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In addition to composing two operas (Trouble in Tahiti; A Quiet Place) and an operetta (Candide), Leonard Bernstein conducted opera internationally and to great acclaim. In 1953, Bernstein was the first American to conduct at La Scala in a production of Cherubini's Medea with soprano Maria Callas. Bernstein and Callas returned two years later for a production of Bellini's La sonnambula, which was recorded live. During his tenure as music director of the New York Philharmonic, Bernstein debuted in 1964 at The Metropolitan Opera, leading a ten-production run of Verdi's Falstaff. Two years later, in 1966, he conducted Luchino Visconti's production of Falstaff in his debut at the Vienna State Opera; Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau sang the role of Falstaff. His success at the Vienna State Opera led to his first subscription concert with the Vienna Philharmonic later that year. Bernstein also recorded Wagner's Tristan und Isolde with the Bavarian Radio Symphony for Deutsche Grammophon in 1981 with a cast including Hildegard Behrens, Bernd Weikl, Hans Sotin, Heinz Zednik, and Heribert Steinbach.

Bernstein also brough opera to American households through programs he wrote and narrated for Omnibus and the Young People's Concerts with the New York Philharmonic. In the last of Bernstein's Omnibus programs, the Maestro wrote and narrated an episode in 1958 called "What Makes Opera Grand?" which delved into the inner-workings of operatic language by using an acting and a singing cast to present examples from Puccini's La Boheme. In 1988, he recorded the same opera for Deutsche Grammophon with Orchestra dell'Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia. In addition to Omnibus, Bernstein also brought opera to American households through his Young People's Concerts with the New York Philharmonic, leading performances of Copland's The Second Hurricane in 1960 and Beethoven's Fidelio in 1970.