Lesenger celebrates a theatrical 20 years as artistic director of Chautauqua Opera Company

Megan Tan | Daily file photo
Chautauqua Opera Company Artistic/General Director Jay Lesenger surprises the audience with a solo performance in 2011 during the company’s annual pops concert with the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra.

It’s rehearsal day at the Amp.

Jay Lesenger is scurrying among the rows of benches, his Chautauqua lanyard swinging around his neck. He leaps on stage, dodging scattering violinists, to talk to conductor Steven Osgood on the bandstand. He hops down to prep soprano Cree Carrico for her big night, ensuring her lavish jewelry is all in order for Candide’s “Glitter and be Gay.” He breaks to chat with the coaching staff, gossip with the lighting department, and to ask faculty members about missing nametags. He checks in on important dates, costume decisions, after parties and future dinner occasions. 

It’s a good thing he has on comfortable shoes.

This year, Lesenger celebrates 20 years as artistic/general director of the Chautauqua Opera Company. Out of his 70 productions, he’s done three Falstaffs, three Toscas and three Madam Butterflys — the latest being what he said is his best. He’s brought in young performers from Texas, Pennsylvania and New York, and he’s watched them go on to light up the Met. Although he looks back on his numerous productions of Puccini and Mozart with gratitude, it’s his Chautauqua family that he recalls most fondly.

“If you don’t interact with the community, then you’re missing a lot of fun of doing the job,” he said.

Since October 1994, it seems, Lesenger has been involved in the community. Vice President and Director of Programming Marty Merkley, who interviewed Lesenger for the position, stressed the importance of getting to know the place, which Lesenger vowed to do.

When the 1995 season began, Lesenger had plans to revamp the program and add his own touch to opera at Chautauqua. Making his way into the community, for Lesenger, was just natural.

“He’s the type of person that people want to be around — to work around,” said Carol Rausch, the company’s music administrator/chorus master. “I think being in Chautauqua, which has a sort of old-fashioned feel, being a people person is as good as it gets.”

Lesenger’s isn’t the only anniversary the company is celebrating. Michael Baumgarten, director of production/lighting designer, is also in his 20th year, and Rausch, her 25th. She said that Lesenger’s charismatic personality is a key component of his success of the last 20 years. 

“You can’t run any of these programs without interacting with the community,” Lesenger said. “It’s fundamental to the success of your program.”

Yet success isn’t all talk. 

Back during the days when show programs were assembled in the cramped office wings of Norton Hall — with the costume shop in its moldy basement — opera at Chautauqua was in a different place. The first season with the Lesenger-Rausch team saw fresh productions of Mozart’s Così fan Tutte and Jacques Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann. It was Lesenger’s staging of Hoffmann that he said “turned the company around almost instantly.”

At the time when four operas spanned seven and a half weeks, Hoffmann, with its Broadway-sized proportions, high theatricality, and three-and-a-half hour running time, was truly “a landmark of a production,” just as Lesenger predicted it to be in a 1995 issue of The Chautauquan Daily. 

It was the first of efforts of Lesenger to try and “make Chautauqua known nationally as an opera company.” What would help the Institution realize this goal wouldn’t just be the result of big stars, but little names as well.

“Before Jay came to Chautauqua, this place was one of the last choices for a singer looking at young artist programs,” said Jane Gross, a member of the Opera Guild. “But after five or six years, with Jay’s dedication to creating a truly educational experience, … Chautauqua Opera Company moved up to the first choice for many young artists.”

Understanding the importance of the Young Artists program, Lesenger began expanding it in his first few years with an avowed dedication. He worked alongside Rausch to convert the late-night, one-time Studio Artist recital into weekly Artsongs in the Afternoon. 

The evening performances at the College Club were “made more interesting,” Lesenger said, when he repackaged them as musical theater revues. Feeling all young artists should have experience singing in front of a full orchestra, Lesenger included every voice in the annual Highlights Concert. 

And when the season was shortened to only two main-stage shows in 2011, Lesenger made sure students’ experiences were not.

“The one thing he made a priority was that we would still provide all the performance opportunities that we had provided in the nine weeks for the Young Artists,” said Allison Voth, coach and accompanist.

A witness of a rehearsal can attest to the clean-cut, hands-on approach of Lesenger as coach and as guide. Whether it be exchanging ideas with longtime friend and collaborator baritone Michael Chioldi, or walking Apprentice Artists through a rehearsal of The Ballad of Baby Doe at the Jane A. Gross Opera Center, Lesenger represents daily the attentive, involved director.

Miriam Charney, longtime coach and accompanist, who met Lesenger when she and he both began working at Chautauqua, believes that it’s Lesenger’s honest care for the singers that makes his program unique. This constant involvement in the training of young artists — what Lesenger promised initially, at his start — is something, she said, uncommon elsewhere.

“As odd as it may sound, not all directors really like and respect singers,” she said. “But others, like Jay, really love the voice and understand what it means to be an operatic singer.”

Besides the singers who have returned over the years — David Crawford, Mark Delavan, Cree Carrico, to name a few — it’s Lesenger’s tact in choosing his staff that’s in line with his casting. 

According to Charney, the opera company under Lesenger is free from the academic brand of competition often found in other programs. From the wild pre-season soirees at the Athenaeum Hotel, to off-season reunions, Lesenger, according to Charney and Rausch, hasn’t just created a “wonderful body of work,” but a legacy over the past two decades.

“We tend to stay because I think we believe in what Jay has created. It all trickles down from the top,” Rausch said. “And we’ve been lucky to have a great top.”

But the love runs deeper than his staff can say. Lesenger, who discovered opera through Puccini’s The Girl of the Golden West at age 9, is a self-professed, lifelong adherent to opera and theater. 

Growing up near Manhattan enabled it, he said, and his parents nourished it, mostly through trips to Broadway shows. In a 2010 lecture titled “Opera as a Spiritual Journey,” Lesenger confessed that “[he] is an addict and needs a regular fix” of opera. 

Ever since 18, Lesenger knew that he wanted to spend his life in the director’s chair. The lingering catch, he said, is finding a constant “dose.”

“ ‘What do you do in your time off?’ people ask me, and I say, ‘I go to the theater,’ ” he said. “The thing I love most is to sit in the seat and watch the curtain go up.”

What one Time Out New York writer described as a “storied career” is seen as a rather “emotional ride” for Lesenger. From typing up program guides until 3 a.m., to directing Così fan Tutte in the un-airconditioned Norton, to performing a tear-worthy version of Madam Butterfly in the open-air Amphitheater, Lesenger looks back at his 20 years and 70 productions at Chautauqua with grace and a sense of accomplishment. For him, it’s all in a day’s work, one stage at a time, until the curtain falls.

“You get up and you bow and you go home and you have a drink,” he said. “And the next day you start all over again.”