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Thursday, September 29, 2011

Learning with Lenny, Part 3: In The Pit

Maria Callas and Leonard Bernstein, in 1976
In 1953, four years before the premiere of West Side Story, Leonard Bernstein conducted his first grand opera. The venue was La Scala. The star soprano was Maria Callas. It was the first time an American had conducted at La Scala.

Bernstein was then a busy conductor with an international career. He was also an accomplished composer, with orchestral works, ballets, an opera (Trouble in Tahiti) and two Broadway Shows - On The Town and Wonderful Town - under his belt. He had conducted some orchestral concerts at La Scala but had not set foot in the pit. He had conducted only four operatic works - Peter Grimes, his own Trouble in Tahiti, The Threepenny Opera and Poulenc's Les mamelles de Tiresias -  but never in a major opera house.

And then he got the call from La Scala, to conduct Medea, by Luigi Cherubini. Maria Callas had been scheduled to sing Scarlatti's Mitridate in the 1953 season, but she had had a major success with Medea the previous season, in Florence, and La Scala's director, Antonio Ghiringhelli, suggested at the last minute that Medea be substituted for Mitridate. 

The challenge was to find a suitable conductor on short notice, all the obvious choices being unavailable. As it happened, Callas had recently heard a radio broadcast that thrilled her. She did not know who had conducted the symphonic performance, but she insisted that whoever he was, he should be invited to conduct her Medea.

Ghiringhelli dutifully tracked down Leonard Bernstein, who was almost unknown in Italy. On the telephone, Bernstein said he had never heard of the opera and therefore was not interested. Maria Callas, never one to be said "no " to, took over, and by the end of the conversation, Bernstein had accepted the engagement.

The opening was triumphant for both Callas and Bernstein, and remarkable, for Bernstein had had only five days to learn the music. But his ability to absorb new works was already legendary and dated back to his days at the Curtis Institute, in Philadelphia, when he left his fellow students in awe of him. The Milanese audience, notoriously fickle and savagely critical, stood on its feet and called the cast and conductor back in front of the curtain six times.

Listen to excerpts of that performance here and here.

~ Doug Tuck

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