A fond farewell: Lesenger wraps up final season

Opera Pops honors Lesenger

To honor a man who has dedicated 21 years of his life to providing captivating performances for thousands of people, Chautauqua Opera Company Music Administrator Carol Rausch believes a musical tribute is truly fitting.

“We normally pick a theme, and then I thought, ‘Why we are not doing something that is a musical tribute to Jay?’ ” Rausch said. “So some of the songs are Jay’s favorite tunes, and some represent the shows we have done.”

Jay is Jay Lesenger, the company’s artistic and general director, who is stepping down after the season. The annual Opera Pops concert, which begins at 8:15 p.m. Saturday in the Amphitheater, features a program of familiar Broadway hits and this year is dedicated in his honor.

The program is split into three sections, designed to establish an arc. The first section is “Hello” which features songs such as “Hello, Young Lovers” from The King & I.

The second section is “Loving, Knowing, and Roasting Jay” — sharing the love and friendship the opera family has developed with Lesenger throughout his tenure. Section 3 is “A Fond Goodbye,” wishing him a farewell and best of luck in future endeavors.

Rausch said perhaps one of the most memorable productions during Lesenger’s direction was Fiddler on the Roof, performed in 2004 in Norton Hall. Since the Apprentices are typically front and center, the Studio Artists get their own tribute: They will perform “Sunrise, Sunset.”

“The closing will be ‘The Best of Times’ from La Cage aux Folles,” Rausch said. “The summer is over, so let’s not think about the past or the future — let’s focus on right now, because it is the best of times.

For many in the Chautauqua arts community, Saturday means goodbye to a longtime mentor, colleague and friend. That’s the case for Stuart Chafetz, normally the principal timpanist for the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra, who will direct the evening as guest conductor.

Over the years, Chafetz has become a regular pops conductor, leading both the annual July Fourth celebration and Opera Pops concert. Working with Lesenger has always been as educational as it is pleasurable, he said, and Saturday is a way of saying thank you to someone who has done so much for the artform in Chautauqua.

“This is celebrating a guy who made opera a really big deal here,” Chafetz said. “When I came here in ’96, I saw so much energy and so many positive things that happened.”

Chafetz said what he enjoys most is the process of putting together a production and watching colleagues like Lesenger coach and shape the Young Artists. Like everything in Chautauqua, these productions come together in a very short amount of time, and Chafetz said he learns a lot from watching Lesenger stage these performances.

Considering the general over-the-top nature of Broadway musicals, Chautauquans might expect the already ebullient Chafetz to be firing on all cylinders come Saturday. But he said the night won’t be about him, nor should it be.

“I’m there to accompany the singers and make a very — hopefully — seamless performance in tribute to a great man,” he said.

Staff writer Morgan Kinney contributed to this report.


Lesenger reflects on 21 years

Twenty-one years ago, Jay Lesenger walked into the Chautauqua Opera Company eager follow his own artistic vision and to bring an energized experience to the community.

“When you are a director in our business, you go to different companies and a lot of decisions are made for you,” said Lesenger, the company’s artistic and general director. “They decide the cast, conductor and sometimes even the physical production. Here, I did it my way.”

But before the process of planning productions could start, Lesenger had to learn the ins and outs of the company. When he walked into his position, he said he was essentially handed a box of files and told, “Here. Go run an opera company.”

Along with running the opera company, Lesenger had to learn how the company meshed with Chautauqua Institution. Through it all, the job has been fulfilling, he said, and has allowed him to advance his skills in different ways.

“This job found me in all the right ways, because it taps into all of my strengths and thankfully minimizes my weaknesses,” he said. “The job is about directing, teaching, interacting with community and performing, and it has allowed me to grow in so many different directions.”

From meeting famous composers, to staging productions that others wouldn’t dare touch and instructing some of today’s great opera artists, Lesenger said he’s grown just as much as his colleagues and students.

“I have been so fortunate to do work that I love the way I believe it should be done,” he said. “I have been able to use repertoire here that is not always done in other places because they are afraid to take the risk with their audience — our audience is willing to go along with new things.”

Lesenger reflected on his first opening night as director. He was standing on the stage in Norton Hall after Jacques Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffmann, and the crowd roared.

“The reaction from the audience was overwhelming, and I never had anything like it,” he said.

Mary Stuart, performed in 1998, featured gorgeous music, he said, and the audience was banging on the floor when it was over. Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes, performed in 2013, was “one of the highlights of my whole career of 40 years.”

“It is a work I love,” he said. “It is enormously complex musically and has a great dramatic story. People were very skeptical the Chautauqua audience would enjoy it, but I had a good audience in the Amphitheater that night — the cheering at the end was very gratifying.”

There’s an exhilarating feeling of executing a performance, and then there’s the excitement of having the original director compliment it: Mary Rodgers, who wrote Once Upon a Mattress, which is a parody of The Princess and the Pea, attended Chautauqua Opera’s production of her work. The cast for it was wonderful, Lesenger said, and after the performance, Rodgers approached the stage.

“I introduced her to the audience, and she said, ‘Can I say something to the audience?’ and I quieted the audience down,” he said. “She then said, ‘The production was as good as the one that opened on Broadway in 1959.’ When Mary Rodgers says that, you better believe it means a lot.”

The enjoyment of teaching the rising Young Artists has been fulfilling, and watching them leave the company and find great success is rewarding, he said.

“Oftentimes, we found them when they were first getting started, and now they are onto other events,” he said. “We tried to set a real tone for how to behave as a professional by stressing the importance of discipline, respect for colleagues. You don’t get to be spoiled in this business and succeed.”

Chautauqua is a unique place that combines arts, religion and recreation, and Lesenger said the community takes pride in being involved in the activities of the programming.

“Here is a community that knows me and knows my work, and they have watched my work grow,” he said. “The community supports my colleagues, and we are supported and encouraged here because we are connected with the community, and that doesn’t happen very often.”

But after 21 years, Lesenger is leaving. He’ll continue to direct and teach, and the decision is largely one to be home more, he said. No matter where he works, he will never have the interaction with the community as he had here.

“I love this place. I love this job, and I love the people around me, and I love the company so much,” he said. “I am so proud of the quality of work we are doing, this team we have now and the energy of the company its 21 years of work to get to this point.”

The decision to leave is fully his own, he said. For both professional and personal reasons, it is time to exit, but it’s not an easy thing to do. The week has been tough and full of goodbyes, he said, but he will still keep in touch with friends and his opera family.

“This has been a very tight team for a long time, and the energy and the magic at the Chautauqua Opera right now will never happen again,” he said. “There will be a different magic and a different energy undoubtedly, with whatever changes are coming to the company.”

He believes that, at some point, he had to step back and allow the organization to evolve — it’s time for a new face to keep the company new and energized.

It is unimaginable to think what his life would have been without the fulfilling, joyful or artistically stimulating aspects of this job, Lesenger said.

“I want to extend a big thank you to this community for celebrating the arts at the level that they do and for allowing it all to happen in one place,” he said. “It is the community that makes this happen, and it is the community that continues to support it to make it happen with their spirit, pride and desire for this.”