Tenor  Émile  Belcourt

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


Émile Belcourt was born in 1926 in Lafieche, Saskatchewan, to a French-Canadian family. His mother was a church organist and piano teacher, and all seven children were musical. Émile studied both the violin and clarinet, and was a talented boy soprano. His service in the navy during World War II meant he didn't begin his pharmacy studies at the University of Saskatoon until 1946. However, his mother insisted he keep up his music by taking voice lessons. Belcourt's first teacher, Helen Davies Sherry, had been an oratorio singer in England. As well as appearing in leading roles in university operettas, Belcourt won the Justice Brown Award in 1949 as the best amateur singer in Saskatchewan. British adjudicator Helen Henschel advised the young winner to consider a professional singing career. Despite his lack of formal training, an audition in London with conductor John Pritchard led to the Glyndebourne Opera Chorus and comprimario and cover roles.

belcourt At Vienna's music academy in 1951, Belcourt studied technique with Edita Fleischer, who encouraged him to try the baritone repertoire as well as establish a career as an oratorio and lieder singer. Three years later, Belcourt accepted a baritone contract at the opera house in Ulm, Germany, where he spent three and a half seasons, followed by another in Bonn. However, by this point, Belcourt's voice was in total disarray, and baritone roles such as Sharpless were giving him difficulty. He and his family relocated to France, where he studied with famed soprano Germaine Lubin in Paris and relearned how to be a tenor. Through Lubin, he met coach Irene Aitoff, who encouraged Belcourt to learn the role of Pelléas. His performance in the opera was broadcast by Radio-Television Francaise, and on the strength of that tape, Alexander Gibson hired Belcourt for the Scottish Opera, which led, in 1963, to Edmund Tracey's invitation to the Sadler's Wells Opera, now the English National Opera. London became Belcourt's base of operations, and the ENO his home company for the next 20 years. In 1970, he appeared in Reginald Goodall's Ring at the ENO, inaugurating his signature role as Loge in Das Rheingold, which he performed with distinction in both London and Seattle for over a decade. Other roles in Seattle included Tristan and Siegmund, and he performed Shuisky in Boris Godunov in London, Glasgow, San Francisco and Toronto.

Belcourt's career includes such world premieres as the role of Dr. Oliver Sachs in Michael Nyman's 1986 opera The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat. In musicals, his 1988 performance as Emile de Becque in Rodgers and Hammerstein's South Pacific packed a West End theatre in London for over a year. He has also appeared in the title roles of Man of La Mancha and Sweeney Todd. He also recorded the soundtrack of Mike Newell's film Pushing Tin.

In 1992, Belcourt became a vocal coach at the University of Saskatoon, where he was joined by current wife, Irish soprano Norma Burrowes, and their children. The couple later resettled in Toronto in 1994 where they continue to perform recitals together and have established themselves as teachers and coaches.

--  Throughout this page, names which are links refer to my interviews elsewhere on this website.  BD

In March of 1986, Belcourt was in Seattle as Herod in Salome, and we arranged to speak on the telephone the day after the first performance.  As usual, I was quite prompt with my call . . . . .

belcourt Émile Belcourt:    Two o’clock!

Bruce Duffie:    Yes!  May I speak with Émile Belcourt?

EB:    Speaking.

BD:    This is Bruce Duffie in Chicago.

EB:    Hi!

BD:    How are you?

EB:    Ah, a bit tired after last night’s sing but we’re all right!

BD:    Is this time all right for the interview?

EB:    Oh yes, definitely.

BD:    How did the performance go?

EB:    It went very, very well.  Very successful!  Do you know Josephine Barstow?

BD:    Yes, I met her several years ago here in Chicago.

EB:    She did an absolutely fantastic Salome; really tremendous.  She is a great singing actress.  She really convinced them all last night of this love that devours her for John the Baptist.  It’s the cause of all this upheaval!  [Both laugh]  [Program is shown below-right.]

BD:    When you’re portraying a character on stage, how easy is it for you to convince the public that what you’re doing is what the composer and the librettist intended?

EB:    How easy? 

BD:    Or how difficult.

EB:    Yes, how difficult!  I’m a good actor, and if you have a director that gives me ideas, I can portray what they want.  I think I succeed because my mother used to say,
You’re a better actor than you are a singer!

BD:    [Surprised]  Do you feel you’re a better actor than a singer?

EB:    Sometimes, yes!  [Much laughter]  And I hate it!

BD:    You’d rather be a better singer?

EB:    Yes, of course.  My first training was lieder in Vienna years and years ago. 

BD:    I want to get back to singing in a few moments, but since you just come off the opening night, are opening nights better performances because you’re so keyed up, or are later performances better because you’ve had more run-throughs?

