Bass-Baritone  Norman  Bailey

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


Following studies at Rhodes University in South Africa, Norman Bailey continued his musical training at the Vienna Music Academy, working there with such distinguished pedagogues as Julius Patzak, Adolf Vogel, and Joseph Witt. In 1959, he made his debut with the Vienna Chamber Opera in Rossini's one-act La cambiale di matrimonio, singing the bass role of Tobias Mill. The next year, he began an engagement at Linz. In 1963, he moved to Wuppertal and, from 1964 to 1967, sang at Düsseldorf. In 1967, Bailey began an association with Sadler's Wells Opera (later the English National Opera) that led him to international recognition. While his debut at the "second" London company was as Count Almaviva in Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro, it was his Hans Sachs that brought acclaim. Under the tutelage and baton of Reginald Goodall (largely overlooked by English opera companies until then), Bailey fashioned a sympathetic character, handsomely and untiringly sung. Not long after, introduced with a rather patronizing acknowledgement by Sir David Webster, Bailey stepped in to save a Meistersinger at the Royal Opera House, leaving critics wondering why he hadn't been engaged there in the first place.

The 1970s brought Bailey's Wotan in the ENO's famous English-language Ring at the Coliseum, subsequently recorded and made available once more in the new millennium. His Hans Sachs was heard in such other venues as Brussels, Hamburg, Munich, and New York. In the latter city, Bailey sang the role at the New York City Opera in 1975 and the next year, performed it again for his Metropolitan debut. Bayreuth, meanwhile, had also heard his Amfortas and Gunther.

As his fame spread, Bailey returned to some of the Italian roles he had sung upon his move into the baritone range in the 1950s and early '60s. For the English National Opera, he essayed Count di Luna and a few other such true baritone parts before returning to a mix of registers, singing Pizzaro and the Forester in Cunning Little Vixen (bass baritone) and Prince Gremin and Marshall Kutuzov (both bass roles). Bailey's artistic eclecticism led to his being selected to play Dallapiccola's Job for his La Scala debut in 1967 and to his singing Johann Matthys in the 1985 premiere of Alexander Goehr's Behold the Sun at Duisburg. In the 1990s, Bailey sang bass roles for Opera North (the Landgraf and Oroveso). His Glyndebourne Festival debut came in 1996 with an unforgettably seedy portrayal of Schigolch.  In 1977 he waa awarded the CBE.

Bailey recorded many of his best roles all under major conductors. With Solti, he committed his Hans Sachs and Dutchman to disc. His "English" Wotan under Goodall remains commanding, as does his title role performance in Tippett's King Priam.

-- Biography excerpted from an article by Erik Eriksson 
-- Names which are links (both in this box and below) refer to my interviews elsewhere on this website.  BD 

Meeting interesting musical artists has always been a pleasure for me, and their fame or notoriety was not a factor in piquing my interest.  It was what they did and/or how they did it which prompted me to ask for an interview. 

This is not to say that I turned down opportunities to meet the well-known figures.  While not, perhaps, being a hugely popular individual, Norman Bailey was certainly a major one in the circles of my interests.  He was a Wagner singer of the first rank and also pushed the opera-in-English tide forward during much of his career.

Besides what is listed in the biography above, he sang in Chicago on four occasions
twice with the Chicago Symphony led by Sir Georg Solti, and twice at Lyric Opera.  The symphonic appearances were (of course) operas, and both were heard in Chicago and at Carnegie Hall in New York.  In 1974 he was Jokanaan in Salome along with Birgit Nilsson, Ruth Hesse, Ragnar Ulfung and George Shirley, and two years later he was the title character in The Flying Dutchman along with Janis Martin, Martti Talvela, Rene Kollo and Werner Krenn.  Margaret Hillis prepared the chorus.  The Wagner was recorded for Decca/London.  [Photos of the concert and recording sessions appear farther down on this webpage.]  Bailey would also sing Hans Sachs in the first recording Solti made (with the Vienna Philharmonic) of Die Meistersinger

Across town, Bailey repeated his Salome character at Lyric in 1978 in the Wieland Wagner production with Grace Bumbry, Mignon Dunn, Ulfung again and Frank Little.  Berislav Klobučar conducted.  Finally, in 1993-94, he returned as the Doctor in Wozzeck with Franz Grundheber, Graham Clark, Kathryn Harries, Donald Kaasch, and Richard Buckley conducting.  It was during this last visit that I had the pleasure of spending an hour with this versatile interpreter.  He was kind an generous with his ideas, and we often laughed together over something that was said.  It was especially pleasing to see him contemplate his thoughts before making a response.

Here is that encounter . . . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:    I appreciate your getting time from your schedule to speak with me.

Norman Bailey:    Not at all!

BD:    You’ve had a very versatile career with a wide variety of roles, and you’re also one of the few who made a success at singing both English and original language opera.  So I’d like to start by asking you how you decided which contracts to accept and which contracts to turn down?

NB:    Now that’s a tricky question.  I’ve never thought of it in those terms.  I suspect that I have taken the contracts really as they come up.  Quite obviously, if something’s in the original language then I’d prefer that to singing in English, although I’ve always said that if one has a comedy, people have got to understand what’s going on.  Nowadays, of course, we’re in the age of surtitles where the audience can, in actual fact, see what is happening. 

