The University of Texas at Austin
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Being curious has its rewards. It was curiosity that led Ernest and Sarah Butler in the mid-1980s to sign up for an opera appreciation course in UT Austin's continuing education program. The course, taught by the late Walter Ducloux, UT Opera Theatre's first director and the co-founder of Austin Lyric Opera, opened the couple's eyes to an art form they grew to love. "He would play segments from different operas and talk about them," Sarah recalls. "Opera grew on us. It took a while, but we wanted to expand our horizons."

The Butlers eventually became regular patrons of UT operas, and it didn't take them long to channel their enthusiasm into financial support for what was then a relatively bare-bones program. The couple created the first of their four scholarships for opera students in 1990. The scholarship endowments are invested in the Long Term Fund and were valued at $300,320 at August 31, 2005.

Opera is perhaps the most comprehensive of all the performing arts, bringing to bear the creative forces of music, drama, and dance, so endowing the opera program was one of the College of Fine Arts' primary goals during the We're Texas capital campaign. As it turns out, that goal fit well with the Butlers' vision. "We've seen this program grow considerably in the 20 years we've been going to performances," says Ernest, a retired Austin physician. "We think it's in the top five or six programs in the country and we'd like to see it move up."

The Butlers made a $2 million pledge in 2004 to endow the entire program, and it was renamed for the couple in recognition of their generosity. The Sarah and Ernest Butler Opera Center endowment is also invested in the Long Term Fund and was valued at $423,390 at August 31, 2005. The endowment provides a stable funding source for the program, allowing students to work with accomplished composers, librettists, guest conductors, stage directors, and other professionals in all aspects of production. The endowment also funds scholarships to attract outstanding voices.

Ernest and Sarah Butler

The Sarah and Ernest Butler Opera Center will be able to recruit "the highest level of student vocal and opera talent from all over the world. And we'll be able to pursue new directions in opera through new artists and new productions," says Robert DeSimone, UT Austin's director of opera studies. "I don't know of too many programs that have dedicated endowments like this. In a world of dwindling funding for higher education, this is a secure means for the opera program to maintain a high level of excellence."

Ernest and Sarah often take a personal interest in the opera students, forming friendships with them and watching their careers develop. "Over the years we have followed the growth and development of the graduates," Sarah says. "Many of them have carried their talent to young artists programs and to national and international opera companies. We value the contributions and influence the program has had on Austin's opera and beyond. The faculty, the students, and professional guests are all a source of enrichment for our community and other communities."

The arts are a big part of the Butlers' lives, and Sarah is enthusiastic in encouraging others to engage themselves as they have done. "If you go to the opera and learn the stories and the music and appreciate the voices, it's a rich, sensory experience. We're happy to be a part of it."
- Sheila Allee