In Memoriam: Mark Owen Lee

(Written and provided by Ward Briggs)

Lee, Mark Owen (1930-2019)

Fr. M. Owen Lee (as he preferred to be called) was a beloved fixture at the University of Toronto, where he spent nearly 30 years of his life, and a perceptive critic of Latin poetry. He is, however, best remembered by the sophisticated public as a longtime panelist on the Texaco Opera Quiz, where he answered questions with remarkable alacrity (he was often the first to raise his hand to answer) and with a seemingly fathomless depth of knowledge about opera.

Fr. Lee was born in Detroit on May 28, 1930, and was trained in Latin from an early age at Catholic Central High School. After graduation in 1948 he entered St. Michael’s College at the University of Toronto, a college founded by the Congregation of St. Basil and affiliated with the Catholic Church. He was greatly influenced by his Latin professor, Donald Oakley Robson (1905-76), who taught at Toronto from 1947 to 1975. In 1951 Lee joined the Congregation and upon receiving both his M.A. in Classics and his Bachelor of Sacred Theology in 1957, he was ordained. In 1960 he became the first person granted a Ph.D. from the University of British Columbia, writing his dissertation on “The Myth of Orpheus and Eurydice in Western Literature.”  In that same year he began his career teaching in Basilian Catholic universities by returning to St. Michael’s as a lecturer in Classics. There he wrote some pieces derived from his dissertation, but also an interesting study, “Illustrative Elisions in Catullus,” for TAPA in 1962. His favorite authors in the classroom were Catullus and Horace, whose images and influences he traced out to the fascination of his students and the enlightenment of readers of Arion, CP, and AJP. One article showed that although Horace only quotes Catullus once, he shows in Odes 1.5 and 1.22 a distaste for his predecessor. His work of this period at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, TX (1963-72), culminated in Word, Sound and Image in the Odes of Horace (1969).

The Metropolitan Opera in New York began radio broadcasts of its performances in 1931. Nearly ten years later, the 11-year-old M. Owen Lee heard a broadcast of Tannhäuser and became a lifelong fan of opera, and of Richard Wagner in particular. To fill time during the two performance       intervals, the sponsor, Texaco, offered commentary on the opera by a learned authority during the first interval and during the second interval the “Opera Quiz,” in which a panel of three experts answered questions sent in by listeners. Fr. Lee had begun writing commentary on operas for Opera News and other outlets in the late 1960s and beginning in 1974 he provided some commentaries for broadcast as well. The response to his commentary on Parsifal (“Grand Illusions”) was so strong that he began to look for points of comparison between epic and opera. 

In 1983 he was contacted by the Metropolitan Opera to appear on its Opera Quiz. Perhaps fittingly for a Virgil scholar, he was asked also to give a commentary on Les Troyens, an all-star production (Placido Domingo as Aeneas and Jessye Norman as Cassandra) that opened the Met’s centenary season. Fr. Lee became one of the most popular and recognizable panelists on the Quiz and continued to appear, traveling from Toronto to New York at his own expense, until March 2006. Ultimately he wrote more pages on opera than he did on classics, including the 1999 Larkin-Stuart Lectures at Trinity College, Toronto, on Wagner plus audio books on operas such as Die Zauberflöte (1990) and Orfeo ed Euridice (2006).

At St. Thomas, he began to study the work of Carl Jung (1875-1961) which shaped his approach to Virgil (and Wagner). Lee’s devotion to Jung’s theories released the personal in him and each of his succeeding books begins and ends on autobiographical notes. After a stint at Loyola University in Chicago (1972-5), he returned to his alma mater and published Fathers and Sons in Vergil’s Aeneid (1979), whose centerpiece is the meeting of Aeneas and Anchises in Book 6. The father represents Jung’s Wise Old Man, a view to which Lee would return. He described Death and Rebirth in Virgil’s Arcadia (1989) as “not a book for scholars [but] the reader who wants both an introduction to the Eclogues and an interpretation of them.” After general chapters on each poem, he concludes the book with a personal account of his response to the poems. His approach to the Georgics is much the same: in Virgil as Orpheus: A Study of the Georgics (1996) he takes the reader through each book and concludes with Jungian analysis: Virgil, like Orpheus, is the master of music; Eurydice is the anima, Proteus the Wise Old Man, the dismemberment of Orpheus a Jungian rebirth.

Lee was not yet done with Virgil. He was honored to give the Robson Lectures, endowed by his late teacher, an opportunity for reflection on his own influences (Robson and Gertrude Smith) and career as well as a challenge to set down the conclusions of a lifetime of study of ancient poetry and opera. Lee showed how four epic works displayed Jungian archetypes: The number of women portrayed in the Odyssey marks it as an archetype of the anima, the female spirit in the world. He returned to the meeting of Anchises and Aeneas, “the heart of the poem,” in his eyes, sparking memories of the death of Lee’s father, another Wise Old Man. Parsifal combines both the anima (Kundry), the Wise Old Man (Gurnemanz), and the Shadow (Amfortas). Goethe’s Faust begins with a dream in which Lee is the Homunculus of Faust II leading Faust and Mephistopheles to the Classical Walpurgisnacht, with its horrors from ancient mythology. Lee interprets his dream as referring to his time as a student under Robson. The Jungian archetypes are again labelled: Faust is the Wise Old Man, Mephistopheles is the Shadow, and Gretchen and Helen are the anima. He concludes that all heroes are flawed at the start, then they contend with the world, discover their true purpose and serve as role models for their civilizations.

This was Fr. Lee’s farewell to writing on classical literature. Over the next two decades he published ten books, all on opera (plus one on film). The title, Wagner and the Wonder of Art (2007), embodies the passionate quest Fr. Lee himself pursued ever since that Texaco broadcast 66 years earlier.

Fr. Lee died on July 25, 2019, in Scarborough, Ontario.  For further information and a full bibliography, see https://dbcs.rutgers.edu/all-scholars/9313-lee-mark-owen

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(Photo: "Candle" by Shawn Carpenter, licensed under CC BY 2.0)   

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