BD:    Do you think that the use of the supertitles is going to mean that the death of opera-in-English?

baileyNB:    [Ponders, then speaks deliberately]  No, I don’t think so.  What I said, with humorous works one gains a great deal from having immediacy of the joke, but it’s a little disconcerting for the people on stage if the joke is actually on the surtitles before the people actually said the words, or vice-versa.  In actual fact they finish the joke and then the audience laughs a couple of seconds afterwards because there’s a delayed reaction!  Now I don’t think that [the death of opera-in-English] will come about, although I think it’s going to widen the audiences.  I think the audiences are going to feel they have great contact with opera.  I think some people are purists. They always enjoy hearing an opera in the original language because it’s a matter of sound.  There’s a certain flavor of a language; there’s a certain atmosphere one creates with the language, but with more and more the presentation of surtitles, people are going to find that they have a far greater contact with that.  Though there’s an argument to be made that even if something is being done in the vernacular, say it’s being done in English for an Italian or German opera, that some of the text in actual fact gets lost.  So even surtitles there are not going to beat a miss!

BD:    That’s right, the New York City Opera uses the English surtitles even when the opera’s in English. 

NB:    Yes, that’s right!

BD:    When you were at Sadler’s Wells and later the English National Opera, did you work harder at your diction because you knew that the audience could possibly understand every word?

NB:    I spent about ten years in Germany before I’d ever sung with Sadler’s Wells and English National Opera, and I found it quite a challenge, quite a strain having to sing in English.  I had to learn how to sing in English.  I make this point over and over again that when people are studying, very often they will learn a foreign language and learn how to sing a foreign language, but they don’t learn to sing their own language.  In many ways one has to learn to sing one’s own language as a foreign language, simply because one knows how it should be spoken, and one starts to sing as it should be spoken but the vowels are completely different.  They tend to be very clipped, very closed vowels, whereas with the sung vowels one hopes to have them much more open, more pleasing resonance that one may use in spoken language.

BD:    But eventually you had no trouble coming back into English?

NB:    No.  Ultimately I adjusted there, but take for example the word ‘blood’.  When you sing that on a high note, the result is unless you’re really watching what you’re doing, then you really start to sing it like a pop singer would, completely open and certainly not the type of sound that one would want for opera.  ‘Blood’ winds up as an ‘ah’ [demonstrates a wide open ‘ah’] type of sound in the top of the voice.  Having to work out how I was going to tackle that one helped me a tremendous amount in tackling singing in English in any case.

BD:    So it feels completely different in the throat?

NB:    Oh, yes, absolutely.  It is a completely different sensation.

BD:    You’ve just got to get used to how it feels no matter what it sounds likes to you?

NB:    That’s right.  One almost has to go through a process of translating into singing vowels.  If one’s not aware of what one’s doing, just simply singing one’s own language, one tends then to sing the wrong vowels.

BD:    Have you also sung in French?

NB:    Yes, I have.

BD:    That seems to be the language which is picked on the most as far as diction and actual sound from singers.

NB:    That’s right.  Again, in sung French you have differences from spoken French, and so one really needs to have coaching on how one actually sings French as opposed to speaking French.

BD:    So you can’t just go in and sing Parisian French?  [Both laugh]

NB:    Unless the piece asks for it! [Laughs]

BD:    Have you sung some roles that require spoken dialogue?

NB:    Yes.  I was recently doing an operetta in fact, Baron Zita in The Merry Widow.

BD:    Does that require special changing from singing to speaking?

NB:    It’s very, very exhausting as you’re changing from singing to speaking, and there’s a tremendous amount of spoken dialogue.  In Vienna they very often cast that role with an actor, and ‘the devil take the hindmost’ as regards the singing!  [Laughs]

BD:    So you’d bring something special by actually being a singer?

NB:    I would hope so, but certainly one would fill out if colleagues are used to having an actor there, trying to make some attempt at the singing.  They’re very happy to have somebody who singing next to them.  [Chuckles]

BD:    When you’re doing any role, how much is music and how much is drama?

NB:    I like to approach opera really from the drama.  I would say that’s the idea.  I wouldn’t say one is always very successful with that, and one has to be very careful about the pieces one is choosing.  In some operas it’s more important that they are sung than acted.  Take the present piece I’m doing here in Chicago with the Lyric Opera, Wozzeck.  The Doctor has certainly got to be an acting role.  The singing’s important.  The singing’s very difficult because it’s exceptionally a difficult role musically.  But in the end what is important is the actual character comes across, and the audience then has that impression, rather than, say, beautiful singing has resulted with.  This was very much in Berg’s mind when he composed the particular role.

BD:    When you get onto the stage, are you portraying the character or do you actually become that character?

NB:    [Pauses]  It’s a difficult question, isn’t it?  It’s a very searching question because certainly during the period when you’re doing a role – and that also means the rehearsal period
one has to lose oneself to a certain extent in the character.  I don’t think one can completely do that as regards the Doctor because there’s a man who’s essentially doing human experimentation on a human being.  It’s a process which is very, very difficult to describe.  One finds oneself on stage instinctively doing things that the Doctor would do.  Now if one analyzes it and says, Right, the Doctor does this and then he does the other, that’s one way of tackling it.  When you’re in full flight doing a role, you are possessed by somebody else in one respect.  I don’t think one takes on the bad qualities of that person, the mean qualities or the cruel qualities ...

BD:    Even when you’re doing an evil role?

NB:    Even when you’re doing an evil role, yes, though you’d be completely neurotic by the time you’d finish.  [Both laugh]  Though I must say it’s quite a neurotic experience doing this particular opera.

BD:    If someone says,
Is there a doctor in the house, you’d raise your hand?

