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Video Published: 24 Aug 2022

An Oral History with Jay Lesenger

On April 19th, 2022, stage director Jay Lesenger 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 April 19th, 2022. 
The Oral History Project is supported by the Arthur F. and Alice E. Adams Charitable Foundation. 

Jay Lesenger, stage director

During Jay Lesenger’s more than 45 year career as stage director, administrator, and teacher, he has become known for intelligent, honest productions which are dramatically compelling and musically knowledgeable. Mr. Lesenger has produced and directed more than 200 opera productions during his career. For 21 years, from 1994 to 2015, Jay was the General and Artistic Director of the Chautauqua Opera Company, the longest serving general director in the company’s history. Jay is a nationally recognized teacher of acting for singers, and a frequent adjudicator for the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, Opera Index, and other vocal competitions.

Oral History Project

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


Marc A. Scorca: Jay Lesenger, thank you so much for being with me today. As you know, we are interviewing 50 people in celebration of our 50th anniversary. 50 folks, who've made just a really sizable contribution to American opera over the last half century, and you are certainly one of those people, and we really wanted to talk to you. So thanks so much for being with us.

Jay Lesenger: Thank you. It's a great honor, Marc. I appreciate it.

Marc A. Scorca: Jay. I always ask - who brought you to your first opera?

Jay Lesenger: My father did. I was fortunate enough to grow up very close to the city. I grew up in Paterson, New Jersey, which is, most days, only 20 minutes into the city. And my parents had a subscription to The Metropolitan Opera for over 25 years - dead center orchestra, row M, and my father took me to my first opera when I was nine. It was Fanciulla del West. What I remember about it was that the chorus was as wide as they were tall, and I thought it was the silliest story I'd ever seen, and I loved it.

Marc A. Scorca: So silly, but you loved it.

Jay Lesenger: Absolutely. And I had been listening to opera before that. My parents loved music and theater and took us to concerts, and when I was in, I think, second or third grade, our teacher played Eine kleine Nachtmusik for us and I just thought it was the most beautiful thing I'd ever heard. I ran home, told my mother about it, and bless her heart, she went out and bought me the LP, the recording, which I still have. And I think that was kind of the beginning for me. I've always loved music and opera. So, as I said, Dad took me to see Fanciulla, and then usually I would go to the things my mother didn't wanna see, because they'd seen something so many times and - as she always used to say - she didn't like modern opera. So I did get to see things like The Last Savage by Menotti and Rosenkavalier when I was in high school. I was just blown away by it. I was very lucky. And then, of course, we went to the theater all the time as well.

Marc A. Scorca: So, you didn't have to slowly acquire a taste for opera from your first experience; you loved it.

Jay Lesenger: Right; absolutely.

Marc A. Scorca: How did you find your way into stage direction?

Jay Lesenger: Well, I knew that I loved opera theater. In high school, I toyed with the idea of being an actor. I was in the high school shows a few times. And then I went to Hofstra, out on Long Island, 'cause it had a very, very good theater department, and 'cause it was close to the city, which I really wanted. But my parents were not that happy about the idea of me going into theater, as a profession. As they said, it was an avocation, not a vocation. So I kind of did a lot of different things, and in college I thought I was gonna be a psych major: that lasted about a week. I thought I was gonna be a music teacher: that maybe lasted two weeks. And I was very active with the theater department, just as a volunteer, and then in my junior year, I remember sitting with a catalog and saying, "All right, what do I wanna do with the rest of my life?" By then I was very aware that there was such a thing as an opera director, and I knew what directors did, 'cause I watched my teachers directing plays. And I literally shifted. I went from a BS to a BA so I could take a minor in theater. I think by that point my parents were resigned, so let me do that. And then I had a stroke of incredible luck my senior year. I directed my first opera when I was a junior. I got a bunch of friends together and we put on Trouble in Tahiti.

Marc A. Scorca: And pause for one second: at Hofstra?

Jay Lesenger: At Hofstra.

Marc A. Scorca: Did you choose the Trouble in Tahiti?

