Baritone Renato Capecchi
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie
|The repertory of Renato Capecchi
was huge, encompassing hundreds of roles; as the years passed, he
increasingly concentrated on the buffo parts, and eventually undertook
directorial assignments, allowing him to share his theatrical fluency
with other singers.
Following studies in Lausanne and Milan (where he trained with Ubaldo
Carozzi), Capecchi debuted as Amonasro (Verdi's Aïda) at Reggio Emilia in
1949. The very next year, he began an association with La Scala and,
shortly thereafter, he was engaged by the Metropolitan Opera, making
his debut in New York on November 24, 1951, as the elder Germont in La traviata. He remained on the
roster there until 1954, and returned in 1975 as both singer and stage
director. Meanwhile, he made his way on the concert stage, singing, for
example, Lorenzo Perosi's La
passione di Christo with the Wiener Singakademie at the Maggio
Musicale Fiorentino (October 1, 1953).
Capecchi sang numerous contemporary operas, including the premieres of
Malipiero's La donna è mobile
and Ghedini's Billy Budd and Lord Inferno. As late as 1988, he
created the part of the Maestro di Cappella in Sylvano Bussotti's L'ispirazione at the premiere in
Florence. He also participated in the Italian premieres of two
twentieth-century Russian operas: Prokofiev's War and Peace (performed in 1953,
the year of the composer's death), and Shostakovich's The Nose (1964) -- one of those
prickly, satirical works that caused the composer so much political
Melitone in La forza del destino,
an interpretation preserved in its early form on EMI's 1954 recording
with Maria Callas and Richard Tucker, served as Capecchi's debut role
at Covent Garden in 1962; in the same year he sang Mozart's Figaro at
the Lyric Opera of Chicago. Capecchi's Dulcamara, Gianni Schicchi, and
Bartolo became equally expert, and his Falstaff was a genuine hit at
the Glyndebourne Festival in both 1977 and 1980.
Teaching was accorded a growing place among Capecchi's activities long
before his stage performances diminished. Numerous conservatories and
studios throughout America and Europe engaged him for master classes
and seminars, and he enjoyed success in producing programs for
-- From a biography by Erik
Renato Capecchi sang with Lyric Opera of Chicago in two
seasons. First in 1962 as Figaro in The Marriage of Figaro with
Streich, Della Casa, Gobbi,
Corena, conducted by Maag, then in 1986-87 he returned for Benoit and
Alcindoro in La Bohème
for eleven performances with casts including
Corbelli/Wroblewski, Daniels/Brown/Putnam, Washington, led by Mauceri/Tilson Thomas in the
Pizzi production directed by Copley. [Names which are links refer to my
interviews elsewhere on this website.]
During his second visit in 1986, he graciously invited me to his
apartment for a conversation. While setting up the recorder for
the interview he asked if we had to be serious, and with a smile and a
wink indicated that he was joking! So this idea opened the
discussion . . . . .
Well, my first question is how do you make sure
that comic operas do not become slapstick?
Not become slapstick? You have to understand the comic
opera. This is the first
argument, the first way to understand how not to make a comic
opera slapstick because usually they confuse opera comica. The
comica is comica because of the text, because of the situations.
Very often they use the opera comica just for an exploitation of
gags, which are usual gags. Very seldom you find something new,
and so they become boring and they become a ‘tear’ comedies instead of
BD: Are there more
visual gags when the opera is not
being done in the language of the audience, such as when an Italian
opera is Italian done here in Chicago?
Definitely, definitely. This is the big
problem of the opera, of the melodrama. Melodrama has
been done for specific countries with specific languages. Wagner
is done in the German language, and if you do Wagner in Italian or
Strauss in Italian, it’s just a laughter. Falstaff is Italian just
because Boito wrote the Falstaff,
which is not the Shakespeare
Falstaff. So when I see
the approach that many wayward directors or
conductors have for the Verdi Falstaff,
I just say, “God,
this is not Italian!” Falstaff
Italian, and there is only one lexicon in Italian that gives you the
words of Boito. So when you don’t
understand the language you go slapstick, and this is the big
problem of the opera for everybody in the world now because
there is a lot misunderstanding of what is the melodrama. Gags
are not the melodrama.
BD: Is there
any way to overcome these problems?