EB:    It’s better in some ways later.  It’s more accurate, but the opening night always has a special kind of something of its own.  With the excitement of it all, you give a bit more than at the later ones because it is a first night.  We think that it’s better but it might not be.  People who really know about these things might prefer a later performance because it’s more accurate.

BD:    There is more of the unexpected on the opening night?

EB:    That’s it, yes.  On an opening night you do things.  I’m sure you forget them.  You just do them on the spur of the moment, and you might not do that on the third, fourth or fifth performance.

BD:    Should the broadcast be done on a performance later in the run?

EB:    They always have it in your contract but they haven’t spoken to me about any broadcast.  It’s not on any of our call sheets that they’re going to have one.

BD:    I mean where broadcasts do take place, not necessarily in this specific case.

EB:    Were a broadcast to take place would we sing better?

BD:    Would you prefer the broadcasts be later in the run?

EB:    Oh yes, because it’s more accurate.  You make less mistakes!  Richard Strauss is not easy!  We don’t really have many rehearsals with the conductor, so you get better at each performance.  You make a mistake, or you hang on too long on a note so therefore you were late in the next bar!  You correct all those things later on.

BD:    You say Strauss is not easy.  Are there any composers that are easy?

belcourt EB:    [Laughs]  Some composers are easier to learn than other ones.  Strauss is very difficult.  It’s like Debussy.  When I learnt Pelléas it had to have the same kind of work.  The intervals are unexpected.  You have these whole tone scales, and it takes a little getting used to in order to sing these whole tones up and down.  I like to get it right because I trained on the violin as a kid.  Mum was a very fine pianist, and she thought I was musical enough to learn the violin, which I still use now.  I wasn’t happy at first.  I wished I’d learned the piano, but when I learn a piece like Strauss, I will play it on the violin and learn it that way.  I did that eleven years ago when I got this role for the first time in London.  You have to have fingering and you have to find the right tone.  So it’s a bit like the human voice.  It’s all by ear, whereas as you play it on a piano, if one note is flat it will always be flat!  Then you call the piano tuner.

BD:    Everyone should carry his own tuning-wrench!

EB:    [Laughs]  Yes, exactly!  Singing is the training of the ear, and so is the violin, whereas piano playing is not the same.  That way I learned it, so when I get those dissonances and come in on an E natural when everybody else is singing or the orchestra is playing E-flat chords, it’s fun to get it right.

BD:    How much do you expect of the audience to understand all these technical difficulties, or do you not want them even to think about that?  [Vis-à-vis the production shown in the program at right, see my interviews with Sonja Frisell, Bodo Igesz, Roger Roloff, and Geraldine Decker.]

EB:    No, no.  It’s not for the audience.  You do it for yourself.  The part was written that way with those difficulties in, and it’s up to us to master them.  Then it becomes second nature, and the audience appreciates it because it is part of the whole thing.  Strauss has written these strange kind of dissonances for Herod.  He’s a kind of cracked individual, you know; a little cross-eyed and things like that!  So that comes out if you get those odd sounding phrases right.  An awful lot of those (other fellows who sing Herod) find it just so difficult that they just get it near.

BD:    You want to be more than just close!

EB:    I mean to be right bang on!

BD:    Did Strauss not understand the voice, or do you find you’re adapting to his impossible demands? 

EB:    Maybe I think the second part is right.  Whether he understood the voice or not I wouldn’t be really qualified to say.  I don’t think it’s difficult task.  The part of Salome is not easy to ride that orchestral sound.  You have to have stamina and a damn good technique.  I don’t think it’s technically difficult.  It’s just difficult to learn.

BD:    When you’re involved in any part, how much is technique and how much is artistry?

EB:    I’m afraid I’m one of those singers whose technique of singing is bound up with expression.  I let the part that I am performing make me do the right technique.  I don’t try to bother about where to put a particular note.  I let the word, the verb or the meaning, the sense, the expression place my voice.

BD:    Then when you’re on stage, are you Emile Belcourt playing a character, or do you actually become that character?

EB:    Oh no, I’m portraying a character.  Take the phrase, ‘Man töte dieses Weib!’, at the very end of Salome.  That requires a high B flat.  Now that is a difficult note to sing, and you try all kinds of things when you use only technique.  You think,
I’ll open and sing an EE vowel because I can do these.  The way I do all these things is that I sing it as purely and as humanly as is possible for me.  I sing a real Ö on ‘Man töte’ with meaning and all this kind of stuff, and it comes out right.  That’s my approach!

BD:    Do you work harder on your diction when you’re singing in the language that the audience understands?

