Harvard Square

By LLOYD SCHWARTZ  |  November 15, 2006

SWEETER DAYS: Bailey’s served vanilla frappes with an egg.
Across the river were more movie theaters, and at Symphony Hall, music director Erich Leinsdorf was introducing major works (like Mahler’s Sixth Symphony) to Boston Symphony Orchestra audiences. He was a dull conductor who made exciting programs. The old Opera House was already torn down, but Sarah Caldwell and her Opera Company of Boston were presenting stunningly inventive — and historic — productions at rundown old movie theaters or gymnasiums at Tufts and MIT. She gave the American premieres of major works like Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron (which finally had its first BSO performance only a few weeks ago), and the first Boston production of Berg’s decadent Lulu, with black-and-white sets like newspaper clippings — productions that made Boston the focus of international attention and admiration. Caldwell virtually discovered Plácido Domingo, and the reigning diva here was Beverly Sills before anyone else knew about her. Caldwell gave Sills her first chance to sing 18th-century opera, shortly before her dazzling, tongue-in-cheek singing of Cleopatra in Handel’s Giulio Cesare at the New York City Opera made her a superstar. Less than a decade later, she was still singing with Caldwell and giving her first Symphony Hall recital for the Celebrity Series.

Versatile baritone Donald Gramm and one of Serge Koussevitzky’s favorite contraltos, Eunice Alberts, were other Caldwell regulars. Joan Sutherland, Marilyn Horne, and Shirley Verrett sang roles for Caldwell before they sang them at the Met. And every year, the Met itself came to town, bringing to the Music Hall (now the Wang Theatre) or to a makeshift stage at the Hynes Auditorium their fabulous or terrible touring productions. Harvard Gilbert & Sullivan featured dazzling performances by soprano Susan Larson, the best operetta singer I’ve ever heard, balancing on a tightrope between high comic style and real feeling. She went on to play leading roles in almost every production of Mozart and Handel conducted by Emmanuel Music’s Craig Smith and staged by Peter Sellars, who picked up the torch from Caldwell and kept Boston a world opera center. Early music hadn’t yet caught fire, but the Camerata’s Joel Cohen was already playing his lute and building excitement about the pre-Classical classics.

At Harvard’s jewel-box Agassiz Theatre and the Loeb Drama Center, both on the main stage and in the black box “Ex” (for “Experimental), long before ART came to town, a pair of extraordinary student directors, Timothy Mayer and Thomas Babe, were putting on shows with extraordinary young actors, some of whom would go on to have big careers (Stockard Channing, Tommy Lee Jones, John Lithgow, James Woods). These memorable productions were usually overlooked by the two major daily newspapers (the Boston Globe and the Herald Traveler), so to add to the Harvard Crimson, which took student theater more seriously, students started several drama reviews. I wrote my very first reviews for the Harvard Drama Review at Leverett House, which allowed me to get free tickets to those remarkable productions.

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