Jay Lesenger: Yeah. Actually a friend of mine had introduced it to me. He knew the show and gave me a recording of it. And I figured it's a small cast, simple scenic elements, and so I asked permission from the theater department to use the black space for a while, and they gave me a few days in there, and so we did it. The mezzo - not the mezzo who was the lead, but in the trio - was a woman named Sally Stunkel, who also went on to become an opera director for a while. Anyway, I did that and then in my senior year, I took a conducting class, because I thought if I wanna be a director, maybe I should know what a conductor does. Also, I was gonna conduct, believe it or not, the college musical, which was Once upon a Mattress. Don't ask. I learned a lot from the experience, one of which is I'm not really a conductor, but I took this conducting class and this is the man I think I owe everything to. His name was Don (Donald) Lewsader. Don had been a coach for a while at City Opera. And he was brought in for one semester to teach this conducting class, because the regular teacher was on sabbatical. So the first day he went around the room and asked everybody what they wanted to be. And everybody in the class were music education majors, 'cause that's pretty much what Hofstra turned out, out of the music department, except for my very good friend, who was a wonderful accompanist. She said she wanted be a coach accompanist. And then he got to me last and I said, "I wanna be an opera director." And he said, "Well, what are you doing in this class?" I said, "I think I should know a little bit about conducting if I'm gonna do opera." And he said, "Do you know a man named Frank Corsaro?" And I said, "Well, yes." I mean Frank was the famous director of the late '60's and '70's at City Opera, along, of course, with Tito Capobianco. I said, "I know who he is. I've gone to see productions he's directed." And he said, "He's got a workshop in New York. Why don't you give him a call maybe?" And he said to the class, "Is he any good? Has he ever directed anything?” They said, "Oh yeah, he did Trouble in Tahiti last year, and it was really good." I'm not sure that was true, but I appreciate my fellow students' enthusiasm. I was petrified. I mean, the idea of calling Frank Corsaro on the phone, when I was like 19 or 20 at the time. He didn't give me the number then. I ran into him in the cafeteria a few days later, and I said, "You mentioned Frank Corsaro's workshop." He said, "Let me give you his number; I got it with me." He gave it to me. He said, "Just give him a call. See what happens." Well, I never saw this man again. He was only at the school for a couple of weeks. There was a family tragedy of some kind, and he had to withdraw, and they had to get somebody else to teach conducting class. If I had not stopped Don in that moment in the cafeteria, you and I probably wouldn't be talking.

Marc A. Scorca: Wow. Isn't that just an incredible intervention?

Jay Lesenger: Kismet. As we say in Jewish 'bashert'. There's no question it was.

Marc A. Scorca: And tell me Don's last name again.

Jay Lesenger: It was Lewsader. I think L E W S A D E R. And I had the good fortune some years later to run into (him) - backstage somewhere. And I think he was the chorusmaster, maybe Newark Opera or something. And I made a point of going backstage and of course, he didn't remember me, but I said, "I just want you to know you changed my life." So I started going to Frank's...

Marc A. Scorca: Did you call Frank on the phone?

Jay Lesenger: Yeah, took a few weeks. I'm not a drinker. I should have been; it would've helped. But it took me a few weeks to get the chutzpah to give him a call. And I did, and I got Frank, and you know Frank, so he says, "Yah, sure. Come on in it's 58th Street Studios." And told me how much it cost, and he was doing it to make a little extra money on the side. So every Saturday, my senior year from then on, I drove in the city and I sat in his workshop for three hours. And then in the afternoon, I'd rush out to the tickets booth and I get something for the afternoon, and then I'd have a McDonald's, and then I'd get something for the evening. It could be a ballet, an opera, a musical, two musicals, two operas, whatever it was. I would go to two performances every Saturday. And I sat in Frank's class for a number of weeks in the back. I was very shy and there were all these crazy singers. And by the way, Lou Galterio was in the class at the time (as was) David Farrar, if you know that name. He was a director; he was there, but there was a number of directors that were just kind of getting started in the workshop. So I'd watch Frank work with singers, and, of course, other directors would bring in little scenes, which he would critique. And one day there was a soprano who'd come in to sing an aria from La Serva Padrona, and the guy who was supposed to play the mute butler didn't show up for class. And Frank said, "Is there anybody who knows Serva Padrona?" And I don't know why I knew Serva Padrona, because who cares? But I did. And I said, "Yeah, I kinda know what's going on." He said, "Well, get up here and improvise with her." So I got up and I improvised the scene with her, while she was singing the aria. The place cracked up. And he figured that this was a setup. He said, "You guys have been rehearsing this together, haven't you?" I said, "No; first time I'm meeting her." And he said, "Well, what are you doing? You've been sitting in the back there. You need to do some scene work." And he put me together with some singers, and I started doing scene work with him. It was life changing of course, to do that - just what I learned. And then at that point, I applied to Indiana University, and got in there, which was good in many ways. It gave me a number of incredible opportunities. I studied with Hans Busch there who was the son of Fritz Busch. Hans was very old school, but he was very generous to me. I was stage managing La Bohème, and one day I came in for the chorus rehearsal of act two, and he turned to me and he said, "Jay, why don't you stage this?" - having given me no warning whatsoever he was gonna do that. I now have 75 or a hundred students in front of me. Thankfully, the opera was in English and I did know Bohème and suddenly I'm helping stage the second act of La Bohème. It was unbelievable. So very early on, I got a gift, which was how to work with large crowds, which I think is something you have got to know as a director in opera. And I unfortunately don't think a lot of people get that experience.

