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Sybil Harrington, Giuseppe Sinopoli and Zeffirelli at a Tosca rehearsal
© Beth Bergman 2014

Sybil Buckingham Harrington (1908–98) was born in Amarillo, Texas, the granddaughter of J. E. Hughes, a prominent pioneer in the Texas Panhandle. Sybil Buckingham studied piano and ballet as a girl, and by the time of her marriage in 1935 to Donald D. Harrington, an Illinois-born engineer who made his fortune in Texas oil, music had been established as one of the central passions in her life. 

Beginning in 1945, the Harringtons established a legacy of philanthropy with a substantial donation of land to the Boy Scouts of America, a gesture that Mrs. Harrington once said had “planted the seed” for the subsequent charitable donations that she and her husband made. In 1951, the Harringtons created the Don and Sybil Harrington Foundation, its mission to provide financial assistance to charitable, religious, educational, scientific and literary organizations. After her husband died, in 1974, Mrs. Harrington became president of the Harrington Foundation, which continued the tradition of philanthropy with significant donations in Texas as well as in California, Arizona, Oklahoma, New York and Washington, D.C. Mrs. Harrington endowed chairs at UC San Diego, Northwestern University and USC. She created an endowment fund for the improvement of the diplomatic reception rooms of the State Department in Washington, D.C., helped to fund a national drug-abuse prevention program and assisted the Statue of Liberty renovation fund. As of 2013, the Foundation’s total gifts and grants had exceeded $400 million.

It was Sybil Harrington’s love for opera that brought her an international legacy. A longtime fan of the Met, Mrs. Harrington became deeply involved with the company in the 1960s. She was named a member of the Metropolitan Opera Association in 1968, a director of the company’s managing board in 1970 and an advisory director in 1978. John Dexter’s 1979 Don Carlo was the first of sixteen new productions Mrs. Harrington gave to the Met, a list that included Franco Zeffirelli’s stagings of La Bohème (1981), Tosca (1985), Turandot (1987), La Traviata (1989) and Don Giovanni (1990). She also funded thirteen Metropolitan Opera Presents telecasts. Several of the productions that were gifts of Mrs. Harrington in the 1980s and ’90s — La Bohème, Francesca da Rimini, Aida, La Fanciulla del West — remained in use long enough to have been seen by opera audiences worldwide as part of The Met: Live in HD series. One of the largest individual donors in Metropolitan Opera history, Sybil Harrington gave $20 million to the company’s first endowment campaign in 1980. Her total contribution to the company exceeded $30 million. In recognition of her generosity, the company named the house’s auditorium after her in 1987.

Mrs. Harrington liked her opera “grand,” in every sense of the word; the large-scale Zeffirelli stagings that effectively defined the Met’s style in the 1980s were a true reflection of her own tastes. Usually referred to within the house by her first name — a mark of familiarity and affection generally accorded only star singers — she had the dignity and bearing of a friendly queen. But Sybil Harrington was a queen who never lost her Texas accent. spacer


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Current Issue: October 2014 — VOL. 79, NO. 4