Composer  Dominick  Argento

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


Dominick Argento, considered to be America's preeminent composer of lyric opera, was born in York, Pennsylvania in 1927. At the Peabody Conservatory, where he earned his Bachelor's and Master's degrees, his teachers included Nicholas Nabokov, Henry Cowell, and Hugo Weisgall. Argento received his Ph.D. from the Eastman School of Music, where he studied with Alan Hovhaness and Howard Hanson. Fulbright and Guggenheim Fellowships allowed him to study in Italy with Luigi Dallapiccola and to complete his first opera, Colonel Jonathan the Saint. Following his Fulbright, Argento became music director of Hilltop Opera in Baltimore, and taught theory and composition at the Eastman School. In 1958, he joined the faculty of the Department of Music at the University of Minnesota, where he taught until 1997. He now holds the rank of Professor Emeritus.

Although Argento's instrumental works have received consistent praise, the great majority of his music is vocal, whether in operatic, choral, or solo context. This emphasis on the human voice is a facet of the powerful dramatic impulse that drives nearly all of his music, both instrumental and vocal. Music critic Heidi Waleson has described Argento's work as "richly melodic... [his] pieces are built with wit and passion, and always with the dramatic shape and color that make them theater. They speak to the heart."

During his years at Eastman, Argento composed his opera, The Boor (1957), which has remained in the repertoire; John Rockwell of The New York Times, writing of a 1985 production, stated that “[it] taps deep currents of sentiment and passion.” Following his arrival in Minnesota, the composer accepted a number of commissions from significant organizations in his adopted state. Among these were the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, who commissioned his suite Royal Invitation (1964); and the Civic Orchestra of Minneapolis, who commissioned Variations for Orchestra [The Mask of Night] (1965). Argento's close association with Sir Tyrone Guthrie and Douglas Campbell, directors of the Minnesota Theatre Company, led to his composing incidental music for several Guthrie productions, as well as a ballad opera, The Shoemaker's Holiday (1967).

The 1970's and 1980's saw the composer working increasingly in the song cycle form, while still writing operas and orchestral music. Among his major song cycles are: Letters from Composers (1968); To Be Sung Upon the Water (1973); From the Diary of Virginia Woolf (1975); the chorale I Hate and I Love (1982); The Andree Expedition (1983); and Casa Guidi (1983). His most recent song cycles, both premiered in 1996, are A Few Words About Chekhov (mezzo-soprano, baritone, and piano), given its premiere by Frederica von Stade, Håkan Hagegård, and accompanist Martin Katz at the Ordway Theater in St. Paul; Walden Pond (mixed chorus, harp, and three cellos), commissioned and premiered by the Dale Warland Singers; and Miss Manners on Music, to texts by the noted advice columnist.

Since the early 1970's the composer's operas, which have always found success in the U.S., have been heard with increasing frequency abroad. Nearly all of them, beginning with Postcard from Morocco (1971), have had at least one European production. Among these are The Voyage of Edgar Allan Poe (1976), Miss Havisham's Wedding Night (1981), and Casanova's Homecoming (1984); Robert Jacobson of Opera News described the latter work as "a masterpiece." The Aspern Papers was given its premiere by Dallas Opera in November 1988 to great acclaim, was telecast on the PBS series Great Performances, and was again presented, to critical praise, by the Washington Opera in 1990. It since has been heard in Germany and in Sweden; June 1998 brought a performance at the Barbican Centre in London.

Dominick Argento has examined fame and the immigrant experience in his newest opera, The Dream of Valentino, set in the early days of Hollywood. Washington Opera gave the work its premiere under the baton of Christopher Keene in January 1994, followed by its co-commissioning company, Dallas Opera, in 1995. The production featured special multi-media sets by John Conklin and costumes by the couturier Valentino. Writing of the premiere, Peter G. Davis of New York magazine stated, "What a pleasure to encounter a real opera composer, one who has studied and learned from his predecessors, loves the form, understands its conventions, has mastered them, and then lets his imagination take wing." The Dream of Valentino received its European premiere in February 1999 in Kassel, Germany.

Among other honors and awards, Dominick Argento received the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 1975 for his song cycle From the Diary of Virginia Woolf. He was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1979, and in 1997 was honored with the title of Composer Laureate to the Minnesota Orchestra, a lifetime appointment. In honor of his 85th birthday, the University of Maryland presented a special career retrospective that included Miss Havisham’s Fire, Postcard from Morocco, and Miss Manners on Music, as well as other recitals and lectures.

— August 2012  

[Reprinted by kind permission of Boosey & Hawkes.]  
[Links in this box and below refer to my Interviews elsewhere on my website.  BD]  


See my Interviews with Jacob Druckman, and Jorge Mester

On a very busy day at the beginning June, 1986, Argento graciously agreed to spend a few minutes with me talking about various aspects of our favorite subjects.

He had come from discussions with the artists, and was going to a workshop-performance of a new piece by Lyric
Opera’s Composer-in-Residence, William Neil, so our time was limited, as well as injected with nervous excitement from all sides.

As I prepare this interview for presentation on my website, Argento, who was born on October 27, 1927, is about to celebrate his 90th birthday.  

Here is what was said that afternoon in Chicago more than thirty years ago . . . . . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:    You are a composer most noted for composing operas.  What is the fascination for you with opera?

Dominick Argento:    Oh, it goes back to childhood and playing with puppets and being interested in the theater, and then having a sort of apprenticeship of writing scores for Sir Tyrone Guthrie when he first came to the Minneapolis area.  I got involved with theater people and I enjoy writing for the voice.  Even if I didn’t write opera, I’d write a lot of songs and choral works.  I enjoy working with language, so maybe that’s the heart of it.

BD:    Where do you go to find your texts?

