Florence Winters was born and raised in the Lakeview neighborhood in Chicago. She grew up listening mostly to the popular music of the 1940s. When she was about 10 years old, she discovered classical music and started listening to the Saturday broadcasts from the old Metropolitan Opera House in New York City. She would follow along with the libretto while listening to the romantic opera stories.
For her 11th birthday, she saw her first opera performance live, in person. It was Verdi’s Rigoletto performed in Chicago by the New York City Opera touring company. At that time, both the NYC Opera and the Metropolitan Opera had touring companies, and she saw every opera they presented in Chicago.
When The Lyric Theatre (predecessor of Lyric Opera) announced “two nights of opera,” she quickly purchased a ticket for the first performance of Don Giovanni on Friday, February 5, 1954, thus beginning her love affair with Lyric Opera. She saw Maria Callas in her US debut role of Norma in November 1954 and has attended all productions since then, except those missed due to business travel or illness. Ms. Winters began her support of Lyric Opera at age 16, spending $25 to become a “Guild Member” in 1954. Reflecting on those teenage years, when the company was new, she said, “I can still physically feel the excitement of the performances. It still is magic.”
Ms. Winters attended a two-year girls’ commercial high school and then graduated from Lakeview High School. At the time, women were expected to stay home and take care of mother and/or get married, not go to college. She became a secretary and in 1964 was hired as an executive secretary for Sargent & Lundy, a professional engineering and design firm specializing in the electric power industry. From that position, she climbed the ladder to Supervisor of Engineering Cost Analysis, teaching herself Lotus 1-2-3, and then she moved to the legal department as Engineering Contracts Manager. She negotiated and managed contracts for design services with electric power generating companies. While in charge of pricing, Ms. Winters spent 6 months in Seoul, Korea, as the only woman in the room during negotiations with the Korean government electric power company for the design of a nuclear power generating station.
After being widowed and retiring, Florence Winters became a planned giver at the Met, CSO, and Lyric. As a wonderful ambassador of opera, she introduced her niece and nephew to the art form. From the late 1990s through the early 2000s, she lectured for the Lyric’s Education Department, led Student Backstage Tours, and trained and scheduled a group of lecturers who gave talks to prepare students for each year’s Student Matinee performances. She continues to volunteer for Lyric Unlimited, doing the FedEx packaging of student guides for the annual Opera in the Neighborhoods performances. Ms. Winters is also a member of The Fortnightly of Chicago, the oldest women’s Society in Chicago whose focus is enriching the lives of its members through culture, educational, and social events.
Her view on arts today is that there is a decline in support and interest in Arts and Humanities and a lack of education in schools. Since the financial decline of 2008, the population started re-thinking how they spend their money. As for the changes she has seen at Lyric recently, while she understands the necessity of adjusting for reduced ticket sales and attracting new audiences, she observes that many patrons are not happy with the reduction in the number of performances, which have resulted in changing of patrons’ seats, and changing nights of performances. Her subscription used to be all Monday nights. “There is a lack of comfort and familiarity in the audience now, with different people sitting near you on any given night. This can interfere with the enjoyment of the performance because newcomers may have other priorities than true opera lovers.”
Florence Winters continues to love and support opera, especially at Lyric. One of her all time favorite singers is Susan Graham. She has an autograph book with signatures from her early days as an opera “groupie,” including Roberta Peters, Eleanor Steber, Rise Stevens, Richard Tucker, and Leonard Warren, to name a few. She loves the intense and dense themes of Wagner’s orchestral scores and she’s a big fan of the opera chorus. “The chorus is comprised of singing actors. The fact that the chorus is able to perform at the highest level with so few rehearsals is a testimony to their professionalism.”
Next to family, opera has been the passion of my life.”