Marc A. Scorca: Let me pause for a second there. It's great that we're up to Indiana University; we'll pick it up there. You mentioned Frank Corsaro and Tito Capobianco, as the directors of the day in that decade of the '70's. What made them important in their day? What made Frank Corsaro important as a stage director in his day?

Jay Lesenger: Well, it's so cheesy, 'cause they were absolutely at opposite ends of the spectrum from the kind of productions they turned out. But Frank came out of The Actors Studio in New York, and he brought that with him. The sense of how he worked with the performer, to get the small details out. He did a lot of conceptual work. He did a Madam Butterfly, and I think he actually was one of the first people to ever have her in Western style hair in the sec(ond act). She cut her long hair and had a bob. He was the first one to really be doing cinema, using film. His productions of A Village Romeo and Juliet, and then, Makropoulos Affair with film, which was brilliant. Frank was very controversial. First person to have nudity on stage. He did Poppea and the Poppea was naked in the bathing scene. And I think what happened with Frank unfortunately is he got to a point where he was competing with himself to be more and more sensational. So he got more and more sensational as he went on. And I worked with Frank. When I got to City Opera (which is the next part of the story) I was assigned to his productions and then I met Tito Capobianco, when I was there, and Tito had a sense of style, like no one. I mean, just elegant. He worked a lot with his wife, Gigi Denda, who was a choreographer, so she dealt with a lot of the movement. But his sense of the bigger picture was, you know, there was no one else like him. Of course he did a lot of work with Beverly Sills, and he taught me...first of all: know everybody's name in the chorus, when you start rehearsing with them. But I got to watch him work with large groups, and he was brilliant at it - how he worked with a chorus. So I was getting incredible input from two great opera directors at the time, and they were both very generous to me, frankly.

Marc A. Scorca: So we can close that window on Frank and Tito for the moment. So there you are, Indiana University. You're working on a Bohème with a big chorus, getting some good experience. But then how did it go from there?

Jay Lesenger: Well, IU was interesting for me, at the time. I had been in Frank Corsaro's workshop, and there wasn't gonna be very much to equal the experience of being there. But as I said, Hans was very generous to me. I assisted him, I think, on all the productions he did while I was there. I got to work on, get to know Doctor Faust while I was there. And then he was doing Tales of Hoffmann and he let me choreograph the 'Doll' aria, which he loved. And then, we were doing Eugene Onegin, which was a revival. I had not been there for the first time they had done it...now four or five years later. But there was a little contretemps, shall we say, between the opera department and the dance department. So the dance department refused to dance in (the) production. This is Eugene Onegin, with five major dance sequences. And he turned to me and he said, "Can you put this together?" And I'd say yes to anything. I was young, so I said, "Sure, I can do that. I know the polonaise; I'll figure the rest of it out." And I had to literally get a group of like 24 friends, most of whom had never danced before - by the way, on a very steeply raked stage - and we rehearsed like mad, and I did the best I could. I'm sure everybody else thought it was terrible, but there were five dance sequences when that curtain went up, and actually somebody from the ballet department did come and watch rehearsal; they were actually very nice. They made some suggestions. Hans was very happy and I think the students did a great job. So what a learning experience; you don't get a chance like that. Thankfully, they don't give people like me a chance to do that in professional situations, but to have a chance in college to stretch myself that way was invaluable. So I did my two years there. I directed a one act opera called Lord Byron's Love Letter. And I'm not gonna go into it in great detail right now, but there's both nature and nurture that got me to opera. The nature we're gonna save for another interview. But, it turns out that there is a kind of genetic operatic connection in my background, which is very important, but I directed Lord Byron's Love Letter, 'cause it was an opera that nobody else knew. It was American one act based on a Tennessee Williams play. That was my thesis, as it were. And I was lucky because while I was there, I met Carolyn Lockwood, who was Hans Busch's wife. She was the production stage manager at Santa Fe. And I did go to Santa Fe for summer as an assistant stage manager. And that was my first real big professional job and it was quite a learning curve. And then, I had a year of floundering around in New York, typing like everybody else. And I did apply to City Opera and I was granted interviewed by Felix Popper and he couldn't have been nicer. I remember that interview again - very important to me because I had put together a pretty good resume for somebody who was like 23 or 24 at the time. I mean, I'd studied French and German and Italian a little bit. I was very familiar with the repertory, 'cause I loved opera. All I did was listen to a lot of opera. I went constantly. And he said to me, after the meeting, "This is one of the most complete resumes I've ever seen for somebody applying for this, for somebody your age." So, I had to wait a little while, but about six months or a year later - I can't remember the timing - I got a call from Felix, and he offered me a job: director on the staff, and I was the youngest assistant director to ever, I think, join the staff. I think I was 24; I wasn't even quite 25 when I joined.

Marc A. Scorca: Wow. Can you tell me the year?

