Alan  Stone

Founder and Artistic Director
of the
Chicago Opera Theater

Four Conversations with Bruce Duffie

alan stone

Alan Stone (April 28, 1929 – July 9, 2008) was an American opera director, opera singer, and vocal coach.

Born and raised in Chicago, Stone founded the Chicago Opera Studio, Inc., which later became the Chicago Opera Theater.  He served as Artistic Director until 1984, and remained with the company as an advisor until 1993.

Some of the Chicago premieres presented under Stone's tenure include Virgil Thomson's The Mother of Us All (1976 & 1984), Marc Blitzstein's Regina (1982), Carlisle Floyd's Susannah (1986) and Of Mice and Men (1988 - directed by Arthur Masella), Robert Ward's The Crucible (1985), and Dominick Argento's Postcard from Morocco (1991).

With the exception of my second conversation with George Jellinek, all of the interviews I did for WNIB from 1975 to 2001 were pre-taped.  I would then edit a portion for use on the air.  That way my guests and I could relax and not have to watch the clock.  This method also afforded me the opportunity to speak with these musicians about many areas of mutual interest.  When transcribing them for my website, the entire encounters have been presented, and I am happy to report that the response from readers has been completely positive.

Most of the meetings were singular events.  Occasionally I would be able to speak with a guest twice, but the material on this webpage presents four times I interviewed the Founder of the Chicago Opera Theater, Alan Stone.  While the first purpose was to promote specific upcoming performances, Stone also gave much insight into the workings and problem-solving needed to sustain a small and growing opera company.
In each case there was much laughter, as well as serious discussion.  For this website presentation, I have eliminated most of the detailed listings of exact locations, dates, times, and ticket prices.  The radio audience needed that information, but it is unnecessary here.  All names which are links refer to my interviews elsewhere on my website.  Brief biographies of some of the other artists he mentions are scattered throughout the webpage, and are indicated by an asterisk (*).

We begin in February of 1979 . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:   As you head into your fifth anniversary season, are you pleased with where the company is going?

Alan Stone:   We’ve come a long way.  If you remember, when we started the organization in 1974 with our first production of Così Fan Tutte, we were called The Chicago Opera Studio.  We changed our name over a year and a half ago, and that also reflects a change in the company toward a more professional look and feel, and away from the school image that the word ‘studio’ represented.  Certainly, when we did our first production, we were a studio.  Nobody was paid, including myself.  The singers were not paid, the directors were not paid, and the orchestra was a very minimal student orchestra.
BD:   Now you have a permanent home, or a semi-permanent home at the Athenaeum Theater?

Alan Stone:   This will be our second season at the Athenaeum.  [Photo of the Athenaeum is shown below.]

BD:   Is it working out the way you want it?

Alan Stone:   Yes.  We have found a very congenial home in many ways.  Being about 930 seats is just right for our size operation, and my own concept of the way opera should be seen, in a relatively small theater.  It is very much like the European theaters, most of which are about 1,000 or 1,500 seats.  
It looks like an old-world theater.  It has a little bit of that feel and charm.  People think opera ought to be in that kind of a place.

BD:   In these five years you’ve made a lot of progress with your group?
Alan Stone:   We’ve made extraordinary progress.  People these days measure things with dollars and cents, and in those terms our first annual budget was $8,000 for the entire year.  This year our annual budget will be reach about $240,000.  We’re also up to doing three productions a year, whereas for the first two seasons we only performed one opera a year.  Then for three seasons we did two operas.  This is our fifth birthday, and we’re up to three productions.  We’re doing six performances of the first work, four of the second, and six of the third, so we’ve got sixteen performances of three different works.  We’ve got 16,000 tickets to sell.
BD:   What are the three operas that you are doing this year?

Alan Stone:   We’re doing Così Fan Tutte again, but I want to stress to all of your listeners that this is not the same production.  The first production was done with spit and gum, and cardboard cracker-jack sets, and rented costumes, and borrowed props.  It was a real thrown-together production.  We had no money.  In fact, you shouldn’t call it the old production!  It was a no-production because we have nothing left of it.  It was all fed to the fire when the show closed.  Now we have a really beautiful and exciting production.  We received a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts in the visual arts program, to have a local artist design the sets and costumes.  We commissioned the Chicago artist, Roger Brown*, who is very well known in this area, to do this production.  He has paintings hanging in the Art Institute, and the Contemporary Arts Museum.  Along with this all-new production, Corinna Taylor has been working with Roger doing the costumes.  We also have a mostly new cast.  Two of the cast members appeared in the first production, but they are appearing in different roles in this production.  Warren Fremling*, who sang Mr. Ford most recently in our The Merry Wives of Windsor, and is probably best remembered as Figaro in The Marriage of Figaro, sang the part of Don Alfonso in the first production of Così in 1974, but in this production, I have cast him in the role of Guglielmo.

BD:   Isn’t that a higher part?

Alan Stone:   Strangely enough, it isn’t higher.  People think it’s higher, but it’s actually lower, and in the ensembles, the Guglielmo part is written under the Don Alfonso. But they’re very, very close.

BD:   Isn’t Guglielmo the more lyric part?

Alan Stone:   It’s a more lyric part.  It’s a role for a younger man, whereas Alfonso is the older bachelor.  But I thought we had given Warren enough of those heavy villainous roles, and for once we ought to capitalize on his charm, and his wonderful warm personality.

BD:   Let him play a lover this time?

Alan Stone:   Let him be a lover like he did in Figaro.  He’s lovable as Guglielmo.  The other hold-over, and turn-around, is our wonderfully popular Robert Orth.  He did Guglielmo before, and now I have cast him as Don Alfonso.  Bob is a wonderful actor, and I felt that Alfonso offers much more opportunity for subtlety of acting.  I’m from the old-time school when Alfonso was sung by a baritone.  The first time I heard Così Fan Tutte was with one of the greatest Mozart baritones, John Brownlee.  He was the classic Don Alfonso, and Count, and Don Giovanni, and many other roles as well.

BD:   Being an armchair impresario, I would have given Orth the part of Guglielmo, as you did earlier.

Alan Stone:   Yes, but his suavity and his elegance sold him in the role of Alfonso.  So, they are the only two that appeared in the original production, and it will be interesting to see them in these new roles.  They’re also very excited about the challenge of doing the other parts.

BD:   We’ve talked about two of the three men.  Who is the tenor?

Alan Stone:   The tenor is a wonderful man who has appeared with us in two previous productions.  His name is William Eichorn.  You will remember him from The Mother of Us All in 1976.  He did the part of John Adams, and the next year he sang a much more prominent role, Belmonte in The Abduction from the Seraglio.  He is a fine tenor, a wonderful Mozart singer, and we’re very proud of the fact that just recently he won the Plácido Domingo Award for Singers in Barcelona, Spain.  He had all kinds of notoriety, and we’re really proud to have him.

BD:   Who will be singing the three female parts?

Alan Stone:   In the role of Despina, the little maid to the two elegant Ferrarese sisters, we have our really lovely and beloved Maria Lagios*.  She has appeared with us as Norina in Don Pasquale, Rosina in The Barber of Seville, Susanna in The Marriage of Figaro, and she was also in The Mother of Us All.  Maria is really a staple with the company, and whenever I see these kinds of roles, I already have her in mind.  She’s absolutely adorable in all these parts, and Despina is a role that was made for her.  In the role of the younger of the two sisters, Dorabella, we have a very lovely lady from Chicago, a mezzo-soprano from the Calumet City area, whom I have known, and who has auditioned for us for many, many years, but we never have seemed to find the right part for her.  But this year she scored.  Her name is Joyce Carter.  Then, in the role of Fiordiligi, the older, sedate, more elegant and strong-minded sister, we have a young lady who is a student at Northwestern University.  I was very much impressed when she auditioned for us, and Karen Huffstodt* is her name.  In addition, I have a group of alternate singers who will be not only covering these other people in case of an emergency or illness, but they will be doing one matinee student performance that we’re doing for the Urban Gateways Group, sponsored by the Field Foundation on February 28th.  That group includes Diane Ragains*, who sang this last season at Grant Park, and has appeared with the Symphony, who will be doing Fiordiligi; Kathleen Ferrin, who sings with the Chicago Symphony Chorus, and has done lots of work in Chicago, will be Dorabella; Arlene Barkley-Bright, who has appeared with us in the past as Blonde in Seraglio is our Despina; Henry Hunt, who was our Ernesto in Don Pasquale will be singing Ferrando, and Lee Snook will be our alternate Guglielmo.  Snook also has appeared with us in touring performances Don Pasquale.  Our alternate Don Alfonso will be Warren Fremling, who is doing our Guglielmo.  He already knew the role, and it was an expeditious thing to do.  So, we’re covered now in case of accident and, with this winter so far, we never know what’s going to happen, be it illness, or a car that doesn’t start, or snow...

BD:   [Feigning alarm]  Don’t say snow!  We have already had more than enough this winter!  [Both laugh]

Alan Stone:   I shouldn’t mention snow!  I’m never going to do The Snow Maiden of Rimsky-Korsakov.  We’ll skip that one, and do only summer-scene operas!

BD:   We’ll rename you The Fair-Weather Opera Company!

Alan Stone:   Right, and we won’t do all of La Bohème because of the snowflakes in act three.  We’ll just have to cut that act right out of the opera!

BD:   Keeping that in mind, what are the other operas that you are doing this season?

Alan Stone:   We’re doing a most interesting season of which I’m really proud.  It’s going to be hard for me to find a similar balance in future seasons.  Our first work is Mozart, so that’s the late eighteenth century.  Then our second work is a brilliant opera that has never been done in Chicago, so we’re adding still another Chicago premiere to our list.  We’ve done several Chicago premieres, as you know.  In the past, The Merry Wives of Windsor was a Chicago premiere in a professional production, as was The Mother of Us All, and Summer and Smoke [by Lee Hoiby].  Our production of The Abduction from the Seraglio was the first one that had been done around here in something like thirty years.  So, we have always been very adventurous and very innovative in repertory.  That’s something we’re dedicated to.

BD:   So, what is this new work for this season?

Alan Stone:   I don’t want to scare our audience, because it’s nothing really that avant-garde.  It isn’t all that new, but it’s new for Chicago.  It is the marvelous comedy of Benjamin Britten Albert Herring.  There was a recent production of it on the television from the St. Louis Opera, and I attended that production just to decide whether or not I really wanted to do the work.  I had never seen it, and when I saw it and heard it, I really fell in love with it.  It is a wonderful work, one that is  right up our ally.  It’s brilliant.  [In addition to this 1979 production, COT would revive the work ten years later (in 1989) conducted by Hal France, and again in 2022-23.]

BD:   It has a lot of intimate dramatic possibilities?

Alan Stone:   It has wonderful, intimate dramatic situations, and is also a real ensemble opera.  There are thirteen characters, and of those thirteen, I would say that at least ten are very large leading roles.

BD:   So there are lots of opportunities for the young singers.

Alan Stone:   Lots of opportunities, and it comes across as a whole company effort, rather than an opera which is a vehicle that you can build around one singer.  It is going to be directed by Frank Galati, who directed our production of The Merry Wives of Windsor.  He also did The Mother of Us All, and Summer and Smoke.  He is a very theater-orientated person.  The story of Albert Herring is so brilliant and so amusing, I know he’s going to make something just wonderful out of it.  I should also like to mention that the director of our Così Fan Tutte is Peter Amster, who was our choreographer for The Merry Wives of Windsor, and co-director of The Mother of Us All.  Peter has a great background in musical comedy, and also has worked a great deal as a dancer.  You’ll see the dancer’s touch in Così Fan Tutte which the music can use.

