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 at times have lacked 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.
âMr. La Selva can drive an opera home with a directness and impact frequently lacking in the polished routine of prestigious houses,â James R. Oestreich wrote in The Times in 1990, reviewing the companyâs production of Pucciniâs âTurandotâ in Central Park. âHe does it with a lot of earthy musicianship and, seemingly, still more willpower.â
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 âObertoâ in 1994 and completed it with âFalstaffâ at SummerStage in Central Park in 2001, the centennial year of Verdiâs death. Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, who had earlier presented Mr. La Selva with the Handel Medallion, the cityâs 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, the former Anna Lena Floro, was a seamstress who owned a bridal shop.