Vincent La Selva, Dauntless Founder of a People’s Opera Troupe, Dies at 88

Vincent La Selva, Dauntless Founder of a People’s Opera Troupe, Dies at 88

Through the years the company survived on private and government grants and individual philanthropy. Mr. La Selva personally recruited and auditioned his performers, some of them amateurs and others semiretired veterans, and paid them union scale. He discovered a number of singers who went on to successful operatic careers, among them Enrico Di Giuseppe, Harry Theyard and Katherine Luna.


Mr. La Selva performing with the New York Grand Opera in Central Park in an undated photograph.

The orchestra might have at times been short on string instruments but it never lacked dignity, whether enduring technical glitches on a windswept outdoor stage or performing at Carnegie Hall and the Brooklyn Academy of Music. He compensated for any shortcomings with an abundance of brio.


The New York Grand Opera performing Verdi’s “Luisa Miller” in July 1998 at SummerStage in Central Park. From left are Dominik Eberle, Gregory Keil and Amelia D’Arcy.

Toby Wales

“Mr. La Selva can drive an opera home with a directness and impact frequently lacking in the polished routine of prestigious houses,” James R. Oestreich wrote in The Times in 1990, reviewing the company’s production of Puccini’s “Turandot” at SummerStage in Central Park. “He does it with a lot of earthy musicianship and, seemingly, still more willpower.”

In 2001, the editors of Guinness World Records proclaimed Mr. La Selva the only person to have conducted all 28 Verdi operas in chronologically staged productions. He began that daunting challenge with “Oberto” in 1994 and completed it with “Falstaff” at SummerStage in 2001, the centennial year of Verdi’s death. (The company’s usual home in the park was the Bandshell.) Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, who had earlier presented Mr. La Selva with the Handel Medallion, the city’s highest cultural award, had a walk-on part in that production.

Mr. La Selva was born on Sept. 17, 1929, in Cleveland to Italian immigrant parents. His father, Vitantonio, was a steelworker in a wire plant. His mother, the former Anna Lena Floro, was a seamstress who owned a bridal shop.

Vincent started performing as a trumpeter — his idol was Harry James — when he was 8. He quit high school at 16 to travel with a swing band. When the band folded, his father demanded that he finish school, and Vincent, as fate would have it, complied: The conductor of the school orchestra suggested that he apply to Juilliard. He was accepted at 18 and graduated with a bachelor’s degree.

After a three-year stint in the Army (he conducted the First Army Band on Governors Island), he started a volunteer orchestra at the Xavier Theater on West 16th Street in Manhattan and, in 1961, received rave notices for conducting Gian Carlo Menotti’s “The Saint of Bleecker Street.” (He also conducted that work in his successful City Opera debut in 1965.) He joined the faculty at Juilliard in 1969 and taught there until 2010.

In addition to his daughter Maria, Mr. La Selva is survived by another daughter, Lisa Zayac; a son, John; a brother, Roger; a sister, Mary Kruzel; eight grandchildren; one great-grandchild; and his companion, Akemi Baba. His wife, the former Helen Lovell, died in 2011.

Mr. La Selva stopped conducting the troupe’s free summer concerts in 2012 and retired to Parma, outside Cleveland. The orchestra has continued under the conductor Constantine Kisopoulos.

Mr. La Selva’s favorite symphonic composer was Beethoven. His preferred operas were Verdi’s. He once explained why conducting an opera is distinct from leading a symphony.

“You must know singing, you must know the way the voice works, what the libretto means, and how the drama is paced,” he said in 1986. “I sing the music to myself, and in my imagination, I believe I understand what the notes mean and what their pacing should be. If not, I will keep working with them until I do.

“You know,” he added, “the word maestro means teacher, and by the time I stand up on the podium, I want to have something to teach.”

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