A beloved St. Louis philanthropist and life board member at the Opera Theater left the company a “transformative” gift in the wake of her death.
Phyllis Brissenden, who died on Dec. 17, 2019, “bequeathed the company a transformative endowment gift, estimated at $45 million,” the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis announced Thursday.
“This gift, the largest in Opera Theatre’s history and one of the largest ever recorded for an American opera company, will offer OTSL a new level of financial stability as the company prepares for its 50th anniversary in 2025,” the company said in a press release.
Andrew Jorgensen, Opera Theatre’s current General Director, said the company is “profoundly humbled by and grateful for this extraordinary gesture of generosity.”
“Phyllis was a member of our company from the very beginning,” he said. “She often referred to Opera Theatre as her family, and she always spoke with particular affection of the deep friendships that she built with my predecessors.”
OTSL board chairman Noémi Neidorff paid tribute to the longtime opera champion and hailed her as “a loyal, devoted fan and supporter throughout her life.”
“Smart, knowledgeable, witty, and extraordinarily humble, Phyllis truly considered Opera Theatre her family. Every season, she made frequent trips from her home in Springfield, Illinois so as not to miss any performances, board meetings, master classes, rehearsals, or workshops. My fellow board members and I count ourselves fortunate to have known Phyllis. We will forever cherish her memory.”
Brissenden, who supported OTSL from its first season in 1976, led Opera Theatre’s National Patrons Council from 2010 through 2017 and encouraged opera lovers from around the country to support the organization.
“Her modesty inspired her to give anonymously for decades, but OTSL estimates that she contributed a total sum of $2.5 million dollars to the company during her lifetime,” OTSL wrote.
Brissenden’s gift will more than double the theatre’s general endowment fund from $35 million to approximately $80 million, which will help make mainstage productions, civic programming, artist training and nationally acclaimed educational programs all possible, OTSL explained.
The Opera Theatre said it will dedicate its 2020 production of “Susannah,” an opera written in the mid-20th century by Carlisle Floyd, in memory of Brissenden and plans to hold “a fitting celebration of her transformative gift to take place later this year.”
Longtime opera supporters Mecedes Bass and Ann Ziff, who both serve on the Metropolitan Opera’s Board of Directors, have previously held records for their multimillion dollar contributions to the opera house in New York City.
Bass donated $25 million in 2006, and four years later Ziff gave a $30 million gift, which became the largest single gift from an individual in the Metropolitan Opera’s history.
The San Francisco Opera also received its largest single donation in 2006 from frequent supporter Jeanne Littlefield for $35 million.
Goop’s Horrible Netflix Show Accidentally Makes a Case Against Social Media Censorship
When Gwyneth Paltrow’s The Goop Lab premiered on Netflix last month, the collective eye-roll on social media was palpable. Goop—Paltrow’s “wellness and lifestyle company”—has been rightly panned by critics over the years for promoting pseudoscientific claims and wellness devices that range from the absurd to the overtly harmful. The Goop Lab is no exception; one…
When Gwyneth Paltrow’s The Goop Lab premiered on Netflix last month, the collective eye-roll on social media was palpable.
Goop—Paltrow’s “wellness and lifestyle company”—has been rightly panned by critics over the years for promoting pseudoscientific claims and wellness devices that range from the absurd to the overtly harmful. The Goop Lab is no exception; one Washington Post op-ed called the series “horrible,” while the Guardian gave it 1/5 stars in a review.
Despite this, my curiosity got the best of me one night and I tuned in to watch the most talked-about episode: the one in which Paltrow misidentifies the scope of the vagina, revealing that she’s not particularly informed about the anatomy she so often claims expertise on. The episode, entitled “The Pleasure Is Ours,” is centered on the work of 90 year-old sex educator Betty Dodson, famous for her workshops in which she teaches women how to effectively masturbate to orgasm.
The episode, which comes with a disclaimer, is not quite what I expected. Rather than peddling jade eggs, it sells the viewer on Dodson’s methods (which have, for what it’s worth, been the subject of empirical research). And perhaps most surprisingly, the episode is quite graphic: Dodson’s colleague Carlin Ross demonstrates the technique, her vulva shown on screen as she masturbates, along with several others in a slideshow meant to depict diversity.
