we witnessed the sad passing of Peter Talbot Westergaard — Princeton’s William
Shubael Conant Professor of Music, Emeritus — at age 88. He was the most
influential musical artist of my life, and my close friend.
purpose here is to share some tales of the “old days”, when the Music
Department was a very different place than it is today. The narrative is about
how we came from an academic department that regarded music as better seen than
heard, to where we are now, with a vibrant performance program, working within
a liberal arts setting. It is a story that has Peter — and his passion for
opera — at its center, for the department’s transformation was given a kickstart
by the Princeton University Opera Theater (PUOT), which was Peter’s creation.
Had it not been for Peter and the PUOT, we probably would not have our dazzling
new Effron Music building, part of the gazillion dollar facility that is the
Lewis Arts Complex. Here we now welcome some of the country’s most gifted young
musicians, many of whom could qualify for study at top conservatories.
relating to my friends some of the tales from the late 1970s and the stages of
the evolution of music performance at Princeton, I have heard more than once
the suggestion that I write the story down. It’s a very personal tale, because
it involves not just a push for policy changes, but also the friendship and
bond that Peter and I shared. We also shared a vision for what performance
could be in a top university, a vision that developed from a passion we both
held — making music and opera with students.
It also is a tale of the PUOT days in old
Alexander Hall, with its impossible conditions and crazy ambitions. The story
also contains some great opera disaster tales that cannot be left out. Finally,
in the deepest sense, it is an account of the accomplishment of Princeton students
doing things far beyond any reasonable expectations.
was a highly respected composer and theorist who was before his time in that he
was committed to student performance at the highest possible level, rather than
remaining on the margins of the curriculum. He carried the load of a full
professor, and not only conducted the Princeton University Orchestra, but also
mounted operas, which, as anyone who has done so will tell you, is not just an
extra mile. More like ten. These productions, first in Theater Intime, later in
Alexander Hall, were the petri dish out of which grew the Program in Music Performance.
In all the operas I did with him, he (1) directed, (2) designed the set, (3)
built the props, and (4) translated the libretti into English singing
translations. These translations are some of the best I’ve ever seen — witty,
literate, and capturing the meaning of the moment perfectly. An example in a
my part, I was the Music Department’s first resident professional conductor.
(Bruce Ferden, an exceptional professional conductor, preceded me, but commuted
from New York. Bruce went on to a wonderful opera career, including the Met,
before dying from AIDS in 1993). Thus, Peter had an ally who was just as hungry
for opera as he was, one who lived in Princeton. A conspiracy to overwhelm the
place with opera was hatched. That conspiracy’s mission was to find a way to
teach performance at a high level amidst the academic rigors of a school like
few paragraphs about how I came to be here.
hired me to conduct the University Orchestra in the Spring of 1977. At first,
he was a voice on the phone telling me about Princeton and asking me if I were
interested in auditioning, as two of my teachers, Gustav Meier and Gunther
Schuller, had mentioned me as a candidate. At that time, I had just finished
the best year of my life, serving as Gunther’s conducting assistant at the New
England Conservatory while he celebrated his retirement from the job with a
blaze of glory, producing both Berg’s Wozzeck and Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder
with the student orchestra.
goal was, of course, the Berlin Philharmonic — not a small school, even an Ivy
League one. But a job is a job, and my future in Boston would be squeaking out
a hand-to-mouth living trying to conduct new music. I met Peter just before the
audition, and spent about 30 minutes with a small but obviously eager orchestra,
rehearsing Weber’s Oberon Overture (which they knew) and the
Mozart G minor Symphony (which they did not). A couple of days later Peter was
on the phone again, offering me the position. I did not accept right away, but
Gunther said forthrightly that I should take it. He knew some of the composers
on the faculty, and said new music opportunities would develop in New York. He
also said that the orchestra would turn out to be strong enough to play some
advanced repertory respectably.
was right on both counts, but the attitude I took with me to New Jersey was
“two years, then I’m outta here”. That was the amount of time my predecessor,
Bruce, was at Princeton.