NB:    That’s right, yes.  [Both laugh loudly]  In fact, people often come to me during the show and say,
Ah, Doctor, I have this little pain.  I told them, You’d better keep it!  You’re better off not coming to me... I have a little more experimentation to do!  [More laughter]

baileyBD:    Does all of this, then, enter into your decision as to whether to accept or turn down a role?

NB:    Yes.  First of all one has to look as regards to the musical compass of the role.  That’s number one process.  Secondly, I don’t think I’d ever turn down a role because the character was not what I envisaged.  I’ve heard of people who would turn down roles because they felt they couldn’t associate with that type of character, but, to be honest, the world is made up of types of people.  I don’t think one can say,
I’m only going to be the good character.  There’ve got to be people there to take on the bad characters.  Nowadays I really look and see whether the role is an interesting one to portray.  I have gone through the process of singing all the big Wagnerian roles where you’re on stage for hours and hours and hours, where vocal stamina is really the key word there.  I recently did a concert version of just the third act of Meistersinger where I was doing Hans Sachs, and there’s no doubt about it, there’s tremendous vocal stamina and physical stamina required.  As the years go by, then you say, “It’s nice to do these roles but it’s about time to let somebody else do the hard work!

BD:    [With a gentle nudge]  You mean it’s nice to have done those roles ...

NB:    Yes, that’s right.  [Both laugh]  I really am looking forward to roles which still require one to be able to do a sound, vocal performance.  That is very important, but I really enjoy doing roles where the actual acting side of it is very much more in balance.  Although I must say that throughout all of my career I really strived to achieve this balance.  But there are certain roles which, by their very nature, by the length of them, by the amount of singing you have to do, are really a gift.  These are very, very, thankful roles, whereas other roles you have to make something of them.  It’s interesting if one does the role and people say,
I saw this opera a couple of years ago, and I didn’t realize that role had such importance.  That I find very satisfying.

BD:    So you’ve brought much more to it then?

NB:    Yes, I would like to think in that way, yes.

BD:    Have you brought more to it, or have you found more in it?

NB:    I think a combination, very much a combination.

BD:    Is there any role that you’ve sung, or any role that you know about, that is perhaps a little bit too close to the real Norman Bailey?

NB:    [Laughs]  You’re asking difficult questions! 

BD:    [Wryly]  I can ask what you had for breakfast, but it wouldn’t make a very interesting interview.  [Both laugh]

NB:    [Ponders a bit]  Well, there are two roles which, over the years, I was most closely associated with.  One was Hans Sachs [shown on magazine cover at left], and I suppose that if I look back, I’m not quite certain whether I imposed my attitudes, my philosophy of life on the role of Hans Sachs or whether Hans Sachs began to have its effect on me.  It’s a role where somebody essentially sacrifices his own ego in the end, where he prepares the way forward for somebody else’s success, somebody else's victory, and within that context is his own victory, his own success.

BD:    I assume he knows that he could have entered the Song Contest and walked away with the girl?

NB:    That bit, of course, is a theoretical argument, yes.  Certainly if one is discussing it during production rehearsals, that thought is certainly included.  Would Hans Sachs have been able then to have won Eva?  There are actually indications in the text itself, but yes, I would say that.  I have been affected partly by roles that I have sung for a long period of time, but I had to be able to relate to those roles, and I suppose there is a certain amount of myself that does come in those roles essentially because I have the philosophy that if someone has nine bad qualities and one good quality, one should concentrate on the good quality.  So even in the villains that I’ve performed, I do, to a certain extent, try to bring out the acceptability of that person.  I don’t think there’s anybody who’s one hundred per cent a villain. 

BD:    How can you make Iago acceptable?

NB:    I’ve never sung Iago onstage!  I’ve only done it in concert.

BD:    Then you’ve probed into the character in order to be able to present it, even though it was a concert version.

NB:    That’s right, yes.  One could go into an analysis of Iago, but ...

BD:    Everyone says he is the most evil of them all, that he becomes closest to having no redeeming qualities.

NB:    That’s right.  Could I take, rather, the example of someone like Pizarro in Fidelio?  Certainly he’s an evil character, but there is a point in the opera where he recognizes the tremendous character of Fidelio and within this opposition this battle of wills is going on.  He’s able to recognize the good qualities in others, and that in itself is a good quality.

BD:    If Leonora had not come to rescue Florestan, would Pizarro have been able to live with himself after having killed off Florestan?

NB:    Yes, I think he would have been able to.  I don’t know if anybody thinks of themselves evil.  They can be the most evil person, the most disgusting person, and yet they don’t think of themselves in those terms.  If one is going to possess that character, one must also try to bring out a certain amount of that within the character.  Possibly my problem throughout the years was that I’ve never really been able to portray villains such as Scarpia, for example.  I once did a performance of Scarpia and got a review that said, ‘He was a very good Hans Sachs!’  [Both laugh]

BD:    Most of these guys who are evil are more power-mad.

NB:    Yes, that’s fair.

BD:    So they try to use the evil and justify it in some way?

NB:    Yes, coming onto a very philosophical point that anything that is completely evil in the sense that somebody does not gain some good from it.  But then you’re onto a very, very abstract area of thought.

BD:    You’re hitting a very sympathetic nerve with me.  I always try to find the good in whatever is possible.

NB:    That’s wonderful!  This is an attitude of mind, isn’t it?

