Conversation Piece:

By Bruce Duffie

Edward Downes is known to millions of listeners as the Quizmaster for the Metropolitan Opera broadcasts every Saturday during the season.  The second intermission is reserved for this popular feature, and for many years, he has moderated the lively discussion and sometimes even acted as referee!

Besides his duties on the Quiz, nation-wide listeners also hear his opinions on the weekly program "First Hearing."  In addition to these broadcast appearances, he has spent a lifetime discussing great music with others through lectures and classes and also via program notes and scholarly articles.

Mr. Downes' knowledge and understanding of music is immediately apparent when listening to or reading his writings.  And amazing as it may seem, this August he celebrates his 75th birthday.  A few months ago, it was my great pleasure to contact him and arrange for a conversation.  He was pleased to be able to chat freely about several things, and many points of interest are included in the following transcript.

Bruce Duffie: Your father, Olin Downes, was a distinguished music critic.  What influence did he have on your career?

Edward Downes: I learned a lot from reading his reviews, and from hearing him just talk with my mother and, when I was a little older, with me.  Music was topic of daily conversation, and I learned a great deal.  I sometimes agreed, and sometimes I disagreed with my father, but it gave me tremendous perspective on performances and on music in general.  So it was as if I had been instructed and alerted much earlier than I could have been -- you see, I didn't begin studying music seriously until I went to college.

BD: Do you feel he would be happy with the state of music criticism today?

ED: No, I don't think so because I don't think he was happy with it in his own day, and he was certainly never satisfied with his own work.  He felt very critical of his own work and that of his colleagues.  He certainly had great bursts of enthusiasm for his more distinguished colleagues.  There were those that he felt were much better qualified; but, no, I think he would be highly dissatisfied with criticism today!

BD: You also worked as a music critic for awhile.  Was writing music criticism something that you particularly enjoyed?

ED: Yes, I did enjoy it very much.  Although there were many things I liked about it, one thing that I rather relished, actually, was the fact that there was a deadline.  I know lots of people feel they suffer under the deadline and feel they can't do their best, but I disagree with that.  Having to focus your attention, you listen, or at least I do, very much more sharply if you feel you're responsible for an intelligent opinion on the whole event.  And I think that one's opinion is pretty much formed by the time you leave the concert hall or the opera house.  It's simply a matter of trying to get your ideas organized and put them into decent prose.  Sometimes it's a struggle, and sometimes you feel that five minutes more would let you do better, but I'm not among those who think that 24 or 48 hours later I could have written a better piece.  My father hated deadlines and suffered under them ghastly, but I think he didn't feel that his work would have been better if he'd had more time.  I know that Virgil Thomson still feels that one's opinion is most focused in the white heat of listening, and the quicker you get it down on paper, the more vividness it will have to you and, consequently, to the readers.

BD: How have audiences changed over the years?

ED: First of all, they've grown enormously in sheer numbers of people going to the concerts and operas.  Audiences seem to be much more open to contemporary music, and there are many more institutions offering music of different kinds.  I'd put that down to the influence of records.  I think that records have, on the whole, more influence on public taste than concerts have.  You only have to look at the Schwann Catalogue and you can find works you never get to hear in concerts.  There are works recorded that I've not heard in a lifetime of concert-going.

BD: Opera, however, is also a visual art-form.  Do you feel it works well on records?

ED: It's hard for me to tell how it works for people who have never been to an opera, or only one or two operas.  I can only judge by myself and I find records wonderful.  If they're works that I know, I can visualize what I would hope would be going on, and it's a wonderful way of getting to know operas that you don't have a chance to hear [in the opera house].  I feel very enthusiastic about records.  It cannot only expand the repertoire, but think of all the people who didn't have the chance to hear Flagstad and Melchior or Callas, or others.  My only regret is that they didn't have recordings a couple of centuries earlier.  This will mean that in the future, generations will have incredible resources.

BD: Is this explosion of recordings a good thing?

ED: Oh it's wonderful, yes.  Most of us wish that those recordings would be of less-frequently-done things, but there's nothing lethal about having so many performances of ‘standard' works.  It's a sign, at least, that the record companies feel there is a public for it all.  They have to make a profit - they're not in business for their health.

BD: Will there be a time when the mountain of material is too big?

ED: I think we're almost there already.  But I look upon it like printed books.  No one could possibly read all the nineteenth-century novels, but that's nothing against printed books.

BD: Do recordings set up an impossible standard that cannot be duplicated in the live theater?

ED: If you measure everything by one great recording that you've heard, you're going to be disappointed.  Live performances are totally different from even the best recordings, and much more exciting experiences.

BD: Do you think opera works well on television?

ED: It works much better than I expected it to.  However, TV opera is very dependent on the technical director.  He is almost as important as the performer or the composer!  The camera shots, and the choice of shots, and the sequences makes the visual element much more powerful than it is in the theater.  [Note: See remarks made by Nathaniel Merrill in the previous issue of the Opera Journal about this subject.]

