While conductor/composer Leonard Bernstein was not generally thought of as an opera conductor, he did achieve great distinction as just that from time to time. Many treasure memories of Bernstein’s work at the Met, (Falstaff, Cavalleria Rusticana, Carmen), as well as his recordings of works he conducted in Europe (Der Rosenkavalier, Falstaff again, the Verdi Requiem, etc.). My own memories of Bernstein and opera tell quite a different story without contradicting Bernstein’s undeniable musical brilliance.
The John F. Kennedy Memorial Center For The Performing Arts in Wash., D.C. opened in 1971 with the world premiere of Bernstein’s Mass. For the rest of that decade and well into the next, Bernstein was a frequent visitor there. My first personal contact with him came on the night of the first annual Kennedy Center Honors in 1978. I spent most of the first part of the program in the Press/V.I.P. Lounge of the Opera House, relaxing and waiting to play host during the intermission. Most of that time was spent having a drink and chatting with Gregory Peck, who arrived a few minutes after the program had begun. At intermission time, a large and very illustrious crowd began to pour in. As usual, we had background music coming through speakers in the ceiling and I was unconsciously swaying to the rhythm when I caught Leonard Bernstein’s eye. Bernstein was also gently swaying, and he danced across to me, took my hand and began to twirl me around. Our dance was quite brief and lighthearted and he was soon circulating to greet friends and acquaintances, but the Maestro certainly made a vivid first impression. I had long admired his work and had had many opportunities by that time to appreciate it, but that hardly prepared me for the personal impression this most uninhibited of personalities could make.
The following year, the Vienna State Opera made their only Kennedy Center Opera House visit, offering two weeks of opera conducted by the likes of Bernstein and Karl Bohm, combined with Vienna Philharmonic concerts in the Concert Hall. This late 1979 visit marked the end of the Kennedy Center’s greatest decade, a period during which impresario Martin Feinstein had managed to arrange visits by the Paris Opera, Deutsch Oper, Berlin, the Bolshoi Opera, La Scala and finally, the Vienna State Opera. Such ballet companies as The Bolshoi, Stuttgart, and London’s Royal Ballet also graced the Opera House stage during those years, as well as the still-annual visits by the New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theater. The Vienna stay opened with Beethoven’s Fidelio, conducted by Bernstein.
Bernstein and Vienna delivered superb Beethoven, but during the Leonore Overture #3, played as an Interlude before the final scene, Bernstein’s terpsichorean talents burst forth, leaving our little dance of the previous year in the dust. I was sitting quite near the pit and, just prior to the piece’s magnificent finale, was startled to see Bernstein suddenly crouch down low and jump straight up in the air, nearly clearing the top of the pit! He seemed to have been shot from a cannon, or at least to be using a trampoline to magnify the drama of his downbeat.