RC: First it
should be necessary to know
languages, but humanity is becoming more and more
lazy, and everybody’s trying to speak only English. The English
becomes a problem because I perfectly agree with
older theaters who are now putting up the subtitles.
BD: So you
think it’s a good idea to have the titles?
RC: It’s a
fantastic idea. You respect the original work, otherwise you
have a kind of imitation of a masterpiece, which is
not a masterpiece anymore. Going to the extreme, it’s more or
less like when you go to the museum and you ask yourself, “Can
this one be a real painting, or is it a fake?” You know perfectly
well that in the world there are thousands and thousands and thousands
fakes. Most of the museums have fakes now, and they
present them as real Leonardo Da Vinci, etc, etc, etc!
BD: Is the
opera house becoming a museum?
The opera house will never become a museum as
long as there are people in love with a specific kind of music
the opera, like the melodrama. There are the people who collect
stamps and people who are collecting posters or small perfume
bottles or it doesn’t matter
what. You will always have an audience, a public, those
collectors. [Matter of factly] Of course I don’t believe
that the opera is for
taken aback] No???
not at all. Not everybody likes it. If I was asking you,
“Would you like a coffee?” you might
say, “I don’t drink coffee.” That’s it ! Not
everybody has to drink coffee. I don’t drink tea. I just
don’t like tea. I drink tea from time to time
just for fun, but I don’t collect tea. I collect coffee.
This is the answer. It was very clear years ago after the
1968 big social revolution in Europe when everybody — but
not me — became leftist. We had
to go to the people and we had to open the theater to the people.
We had to go to the people in their own
towns, so what happened? We were literally spending
and billions and billions bringing the opera from La Scala in small
villages where there was no theater. So we were trying to do
something in movie houses. Because it was a dramatic
situation we didn’t have an audience at first. When we had an
audience we were
obliging them to come by giving them the ticket. They went to see
La Scala, and we saw these poor dull faces
understanding nothing, but eventually laughing when the drama was
there, or being serious because they didn’t understand the words.
So that was the bad explanation. It’s useless going to the people
the people don’t want to hear us. You cannot push somebody
to become a stamp collector if he hates stamps. It’s like
suggesting restaurants. I
don’t suggest restaurants anymore to anybody. I cannot count how
many times I’ve
sent people to excellent restaurants because I’m a
gourmet, and they later say they did not like the food.
BD: You’re a
gourmet eater. Is the
public segmented into being gourmet opera goers and gourmet symphony
a moment] No, I
don’t think so. Being a gourmet is really a selection in the
selection. You may feed yourself very well with good music like I
I’m not obsessed by music. There are other interests, so I
wouldn’t say that the opera-goer should be gourmet.
opera work on television?
show. The picture is something small, so very seldom
do they take the whole stage. With all the possibilities that the
technique gives us, you
can do what you want with opera. But when it comes to the
details you can have very important ideas. I was very
happy to be there for rehearsals just to do all the details of this kind
flowers, the curtains, the in and out of the sets, all of which makes
BD: And this
is lost on the television?
BD: Should we
not do opera at all on television then?
RC: Oh, no,
no. It depends. Not all operas
can be done on television, I would say. I didn’t see the Met Tosca in the theater but I did see
it on TV, and I’m very curious because next year I will sing this at
the Met, and I’m sure it will be totally different. When I first
saw the Zeffirelli Bohème
it was on the TV and I said, “My God, it is so beautiful; it’s so
Then I had to go to the Met to study the show from the company box
because I had to sing it, and I wondered where are the
I should be? I don’t see my place because he was conceiving the
show for a movie. But doing a
movie is one thing and television is something else. The small
screen is something different than the movie.
should make opera movies but not from the
because otherwise you see the tongue of the
singers because they go close in on the face and you see [makes an ugly
tongue-sound] ‘yah, yah, yah,
yah’ the tongue shaking like this, and it’s not
BD: Let me
ask the ‘capriccio’
opera, which is more important — the music or
question. It depends. There is some music which is very,
very, very beautiful because of the
text. You perfectly know that the melodrama started because
melos, which means melody and drama and action comes
from the Greek. Monteverdi took the idea
of Conte di Bardi in Florence to start in the end of the 1500s to try
to go back the old style of the Greek theater because they were bored
about the polyphony. Not everybody knows that. So at this
point the text
was everything. Two years ago I did a class for the whole year at
the Juilliard School just trying to explain to these people that words
are very important, that the text is capital. Of course the text
is capital, and that’s why the music is under the text. That
should always be under the text, and in the Italian opera
usually the text is capital. When I was in Santa Fe two years
ago, we did a fantastic production because
for me Santa Fe is the Salzburg of America. Every detail is
taken care of. I had to direct Matrimonio
Segreto [The Secret Marriage]
Cimarosa. It’s a very beautiful
opera. The problem is that it’s done everywhere in schools, so
everybody has the bad opinion that this is for young people.
