Chorus  Master  Michael  Lepore

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie



Imran Vittachi, Tribune staff reporter CHICAGOLAND FINAL  January 24, 2004

Training aspiring singers who supplemented their incomes by holding down ordinary jobs, Michael V. Lepore channeled the voices of secretaries, printers and even grocery clerks into one of the most acclaimed operatic choruses.

Mr. Lepore, 97, chorus master of the Lyric Opera of Chicago from its founding in 1954 through the 1974-75 season, died Friday, Jan. 23, in his Northwest Side home.

"He was a great chorus master and a pillar of the Lyric," said William Mason, the opera company's general director. "He embodied everything that an operatic master should be. He was a man of great musical integrity."

Among his achievements during his 20-year tenure, Mr. Lepore was responsible for training a local chorus for the 1954 production of "Norma" that first exposed diva Maria Callas to American audiences.

He had a reputation of being a mild-mannered but stern chorus master.

"He took a lot of people who didn't have a lot of experience," said his wife, Sharon, one of his trainees in the late 1950s and early '60s. "He was a taskmaster and a perfectionist, but he got wonderful results."

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., Mr. Lepore was one of three sons of Italian-Americans. He trained as a concert pianist from a young age. In 1924, at age 17, he performed his debut solo recital at Aeolian Hall in Manhattan, playing Beethoven's "Appassionata" Sonata, his wife said.

Before being forced to abandon his career as a pianist because of a finger ailment, he studied piano and music theory in Florence, Italy. In 1961 he was awarded Italy's honorary title of cavaliere for his contributions to Italian opera.

Mr. Lepore would go on to assist conductors at opera houses and ballet companies in Philadelphia, Cincinnati and New York. Mr. Lepore moved to Chicago in 1954 for the Lyric's inaugural season.

During the company's first 15 years, he spent weeknights training chorus members who relied on day jobs to make ends meet.

"The work isn't easy and the sacrifices many," Mr. Lepore said in a 1969 Tribune article. "Rehearsals often run five hours a day, and considering that most members must hold down an additional full-time job, scheduling becomes a big problem."

His wife said that before the advent of all-professional choruses, singers couldn't make a living on opera alone, particularly in the off-season.

She was a clerk-typist who joined the chorus in her late teens. She was the winner of the 1961 WGN Illinois Opera Guild auditions.

"I was sort of overwhelmed by it, but he was a marvelous teacher," she said.

In addition to his wife, Mr. Lepore is survived by many nieces and nephews.

Mass will be said at 9:30 a.m. Monday in Our Lady, Mother of the Church, 8747 W. Lawrence Ave., Chicago.


As noted above, Michael Lepore guided the Lyric Opera Chorus for its first twenty seasons.  Growing with the company, his artists fit well into the productions, creating a unified sound which emanated from the stage.  In the early programs, he was also listed with the Assistant Managers as a Consultant.

A little more than a decade after his retirement, I persuaded him to chat with me.  As seen in his letter shown at right, he originally suggested that we get together at the opera house when he was there for a dress rehearsal.  However, it finally worked out for both of us to meet at his home several months later.  Ever warm and genial, we discussed his personal reflections and his professional achievements.

Included here are some photos which show some or all of the chorus members from those first twenty seasons of Lyric Opera.  Links on this webpage refer to my interviews elsewhere on my website.  
Note that besides these links, a full list of my interview guests who appeared with Lyric Opera during its first fifty years has been gathered HERE.  This includes singers, conductors, composers, directors, managers, administrators, and backstage personnel.

Here is that conversation . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:   First, let me get a little background.  Where did you come from, and what did you do before you came to Lyric Opera?

Michael Lepore:   I was born in Brooklyn, New York, and I started out as a pianist.  I studied as a concert pianist, and made my debut in New York.  Then, when I came back from Italy in the mid-
30s, I started in opera with Alfredo Salmaggi.  [See note about Salmaggi in the box immediately below.]  He used to give popular-priced operas.  I was with him for quite a number of years.

BD:   Were you an accompanist or a coach?

Lepore:   I started gradually.  First, I played for the ballet, and from there I was working backstage, and then an accompanist for rehearsals and auditions.  I took care of the backstage bands, and things like that.  From there I was with the Philadelphia La Scala Opera Company for a number of years before and after the War.
 [An item about the company is also in the box immediately below.]  I’ve been with a load of opera companies, like the Hartford, and different secondary opera companies.  Before I came here, I was with the Starlight Operetta Company in Dallas.  [More about the Starlight company is in the box at the bottom of this webpage.]  I was also with the Cincinnati Opera Company during the summer.

BD:   [Surprised]  Oh, in the Zoo?

Lepore:   Two seasons, yes!  Basically, they were very good performances.

BD:   Were you the Chorus Master in each of these places?

Lepore:   An assistant.  I really started as Chorus Master with the Starlight Operetta Company.  There I had to train the chorus, and also conduct on the weekends whenever the conductor, Giuseppe Bamboschek, felt he was too busy with his work that he had to prepare.  He was the one who really helped me a lot.  [A bit about Bamboschek is the third item in the box immediately below.]

Italian-born, Alfredo Salmaggi (March 4, 1886-September 9, 1975) began in the U.S. as a singing teacher with the claim of having taught Italy's Queen Margherita how to play the mandolin. In 1915 he took his first plunge: a production of Pagliacci at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in which he sang the part of Canio himself. As a tenor, he was a spectacular bust. But he took in $7,000 at the box office.

