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Ryans Support New Opera Theater with Leadership Gift

State-of-the-art performance space will be named the Shirley Welsh Ryan Opera Theater

EVANSTON, Ill. --- The voices of rising opera stars at Northwestern University will soar in the new Shirley Welsh Ryan Opera Theater. The stunning new rehearsal and performance space will be housed inside the Music and Communication Building, which is under construction on the lakefront on the University’s Evanston campus and is expected to be completed in 2015.

This specially appointed opera rehearsal/black box theater is named in honor of Northwestern alumna Shirley Welsh Ryan, who, along with her husband, alumnus Patrick G. Ryan, have made a leadership gift of support to Northwestern’s $3.75 billion fundraising campaign, We Will. The Campaign for Northwestern.

“The Ryans are passionate supporters of the arts and of all things Northwestern, and Shirley and Pat’s love of opera will be reflected in this world-class theater,” said Northwestern President Morton Schapiro. “I look forward to attending performances in this special space as our students prepare for careers at the top opera houses in the world.” 

The Shirley Welsh Ryan Opera Theater will provide an integral, flexible space for opera rehearsals as well as an intimate venue for small one-act operas and other performances by students and faculty. The theater will feature seating for approximately 150 individuals, dramatic double-height ceilings and expansive windows showcasing stunning views of Lake Michigan.

“Our family has a deep appreciation for music -- especially opera -- and it brings us great joy to watch Northwestern students develop and hone their crafts as young artists,” said Shirley Welsh Ryan. “Whether they perform on stage or are members of the audience, we encourage Northwestern students to embark on a lifelong relationship with music.”

The opera theater will be one of three music performance halls -- including the Mary B. Galvin Recital Hall and the Carol and David McClintock Choral Rehearsal and Recital Room -- located on the main floor of the building. 

“Students will thrive in the state-of-the-art performance, rehearsal and academic spaces inside the new building,” said Pat Ryan. “The facilities now match the caliber of education Northwestern music students receive. Northwestern offers music students the finest music education, which can be integrated with a variety of educational opportunities.”

The new Music and Communication Building, located at the south end of the University’s Evanston campus, will be the new home for the Henry and Leigh Bienen School of Music. The five-story, 152,000-square-foot facility will include classrooms; teaching labs; academic faculty offices; teaching studios for choral, opera, piano and voice faculty; practice rooms; student lounges; and administrative offices.

The fifth floor of the new building will serve as a new south campus home for the School of Communication administration, providing the dean’s office and faculty members with new offices. Space in the new building will enable the School of Communication to unite the faculty in the department of theatre and the department of performance studies on one floor. The Goettsch Partners architectural firm designed the building.

“The Bienen School is extremely proud of our alumni who have participated as fellows in the Lyric Opera’s Patrick G. and Shirley W. Ryan Opera Center,” said Toni-Marie Montgomery, dean of the Bienen School of Music. “The naming of this performance space in our new building will serve as a visible reminder of the many connections between the Bienen School and the Lyric Opera of Chicago. We are grateful to Shirley and Pat for their significant support of the Bienen School.”

Shirley is a 1961 graduate of the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences. She is chair of and serves on the executive committee or on the board of directors of the Lyric Opera of Chicago, the University of Notre Dame, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and the Alain Locke Charter Academy. Shirley has been appointed by two U.S. presidents to the President’s National Council on Disability and has served as chairman of the Chicago Community Trust. She founded and directs Northwestern University’s invitational graduate-level Learning for Life series and has been a charter member of Northwestern’s Women’s Board since 1978.

Pat, a 1959 graduate of Northwestern, is distinguished as one of Chicago’s most successful entrepreneurs and prominent civic leaders. He founded and served for 41 years as CEO of Aon Corporation, the leading global provider of risk management, insurance and reinsurance brokerage. At the time of his retirement, Aon had $8 billion in annual revenue with more than 500 offices in 120 countries. He also founded Ryan Specialty Group, where he currently serves as CEO.

A member and immediate past chairman for 14 years of the Northwestern University Board of Trustees, Pat is a member of the International Insurance Hall of Fame. In 2008, he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the nation’s oldest and most prestigious honor society, reflecting his many contributions to higher education. Pat led Chicago’s bid for the 2016 Olympics and is a member of the Horatio Alger Association of Distinguished Americans.

The Ryans have been extraordinary donors to Northwestern for many years, providing leadership and support for academic programs, scholarships, the construction of Northwestern’s nanotechnology center and the Feinberg School of Medicine, and the renovation of Northwestern’s football and basketball stadiums. In honor of their lead gift in support of Northwestern’s athletics campaign, the University’s new multi-use athletics and recreational facility will be named the Ryan Fieldhouse.

An earlier major gift from the Ryans created scholarships for low-income students to attend Northwestern without taking out any student loans. The scholarships have enabled Northwestern to attract high-achieving, low-income students with exceptional leadership potential. The scholarship gift also supported graduate fellowships and facilities on both the Evanston and Chicago campuses, as well as providing athletic scholarships for undergraduate students.

The Ryans’ most recent gift is part of We Will. The Campaign for Northwestern, a $3.75 billion University-wide fundraising initiative. Performing arts is one of the areas in which Northwestern will invest its resources most heavily in the coming years. More information on We Will. The Campaign for Northwestern is available at Further details on Bienen School of Music initiatives can be found at

The Ryans have also given a major gift to the new Lakefront Athletics and Recreation Complex.

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