You have to be a master to do Matrimonio
Segreto. Before the opera started I was very upset when
one of the critics said, “This week there
will be Matrimonio Segreto
from Cimarosa, which is a minor Italian
composer, and the
plot is one of the meanest, stupidest Italian plots where you don’t
understand anything!” I would like to know what he can understand
about Hofmansthal or about the stories of Wagner which are so
weird. Just today I attended the rehearsal of Parsifal. It’s a fantastic
opera, but God, how long! Five hours and a half to tell
you a small story. The whole
story of Bohème goes
in less than two hours with the music, and the same for Rigoletto. Otello
is everything, but of course it’s not the Othello of Shakespeare, it’s
shorter. But God, if you understand the words, the problem is
enjoying the text. If you don’t
enjoy the text, you will be bored from [demonstrates typical
accompaniment] ‘um-pie-pie, um-pie-pie ... libiamo, libiamo’ which
has no sense if you
don’t understand the text. I think it was James Levine who said
soon opera will be dead because the audiences don’t understand the
texts so they don’t enjoy it. They sit there, they look this
masterpiece where more and more is brought to the set and to the stage
because you have to épater le
bourgeois [shock the bourgeoisie]. People come to New York
and they sit at the Metropolitan,
coming from the small villages because they visit New York. They
go to see the trade center, the two twin towers, or St Patrick’s
cathedral. They go to see the
Metropolitan Museum and they go to eat in an Italian restaurant in
Little Italy because this is the tour. They go to see
the Statue of Liberty. They go on Broadway, they go to see 42nd
Street. They go to see a show on Broadway and they
understand. There are always masterpieces on Broadway, but then
when they come to opera, they sit there. You have no idea how
many people I’ve met on
trains and on planes who say to me, “Oh, you’re from the
I’ve seen such-and-such. Fantastic, what a show.” But they
didn’t understand anything.
BD: They just
came for the spectacle?
because there are no subtitles for it, so they have no idea. Or
they come for names. I remember this report from somebody who is
always at the opera
house who told me there was a couple next to her,
and she was screaming to him, “Why did you have to spend all this money
to the opera today, and there’s nobody we know!” The fact
that you know somebody doesn’t mean anything. It’s absolutely
terrible in Germany where they spend everything on sets
and on directions. The more scandal they do, the more
successful they are because immediately the other
critics and General Managers are coming to see what happens. So
they make their name by scandal, but this is not
opera. Nobody cares about music anymore. In my time we
would have one week at least of musical
rehearsal with the conductor and a piano
working on the subtleties of the text and trying to match voices.
Now the voices very often don’t
match anymore. You land, you sing, you take
off. This is what happens. There is a collage of
personalities, but it’s not a collage of
work. The style is not there.
BD: You would
like to bring back the ensemble?
ensemble is the capital, and we don’t have
BD: Let us
talk a little bit about singing.
You’ve done many roles in many houses. Do you sing differently in
different sized houses? Do you change
your technique at all?
lucky if you have one technique for
ever. God knows, you have to have one technique. You
must have a technique which you can use to
adapt your voice for every style. I
never understood why speak about the word ‘style’.
Mozart is written in a way that
you cannot sing it another way. You cannot sing Mozart like you
sing Puccini. You cannot sing,
let’s say, a B or an A in Mozart like you sing for Verdi. You
have to use the same technique but it’s another way to project the
sound. French music has to be done in another
way, and German music has to be done in yet another specific way.
BD: There are the
traditions of opera?
RC: No, it’s
not the traditions of opera. It’s the
throat. You can only react in that way.
BD: Are we
losing this ability to change ways of projection?
