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Obituaries

Obituaries

Composer Marvin David Levy dies at eighty-two; stage director Luca Ronconi; Lyric Opera of Chicago board president Kenneth G. Pigott; critic Andrew Patner; versatile singer Anita Darian.

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Return to success: composer Levy
OPERA NEWS Archives

 

MARVIN DAVID LEVY 
Passaic, NJ, August 2, 1932 — Fort Lauderdale, FL, February 9, 2015  

With his 1967 opera Mourning Becomes Electra, Marvin David Levy experienced something that almost never happens to a modern opera composer: he saw his work yanked out of obscurity in the late 1990s and thrust back onto the major stages of the opera world, where it enjoyed major success. Although it was based on Eugene O’Neill’s 1931 stage treatment of Aeschylus’s tragic trilogy The Oresteia, Levy’s opera provided him with a happy ending to an often troubled life. 

Levy came under the spell of opera as a child. For his tenth birthday, his parents took him to a performance of La Traviata at the Metropolitan Opera, and he grew obsessed with the idea of becoming an opera composer. He never downplayed the difficulty of his choice. “Composing is a lifetime apprenticeship,” he once wrote, “but opera composing seems almost to require two lifetimes.” After studies with Otto Luening at Columbia University, Levy composed three early operas — Riders to the Sea, Sotoba Komachi and the one-act work The Tower, which had its world premiere on a double bill with La Serva Padrona at Santa Fe Opera in 1957. OPERA NEWS wrote, “The score holds interest throughout and leads one to expect greater things from Levy.” A one-act lyric drama, Escorial, about love among Spanish royalty, was heard at Manhattan’s 92nd Street Y in the spring of 1958. 

Levy always considered it to be one of an opera composer’s greatest challenges to find a proper librettist. While at Santa Fe, he met stage director Henry Butler, and the two eventually secured permission from Eugene O’Neill’s widow, Carlotta Monterey O’Neill, to give Mourning Becomes Electra an operatic treatment. While Butler was writing the script, Levy frequently marked passages “T.P.” (Too Purple). He began writing music for the tragedy in mid-1961 and completed it, after much rewriting, in October 1964. 

Mourning Becomes Electra bowed at the Metropolitan Opera on March 17, 1967, with a cast headed by Evelyn Lear, Sherrill Milnes and Marie Collier, directed by Michael Cacoyannis and conducted by Zubin Mehta. It was a bold statement on the part of the new Met at Lincoln Center; since Rudolf Bing’s ascendancy as general manager in 1950, there had been only a handful of opera commissions, none successful. Levy’s music was dense and complex, but it was just as often stunningly beautiful. The work earned a number of respectful reviews, but The New York Times’s lead critic, Harold C. Schonberg, gave it a thumbs-down. After a few performances in the fall season of 1967–68, the Met dropped the work. 

The years that immediately followed were not kind to Levy: in the late 1970s, he became involved in a drug-smuggling operation, holding money for a friend in a constantly depleted and replenished safe-deposit box. He later claimed that he had not known about the illegal operation, but he was eventually convicted of conspiracy and served a prison term, getting his release in 1984.

In 1998, largely at the prodding of company artistic director Matthew Epstein, Lyric Opera of Chicago mounted a new production of Mourning Becomes Electra, as part of the company’s “Toward the 21st Century” project. Levy revised the work substantially, and it received critical acclaim, as it did in 2004, when he revised it yet again for another new production at Seattle Opera and New York City Opera, directed by Bartlett Sher. The NYCO run, starring Emily Pulley and Lauren Flanigan, was an enormous success. On a copy of Flanigan’s score, Levy wrote, “God will not leave either of us alone, possessed as we are with seeking musical and dramatic truth.” Mourning Becomes Electra, which was revived successfully at Florida Grand Opera in November 2013, provides lasting evidence of that.

BRIAN KELLOW

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Vigorously theatrical: Ronconi in Venice, 2012
© Andrea Merola/Splash News/Corbis 2015
 

 

LUCA RONCONI 
Susa, Tunisia, March 8, 1933 — Milan, Italy, February 21, 2015 

One of Europe’s most influential theater and opera directors, Ronconi created productions that were vigorously theatrical, unfailingly innovative and occasionally controversial. Some critics deemed Ronconi’s work overly ironic — or, in the case of some of his opera stagings, insufficiently musical — but few directors could equal Ronconi’s unquenchable exuberance or match the breadth and depth of his six-decade career, which began with his 1953 graduation from the Academy of Dramatic Art in Rome. Ronconi started off as an actor, but after he directed La Buona Moglie, an adaptation of two plays by Goldoni, in 1963, he worked almost exclusively as a director. Ronconi first attracted widespread attention in Italy with his 1966 staging of Thomas Middleton and William Rowley’s Jacobean tragedy The Changeling, set in a lunatic asylum, and an unconventional take on Shakespeare’s Richard III in 1968, starring matinée idol Vittorio Gassman. Ronconi’s international reputation was established when his Orlando Furioso, first staged at the Festival of Two Worlds in Spoleto, toured several European cities, including Amsterdam, Madrid and Edinburgh, and played a limited New York engagement in an inflated tent in Bryant Park, beginning in November 1970. Orlando Furioso — an adaptation by Edoardo Sanguineti of Lodovico Ariosto’s sixteenth-century epic poem — was a fast-paced spectacle that broke down boundaries between its actors and their audience and became a landmark in the environmental-theater movement in Europe and the U.S. 