BD:    Hmm, hmm.  [Agreeing]

NB:    Isn’t it part of our education, that our education tends to be critical analysis rather than trying to define the good qualities?  Very often people are trying to find the bad qualities, and enjoying finding somebody’s lack of success.  It’s failure rather than their success.

BD:    You’ve hit on the central point.  There’s the enjoyment in finding this bad quality then amplifying it as much as possible.  That’s what I reject completely.

NB:    Yes, hmm, hmm.  [Agreeing]

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Let’s move on to perhaps your largest role, Wotan.  He’s not evil and yet he is power-mad.  How can you balance all of this, and where do you come from to get to how you portray the Wotan?

NB:    Wotan is a very much a prisoner.  He’s a prisoner of his own circumstances.  He is a prisoner of fate.

baileyBD:    He self-imposed this fate?

NB:    Yes, by the contracts that he’d signed and agreed with. There’s a certain scheme of things and he, like anybody else, must bow down to those laws.  But this in one sense is the tragedy of The Valkyrie.

BD:    Before we meet Wotan, was there ever a time when he was happy with himself, and happy with the world and happy with Fricka?

NB:    Yes, I’m sure there was.   He represents in one sense somebody who becomes a victim of circumstances, a victim of life.  As he strives and searches after his power, he can only gain that power by making alliances, making agreement with others.  And by those alliances and agreements with others, even though he would break them if he could, he is actually bound.   These of course pre-date the Rhinegold.

BD:    Can we find a time when he did go wrong, or is it just an evolutionary process that he’s going through?

NB:    I think it’s an evolutionary process, yes.   I can’t really think of anything in the Ring, in the text, that immediately points to that, but he is presented with a fait accomplis in one sense.

BD:    Is he a likeable character at all?

NB:    Oh, yes!  I think Wotan is a likeable character.  There’s nothing more moving
and I am almost tempted to say the word ‘human’than Wotan at the end of Valkyrie when he’s putting Brünnhilde to sleep and surrounding her with fire.

BD:    Is he a god or is he human

NB:    He has one foot in both worlds.  He has the vulnerability of humans, and yet he has the power of a god; the vulnerability of a human and the love of a human.

BD:    Is this why he would be successful with Erda and also with the mother of Siegmund and Sieglinde?

NB:    Yes... [Somewhat pensively]  You’re looking about the fact that he had quite, as the Germans say, ein bewegtes leben
– a lot of movement in his life! 

BD:    Yes!

NB:    He was very active!  Essentially he’s a man with a very big heart.

BD:    I was assuming that this was important
at least in Wagner’s philosophybecause there was no child between Hunding and Sieglinde.  There was a union but a not real emotional union, and yet the one time that Siegmund and Sieglinde were together, they produce the offspring.

NB:    Yes.

BD:    I’m trying to extrapolate that in Wotan being able to have offspring with the various unions, rather than having a loveless union.

NB:    Yes, he really comes into this area of ‘demi-god’, doesn’t he?  He’s not an all-powerful god.

BD:    Then immediately the question that springs to mind is why was there no offspring of Wotan and Fricka?  Ever thought about that before?

NB:    No.  Shall we put the tape machine on pause and have a talk about that?  [Both roar with laughter at the prospect!]

BD:    Well, how much can and how much should we over-analyze and probe into these kinds of details in Wagner or in any opera?

NB:    It’s a process which is very interesting outside of the framework of the opera being performed.  One can analyze and say,
“Oh, he did this, he did that, he these thoughts and the other.  When one is on stage, essentially one is a living being in any case, but living all the emotions that one brings with oneself.  Therefore there must be a humanity in Wotan.  I repeat the word, again vulnerability; vulnerability in humanity.

BD:    So you do all your thinking about this and then present to the audience your finished product, or at least finished to that point?

NB:    That’s right.  A lot of analysis is very, very good for program notes, but I don’t think the process of analysis actually then goes on stage.   One is portraying Wotan
or any characterwith all the strengths and all weaknesses that human beings have.  This is part of the magic which enables people to relate to opera.  There was a very interesting analysis made, and this touches on productions where you have the symbolism that Wagner used with the Niebelungen, the giants, the gods.  He actually purposely chose these symbols and this world.  Unfortunately a lot of productions nowadays take us away from this symbolism and try to translate it again into the very terms that Wagner moved away from. 

BD:    They are imposing their own symbolism on something that Wagner has rejected?

NB:    That’s right!  In other words, stripping the piece of its symbolism.  This would be like taking Beauty and the Beast and saying in actual fact he was really a human being!  It takes away the magic of the whole fairy tale that was there.

BD:    Then how much stretching or changing of the ideas would you allow when you’re doing a production?

NB:    It worries me when one goes away too much from the symbols that have been chosen.  There are some operas which are very clearly telling a story, and one feels that is the story with human characters.  But there are other operas where one takes certain characters really to express human qualities.  Take a piece like The Cunning Little Vixen, for example, which is presenting human qualities within the animal kingdom.  Now does one take it out of the animal kingdom and push it back again onto the human plain?  Then we lose the magic of it and I don’t think one should really do that

BD:    Believing in the animal kingdom, it is nice to have it once step removed to be able to view it a little more objectively.

NB:    That’s right, exactly.  It’s the whole point of creating it in the animal kingdom in the first place. 

BD:    There’ll probably be some great lengthy doctoral dissertation on the co-ordination between Cunning Little Vixen and the musical Cats, with a reference to the animals that show up in The Magic Flute.  [Both laugh heartily]

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    [Continuing after much raucous laughter]  You’ve done the three Wotans. What are the major differences, for instance, among those three Wotans – or it is all just the same and you’re seeing different side of him as he grows?