Yes. Very often you realize things
are sung in the same way no matter what. I feel that, I feel
that. It’s difficult for me to speak about these things
because I am a certain age. In two years I will be forty years on
stage, which is quite a lot, and of course the past is always the
best! But it’s confusing time to time because I hear myself from
time to time on the radio. I don’t
collect my records. I don’t like myself.
aback] You don’t like yourself???
RC: No, this
is exactly what I am
saying. I don’t like myself because I would do things totally
because my feelings are different. So from time to time I say,
that right, or I’m wrong? Was it wrong then, or is it wrong
now?” The feelings are
different. There are a few performances that I
did on record that really I definitely say I would do that exactly the
BD: [With a
gentle nudge] Which are these?
RC: I don’t
say that. It is too private! I could
tell you that later, but not on the mike! [Both laugh]
There is a video tape I saw
again on the television after many years. I was surprised that it
was on video tape. I know somebody was stealing that, for
sure. Anyway, the tape was fantastic. Nobody
nowadays can sing it like this again. Not just me, the whole show
there was a fine conductor, and we were matching each other with
tremendous voices. The only ugly voice was mine! And there
was also tremendous direction because that
was the opening of the Italian television. But when I saw the
show it was so painful because my head should
be next to the soprano, or my head should be next to head of the
tenor. I should not have moved my hand. I should have
turned this way just a little, etc. Because the technique at that
time was so limited, we couldn’t do anything. Now the
television gives you the possibility to be broad in what you do.
you see on television is incredible. So it’s difficult to compare
the present with the past. As we say in Italian, you have
to take my words with ‘beneficio
d’inventario’ [benefit of inventory]. You may like or
dislike it now, but I am very insecure now.
taken aback] Insecure??? I would think being a veteran of
almost forty years would
make you more secure!
RC: No, I am
very insecure about what is right and
what is wrong.
BD: But you
don’t bring this insecurity when you’re
no! I’m teaching more than
directing. I don’t feel like a director. I love to direct,
but more than directing I teach because the details are everything for
BD: Have you
ever directed an opera in which you also sang?
which I don’t like because I see the show from the director’s side,
then I go on stage a few steps
and I have to act. You have no idea how many times I saw
myself, I felt myself and wondered, “What are you doing here?
the wrong position!” Even if my assistant was taking my place on
stage, physically I feel different. When I am sitting down
preparing, I plot
each character in the geometry of the positions in the
action. I have a movie in my eyes, and I see the movie when I
write my show. I always write because my memory’s
really bad. I write everything, and then slowly, slowly, I’d be
on stage from my details. My
details go to the characters, because each one of us does things our
own way, and the director does not know how. So we have to
build, we have to match everything, every small specific
character we have. So it’s very difficult, but when I direct I am
very, very tight. I have a very bad reputation. They
say I’m very difficult. I enjoy myself, but I’m very
picky because every detail has to come out because the details
are part of the libretto, every single word. How can you
explain Gianni Schicchi, for
instance? I was just thinking about this
because I have to go to Australia this year to teach,
and I saw they’re doing Gianni
Schicchi among their other operas, and
the director is a very nice gentleman, but not Italian. I
will ask him if he knows why they speak about Tu se' anche stato
podestà a Fucecchio. I am curious to see what he
will do. Why Fucecchio? Because Fucecchio is a small town
which was at the border of the Siena, Florence and Pisa
Republics. None of the three republics wanted to have Fucecchio
because they were all crazy and fearful. So if you say Tu
se' anche stato podestà a Fucecchio, this is a gesture
nobody will understand if you don’t know Italian. It has to be
absolutely understood. How can you
explain that? How can a foreigner understand that? So you
see, there is something missing. You must know the secret.
You must know the secret, otherwise what do you
translate? What is that Fucecchio? What does that
mean? It is like Così
fan Tutte because
Così fan Tutte is
always a misunderstanding. I
don’t like to speak about the finale because everybody makes the finale
BD: Is it
RC: No, it’s
not a happy end, because you have to know
should end up with whom?
don’t get married. They just leave. What happens now in the
usual edition you see is because there is a translation from the
Mozart period where they translated the Italian as a happy marriage in
Germany. So the translation in America is done from Germans and
from Austrians, who took this translation for good. When at the
end the ladies are telling them ‘We
shall be faithful forever’, they really are furious because the young
men have made this advance to the two ladies, and then they turned
their backs on them. So who can understand it if
you don’t know the language?
BD: So what
do you do as a director to make sure
the audience understands these details?
