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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The new Classics Everywhere initiative, launched by the SCS in 2019, supports projects that seek to engage communities worldwide with the study of Greek and Roman antiquity in new and meaningful ways. As part of this initiative the SCS has been funding a variety of projects ranging from reading groups comparing ancient to modern leadership practices to collaborations with artists in theater, music, and dance. This post centers on projects that promote emotional well-being and use Greek texts to facilitate conversations on current social justice issues, from New York to Chicago and San Francisco.

View full article. | Posted in on Fri, 06/26/2020 - 7:31am by .

Dear members (and past Annual Meeting participants),

After extensive research and discussion, AIA and SCS staff and officers have decided that the January 2021 Joint Annual Meeting scheduled to take place from January 7-10 in Chicago will now be a virtual event. We know that many of you were looking forward to attending paper sessions and other events, to seeing old friends and colleagues, and to making new connections and we recognize that a virtual event cannot substitute in many ways for a face-to-face experience. However, after full consideration of the public health risks and significant impact of COVID-19 on the ability of most of you to travel to and participate in a large conference in the upcoming months, AIA and SCS have decided that a virtual event is the most prudent course.

View full article. | Posted in SCS Announcements on Thu, 06/25/2020 - 7:13am by Helen Cullyer.

In 2018, a group of scholars founded Mountaintop Coalition, an SCS-affiliated group with a shared interest in advancing the professional goals of Classicists who identify as members of ethnic groups traditionally underrepresented in the field. Mountaintop’s activities focus on practical issues of diversity, equity, inclusion, and access in professional settings.

View full article. | Posted in on Fri, 06/19/2020 - 8:30am by Samuel Ortencio Flores.

Froma I. Zeitlin retired from Princeton University in 2010, where she was the Charles Ewing Professor of Greek Language and Literature in the Department of Classics and Professor in the Department of Comparative Literature. Dr. Zeitlin received her B.A. from Radcliffe-Harvard in 1954 and her Ph.D. from Columbia University in 1970. She is a specialist in Greek literature from Homer to late antiquity, with particular interests in epic, drama and prose fiction. Her publications include Under the Sign of the Shield: Semiotics and Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes (1982; 2d ed.

View full article. | Posted in on Fri, 06/12/2020 - 8:50am by Claire Catenaccio.

Alexander G. McKay Prize competition for the best new book in Vergilian studies is now open

The Vergilian Society is pleased to announce the opening of the next competition for the Alexander G. McKay Prize for the best book in Vergilian studies. The prize, which is accompanied by a cash award of $500 or a life membership in the Vergilian Society (valued at $800), is awarded every other year to the book that, in the opinion of the prize evaluation committee, makes the greatest contribution toward our understanding and appreciation of Vergil or topics related to Vergil. Works of literary criticism, biography, bibliography, textual criticism, reference, history, archaeology, and the classical tradition are all eligible, provided that Vergilian studies represent a significant portion of the discussion. The current competition will cover books published during the years 2018 and 2019. The winner will be announced at the Vergilian Society session at the annual meeting of the Society for Classical Studies in Chicago in January 2021. The authors of books being considered for the McKay Prize must be members of the Vergilian Society at the time their books are submitted; for new members or to renew memberships see https://www.vergiliansociety.org/memberships-and-donations.

View full article. | Posted in Awards and Fellowships on Tue, 06/09/2020 - 6:54am by Erik Shell.

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View full article. | Posted in on Fri, 06/05/2020 - 12:21pm by .

From the SCS Board of Directors, approved 6/3/20

The Society for Classical Studies condemns the relentless horror of police brutality and murder of black men, women, and children, including George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Atatiana Jefferson, Rekia Boyd, Sandra Bland, Ahmaud Arbery, Tony McDade, Freddie Gray, Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, and Rodney King, to name just a few of the victims. Brutality perpetrated by the police and others stands with mass incarceration and unequal access to healthcare, education, and housing as symptoms of longstanding systemic, structural, and institutional racism in American and European cultures. These are deep problems in society that will not be fixed without radical policy changes at every level of government and across all institutions.   

View full article. | Posted in Public Statements on Wed, 06/03/2020 - 6:20am by Helen Cullyer.

The new Classics Everywhere initiative, launched by the SCS in 2019, supports projects that seek to engage communities worldwide with the study of Greek and Roman antiquity in new and meaningful ways. As part of this initiative the SCS has been funding a variety of projects ranging from reading groups comparing ancient to modern leadership practices to collaborations with artists in theater, music, and dance. In this post we focus on digital projects that engage with ancient texts and discuss the study of Classics during the coronavirus pandemic and beyond.

View full article. | Posted in on Fri, 05/29/2020 - 7:55am by .

Fellowships, Scholarships, and Grants, January – April 2020

Some of our short-term fellowship and Classics Everywhere award winners are deferring use of their awards until Fall 2020 or 2021 owing to COVID-19. However, we congratulate everyone who was awarded a scholarship, fellowship or grant this spring, and we thank our selection committees for their hard work.

TLL Fellowship:

Amy Koenig

Pearson Fellowship:

View full article. | Posted in Awards and Fellowships on Wed, 05/27/2020 - 5:32pm by Helen Cullyer.

Please see below a message from the SCS President, followed by a listing of 2020 graduates:

With in-person celebrations ruled out by the coronavirus pandemic, the Society for Classical Studies is proud to recognize the many graduates at all levels across North America who have chosen to make serious and sustained study of the ancient Mediterranean world a significant part of their education.  For those who are earning PhD’s, we welcome the new contributions to knowledge that each of you has made, and we pledge our support and guidance as you negotiate an even more challenging professional landscape than you signed up for.  We warmly salute all degree-recipients who are pursuing careers in the vital enterprise of K-12 education.  For those who are going in other directions, we take great satisfaction in the variety of paths you will be following.  We hope the classical world will remain an important part of your lives, and we invite you to visit our website, read our blog, and join the SCS as “Friends of Classics.”  And we count on you as lifelong advocates for the value of studying Greco-Roman and ancient Mediterranean history and culture: please take every opportunity to spread the word that the ancient world still presents us with new questions to investigate and with multiple points of reference for thinking through our present-day concerns.  Heartfelt congratulations to all!

View full article. | Posted in Presidential Letters on Mon, 05/25/2020 - 12:11pm by Helen Cullyer.

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