Sad news broke this afternoon that Lee Hoiby, a preeminent master of 20th-century art song and opera, died in New York City earlier today following a brief illness at the age of 85. The news was confirmed by Hoiby's publisher.
Born in Wisconsin, Hoiby was recognized early on as a child prodigy of the piano. After studying with Egon Petri and Darius Milhaud, Hoiby landed a major break in the opera world through Gian Carlo Menotti, who premiered Hoiby’s first opera, The Scarf, to critical acclaim at the inaugural 1958 Spoleto Festival. A second production followed at the burgeoning New York City Opera the following year and Hoiby was championed by the feisty opera company under director Julius Rudel, who also premiered his work Natalia Petrovna (now known as A Month in the Country) and Summer and Smoke. The company also presented his adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, co-written with partner Mark Shlugasser, in its 2000 VOX festival showcasing new American opera.
In the art song scene, Hoiby was advocated by soprano Leontyne Price, who dedicatedly included his music in her recital programs between 1964 and her retirement in 1996.
Hoiby was one of the distinct voices of the 20th Century, eschewing postmodernism and minimalism for a commitment to tonality that resulted in some of the most endearing American vocal works. He took for inspiration a diverse swath of sources including Shakespeare, Lanford Wilson, Julia Child and Emily Dickinson.
While he lacked the fame of many of his peers, Hoiby was a consistent fixture on the American music scene—particularly in New York—and was working steadily until his passing. In recent years he worked extensively with American Opera Projects on settings of works by Elizabeth Bishop and Thomas Hardy, and several companies are currently working to give Romeo and Juliet its world premiere in the 2012-13 season. The Chelsea Opera has plans this June to present This is the Rill Speaking.
Shlugasser requests that, in lieu of flowers, donations be made to the American Virtuosi Foundation, Inc. in support of the Lee Hoiby Institute for American Music.
In this touching interview with Zachary Woolfe of the New York Observer written just over three months ago, Hoiby said “My life to me is continually miraculous…[T]o be able to do what you love to do, that’s the highest blessing.”
We were equally blessed to have Hoiby and his works in our lives.