RC: I work on
physically so they turn and you see the men doing
this [demonstrates]. You have to point out the details with your
hands. You know that singers, as they go on stage, immediately
have to let their hands fly. They always
have their hands up.
I had a fantastic Swede, a clever tenor. The voice was not
beautiful, but he’s got talent. But he came
out on stage to sing ‘Il mio Tesoro
in tanto’ looking very serious. Then with his hands it
looked like he’s taking off. He later comes to me and says, “How
was it?” and I
say, “Very well singing! But your acting looked like you flew
away! You had wings!”
So this is something to think about. It’s capital to use your
body when you need to. You will see always singers
pointing at something. They always have one finger out. Not
the hand, the finger. If you
have to point at something a thousand times, when I do this again it
doesn’t mean anything. So what I’m teaching is first don’t
move at all?
move. Try to find which are the
essential movements that you need to explain yourself. Then those
are the few
gestures with which you explain something,
and that’s it. Then you grow, and that’s
BD: Have you
sung a lot of contemporary operas?
I was talking with Alessandro
Corbelli. He’s a very nice guy, a
professional. He was one of my first Italian colleagues on
stage, and I was asking him how many operas he knew. I have over
hundred now, and he said, “I think
I did fifty operas, but really maybe twenty standard works because I
have done so many
modern operas.” You do two performances or three performances or
just one performance and it’s gone forever!
BD: Why have
they gone forever?
they’re not good, they’re not
appealing, they’re not interesting. For one Verdi or one
Cimarosa, imagine how many composers were also writing at that time.
BD: But whose
fault is it that we’re not getting so
many new operas — is it the composers or the lack
RC: I think
it is a lack of geniality of talent from both
sides. You can have an excellent libretto by an excellent
librettist, but I don’t want to talk about that. Years ago I did
an opera from an Italian composer. The opera
is only 19 minutes, a one-man show, and the composer is Luciano
Chailly. [Luciano [born
Ferrara, January 19, 1920 – died Milan, December 24, 2002] is the
father of the conductor Riccardo Chailly.]
They were asking me to sing the opera
as a première, which I did in Vienna for the Festwochen in
1975. The librettist is fantastic because he said, “I’d
like to do something of Chekhov”. My God, Chekhov! Chailly
said, “Find me
a libretto; find me whatever you want.” So I was reading for
months, and months, and months only novels because I want to have
something which has a start and an end in a very
compressed way. We found The
Book of Complaints. It’s a book of
complaints in a Russian station, a small village where there are seven
or eight complaints on two pages. On this text, which is a
fantastic text, he needed fantastic music, only dance rhythm.
It’s a splendid opera. I find him very
talented, but how many operas are there, especially when they go into
thoughts, religious problems, and philosophical problems. They
talk, talk, talk, talk, talk for hours and
nothing happens on stage because it also needs something visual on
stage. Otherwise you make a symphonic poem. For instance, I
have to do now
It’s drama in the music because
of the way he wrote the music. He took that
as a symphonic piece, a dance piece because it’s on stage.
BD: Do the
contemporary composers that you’ve sung
understand the voice?
[Sighs] Some of them understand the
voice but don’t want to care about the voice. They just keep the
voice like instruments. They want to do that!
BD: [With a
gentle nudge] You don’t want to sing like a clarinet?
RC: For the
it’s physically very hard to have some intervals. The body
refuses certain intervals, so
that’s why there are very few specialists. I have done so many
operas, so many world premières, my God, and also so many
that Chailly piece be done more often?
RC: Yes, but
nobody knows because they don’t
care. I will do this piece this year because I’m
teaching for three months in the Merola Program at the
opera house in San Francisco. They have a school for the young
artists and they want to do
shows for television. They want to do shows just to make tours
with the students. They have only eleven students. It’s
to have more voices, and so they want to do the show. We will be
very excited because for sure we shall do something because you need
very few sets. But it’s very, very
BD: Are there
others that you
have done that you think should be done again even though they have
fallen by the wayside?