DA:    I’m working on a piece now for the Buffalo Philharmonic, and they wanted a choral work, so I started searching for a text last October or November.  I go to the University of Minnesota library, and that becomes a kind of stomping ground.  I’ve haunted that place.  I’ve lived there in search of a new text.  We were in Europe some of January and February, and when I got back in March, for the whole month I searched.  When I was doing that I was realizing that I know every book in that library backward and forward
all five floors of stacks.  I’ve been going there since I’ve been teaching at the university for twenty-eight years.  If you meant the question more liberally than just where I’d find a text, I’m very fond of taking a text that comes from prose rather than poetry.  I find a certain freedom in dealing with prose textletters, journals, diaries and those sorts of thingsand more often than not I tend to find them in the private utterances of people.  I’m much more likely to find what I want in the journals of Virginia Woolf than I am in a novels of Virginia Woolf.  The most recent song cycle was a piece called Casa Guidi which came from the letters of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, not from her poetry.

BD:    When you find a text you want to use, do you make the adaptation yourself or do you ask someone else?

DA:    It’s come to the point where I must admit that up until about five or six years ago I always liked to have a consultant
somebody who I thought knew more.  But I’ve just gotten to the stage now where I think I know better than anyone else what it is I can do and what I enjoy doing.  That even carries over to where I was encouraged the last time to write my own libretto, a new libretto, myself.  It’s not because I take any great pride in my literary skills, because I certainly don’t.  But on the previous one I worked with five different collaborators.  Some of them are still very good friends, but no one knows the kind of music I like to write better than I do, or what I’m in the mood to write.  So it’s a lot simpler for me to prepare a libretto or a text that fits the mood I’m in, the kind of piece I want it to be than someone else who’s on the outside and completely objective about it.

BD:    Have there ever been cases where you’ve been happier with the text than with the music you have put to it?


DA:    No, but I must admit in the case of my most recent opera, Casanova, the praise has fallen almost equally on the libretto as on the music.  In some reviews, I had the feeling that reviewers were far more impressed by the libretto than the music itself.  It was the one time where I didn’t have to worry too much about what was happening, or be upset about it because I take a certain amount of pride in that libretto
not compared to anybody else’s libretto, but the fact that it was something I was able to do and pull off.

BD:    Did that please you or surprise you?

DA:    It was surprising more than anything else, as this has all come about unwillingly.  It started out under very strange circumstances in teaching composition.  A lot of students have come to me particularly interested in writing operas. They’ve come to Minnesota from wherever, and in the classes with composers I like to start with a very simple, short, light work
a comedy rather than a heavy workand something that will only run twenty or thirty minutes.  This is because I don’t want them to invest their whole lifetime in doing a three-act opera on the scale of Parsifal, or some such.  But that brings up the problem of where they get a text, and I used to hear myself saying over and over again to look at a Chekhov short play, particularly one called The Harmful Effects of Tobacco, which is only one character.  It’s a delightful little thing, and they’d look at it and say there’s no story, there’s no plot, you can’t do much with it.  Year after year I’d make this recommendation, and finally after a while, to help a student I drafted a little libretto.  Obviously they don’t have the skill.  Sometime later I had a grant from the National Endowment to do a monodramaa one character pieceand I didn’t have the material that I thought I was going to have.  So I looked round and I thought why not do that old Chekhov?  I elaborated it, and called it A Waterbird Talk and sure enough, the friends who have heard that said, Wow.  You wrote your own libretto.  This is much better than anything you’ve worked with before.  I took that as the sort of thing friends tend to say.  I really was not that strong, and so I did collaborate on the next couple of operas, but then when a commission back-fired about six years ago, another came along to write Casanova.  The opera house itself said they’d like me to write the music and the libretto, and that’s also true for the new commission. 


BD:    Do you wait for commissions, or do you write things because you want to write them?

DA:    Actually it’s now evolved to the point where it’s a bit of both.  There are enough commissions that come in that I can pick and choose what it is I want to do.  Most composers of my age or my experience generally have about five or six commissions waiting that they can pick from.  If you’re in the mood to write a symphony, you take the one from St. Louis or whatever.  If you’re in the mood to write an opera, the one that’s waiting for you is the one you take.  So I’ve had the best of both worlds.  I’ve been able to write the kind of pieces I’ve wanted to write, and it’s usually into a commission.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    You’ve been teaching for some thirty years in Minnesota.  How have students of composition changed, and how has the teaching of composition changed over thirty years?

argento DA:    The teaching hasn’t changed as far as I’m concerned.  The students have changed.  I don’t even know that I teach composition.  That sort of glamorizes what I do.

BD:    That’s another of my regular questions
can composition actually be taught?

DA:    My answer is it can anticipate what I am about to say.  In any event, normally when a student comes to see me, luckily in the last twenty years I’ve only had to deal with graduate students who’ve already had some preliminary stuff.  So I don’t have to teach the very rudimentary technique.  But my first question has to do with why they want to compose, and I almost always try to talk them out of it.  My feeling is if they can be talked out of it, they don’t want to do it badly enough to do it.  It’s sort of a psychological preparation for admitting that it’s going to be difficult.  They’re not going to make a living at it in all likelihood, and they had darn well be committed to doing it for the love of doing it.  They have to be ‘undissuadable’ if they really want to write music, and if they’re determined to write it, I’ll be happy to have them as students.  But if they think that it might just as well be happy being a drum major or something like that, okay.  But in the actual teaching, I’ve discovered that all I’ve been doing, and all I’ve ever done is what my own teachers did with me, and that is essentially criticism.  I don’t tell the student how to write anything.  What they do is bring me what they have written or what they are writing, and I look at it and inspect it.  Then I make a number of suggestions based on what I think the piece requires.  This has nothing to do with my own musical language or philosophy of style, but what I think will make that piece or that particular language or idiom that they’re writing in more persuasive, more accessible, more communicable.