NB:    You’re definitely seeing three different sides of him, and interestingly enough three different vocal sides of the role.  It’s very easy, for example, for many basses to do the Rhinegold Wotan, so they feel they can do the others, too.  Then of course they move on to the Valkyrie, which requires a different type of stamina.  It requires moving into a high tessitura.  In fact the opera itself is very low tessitura in the second act and then it begins to climb up as it gets towards the end of the third act.

BD:    I would think that would be a textbook case for singing
to warm up a little lower and then, as the evening progresses, to be able to have the higher range and expose that.

baileyNB:    Yes, but I have a bit of reservation because that comes into the area of what one should do in warming up the voice.  You then have the part of the Wanderer – another name for Wotan, essentially – in Siegfried [shown in photo at left].  There the role is relatively high, and the orchestra is very, very loud.  So the evolution is the progression from Rhinegold Wotan, which is relatively easy to sing but difficult to portray because one must dominate without the music to actually present him.  You’ve got Loge and you’re got Alberich who have been given infinitely more music than Wotan, yet Wotan must establish there that he’s in command – or at any rate that he thinks he’s in command.

BD:    Would it have been better to establish Wotan, perhaps even in another previous opera so that he does dominate the stage from a mental trick that you remember from ‘last night’?

NB:    [Laughs]  Well, I think Wagner stretched it enough, didn’t he really?  There are already four operas!  [Both laugh] 

BD:    It’s not really a tetralogy; it’s a trilogy with prologue.  All the major Wagner operas are in three acts.

NB:    Yes, that’s true; that’s a fine point.  The singer has to be out for a certain number of evenings in any case, and if he then progresses to singing Gunther as well, as can sometimes happen....

BD:    Is it right to have the same singer do three Wotans, or even two Wotans, and then sing a different kind of part in the fourth opera?

NB:    The interesting thing is that I’ve always felt Gunther is a presentation on the human plain that Wotan was on the plain of the gods.  Both of them think they dominate; both of them think they’re in command.

BD:    It seems like Wotan has done a better job...

NB:    Yes, but he’s left there sitting in Valhalla with the flames and the Rhine rising up.

BD:    That’s true, but in Götterdämmerung, Hagen’s soul over-dominates Gunther.

NB:    I see what you mean.   In other words circumstances dominate Wotan in the end.  It comes back to his being prisoner of the circumstances, prisoner of the laws of the universe.

BD:    Prisoner of his own laws?

NB:    Yes that’s true, but whereas as binding as anything else can be, in actual fact he thinks he is freer there but he realizes he is not freer, and Gunther has to go through the same process.  He thinks he’s in charge.  He’s the king, and he’s telling Hagen what to do, whereas in actual fact Hagen is dominating Gunther as well as the circumstances.

BD:    Gunther is not a puppet, is he?

NB:    No, but he doesn’t have the freedom that he thinks he has.  This is why I say there is the sort of parallel there between Wotan and Gunther.  I don’t see it necessarily as a tremendous clash; it’s the circumstances.  If a singer is doing the three Wotans and then does Gunther, very often it can be economic factor as well.

BD:    You’re already there so you might as well sing another show?

NB:    That is putting it down to a very mundane level, but I’ve always felt a very, very strong relationship between Gunther and Wotan because of those qualities.  Therefore it is not completely unacceptable that Gunther is sung by the same person.

BD:    We’ve got another great doctoral thesis topic...  Perhaps Wotan has met Gunther, or maybe one of Gunther’s mistresses is the mother of Siegmund and Sieglinde!  [Both laugh]  Coming back to the actual plot as Wagner set it, in Siegfried, does Wotan know that Siegfried is going to defeat him in the third act?  Is he looking for that?

NB:    He’s looking for that, yes, yes.  He knows he has to present himself as a barrier between Siegfried and the flames.  He must be the ultimate test, but in actual fact this is the bitterness, the bitter sweetness of Wotan.  He always has to experience that.  He has to go one way and face the ones he loves that have to go the other way.

BD:    A god’s gotta do what a god’s gotta do!  [Both laugh]  Backing up one more opera, does Wotan think Siegmund will be the guy to get the ring back, or does he know that it has to proceed one more generation?

NB:    [Big pause]  Yes.  When he creates the circumstances for Siegmund to find the sword, he, Wotan, is looking for the one who’s going to save the gods.  It’s only because Fricka then imposes ... well, she doesn’t impose her will on him; she makes him aware of the laws again that he is bound by.  He then has to destroy Siegmund, and it’s only later when he’s talking with Brünnhilde at the end of the Walküre that he realizes, in actual fact unbeknown to himself, that there is a continuation of the race though Sieglinde, and that Siegfried will be there.  But in the first instance, Wotan hopes and believes that he has found a solution to his problems in Siegmund.

BD:    What would Wotan have done if Siegmund had not fathered Siegfried?  Would he have gone back to the drawing board and started all over to try and find some way out?

NB:    [Another big pause]  I don’t answer hypothetical questions!  [Gales of laughter all around]

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    You’ve given us so much to listen to and enjoy in Wotan, we’ll leave him at that portrayal.  You’ve also done Flying Dutchman.  Do you prefer doing that opera in one piece or three?

NB:    I prefer doing it in three, to be perfectly honest.  I always found it an exceptionally difficult role to do because of the keys it was actually written in. 

BD:    Was it the tessitura again?

