Lesenger: Arts just as important as most fundamental things in life


Jay Lesenger, artistic/general director of Chautauqua Opera, explains his “addiction” to theater and specifically opera, Thursday afternoon in the Hall of Philosophy. Photo by Megan Tan.

Emily Perper | Staff Writer

“I am an addict, and I think you all need to know this,” announced Jay Lesenger, artistic/general director of Chautauqua Opera.

“My addiction is theater and music, and my drug of choice is opera.”

Lesenger has directed more than 200 productions over approximately 35 years. Fifty of those productions were at Chautauqua.

Lesenger cultivated an appreciation for opera at a tender age. His parents went to the opera every Thursday for almost 25 years. Metropolitan Opera recordings played in the house constantly. He went with his father to the Metropolitan Opera for the first time when he was just 9 years old.

“I thought it was the dumbest thing I’d ever seen, and I loved it,” he said. “I was hooked.”

Inspired, he wrote a Halloween play in the fifth grade. He pored over vocal scores and eventually worked in the music library. His theater exploits ranged from community to high school to musical productions. When he was 15 years old, he built a model of the Metropolitan Opera stage out of cardboard and wood.

Originally, his parents did not support Lesenger’s obsession, reminding him, “Opera is an avocation, not a vocation.”

He went to Hofstra University, changing his major until he settled on music with a theater minor. He directed his first opera when he was a junior in college.

Spiritual or karmic experience came with Lesenger’s senior year, when a substitute teacher gave him the phone number of Frank Corsaro, a leading opera director in New York City.

“If I hadn’t talked to him that day, my life would have been completely different,” Lesenger said. “I don’t think I would’ve gotten up the chutzpah to go and find Frank’s number and call him on my own.”

Once he made it to New York City and Corsaro’s class specifically, Lesenger admitted he was fearful. Nevertheless, he joined the NYC opera staff when he was 24 years old and made his directorial debut when he was 28 years old.

“When I think back on it, I am amazed that it happened, that they were willing to take a chance on me,” Lesenger said.

The show went “OK,” Lesenger said, and he entered a period of freelance directing and teaching that took him around the country.

Then, Lesenger was recommended for the position of artistic director at Chautauqua Opera.

“Suddenly, I was handed an opera company and the responsibility of growing this company and maintaining this company and strengthening opera here at Chautauqua, and I can’t tell you how lucky I am that it happened,” Lesenger said.

Of all the art forms, Lesenger believes opera has the most dedicated audience. He cited the overwhelmingly positive reaction to the 10:45 a.m. Monday morning lecture in the Amphitheater, where opera students formed a flash mob and performed excerpts of songs.

“Anybody who loves opera is fanatical about opera, thinks of it as their religion or certainly one of their religions, if we are allowed to be multi-religion people,” he said.

Lesenger said he believes people express their spirituality in different ways, from practicing religion to experimenting artistically to playing sports to raising a family.

“I think religion is a subset of spirituality, and I think opera is a subset of spirituality,” he said.

Norton Hall, where Chautauqua Opera makes its home, is full of history, from future Metropolitan Opera star performers to the artists with whom Lesenger himself has worked.

“You go in there, and you are surrounded not only by spirituality, but perhaps spiritualism as well,” Lesenger said.

Originally, Greek and Roman tradition integrated opera into religious festivals. Its popularity diminished during the Middle Ages as the secular-religious dichotomy expanded to all spheres of life. During the Renaissance, opera experienced resurgence in popularity as certain groups of players re-created Greek theater. The church considered the articulation of God’s name in the context of opera to be partially obscene.

“Opera, it seems to me, is an enormous expression of our cultural spirituality,” Lesenger said. “It’s very much an expression of the spirituality of composer.”

He held up an opera score.

“To me, this is as important as the ‘Mona Lisa,’” he said. “The difference is that you can take the ‘Mona Lisa,’ and you can hang it on the wall … in a theater, and it costs money to do that, there’s no question. But to do (opera), you need an orchestra, you need singers, you need designers, people to build the scenery, you need your stage staff, stage managers, people to build the costumes — you need an enormous amount of creative people to make it happen.”

Lesenger praised the two communities of which he is a part: the Chautauqua community — staff and visitors alike — and the Chautauqua Opera community’s performers, administrators and technicians.

He held up the opera score again.

“Each one of these (operas) is its own universe that needs to be created and re-created,” he said.

Directors re-create and reinterpret, but Lesenger, for one, said he still respects the composer’s intentions.

Art makes people slow down and focus on one thing at a time.

“Opera takes its time,” Lesenger said. “You don’t do opera fast.”

He said he thinks this will be more and more important in the future.

He commented on the attraction of programs like the Metropolitan Opera’s “The Met: Live in HD.” While it advocates for the operatic form, more and more people choose to attend televised productions instead of supporting local, live opera.

Opera is in a difficult stage right now, especially considering the state of the economy.

“That doesn’t mean creativity stops, by the way,” Lesenger said. “There’s no way you could stop creative people. People are willing to not eat to be creative.”

Continuity and dedication sustains the arts, including opera.

“What frightens me — and I get emotional about this — is that this stuff won’t keep getting done,” Lesenger said. “And that frightens me, because it’s like putting a blanket over the ‘Mona Lisa.’ It’s like, ‘Well, we’ll close our museums, because we don’t need art. We don’t need music. It’s a luxury.’ It is not a luxury. It is as important as eating and housing and the most fundamental things in our lives.

“And people can ask me to justify that better — I can’t. It just is.”

Lesenger clarified the decisions surrounding cutting down the opera programs at Chautauqua. It was Lesenger’s idea, for example, to have an opera production in the Amphitheater. About 3,000 people came to see “Norma” during the 2010 Season.

Lesenger emphasized the importance of exposing children to the arts at a young age and lamented the undercutting of arts in public schools.

“If we have our senses and we have nothing to invest them in … that’s scary,” he said. “(Chautauqua) is a place where we can build and enforce the audience of tomorrow.”