Director  Patrick  Bakman
-- and --
Soprano  Gloria  Capone

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie

Originally meant as a promotional segment for the Chicago Opera Theater
’s production of Susannah by Carlisle Floyd in February of 1986, this conversation with Patrick Bakman and Gloria Capone turned out to be a mutual admiration society between the director and the soprano.  They had been working together, and their respect for one another showed in their responses, and in the ease with which they interacted.

A portion of the chat aired on WNIB just prior to the opening performance, and now it is my pleasure to present the entire encounter.  Being a trio of voices, rather that the usual back-and-forth between two, watch carefully who is speaking.  Sometimes it becomes a dialogue between the two guests, and I was happy to just let those ideas flow naturally.

As usual, names which are links refer to my interviews elsewhere on my website.

Here is what was said that afternoon . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:   While we wait momentarily for our soprano, let me ask you about Wagner.  You’ve directed Die Meistersinger, and The Flying Dutchman.  Where did you stage Die Meistersinger?

Patrick Bakman:   That was for the Houston Grand Opera.

BD:   With Thomas Stewart?

Bakman:   Yes, and Pat Wells.  It was a wonderful experience.  I actually love Wagner very much, and that one is the most accessible of all.  It’s so human and so down to earth.

BD:   [To the soprano who has just arrived]  Let me first ask about singing Floyd’s Susannah.  This is a biblical story set into modern times.  Does it work as a modern drama?

Gloria Capone:   Absolutely.  It’s ever a relevant subject... someone being persecuted unjustly, and that happens every day in every little town.

BD:   Is it an every-woman situation?

Capone:   [Smiles]  Well, every community.  It certainly doesn’t happen to every woman, thank God.  [Laughs]

BD:   Do you think by watching this opera, it might cut down on the incidents of bad treatment and ill-will?

Capone:   I doubt it, but it certainly makes a very strong statement in that direction.

Bakman:   It particularly shows how easy it is for a community of very simple, basically warm, loving people to be turned into vicious animals through jealousy of one person.  That’s what it really deals with, the snow-ball effect of hatred and jealousy.  Those qualities seem ever present in life.  Bertolt Brecht at one time spoke of man’s inhumanity to man.  Out of all of the animals, we’re the one that kills each other.  None of the other animals actually will kill each other of their own species.  We’re the ones that do it.  I just happen to have seen the other evening the Akira Kurosawa film called Ran, which I feel is so amazing.  It’s almost the same theme, about how much easier man seems to enjoy destroying than loving.  It’s much easier for him to seek out war than it is to enjoy life.

BD:   You’re mentioning film.  Do the ideas of cinematography enter into your stage direction at all?

Bakman:   There may be something to that.  I tend to think about the scene-shifts almost as a cinemagraphic effect, rather than leading in and out from one scene to another.  For example, the first scene is able to shift focus from one side of the stage to another.  It’s only in those terms what I consider it of a film nature.  There certainly is not the use of film in the opera.

BD:   Do you ever feel that you’re competing against other kinds of media, such as film or video, or anything that brings the performer closer to an audience?  [Vis-à-vis the biography shown at right, see my interviews with Frank Corsaro and Julius Rudel.]

Bakman:   One really has to define very clearly the difference between live theater and a movie.  Theater today is trying too much to bring what they can do in the films onto the live stage, and that defeats the purpose.  Some of the extravaganzas have scenery moving all evening.  Even the use of film within the scenery defeats and minimizes the effect of that live person up there on the stage performing.  There have been attempts of using scrims, both upstage and downstage, and putting the performers in the middle, and putting projections to where leaves are larger than people.  I disagree with that because the human being then has been minimized, and almost becomes insignificant.  As a director in the live theater, one has to ask oneself what can I do on the live stage that I can’t do in a movie or with a video.  It’s important that we answer that question, and put the focus back on the live performer.  Too much effort has been put on scenic effects and technology, and has been taken away from the performer and his power.

BD:   Do you enjoy doing live things as opposed to film?

Capone:  I’ve never done a film, and even though I would be very interested to do some, there’s something about the audience that’s very important for me as a performer.

BD:   What do you expect of an audience that comes to see Susannah?

Capone:   That is a difficult question.  I would hope that they would just be able to just go with the story, and let themselves be taken in by it whatever their reaction would be, good or bad.  I also would hope that it would be an honest reaction.

BD:   Is the music of Carlisle Floyd that he has written for this opera, good for your particular voice?

Capone:   I think so.  It’s very well-suited for me.

BD:   It makes it easy to sing, and is very melodic?

Capone:   It just happens to sit well in my voice.  It’s not that easy to sing.  I remember the last time I did the role it was much more of a challenge for me vocally than it is now.  But I think that’s partly because I wasn’t as in tune with myself as woman, nor with the role as I am now.

BD:   When you’re on stage, do you portray a character or do you become a character?

Capone:   [Thinks a moment]  Even though I’m portraying a character, I’m not one of these people who goes off stage, and takes three days to stop being Susannah, that persecuted country girl.  However, when I’m on the stage, I am Susannah, but you have to keep a certain reality in it because you’re singing, and there are technical considerations.  It’s not just a play.  It’s an opera, and you have to think about the singing.  But the wonderful thing about this now is that for me it’s become almost second nature, which is the ideal.  The two ideas
portraying and becominghave come together, so that hopefully you won’t see me standing up there thinking about singing the next high note... which you see on a lot of people’s faces sometimes.  [Both laugh]

BD:   Then where is the balance between music and drama, and how do you balance the two when you’re on the stage?