NB:    That’s right.  There’s a very nasty tessitura.  I did it at the Vienna State Opera, and the pitch of the Vienna State Opera is slightly higher than in other parts of the world, and I thought it was going to be difficult.  But in actual fact, I didn’t find it as difficult as I was going to because the voice is in a slightly different position there, and to do The Flying Dutchman slightly lower or slightly higher is alright.  But as it is today, it’s very much written in the cracks of the voice.  There’s a big argument to be put about the rising of pitch since Wagner wrote it.


BD:    Is it in the cracks of any voice, or just the cracks in your voice?

NB:    Particularly in my voice.  It’s a difficult role in any case, but it’s a role I did for twenty-five years, so I did three and a half terms... he comes back every seven years, you see!  [Both laugh]  So after three and half terms I felt, well, I’ve done my duty now!  But it is an exceptionally difficult role to do, and if one then does it in one act, it adds to the problems there.  It requires unbelievable stamina to do it.  But the interesting thing about any role is that you’ve got certain voices that they’re almost created for those roles.  You get someone who finds one role difficult but another role easy, and you’ll find that another singer for whom it
’s the opposite way round.

BD:    It defies the whole idea of Fach?

NB:    Yes.   I get the feeling the concept of Fach, or the very, very strong borders that are built around it, is weakening as times goes on.  I don’t think it’s really observed so much in the United States as it would, say, in Germany, and certainly not in the UK.  I also think one’s getting a weakening in Germany itself.

BD:    Is it a good thing or a bad thing, or just a thing?

NB:    I think it’s a good thing.  It’s a very good thing.  It was created of course so that you wouldn’t have problems with two singers and one saying this is my role and the other singer saying no, it’s my role!  They could go to the contract and see the types of roles and which singer has the preference in doing that role.  But very often contracts are written in the way of preference.  It’s weakening, but it’s still quite strong in Germany.  In other parts of the world it doesn’t really apply as strong as it used to.

BD:    Coming back to the Dutchman, does he know he’s going to be redeemed at the end, or is it just a happenstance?

NB:    No, he doesn’t know he’s going to be redeemed.  In fact in one sense he’s pessimistic right from the start.  He has these flashes of hope, but he’s essentially pessimistic.  I don’t think he’s at all confident that something’s going to happen in that particular time.  This is why he reacts so strongly when he sees Erik and Senta together.  It’s his own lack of confidence which creates this outburst there, which leaves him going off into the storm and getting back on his boat again!

BD:    He’s done it before!

NB:    That’s right, yes, yes.  Weariness, tremendous weariness encompasses him.  It’s like a cloak.  He was surrounded by darkness.

BD:    Is there any kind of similarity between the world-weariness of the Dutchman and the world-weariness of Wotan?

NB:    No, I would say that Wotan’s essentially optimistic!

BD:    [Gently protesting]  Yes, but Wotan calls for Das Ende.  He’s waiting for that!

NB:    Yes, that’s right.  They both have their flashes of optimism, but I think on balance the Dutchman is pessimistic.  He has his flashes of hope and thinks maybe it’ll work out.  But Wotan is essentially confident that it’s going to work, and then the moments gradually take away his optimism.  I must say I’ve never really projected the thoughts of what actually happens to Wotan when he’s sitting there in Valhalla.

BD:    Have you done all of the Wagner roles
a role in each of the ten standard Wagner operas?

NB:    Yes, pretty well.  One role I never did was Telramund, but I did do the Herrufer, the Herald.  I’d always felt that one’s either a Hans Sachs or a Telramund.  I don’t think they come as the same vocal or personality area.  There are people who would argue with me on that one, but that’s what I always felt, and if you’re going to a Telramund, it’s got to be so right for you.  There are no problems whatsoever vocally.  The problem with Sachs is that you have to have unbelievable stamina.

BD:    Especially when Goodall was conducting with the very large tempos, yes?

NB:    That’s right!  [Laughs]  But I was always so strong at the end of Meistersinger, and I used to say,
Let’s get in the Guinness book of records and do it again this evening.  Just have a matinee, and then an hour’s break and then start the whole thing over again with different casts with myself doing Hans Sachs again the second time!  [Both laugh] 

BD:    You were thinking of yourself as a Siegfried type?  [Both laugh]

NB:    It is a stupid idea, but when I was really in the prime I was so strong at the end, and I had the feeling that I could do it all over again.  And I think that’s right!  I don’t think it’s fun to finish a role like that and say
Oh thank heavens that’s over!  You’ve got to have so much in reserve without having saved yourself throughout the evening.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Did you change your vocal technique at all for the size of the house?

NB:    No, the role makes its own demands.  That’s what I always felt, that the voice instinctively made its requirements known and the body then responded.  I don’t think it was necessarily a mental process.  It’s very much like putting out a car in automatic
when it gets to that particular point, it automatically changes to the next gear.  With singing is very much a case in point.  One instinctively adjusts, and then one thinks after that it was done.  It’s not necessarily always a conscious process, but sometimes it has to be a conscious process.

baileyBD:    So the technique is something that you’ve built, and then you rely on it and let it run itself?

NB:    Absolutely, exactly, yes.

BD:    So what are you concentrating on when you’re walking around on the stage
the character?

NB:    Oh, the character, yes!  Very definitely.  It’s possible to go in and do a performance without having seen anybody in the production, just with somebody indicating that you go from Point A to Point B to Point C.  If you’ve got somebody that is experienced in a role, they won’t have the feeling they only got part of a performance because the characterisation is there.

