Lily Grehan lived for music. She was born as Lynda Placek in Bensenville, Illinois, and died as Lily Grehan in Babylon, and in the intervening 67 years lived and worked in any number of places around the country—but the one constant in her peripatetic life was music. Gifted with a soaring soprano voice and a love of popular, classical and semiclassical music alike, she studied music at Millikin University in Decatur, Illinois, and then opera direction at the University of Memphis, from which she earned a master’s degree; she also studied at New York’s prestigious Juilliard School.
Grehan spent her youth as a professional opera singer, touring the United States and singing in opera houses, theaters and schools. In later years, when vocal troubles cut short her operatic career, she might have turned away from music in dismay. Instead she settled in Suffolk County—most recently in Centereach—and reinvented herself as a singing teacher, conveying not only the wealth of information she’d learned in her years as a professional singer, but also the passion for music that had spurred her to that career in the first place. A whole generation of Long Island singers deepened and broadened their art through her lessons.
Her pride and joy, however, was her daughter, Valerie Grehan. When Valerie—who had inherited her mother’s musical gifts—joined the Gilbert & Sullivan Light Opera Company of Long Island in 2003, singing the role of Pitti-Sing in The Mikado, Grehan attended every performance to cheer her daughter on.
Given her love of music and her delight in the stage, however, it was inevitable that Grehan—whose voice had settled to a lustrous contralto—wouldn’t stay in the audience for long. Though she was a complete novice where Gilbert & Sullivan was concerned, she soon joined the company’s chorus, and went on to such roles as Little Buttercup in H.M.S. Pinafore, Ruth in The Pirates of Penzance, the Balladeer in A Gilbert & Sullivan Christmas Carol and (in a rare non-singing role) Daphne in W.S. Gilbert’s Pygmalion and Galatea. She also brought her gifts as a teacher, pianist and conductor to bear as a music director, most recently steering the Company’s 2016 production of Iolanthe.
She also brought to the company her remarkable Rolodex: Her friends included a seemingly limitless number of singers, and she drew many of them into the Company along with her. At least 20 of the group’s performers in the past decade arrived as friends or friends of friends of Lily Grehan.
Her last two years were hard ones for Grehan, who lost both her legs and spent most of those years in hospitals and rehab centers, but her zest for life and, above all, for music were undimmed. She regularly hired ambulettes to take her out to hear musical performances—notably the Light Opera Company’s 2017 production of The Pirates of Penzance, which featured Valerie Grehan as Mabel and Lily Grehan’s beloved protégé, Vincenzo Fiorito, as Frederic. The last show she attended was the Company’s 2018 production of Patience, only a few weeks before her death.
Grehan converted her hospital rooms and rehab centers into music studios, continuing to teach students even as she fought with the ailments that ultimately claimed her life. She even planned to launch a chorus at her rehab center in West Babylon, plans that sadly will go unfulfilled. The night before her death, barely able to speak, she was still counseling Fiorito, who is currently studying at Juilliard and playing the Duke in Patience.
It was a fitting end for a woman who loved music and musicians, singers and singing, more than most people ever love anything.