EB:    No!  Diction is a funny thing.  You get the diction right if you know what you’re saying when you’re singing.  I know some fellows who have tremendous diction but you don’t understand what they’re saying.  The meaning is more important than diction.  If you understand the guy or woman and really know the part you
’re playing, then you’ll get the diction right.  You don’t have to spit it out or over-exaggerate the consonants and all that kind of thing.  It comes out right and people understand and like it.

BD:    Do you appreciate this new use of surtitles?

EB:    Yes.  I’ve never seen it before.  There are two casts here, and I went to the dress rehearsal of the other fellows last Thursday.  As a matter of fact, that second cast is performing the opera right now!  It was very, very interesting because I have never seen it before, and I’ve never worked with any supertitles before.  I think it’s a phase that we’re all going through right now.  It will educate the public so they will understand the operas better, and then eventually I think we’ll go back to the vernacular.

BD:    So you’re a proponent of opera-in-English?

EB:    Yes.  Well, I’m a proponent of singing in the language that the majority of the people out front speak.  When I was in Germany we did everything in German!  In England, at the English National Opera we sing everything in English, and in France in the smallest theaters they sing everything in French.

BD:    Are you willing then to relearn the same part in four or five different languages?

EB:    There are few parts that I’ve done in three languages, like Danilo in The Merry Widow.  I have sung that in German and in French and in English.  But those kinds of parts you do really have to sing or speak in a language for the people out front because otherwise the gags would go for naught.

BD:    Especially with the spoken dialogue!

EB:    I thought it was a good idea what they did when all the sung stuff was in French and all the spoken stuff was in English.

BD:    Oh, a bi-lingual performance!

EB:    Yes!  I didn’t see it, though.  I was involved in it when they did it in San Francisco with Régine Crespin and a whole French cast. We sang everything in French, and spoke everything in French.  It worked, but maybe it would have worked better if they had understood some of the things... although every now and then it was just lovely to hear Madame Créspin say certain lines in English!  [Imitating a French accent] 
Not yet, my dear!”, and especially the very last line, If you can’t have what you love, you must love what you have!  It really brought the house down.  In a way it was stronger than had it all been in English because then the audience really just fell about laughing.  But I like to think that, like straight plays, they’re done in every country in the language that the people understand.  This is for operetta especially, and even opera could be done more effectively in the language that the people understand.  We did The Ring in English in London, after a lot of hard work with Reggie Goodall and Glen Byam Shaw, the director.

Glencairn Alexander "Glen" Byam Shaw, CBE (13 December 1904 – 29 April 1986) was an English actor and theatre director, known for his dramatic productions in the 1950s and his operatic productions in the 1960s and later.

In the 1920s and 1930s Byam Shaw was a successful actor, both in romantic leads and in character parts. He worked frequently with his old friend John Gielgud. After working as co-director with Gielgud at the end of the 1930s, he preferred to direct rather than act. He served in the armed forces during the Second World War, and then took leading directorial posts at the Old Vic, the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre and Sadler's Wells (later known as the English National Opera).

In 1962, despite describing himself as tone deaf, Byam Shaw accepted the post of director of productions at Sadler's Wells Opera. He worked closely with the company's managing director, Norman Tucker, and musical director, Colin Davis. Tucker's successor, Lord Harewood, recalled "a series of striking productions, including The Rake's Progress, Così fan tutte, Der Freischütz and A Masked Ball … a notable elegant and witty Die Fledermaus, Hansel and Gretel … and Gluck's Orpheus."

Byam Shaw's most celebrated opera productions were in collaboration with the conductor Reginald Goodall, first The Mastersingers, the company's last major production at Sadler's Wells Theatre, and, after its move to the London Coliseum in 1968, the four operas of Wagner's Ring cycle, in which Byam Shaw's co-director was his former assistant John Blatchley. Byam Shaw's last collaboration with Goodall was Tristan and Isolde in 1981.

He was awarded a CBE in 1954 and received an honorary DLitt from the University of Birmingham in 1959.

Reggie was a real darling.  I have a call sheet from English National Opera when we were doing The Ring.  He works with first violins alone one session in the morning, and that afternoon he’d have the second violins.  The next day it would be all the horns and then the trombones.  Even the timps he has a session with them alone.  That’s how he works.

BD:    He does that himself???  He doesn’t leave it to the section leaders?

EB:    Oh, no, no, no, he does that all himself.  He talks to them all the time about the opera, and he says at this point what you are representing is what is happening on stage.  He makes them all aware of the drama, and then they play softer.  They play beautifully for him, and the people out front hear what we’re saying.  It’s magical because the critics who were out front were saying they understood The Ring for the first time.  They were saying that it’s one thing to know the German perfectly, but it’s another thing to do have it in your own language and hearing it at that moment with the music.  They were understanding things that they never were sure of before.  So it can work, but you need guys like Reggie, and of course that means money.  No one has that kind of money for orchestral rehearsals.  Brian McMaster [also on my interview with Goodall], who was with us at the Coliseum for years before he went to the Welsh National, knew what a treasure Reggie really was for an opera company.  So he had him over there as soon as he became Managing Director of that company.  He had him over to do Tristan and Parsifal.  Right now Reggie’s doing Parsifal for us at the Coliseum.  I’m anxious too to get back there and hear it!

