Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Leon Lishner, Menotti's Original Secret Police Agent, at Seattle Opera

After opening night of The Consul last week, it was a thrill for Steven LaBrie, who plays the Secret Police Agent in our production, to meet Denise Lishner, whose father Leon worked closely with Gian Carlo Menotti and created Steven’s role when The Consul was new, in 1950. After the out-of-town tryouts in Philadelphia and the record-breaking run on Broadway, Lishner went on to sing The Consul in Paris and London; you can also see his performance on the 1960 television film of The Consul, available from VAI. Said Ms. Lishner of attending Seattle Opera’s production: “I saw The Consul many, many times when I was young, so I had to stop myself from singing along! It took me back—I remembered the excitement, the lyrical beauty of the performances, and how mesmerizing it was to see my dad—whom I knew as a nice guy!—transform into this chilling, dark character." Left, Speight Jenkins and Marcy Stonikas (Magda) with Denise Lishner and Steven LaBrie (Secret Police Agent); Elise Bakketun, photo.

Leon Lishner moved to Seattle in 1964, and had an important career both as a bass at Seattle Opera and as a professor at the University of Washington. He taught voice, directed many of the UW’s operas (including the previous production of The Consul in this city) and gave many recitals at Meany Hall. He was well-known for his performance of Schubert’s Winterreise, as well as recitals of Yiddish songs. In honor of Seattle Opera's 50th Anniversary, here are some photos of Lishner’s roles for Seattle Opera:

In Seattle Opera's very first season, fifty years ago, Leon Lishner sang Sparafucile in our first Rigoletto. Here he is, backstage, with Cornell MacNeil (Rigoletto), Margery MacKay (Maddalena), General Director Glynn Ross, Patricia Brooks (Gilda), Leon Lishner (Sparafucile), Maestro Anton Guadagno, and Renato Cioni (Duke of Mantua) (Margaret Marshall, photo).


By 1967, Glynn Ross was hiring two casts to sing each opera; the Saturday night cast would sing in the original language, while the Sunday matinee cast sang in English. For Roméo et Juliette in 1967 (distinguished by the Seattle debut of Franco Corelli), Lishner shared the role of Frère Laurent with Nicola Moscona; Carol Todd sang Lishner's Juliette (Des Gates, photo).


Seattle Opera began building its first production of Wagner's Ring with Die Walküre in 1973. Lishner sang Hunding (and Fafner the Dragon) in those early Ring performances (Des Gates, photo). Of that first Die Walküre, the Seattle Times wrote: “The first act, which is sung primarily by [Jess] Thomas and Miss [Bozena] Ruk-Fočić, along with Leon Lishner as Hunding, is probably the best sung act in the Seattle Opera’s history.” (Des Gates, photo)


In addition to superstars such as Corelli, and ambitious Wagner productions, in the '60s and '70s Seattle Opera presented a handful of new works. American composer Thomas Pasatieri found a champion in Seattle Opera's Glynn Ross, who produced his Black Widow, in addition to Calvary and Signor Deluso. In the 1975/76 season, Pasatieri returned to Seattle Opera for the West Coast premiere of The Seagull, based on Chekov. The cast included Shirley Harned (Pauline), Patricia Wells (Masha), John Reardon (Boris), Lincoln Clark (Dr. Dorn and Stage Director), and Leon Lishner (Shamrayeff) (Chris Bennion, photo).


For Seattle Opera's first Magic Flute, in 1978, Lishner cast a spell with his sonorous bass voice as Sarastro (Stewart Reif, photo)

Menotti loved working with Leon Lishner; after collaborating on The Consul, he wrote the role of Balthazar in Amahl and the Night Visitors for him, followed by Don Marco, the priest in The Saint of Bleeker Street. Every Christmas from 1951 to 1962, Lishner would head downtown in New York to the NBC studios for the live broadcast of Amahl and the Night Visitors. You can hear him on the original cast recording CD and DVD.

Publicity image for Amahl and the Night Visitors; Leon Lishner, as Balthazar, is the second king.

Besides the Seattle production of The Seagull, two of Lishner’s other remarkable experiences creating new operas included the premiere of Weill’s The Threepenny Opera, in 1954; he played Mr. Peachum to the Jenny of Lotte Lenya; and the original NBC television production of (scenes from) Britten’s Billy Budd, in 1952. Lishner sang Claggart, with Britten’s original Billy, Theodore Uppman, and the Captain Vere of Andrew McKinley.


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