What was surprising about this was Netflix’s willingness to show, in close-up detail, a part of the body that is—with precious few exceptions— verboten in Silicon Valley. As I’ve written in the past, social media platforms appear to have taken their cues about morality and governance from other forms of media. Just as the American film industry is “self-regulated” by the notoriously prudish Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), Facebook’s own policies ban nearly all depictions of the nude human body—regardless of the fact that it’s constitutionally-protected expression.
Facebook and its properties, such as Instagram, have a propensity to go overboard when enforcing these policies. Take, for example, The Vulva Gallery—like the sex episode of Goop Lab, the Instagram account seeks to normalize the vulva by posting illustrated images based on user-submitted photos. Illustrations are permitted by Instagram’s Community Standards, but that didn’t prevent the account from getting banned at one point—no doubt a mis-application of the rules, an unfortunately common phenomenon.
In fact, the over-banning of sexual content is so common that there are numerous articles highlighting accounts that seek to challenge and circumvent the rules. While social media platforms often claim that bans on nudity are meant to protect users from porn and non-consensual exploitative imagery (often called “revenge porn”), we should be questioning the harms that this black-and-white approach to nudity and human sexuality is causing to our society—and to women in particular.
As The Goop Lab episode makes clear, many women (including Paltrow) don’t know a whole lot about their own anatomy. In most societies, we’re taught that our nether regions are something shameful, to keep covered up, at least until we’re wed. While I clearly remember a high school sex ed demonstration that involved putting a condom on a banana, I can’t recall seeing any images of women’s nude bodies. Many women report seeing another vulva for the first time in mainstream porn, where only certain body types (and hair removal practices) are commonly shown.
That’s what makes this episode so important—and one of the reasons the pervasive social media ban on depictions of the human body is so damaging. But it’s not the only reason; platform bans on the human body disproportionately affect women. Facebook’s community guidelines, for example, allow depictions of topless men but ban women from appearing shirtless. Not only does this discriminatory practice reinforce damaging ideas about the female body as inherently sexual, it’s also rooted in an outdated binary perception of gender.
No one has illustrated the latter point better than Courtney Demone, a trans woman who challenged Instagram’s rules by posting topless photos of herself as she transitioned a few years ago and documented the process for Mashable. Demone’s piece draws parallels between the street harassment she was subject to as her appearance became more traditionally feminine and the loss of the privilege to be topless that she experiences, which she describes as a “clear example of the sexism that comes with living in a female body”.
Interestingly, as executive producer Shauna Minoprio told the LA Times, Goop execs chose to shoot the masturbation scene without asking permission—not unlike the many women who regularly challenge social media’s prudish rules by posting their nudes anyway.
In sexist Silicon Valley, that may just be the only way to move the needle forward.
The ‘Goop Effect’: The Women Who Spend Hundreds Seeking Spirituality
Two years ago I took a mirrored hotel lift with three bored and ageless Russian women, wearing a cascade of furs, silk scarves and matte lipstick. Up in the penthouse – featuring faded peach upholstered furniture, a bed surely built for orgies and a swimming pool masquerading as square bath – a man greeted us…
Two years ago I took a mirrored hotel lift with three bored and ageless Russian women, wearing a cascade of furs, silk scarves and matte lipstick. Up in the penthouse – featuring faded peach upholstered furniture, a bed surely built for orgies and a swimming pool masquerading as square bath – a man greeted us (picture a Johnny Depp lookalike back from a gap year spent discovering the golden ratio). He started to cleanse the space by burning Palo Santo – endangered sacred wood. A brunette woman began an impromptu photo shoot in the bathroom without a note of interest on her face. “Who is keeping us waiting 15 minutes?” another woman scoffed, from a cushion on the floor.
We were gathered at central London’s five-star Mandrake Hotel – named after the hallucinogenic, mystical plant – for a gong bath, now running slightly behind schedule. It’s one of several services you can book through the hotel’s in-house spiritual concierge service. That entails meeting with the concierge to pick from a series of healing treatments, organised for your specific needs – likely a culmination of physical, emotional and spiritual ills. Some menu examples: a £40 weekly gong bath; a similarly priced “sound healing”; a £375 or £475 (duration-dependent) “soul retrieval” therapeutic service, promising to “restore your body, mind and spirit into an alignment and the state of immense soundness”.
