By Bruce Duffie

[Published in Wagner News, Summer 1986 issue]

Last summer, the Seattle Opera presented its new Walküre, sort of a preview of the full Ring which is being given this summer.  Last year’s production of the most popular of the four dramas gave the world a taste of the new team – Conductor Armin Jordan, Director François Rochaix, and Designer Robert Israel.  The work raised much controversy.  Many people loved it; a few hated it.  [Following the interviews is an appreciation of the conductor who died in 2006, as well as brief biographies of the director and designer.]

This summer, Seattle will unveil the entire Ring in this new production.  There is one change from last summer:  the conductor, Jordan, had to withdraw because of serious illness.  Indeed, he has canceled all engagements for a lengthy period of time, and we wish him a full recovery in the near future.  But to fill the breach, Speight Jenkins, the General Manager of the Seattle Opera, has engaged the French conductor/composer Manuel Rosenthal to undertake the task of leading the Ring for the first time in his very long career.  We hope that his conducting works well with the concepts already in place.  [See my interview with Manuel Rosenthal.]

It was my great pleasure to attend the “preview” last summer in Seattle.  Readers of these pages have noted my views in the article which appeared in the September issue.  During my visit, I had the opportunity to talk with the three men responsible for the project – namely the conductor, the director and the designer.  My conversations took the form of two interviews.  First, I met the conductor and director.  Maestro Jordan spoke very little English, but Rochaix spoke English very well, and also acted as translator for the conductor.  Rochaix was kind and patient, and did an excellent job of rendering the conductor’s thoughts into English, as well as providing his own views on the various subjects.  He made it very clear which were his own thoughts and which were being translated, so there has been no problem in ascribing the right ideas to the correct person.

As the chat (or as Maestro Jordan called it, a “trialogue”) was nearing its conclusion, the designer, Robert Israel came into the room.  He listened, and after the conductor and director went off to auditions being held in the theater, I had a talk with the designer alone.  I’m pleased to be able to share much of what went on then with readers of this Newsletter.

Bruce Duffie:    Let’s start with the big question – how do you see the Ring?

jordanArmin Jordan:    [Photo at right]  The Ring is very isolated in the output of Wagner, and in the history of opera.  We cannot say it is a music-drama as Wagner said.  It’s very difficult to say what it is, and that is the reason it is so fascinating.  It’s also fascinating because it is a work filled with contradictions – not in the music, but in the story.

BD:    Does that make for tension between the stage and the pit?

AJ:    Yes, but that is not wanted by Wagner.  As it is a work full of contradictions, so it is a work you never can scenically realize totally.  Because this work is not perfect, it is not possible to stage totally.  That’s the reason it’s interesting.

BD:    (To Rochaix)  So, if the conductor says you can’t imagine it totally, how do you stage it?

François Rochaix:    I don’t stage it totally.   (Laughter all around).  I agree completely with what Armin said.  It’s not a work written at one point in time.  It took Wagner a lot of years to write, and that’s interesting to know.  I feel those years in the work.  There is also in the composing this “time-going.”  This is so strange – the break in the middle of Siegfried.  When I’m working on Rheingold and then on Gotterdammerung, it’s such a long way from one to the other.  Of course we can explain this and say he was a revolutionary and he read Schopenhauer later, and so on.  But even without going into these biographic details, I feel it in the story he tells.  It’s like a travel which begins in one direction and ends up at a completely different destination.

BD:    So it’s a surprise where the work ends up?

FR:    Yes, it’s a surprise when I remember where we were in Rheingold.  There, we have a conversation piece with strong social and political pictures in relation with the 19th century.  In that first opera, the Gods are really gangsters who are betraying their power.

BD:    So do you portray them as gangsters, then, or are they still Gods and dwarfs and giants?

FR:    Oh they are Gods and dwarfs because this is the mythology.  But I have never met a God, so for me he can behave only as a human being.  What is a God?  How does a God shout against another God?  How does a God make love?  So I have to think of the only thing I know and that is myself and our life.  It works on two levels – one side is the real level, and the other is the myth.  Somewhere, myth is the archetype of life.  Myth is not just my experience today; it begins with the Greeks and comes forward to the present.  I can imagine Wotan being dressed as a romantic 19th century man like Wagner, but he has to have a spear, and I like that contradiction.  This is the source of the myth.  In Rheingold, of necessity you have somebody coming in and changing society.  In Gotterdammerung it is so much more complex.  Wotan, like a gangster who has the power in the beginning, has become a tragic figure, a King Lear with a deep humanity.  Everyone has become so much more complex.  Siegfried is not the man we expected, and this is the way of the Ring.

BD:    How political is the Ring for the conductor?

AJ:    It’s political, but also such a rich well of fantasy.  I have the impression that Wagner was overcome by the ideas he created.  The pictures that he invented probably went further than he first thought.  That may be one reason he stopped working on it in the middle.

BD:    Does the music hold together despite the gap?

AJ:    This brings a stronger interest with the gap than would have been if he had just continued without interruption.  There were so many years in between where the figure of Wagner had an evolution.

BD:    But you still view the Ring as one drama rather than four?

AJ:    I think it’s one, yes.

BD:    What would you feel is the best way to distribute the performances?

AJ:    As close together as possible.

