Video Published: 24 Aug 2022

An Oral History with Brian Salesky

On August 12th, 2021, conductor and arts administrator Brian Salesky sat down with OPERA America's President/CEO Marc A. Scorca for a conversation about opera and their life.

This interview was originally recorded on August 12th, 2021. 
The Oral History Project is supported by the Arthur F. and Alice E. Adams Charitable Foundation. 

Brian Salesky, conductor, arts administrator

2022 marks Brian Salesky’s 17th and final season as Knoxville Opera’s Artistic Director, having served as its Executive Director from 2005 to 2020. His administration has been marked by tremendous growth and expansion, and for Knoxville Opera Mr. Salesky has conducted over 90 performances, produced 43 operas, and much more. Mr. Salesky has conducted a vast repertoire of traditional and contemporary works, and he first won critical plaudits during his six-year tenure as a resident conductor and administrator with the New York City Opera. From 1996-2001 Mr. Salesky served as Co-Founder, Executive Producer, and fundraiser for the Raúl Juliá Ending Hunger Fund.

Oral History Project

Discover the full collection of oral histories at the link below.

Transcript

Marc A. Scorca: Brian Salesky. Thank you so much for joining us for this conversation.

Brian Salesky: What a pleasure to be with you today, Marc.

Marc A. Scorca: When we were celebrating our 50th anniversary back in 2020, it came to a sudden halt around the middle of March and we couldn't go forward with our oral history project, so we're really delighted that we're picking that back up, and that you're a part of this. And full disclosure: you and I shared an office back in 1980 into the beginning of '81, so we do go back 40 years as office mates. So it is a special, special pleasure to connect you with back then. Brian, your early career is rooted in a part of American opera that really was at a moment of tremendous flowering, and New York City Opera for instance, at the apex of its productivity and its excellence; when touring was going on around the country. So there are so many insights that you have, and I just wanted to capture those. So let's start if we can: 'cause you were a Julius Rudel Award recipient at New York City Opera and I'd love to hear what was that program about? How did you learn about it? How did you apply for it? What did it give you?

Brian Salesky: Well, the circumstance of my receiving the award was a performance that I had produced at CAMI Hall on 57th Street and Harriett Johnson, who was the critic for The New York Post at that time, came to the performance and she ran into Sarah Tucker, (Richard Tucker's wife), going out. And she said, "Who's this guy?" And Sarah knew me very well. And Harriett says, "I'm going to call Julius Rudel tomorrow morning." And she called Julius Rudel. Rudel called me into his office. And I think I may have played the piano for five minutes and that was it. I received the Julius Rudel Award, which in those days was $3,000 per year. And you did whatever Julius wanted you to do. And mostly we were assigned to the rehearsal department, but of course being a pianist and a conductor, I also played quite a bit of rehearsals and did coaching’s and I was the assistant to any conductor who was in the house, who needed notes taken at rehearsals. And of course for Julius personally, he would have certain projects that he was working on, both current and future that we would be involved in. One of the biggest ones, that I was involved with...well, there are two big ones: Naughty Marietta by Victor Herbert, which turned out to be my debut in '78. I was sent to the Smithsonian, where all of Victor Herbert's manuscripts are located, and I did an entire analysis of the manuscripts of Naughty Marietta so that we would be doing the correct music. And the next big project was when Julius and Beverly Sills were going to do Il Turco in Italia by Rossini. And I was in charge of creating - from many different sources - a piano vocal score, because none existed with all the music that was originally written for the opera. And so that was a huge project that I did for Julius in those days.

Marc A. Scorca: Let me get back to this. So, it was a one-year program, the Julius Rudel Award?

Brian Salesky: It was one year, renewable, and I think I had it for three years, and after three years, I don't remember; someone else received the award then. The money was from the Larry Deutsch and Lloyd Rigler Foundation, the two very generous people who kept us afloat in those days. And, like I said, it was $3,000; no matter what you did, it was $3,000.

Marc A. Scorca: And I just want to clarify that it was $3,000 and you were expected to be on the job all year long,

Brian Salesky: 24/7/365, and I was...