BD:    [With a gentle nudge]  So you don’t expect a little line of Dominick Argentos to follow?

DA:    No.  It does happen, of course.  Students love nothing better than taking your works out of the library and seeing what you’ve done.  I recognize little passages once in a while in students’ pieces that are clearly ripped off of one of my own.  I generally come down rather hard on those because the last thing in the world a teacher wants is to have somebody clone themselves... and there’s a natural tendency with students who do that.  I know perfectly well when I studied with Dallapiccola, I wanted to try to write like Dallapiccola.  I had that kind of mentality, and Dallapiccola himself would have been the first to say that’s no way to do it!  [Laughs]

BD:    You say the compositions students are not going to make a lot of money.  Are there too many young composers?

DA:    No, I don’t suppose there are ever too many young composers.  All I mean by that is what the market can absorb is so limited.  Every year at our university
and we are one of hundreds of outfits like thiswe’re turning out a dozen or two dozen composersPhDs or composition degrees which, in effect, say they know how to compose, and they also know how to teach, which is how many of them are going to make a living.  So if we are to multiply our 24 by 1,000, there are 24,000 new composers coming onto the market each year.  We don’t have that kind of increase each year with symphonies or chamber music outfits or opera companies to absorb all these people.  So it’s going to become more and more difficult for composers to make a living because we are almost at saturation point about how much new music a nation can absorb.  Yet year after year we keep adding to the number of people who can produce new music, and for a great many of them it’s just going to be disappointment.  They may get one or two things done, but it’s getting harder and harder to make a reputation and become highly desirable.

BD:    Does that numerical increase make it harder for even on an established composer such as yourself?

DA:    No... at least I haven’t felt it.  I never even think of myself as
established, but one of the things in having become a known quantitywhen you’re generally known around and by orchestras, opera companies, singersyou are selected because they know what you can do.  They know your track record, and they want something like that.  For example, I refer to this piece which I’m just starting, the work for the Buffalo Schola Cantorum.  In that case I was asked for a piece, and in a letter they wrote me they referred to some of the pieces they have already performed and enjoyed very much.  Although it wasn’t actually stated, they were hoping for a piece like that.  That’s the kind of the piece they’re in the market for at the moment and they feel they would like to have.  With me, in a sense it’s assured they’ll get something at least comparable or similar, whereas with a lot of young composers they don’t even know what their product is.  They have no real reason to go to them yet.

BD:    Then if they say they want something like piece X or Y or Z, do you tailor the piece toward that?

DA:    No, that’s impossible.  I know the piece is going to be like that because that’s the way I write music.  That’s the kind of piece, but as far as it being exactly like anything else, no.  Also it would be... [pauses a moment] not dishonest, though I suppose I could take the money, but I wouldn’t enjoy doing it.  It would not be very much of a kick for me to write a piece that’s really the same as the piece I wrote five years ago just because that’s the most successful.  There’s a temptation to do that, but to me it’s just a waste of time.  Any artist that’s serious about what they do wants to keep exploring themselves, and finding out what other things they have to say, or what other ways of saying the same thing.

BD:    So you continue to grow all the time?

DA:    One likes to think so, yes.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Your music is much more melodic than that of many other composers
much more listenable, more easily acceptable.  Is this pleasing to you, and is this a conscious effort, or is it just simply the way you write?

argento DA:    I think we rationalize it.  It obviously was the way I wanted to write.  I had an opera done just last month at the university which I wrote thirty-three or thirty-four years ago.  It was never performed, and it was a student work I wrote for my master’s degree.  It sat around, and the older I got the more embarrassed I was by the piece.  It was amateurish, clearly school work, juvenilia, but we needed something for the opera workshop.  It was performed, and I was surprised when listening to it how I would have known immediately that was my music.  It doesn’t sound exactly like a piece of mine today, but it has lot of the earmarks.  My fingerprints that I’ve come to recognize are all over my music, and oddly enough the reviews in the local papers, the Minneapolis and St. Paul papers both picked up on the fact that they would have known that this was a piece by me because they’ve known my music for the last twenty years so well.  But there’s no conscious effort to do that.  My music is lyrical because it’s sung.  I like dealing with words, so it’s almost given that I turned out to be lyrical.  I was that way from the very start.  I never saw any reason to not do it because that’s the kind of music I wanted to do.  There was a long period where it was not really very fashionable to do it.  I simply went ahead because I didn’t like writing other kinds of music, and it wasn’t natural for me to do otherwise.  I could do it... I could have written other ways.  As a matter of fact, I even did for a couple of pieces where I deliberately thought I would like to be a little more part of the avant-garde scene.  But then I found out that I was really starting to sound like a bunch of other things, and that it was far better to be hung for a sheep than a goat, or whatever the expression is.  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at left, see my Interviews with Barbara Bonney, and André Previn.]

BD:    What do you expect of the public that comes to see one of your operas, or hear one of your orchestral pieces?

DA:    I expect them to love it!  [Both laugh]  I write it with that in mind.  That sounds a little flip, and I don’t mean that I consciously write down to the audience, but I have gone on record as saying my whole purpose in writing music is to communicate with an audience, and to move them, to make them laugh or weep.  That is the fundamental aspect of music.  I write music deliberately for the people who ask for it.  Take the piece I wrote for the St. Louis Symphony.  I knew when they commissioned the piece
which was a work for clarinet and orchestrawhat kind of a work they were anticipating from me, and I think I supplied that kind of work.  The work before that was for the Baltimore Symphony which was a completely different occasion and required different forces.  I like to know when I’m writing a piece who’s going to perform it.  If it’s a singer, if it’s going to be Janet Baker or Frederica von Stade or Håkan Hagegårdthree of whom I’ve written forI like to think that I’m writing a work that is very much directed toward those individual performers and the audiences that they have in mind.