Ronconi’s first opera staging was in 1967, when he directed a double bill of Honegger’s Jeanne d’Arc au Bûcher and Busoni’s Arlecchino for Turin’s Teatro Nuovo. Although Ronconi was principally active in the theater, he continued to stage opera productions throughout his career, often for La Scala, the Teatro Communale in Florence and the Rossini Festival in Pesaro. Ronconi’s opera-house work encompassed pieces by Wagner, Monteverdi, Janáček, Britten and Richard Strauss, as well as modern works, but Italian operas were his specialty. Ronconi’s historic 1984 Pesaro staging of Il Viaggio a Reims — the first modern production of Rossini’s 1825 comedy — was particularly admired for its imagination and verve, with Claudio Abbado pacing a brilliant cast that included Samuel Ramey, Ruggero Raimondi, Leo Nucci, Cecilia Gasdia, Lucia Valentini-Terrani and Katia Ricciarelli. Ronconi’s many collaborations with conductor Riccardo Muti at La Scala included Ernani (1982), Guillaume Tell (1988) and Tosca (2000), as well as Antonio Salieri’s Europa Riconosciuta, which marked the reopening of the theater in 2004, after three years of renovations. Ronconi also staged Mozart’s Clemenza di Tito for the 2010 reopening of the Teatro San Carlo in Naples. Ronconi remained active until the end of his life: at the time of his death, his staging of Stefano Massini’s Lehman Trilogy, the story of the founders of the Lehman Brothers banking firm, was running at the Piccolo Teatro in Milan, where he had been consultant to the director since 1999.

 

KENNETH G. PIGOTT 
DeKalb, IL, October 8, 1943 — Chicago, IL, February 13, 2015 

The dynamic, visionary president and CEO of the board of Lyric Opera of Chicago, Pigott was a member of the Lyric board for thirteen years before being named CEO in 2011. An attorney who had a successful second career as a private investor, Pigott was managing partner of Vaduz Partners LLC, a private investment firm, at the time of his death. During Pigott’s time on the Lyric board, he was instrumental in the hiring of Anthony Freud as the company’s general director in 2011; the appointment of Renée Fleming as Lyric’s first creative consultant in 2010; and the development of a strategic-planning process to strengthen Lyric’s financial base while maintaining the company’s ongoing commitment to excellence. 

 

ANDREW PATNER 
Chicago, IL, December 17, 1959 —February 3, 2015 

Critic-at-large for WFMT Radio Chicago and its website, WFMT.com, since 1998, Patner was a well-respected cultural critic and journalist in his native Chicago. At the time of his death, Patner was contributing critic to the Chicago Sun-Times, where since 1991 he had covered opera, classical music, art and architecture, film and theater, books and cabaret. He was also commentator on culture and politics for WTTW 11 television. Patner’s other professional affiliations included Chicago magazine (staff writer and editor, 1981–83), The Wall Street Journal (staff reporter, 1989–90) and WBEZ, Chicago’s National Public Radio affiliate (1990–97). A regular pre-concert speaker and interviewer for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Patner served as speaker, lecturer and moderator at a number of the Chicago area’s cultural institutions, including Lyric Opera of Chicago, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Ravinia Festival, Chicago Opera Theater, Steppenwolf Theatre Company and the University of Chicago. He died after a brief illness.

 

ANITA DARIAN 
Detroit, MI, April 26, 1927 — Oceanside, NY, February 1, 2015 

A soprano whose wide-ranging career defined the word eclectic, Darian sang everything from jazz, pop and Broadway musicals to opera and commercial jingles during a fifty-year career that began with vocal studies at the Curtis Institute and the Juilliard School. Darian recorded with the Sauter-Finegan jazz band for RCA Victor in the early 1950s before creating the title role in Marc Bucci’s comic opera Sweet Betsy from Pike in 1958. She appeared on Broadway as Helen Chao in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Flower Drum Song and in the ensemble of The Sound of Music and was Lady Thiang in New York City Light Opera revivals of The King and I at City Center in 1961, 1963 and 1968. 

Darian made her New York City Opera debut in 1959, as the Prompter in the world premiere of Hugo Weisgall’s Six Characters in Search of An Author, and returned to the company as Natalie (Valencienne) in The Merry Widow, Pitti-Sing in The Mikado and Maria Corona in the company premiere of The Saint of Bleecker Street.

Darian’s recordings include several studio-cast versions of Broadway hits, including Show Boat (Julie), The Student Prince (Princess Margaret) and The King and I (Lady Thiang), as well as solo albums such as Hawaiian Paradise (1959) and the Middle Eastern themed East of the Sun (1960). She also sang backup for artists such as Burt Bacharach, Dinah Washington, Patti Page and Mickey & Sylvia and made classical recordings with John Corigliano (The Naked Carmen), Ned Rorem (Dialogues for 2 Voices and 2 Pianos) and Glenn Gould (So You Want to Write a Fugue?). Darian’s best-selling recording was released in 1961, when she sang (anonymously) the wordless soprano solo on the number-one hit single “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” (“Wimoweh”), by the doo-wop group The Tokens. 

Darian played kazoo and sang in the premiere of Marc Bucci’s Concerto for Singing Instruments with Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic in 1960, a performance that was telecast as one of Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts. Darian made frequent television appearances in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, including a Young People’s Concert presentation of Fidelio, as Leonore, The Bell Telephone Hour, Music Shop and The Jack Paar Showspacer 

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