Marc A. Scorca: And I remember my first job, at Opera Company of Philadelphia right after college paid a little bit more than that, I was earning more. That's remarkable. Now that means that you got to work closely (and) observe Julius Rudel at real pinnacle moments in his life at New York City Opera. What was Julius like, as someone both supervising and coaching you, and just working with? What was Julius like?

Brian Salesky: Julius was a master of so many different things. He was a master producer; he was a master at repertoire of just about every kind. As you know well, Julius's respect and love for contemporary opera was somewhat unequaled in the United States, and he produced so many American works back then. To be in his employ was difficult, because Julius had a hundred things going on at every single moment, as any of us do who are wearing many hats. And of course he was running an opera company with the Lincoln Center spotlight on him. So he didn't have time for chit-chat. He was not a person who said, "Hey, come on in here, let's have a talk about such and such." No, it was business, business all the time, and everything was short. I never had a conversation with the man that lasted more than five minutes. Even though he knew I was an aspiring conductor and he did give me my opportunity to begin conducting in the spotlight, he never talked to me about conducting; he never talked to me about music. And one time I was standing with him outside the pit door, as he was getting ready to go into conduct, I don't know, the fifth opera of the week, and I said, "Julius, how many of these have you done?" It was Figaro or Traviata or something..."Why do you still use the score?" And I'll never forget his response. And I took it to heart. He said, "Because I can read music." I said, "Well, I guess that gives me permission to use the score. And I haven't done 1% of what you've done yet." He really was a master. He knew how to get a dollar out of a penny and that put me in good stead for my career, when during the past 17 years when I've been here in Knoxville. I learned from a master how to make a penny look like a dollar.

Marc A. Scorca: Having been a part of City Opera for a few years in my career, I know how much we learned there, just by observing, so that if people didn't sit us down and give us a lecture about how to do, or what their strategy was, we learned by observing and Julius was certainly ubiquitous. He was omnipresent and one could learn. But again, in the late '70's, City Opera was at a pinnacle of its productivity, in terms of the number of productions; performances; the casting. I think, as those memories recede, because those years are now more than 40 years ago: tell us what City Opera was like in those days.

Brian Salesky: Well, it was an exciting place to be. I entered there in the fall of 1977, so I would have been 25 at the time. Being a New Yorker, of course, New York City Opera, (the company) was not new to me, but being backstage constantly in an opera company: that was sort-of new to me, even though I had been at Indiana University and I'd been at San Francisco Opera and Lake George prior to that. But City Opera was, in the best sense of the word, a factory and a factory that worked 24/7. And so the opportunity to see and work with all of those singers and directors and stage hands and stage managers along with Julius and John White, who was our managing director; Dan Rule also, who was managing director after John: this was a place of great excitement; of great energy, equaled by the stress; a tremendously stressful place to be, because we were producing so much in such a small period of time without adequate funding and without adequate rehearsal time. Those of us who lived through that era know that most of our performances, unless you were in a new production or a major revival, no one ever got a rehearsal other than maybe a walkthrough downstairs: - or you walk the stage an hour before the show began and during the intermissions. So this was trial by fire and I've always thrived on trial by fire and as part of why all of the things that I've done in my personal career after that were of really no particular challenge or consequence to me, because of the circumstances into which I was thrown. I mean, for example, we had no prompter at New York City Opera, whereas The Met always had a prompter. Now people are still people and the singers would still forget their words from time to time, and on an occasion, we had a tenor who was crashing and burning in Pagliacci, and I was sent into the pit with the cover tenor (who didn't know it by memory) and he stood there in the pit with his score, and I was looking at the conductor conducting live, and I was conducting the tenor who couldn't look at the conductor because he didn't know it, and so he was reading the music out of the score and there we were in a live performance doing such a thing. That's nuts, but you find out what you're made of when those things happen.

Marc A. Scorca: And so many of our member companies didn't exist in 1978. We always talk about the fact that over 70% of our companies today have been established since 1970. And that was just the moment of flowering in the '70's. So without a huge network of regional companies, of smaller companies, City Opera was the place where rising American singers got their experience. And it meant that there were some really good casts and that it meant a huge amount to these artists to get reviews out of New York papers. And if you were a New York City Opera lead singer, it was in your bio in every other opera company you went to. What was that like for those young singers? I mean, not a whole lot of preparation, but still this performance opportunity and some really good casts.

