Composer  Lee  Goldstein
Librettist / Director  Charles  Kondek

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie

Lee Goldstein, Former Lyric Opera Composer

Chicago Tribune January 14, 1990  [Birth-date added for this website presentation]
by John von Rhein

Lee Goldstein, 37, an award-winning composer of operas, vocal and music theater works and former composer-in-residence at Lyric Opera of Chicago, died of cardiac arrest Friday at St. Joseph Hospital after a brief illness.

"Mr. Goldstein`s sudden death is very shocking to all of us at Lyric Opera," said Ardis Krainik, the company`s general director. "He was a brilliant, greatly talented man of music and a credit to our composer-in-residence program."

Goldstein, a prolific composer of vocal, dance and theater pieces, was named Lyric Opera`s second composer-in-residence in 1987, succeeding William Neil. The comic opera that resulted from his residency, The Fan, was based on Carlo Goldoni`s farce, Il Ventaglio and directed by librettist Charles Kondek. It had its premiere by the Lyric Opera Center for American Artists in June, 1989, at the Blackstone Theatre.

The response of press and public was extremely positive and signaled an important turning point in Mr. Goldstein`s career. "The wonderful success of The Fan had indicated a bright future for Mr. Goldstein," said Krainik. "His friends and colleagues at Lyric Opera are greatly saddened." The Lyric dedicated Friday`s performance of Die Fledermaus to Mr. Goldstein`s memory.

At the time of his death, Mr. Goldstein and Kondek had begun planning an operatic adaptation of the classic stage thriller Angel Street, which once served as the basis for the Charles Boyer-Ingrid Bergman film Gaslight. Mr. Goldstein was also preparing the orchestration for a large-scale choral work.

Born on November 16, 1952, in Woodbury, N.J., Mr. Goldstein held degrees in composition from Baldwin-Wallace College in Berea, Ohio, and the Queensborough College of the City University of New York, where he studied with composer Hugo Weisgall, advisor to the Lyric resident-composer program.

Mr. Goldstein also taught at Queensborough College, served as a vocal coach and lecturer on vocal literature at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, and acting director of choral activities at Baldwin-Wallace College.

Mr. Goldstein`s other operas are An Idiot Dance, based on Euripides' The Trojan Women, produced in Ohio in 1976; and Miriam and the Angel of Death, given its premiere at New York`s Jewish Theological Seminary in 1984. His choral part-songs, Robbing Graves, were premiered at Baldwin-Wallace College in 1986 and subsequently performed in Buffalo, Syracuse and New York.

His composition awards include a Charles Ives Fellowship from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, and grants from the National Institute for Music Theater, and the Ohio Arts Council.

Survivors include his mother, Edith, a brother and a sister.

A funeral service will be held Monday in Vineland, N.J. A memorial service will be announced shortly.

--  Names which are links on this webpage refer to my Interviews elsewhere on my website.  BD 

In June of 1989, Lyric Opera of Chicago presented the World Premiere The Fan.  A work by their composer-in-residence, Lee Goldstein and librettist/director Charles Kondek, as noted above it received positive response.  The death of the composer just half a year later came as a shock, and curtailed what was moving along to be a significant career.

During the final preparation for the production, I had the pleasure of chatting with the composer and librettist.  They were excited about the upcoming event, and our conversation simply passed among the three of us. 

Portions were used on WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago to promote the production.  Subsequently, the double-interview was published in The Opera Journal in June of 1990, and has been slightly re-edited for presentation on this website.

Here is what was said that afternoon . . . . . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:   The Fan is based on a Goldoni play. How much is Goldoni and how much is Kondek?

Charles Kondek:   The title, characters, and 85% of the plot is Goldoni, but the rest is rather radically different.

BD:   Different for the audiences because it needed updating?

Charles:   It's not a question of updating.  The piece is still set in the Italian square of 1756, but we do interjections
talking to the audience, commenting on that piece, telling them how much longer it is before intermission, things like that.

BD:   Is it necessary that the public is warned about the upcoming intermission?