BD:    Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday???

AJ:    (Laughing) Well, for the singers, that is not possible.

BD:    Suppose they could sing all day and all night?

AJ:    That would be better.  If we could do Rheingold and Walkure on the same evening, that would be fantastic.  Not the prelude alone.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Is it easier to listen to Wagner than to watch it?

AJ:    I don’t think you can separate the two.  He was one of the first composers who did not write “absolute music.”  The music of Wagner only has sense with the acting of the singers on the stage.

BD:    Then how do you talk to people who sit home and listen to audio-only discs all the time?

AJ:    It’s a pity for them!  The music of Wagner is composed with the acting and with the picture – the visual aspect – and if this disappears, the music is diminished.  I feel the same about Wagner in concert.  The first act of Walküre is nice to hear because it’s nice music, but there are many moments in the orchestra that make absolutely no sense if there is no corresponding stage-picture.  That is the reason the sets are so important.  The set must not say the same thing as the music; it must be complimentary and add another dimension.  But when the set goes against the music, it can destroy the music.  This is possible because the music is not “absolute.”

BD:    Is it not enough if the public has seen a production or looked at pictures?

AJ:    No, especially if the production was wrong.

BD:    Have you been involved in productions that were “wrong?”  And if so, what can you do?

AJ:    I cry.  I am paid so I must stay, but I cry.  I like to conduct an opera where I can be open and watch the stage.  When I’ve gotten bad critical notices, it is usually because the production was wrong.  Then I lose the desire.  I love Pelléas, but one production was set in a hospital because the director thought society was ill.  That time it was impossible to conduct the music well.

rochaixBD:    (to Rochaix) Have you done a production where you’ve been right and the conductor has been wrong?

FR:    [Photo at left]  It would be very arrogant for me to answer this question.  I’ve made many happy experiences with conductors, but I was once or twice frustrated because we had not a lot of connections.  Not that he conducted badly, but there was no real relation between the pit and the stage.  I need a conductor not only as a colleague, but someone who corrects me and criticizes me all the time.

BD:    So he inspires you, also.

FR:    Of course.  The way the music is done is totally important for me.  I have the score under my eyes when I am directing, but with this conductor I feel not only an affinity, but also a sympathy.  Armin conducts this Walküre absolutely not in a German way.  Suddenly the romantic aspects come out and the singers never shout.  The “noise-making singers” in Wagner are what I’m hating the most.  Here, for instance, suddenly the Siegmund/Sieglinde aspects come out.  This also has to do with the work we did with (the set-designer) Bob Israel.  We didn’t want a realistic, closed world.  We wanted something with realistic elements but always open for the imagination of the audience.   The audience should finish the picture with the music.  So the way it is sung and performed with the orchestra is absolutely basic.  If suddenly we had some very heavy German conducting in this production it wouldn’t work.  Something would be totally wrong.  On the stage should be other things, and I would not be inspired either.  On one of the first meetings we had with Speight Jenkins, Armin said that we have to regard Wagner as a Latin composer.

AJ:    Wagner always wanted to flee to the south!  He liked to speak French and he liked the Italian sun.  I feel that Wagner invented impressionism.

BD:    So without Wagner there would be no Debussy?

AJ:    Not only Debussy, but many others, also.

BD:    Without whom could there not have been Wagner?

AJ:    This is a difficult question because Wagner was one who didn’t get everything from the beginning.  Wagner takes bits from Meyerbeer, Gounod, Weber, and he goes his own way and builds his music.  He comes at a time when music is not alone, but mixed with philosophy and literature.

FR:    It may be anecdotal, but I find it interesting that the year 1813 brought us not only Wagner, but also Verdi and Buchner.  Buchner died when he was only 23 so he couldn’t go further, but I just directed the Büchner play Woyzeck, and I felt it helped me a lot to go into Wagner.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    How important to you are Wagner’s prose writings?

AJ:    I like them very much, and I’m interested in them.

BD:    Do they influence your conducting?

AJ:    No.  I don’t think it’s important to know those things to conduct.  If the composer is a good composer, he writes much with notes.

BD:    Are the polemics more important to you as a stage-director?

FR:    For me, it’s not only the notes, but the text, and I’m basically building my work on his text – even more on the text which is sung than the notations about scenes and directions.  I am very suspicious about the stage–directions in the score.  Most of the time they are old fashioned because they are depending on the state of the theater while the composer wrote.  The stage mechanics were very primitive; the musical notes and the text are much freer.  With Wagner, though, there are some exceptions because he was a little crazy.  He called for things that were absolutely impossible to do at that time.  We have flying horses, but I didn’t invent them – they are in the text.

BD:    Was he writing a TV script?

FR:    Maybe.

AJ:    Wagner wrote the best film music!

FR:    I imagine we could make an incredible film of 16 hours.  It’s not my profession, and it’s a pity because I would like to do something like that.  For Maestro Jordan, though, it wouldn’t change anything.

BD:    You would not alter anything in your conducting to make a sound-track of a film?

AJ:    No.  On a record, though, we could do a few things like having a singer very close to the mike and sing softly yet be heard.  That couldn’t be accomplished in the theater because of the orchestra.  And the singer could have more colors.