BD:    But it’s always growing?

NB:    The characterization is going to grow with each production, but it’s very, very much built into the psyche when you go out on stage.  You don’t really have to think about all the different elements.  You can go on stage and it really doesn’t make any difference whether you’re sitting at a desk on the left standing by a tree on the right.  That’s not really important because you have so possessed the role.

BD:    Then do you leave the role completely as soon as you walk off stage?

NB:    I don’t think so, no; not in the intervals, for example.  I know there are some colleagues who would go to the interval
not necessarily in a large role because so you’ve got so much to do, but say they’ve got a smaller role in the eveningand they would start to study another opera while they were waiting.  I tried that on a couple of occasions, and I then came out on stage and was completely confused because I had broken the thread, which must run through the whole evening.  So even though I’m not on stage, I never completely let go of the fact that I have to go out on stage again.

BD:    Is there a certain completion, a closure with the end of the opera and the applause?

NB:    Yes, that’s right, yes.  The other thing left is the adrenaline, which keeps going for about an hour afterwards until it does a nose-dive!

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

NB:    [Pause for a moment]  I’ve been doing it too long, too much of it.

BD:    Oh, weariness!  [Both laugh]

NB:    One has to take it as it comes.  There is a certain romance attached to being an opera singer, but there’s a lot of routine, a lot of sacrifice.  Many young singers don’t appreciate really what they’re letting themselves in for.

BD:    They think of the glamour and not all the hard work?

NB:    That’s right, yes.

BD:    What advice do you have for young singers coming along?

NB:    [Yet another big pause]  The vital important thing for a young singer is that you’ve got to have complete confidence in yourself, even though it may be misplaced.  That part of the process of success is this believing in yourself, even though others may not believe in you at the time, knowing that you are going to ultimately have the success you feel is going to be yours.  It’s difficult because you may be deluding yourself, but if one puts negative thoughts into one’s mind, one never can achieve it.  There must be absolute dedication.  One must be so dedicated to the idea of being an opera singer that nothing else will do.

BD:    To the exclusion of wife and family and anything else?

NB:    That sets another chapter, as it were.  One has then to combine that into one’s life, but really before one has possibly the situation where one is married or has children.  One must be so obsessed with the idea that one knows that this is the only thing.  This was, shall we say, in the training process because unless you have that, you’ve got to be very, very lucky, and there are not too many people who are lucky enough to have it fallen onto their laps.  Young singers have got to be aware of the complications that are there, and if they’re aware of that and still want to be singers, then fine, go ahead.  It worries me, though, that one can spend an awful lot of time chasing after a ‘Will-o-the-Wisp’ and wind up in one’s mid-thirties with not having trained for anything else.  That’s the thing that worries me.  If somebody’s trained for something else or has planned their ways knowing what they’re going to do to develop their second string, then they’re in a better situation if it doesn’t work out.

BD:    But haven’t they then deluded their focus?

NB:    No.  The focus goes on all the time, because I think there’s going to be a period when one says: ‘Okay, fine, then I’m developing the other side’, and keeping the singing going as a hobby, for example.  And then a hobby becomes more and more of a part of yourself until you come to the decision.  And part of that decision is where you say,
Okay now, I’m earning so much from my singing and I’m earning so much with my other job that there is very much a conflict.  One can go in and say they’re only going for the singing, but one has got to work out what they are going to do if it doesn’t function.  Then one then knows if it doesn’t function, then I will be able to do such and such and I’d be happy doing such and such.  There’s nothing more frustrating than dedicating ten or fifteen years of your life, and then find it’s not working and having to turn round and say, “Where do I start now?  I start from ‘square one’ again.

BD:    I assume, though, that somewhere in the third or fifth or eighth year of concentrating on singing, you would know if it’s going to work or not.

NB:    One would hope so!

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    You also sing concerts.  How do you divide your career between opera and concerts?

baileyNB:    I don’t do as many concerts as I used to.  At one time I used to do a lot of recitals, but I had to be very, very specific with the time period to do a concert tour.  I would then do a series of about ten concerts, but as the years went by I found it very difficult then to change vocally from doing opera
particularly demanding Wagnerian rolesand then shifting over to do lieder or English songs.  In arts songs generally the control and the presentation is completely different.  So if you’ve just got one concert, then it’s very, very difficult to leave off a series of heavier operatic roles and spend two weeks preparing for the one concert and doing the one concert.

BD:    Better to prepare for ten concerts and then do them?

NB:    It’s very much easier, yes.  But I really don’t know whether the concert world can support that nowadays
apart from very few people.

BD:    You’ve made some recordings.  Are you pleased with the recordings that were made of your voice over the years?

NB:    I’m always shattered when I hear a recording of myself when I’ve done it.  One tries for certain effects, and one listens back and says,
Oh no, I didn’t get that effect,” and then is completely upset, very unhappy with the results.  One would like to say, Let’s do that again.  I can do it better the next time.  But if you listen to a recording, say, four or five years after you’ve made it, you forget the specific effect you were trying to achieve, and you say, Oh, I wasn’t bad after all!

BD:    So the overall impact is good?

NB:    That’s right, yes.  I can listen to my own recordings and I can hear certain things and think that if I were doing that nowadays, I would do it in a different way.  But I suppose, yes, on balance I’m happy with the recordings.  But it’s quite a difficult process, and some people just can’t listen to themselves.

BD:    Some of your recordings, of course, were made during performances and others were made in the studio.  Did you sing differently in the studio?