Jay Lesenger: I started there in the fall of '76. That summer I was in Aspen as a stage manager. And then literally the day after that closed, I had my first meeting in room two at New York City Opera.

Marc A. Scorca: I didn't get to City Opera until 1980. So you had been there for four years. Jay, what was City Opera like in those days?

Jay Lesenger: Very different from what it ended up being. We were producing 11 different productions in 11 weeks, each season. In those days, it was a fall season and a spring season, and of course two or three weeks of rehearsal before that. So every week there was something else opening. I worked as an assistant on six productions a season, and that was my first introduction. One of the first shows I worked on was Pelléas and Mélisande - the second assistant with Frank. And in fact, a few years later when it came back on the repertory, I was the only one there who knew it, and I put the show back together for Frank. I worked on Rigoletto with Frank, and then, we also had...my first experience with a company strike my first fall season, and there was a big company strike, and the company was out of work for three weeks until that got settled. I learned a lot from that. And then, I guess it must have been maybe the second year. Well, I would tell you... I had a difficult first year. There was also unfortunately death - my brother was diagnosed with cancer that fall, and passed away in '77...10 months. So that was all hanging over my family and myself while I was working at City Opera. Long days, dealing with what was going on at home. And I was second assistant on everything. I never had a chance to do anything, but move furniture around. And apparently somebody questioned whether I should be in that position or not. I know who it is. I will never name them. And, I got called in and told basically I was being put on probation, and I said to Felix, "Felix, I haven't had a chance to do anything. I was second assistant on six productions. I just sat there." And he said, "I know. And I talked with Julius about that." (Julius Rudel was the head of the company). "And I told him you've had a difficult year so, we are gonna make sure you are assigned to Julius's productions next year. And you're gonna work with him. You'll be in the room with him." And I owe a lot to Felix for that, and I was given a one season contract just the fall. So that was when I did, I remember, the Pelléas revival and I had to put it back together again. And it was also the season they were doing Il Turco in Italia - Rossini opera with Beverly; a new production - gorgeous production with Tito and Gigi. And because Julius was conducting it, they assigned me to that production. So, you know, Julius got to see me work. I got along wonderfully, I would say, with Tito and Gigi; they were very generous to me. And we laughed a lot and I learned a lot. And then I had to put the Pelléas back together again, and Frank was kind of notorious for not coming to blocking rehearsals, when a revival would happen. When the assistant would lay it all out, he would come and really work to connect the dots as it were. And so I put the show together, and Frank was very complimentary. He thought it was well prepared. And then, we had a stage rehearsal and there had been a snafu in the rehearsal department, and they forgot to call the child, the Yniold, to the rehearsal, and it was one of his scenes. By the way, that Pelléas is definitive as far as I am concerned. It's the only time I've seen Pelléas that, to me, worked, because he didn't treat it like an impressionistic opera, he treated it like a real drama, and it just popped off the stage. It was incredible. So, Julius was not happy. And we ended up having a meeting and all the staff, and for some reason, he didn't blame me, thank God. And at a later rehearsal, I was down at the pit rail, and Frank and Julius were talking and it was something I had to ask Frank, and Julius looked up at me and he patted my cheek, and he said, "You're doing a very good job." At the next break, I was in Felix's office, and I said, "Felix, Julius just patted me on the cheek and said I'm doing a good job." He said, "Don't worry about it; you've got your spring contract. You're gonna be just fine." So that was my trial by fire at City Opera. But here was a chance not only to work with the two of them, but John Cox came through, John Copley, wonderful English directors. (Gerry) Gerald Freedman, who I ended up assisting a little bit later on one of his shows for The Acting Company. You'd be in a place where there were - not always 11 directors, because some things were revivals, and they were being put together by the staff - but usually four or five directors were running around downstairs and different conductors, and of course, the amount of singers that came through the house at that time. So you just met so many people; watched so many people work in different ways, and there was no money to do any of this. We were always wondering if we were gonna close. And the other thing was, in those days, the assistant director did everything in the room. We were the stage managers; we set it up; we took all the notes, the prop lists, who was gonna do what, and then when we got to the stage rehearsal, we had to have this all typed up - this is way before computers. So, a lot of white-out, and you hand the paper to the stage manager, and they would take over from there and hand out the information to the prop people. But you ran around those stage rehearsals coordinating everything backstage, but I am so happy for that.

Marc A. Scorca: Right, right.

Jay Lesenger: It gave me a sense of how to organize myself as a director, that I think is invaluable in opera. You cannot be (too) well organized. There's not enough time to waste. So, great experience; the stress of: are we gonna survive? Always. The amount of repertory that was going through the company in those days...

Marc A. Scorca: I wanted to focus on that span of repertoire, because as a stage director in your great career, doing hundreds of productions. It's Mozart to John Corigliano. It is European opera and American opera. Was your approach as a director always the same, or was it a different approach: new work versus inherited work; American work versus European work?