BD:    Is that a role you would ever sing?

EB:    Oh, I don’t think so, no.  I’ve done Siegmund, and I would like to do that one again.  I also did two English Tristans here for Glynn Ross at the end of the German run.  [The English translation was by Andrew Porter, who also did the translation for the Goodall Ring.]  I’d like to do that one again but, it was my first one and it was too much... Friday night and then Sunday matinee!  I didn’t realize what that meant, and he told me later he threw me a curve!  [Both laugh] 

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Your big Wagner part is Loge?

belcourt EB:    Yes.

BD:    That’s the one you tend to do more often, and you are on the recording?

EB:    Oh, yes.

BD:    Let’s talk about this character.  What kind of an apparition is he?

EB:    There’s an awful lot written about our dear friend, Loge.  I always see him as a messenger, really.  They talk about him as a conniver and a cynic, an embodiment of evil, but he is not that, really!  To me, Wagner just used him.  Loge is really not the god of fire, he’s an element of nature.  He is fire.  He’s not a god in the sense.  They always say he’s a god but I don’t think he is.  He is related to the Rhine Maidens.  You know that lovely Arthur Rackham drawing of Loge with his toes in the water and the three Rhine Maidens are teasing [shown at right].  The Rhine Maidens plead with him to bring the gold back, and they tell him he must get that message to Wotan.  Wotan must get that gold and put it back, and then everything will be all right.  Of course, if he did that then you wouldn’t have The Ring!  [Both laugh]  But then Loge gives him reasons to find excuses.  He helps Wotan, the human fellow, the human Wotan, find excuses.  Loge will help these things along as he is not a lawyer, but just a means of conveying this very important message about the gold having to go back into the Rhine.  I don’t think that one should try to do all kinds of crazy things with Loge.  He’s very serious in the music when he says the gods will grow old without Freia
’s golden apples.  So if they want to have Freia back, this is what they really should do.  Wotan has to go down there and get that gold back from Alberich.  It’s no more complicated than that!  One guy said to me once that Loge in the Nordic Myths descended from a horse and a human woman.  He said maybe we should have the character kicking his heels or something!  That’s the kind of research you have to read the program to find out what the hell that means, what that character is doing on stage, which is a mistake. 

BD:    It should not have been in the program notes, but it should all be on the stage?

EB:    Right!  You should be able to understand strictly from the libretto what happens.  It’s not right to have to be explained, like we did in our Salome in London.  The Salome died.  You see when I as Herod ordered them to go and kill Salome, all my soldiers had left me because the establishment was these German producers with all their social content and crap.  They felt they had to show there’s a downfall of the establishment and my soldiers had all left me because of the underground movement and all this stuff.  So when I went to kill her myself, I found that she was already dead from some kind of youthful, sexual ecstasy.  Her satisfaction killed her, and that really baffled me!  The only way that the audience could understand it was to have read the notes, and that’s wrong. 

BD:    Opera shouldn’t be social commentary?

EB:    [Somewhat sternly]  No, I didn’t say that!  I said it’s wrong to not understand what is going on on stage.

BD:    Then is opera art or is opera entertainment?

EB:    It has to be both.

BD:    Where’s the balance?

EB:    Oh golly, it’s such a mixture of things.  I’d say fifty-fifty.

BD:    Does that balance change in each piece?

EB:    I imagine it must end up a balance of fifty-fifty all the time.  You do have to entertain.  If you don’t, the people won’t pay and then you take the piece off.  I don’t really believe that the only reason that we have these kind of things is that we must be constantly teaching the people.  But entertainment is half as important as all the rest.  For instance, take Orpheus in the Underworld by Offenbach.  We were involved in Wendy Toye’s production which was very, very successful.  It ran for twenty years in continuous revivals.  It was fantastic.

Beryl May Jessie ("Wendy") Toye was born in London on May 1, 1917, and died there on February 27, 2010. She initially worked as a dancer and choreographer both on stage and on film, collaborating with the likes of directors Jean Cocteau and Carol Reed. Toye's debut film short, The Stranger Left No Card (1952), won the Best Fictional Short Film prize at the 1953 Cannes Film Festival, while her Christmas-themed short On the Twelfth Day… (1955) received an Oscar nomination in the Best Short Subject category. She directed films from the early 1950s until the early 1980s. Toye also was an advisor to the Arts Council and lectured in Australia.