Charles:   We had some comments during the work-in-progress performance
some thought it was too long, others didn't.

BD:   When the public is coming to see a new production of yours, what do you expect of them?

Charles:   I expect them to be rather royally entertained and certainly not bored.  Even if we have to bring on the elephants and dancing girls, I don't believe in boring an audience.

BD:   How much is entertainment and how much is artistic achievement?

Charles:   We could be here for a couple of hours on that subject.  I just think that there's a snobbery about regarding something that's entertaining as less artistic.  I don't understand that.  There's a great deal of art in making people laugh.  Punch lines and timing are important.  You need to know how to get from the table to the door so that when you open the door you say the line, close it, and it gets a laugh.

BD:   You're Mr. Words.  Is there a different balance for Mr. Music?

Lee Goldstein:   No, absolutely not.  Any creative artist's goal is to communicate to an audience.  What you are trying to communicate depends on the subject matter that you're dealing with.  If you're doing a deep, serious piece and the audience laughs, you've done something wrong.  But in this piece, the whole communication is to be entertainment and laughter, and when you consider works like Barber of Seville and Marriage of Figaro which, after 200 years, still have people laughing at the jokes, that's pretty high art, and only after 200 years can we say it's Art.

BD:   Do you write for today, or for 200 years from now?

Lee:   I'm writing for today.

BD:   Do you expect it to last for 200 years?

Lee:   Absolutely.

Charles:   And he's going to be around to make sure!  [Laughter all around]  I don't think Mozart or Rossini or Kurt Weill were writing for posterity.  They were writing to make a living.  They were writing for an audience that they knew and understood.

Lee:   It's a very late-nineteenth-century notion of "writing for the future."  It's the artists-as-Hero-God, rather than as artisan.

BD:   Can there be a composer and/or librettist that makes a living from his or her craft?

Lee:   As John Corigliano says, that is the main contribution that the minimalists have made.  [Note: When this interview was first published in 1990, John Corigliano was the Composer-in-Residence for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, whose Symphony about AIDS was premiered by Daniel Barenboim and the CSO in March, and his new opera would be done at the Met the next season.]  They have proven that yes, you can actually do that.  What you think of their artistic contribution is a completely different thing, but they have broken down that idea that the serious artist cannot also be a success commercially.  Back in the 1960s, Gian Carlo Menotti did well as a successful commercial artist writing what was considered high art at the time.

BD:   And he suffered the slings and arrows of the critics!

Lee:   He did, because the audiences found it entertaining.

BD:   So nobody liked it but the public.

Lee:   That's OK.

BD:   What should be the role of the critic?

Lee:   A lot of people in critical stances and positions have asked us why we have chosen to write a comedy
or really a farceset in the 18th century, now at the end of the 20th century.  My answer to that has always been that Stravinsky himself said, "Critics should not ask 'why' of an artist, but 'how.'"  It's up to the artist to choose what he or she wants to do, and the only thing that the critic can say is whether it's been done well or not.

Charles:   Nobody has the right to say "You should write this, or you should not write that."  You can see an apple as slightly more greenish and I see it more red.  That doesn't make either one of us wrong.  The only comment a critic has is how well I executed my craft, and did I achieve what I set out to do.

BD:   Who calls that shot and says if you've executed it well
the composer/librettist team, the public, the musicians, the critics, who?

Charles:   The writing team has to please itself first, and the critic has one-man's opinion.

Lee:   The audience's opinion is the one that lasts.  Don't forget the many operas that were panned by the critics that were loved by audiences, and have gone on the hold places of regular performance standing.

BD:   There's a book by Nicolas Slonimsky showing horrid reviews of great pieces [The Lexicon of Musical Invective].  If your piece is successful, it will go right on, but if not, does the fault lie with the performers?  And should the work be given another chance or be re-worked?

Charles:   Since I'm also directing the piece and the composer has been working with the performers and coaching it, if it flops we cannot blame anybody but ourselves.  We can't say that others have done something terrible to our piece.  We might have made mistakes in judgment.

