Opera’s Lesenger sees his art as expression of spirituality


Jay Lesenger

Emma Morehart | Staff Writer

Opera is part of Jay Lesenger’s soul, but his soul has been burdened lately.

At 2 p.m. today in the Hall of Philosophy, Lesenger, the general and artistic director of the Chautauqua Opera, will explain the challenge the arts are facing right now. His lecture is titled “Opera as a Spiritual Journey: My Confession.”

“I also will talk about the time that we’re in right now, which is a very difficult time,” Lesenger said. “Our souls are burdened now because of the economy and because of the lack of exposure to the arts in schools. So the focus will be on how we got there and the impact of what’s going on today.”

Although Lesenger said he does not consider himself an especially religious person, he is spiritual, and that spirituality is reflected in the opera.

When it comes to spirituality, Lesenger puts religion and opera on the same level. Everybody has some amount of spirituality in them, and religion can be an expression of that spirituality. Opera, he said, can be another.

“I think (religion and spirituality) are the same; I just think some people are religious because they follow the road of organized religion. … Religion is part of spirituality,” Lesenger said.

For many performers and audience members, the opera also can reflect the soul and spirituality, Lesenger said.

“For many people who are not performers, just the act of going and hearing and listening and being moved by it is a form of spirituality,” he said.

Historically, there are interesting tie-ins between opera, theater and religion. In a nutshell, theater evolved out of religion, and opera was originally an attempt to re-create theater.

For a period of time during the Middle Ages, secular theater was banned, so a form of theater appeared in churches that sparked opera. In the 1500s and early 1600s, operas could not include any reference to Christianity. So any religious content in operas at this time was mythological, Lesenger said.

“I think there is a lot of religion in opera, clearly. … I just think that opera is spiritual because of the way it moves you, the way it infects, the way it gets inside of you, the way any good theater or music does,” Lesenger said. “I think it’s so important because if we don’t have that expression in our culture, we’re going to be in a lot of trouble.”

Several years ago, Lesenger put together a season of religious operas called “Opera and the Almighty,” for which the Department of Religion planned a week of lectures to complement the opera’s theme. This week is the first time since then the two departments have worked together so directly.

“I think that’s part of what Chautauqua really does,” Lesenger said. “There’s an opportunity here to mix different disciplines … and I think Chautauquans love it when they see the different disciplines find ways to interact in ways that they wouldn’t expect.”

Although even Chautauqua’s soul is burdened with the challenges facing the art world, Chautauqua is still a special place to perform, Lesenger said.

“I don’t think you’ll find a lot of places or go to a lot of cities where the religious leaders call upon the artistic leaders … to be a part of what they’re doing,” he said. “And yet, it should, because there is an interrelationship. The festival of opera also is related to the festival of religion.”