BD:    As we’ve been talking about all of this, I see a genuine excitement in your eyes.  Do you find this special quality in any composer before Wagner?

AJ:    Yes, but it’s not the same.  With Wagner, it’s such a passion for the music and theater, whereas with other composers it’s for the music alone.

FR:    I must say that the Ring is something very special.  It’s so rich and so surprising and so full of contradictions – as Armin said earlier.  Some months ago I worked on Tristan, and I found the opera fascinating yet impossible to stage because it’s so archetypical that it’s too much to be human.  When I went into this Siegmund/Sieglinde love scene, there are always differences when you go from one Wagner to another.  I have just discovered that Walküre has such contrasts even within itself.  The Wotan/Fricka relation is one and the Wotan/Brünnhilde is quite another.  Then Siegmund/Sieglinde is one of the most beautiful and loving scenes in the whole literature.  Then there is the wonderful circus music with the Walküres.  Then there is the Cassandra scene of Sieglinde where she has visions.  And it’s all in the same opera!  It’s incredible how rich in color it is.

BD:    Does your conception of Wagner change over many years?

AJ:    It would be terrible to conduct Wagner the same way in 1970 as in 2020.  For about ten years now it has been about the same, but I hope it will change.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Do you like having supertitles?

FR:    I find this fantastic.  I think finally people understand what Wagner told.

jordanBD:    You don’t find it a distraction?

FR:    No.

BD:    Is this better than using the Porter translation?

FR:    I think the supertitles are better.

AJ:    Even in Germany, you could use the supertitles!  You can never understand all that a singer sings.

FR:    The conductor has to understand everything in order to interpret the colors of the music, but it would be nonsense to make them “speak” so that the people understand everything and in the process destroy the music.  And I agree totally – even in a country with the same language as the opera you could use the supertitles.  I was fascinated at the first night.  I had the impression that some people who knew the Ring discovered what it was about.

BD:    How much do you expect out of the public?

AJ:    If the audience did not come, I would not do this job.  What we do is for the audience and I accept and respect any and all reactions.

BD:    How much preparation do you expect from those who come to your performances?

AJ:    I don’t like too intellectual an audience.  I like to have people who will accept being led through the performance.  I like an audience that has some fragility – one who can be impressed in a good or bad sense.  The only audience I don’t like is one who has decided what they are going to see is bad.  They are not interesting because nothing can happen.

FR:    I would say that the audience is our main partner.  My position is that I am the first member of the audience.  This is my function.  A soon as the rehearsals begin, I am sitting in the audience and I’m watching.  I have to trust myself, and when I am moved and when I feel it’s right, I make the hypothesis that the audience will do the same.  But I don’t act directly on the audience as Armin does because he is there when the audience is there.  When the audience arrives, I have disappeared.  But as long as I am here (during rehearsals), I represent the audience.  I am very much interested in the reactions of audiences – especially when they are divided.  That is fantastic, and I think that is a function of the theater.  If a theater doesn’t divide, something must be wrong.  Theater must be a little like a “Molotov Cocktail” in that it must bring doubts and help things change and to bring new questions.

BD:    Is this only in Wagner?

FR:    No, no!  This is a general definition of straight theater and opera.  If it just confirms old habits, it’s boring.  Even comedies can be very wicked!  But you see how Wagner wanted to change things all the time.

BD:    Is opera “art” or is it “entertainment?”

AJ:    Oh this is a difficult question!  I think it’s finally art.  What I like about opera is that it’s a genre that is wrong, it’s not realistic.  I don’t care for opera films where everything is realistic.  If you carry this idea through, the characters should not sing but rather they should speak!  All movements, all behavior in opera is a little slower and longer because people are singing.  You can’t go against this; you have to deal with this.  It’s the contradiction of this kind of realism.  In some operas, a sentence is repeated ten times, so it’s ridiculous to bring realism to it because it doesn’t work.  I hate when a director says to a singer, “Sing it as if you were speaking.”  This is idiotic.  The singer should respond that he is not speaking but singing!

BD:    So you expect a certain amount of intelligence on the part of the singers?

AJ:    Of course, and they are.  And I think that directors are responsible for this.

BD:    So you like the general trends in stage-direction today?

AJ:    I hate directors who have no fantasy or imagination, and I hate those who go contrary to what the composer wrote just to provoke a scandal.  And I know some… (laughter)

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Are you optimistic about the future of opera?

AJ:    I think that opera has more chance of surviving than concert music.  It’s a big thing to think about.   I think that avant-garde music is going the wrong way.  Music, as Ansermet said, has a lot to do with memory.  You can only understand a measure of music if you know what was in the previous measure, and you cannot imagine what will come in the next measure.  Music is the only art that happens in time, so if you want to understand, memory has a big part.  And what makes this possible is harmony, tonality, and rhythms you can recognize.  The only twelve-tone music we can understand is Anton Webern because the pieces are so very short.  What is interesting about avant-garde music is the technical aspect, but in opera you have not only the music but you also have the text to aid the memory.  A lot of people came to twelve–tone music through Berg’s Wozzeck because they thought they understood the music, but what they really understood was the story.

BD:    Is music dead, then?

AJ:    No.   We have a whole new generation of nostalgic composers.

BD:    Is “rock” music?

AJ:    It is an expression of the times.

