Disguised as a peasant, Noémi Karpati Neidorff left behind her friends, home and cherished piano to escape the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. The 8-year-old walked across the Austrian border with her parents, who bore the false identification of peasant farmers. They carried only two cloth knapsacks, ones the family would bring with them when they eventually immigrated to the United States. They brought nothing of intrinsic value, only a couple of layers of clothing to keep them warm from the bitter December cold, black-and-white photographs and a tiny silver box that still holds the keys to the home left behind. “I have never washed the knapsacks. They are here in our Clayton home with their original dust…They are symbolic of who I am and how my parents and I began with nothing. I never take anything for granted and want to give back," she says.
Neidorff was recently elected the eighth chair of the board of Opera Theatre of St. Louis. She and her husband Michael (chairman, president and CEO of Centene Corp.) have a three-decade history of support for Opera Theatre, as well as other arts and educational institutions both locally and outside St. Louis. Michael was involved in Opera Theatre’s $11 million “Building for Opera” Campaign, and now, many years later, Noemi is co-chairing Opera Theatre’s “Building on Excellence” campaign. Locally, in addition to Opera Theatre, the couple supports the St. Louis Symphony, Artist Presentation Society, Missouri History Museum, Washington University Department of Music, Saint Louis Art Museum, Sing for Siteman, Miriam School and “other causes that touch our hearts.” Neidorff says that besides Opera Theatre, her other “passion,” the Radio Arts Foundation-Saint Louis, has created a community-owned and -operated classical radio station that she says is “now a true voice for all of the arts and artists, including opera, in our region.”
Neidorff serves on the executive committee of the Manhattan School of Music and is past president and a member of the executive committee of the National Trustees of the National Symphony at the Kennedy Center. She was honored in 2009 as a Woman of Achievement for nurturing young artists, was awarded the 2009 Visionary Award by Grand Center Inc. and was named Variety Woman of the Year in 2013. In 2014, the Neidorffs were honored by OPERA America in New York with the National Trustee Recognition Award.
When did your interest in music blossom?
I was fortunate to have a musical background and began playing piano by ear at age 4. I appeared on a Budapest radio children’s-hour program and, at age 6, began studying with a teacher at the Franz Liszt Academy of Music. Opera and music was a way of life for our family.
Upon arrival in the U.S., we moved to New Jersey. I attended the Manhattan School of Music in New York. (A classically trained pianist, she holds undergraduate and graduate degrees from the school.) While there, I accompanied some fabulous singers and gained an even deeper appreciation, understanding and love for opera.
When did you begin your love affair with Opera Theatre?
When we moved to St. Louis 30 years ago, I was immediately attracted to Opera Theatre and the St. Louis Symphony. I began my involvement serving as a member of the Opera Theatre’s Guild Board. But it wasn’t until 2012, when I chaired a successful fundraising gala for Opera Theatre, that I was invited to join their board. I am both supportive and passionate about Opera Theatre. A beautiful and exceptional human voice will move me to tears, and I am humbled that some of the giants in the opera world got their start in St. Louis at Opera Theatre.
What comes to mind when you hear the words “Opera Theatre”?
I think of discovering, promoting and nurturing young artists; the intimacy of the theater-in-the-round, picnics on the lawn, operas sung in English, groundbreaking productions, world premieres, a real happening. Our goal at Opera Theatre is to build and attract new audiences. Our general director, Tim O’Leary, along with his outstanding team, continue to initiate and promote community engagement. They inspire us all to continue discussions and dialogue about operas that may be new, sensitive or controversial in nature. We truly share the passion. All of us associated with this great company are so proud of its solid, highly respected reputation in the opera world. I am an extremely fortunate person. I feel I have been handed a silver spoon.