BD:    Then is it wrong for another performer to take up the work later?

DA:    No.  As a matter of fact, that’s an odd thing about the whole business.  When it comes up in discussion, I use the example that Peter Pears was the original protagonist of Peter Grimes, and Benjamin Britten deliberately wrote it for him.  You can’t hear Peter Grimes without thinking of Peter Pears, and for ten or twelve years at least, he was virtually the only one who could do the role.  He did it so well, and he identified with it.  But since Peter retired, and before his death, we’ve heard Jon Vickers do it splendidly.  Although it’s not written for Vickers’ voice, I think the success of the piece is the fact that when Britten wrote it, it was written for a person on a human scale, and he built the thing around Peter Pears.  Now Peter Pears steps out, but that human scaffolding still remains, and another singer like Vickers can move in.  The contrast with that is to think how Wagner wrote Tristan for a Heldentenor before there was ever such a thing.  As you know, it took two years even to find any singer crazy enough to try it.  Because it was not written for any specific individual, but for this abstract thing called a Heldentenor, to this day I don’t think there are five or six Heldentenors capable of doing Tristan in the world.  Whereas with Peter Pears, nowadays you can find twenty-four young tenors who could do the part of Peter Grimes and do it very well because it was written to be performed by a human being and a known kind of singer.

BD:    This of course implies texts and voice.  Can you do the same thing for a clarinet or for an orchestra?

DA:    I think so.  For example, in the piece I did for St. Louis, the principal clarinetist, George Silfies is somebody whose playing I know, and one of the things I know about his playing is that he loves singers.  He studied singers’ records, and when he plays the slow movement of the Mozart Concerto, you actually almost hear Maria Callas.  He likes a piece that has a line, and the slow movement of the piece I wrote for him is virtually an aria.  The two flanking movements are almost dance-like things.  I wrote them that way because I’ve seen Leonard Slatkin conduct, and he likes nothing better than bouncing up and down on the podium.  So I gave him something very ebullient, a lively tempo, and lots of colors and flash.  That does limit a piece to those kinds of performers, but the next people who play the piece will find a lot of fun in it just because it was written for the enjoyment of the performer.   That, to me, is a very important thing, and you will find other composers who take the other point of view.  You can write a piece to change history, or you can change mankind if you want, but I’ve discovered a lot of times when very impressive pieces and very good works are played, the performers themselves are not very happy
counting like mad, then playing one noteand they don’t ever feel they’re fulfilled.  One of the things that I consciously take into account is that I want primarily for the performer to enjoy it.  There’s the feeling that if they’re enjoying what they’re doing in a new piece, you could almost never find an audience that will not be taken with the piece.  There’s some electrical information that passes forth.  When you hear a premiere of what’s going to be an unpleasant piece of music, you already start to sense vibes coming down off the stage by the players that they’re not very happy, and you’re sitting out there wondering how you’re going to be very happy with the product.  Schoenberg used to have a wonderful example.  He said that his music isn’t ugly, it’s just played ugly; that the players in his long lifetime who did play Schoenberg, played it rather painfully.  We’ve gotten used to hearing performances where Schoenberg’s music sounds painful, but on rare occasions when you hear some performer who played Schoenberg as if it was Mozart, and played it divinely as that, the music really sounded absolutely different.

argento BD:    It takes on a different aura?

DA:    It takes on a completely different aura!  It doesn’t have any of that ‘angst’ quality that we hear in the recordings from the late
30s and 40s.  I think it has a very great deal to do with the performers.   If they’re happy and comfortable with the part, that’s half the battle, and for me it’s just one of the aspects of the job that I enjoy.  I write the piece for the audience and a performer.  I don’t write it for history books, obviously.  I’m not going to be a footnote.  I’m not changing the culture.  I haven’t added an awful lot to the repertoire, but I’d like to think that what I’ve had to say had at least a slant that somebody else hasn’t completely monopolized.  Then, while I’m doing it, I would like to believe that the audience had a good time, and the players had a good time, and they may want to come back again.

BD:    Do you expect your music to last?

DA:    I don’t worry about it.  I’m not sure it’s going to last.  Actually, as a matter of fact, I’m a little dubious about anybody’s music lasting.  

BD:    [Shocked]  Really???

DA:    There’s got to be a question of the word ‘lasting’, just for a very simple reason that our whole attitude has changed somewhat from the eighteenth and early nineteenth century, where people wrote works that they hoped would last a few seasons.  We’ve now made a collection of these in a repository, and you know perfectly well that pieces like the Beethoven Ninth’s Symphony or Schubert symphonies, and so on, we are now stock-piling like the bombs we make that we don’t have room to stock-pile.  The hardest thing in the world is to add a work to the repertoire these days.  What work can you say has been firmly lodged in the repertoire in the last twenty years?  Nothing that I know!  There’ve been pieces like Final Alice of Del Tredici.  There are other pieces, but are they really firmly locked into the repertory?  Will they be played every season for the next thirty or forty years? 

BD:    The only operas I can think of would be Menotti works like Amahl or Consul.

argento DA:    Britten was probably the last, and yet occasionally you’ll have a wonderful review of an opera by Glassthough it’s too early to judge thator even by Henze.  In the case of Henze, his works get repeated a fair amount in Germany and other countries.  Here we get things just once.  In any year we’ll do the Consul, or whatever, but it’s too early to say that these are repertoire pieces yet.  When you look back for thirty or forty years, the last orchestral work would be the Bartók Concerto for Orchestra [1945], which is firmly lodged in the repertoire.  Somebody’s going to be playing every year somewhere.