BD:    That’s a wonderful answer – the best I’ve gotten to that particular question.  (To Rochaix) Is it the same for the man-of-the-theater?

FR:    It depends on how you define music.  It’s such a different context.  When I’m working on Wagner, I never dream there could be a rock version of it.  That is never my problem.  When I’m listening to rock music, sometimes it is so primitive and so simple that I fear it’s making me totally poor in my way of listening.  Most of the time it’s good when I have a show to see – with guitars and all the sexual symbols...

AJ:    (Interjecting)  Like Wagner!  (laughter all around)

FR:    But when I see the rocker playing, I have a very strong picture of today.  The strongest experiences I have of rock was when I saw the people sweating, and I think it’s the same for opera.  No electronic technique can be as good as our ear in a space.

AJ:    And in the theater, you see what you want.  On TV, you see what the TV director wants you to see.

FR:    That’s right.  I work on a large focus, and even though I might want the audience to look at one thing, they can easily look elsewhere.

dvdBD:    Let me ask about the Parsifal film.  While you were acting the part of Amfortas, did you ever wish you could go back and change a few nuances in the recorded music you had conducted?

AJ:    No, because I recorded the sound just like a normal record without knowing what would be done for the cameras.  The only thing that was important to Syberberg was that he didn’t want a conductor who would conduct the work in a heavy, German way.

BD:    How did you wind up doing the acting of the role of Amfortas?

AJ:    Syberberg originally wanted to do it all with marionettes.  Then, he realized that the unexpressive faces for five hours would be too long.  So then he decided to do it with actors, and settled on some of the casting.  When he witnessed the recording and saw Robert Lloyd and Aage Haugland, he wanted them.  Then the assistant director said to Syberberg that when she saw me conducting the portions of Amfortas, I had just the right expression for the role.  So Syberberg asked me and I said no because I am not an actor.  I said it is normal that the conductor has an expression that corresponds to what he is conducting.  Syberberg asked me to make some screen tests in Munich which I found horrible, but he said it was wonderful.

BD:    Would you ever do it again?

AJ:    No!  I had to learn it all by heart, and I know how difficult it is for singers to learn all of this.  I not only had to learn what Wagner wrote, but also I had to do it the way the singer has done it on the recording, and that is a bit more difficult.  Notes were held too long or too short and I had to adjust.  But most of the time, Syberberg focused on my face so there was not too much movement, and that is lucky.

BD:    Thank you very much for speaking with me this afternoon.

AJ:    Thank you – they were good questions.

*     *     *     *     *

At this point, the maestro and the director were summoned to the theater to hear auditions for the coming summer’s roles.  I was formally introduced to the designer, who had listened to a bit of the previous interview.  After a brief chit-chat about creating world premieres, we settled back to discuss the designer’s art and Wagner, and many other things that go into a successful production.  We pick up the conversation with a general question…

BD:    Who’s in the basic conception – the designer or director or conductor, or what balance of them all?

Robert Israel:    It’s everyone together, including, finally, the singers.  Eventually, the director and designer lose power.  They have all the power they could possibly want in conceptualizing a piece, but as you get closer and closer to the production you start losing the power, and finally the orchestra and conductor and singers and technicians have all the power.  We just sit there impotent.

BD:    Happily so, or frustratedly so?

RI:    It depends on how well you think you’ve done the job.

BD:    Are you pleased with what you have done?

RI:    I’m critical all the time.  I sometimes enjoy it and I sometimes don’t.

BD:    Are you constantly touching it up?

israelRI:    [Photo at left]  No, you can’t do that.  Hopefully they keep it up to snuff, and I may give notes as things go on, but once it’s alive it has to live on its own.  As it’s being built, things must be changed.  It’s an evolution.  For this Ring, after we finish with this summer’s Walküre, François will come to my home and continue working.  Then he’ll go back to Geneva and I’ll continue working; later I’ll go to see him, so it’s a constant process of taking it step by step until it’s all together.  We have now more than just an outline.  There are parts that are filled in, but there are other parts that we need to talk about a great deal.

BD:    Are you happy with this part as you see it produced?

RI:    More or less.  There are things that we will change for next year, but in the larger sense, yes.  There won’t be any large conceptual changes, but someone may have to enter from stage-left instead of stage-right, or we’ll be able to stretch a backdrop tighter because of something.

BD:    When you’re making the designs, how much consideration do you give to the actual stage-mechanics?

RI:    Oh, the first thing you do when designing is to get the plans of the theater.  Every theater is different and every theater offers you different possibilities and different problems.

BD:    So it’s more than just how wide is the proscenium and how deep is the stage?

RI:    Yes.  For instance, this theater has no traps.

BD:    Nothing underneath whatsoever?

RI:    Concrete.  So we had to build up the stage three steps.  That gives us a very shallow basement, but at least it allows us to do certain things that we couldn’t do without it.  You’re dealing with a machine, basically, and each machineeach theateris different.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    How many steps are there between the first commissioning of you to make the design, and the final opening night?

RI:    It’s not really a matter of steps.  It’s kind of this long process that evolves, and one thing kind of reveals something else that turns you in one direction that will then turn you in another direction.

BD:    Is that process sometimes quick and other times much more difficult?