BD:   It needs elegance.

Alan Stone:   Yes, it does need a lot of that lightness and buoyancy.

BD:   As long as we’re giving credits here, who is the conductor for all of these operas?

Alan Stone:   Our conductor from the very beginning is a man who helped me so much initially in the forming of the company, Robert Frisbie [who also participates in my interview with Lee Hoiby].  He will conduct all the productions, and he’s now also conducting his own American Chamber Symphony.  He’s really beginning a very busy career, and that is not an easy thing to do.  It’s hard being a singer, but it may be harder being a conductor.  A singer can walk around with his pipes, but a conductor can’t carry his orchestra around in his briefcase.
BD:   Much as he’d like to!
Alan Stone:   [Laughs]  Much as he’d like to, right.

BD:   What is the third work for this new season?
Alan Stone:   The third is a work that seems to be a great favorite of audiences.  I understand that there are more requests for this opera than any other opera, and that is Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers.

BD:   Oh, with the wonderful duet.
Alan Stone:   Yes, it has the wonderful duet that everyone remembers between the tenor and the baritone.  But there is also some wonderful music between the tenor and the soprano, and wonderful music for the tenor by himself, as well as wonderful music for the soprano, and some marvelous music for the baritone, and brilliant choral music.  It’s a very, very big choral opera, and we will have the largest chorus that we’ve ever had, as well as squeezing in the largest orchestra that we’ve ever had into the pit at the Athenaeum.  The largest drawback we have at the Athenaeum is the size of the orchestra pit [shown in photo at right].  We can only get about thirty players in there.  Most of the nineteenth century operas call for more, so we have to eliminate them because they are impossible to do with just thirty players.  You need a bigger orchestra for them.

BD:   I won’t wait for a Wagner performance with your company.

Alan Stone:   No, don’t wait for us to do Wagner, and  I’m afraid you’re going have to wait for a long time for Puccini, or for any of the romantics of the nineteenth century.

BD:   But these are done elsewhere, and on recordings, and in productions on television.  It’s a great joy to have your company doing operas that we don’t see all the time.

Alan Stone:   I’m very happy to hear you say that, because you’ve really summed it up nicely.  That’s exactly my philosophy.  People ask me why I don’t like Traviata.  I love Traviata, and that’s why I don’t want to do it.  I would not want to subject an audience to the musical and artistic compromises that we would have to do to put it on, or to do Il Trovatore, or Turandot, or so many other favorites.

BD:   You do things in a different way because it’s a much more intimate setting.

Alan Stone:   Plus the fact that we do things in English.  We are always  stressing the theatrical aspects, and this year we have got a balance.  We’re doing an eighteenth century work, a nineteenth century work, and a twentieth century work.

BD:   Interesting repertoire that is not always done.

Alan Stone:   Yes.

BD:   But they are all charming works.  These are not new works you’re experimenting with.  These are all works that have proved themselves.

Alan Stone:   Exactly!  They’re not unknown works that we don’t know what to expect.  There is some precedence.  We know that Albert Herring has brought the curtain down to a tumultuous applause many, many times.  The Pearl Fishers has been recorded, and Così Fan Tutte has been a staple since 1790 when it was written.  I like the combination of an early work, be it a Mozart or Rossini or Donizetti, coupled with a contemporary work.  Strangely enough, the demands on the orchestra are very similar between the eighteenth or early nineteenth century works, and then the twentieth century works.  It was in the mid-nineteenth century that the orchestras grew.  Perhaps a modern composer, because of his knowledge of wanting to get his work performed, realized it was practical to build an opera that could feasibly be produced by a smaller company.
BD:   Do you think there will come a time when the Chicago Opera Theater will be commissioning a world premiere?
Alan Stone:   That possibility is quite strong.  There are many composers who are anxious to have works commissioned, and they generally can be mounted by smaller companies.  A company like Lyric Opera, the Metropolitan, and San Francisco will not take a chance, except for the work of a fairly monumental nature, such as Paradise Lost [by Penderecki].  But the time will come, provided that we can get support and proper funding, that we will commission a work.  As our audience grows, we will become more and more courageous, and be able to take a chance on a work, because we know that people will buy a subscription, and will be more adventurous.
BD:   People will know that you’re going to give it the same treatment that you give the other operas they enjoy?

Alan Stone:   Yes, and they will trust us, and know that we will give them something that is worthy, even though they may not know what it is, or what it will be.

*     *     *     *     *
BD:   As you head into your fifth anniversary season, did you think that you would be at this point five years ago?

Alan Stone:   No, I never did.  I started this company primarily as a showcase, as an experimental workshop.  It was a hobby for me, and it was a place for singers to get a chance to sing and learn something.  When we did Così Fan Tutte the first time, I don’t even think I was considering looking any further than that first season.  It was an outlet.  It was a culmination of a study process.  It was a practical thing you do when you have an opera workshop in school.  You put on a performance because you’ve worked all year, and you have to show to the public that you’ve done something with your time.
diane ragains  
BD:   Is this the first time you’ve repeated a work?

Alan Stone:   This is the first time we’ve repeated a work, and as we know from many opera companies, there’s a great percentage of the same operas which are done year after year after year.  Only a few new productions come in.  As time goes on, there are a few staples in our warehouse that we should bring out again, like The Mother of Us All [1976 & 1984], Summer and Smoke [1977 & 1980], and The Merry Wives of Windsor [1978 & 1990].  These are things that really have our own very personal stamp, and if we don’t do them, people won’t hear them.

BD:   Are there any plans now for anymore television?

Alan Stone:   For the time-being, we’re in a holding pattern with television.  We recently did The Merry Wives of Windsor on WTTW, Channel 11.  It was highly successful, as was our previous production of a condensed version of The Mother of Us All.  We have received money from the National Opera Institute to do a production of Così Fan Tutte on television, but for the present time we’re holding off on accepting the grant, because we’ve learned that there are two European productions of Così that will be released on television within the year.  We don’t want to be compared with Salzburg or Glyndebourne, because we have our own style, and do our thing our way.  We’re a regional company, and we’re not looking to be competitive with the larger companies.

BD:   By giving the public a different opera, these television tapes perhaps might even go to Salzburg and other places.  Everyone benefits by having more repertoire.

Alan Stone:   It’s very possible.  We hope so anyway.  We are on very good terms with WTTW.  We’ve worked with them now on two occasions, and when the right moment arrives, we’ll be back there in front of those cameras filming something fine.  [Taking a moment to reminisce]  I remember when I was a very young person, the first time I saw an opera production on television was the Don Carlo that Rudolf Bing did when he first came to the Met in 1950.  The cast had Robert Merrill, Jussi Björling, Cesare Siepi, Fedora Barbieri, and Delia Regal.  It was black & white on a teeny-weeny screen, and that was such an exciting event.

BD:   And that was the only thing you had all year.

Alan Stone:   It was the only thing all year, and now there’s often something exciting operatically on PBS, or somewhere on the tube.  [Remember, this interview was held in 1979, when opera on the TV (and now the computer!) was much rarer than it is in 2023.]  I think the television has done enormous things for opera.

BD:   A speculative question...  Now, with the advent of opera on TV, do you think that is going to bring more people to the opera house? 

Alan Stone:   That is an interesting question.  I don’t know.  If it were me personally, it would intrigue me to go, but I know that lots of people have found the media a substitute for the live form, as in sports.  My brother is a big sports fan.  He loves baseball, but he never goes to a game anymore.  He’s watches it on TV.  I don’t know how that would work for opera.  I would hate to think that the people who have never seen an opera would base their  judgment of it, even if it’s a good judgment, completely on the tube, because I don’t think you can appreciate opera on the tube unless you’ve seen it first.

BD:   [Gently protesting]  But the audio recordings have been a great boon to the live opera. 

Alan Stone:   Oh, yes!

BD:   With the bigger repertoire, the public can know the works and understand them.

Alan Stone:   The record industry has done a great deal.

BD:   This is what I was getting at.  Will opera-on-TV feed that, or will it send people off in a different direction?

Alan Stone:   Hopefully it will help, but I’ve heard the opinion of people I’ve talked to at WTTW and also WNET, Channel 13 in New York, that most of this opera stuff on television is going to come to a crashing halt very quickly!  [Let us all breathe a huge sigh of relief that this prognostication was completely off the mark!]
BD:   Why?

Alan Stone:   Because they can’t afford it anymore.  It will have to go onto some sort of Cable TV, and people will have to pay for it.   They can’t give it away so much anymore because it’s just become too expensive.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Now that your company is five years old, how does it fit into the picture of opera in America?
Alan Stone:   We seem to be fitting into a very comfortable and very warm and happy niche.  We recently became members of the large organization called Opera America, which is a conglomerate of most of the professional opera companies in United States.  We are not such a little opera company after all.  We are definitely a middle opera company.  There are many who have budgets of $40,000 or $50,000 a year, and we have a budget of almost of a quarter of a million dollars a year.

BD:   Are you getting national recognition?

Alan Stone:   We are getting recognition.   We have been reviewed in Opera News, the Christian Science Monitor, Opera magazine of London, and Opéra magazine of Paris.  Opera is the largest and fastest growing classical music art form in the United States.  There are over a thousand opera companies in the United States of some form, and something like 600 companies that you could call professional, in the sense that they have professional artists, and people pay money for their seats.
BD:   The Chicago Opera Theater is one of this group of 600?

Alan Stone:   We are one of those, yes.  We haven’t been ranked yet because we just joined the organization, but we are definitely there, and people know what we’re doing.  We’re on their lists.  We exchange artists, and designers, and ideas for sharing productions, and so forth.

BD:   What about touring?  All of these sixteen performances of the three operas that we talked about are taking place at the Athenaeum Theater.  Will you also be doing performances at high schools and elsewhere around town?

Alan Stone:   Yes, and this creates a terrific problem and dilemma for us that we really must wrestle with.  We recently did a production of Don Pasquale at the Beverly Arts Center, and next month we’ll be doing two performances of The Barber of Seville with the Lake Forest Symphony, plus a performance of Don Pasquale for the Skokie Fine Arts Commission at Niles Township High School.  In addition, we have all kinds of concerts that we give for various organizations, including Triton College, the Northwest Indiana Symphony Opera Ball, and the Nathan Goldblatt Cancer Society.  We’re constantly being called on.

BD:   In other words, you’re constantly in demand?

Alan Stone:   We’re working all the time.  My artists are singing, and we are keeping them working, so a little bit of income is going into our treasury to keep us alive.  The problem is that so many of these things come about at nearly the same time, and we have such a limited number of singers.  For example, our bass Carl Glaum, who sang with Lyric Opera this season, is our resident bass, and has appeared with us as Don Pasquale, and Basilio in The Barber of Seville.  He will be working during the month of March, and I don’t think his poor wife will get to see him for three weeks between rehearsals and performances.  There are only so many nights in the week, and good basses, like good tenors and good contraltos are very, very hard to come by.  So those people are really much in demand.  There is a lot of talent around, but in many voice categories the amount of talent is definitely limited.  We would do our public a big injustice to put someone on who isn’t ready to do the role, rather than someone who is, even though they may have been used before.  The public agrees, because they still love to see their favorites in the opera.  We get calls from people asking if Maria Lagios or Robert Orth in the production, and if we say no, they don’t appear in that opera because there is no part for them, they’re very disappointed.  They have formed their own fan clubs.