NB:    Yes.  The difficulty with doing a live performance is that you have to project for the audience, and you can’t concentrate one hundred per cent on the actual microphones.  If you concentrate one hundred per cent on the microphones, then you would not be able to give the performance that you need to give to the audience.  I always feel that live performances fall between two stools in one sense.  I always prefer doing studio recordings because then if it didn’t work out, you can do it again.  Some people actually prefer listening to live recordings.  It’s a matter of taste.  There is the excitement of,
Was he going to make this note, or is he not going to make this note!  [Both laugh]  Then they notice there was a musical mistake there, which of course happens all the time during live performances!

BD:    Do you feel that you’re like an athlete competing against all of the other previous high notes?

NB:    I suppose to a certain extent one’s always thinking of the high notes because those make demands.  They make mental demands, psychological demands, as well as vocal demands.  You can get yourself into the state where you’re worried about the high note of the evening.  One evening that can be a G so you worry about the G.  Another evening it can be an F, which is infinitely lower, so you worry about the F, whereas if it’s the evening you’ve got a G, you’ve got  masses and masses of Fs, and you keep on singing them and then worry about the G.  There’s a lot of psychology involved in singing.

BD:    It sounds hopeless!

NB:    Nowadays singers take training how to approach these particular problems.  It’s not just a vocal thing, it’s, getting your mind tuned into doing them properly.  I know in the past I’ve made a slight musical mistake, for example, just before what I’d considered a vocally difficult passage.  For some reason or other, one’s brain is doing a post mortem on it. 
Now what on earth did I do there?  Why did I make that mistake?  There shouldn’t have been a dotted note, but I put a dotted note on the...,” and then quite suddenly you realize that you simply swept through the difficult vocal part!  [Laughs]  Then you’re brought up with a jolt and realize it’s not vocally difficult, it’s simply all in the mind!

baileyBD:    Is it only in the singer’s mind or is it also in the audience’s mind?

NB:    It’s in the singer’s mind!  [Both laugh]

BD:    Do you expect anything of the audience that comes that evening?

NB:    [One more big pause]  I’d like to answer that one in the following way.  When one sings, one’s in the business of awakening memories and creating memories.  For example, people come to me would say that they were at such and such a performance twenty years ago, and it made such an impact on them.  So one has created memories for those people; they’re precious memories.  That’s their memory.  They’re like mirrors really, or shall we say the artist is like the mirror reflecting the audience to themselves so that they can see themselves and get in touch with their own feelings.  The other part of that is awakening memories that people have, and that’s a bit difficult.  They may have heard a singer doing something – again twenty years ago – and for them, whether it was a good performance or not is neither here nor there, because it caught them at a particular point in their life where certain things may have been coming together, or being unravelling or raveled or being joined together.  They have memories of that, and to a certain extent one has the responsibility of awakening those memories with loving kindness almost.

BD:    You can’t disturb them?

NB:    No, you can’t disturb them.  One has to be very, very careful.  Say there’s a piece of music that one doesn’t like.  One has to be careful how one speaks about that because one may be hurting somebody.  This then comes again to the whole process of what one is talking about when one is using criticism.  Unfortunately we have this sort of critical analysis, and that disturbs me.  We should be looking for the beauty in things, trying to find the beauty, and that’s what music is about.  It’s beauty; it’s a healing process; it’s a loving process.

BD:    It’s a growing process?

NB:    It’s a growing process, yes, exactly.  It’s all these elements together, and in one sense the singer is a healer.  When you think of it, music as such is one of the most healing forces in the world.

BD:    Healing the soul!

NB:    Yes, absolutely. 

BD:    Are you optimistic about the future of concert music?

NB:    To a certain extent I felt the concert world is slightly artificial, and that music, to me, has to be bound up in some other form.  The idea of people sitting in rows and listening to the performance happening on the stage doesn’t quite fit in with my concept of today.  But that’s only a personal point of view.  There are those people who love doing that.  They prefer going to a live concert rather than listening to it on a stereo or seeing it on television.  But it’s very, very difficult to know where music will be going.

BD:    One last question.  Is singing fun?

NB:    There are times when it’s tremendous fun, yes.  At one time in my life, going out and doing an exceptionally difficult role was like going out doing a Sunday afternoon stroll.  It was that easy.  As time goes on, I find myself worrying a little bit about whether I am going to be consistent as I used to be.  Is my performance going to be what it was?  I’ve very rarely given an inconsistent performance, but somehow or other one’s just worried that tonight’s going to be the night when my memory does me a terrible trick, and all the text falls apart!  I believe Lord Laurence Oliver went through that process at one time, and it’s a very worrying experience.  I haven’t experienced it, not to any large extent.  I have had slight slips of the memory, but maybe one’s creating one’s own ghosts by thinking maybe it’s tonight.  The singer has the nightmare of getting out on stage and doing a performance of something but he’s never seen the score of.  It’s a professional nightmare.  You speak with any singer and they have the exactly the same nightmare.   Maybe sometimes it catches up on me.  I have to be very, very conscientious about working on roles between performances, and not just saying that my memory will be alright.

BD:    And not relying on the prompter?

NB:    That’s right, yes.  I just really have to go through the process continually.

BD:    Thank you so much for speaking with me.  I appreciate it.  I’ve looked forward to this for a long time.

NB:    It was a very, very great pleasure; tremendous fun.


© 1994 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded at Bailey’s apartment in Chicago on February 17, 1994.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB three months later, and again in 1998.  This transcription was made and posted on this website in 2014.  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.