Jay Lesenger: Well, I think with European work, you have to be aware of what went before. I do think the tradition is really important; you bring that in. With a newer work that may not exist. And then there's, of course, American work, which has already been produced like The Ballad of Baby Doe or Susannah, which are existing, as opposed to working on an opera that's being done for the first time. So I worked with Thea Musgrave. I did the premiere of her new opera, Pontalba, down in New Orleans. Well, I was with her and the conductor on that from the first days. In fact, I was the one who had suggested the subject to the head of the company at the time, saying this would make it great (historical opera), 'cause it was a New Orleans subject, and he indeed commissioned it and Thea composed it. So, we did a workshop about a year before, and we wrestled with the libretto with her 'cause she did both the libretto and the composition. So that's one thing. Then if you're working on an American opera, it's really the American operas of the '50's and '60's, which tended to be relatively tonal - most of them. I think those I approached as standard repertory in a way, because I think they were based on that model of what European opera had been. Vanessa's very much a European-connected opera. In fact, it was criticized for being too European when it premiered. I don't know what that means in a way, because opera to me is opera. It's telling the story through singing, and through the emotion of music. As a director, I do not impose a concept on a piece. For me, whenever I've done conceptual work (and I have done some of that) I tend to be a more naturalistic director, and I'm proud of that fact, frankly, but if I do do conceptual work, it has to come out of the piece. If it's not appropriate for the piece, I'm not gonna glom on a concept, because there's one scene that really works well in that train station; it has to be cohesive from beginning to end. So, I think my approach has been building on a very solid foundation of my experience, my love of opera, and most important: the music is it. The music has to be where you start, even if the libretto's weak, the music's the most important thing.

Marc A. Scorca: Your biography says that you're known for your 'honest' productions, and I pull that out. I want to hear what that means? What does it mean to be known for 'honest' productions?

Jay Lesenger: Well, there's a lot of dishonest productions out there. I go to see stuff and I'm like, "Really? That's the idea? You heard the music; you read the story, and that's where you went with it." Now, there's some people who, of course, do brilliant conceptual work, but so much of the time, I will see a production where there's one scene that that idea really works in that scene, and then the rest of the evening, they're struggling to make that work as a cohesive thing. So again, the idea of being honest; of starting with the music, and understanding that every composer's way of expressing an emotion is different. So the way Mozart expresses love, versus Puccini, versus Wagner, versus Strauss: they're all expressing love, they're just doing it in a different vernacular. And you have to know what that vernacular is. You have to understand. I was lucky. I started early. I studied music when I was very young. I was a very bad pianist, and I went to become a very bad clarinetist, and I went on to be a really, really bad bassoonist, but I can read a vocal score.

Marc A. Scorca: And, of course, that's leading to being a really bad conductor.

Jay Lesenger: And that led to being a really bad..., But, you know, I didn't do so bad. It was a musical. It was Once upon a Mattress. I knew the show very well. I could beat time... Actually... but I realized being in the pit on that show, "I do not ever want to be here again". So I would say I turned into a mediocre conductor, and then went on - I hope - to become, I'd like to believe, a good director.

Marc A. Scorca: So you've worked with Beverly Sills, and you've worked with students at Manhattan School of Music; is there a difference?

Jay Lesenger: Yes, a bit. I was fortunate enough to work on a few productions that Beverly was in...Louise. I mean, I assisted on them; I didn't direct Beverly, but Beverly was incredibly generous in rehearsal. I have found that the people right at the top - generally - are never a problem in rehearsal; they're professionals. They bring professionalism; it's the ones who may slightly be just below.

Marc A. Scorca: Bruce Donnell, in my interview with him said the exact same thing. That in all of his years of working with the greats at The Met, that they were always early for rehearsals sitting there just waiting to be called on as needed be; that they never had a problem with the superstars.