[We then reiterated the dates and times, as well as ticket prices and availabilities for these performances.]


We now move ahead to December of the same year, 1979, and pick up the conversation
where we are talking about the problems of  commissioning a new opera.

BD:   Let’s look at it the other way.  If you had the money problems solved, and you didn’t have to worry about cash, and all you had to do was worry about the actual opera that was going to be turned out, what would you ask for?  What would you look for?  What kind of guidelines would you want?
maria lagios  
Alan Stone:   I would look for someone with a good eye to the practicality of producing it.  This is not necessarily just the money, but what kind of demands there are as far as orchestra size.  If it were written for a Richard Strauss kind of orchestra, I couldn’t do it because I don’t know where to present it.  If that was the case, I wouldnt accept the commissioning money.

BD:   [Starting the actual interview for broadcast, though, as you will see, we soon slip back into our general discussion]  Your company now is six years old?
Alan Stone:   Yes.

BD:   What have you learned in those six years?

Alan Stone:   I’ve learned a lot.  For one thing, ultimately the things that are important in any opera company are not always the excellence of the performance, but how well organized you are, and the good strong fiscal backing you have.  I’ve learned that what’s good for the singers
which was what prompted me initially to start this companyisn’t ultimately of really great interest to the public.  If it doesn’t fit or fill a community need, or if people of the community don’t need it, the fact that singers need it, means it’s not important.

BD:   What compromises have you had to make?

Alan Stone:   I don’t think we’ve had to really make any compromises, except in the choice of repertory, and those have been dictated by the number of musicians, and so forth.  When I first began my whole experience as a singer and as a coach, I didn’t realize that you can’t perform La Bohème with fifteen or twenty musicians, whereas you can perform The Marriage of Figaro with twenty-four, and have a very beautiful, effective and very authentic orchestra.  But you can’t do that with many other works, so we’ve had to make those compromises.  There are lots of operas in the middle repertory I would like very much to do, such as unusual works of Smetana, or Janáček, and perhaps some early Puccini as well.  [In 1987, the COT would produce The Two Widows of Smetana, conducted by Pier Giorgio Calabria.]  I might like to take a crack at La Bohème some time.  We might be able to do it with our small sized theater, but the pit is much too small, which makes it impossible for the whole latter nineteenth century repertory, and much of the French opera.  [Wistfully]  I’d love to do some Ravel operas.

BD:   The double bill of the two Ravel operas would be nice.

Alan Stone:   Right.  L’heure espagnole and L’enfant et les sortilèges.  I would just kill to do that, but there’s no way that it can done with an orchestra of sixteen players!  Even Massenet and some of those things require a much bigger orchestra.

BD:   So primarily you’re looking for pieces that will suit the orchestra?
Alan Stone:   It’s one of our most important factors, and the fact that we don’t have access to large dramatic voices among the younger singers.  It is the same with Lyric Opera, or the Metropolitan.  When I think of singers today that are singing big roles, no one would have believed that Renata Scotto would ever attempt to sing La Gioconda, or Mirella Freni would sing Aïda.  To me, with my orientation, that kind of thing is inconceivable.  Even having  Roberta Knie do Isolde, you have the choice of either hearing it with those people, or you don’t hear it at all!

BD:   We’re heading into 1980, and a new decade.  Not just your theater, but where is opera going?

Alan Stone:   It’s growing.  There’s no question of that.  It’s going ahead.  I have my own theory that eventually the crunch is going to be with the big theaters.  Unless we find some kind of governmental subsidy, much more than we have, which is very unlikely, the larger companies are going to have to start thinking in terms of cutting down on some of their scope and ideas.  They’re going to have to find more inexpensive and modest ways of presenting operas, just as they have found more modest choices of artists, because their bigger and better artists are not available.  Eventually the bigger companies are going to see that the money to put on these big productions is not available, and they’re going to find ways of putting on shows using unit sets, and more projections, and trying to follow the trend of some of the smaller, more regional companies.  That’s where it’s going to go, but I don’t feel that opera is in serious danger, because the trend is very, very fast, and up all over... almost too much in some cases.

BD:   Do you resent the record companies, and their use of a few big stars over and over again, and the feeling by the public that if these big stars are not in their casts, it’s not as good a performance?

Alan Stone:   I understand that, and it’s a very interesting question.  I resent it from a certain point of view.  Rather than resent the record companies in choosing the same artists over and over, I’m a little bit disappointed by their artistic standards and values.  There are many fine artists that I don’t feel really should be documented in certain repertory.  Even though they may want to perform it, or may have performed it, I don’t feel that the public is wise enough and sophisticated enough to know who is the best, or who are the best.  There isn’t just one, but several may be among the best.  As a result, generally the public will go with whoever is the most popular at a particular time.  What name have they heard mostly?  It may turn out that the recording by this artist is a very inferior one.  Often it’s because that role is not really associated with that artist, and that artist would never have a great success with it because of the size of their voice, or temperament, and so forth.  You are right, though, when you say many times people get a pre-conception of what a certain part is supposed to sound like.  Comparisons are odious, and after hearing Sherrill Milnes or Robert Merrill knock out Figaro in The Barber of Seville, if someone were to hear our Figaro they might make some kind of rather negative comparison.

BD:   So, it’s two-edged sword.  Recordings have made opera more popular, yet they have perhaps pushed it a little bit too far in a wrong direction?

Alan Stone:   They have made it popular and certainly accessible to so many people, and with the discount record stores, which have become the rule rather than the exception, more and more people are buying records in a very unselective way.  Records are what got me into opera.  I learned opera and became involved by listening to records as a young child.  It was Enrico Caruso, and Beniamino Gigli, and Amelita Galli-Curci, and Kirsten Flagstad that got me interested.

BD:   Unless you’re in a place where you can go to the opera every night, that’s really the only way you can get a constant and continual exposure.

Alan Stone:   As a young child, I didn’t have the means of going to hear them.  Caruso had been dead quite a few years by the time I heard his recordings.  [Both laugh]  But in those days, I remember how one would talk about their Caruso collection, and bring out their dozen 78 rpm recordings of Caruso as a great treasure.  

BD:   We’re talking about one artist recording too many roles.  Is the converse true?  Do you feel there have been some major losses, some things that should have been documented that have not been?
warren fremling
Alan Stone:   Oh, absolutely!  We’ve missed some very good possibilities.  There was never a studio recording of Bidú Sayão doing Manon.  She was the Manon of our period, and sang it well in to the 1950s, when recordings were really at their peak.  I remember a great, great Wagnerian mezzo-soprano, Kerstin Thorborg, who was a great favorite, and who has been almost forgotten.  She was the number one mezzo at the Metropolitan during the entire Flagstad/Melchior period.  Her performances of Kundry and Brangäne only survive via broadcast recordings [some of which have been licensed and issued].  The Brangäne is on an unofficial recording that the Met gives you when you give them a contribution.  She was the first Amneris I ever saw.  What a shame that we never got a studio recording of Un Ballo in Maschera with Zinka Milanov when she was in her prime, though her recording of Il Trovatore is wonderful.  Kirsten Flagstad was poorly recorded.  We missed a lot of chances, and when they did start to record her, it was already a little bit late.

BD:   When the record companies start recording a young tenor, or a young baritone, or a young soprano doing everything, do we then have the right to complain about that, when we have just lamented that we did not catch Zinka Milanov or Kirsten Flagstad early?  We seem to be on both sides of the fence.
Alan Stone:   Yes, it’s a mistake to do both things, either too soon or too late.

BD:   Then here’s the question...  How do you know exactly when a singer is in his or her prime?

Alan Stone:   [Thinks a moment]  Well, you don’t ask them.  [Both have a huge laugh]  It’s very difficult to answer that question, because many singers go through crises during their careers.  Had one heard Leontyne Price singing at the time when she was doing those famous performances of La Fanciulla del West at the Met, one would have said that was the end of Miss Price’s career... and indeed it was for a period of two years.  The same thing happened with Zinka Milanov in the late
40s, when she quietly went back to Yugoslavia, and came back three years later in superb form.
BD:   How much of that would be simply resting the voice?

Alan Stone:   A good part of it is vocal rest, and a re-evaluation of the voice.  It’s interesting to listen to recordings of singers and how they have changed.  It’s very difficult for a singer to go through a period of vocal transition, because they are fearful that once they take themselves out of the market, there will be someone else to come along, and they’ll be forgotten.  I think about a friend of mine, Grace Bumbry.  When she finally decided to really make the transition in her mind from mezzo-soprano to soprano, and not call herself a mezzo-soprano even though she might still sing a Carmen or an Amneris from time to time, she had to literally not accept engagements for at least a year.  During that time, she restudied her voice, and re-evaluated, and reworked on a new technique of singing.  This took enormous courage!  Imagine the courage it takes of an artist who is working and making money, and who is not in any kind of serious problem.  It’s not like a tenor who decides he’s going to become a baritone because he’s losing his high notes.  This is quite different because someone is going to tell him to stop.  I admire Bumbry, and I admire other artists who have done the same thing, and have stopped at a point in their career.
BD:   Can it back-fire?

Alan Stone:   Yes, there have been many cases of singers who have stopped, and then wanted to pick up the career but never quite picked it up where they had been.  Others have been fortunate in doing so.  For example, Carlo Bergonzi.  For a long time there was very little heard from him.  He’s not a young man, at least not a young man for a tenor.  He’s in his middle-fifties now, and he’s been singing for probably thirty-five of those fifty-five years.  Now he’s quite active at the Met, and even though he is somewhat limited, he’s still an artist that has to be dealt with.  He still sings with great style, and with beautiful phrasing.

BD:   Where’s the Met’s first obligation to an artist like Bergonzi, or to the young artist who is getting started, and beginning a career, and needing the experience and exposure?

Alan Stone:   Of course, they have to divide their loyalty.  Obviously, they can’t depend on the veteran artists forever, because they are in some precarious situations.  How long will the high notes ring out as well as they did before?  And when does the moment come when the high notes don’t ring out at all, or don’t even sound?  When the moment comes that they can’t make a noise at all on the note, then they have to re-consider their repertory, or reconsider their vocal range, or just retire and teach in a conservatory!

BD:   Are there too many singers today?

Alan Stone:   It’s interesting that you ask that, and the answer is yes.  I’ve just come back from Opera America auditions.  It was a convention of many of the opera associations of the United States, including the Metropolitan, San Francisco, the Lyric, Miami, New York City Opera, and the Chicago Opera Theater.  There were about seventy-five companies from the whole country, and we heard the final auditions.  They were supposed to be the best young singers that had been recommended by Opera America companies from all over the country, and they were there to sing for all the directors and managers of the opera companies, with the idea of getting some work.  My own feeling was that the general standard was very low.  It seems to me that with the enormous increase of opera companies, the demand for singers has increased tremendously.

BD:   Is the cream of the crop being spread too thin?

