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
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
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
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,
Kathryn Harries, Donald
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 . . . . . . .
I appreciate your getting time from your schedule to speak with me.
Not at all!
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?
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
NB: [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!
right, the New York City Opera uses the English surtitles even when the
opera’s in English.
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.
eventually you had no trouble coming back into English?
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
BD: So it
feels completely different in the throat?
NB: Oh, yes,
absolutely. It is a completely different sensation.
just got to get used to how it feels no matter what it sounds likes to
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
BD: Have you
also sung in French?
NB: Yes, I
seems to be the language which is picked on the most as far as diction
and actual sound from singers.
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]
the piece asks for it! [Laughs]
BD: Have you
sung some roles that require spoken dialogue?
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?
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
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
BD: When you
get onto the stage, are you portraying the character or do you actually
become that character?
[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.
someone says, “Is there a doctor in the house,”
you’d raise your hand?
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!”
BD: Does all of
this, then, enter into your decision as to whether to accept or turn
down a role?
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 ...
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
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?
[Laughs] You’re asking difficult questions!
[Wryly] I can ask what you had for breakfast, but it wouldn’t
make a very interesting interview. [Both laugh]
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?
never sung Iago onstage! I’ve only done it in concert.
you’ve probed into the character in order to be able to present it,
even though it was a concert version.
right, yes. One could go into an analysis of Iago, but ...
says he is the most evil of them all, that he becomes closest to having
no redeeming qualities.
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
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.
BD: So they
try to use the evil and justify it in some way?
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.
hitting a very sympathetic nerve with me. I always try to find
the good in whatever is possible.
wonderful! This is an attitude of mind, isn’t it?
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
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
NB: Yes, hmm,
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.
BD: He self-imposed
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
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?
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?
[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
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 philosophy – because 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.
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.
immediately the question that springs to mind is why was there no
offspring of Wotan and Fricka? Ever thought about that before?
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?
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 character – with 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?
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?
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
in the animal kingdom, it is nice to have it once step removed to be
able to view it a little more objectively.
right, exactly. It’s the whole point of creating it in the animal
kingdom in the first place.
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
[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?
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.
NB: 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’?
[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.
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?
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
true, but in Götterdämmerung, Hagen’s soul over-dominates
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.
of his own laws?
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.
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.
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?
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
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?
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.
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?
big pause] I don’t answer hypothetical questions! [Gales of
laughter all around]
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
BD: Was it
the tessitura again?
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?
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?
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.
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
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!
protesting] Yes, but Wotan calls for Das Ende. He’s waiting for
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
BD: Have you
done all of the Wagner roles – a role in each of
the ten standard Wagner operas?
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.
Especially when Goodall was conducting with the very large tempos, yes?
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.
BD: So the
technique is something that you’ve built, and then you rely on it and
let it run itself?
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
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
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 evening
– and 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
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’?
for a moment] I’ve been doing it too long, too much of it.
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.
think of the glamour and not all the hard work?
advice do you have for young singers coming along?
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?
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
BD: You also
sing concerts. How do you divide your career between opera and
NB: 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 roles – and 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
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.
made some recordings. Are you pleased with the recordings that
were made of your voice over the years?
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?
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?
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
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
BD: 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
BD: You can’t
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
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: 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?
right, yes. I just really have to go through the process
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
To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been
transcribed and posted on this website, click here.
Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975
its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001. His
interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since
and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well
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
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.