Capone:   It’s very tricky.  If you want work in this particular art form, the most important thing is to be extremely secure technically about your singing.  That way, if you want to be an actress, which I do, then you can just go for it without having problems.  You need to know enough about what you’re doing that you feel certain it’s going to be there again in the morning.  You’re not going to blow your wad, but you certainly have to be careful.

BD:   [Asking the same question of the stage director]  Where, for you, is the balance between music and drama in opera?

Bakman:   They are one in the same, actually.  As a stage director, I find it’s important to establish an atmosphere, and place the performers in an environment that they have to sing, as opposed to speaking the lines.  This is a major problem with a lot of contemporary pieces.  This idea also goes with regards to a piece and its viability, whether it be an opera or a piece of drama with music accompaniment.  There should be such an emotional playing that the singers and the audience should also expect that their emotional intensity is at the level that they are now needing to sing in order to really express what they are going through.  They need to feel that mere words could not possibly serve their purpose, and the purpose of the story.

BD:   [To the soprano]  Do you also feel strongly about this?

Capone:   Oh, I think that’s right on it.  That’s the ideal.  

Bakman:   One has to set up that first moment.  As a director, I find the greatest challenge is when the first word is sung, because you’ve got to set up such an atmosphere that something has to happen, and the singing must be there.  That person should sing, and start the ball rolling, and not speak the lines.  You have to create an environment for that to take place.

BD:   Are there times when a line must be spoken in a very dramatic situation?

Bakman:   Yes, there are certain times where the emotions become contained, and there are some spoken lines in this piece.  But it catches the characters off balance, or they’re going for another effect, or emotionally they have simply gone through such a catharsis that when something is sung to them, it catches them so by surprise that singing would be inappropriate.  There is a very interesting point towards the very end of the show, after a very cathartic scene of Olin Blitch and Susannah.  Susannah’s belief is that Blitch will now tell the elders that she, in truth, has been dishonest all along, and he now knows it after having seduced her.  It’s really gut-rendering for them both, and when she finally leaves, and he has to forgive her, she is so drained that all she can say is,
Forgive???  I forgot what that word means.  She needs to speak it rather than sing it, becomes it is such a contrast after what she’s gone through.  To sing that line would be anticlimactic.  Speaking makes one realize she’s so drained of emotion, that it catches her by such surprise.  Of all the things for someone to ask her after what’s been done to her!  It makes a very interesting emotional statement about where the character is at that point.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   You’re performing this in English, and you know that the audience is going to understand every word.  Do you work harder at your diction when you’re performing in the language that the audience understands?

Capone:   Yes, sure.  I always work hard at my diction anyway, but certainly if you’re going to sing in English, then it’s important to make it understood.  This opera is written in such a way that a lot of it is very understandable.  Do you disagree with that?

Bakman:   No, no, I really do feel that way.

Capone:   The language Floyd used is really clear...

Bakman:   ...and certainly the ideas are clear, too.  In no piece are you going to understand one hundred per cent.  Not even in a musical do you get every single lyric the first time around.  Television, and videos, and discs force people to be more passive in their hearing, as opposed to really sitting and being actively a part, and forcing yourself to listen.  There isn’t enough of that.  We’ve become passive.  We’ll go about doing our work, and the television is on, or the radio is on, so sound becomes almost ubiquitous.  We have become surrounded by sound, but we are not concentrating on that sound.  So, when you go to that live performance, you really have to force yourself to listen, and that becomes a big challenge for a lot of people today.  They aren’t aware that they don’t really listen.

BD:   This is part of what I was getting at before about competing against radio and television and films.  Virgil Thomson said to me that it creates a sort of lack of attention!
Bakman:   Yes.

BD:   As a singer, what can you do to grab their attention, or is that something where you simply have to rely on the music?

Capone:   You have to.  Hopefully the music is written in such a way that you can point out certain words, but that’s the most important thing.  You’d obviously kill yourself if you punched out every single word and phrase.  You have to find the words that are important, and that bring across the text and the story.

Bakman:   Yes, this is something I believe, and particularly with Gloria here... I’ve worked her into the ground.  [Much laughter]  But she’s so receptive!  For me, as a director, the most important thing is that I never be seen on that stage.  Everything looks so much as if the performers have done it all by themselves.  But to do that, every second has to be thought out.  Every second has to have an idea behind it, and it all has to be discussed.  Then, if a performer is really with those ideas about whether the word is completely understood, it’s a way to grab the attention of the audience.  This is because there is a certain concentration a performer has if they really understand what they’re doing, and it’s that concentration which ultimately gets to the subconscious of the audience, and makes them want to become a part of that world.  The more real the world is for the performers, the more an audience will want to become a part of that world, because they feel something really is going on there, and they want to get into it.  They want to really see it.  A little bit of the problem with opera is the feeling of wanting to get the hit songs out, and not really worry at all of the validity.  It’s as if what you say doesn’t make any difference, whether it’s English, or Italian, or French.  I personally think all languages should be sung with the same intensity, and the same concentration.  Then, even if an audience doesn’t totally understand French, or Italian, or German, if the performer really understands what he’s singing, and is really focussing on that and not apologizing to the audience, but really singing with commitment and concentration, the audience will totally understand what is going on, on that stage.  They may not understand it literally, but they will understand, and they will become involved in what is going on, on that stage.  At that point, the language is almost immaterial.  It is the concentration, it is the focus, and the dedication that the performers put into it all.  When I get a group of people who really care about that, it’s a field-day for me, and I have to really watch it, because with this cast, and Gloria in particular, I can exhaust them.  I know they’re exhausted, but we’ve been working a good deal for a total honesty, and for total commitment to this piece.

BD:   Has he worked you too hard?