Jay Lesenger: Right. But it's the people who are just below who are insecure, and that's where you run into problems occasionally. But Beverly...funny...came in...brilliant musician of course...great singer. I still remember the first time I was in rehearsal with her. They were remounting a production of Louise that had been in the old house at City Center - pretty crappy looking set and everything, but Beverly wanted to do it on stage, 'cause she was gonna record it. She didn't wanna record it until she had done it in the theater. And it was John Alexander and (Frances) Franny Bible and Robert Hale was the father. So it was a wonderful cast. Julius decided he would direct it himself. And then of course when the big chorus scenes came, that wasn't working, so one of the house directors stepped in to work on that. And Frank actually came in, and worked on some of the family scenes. But Beverly...nothing phased her in rehearsal. And I remember in Turco in Italia, my job was to be with her. Any artist making a major entrance, you were always there with them, in case they needed anything at the last minute. And I don't know what we were chatting about, and her entrance music started...(illustrates chitter chatter)...opened her umbrella, turned, walked out on stage, started singing without missing a beat. She was amazing. I will say that I had the great honor of pushing her on stage for her last bow, because Tito commissioned an opera from Menotti called La Loca, based on a really interesting Spanish play about the daughter of Isabel and Fernando...terrible history...she was treated terribly. And so I was in San Diego, when the production was first done - San Diego Opera with Tito - and then we brought it to New York and Tito did not wanna be at the final performance, 'cause he knew it was her last performance...I'm tearing up a little bit, right now...very emotional. Beverly was so iconic in the opera world in those days. But he didn't wanna be there. He didn't wanna be there for her last bow. And he said to me, "You make sure she have last bow; you make sure." So I was in the wings, and there was that full rank of everybody; all the solo calls in front of the curtain, then everybody gone out in a line; they all came out, and Beverly came off, and I said, "You gotta go out again." She said, "No, no, no." I turned and just pushed her through that curtain. I said, "You have to, otherwise Tito's gonna kill me." And I just pushed her. And she went out. So she got the last bow...

Marc A. Scorca: So how is it different working with students at a conservatory?

Jay Lesenger: Well, the one thing about students is their incredible eagerness, which is so wonderful and so rewarding. Now, many of them don't have the skills yet; that's what they're there for, and I have to say, I love working in that situation as well; it's very rewarding. At the same time, it's frustrating because, with an artist, somebody who's established, you can throw out a certain set of ideas, and then they will start to build on them on their own, make it their own. With singers, unless you have a particularly gifted one (and there are some, who've had enough experience that they are) you have to keep prodding them along, and give them a lot of the specifics, but it's so wonderful to see when the light goes on; when you get to the run through, and they finally get to do it from beginning to end, and they start to put it together and go, "Oh, that's why Jay wanted me... Oh, now I see...that's why the conductor asked...". And it's really so gratifying. I had the experience a few weeks ago of going to see the opera version of Intimate Apparel, and there were five members of that cast that I had worked with, in one way or the other. One or two of them had been at my young artist program at Chautauqua. The rest of them I think had been at Manhattan School of Music. And to see five young people who are out in the world - I can't tell you how good that made me feel. Now I can't take full credit for the Manhattan kids; somebody else picked them. But you know, the kids from Chautauqua, that was their first professional experience. And Steven Osgood, who was conducting that, of course has now taking my position at Chautauqua Opera. So we waited for him to come out. The five singers were there. I mean, it was as happy as I think I've ever been, to see that.

Marc A. Scorca: Oh, how wonderful Jay. Now you mentioned Chautauqua, and here you have been a stage director, a conductor for a short while - I'm going to add it into your record... There you are: you find yourself a general director and was that trial by fire?

Jay Lesenger: Was it ever? I was at City Opera for six years on the staff. I was very fortunate. When Beverly took over the company, she decided she wanted to open with Anna Bolena, which had been one of her great vehicles. I had seen it when I was in high school, but I didn't remember anything about it. And one day, I guess it was Gigi and Tito pulled me over, and they said, "You're gonna have a meeting with Beverly; just be ready," and I went into Beverly's office. She said, "How would you like to do a new staging of Anna Bolena for opening night of (my) first season?" I was 28, maybe 29. I can't remember, and I, of course, was flabbergasted. Tito didn't wanna stage a revival of that without her. He'd done it twice with her, three times, maybe; Gigi, the same thing. So she gave me the sets, the costumes. Sam Ramey doing his first Henry VIII; Rockwell Blake was the Percy, the tenor. Susanne (Susie) Marsee, who was a great mezzo stalwart at City Opera and had worked many times Beverly, and, Olivia Stapp, making a return to the company as a soprano after she had left 10 years before as a mezzo, which was an interesting experience, but very exciting. And here I am making my debut, and frankly, I hadn't done that much as a director at that point. I was already scheduled that fall to go to San Diego, to direct Werther. Tito had said, "I wanna give you an opportunity. I'm gonna give you the big show now; you're gonna do Werther." So I thought, "This is gonna be my big step forward as a director. I got a whole production." And then Beverly asked me to do the Bolena. So my real debut as a director, fully in control as it were, (or not in control of production) was Opening Night of Beverly Sills' first season as general director. No pressure at all, not a bit, and it went pretty well. Olivia was a very interesting artist. The Met was on strike, so all the opera crazies came to see the opening night. All of the nuts from the upper reaches of The Met, bless their hearts, all the opera aficionados, and she was like Callas reincarnated on stage. She very much was in that style. But then you had Sam singing the bejesus out of it. Rocky Blake and Susanne: great cast - chorus was wonderful and The Times review (signals iffy/mediocre), but I got great review on The Post. I mean, I got some very good reviews, and some nice feedback from people in the company.

Marc A. Scorca: Good. But we're going on to Chautauqua, as general director. So connect these dots.

