Tenor  John  Aler

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


The renowned American tenor John Aler is one of the most acclaimed and admired singers on the international stage.  A consummate artist, he has been a frequent performer with such orchestras as the New York Philharmonic, the Cleveland and Philadelphia Orchestras, the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the symphony orchestras of Boston, Chicago and San Francisco.  He has sung in Europe with the Berlin Philharmonic, Leipzig Gewandhaus, Orchestre Nationale de France, and the BBC Symphony, among many others, appearing with the world’s most respected conductors, including James Conlon, Charles Dutoit, Daniel Barenboim, Pierre Boulez, Kurt Masur, Esa-Pekka Salonen, Erich Leinsdorf, Zubin Mehta, Simon Rattle, Michael Tilson Thomas, Herbert Blomstedt, and Leonard Slatkin, to name a few.  He has performed at the major opera houses of the world, including the Royal Opera Covent Garden, Deutsche Oper Berlin, Vienna, Munich, Salzburg, Hamburg, Geneva, Madrid, and Brussels, as well as the New York City Opera, the Washington Opera, and Santa Fe.  He is a regular performer at the major American summer festivals, including Ravinia, Aspen, Chautauqua, Newport, and Grant Park.

Performances highlights of recent seasons have included Britten’s War Requiem with the Moscow Philharmonic and the Munich Philharmonic under James Conlon, Berlioz’s Damnation of Faust with Carlos Kalmar at the Grant Park Music Festival, Mendelssohn’s Elijah with the Dallas Symphony under Claus Peter Flor, Britten’s Saint Nicholas with the Indianapolis Symphony under their conductor laureate, Raymond Leppard, Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis at Strathmore Hall with the National Philharmonic, and his 24th season at the Cincinnati May Festival, where he performed Bach’s St. Matthew Passion and Mozart’s “Great” Mass in c minor under James Conlon. He returns to the May Festival in 2011 to sing Haydn’s Heiligemesse. Highlights of 2010 include Britten’s Canticle II, Abraham and Isaac with Marietta Simpson performed at the Kennedy Center, the Ravinia Festival where he sang Bernstein’s Candide under John Axelrod, and Mozart’s Nozze di Figaro, conducted by James Conlon with the Chicago Symphony.  Anther recent major performance is Corigliano's Dylan Trilogy with Leonard Slatkin and the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington and the Carnegie Hall.

Mr. Aler has an extensive concert repertoire, which ranges from the Evangelist in the Passions of Bach to the War Requiem and Serenade for Tenor Horn and Strings of Benjamin Britten and Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, which he performed with the San Francisco Symphony, at the Ravinia Festival under Andrew Litton, and with the New York Philharmonic, who recorded it for a limited release under its New York Philharmonic Special Edition label.


John Aler is featured on three Grammy Award-winning recordings: in the role of Jupiter in an all-star recording of Handel’s Semele with John Nelson and the English chamber Orchestra for DGG, which won “Best Opera Recording”; Bartók’s Cantata Profana with Pierre Boulez and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, also on DGG, which won “Best Classical Album”; and the Berlioz Requiem with the Atlanta Symphony led by Robert Shaw on Telarc, which won for “Best Vocal Soloist.”  He has an extensive discography and can be heard on more than 60 recordings on DGG, Decca, EMI/Angel, Telarc, Teldec, and more than a dozen other labels. A recitalist of note, he has several recordings of chansons, Lieder and song including a solo album entitled “Songs We Forgot to Remember” on Delos. In December 2006, he recorded Bach’s Coffee Cantata with the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center in a downloadable format for Deutsche Grammophon.

 A native of Baltimore, John Aler (born October 4, 1949) is an alumnus of the Catholic University in Washington, DC and the Juilliard School.

-- Names which are links in this box and below refer to my interviews elsewhere on this website.  BD 

John Aler was back in Chicago in January of 1992 to perform and record with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.  He graciously took time from his schedule to let me meet with him for an interview . . . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:    You are here in Chicago to sing Bartók, but you normally do earlier music and more romantic music, do you not?

John Aler:    Oh no, I do a lot of contemporary music actually.  I’ve done a lot of Britten, and I’m very interested in a lot of Stravinsky.  I’m very interested in twentieth-century music.

BD:    So then you really do the whole gamut!

JA:    I do whatever I can.  I do whatever I like and whatever I can, and I try not to say,
Oh, I don’t do that.  I look really carefully at the piece when I’m asked to do something.

BD:    What is it that makes you decide yes or no?