RI:    Yes, because the creative process is something that is not necessarily compartmentalized into 24 hours.  It’s not like driving from here in Seattle to Tacoma where you know approximately how long that will take if there aren’t any accidents on the road and your car doesn’t break down.  The design process, like any creative process, is something that is negotiable only with the mystics.  You can prepare yourself, but you can only approximate what it’s going to take.

BD:    We hear of composers handing performers pages that have ink still wet or opening night.  Have you ever been caught like that?

RI:    I’m not a fast worker.  I’m a thorough worker, and because I work slowly, I give myself plenty of time.  So, I don’t miss deadlines.

BD:    OK, how much time do you like to have?

RI:    It depends on the size of the opera.  We’ve been working for 2 ½ years on this Ring, so by the time we finish it will be 3 ½ years.  For a big single operaand if I had nothing else to do between the time I got the design commissions and the time they had to be in to the shopsI’d say 6 months.  But I would want access to the director all of that time.

BD:    Have you ever found yourself not compatible with the director?

RI:    Sure.  Every designer has and every director has.

BD:    A question I often ask singersand I wonder if it’s appropriate for a designerhow difficult is it to say no, to turn down commissions?

RI:    It depends on what you do for a living.  I’m independently wealthy because I teach in a university.  (Laughter)

BD:    OK, are you a university professor, or are you a stage-director?

RI:    I think I’m a designer who teaches.  But I love to teach.

BD:    Are any of your students going on to careers in designing?

RI:    I like to think so, but how often do you get superb students?  I’ve been at the University of California in San Diego for 7 years, and I have had two really superb students.  In 7 years that’s a lot.  But I don’t give them The Good Housekeeping of Seal of Approval.  All I do is teach their class.  Their degree is Master of Fine Arts.

BD:    Do you ever try to steer students away from it if you don’t feel they have what it takes?

RI:    Absolutely.  There are not that many people who make a decent living at it.  Unless you have a love for it, I would say stay away.  It’s hard work, and unless you’re very good at it the work doesn’t come often.  Not only is it hard work, but it’s work that can cause you a great deal of pain.  The important thing is not the ability to draw, but to have ideas that are relevant and can be used on the stage.  The technical skills can be learned.  The important thing is to be able to communicate your ideas about design, not to dazzle people with your virtuosity.

BD:    In your job, what is the difference between a play and an opera?

RI:    Opera is harder, and I like it better.  It depends on the play, but I generally love music.  Opera is harder because you’re held back by the music.  By that I mean that if I have to do something, you have to do it in time with the music.  In a play, you can have someone stand around for an hour if you want to; no one is going to stop you.  But the music in opera is an inexorable force that moves on and you must move with it.  If there are going to be any tight moments, I’m going to be there with my stopwatch trying to figure out how much time I have to make this scene change or make that costume change.  It becomes technically a very important question to answer very early on.  You can’t just design scene; it’s got to be in a context that is much larger.   In Rheingold, it’s all there in a 2 ½ hour act.  Once you start, you’re out on your way.  If a platform doesn’t get to where it should be by the time the scene is on, you’re caught with a dwarf in the middle of heaven.  It’s truly a matter of Newtonian physics.

BD:    You also design the costumes?

RI:    Yes.  For the Ring, except for the chorus in Gotterdammerung, it’s only about 30 costumes, so it’s really not that many to do.  Fewer costumes is not easier, but it’s less work.

BD:    Would you ever design the stage-sets and not the costumes?

RI:    I don’t like to do that; I consider it all one world.  I think you have a better sense of what everything looks like, and you have fewer meetings!

BD:    Ever worked with someone who conducted and also directed?

RI:    No.   Opera is such a huge lumbering animal that just in terms of logistics it’s really impossible to do all those things thoroughly.  There just isn’t the time, and you can’t divide yourself up in that many parts and be here and there.  It’s possible to direct and design, but even that is a lot.  I just want to design and work with people like François, who I’m in absolute sympathy with.  Our collaboration has been a wonderful one.

BD:    When you’re designing an opera, do you make sure there are solid backs and perhaps roofs which will help to focus the sound out toward the audience?

RI:    It’s part of my job to make sure that their sound isn’t eaten up, and that they’re comfortable in their costumes.  But there are times when you don’t need to use solid backs.  It depends on the acoustics of the house.  Most of the time you get a chance to see the place you’re designing for.  For me, the ideal size of an opera house is about 1,800 seats.  Then, everyone can hear and see.  You go to the Met in New York and you can’t see people’s mouths.  Where I like to sit is about 20 rows back on the main floor.

BD:    Do you compensate for the people who are up higher?

RI:    Oh sure.  I go up there and look, and when you’re building models you always check that out.  You don’t design for one seat; you design for all those different levels.  But you can’t make it so that everyone sees every detail.  If you did, all the action would be ten feet from the pit and at the center of the stage.  That’s ridiculous.

BD:    Do you build your own miniature sets, too?

RI:    Sometimes.  It depends on how much time there is.  Sometimes I have assistants do that.  It’s wonderful to have people do those things for you because that means you can concentrate all your efforts on the creative process, which is the most fun.

BD:    How much of designing is inspiration and how much is technique?

RI:    I don’t know.  Certainly the creative aspect of it is the most important, but it depends on what you’re doing.  It’s a subjective balance.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Does opera belong on television?