BD:    I was going to suggest the Adagio for Strings...  
[Note that the film Platoon would be released in December of 1986, six months after this interview took place!]

DA:    That’s even earlier, yes [1936]!  In the last twenty years I see more emphasis on Mahler, but that’s not adding to the repertoire in a direction I’m thinking of.  It’s swallowing the body of the repertoire, as are all of the Bruckner symphonies which are now rampant.

BD:    Of course the Mahler symphonies were not done very much in his lifetime.

DA:    Right, and just their sheer quality has made them become part of the repertoire today.

BD:    Would it surprise you if, in the year 2036 [fifty years hence], the works of Dominick Argento had completely pushed out the works of Puccini?

DA:    [Has a huge laugh]  It would surprise me very, very much!  [Continues to laugh]  No, I’d be grateful if, at the occasional revival in 2036, someone said,
That wasn’t too bad.  I don’t think that has very much of a chance, and I can’t speak for any other composer, but we’re lucky if we hit one or two things that might be around.  In my own case, if I hazard a guess, I feel the most likely piece of mine which might be around a hundred years from now is the song cycle The Diary of Virginia Woolf.  It happened to be a piece that deals with a text that’s never really been done before, and in its own way it’s become rather popular with singers.  I get a tape recording of a mezzo singing that from somewhere around the world every week, and that’s been happening for the last ten or so years since it’s been written.  I’ve become used to this now, so when a week goes by and it doesn’t happen, I’m disappointed.

BD:    Are you pleased with most of those performances you hear?

DA:    No!  No, I’m not, but what I am pleased with are the accompanying letters.  The letter will come that a soprano or mezzo is doing it, and they feel so personal about the piece.  It’s their piece.  They understand this text, they understand the music, but their audiences have left when they have performed it.  They also tell me how they and their accompanist broke up over the song about the parents, and so on.  In the last ten years, a week doesn’t go by that somebody is discovering it and being moved by it, and that leaves me to believe there’s some kind of quality there that may linger beyond the present decade.

BD:    Does that give you satisfaction as a composer?

DA:    Oh, yes, sure, that’s very satisfying.  But that can happen even if it’s a one-time shot.  If you write a piece and the audience would just really unconditionally accept it, and they have a wonderful time, even if the piece isn’t done again it still hasn’t been a loss.  We tend to look at things that way.  We tend to think that if a work doesn’t stay for months on The New York Times list, it really hasn’t made it.  But if you touch somebody in this world, you can’t ask for much more.  You can’t expect to repeat that week after week, but if you’ve made a little difference to somebody, that you made an hour pass in a way that it would not normally have passed, that is an accomplishment.

BD:    Do any of these letters ever request that you make a change of a note or a change of a phrase, or a little alteration for their particular voice?

DA:    [Laughs]  No, most of them do that without asking!  A lot of the recordings I get from a singer who doesn’t have a top or bottom for a certain thing will have changed it, and that’s understandable, and it doesn’t bother me at all.  I’ll give you an example.  I’m very fond of a singer named Vern Sutton we have in Minneapolis.  He may be more famous now than any the music he’s ever performed just by appearing on Garrison Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion.  But Vern is one of those versatile singers.  He can sing anything from country & western to opera.


Vern Sutton (born April 8, 1938) is an American operatic tenor, opera director, and academic. A founding member of the Minnesota Opera, he has created roles in the world premieres of several contemporary operas with that company, including works composed for his voice by Dominick Argento, Libby Larsen, Eric Stokes, Conrad Susa, and Robert Ward. He was also a regularly featured singer on Garrison Keillor's A Prairie Home Companion for three decades, beginning with its first broadcast in 1974.

From 2002 to 2005 he was director of Opera in the Ozarks at Inspiration Point. For 36 years he taught on the voice faculty and for 30 years he directed the opera program of the music school at the University of Minnesota. During this time he also served as the director of the music school from 1991 to 1998.

Vern is the tenor of my preference that I’ve often used.  In the last ten operas, if there was a part for a tenor
usually the leadit was Vern if I could have him.  Back in 1970 I’d written a work called Postcard from Morocco, and Vern has recorded it.  Vern was one of my students when I first went to Minnesota, and he used to be in the opera classes.  I’m very fond of Vern.  He’s a wonderful musician, a very good sight-reader, and sings on pitch and everything.  I’ll never know why, but on the recording sessionswhich we had shortly after the premierefor some reason he didn’t concentrate at one point.  So instead of singing an octave, he sang a tenth.  Nobody caught it, and we were worried about the schedule.  Later, when we were listening to the final run-through of the edited tape, I realized that there should have been an octave.  The score hadn’t been published yet, so I changed my music so that no one will ever be able to take the score and this recording and know that he made a mistake.  This is a sort of an homage of mine to Vern that he’s such a wonderful musician.  But people will change things.  I would change things.  Recently I was in Sweden, and they were doing Swedish premiere of Edgar Allen Poe.  When I arrived, I discovered that they had a crisis because the tenor was threatening sore throats, laryngitis, everything else.  What they told me was that he was concerned that the composer was finally arriving on the scene.  He had been rehearsing for months, and he could do anything he wanted, but the composer was suddenly going to be at the last week of rehearsals.  We had a meeting after the first run-through, and I said, Everything you’re doing is fine.  Is there anything you’d like me to change?  He was aghast.  He said, You don’t mind I don’t have the high B flat?  I said, No, no, a G’s okay.  A piece won’t live or die on one note being changed.  Well, he was so relieved!  His sore throat was forgotten about, and he never got laryngitis again.  As a matter of fact, he was unwilling to share the role with the understudy who was promised some of the performances.  But I have a love-affair with singers.  I love singers.  I’m married to one.  The other thing about singers is they have the most vulnerable occupation.  I never worry about Perlman or Zukerman or Horowitz.  They walk on the stage and they’re going to play the violin or the piano divinely.  There’s no chance they’re going to make a mistake.  But when Janet Baker walks on stage, there is a very good chance she’s going to crack.  At every opera performance you go to, the chances are that someone is not going to make that note.  In a sense they do something for me that’s far more dangerous than the usual concert artist, because the instrument is the body itself.  It is so vulnerable, and it’s that vulnerability that appeals to me.  I love the risks they take, and when it works it’s even the bigger pay-off.  There’s no thrill in hearing a high note on a violin.  Anybody can hit a high note on a violin, getting it well in tune, but when somebody like a Sutherland goes up to a high C sharp, that’s someone doing the whole tight-rope thing without a net, and in front of five thousand people.