Thereafter Salmaggi stuck to management. His big chance came in 1933 when Managers Cecil Mayberry and William Carroll were stuck with an expensive lease, and no show, at Manhattan's huge Hippodrome. Salmaggi proposed filling the place with opera. Mayberry and Carroll asked for a $5,000 guarantee. Salmaggi did not have a cent but promised the money anyhow. Advertising a stupendous list of 53 operas (many of which were never performed) at 99¢ top, he raised the $5,000 before he had raised the curtain.


Thereafter Salmaggi presented opera at Manhattan's Polo Grounds, Akron's dirigible hangar, Chicago's Soldier Field, Washington's Griffith Stadium, the open-air stadium at Randall's Island, N.Y. At one Polo Grounds Aïda, a Manhattan stable refused Salmaggi's check for the use of its elephants, camels and horses, walked them out the center aisle during the performance. Salmaggi shrugged philosophically. He had advertised elephants and camels, and the audience had seen them.

[Mostly from an article in Time Magazine, March 1, 1943]  

The first company to be known as the Philadelphia Grand Opera Company (PGOC) was founded in 1916. Short lived, the company produced just two operas before disbanding. The second company to be known as the PGOC was actually a company based out of New York City that was active in both NYC and Philadelphia. The company was founded by impresario Alfred Salmaggi (later founder of the Salmaggi Opera Company) in the spring of 1920 under the name the Italian Lyric Federation. The company's first performance was at the Academy of Music. The company changed its name to the PGOC in November 1920 after the financial backers fired Salmaggi. From this point on the company worked out of Philadelphia, although Salmaggi countered his firing by continuing to perform works with different singers under the name of the Italian Lyric Federation in NYC. Like the first PGOC, this company was also short lived, with its last production being held on Halloween of 1921.

The Philadelphia La Scala Opera Company was an American opera company located in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania that was actively performing at the Academy of Music between 1925 and 1954. In 1955 the company merged with the Philadelphia Civic Grand Opera Company to form the Philadelphia Grand Opera Company. During its history, the company typically presented 12 operas each year at the Academy of Music during its annual season, giving over 350 opera performances at the house by the end of its final season. The company's last season was the 1953-1954 which was cut short due to financial reasons.

As a collaborative note to Chicago, the first Chicago Grand Opera Company produced four seasons of opera in Chicago's Auditorium Theater from the Fall of 1910 through January, 1914. It was the first resident Chicago opera company, and was formed mostly from an arrangement to acquire the assets of Oscar Hammerstein's dissolved Manhattan Opera Company. The company also spent several months each year performing in the city of Philadelphia where it performed at the Philadelphia Metropolitan Opera House under the name the Philadelphia-Chicago Grand Opera Company in order to "satisfy the civic pride" of that city.


Giuseppe Bamboschek
(b. Trieste, June 12, 1890; d. N.Y., June 24, 1969) was a conductor for the Metropolitan Opera. He studied at the Trieste Conservatory, graduating in 1907. In 1913 he went to the U.S. as accompanist for Pasquale Amato. In 1918 he joined the staff at the Metropolitan Opera in N.Y., specializing in the Italian repertoire. He served as the Met musical secretary in 1913, as a protege of Arturo Toscanini and Chorus Master Giulio Setti. He also toured as an accompanist with Lily Pons, Jeanette MacDonald, Grace Moore and Giovanni Martinelli. He left the Met in 1929 and went to the St. Louis Municipal Opera, and later conducted at New York's Hippodrome Opera Company. In 1937 he joined the Philadelphia La Scala company as a conductor.

Notice that all three names appear in this program from September 30, 1933 --
Salmaggi, Bamboschek, and Lepore (with his first name using the Italian spelling!)


BD:   You eventually came to Chicago?

Lepore:   The summer before I came here, I was in Cincinnati.  That was my second time there, and Nicola Rescigno was one of the conductors.  [Rescigno was one of the Founders of Lyric Opera in 1954, originally called Lyric Theatre of Chicago].  In September he asked me to come to Chicago, but I didn’t accept.  [Laughs]  I’m very hesitant about things like that.  I’m very backward and diffident about things!  Finally, he talked me into it, so then I accepted.  It was on Labor Day when I arrived here, and I’ve been here ever since.

BD:   You were Chorus Master with Lyric for twenty years.  What else did you do during the year after the Lyric season was finished?

Lepore:   At the beginning, after the season was over here, I would return to New York and wait.  I’d come back when I would have to prepare the chorus again.  At that time we started in June.  Then I asked for earlier preparation, and finally it ended up where I used to start in March.  The work was so strong, so heavy, that finally it just took all my time, so I scheduled my time, and finally I just made Chicago my residence.

lepore BD:   When you first came in 1954, was there a chorus already established, or did you have to start it from scratch?

Lepore:   No, there was a chorus.  George Lawner had prepared it.  He was later an assistant conductor here and at the San Francisco Opera, and eventually was at Kansas University.  He had a very good position there.  You get big operas at the School of the University.

BD:   How was the Lyric Opera chorus different in 1954 from the chorus you left twenty years later?

Lepore:   In a way there were three groups here, and we had to put them together.  It was the top job to get that done.  We had a group of old-timers, who used to sing in the opera, but we didn’t have enough of them.  Then we had a Polish group, and there was another supplementary group.  So it took a little work.  They had to learn the repertoire and, when I came, they needed more drilling.  After that, you want to also blend things and make them sound like something.

BD:   Did you have to re-assemble the chorus every year, or was it basically the same nucleus year after year?

