A Book Of Hours

Opera Book Review by Willard Manus

M. Owen Lee (also known as Father Lee, because of his membership in the Basilian Fathers) is well known in the opera world thanks to his talks on the Metropolitan Opera's radio broadcasts. He has also written numerous books on opera, including The Operagoer's Guide--One Hundred Stories and Commentaries (Amadeus Press).

Lee's insightful and witty comments on such famous operas as Aida and Zauberflute reveal him to be a critic of much learning and erudition, "an authentically humanist Christian soul" as one reviewer put it. Now Lee, Emeritus Professor of Classics at the University of Toronto, has published a new work, A BOOK OF HOURS--MUSIC, LITERATURE AND LIFE (Continuum Int'l Publishing Group), which explains from where his love of opera and his Christian humanism derive.

In the 1950s, when he was a young grad student, Lee spent a year teaching at an American college in Rome. It was a dream job; meager as his salary was he could afford to buy a Eurorail pass and travel, on weekends and holidays, all over Europe to take in both rare and familiar operas. On one trip to Germany, for example, he saw Mathis der Maler in Darmstadt, Mitridate in Duisburg, Prince Igor in Kiel, Fra Diavolo in Bremerhaven, Candillac in Mannheim, and a new opera about Joan of Arc in Stuttgart, where (as he writes) "there is a plaque in the opera house's lobby that identifies this Grosses Haus of the Wittenbergische Staatsopera as the scene of the laying of the foundation stone for the rebuilding of Germany."

In September 6, 1945, it turns out, American foreign minister James F. Byrne declared that "the American people want to return the government of Germany to the German people" and that "the American people want to help the German people win their way back toward an honorable place among the free and peace-loving nations of the world."

From Stuttgart, Lee crossed to Strasbourg for Monteverdi's Poppea, Nancy for Berlioz's Faust, Paris for Offenbach's Contes d'Hoffman. "I see some of the same people at the opera from night to night," Lee commented, "a young man from near London teaching for a year in Aachen; a middle-aged Belgian, father of a large family, who via train transit has seen over a thousand different operas; a charming girl from Vienna who collects Tristan performances. None of us has, or spends, very much money. We run into another at the top of galleries or in line for standing room or snatching a wurst and beer at some stand-up Imbiss. We all consult the international opera schedules published in Opernwelt or Die Welt or Die Zie, so as to be at the right place at the right time for the operas with the best casts. We have all heard the siren call."

Lee had many significant personal experiences while teaching in Rome: making friends with some of the other faculty members, such as Manfred Schone, a fine-arts professor and atheist who, remarkably, helps Lee through a crisis of conscience; and Father Andrzej, a diminutive, bespectacled priest who was also a poet and scholar (and Wagner-hater, a bone of contention between them). Lee also drew close to some of his students during the course of teaching Homer, Virgil, Pindar and Plato, and stayed in touch with them over the next forty years.

Lee's book works on many levels. It delves into the language and literature of Greece and Rome, the complexities of Catholicism and religion in general, the power of poetry and music, the beauty and history of Rome. But mostly it is, as the author admits, "an attempt to make sense of my small life, of the choices I have made, of the graces I have been given, of the world in which I was given them, and of the One who sent them."