Richard Lalli MUS ’86 never wanted to be master of one of Yale’s residential colleges. In fact, in his first two decades as an instructor for the School of Music, he barely set foot in them.

But when he started teaching undergraduates a few years ago and became a fellow of Jonathan Edwards College, Lalli — an adjunct professor of music who has taught at Yale since 1982 — discovered what he was missing.

So much so, in fact, that he described his selection as JE’s new master as “the most exciting thing that ever happened to me.”

“I never would have dreamed this would happen — never,” Lalli said in an interview moments after University President Richard Levin announced his appointment to the JE community on Wednesday. “What could be bigger?”

To a Yale faculty member, not much. When JE Master Gary Haller announced last year he would step down after the 2007-2008 school year, a few friends joked to Lalli that he would be a perfect fit for the job, but he did not think much of it. At first, as an adjunct, non-ladder faculty member, he did not even think he was eligible for the position. And as the search committee narrowed down its list of recommended candidates, Lalli and his partner, Yale University Health Services Medical Director Michael Rigsby MED ’88, were not waiting in suspense.

Being master of a residential college, they concluded, was “too huge and daunting of a task to fantasize about,” as Lalli put it.

Now, that is Lalli’s task. So far, so good: On Wednesday, Lalli and Rigsby were handed tote bags stuffed with JE apparel; as they stood in front of much of the college’s community, they were handed new, JE-themed scarves to put on. It was, admittedly, a lot to handle.

“Do I get to keep it?” Lalli asked about the scarf after most students had filed out of the dining hall. “It wasn’t just for the pictures?”

No, he was told. It’s all yours.

The scarf may have only been a fringe benefit, but his elevation Wednesday to the helm of one of Yale’s residential colleges marked the high point of an ascent that began in the cornfields of Illinois.

Growing up, Lalli was enamored with music at a young age, although he once recalled in a newspaper interview that, as a child, he nearly gave up the hobby altogether after being turned down for a church choir.

“A nun had us audition in pairs, and, to this day, I think she heard the other boy, not me,” he once recalled. “He got into the choir, and I didn’t. It was so humiliating, because I was already known as the musician around the neighborhood.”

But Lalli fought on. At the Oberlin Conservatory in Ohio, he studied music, although he first dabbled in religion and German in his earliest years at Oberlin. He was about to declare himself an English major, too, “but they told me I shouldn’t do that,” he told students in his speech Wednesday.

After college, Lalli worked for an early education research foundation, helping to develop a curriculum for disadvantaged children.

“But I missed music too much after four years,” he said. “That’s when I came back to Yale, in 1978, and now it’s 30 years later.”

At Yale, he teaches courses related to vocal performance and is artistic director of the Yale Baroque Opera Project, which offers undergraduates the chance to dabble in 17th-century Italian opera. For the past six years, too, he has conducted the Yale Collegium Musicum, and has also advised many performances and music projects sponsored by JE.

At commencement last year, he received Yale’s top teaching award in the humanities, the Sidonie Miskimin Clauss Prize for Teaching Excellence in the Humanities.

“Yale … attracts among the most accomplished undergraduate singers of any liberal arts college in America; virtually all of them are taught by you, Richard Lalli,” his award citation read. “In your legendary undergraduate course ‘The Performance of Vocal Music’ — known to all Yale singers simply as ‘Lalli’ — you teach your students interpretation, technique, diction, repertoire, literature, musicianship … and let us not forget ‘taste.’ ”

After the citation was read, about a dozen of the professor’s students appeared on stage and sung “Richard Lalli!” to the tune of Handel’s Hallelujah.

Lalli can sing for himself, too. A noted baritone who travels the world regularly, he was nominated for a Grammy Award in 2005 for his recording of Yehudi Wyner’s The Mirror.

But music has not been his only interest. After each school year, Lalli buys a book and tries to teach himself a new field. Once, it was philosophy; another time, Latin; another, chemistry.

“Of course, I give this up after about one week,” Lalli said to laughter Wednesday.

“But those are things that I want to do,” he added, “and I realize that you will be my teachers.”

That realization was a recent one. Last week, Levin summoned Lalli — who he knew well from the many times his students have performed at presidential events in recent years — to Woodbridge Hall. He offered him the job, giving him five days to think it over.

“It’s a little hard to make that decision when you’re in a state of euphoria,” Lalli admitted. “I’m only seeing the bright side right now.”

By Monday, he and Rigsby made up their minds.

“I’ve given it a lot of thought,” Lalli said. “I’ve talked with a lot of people who have done it before, … and they all assured me that I’ll do well.”

On Tuesday and Wednesday, at their first available moment in the morning, Rigsby said he logged on to the News Web site to see if word of their appointment had leaked out. It did not. And so the Lalli era in JE, it could be said, is already off to a good start.