BD:   You don't feel it needs a fresh eye to stage or conduct the work?

Lee:   I'm not conducting, but Lee Schaenen has been involved with it all along, and that has been a very important point with me.  As one lives with a piece, one loses the objectivity.  Charlie has not been directly involved with it for over a year.  He directed the reading last year of Act I, and went away and now is back.  He hadn't heard any of the second act music before he returned, so he's approaching the second act completely fresh.

Charles:   Lee keeps asking me what I think of the piece, and I say I haven't listened to the music enough.  I'm too busy trying to stage it as a piece of theater.  I don't hear the music yet.  The music is being played, but I'm not concentrating on that aspect as much.  Once it's staged, I can move back and start listening to it more.

BD:   Then the 'Capriccio' question
who will reign supreme, Mr. Words or Mr. Music?

Lee:   There are places in the opera where the words are the most important thing and there are others where the music takes over.  Toward the end of the first act there is a grand quartet, and in this fast-paced farcical comedy that's an opportunity for the music to take over and give us a different aspect of these silly characters.  It brings out the melodic and lyrical sense that we haven't had until then.  But when the jokes are going by, the words are more important and the music is trying to underscore the jokes.

Charles:   I never understood this question of which is more important the music or the words.  Even in a silly story like Il Trovatore, the words produce some very exciting music.  So they are just as important.  If it weren't for those words, silly though they might be, that music wouldn't exist.

BD:   But is their importance gone because they've inspired Verdi and that's all there is to them?

Charles:   Certainly not in a piece like ours.  You have to hear what's going on.  The seamlessness of this piece will be its ultimate redeeming quality.

BD:   When you're staging, do you make sure that all those words are able to be enunciated clearly and precisely?

Charles:   That's in the setting of the music.  If the words are set wrong, no diction coach in the world and no famous soprano can possibly make them understood.  If they're set properly, then yes, they will be understood.

BD:   So have you take great pains to set them properly?

Lee:   [In an exaggerated style]  Great pains, sir, great pains!  [Laughter all around]  Charlie has a great penchant for putting words together that meet in the same consonant
like "left to."  The "ft" takes a bit of time to say, and there has to be a bit of space between the "t" on the end of "left" and the "t" on "to."  All of that has been a consideration in the setting, and whenever I have coached anythingbe it Broadway or operathe diction and getting the words out have been foremost.  It is not only the enunciation, but making them understood in context and in the situation.  It doesn't matter how lovely the voice is or how beautiful the music is.  If the people don't understand the words, they're going to be bored.

Charles:   In this work there are a lot of words that rhyme.  I think that rhyming helps to speed the sentence along, and it enables the audience to hear and understand the words.  [Remembering a famous example]  "Do do that voodoo that you do so well."  Once you get into that, you know what the word is going to be because it rhymes with something else.  You know the end of the line before you even get there, and Lee has also been very careful that those words which rhyme can be heard.

BD:   You're the ideal person to ask this next question.  We were talking earlier about supertitles in the theater and translations.  If you all of a sudden get an offer from the Hungarian Chamber Opera, how would you solve the text problems?

Lee:   I think that all opera should be performed in superb translations.  The problem is that there are not many superb translations.

Charles:   We were talking earlier about making a living at this, and I make a modest fee for translating operas.  They're quite well known and quite well received.

BD:   Do you try to keep the patterns of the original in your translation?

Charles:   All my translations rhyme with the original rhymes.  I never change a note and never add a note.  People keep using them so I guess they're understandable.  I did The Abduction from the Seraglio in Boston with Sarah Caldwell and Beverly Sills as Konstanze.  The reviewer said that there was not one word in the translation that Mozart would not have set himself.

BD:   Are the two of you looking forward to collaborating again on other works?

Lee:   Indeed, we've already talked about it.

BD:   Who decides if it will be an opera or a musical or even something else?

Charles:   The greatest chore is to say, "That would make a wonderful musical," and then try to convince someone else of it.  But the choice depends on what you want to say.

Lee:   It also depends on the type of voice that you want to use.  The only criteria between an opera and a musical is whether you use a "belt" voice or a legitimate one.