Capone:   No, no.  Actually I like working hard, and he’s just been the perfect cohort in that.

BD:   Is there any possibility that the drama can be over-analyzed?

Bakman:   [Laughs]  Yes.

Capone:   I think so, too, especially this one.  It has been so over-analyzed.  [Laughs]

Bakman:   It really has.  It’s a very delicate tightrope you walk.  It’s not so much the drama that can be over-analyzed.  It
s the symbolism, or making it relevant.  That’s when things become over-analyzed.  If you simply go to what exactly is happening now, you then need to ask how the people will react to this second.  I don’t think you can over-analyze that process.  You over-analyze if you try to do too much for the audience, or make it too relevant.  I’m very much against doing too much updating, and too much underlining, and using too much symbolism even in scenery.  I basically believe in minimal scenery.  Let the audience fill it in, and dont hit them over the head with what is going on.  From that standpointthe detail, the interaction of people, or how they react off one anotherit is more important than to trying to say, This is now the big dramatic moment, or “If you didn’t get it the first time around, we’ll restate it for you!

BD:   Do the different sized houses make a difference in your vocal production, whether it
s a small house or a big house?

Capone:   Yes.  You adjust automatically once you get the feel of a house.

BD:   How is the Athenaeum [where Susannah will be played, shown below-right]?

Capone:   It’s a very good house.  You get enough feedback without getting too much.  It’s a good place.

BD:   Does the scenery, or lack of scenery, enter into this?

Capone:   In this particular production, so far we’ve been rehearsing in a room with no scenery, and it’s been working just fine for me if we don’t have any.  [Laughter all around]  It certainly would be lovely to have scenery, and I can’t wait to get on the set.

Bakman:   Right.  You need the scenery, but it’s a misnomer if one believes that once we have the scenery then it’s all going to make sense.  If it isn’t there in the mind’s eye of the performer, it’s never going to happen.  To rest on the idea that the set is going to save the show, or make it all suddenly come together is very poor, and a weak crutch for any performer.  The elements that make up a set become very important as to whether they absorb sound, or help to project it.

Capone:   For me, the most important thing you have to worry about is how the set fills on the side, and the angle of your singing.  That determines whether or not the voice is going to come out if you’re singing slightly off to the side, or whether you have to cheat it out front more.

BD:   Do you ever work with prompters?

Capone:   I never have, no.

BD:   Do you like not having one?

Capone:   My husband has worked with a prompter, and isn’t particularly crazy about it.  It’s not part of our American tradition.  We’re used to learning the work, and knowing it, and being prepared to do it in our sleep.  [Laughs]  That’s the way we’re trained from college.  The European tradition is something else.  Many of them work with a prompter, so one should be able to do both if you want to have that kind of career.

BD:   Is that the only real difference between the American singer and the European singer?

Capone:   [Laughs]  No, no!  It’s individual.  You can’t talk about the American and European ways.  Every singer is very different.  We’re all unique beings.  We have an advantage here with our training, and they have an advantage with their tradition.

Bakman:   But we also have a tradition!  Sometimes I get a little annoyed at the idea of always wanting to compare one with the other.  We’re a young country, so we tend to suffer a bit from an inferiority complex when it comes to the arts, or to civilization.  Opera more than anything has really suffered from this.  We’re different.  Our background and our theatrical traditions are all different from the European ways.  We’ve grown up in a much more romantic and robust sense of theater, which is exemplified by musical comedy and music-theater.  Very much the American tradition is the ability to go from dialogue to song to dance, and having each performer be able to master all three of those arts.  It’s the American mentality, and it
s a little bit romantic to have a devil-may-care attitude as part of our make-up, part of our lifestyle.  It isn’t as contained as some of the Europeans who, through a series of years, can rest a little bit more.  The whole philosophy of many different countries is different, and I don’t like to compare which is better.  I would like to see the Americans take their art form a little bit more seriously, and just know that we do it differently.  Its not that we do it better, or they do it better.  Just accept that fact, and take pride in the differences.  That is one of the beauties of the artform.  Traveling and communication has made this attempt to try to homogenize everything to where everybody is the same.  Orchestras are becoming the same, with the same sound almost everywhere.  In earlier years there used to be really distinct sounds between the Philadelphia Orchestra, the New York Philharmonic, the Chicago Symphony, and the Vienna Philharmonic.  Suddenly some of those sounds are not so different.  Because the conductors are traveling so much, you almost know how the sound is going to be before you go to a concert.  The same thing is happening in opera too much.  It has to be this one mold, this one stamp, and that homogenizing makes the universality of the art less desirable.

*     *     *     *     *
BD:   Being a singer, are you good audience when you’re sitting out there in the crowd?

Capone:   I like to think so, but I’m very critical.  I’m a critical person anyway, so I’m critical as an audience member.

BD:   Can you go to an opera and just enjoy it?

Capone:   Oh, very much so, particularly when it’s a good work and well done.

BD:   Would Susannah be a good first opera for someone who is coming to the opera for the first time, or would it be better to say come to Bohème or Traviata?

Capone:  Any one of them would be a good first choice.

Bakman:   I would think it would be.  All three that you mentioned are wonderful examples of very different genres of opera, though I would vote for the Floyd because it’s contemporary.  I’m a believer in contemporary opera, so I would say if someone wants to see what contemporary opera is all about, the Floyd is a wonderful first contact with it.

Capone:   Yes.

BD:   Do you also find that with other Floyd works?