Jay Lesenger: I decided after being there for six years...I had done some revivals. I did a new staging of Magic Flute, and then I realized that that was about as far as I would go in the company, until I got out and established myself. (I) went off to start doing freelance work. I'm now in my early thirties. I'm starting to work regionally; ended up teaching at the University of Michigan for three years, which I'm glad I did. That's really where I started to work with young people, and I learned so much by the process and drew so much on what I learned from Frank, about how to work with actors and singers. By the way, a little aside note to that: I always assumed the professional singers would come in with all the tools, but very often they don't, because they haven't had acting classes in their conservatories. They're learning on the go too, and going back to teach, when I stopped that, but I was still doing regional work all through that - I approached my work with professionals a little more in detail. I didn't just assume things. I gave them, I hope, a stronger foundation to work on, because I realized some of them just needed that. So I taught there for three or four years, and I realized academia was not ultimately the place for me, and went back to doing regional work. And I was down in North Carolina doing a Butterfly, and I got a call from Marty Merkley, who was the head of programming at Chautauqua. He said, "Your name's been given us, as a possible candidate. We need a new head of our opera company (my predecesor was leaving),” and he asked if he could come down, and I said, "Well, why don't you fly down? I'm doing Madam Butterfly. You'll see the production, and we can talk," which we did. Then they called and asked me to come up and meet with the powers that be, and I met every vice president, and I was called in to meet the head of religion, which scared the heck outta me. And I thought, "Oh my God, he's gonna try to convert me." But it turns out he was an opera lover. He just wanted to know what the name of a good opera book was, and we got to be very good friends after that. And suddenly, I got a call from the president of Chautauqua a week later saying, "How would you like to run our opera company?" I said, "Sure," and like I had done when I was conducting, and when I made my directing debut, I said, "Of course I can do that." But I remember during the interview process, I spent a couple of nights by myself in the 400 bed dormitory - I had only the most luxurious of accommodations for my interview - and I was sweating bullets. I thought, "Oh my God. I wanna direct productions, of course, but, oh my God, I have to do this and this and this and this and this"... And I just wasn't sleeping; I was tossing and turning. And then I had a brilliant idea: "I'll hire somebody to do some of those things. I'll get a production manager." It suddenly occurred to me, "OK, that's right. These are the things you have to do." And it was a little scary, but I was very lucky. I put together a pretty good team, because actually when my predecessor left, a lot of people took that as their opportunity to move on to other things too, so I had almost a clean slate, and I'll say one of the smartest things I ever did - Carol Rausch, who was the chorusmaster there at the time, and had been there for a number of years, I asked her to take over as music administrator. And I think so much of our success during my years there was because of Carol. She was brilliant. So, suddenly I am staging three operas (out of four) for the first season. I'm typing up the program in my office at three o'clock in the morning. There was no onsite auditions for the young artist program. They sent me hundreds of resumes that I had to comb through to pick the young artists. It was overwhelming. But again, I'm gonna get choked up, the opening night of Hoffmann was really something. Tales of Hoffmann is a killer piece to do. And we had Stella Zambalis: wonderful. She did all the roles. Randolph (Randy) Locke - rest his soul - was the Hoffmann; Michael Devlin, I believe, if I remember back was my villain; had a very good cast and a wonderful production that Erhard Rom designed for us on - you know - 12 cents, and the response from the audience was... (verklempt)... Sorry - all this stuff...I haven't thought about it in years. It was overwhelming, and I've probably never been prouder than that moment, because the company had been kind of languishing, but there was a pretty full house that night out of curiosity. Monday sold out based on the word of mouth. And we followed that up with Così with Brenda Harris. There was a Tosca that I had a guest director for, and we ended the season with Falstaff, which I also directed. Yeah, but it was all repertory I knew thankfully, and I had 21 amazing years there.

Marc A. Scorca: How fantastic, Jay. You know, people must ask you for advice all the time, and I'm gonna think of two categories of advice: the advice for a singer; the advice for a stage director. So, you know, young singer says, "Mr. Lesenger, what do I need to know?" What's the advice you give to the young singer?