did not visit Princeton again until I moved from Boston. I had dinner at
Peter’s home and met the first of many generations of memorable pets — Fafnir,
the long-haired dachshund, and Siegfried, the black cat (who took no crap from
Fafnir). Enjoying multiple glasses of wine with his wife Barbara in their lovely
Pine Street backyard, we got around to the subject of opera, and quickly
realized it was a subject of considerable mutual interest. Peter had already
composed one opera, and was to complete five more in his life. He also had already
established the Princeton University Opera Theater, and had performed in or directed
The Impresario, Beatrice and Benedict, The
Turk in Italy, The Abduction from the Seraglio and The Rape of Lucretia, all produced in the super intimacy of 200-seat
Theater Intime. (He proudly listed one of his credits as having played bass drum
in Abduction). The casts featured
students with a few (unpaid) pros sprinkled in for the tougher roles, plus
student chorus and orchestra.
think I had seen the vaulting interior of Alexander Hall by then, but Peter
commented, offhandedly “You know the interior of Alexander is already like a
set for The Magic Flute. You wouldn’t
have to add any scenery.” All kinds of bells started going off for me, loudly, as
Flute was my first operatic love.
One of the most distinctive buildings on campus, Alexander Hall is a major player in this tale, and it needs a little background. I think it safe to say that most of the Princeton community does not remember the building before it was renovated to house Richardson Auditorium in 1985. This renovation involved a major reshaping of the interior.
In the old hall, seats wrapped all the way around the stage, which was much narrower. Stone stairways went down each side of the stage to the floor. In order to yield a little more stage space, wooden platforms — bare plywood on 2x4s — had been built over these side stairways. There was no acoustic reflector over the stage, as there is now, so there was endless and challenging reverberation. There was no pit, and the seats had no middle aisle. Downstairs was just a rough stone corridor that ran beneath the stage. There was no lounge, and there were no bathrooms. There was, however, a working toilet in the narrow corridor, with lockable doors on each side. So, if someone was using the toilet, and you wanted to get through, you waited. There is a tale from the 30s or 40s that the Philadelphia Orchestra played in Alexander, after which the great conductor Leopold Stokowski wrote to the President of the University, expressing regret that they could not return, because “I can’t have my men peeing in the bushes.”
the renovation, we solved the problem of where to put the opera orchestra by
taking out several of the long rows of seats. Each individual seat was attached
to the floor with six long screws, and every screw had to be taken out by hand
by student volunteers. It took many days. Fortunately, we could simply take
over the hall for several weeks, as demand on Alexander as a concert venue was
near zero. After the closing of each production we put the seats back, although
with fewer and fewer screws. After a couple of years, they started to sway a
tad when anyone sat there.
Peter did with the Theatre Intime productions, the casts in the Alexander shows
were unpaid pros and advanced student singers.
are a few tales from each of those early productions, and how one thing led to another.
University Opera Theater
The Magic Flute, April 1978
was determined that the dragon in the opening scene should fly in. How do you
do that in a “theater” with no wings and no fly space? His vision was that
Tamino should come onstage, eyes to the heavens, while a dragon slowly
descended from the balcony to the stage. Now if the dragon was flying, it had
to have working wings. Red glaring eyes that would go out when it was killed by
the Three Ladies’ spears would also be a nice touch.
found some student engineers (including an aerospace major) to tackle the
challenge, and they leapt to it. We got all three items on his wish list — flight
on cables from the balcony to stage, wings, and red glowing eyes. The wings flapped
(rotated really) by virtue of a small battery-driven motor in the dragon’s
heart. When the Second Lady’s spear penetrated the skin at the right point, it
would hit a switch that stopped the motor, thus stopping the wings and
extinguishing the eyes.
we never got to rehearse the apparatus, as the dragon cables were not in place in
time for the dress rehearsal. The first night, the dragon’s skin was too tough,
and the Second Lady only knocked the whole thing, swinging it back and forth on
its cables. They sang of having killed the monster while the monster kept
flapping and glowing all the way through the scene.
night. The spot where the spear was supposed to go was covered with tissue
paper, but our poor Lady slightly missed the target. Same result.
