Viewpoint: Following the Music

By F. Paul Driscoll

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La Selva leading the New York Grand Opera
© Stan Honda/AFP/GettyImages

MAESTRO VINCENT LA SELVA, who died on October 9 at the age of eighty-eight, wasn’t a native New Yorker, but he was a vital part of the New York City music world for more than four decades. Born and raised in Cleveland, the son of Italian immigrant parents, La Selva quit high school at sixteen to play trumpet with a swing band; when the band folded, he came to New York at eighteen to study at the Juilliard School. Asked once if the decision to leave Ohio at such a young age was a tough one, La Selva answered swiftly and succinctly: “Nope. I knew I had to get out of Cleveland and go where the music was.”

La Selva completed his bachelor’s degree at Juilliard, where he later returned as a member of the faculty (1969–2010). After attracting favorable attention with his conducting of small opera troupes in the New York area, La Selva made his New York City Opera debut in 1965, leading the company premiere of The Saint of Bleecker Street. But it was his work with New York Grand Opera, the company he founded in 1973, that won La Selva a place in the musical history of his adopted city. New York Grand Opera delivered free summer concerts to New York-area music-lovers for decades; from the company’s first presentation—a fully staged Bohème in Central Park in 1974—until his retirement in 2012, La Selva doubled as the orchestra’s conductor and chief ambassador. 

La Selva led his company in performances of everything from Turandot to a chronological, multiseason traversal of all twenty-eight Verdi operas. New York Grand Opera soldiered on, undeterred by shaky scenery and unfriendly weather, offering valuable performing opportunities to artists who were eager to sing great music and delivering fully staged operas to New York’s opera fans (and neophytes). Staffed with a mix of seasoned veterans and enthusiastic amateurs, New York Grand Opera performances were generally bare-bones and frequently scrappy, but they were always generously shaped, rich with passion and informed by La Selva’s profound respect for the music and his unselfish love for his audiences. It was La Selva who made New York Grand Opera a truly grand organization. spacer 

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