JA:    The range, the orchestration, the kind of texture of the piece
whether it’s a piece that I can sing through.

alerBD:    [With a gentle nudge]  You don’t want to do Siegfried tomorrow?

JA:    I’d love to, but I can’t!  [Both laugh]  I made my peace with that kind of music years ago with Verdi and Puccini.  I can sing all of Madam Butterfly to you if you want because I know it, but it’s not something I would do in public.  I would just end up tiring my voice.

BD:    The orchestration is too heavy?

JA:    It’s just too big.  So I decided to stick to Mozart, Rossini, Bach and Handel.  Each one of those composers is a life time’s work for any singer, but there’s a lot of twentieth-century music that is neo-classical, like Stravinsky.

BD:    It is written for your kind of voice?

JA:    Absolutely, for a very lyric voice.

BD:    Are you a lyric tenor?

JA:    I think so
— a lyric, leggiero, yes.

BD:    You put yourself into all sorts of roles!

JA:    Yes, I like to do that.  Maybe at one time it was necessary for singers to categorize, but I don’t think it’s so necessary today because of when we’re living.  I remember reading somewhere that there is no such thing as history anymore because the world is so small, and television and instant news has eliminated history.  So where we are in music history, this is just about it as far as music is concerned.  I’m not too sanguine about the future of music, the future of vocal music or any music, I guess.

BD:    You think we’re coming up to the abyss?

JA:    I hate to think so but, yes, I really do.  I don’t know that there’s so much that’s new or that’s going to be coming along.  There’ll be interesting pieces, interesting works, but I don’t necessarily think that there are going to be great composers like Mozart and Haydn and Beethoven with a huge opus of performable works that are going to be publically accepted.  You can already begin to see this in Berg and Schoenberg and Bartók, who have a very limited number of works.  You can see it tapering off as music goes along... I can anyway.  I’ve thought about this a lot.

BD:    Do you not want the previous two or three hundred years of music simply continuing for the next thousand years?

JA:    Oh, I think that’s what will happen.  I don’t know.  It’s interesting, because I read a lot of science fiction and I really like it very much.  It’s interesting when you watch a science fiction movie, and they’re playing what is supposed to be ‘music’ in the year 2525 or 8012 or whatever.  That is what futuristic music is supposed to sound like.

BD:    It’s always electronic stuff.

JA:    Yes, kind of electronic with harps and [demonstrates the awful sound].  What is it?  It’s kind of like nothing!  It’s just kind of sound.  I don’t know what people think the future of music is going to be, but to me it’s interesting that a composer like Britten for example
who was basically a reactionary kind of composerhas such a great opus of works in performance that are really constantly performed.  He’s one of the few who lived contemporary to me that are being performed.

BD:    You don’t feel the same about someone like, say, John Adams or even Philip Glass who are working in more concrete vein?

JA:    I really can’t say because I haven’t heard all of their works, or even a lot of their works.

BD:    I only spoke of those because they seem to have a lot of works that get done regularly.

JA:    They are performed, I agree.  I’ve heard bits and pieces and snatches on television and on radio, and I thought their music sounds really good.  But I don’t think they’re going to contribute an enormous body of works.

BD:    Here’s a specific example.  For instance, if you were asked to sing Gandhi in Satyagraha, since Douglas Perry [who created the role in 1979] has a similar kind of voice to yours, would you be forced to look at the piece and decide?

JA:    Absolutely!  Oh, sure I would.  This summer I’m singing Frère Massée in the Messiaen opera St. Francis of Assisi because I’ve always been interested in his music.  I’ve never really understood it, but I’ve been interested in it.  People were playing a lot of the piano music and singing some of his vocal pieces when I was in University, and I thought it was so kind of weird then.

BD:    Will van Dam be St. Francis again?

JA:    Yes, José van Dam, and I think Peter Sellers is supposed to direct it, so God knows what he’ll do with the Franciscan monks!  I shudder to think...  [Both laugh]

BD:    But will you go along with all his ideas?

JA:    Well, you know, short of nudity, certainly I’m sure.

(...) Because of its scale, ''St. Francois'' will always be a rare work, and this is right: it needs to be a special occasion. But it also needs to be available. For the moment, its future lies with the 1992 Salzburg Festival production, which has been brought back this year and may now appear again in Paris and Berlin. Sooner or later the work must also be done in the United States.

alerComing to the virtues of the present revival, it is hard to know where to start. Triumph was general at Monday night's performance: for Jose van Dam in the title role; for all the other soloists; for Kent Nagano, the conductor; for his magnificent British orchestra, the Halle of Manchester, and for the Arnold Schoenberg Choir from Vienna.