RI:    Sometimes, it’s the only way to see certain things.  But does it belong?  With the lousy sound and the little screen which only shows you what they want you to see?  The answer is infrequently.

BD:    If you know it is going to be televised, will you do things differently?

RI:    Yes.  It’s never a really successful situation because theater is designed with a particular kind of lighting and that’s never ever the kind of lighting one needs for the television.  The camera is very inefficient when it comes to light, so you generally have to turn the lights up and you don’t get the kind of quality that you would have onstage.  The mediums are not by any means absolutely compatible.  I think football and baseball work better on television than opera because they use technology.  News is even better than sports.  That’s what television is all about, not opera.

BD:    OK, what is opera all about?

RI:    It’s this very large, dangerous, human, not mechanical art form that allows people to suspend their beliefs and be moved somewhere by an amalgam of all these different art forms.  Because it’s such a huge form, I think there are few really great ones.  I think the Ring is a monumental kind of faulted greatness.  Most things that are really great are faulted.  You can see the humanity of it when it’s faulted.  One of the reasons it’s faulted is that it’s so big.  Keeping the parameters in mind is impossible, so we much make a foray in various directions and come back.

BD:    Do you like Wagner?

RI:    Yeah, I do.

BD:    Did you ever design an opera you really didn’t care for?

israelRI:    Yes, but I found I didn’t like it once I got into it.  If someone asked me to do a work I knew I didn’t like, I would probably turn it down, but sometimes I’ve said yes to things and gotten involved and found out that I didn’t like it.  But you have an obligation to a whole group of people.  It’s a collaborative art form.

BD:    Is opera “art” or “entertainment?”

RI:    It depends upon the opera.  Hopefully, if it’s a great opera, it will be art.  And some great operas are entertaining, also.

BD:    Where does Wagner fit into that?

RI:     It’s great art.

BD:    Does it make any difference to you as the set designer whether the work is sung in the original or translation?

RI:    I prefer the original with supertitles.  I want to hear the sounds that Wagner had in his head and I want the audience to understand what those sounds mean.

BD:    Do you want the people to leave the theater talking about the sets you have designed?

RI:    No.  What I really want them to do is understand that the whole thing is this incredible collaborative effort.  I am not responsible for the sets; I am responsible for being a collaborator.  It’s bizarre when critics will praise the sets yet say the director had a hard time moving the singers about on the stage.  It’s crazy because that’s not ever true.  The designer and director are collaborators.  And when the critic mentions vocal problems a singer had, what about the acting-singer convincingly portraying this role on the stage?  That’s what’s really important.  If he misses a note here or there, that’s not nearly as important as how he as a collaborator joins in this effort to make this very large thing convincing.  I’d lie if I said I wasn’t proud of my sets, but I don’t know sometimes what I was responsible for or what was my idea.  We are working together.  I don’t know if a certain piece of scenery was my idea, just as I know that sometimes my suggestions about movements are taken by the director.

BD:    How much can youor should youexpect of the public?

RI:    The public is very important, but what you really have to do is do your best – whatever that means – and hopefully your best is something that will be a revelation for the public.

BD:    François Rochaix said he likes to stir controversy.  Do you also like to stir the pot a bit?

RI:    I don’t think I intend to do anything so it’s controversial, no.  But if it’s controversial that’s OK.  You get the core with the apple.  There are always going to be differences of opinion, and it’s good when those differences are strong.  But you don’t go into something to be controversial.  That’s easy to do.  It’s making it relevant that is difficult, and I think that’s what the designer’s job is.  Basically, in Wagner my job is to read and listen to the Wagner, to understand what he intended, and make it meaningful to us today.

BD:    Would it be a mistake to use your set designs in the year 2020?

RI:    Yes.  Theater is transitory and that’s one of the glories of it.  It’s not a material possession; it’s a spirit.  My set designs will never be immortal.  Using old sets or bringing them back has more to do with museums than living art forms.

BD:    But some people say opera houses are museums.

RI:    I think they’re wrong.  I hope they’re wrong.

BD:    What do you see as a set’s life-span?

RI:    I can’t really answer that.  It depends on how fast we move away from the present.  If there were a calamity tomorrow that changed our perception of things, perhaps my sets would be irrelevant.  The calamity at the beginning of this century – the World War – changed a great deal of art.  There was a tremendous disillusionment, and it was reflected in the arts.

BD:    Are you ever surprised at how your designs are realized on the stage?

RI:    To a certain degree, but as I get older it’s less and less.

BD:    Is that experience?

RI:    Yeah, and it’s also something else that I don’t like.  You settle into certain kinds of idiosyncratic formulas.  You must know yourself and question yourself and be critical of everything you do.

BD:    We know a singer can push himself too hard.  Can a designer push himself too hard?

RI:    Sure.  Anyone can.  Designers are human, so they can be over-worked, and that can turn to a lack of creativity.

BD:    Do you take into account the individual people who are cast into a production when you design it?

RI:    You want to find out what everyone looks like so you design the appropriate costume and make it so they can negotiate the stage.  You have to take things like that into consideration.  In costumes, you try to make each person look credible.  But it has to do with costumes as well as sets, and I do see them as one entity.