BD:    Every night they risk their entire career.

DA:    Over and over again.

BD:    Is it wrong for the public to expect this kind of jockeying for position every night?

DA:    No!  It’s almost is like going to the Indianapolis 500.  You’re going to be there the night Corelli croaked, or the night that Pavarotti stepped on a soprano’s toe to get her off the last note of the duet.  There’s a kind of excitement in vocal performances.

BD:    I often ask singers if it is a contest, and most of them say yes.

DA:    Oh, I’m sure they feel it, yes.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Coming back to this business of changing notes, have performers been made too paranoid by conductors who adhere to every note of the score and will not budge an inch? 

DA:    I don’t know.  I never even thought about that part of it.  It’s odd, I suppose.  Conductors have to consider the score as the Bible.  It’s the Holy Text, and people like Toscanini wanted everything to be right.  If they had the experience of meeting any composers, things might be different.  I have the feeling if Bellini and Donizetti and Verdi were there, they would be far less insistent than the conductor.  The conductor somehow likes to think of himself, or herself, as the head honcho who is responsible for the whole operation.  In a way I don’t regard the conductor in an opera as any more important than the principal singers or even the stage director.  It’s a collaborative kind of thing.

BD:    Then let me as the
Capriccio question.  Where is the balance between the music and the drama?

DA:    To me it’s in the score.  What the score says is there.  For example, the recent controversy had something to do with Ponnelle’s staging or re-staging for the umpteenth time at the Met of The Marriage of Figaro.  Each time he does it he sees a little more possible political tract, reflecting the coming of the French Revolution, and so on.  I admire Ponnelle enormously.  He’s a brilliant director, but when I start to have to look at that instead of seeing the comedy of Beaumarchais, and not even the comedy of Beaumarchais but when I cease seeing the comedy that Mozart and Da Ponte made it, I’m a little disturbed.  Da Ponte and Mozart were right with the words and the music and a stage direction, and the original style is the way that piece goes.  You don’t have to be a genius to do it in black leather jackets with chains, which happens a lot.  You don’t have to have the wedding chorus come on waving hammer and sickle banners, which happens all the time in Germany with practically everything.  Their reasoning is that it is necessary to revitalize a work making it up-to-date.  To me, the piece is what it was in 1787 when it was written.  That’s the way the work goes, and it’s not a question of balancing the music.  The balance is there if you simply perform what’s on the page.  Unfortunately, we are now in an era when it’s more prevalent in Germany that the director has to put on his own or her own personal stamp.  The last thing in Berlin they told me about was the Götterdämmerung production which takes place in the subway system in Washington DC.  That may bring out values, but I like to think that Wagner would have been the first person to scream like bloody hell to just let it alone and do it with my helmets!  You may not like helmets and horns and breastplates, but that is what he wrote.

BD:    [Playing Devil
s Advocate]  But on the other hand, he was such a revolutionary.  Maybe he would have been the first one to say it was fine to put it in the subway.

DA:    That would be if he were writing it today, yes, but you can’t change his music.  His music is definitely 1860, 1870.  To bring it up to date and throw in motorcycle squadrons, as they do, makes a farce out of the music because the music can’t match that contemporary vision on stage.  To me it always makes the work very anachronistic-sounding or -looking. 

argento BD:    So for your pieces, you want them left exactly where they are?

DA:    [Sighs]  Oh, I wish they would.

BD:    Yet you don’t mind little tamperings here and there?

DA:    Little tamperings I don’t mind.  I guess my most performed opera is Postcard for Morocco...

BD:    [Interrupting]  I was just wondering if there are going to be tenors who wish you had written that detail you spoke of as an octave instead of a tenth.  [Both laugh]

DA:    Well, I have told the story often enough, so I suspect that somebody’s going to know some day, and restore it to my first thought.  There’ll be a controversy, and someone will earn a master’s degree with a dissertation on whether to use the octave versus a tenth in the final aria.  Use the Urtext!  [More laughter]  But in a case of Postcard
which I must have seen now in two dozen different productions everywhere from coast to coast and in Europethat already has a very surreal libretto with a built-in life, so as to allow the director to have to do what he or she wants to do.  Yet there, where I thought I was really permitting a director a very creative hand in the final product, it’s been abused so many times.  There have been some productions where I didn’t even recognize my own piece any longer, and it went so far beyond.

BD:    Do you then voice your objections or say this is a terrible production?

DA:    No, I just swallow hard and try to smile, and walk away from it.  Saying something won’t change anything.  By the time I get there it’s on stage and they’re selling tickets to it.  To have a tantrum at that point may relieve me a little bit and save me a little bit of anxiety, but they’re not going to change it for the rest of the run
if there are any more performances to happen.  Very often there are only one or two performances anyway.

BD:    Has the popularity of that piece been increased at all because it’s been recorded?

