Chautauqua Institution today announced that Jay Lesenger, general/artistic director of Chautauqua Opera Company, will step down from his post at the end of 2015. Lesenger has led Chautauqua Institution’s resident opera company, the nation’s oldest continuously producing summer company — and fourth oldest American opera company overall — since October 1994.
“When Jay arrived here, he faced the daunting task of reinvigorating the passion in and for opera at CHQ,” said Marty Merkley, vice president and director of programming. “Jay’s artistry, passion and personal charisma helped to bring about a renaissance with vibrant productions, exciting artists, diverse repertoire and quality production values. His dedication to education for emerging artists has greatly influenced hundreds of singers. He has been a stellar colleague, leader and artist. Chautauqua Institution has been enriched by his tenure.”
An acclaimed stage director and celebrated teacher, Lesenger has spent 20 years of his almost 40-year career providing creative direction to opera programming on the Chautauqua Institution grounds. His tenure is marked by a number of programmatic innovations designed to expose a wider cross-section of CHQ audiences to opera, and to position the company toward long-term financial sustainability. The most visible recent example is the annual staging of one of the company’s productions in the Chautauqua Amphitheater, the Institution’s largest venue, allowing any CHQ gate pass holder to attend an evening at the opera at no extra cost. These productions have drawn the largest audiences for opera in the Institution’s history.
To foster further opportunities for engagement with opera, Lesenger created a Young Artist weekly recital series, late night music revues and, with the Chautauqua Opera Guild, activities for Chautauqua’s Family Entertainment Series and Children’s School, and at area libraries.
Lesenger has introduced the CHQ audience to significant 20th-century works including Vanessa (Barber), Two Widows (Smetana), Peter Grimes (Britten), The Consul (Menotti) and The Cunning Little Vixen (Janáček). He also produced for the first time at CHQ overlooked Italian rarities, including Macbeth, Stiffelio and Luisa Miller by Verdi, Maria Stuarda by Donizetti and Bellini’s Norma, and a number of American musicals, including A Little Night Music, Once Upon a Mattress, The Music Man, She Loves Me and Fiddler on the Roof.
The impact of Lesenger’s tenure has reached far beyond Chautauqua Institution’s gates. A nationally recognized teacher of acting for singers, he is responsible for an expansion of Chautauqua Opera’s renowned Young Artist program, and singers have graduated from his tutelage to perform from some of the nation’s best-known stages, including the Metropolitan Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago, San Francisco Opera and Seattle Opera.
“The timing is right for me to turn my attention from administration to devoting more of my time to directing and teaching and to spending more time with my partner, family and friends,” Lesenger said. “CHQ has been my second home and the opera company has been the focus of my creative and personal life for more than half of my professional career so far. I am enormously proud of our opera company and thrilled by the range of repertory that we have produced over the last 20 years for an audience that remains supportive and enthusiastic.”
Formerly an associate professor of music at the University of Michigan, where he directed the School of Music Opera Theatre, he has also served as professor and director of opera at Northwestern University’s Bienen School of Music. He continues to stage productions for opera companies throughout the U.S. and Europe.
Chautauqua Opera marks Lesenger’s final season with performances of Verdi’s Macbeth on July 11 in the Amphitheater and Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin on July 31 and Aug. 3 in Norton Hall.
Deborah Sunya Moore, incoming vice president for the performing and visual arts at Chautauqua Institution, will lead a national search for Lesenger’s successor.
Founded in 1929, Chautauqua Opera is North America’s oldest continuously operating summer opera company and fourth oldest opera company after the Metropolitan Opera, Cincinnati Opera and San Francisco Opera. The 2015 Chautauqua Opera season offers a fully staged production in Chautauqua Institution’s 4,000-seat Amphitheater and another in Norton Hall. Chautauqua Opera productions feature internationally recognized guest artists as well as promising young singers from our Young Artist program.
The pre‑eminent expression of lifelong learning in the United States, Chautauqua Institution comes alive each summer with a unique mix of fine and performing arts, lectures, interfaith worship and programs, and recreational activities. Over the course of nine weeks, more than 100,000 people visit CHQ and participate in programs, classes and community events for all ages — all within the beautiful setting of a historic lakeside village. Smithsonian magazine named CHQ the No. 1 “Best Small Town to Visit in 2014” in the cover story of its April 2014 issue.