Congratulations to Prof. Donnacha Dennehy, recipient of a 2021 Guggenheim Fellowship! Prof. Dennehy is one of 184 recipients, chosen from a pool of almost 3,000 applicant scholars, artists,...
Recently, 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.
My 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.
In 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.
Peter 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 bit.
For 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 Princeton.
Getting to Princeton
A few paragraphs about how I came to be here.
Peter 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.
My 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.
He 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.
I 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.
I 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 building 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.”
Before 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.
As Peter did with the Theatre Intime productions, the casts in the Alexander shows were unpaid pros and advanced student singers.
Here are a few tales from each of those early productions, and how one thing led to another.
Princeton University Opera Theater
The Magic Flute, April 1978
Peter 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.
Peter 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.
Alas, 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.
Second 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.
Third 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 on.
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 Figaro April 1979
Peter 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.
And the seats went back in with fewer screws…
Don Giovanni April 1980
One 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.
The 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 on him.
I 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. 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.
Since 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 hoisted.
At 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.
As 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).
Peter’s 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.
At 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 December 1982
We 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.
Of 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.
The 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.
We 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.
After 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.
Two 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.
The 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.
The 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.
After that the productions became a little more spotty. Peter and I did Puccini’s Gianni Schicchiand 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.
Peter 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
The 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.
Princeton’s 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.
It 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.
The 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.
I 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.