Alan Stone:   The problem is not that the cream of the crop is being spread too thin, but the very bottom of the skimmed-milk is really getting used more than it ever was before.  The small companies can’t afford to have the cream of the crop, the superstars.  So very often young singers fill those big roles.

BD:   I don’t necessarily mean the superstars, but what about the young singers who are good?

Alan Stone:   Yes, they are super in demand, absolutely.  They are the ones whose performances in a small company gained them some distinction, and sometimes in a large company they are a source of embarrassment.  For example, I’ve heard some very fine young talents with the San Francisco Spring Opera, and other companies of that size.  I was terribly impressed with them, and I would be very happy to have them sing with me.  But after having heard them in productions at the Metropolitan and at Lyric Opera, I’ve been disappointed.  They were outclassed.  They were not ready yet for the big, big time.  They were ready for the middle time.  Some of these singers are getting work on the mere fact that they can hit the notes.  For example, we heard a low bass sing Sarastro
s aria from The Magic Flute.
BD:   He had the low F?

Alan Stone:   He had the low F, but that’s all he had.  He sang in tune, but he had no understanding of the nobility, the dignity, the depth and the breadth of this character.  He was just singing it like a nice song, and yet because he had the low F, many directors were interested in him because he could hit that note.  It would mean that they could do a production of The Magic Flute because they would have someone that can ‘get through’ the part.  That’s all they were worried about.  To me, that’s not enough of a standard.  I don’t want a Sarastro to get through the part.  I want him to just thrill his audience with the role.  So this man is going to get work, but he’s too young to get work.  What he needs is about two years of more study, not just experience.  By this I mean vocal study, language, style, immersion.  That man should be going to Germany and living there, and listening, and hearing, because when you’re in this business, professional experience is extraordinary.  There’s nothing quite like it, but there’s a special kind of experience, study experience, and they’re different.
BD:   Have you, as an impresario, ever asked a singer to do anything that you really felt, if you were his or her vocal coach, you would have said no?

Alan Stone:   In all conscience I would say I have not.  I have tried almost pathologically to avoid hurting the young voices.  I was a singer myself, and got myself into terrible trouble vocally.  In fact, for a period of time, I lost my voice because I was being pushed into a repertory that I didn’t belong.  I was a lyric tenor, and I sang Mozart and Donizetti, and I was pushed into heavier Italian repertory, and Wagner because I was tall.  The agents needed those kinds of singers.  I remembered all this very much, and I started the Chicago Opera Theater.  Initially it began because I was an opera coach, and I was not going to suddenly betray my standards and my goals!
BD:   I just wondered if you ever found that you had to.

Alan Stone:   Sometimes I have been more persuasive than perhaps I would like to be, but I never felt that I would offer someone a role that would do them any physical harm to their voices.  Usually it’s just the opposite.  I have to convince the singers that this particular role is not right for their voice.  Singers are very, very special.  They’re not very objective about their own voices and their own singing.  This accounts for some of the strange things we hear these days, with artists we love all of a sudden appearing in the most unlikely roles on television, and in the opera companies.  We ask why they did it, and it
s because theyre impressionable.  They also feel they need new challenges all the time.  They get tired of doing the same Mimì over and over.
BD:   What about the singers of the last century, who would have a huge repertoire?

Alan Stone:   Many factors were different in those days.  For one, the size of theater.  Obviously, a soprano singing Tristan and Isolde in a theater that seats 1,500 people as opposed to a theater seating 4,000 makes enormous demands on the voice, including fighting over a much larger orchestra.  Also, the pitch was considerably lower, so the singers weren’t straining at the absolute uppermost reaches of their voices.  Despite the fact that we hear stories of Adelina Patti and all these people who went on forever, most of those people in the so-called ‘golden age’, had very short careers.  If you look back, when they started talking about Giuditta Pasta, who created Norma, they talked about her being already in vocal decline when she sang that role. 
BD:   But we have no way of really knowing this.

Alan Stone:   Yes, no way of knowing it except from documentation.  I remember reading about it in Pleasants’ book [shown at left].  He brings out how the voice was somewhat in tatters, and the pitch was not so good anymore.  But she was not an old woman.  The career of Maria Callas approximates more the kind of career that existed in the ‘golden age’.  They did everything, and they did incredibly well, but not for very long.
 We don’t know exactly how many of them retired very young, as Callas did.  It’s hard to believe that by the time she was thirty, her best days were practically over as a singer.  This is against all the rules of physiology because there’s no question that if a singer is careful and judicious in their repertory, and if they are technically strong, and keep themselves healthy, it is not unusual for a singer to sing well into their fifties, and even as old as sixty.  There have been some that go even longer than that.  The deeper voices, the contraltos and basses last longer.  Look at Jerome Hines now.  He’s marvelous.

BD:   But they’re not forcing the upper reaches of the throat.

Alan Stone:   They’re forcing their own upper reaches.  A high F for a bass is just as shattering an experience for a bass as a high B-Flat is for a tenor, but there is less tension in it.  The emphasis is more on the lower part of the voice.

BD:   A bass doesn’t have to sing high Fs all the time, whereas the tenor has to have a lot of B-flats.

Alan Stone:   That’s correct, but there have been some examples... The great tenor Beniamino Gigli sang like a young man up to four or five years before his death.  There are recordings that are amazing, not just a recital, but full performances, and he had sung everything.  He had done a huge gamut of roles, from the lightest lyric leggiero-tenor, all the way up through to Andrea Chénier, and Radamès, and Manrico, and Pagliacci.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Are you happy with opera?

Alan Stone:   Am I happy with opera in general, or with my opera company?

BD:   Let’s ask it both ways, as a patron and as an impresario.

Alan Stone:   As a patron, I must admit not being as happy and not getting the immense pleasure from opera that I did when I was a young student.  I don’t know if it’s just getting older and a bit cynical about opera, and sour grapes, and bored with it, and blasé, but it’s a rare occasion now when I go to the opera and am really transported into this world that I lived in as a young singer and young student in Milan and Chicago and New York.  From the other point of view I understand the reasons for it, but sacrifices have been made in the standards.  I don’t hear the great conductors conducting opera anymore.  When I was  living in New York, I would hear Manon with Pierre Monteux conducting, and Victoria de los Angeles and Cesare Valletti singing.  In Milan I heard Tosca with Maria Callas, and Tito Gobbi, and Giuseppe Di Stefano in his prime, and Tullio Serafin conducting.  So, as a patron I am often disappointed.

BD:   But now you’re in a unique position, because you are sometimes a patron, and sometimes an impresario.  Is there anything that you are doing, or are there lots of things that you are doing as an impresario, simply to make patrons more satisfied?

Alan Stone:   It’s interesting, and I’ve often wondered about this.  I love my performances!  I just think that the Chicago Opera Theater performances are wonderful.

BD:   But you’ve molded them to your taste.

Alan Stone:   That very well may be part of it, and also because I go to those performances not expecting the kind of perfection and the superior state of the art that I do expect from the Metropolitan Opera and the Lyric Opera productions.  I go to my productions looking for entertainment and music theater.  I know already that I’m not going to hear Luciano Pavarotti.  I’m not going to hear Birgit Nilsson, and Joan Sutherland.  So, my whole expectation is considerably different.

BD:   What would happen if you went to the Lyric Opera, or the Met, with those kinds of expectations?

Alan Stone:   When I have gone like that, then generally I’m not disappointed.  It depends a lot on the repertory.  For example, when I went to the Lyric to see The Love for Three Oranges, I knew from the nature of the work that I was not going to get a display of individual vocal skill.  I knew it was being done in English.  I knew the singers were mostly younger American singers.  I went to see a spectacle, rather than one of my old favorite operas.  Then I wasn’t disappointed.  You’re right, I came with a different set of values.  But when I go to hear Andrea Chénier or La Bohème at the Lyric, I have too many memories in my ears of people I have heard over the years, and there aren’t too many people singing these parts today that are going to make you erase those memories.  They tell you that’s a sign of getting old when you start feeling this way.
BD:   It seems that every age is that way.  People who have been going to opera for twenty, thirty, forty years, begin to only remember the performances of twenty, thirty, forty years ago, whereas the young goers are remembering performances only from last year, or the year before.  So they’re perhaps more satisfied with what they’re hearing.

Alan Stone:   That may very well be.  Although because of the enormous immersion in opera that so many people have, it is hard to gain a sense of what is the best.  In the early days before there were so many recordings of so many things, one knew about Kirsten Flagstad.  She sang almost all of the Wagner roles, and made a few recordings.

BD:   Then were people disappointed later when they heard Astrid Varnay or Helen Traubel?
Alan Stone:   Perhaps if they had heard them at the time, if their careers had been contemporary, they might have been somewhat disappointed.  Astrid Varnay’s career perhaps did suffer, and Helen Traubel’s career suffered, although she had a huge career.  But now there are so many more singers appearing on recordings, and so many people have recorded the same work.  There are too many recordings for my money of the same opera.  I don’t know why we need all those, except to sell more records.  What’s even more confusing is when someone has recorded the same role twice.  It’s interesting from a documentary point of view, for a musicologist or a vocal pedagogue to compare one recording to the next one he made five years later, but I don’t think the audiences get into that aspect of it at all.

BD:   How many different opera audiences are there, or are there are as many audiences as there are people who go?  [Vis-à-vis the biography of Karen Huffstodt shown at right, see my interviews with Zubin Mehta, Semyon Bychkov, and Antonio Pappano.]

Alan Stone:   I don’t think I could define how many audiences there are.  [Pauses a moment]  It’s the first time you’ve ever talked to me about these things!  It’s interesting that you mentioned me as a singer turned impresario, because that was brought out at the Opera America meeting.  Here we had all these people from all over, but of all the artistic directors, or managers, the orientation for most of them was not in the singing.  There were only three that came from a singing career.
BD:   The rest were from the business world?
Alan Stone:   No, most of them came either from the stage, as stage directors, or they were conductors.  In the little companies, many of the artistic directors conduct the orchestras.  The only people who came from the singing world were Beverly Sills, and David Lloyd, and myself. 
[At this point we promoted La Périchole with details of performance dates and times.]


Now we move along to February of 1983.

BD:   It’s my pleasure to be speaking once again with Alan Stone, the founder and artistic director of the Chicago Opera Theater, which is embarking on its ninth season.  There will be three operas in this particular season
Martha by Flotow, The Consul by Menotti, who will be in town to direct his work, and also The Barber of Seville by Rossini.  Why Martha?
Alan Stone:   Why not Martha?  It was for so many years one of the standards in the repertory, and one of the most popular of all the grand operas.  I remember seeing the Mario Lanza movie, The Great Caruso, with music of Martha.  Then in the last thirty or forty years it’s gone very much into obscurity, and has been neglected.  I really think it’s due to the fact that it’s devilishly difficult to do.  It’s much harder than it seems.  It calls for a cast of virtuoso voices, wonderfully attractive people, and a big chorus.  Perhaps twenty or thirty years ago we were too cynical to enjoy some of the sentimentality and romanticism, but the wheel is turning now, and people are ready to enjoy shows like that just like movies such as Tootsie and things of that kind.  We need some of that fresh air in this ugly atmosphere that we’re living in, and that’s why I picked Martha to do.
BD:   Is this one of several that you have in mind, little plums, little gems that you’re sprinkle season after season?