On 6 January 1958, she appeared as Roy Plomley's Guest on the BBC Radio programme Desert Island Discs. Her choices were wide-ranging, including Bach, Mahler and Lena Horne. She was awarded the Silver Jubilee Medal in 1977, and appointed a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 1992 for services to the arts. She was made an honorary D. Litt. in 1996 by the City University.

She refused to write or authorise a biography during her lifetime, in spite of encouragement by her friends and family. Her theatrical archive is mostly in the Wendy Toye Archive, V&A Theatre & Performance Department, THM/343 of the Victoria and Albert Museum, with some items in the University of Bristol Theatre Collection.

Now they put on another production just recently, and I think I was the only one who was involved in both.  I played Pluto in both, and this one was entirely different.  I couldn’t understand that it would work.  I really thought,
My God!  They used Gerald Scarfe, who is a political cartoonist in London for the Sunday Times.  He had made a great criticism of Mark Elder’s and David Poutney’s Valkyrie.  He made tremendous cartoon sending it up, and it was a kind of a failurethe opera, not the cartoon!  So Poutney got in touch with him and said, If you feel so good, come and do our design for Orpheus!  And Scarfe did it.  The costumes are grotesque.  He has phallic symbols all over the place, devils, a big picture of God on the couch with sunbeams streaming out of his rear end, and things like that.  It’s been fantastically successful, because it entertains!

BD:    It’s not too busy?

EB:    At first we disappeared in it, but we’ve managed to cope and hold our own, and it’s still art and entertainment.

BD:    Have you ever been in a situation where you’ve not been able to cope?

EB:    Yes.

BD:    What do you do then?

EB:    Oh golly!  Well, the piece comes off very fast, like Malcolm Williamson’s Lucky Peter’s Journey.  I’m sure Malcolm wouldn’t like to hear that, but it was scheduled for many performances and they had to take it off because they didn’t get it right.  Whereas his The Violins of Saint-Jacques was much more successful, as was his Our Man in Havana.  But Lucky Peter was real failure.

belcourt BD:    Do you enjoy doing world premieres or contemporary pieces?

EB:    Yes.  It’s such a tremendous challenge.  I’ve been involved in a few... Penny for a Song of Richard Rodney Bennett to a play by John Whiting.  It was quite successful, a very good piece.  Very, very English about this Englishman’s idea of how to push back a threatened Napoleonic invasion by imitating Napoleon and ordering all the Frenchmen back who were tunneling under the Channel between France and England.  That was the basic story.  The French didn’t invade, and we ended up playing cricket and having a cup of tea.  It was great!  They did it in Munich actually. 

BD:    They should put it on again in honor of the opening of the Channel Tunnel when it gets finished!  [Both roar laughing at the idea!]  [The
‘Chunnel’ as it is known, had been proposed and discussed since 1802, and was eventually opened in 1994.]

EB:    Yes!  It was a lovely opera.  Another one I did was that Shaffer play about The Royal Hunt of the Sun by Iain Hamilton.  I sang Hernando de Soto, and that was successful.  It was an interesting piece, also Toussaint by David Blake, the story about the black rebellion and kicking the French out of Haiti.  They have done a revival that could have been successful had he at first shortened the piece and taken note of the ideas about entertaining because it was too long, too much stuff. 

BD:    Where is opera going today?

EB:    Oooo!  [Both laugh]  Well, it’s certainly expanding in this country, isn’t it?  I couldn’t begin to answer a question like that.  It’s getting a lot more exposure with television and even the radio.  You have a marvelous thing here in America, the Metropolitan Opera broadcasts.  They’re tremendous.  No other country in the world has anything like that.  I think opera’s expanding, so that’s where it’s going.  Undoubtedly like the hockey teams, there’s bound to be a dilution.  When you have a lot more hockey teams, better players get spread out more.  Maybe it’s the same in opera.  You can’t have Pavarotti and Domingo everywhere all over the world every night. 

BD:    Do you feel that you are competing against the likes of Pavarotti and Domingo?

EB:    Oh, golly, no.  Hell, no.  I am a more of a character tenor.  I’ve been doing these difficult parts.  I would love to be able to sing Don José and Otello and things like that, but I’ll never do that!  No, I’m the apple’s half way down the barrel, you know, a hole in the top with them!

BD:    Do you ever wish you were a baritone or a bass?

EB:    Well, I did sing baritone in Germany for a while
Don Giovanni and Così, and a whole lot of Sharpless.  Then when I did Harlequin in Ariadne, I said no, I must go back to where I started once, and that was tenor. 

BD:    How do you decide which roles you will sing and which roles you will decline? 