Brian Salesky: Well, let's remember that those are the days when the one-off foreign stars like (Placido) Domingo and (Jose) Carreras: they had already come through. And so their being catapulted to The Met and beyond was advantageous for the American singer because the spotlight on City Opera grew larger and larger because of the people who had come before, who had catapulted onto the international stage. So when you had people like Catherine Malfitano and her group... a large group, who, for the most part were then managed by Matthew Epstein, who was a major force in the artist management business at that point, this was a perfect storm in a positive way for the American artist. You had certain people who were in the fast lane; they were on the fast track to a big career and that lifted the boat for everybody, because now The New York Times, New York Post New York Daily News, Wall Street Journal; everything: they had their eyes on New York City Opera. And if you were aspiring, you could pretty much count on a major review, which was the coin of the realm in those days. Nowadays, it's not so much that way, but in those days, we know that if you (got) a New York Times review, even if it was one sentence, that was the coin of the realm, which would get you noticed by the opera companies that were not on the east coast, so to speak. So it was critical for marketing purposes of singers that they make their way through the tunnels of the New York City Opera at the New York State Theater.

Marc A. Scorca: A remarkable time. I really wanted to speak to you about the New York City Opera national company. And it happens to be the first job that I had at New York City Opera was down on the lower concourse with you and Nancy Kelly. And at that time, there was Western Opera Theater out of San Francisco and Houston Grand Opera had Texas Opera Theater. In working on our 50th anniversary, and looking into the history of opera in America, it's amazing how many little touring companies there were: the Pellegrini company that performed La Sonnambula in San Francisco in 1850. So there's a big history of touring from the 19th century; doesn't exist any longer, but the national company of New York City Opera was a major affair of moving chorus and orchestra and soloists and sets and costumes across the country. You were there for really the very beginning of the national company: What was it like? What was a bonafide touring company like in those days?

Brian Salesky: In those days we called it 'bus and truck' touring. And that was a function of the Broadway tours of old, and the touring challenge for an opera company like San Francisco or Houston or New York, (where you had a mother company that you were taking advantage of, in the best possible way) was critical because you had all the support at home, whether that was the physical production, the costumes; the music materials, et cetera: you had all of that support to go forward. The critical part of the touring operation I thought, was the logistics. You can put people on a bus: chorus, soloists, orchestra, but the logistics were phenomenal. And remember, these were not week long engagements. This was one day, one performance, one venue at a time. Very rarely did a venue book us for two shows. So the Carmen tour that we did back in '82/'83, we did 34 Carmen’s in 36 days in 34 cities.

Brian Salesky: That we did it, is a miracle, but here's the thing: we knew it going in. And so from the stage manager and the crew people (the head carp, the head electrician, et cetera) those people who traveled with the set overnight on a touring bus where they could sleep and have a bathroom: everybody knew their part, and so it was a very well-oiled machine. So no one got to complain about anything. That's the nature of 'bus and truck'. So, you would hit the new hotel at whatever time in the afternoon you got there; you'd dump your luggage and basically shower and go to the theater and do the show, and then crash afterwards and get up at God knows what (time) the next morning and do it all again. And you did that 34 times in 36 days. And the backstage facilities at many of these places were horrific, because we were playing a lot of old theaters. Remember, this is 40 years ago or so. And so they didn't have all of the modern performing arts centers that might be on a tour today, and so you rolled with every punch possible. There were times when certain orchestra members (and we traveled with a very small orchestra), couldn't be in the pit. So they either had to play outside the pit, or they stayed in the hotel because there was literally no room for them. And in terms of the staging, each stage director had to stage the opera so that it was possible to do it in a 50 foot wide proscenium and a 25 foot wide proscenium; something that had 20 feet depth and something that had 45 feet depth. And again, what a great, great learning ground for all of these artists. Yes, they were disappointed when they were in not optimal conditions, but it set them up for being able to do anything anywhere.

Marc A. Scorca: When I talked to Sherrill Milnes in one of these conversations, talking about the Godolvsky tour, and he said the value to him of doing the same role, dozens of times, where he could just test the boundaries of vocally what he could do; dramatically what he could do, and that the tour - rigorous as it was - was an incredible training opportunity. Would you agree with that?

