ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Retired New York City Metropolitan Opera singer LeRoy Lehr has probably lived the life of three people.
The 86-year-old toured the world as an opera singer; served in the Army; was a founding member of the Minnesota Opera, then called Center Opera; helped a friend start a business; became a teacher; and finally spent 19 years as a bass soloist with The Metropolitan Opera before retiring in 2010.
He and his wife Veronica Reed now call the North Valley home, where they spend time volunteering with community organizations.
Lehr started life far away from the bright lights of the stage. Actually, he started life with no lights.
He grew up eighth in a brood of nine children on a remote farm in North Dakota where they had no running water or electricity. His parents were Germans who immigrated to the United States from Russia. German was his first spoken language and he can still speak it today.
The family came to America, like most immigrants, for a better life. Their closest neighbor lived two and a half miles away and during the region’s brutal winters, the family was often stranded at home for months.
“One year, there was a snow bank by the granary,” he said. “We measured with a pole and it was 18½-feet deep.”
The family knew how to survive the extreme weather. They ground grain into flour, storing it alongside animals they butchered to prepare for the long stretch of isolation. Cows provided fresh milk and the sale of livestock paid for other groceries.
“There was not much cash flow,” he said. “We had a lot of cattle and we would sell that.”
All of his siblings learned to play an instrument. Lehr chose the family piano. He wouldn’t see an opera until he was nearly an adult living in Minneapolis, but he knew by the age of 14 singing was something he had to pursue.
“I don’t want to sound corny,” he said. “But it was a calling.”
He graduated from high school by the age of 15 and his parents hoped he would go to a nearby two-year teacher’s college.
“I told them that’s not what I wanted to do and of my plans to pursue singing,” he said. “They said ‘If that’s the case, you’re on your own.’ So I left and went to Minneapolis.”
He got his first job at Sears, Roebuck and Company and found himself “broke several times.” He started studying voice and finally saw an opera. At the age of 17, he performed in his first opera, but singing still wasn’t paying the bills.
“I had to work to support myself,” he said. “My primary thrust of work turned out to be in the engineering field.”
He joined the Army in 1953 and served until 1955. The GI Bill helped him pay for college, where he studied liberal arts and engineering.
He went to work for General Electric for more than 10 years, then went to a local generator manufacturing company and finally helped a friend start an engineering firm. He also taught voice lessons at a local college.
He continued to perform.
“I never stopped with the idea of singing,” he said. “I was blessed with a strong constitution and could work 16 hours a day.”
Along the way he met his director wife Reed when the two did an opera together in North Dakota, although she was living in New York City and he was still in Minneapolis. They started writing letters to each other and became great friends. He made the final leap into his operatic career in 1984 by moving to new York and focusing full-time on his singing. It was also the year he married Reed. The two never had children together but had six between them from previous relationships. Tragically, one of Lehr’s sons was killed after accidentally falling off a mountain while on a fishing trip.
He joined the Metropolitan Opera in 1991 and is known for his performances as Doctor Grenvil in “La Traviata,” Hans Schwarz in “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg,” where his German came in handy and the Jailer in “Tosca.” He would go on to perform there more than 300 times.
The couple began thinking about a move to New Mexico around 2005. Reed is a graduate of Albuquerque High and the University of New Mexico. She was a member of the alumni association and would often travel back to Albuquerque for association-related activities.
Lehr now serves on the board of the Alvarado Gardens Neighborhood Association and is a member of the North Valley Coalition.
He met and worked with many people who would go on to become legends, including Italian operatic tenor Luciano Pavarotti, and musician and composer Dave Brubeck. But, Lehr said, he never did it for the fame. It was about artistic expression.
“I was very shy when I grew up,” he said. “…But I found in opera, I could get way beyond myself. It was opera that developed my personality more than anything.”
Lehr said he’s happy with the many twists and turns his life took and more importantly that it was the life he wanted to live.
“My parents got to see one operatic performance,” he said. “They finally figured out I wasn’t going to end up drunk in the gutter somewhere.”