The Byrdcliffe Theater, that small, remarkably charming and potent performance space to be celebrated by The Guild on September 29, has hosted numerous theatrical enterprises — one of the earliest and most esteemed being the Turnau Opera, leased in 1956 by owner Peter Whitehead to Manhattan ubermensch, Joseph Turnau and his wife, Sally, as a sequestered home for their New York City spawned Turnau Opera Players. Of the many important creative forces to grace the company perhaps the most spectacular was Yehudi Wyner, one of the more acclaimed composers alive in America today, although his stewardship was indeed one of many happy accidents to boon the enterprise.
The 29-year-old Yehudi and his singer wife, Nancy, first visited Woodstock in ‘58 with their infant son. They were friends with artist Carol Summers who advised them to speak with Whitehead if they wanted a cheap place for the summer. The master of Byrdcliffe promptly rented them a cottage for $100 for the summer just below what had been his father’s library, since converted to a theater (where young Jose Quintero directed his first play a decade before). So it was a full 30 years after founding-father Ralph Whitehead’s death that his dream of profound European music resounding from a Byrdcliffe hall was finally realized.
Wyner was composing a new instrumental piece for Yale that summer. Despite his solid grounding as a musician, his exposure to live opera was very limited. Taking breaks from his work he’d mount the hill, listen to Turnau rehearsals and was soon attending performances with growing interest and admiration. “It was a revelation — an epiphany for me,” he explains over the phone from Boston. “The scale was small, intense, yet performances shot straight to the essence of what opera could be…” Musical director, Fred Popper was “a decent pianist who’d worked with Goldovsky1,” recalls Wyner. “Fred was what was commonly known as a Kapellmeister — a well-trained musician doing a good job. The company itself was something of a Mom and Pop operation consisting of Marie and the passionately devoted Ward Pinner, whose enthusiasm knew no bounds.” Unfortunately, the Pinners had little musical education and little experience in the arts. It was this couple who, according to Wyner, came to consider good fortune their due. They had earned the right of control of the company through their inexhaustible hard work and devotion and had assembled this community of profound talents soon to gather in their small, hand-built theater tucked into a hillside — a power-charged flock Ward, in particular, guarded jealously.
Utterly charmed by such unlikely excellence in the wilds of Woodstock, Yehudi volunteered to play two local benefit performances for the company. And — he distantly recalls — one “in town” meaning in Manhattan. Popper was replaced the next season with Melvin Strauss as pianist and musical director, a change which — to Yehudi’s sensibility — only turned up the mid-summer heat. When Strauss then resigned accepting the baton for the Buffalo Symphony, the Turnau found itself without a music director. Enter destiny.
Would the generous, hugely-talented, already-established pianist from “down the hill” come on board as musical director?
The Turnau Opera seems to have been “rounded up” by Sally Turnau, wife of Joseph Turnau, who as professor of music at Hunter College had become one of The Driving Forces in American opera. It remains more than acceptable to assume that Turnau, himself, made several early decisions concerning The Turnau Opera Players (as they were formerly known) especially at the audition level. Professor Turnau was explicit: European works on these shores must be translated superbly and performed masterfully in English. He also became one of the pioneers to insist that gifted “singers of color” study at top levels preparing them to compete in perhaps the most exclusively Caucasian artform in the western world.2 Sally carried her husband’s cachet and extended an invitation to Barbara Owens to become stage director. Owens had studied with Joseph Turnau and shared his ideals. Then — of course — there were the singers. Many were young talent performing small roles in the New York City Opera, invited by the Turnaus to audition and, with luck, join this John Paul Jones of opera in a painter’s town in the Catskills, here to unleash their lungs and spread soon-to-be-strong wings.
In 1958, George Shirley, a young man destined to be the first black tenor to perform at the Metropolitan Opera three short years later (1961), received a call from another world. Shirley, who had never appeared on an operatic stage, describes it this way [from Living Music web-archives] — “…Out of the clear blue sky, I got a call from a woman in New York City — I didn’t know anyone in New York City — but, her name was Sally Turnau. She ran a small opera company in Woodstock, NY, and she said, ‘We have a season during the summer. We have a very small company. We have two tenors, two sopranos, a mezzo-soprano, a baritone, and a bass.’ There was no chorus. They performed with two pianos in a little theater up on the side of Bercliff [sic] Mountain. It seated about 250 people. And she said, ‘One of our tenors for this upcoming summer has canceled his contract. Now our bass suggested that we call you.’”
Shirley had just signed on to do another year in the army but he auditioned and was hired for the following season, of which he recalls: “I had to learn how to ‘BE’ onstage…I had to move properly… the stage director that we had was a wonderful woman named Barbara Owens… She was gentle; she was good; she was perfect. The setting was perfect. It wasn’t huge. The spotlight wasn’t that bright in this little company. It had a wonderful audience, many of whom were in the arts in Woodstock.”