Alan Stone:   Yes, it’s something I have been trying to do, and quite successfully over the years, ever since we started doing three operas.  We’ve done, for example, The Daughter of the Regiment, which is hardly ever done.  It was only done once by Lyric Opera in almost thirty years of its history.  We’ve also done La Périchole, and La Rondine, The Italian Girl in Algiers, and The Abduction from the Seraglio.  These are not frequently performed operas, and yet they are the works that everybody knows, but nobody’s seen lately.  The Pearl Fishers is another one that we’ve done which is very much forgotten on the stage.  It has a beautiful score, and one that the public knows a lot from recordings of excerpts.  My problem is to keep digging these things up and not digging myself under the ground while I’m doing it!  [Both laugh]

BD:   This seems to be the pattern of your season.  You do one favorite, one middle romantic novelty, and then one contemporary theater piece, and it provides a balanced season.

Alan Stone:   That’s a formula I devised back in 1979 when we went into three productions, and so far we’ve been able to continue it.  I hope we will be able to follow this device, because it offers something for everybody.  It’s good training for the audiences, and good training also for the artists to get a chance to work in different genres of opera.

BD:   Tell us a little bit about Martha.

Alan Stone:   It might be called the counterpart to Così Fan Tutte.  In this opera we have two men and two women.  The women in this case are aristocratic, or represent the aristocracy, as they do in Così, except that in this story, they get into costumes and go into a new environment.  They pick up these two farmer boys, thinking they’re going to have a little fun.  But the plot gets a little rough, because the boys are quite serious about this romance.  It turns out that one of the boys isn’t really a farmer, but an aristocrat in disguise.  After all the complications and ramifications of the plot, of course it all turns out happily ever after at the end, accompanied by glorious music.  The famous ‘M’appari’ is the tenor aria that everyone knows.

BD:   How does that translate?

Alan Stone:   In this particular translation, I believe it says ‘Like in a dream, I think of you at night’.  I may not have all the words right, but it’s a very easy translation to sing, and quite close to the original ‘Ach! So Fromm’. 
M’appari was a translation because the opera was originally written in German.  So here we have a German composer writing about England in the beginning of the eighteenth century, and being most famous in its Italian translation.  There’s as little song called ‘Qui Sola Vergine Rosa’ which we know better in English as ‘The Last Rose of Summer’.  Many people don’t know it was used in Martha.  [It’s an Irish poem from 1805 by Thomas Moore, and the tune goes back to 1792.  So the music for this number was arranged by Flotow.]  There’s also beautiful ensemble music, quartets and quintets.

BD:   You say it’s very difficult, but is it fun to work with?

Alan Stone:   Oh, it’s marvelous fun.  It’s difficult technically, and yet it mustn’t sound difficult.  The pyrotechnics are all concealed in the lightness and romanticism of the work.  Particularly on the part of the tenor and the soprano, it calls for very, very difficult singing.  There
s very high tessitura for the tenor, and a very extended range for the soprano, with numerous high Ds and E-Flats.  The contralto is the sort of voice of Verdi called mezzo soprano’.  She should be able to sing Azucena or Amneris with the personality of a Rosina.  Dramatically it’s a soubrette role, but it cannot be sung by a light soubrette lyric mezzo soprano.  Instead, it needs a really full mezzo-contralto.  The baritone or bass is another wide-ranged role, a big, almost like a Heldenbariton, from a low F to a high F, with sustained notes, too.  All of these parts are very, very difficult.
kurt link
BD:   Was it very difficult to cast this opera?

Alan Stone:   It was difficult, except that fortunately over the years I have built up a wonderful stable of great vocal artists.  They are young, but still wonderfully talented.  Generally, I always have an idea of someone in mind for at least some of the major parts.  One of the reasons I decided to do Martha was because I had worked with Karen Huffstodt, who had done La Rondine with us, and also the previous Così Fan Tutte.  I knew her voice, having worked with her and coached with her.  I felt she was the right soprano.  She had the extension on the top that you could work with.  Also, the tenor, Richard Leech, had sung in our production of La Rondine with Karen, and they were very beautiful together.  They sing so well together that I knew if I could cast the tenor and the soprano, I could go ahead.  The mezzo soprano, Jane Bunnell*, is the only one who is completely new to the company.  I cast her from New York.  She has just the most beautiful and wonderful rich deep contralto voice, and yet there’s no resemblance to a contralto who sings ‘O Rest in the Lord’, or ‘O Thou that tellest good Tidings to Zion’.  She’s a perky girl with a big huge perky voice, and it’s wonderful.  The bass, Paul Geiger*, has done Figaro with us before, and The Italian Girl in Algiers.  The character he plays, Plunkett, is a farmer in the story, and Paul lives in Iowa and is kind of a farmer boy himself.  He
’s 6 feet 5 inches!  I had the cast pretty well in mind.  The big question was the mezzo, and when I found her, we were all set.
BD:   Are there some little roles in the opera?

Alan Stone:   There are two, and they’re not little.  There’s one quite a big juicy supporting role in the role of Sir Tristram Mickleford, who is the suitor and cousin to Martha, or Lady Harriett.  It’s a basso-buffo part, which is being done by William Walker, who has just come back from a year with the Zurich Opera.  He sang with us in The Good Soldier Schweik, and has done Don Basilio in our tour of The Barber of Seville.  The other small but very important part is the Sheriff.  He only sings in one scene, but that’s the role in which Paul Plishka made his debut at the Met back in the
60s.  That is being sung by Kurt Link*, who has sung with the Chicago Symphony and Georg Solti, and is now beginning his operatic career. He has a wonderful voice, and although it’s a small part, I heard him in rehearsal today, and it was a big noise!  [Both laugh]

BD:   Who’s the conductor?

Alan Stone:   Conducting will be our regular conductor, Steven Larsen, who last year did such a wonderful job with our Regina, and the year before he led an incredible production, one of the things I’m probably proudest we ever did, The Good Soldier Schweik.  [Twenty years later (2001), the COT would again present this opera, conducted by Alexander Platt, and directed by Harry Silverstein, with sets by John Conklin.  It was also (audio) recorded at that time as a two-CD set.]  Steve has been doing a lot of contemporary music, and I decided to give him a break this season and let him try a different kind of music.  That’s why he’s not conducting The Consul, but he is conducting Martha.

BD:   I had expected him to do The Consul.

Alan Stone:   Yes, everyone did, and he did too, but his experience has been primarily in symphonic and orchestral conducting, as opposed to opera.  There’s not that much opportunity for young people to conduct opera.  He had a real feel for orchestra, and Martha [1847] is very Germanic, in its own way.  The influence of Weber is very strong, and you can hear early Wagner all over the place.  Not Tristan or the Ring, but there are choruses that sound right out of The Flying Dutchman [1841].  The Farmers’ Chorus has that wonderful rousing beat and rhythm and vigor that we hear in Wagner
s very early opera Rienzi [1840].  So, that’s why I was sure, and I’m even more sure having heard the rehearsals, that Steve will bring all of that sound out of the orchestra, and the chorus, and singers as well.  [The production would open a few days after this broadcast.]
BD:   Everything always seems to work in your productions.  Even as you go into the last couple of rehearsals, and you’re worried about this and that, you always seem to bring it off well.  Tell us about the other operas you will be presenting later in this season.
Alan Stone:   You mentioned The Consul [winner of the 1950 Pulitzer Prize for Music], and the biggest coup we have this year is that I was able to persuade Menotti to come and direct his own opera, which has never received a professional production in Chicago.  It is a great honor and thrill and treat for us to have the great man here.  I worked with him many years ago very briefly in Tamu-Tamu [1973].  I was the casting consultant, which meant I set up all the auditions, and did the preliminary auditions for the singers for that opera.  You will recall that I did have my training in Italy, and I lived there for three years, so I speak the language quite fluently.  Although Menotti was born in Italy, he prefers to speak in English, and for his operas he writes his own librettos, and he writes them in English.  He doesn’t translate.  The only opera he wrote in Italian was Amelia al ballo [Amelia Goes to the Ball].

BD:   That was a very early work [1936].

Alan Stone:   Yes, an early, early work.  But even though he prefers to speak English, he speaks Italian fluently, and he does have a slight accent.  He was in his early twenties when he came over from Italy, but it’s wonderful to be able to speak to him in Italian because we have all these little secrets going on.  We can say these terrible things about everybody, and nobody knows what we’re saying... at least we hope they don’t!  [Both laugh]  

BD:   Is the casting for The Consul complete now?
Alan Stone:   Absolutely, and it’s a wonderful cast.  This is our richest year of casting.  When you see the names of the people, you might wonder what happened to all the Chicago singers, and I must say that I did get the majority of the leading singers for The Consul from the New York area.  That was partially due to the fact that Menotti wanted to be in on all the auditions himself with me, and at least be able to agree together on who we would choose.  I had four series of auditions in New York with him before we finally fixed on our artists.  So, most of the leading people in the big roles are from New York.  The smaller roles, the supporting roles, are important, and most of those are from Chicago.  Then, the Barber of Seville has a good mix.  As Figaro, we have our veteran star, Robert Orth, who is singing all over this country.  He was so wonderful as John Buchanan in Summer & Smoke on television this last year.  His Rosina is Cynthia Munzer, who is formerly of the Met and sings all over the country and all over the world.  She did The Italian Girl in Algiers.  The tenor is Abraham Morales, a wonderful leggiero tenor, of which there are so few, because most tenors get tired of singing Rossini.  They want to sing bigger things, and then when they want to go back to the good old bel canto leggiero stuff, they cant do it anymore.  There are very few of them that have learned the lesson of Alfredo Kraus, and who is still singing amazingly and beautifully well.  The basses are Kenneth Cox, who was our Osmin, and Carl Glaum, who did Pasquale with us.  Glaum did Basilio in our first Barber, and he’s now a staple at the San Francisco Opera, where he’s done some wonderful roles.  They love him there, and now he’s coming back to sing Bartolo.  He always wanted to do Bartolo, and physically he’s small and bit husky, which is really physically much more for my taste as Bartolo.  For Basilio I prefer to have a slender taller man.  Carl is able to handle that terribly difficult tessitura of Bartolo.  It’s a very difficult role, maybe the most difficult role in the whole opera.  People don’t always realize that because he is covered up with a load of jokes, and is asked to do funny things with the voice.  I should also mention our conductors too and directors.  Our director for Martha is Dominic Missimi, a local director, teacher and professor at Northwestern, and one of the most incredible young operatic directors.  He is not only a director, he’s a musician, and he can breathe life into most scores that are very difficult.  He did La Rondine for us, and The Italian Girl in Algiers, and Seraglio.  That’s already something because there’s very little action, but Dominic can extract much from it.  In The Consul, our conductor will be Joseph De Ruggieriis, who conducted our Seraglio last year.  He is the conductor of the San Diego Opera and also San Francisco Opera.  He worked with Menotti in Spoletto, Italy, years ago as his assistant, and he asked me not to do a classic this year.  He wanted to do a contemporary opera, so it worked out.  Larsen, who had done the contemporary one, wanted to do the classic, and so we made a nice switch.  Nicholas Muni will direct Barber.  He is from New York, and is a director who’s trained in music.  He’s been very helpful to me in working out recitatives.  The conductor is a wonderfully bright young man whose operatic career has been going wild in this country, Mark Flint.  He is from the Michigan Opera, and has also conducted the St. Louis Opera and the San Francisco Opera Spring Opera.  He’s probably the busiest young American opera conductor, and so we have quite a team.