Lepore:   Every year we needed replacements, because some would drop out.  So every year there were a number of new people, and that made things a little difficult.  But in a way, sometimes it made it easier, because maybe you get better individuals.  So there’s pros and cons.  But with the chorus of the Lyric Opera compared with, say, the Metropolitan Opera, they have an all-year-round job there.  They have people there who know the repertoire from years back, and all you have to do is just review it.  With the Lyric, you have to teach them all over again each year.  It depended on the repertoire.  Those who didn’t know a certain opera would come at the beginning of March, for a month or so.  I would have just the new people to learn these certain operas, and then when it came to preparing the operas that the old-timers knew, I would have them come the following month.  I had to judge those things.

BD:   You were trying to make it so that everyone would be fully prepared at the same time?

Lepore:   Yes!

BD:   Did you select who would and would not sing?

Lepore:   Oh, yes.

BD:   How do you decide whether a person should or should not be in the chorus at Lyric Opera?

Lepore:   First of all, naturally, you want somebody with a good voice.  The better the voice, the better the sound, but as I always said, it doesn’t have to be the greatest voice.  It doesn’t have to be the best voice, as long as it’s a decent voice.  What I consider very, very important, really more important is that the person be a fast learner.  The two things that I didn’t want from a chorister was somebody with poor intonation, and somebody with a wobble in the voice.  Those are the two worst deficiencies that I could find.  I just ignore those people.

BD:   Was there ever a case where the voice was actually too good to be in the chorus?

Lepore:   When you have somebody who really has an exceptional voice, very often it can be that this individual is not so much interested in choral work.  They are waiting for a chance to be the prima donna, or the chance to be noticed, and they don’t make the ideal chorister.  What I call the ideal chorister is one who is musical, has good intonation, has a fair voice, and who looks at chorus work as his desire.  Someone who is hoping to get a role to sing, that’s no good because they are the ones who are the most negligent in learning the repertoire.  For me, the best chorister is the one who is a professional.  It’s their career to be a good chorister.  Another very important qualification for a good chorister is one who learns fast.  Naturally, I like to have somebody who is a good sight-reader.  It’s a big help, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the person is going to be a good chorister, because a good sight-reader very often is a slow learner.  The opera chorister has to learn everything by memory.  Choristers who sing in concert choirs have their music in their hands.  They can see the conductor clearly, and there’s nobody in their way.  When you go into the opera field, you need to know everything by memory, and you have act at the same time.  You may be moving around, or maybe you’re not moving around, but you’re there standing still and you’re singing.  You have to be careful of your attacks, but you have to be able to see your conductor.  Very often it happens that people are in your way.  Some of the artists, or the ballet might be in your way.  There are maybe even choristers who the stage director  has blocked.  [Laughs]  I have a few opinions about the stage directors.  So a chorister really has to go through an awful lot of pressure.  They can work very well, and know the music very well when you hear them in the choral room, but then you go onstage, and when it comes to the performances
or even the rehearsalsat times it can sound nowhere as near as good because there are things that disturb them.  Maybe for one reason or another they can’t see.  The choruses really have it very difficult, and people don’t realize that.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   When you prepare the chorus, at what point do you say that this chorus is ready?

Lepore:   [Laughs]  That’s one thing I never say.  We are never ready enough.  As a rule, I would strive to have the chorus ready by September 1st.  After that, when we had time to do more, all the better.  I say by September 1st, because I don’t know after that what can happen.  Maybe the stage rehearsals will begin early.  When I first started at the Lyric, the staging would begin way past September, not as early as now, because each year they extended the season.  So, there were more rehearsals.

BD:   [Gently protesting]  But you also didn’t have as many performances of each work.

Lepore:   There were just two performances of each at the beginning.

BD:   Is it easier to prepare something when you know you have six or eight or ten performances in front of you?

Lepore:   No, that doesn’t really make any difference.

BD:   Let me turn the question around.  Is it frustrating to know that you only have two shots at it once you’ve put all the work into it?

Lepore:   Oh, yes.  It’s nice, and we can go over things more if they had many performances.  But as a rule it just goes on all right.  They are well-prepared at the Lyric, of course.  They are a good group.  But, as you said, at the beginning we would have two performances, and it makes you feel bad doing all that work.

BD:   How to you decide the size of the chorus?

Lepore:   Generally speaking, you figure maybe thirty men and thirty women, more or less like that.  It also depends on the opera itself, but a normal opera would call for twenty-eight or thirty women, and thirty-five men.  Naturally, if you get an opera like Aïda, or Boito’s Mefistofele, or some of the Wagnerians, you want more.  In Aïda I used 110, which included the supplementary chorus.

BD:   That doesn’t include people who just carry a spear, does it?  [See my interview with Ken Recu, Captain of the Supers at Lyric 1977-83.]

Lepore:   No, no, no, they all sing!  I’m just talking about the chorus.  They’re there to sing.  Then there are some operas, particularly the Mozart operas, which use less than a normal chorus group, and sometimes that causes a little bit of stress among the choristers, because they wonder why they weren’t picked.  So, you try to balance everything.  It’s not an easy job, unfortunately.


During Lepores tenure at Lyric Opera, Aïda was presented in four seasons:
1955, with Tebaldi, Antonioli, Varnay, Gobbi, Wildermann, conducted by Serafin;
1958, with Rysanek, Bjoerling, Simionato, Gobbi, Wildermann, conducted by Sebastian;
1960, with Roberti/Price, Bergonzi/Ottolini, Simionato, Merrill, Mazzoli, conducted by Votto;
1965 (shown in photo above), with
Price/Lee, Lamberti, Cossotto, Bastianini/Colzani, Vinco, conducted by Cillario.

BD:   Are you there for every performance?

Lepore:   Oh yes, every one.

BD:   Did you also conduct the off-stage chorus?

Lepore:   I did all the backstage repertoire.

