Leon Major

Leon Major Portrait
Artistic Director
1966 - 1969
Select Productions:
• Edward II
• Brouart
• Mourning Becomes Elektra

Born in 1933 in Toronto, Leon Major was Hart House Theatre’s eighth artistic director serving between 1967 and 1970. The first artistic director of the Graduate Centre for the Study of Drama (which took over the management of Hart House Theatre in 1967) he has also had prolific career directing Opera and is the current artistic director at The Maryland Opera Studio for the University of Maryland.

Immersed in culture from a young age, his father, a Russian emigre, had studied singing during his youth. By Major’s recollection although his father was supportive of his son’s interest in a career in the performing arts he worried that Canada lacked a viable cultural industry.1

After graduating in 1952 from the University of Toronto, Major was determined to create his own opportunities and develop the burgeoning theatre scene in Canada. He served briefly as the artistic director of the Crest Theatre in the late 1950s and various stints as an assistant director at the Stratford Festival.2 With the foundation of the Canada Council in 1957 funding was finally available for the “national theatre” initiatives across Canada. On a visit Halifax in 1960 to adjudicate the Dominion Drama Festival Major was struck by the enthusiasm of the city. Enlisting the support of Tom Patterson, John Gray, and Robert Strand, and the Mayor of Halifax, John Lloyd, he secured funding to build the Neptune Theatre, Halifax’s first regional theatre company.

Major wanted to make this theatre a permanent fixture in the cultural fabric of Halifax, a place where local stories could be told. As John Gray described it “the Neptune Theatre is an attempt to establish a fully professional regional theatre… its repertory season will include the best plays of the past in balance with new plays, Canadian wherever possible, but new.”[iii] Although under Major’s tenure the theatre launched the careers of such luminaries as Ted Follows, Diana Leblanc, George Sperdakos and Mavor Moore costs continued to spiral out of control while audience attendance dipped. By 1967 Major’s cynicism about the difficulties of regional theatre in Canada was apparent when, in an interview with Herbert Whittaker, he wondered “where are our efforts going to end? Where is the theatre that’s going to be a training ground?… where’s the future”.[iv] Despite his doubts on the vitality of Canadian theatre the trajectory of Major’s career continued to rise with his direction of the monumental 1967 opera production of Louis Riel. 

Following the establishment of the Graduate Centre for the Study of Drama at the University of Toronto in 1966 the Centre put out a general call for applications to the position of Artistic Director. As the Telegram reported on September 21, 1966 the administration estimated that there were “roughly 12 people in the world who would qualify for [the] position.”[v] Hired in 1967 Major’s first season was an artistic coup with productions directed by him, William Hutt and David Gardner. Describing his direction of Brouart as “meticulous” and “sustaining” Herbert Whittaker suggested that Major’s direction “provided a splendid advertisement for the new place of Hart House on the theatrical scene.”

His tenure was not without controversy, Major faced criticism during the 1968-1969 season for the decision to contract a professional company for the production of Middleton’s “The Changeling” and Goldoni’s “The Fan”, relegating student productions to the Glen Morris Studio Theatre. As Major argued “why should the actors have to worry about whether they’re good… that’s not what they they’re there for and that’s why I stopped the four-student productions each year in Hart House Theatre.”[vi] With his heavy involvement in the development of the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts he began transitioning out of his role as full-time Artistic Director at Hart House Theatre. Upon the opening of the St. Lawrence Centre in November 1969 Leon Major was appointed Artistic Director, working alongside Mavor Moore as General Manager.3

During the 1970s Major began transitioning back towards his first love, opera, his production of the H.M.S Pinafore for Stratford being broadcast on television in 1981. His son, Joshua Major, has followed in his footsteps and is a noted opera director and chair of the opera program at the New England Conservatory.4



Show 4 footnotes

  1. Joseph McLellan, “Leon Major—Giving Opera a New Look in the Capital,” Los Angeles Times, January 3, 1989, http://articles.latimes.com/1989-01-03/entertainment/ca-120_1_leon-major.
  2. Richard Perkyns, “Two Decades of Neptune Theatre,” Theatre Research in Canada / Recherches Théâtrales Au Canada 6, no. 2 (June 6, 1985), http://journals.hil.unb.ca/index.php/TRIC/article/view/7417.
  3. Herbert Whittaker, Globe and Mail, November 22, 1969, sec. Arts.
  4. “Joshua Major,” New England Conservatory, accessed March 3, 2014, http://necmusic.edu/faculty/joshua-major.