DA:    Sure, oh, yes!  As a matter of fact, I wish there was a direct link to a work of mine which is far more complex
at least musically if not dramaticallyThe Voyage of Edgar Allen Poe.  When Poe was done ten years ago for the American bicentennial, it harvested a fabulous crop of reviews.  Every magazineNewsweek, Time, New York, all the way down the list, from The New York Times down to the local newspaperscertainly agreed it was the best thing produced by the bicentennial crop of commissions.  It got wonderful reviews, the best I’ve ever had in my life.  That was ten years ago, and the work has never been produced since.  [It would be produced by Lyric Opera of Chicago four years later (in 1990) with Donald Kaasch as Poe and Richard Stilwell as Griswald, conducted by Christopher Keene.]

BD:    Whose fault is that?

DA:    I don’t know.  I can’t tell you that.  All I know is that it’s never been available on recording.  One of the things I hear over and over again when I meet people who had the score, or are in the decision-making position of an opera house, is that they want a tape so they can hear it.  It’s very difficult in this day and age to pick up a contemporary score and go to the piano and play it.  It doesn’t sound like a piece when you do that, and some of the music is now so complex.  
I don’t think mine is very much more than traditional, and you can imagine how much keener the problem is for an avant-garde composer.  In the old days, anybody could have picked up the latest Donizetti score and sat at the desk and heard it in their head.  You can’t do that with a Zimmermann score today or a Henze score, or even with one of mine.  If there’s a recording, they can listen to it and say it’s nice, or it’s terrific, or it’s dramatic, or it’s thrilling, or whatever.   But looking just at that score, they’ll never know.  That’s the importance of recordings, as far as I’m concerned.

BD:    Are you pleased with the recordings that have been made of your works?

DA:    All but one, which I’ll leave nameless [laughs], which was made when I was out of the country, by a singer I did not choose, and is just willfully wrong.  I came back and they presented it fait acccompli to me.  The tempos are wrong, the emphasis is wrong, the attitude about the piece is wrong. but over the years, anybody who does that piece gets hold of the recording, and they learn it like that.  They assume it must be the way I want it, so it’s come to the point where I can’t listen to anybody do the piece because I know it’s going to be cloned from that record.  Stravinsky mentions that’s the real meaning of that word ‘record’.  It really is as document.  It’s the archive of a performance.

argento BD:    Do you ever find that performers or conductors discover things in your pieces which even you did not know were there?

DA:    No, the opposite.  

BD:    They miss things?

DA:    Yes, surprising things.  [Laughs to himself]  An example
a very simple one, and a funny one to meabout three years ago when Neville Marriner was conducting the Minnesota Orchestra, he wanted me to write a piece which was preferably going to be for Janet Baker and the orchestra.  He said he would like to have a big luscious work for orchestra, like the Strauss Four Last Songs.  I told him I wish I could write like the last Strauss Four Last Songs, but I knew what he meant.  So I wrote the piece, which turned out to be Casa Guidi, based on letters of Elizabeth Barrett Browning.  It was not for Janet Baker after all, but it was for Frederica von Stade, which is one of the reasons that text came along.  It’s not exactly a joke, but in the middle of the middle song, as a kind of homage, I had the horns playing the theme from Death and Transfiguration, which is what Strauss does himself in the last song where he’s talking about death.  It was a bit of a private joke, but I thought it would be fun when Neville conducted it.  I thought he would say, Hear these horns, or, I asked him to write a piece like the Four Last Songs, but he never knew it was there.  Rehearsal after rehearsal I kept waiting, and I said, Do you notice anything?  Anything in the third movement catch you eye?  His answer was always no.  I admit it’s a counter-subject which you don’t really hear, and it’s not blared out.  [Sighs]  There’s another example which I’m tickled about, and I do this very often in the music, I must admit.  Its just something I enjoy doing.  I’m a crossword puzzle nut, and I love mystery stories.  The premise of Postcard from Morocco is these people in railway stations with their bags, and they guard these bags zealously from beginning to end because their whole life, the mystery of their existence is in these bags... or so they think.  So it’s the story about these passengers with their luggage.  There’s an ensemble about halfway through the opera where the bass line is ‘Pack up your Troubles in your Old Kit Bag and Smile, Smile, Smile!’  I especially added long notes like a cantus firmus.  Of course they’re singing other things on top of it, but to this day, in all the productions that it’s had, with all the people who have coached that thing, and all the conductors who’ve done it, not one has ever mentioned that to me.  I’ve assumed that maybe someone had seen it and was so embarrassed they don’t even want to talk about it, thinking what a dumb thing for me to do.  But it’s part of the levity of that work, and yet its not been noticed.  I’ve got a feeling people may think something’s there, but...

BD:    [Putting on his Audio Engineering Hat]  Someone could discover it if they were spooling the tape fast.

DA:    [Laughs]  Yes, right, then you’d hear it.  But unfortunately you only do that spooling when you’re going backwards, and you don’t hear the tune in retrograde.  It’s like the Beatles record where if you play it backwards there’s a message from Satan.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Is composing fun?

DA:    Oh, yes, it’s most exhilarating thing I do in my whole life... but only the composition part of it.  People always think that rehearsals are exciting.  I don’t know why that is.  I guess it’s because you’re hearing the product.  Premieres are not all that exciting, and repeat performances are even less exciting.  It’s nice to see a work that’s succeeded being done again, and particularly if it’s done by different people to hear how they’ll do it.  But for the composer
at least this one composerthe most exciting part is that time when you and the manuscript are in a quiet room, and you’re just doing it.  There’s a whole world of possibilities.  Actually, after you’ve written the one note, there are so many ways you can still go, and it’s fun to think of what you might do and what might happen.  Then, little by little you start limiting that, and as the piece gets toward the end all these possibilities and the world of choice is already over, and the thing is done for better or worse.  But while you’re actually doing it, anything is possible, and that’s just kind of exciting.

argento BD:    You don’t have post-partum distress?