Brian Salesky: Absolutely. And the Goldovsky tours were famous on the east coast because they came out of the east coast. I think Boris was based in Boston. And Sherrill, who was a major part of the New York City Opera at the early part of his career. So, everybody there had that in the back of their minds when this all started in the late '70's, and no one was afraid of this. Absolutely no one. We had great confidence that we could pull this off, and we did. And when something got lost along the way, you punted: nothing mattered. You just knew that the stage was out there: you got the job done and it was just an amazing experience over and over and over again. We had two casts, by the way.

Marc A. Scorca: I wanted to talk about the logistics a little bit more, because I worked with you on the lower Concourse. It was the Traviata tour. I was arranging the hotels. And once a week, you would spend two nights in the same hotel. And I had to make sure that that hotel had laundry so that everybody on that extra day could do their laundry. And if I remember correctly, the crew bus...like the crew had a bus that was like a rock and roll tour bus...they would take the set down and travel through the night.

Brian Salesky: That's correct. It was the only way to do it. And like I said, I think it was a logistical nightmare and miracle that it happened because you can never trust what any given presenter is going to set you up with, when you show up at six o'clock or eight o'clock in the morning to load in. You just don't know. Of course, there's a technical rider which says we need A, B, C and D including the number of crew, but you really don't know what you're going to get, and these guys were magicians. They just got it done. Of course, the set had to be designed in a way that it could play on a 50 foot wide versus a 25 foot wide proscenium and like I said, they were geniuses. They knew how to get it done. And we had a brilliant stage manager who kept it all hanging together.

Marc A. Scorca: And just to put a fine point on it: that meant there was one day load in and perform that night. And there was just no margin for error.

Brian Salesky: Zero margin for error. We never rehearsed on the road; we rehearsed in New York. I think we were up at Fordham for the Carmen - in The Bronx. And, that was it. We had one or two rehearsals on a stage, and that was it. It was just good luck from there on. It was very important: we had two casts of principals and it was just A/B; A/B; A/B; A/B. Now, if someone got sick, that means that someone might've had to do A/A, and you had to then get back onto the schedule; you couldn't redo the whole schedule. So some people were performing maybe three Carmen’s in three days.

Marc A. Scorca: Incredible. And I remember it was two buses. A bus that was the orchestra bus; a bus that was the chorus bus: just incredible. But then what was it like...what was the reception in some of those small towns? And they were small towns, where you perform in sub-optimal conditions from the point of view of technical theater, but then: what was the reception?

Brian Salesky: Well, the largest cities: of course, they were used to opera by their major company. And so this was a kind of novelty to have the touring company come through, and in those days: pretty fair to say with younger voices, younger artists, people who might've been a little more dramatically interesting than the park and bark, as we used to say. For the smaller towns, they were tremendously enthusiastic because they never got opera. Certainly not a meat and potatoes piece like Carmen or Traviata. And so their appreciation was appreciated by us, the performers, because they were just so enthusiastic to have us there. And to me, it was a miracle that this could happen over and over and over and over and over again, and for that, we have to thank the people who were booking us into these places. That kind of booking doesn't exist anymore: the touring artist who gives a recital in 15 cities across three months: that doesn't exist anymore. So a lot of what we did doesn't exist anymore. Sadly to say.

Marc A. Scorca: If I remember correctly, the presenters would pay a fee of about $20,000/$22,000, something like that, which in today's dollars would be considerably more, but still they were paying substantial dollars for one performance of Carmen or Traviata, and it was a pretty remarkable network.

Brian Salesky: It was, and we were being booked by Columbia Artists in those days. So obviously because they had so much activity with booking orchestras particularly: that was important. Producing a work for not just a solo artist, but for groups: ballet companies, modern dance companies, et cetera. They were well-qualified to do this type of booking because they knew the houses that had the budget for this thing. Nowadays - and you travel a lot more than I do - I don't imagine that there are a lot of houses that are booking (in today's dollars) $50-$100,000 one night stands. I mean, it doesn't work financially, right? Whereas in those days they said, "Hey, we have a budget. We think it's important to have an opera (company) come through here. So let's get those guys from New York."