BD:   To see the conductor, did you peek through a hole in the curtain?

Lepore:   [Laughs]  Yes, that’s the old tradition, to make a hole in the curtain.  There again, sometimes it can be where a singer gets in the way.  After a number of years at the Lyric, I spoke to a manager about that, and now we have a television backstage, so it makes it easier.  You don’t have to make a hole in the scenery.

BD:   The television monitor worked very well?

Lepore:   Oh yes.  That was a tremendous help.

BD:   When a chorus is off-stage, how do you decide how close or how far away from the scene it will be?

Lepore:   It depends.  Some of them have to be very far away.  Naturally, I try to have them further away, but either you have them sing softer, or just loud enough.  When we had television sets, naturally you had to be around where they were.

BD:   You mean everyone had to gather around the TV?

Lepore:   Yes, but we couldn’t be too far away from where the action was going on.


The view that the chorus sees when they arrive for a rehearsal

BD:   Who watches the picture on the TV set
everybody, or just you?

Lepore:   No, just me.  Just the one who’s leading the chorus.  Now they have television sets in certain places on both sides, but when I was there we had only one.  Maybe they have them on both sides of the stage, but sometimes the choruses, instead facing the conductor, maybe for stage direction reasons they have to face across.

BD:   Oh, they must look off into the wings?

Lepore:   Yes, so in that case they have to follow the conductor somehow.  Most of the time, the choruses are in a position on stage that they can
t see the conductor while they’re singing.  So then I would be on something highon a stool or something like thatand direct from the wings.  Those are the things that have to be done.  It’s like when you have the band playing back-stage.  Television now comes in handy.

BD:   Did you ever conduct the off-stage band?

Lepore:   Yes.  Not always here, but in the past.  These are all the accomplishments I have.  In my first years here, I had to do everything.  I was doing the chorus, and the band backstage, but then finally I was just the Chorus Master, nothing else.

BD:   That’s what you wanted?

Lepore:   That’s what I wanted, yes.  I had enough there.

BD:   You didn’t have any latent desires to conduct in the pit?

Lepore:   No.  I only did that once for the Benefit Concert for Italian Flood Relief [November 20, 1966].  I conducted one of the numbers where the chorus had to sing.  All the conductors conducted something, so it was just everybody contributing something of their service.

BD:   Does it upset the chorus at all to work with one of the big-name stars, as opposed to somebody who is a good singer but not a big name?

Lepore:   No.  The only thing that a chorus will appreciate is if it affects their singing.  By that I mean if it’s a question of where they are both this way in the music, or are singing together, and so forth.  If the prima donna, or whoever is the soloist, is musical, it’s all right.  But if, somehow, they sense a certain something is off, naturally it’s going to make them a little nervous.  My wife used to be in the chorus!  She was in the chorus for four years.

*     *     *     *     *
BD:   What was the biggest opera for the chorus?

Lepore:   Aïda, naturally, and Mefistofele.  Also Billy Budd and Peter Grimes.  They are something, really.  [Billy Budd was given its American Stage Premiere at Lyric Opera in 1970 (shown in photo at left), with Uppman in the title role (which he had created in 1951).  Peter Grimes was given in Lepore
s final season (1974) with Vickers, Kubiak, Evans, conducted by Bartoletti.]

BD:   What makes these operas tough?

Lepore:   With the Britten works, it’s the phrasing, the rhythms, the intonation, everything about it.  The attacks were the most difficult.  You have to really be very sure of yourself musically, especially when you’re on stage.  Then you have to look at the conductor.  One slip and you’re just good-bye.  It’s very difficult.

BD:   You don’t feel that Rossini or Verdi would have demanded the same things?  [Both laugh]

Lepore:   They’re difficult enough.  I don’t mean to say they’re more musical, but somehow they’re easier because they have more the cantabile sort of music.  It flows along.  In Billy Budd or Peter Grimes, with short answers here and there, and short phrases where the other voice is supposed to attack at you, if you miss one they’re waiting for you to answer back.  Every singer has to be so exact, but it’s all interesting music.

BD:   Do you call for more rehearsals for the Britten works?

Lepore:   For Peter Grimes I had more rehearsals that usual.  Beginning in September, the whole chorus come in every night for a week just for Peter Grimes.  It’s difficult, but it’s worth it because it’s so effective.  The same for Billy Budd, which is very difficult.

BD:   I enjoyed both of those very much, and I remember always being impressed with the soloists, but also being impressed with the chorus.  They were always precise and solid.

Lepore:   That’s what you think!

BD:   Yes! [Much laughter]  You didn’t think so???

Lepore:   I’m always a nervous wreck after every performance, and during the performance as well.

BD:   Is it really only after the performance that you know that it’s ready?

Lepore:   [Laughs]  Oh, I was always nervous.  It’s one of those things.  You’ve worked hard, they’ve worked hard, and you feel that it better be right.  But there are other operas that also need a lot of work.

BD:   I would think Don Carlo would be a big one.


Don Carlo
was given four times during Lepores tenure at Lyric Opera:

1957, with Sullivan/Bjoerling, Cerquetti, Gobbi, Rankin, Christoff, conducted by Solti

1960, with Tucker, Roberti, Gobbi, Simionato, Christoff, conducted by Votto

1964 [shown in the photo at right, and the program below], with Tucker, Gencer, Gobbi, Bumbry/Cossotto, Ghiaurov, conducted by Bartoletti

1971, with Cossutta, Lorengar, Milnes, Cossotto, Ghiaurov, conducted by Bartoletti


Lepore:   Don Carlo is, yes, but Falstaff is also very difficult.  [Lepore presided over the Falstaff chorus in three seasons: 1958, with Gobbi, Tebaldi, Moffo, MacNeil, conducted by Serafin; 1968, again with Gobbi (who also directed), Kabaivanska,  Domínguez, Mittelmann, conducted by Sanzogno; 1974, with Evans, Ligabue, Zilio, Stewart, conducted by Maag.]  Mefistofele is another.  In fact, to me it’s a marvelous one.  I don’t understand why it’s not given more often.  I think it’s such a nice opera!