EB:    [Laughs]  You decide that when they offer them to you!

BD:    But you don’t accept every role you offer, do you?

EB:    Damn near it!  

BD:    Really???

EB:    Oh, yes!  Sure!  If they were to offer me Otello, then I wouldn’t do it.  I’m a freelance artist now so I don’t sing quite as much as when I was on full strength at the Coliseum at the English National Opera, but I get paid more money. 

BD:    How far ahead are you booked?

EB:    Once I go back to England I sit around for two months, and come back here to Seattle to do The Ring.  Then I go back to England and do a Janáček opera, Osud, and then it’s a revival of Orpheus.  We did twenty-five performances and we’re having another seventeen I think, or maybe more.


Also, see my interview with Felicity Palmer

BD:    Is it easy to do a run of twenty-five performances?

EB:    Oh, yes.

BD:    You wouldn’t rather do just three?

EB:    [Laughs]  Oh, no!  It’s fun!  We had three different singers as Eurydice.

BD:    Then that keeps it fresh, of course.

EB:    It’s different.  We also had two singers as Orpheus, and everything gets better each time.  It always gets better.

belcourt BD:    I’m sure the first cast doesn’t like to hear that!  [Both laugh]

EB:    Oh, if the first cast were to come back, then they would be better still!  It was a brand new production, as I said, of the Scarfe thing, and it took us a lot to play with that damn set.  We kind of cast an eye at first, like when he does the transformation into the fly to spy on Eurydice in her bath, it wasn’t in the bath.  This thing was in her bedroom, and he, Richard Angas, who’s about 6ft 4ins, became a great big blue bottle fly!  He was hung on two wires, and he was flying all over the place.  It was just fantastic, a tremendous, lovely change, whereas before in different productions he’d always zip into a costume.  Or like when Eric Shilling was with us, he had a fly at the end of a whip dangling in the air, a little golden fly.  But this time it was really spectacular.  Angas was literally flying by jumping up and down off ladders, keeping him up in the air with the wings.

BD:    Sounds similar to what they’re doing in the third act of Walküre there in Seattle!

EB:    I’ve not seen it yet, and I’m really anxious to!

BD:    I saw it last summer, and the horses do fly.  It’s wonderful.

EB:    But if the horses can’t kick and rear up and do things, don’t they get a bit plastic-y after a while?

BD:    The horses are very much like you find on a merry-go-round, but they are moving up and down and the girls are moving and the scene holds up very, very well.

EB:    Oh, good!  I thought that everybody was kind of laughing at it all.

BD:    Everybody was so surprised to see them actually flying because they fly up and down and across.  They don’t all have horses, which is nice.  As I remember, there’s a total of six horses for the nine girls.

EB:    That means a lot of guys backstage running and controlling them!

BD:    At the end the curtain calls, each girl had the two men, one either side, to take the curtain bow.

EB:    No kidding?  That’s a good idea!

BD:    But it worked very, very well.  I hope you enjoy doing the Rheingold

EB:    I’m anxious to meet François Rochaix and our new conductor Manuel Rosenthal, which causes me to lift an eyebrow.  I can only remember him as a very fine Offenbach conductor.  He did all the recordings in France of the lighter stuff.  But he might really do something beautiful with this Ring.  [The conductor of the previous Seattle Ring, as well as the Tristan (as shown in the photos on this webpage), was Henry Holt.]

BD:    The concept last summer with Armin Jordan [also on my interview with Rochaix] was a very Italianate-French concept rather than a Teutonic concept.   So I think Rosenthal should be able to drop in very well.

EB:    Oh good, because the orchestra here knows the work after all these years Henry Holt really trained them.  It must be lovely for a conductor to walk in with most of the musicians so familiar with the part.

BD:    Sure, and then he can begin working on the music rather than just the technical details.

EB:    Yes, really do some interpreting.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Let us go back to Loge for just a minute.  Are you disappointed that he doesn’t come back in any of the later Ring operas?

EB:    Only from the point of view of having to hang around.  We rehearse Rheingold for two or three weeks, and then you wait for them to rehearse all the other operas.  He does come back in the music of course, and that is very important.

BD:    Because you’re there in Seattle anyway, if Rochaix decides that Loge should reappear on stage at the appropriate musical motives even though he doesn’t have any lines to sing, would you agree to do that?


EB:    You’d have to speak to Speight Jenkins and the financial people about that!  [Much laughter]  I’d love to appear in each and every one of the operas.  It would make it more worthwhile financially!  [More laughter]  Loge, the element of fire, is something that can be very useful to human beings.  We use fire, but it can be very destructive.  Fire has sometimes a will of its own that you can’t stop it.  You couldn’t use the individual Loge character throughout the Ring because it has to be represented by that kind of power that fire has on its own.  It’s stronger in the music.  You can’t really have a guy singing around Brünnhilde at the end of Valkyrie.