RC: For sure
some. I was recording this one
because this is a very tiny piece. You can make a one-man show
for television, and this is what they have in mind
with all the monologues you can do. There is also Il Maestro di Capella of Cimarosa,
and for a school I was suggesting to do
some monologues from the period of Monteverdi because then you have
the difference of the styles. With Monteverdi you have
absolutely to be epic, to be Greek, and you can stand on stage and
that. You can perform that Monteverdi as a
monologue. I have done that, but the gestures have to be
very select, very epic, very essential. Then you go on to
the commedia of Maestro di Capella
where you have to be broad, like
the Neapolitan commedia dell’arte,
which is not commedia
dell’arte. It’s more Neapolitan than commedia dell’arte.
Neapolitan style is not commedia
dell’arte, it’s sceneggiato,
I would say. [Sceneggiato
indicates an opera, both Italian and foreign, of literature and fiction
reworked for television representation, especially in the period up to
the end of the eighties.] Then you have the
modern side of Chailly applying his music to the text of
Chekhov. This is absolutely very modern, so you have three
different styles of acting for one person, and to show that from the
I think is not bad.
BD: It sounds
like a doctoral work!
RC: It’s a
doctoral work, yes, but this is the only
way to work because I have been giving so
many master classes here and there. It’s incredible. They
always have fencing classes, acting classes, and there is never acting
classes from somebody who knows what it means to sing on
stage. But acting for the opera
stage is different from straight acting because we have some
obligations such as the tempo. You cannot lose the beat. So
you have to
prepare yourself and the director has to prepare himself in
a perfect way to be always in tempo but also to be believable.
Otherwise there is no sense.
BD: One tiny
bit of rubato, and that’s it.
it, and you make a mess. [Both laugh] It’s not easy.
advice do you have for composers who want to
write a new opera?
RC: To be
modest because I believe that
somebody who writes — it doesn’t matter what, a
book or an opera — believes he is self-important
something to say to humanity. I feel this way. I am very
shy. That’s why at times I’m aggressive — because
shy. Because I have fantastic
memories, tremendous jokes and experience in forty years, you can
imagine what I have seen in my life is incredible. How many times
I’ve been told to write it all down! What interests me is what
I’m telling you in this way now, at this
moment. So any endeavor that has no sense is not important.
How many composers believe they must
BD: Is it
partly the public’s fault for
expecting every new work to be a masterpiece?
no. Nero was right when he said ‘panem et circenses’.
That means ‘bread and circuses’ to keep
the people quiet. The ‘circenses’
always the same. People want to go to the opera to have fun, and
very often the composers are trying
to show that they are intelligent. They have ideas which are more
modern than anybody else, that they were inventing something new.
Of course, every period has its own music.
BD: That goes
back to ‘style’ again.
RC: Yes, we
go to ‘style’, and so you see each period has a
style because for sure the style is different. The way of life
now is different from twenty years ago. The world has a different
sense. The morality has different senses. The sense
of the flag is something else.
BD: Are you
optimistic about the future of
sure. Every period of humanity gives
masterpieces. Who could believe when I saw the first paintings
and drawings of Picasso when he was just starting? I saw
that in 1950 when I was guest of Étienne de Beaumont, Count
Étienne in Paris, who was one of the supporters of
Picasso. He was starving, and we know that he
didn’t sell anything. Then he became more and more famous when he
started to do crazy things. He became a star, but he was a
genius, and he had made this kind of masterpieces of ‘Cubism’ etc., the
Rose period, the Blue period, etc, etc. But you have to be
a genius, and I don’t think there is a genius every year. How
many Verdis were there? How many
Puccinis? Only one! How many Wagners? How many
Strausses? There are so many composers that I hear on the radio,
but who is Spohr, and how many operas did Mr. Spohr write?
Maybe a dozen or so. [Louis
Spohr (5 April 1784 – 22 October 1859), born Ludwig Spohr, was a German
composer, violinist and conductor. Highly regarded during his lifetime,
Spohr composed ten symphonies, ten operas, eighteen violin concerti,
four clarinet concerti, four oratorios and various works for small
ensemble, chamber music and art songs. Spohr was the inventor of both
the violin chinrest and the orchestral rehearsal mark. His output
occupies a pivotal position between Classicism and Romanticism, but
fell into obscurity following his death, when his music was rarely
heard. The late 20th century saw a revival of interest in his oeuvre,
especially in Europe.]
RC: Yes, but
how many are performed?
RC: So you
his operas be performed?
because the public wants the circences.