When the Mandrake opened in London, its owners were smart enough to cater to a new subset of working-age adult: the wellness-hunters with significant disposable income. They are the new vanguard of luxury spirituality. Alex Holbrook who runs Otherness, a site that curates all the trusted spiritual and wellbeing events in London in one space, tells me the hotel owners contacted her to help build their spiritual offering. “Spirituality is not just a niche thing anymore,” she tells me over the phone. “It’s reaching big brands who realise that we’re all looking for a connection now, and how to slow down.”
Whether you opt for elaborate crystal healing facials or pay £80 to breathe for an hour in a roomful of strangers, most luxury spirituality offerings are in fact spruced-up versions of the basics. Scratch at their glowing surface and they all pretty much promise peace, quiet and focusing your self-awareness on your body. It may be difficult to measure how the price of these experiences and products may improve your life but as with so much of what we buy, we’re meant to assume higher cost means better quality. What’s the endpoint of that logic when you’re assessing spirituality?
In 2015, academic studies and lifestyle media began telling a story about Western millennials: we were continuing to move away from organised religion, as previous generations had, but becoming attracted to spirituality as a concept. “As the political and economic landscape becomes more anxiety-inducing, people are looking to spirituality as a form of self-care and to find more purpose and meaning,” Harriet Kilikita, associate editor of lifestyle & interiors at trend forecasters WGSN, tells me. “Ancient practices such as crystal healing, meditation and yoga have become central parts of wellbeing routines as the younger generation in particular seek to go beyond physical wellness and connect to something bigger.”
Quickly, spirituality and wellness attracted those with high salaries, merging aspiration with the now-debated concept of “self-care”, stripped of its radical meaning since being coined by Audre Lorde. In May 2017, Brooklyn’s William Vale Hotel in New York offered an “energy hygiene and deeply immersive sound experience” and a “full-moon + chakra healing event” with THINX, the period underwear brand. It took another three years for a similarly branded event to hit London: a “lunar cycles” book launch sponsored by Lululemon. Prestige upper and upper middle-class brands like Lululemon and Selfridges have joined with gurus, astrologers, psychic mediums and spirituality authors to show they acknowledge what women’s lifestyle brands must now to survive: the ‘soul’ aspect of total mind, body and soul wellness.
The women who go to these events – or stay at wellness hotels – believe they live in “alignment” or “consciously”. They tend to be in their thirties and early forties, successful executives, designers, older fashion bloggers and entrepreneurs; the sort of women whose careers are very much visible on, or even facilitated by, Instagram. Their feeds become a blur of charcoal chai lattes, large crystals on tabletops, expensive athleisure or workwear: a vision board for integrating yogic ideologies with a highflying Mumpreneur lifestyle. Bios read things like: “creative director with a free spirit” and “conscious girlboss”, claiming “intuitive entrepreneurship” and “business and conscious wealth”.
This trend coalesces in the form of urban members’ clubs hosting gong baths or crystal bowl healings. In mid-March, east London’s Ace Hotel branch is due to hold a £50 “Project Woman: Set Your Body Free” event, promising a canape, drink and some form of movement. Sandra*, a successful author and speaker in her thirties, recalls a recent gong bath she attended at Shoreditch House (she is a member). “We were all crammed in the room, barely stretched out for how many people were there,” she says, deeming it “honestly one of the worst healings I’ve been to” where she “left more stressed than when I arrived”.
But luxury spirituality doesn’t deny modern life or sit awkwardly opposite it. By becoming a recognisable lifestyle, its biggest proponents (brands and people), have not only decided that work and spirituality exist together harmoniously but can enhance each other. Spirituality is a capitalist venture now as everything else is; a personal brand, a business, a luxury lifestyle, a commodity. A late 2018 report by WSGN, on spirituality as consumer habits, states: “Spirituality is the new luxury: as the lines between faith, fitness and wellness blur, consumers seek serenity and an escape from the woes of everyday life.” It’s easiest this way – no one has to shun money, designer clothes, success and plenty of it – and was always an inevitable consequence of a growing interest in everything spiritual.
The current matriarch of this world is, of course, Gwyneth Paltrow. In 2018, the New York Times Magazine cited a “source close to the company” valuing Paltrow’s infamous lifestyle brand Goop at $250 million in vagina eggs, “inner beauty” powders and “psychic vampire repellent” sprays. A quick Google of the experts and retreats used in her recent Netflix series, The Goop Lab, finds that some of the featured experiences cost hundreds or thousands of dollars. Seamlessly Paltrow will speak, as other entrepreneurs of this field do, of garden variety “wellness” topics like diets and fasts in the same breath as energy healing and psychics. In just a few episodes, Paltrow’s attractive, successful Goop staff undergo the treatments in the office to exhibit the spiritual-Botox promise: that if you throw enough money at something, you can get closer to enlightenment on your lunch break and come back a healed CEO.