BD:   So you hear the sound in your ear and then decide who can best make that sound?

Lee:   That's it.  I'm much more turned-on by the legitimate operatic trained voice.  I love the Broadway voice, but I find the operatic one much more expressive because it is capable of doing so much more.  The range is more extended.

BD:   Is it good that we are blurring the lines more these days?

Lee:   No, that's not good.  Mary Martin can sing Nellie Forbush a hell of a lot better than Kiri te Kanawa can, but Mary Martin could never sing Fiordiligi.  I don't think there is anything to be gained by having crossover and trying what the other does best.

Charles:   But I think that the blurring of the lines is good for people to understand that there is an art to South Pacific, and that kind of theater piece should be taken seriously.  It's not beneath people to go see them.  To see that you can have exciting music theater, whether sung my Mary Martin or Kiri te Kanawa, is good.  I also think that as the lines get blurred, some composers will be trying new kinds of things instead of writing just one or the other.

BD:   Is it correct to assume that over 200 or 300 years, the style of libretto has pretty much stayed the same?

Charles:   Oh sure.

BD:   But music has obviously changed.

Lee:   Absolutely.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Do you feel you're part of a lineage of composers?

Lee:   Absolutely.  Certainly if The Fan is saying anything, it is harkening back to a tradition of opera that has been forgotten for a long time.  When was the last time that an opera has appeared like Donizetti or Rossini would have written?  It's been decades at least, and so what I'm saying is that I am the descendant of this
long tradition.  It's what I wanted to do.  I looked around and saw all of this opera of the 20th century that had its roots in the late 1800s and early 1900s
the post-Wagner expressionismand nothing that harked further back to what the Italians had contributed.  I wanted to write an Italian comedy and get rid of all this Germanism.  They've ruled art for the past century.

BD:   Is your work not an American comedy?

Lee:   Indeed, but it reaches back to the Italian school of comic opera as seen by us here and now.  It's not a parody, but a doffing of the hat, an homage.  I cannot write something that Donizetti or Rossini would have done.  Mine is a comedy as seen through my eyes and heard through my ears, but influenced by those conventions and traditions.

BD:   Do you direct differently from what you thought as you wrote the words now that the music has been added?

Charles:   To a certain extent, yes.  I don't have those measures between the words on my original text.  Those measures take a certain amount of time to get actions accomplished.  My written stage direction might be "she goes to the door" and it takes a whole page of music for her to get there.

BD:   Is there ever a time when the composer has not given you enough time to accomplish the movements?

Charles:   It's my job to make it work.

Lee:   When Charlie gave me the libretto, the collaborative effort means that I tailor my conception to his.  Then, when he directs it, the piece is different from what he gave me.  So he has to re-tailor his vision to accommodate what I've tailored to fit his.  So it's awfully interesting and I'm thrilled with what he has done.  [Pauses a moment]  Notice he doesn't say anything right now...

Charles:   [Laughing]  There is a theory that three heads are better than two, and maybe I'm too close to it, but I felt that this is a special kind of piece.  There are many little things that I was not confident another director could see, and because this was a "working" kind of gig, it would be better to have me here because I knew the style and we could do further refinements.  Once we know that it works, we can give it to somebody else.

BD:   You've directed works by other composers, so how is Lee Goldstein different from Composer X?

Charles:   I think Lee is a man of the theater.  He knows that things have to work on the stage, and you write differently for the theater than you do for the symphony.  I find it very suspect that people who spend their lives writing symphonies and string quartets suddenly decide to write an opera.  They've never gone to the theate
r.  There are all kinds of well-known composers today who don't go see musicals or plays on Broadway.  There are conductors and even directors of opera who never set foot on Broadway to see what those people are doing.  But Lee is different.  He knows what he is doing.

BD:   So, it's not enough for a composer of symphonies to go to the opera every week?

Charles:   I'm not sure that they do.

Lee:   I would answer that by saying no.  The demands of the theatrical stage
— the dramatic pacing and the characterizationsare so completely different than the demands of writing absolute music.

