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About Chautauqua Opera


About | History | Jay Lesenger | Carol Rausch | Auditions | Employment | Staff 2014 | Facts



Chautauqua Opera is the oldest continuously producing summer opera company in the United States as well as the fourth oldest American opera company after the Metropolitan Opera, Cincinnati Opera and San Francisco Opera. The company has flourished under the leadership of Alfred Stoessel (1929 1943), Alfredo Valenti (1944 1958), Julius Rudel (1959), John Daggett Howell (1960 1965), Leonard Treash (1966 1980), Cynthia Auerbach (1981 1987), Linda Jackson (1988 1993) and Jay Lesenger (1994 present).

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Norton Hall, circa 1929
Opera became a part of the Chautauqua experience in the early 1900s when the American Opera Company, an outgrowth of the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, began touring the country. Under the direction of Russian tenor Vladmir Rosing, the AOC presented five operas in one week at the Chautauqua Amphitheater. The AOC was so successful on tour that Chautauqua was unable to book them for any future seasons.

Yet Chautauquans remained committed to making music flourish at Chautauqua. Lucy Coit Fanning Norton approached the Institution with the desire to donate a Atheater building@ in memory of her husband, Oliver. Despite his failing sight, Mr. Norton had remained an opera devotee until his passing. When asked, the then Director of the Chautauqua Music Festival Albert Stoessel indicated that what the Institution needed was an Opera House. Norton Memorial Hall opened the week of July 13, 1929. That week, visitors to the new theater included the Governor of New York, Mr. Franklin D Roosevelt, Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Edison (née Mina Miller, daughter of Chautauqua founder Lewis Miller), Mr. and Mrs. Henry Ford, Mr. and Mrs. Harvey Firestone (producer of The Firestone Hour), Mr. and Mrs. Adolph Ochs (owner and publisher of the New York Times) and Amelia Earhart. Norton Hall remains one of the most impressive buildings on the grounds. It was the first monolithic concrete structure of its kind east of the Mississippi.

Maestro Stoessel (Music Director at Chautauqua from 1929 1943) is the only conductor who had both the opera and the symphony under his direct control. One of Maestro Stoessel's first steps was to create the Chautauqua Opera Association, with himself as Music Director and Alfredo Valenti of The Juilliard School as Production Director. Within the COA, Mr. Stoessel incorporated three hard and fast commitments:

  • All performances should be given in English (a Norton family request) with special attention to good translations and adroit choice of repertoire.
  • Promising young American singers should be given the opportunity to appear before discriminating audiences, thus exploding the star system, and promote the cause of the native musician.
  • Careful attention should be given to acting as well as singing, so that the overall production should have dramatic unity.

The first season of the COA included von Flotow’s Martha, Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel, a double bill of Gluck’s The May Queen and Wolf-Ferrari’s The Secret of Suzanne, and Gounod’s Faust. The repertory pattern for the next 15 years was set: two revival productions, two light opera/operettas and 2 new productions, one of which was first performed at The Juilliard School. By 1932 the COA had established itself as a singing experience for singers.

By 1933, Chautauqua was feeling the effects of the Depression. The Institution declared bankruptcy, but Mr. Stoessel committed to a full season in 1934 and remarkably ended it just a $1,000 over budget. By 1935 the COA was showing a surplus and on August 28, 1936 the COA was declared free of debt. In light of the company's continued growth the Norton family again pledged money to expand and update Norton Hall. With a $33,000 dollar donation a 72 foot addition was added to the rear of the hall, the orchestra pit was enlarged, the stage deepened and technical facilities were improved.

In 1943 Albert Stoessel passed away. His Production Director, Alfredo Valenti, took over as General Director, thus precipitating the permanent separation of the symphony orchestra and the opera. Under Mr. Valenti's leadership the COA's season lengthened to 8 operas a summer. In 1951, with the appointment of Julius Huehn as Director of the Summer School of Music, the opera increased the opportunities for Eastman School of Music voice students. The lure of small roles and scholarship money made the COA season very attractive to young singers from the famed music school. In 1952 Mr. Valenti mounted the first stage production of Menotti's Amahl and the Night Visitors after the opera's 1951 NBC television premiere.

In 1958 Alfredo Valenti retired after 30 years with the COA. Mr. Valenti's last season was perhaps the most auspicious to date as it included performances by some of America's most renowned singers including a young Mignon Dunn, Clifford Harvuot and Heida Krall as well as Chautauqua favorites Gil Gallagher and Val Patacchi.

Julius Rudel was hired to replace Mr. Valenti after a season as music director. Maestro Rudel was a conductor with professional theater credits and a growing reputation which the COA wanted to cultivate. Maestro Rudel was charged with “getting the opera moving again” [1] and putting Chautauqua back on the musical map. Mr. Rudel’s year with the company included two American operas – Herrmann’s Wuthering Heights and Giannini’s Taming of the Shrew. But the season had budget problems and poor ticket sales. Maestro Rudel moved on to assume the leadership of the New York City Opera for the next two decades. John Daggett Howell was promoted from business manager to General Director. Mr. Howell was a great believer in encouraging American Young Artists by “giving them the opportunity to tackle roles they may otherwise not have had the chance to sing” [2] . In 1965, his last season with the company, Mr. Howell staged Samson and Delilah, starring the very young tenor named Placido Domingo with the Met star Joann Grillo as his Delilah.