DA:    No, no, I’ve very few regrets.  I’m one of the few in that I don’t like going back and revising works.  The one or two times I’ve done it, what starts out as revision becomes complete overhaul, because if you fix that one little spot, the pressure backs up to some other part of the plumbing, and that one starts to swell up.

BD:    So rather than revise, you should write a new piece?

DA:    Just leave it alone and have no regrets.  All of us write our failures.  That’s part of the record too.  There’s not much you can do about it.  You might start to have a post-mortem and wish that you not gone this way, or that you had changed the last scene of the libretto so the outcome could have been different.  But it’s just as much fun to go and write a new piece, and not make the same mistakes.

BD:    Are you pleased with the operas by other composers that you see around the world?  I assume you get to a few performances.

DA:    I get to a fair number, and I usually turn out for anything contemporary that’s going on.  Yes, I’m very interested in knowing what colleagues are doing, particularly in that I’m more interested in hearing near operas than I am in hearing other kinds of music, such as new symphonies or new concertos.  

BD:    And you’d rather go to a new work than another Aïda?

DA:    Yes, there’s definitely that, because first of all I’ve been teaching the history of opera for thirty years now, and I’ve listened to Aïda and seen as many performances of that as one can humanly see.  In a sense it’s hard for me to learn more from it, and my whole attitude in listening to these pieces is unlike any of the average person.  I don’t listen to Aïda and Traviata for pleasure.  I’ve gone through that.  Every time I hear them again, I really try to learn something from them, but as somebody right now who has seen them so many times...

BD:    Then take something that you haven’t seen, such as Der Vampyr [by Marschner (1795-1861)], or something like that.

DA:    Oh, that, yes!   That I’d be delighted to hear.  I’d probably more interested in seeing Der Vampyr, just because I don’t know any music by Marschner.  So to see one on stage would be interesting.  That’d probably be more interesting than seeing a new Carlisle Floyd opera.  I’ve seen some Carlisle Floyd, but I’d rather see Der Vampyr.  But by and large, I’m much more interested in hearing what a composer is doing today with the language that’s available.  How does he deal with the subject matter and with the kind of dramatic treatments that are available?

BD:    Since you’ve been teaching the history of opera for so long, then you perhaps are the ideal person to ask this.  Where is opera going today?

DA:    [Has a huge laugh]  We were just talking about that at a discussion this morning.

BD:    [With a gentle nudge]  So artists are stealing my questions?  [More laughter]

DA:    No, but there are various organizations out there that are asking the same kind of question.  It’s getting to be a very strong polemic.  There are people who are predicting the new wave that’s going on right now is the future.  There are others who are saying new waves always have a way of petering out after five or six years.  Others are saying you’re still reinventing the nineteenth century, or you’re writing your heritage off.  This is America, and where are you going?  I don’t have any answers to things like that.  All I know is that there’s always room for a good opera that comes along.  I don’t care what persuasion it is.  If it happens to be about Gandhi and the accompaniment is all C major, if it works and it is an exciting opera, that’s great.  If it doesn’t, that’s too bad and it’s a loss.  It’s possible you could write an opera which harmonically is not far removed from The Mother of Us All [by Virgil Thomson], and depending on how it’s done it might just be a wonderful evening in the theater.  You can hope to do more.  I’m not concerned with the direction the world is going.  My concern is writing the next opera, so that the evening in the theater is a satisfying one for me and for the performers and the audience.  If that can be done ten years from now, that’s fine.  If not, that’s tough, but I don’t know how anyone can project where opera is going.  The one example is the two giants, both born in the same year in nineteenth century, Verdi and Wagner.  As different as they were in the middle of their careers, Wagner’s going off on a tangent to left field when he stops and writes open dramas and begins the Ring.  Then there’s Verdi, who’s just little by little trying to get better and better.  Around the year 1870, when Bayreuth’s almost ready to go, there are so many people actively persuaded by the Wagnerian ideas.  Even after the Franco-Prussian War, and that humiliation, all the Frenchmen were writing Wagnerian operas.  That was the wave of the future.  Still, there’s Verdi plugging away at his little thing, and I’m sure people who had these discussions in the Wagner Societies all over the world at that time said,
That idiot, Verdi, is still trying to write dumb works like Aïda, and then hopelessly writing things like Falstaff and Otello.  He is completely ignoring the Wagnerian experience.  How are these operas going to work?  And yet they’re both here more than a century later.  That’s the fascinating thing, and the correct response is that the both the Ring and Parsifal, and Falstaff and Aïda are there, and they supply their differences.  That makes our life richer, and I hope, that will be the outcome of the twentieth century works.  Here we are, a hundred years later, still fighting what turns out to be the same kind of a war.  Is there a new wave, or are we really interested in music theater as is practiced at the Brooklyn Academy of Music?  Is that the only direction, or is it possible that people like the Lyric Opera in what they are trying to do [with their artistic initiative called Toward the Twenty-First Century], are on the right track too?  Right now the argument has to be pro or con.  There’s no neutral ground, and my feeling is that everybody’s right.  The old saw is that all it has to be is good.  It doesn’t have to be reactionary or in the vanguard.  It just has to be good.  

[At this point, the composer was called away to yet another meeting on this very busy day.  We quickly thanked each other, and agreed to be open to whatever was in store.]


© 1986 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in Chicago on June 6, 1986.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB the following year, and again in 1992 and 1997.  A copy of the unedited audio was placed in the Archive of Contemporary Music at Northwestern University, and in the Oral History of American Music archive at Yale University.  This transcription was made in 2017, 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.