With the release of two new opera guides for this spring’s upcoming productions of Rigoletto and Don Giovanni, we asked guide author Stu Lewis to share some information about how he became a lover of opera and an award-winning writer of opera guides.
1. How long have you been writing the guides for the Lyric Opera of Kansas City?
Stu: In the Spring of 2002, the now retired Lyric Opera Marketing Director Virginia Long asked me to revise a booklet that had been written for the Houston Grand Opera’s production of Cold Sassy Tree so it would be more appropriate for the Lyric Opera production. I guess she liked what she saw, because she asked me to write guides for all of the Lyric Opera productions the following season, and the rest is history.
2. Why do you write the guides?
Stu: Since I don’t sing or play an instrument very well, writing the guides allows me to use my talent in a unique way and to play a small part in the company I love. I enjoy having the opportunity to share my views and insights with other opera-goers, including those who are not yet fans. And frankly, I enjoy the prestige it brings me at the Lyric Opera.
3. What do you enjoy most about your research?
Stu: What I enjoy most about the research is learning things I did not know before and gaining new insights into the music.
4. What is your favorite opera? Why?
Stu: I’m going to give a very conventional answer here. My unquestioned favorite opera is La bohème. First, of all the operas I know, it makes the most elaborate use of intertwined musical motifs. This may sound like heresy to some, but I believe Puccini uses this technique more subtly than Wagner does. When I revisited this opera for the most recent Lyric Opera production, I had so many new insights that I rewrote the entire booklet from scratch rather than re-using the one I had written in 2002. Second, there is the nostalgia factor, a reminder of my graduate school days when my wife and I lived on very little money and did not seem to mind. Sadly, this opera will now have a third connotation. When my wife revived briefly before her death–though we knew at the time that death was imminent–I had the strange feeling that I was living through the final act of La bohème. Like Mimi, she smiled to see her family surrounding her, and just as Mimi thought of others in her final moments (trying to reconcile Marcello and Musetta), my wife asked several questions about other people’s health problems rather than dwelling on her own. As much as I love this opera, it’s going to be a long time before I will be up to seeing it again.
In case you are interested, rounding out my “top ten” are La fanciulla del West, The Marriage of Figaro, Rigoletto, Carmen, La traviata, The Elixir of Love, Ariadne auf Naxos, Tales of Hoffman, and Così fan tutte.
5. What has been your favorite production by the Lyric Opera of Kansas City?
Stu: On a happier note, while the Lyric Opera’s most recent La bohème would be a candidate for my favorite production, my favorite production overall would be the most recent La Cenerentola, not only because it starred Joyce DiDonato, whose career I have followed since I first heard her at the Met Auditions, but because of the outstanding solid cast from top to bottom, including Elizabeth Bennet and Kristin-Marie Hill as the stepsisters. Another runner-up would be Macbeth, because of Tim Ocel’s brilliant directing. My one favorite individual performance was Brian Steele as Horace Tabor in Ballad of Baby Doe.
6. How long have you been a member of the Lyric Opera Guild?
Stu: I joined the Guild in 1990, when I was asked to give the preview talks for Samson and Delilah.
7. Why should people join the Lyric Opera Guild?
Stu: The Guild provides much-needed support for the company, and if people want to learn about opera, meeting the singers at the various receptions provides a wonderful educational opportunity.
8. When did your love for opera begin?
Stu: My parents were big fans of classical music, though not necessarily of opera. I recall that my dad would sometimes listen to the Met broadcasts while doing household chores on Saturday afternoons. We lived in Albany, NY, and during the summers we would frequently attend the open rehearsals at Tanglewood on Saturday mornings. I got the opera bug almost by accident. For a dollar I bought a record of samples from RCA’s new releases, which included the wedding-night duet from Madama Butterfly. Somehow, I felt an almost mystical connection with the music, hearing something I had never experienced in listening to other music, and I began to explore the world of opera. For some reason, I chose Carmen as my first opera record (Rise Stevens, Jan Peerce, etc), but others soon followed. The first live opera I saw was during a high-school New York trip: Simon Boccanegra at the Met. This is not the ideal opera to start with, but it’s what happened to be playing the weekend the school had selected.
9. What would you tell someone attending an opera for the first time?
Stu: Advice for first-time opera-goers: first, read my booklet. Also, remember that opera is primarily drama, not music–the music is there to support the story. Let the music wash over you the way a good film score does. Once you are hooked on opera, you can move on to appreciating vocal technique and things of that sort. As a beginner, just enjoy the experience.
10. Why is opera your favorite art form?
Stu: Of all means of dramatic presentation, opera most forcefully integrates all of the elements of drama. Music is capable of expressing emotions that words cannot begin to convey. For example, read the libretto of the final scene of The Marriage of Figaro. As prose, despite DaPonte’ genius, it is lifeless. Then listen to what Mozart does with the music, turning the resolution of a marital dispute into a religious experience. No other art form can do this.
Bonus Question: What is your favorite memory about the Lyric Opera?
Stu: I cannot think of one single greatest memory. What I value most, even more than the performances, is the friendships I have developed with people at the Guild and the company.