I’m at witch and author, Semra Haksever’s flat in north London to learn about the balance between money (the ego) and spirituality. Her intention with her first book, Everyday Magic, was to make a magic handbook for anyone from any background to use. “Everything for these spells is available in your kitchen, or in Tesco. All the herbs are very cheap, there’s nothing that’s too out there,” she says in a living room full of tarot cards, crystals, and altars. She mentions another of her favourite spells, one that costs nothing at all – drawing up a “sigil”. You write out an intention, condense the letters until it makes a personalised monogram. “I’ll draw it on a pad, I’ll draw it in the sand, I’ll draw it in the steamed-up mirror in the shower, wherever. I know that’s my symbol I pull in – it’s very powerful.” She adds with a straight face: “I got my free holiday from my holiday sigil.”
This bargain approach turns out to be an enjoyable counterpoint to luxury spirituality. I find the ingredients for a self-love spell, as per Haksever’s instructions, for about 20p. Rose for love, lavender for happiness, cinnamon for personal blessing, thyme to connect to inner voice, cloves for courage, and frankincense and myrrh as an offering for your spirit guides. Bit by bit I sprinkle the particles onto a hot coal in my bedroom and watch small fragrant clouds of smoke billow. I don’t know if I’m doing it right but Haksever promises the spell will banish the negative voices inside my head.
Haksever noticed an influx of money and “ego” in the luxury “scene” over the past few years. Part of that is to do with influencer culture and social media (“You go through Instagram stories and healers and spiritual leaders are all on there, filming themselves meditate or taking a photo of their ritual. I understand you’re showing everyone what you’re doing but how into your ritual are you right now?”). She runs some slightly pricier group events with brand involvement but sees clients on a sliding scale basis and does pro bono work. “If you’re a healer and you’re only healing people for £250 a session, you understand you’re only allowing your healing to a certain type of person. So what kind of healer are you? It feels like an exclusive club and it becomes a very white, middle class world very quickly.”
Pyschic medium Laura Lynne Jackson, in The Goop Lab on Netflix. Photo: Adam Rose for Netflix
‘Luxury’ spirituality hinges on repackaging and marketing basic products for a different audience. Sephora felt the brunt of an online backlash to this, when they backtracked on releasing a $42 “Starter Witch Kit” (some crystals, tarot cards and other bits) in 2018. New spiritual wellness brands continue to sell crystals at multiple times the wholesale or Esty/small store price. This doesn’t seem to bother the average person delving into spirituality. As practicing spiritualist Alexandra Clifford says, “I definitely feel like there’s too much middle-class bullshit around the ‘public face’ of spirituality and [religions like] Paganism. Perhaps because there’s little to no organisation with spiritual faiths, it’s easier to commodify.” But ultimately, she says she isn’t forced to buy more expensive products. Haksever, conversely, voices what many say on the internet: “You can buy a crystal for 50p and the same one for 50 quid and they’re both going to do the same ‘thing’. Neither will be any better.”
The followers of luxury spirituality probably understand this, in theory, but the trend’s momentum isn’t slowing down. The Goop website continually adds to its bulging black book of new healers and alternative apothecaries. A wellness backlash that threatened to come in full force last year never materialised, and I doubt it ever will. Because for an overworked, anxious and spiritually undernourished individual there’s some truth in the necessities of breathing, community, and letting someone rub shiny gunk on your face. This trend feels like a modern disease but it’s been a long while coming.
The momentum of luxury spirituality isn’t slowing down, neither is it entirely new. Before Paltrow, there was “wellness It Girl”, Audrey Kitching. Her lifestyle seemed painfully cool to me when she was a Myspace famous model-blogger in the 2000s, and only more so when she rebranded as an energy healer/model influencer in the early 2010s. We were emailing just two months before she was outed for fraudulently claiming she hand-made and sourced the products on her website, when they came for a few dollars from China. In December 2018 she wrote an irony that rings true: “Money is great because it can make your earth life easier in some ways, but you can’t buy inner healing. Even working with spiritual professionals, they can guide you and give you advice, but they can’t do your inner work for you. Only you can heal yourself.”