Mr. van Dam, who has been St. Francis in every staged performance so far, sings with unswerving force. He sounds like a dark, low trumpet, always there to the full, always secure, and at first his certainty is forbidding. But this is surely how Messiaen wanted it. The opening scene is there to show that Francis's feelings are not earthly but divine: he shows compassion for an anxious young monk not by lending comfort but by demanding more suffering.

As the performance goes on, Mr. van Dam's hardy strength, formidably sustained throughout this long role, proves itself. Sentimentality is a trivial loss. Power counts.

Dawn Upshaw just is, simply and purely, the voice of the Angel. Chris Merritt writhes with vocal fury as the Leper. Urban Malmberg gives a fine, appealing performance as Brother Leo, his youthful baritone seeming to pick up resilience from Mr. van Dam. Contrasted tenors, Guy Renard and John Aler, enact the distemperate Brother Elia and the head-in-the-clouds Brother Masseo.

Ms. Upshaw, Mr. Malmberg and Mr. Aler were all there with Mr. van Dam when this production was first done, and their performances have grown with his. It is not a question of finding more in the music, but of trying less. There is serenity and acceptance in what they do.

Perhaps we are beginning to understand what we have got in this work -- or at least to understand what a puzzle and a challenge we have got. Besides being huge and humble, the score is as ancient as plainsong and as new as yesterday in its musical resources. Most paradoxically of all, it is, in a godless century, as bold as an icon.

Any staging is bound to be measured by its failures, and Peter Sellars has defiantly kept his most extravagant ones from 1992: the video monitors that litter the stage, flickering with unwanted images. But he is responsible, too, for visual wonder, in the workings of a huge array of fluorescent tubes responding to the light and color in the music. And there is appropriateness in the quiet care with which the principals onstage handle one another and comport themselves.  (...)

--  Part of a review in The New York Times by Paul Griffiths, August 27, 1998 
[Photo of recording added for this website presentation] 

BD:    Do you approve of a lot of the new directions that are going on in stagings?

JA:    No, I don’t!  I really don’t.

BD:    [With a nod to an infamous production]  You don’t want Aïda as a washerwoman?

JA:    No I truly don’t!  I don’t think that has any validity whatsoever.  I think many of the stagings these days are copouts, really.  It’s a way of avoiding having to deal with the problems given by the creators of the work, and I don’t think it’s really fair to the composer or the librettist.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    We were talking a bit about opera and you’re here singing a concert.  How do you divide your career between operas and concerts?

JA:    It works out to about half and half, maybe a little bit more concerts these days, I’d say maybe sixty-forty.  But usually it works out to about half and half.

alerBD:    Is that the way you like it?

JA:    Yes, I do.  I don’t want to do just the one.  It’s kind of boring and it’s much more interesting to mix as much as possible.  I really just like the musical experience of doing as much different repertoire as I can, and having different musical experiences.  I do a lot of recital work as well, and I’ve done a lot of vocal chamber music and ensemble singing.  I just like it, so why not do it?  For a while I was singing some bel canto stuff, [in a mock hushed tone] but just between us
just between you and your thousands of listeners [both laugh]I got a little bored with the sameness of bel canto music.  There’s also a movement for authenticity in bel canto music that is not particularly valid these days in performance.  Maybe on recordings it’s okay, but a lot of it has to do with cuts...

BD:    ...or lack of same?

JA:    Or lack of same!  This insistence of doing complete performances of things is really ridiculous.  One of the interesting thing about these composers was their incredible flexibility, and the fact that they could adjust these operas to suit different situations
the theater, the singers, the performance forces.  I was talking to a friend of mine who was recently doing L’Elisir d’Amore with the Dallas Opera, and there was a big brouhaha over whether they should use a fortepiano or a piano or a harpsichord for the recitatives.  The recitatives in L’Elisir are really minimal, and not terribly important like a Mozart secco recitative which is very important.  They’re just conventionally there.  They’re cute and they’re sweet but they’re not terrifically important.  So my friend, who was the assistant conductor, called William Ashbrook who was a well-known authority on bel canto music and on opera in general.

BD:    He literally wrote the book!

JA:    He did write the book, and Bill is a wonderful guy.  Bill said, “It’s what they had in the theater.  It’s not that they had to use a fortepiano, it was whatever they happened to have in that theater at that time.”

BD:    Of course the argument on the other side then becomes that now you can get anything you want in the theater.