Charles:   The theater is a collaborative art.  You really have to collaborate with writers, directors, choreographers, and scenery people, especially when you're creating a new piece.  You've got to know when to say, "No, that's not right," and when to say, "That's a terrific idea, let's use it," or, "I'll back off here so we can do that."  The piece is the important thing, not anybody's personal ego.  If it doesn't work, you can't go around saying, "Well, if they'd have listened to me, it would have worked!"  That's a lot of nonsense.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Coming back to Mr. Music, is writing a string quartet or a chamber piece purely an ego-centric idea?

Lee:   Any kind of writing is an ego-centric idea.  You have to have such courage in your abilities to think that people will sit there and listen.  It takes a lot of courage and conceit and ego to have that kind of courage.

BD:   Leaving The Fan for just a moment, what other music have you written?

Lee:   There is a cycle of part-songs for mixed chorus and piano on poems of Robert Graves called Robbing Graves.  All the major pieces I've written since involve texts.  From the time I was eight years old, I have always wanted to write for the theater.  I want to write operas or musicals.

BD:   OK, then how do you decide if it will be an opera or a musical
or is this back to Mr. Words again?

Lee:   No.  I've written two musical comedies both of which were produced, and I've worked in the theater writing incidental music for plays.  I would like to write another musical, but I'm so divorced from the popular style, and have gotten so far away from it that I might not be able to write a musical.  If the right subject appeared, perhaps...

BD:   What if Joe Moneybags asks you to write a string quartet?

Lee:   I certainly would like to try my hand at it...

Charles:   [Interjecting]  But one of the players would sing!  [Laughter all around]

Lee:   Wagner never wrote a successful symphony.  Verdi's String Quartet is only performed because it's by the guy who wrote Il Trovatore.  The very great opera composers
discounting Mozart, of coursewere basically opera composers.  Rossini did a few items, but generally the people who wrote operas wrote operas because it was such a specific genre.

Charles:   Even Stravinsky wrote lots of theater music including ballet.

BD:   So the theater is really a mind-set?

Lee:   I think so.  It's what turns you on.  I get turned on by losing myself in the characters and the situation.  While writing The Fan, often I'd be walking down the street and get stared at by people because I was trying to figure out a problem of one of the characters.  I was being that character in attempting to find out how to solve the problem.

BD:   When you get back to your desk and put pencil to paper, are you controlling the pencil or does the pencil control your hand?

Lee:   Oh, that's an MGM notion.  [Laughs]  I'm controlling the pencil at all times.  There may be times that I can no longer sit down because I've gotten myself worked up and I've got to walk out of the room because the adrenaline is going too fast.  I remember one instance when writing the fight scene between the two baritones, which had to be completely underscored with music.  This is a theatrical consideration.  A man who only wrote symphonies or quartets, when writing fight music would only be concerned with the music, so when he was finished with the music he was finished.  My first concern in writing that scene was how long a period of time could I sustain a fight visually.  So I ran around the room with a watch seeing how long I could keep myself interested in this fight business.  It turned out that I couldn't go longer than about a minute and fifteen seconds.  To a symphony composer, that doesn't should very long, but on the stage, a minute and a quarter of fighting is a long time.

BD:   So you wrote it to be just that length of time?

Lee:   Just like when people underscore a movie.  That's all done to a stopwatch and a click-track.

BD:   Do you feel, then, like you're in a straightjacket?

Lee:   Sometimes, but it's the solution of those problems that makes the straightjacket seem like a velvet coat, and that is the joy.

BD:   If you'd written something that was really great which ran a minute and ten seconds, would you leave it like that?

Lee:   Shorter is always better in the theater.  So if it ran a minute and twenty-five, I'd try to get it down to a minute fifteen.

BD:   You're both happy with the work as it is?

Charles:   Despite what Lee thinks, I'm very happy, yes.  I'm a very close-mouthed person so I don't make a lot of comments about it.  I don't talk a lot.

BD:   Would you be very upset if a member of the audience came and said, "I like the play"?