night, and last chance. A bullseye was painted on the desired spot. Then
someone had an inspiration: “Let’s make the dragon bleed!” Peter decided that
the theater blood needed a container inside the dragon. He went to a pharmacy
across the street (as related by his daughter Maggie, who accompanied him),
took a box of condoms from the shelves, plopped it on the counter, and asked
the lady behind the counter for a receipt. Maggie relates that the lady was
astonished, and took a moment to recover. The condom was filled with the red
goo, and put inside the dragon, behind the bullseye. And the thing was full to
bursting. The original plot was not to tell Lady No. 2 (sung by a wonderful
friend, the late Cynthia Lake), but cooler heads prevailed. Cynthia was taken
aside and told of the blood to come. Start of show: Tamino ran on to the stage,
imploring “Help me, help me!”, the dragon made its ponderous flight from the
balcony, the Three Ladies appeared, “Die, monster, die!” Cynthia struck as true
as any Nantucket harpooner, and the blood from the pressurized condom exploded
out of the dragon in a manner worthy of any slasher movie. And all over
Cynthia. The next sounds were a scream in the fermata, the orchestra continuing
its triumphant music, but with no singing. Cynthia had bravelyturned to
the audience, however her throat was locked. Lady No. 1, (Anne Ackley Gray) had
her head on her chest, quaking with laughter, and I could not see Pam Bristah, Lady
No. 3. A couple of lines went unsung, the Ladies recovered, and the show went
Aftermath. The student financial manager of the show was finishing up the books and asked Peter how the expenditure for a condom should be explained. Peter smiled and said dryly, “Just say it was for the dragon.” And the blood stains on the stage remained for five years until the renovation and new floor.
The Marriage of
was on leave in 1978–79, and did not direct. It was musically and theatrically
a fine show, well directed by a chap named Arthur Karp, but lacking Peter’s
distinctive touch. The set, designed and executed by students, would have been
impressive, but we never saw much of it, as the ambition of the set outstripped
the time we had to do it in. One memorable small disaster involved a gate in
one of the doorways in the set. The gate did not make it onstage for opening
night, but was up for the second show. Nobody told our Susanna that the gate
opened inward to the stage. She
grabbed its bars to push through it,
and ripped the screws from the wood, coming off the stage holding a piece of
the set in her hands.
the seats went back in with fewer screws…
Don Giovanni April 1980
of Peter’s finest efforts. The audience came in to see a set comprised of a
number of low stucco wall units arranged on the stage. The top of each piece
had a couple of layers of terracotta roofing. One expected black-clad stage
hands to come out to do scene shifts. Nobody appeared at the end of the duet
with Anna and Ottavio which ends Scene One. But each wall unit suddenly grew four
feet and walked to its next position. That in and of itself became a crowd
favorite, more than once receiving applause. The singing was even better, and
it was a sell-out hit over several shows.
graveyard scene was, despite the lack of proper lighting, a wonder of spookiness.
The marble Commendatore stood on a pedestal with two weeping statues at the
base. The stage was dark, except for a blue light directly from above. The
voice emerging from that ghostly pool of light was wondrous. Later, when Giovanni
was dragged off to hell, it was the weeping statues from the grave who pounced
mentioned earlier that Peter did singing translations (an exceedingly tough
job) for all the operas we did together. One of his lines from Don Giovanni, has always stuck with me, the
beginning of Leporello’s great “Catalogue Aria” wherein he lists his master’s
conquests by number in each country. Here’s Lorenzo daPonte’s opening:
Madamina, il catalogo è questo
Delle belle che amò il padron mio;
Un catalogo egli è che ho fatt’io;
Osservate, leggete con me
Osservate, leggete con me.
Have a seat, ma’am and peruse at your leisure
This account book I keep for my master,
This voluminous index of pleasure.
Take a look ma’am, and read it with me,
Take a look ma’am, and read it with me,
Peter’s solution to the insult from the servant Leporello to Donna Elvira by calling her ‘little madam” is not the obvious “Little lady” of so many translations, but rather describes an insulting action — the servant offers the aristocrat a seat, rather than the other way around. As a bonus, Peter’s vowels perfectly match those of the Italian. Madamina / Have a seat, ma’am. Wonderful.
Der Freischütz April 1981
The climax of the PU Opera Theater madness was Der Freischütz (literally meaning “The Free Shot”). The first German Romantic opera, it was a trailblazer with its supernatural effects and vivid music that sounds so it very German. It is rarely performed in the US, but I fell in love with it while exploring for new repertory. Peter was always game for anything, and off we went.
