Vocal coach Arthur Lessac died in Los Angeles on April 7 of congestive heart failure. He was 101.
Lessac, described by American Theatre magazine in 1999 as “one of the three or four most significant figures in modern American voice training,” perceived the various sounds of the human voice in a musical context and saw the entire human body as an instrument that requires training — training that would produce not only pleasant-sounding speech but physical and emotional well-being as well as a long life.
Not only singers and actors but dancers and athletes came to his door seeking the benefits of his methods. Among the actors he taught were Michael Douglas, Faye Dunaway, Martin Sheen, Frank Langella, Nina Foch, George Grizzard and Linda Hunt.
His system, very different from the phonetic approach of his peers, holistically united speech, singing and movement; students become attuned to the vibrations generated by their voices when they speak or sing.
Lessac, emeritus professor professor of theater at SUNY Binghamton, was still actively pursuing his profession at the time of his death.
Drama programs across the U.S. assign students to read his two books, “The Use and Training of the Human Voice” and “Body Wisdom: The Use and Training of the Human Body.”
Lessac was born in Haifa, in what was then Palestine, but his parents abandoned him at an orphanage soon after moving to the U.S. and divorcing. He eventually attended the the Eastman School of Music in Rochester on scholarship and earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in speech from NYU.
In the 1930s, Lessac was a vocal coach for Broadway shows. He also sang in a quartet with Paul Robeson, Josh White and Burl Ives.
He taught vocal technique to aspiring actors at the Stella Adler Theater Studio and to aspiring rabbis at the Jewish Theological Seminary.
In the early 1960s, Lessac was asked to lead speech training for the young actors at the newly formed Lincoln Center Repertory Theater.
Lessac is survived by a son, a daughter and two grandchildren.