Lawrence Vincent Kelly, founder and general manager of the Dallas Civic Opera, was born in Chicago, Illinois, on May 30, 1928. He was the son of Patrick James and Thelma (Seabott) Kelly. He was a student at Chicago Music College (1942–45) at the same time that he attended Loyola Academy, from which he graduated. He went to Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., and returned to Chicago in 1950 to assist in the family real estate business; upon his father's death he became business manager and later secretary-treasurer and director. He attended De Paul University Law School at night (1950–51), became a vice president and director of Dearborn Supply Company (1951–52), and established himself as an insurance broker in 1953.
In 1953 Kelly was a cofounder, with Nicola Rescigno and Carol Fox, of the Lyric Theatre of Chicago, an opera company of which he was secretary-treasurer from 1953 to 1956 and managing director from 1954 to 1956. For two years, under his guidance, Chicago was the scene of "some of the most brilliant nights of opera seen in the United States," according to one writer. In June 1956, however, the founders of the company had a disagreement, and Kelly and Rescigno resigned. Kelly moved to New York City where he stayed a year.
Considering where he might start a new opera company, he chose Dallas as a likely place. Through the efforts of music critic John Rosenfield, Kelly was brought to Dallas, and, in partnership with Nicola Rescigno, chartered the Dallas Civic Opera by March 1957. Kelly served as general manager, with Rescigno serving as artistic director and principal conductor. In November 1957 the company presented soprano Maria Callas in a concert; she had been presented by Kelly in her American debut three years earlier in Chicago. That first season only one opera, Rossini's L'Italiana in Algeri, was mounted; the cast was headed by Giulietta Simionato, and the production was designed and staged by Franco Zeffirelli, who made his American debut in it. This production set a quality standard for the future of the company, and Kelly's subsequent pattern of originality established the Dallas Civic Opera internationally. Over the next seventeen years Dallas opera lovers saw the American debut of such singers as Teresa Berganza, Jon Vickers, and Joan Sutherland. Kelly and Rescigno also introduced a distinguished group of theatrical directors and designers, and the company had its own scenic department, which built productions for other companies as well. Kelly was also a cofounder and director of the Performing Arts Foundation of Kansas City, Missouri.
Early in 1974 Kelly took on the job of acting manager of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, which was in serious financial trouble. Several months later he became gravely ill and had to resign that position. He went to Kansas City, Missouri, for treatment and died there, on September 16, 1974. A requiem Mass was offered for him at Christ the King Catholic Church in Dallas on September 19, the day before he was buried in the family plot in Chicago.