BD:   I do too.  It’s been done here twice, I believe?

Lepore:   Yes, while I was there we did it twice.  [1961 with Christoff, Bergonzi, Ligabue, Ludwig, conducted by Votto; and 1965 (Opening Night) with Ghiaurov, Kraus, Tebaldi, Suliotis, conducted by Sanzogno.]  That was a very tough one to prepare.

BD:   Are there some other operas that you think are really good that should be performed more than they are?

Lepore:   [Thinks a moment]  Andrea Chenier should be given more often.  [It was produced in 1961 with Vickers in the title role.]  That’s a wonderful one.  It has a very strong ending.

BD:   Again, let me turn the question around.  Are there any operas that are done often that you think should be dropped from the repertoire?

Lepore:   [He laughs] Oh I don’t know.  I think what’s given now is all right.  Of course I love Tosca.  [Photo from 1964 shown below-left.]  It’s a popular one, but even if you hear it every week, it’s still strong if you have good casts.  For instance, if you have Tito Gobbi, my God!  When he was on stage, you knew he was on stage!  He was really a terrific artist.

BD:   Is that something that can be learned, or is it just innate?

Lepore:   No, I think the person must be born with a certain talent and a certain personality.  One can develop a certain talent, but that person must have the talent as an artist.  You have to develop your talents, but you must have the talent for it.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   How closely did you work with the various conductors?

Lepore:   Especially if it’s a conductor I had never met before, naturally I would want to talk to him
or he might want to talk to me!to ask each other certain questions we’d like to know to understand one another.  Some you get along with very well, and some [laughs] maybe not as well!

BD:   How far ahead would you begin talking
just when they arrive in Chicago?

Lepore:   Yes, generally speaking that’s what it was, unless it was to know the cuts.  The only way for that is from the office, or to get in touch with the conductor.  Sometimes it was a problem.  The point with me was that I had to know in advance in order to prepare the chorus.  It isn’t something that you find out just the week before the opening.  Sometimes an older conductor might think I prepare them a week before, but I want to know before I start!  I don’t want to teach the whole opera and then find out they
re going to cut this and cut that.

BD:   It's a waste of time!

Lepore:   Yes.  [Both laugh]

BD:   Are you in favor of cuts or not?  Do you wish they would open them or close them?

Lepore:   It depends.  I don’t want to see cuts unnecessarily done.  It’s a question of being time-consuming, but naturally you don’t like to cut anything that’s worthwhile.  In fact, nowadays, it’s jolly difficult, musically.  They used to have these traditional cuts.  Now they sing certain operas without cuts, and I go for that.

BD:   You’re glad that they’re done complete now?

Lepore:   Yes, you perform it as the composer composed.  I believe in that.  Of course, there many times where the music is unnecessary.  Maybe it’s a repetition, and I can understand cutting that to make the continuity not so boring.  That was their reason for doing it many years ago, and it used to be traditional.  In Il Trovatore, or La Traviata, you just accepted the fact that these are the cuts.  There was an old saying that if you don’t want to cut, you don’t get offers because you don’t know your operas very well.  [Laughter]

BD:   Do you like the fact that the chorus is having to do more on stage, and that the stage directors are demanding more of the chorus?


La Bohème in the production by Pier Luigi Pizzi, first seen in 1972.
It would be seen again the following season, and then
subsequently under the succeeding chorus masters.

The older production had been given in eight previous seasons:
1954, 1955, 1956, 1957, 1960, 1962, 1964, and 1965.

Lepore:   If there is a need for it, and if it’s worthwhile.  What I don’t like is having the chorus move around, or doing things on stage when there’s no sense in it.  It’s not that I don’t like it, but many people don’t go along with that, and nowadays you find quite a bit of that in the staging.

BD:   If you were still working, would you go up to a stage director and say that it’s not good to have the chorus do all of this?

Lepore:   I would make a little protest.  For instance, if they have a few people over here, and a few over there, and a few more elsewhere, no.  My point is when you look at the orchestra, all the sections are always the same.  The first violins are together, the second violins are together, the violas are together, the brass is together.  There are the families, and I want the chorus to work the same way.  I don’t like the idea when you have a soprano over there, and then you have ten sopranos over there, and one soprano there, and two tenors here, and twenty tenors over there.  That’s not right.  You don’t get the right blend.  You don’t get the right sound, and some of the directors don’t understand that.  Those are the times when I have little arguments.  But I was always judicious...

BD:   [Playing Devil
s Advocate]  But what if they say that within a crowd the tenors are not all going to be together?

Lepore:   I just never went with that.  I never did.  There is a way of doing it right.  I would say that with the orchestra you go by the sound.  The conductor wants to hear a good sound.  Why can’t we have a good sound on stage, too?  If they’re not placed right, it doesn’t project right.  For instance, you don’t want to hear only the basses’ themes where you should hear the first tenors.  Maybe their theme is important, and you don’t hear it because they’re covered up
by being way at the back of the stage.  It isn’t blended right.  These are the things that used to annoy me very much.

BD:   I’m looking for the balance between the music and the visual.

