Photo by Dietrich Dettman courtesy Boosey & Hawkes.
Jack Beeson, the American composer of the opera Lizzie Borden, died at St. Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital, the New York Times reported today. The cause was congestive heart failure. He was 88.
Premiered in 1965, Lizzie Borden was Mr. Beeson's fourth opera, and it turned out to be his most famous. Using the historic axe-murder case as an examination of Greek tragedy (think Elektra in a pinafore) this opera became a popular staple at the New York City Opera in recent years. With Lauren Flanigan in the role of Lizzie's soon-to-be-murdered mother and soprano Phyllis Pancella swinging the axe as Lizzie, Mr. Beeson's opera made for a powerful evening of theater.
I once had the pleasure of attending a City Opera performance of Lizzie Borden, in my professional capacity as a critic. Sitting next to me in my house seat was Mr. Beeson, in his trademark bright red sport coat. As Ms. Flanigan reached for a spectacular high C-sharp, he leaned over to me and hissed "That's a high C-sharp!"
I answered, "I know."
I suppose he couldn't help himself. But that enthusiasm was characteristic of a composer who was basically an ebullient, erudite man who wrote some brilliant, underrated music.
A small, dapper figure with a great knowledge of music and personal intensity, Mr. Beeson was also a professor of music at Columbia University. At the end of his life, Mr. Beeson continued at Columbia as a professor emeritus, and was a loved, revered educator.
We've lost a great composer, a gentleman, and a scholar. May his departure lead to further exploration and performance of his works, including of course, a revival of Lizzie in his honor.