Charles:   Of course not.  The movements and the feeling come out of the music, so that has to be heard.  But in the first week of rehearsal, it is very tedious
stop, turn, get up, move here.  You also hear it in disjointed fashiona few bars, then another small section, then a few measures later.  It's not until the second week of rehearsal that you hear the entire scene from beginning to end without stopping.  It's not that I intentionally not listen, but my concentration is someplace else.

BD:   Where should the audience's attention be at any given moment of the opera?

Charles:   If it's staged properly, they will follow the characters as they develop, and absorb the thing as a whole.  Some people eat the frosting off the cupcake first, but most people eat the cupcake together.

Lee:   I know a lot of people have difficulty in either going to the opera or to the ballet because they don't know what to concentrate on.  They don't know whether to listen to the music or to watch the dance, and that's a very serious problem with modern audiences.  So it's my job and Charlie's job to direct their attention where we want it.  When I want them to listen to the music, it's my job to make the music foremost so they can't do anything but pay attention to it.  And when Charlie wants them to listen to the words or pay attention to a character, it's up to him to make it happen.

Charles:   It's not so much that one scene is words and another is music.  It's a whole thing.  I agree with Lee that there's some psychological reason that people cannot hear something and watch it at the same time.  When I stage something, if a character says, "I'm picking up a magazine," and does it, I either have them pick it up and then say the line or say the line and then do it, but not at the same time.  Someone will be watching what you're doing and not hear what you say, and others will hear what you say and not see what you've done.  So we separate it so you can hear the melodic line and still see the action.

BD:   So it really is a cupcake with icing and not a stew with all the flavors melded together.

Charles:   Yes.

BD:   Is it problematic to have just one performance of this new opera?

Lee:   Oh sure.  The singers will be all excited and there will be a lot of tension in the air, and they don't get a second chance, or a chance to settle in and relax and correct the mistakes they make the first time because of nerves or whatever.

BD:   I thought that was the point of the dress rehearsal.

Lee:   [Laughing]  No, no, no.  With the audience being there and the lights and the costumes, it's a different ball game than the dress rehearsal.  I hope to have people at the dress rehearsal so that the performance will not have the singers suddenly confronted with a crowd.

BD:   But these are young professional singers who have sung in front of crowds before.

Lee:   But this is a World Premiere, and opera singers are not used to doing new pieces.  They're not used to creating new works, and they're not comfortable with the harmonic and rhythmic idiom of the twentieth century.  Even things like syncopations that a Broadway singer would toss off, are not native to an opera singer.

BD:   Should the opera singer get more or special training?

Lee:   No, they need more opera houses to do modern works.  Any major opera house is under obligation to do at least one new American work.  We have enough fine American opera composers, and there is a big enough library of fine American operas that every house could do one per season, and a house that does 30 productions a year should include two or three American works in that season.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Now you're coming to the end of your tenure as Composer-in-Residence with Lyric Opera.  Several questions come to mind.  First, is that scary?  And second, do you know what you will do after that?

Lee:   Yes.  [Musing] 
The lilies of the field toil not, neither do they spin...  I have no idea what I'll be doing.  I find myself in the position of Eliza Doolittle at the end of Pygmalian.  I'm too good to go back to the gutter, and I can no longer stay in the high society I've been elevated to.

BD:   Is it right that Lyric takes you, provides you with everything for two years and then throws you out?

Lee:   But that's how it is.

BD:   Is that how it should be?

Lee:   No.  As Menotti once said, each opera house should have a composer that they foster.  That's the way it used to be.  Publishers did the same.  They had their composers whom they fought for and got performances for.  Unfortunately, we in the serious arts no longer serve any kind of social or commercial function which people a century ago did.

BD:   OK, then, the big philosophical question.  What is the purpose of opera?