BD:    When designing costumes, do you get involved in the characterization?

RI:    Yes, a lot.  You try to help that singer articulate and focus the character as much as you can.

BD:    Is Wotan a god or a human?

RI:    I see him with human problems.  Sometimes he’s a super-human, sometimes he’s just a pathetic human.  We can never get away from the fact that the image up there is a man.  If he’s acting like a god, we still think of his actions as being man-like actions.  He’s a god, but that’s a metaphorical quality.  We can’t do anything more than be human – on the stage, anyway.  You must have that suspension of disbelief, and to suspend the disbelief, you must disbelieve.

BD:    Are your ideas fluid enough that you could do another Ring with another director?

RI:    I don’t want to do another Ring – at least not right now.  It’s ringing in my ears!  This is fine for now.  I would rather do something else with another director instead of this again.

BD:    Are you good audience?

RI:    No.  I’m too critical.  I know too much of what is going on behind the scenes.

BD:    It seems like there is so much column-space given in the papers to scenery and direction with little or no mention of the singers and conductor.

RI:    That’s wrong.  I think that critics are like every group of people – the majority are competent and not much more.  I think the human condition is evident in the activity of critics and there are bad ones and good ones.

BD:    You are a painter who works in a medium that uses time – and that seems like a contradiction.

RI:    That’s the big difference between a painter and a designer.  The painter is not concerned with time.  It’s a presence that’s there and is immutable in its direct timelessness.  Also, things on the stage have to be used when they’re there.  They are negotiable; they are levers for other things.

BD:    But you’re more than just a catalyst, aren’t you?

RI:    I hope so.  I hope I’m an artist.  But it’s also a functioning, creative activity.

BD:    Thank you so much for this conversation.

RI:    That was, like the other one, a good interview.  You asked all the right questions.

*     *     *     *     *

My thanks to Speight Jenkins of the Seattle Opera for allowing me to impose on his production team, and to Ernesto Alorda, also of the company, for setting up those interviews.

*     *     *     *     *

The interview with Maestro Sir John Pritchard, which had been announced for publication, has been postponed.  It will appear very soon, though an exact issue has not been decided upon as yet.

In the fall, Wagner News will (at last) publish my special conversation with Jon Vickers.  This has been held up for various reasons for a few years, and with the tenor’s return to Lyric Opera for Parsifal, it will be published in full.

One final note:  Let me extend my thanks to those of you who attended the annual Wagner Banquet for the warm wishes sent to me via Gerry Zimmerman and Anne Marie Gertz.  It was my intention to attend, and up until an hour or so before the dinner, I had thought I would indeed be able to come.  But, as they say, due to circumstances beyond my control, I missed what turned out to be a lovely evening.  I will certainly try to be there next year to greet all of you in person, and to thank you all for making my task so worthwhile.

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Armin Jordan

Conductor of wide compass

Saturday, 23 September 2006, The Independent

Armin Jordan, conductor: born Lucerne, Switzerland 9 April 1932; married (one son, one daughter); died Basle, Switzerland 19 September 2006.

Armin Jordan died - almost - in the saddle: he was conducting the Basle Philharmonic Orchestra in a performance of Prokofiev's opera The Love of Three Oranges on 15 September when he fainted; rushed off to hospital in an ambulance, he seemed to be rallying but then suffered a relapse. He worked to the last in a career that, next year, would have been half a century long.

He had reduced the burden of his intense schedule in 2001, when pneumonia brought him down during an engagement at the Metropolitan Opera in New York - but retirement doesn't seem to be an option for conductors, and his operatic and concert engagements over the past few seasons still brought a workload that would have tested a far stronger constitution.

jordanJordan's importance as a conductor was not simply because of the quality of his work. Musicians can be a lazy breed: why go to the effort of learning out-of-the-way repertoire to the exacting standards of concert readiness only to have conservative managements balk at an unknown name; far safer to stick to the trusted handful of composers who pull in the audiences. Jordan wasn't one of those. He knew his mainstream material, of course, and excelled in it, but he was also aware of his duty to those forgotten scores which, for whatever vicissitude of history, had slipped from sight.

Thus, though his enormous discography is centred on the standard repertoire - often exemplary accounts of composers like Debussy, Dukas, Fauré, Franck, Mahler and Strauss - it also includes a considerable number of rarities. There are three French operas, Chausson's Le Roi Arthus, Dukas' Ariane et Barbe-bleue and Lalo's Le Roi d'Ys. The German Romantics and late Romantics received his attention, too, with recordings of Schumann's ambitious oratorio Das Paradies und die Peri, Zemlinsky's opera Eine Florentinische Tragödie and his Lyrische Symphonie.  He conducted the opera Der Zwerg in concert. He stood up for his fellow Swiss, too, with recordings of music by Frank Martin and Norbert Moret.

Jordan's life began in Lucerne, and didn't first seem to point to music: with an unusually absorbent mind, he attended Freiburg University and studied law, literature and theology before music took his attention more fully. He was therefore a relatively late starter - in his mid-twenties - when in 1957 he first took to the podium as assistant conductor in the municipal theatre in Biel, in the canton of Bern; he was appointed music director four years later.