JA:    Not necessarily.  There are not too many fortepianos in Dallas!  They had big trouble with that.  The funny part of the story is that my friends, the two assistant conductors, went and bought a load of condoms to put the sheep’s skin on the hammers of the pianos because they couldn’t get a fortepiano!

BD:    [Laughing]  The original safe Donizetti performance!

JA:    There you go
safe opera!  [Both roar with laughter]  Actually it sounded great, but when they were not using it they prepared the piano and it sounded great.  So then the conductor said, “Well me might as well just use the piano.”

BD:    But in this day and age theoretically you could call for any instrument and it could be obtained.

alerJA:    Theoretically you can but it’s not always the case.  For instance, during Stravinsky’s Renard he used an instrument called a cimbalom, the Hungarian gypsy instrument.  It is not only very hard to find, but incredibly hard to find the player!

BD:    Coming back to the big picture, do you find that there is a shifting of the balance between the music and the drama, or is it fairly stable?

JA:    We’re really in the day of the director, the stage producer.  It’s seems to be that they have carte blanche to do really whatever they want with opera.  The time of the singer has waned, and the conductor even has really waned.  When you get a really super-class singer, certainly that singer is going to be the one that has the box-office pull.  But even so, it’s really difficult for performers these days to deal with productions and the directors.

BD:    Should we shift it back to where the conductor is more in charge?

JA:    I guess so, yes.  Ideally it should be a wonderful collaboration, a collaborative effort, but things are hardly ever ideal.  That’s why opera is, to me, such a frustrating thing, and why I don’t like to do it exclusively.  It can be terribly frustrating.  The musical experience is almost always fulfilling and interesting, and sometimes wonderful.  But so often you really feel like you’re fighting the production and the look of the thing all the way.  The production is really the show, and the music is not necessarily the show.

BD:    You mean you don’t want to be secondary???

JA:    It’s not a matter of me being secondary or the singer being secondary, it’s the matter of the work being secondary, and that’s what I feel really frustrating.  It’s like the producers and the directors have an agenda, or have some kind of a message that they are desperate to get across at the expense of the work, no matter what the work or what the composer’s intentions were.  I find really frustrating after a while.

BD:    Maybe we should strip all of this away and get back to a little simpler time and be a little more straightforward?

JA:    Gosh, I wish I knew!  I think so, yes.

BD:    I’m making you an armchair impresario!

JA:    Ooohh...  There are so many  of us around who are really terrific at pointing out the problems, but there are so few of us around who have any answers, any solutions.  I guess I don’t really have any solutions; I’m just moaning and complaining!  [Laughs]

BD:    Then let’s turn it around to look at the positive.  What are some of the great things about production values and about voices these days?

JA:    The positive thing is that there is nothing like being in a performance.  There’s no recording, there is no television, there is nothing like being in that hall, even when you listen to it on the radio, or when you hear a tape of it.  Hearing it you think, well gee, that was great but gosh I’d have loved to have been there.  I’ll never forget how really sad I felt when I heard a tape of a great performance of Turandot from San Francisco from ’70-something with Pavarotti and Caballé.  It’s some of the greatest singing I’ve ever heard.  As great as that tape was, I wanted to be there!  That’s the exciting thing about music, about art really.  I went to see the Monet exhibit at the Baltimore Museum of Art recently.  We’re so used to seeing these images on posters, on postage stamps, on mugs, God, they’re everywhere!  But when you go and actually see the paintings, it’s just really staggering; it’s incredible.  It’s so important because it makes you remember that the work is the thing, no matter how many reproductions are made and how many calendars you pin up on your wall.  You think it is pretty, but it’s not!  The real thing is primarily stunning, and that’s what a great performance is.  A great musical performance or a great balletic moment or a great evening in the theater is like that.  That’s why performing art is so important.  People call it an elitist art, and they are all elitist arts.  By its very nature it has to be exclusive, it has to be absolutely limited to those two or three hundred, or two or three thousand people that are there that evening.  That’s what so wonderful about it.

BD:    But I assume that anyone in the world could make up a particular two thousand for one night?

JA:    Sure!  Absolutely.  Oh, I hope so.

BD:    It’s only temporarily exclusive.

JA:    It’s exclusive for those three and a half hours.

BD:    But you feel that concert music, the music you sing, is for everyone?

JA:    Absolutely, sure, yes, I do!

BD:    Then what do we do to get more and bigger audiences?  How do we keep cultivating the new audiences?

JA:    Well, the recordings and television!  [Both roar laughing]  That’s why these things are important because they do send a message.  They do let people know that there is something there.  

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    You’ve made a number of recordings.  Are you basically pleased with those?