Bakman:   Yes, I do.  Each one of his pieces are very different.  Of Mice and Men is another whole different idea.  Musically I don’t know whether the word
sophisticated is appropriate, but it’s a little bit more complex.  Simply because the emotional level of the characters and the story is more complex than Susannah, his musical idiom readapted itself and worked for that environment.  It’s a deeper story.  Bilby’s Doll is another one which deals with witchcraft, and is quite different from The Crucible [by Robert Ward].  That takes on a whole other sensibility than Susannah.

BD:   Have you sung other works by Floyd?

Capone:   I’ve done Of Mice and Men.

BD:   How was that different from Susannah vocally or musically?

Capone:   It’s a completely different role certainly, and though there are some similarities between Curley’s Wife and Susannah, they’re just completely different.  I think Susannah is one of the most powerful American operas around.

BD:   Is contemporary opera dividing itself into the performable and the not-performable?

Bakman:   Hmmm...  It depends on how you would define

BD:   Let us say
approachable from an audience standpoint.

Capone:   There are some things around that are somewhat unapproachable.

Bakman:   After hearing some of the disco music, and the unrelenting pounding and some of the almost schizoid quality of that music, a slog through a contemporary opera is mild compared to a lot that is going on.  [Laughs]

Capone:   That’s right!

Bakman:   I do find that when I just start listening to it, it’s so repetitive.  But then they criticize Handel or Mozart for being repetitive!  They move a story and a song much further than the modern music of today.  Some of that accompaniment, with its grating electronic sound I find jarring.  Not because of that, but when some of the disco music is compared to some of the contemporary music that I have heard, it is almost melodious.  So in some respects, maybe we’re a little farther behind with what is going on.

BD:   With all of this going on, how do you decide which roles you will sing and which roles you will not sing?

Capone:   It’s a vocal choice, certainly.  It has to be based on what fits in with my vocal abilities, and what I feel is right for me as a singer.  There are lots of things that are right for me to sing, but for some reason I have absolutely no interest in doing them.  I need someone like Patrick to make me realize that they are interesting characters!  [Laughs]  I like to do operas in which the woman is interesting to me as a character, but first of all it has to be whether or not this is something that suits my voice.
BD:   Have you done some operas in more than one language?

Capone:   Yes, La Bohème being one of them.  I
ve gone both back and forth a few times.

BD:   Does La Bohème work better in English or Italian?

Capone:   Oh, Italian.  No question about it.  But you have to know exactly what every word means to really make it work.  This  is what is so wonderful about coaching something like that in Italy with one of these great old masters, because they won’t let anything go by.  They won’t let a single little two-letter word escape your understanding.  You have to know everything, and it all has to have the right inflection.  Only then you can begin to do a role in a foreign language that is not your mother tongue.  But Bohème can also work very well in English.  There are a number of translations, and it’s important to choose the right one.

BD:   Is it different directing an opera in a foreign language, or in English?

Bakman:   It’s different, yes.  At times I’ve had two casts, one doing it in the original language, and another doing it in English.  I’m at the point now where I won’t do that, because I literally have to totally re-gear myself, because I can’t do the same staging in two different languages.  The emphasis is different and the thinking is very different.  So there is a whole different way in each language.  Also, I don’t like doing it because you have to go through two casts.  This is not to say that I would ever take two casts and make the same staging for them, because it would depend on the personality and the rhythms of the people.  The staging has to be molded on them in that regard.  But certainly, having to think through and put yourself into yet another language is very difficult for a director.  I prefer working in the original language or English, but I don’t want to do both simultaneously.

BD:   Don’t you come with some preconceived ideas about a piece?

Bakman:   Oh, I do come with preconceived ideas!  Very much so.  I have a very strong interpretive direction, but it’s the detailing of that which is very different in each language.  The emphasis is going to be different in the little subtleties.  Having just done Manon, if you start thinking about the emphasis in French versus a translation, it throws you into very different details that you bring across.  You can’t literally translate Manon word for word from French into English, so you gear things to end a certain way, as opposed to the English translations that I’ve read.  I would prefer to do one or the other, and I do like doing in the language of the country.  If you’re going to do in a foreign language, then you really have to make sure you and your cast understand every moment what is happening.  For the record, I’m very much against the use of surtitles.  To me it is just ridiculous.

BD:   [Surprised]  Why???

Bakman:   It’s a gimmick to try to bring people in by trying to undercut the validity of the art form.  Even when I see a foreign film with the subtitles underneath, my eye is taken away to read a bit and I miss what is happening on the screen, such as relationships, or some particular touch.  I find I generally have to go back and see a piece twice.

BD:   Is that necessarily bad?

Bakman:   Well no, it’s not bad.  I actually enjoy doing that, but I doubt that many people will do that for an opera, given the cost to go back.  I’m not saying that people have to read or do all this preparation before coming in.  Unless you’ve got the perfect seat in the house, which is almost at eye-level, your head is always having to crane up to read them, and you’re really being taken away from the action on stage.  It’s not a literal translation because they would be flopping on and off too quickly.  So it becomes very careful on what you choose to translate.

BD:   Would the supertitles work better in an opera that moves slower, say a Wagner opera, rather than in something that has a lot of patter, like a Rossini work?

Bakman:   I just don’t see the point of them.  They were used in my Manon in Seattle, and luckily there were many people who told me they forgot they were there because they got so involved in the stage action.  I heard that said continuously, and I was happy that I could distract them from looking up.

BD:   They quit looking at the titles?