Jordan now moved steadily up the ladder, with position of Principal Conductor at the opera houses in Zurich (1963-68) and St Gallen (1968-71). In 1971 he was appointed music director of the Theater Basel, remaining there for two decades - an association which endured: it was here he suffered his final collapse. Jordan kept faith with the institutions which employed him: his music-directorship of the Lausanne Chamber Orchestra lasted from 1973 until 1985, and his principal conductorship of the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande (OSR) from 1985 until 1997.

His home turf was always Switzerland and France, and he appeared regularly as guest conductor with all the main orchestras there; he was an especially frequent visitor to Paris. His horizons widened in 1985, when he made his American operatic début with Die Walküre in Seattle. East Coast engagements duly followed, in the Mostly Mozart festival and at the Metropolitan Opera in New York.

Jordan toured the OSR widely, with no fewer than five visits to the United States, and made a generous number of recordings - and continued to do so: his performance of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde in Geneva (the OSR doubles as the opera orchestra there) was recently released on DVD, as was a staging of Humperdinck's Königskinder (long since eclipsed by Hänsel und Gretel - Jordan was on another of his rescue missions) made with the National Opera in Montpellier.

For all the compass of his work in the recording studio, though, Jordan reached his biggest audience in 1981, when he conducted the soundtrack of Hans-Jürgen Syberberg's film version of Wagner's Parsifal - also appearing on screen, draped in white, as the dignified and dying Amfortas, "lip-synching" to the bass of Wolfgang Schöne.

Although his work on the Syberberg film rather resulted in Jordan's being typecast as a Wagner conductor, his activities continued to mirror the breath of his interests. And although many conductors seem to use the podium to attract attention, he always knew he was there to serve the music. A New York Times review by Mark Swed of Jordan's handling of The Magic Flute captured the essence of his music-making:

Mr Jordan is a middle-of-the-road Mozartean, which means he does not demonstrate interest in the light textures or fleet tempos of the period-instrument movement and avoids the other extreme of making momentously weighty statements. Yet, if this seems one more instance of the conductor courting anonymity, Mr Jordan offsets that by leading a performance that can be both forceful and elegant, one alert to the opera's sharp contrasts between light and dark. Most significantly, though, Mr Jordan's performance here - and in the other new recordings as well - is a mystical one that builds to a particularly satisfying spiritual catharsis at the end.

Nor is the name Jordan gone from the world's concert halls: his son Philippe is currently Principal Guest Conductor at the Staatsoper in Berlin.

Martin Anderson

François Rochaix

Swiss-born François Rochaix made his Seattle Opera debut in 1985 with a new production of Wagner’s Walküre and returned the next year to stage the entire Ring des Nibelungen. He has returned several times since then, directing new productions of Wagner’s Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Verdi’s Aida, Bizet’s Carmen, and Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites. In 1963, Rochaix founded the Atelier de Genève, and he served as general director of the Théâtre de Carouge in Switzerland from 1975 to 1981. In 2002, he reassumed the post, which he holds at this time. Rochaix made his opera debut staging Britten’s Turn of the Screw for the Grand Théâtre de Genève. Other opera credits in Geneva include Mozart’s Così fan tutte, Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande, Stravinsky’s Rake’s Progress, and Britten’s Death in Venice. He has also directed productions at Lyric Opera of Chicago, Washington Opera, Opera North, and Scottish Opera. In 1999, Rochaix staged the massive Festival of the Winegrowers in Switzerland, which only occurs every twenty-five years, and in 2001, he directed the opening ceremony of the Swiss National Exhibit. He also has served as the director of Harvard University’s American Repertory Theatre/Moscow Art Theatre Institute for Advanced Theatre Training. In 1991, Rochaix received the Reinhardt Ring, the highest theater award granted by the Swiss government.

Robert Israel
Set and Costume Designer

Robert Israel has designed sets and/or costumes for numerous opera companies, among them the Metropolitan Opera, English National Opera, Vienna Staatsoper, Paris Opéra, De Nederlandse Opera, Royal Danish Opera, Bayerische Staatsoper, New National Theater of Tokyo, Lyric Opera of Chicago, San Francisco Opera, and the Festival dei Due Mondi in Spoleto. He made his Seattle Opera debut with Wagner’s Walküre in 1985, a preview to his 1986 Ring des Nibelungen. He returned for Verdi’s Aida and Macbeth, as well as Wagner’s Parsifal (which opened McCaw Hall in 2003). Israel also designed the sets and costumes for Daniel Catán’s Florencia en el Amazonas (co-produced with Houston Grand Opera and LA Opera) and Philip Glass’s Satyagraha. Israel’s credits include designs for London’s National Theatre, designs for Chicago’s Millennium Park, serving as a consultant on McCaw Hall, and projects with the Walker Art Center, the Foundation Maeght, and the Museum of Modern Art. (His costume drawings for Satyagraha are part of the permanent collection at MOMA.) An elected fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Israel is also a professor in the School of Arts and Architecture at University of California in Los Angeles.

© 1985 Bruce Duffie

These interviews were recorded in the Green Room of the Seattle Opera House on July 20, 1985.  Portions pertaining to the conductor were used (along with the Parsifal recording) on WNIB on Easter Sunday, 1997.  This transcription was made and published in the Summer, 1986 issue of Wagner News; it was slightly re-edited and posted on this website in 2009.

Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.