Lepore:   That’s where a stage director must feel he has those responsibilities.  I sympathize with him.  I know what he wants to do.  He wants to make a nice staging, but they can also do wrong things just like anybody else.  I can do wrong things, too, but they should know more about the music end, not only the about staging.  Otherwise, they might as well go into the film business.  But when they’re doing something musical, it must also be done so that the music is done well and is heard well.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Does opera work on television?  Do you like it?

Lepore:   They are improving an awful lot, I would say.  At first I didn’t like it, especially when it’s been filmed close to their heads, or right up at the front.  When you go to hear and see an opera, you have a visual of the whole stage.  You see the whole stage, and you get the sound, and you know where you want to look.  If someone is singing, you can see the other singers, and understand who is important there, and see the reactions.  But it has improved an awful lot, and some of them are really very good.

BD:   What about this use of translation on the screen, or now in the theater?  [Remember, this interview was held in 1986, when supertitles in the theater were just beginning to be used.]

lepore Lepore:   I personally am not crazy for them in the theater.  It’s nice to know to what’s going on, or that you know at a moment what is said, but for a person who goes to an opera, the most important thing is that the person is musical, and that the person loves music.  Otherwise I can’t see why a person would want to go and see an opera if they don’t have some kind of a feeling for music.  By looking up for the titles, it is a distraction from the stage action.

BD:   I wonder what (publicist) Danny Newman would say about that.

Lepore:   [Laughs]  You can always read the story before you see the opera, or before you go to the performance, or during the intermission.  Even if you don’t know what’s going on, if you are a lover of music everything will affect you very much.   I know it will affect me very much.  I can listen to a Wagner opera, and even though I don’t know the German language well
or it could be any language that I don’t knowI could still enjoy it and be very impressed.  The staging and all that should give you something.  If one is a music lover, then they could appreciate it even without seeing or reading the titles.

BD:   What about singing in translation?

Lepore:   Personally I prefer them in the original language.  If it was a language you don’t know, but you are a music-lover, why should you care about the language that they’re singing in if you love the music?  If I want to know what they’re saying, or know the story, I’ll just read up on it, but I’d rather hear it in the original language.  Another thing is seventy-five, eighty or even ninety-five per cent of the time, even though you know the language, you don’t hear all the words!  Now and then you’ll hear something at the end of a phrase, or just one word, and then it goes on and on, especially when there’s florid music.  I feel that it’s not that important.

BD:   [Pressing the point]  How hard did you work in rehearsal on the diction of the chorus?

Lepore:   I want hard work.  There’s no question about it.

BD:   Did you work harder at, say, Peter Grimes because it was in English?

Lepore:   [Laughs]  There’s some truth in that! [He laughs]  You’re really picking out something there.  We take it for granted.  We assume that we know the language, but then there is also another thing.  Sometimes it can be in certain words, and some of who speak English may pronounce it one way, and others pronounce it another way.  When I notice those things, I try to establish it as one or the other.  I look them up in the dictionary so that I have a reference.  I decide that this is how to pronounce it, and that’s it, so nobody can contradict me!

BD:   But you wouldn’t get those fights in Italian or German because they wouldn’t know?

ML:   For me, the Italian language is about the most beautiful language there is.  I will explain to you why I say that.  First of all, in the Italian language you have the vowels.  Every vowel has a sound, and it has the one sound.  All the vowels and the consonants always have their sound.  There may be some exceptions, but it is always strictly that, and you can never go wrong.  If you get somebody who doesn’t understand Italian but knows the pronunciation, that person will be able to read it aloud good enough so that the Italian will be understood.  In the Italian dictionary there is no pronouncing guide.  They don’t have that.  They just have the word and the meaning because you pronounce it the way it is written.  In the English language there is nothing you can go by.  There is no such thing as saying this letter is pronounced this way every time, so that when you find that letter, or a word, you pronounce it that way.  It is not so.  Take the f sound, for instance.  Sometimes we write it as ph, like philosophy.  French is difficult because it has different sounds.  There are nasal sounds, and so forth, and that’s hard.  For a singer, that nasal business is very difficult.  The one nearest to the Italian would be Russian, because when you pronounce the vowel sounds it’s always that same sound.  It’s an open sound.

BD:   [Gently protesting]  But there are so many more consonants.

Lepore:   Oh, yes, but you pronounce those consonants the same.  They don’t change.  You may have more consonants, but that doesn’t change the pronunciation.  This is what I’m getting at.  Then, of course, there’s Spanish, which is also close to the Italian language.

BD:   Is German particularly difficult?

Lepore:   German?  No, no!  You don’t have any of the nasal sounds or anything like that.  It
s all open sounds.

*     *     *     *     *
BD:   Are there some composers who wrote better for the chorus than others?

Lepore:   [Thinks a moment]  I don’t know.  There are different kinds, going way back many years ago, back to Bach and all that.  They wrote very, very well for the chorus.  Verdi is terrific for the chorus.

BD:   Are there any composers that really didn’t really write very well for the chorus?  Perhaps they wrote nice operas, but the choral parts are not very good?
Lepore:   I can’t think of any.  Mozart operas, generally speaking, have very little for the chorus, but it’s well written.

BD:   If someone is writing an opera, and he comes to you and wants to be sure to write the choral parts well, what advice do you have?

Lepore:   First of all, you should know the tessituras well, the voice sections, and write in the way that is very singable so that the singer can produce a nice tone.  Sometimes these skips can be very difficult for the chorus, but write within a good range.  This is the important thing, and also the more cantabile there is, the better for the chorus.

BD:   So, it’s not just for the soloists, but for the chorus also?