They go to the theater to have fun, or
they go to big theater like La Scala or the Metropolitan and after
going aaahhhhhh and oooooohhhh, then they don’t
understand anything. Or they go because they like Traviata,
Trovatore, Rigoletto and Strauss and
Puccini. They don’t prefer Monteverdi or something like
BD: So you would
let all of these unknown operas just gather dust on library shelves?
do them from time to time for a centenary or as something to speak
about the period.
BD: Is it not
boring only to have masterpieces?
RC: From time
to time you also can do other things. Seurat, the painter, is not
famous, but there is his splendid painting here, and this genial man
who did the musical made a big favor to
Seurat. [Georges-Pierre Seurat
(2 December 1859 – 29 March 1891) was a French Post-Impressionist
painter and draftsman. He is noted for his innovative use of
drawing media and for devising the painting techniques known as
chromoluminarism and pointillism. His large-scale work, A Sunday
Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte (1884–1886), altered the
direction of modern art by initiating Neo-impressionism, and is one of
the icons of late 19th-century painting. The painting shows members of each of the
social classes participating in various park activities. The tiny
juxtaposed dots of multi-colored paint allow the viewer's eye to blend
colors optically, rather than having the colors physically blended on
the canvas. It took Seurat two years to complete this 10-foot-wide
painting, much of which he spent in the park sketching in preparation
for the work (there are about 60 studies). It is now in the permanent
collection of the Art Institute of Chicago. The painting was the inspiration for James
Lapine and Stephen Sondheim's musical, Sunday in the Park with George.]
Art Deco, for instance, was lost for many years. Now
it becomes modern again. So for sure also one day we will speak
about the Neapolitan
School or the Venetian School, and with The Four Seasons of Vivaldi
they will also quote some other composers. Domenico Puccini was
the grandfather of Puccini. Who knows Domenico Puccini, but
if they speak about Giacomo Puccini, they will also speak about
Domenico one day for sure.
BD: We had a
production here a number of years ago of his opera Il Ciarlatano. It was fun to
see it, and I enjoyed it.
RC: Of course.
been student of voice for forty
years. How have voices changed in that time?
[Laughs] The first change is with the physical state of your
body. As you get older,
you have more and more difficulty to support your phrasing because
everybody has an engine. Like a car, when you use it
after a hundred thousand miles, it becomes a broken piece of iron.
BD: You don’t
think of the voice as a machine, do
RC: Well no,
it’s not a machine. It’s an instrument
which gets used. A violin can last if you take care of it.
For how long we don’t know because there are violins which are
three hundred years old. They will last more, or who
knows? One day they think they will become powder.
finding on the violins,
especially the Stradivarius, that if they’re not played they turn to
dust. But if they are played, they stay vibrant.
RC: They have
to play every day. I know the Conservatory in Mantua, and every
day a man plays every kind of instrument. Anyway, the voice
because of the muscular problems and the sickness etc. that anybody
can have. But more than everything, the voice doesn’t
change. We have to repair the damage because you use the car and
the engine gets broken, so you have to
repair. So you sing, and you always have to take care about
your health. Once you’re in a bad shape, if you have a
sickness, or maybe you have pain in your neck, maybe you have
pain in your belly, you try another way and you get used to
that, and this is what you have to do. You have always to take
care about your health. I am of the
generation from the Second War. I started immediately after
the War, so we were suffering so much. We were
hungry, so we were approaching life like going to the Madonna in the
church to pray, both hands together, praying. Now I have the
feeling, especially in the new generation, that when they have a
beautiful voice it’s something that they have, so they have the right
to have everything else. They forget that it is a gift that God
you, but you have to maintain the gift. If you have a
brain you have to use the brain, otherwise it’s useless to have a
brain. It’s useless to be lazy if you have two arms and you don’t
want to work with the arms. So
very often they confuse the beautiful voice with a definite
talent. The talent you have or you don’t have. You may have
small talent and improve. You have to study, you have to
work. There will always be beautiful voices, but I
don’t know if they will have enough patience to improve.
BD: Are the
young singers singing too much
there is also one thing. Life
costs too much. It is expensive to be at
school. It’s a fortune. You must be rich. You must
have the loans and scholarships, and not everybody
can have that. I know many singers
are in New York being waiters while trying to
teachers are trying to have students because the problem is that
usually the voice teachers are singers that lost their voices, or never
made a career because they were unable to sing. So the students
reflect the knowledge of the teacher.