Marc A. Scorca: It is just a fascinating history of opera in this country. Now Brian, you said that you made your debut at City Opera in Naughty Marietta. And of course, if we take a look at your bio, we see that you've got some Broadway credits. And I always like to ask people like you, is it musicals versus opera or is it musicals and opera?

Brian Salesky: Well, in my growing up there was no distinction made in my family because my parents loved it all. And I was dragged to the old Met on 39th Street, as a child, begrudgingly at first, and then I caught the opera bug very seriously. So to me, whether you were going to see My Fair Lady or West Side Story or La boheme or Otello: it made no difference if you go to the theater. And so there was straight theater and then there was the musical theater. So for me, it was no difference. And during my time here over the last 17 years in Knoxville, I can tell you that I have been a champion of saying musical theater and not opera because I think part of the reason that opera has gotten a bad rap in our country is because people think it's only foreign language stuff from 200 or 400 years ago, and the person who doesn't grow up like I did (and like you did) with that exposure, there's a barrier there for them, and if I can show them that their favorite Broadway tunes all came about because of operetta and, you know, going back in sequence: operetta, which begat Broadway, and then opera-opera, there's no reason to fear this form. Fortunately I can say I've transformed people's attitudes towards opera by saying it's just musical theater in a foreign language. That's all it is. And, you don't have to like everything in the food store. If you don't like aisle seven, go to aisle eight. So if you don't like Puccini, go over to the other guy to see if Mozart rings your chime, or Mussorgsky, if you like him, or if something that was written by Menotti: whatever. It's just all the same genre to me, and so to me, it's not 'or' it's an 'and', and I've always felt that way. It's an 'and', and to me, when they talk about crossover artists, and there are (some) very famous crossover artists, (Luciano) Pavarotti being one of the people who was methodical about trying to cross over, at least in concert repertoire. For me, I say, "Thank you for doing that, because without the crossing over, we can't really break down those barriers of the idea that opera is that famous lady with the horns and the breast plate given to us by Bugs Bunny in What's Opera Doc? So for me, doing Broadway, as you mentioned, I did two shows on Broadway: On Your Toes and Man of La Mancha. It's just all the same, because it's musical theater and thank God for all of it.

Marc A. Scorca: Brian, who brought you to your first opera?

Brian Salesky: I knew you were going to ask the question. It's an easy answer. My mom and dad; my parents simply were opera fanatics. And so, I was brought to the opera before I was born. And, opera was in my house all the time, from the time I can remember. And so, we went to the old Met on 39th Street when I was a little child. And, in those days, you could go in and out of the theater at will; no one cared that you were interrupting them in the middle of a performance. My parents never had a ticket by the way. We always stood on the right side of the main floor. And I was permitted to run in and out of the theater and run up and down all the staircases, going up to Sherry's bar, and that was my playground. The Met was my playground. So it didn't matter to me what the opera was that night, because I knew I could just come and go as I liked, whether I was interested in the opera or not. And those days, I began a great relationship with George London, who was a friend of my parents for a long, long, long time. I even have a baby diaper signed to me from George London, believe it or not. Opera was always in our lives. Eventually Richard Tucker became like a second father to me. So first opera: absolutely my parents and I can't tell you what it was. I can tell you my first distinct memory of the opera was: when I was nine years old, my mom took me to the dress rehearsal of Fanciulla del West, and you could sit wherever you want. So we sat right down front, and I remember Leontyne Price walking down the steps, and I was just mesmerized by this incredible lady and her voice. I was only nine years old in 1961. She ended up not singing the performance by the way, Dorothy Kirsten sang the opening night that year. But I remember her vividly and because my parents were very aggressive, shall we say, my dad would take me backstage during the intermissions. Can you believe that? There was no security in those days. You could just walk backstage as you liked. And so whether it was George London performing, who we knew, or it was a guy like Tucker, who my parents loved - and I remember when I was 12 years old being taken by my dad backstage, right before act three - people won't believe this, but my that's the chutzpah my father had...and so we waited for Tucker to come to enter the stage for E lucevan and he said, "Mr. Tucker, I want to introduce you to my son, Brian. He's going to be bar mitzvah'd in February," and Tucker stopped and he spent five minutes talking with us and he gave me his bar mitzvah spiel, and what can I tell you? It was a magical time.

