and I am so glad that I didn’t hesitate to tell him that I loved him”. Laureen added, “I usually rush through life, a coping mechanism as I care for my terminally ill spouse. On the night John left us, however, I did notice the beauty of the sky. I firmly believe it was a message from John that all is well with his soul”.

John’s remarkable courage as he faced the end of his life was on full display in his last days. On Facebook, John told us he was returning to his beloved Cincinnati to be with family, where he would draw love and support. He posted frequently about meeting with old friends, saying goodbye to the people he cared most about, the city he loved so much, and showing us all what grace looks like. I sent him a message in late July and told him “You have been a light in this world. All the lives you’ve touched were lit with your spirit and grace. Those lights will never go out, even though yours might.”

His response touched me deeply. “I’ve been picturing the finale of Faust a lot lately. Getting ready to walk toward the light”.