JA:    No, I wouldn’t say that!  I’d say probably basically not, but there are a couple I think that are very good.

BD:    So we shouldn’t we listen to your recordings???

JA:    Not one!  Just buy them and don’t listen to them!  [Both laugh]  No, there are a couple I like.  I did a recording for a label called Denon L’Enfance du Christ that I thought sounded good.  And there are a few others like La Belle Hélène which I thought was kind of nice with Jessye Norman.  I like that a lot.

BD:    What about the Newport records?

alerJA:    Yes.  I like them a lot, actually.  I was rather pleased with them, particularly considering the mikeing situation.  There’s only one mike, for instance, that was used for the Liszt recording!  They only had one mike set up about twelve feet high in the air above me and the pianist, Daniel Blumenthal.  I thought that came out very well.  I was surprised how true that sounded.  I don’t like over-produced recordings.

BD:    You don’t want the mike shoved down your throat?

JA:    No, I don’t, but it happens a lot.  Generally you’re about ten or twelve inches from the mike.

BD:    Yet you’re used to projecting into the back row a lot of a big house, so I would think they would want the mike a little further away.

JA:    It depends.  Some record companies have different priorities about that.  I remember in John Culshaw’s book about the recording of the Ring with Solti years ago.  He talked about different record companies having different sounds and different recognizable acoustic situations.  I thought that was interesting, about the mike placement and ambiance of the hall, and things like that.

BD:    Should there be one sound, or should there be lots of different sounds?

JA:    I think there should be good sound because recordings are recordings and they should sound like recordings.  Basically when you have a recording of a live performance, it always sounds like a recording of a live performance to me.  It’s interesting because the L’Enfance du Christ on Denon was taken from two live performances.

BD:    No patch sessions?

JA:    No, there weren’t actually, no.  Maybe twenty minutes’ worth, but they were very minor and I think they were a couple of chorus things.  None of the solos were re-done.  Maybe there were orchestral things, but they were very little patch sessions.

BD:    Do you ever feel that because of recordings you’re competing against your earlier self, or competing against other tenors who have sung your repertoire?

JA:    No, I don’t feel that, I really don’t.  I have hardly any feeling of competition.  My only feeling of competition is hoping maybe against myself a little bit.  You just want to be better than you were last year, or hope that you can sing it a little better, but it doesn’t have anything to do with selling records.  It just has to go with the idea of your personal best, maybe that you’re improving and you’re working toward being better.

BD:    Do you always feel you’re improving?

JA:    [Ponders a moment]  Hmmmm... no!  I feel like I’m always trying to improve but not necessarily always succeeding.

BD:    Are you at the point in your career now that you think you should be at this stage?

JA:    I guess so, yes.  I really do.  I was talking to a friend earlier tonight about just this kind of thing.  There are very few stars in this business, just a handful really, and most of them are media-created stars like Pavarotti and Beverly Sills when she was on the scene.  There may be a few others, very few, but I don’t think most of us really aspire to that.  I don’t think I’d know how to handle it.  I really don’t mean to sound pretentious, but I just can’t imagine ever being that way or ever having that come my way.  I don’t know what I would do, and I don’t know what I would be like, it doesn’t even bear thinking about because it’ll never happen to me.  What I’m really happy about is that I’m a working singer who has a good degree of success and certain amount of respect among my colleagues.  Who could be happier?  Who could want more?  There are few more works I would like to do, but basically I’m very content with the way things have gone.  I’ve had some good advice and some good direction along the way from very wonderful people.

BD:    [With an encouraging tone]  I’m sure the works that you want to sing will still come your way.

JA:    Possibly, yes.  You get kind of old though, and you can’t do too much anymore!

BD:    [Protesting]  But you’re not there yet!

JA:    I’ve always wanted to sing, for instance, Gluck’s Orfeo in the tenor version, but as I get older I think that’s a hard work!  It is really a big sing, so who knows if that will ever happen.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Apart from this Bartók here in Chicago, what are some of the recent recordings that you’ve done?

JA:    I just did a funny thing!  I went to Berlin and did the Beethoven Choral Fantasy.  I sang the tenor solos in that with Abbado and the Berlin Philharmonic and Evgeny Kissin.  He’s twenty, or will be twenty-one very soon, and he was brilliant.  I just love this work.  I’m not a big fan of the Beethoven Ninth.  It sounds very marshal and military to me.

BD:    There’s not a lot for the tenor to do in either work.