Bakman:   Yes, they discovered there was a lot going on on-stage, and that made me happy.  I looked at those things, and it bothered me that my focus of watching the performers and doing the finishing touches for the performance was distracted because I was watching the supertitles.  I also had to correct them.  They were wrong.  They were absolutely the wrong translation for what was happening on stage.  That’s what’s very bad about it.  They may be the literal translation, but the interesting thing in the language, literally, is how you translate what really is going on so it includes the subtext.  We take it for granted in English that you can say, “I hate you!” but it doesn’t mean literally that is what is happening.  But if you take it straight out of the French, yes, you would translate it literally and it would mean that.  But the action on stage may not really be meaning that.

BD:   What if someone is listening and understands every word of French.  Might they be translating it the same as it winds up on the surtitles?

Bakman:   I don’t think they would be translating it the same way.  The other thing that really bothers me about these titles is that if you read the libretto, they’re not real.  This is a dangerous comment, but I do believe in librettos.  I think that the libretto existed to inspire the composer to write the music, so they are works of art.  But sometimes to simply read them, they seem a little flat.  It is the singing of those words that gives embodiment, and takes almost a mundane quality out of just the word.  If you read this script of Susannah, some of it might seem a little ridiculous.  It might seem almost naïve, but suddenly singing it takes the naïvety out and gives it shape.

BD:   Is that the way to construct the libretto
that it really couldn’t stand on its own, but needs the music?

Bakman:   I think so.

BD:   Is that the way to construct the music
that it needs the libretto?

Bakman:   The two do go hand-in-hand, they really do.  I often say to singers that where the word isn’t making sense, it’s more or less the vocalise.  And if you say to a singer when you know the word, you need to express it.  There are a few exceptions.  This isn’t exactly true for Puccini.  He didn’t exactly follow this, but the word did come before the music.  Many other composers were very concerned about the words, and exactly how they fit together so that they inspired them to write the music.  This includes the subject matter, the content, and the exchange between the various people.  It is wrong to say that the libretto is insignificant, or that it should take second seat to the music.  There is a wedding between the two, and that’s why some pieces that have been composed to a play don’t work when too much of the play is kept, because sometimes the music then becomes almost background music.  Often the musicality of the writing is stronger than the music itself.  It’s why Shakespeare has best worked when it’s been translated into Italian, and then into an opera.  There’s almost no Shakespeare other than the [Vittorio] Giannini opera The Taming of the Shrew that has really worked.  Even so, there are some rough edges in that piece because the musicality of Shakespeare is so strong that you just compose for that.  The composer and Shakespeare sometimes conflict.  It’s a little bit similar to Tennessee Williams and composers.  They conflict because Tennessee is so strong with his musicality that many pieces have worked better when they’ve been translated into another language, and then composed.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   How is it different to stage a contemporary work as opposed to a standard repertoire opera?

Bakman:   There is no difference.  The piece dictates what it needs.  Each piece is different, so you don’t bring any one thing into a piece.  You find that it has to be its own way.  Hopefully I respond to the piece, and I feel that all my productions are different.  I would hate to think that having seen one of my pieces, everyone now knows what they’re going to expect no matter what the piece is.  It’s important for a director to make sure he doesn’t repeat himself.

BD:   Has a director ever taken you in a completely wrong direction, or led you off into some place that he shouldn’t have?

Capone:   There have been attempts to do that, but I like to think I have pretty good instincts.  Sometimes you have to just go with it.  No matter who is directing, you don’t want to sabotage the show.  Some directors do make mistakes, but Patrick doesn’t make any mistakes!  [Much laughter]  Often directors will get something in their heads which they want to come across, and it really has nothing to do with the piece.  It might be some psychological sub-plot that’s just a lot of horse manure.  Then you, as a singer, have to stand naked on the stage with your career on the line, and do something foolish.  Luckily it doesn’t happen that often.

BD:   Do you feel that your career is on the line every time you walk on the stage?

Capone:   No, I don’t think in those terms.  When I walk on the stage, I’m not thinking about my career.

BD:   [To the director]  Do you feel your career is on the line every time you put a piece out there?

Bakman:   I feel part of me is up there.  Anything in the arts is a very naked and exposed situation that I have hopefully interpreted correctly.  I feel I give a service to the composer, and I assist the artists who are singing the piece to make them comfortable, and to bring across what the piece is about.

BD:   Is there ever a conflict of interest between the artist and the composer?

Bakman:   There are some pieces I won’t touch because my feeling is that I must save it, or figure out what gimmick I can come up with to make the piece work.  A director has a terrible responsibility of honesty.  When you teach a piece, you’ve got to be very honest.  Either the piece responds to you or doesn’t, and if you don’t have a personal response to that piece, then don’t touch it.  If you do not believe in the piece, you should let it go.  However, who’s to say what the actual interpretation is meant to be?  But if you can’t feel that there is some sense of humanity in the piece, and that humanity is something you wish to bring across to the audience through your performers, then don’t touch it.  You’ve got to learn to walk away from pieces, even if it means you’ve got to find another job for that month to pay the rent.  I learned about the need to be honest in this business very early in graduate school.  As I say, there are pieces I won’t touch because they haven’t touched me yet, and I sit there trying to contemplate what the gimmick will be to make it work.  When I finally see what I’m coming up with is a gimmick, then I’m not being honest.  It’s a very hard thing to say what that process is, but something just suddenly hits you in the gut.  I like to believe my pieces are visceral.  They are very physical, and my job as a director is to physicalize the music, and to physicalize those ideas.  I make that music take on a physical image, because when I hear music, I get an image.  Even a simple chord will generate an image in my mind.  It’s what an actor does.  Even a single word must inspire a picture in their mind.  That’s what an actor plays.  He creates.  He paints these pictures.  This is the same thing I’m doing with the performers.  It’s like a painter with his paint.  Yes, a painter will have some idea, but until his paints start mixing on the canvas, he won’t really know where that picture is going to end up.  It’s being responsive to the performer by seeing how much they take, or what they do with the idea.  The exciting thing about a rehearsal period is not having all the answers.  The most wonderful thing is coming in and making discoveries.  That’s what makes the rehearsal process interesting.  Yes, you have to have a starting point, and you give that to your performers.  Then you must trust them to start interacting with that idea, and you must respond off of them, and let the piece grow from that.