Leonard Treash followed Mr. Howell in 1966 and with his appointment reconnected the COA with Eastman School of Music in Rochester, NY. Mr. Treash had been head of the opera department at Eastman since 1947 and would serve in that capacity as well as General Director of the COA, until 1975. His first season was difficult, but the second season solidified his popularity with the public and company quickly. Mr. Treash brought new and undiscovered works to the COA including Ward’s The Crucible, Wagner’s Tannhauser and Die Walküre as well as Hanson’s Merry Mount. Hanson’s opera was the crowning achievement of Treash’s years at Chautauqua. Mr. Treash was also instrumental in establishing and expanding the Young Artist Program with grants from the Martha Baird Rockefeller Fund and the New York State Council for the Arts.

The present Chautauqua Opera Guild was established in 1974. To this day, the Guild is instrumental in supporting and encouraging the Opera’s Young Artists with an Adopt-An-Artist program in the community, pre-performance Operalogues presenting a background and selections of the evening’s opera, and substantial end-of-season Young Artist awards.

After 15 years Mr. Treash retired and his replacement was Cynthia Auerbach, the first woman to head the company. An established stage director, Ms. Auerbach was on the staff of the New York City Opera as well as the faculty of the Manhattan School of Music. For Chautauqua Opera, Ms. Auerbach augmented the Young Artist program by introducing the Studio Artist division. She introduced successful productions of Blitzstein’s Regina, Stravinsky’ The Rake’s Progress, and Loesser’s Guys and Dolls to Chautauqua. Tragically, Ms. Auerbach’s tenure was cut short by illness after just six successful years. Her assistant Linda Jackson was hired as General Director and remained with the company for eleven years bringing Britten’s Turn of the Screw and Rossini’s Count Ory to Norton Hall.

Stage Director Jay Lesenger, the present General/Artistic Director, took the company's reins as of the 1995 season. Mr. Lesenger's tenure has been marked by expansion of the Young Artist program including the Artsongs at the Athenaeum recital series, higher standards of production with more allotted rehearsal time, performances by well established opera singers as well as the planned updating of Norton Hall and the company's office and rehearsal facilities. In 2004, a generous donation from Jane A. Gross allowed the company to renovate and upgrade its rehearsal and administrative facilities. In 2005 the Jane A. Gross Opera Center officially opened and now houses the opera company's Administrative and Stage Management Offices, three rehearsal studios and five music coaching venues. And for the first time in its history, thanks to the generosity of the Chautauqua community, Chautauqua Opera has an endowment now totaling in excess of $3.5 million dollars.

During his 20 years as General/Artistic Director and principal stage director, Lesenger has introduced the Chautauqua audience to significant twentieth-century works including Vanessa (Barber), Two Widows (Smetana), Peter Grimes (Britten), The Consul (Menotti), The Cunning Little Vixen (Janáček) and the American musicals A Little Night Music (Sondheim), She Loves Me (Bock & Harnick), and Once Upon a Mattress (Rodgers & Barer). He also produced for the first time at Chautauqua overlooked Italian rarities: Macbeth, Stiffelio, and Luisa Miller by Verdi, Maria Stuarda by Donizetti, and Bellini's Norma, as well as new productions of The Ballad of Baby Doe, La Bohème, The Crucible, Don Giovanni, The Elixir of Love, Falstaff, Gianni Schicchi/Sister Angelica, Hansel and Gretel, Lucia di Lammermoor, Madam Butterfly, Manon Lescaut, Regina, La Rondine, Susannah, The Tales of Hoffmann, Tosca, La Traviata, Il Trovatore, and Werther. His critically acclaimed production of Richard Strauss' Ariadne auf Naxos has been produced by Chautauqua as well as the opera companies of Atlanta, Virginia, and Milwaukee where it was telecast on PBS from the Florentine Opera.

The company continues to be supported by an active community of volunteers, a diligent Opera Guild and a talented staff. “Tucked away in the most southwestern corner of New York State, Chautauqua has been home to a summer opera company longer than any such festival entity in the United States. Not only does it present top-drawer performances of standard fare such as La Bohème and Don Giovanni, but it also serves up an occasional surprise –... for example, the local première of Verdi’s seldom-heard Stiffelio.” [3]

 


[1] Mackenzie, Ross. “Chautauqua Opera, 1929-2004: A History.”

[2] Mackenzie, Ross. “Chautauqua Opera, 1929-2004: A History.”

[3] E. Thomas Glasow. Opera Quarterly Winter 2004