Lesenger joins CWC for Chautauqua Speaks

Lori Humphreys | Staff Writer

After the first “Artsongs in the Afternoon” performance in the Hall of Christ, Chautauqua Opera Company Artistic and General Director Jay Lesenger lingered at the back of the venue, speaking with appreciative audience members.

“Just a minute, I have to see my kids,” he said and hastened to the three performers.

His kids are quite adult, but that comment reveals the paternal care he gives to the young singers whose voices have brought Lucia di Lammermoor — and will bring Manon Lescaut — to life this season. It also uncovers a different and perhaps unexpected dimension that has made him a successful opera director for 35 years and almost 200 productions.

Lesenger is not an onstage performer, though he said he always performs at rehearsals. He is a vivacious conversationalist and when talking about opera, and could persuade even the indifferent to attend a Chautauqua Opera performance.

“When opera is great, it’s viscerally exciting. It is unique. Everyone should at least try it,” he said.

Lesenger was 9 years old when he saw his first performance at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. Thus began a love affair undiminished by time and familiarity. He will bring his electric passion as he describes “Chautauqua Opera Alive and Moving Forward” Thursday at 9:15 a.m. for the Chautauqua Speaks program in the Chautauqua Women’s Clubhouse.

It is Lesenger’s 18th year at Chautauqua. He is as excited about this season’s production of Lescaut at Norton Hall as though it were his first. And though the number of operas produced at Chautauqua was reduced to two from three in 2010, he seemed delighted with the change of venue from Norton Hall, the traditional opera hall, to the Amp for one of the season’s performances, Lucia.

The biggest proof that opera is alive and well, he said, was the 3,000-member audience for Norma at the 2010 production at the Amp.

Lesenger enjoys a national reputation as an opera director. This past April, he directed a production of The Ghosts of Versailles at the Manhattan School of Music. New York Times reviewer Anthony Tommasini described his direction as “colorful and fluidly staged.”

“I knew that I wanted to direct opera as soon as I began studying at Hofstra University, New York,” he said.

He followed with a master’s degree from Indiana University Bloomington. But he credits his work with legendary opera director Frank Corsaro as a prime influence in his professional life.