BD:   [To the soprano]  Do you do this same kind of preparation?  When you’re preparing a role, do you think about what kinds of possibilities can happen, or do you just prepare it musically, and wait for stage director to give you the input and the blocking?
Capone:   If you think in a dramatic way, you can’t possibly prepare it without having images coming into your head.  But we as performers are in a slightly different position than the director.  We don’t have to decide things about the staging.  We can certainly come up with a conception of a character, which I usually go into a show with, but it’s important to not be so tied into that, that you can’t change.  For example, in this particular situation, my mind has been changed on a lot of different points within the story of Susannah.

Bakman:   I’ve done the piece before, but I haven’t touched it in six years.  I have friends who ask if it isn’t easier the second or third time around, and I keep saying,
No!  It’s ten times harder.  It would have been much easier if this had been my first Susannah because I have to fight my old ideas.  I have an overall feeling where I want the piece to go, but I have to make sure I don’t just rely on the discoveries I made the last time around.  I have to trust that the performers either will make those same discoveries or new ones, and its been exhausting for me to sit back and see that these are different people.  I throw out ideas of some staging that I’d done before, and suddenly realize I’m now different.  I don’t believe that anymore!  It’s not right!  I have to throw it away!  So, it became more exhausting for me to throw old things away, and make myself responsive to the performers.

BD:   Would it have been easier for you just to scrap everything, and start fresh?

Bakman:   It would have been, but you can’t.  They’re some personal part of you, even though I don’t have any staging written in any of my scores.  I never write things down.  I try desperately never to have any permanent record of anything, so that way I’m never calling on anything.  But there are certain things that are real gut responses of mine to the performers.  I’m sure most directors would be very much against me on this, but I feel that a director’s job is really not directing the body.  The staging is almost immaterial.  What you direct is the imagination of the performer.  Once you can get into their minds with what you think is the idea of the character they’re playing, and start directing that, and stretching their imaginations, then the body starts to go in its right way.  I’ve learned this from working with singers like Thomas Stewart.  I had the great privilege of directing him in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg.  No one needs to direct Tom Stewart in that opera, because he’s done it a great deal.  So when we started a scene, he said, “What is your idea for this scene?”  Not,
“Where am I to go, and that’s what he would do.  You tell a singer what the idea is, and where you want the piece to go, and then you start working out the actual picture.  But you’ve got to have some imagination going, some direction that the piece should be heading in, not just, “On this line you’re going to move here, and you’re going to touch this person on that line.”  That’s stupid, and that’s what has given opera such a bad name, and a bad place in the dramatic world.

BD:   [To the soprano]  You’ve worked with a lot of directors.  Are Patrick’s ideas rather universal, or are they rather peculiar and special to him?

Capone:   They’re definitely not universal.  [All laugh]  The great majority of directors will come in with more of a ‘go-here go-there’ approach, and I certainly prefer Patrick’s way of working.  If he didn’t have a good sense of where you should be on stage, it could be a mess.  But this is just something that’s unique to him.  He has a way of working the picture out in the absolute perfect way by starting with the core of the scene, which is,
What is the scene about?  Who are you at this moment in time, and what are you feeling?

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BD:   Have you done some world premieres?

Capone:   I did the American premiere of Mary, Queen of Scots [by Thea Musgrave, recording shown at right].

BD:   I just wondered if it’s easier or harder working with something that is new, and being able to either get ideas from the composer, or give the composer ideas, and have them modify the work slightly for you.

Capone:   That happened with Of Mice and Men actually.  Carlisle Floyd was not directing the show, but the director had given me an idea, and she hadn’t helped me that much with it.  I was finding a lot of it on my own, and she certainly did what she could, but we were struggling with it.  Floyd came in, and having been the one who conceived the pictures, [snaps her fingers] he said a few things to me and I ended up doing exactly what she had wanted.

BD:   When you’re doing a piece like La Bohème, do you wish you could go back and have Puccini give you a few ideas?

Capone:   He did!  [Laughs]  He wrote a few ideas into the score.

BD:   How much do you rely on the score, and how much do you rely on the stage director, or is that an impossible question?

Capone:   You can rely on the score for the music, and you have to read what’s written there in terms of stage directions and ideas with a grain of salt.  Listen to the music.  The music usually tells the story.  If it’s an opera that’s worth doing, it’s in the music.

BD:   How much of your career is contemporary music, and how much is standard works?

Capone:   Lately it’s been more on the contemporary side.

BD:   Why do audiences seem to be a little hesitant about contemporary music?

Capone:   Because it’s unknown.  It’s just going into foreign water.  They’re afraid of something that they don’t understand.  They can go and see La Bohème, and know what it’s going to be.  It predicable.  They’ve already decided what their response is going to be.  They’ve also decided they will love it, so it’s easy for them.  They can just sit back and relax.

BD:   Does that make it harder if you have a really unconventional production?

Capone:   Maybe it does.  It’s possible.  You might have to work harder sometimes in those pieces to make them convincing.

BD:   Do you find yourself feeding off the audience each time?

Capone:   Sure.

BD:   Is the audience different each time?

Capone:   Definitely!

BD:   How?  What kinds of differences are there?