Der Freischütz was also a game
changer in how the performing arts at Princeton relate to the curriculum. Peter
took the major step, against considerable opposition in the faculty, deciding that
this was the moment for these massive, time-eating projects to become a real course,
with a grade. He declared that anyone involved in a significant way in the
production could enroll in MUS 214, Projects in Vocal Performance. Some
maintained that to be a course, there had to be a written component. Peter
pushed back by insisting that doing and experiencing music was just as
legitimate a channel for learning as the traditional ones, and he refused to
install what he called “the trappings of a course.” Thus, an important
breakthrough was achieved.
the backdrop of the story is the German forest (the scary one of the Grimm
tales), Peter decided we needed to build a forest on the stage. I can’t
remember how many trees we had — maybe five or six. But they were 2 feet in
diameter, and maybe 20 feet tall. 1×2 slats, round plywood supports, chicken
wire, paper maché, brown and green paint. They were built lying down, then
one point the hero Max must descend a cliff into the terrible Wolf’s Glen. An
entire stairway was built on stage-left that went from the balcony down to the
stage. The cliffs of the Wolf Glen scene were constructed of similar materials,
built in top and bottom layers that fit together. They also had apertures
through which the chorus could look, and indentures where the ravens sat with
their flapping wings, operated from behind by a stagehand.
far as the specific effects for the famed Wolf’s Glen scene, in which Nature
revolts at the evil of casting the magic bullets, well… the ravens flapped well
enough. A student in a bear suit substituted for the wild boar. The ghostly
carriage was pulled on a curved track along the front of the stage (I think it
jumped the track in every show). But the masterpiece was the Ghostly Hunt — skeletal
men on skeletal horses riding overhead to the accompaniment of an invisible
chorus and wildly braying horns. Peter had students construct three rider
units, one drawing a spear, one with a bow and arrow, and one playing an
upraised hunting horn. The skulls (both humans and horses), bony hands and arms
were all carved from high-density Styrofoam, and were mounted on skeletons made
of thin board, with white sheets hanging from the horses. This trio erupted, on
cables, from the house right upper alcove from behind black rolls of crepe
paper and flew directly at patrons in the balcony before sharply swerving up to
their resting place at the top of a column. It always got massive applause.
(Not to mention scaring a few patrons silly).
search for authenticity was never-ending. A musket shot was required at the end
of the show. A standard solution would have been to get a prop musket and use a
starter pistol offstage. Inconceivable for Peter; he wanted a real muzzle-loading musket that would really fire. He found a local gent who
had one and was delighted that we wanted to use it. He brought it and gave a
demonstration. Our Max, George Gray, was an avid hunter and received this like
a kid with a fire truck on Christmas. (These muskets misfired not infrequently,
so we still had to have the starter pistol as a backup.) For the last
performance, George decided to use all the leftover black powder. The result
was a blast so loud that we were all momentarily stunned. Somehow, we kept
going. Alas, the performance’s last minutes went unrecorded, for the blast had
done the mics in for good.
the onstage cast party after the last performance, Peter and I, both several
sheets to the wind, decided that we would stay with German opera and mount Fidelio the next year. At some point
that I don’t remember, we decided to go one better and perform the original
three act version of 1805 which predated the standard 1814 version the world
knows by nine years.
Fidelio (Leonora) April 1982 and
soon discovered that ours would be only the second American performance, and
the first fully staged one. It was a real multi-tasker, and we were up to our
noses in it even in the first semester. A big question was where to get
performance materials. We struck out with the Boston Symphony, who, with Eric
Leinsdorf, had done the concert performance at Tanglewood, I believe in the
1960s. They did not have them, and did not know where Leinsdorf got them. I
remember Peter on the phone with Breitkopf and Härtel in Wiesbaden, Germany.
(He had not used his German in a while, and so he practiced his questions
before making the call). Again, nothing. We would have to make our own parts,
cutting and pasting from a copy of the full score. It took many hours.
The deeper we dug into the 1805 version, the more enthusiastic we were, and we all became convinced of its superiority to the 1814 version in some important respects. There is great music from 1814 that one misses, but there is also magnificent music from 1805 that is never heard. We came to feel that the principal characters were more human, and that Beethoven treated them with more personal intimacy, whereas they became more archetypal in the revision. My wife Marty was a senior, singing Marzelline, and she devoted her senior thesis to exploring both character and musical differences between the two versions. It turned out to be some ground-breaking work on the topic.
course, a Beethoven premiere was bound to draw some attention from the academic
side of things, especially with such a celebrated work. So, the Music
Department organized a Beethoven symposium centered around some real
heavyweights: Andrew Porter of The New Yorker, Alan Tyson of Oxford, Lewis
Lockwood of Harvard, and Maynard Solomon, author of a powerful
biography/psychological profile of Beethoven.