Marc A. Scorca: When did you, in all of that, think: not that 'I enjoy this,' or 'wow how excited to go backstage,' but 'I want to do this.'

Brian Salesky: I wanted to do it from the time I was in high school. And I went to the High School of Music and Art, which was then in Spanish Harlem. A girl came into my homeroom class one day and sang Musetta's Waltz. I did not know what it was. Obviously I'd been to La bohemes, but I didn't know what it was. I ran home that night and I said, "Dad," - I sang it to him. - And I said, "What is this?" And he said, "Well, that's Musetta's Waltz from La boheme." "Do we have a recording?" Well, we had four recordings of La boheme...my parents didn't have musical scores, and so Boheme became the first score I ever had, because I just had to know all the music in that opera. That's how it began for me. The bug was in high school and I never turned back. The only dates I ever went on were to the opera. It was: do you want to go to the opera or not?

Marc A. Scorca: So how did your family know George London?

Brian Salesky: My mother had been introduced to George by a mutual friend, who knew him before he became the famous opera singer, George London. And George used to take my mother out for lunch when she was pregnant with me. And so George and Nora visited our little house in Flushing, Queens with some regularity. And of course, (he) had an incredible presence, both verbally and singing wise, and I remember when he would come to the house, I would sit on the top step of the staircase - I wasn't allowed downstairs; I was supposed to be in bed - just to hear him speak. It was a treat. And then years and years and years later, I knew him as a young adult, and he invited me to come work for him. He was the first director of the Kennedy Center, and he invited me to come work with him at the Kennedy Center, but I had caught the conducting bug by that point. And I said, "George, I got to give this a shot." And he said, "Well, Brian, as a musician, of course, I understand. You do what you need to do."

Marc A. Scorca: Richard Tucker.

Brian Salesky: Richard Tucker: a huge favorite of my parents, and then what happened was: Tucker lived in Great Neck and his accountant was my dad's accountant. And my father's best friend was an attorney, who was in that mix. And so, from being fans who would just appear backstage after performances, now we were part of this intimate group of friends, via these relationships. And so I would have the privilege of staying backstage with Tucker during performances. I helped him in whatever way he needed help during performances; certainly helping him undress after the shows. But I would spend some performances just literally shadowing him, and can tell you some fantastic stories: Tucker was a huge sports fan, and he bet on everything, and so if the ball game was on in the electrician's booths upstage left, he'd go into the electrician's booth to watch a game until the last possible moment before he had to walk out on stage And I would say, "You hear the music, right?" "Yup, yup. One more minute, one more play." And the one more play would go by, and he dashed out of that booth and walk right on the stage in character, singing like a god. That was him. And in 1969/70, I was a supernumerary in Aida at The Met. That was the year they would delay their opening until December because of the strike. And so Tucker was opening night: Radames and Aida. I was in the Aida with him as a super, and one night, we were standing backstage, waiting for the end of act three, and he said, "You know, Corelli takes a breath before the high A. I've never taken a breath before the high A.” (Fausto) Cleva was conducting. He said, "You know, if I took a breath there and held the A longer, Cleva would be upset with me." I said, "You're Richard Tucker, for God's sake, do what you want to do. Have fun tonight, take a breath and hold the A forever." And so I'm standing right above Tucker on the temple steps, and he's holds the sword out to sing 'Io resta a te' and he takes a breath before the A, and I thought Cleva was going to fall on the floor, because he knew Tucker exactly the way he did it. And he never took a breath. And this night he took a breath and his upbeat to the downbeat was screwed up because of the breath. And of course, Tucker held it forever. And I said, afterwards, "You see: nothing bad happened. It's okay. You're Richard Tucker. You can do what you want."

Marc A. Scorca: What amazing, amazing memories those are. Brian, I want to say thank you for sharing with us this incredible set of memories you have from such an important moment in the emergence of American opera. The great American singers, like Richard Tucker, to touring, to City Opera and all that went on there, Julius Rudel. You are a walking bit of American opera history, and I'm so grateful for your time today.