Followers of Just Ottawa who are long-time devotees of the radio broadcasts of Saturday Afternoon at the Opera from the Metropolitan Opera in New York will have been grieved by the death in the summer of 2019 of Father Owen Lee, CSB, who for many years did intermission commentaries or was a guest on the Opera Quiz on the Met radio broadcasts.
Fr. Lee was a well-known presenter of these commentaries over nearly 25 years beginning in 1981. He was 89 years old when he died in a nursing facility in Toronto.
In 1957, the newly ordained Fr. Lee taught me beginning Greek at St. Michael’s College School in Toronto. It was the start of a sporadic, even distant association, but for more than 60 years, I kept learning more about this truly learned and remarkable teacher. At the end of that first year in high school, he sent our little classical Greek class off with the advice that we should work on remembering the rules for accent marks in Greek, because if we remembered our accents, we were more likely over the summer to remember the rest of what we had learned.
Father Owen Lee
Four years later, I encountered Fr. Lee at university. At a freshman mixer at St. Michael’s College (SMC) at the University of Toronto, he was playing show tunes on the piano to jolly the atmosphere. He taught classics at U of T and was resident at SMC, which was founded and run by his teaching order of priests, the Congregation of Saint Basil (CSB). Since I was a History/English major, I did not have him in class at university, though I saw him occasionally on campus. In fourth year, I was charged with organizing a series of little seminars on the arts for other SMC students. Someone told me that Fr. Lee was a lover of movies, so I invited him to discuss cinema as art. At the time, I naively thought, ah, neat, a classicist who likes movies. Only recently did I discover that he later wrote a book about movies and art. And I cannot even find the notes that I might have taken that evening.
In the years after my graduation, I would see him on campus from time to time when I attended the annual Michaelmas conference over a period of some 25 years. But I was frequently out of the country for work and did not know until years later of his brilliant career with the Metropolitan Opera broadcasts on Saturday afternoons. One summer, probably 1998, I discovered his collection of intermission commentaries in a book called A Season of Opera* and was entranced.
It enticed me, over a four-year period from 2001, to go to New York and attend several live operas at the Met, including a magnificent production of Hector Berlioz’s Les Troyens , the work which was the subject of Fr. Lee’s first intermission talk on radio. Four years later, when on assignment in Tunis, I lived in a house that overlooked Carthage, the very site of the mythical romance of Dido and Aeneas. All I could think of was Fr. Lee’s take on the opera, and my wish to tell him about being on the scene while listening to a recording of the Berlioz work.
In the course of my career in the foreign service, I eventually lost touch with him since he no longer lived on the SMC campus. As an SMC alumnus, I was frequently contacted for financial support, and as frequently I would ask the student volunteer solicitor if he or she could find an address for Fr. Lee, but without result. Then, the winter of 2018, after making the same request, a miracle happened. The volunteer must have tracked him down, and two days later, Fr. Lee himself phoned me from his retirement facility in Toronto. We had a wonderful chat catching up. He told me that he was not in good health and had suffered various painful illnesses in his later years, but he had continued writing. Though he was confined to a wheelchair, he would still sit at the piano every morning and play show tunes while others in the residence went in for breakfast.
Fr. Lee and I continued with an email correspondence and he told me how he came to be a feature on the Met Opera radio broadcasts. He had listened to the radio broadcasts from the time he was eleven years old in 1942, and over the decades had submitted articles to the Met’s Opera News. In 1981, he submitted an article on Parsifal as an intermission feature for an upcoming broadcast. The director, Richard Mohr told him the features were already accounted for, but why didn’t he come to New York and be a guest in the opera quiz segment between acts. Fr. Lee had to borrow an overcoat for the New York winter (he was then living in California), but apparently wowed them on the quiz and was then offered spots as an intermission lecturer. In the end he did more than 100 broadcasts over 24 years.
I acquired some of the books that he continued to write and publish well into his retirement. His book Athena Sings*, about Wagner and the Greeks, helped me through last spring’s performance of Die Valkyrie at the Met HD broadcasts in the movie theatres.
One quite remarkable book Fr. Lee published in 2004 was a memoir of a year in the 1970’s he spent teaching at an American college in Rome. Titled A Book of Hours: Music, Literature and Life, A Memoir,* it is a remarkably personal book about his love of teaching and opera, but also of challenges to personal development in a celibate career. His superior in the Order had allowed him to purchase a first-class Eurorail pass for the year, and on as many weekends as he could, he would train into Germany overnight and get cheap tickets for operas at the many cities in Germany which all had opera houses. His reactions to and insights into the operas he saw in the land where many were written and set is quite striking, and, may I say, enlightening.
Fr. Lee was a great scholar and teacher who was so modest that it was always by chance that I learned of his varied talents. Who knew that he was a trained musician and musical scholar? Who knew that he excelled in German and was a Wagner scholar - a particularly ironic reality for those of us in high school who had chosen Greek over German as an optional course? Who knew that this man who taught and wrote about Greek and Latin classical poetry was one of the foremost connoisseurs of opera in North America in recent generations? He was a graceful and stimulating writer and his books were a joy to read. He knew his worth but did not trumpet it. And as a priest, he lived a life of faith and devotion that enhanced and was enhanced by his many forms of scholarship - and friendships.
The most humbling (and gratifying) thing he said to me in our last exchanges was that he, as a teacher, was proud of my career achievements. Knowing by then of Fr. Owen Lee’s wonderful contribution to the world of music and literature and scholarship, this praise was almost an embarrassment. It was an enormous gift to have been reconnected with this remarkable teacher after so long without contact, and in the final year of his life.
The last time I saw him in person, many years ago on the SMC campus, he asked me if I had kept up my Greek accents. Imagine how much more learned I would be if I had.
* A Season of Opera, by M. Owen Lee, published 1998, University of Toronto Press
* First Intermissions, by M. Owen Lee, published 1995, Oxford University Press
* Athena Sings: Wagner and the Greeks, by M. Owen Lee, published 2003, University of Toronto Press
* A Book of Hours, A Memoir, by M. Owen Lee, published 2004, Continuum International Publishing Group