premiere and attending conference brought a lot of attention, and several
critics were in attendance. The reception was moderate, and I thought many
simply couldn’t stand to hear Fidelio
any way other than what they knew. But one person was in attendance who had a
real impact. The founder and President of the Beethoven Society in New York,
Robert Becker, wrote to us offering sponsorship for a repeat performance in
Alice Tully Hall the next December. Peter and I went to Provost Neil Rudenstine
and laid a budget before him for a Princeton performance in Lincoln Center. He
made one short call, hung up the phone, and gave us the go ahead.
were so fortunate to have this chance for a do-over. I know I learned much from
the first set of performances, and was happy to try to correct many
miscalculations. Fidelio is a real
challenge in the ways that Beethoven always is, but especially so with singers
onstage, moving around.
an out of town run-out at Rowan College, we went to New York. It all went
surprisingly well. The Alice Tully pit had never been used before (!) so the
production staff was energized, and exceedingly helpful. It was also a phenomenon
that performers experience often—working like hell on a hard project, putting
it away for a spell, and when you come back everything is almost magically easier.
days later Bernard Holland’s review appeared in the NY Times, and overall it
was very positive (if slightly patronizing). Everyone at Princeton was
thrilled, especially the Nassau Hall administration. Suddenly, it was getting
much harder to speak of performance as a minor activity. We had made Princeton
look good nationally. It’s my belief that all this energized the move to make
Alexander Hall functional, and the Music Department itself identified David
Richardson ’66 as the donor to make this happen.
transformation of Alexander seems radical only if you remember what it was like
before. There was suddenly a greatly expanded stage, major acoustic
enhancement, offices, a real pit, instrument storage, and bathrooms. (No more
peeing in the bushes)! The PU Opera Theater took a one-year hiatus for the
renovation and came back the next year with the last of the Mozart/DaPonte operas,
Così fan tutte.
renovation happened, in my opinion, because of the PU Opera Theater. However,
opera productions gradually grew rare because the hall was suddenly much more
desirable as a venue, and we could no longer shut the place down to build our
production. But, the job was done.
that the productions became a little more spotty. Peter and I did Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi and Ravel’s L’enfant et les sortileges. There were
other productions after that with all-student casts, including our last
collaboration in 2001, Monteverdi’s The
Coronation of Poppea. Peter retired at the end of that year. I went on to
conduct two more of Peter’s operas after his retirement, Moby Dick and Alice in
Wonderland, so our collaboration continued for some time.
and I had one more major adventure, the founding of the June Opera Festival
(later the Opera Festival of New Jersey). Except to say we produced Peter’s
magnificent setting of The Tempest
there, that is a tale for another time, as this account is about Princeton.
After the PUOT Run
renovation of the hall and the beginning of the slow yearly upsurge in highly
gifted high school students coincided. But this was no coincidence, for we now
had a beautiful building that spoke volumes about the seriousness with which
performance was regarded. Each year there were more student performers, and
their frustration with the Department’s lingering attempts to marginalize performance
mounted, just from the sheer number of these students. Finally, in 1990, the
dam broke with a powerful student uprising that confronted the contradiction in
the Department’s attitude. The planets shifted, and the old paradigm rapidly
slipped away. I remember the emergency meeting of department faculty to respond
to the rebellion. I said little, but Paul Lansky, one of the wisest and sanest
people I ever met, spoke up and said “OK, here’s what we’re gonna do.” He then,
on the spot, described the certificate Program in Music Performance, pretty
much as it is currently constituted. Nassau Hall gave funding to the Department,
I was asked to direct the program, and I have done so ever since.
program was unique, and the oncoming caravan of top musicians continued. Peter
knew well what was going on, as he came to pretty much all the concerts, and we
always talked after.
was Peter who, in the 1970s, first took some income from one of the
Department’s endowed funds to subsidize lessons for committed students. That
was the beginning. That fight to legitimize performance moved on after he
retired, and today the performance faculty are just that — faculty, not
sub-contracted non-employees. Moreover, students can take lessons for credit,
and the Department has a generous program for financial assistance for lessons.
climax of what Peter started in the early 1970s is the Lewis Arts Complex, a
platform for the study of performance in dance, theater and music. None of our
peer institutions has anything comparable. Yes, I had something to do with it,
but had Peter not been here in 1977 with his opera passion that matched mine, I
doubt whether I would have stayed. He was not just my colleague and friend, he
was my co-conspirator. I will miss him to the end of my days.
close with special thanks to my extraordinary bride and life partner, Marty. We
joyously shared all these adventures together as co-performers, and this narrative
includes both of our memories.