Capone:   It’s a really difficult question to answer, because with me it’s something that I pick up on in the first two minutes I’m on stage.  They don’t even have to have clapped or breathed.  You feel an energy when you get out there, and you know if you’re going to have to really work a little harder, or if you can just sky-rocket.  It’s an energy thing, and I don’t mean to be too medical, but it really is something that you sense.  It’s always nice to have them be responsive, but you have to learn how to play when they’re not.
BD:   [To the director]  Do you stay around for the whole run of performances?
Bakman:   No, I generally don’t.

BD:   Is that a mistake, or just an impossibility?

Bakman:   More often than not, it’s an impossibility.
BD:   You would if you could?
Bakman:   Yes, I would like to.  Ideally, if there are enough performances, what I would like is to break away from the middle of them.  I always like to see if it plays over a period of time, because that’s the best way to check myself and my work.  That way there is some distance to forget about it... if one could have the luxury of a week, or two weeks to get away from it, and then come back, because a piece will change.  It has to change.  It has to be slightly different every night.  There will be certain timing changes.  The important thing is for directors to come back and see the piece, and see how it has grown.  If it hasn’t grown, you haven’t done your work correctly.  However, if it has grown, but not in the direction that you set the characters into motion, then you haven’t done your work either.  When mistakes happen, how well will those performers be able to make those changes in the character?  How well have they really gotten to know the character, and how that character would think and respond in any situation?  So, ideally, it is best to go back.  I never want any more than rehearsal for everything to be a blue-print, not that it must always be this same way.  I’m more anxious to see how they respond off of one another, and react off of one another within the framework.

BD:   Do you feel your performances grow from performance to performance?

Capone:   Yes.  They change, certainly.  Every one is different, and it’s starts to get tighter and tighter.  There’s no question about that.

BD:   Is there ever a chance that it can get too tight if there are, say, thirty-five performances in a row?

Capone:   You can maybe start to take things for granted.  It can get sloppy.  You always have to go over it in your mind and with your body every night, especially if you’re running for a long time, which I’ve done.

BD:   What’s the longest run you have had?

Capone:   Once I did twenty-five performances of A Little Night Music [photo shown at left], but that was over not such a long period of time.  Timing is what that show is about, and so we had to really be on our toes.

BD:   That’s a musical.  Is there a big difference between doing a musical and an opera, or is there just a little more energy in one or the other?

Capone:   It’s definitely different, because you don’t have so much of the singing aspect in it.  In some ways it’s harder, and in some ways its easier.  That’s a very simple answer, but it’s the way it is.

BD:   Have you made some recordings?

Capone:   Yes.  Besides the Mary, Queen of Scots premiere, the other was of a piece called The Prayers of Kierkegaard by Samuel Barber [shown farther above-left].

BD:   Tell me a bit about Samuel Barber.

Capone:   I never met him.  I made the recording with the Louisville Orchestra and Jorge Mester, and we got a letter from Samuel Barber about how he felt about the recording.

BD:   Did he like it?

Capone:   Oh, yes.

BD:   Tell me about the piece.

Capone:   It’s a beautiful piece for chorus and orchestra with a soprano solo.  It’s based on poems of Søren Kierkegaard.  The beautiful poetry, and Barber’s wonderful music, which is poetry itself, make it a marvelous piece.  It has a lot of climaxes.  I am sorry he didn’t write more operas. 
He had such a gift for melody.

BD:   Is that what opera should be

Capone:   It needs to have that.  Menotti, who was a very close friend of Barber’s, said that anyone can write an opera, or a musical drama, but only God can give a melody.

At this point, the soprano had to leave for a costume-fitting, and the conversation continued with the director

BD:   Tell me about the Manon production that you did.

Bakman:   I had the great pleasure of working with Manuel Rosenthal on the piece.  [The production was in Seattle in 1985, and the program is shown below-right.]  I met with him first in Paris to discuss the production, and I had the opportunity of really discussing French music and French opera.

BD:   Was this your first French piece?
Bakman:   No, I had also done Werther.  But working with one of the Deans of French music, I decided to really go out on a limb.  His first question to me was to ask what I thought of French opera.  I knew, as we plunged into this, that I would either make a friend or an enemy!  I simply said that the American point of view is that it’s too pretty.  It’s decorative.  I said that I knew French opera is very different from Italian, but it’s very serious, and real flesh and blood with an incredible veneer over it.  He seemed rather pleased with that comment.  As we talked, the whole idea was that Manon was not going to be pretty.  It was not going to be about Fragonard and Boucher [eighteenth century French painters], but it was going to be about a woman who destroys herself for pleasure, and that whole image of what pleasure is.  The sets and costumes were incredible, and we moved the period up a bit.  It was really at Manuel’s suggestion.  I had hinted at it, and he said,
Don’t hint!  Let’s do it!  So we moved it forward to 1780, right on the eve of the French Revolution.  This made it a little bit more interesting with the costumes, and it showed how decadent the world was.  This helped particularly for the Cours-la-Reine, and the Hôtel de Transylvanie.  We did it without any cuts.  The only cut we made was the ballet in the Cours-la-Reine.  Manuel said that he had never seen the Transylvanie work in his entire life, and he wanted to make cuts there.  I told him that I thought I could really make it work, and he said fine!  By placing it in that slightly later period, we could go for an after-hours effect as an after-hours bar.  It was really dingy and decadent, so one easily understands why Manon died at the end.  Her will for life simply ceased because it had been shattered.  Breaking in on the Transylvanie just crumbled the world of illusions that she was living in.  It became a whole sense of this woman plunging into decadence.  She was by-passing what could have been a very simple and interesting life with Des Grieux, for one where she would rather go for the jewels and diamonds.  It’s a place where the libretto is very specific about what is happening, and that music of the Transylvanie, which is so decadent and steamy, is usually always done prettified.  It turned out to be one of the hottest scenes I’ve ever directed, and it was wonderful to see, as was the Cours-la-Reine.  In the 1730s, where the opera’s set, but certainly by 1780, the Cours-la-Reine was not a fashionable place.  It was the place for prostitutes to go.  It was quite fashionable in the early 1600s when it was the Queen’s Way, but not in the 1700s.  We did it by torch light, and when Manon came out in her red and orange gown, you knew what she was the Queen of.  [Laughs]  It was a wonderful design, and I had a wonderful time with my designers of the sets and costumes.  It was a very unified production that made people sit up and see this as flesh-and-blood, as well as a blood-and-guts work that goes along with an incredible sense of style of the period.  Even in La Traviata, Violetta has style but she is a courtesan.  It doesn’t mean you play her as Lulu, but you do create an atmosphere that is different than a very elegant drawing room.

