The Gift of Opera
Sarah and Ernest Butler make a historic investment in HGO’s future.
One recent morning, Sarah and Ernest Butler were sitting in their kitchen, having just returned to their Austin home after enjoying Houston Grand Opera’s production of The Marriage of Figaro.
The Austin-based couple have been subscribers since HGO moved into its current home in the Wortham Theater Center, in 1987. Ever since, they’ve driven into Houston for every HGO production, missing one only very rarely. “We plan our travel around HGO’s schedule, first and foremost,” explained Ernest.
The Butlers adore arts and culture in its many forms, but it is opera that holds the dearest place in their hearts. “Opera involves everything,” Sarah said. Her husband nodded in agreement, recalling the vibrant production they’d just seen, which had reset the story of Figaro and his bride-to-be Susanna in the 1960s.
“There was fun dancing in The Marriage of Figaro,” Ernest smiled, “sophisticated dancing.” Never mind the vivid costumes and set, the superb artists, and—but of course—the peerless Mozart: “I could listen to his music every day of my life,” Ernest said, “and never get tired of it.”
“The productions at the Wortham are so big,” said Sarah. “Nothing matches it.”
But as the couple explained, they see HGO’s impact as reaching far beyond the walls of the Wortham. The artistic excellence that is the company’s hallmark—that makes HGO known across the world—serves the entire region, including their home city of Austin.
That is why the Butlers have supported HGO for decades. Most recently, after the onset of COVID, they made the entire HGO Digital, the Sarah and Ernest Butler Performance Series possible with an essential $1 million donation that supported the Texas Opera Alliance, a strategic partnership between HGO and four other companies throughout the state that enabled the production of shareable digital art during the pandemic—and helped companies come out of it with the tools to continue to share opera digitally with audiences close to home and abroad.
That is why one of the Butlers’ favorite events has long been HGO’s annual Concert of Arias, a celebration of the future of opera where the most talented up-and-coming artists compete for entry into the prestigious HGO Studio training program, whose graduates go on to major careers in opera, performing in houses across Texas and the world.
And that is why, earlier this year, this incredible couple made the largest gift to HGO that the company has received in its entire history, creating a fund within the HGO Endowment valued at $22 million that will grow over time and support HGO for generations.
Fittingly, it was at this year’s Concert of Arias that Khori Dastoor, HGO’s General Director and CEO, would announce the Butlers’ historic gift: “It is my great pleasure to share this extraordinary news, news that will transform HGO’s ability to support the future of the art,” Dastoor told the audience at the Wortham’s Cullen Theater.
“I am thrilled to announce that this visionary couple is the new naming partner for our Studio, which from this moment forward will be called the Sarah and Ernest Butler Houston Grand Opera Studio.”
Sarah and Ernest Butler met as undergrads at Baylor in the 1950s. She was from San Antonio, he was from the small town of Mabank in East Texas, and they found themselves working side by side in the school registrar’s office. “We sat together and visited a lot and had a lot of fun talking,” Sarah recalled, “and eventually, we went out together.”
The pair got married and moved to Houston, where Ernest attended Baylor Medical School, studying to become an otolaryngologist, and Sarah taught beginning and high school level Spanish at Spring Branch ISD. It was here in Houston that they discovered the arts and began to develop an appreciation that would grow and grow.
“Houston Symphony gave away free tickets to medical students and nursing students when we were in school,” recalled Ernest, “and we happily took those because that was the only way we could go.” Added Sarah: “And they would give us tickets to the Alley—which was really in an alley—and it was theater in the round.”
In 1969 the couple moved to Austin, where they would raise their two children. Ernest became a founding partner of the Austin Ear Nose and Throat Clinic and, a couple of years later, founded Acoustic Systems, a manufacturer of booths for hearing tests, musical practice, and broadcasting. The company’s eventual sale would enable the Butlers to become the philanthropists they have now been for decades, making an outsize impact on art and culture in Austin, Houston, and our entire region.
Today, in addition to HGO, through their generosity and leadership the couple supports Austin Opera; Ballet Austin; the Austin Symphony Orchestra; the Texas Cultural Trust; the UT Butler School of Music, which has carried their name since 2008; and a host of other organizations.
While opera is their favorite among all the art forms, it wasn’t until the 1970s that the Butlers began exploring it. Lifelong learners, the two enrolled in a continuing education course at UT taught by Walter Ducloux—head of the university’s department of opera, and eventual founder of Austin Opera—who led bus groups to Dallas and Houston, where they would take in Sunday matinees at Jones Hall. “The last performance that we saw at Jones Hall was Turandot,” remembered Sarah, “and it was there that we decided that we would buy tickets to the Wortham.”