JA:    It’s much more than the Choral Fantasy.  The Choral Fantasy has really nothing for the tenor soloist to do, but I love the music.  It’s almost the same kind of music as the finale of the Ninth, but it’s so sweet and naïve and ingenuous, and I just love it.  So they asked me to do it and I said I’d come all the way over there!  I really had a good time.  It was just the most beautiful concert where they did all Beethoven, and it was recorded for Deutsche Grammophon.  I did some Berlioz songs for Deutsche Grammophon last May.  That’ll be out soon.  It was the complete songs with four singers.  I did about thirteen solo songs and three or four duets with baritone Thomas Allen.  They’re all with piano.  Then I did some Stravinsky works with Esa Pekka Salonen.  They’ve just came out about a month ago on Sony Classics.  There are two discs.  One is the Pulcinella and a piece called Renard, although in Russian it is called Baika which means fable or fairytale.  We sang in Russian. 

BD:    Did you like learning all that?

JA:    Well, my teeth almost flew out!  There are a couple of sections [imitates the sound] and they’re really difficult.  It has a lot of speaking-parlando stuff that’s really tricky.  The other disc has a piece called Cantata, which is a very beautiful piece with small chorus and orchestra for tenor and soprano.


BD:    You have also done some complete operas...

JA:    I did a few things for EMI, especially the French EMI which is called Pathé-Marconi.  I did The Pearl Fishers with Barbara Hendricks,
La Belle Hélène with Jessye Norman, both conducted by Michel Plasson, and La Muette de Portici of Auber with June Anderson and Alfredo Kraus.

BD:    So you’re the second tenor there to Kraus?

alerJA:    Yes.  Kraus had the role of Masaniello, and the opera sometimes is called Masaniello.  The second tenor role is called Alphonse, who is the beloved of the soprano.  The opera is named after La Muette, which means the mute girl.  It’s a dancing part, so she’s from the ballet.  Then there are a couple of things for Philips conducted by John Eliot Gardiner including Comte Ory of Rossini, which is a very good recording with Sumi Jo [see photo of booklet cover at right with Aler as a nun!], and Iphigénie en TaurideIphigénie en Aulide is on Erato, as is another Rameau opera which called Les Boréades.  Those are also with Gardiner, so there’s kind of a lot.  I did a couple of complete Messiahs, one on RCA with Richard Westenburg dn the Music Sacra Chorus and Orchestra from New York, and one on EMI with Andrew Davis and the Toronto Symphony.  I’ve also done a couple of Carmina Buranas.

BD:    That requires a high D, as does Le Postillon.

JA:    That’s right.  That was on EMI.  That’s a pretty high part

BD:    No problem with the D?

JA:    No, no, no.  No problems!

BD:    You should do I Puritani, and put in the F!

JA:    I’ve done that!  It was back in New York City Opera in 1982.  I sang the F on stage, I sure did!

BD:    Did the public like it?

JA:    The public was kind of shocked, but they seemed to like it.  They weren’t expecting it.  Nobody knew I was going to sing it, including me!

BD:    Oh, you left it to when you were going up to it?

JA:    Absolutely, yes.  I thought I would see how I feel.  I felt okay so I sang it! 

BD:    And it was there?

JA:    And it was there!  Nothing happened.  The world didn’t stop or anything.  Everything was the same the next day!  I’ve also got a few recordings with the Atlanta Symphony and Robert Shaw, like the Berlioz Requiem that won a Grammy.  It won all sorts of Grammies, but I won.  That was great because that was recorded in ’85 and I won the Grammy then for best classical vocal soloist.  My competition was Elly Ameling, Marilyn Horne, Placido Domingo, Frederica von Stade and Kiri te Kanawa, and I won!  I always say that I can just hear Placido Domingo wondering just who is this John Aler???  [Both laugh]

BD:    That was your fifteen minutes?

JA:    Right, that was it, thank you.  With the Classical Grammies, it’s prestigious but you can’t take it to the bank.  But it was nice because the whole recording got five Grammies including best classical recording best choral performance best engineer and best me.  It is a great recording.  Mr. Shaw does everything great, I think.  He’s a wonderful conductor, and he does that piece superbly really, so that’s exciting.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Do you adjust your technique at all for different size houses?  You’ve sung small houses like Glyndebourne and large ones.  Do you change at all?

JA:    No, I don’t.  I don’t see the point in that so much.  I just say no.  I try to sing as loud as I can!

alerBD:    But you can’t force it.

JA:    No, no, that’s the point.  You just sing with your voice.

BD:    You rely on the conductor to make sure he doesn’t cover you up?

JA:    And pray to God!  There’s a lot of that.