BD:   Is there any chance that Manon could have been happy if she had gone off with Guillot at the beginning instead of Des Grieux?  [Vis-à-vis the program shown at right, see my interviews with Archie Drake, and Carol Vaness.]

Bakman:   She does eventually go off with de Brétigny.  Initially, it was Guillot de Morfontaine who wanted her, and who was the one who offered the carriage.  She recognized at the beginning that he’s a fob and a fool, and nothing would happen.  The one who’s got the money is Monsieur De Brétigny, the tax collector.  He was the one who was fleecing both royalty and peasant at that time.  So in my production, even Guillot gets his money from de Brétigny.  De Brétigny uses Guillot for title, and to be in a world of aristocracy, but the aristocrats needed de Brétigny for the money and for their daily existence.  So they were feeding off one another.  It was a very voracious group of people.  I loved doing it, and I loved the response.  Some people were absolutely surprised that it was not a lot of little angels and pastel colors all over the place.  But that didn’t bother me.  People said they realized this piece is dramatic, and that made me happy.  They also said that Massenet’s work is not long, and it’s not boring, and it doesn’t wander.  Manuel told me it’s not going to be chi-chi, and it wasn’t.  Our set was a unit set that no one knew was a unit, which was just wonderful.  There were very few pieces of scenery, but they were monumental.  It moved so that the set changes were down to thirty seconds, so there was a wonderful sense of continuity in the piece.

BD:   Did the curtain go down between the scenes, or did it revolve in front of the audience?

Bakman:   The main curtain came down because musically you really need that break.  The vista changes would break the style of the music, and that is what it is all about.  

BD:   How did you distribute the five acts?

Bakman:   We did it in three acts with two intermissions.  Our first act was Amiens and the love scene [the original Acts 1 and 2], then Cours-la-Reine and Saint-Sulpice [the original two scenes of Act 3] as the second act, and Transylvanie and the Le Havre [the original Acts 4 and 5] was the third act.  I loved having this experience of working with the French repertoire, and having the chance to prove that it was real theater.

BD:   Where did you do Werther?

Bakman:   I did Werther at Lake George.  I’m doing to do it with Manuel Rosenthal in Seattle in two years’ time.  We’re doing the baritone version!

BD:   Tell me about that.

Bakman:   Massenet re-orchestrated it, and re-wrote for baritone [for Mattia Battistini in 1902].

BD:   Have you thought about it yet?

Bakman:   I’m working on it.  It’s very different.  It’s a different temperament and a different quality.  It gets a little closer to the character of Eugene Onegin, as opposed to the almost insanity or the hyper-emotional plane that the tenor quality gives it.  [As it would turn out, the Seattle production would be staged by Francesca Zambello, and conducted by Antonio de Almeida.  Dale Duesing would sing the title role.]

BD:   Does an opera where the title character commits suicide for love speak to audiences today?

Bakman:   Yes!  It’s not so much just for love.  It’s his obsession.  There
s an interesting scene after Charlotte reads the letters, and she comes to realize that he’s really not so much in love with her, and she feels responsible for leading him on.  She sees something very vulnerable in him, and it’s that vulnerability that she herself relates to.  There’s a loneliness in her, but there’s also that practical-ness that one can’t wallow in self-pity.  That’s what Werther does, so he doesnt really kill himself out of love.  Hes so obsessed to have her, and to own people, and own things and objects, that the killing even shocks him that it actually happens.  I do it very differently.  I have a very different place where he kills himself, and why he kills himself.

BD:   He
s not in his apartment?

Bakman:   No, he’s not in his apartment.  I do a situation that the mother is buried on the property.  So Charlotte does a scene with Werther over the mother’s grave in the first ace.  She is upset, and she’s always working with this death-motif.  She wonders why must someone die, and this question of being taken affects her very much.  When Werther actually kills himself, he goes back to where the mother’s tomb was, and where he was the happiest on first meeting Charlotte, and kills himself there.  Part of it is how to explain the children coming out, and singing the Christmas Carol because it’s right within her property.  She’s someone who knows him, and goes searching for him, and finds him there.  So, graveyards and gravestones become important in the piece.

BD:   It shows a whole knew angle on the opera.

Bakman:   Even with the tenor, I think the piece is quite wonderful.

BD:   Thank you for spending time with me this afternoon, and be sure to convey my best wishes to Gloria when you see her next.

Bakman:   I certainly will.  Thank you.  This has been a great pleasure.

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© 1986 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in Chicago on January 24, 1986.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB two days later.  This transcription was made in 2023, and posted on this website at that time.  My thanks to British soprano Una Barry for her help in preparing this website presentation.

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

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Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.