Lepore:   Yes, surely.  But it’s like that in every music that you get.  Today’s modern pieces for soloist don’t appeal to me.  I’m not saying that they’re no good, it’s just I’m too old for all that.  It
s the same way with the orchestra.  Some of the composers write in these modern styles, and I just don’t go for it.  A lot of people like it, but many write for the chorus that sings in a way where everybody’s shouting.

BD:   But if a composer calls for shouting, you would have to teach it to them?

Lepore:   Yes, of course.

BD:   What about divisi?  Are there times when there are simply too many choral parts?

Lepore:   [Thinks again]  There were times when a composer would write for many different parts, but then you’d also find that one or two parts are the same.  At the beginning, the Lyric chorus wasn’t that big.  We didn’t have as many as I had later on, so naturally when certain parts were divided, we had them in certain groups.  I would have them arranged in a way so that the listener didn’t know that.  The chorus would sing this part and that part, and make it all one.

BD:   What advice do you have for someone who would like to be a choral director?

Lepore:   Take care of his nerves!  A choral director, first of all, needs to know enough about singing, and attend concerts, or get involved with choral groups.  Be amongst singers, and listen to them a lot so you get to know a lot about it.  That is very important if you want to be a chorus master or a choral director.

BD:   How much did you, as a choral director, get involved with the characterization, or did you leave that mostly to the stage director?

Lepore:   It was mostly the stage director.  I was just involved with the interpretation.  I would try and teach them that.  But when it comes to the staging and all that business, that I leave to the stage director.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   How do voices change over thirty, forty, fifty years?

Lepore:   After twenty, or twenty-five, or thirty years, it just depends on the instrument, and how good a singer is.  For singers who knew or understood their mechanism, their voice, and knew really how to sing, their voices are going to last quite long.

BD:   Have voices in general changed over that period of time?  You’ve been listening to voices over generations...

Lepore:   All can change in so many ways.

BD:   Are you optimistic about the future of opera?

Lepore:   I wasn’t at all, to tell you the truth.  I wasn’t sure if it would survive.  I don’t know whether it’s the times today, or maybe many people are not that interested in music, or singing, or an opera, or what.  There is one big change...  Years ago, when a youngster wanted to make a career singing in opera, they found a good teacher.  There used to be many good teachers, and they would go to study for a number of years.  They would do nothing else but study, and build up a repertoire.  But today, no!  They study for six months or a year, and right away they wonder why the Metropolitan doesn’t phone them!  This is the fault I find with the younger generation today.  I have spoken to some students, and some of them are talented, but this is the mistake many of them make.  You can be a very successful singer, but you don’t have to be a prima donna, a principal singer.  You can be a comprimario, for instance, and you can always be in demand.  You’re busy every week of the year, being engaged here and in London and in Rome.  People will want you because you are a fine comprimario, doing character parts.  Many of these youngsters don’t have the kind of voice to make them a leading tenor or leading soprano.  It’s better to make a career being engaged all the time, rather than just hanging around and waiting for that call.  I have given this advice to a number of youngsters here in Chicago, and there are several good singers here at the school.  They can have a good career, always be in demand, always be busy, and not have to worry about making money.  They can eat, and that’s a career.  This is what so many don’t understand!  They try to be another Gigli, or another Pavarotti, and they don’t stop to study themselves.  Do they really have a good enough voice to have a career like that, or is it better if they look at it from another angle, and see what they’re adapted for, and see where their talent lies.  That’s the thing!

BD:   One of the happiest people I ever interviewed was Florindo Andreolli.

Lepore:   I always use him as an example!  He’s always busy, singing all over the world because he has a better voice than usual for a comprimario.

BD:   If he had been a taller man, would he be another principal tenor?

Lepore:   That’s what I’m getting at!  He would be able to do the first tenor parts, but the point is that he is very busy.  Of course, he’s been singing for many, many years, and he doesn’t have the voice he used to have.  It’s still a good voice for the parts that he does.  Because he’s singing what he does
and any of these singers who do character partsit isn’t that you always listen for the voice.  It’s mostly that you see him as an artist on stage.  He has to be a good artist.  He’s a terrific artist.  He can do any kind of a character part, but he also has the voice to be able to do these things.  That’s why he’s such a successful person.

BD:   Can the chorus as a group be an artist?

Lepore:   Oh sure, but it depends.  Many of them have good stage presence, and then it depends on the stage director, too.  For instance, when we needed only a small group on stage, they must not stand up there like sticks.  They did very well, and again, as I say, it takes a talent.  Some people can be very graceful on stage, or do the character, or do whatever they’re told to do, and act it that way on stage.  Some of them, sadly, don’t have enough of that gift, but most of them do a pretty good job, they really do.

BD:   Is choral directing fun?

Lepore:   Yes, I like it.  I like the idea of seeing others work hard, taking an interest in it because they’re serious about it, and they want to do it right.  That makes me feel good.  I make my demands.  I always try to emphasize to the chorus that I’m not here to win a popularity contest.  If someone dislikes me, just as long as we do a good job it
s OK.  All I’m interested in is that we do a good job for the season.  They don’t have to like me.  I don’t care.

BD:   Should they give the choral director a bow along with the production team at the end of the first performance?

Lepore:   [Laughs]  They know they have to force me to do that!  I did a few times, but not all the time.  I thought that I didn’t deserve to be out there, but they had me come out a few times.

BD:   Are you pleased with the way that chorus is being handled now?

Lepore:   Yes.  They’re doing very nicely.


BD:   How was Carol Fox to work with?  [Fox, along with Lawrence Kelly and Nicola Rescigno founded Lyric Opera in 1954.  After a dispute with the Board, Kelly and Rescigno left and founded the Dallas Opera in 1957.]