BD:    Not necessarily singing, but maybe dancing in your fire costume?

EB:    You’d need a dancer for that! 

BD:    You will love the end of Valkyrie with the magic fire because Wotan actually has the fire in his hand.  He throws the fire and the area gets lit. 
[The Wotan, Roger Roloff, was also the Jochanaan in the Salome.]

EB:    Oh, gosh! 

BD:    It’s a magical effect that they’ve gotten some real magician to do, and it’s real fire!  

EB:    Oh, golly!  That’s great because that is some of the most sublime music ever written.  [Sings part of it]  That just makes me melt every time I hear that.

BD:    Have you done Erik in The Flying Dutchman?

EB:    No, I went straight from Loge to Tristan to Siegmund and back to Loge again.

BD:    Tell me a bit about Siegmund.  Obviously if you know the part, then maybe if the guy in Seattle breaks his leg you may be called upon?

EB:    [Laughs]  Breaks a leg?  You do think that’s what that really means???  [Again, much laughter]  An understudy’s prayer!  I don’t know whether I could sing it tonight if I had to.  I’d have to really look at it.

BD:    But if you’re involved in the Ring rehearsals and you might remember it.

EB:    Barry Busse is the one who did it last year, and he’s doing it again this year.  He’s singing Narraboth in the Salome, so he’s right now probably just stabbed himself on the stage.  [Checking the time]  That would be about right, yes.  That poor kid does it in both casts, and last night he was on the steps when Herod goes to him and says,
How come he’s killed himself?  He’s so beautiful.  In fact, I sit on the steps and pick his head up, and then I drop it.  He had looked at Salome, and at that time he took his wig off!

belcourt BD:    After he kills himself, does he have to stay there for the whole rest of the opera?

EB:    No!  He gets carried off.  Herod gives the order to carry him off right at that moment. 

BD:    It seems to me I read that at some production the poor tenor had to stay there for the whole show.

EB:    I heard about this.  It was partly a thing between Patzak and Dermota.  Dermota used to brag how as soon as he was carried off he had to go sing somewhere else!   Apparently Patzak changed the line one night to
Lasst ihn liegen [Let him lie there]!  [Laughs]  The soldiers didn’t know what to do because they didn’t get the order to carry him off!  That is the story... I don’t know how true it is.  Speight asked me why I thought Herod orders Salome to be killed, and I couldn’t kind of find an answer to that.  I think we must just try to do what is written in the libretto and then the audience has to figure it out. 

BD:    Tell me about Siegmund. 

EB:    It’s a vehicle, this marvelous meeting of the two falling in love and realizing, suddenly but slowly, who they really are.  It’s the librettist.  Wagner gives you a story about fate. 

BD:    Do you think that Wotan originally wanted Siegmund to retrieve the ring, and he didn’t think it would have to go through another generation if Fricka had not interfered?

EB:    Maybe.  Maybe Siegmund is too close to the gods to be the one to actually retrieve the ring.  Maybe Wotan knew that he would have to have another generation further away from the gods to actually be able to be that innocent and capture the ring.  Those are kinds of things for a musicologist to sort.  As for us performers, we interpret what’s written in our own parts, and not go too deeply about things.

BD:    So you don’t go back to letters and polemics?

EB:    A little bit, but not too much because then the audience will wonder why you do certain things.

BD:    Is Siegmund a grateful role to sing?

EB:    Oh God, yes, very much so.  The second act, too, not just the first, but the first is fab.  Everything is fabulous for Siegmund!  The confrontation with Brünnhilde is so beautiful.

BD:    Have you sung that both in English and in German?

EB:    Yes, here in Seattle.  I love that part.  He’s kind of the Pelléas.  I’ve sung that role, too, a lot and I just love that guy. 

BD:    That’s a wonderful opera.  I wish it were done more.  Is there a real link between the French School and the German School in those kinds of roles?

EB:    Oh, very much so.  Debussy was so influenced by Wagner, and you can certainly hear it in Pelléas et Mélisande with all the leitmotifs.  They hated Wagner so much because he influenced them so much!  That’s why they wrote much stuff about him.  They tried to shake him loose, and you can’t!

BD:    Maybe it wasn’t so much hate as resentment?

EB:    That’s it, and the fact that he did exert such an influence.

*     *     *     *     *

belcourt BD:    Tell me about Tristan.  You say it’s too much for you so you won’t go back to it?

EB:    I’d like to try it again.  It is a huge, huge part and I was tired on the second performance.  I’d like to try it again because I’m singing better now than I was then, five years ago.  I am more intelligent, and could hold back a bit.  I suppose that’s the technique that one has to learn when you talk about technique.  I don’t really mean that there is no technique in singing, but I think that you do suddenly realize things.  You learn from experience.