Lee:   It's a dinosaur.  As I said, opera has lost any social or commercial function that it once held.  That was taken over by the Broadway theater or MTV.  Serious art of any kind cannot compete with that.  So, it becomes something that is worth fostering and worth helping to survive only because it represents an aspect of civilization that would be sad to see go.  Would you want there to be only MTV or only Broadway?  I'm trying to take a couple of nails out of the coffin.  Every new opera that the public hates or gets a bad review is another nail, and it gets harder with each successive failure.  The success of Philip Glass has removed several nails.

BD:   What advice do you have for the next holder of the Composer-in-Residence position?

Lee:   I'm not sure I can answer that question.

BD:   Let me approach it differently, then.  How is Lee Goldstein different from what he was three years ago?

Lee:   Aside from longer hair and mustache, he's a little sadder and he's a little wiser.  When I first started on this project, I was warned about the unfashionable-ness of writing a farce, a period piece, a numbers-opera, etc.  I didn't understand any of that.  If the artist wishes to create something, the artist creates it.  I didn't understand how the rigors of fashion could interfere with what the artist wanted to do.  Now I'm much more aware of the power of the politics, the power of the critics, and I'm now always aware of the value of the dollar.  That's why this is written for an orchestra of thirteen pieces.  If you're in the theater, you're always aware of the value of the dollar, but now I'm a little more aware of how things have to be compromised and scaled to the budget.

BD:   Will that make your next piece different?

Lee:   [Laughs]  No.  That's why I'm sadder.

BD:   So you're sadder that it has to be that way, but wiser to know how to get around the problems?

Lee:   That's it.  Any kind of composition is problem-solving, and that's the fun; getting yourself into a problem and then getting out of it in an elegant way so it doesn't sound like that was the only way out.

BD:   Are you optimistic about the future of opera?

Lee:   No, because I don't think there is an educated audience.  The majority of people in the world don't recognize biblical allusions or classical allusions.  You can no longer quote famous lines from literature and have people recognize them.  There are people who don't know, say, where Costa Rica is, and some of them have gone to college.  If you're dealing with that kind of erosion of knowledge, what requires more knowledge and connection to all of the allusions of the past and its literature than such a theatrical form as opera?  You have to be able to recognize conventions and traditions.  The point is the erosion of the aspiration toward knowledge has become so serious a problem that any art that aspires to recognize or depend on that kind of knowledge is in serious trouble.

BD:   [Playing Devil's Advocate]  Then why is Lyric Opera of Chicago able to sell out 3600 seats for all of the 60 performances each year?

Lee:   Those are repertoire pieces.

BD:   Don't you want your opera to become a repertoire piece?

Lee:   Of course.  But if Rossini had needed to sell 3600 tickets for 8 performances of The Barber of Seville back in his day, I'm not sure he would have been able to do it.  Rossini filled a 1400 seat theater when you could sing in your own language and be understood because of that size.  That's another of the problems of the arts today
the expansion.  The theaters need to be such a size to fund their costs that the size of the ever-growing halls works against the success of the performances.

BD:   How is television adding a joker to the deck?

Lee:   It's much easier to stay home than get dressed up and go out.  It's cheaper.  There are a lot of people who enjoy watching the televised performances, but whether that translates to a love of opera I cannot say.  I think the way that television has affected us is that an audience will not sit still for longer than 45 or 50 minutes.  Even such a work as Barber of Seville is a long piece, and people used to television shows would not be able to sit through the Barber.  Dominick Argento, the very successful opera composer who was on my advisory panel, said that he holds himself to 55 minutes per act and no longer because he feels an audience will not sit for more than that.

BD:   Even though they will stay for two 85 minute acts of Don Giovanni.

Lee:   They do that because it's Mozart and because it's Don Giovanni.  They won't do that for Argento, and they certainly won't for Goldstein.  You're not allowed to say Mozart is too long, or that Wagner is too long.  It's not allowed.  But it is perfectly all right to say that Argento or Goldstein is too long.

=======              =======              =======
----        ----        ----
=======              =======              =======

© 1989 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in Chicago in early June of 1989.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB during the following days.  This transcription was made in 1990 and was published in The Opera Journal in June of that year.  It was slightly re-edited and posted on this website at the beginning of 2017.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.

Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.