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Vincent La Selva, 88, dauntless founder of a people’s opera troupe

By Sam Roberts New York Times 

Vincent La Selva, who exuberantly weathered thunderstorms, flimsy sets, crackling audio, frayed costumes, and sometimes inexpert performers so that his spare but enormously popular company, the New York Grand Opera, might live up to its lofty name, died Monday in Parma, Ohio. He was 88.

The cause was complications of dementia, his daughter Maria Vogt said.

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Founded by Mr. La Selva in 1973, the Grand Opera made its Central Park debut in 1974 with a production of Puccini’s “La Bohème,” in what was described then as the first fully staged full-length opera in a New York City park.

For almost four decades Mr. La Selva, doubling as the orchestra’s conductor, continued to deliver free summer concerts to hundreds of thousands of music lovers who could not afford the Metropolitan or New York City operas. Along the way he also transformed an untold number of the uninitiated into opera fans.

“I didn’t create this company to rival anybody,” he told The New York Times in 1997. “I just knew there was a middle ground between the amateur and the Metropolitan Opera. And I knew there were a lot of talented people around who weren’t doing much.”

Anthony Tommasini, chief classical music critic for The Times, wrote in 2001, “For all the talk you hear from politicians and arts presenters about bringing culture to the people, La Selva has really done it, and in the most unpatronizing way.”

Scrappy was the adjective applied most frequently to the company. Mr. La Selva received no salary (though he accepted the union-scale wage of $1,800 for conducting any four performances), coped without a full-time administrative assistant and supported himself largely by teaching conducting at the Juilliard School.

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Through the years the company survived on private and government grants and individual philanthropy. Mr. La Selva personally recruited and auditioned his performers, some of them amateurs and others semiretired veterans, and paid them union scale. He discovered a number of singers who went on to successful operatic careers, among them Enrico Di Giuseppe, Harry Theyard, and Katherine Luna.

The orchestra might have at times been short on string instruments but it never lacked dignity, whether enduring technical glitches on a windswept outdoor stage or performing at Carnegie Hall and the Brooklyn Academy of Music. He compensated for any shortcomings with an abundance of brio.

“La Selva can drive an opera home with a directness and impact frequently lacking in the polished routine of prestigious houses,” James R. Oestreich wrote in The Times in 1990, reviewing the company’s production of Puccini’s “Turandot” at SummerStage in Central Park. “He does it with a lot of earthy musicianship and, seemingly, still more willpower.”

In 2001, the editors of Guinness World Records proclaimed Mr. La Selva the only person to have conducted all 28 Verdi operas in chronologically staged productions. He began that daunting challenge with “Oberto” in 1994 and completed it with “Falstaff” at SummerStage in 2001, the centennial year of Verdi’s death. (The company’s usual home in the park was the Bandshell.) Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who had earlier presented Mr. La Selva with the Handel Medallion, the city’s highest cultural award, had a walk-on part in that production.

Mr. La Selva was born on Sept. 17, 1929, in Cleveland to Italian immigrant parents. His father, Vitantonio, was a steelworker in a wire plant. His mother, former Anna Lena Floro, was a seamstress who owned a bridal shop.

Vincent started performing as a trumpeter — his idol was Harry James — when he was 8. He quit high school at 16 to travel with a swing band. When the band folded, his father demanded that he finish school, and Vincent, as fate would have it, complied: The conductor of the school orchestra suggested that he apply to Juilliard. He was accepted at 18 and graduated with a bachelor’s degree.

After a three-year stint in the Army (he conducted the First Army Band on Governors Island), he started a volunteer orchestra at the Xavier Theater on West 16th Street in Manhattan and, in 1961, received rave notices for conducting Gian Carlo Menotti’s “The Saint of Bleecker Street.” (He also conducted that work in his successful City Opera debut in 1965.) He joined the faculty at Juilliard in 1969 and taught there until 2010.

In addition to his daughter Maria, Mr. La Selva is survived by another daughter, Lisa Zayac; a son, John; a brother, Roger; a sister, Mary Kruzel; eight grandchildren; one great-grandchild; and his companion, Akemi Baba. His wife, former Helen Lovell, died in 2011.

Vincent La Selva stopped conducting the troupe’s free summer concerts in 2012 and retired to Parma, outside Cleveland. The orchestra has continued under conductor Constantine Kitsopoulos.