That summer of ‘59 I was three. Mother moved back to Woodstock and Peter Whitehead rented her Morning Star for $30 a month above what was then called “The Turnau Opera.” My sisters used to sneak down the stone steps of the hillside by moonlight and tip-toe up the back stairway while Mimi was dying in La Boheme — the same production in which George Shirley starred.
Barbara Owens was about 30, according to Yehudi. “There was no way when first looking at her to guess at her level of achievement. Here was a young woman resembling a ‘bobby soxer’ who wielded the most formidable sensibility I’ve ever encountered in the form — which happened to co-exist with a marvelous sense of humor. Barbara demanded the essence of opera and cut to the emotional truth of every scene. When I was offered the directorship I simply felt unable to refuse. Of course, the schedule was all but super-human. We did eight full operas in eight weeks. Large chorus sections naturally had to be cut, but the essential opera was performed complete. Our season began in late June, so we got a jump on it as early as April, carving out the crucial arias and the more important ensembles and such, and then — we were off!
“There was no prompter, no conductor. The second year I had an admirable associate pianist named Phyllis Rappaport and in 1963 was joined by Warren Wilson. At the beginning I performed the scores alone — grand piano half tucked beneath the stage, facing the singers with a weak little bulb glaring down upon these monumental scores. It was a profound musical education — one of the two or three most uplifting episodes of my career. And I would be so bold as to say that with our pianos the audience did not miss an orchestra.”
“Yes, the Maverick Concert people were very supportive. Our schedule was Friday, Saturday, and Monday nights, leaving Sunday for Maverick supporters — since we essentially shared the same audience. The first piece? Yes, my first opera ever, was The Barber of Seville, featuring the small, exquisite voice of Bethany Beardslee. Her husband was a mover and shaker in the most advanced contemporary music, and he persuaded Bethany to sing much if not most of the important new pieces to arrive in New York. Her first love remained the classics but she didn’t have the vocal power to fill a large opera house. So it was our delight to have her fill the Turnau’s small hall.”
What was the most modern piece, Wyner was asked? “… Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia — a delicious production, I must say, featuring the exquisite stage direction of Adelaide Bishop. Lucille Sullam3 was, I think perhaps a charter member, and a marvelous soprano. We were graced with Spiro Malas4 for only one season — he was something! But that young George Shirley…! Shirley was imbued with tremendous intelligence, a beautiful tenor voice, a great sense of humor, and under the direction of Barbara Owens, he bloomed into a powerhouse. He was even better with us, in my opinion, than at the Met where he was pushed to take on roles too heavy for his voice.”
“Barbara’s performers were deeply dramatic but never melodramatic. Next to the excesses we see today at the Met and other huge houses — all that overblown garbage? There was none of that — this was jewel-like. To attempt a metaphor — say —take the flamboyant bombast of a Broadway show, and put it beside a superb production of Waiting For Godot. That kind of stripped down purity is what we aimed for. There was a review in The New York Times in the summer or ‘62 or ‘63 which raved about this operatic jewel of the Catskills. The reigning rustic opera house was the Lake George Opera, which was consigned to two paragraphs
“We were poised to take another step forward, but the inevitable struggle with Mom & Pop (the Pinners) prevented it. Some of us attempted to wrest control for a more far-reaching vision and more sophisticated sponsorship, but the largest existing patron was a local manufacturer of fans for refrigerators…Rotron! — you have it. Well, they — in a way rather admirably — insisted on standing by the ownership rights of the Pinners, and I chose to pack my bags and continue on my journey…but the effect of those three power-packed summers on my own compositions was dramatic and profound.”
I remembered that Yehudi had bought the mill — very nearly the victim of arson a few years back — at the bottom of Hutchin’ Hill, where I visited him and his growing family as a tot dragged around by David Ballantine, my step-father. The Wyners divorced in ‘65, finally sold the barn and Yehudi proceeded in his highly distinguished career highlighted with the 2006 Pulitzer Prize in music. He has been happily married for several decades to the conductor Susan Davenny Wyner, while carving out a lasting place in American music. But Woodstock, I can safely say, holds a special place in the heart of an artist of great generosity who — not so very long ago — feasted and feted in return at a small, perfect banquet known as The Turnau Opera.
1 Russian-born conductor (and radio announcer of opera) for the Metropolitan Opera, 1908-2001.
2 among the ethnically diverse opera singers Turnau encouraged and/or taught: Martin Arroyo, George Shirley, and Warren Wilson.
3 Lucille Sullam, soprano of opera and Broadway who came to the attention of Maria Callas with whom she at least once appeared.
4 Spiro Malas would go on to become a leading bass-bartitone for the New York City Opera.