[At this point we listed dates and times for the radio audience.  We then continued chatting privately about other operatic subjects, including the use and mis-use of recordings.]

Alan Stone:   Young singers always like to get a recording to help them.

BD:   To crib from!  [Both laugh]
alan stone
Alan Stone:   Yes, sure.  I just wonder what people did before those days.  To me, the recordings and tapes are so important, not to copy but just to get a feeling of the work.  I hear singers say they’ve enjoyed them because this is their passion, too.   But I hear some conductors say they never listen to recordings, or they never listen to their own recordings.  They can give you a point of view, but they want to do it fresh.  Steve said that to me one time, and I told him he should have listened to it because his tempo was completely wrong dramatically.  It was just off a hundred per cent.  This was not in Martha, but rather was some years ago.  He had learned a little bit since.  About four years ago I was in Italy, and I went to visit my old friend (conductor) Giuseppe Patanè.  I stayed at his home, in his villa.  He lives in Milan and has a villa up in the mountains with a beautiful swimming pool, and a garden.  He loves animals, and he’s got all kinds of monkeys.  Even though he had invited me, I practically never saw him because he was going to be doing a production of The Flying Dutchman in Vienna.  He was studying, studying, studying.  This was his vacation, but he said that he’s got to prepare.  One day he called to me and said he was sorry he was spending so little time with me.  I was there for four days, but we only saw each other at meal times, once in a while.  He said, “They want to kill me in Vienna because I’m Italian.  They don’t think anybody can play Wagner but the Germans.  But I will not let them kill me!  I am preparing for this so much.  In his studio he has wonderful sound equipment, and he asked me to listen to something.  “Is there too much portamento?  No?  What do you think?  I asked who it was, and he said it was Gwyneth Jones.  Then we listened to Kirsten Flagstad.  He also played Furtwängler and said, “He has it all.  He gets everything, and he hears everything.  Today it’s like wine-tasting.  One knows what he likes because he’s tasted all of it.  He takes a little bit of this idea, a little bit of that idea, and puts it all together and comes out with his own interpretation which is influenced by these other thoughts.
BD:   [Gently protesting]  But Furtwängler didn’t listen to all of these others.  He got it out of the score himself.

Alan Stone:   This is true.  That’s what I’m saying.  Now these guys don’t have to do that.  Today they have the opportunity to absorb the great thoughts of so many.  In some ways, it’s much easier for them.

BD:   Is it a blessing or is it a curse?

Alan Stone:   It can be a blessing, depending on who is doing it.  I think that every soprano today should sit down for about two years and be forced to hear the best recordings of Rosa Ponselle and Zinka Milanov, and the other best singers.  I am horrified when I mention these names to these young kids and they don’t know who they are.  There are recordings of them, but I would never ask them to try to copy.  They could never copy!  They don’t have the vocal equipment to do it even if they wanted to.  But they need to learn something about an approach, or know when something is wonderful, and then try to do something wonderful themselves.

BD:   If one of your artists came to you and asked which recording of Martha he or she should listen to, they could almost learn it by rote.

Alan Stone:   No, can’t happen because, for one, we do it in another language.  That already changes things.  I don’t believe they should listen and learn by rote because we’re more sophisticated nowadays musically.  There are fewer approximations of musical performances.

BD:   Are they becoming too tentative?

Alan Stone:   Tentative?  No, no, no!  On the contrary, we’re very much more demanding musically.  They don’t give themselves the rein that they could because the times have changed.  Conductors don’t give them those privileges anymore.  But worse than that, they don’t even know the potential of what’s in their innate abilities.  In a phrase, they need to know how much stretch then can give without really distorting or hurting it.  I learned more about ‘declamazione’, recitative and declamation, from hearing Callas in Milan.  I would never sing her repertory, but I could transfer it to my own.  Nowadays, I’m not very happy with what’s going on.  I’ve heard things from the Met that if I had heard that stuff when I was sixteen, I’d probably be doing something different than I’m doing now.  These days, when I hear the Met on the radio, I turn it off.  I can’t even listen to it.  Some of it is like the old touring San Carlo Opera.  The singers are doing roles that they shouldn’t do.

BD:   Earlier you said you had to restrain singers from trying to do too much.

Alan Stone:   They don’t know that they’re not instrumentalists.  We see these guys in our orchestras.  They work, and they do the most horrendously difficult things.  They come running from one gig, and they
ve got their food with them, and then they sit down and do a four-hour rehearsal with us, and then they’re going to another rehearsal.  They’re terribly tired, and we think they’re very commercial.  But they have to raise their families, and their kids have to eat, and they have to pay the rent, and all that.  But the singers equate themselves to that, and they don’t realize that this ain’t no fingers on a fiddle!  [Both laugh]

BD:   If you break a string, you go into the case and get a new one.

Alan Stone:   Right!  Exactly!  You put another string on, or you borrow someone else’s fiddle when it’s necessary.

BD:   Even if you’re tired, you can still scrape along.

Alan Stone:   You scrape along, but you don’t do yourself any permanent damage to the muscles in your fingers.  But these singers have to take care of their voices.


We now move forward to April of 1991.  Like the text of Wagner’s Ring, each
recounting of the history of the company presents new details and viewpoints,
as well as continuing the narrative through a very difficult time.

cot 15th
BD:   After eighteen seasons of producing opera, are you now where you thought you’d be?
Alan Stone:   I’m nowhere that I thought I was going to be eighteen years ago, because, very frankly, I never intended nor had any dream of forming an opera company.  Our original name when we incorporated in 1973, was the Chicago Opera Studio.  The whole company started out as just a group of my own coaching students that were working with me, wonderful people like Phil Creech, David Kuebler, Isola Jones, Bill Diana, and Linda Mabbs, some of whom now have big careers going for them.  I started coaching in about 1971, and had a huge studio of people who were wonderful singers, and nowhere to sing.  In those days at the Lyric Opera, Carol Fox [one of the Founders, and General Director] did not want to hire American singers, even for the small parts.  So I decided a performance would be good business for me as a coach.  I’d get more students that way, and also it would give them an opportunity with something to work for, not just coaching.  So, we got together, and decided to do Così Fan Tutte, because the Chicago Opera Studio Incorporated spelled out COSI.  I thought it was a message from on high.  We were going to do it with two pianos, but Bob Frisbie approached me at that time, and asked if we could get an orchestra together.  So we did, and no one got paid, no one.  It was all love’s labor.  We had two casts with some wonderful people in it.

BD:   After all of this, when did you get the idea of forming a regular company?

Alan Stone:   We really didn’t think of the idea of a company.  It only came well over a year later, when Dr. Morris Krieger, who was then the President of the Board of Directors of Michael Reese Hospital, took on the job of President of our Board.  He really organized the Board.  People who had raised money for the company before that were really just my friends.  So it wasn’t until about 1976 that we were really going to make a company.  That was when we did our first production of The Mother of Us All.  We got such a response from that.  It was done at Jones Commercial High School, and Virgil Thomson came out from New York, and sat in on rehearsals.  We had so many fantastic people in it
including Carol Gutknecht, Robert Orth, and Maria Lagios...

BD:   Then for several years you just went along producing operas, and doing things very, very well.  Now all of a sudden, things have started to get very shaky.
Alan Stone:   It isn’t really all of a sudden.  Opera has never paid for itself.  It never has and it never will.   For many years we managed to operate in the black.  We started with one opera, and then we went to two, and then in 1979 we went to three.  But in 1988, the managing director suggested we go to four operas, and that was the first year we had a deficit.  We had another deficit in Fiscal 1989.  The problem, of course, was very simple.  Despite the fact that we’ve always paid very modest fees to our artists, to our staff, and to me too, the theater with 920 seats could not bring enough income to support the company.  We did not have big corporative support like the Lyric has, and we didn’t have big donors, people who wrote checks for $50,000.  No one ever wrote a check for that amount for us in our history.  Then the manager of the company decided that one way we could come out of the hole would be to go into some big ventures in the Loop [the downtown area of Chicago].  That’s why we did Carousel last year, which was an enormous critical success, but we lost money on it.

BD:   Even though it sold out?

Alan Stone:   It sold out, but we lost money because of the union problems of the Schubert Theater.  You couldn’t bend over without paying somebody.  We were green, and our manager did not know how to negotiate a new union contract.  So, although we sold out, and did two extra performances [for a total of nine], we didn’t actually lose money, but we broke even.  Since we had budgeted $150,000 profit, and we only broke even, that meant we had a $150,000 loss, because that’s how we budgeted.
BD:   Its a loss of expected income?

Alan Stone:   Exactly, but we spend money on the presumption of we’re going make, so that is what is projected into the budget.  An earlier mistake was doing Peter and the Wolf, with Where the Wild Things Are [by Oliver Knussen].  That was at the Auditorium in 1988, and it was a great, great success.

BD:   It was a wonderful production!

Alan Stone:   It’s a fabulous show, and it was a wonderful production, but we didn’t make any money because we didn’t have sufficient corporate sponsorship.  We should have never taken on a venture at the Auditorium, but unfortunately our fiscal administration was not strong enough to realize that.  Again, that was going to make us all this money, but we didn’t think about all the expenses including huge royalties to (the librettist and designer) Maurice Sendak, and fees to the director (Frank Corsaro).  The worst thing that happened was this last time we did it (in 1990) at the Chicago Theater.  Again I married Wild Things with Peter and the Wolf, and two of the Narrators were local TV news anchors Linda Yu and Lester Holt.  It was wonderful, but because of the economy, and the fact that there were so many things going on in the Loop
we were bucking against The Nutcracker and A Christmas Carolwe did not have the audience, so we ended up losing $75,000, plus all of the accumulated deficit.  However, we didn’t know that because the manager, the man who got us into this situation, had already left.  He had big hopes, but they were not realistic.
jane bunnell
BD:   He hid it all from the board?

Alan Stone:   He just didn’t plan well.  He certainly didn’t make a big thing out of it, and he tried to resolve the problems the best way he knew how, which was not the best way to do it.  He didn’t pay the IRS, and we got into some very serious trouble.  By the time we got the final reckoning of what happened, we had a deficit of $400,000, including $100,000 to the IRS.  Plus he had some very creative budgeting.  He thought that we would break even at the Athenaeum, but the truth of the matter
which somehow he did not graspis that if we sell every seat of every performance at the Athenaeum, we end up with approximately $200,000 and $250,000 deficit.  He was even trying to get us into the idea of renovation of the Athenaeum.  That, of course, was pie in the sky.  That would have killed us, because we were talking about raising $9 million to renovate a place which we couldn’t live in anyway.  So, we came to the point before the opening of Idomeneo for the Board to decide whether or not we could open, or if we should declare Chapter 11 and revamp some other time.  There was a strong movement to close the company.  A lot of people on the board, many of the more cautious businessmen, who think you run an opera company like you run a nuts-and-bolts business, were thinking that we should just call it quits, and avoid more risks and more liabilities.  But fortunately, there was a strong movement that said no, that we really have to see what we can do.  In forty-eight hours we raised $310,000, which is unbelievable.  It was a miracle.  Even The New York Times had a little quip about the miracle in Chicago, because raising $310,000 for a middle-sized arts organization in this economy at this time was really good.  So, we got through Idomeneo.  Henry Holt was the conductor, and we even did appeals from the stage.  Money started coming in from all places, from people we never even knew, because they never thought of us as being in trouble financially.  We had had such a good record, and we didn’t advertise the deficit.  We finally got to do Madame Butterfly, but we don’t have enough to do our next production, which is Postcard from Morocco.  Contemporary operas, like Postcard, are the thing that we’re famous for.  If we can’t do this opera, if we can’t raise enough money to put that on, there’s something wrong.

