In my thirty-one years as General Director of Seattle Opera I think the most fun I had were the question-and-answer sessions I held with interested audience members after every performance. Starting in 1996, I had 732 of these sessions, and I found each one both instructive and intensely enjoyable. The best attended were always the Wagner sessions, which because of the length of the Wagner operas started usually around 11:30 and went on until half past midnight. For the sake of the opera house personnel, I had to stop always after an hour. In the last two or three seasons we broadcast the session after each opera’s broadcast.
Without these in my retirement I didn’t have contact with the public, but Stanford University took up the slack and asked me to lecture both in the winter quarter in 2015 and this summer. This fall, as you can see below, I will be teaching a class at the University of Washington.
Teaching in Continuing Studies at Stanford has been a delight. Everyone connected with that department has been great to work with, the facility amazing, the campus astonishingly beautiful, the classes engaged and eager to learn, and the whole experience wonderful. In the winter quarter 140 signed up for my course on the History of Opera. When I was asked what I wanted to speak on, I gave them that title without too much thought, only to realize that I had to take care of 415 years of history in only five two-hour lectures. The challenge, though great, was wonderful fun to prepare, and the class seemed to enjoy it. It’s that course that I will teach this fall at the University of Washington.
For Stanford’s summer quarter this year I suggested a course on some novel, exciting programming. The San Francisco Opera scheduled Berlioz’ Les Troyens for this summer and Wagner’s Die Meistersinger for the fall, two megaoperas; though the two come up in different seasons, no other U.S. company ever did them in such a short time period. Analyzing Les Troyens, which I never presented at Seattle Opera, proved both fascinating and enlightening. As for Die Meistersinger, continued study only revealed new wonders, allowing me new insights. Wagner’s great comedy can never be completely explored; there is always something new to discover. I am very happy to be teaching at Stanford the next two years in the winter quarter.
What specifically did I learn? Careful study of the scores, texts, background material, and live recordings of both operas, while thinking about how to make both come alive to students, proved more than rewarding. For instance, I had never heard the recording of Les Troyens of the live Metropolitan Opera performance in 2003, conducted by James Levine, with Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, Deborah Voigt, and Ben Heppner. Though there are other great performances of Les Troyens and I was very familiar with the voices of both Ms. Voigt and Mr. Heppner, hearing Lorraine Hunt Lieberson was a spellbinding astonishment. Though it is only a CD, I had the same feeling in listening to her Dido that I did when I first experienced Maria Callas in 1953, Birgit Nilsson in 1959 or Leonie Rysanek in 1960 in live performances. Tragically, the four Troyens she sang there were her only Metropolitan Opera performances of a major role before cancer claimed her life. I also discovered the recording of an abridged Les Troyens, given in concert form at Carnegie Hall in 1960 by the American Opera Society, that contained the marvelous Cassandra of Eleanor Steber. As for Die Meistersinger, a work I have known and loved since 1953 when the Met presented the work on tour in Dallas, study of Wagner’s writings and various analyses of the piece gave me a way clearly to explain some critical if obscure thoughts in Wagner’s essays Beethoven and The Destiny of Opera, which previously had been confusing to me and are very important in understanding his last three works.
The students at Stanford have given the lie to all the stories one hears about bored University students who text and answer their cell phones. Granted the Continuing Studies program tends to draw much older adults, but I find the classes just as involved as were the many audiences who came to my Q & A sessions after each performance at Seattle Opera.
I really look forward to working at the University of Washington this fall. I have never had the opportunity to teach there, and it is exciting for me to work in what is now my home town. When I started preparing for the course on the History of Opera I felt as though it was a bit like preparing a Ring–literally hundreds if not thousands of ways one could go–but I figured out how to trace the path from The Coronation of Poppea to Jake Heggie’s Moby Dick in a way that made sense to me.
My new life is completely fulfilling–and I don’t have to raise any money!!
Anyone interested in attending my lectures at the University of Washington can find information at the following link: http://depts.washington.edu/uwconf/wordpress/opera/