Laszlo Halasz, the first music director of the New York City Opera, has died at 96. He died Oct. 26 at his home in Port Washington, N.Y.
Halasz became the opera's first director in 1943. During his eight-year tenure, the New York City Opera became an important venue for new works and a vital training ground for young singers.
Born in Hungary, Halasz was encouraged to pursue a musical career by his uncle, Teodor Szanto, a pianist and composer. Halasz studied at the Liszt Academy in Budapest, where his teachers included Bela Bartok, Ernst von Dohnanyi, Leo Weiner and Zoltan Kodaly.
He made his professional debut as a pianist in 1928, but in 1931 he gave up his career as a recitalist to focus on conducting.
One of his first appointments was as assistant to George Szell at the German Opera in Prague. In the mid-1930s, he was an assistant to Arturo Toscanini and Bruno Walter at the Salzburg Festival.
He came to New York in 1936 at the invitation of Toscanini, and when the New York City Opera was formed in the fall of 1943, Halasz was appointed its music director.
The company's first season included productions of Puccini's "Tosca," Flotow's "Martha" and Bizet's "Carmen."
Halasz conducted the company's first American premiere, Strauss' "Ariadne auf Naxos," in 1946, and the opera's first world premiere, of William Grant Still's "Troubled Island," with a libretto by Langston Hughes. But the opera's board was uneasy with Halasz's ventures into modern opera.
When the board insisted in 1951 that Halasz submit his repertory plans for approval, he resigned. The board relented, but when Halasz became involved in union disputes later that year, the board dismissed him.
After leaving City Opera, Halasz began a second career as a record producer. He also conducted opera at houses in Frankfurt, Barcelona, Budapest, London and South America.
As a teacher, he was on the conducting faculty at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore, and the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y.
He is survived by his wife, Suzette Fogues, a son and a daughter.