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Obituaries

R. Mohr, 83; Produced Records, Broadcasts of Metropolitan Opera

January 11, 2003|Elaine Woo | Times Staff Writer

Richard Mohr, whose diplomacy and rich knowledge of opera led to his successful career as a producer of opera records and broadcasts of the Metropolitan Opera's popular intermission programs, died of a heart attack Nov. 23 in Milford, N.J. He was 83.

Mohr produced opera records with many celebrated artists during a three-decade career with RCA and later as an independent producer.

He produced most of Leontyne Price's recordings, Thomas Beecham's "La Boheme" with Victoria de los Angeles and Jussi Bjoerling, and sessions with such virtuosos as Arturo Toscanini, Vladimir Horowitz, Arthur Rubinstein and Jascha Heifetz.

For a dozen years, beginning in 1981, he oversaw the intermission programs for the Met's weekly Saturday afternoon broadcasts, including conducting on-air interviews with opera stars that often produced sparks and choosing questions for the widely followed Texaco Opera Quiz.

"He had a great eye and ear for talent and for putting important people together for projects that had lasting value to the music lover," said Martin Bernheimer, a correspondent for Opera magazine and former longtime classical music critic for The Times. "He was an enabler with great imagination and great taste."

Mohr was an Ohio native, born in Springfield, whose passion for opera developed when he turned 16. As a birthday present, an uncle gave him tickets to the Metropolitan Opera, which was on tour in Cleveland. Hearing Kirsten Flagstad and Lauritz Melchior sing, he was enraptured.

Drawn to writing, he studied journalism at Wittenberg University in Springfield, Ohio, and later worked as a reporter and music critic at the Columbus Dispatch. He also wrote scripts for an RCA program called "The Music You Want When You Want It" and edited its Victor Record Review.

In 1948 he began to produce opera records for RCA. By his retirement 30 years later he had produced more than 80 complete opera recordings, including the world premiere cast recordings of Samuel Barber's "Vanessa" and Gian Carlo Menotti's "Amahl and the Night Visitors." He also produced all of Toscanini's recordings during the last two years of the master conductor's life, including Verdi's "Aida."

Although the opera world is famous for its egos, Mohr, soft-spoken and reserved, was known for his ability to soothe the prickliest diva or don.

"My impression was he got them to behave like pussycats," Bernheimer said.

"Say yes to everything they want," Mohr once said, explaining his secret to handling operatic tempers. "They forget about what they want, and you do what you have to do. It's no use arguing."

After leaving RCA, he produced a program for National Public Radio, "Backstage With Richard Mohr," which featured interviews with opera personalities.

During his RCA years, he wrote scripts for the Met broadcast and was a frequent panelist on the Texaco Opera Quiz. When Geraldine Souvaine, the longtime producer of the Met's intermission programs, retired, she suggested Mohr as her successor.

The quiz, now in its 63rd year, remains the most popular feature of the intermission program, attracting as many as 10,000 questions from listeners around the world every season.

The Trivial Pursuit of opera, it tests the knowledge of a panel of experts with such challenges as "Who sang the role of Leonore when 'Fidelio' had its Met premiere on Nov. 19, 1884?" (Marianne Brandt), or "Where does 'A View from the Bridge' [the William Bolcom opera based on Arthur Miller's acclaimed play] take place?" (Brooklyn).

Mohr chose the questions with quizmaster Edward Downes, eliminating those that sounded negative, such as "What is the opera you would least like to take with you to a deserted island?"

"I don't like to run down operas," he once explained to an interviewer for Opera News.

Nor did he like to put singers on the quiz panel, preferring to save them for the Singers' Roundtable, which engaged two or three prominent soloists in a discussion.

One of the most memorable sessions featured three top sopranos: Licia Albanese, Eleanor Steber and Dorothy Kirsten. Toward the end of the session, Albanese suddenly burst into Verdi's "Traviata." Steber and Kirsten were startled at first, then, not wishing to be outdone, they joined in.

Hearing the sopranos' impromptu performance, the Met audience ran from their opera seats to the hall where the three were singing.

"They brought down the house," Mohr recalled.

He retired at the end of the Met's 1992-93 season, with "Gotterdammerung," the conclusion of the Wagner "Ring" series, providing a fitting farewell. It was his 11th season as the maestro of the intermission.

He is survived by a sister, Jeanne Stevens of Springfield.

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