Hungarian-born Maestro Laszlo Halasz, founder and first music director of the NYC Opera, passed away at his home in Port Washington on Oct. 6, 2001 following a long illness. Born in Debrecen, Hungary on June 6, 1905, Halasz originally trained as a concert pianist at the Academy of Music in Budapest, where his teachers included Dohnanyi, Kodaly, Bartok and Weiner. Upon receiving his diploma, Halasz concertized for a time but turned quickly to conducting and was appointed assistant to Georg Szell at the Prague Opera in 1929. From 1932 to 1935, the young Hungarian toured Europe as music director of the Sakharoff Ballet and made his debut during this time at the Vienna Volksoper, conducting Keinzl's Evangelimann. He also made guest appearances with the Budapest Opera and the Teatro Reale in Rome, where he formed close association with Ottorino Respighi and Gino Marinucci. In 1935-36, Halasz worked at the Salzburg Festival as assistant to Bruno Walter and Arturo Toscanini. In 1936, when the National Broadcasting Company persuaded Toscanini to come to the US and preside over the NBC Symphony Orchestra, he urged his brilliant young Salzburg assistant to come along. The following year, Halasz made his American conducting debut with the St. Louis Opera leading a performance of Tristan and Isolde with Kirsten Flagstad, as a replacement on six days notice for the celebrated Leo Blech. Immediate national recognition followed and he was invited to Philadelphia to head up the German wing of the Civic Opera. His tenure as music director of the St. Louis Opera from 1936 to 1941 was followed by nationwide USO tours with the symphony orchestra for armed forces in 1943. Halasz was appointed by Mayor Fiorello La Guardia to head the newly-formed NYC Opera Company. During his eight-year tenure, Halasz presented many US and world premieres of operas and introduced many new singers and conductors who went on to make international careers, such as Dorothy Kirsten, Regina Resnik, Ramon Vinay and Julius Rudel, to name but a few. He was the first to give black American artists a place as permanent members of a major American opera company. In subsequent years, Halasz was associated with the Teatro Liceo in Barcelona, the opera and conducting departments of the Peabody Conservatory of Music in Baltimore and the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, the Empire State Music Festival and made numerous guest appearances in Europe (Frankfort State Opera, London, Budapest) and South America.
Maestro Halasz is survived by his wife, the former Suzette Forgues, a cellist who had studied with Emanuel Feuermann and performed with conductors such as Stokowski, Beecham, Stravinsky and Bernstein prior to her marriage; and two children, George and Suzanne. Interment will take place at the family gravesite in Debrecen, Hungary.