BD:    About how long does it take before you really feel that you have the role mastered
one set of performances, five performances, two productions?

EB:    It depends on the part of course, but you certainly improve each time.  It gets better each time because you’re freer to interpret more, and you enjoy it more.  I don’t think you ever stop improving something.  So I couldn’t really say, but it is a definite plus after three or four or five performances.

BD:    Are there any parts you sing that you feel you will never get into as much as you want?

EB:    I like everything when I’m learning a part and doing a part.  I just give it my all.  Right now I’d like to do Tristan again because I’d do it better.  I’d like to Pelléas again because I would sing it much better than I did it last time.  I feel things like that about all kinds of parts.

BD:    Are there some parts you have not sung that you would really love to sing?

EB:    Oh, of course.  Don José and Otello are the two parts I would really love to be able to sing, but I’ll never do them.  I just think Otello must be the utmost plus ultra of parts.  I’ve heard some very fine singers sing it.  I was in the chorus in musical comedy in London when De Sabata brought La Scala over in 1950, and that was out of this world.  I can still hear that first chord.  Ramón Vinay was singing it with Renata Tebaldi.  Jon Vickers I’ve heard often, and Domingo.  I was at that San Francisco performance when he was flown in from New York.

BD:    Oh, to save the show, yes!

EB:    It started very late that night.  I paid sixty bucks to go and hear that!  I was right in the front row, and not many people left, not even after midnight.  It was quite exciting.  He had created the part in that particular production, so there was no problem.  He fitted in easily.  You could see that he had done that production.  He didn’t have his eyes glued to the prompter
’s box.

BD:    How much do you rely on a prompter?

EB:    They never give us prompters here in Seattle.  It’s nice to have, and it’s a great relief for the conductor because he doesn’t have to bother with musical cues too much when there is a prompter.  Last night we would have liked to have had a few more cues from the conductor, but he’s very busy.  However, it makes it easier for us.  But I hardly ever need prompting of the text because I work hard at learning it.  When you do something for the first time, like my first Siegmund and Tristan, I asked to have one and they did have one here for those two things.  That was very, very useful, but eventually I prefer not to have them.

BD:    Do you then find them a distraction?

EB:    Yes.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Have you made some recordings besides the Loge?

EB:    A few things years ago in France and in Switzerland, but no, not really... nowhere near as many recordings as Norma Burrowes, who is upstairs looking after our son right now.  She’s done a lot of recordings on another kind of level.

belcourt BD:    Is it difficult for one singer being married to another singer?

EB:    Oh, yes!  You end up not discussing it too much!  [Laughs]  She comes to the dress rehearsals and always has a very, very succinct something to say which is just right.  She usually mentions things about movement.

BD:    So you’re mutually supportive then?

EB:    Oh, yes.  [At this point it was arranged to do the interview with her when they returned to Seattle for his Rheingold.]

BD:    What is on the calendar between now and then?

EB:    I go to Cologne.  I will also do a bit of work on Loge to freshen it up, and then we go to Spain for a week for a little holiday.  Her brother has an apartment there.  We then go and see her Mum in Ireland.

BD:    How many children have you?

EB:    We have the one, a little boy ten months old.

BD:    Just a recent addition?

EB:    Oh gosh, yes!

BD:    Maybe a few years from now I’ll ask if your child is able to separate you on the stage from you at home!  I had a nice interview with Don Gararrd, and he has a son so we were talking a bit about bringing up a son in an operatic home.  His reactions are very interesting.  [Among other offspring-related stories by various singers, see the interview with Fiorenza Cossotto.]  So you’ll be back for the Ring, and then what’s the next new role you’ll be learning?

EB:    There’s nothing in the cards for anything new.  The Janáĉek, but that’s a revival.  Janáĉek has a way of slipping from your memory, so I’ll have to renew that one quite a bit. 

BD:    How long does a role stay with you?

EB:    Some roles, like Pelléas, I could sing tonight!  This Salome came back very quickly.  Other roles you just cannot remember one note!  It’s very strange!  I don’t know why this is difficult.  Pelléas of Debussy is difficult.  You work hard at it, but then it stays in your head longer than easier things.  Maybe it’s just a better role, so I retain it.

BD:    You’ve been most gracious to spend an hour chatting with me this afternoon, especially after doing the premiere of Salome last night.

EB:    It’s been a pleasure talking to you.



© 1986 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded on the telephone on March 23, 1986.  This transcription was made in 2015, and posted on this website at that time.  My thanks to British soprano Una Barry for her help in preparing this website presentation.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.

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

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