BD: This brings up a question I like to ask, and one I know you wish to talk about, and that is opera-in-translation.  While we think about television, how has the running translation on the screen helped the opera public, and has this bridged the gulf to permit Supertitles in the theater to gain acceptance?

ED: I think the subtitles on TV have done something absolutely enormous for opera, and I can speak from personal experience.  For many years, I have taught opera-appreciation and opera-history courses both for young student and for adults.  I used to ask various classes of adults if they'd been to the Met or to the New York City Opera, and very few hands would go up.  They told me that when I explained the operas to them it was great, but to sit in the theater all evening and not know what was going on wouldn't be fun.  So, when subtitles came on the TV, these people were ecstatic!  The same thing is true for Supertitles in the theater.  It draws in a new public, and I think that most of the sophisticated public is grateful, too.  There is a silly minority who claims not to want to know, who just want to hear the music, but they should go to concerts or listen to records.  And many people say to me that they've seen something on TV, and read the subtitles, and remarked that they never knew that that was what was being said at that point.  I think it adds immeasurably, and if the Supertitles are put where they are not obtrusive, I think they're a wonderful thing.  I even liked it when the opera being done was sung in English.  I can't predict, but I suspect the day will come when most American operas will have them.

BD: Is this, then, the ideal compromise between the proponents of opera-in-English and those who insist on using original languages?

ED: Perhaps for the time being it is.  As I said, I'm a proponent of opera in the language of the audience.  However, nowadays most artists who are on the international circuit learn their roles in the original languages.  I think this is an unfortunate development because those countries that have been really productive in creating new repertoire have been the countries where the audience understood the language.  I absolutely detest hearing opera in a language I don't understand. It's a real deprivation, and I think that those who have not had the opportunity to hear opera in a language they understand don't know what they're missing.  In the end, I think it's very bad for the artists because they know instantly whether an audience understands what is being sung.  And if they don't understand the words, they perform accordingly.  Just as they need applause to fire them along, they also need other feelings which come across the footlights.  It's a tremendous stimulus to them, and when that is lacking and when they know that the audience hasn't got a clue as to what the words are, they coarsen the whole performance.  Subtle comedies become slapstick.  And that's true of tragic operas, too.  That's where you get this windmill school of acting and all those horrible, obvious exaggerations.

BD: Is there any danger that the Supertitles in the theater will mean the death of opera-in-English?

ED: It's conceivable, but it might help it.  Once people get a taste of really knowing what is being sung, they may want more.  It's impossible to predict.  At least, with Supertitles, it brings audiences much closer to opera than they would be without them.  When I started going to opera in Europe, the singers simply had to sing in the various languages of the countries.  I heard a performance in Milan of Tristan sung in Italian, and it was gorgeous.  You obviously lose certain subtleties, but what you gain is much more.  There's just no comparison.

BD: Did it surprise you that James Levine, who in many ways is so very innovative, was so firmly against the use of Supertitles?

ED: Yes, it did surprise me very much, but he is possibly responding to the average Met subscriber.  There are many who say they want to hear opera in the original language, and in many people's minds, they associate opera-in-English with second-class opera.  It's a long tradition at the Met, and there is a certain snobism involved, too.  I hesitate to call so many people snobs, and my father certainly was not a snob, but I think that they're all mistaken.

BD: Let me ask what may be a dangerous question - is opera ‘art' or is opera ‘entertainment'?

ED: You know, I'm not sure that I know the difference.  Even in the most allegedly difficult works - take any that you like, such as Lulu or Falstaff or Götterdämmerung - which are acknowledged to be great art and which engage your mind, I couldn't say that I'm not being entertained.  Entertainment doesn't have to be shallow.  I find that anything which is shallow bores me, and anything which engages has a great deal more ‘art' in it than is popularly believed.  Everyone acknowledges that the great American musicals are entertainment, but they are wonderful art at the same time.

BD: Is that what determines whether it's good or bad, the amount of ‘art' contained within?

ED: That depends on who's calling it good or bad.  I think the less art there is, the less people are apt to be entertained.  It's a wrong idea to think there isn't art involved in even the most popular kind of entertainment.  My mind is being engaged, my feelings are being engaged.  It may transport me out of the circumstances of the day.  Whatever it is that entertainment is supposed to do to you or for you, I think is done to me and for me by any art that I enjoy.  There may be things that I say, "I don't know what the hell it's all about," and after awhile it will bore me.  I will try very hard, and while I'm trying hard I'm not bored, but at a point I give up and say it's an enigma, and I'm not entertained.  There is a lot of silly popular - as well as serious - art, and if it sounds like junk to you, it will bore you very quickly.  I don't personally find any dividing line between entertainment and art.