BD:   Where are you right now?

Alan Stone:   We’ve paid off IRS, so the government is off our back.  We paid, and now we hope that they will be kind, and understanding, and generous with us regarding the penalties and the interest.  We still are in the process of negotiating as far as penalties and interest are concerned, but we’ve paid off what we owed them.  After that, we’re short close to $150,000 for the production of Postcard.

BD:   Now Butterfly is running to rave reviews?

Alan Stone:   Rave reviews, so you can’t get any more tickets at this point.

BD:   Are you going to put on a couple of more performances?

Alan Stone:   No, we can’t because we’ll lose money.  Every time we pull up the curtain at that theater, we spend more for the orchestra, the chorus, the singers, and the crew than we could possibly take in.  So it doesn’t do us any good to do more performances.  It makes people happy, but it makes our situation worse.  So if we’re going to survive, the only clear answer is that we have to get out of that theater.  There’s no alternative... either that, or raise our ticket prices fifty or sixty per cent, which we can’t do because then we wouldn’t be the same kind of company.

BD:   Assuming that you raise the money that you need for Postcard, and you wind up the end of year with perhaps no surplus, but no deficit.  Where does the Chicago Opera Theater go?

Alan Stone:   That would be impossible.  It’s unrealistic, unless you know a couple of angels who would write us checks for $50,000, or five angels to donate $25,000.  We need $105,000 for the production Postcard, but we also have to keep paying salaries to our staff, and paying the rent, which has nothing to do with the Postcard budget.  The Board ultimately dreams of a situation when we could end up at the end of the fiscal year with no deficit.  Surplus???  There’s never been a surplus.  There can’t be a surplus!  If we have a surplus, we’re not a non-profit corporation by definition.  If we have a surplus, it has to go into an endowment, which we don’t have.

BD:   If you pull through all of this, and if the company survives, and makes good, and goes on to the next season...

Alan Stone:   [Loudly interrupting]  We’ll have to!!!

BD:   ...will you then go back to the tried-and-true method of doing three operas a year
an old one, a new one, and a chestnut?

Alan Stone:   All we can say is that we’re taking one step at a time.  We got as far as Butterfly.  It opened the night before last, as you said to rave reviews.  It’s a fabulous production.  I’m very proud of it.  The critics compared it favorably with Lyric productions.  In some ways, it’s the most successful Butterfly I’ve ever seen, because it’s such an intimate opera and it’s so beautifully performed.  I’m very proud of it.  There’s no sense in being overly modest about it.  It’s absolutely one of our best achievements in all the eighteen years that we’ve been running... and we’ve done some pretty good things!  But the next step is Postcard.  Then we’ll have to take a look and see what happens.  As the guiding force of the company, and the original founder, obviously I’m absolutely convinced that there will be a 1992 season.  Otherwise, why did we do this?  Why did we work so hard?  We could have been better off to declare bankruptcy, write off the debts and then jump.  We did this to show our public that we didn’t want to renege on them.  We could have just not done anything and kept all the subscription money, but we didn’t want to do that.  It wouldn’t be the first time in history...  What are they going to do, sue us?  We were bankrupt so that was it!  But what we do next is very, very questionable.  Four operas?  Absolutely not.  No question about it.  There are some people who think we should do just one opera next season.  We’d have to do at least one opera.  I personally feel one opera is by no means a season, plus in order to get funding from the National Endowment from the government, which we depend on every year, you have to do at least two operas to qualify.  So that means the chances are pretty good that we’ll do two.  My hope is that we can do three, because two would be only fifty per cent of what we did this year.  That’s not cutting back, it’s cutting in half, and that’s a big, big thing.
BD:   Even if you only do two operas next year, and then come back with three the following year, would that put you back on track?

Alan Stone:   I think so, yes, and maybe that’s the goal.  But being an eternal optimist, I will strive to do three, or try to encourage my Board members to aim towards three, because if we aim only for two, we may only do one.  I have to keep that forward feeling and energy up.

*     *     *     *     *
BD:   Let me ask you a hypothetical question.  If you had not gone out on a limb with the big theater, and just stayed with the three operas every year, would you have been in the problem that you’re in now?

Alan Stone:   Probably not.  If we had stayed with three operas, as we were up to the fiscal year of 1988, we were breaking even.  We were not allowing ourselves room for any growth, but we would have been stable.  It was going into the fourth opera that was the mistake, because our fundraising ability is limited.  With the ticket prices that we charge, and for a 920-seat theater, this company can only raise the difference to support three productions.  So, that was the fallacy right from the beginning.  We have three weeks of staging rehearsals, and one week of music rehearsals.  Not all the Lyric productions are like that.  Obviously, the new ones do get more time, but other things are put together very quickly, as they are in every opera company in the world.  In the long-run, maybe we needed this crisis, because the time has come for us to move away from the Athenaeum.  It has placed some terrible limitations on us.  First of all, it is dreadfully antiquated.  We won’t talk about the condition of the washrooms, but that’s the situation.  The pit is pitifully small, and it is not recessed, so we have a terrible problem of balance.  The backstage facilities are dismal, and the stage is very, very limited.  The flies are small, and there is no wing space.

BD:   Is there some other place in Chicago that you could use?

Alan Stone:   I believe that there are theaters in the Chicago area.  Our mistake was that we made the assumption that we had to be in Chicago, meaning in the center of the city.  That was something we inherited from Jones Commercial High School.  But the situation in the Loop was quite different in 1974 than it is in 1991.  Now the Loop was thriving.  No one would have dreamed of theaters being on Halsted Street in those days.  But now we see that the theaters like Wisdom Bridge are popular, and people are going to the suburbs for Drury Lane.  Many of the biggest opera companies are not anywhere near the cities.  St. Louis Opera is not in St. Louis.  It’s in Webster Grove.  Santa Fe Opera is not in Santa Fe.  It’s outside, and twenty-five miles away in the mountains.  There is no theater in the center of Chicago.  We know that.  We’ve tried for years.  We looked and looked.  Chicago Opera Theater patrons do not come on public transportation because there is no public transportation.  It’s always too far.  They all take cabs, or cars.  Some people do take buses and walk, but we may have to be in suburbs.  We may have to be in Evanston, or Skokie, or possibly there are some places, but we just have to look at them.

BD:   Rather than just doing all your performances in one place, would it be possible to do two or three in one location, and two or three in another location?

Alan Stone:   No, that’s terrible.  That’s a mess.  We tried that.  One year (1977), we tried doing performances in Mandel Hall [at the University of Chicago], and then moved up to Evanston Township High School.  You can’t do that, because the lights all have to be refocussed.  Then there’s the pit situation.  You have to do so many rehearsals in order to keep the same standard up in each theater.  The cost would be prohibitive.  It’s my dream, and the dream of many people who are concerned, and the thing this city needs the most, more than any kind of performing arts center, is a medium-sized theater.  It’s outrageous that there is none.  We need a 1,300 to 1,500 seat theater in Chicago.  [The Harris Theater, just east of the loop at the north end of Millennium Park, and near the Pritzker Pavilion (home of the Grant Park Music Festival each summer), seats 1500, and was constructed in 2002-03.  It is now the home of several performing companies, including the Chicago Opera Theater.  To see three interior photos, click HERE.]  I’ve been reading about a proposed $300 million performance center.  It’s unconscionable that they could think of putting up a performance center with a huge theater for the Lyric Opera, and another huge theater for the Chicago Symphony, and forget about all of the middle-sized organizations, like us, that really give this city a special situation.  There are no other cities that have this kind of richness in the companies like we have.  Chicago has a great theater and opera tradition.  Tomorrow night I’m going out to dinner with Ardis Krainik [General Director of Lyric Opera], and I’m certainly going to mention that to her.  I’m very much a believer in having a performance art center, provided there is a theater for us.  Otherwise, I will do everything in my power to create as much interference for it as possible.  She’ll know it, and Henry Fogel [President of the Chicago Symphony] will have to know it too.  I need to have a little bit of input.

BD:   If the Symphony vacates Orchestra Hall, would there be any point in renovating that space for the COT?

Alan Stone:   No.  Orchestra Hall is much too large, and it’s not a theater.

BD:   Even if they close off the top balcony?

Alan Stone:   It’s not a theater.  It’s an auditorium.  It has no wing-space, no fly space, and it has no backstage facilities.  It’s not possible to use it as a theater.  A theater is a theater, and an auditorium is an auditorium.  Even The Auditorium is not a theater.

BD:   Even though it calls itself The Auditorium Theater?

Alan Stone:   It calls itself that, but it is an auditorium.  All you have to do is look at the backstage facilities, and you’ll see that it is not a theater.  There are not enough dressing rooms.  Many years ago, opera was done there, but they used to have to leave the sets out in the street overnight when they were changing them, like they did at the old Met. 

BD:   There’s no movie house that happens to have wing-space?

Alan Stone:   No, there aren
t.  We’ve spent years looking.  The movie theaters are usually enormously large, and they were not built for music.  We played at the Chicago Theater [in the Loop], and the acoustics are horrendous.  They were built for movie screens.
BD:   There must be some small movie theaters.

Alan Stone:   No, there aren’t.  We’ve spent years looking!  We had a search committee for four or five years that even included Joan Harris, who has access to everything.  There is nothing!  It is a crying shame.  Cities like Milwaukee and Des Moines have a performing center, but Chicago, one of the great cities of the world, does not.
janissaries march
BD:   Is the Blackstone any good?  When I was there I thought the sight-lines were poor.

Alan Stone:   It’s not bad, but it’s a terrible theater for music because it’s so dry.  It was built as a prose theater specifically.  It’s all carpeted.
BD:   I hope that the Chicago Opera Theater does continue.

Alan Stone:   Ever since all this about the deficit came to light, we’ve been working in a crisis situation, and it’s taken a terrible toll on everyone.  I’m now finding myself in the position of having to become a principal fundraiser for the organization.  I’m quite successful at it, because I believe in what I’m asking for, so I get it.  But it takes an enormous amount of my time from other things that I’m really supposed to be doing, such as thinking about repertory, and artistic decisions.  
Many arts organizations have gotten themselves into trouble.  You need money to pay the rent.  You need money to pay the phone.  You can’t operate an office without the phones.  When you work on a small cash flow, there is so little money.  It turned out that in February we didn’t even have enough money to make the payroll.  I didn’t get paid.  None of us got paid.  The employees and the cast had to wait.  We went to the chorus and told them, and they were wonderful.  In fact, some of them even gave us money!

BD:   You’ve spent years building up trust.

Alan Stone:   Yes, thank goodness!  I have to be a wheeler and dealer, but I do believe I have do have some personal integrity about things like that, and I would never cheat my employees.  Impresario, yes, but a charlatan, no.  [Both laugh]

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Not just your company, but in general, is the future of opera in America bleak, or bright, or uncertain?

