To say that John Lesser loves opera is an understatement. The resident affectionately known as “Opera Guy” is one of the area’s most passionate advocates for not just opera, but also all of the arts. Always quick with a joke and anecdote Lesser has made a name for himself as the area’s leading bon vivants and arts scholars.
When Opera Theatre of St. Louis held its first performance of Don Pasquale in 1976 they had no idea of the effect that they would have on Lesser, who saw his very first production by the company. Incredibly, he has not missed one since.
When Opera Theatre St. Louis presented its production of Sweeney Todd on June 20, it’ll mark the 1,000th straight opera that Lesser has attended.
Although he is proud of the streak he is quick to point out that what makes this milestone special to him is that besides that first opera in 1976, where he was taken as a guest, he has paid for every one of the performance he has attended since then. Lesser is looking forward to the event and marking it in a low key get together with his family.
His sister came in from Oregon to see the show.
Over the years he’s seen every single one of Opera Theatre St. Louis’ productions. When asked which one was his favorite Lesser said, “The first performance is one that certainly sticks in my memory. There are other productions I remember with such clarity, Count Ory (1977) and Mozart’s Cosi Fan Tutte directed by Johnathan Miller (1982). There are so many. I really loved their presentation of Nixon In China in 2004. Paul Bunyan (1984) was incredible. It was so beautiful I cried during every show.”
Lesser’s notoriety has grown with each passing Opera season.
This year he was selected to appear on print ads and billboards for where he has lived for three years. He was also recently profiled in Town and Style Magazine and The Ladue News. He takes the notoriety humbly, choosing instead to mention that he also supports the other opera companies in St. Louis—Union Avenue Opera and The Winter Opera.
“When you add it up I think I see about 75 local opera performances a year” says Lesser.
It’s no surprise then that Lesser spends his down time, listening to opera at home.
“I listen to at least one opera a day which comes out to about 400 a year. Unless it’s Wagner—he takes longer," he quips. “There are days when I’ll listen to three or four operas in one day.”
With so much opera in his head it is a wonder that Lesser even plays favorites. He lists Rossini and Massenet as his favorite composers.
John Lesser is also a world-renowned collector of opera posters. His extensive collection of posters spans worldwide productions from 1845 to 2012. He has displayed this collection in numerous gallery shows around St. Louis including The Sheldon, and the City Museum, and on the walls of the Loretta-Hilton Center.
Lesser acquires new posters for his collection from around the world.
“I get them from auction houses and respected poster dealers in New York, Paris and Boston. I also love just looking at the catalogs from sales," he said. "There is some terrific stuff out there.”
Lesser’s collection has gotten so big that he’s had to farm it out to various venues around St, Louis while keeping his favorites at home.
Moving to The Gatesworth forced him to split up his collection. He chuckles as he recalls moving.
“Most of the things in the house could go in the back of my car. Friends helped me move the large pieces, sometimes to their chagrin.”
Lesser, who is always quick with a pun or funny anecdote is the former host of Sunday At The Opera on St. Louis Public Radio. He also hosted an opera show on KDHX.
While listening to opera, Lesser indulges in many of his other favorite passions. He is a voracious reader and enjoys painting. He also loves live theater, dining out and seeing movies.
During his streak Lesser also established a ritual of being the first to arrive and last to leave for every performance. After the end of every Opera Theatre production you have to literally drag him away, kicking and screaming, since he is having so much fun.
“I’m the last one to leave the post show meetups. It’s to the point now where I turn off the lights and fans in the tents after the show after everyone else has left.”
The loquacious Lesser is very much a people person. “I love meeting the performers and talking with people about the productions.”
But the Iron Man of Opera has no intention of slowing down after sitting through his 1,000th straight production. Lesser intends to keep on going simply because he loves it so much.
It is not surprising then that Lesser already is thinking about what to do for his 1,500th straight opera.