BD:    Is the audience different from city to city, or country to country?

JA:    I notice that the European audiences are sometimes more quiet and more attentive.  American audiences tend to be a little louder, and they don’t seem to have any compunction about coughing or making a noise whatsoever.  It’s as if they bought a ticket and feel they can sit there and do whatever they want.  This is not to say that every audience in Europe is perfect and every audience in America is terrible.  It’s just a rather general statement.

BD:    Is it a reverence for the music?

JA:    No, I don’t think so.  I think it’s just a cultural phenomenon whereby Americans don’t necessarily think they have to quiet.  I don’t think people really know how much noise they make in a concert hall when they cough, for example.

BD:    Does it bother you onstage?

JA:    Oh sure.  Sometimes it does, especially when they seem to pick some very fragile moments in the music to cough.  It’s like they’re not listening to the music.  How could they be listening and do that?  It always occurs to me when I’ve been to the ballet because people don’t listen to the music in ballet.

BD:    They’re watching instead!

JA:    They’re watching and they’re thinking how great it is.  They’re looking at the virtuosic aspects of the dance and applauding when it happens, a little bit like a circus.  I suppose this happens in opera too when there’s some incredible feat by the singer.  It’s a little bit like ice-skating.

BD:    Do you feel you’re a circus performer?

JA:    No, I don’t, no.  Maybe I shouldn’t say this, but I really don’t care what the audience thinks about me so much.

BD:    What do you care about?

JA:    I care what I think myself.  I care whether I think that was a good performance.  I shouldn’t say I don’t care, but no matter what you do there’s going to be someone who says it was terrible!  And no matter how you do, they’re going to be people think it was wonderful!  It’s just the way life works, and that’s the way things should work.  I’ve gotten some really ghastly letters from people who said they thought it was the worst singing they ever heard!

BD:    [Genuinely shocked]  Really???

alerJA:    Well, I’ve gotten a couple like that.

BD:    I guess I’m appalled that people would actually write to you and say you stunk!

JA:    I’ve gotten two or three of those, but I’ve also gotten many, many letters from people who say, “Your performances were wonderful!”  So no matter what you do, you’re not going to please everyone.  The idea is that you should try to please yourself.  You’re the best judge and you’re the person who should be pleased with what you’re doing.  You’re the person who should be concerned because ultimately you have to judge your performance.  You have to be able to determine what’s good and bad about your performance.  It’s interesting.  I heard this performer’s interview saying he had fantastic communication with the audiences.  I don’t understand that!  What do you feel?  People go, “Oh, isn’t that wonderful!”  What does that mean, really?

BD:    I guess they’re wrapped up in the vibrations that are coming at them.

JA:    What vibrations?

BD:    They don’t happen?

JA:    Well, not to me they don’t.  What happens to me is that I get a buzz from the music.  I think, “Oh, gee, I’m so lucky to be here, and I’m so glad to be alive and happy to be doing this.  Thank you God for the opportunity!”  I had a great one a couple of weeks ago, singing the Haydn Creation with the Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields in New York.  It was a great performance I have to say, a great orchestra.  They brought their own chorus over from London and they were terrific.  Sylvia McNair was the soprano and Håkan Hagegård was the baritone.  It was just a wonderful, wonderful afternoon.  I have this one thing to say about the first sunrise.  You know the Creation is all about the creation of the universe, and the first sunrise is one of the most magical moments in all of music when God filled the firmament with light.  That first sunrise is one of the most beautiful moments in music, and I was so happy to be there.  I got a great, great rush.  To me this is what is great about music and singing, not this kind of fabled communication between me and the audience.  I don’t get that.

BD:    So it’s really communication between you and a spiritual being?

JA:    I hope so, something along those lines.  More than this kind of thing with the audience because I wouldn’t know how to communicate with all those people.

BD:    Then let me ask the big philosophical question.  What is the purpose of music?

JA:    To me it’s to give goose-bumps.  I know that sounds very simplistic, but nothing makes me feel better than being moved to tears.  What is it that makes you cry, or gives you a chill, what the French call a frisson, a shiver or thrill of something about music?  It’s not that you’re sad if it makes you cry, or that certain pieces make me cry.  I love to listen to them because I love to have that feeling of being totally outside of yourself, totally unconcerned with yourself.  It’s basically an altruistic feeling, and I like it.  I used to listen a lot to the final trio from Rosenkavalier.  I thought that was just great, and it still is.  A funny piece that does this to me is The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra by Britten.

BD:    Oh, that’s a wonderful piece!