Jay Lesenger: The most fundamental thing I say to singers, and I know it sounds corny, "To thine own self be true, as an artist." I think the most difficult thing for young singers...You know, musicians are taught acting very differently, if they're taught acting at all - very different from actors. Actors start here (indicates far right); singers start here (indicates far left) and they meet at the same place (indicates center). So an actor is given text and that's it: no rhythm, no pitch. They have to invent all of that on their own. And that's their process of putting their performance together. Singers, the opposite; they're given all of that. They're given the pitch, the tempo, text - all of it, but they have to make it feel as if it's spontaneous, as if they're creating it; not as if they're doing what's on the page. The other thing is, (and I think you'll agree with this): what I have found with musicians (not just singers)... musicians are always told what not to do. It's a lot of no's, when you're learning how to be a performer and singing, you're criticized incredibly. If you hold a note one hemi-demi-semiquaver too long, you're told "No, that's too long. That's not Mozart. That's not Beethoven. That's not..." There's a lot of no's, that they have to carry around. And I tell them - I was given a very good piece of advice when I was in college, which is - pick one or two people whose opinions you really trust, and listen to them and say, thank you to everybody else, and block it out. Because as I said at Chautauqua - I always said, "If you had a hundred Chautauquan’s in the room, I'd get 105 opinions about what I should have done or shouldn't have done, and that's too much weight. You can't perform that way. You've gotta let all that go; take all the information that you get from your vocal coach, your voice teacher, your diction coach...all of that, the stage director, the conductor, and ultimately, that's your foundation. Then you jump off of that. If the idea is that you're gonna land on that, you're never gonna enjoy what you're doing. It's not about making all of them happy; it's about taking the information you got from them and ultimately making yourself happy...is performing. So my thing is, start to understand what it is that you bring that's unique, and never let anybody drive that out of you. Never.

Marc A. Scorca: How about for the young stage director?

Jay Lesenger: Young stage director? Oh boy. You know, I consider myself again, so enormously lucky for the years I was at City Opera, because what I learned there, to be in a house with that much repertory, and where I was actually given the opportunity to direct in that house, which does not happen very often with house directors. At The Met they may be given a revival to stage, and the big houses they'll use their staff directors when the show comes back. But it's very, very rare to get an opportunity to do even their own new staging in an old production, or a new production. It's very, very rare. So, I realize I had an opportunity that very few directors could get. What I advise directors to try to do is: kind of hook yourself up to a director that you respect. If it's possible, try to get a chance to work with them on a regular basis. Interview with them. Maybe you assist somebody and they like you: say, "Listen, can I continue to work with you? Do you want a permanent assistant?" You may not get paid much money for it. You may have to survive somehow, financially. But I think of a couple of directors who are out there now with big careers, and I know that part of it was because they were connected with the director who brought them from house to house to house. So they met the assistant production managers, the assistant stage managers, the assistant conductors, who 10 years later, or 20 years later are now the conductors, production managers in those houses. And they build up those relationships that way. It's also a way of learning repertory. The other thing I say to directors is you have to watch things. You cannot learn in a vacuum. And I am astonished sometimes, and I talk sometimes with young directors, how little they've gone to see. Again, it's expensive, but now with video, there's so much stuff out there. You don't have to buy standing room at The Met, even. You can go to the HD if you have to, but go see things. Watch BBC from beginning to end; every Masterpiece Theater you can. If you wanna learn how to do period, they're the ones to learn it from. Read history, study history, watch documentaries. I still do that. All during COVID, all we did (my partner and I) was watch YouTube, because all the historic material that's out there. It was fascinating. I learned more those two years than I knew from the 40 years before. So it's exposure. Go to Broadway, see what's going on there; go to off-Broadway, see what's going on there. Again, I had the advantage of growing up very close to New York City, and I lived in New York. No matter where I went all my years, I still had my permanent home in the city, and whenever I was back in New York, I was going to the theater. So I think you just have to see as much as you can, and find the right director to assist.

Marc A. Scorca: Any advice for the aspiring general director?

Jay Lesenger: Why? But yes, I do have great advice. Have a meeting with Marc Scorca. No, I learned so much from being on the board, when you invited me to be on the board - that was a great honor to me at the time. I was the lowest budget company, I think, on the board at the time. And a chance to be in the room. What I realized is that everybody had the same questions, thoughts, concerns. It was just the number of zeros that were different.

Marc A. Scorca: Absolutely.

Jay Lesenger:...and it gave me a chance to interact. There were a lot of producers there I knew, because I had worked in their companies, which was great, hearing other people; getting a sense of what was going out in the field. You know, Chautauqua's a very unique place, because I wasn't responsible for raising the money, which is a good thing in some ways, but a bad thing in another way, because they determined what my budget was from year to year. But I never had that pressure, but they gave me great artistic license. First of all, they trusted me. They knew I wasn't gonna do something that everybody was gonna hate. I don't think that's my job as a general director at a company like that, or a lot of companies, to produce things that the audience doesn't wanna see, especially in rough times, and that's probably a controversial opinion right now, because we do need to have new work obviously, but I still am for things that the audience wants to see, if it's new or old. And I remember in talking with one composer - I was working on a new piece - I said, "I know you write melodies, because I hear them in your orchestra work. Do the same thing when you're writing for the singers." And she didn't. And I didn't get that, because I'm not sure the opera will ever get done again.

Marc A. Scorca: Jay, we could go on all day long.

Jay Lesenger:...and we have...

Marc A. Scorca: And I'm so grateful for this opportunity just to capture your starter stories of how you got started.