Alan Stone:   [Thinks a moment]  In general, I think the future of opera in America is bright.  There’s a great love, and a renewed interest in opera, much more than there was years and years ago, when, except for workshops and student performances, the opera consisted of the Metropolitan, San Francisco Opera, and Lyric Opera of Chicago.  That was all there was.  Now there are big companies all over, and most of those companies are doing well.  Companies like the Lyric really get most of their money from corporations.

BD:   That gives them publicity?

Alan Stone:   They get the publicity.  They can do more because of their very nature, plus they get an enormous amount of people who give them support.  The Lyric doesn’t do one production that is not completely underwritten.  We’ve never had a production completely underwritten.

BD:   Has Lyric ever given money to the Chicago Opera Theater?

Alan Stone:   No.  They’re not allowed to give money.  One non-profit corporation cannot give money to another because they don’t have any money ostensibly to give.  However, they came out with a bigger surplus than our whole $500,000 deficit.

BD:   I assume that a surplus is just immediately applied the next year
s budget?

Alan Stone:   It
s put into the various endowments and funds that they have.  We’ve gotten small and very important personal contributions from Ardis Krainik, Danny Newman, and Al Glasser [Director of Education at Lyric].  These are very important to me because its a sign of trust and faith in what were doing.  In our program you will notice a little section about colleagues, and there are some wonderful names in there.  On the other hand, many of the smaller companies in the small cities are in trouble.  There’s no question about that.  Columbus Opera went bankrupt, and when it announced bankruptcy they got $55,000, and then they opened the next day.  Now they’re struggling.  New Jersey Opera has been in terrible trouble.  Most of the smaller and medium-sized companies are not in good shape, because expenses are enormous and money is tighter.  People are not giving as much.  They’re afraid, and they don’t have as much to give.  Government funding has been cut back even in Europe, although there the companies depend on government subsidies.  Even though they get a lot of money, they don’t get as much as they need, and it is a problem.  But you just have to hope.  I can’t worry about Columbus.  I just know that Chicago is very special.  If anything it is an opera city.  Before it was a Symphony city, it was an opera city.  Opera has been in Chicago for so many years.  I have a book that Charles Nelson Reilly gave me which traces opera in Chicago from the 1800s to the present day.  Mary Garden, Amelia Galli-Curci, Italo Campanini and Luisa Tetrazzini made their careers in Chicago, not in New York.  They went to New York later, but for very few performances.  There was constant opera in Chicago.  [For more about all this, see my article Massenet, Mary Garden, and the Chicago Opera 1910-1932.]
BD:   These were resident companies, not just tours!

Alan Stone:   Yes, Chicago is a great opera city, and I know that we have enough supporters.  There’s enough money here, and enough wealth, and enough financial backing to support not only the Lyric Opera and the Chicago Opera Theater, but other small companies which we gave birth to.  There were none of those when I started.  Ours was the first one, and our success encouraged the Light Opera Works, the Chicago Chamber Opera, the Lincoln Opera, and the Opera Factory.   I mean, there’s a long list of companies now.  Even Opera Midwest, which had to close due to a financial scandal [as reported in the newspaper, shown below-right].  These other companies are small, but they still pay their artists, and they do excellent work.  In a way I’m very glad, because we have grown to the point where our audiences now expect the very best from us, and we have to use the very best of the younger American talent.  We had some singers that sang with us in the very first days, such as Robert Orth, who was a star then, and is a bigger star now.  But some of those other people were acceptable for us in our first performances for our first couple of years, when we charged $3 a ticket.  Now we can’t ask people to pay $38 dollars a ticket to hear those same people, but that kind of talent is now being used by these smaller companies.

BD:   Do you have better talent coming into your company all the time?

Alan Stone:   All the time!  One of the things that was very helpful back in the early 1970s, was an incredible group of singers here in Chicago.  Karen Huffstodt lived in Chicago, as did Cheryl Woods, and Kenneth Cox.  These were all people from this particular area.  They went to Wheaton College, Northwestern University, or the American Conservatory.  Now there’s a new crop of local people.

BD:   Good!  That’s what I was worried about.  A few years ago you started getting a lot more singers from elsewhere.

Alan Stone:   Right.
opera midwest
BD:   Now you’re back to getting more singers from Chicago?

Alan Stone:   We’re still getting a lot of people from elsewhere, but there are a lot of local people.  For example, the Lyric Opera Center is a great source of singers for us.  Nobody really cares very much about where someone is born.  That really isn’t important.  We like to use our people if we can.  Not only does it help their careers, but it makes good business sense.  We don’t have to put them up in hotels, or pay their transportation from New York or California.  Plus, they tend to remember us, and when they get to be big people, they still sing with us.  Frank Galati is also that way, returning even though his is quite well-known now.  The Postcard from Morocco has three singers that were former members of the Lyric Center.  Plus, there has been a strange but persistent move of artists to Chicago.

BD:   From where?

Alan Stone:   From the east, especially from New York City.  Many people are fed up with the expense and the lifestyle of New York.  They find that they can live much more comfortably and much more pleasantly in Chicago for less money.  So, we have a whole crop of people coming back to Chicago including Bruce Hall and Sunny Joy Langton who are living and teaching here.  We also have conductors and directors.  We have people coming here, finding that Chicago is really what New York was twenty years ago.  They like the city, and want a city atmosphere, but just don’t want to put up with New York.  For years I’ve been going every year to New York for four days of auditions, and I don’t know if it’s going to be necessary now for me to go every year.  There are singers I have in this area, and ones I know that are ready because I heard them last year.  I really don’t particularly enjoy going to New York myself.  It’s a rat race.  I go to the auditions, and I come back to the hotel and have dinner.  In the morning we’re up at 7 o’clock to get to the audition by 9 o’clock to start again, and we do this for four days, and it’s an extraordinary expense.  We pay $200 a night, and it’s a cheapy little hotel.  That’s New York.  Those are the wildest prices, plus food, and transportation.  I could save the company some money, and I could also save a little bit of fatigue by not going.

[At this point we took care of a few technical details, and I asked him to do a Station Break]

Alan Stone:   Hello this is Alan Stone, Artistic Director and Founder of the Chicago Opera Theater, and you’re listening to Classical 97, WNIB in Chicago.

BD:   Thank you.  I get all my guests to do that, and you
ve not done one for me before.

Alan Stone:   That’s my radio announcer voice!  You know, I started out in radio.  When I was a kid in grammar school, I started working at WBEZ doing dramatic parts in the those programs.  They were on LaSalle Street before they moved to where they are now, and I did that all through school.  Then I got a job working on CBS.  I worked on ‘soaps’ as a kid, and I did Ma Perkins, and Life Can Be Beautiful.  Generally I did parts of little children because [speaks like a child] I had these real high voices...
Gee, Mister, can I go with you to California? or,  Golly, I can shoot a gun!

BD:   You were the bratty little boy?

Alan Stone:   I was the wild little kid, and then I did accents.  I was André on Ma Perkins, the little French boy who came over from the War.  I did that, and with that money I paid my way through the University of Chicago.

BD:   Your degree is in music?

Alan Stone:   Actually, my degree was in English.  I took electives in music, but my actual degree was Bachelor of Arts.  I really didn’t get into music until after college, because most of the training of music in singing was on a professional level.  They study, but I don’t think a degree would have helped Mr. Pavarotti, or Mr. Björling, or Mr. Gigli, or Miss Sutherland.

BD:   But now a singer without a degree is practically unheard of.

Alan Stone:   No, we never care about degrees.  I don
’t know any who have them.

BD:   Don’t they go to a conservatory?

Alan Stone:   They do, but they don’t all give degrees in music.  The Conservatorio di Verdi didn’t give degrees.  They just gave certificates of performance, but that’s not the same thing as a degree.  A degree is worthless to me.  I don’t care about that.  Even on a conservatory level, do you think that the people at Bloomington, Indiana have been asked if they have a degree?  What about Margaret Harshaw, or Nicola Rossi-Lemeni, or  Martha Lipton?  Many of those people go into teaching when they stop performing, but having a degree in music does not make you necessarily become a performer.  I’ve never been in any kind of audition where a degree has been required.

BD:   Don’t you see it on the resumés?

Alan Stone:   No.  What they put on the resumé is where they sang, what roles they sang, when did they do it, what the press says.  They will say their teachers, and occasionally someone will say they have a master’s degree, but it’s not important at all.  It’s not like being a lawyer.  You can’t create art in a curriculum.

BD:   Then where is art coming from?

Alan Stone:   It comes from talent!

BD:   Maybe I
m thinking more of the instrumentalists.  They all seem to have degrees.

Alan Stone:   That I don’t feel equipped to talk about, but singing is a completely different thing.  A singer has to learn the physical emission of the voice, and the languages.

BD:   [Noting the time]  Thank you so very much for founding and continuing the Chicago Opera Theater all these years.

Alan Stone:   Thank you.  I
ll just continue to do my best.


In addition to the names above which are links, or have single-asterisks, there are several more artists associated with COT whom I have had the privilege of interviewing.  Some of these conversations have already been posted on my site (and have links below), while others will (hopefully) be done in the future.  I have listed them approximately in the order in which they made their first appearance with COT.

Complete annals with full cast-lists appear in Chicago Opera Theater: Standard Bearer for American Opera, 1976-2001, by Director/Administrator Carl Ratner.  Also, the complete list of titles and composers of works presented through 2023-24 appears on the COT website.

Baritone Philip Kraus; Mezzo Soprano Anita Berry; Soprano Mary Beth Peil; Soprano Nancy Gustafson; Baritone William Sharp; Conductor Robert Carter Austin; Soprano Gloria Capone, and Director Patrick Bakman; Tenor Jonathan Welch; Director Linda Brovsky; Mezzo-Soprano Robynne Redmon; Director David Gately; Translator Andrew Porter; Translator Walter Ducloux; Director Rhoda Levine; Mezzo-Soprano Constance Beavon; Conductor Michael Morgan; Director Richard Pearlman; Tenor Gregory Kunde; Director Andrew Foldi; Composer Peter Maxwell Davies; Conductor Fiora Contino; Director Robert Tannenbaum; Mezzo-Soprano Mignon Dunn; Conductor Lawrence Rapchak; Director Marc Verzatt; Bass-Baritone Arnold Voketaitis; Conductor Ted Taylor; Director Mary Zimmerman; Soprano Judith Raddue, and Tenor Carl Tanner; Mezzo-Soprano Melanie Sonnenberg, and Conductor Bradley Vieth; Composer Daron Aric Hagen; Baritone Brian Davis; Director/Designer John Pascoe; Bass-Baritone William Powers; Soprano Angela Réaux; Composer Michael Ching; Composer Philip Glass; Tenor Laurence Dale; Conductor Jane Glover; Conductor Nicolas Cleobury; Mezzo-Soprano Frederica von Stade; Composer John Adams; Composer Tobias Picker; Composer Mark Adamo.

© 1979, 1983, 1991 Bruce Duffie

These conversations was recorded in Chicago on February 13, 1979, December 20, 1979, February 3, 1983, and April 5, 1991.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB in 1979, 1980, 1983, and 1991.  A portion ws transcribed and published in Opera Scene in February, 1983  This transcription was made in 2023, and posted on this website at that time.  My thanks to British soprano Una Barry for her help in preparing this website presentation.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.  To read my thoughts on editing these interviews for print, as well as a few other interesting observations, click here.

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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.