The Butlers became HGO subscribers, thus launching a relationship with the company that would last 35 years and counting, transforming both their own lives and the company’s future
Sarah and Ernest Butler are collectors—of experiences.
The two have traveled to 145 countries together. They have visited all the world’s major opera houses and regularly take in opera and ballet performances wherever they land. Asked what’s coming up, they mentioned plans to visit the Dominican Republic, Portugal, Thailand, Singapore, and Sydney.
They keep a book where they’ve recorded years of intensive birdwatching, an endeavor they undertook after Ernest semi-retired in 1989. They have neatly recorded the dates and locations of every species they’ve spotted over the years—almost 6,000 of them—while having many an adventure along the way.
“We got all seven dippers that exist in the world that we know of,” Sarah said. “They build their nest in overgrowth hanging over a waterfall or a stream of some sort, and they forage around on the bottom of the stream. They dip.”
Ernest recalled tracking the Andean cock-of-the-rock through Venezuela. “It’s a bird that’s about this tall,” he said, holding his hands a foot apart. “It’s scarlet-orange. It’s extremely difficult to see. You have to find it… Well, finding a trail was difficult because it was jungle.”
After three days of tracking, they got a lead—one that led them right down a precarious, muddy hillside that they slid down, grabbing onto roots along the way. “You could hear them as you approached,” recalled Ernest, “and they were chorusing. There must have been 20, 25.”
The Butlers aren’t the type of birders who take photos. For them, it is all about the experience in the moment, and about learning—“you know, what their habitat is, how they sing, how they live,” said Ernest.
These days, their birdwatching has slowed down, but as Ernest explained, he and Sarah still keep their eyes peeled. “I take opera glasses with me when I travel,” he said with a grin.
In much the same way, the Butlers are collectors of cultural experiences, possessed of open minds, a desire to learn, and omnivorous taste. In addition to beloved classic works from the repertoire, they relish the opportunity to experience new and rarely seen operas.
Asked about their favorite opera or opera genre, the couple demurred. “We don’t really have a favorite,” Ernest explained. “We just like to see things done extremely well and—if we’ve seen it before, which, chances are, we have by now—with a different take on it.”
“We keep learning,” added Sarah. “There’s always something to learn. And as you learn, maybe one thing would have been a favorite, and that changes.”
They did mention a pair of HGO operas they recently had enjoyed. “No one had seen The Wreckers before,” said Ernest, referring to HGO’s fall production of Dame Ethel Smyth’s 1906 opera, its first full production from a major American opera company. “And that turned out to be an extraordinary choral production.”
Sarah cited Javier Martínez and Leonard Foglia’s holiday mariachi opera, El Milagro del Recuerdo, a company-commissioned world premiere from 2019, as another success. “We loved El Milagro, and I think that the Spanish-speaking population will appreciate more of this language in opera,” she said. “I think that’s also important for the future.”
Up next in the season was Massenet’s rarely produced opera about a young poet destroyed by love, Werther, and the Butlers were looking forward to it. “We’ve seen Werther before, but that was 20 years ago,” said Ernest. “That was in Vienna with a European cast. And now I’m ready to see it again, particularly with the cast Houston has.”
Sitting in the kitchen with them that sunny morning, it was clear just how much HGO’s 2022-23 season alone had already enriched the Butlers’ lives, never mind all the grand opera they had experienced with the company over 35 seasons.
And what was beautiful: the same enrichment HGO has provided them, they explained, they want to share with others—as many people as possible, in as large a region as possible. The historic gift they are making to the company is a strategic one, undertaken after serious thought, and with careful planning.
“We’ve followed the HGO Studio and what it’s done for as long as it’s been going on,” Ernest said, “and we’ve seen what it’s accomplished and think it can accomplish more. We think it can help everybody, not just HGO.”
He pointed to the careers of several alumni of the Studio program, including soprano Elena Villalón, who graduated last spring. “When Elena sang Susanna in The Marriage of Figaro for the first time, she sang it with the Austin Opera,” he said. “It’s great to see that happen.”
The trust the Butlers have in HGO is essential. They cite not only artistic excellence but the company’s “responsible” Board of Directors; its “very energetic and very inspiring” new General Director and CEO Khori Dastoor; and the sound fiscal stewardship behind the HGO Studio that now bears their names. The historic fund they are creating within the HGO Endowment is designed to support the company in perpetuity.
“We have so much confidence in the Studio program already,” Ernest said, “and the HGO Endowment investment program that supports it, since we’ve had endowments for some time and watched that perform and be responsibly taken care of. That’s very important to us.”
“The arts reflect who we are,” said Sarah. “Our vision is to support HGO through the century.”