JA:    Fabulous piece, and especially the fugue at the end.  It’s just a remarkable accomplishment.  The whole piece is brilliant.

BD:    He starts with the flutes and works his way down to the lower instruments.

JA:    [Starts imitating the flutes and then imitates the brass]  I’ve always wanted to conduct, but... 

BD:    You’re not going to move into that?

JA:    No, no, no, no, no, heaven prevent!  I also love Vaughan Williams’ Fantasy on Thomas Tallis.  I love all this stuff.

BD:    Have you done any teaching of singing?

JA:    No!

BD:    Do you have any advice for young singers?

JA:    Yes, just learn languages if you can.  It is just as a help.  I don’t say you should learn languages to improve your singing, because that won’t help you improve your singing.  It’ll just make communicating easier.  The more you understand the piece will make communicating in all situations better, and it’ll help you to understand the music and the piece that you’re singing.  It’ll also help you to communicate with the people you are working with in foreign countries.  That’s the only advice I give... and to keep working.

BD:    Do you have any advice for audiences?

JA:    Just make sure you really listen.  Pay attention.  That’s all!  I get really frustrated when I go to concerts and see people being bored.  I’ve been bored at concerts too but you can’t let your attention wander.  You can be bored but you have to know why you’re being bored, and to do that you have to listen to it!  I sometimes wonder why am I bored by this performance of this piece which I sometimes like and have liked in the past.  So, that’s all!

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Is singing fun?

alerJA:    It is for me, yes!  It’s great.  I’m really lucky.  I love it!  I like singing with other people.  I love ensemble singing.

BD:    Is there a secret to singing Mozart?

JA:    No, no secret!

BD:    Is there a secret to simply singing?

JA:    No, I wish there was.  I wish I knew it.  If there is one, I wish I knew it but I don’t really think there is, because there’s no one way to do it.

BD:    Is there not one right way for you?

JA:    No, I don’t think so!

BD:    Are there a lot of right ways for you?

JA:    I think there are, but boy I don’t know.  That’s a tough question, Bruce, really.  Hardly anybody I know sings perfectly, but they sing great.  Kiri te Kanawa has one of the most perfect techniques I have ever seen, but she’s not everybody’s cup of tea.  She’s a wonderful singer.  It’s just an incredibly beautiful voice.  It’s even and perfectly produced.

BD:    Do you pace yourself to make sure you only sing a certain number of performances each year?

JA:    Not so much.  I try to look at things and see what’s going to wear me out.  Because I do so many kinds of things, there’s certain works that really take their toll.  An opera does a great deal more than concerts, depending sometimes on the concert.   If you’re doing three or four performances of Damnation of Faust in a row, that’s really tiring, but if you’re doing three or four Mozart Requiems in a row, it’s not particularly tiring.  So you can pace yourself a little bit, but not just per performance. You have to be careful about how much you travel too, because that can be very tiring.

BD:    Do you like being a ‘wandering minstrel’?

JA:    No!  I like being in all these different places, it’s just that I don’t like getting there so much.  That’s really hard.  These days it’s real hard.

BD:    This is your third trip to Chicago.  Are you coming back next season?

JA:    We’re going to try, so I hope so.  It’s great to sing in Chicago.  It’s such a great orchestra, such a great audience, such a great hall, such a great chorus!  It’s also the tradition here, and the standard is just nonpareil, as they say in France.  It’s really superb, it’s very exciting.  It makes me proud to be an American.  Oh God, but it does!  We have such a great pool of talent.  I got really upset a couple of weeks ago when I was in Europe.  I saw this concert with James King.  It was a tribute to Marcel Prawy, who was a big dramaturg at the Wiener Staatsoper.  It was like his 157th birthday [it was his 80th birthday], and so they had James King, and he was saying to the Austrians, “We have nothing like this in America.  You have such a great culture,” blah, blah, blah, and I thought, “How dare you say that!”  I have great respect for him and I think he’s a wonderful singer, but I was furious that he said that.  They do, of course, have a great culture and a great tradition and a great history in Austria, but then so do we.  We have a tremendous tradition in this country of old orchestras and great cultural institutions, and people who have supported the arts and who are the backbone of it all.  So he made me angry.  We have the finest music schools in the world.  We produce the finest musicians and have the best prepared musicians in the world

BD:    Thank you for being a singer.

JA:    You’re welcome!  It was lovely to meet you.


© 1992 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded at his hotel in Chicago on January 13, 1992.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB later that year, and again in 1994 and 1999.  This transcription was made in 2014, 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.

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.