Lepore:   She was a very strong person.  She was very good to me, and she wouldn’t take any nonsense.  You really had to be careful with what you were doing, and I went along with her in that way.  You had to fight to do this or do that, but she meant well.  It’s just too bad that her life ended in such a bad way, because she put so much into the company for so many years.

BD:   She must have liked your work though to keep you on for twenty years.

Lepore:   Yes!  She was very nice to me.

BD:   Did Rescigno try you to get you to go with him to Dallas in 1957?

Lepore:   Yes, at the beginning, but I couldn’t do that.  It made me feel bad, because, after all, Rescigno brought me here, and tried so hard to get me to go there.  It would have been nice, but I just felt it wasn’t the right thing for me to do.  There was nothing against the Lyric.  If there had been a friction between us, maybe, but there wasn’t.  They were very nice to me, very good to me.  Carol really worked hard, and then the last few years her health simply failed.


Simon Boccanegra, which opened the 1974 season with Cappuccilli in the title role (shown in photo).
Also in the cast were Arroyo, Cossutta, and Raimondi, conducted by Bartoletti

BD:   Did you work with Ardis when she was a singer?  [Ardis Krainik would eventually take over as General Director after Carol Fox was no longer able to be with the company.]

Lepore:   Yes, I worked with her at the beginning.  She sang small roles, but she was also Carol Fox’s administrative assistant.  There were a lot of things she and I used to do together.  She would help me with the choral auditions, and things like that.

BD:   These days, are you a good audience?

Lepore:   When I’m out front, I know the problems or the difficulties in the performance, of what has to be done, or what goes on backstage.  Actually, that makes me nervous that something may not be just right, or could go wrong.  But the Lyric Opera is a wonderful company today, it really is.  They give first-rate performances, so everyone should be very proud.

BD:   Thank you so very much for talking with me today.

Lepore:   It’s been a pleasure.

Dallas Summer Musical (DSM) began in 1941 as Opera Under the Stars in the Band Shell at Fair Park. Without the benefit of air-conditioning in the 40’s, performing outdoors was a better alternative than having to withstand the triple digit summer heat at an indoor facility in Dallas. The most important thing was for the audience to experience the magic of live theater. Opening night came on June 12, 1941, with a production of Sigmund Romberg’s Blossom Time, an operetta based on the life of Franz Schubert.

The first season was co-produced by a group of local Dallas businessmen and The Schubert Organization in New York City, producers of touring theatrical productions. Ten shows, running a week each, were planned for the first season but the season was so successful that two additional shows were added. Ticket prices ranged from 30¢ to $1.10, and the season ended with a profit, despite the fact that a third of the performances were rained out. The onset of World War II prompted the cancellation of the season in 1942, but the summer theatre resumed operations in 1943 when a group of local businessmen established a non-profit organization to produce the season, under the name Starlight Operettas. A series of ten shows was presented that year, as well as in 1944.

The State Fair Association decided the Starlight Operettas needed a full-time executive director. In 1944 it tapped legendary show business figure Charles R. Meeker to become the organization’s first Managing Director. After working with The Schubert Organization in 1941, Meeker providentially served as mentor to two young men – Tom Hughes and Michael Jenkins in the 1940’s and 1950’s who were to succeed him in later years continuing to bring quality entertainment to local audiences, decade after decade.

In the 40’s the Starlight Operettas started to book more contemporary Broadway musicals and made a number of physical changes to the Fair Park Band Shell, including a moving platform system that allowed rapid changes onstage. The organization introduced the star system at the theater in 1947 – during a time when Operettas continued to be the theater’s mainstay. For example the Starlight Operettas managed to persuade Mary Martin to open her national tour of Annie Get Your Gun in Dallas, which set box office records (105,000 people in two weeks). Two years later, the organization revived Rodgers and Hart’s Pal Joey, with its original Broadway star, Vivienne Segal. Almost written off at its debut in 1942, Pal Joey, thanks to Starlight’s production, returned to Broadway the next season and won critical reviews. This system continued to characterize the theater’s operation for decades, until audiences became more attracted to the title of the show than to the name of the people starring in the show.

In 1951, after ten years in the Band Shell, the Starlight Operettas were able to move inside the Music Hall at Fair Park, thanks to the installation of air-conditioning. They also gained a new name as the State Fair Musicals during a move that not only boosted its audience comfort, but also allowed greater flexibility and creativity in the way shows were staged. The following year the State Fair Musicals previewed Porgy and Bess, with Leontyne Price and William Warfield. This innovative step paid off and the production was a sensation. After its premiere in Dallas, Gershwin’s opera went on to a worldwide tour.

Throughout the 1950s, the State Fair Musicals kept the stars marching across the stage of the Music Hall – Debbie Reynolds, José Ferrer, Jack Benny, Gisele MacKenzie, Jeanette MacDonald, Judy Garland, and many, many more. The organization also brought in major musical directors, such as Franz Allers, who went on to conduct My Fair Lady on Broadway, and a number of top choreographers.

Operettas began to fade from the scene in the 1950s, a decade when touring shows and “personality” shows also became part of the pattern of a typical summer season. The Jack Benny Revue in 1954 was the first of a series of personality shows that included such glittering names as Carol Burnett, Mitzi Gaynor, Carol Channing and Jim Nabors, among others, over the years.

© 1986 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded at Lepores home in Chicago on June 23, 1986.  This transcription was made in 2021, and posted on this website at that time.  My thanks to British soprano Una Barry for her help in preparing this website presentation.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.  To read my thoughts on editing these interviews for print, as well as a few other interesting observations, click here.

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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.