BD: Is that a
RC: This is a
tremendous frustration. The
universities are full of teachers. They don’t move. They
grab the chair and they desperately look for singers. They don’t
care about the voices. They can be horrible. I’ve heard so
many horrible voices around in the university and in schools because
they need students, otherwise there is no position for the
teachers. So the students are the victim of these teachers, and
what happens is they study because the teacher says, “Don’t
worry! This is good. You are improving!” But they
improve at all.
surprised we get any good voices at all with
this kind of teaching.
RC: There are
many natural voices which are so strong and so good that no teacher can
BD: So they
survive in spite of the teacher?
they survive in spite it. But there are
also good teachers, of course. There are many good teachers, and
the problem is that the students have to survive, so they try to
sing as soon as possible. It’s a big business now. How many
agents are around? There are thousands of agents.
BD: Are there
too many singers?
RC: There are
too many singers for too little
work. Germany is just filled with American singers, and of course
they all feel
homesick. They want to come back. Many
of them are taken there because they are just beginners. So they
are taken as beginners and they stay two or three years. They
change maybe two or three theaters, and then they die there because
they want to come back home. But there are so many singers and
very few performances. In American the expenses of a
hotel costs a fortune. You have no idea what this flat
costs! I have to support myself here.
I am living all my life in hotels, so I can’t go in a junk hotel,
otherwise I die.
BD: In spite
of all this, have you liked the life of a
RC: What else
could I do? This is a horrible life but there is no life better
one. It’s a sickness. Take the ballet, those poor
dancers. Have you ever seen the feet of the dancers? I
how they dance, poor people. It’s such a
pain. They starve, they do everything just to dance. How
many actors are starving, just to be
on stage? Every opera has a sense, bad or good. You
have to work! As a performer you have to go deep in the show, so
you put all yourself to succeed. The opera
is a horrible thing. You kill yourself to make a good thing about
opera. You want to succeed, otherwise it’s your death. You
don’t go on stage to be booed! You
feel lost so much with the piece you do, so you end up loving the
piece. So when they ask me if I prefer Traviata, Trovatore,
Rigoletto or Otello, I say nothing.
Everything is the same.
BD: Let me
turn the question around. Were there
any roles that you wished you had the opportunity to do?
RC: There are
several roles that I never did on
stage, like Iago. I did that
for television but never on stage because I had a very tiny
voice, I had a small voice.
Voices are getting smaller. I remember in my time the old
voices we had were big voices. There is also one
thing that theaters in the past were built at a human
size. Now they are circuses. You don’t see the
end. You never see the last row, especially in America.
They need masses
of people. Once I
was listening to Wagner and the orchestra was below. Now they are
front. So instead of having three walls you now have four walls,
and the thicker one is just in front of you. So what do you want
do? There is no pianissimo on stage anymore. The crescendo
of Rossini is not a crescendo. You start from mezzo forte because
if you start to whisper, nobody hears you! The orchestra is
different. Put eighty people
against you, even doing ‘tick, tick, tick, tick’
and the horns ‘pup,
pup, pup’, you cannot whisper anymore. The
theaters are wrong. That is why you go to Venice. When you
to Vienna, my God, that’s it! I was there two years ago in Vienna
after twenty-one years and I said this is so
small! I forgot.
BD: So you’re
getting used to the Met and Chicago and
Yes. At La Scala you feel the people. In San
Carlo di Napoli, which is the biggest one, you feel the people.
In the Arena di Verona you feel the people, but the Roman Amphitheater
was done for that. If you take your match and you light the
match, you hear that in the last row.
BD: So that’s
because the engineer and architect were engineer
and architect. They didn’t try to ‘épater le bourgeois’ [shock
the middle class]
as we say.
BD: I am glad
you have chosen to spend a bit of time performing here in
© 1986 Bruce Duffie
This conversation was recorded in his apartment in Chicago on
October 3, 1986. Portions were broadcast on WNIB the following
and again in 1988, 1993 and 1998.
This transcription was made in 2014, and posted on this
at that time. My thanks to British soprano Una
Barry for her help in preparing this website
To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been
transcribed and posted on this website, click here.
Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975
its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001. His
interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since
and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well
on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.
You are invited to visit his website
for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of
other interviews, plus a full list of his guests. He would also
to call your attention to the photos and information about his
grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a
century ago. You may also send him E-Mail
with comments, questions and suggestions.