BD: So you feel it's wrong to artificially put a line between them?

ED: Absolutely.  If they're all head and no heart, then only a very few people will be interested in them.

BD: Is this the problem with some of the modern operas, they're all head and no heart?

ED: There may be too little heart, by which I mean the inability of the artist to communicate.  That's true of performers as it is of composers or writers.  There are many who try to communicate and can't.  Even if they have interesting ideas, if they don't convey them in a way that grabs the audience, they fail to communicate.  I don't think it's possible to have too much intelligence.  I think it's possible to have too little heart or too little ability, and I don't know which is more frequent.  Both intelligence and communicativeness are rare, and the combination is even rarer.

BD: Is that what makes a masterpiece, then, the correct balance?

ED: I think it's the degree of skill which embraces both of them.  What we commonly call a masterpiece is something that has stood the test of time, but I'm even skeptical about that.  I think there are wonderful works that are written that are very dependent on the audience being aware of the life-impressions.  A great musical-comedy might be a great work of art while the audiences can understand the references to the various contemporary things.  But if that understanding is gone and you hear the same wonderful musical twenty years later, it may no longer communicate that way and go onto the junk heap, and yet who's to say that it wasn't at least a masterpiece in its day.  And if it was a masterpiece, isn't it always a masterpiece?

BD: Is the public always right in its judgment?

ED: Oh heavens, no!  But often the public, given time, comes around to a better appreciation.  There are lots of works that had rough beginnings, and I think it's partly that audiences mature or become aware of what the author was driving at.  Sometimes there are people who help form opinions.  I will go back to listen to something another time if someone who's opinion I respect says it's great stuff.  There are lots of works I've had to listen to many times before I enjoyed them.  Lulu was one.  I remember I heard Wozzeck for the first time in Vienna in 1930.  It was very new at the time, and I don't think I enjoyed more than about ten minutes of it, although I knew it was a griping drama.  Then the war intervened and it wasn't done, and I heard it again around 1950 and wondered what it was that I didn't understand.  My ears had changed and been educated, and I think that happens to a lot of people.

BD: There's a lot of talk about opera being dead, and the Metropolitan Opera being a museum.  What side of the fence do you come down on for that issue?

ED: The old opera is dead as far as new creations are concerned.  It's like the succession of royalty - the king is dead, long live the king.  Opera is dead, long live opera.  Some new opera comes along or a new style comes along and I think that opera is actually very much alive.  The Met to some extent is a museum, and feels that it should be a custodian of great masterpieces.  I have no quarrel with that, especially not when they do twentieth-century works.  The Met is much better now than it used to be.  When I started going, it was a museum, really.  Mr. Bing yanked it into the twentieth century to a large extent, and the present management seems to be very sensitive to contemporary music, and I think they do as much as they feel the audience can take.  After all, the Met started out, like most opera houses, as a social institution, and the social crowd is apt to be conservative, artistically speaking.  To be a pioneer is always expensive, and opera always runs a big deficit anyway, even if they only do Traviata and Carmen.  It is partly a matter of educating and nursing audiences along until they discover that they enjoy the new thing, or at least some of the new things.

BD: Are you optimistic about the future of opera?

ED: Oh yes, yes I am.  Interesting operas are being written.  On the European continent and in London, they are much more adventurous than we are, and there are audiences for contemporary opera.  It's terribly hard to be experimental in this country.  The strangle-hold that financial considerations have is as much a problem for opera as it is for the Broadway stage.  It's remarkable that we get as much experimenting as we do.

BD: Is it wrong for us to expect any new (major) opera to be a masterpiece?

ED: Yes, I think that's totally stupid.  We're happy to go to a new play and we don't expect it to measure up to Shakespeare or Sheridan or O'Neill.  If we hit a masterpiece once in two or three years, that's wonderful, and I don't think we should necessarily expect more of opera.

BD: Do you enjoy doing the quiz every week?

ED: Yes, I do.  I find that I'm a little disappointed when the end of the season arrives.  We have to be careful to keep it on the light-entertainment side, and there are topics I'd like to discuss which get vetoed as being too serious.  But in spite of that, I find it stimulating and the people that we have on are interesting to me and to a large part of our audience.

BD: If you didn't have to answer to a producer or public, what question would you like to discuss?

ED: I would enjoy what we have been doing here, discussing the question of opera in the language of the audience and other things without the restrictions we have on the quiz.  I've enjoyed this very much.

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Edward Downes died on December 26, 2001.  To read his obituary, click  HERE .

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Bruce Duffie in an announcer with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago, and a regular contributor to the Opera Journal.  In the next issue, a conversation with the rising young Mezzo-Soprano Sharon Graham.

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Published in The Opera Journal Volume XIX Number 3, 1986.
©1986 Bruce Duffie

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.