Conductor  Sir  Mark  Elder

Two Conversations with Bruce Duffie


Mark Elder (Conductor)

Born: June 2, 1947 - Hexham, Northumberland, England

The English conductor, Mark Philip Elder, is the son of a dentist. As a youth he divulged talent both as a singer and instrumentalist, serving as a chorister at Canterbury Cathedral and as the first-chair bassoonist in the National Youth Orchestra. He studied music at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, where he studied music and was a choral scholar. He was later mentored by renowned British conductor and musicologist Edward Downes. Elder worked briefly in minor capacities at Glyndeboune and Covent Garden before gaining experience conducting Verdi operas as a regular conductor at the Sydney Opera House, Australia from 1972 to 1974. He returned to England in 1974.

Elder has achieved wide acclaim in the realm of opera, but has also generally devoted an equal share of his career to orchestral work. He perhaps made his strongest impression at the English National Opera (ENO), where he began conducting regularly from 1974. He was the music director of the ENO from 1979 to 1993, and was known as part of the "Power House" team that also included general director Peter Jonas and artistic director David Pountney, and which gave ENO several very successful years of productions. During his 15 years as ENO director, he conducted the company in numerous highly acclaimed productions and led successful tours to the USA, Russia, and other parts of Europe. Elder has also conducted at Glyndebourne, Covent Garden, the Sydney Opera House, the Chicago Lyric Opera. He appears frequently in many of the most prominent international opera houses, including Covent Garden, the Metropolitan Opera New York, and the Opéra National de Paris and was the first British conductor to conduct a new production at the Bayreuth Festival.

Mark Elder held positions as Principal Guest Conductor of the London Mozart Players from 1980 to 1983, and of the BBC Symphony Orchestra from 1982 to 1985. He also served as Music Director of the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra from 1989 to 1994, and as Principal Guest Conductor of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra from 1992 to 1995. In 1999 he was named Music Director of the Hallé Orchestra in Manchester. His first concert as Music Director was in October 2000. His proposed novel ideas for concerts have included the abandonment of traditional concert evening garb. Elder is generally regarded as having restored the orchestra to high critical and musical standards, after a period where the continuing existence of the orchestra was in doubt In 2004, he signed a contract to extend his tenure from 2005 to 2008, with an optional two-year extension at the end of that time. In May 2009, the orchestra announced the extension of Elder's contract to 2015. Highlights of the 2009-2010 season, during which Sir Mark Elder celebrates his 10th anniversary with the orchestra, include his and the Hallé’s major role in a complete cycle of Gustav Mahler symphonies marking the 150th anniversary of the composer’s birth.

elder Mark Elder also works regularly with the world’s leading symphony orchestras and, in the UK, enjoys close associations with both the London Philharmonic Orchestra and Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. In the USA he has enjoyed a long-standing relationship with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, his most recent project for whom was a three-week Dvořák Festival in June 2009. He first conducted the Last Night of the Proms in 1987. He was scheduled to conduct again in 1990, but his remarks about the nature of some of the traditional Proms selections in the context of the impending first Gulf War led to his dismissal from that engagement. In 2006, he returned to conduct the BBC Symphony Orchestra for his second Last Night engagement, a concert which was internationally televised.

His repertory is broad in both the operatic and orchestral realms: though he has favored Verdi in the opera house, he has led performances of Wagner (Die Meistersinger; Parsifal), Ferruccio Busoni (Doktor Faust), Igor Stravinsky (The Rake's Progress), and modern composers like David Blake (Toussaint). His orchestral choices include many standards, while taking in works by modern British composers like George Benjamin, Nicholas Maw, and Jonathan Harvey. Elder has described his own conducting style as follows: "I'm quite a physical conductor. I remember seeing Adrian [Boult] backstage after the 1978 Proms and he was wearing a freshly ironed light blue M&S shirt and he said to me 'I see you're one of the sweaty ones.' He was famously non-perspirational."

Mark Elder has made numerous recordings for a variety of labels, including Sony, Chandos, ASV, NMC, Hyperion Glyndebourne record labels, as well as for the Hallé Orchestra's own label. He has made many recordings with orchestras including the Hallé Orchestra, London Philharmonic Orchestra, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Royal Opera House and ENO. Among his more successful recordings are his English-language version of Verdi's Rigoletto on Chandos, issued in 2000, and his 2004 recording of Edward Elgar's Symphony No. 2 on ASV. He has been involved in several TV projects including a film on the life and music of Verdi for BBC TV and a similar project on Donizetti for German television. Recent opera recordings include Donizetti’s Dom Sebastien, Imelda di Lambertazzi, Linda di Chamounix and most recently Maria di Rohan for Opera Rara. In addition to his conducting and recording activities, Elder also has written on music for The Guardian and other newspapers.

Recent and forthcoming symphonic engagements, apart from his commitment to the Hallé Orchestra, include the Berliner Philharmoniker, Münchner Philharmoniker, Boston Symphony Orchestra, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra Amsterdam, Russian National Orchestra, Netherlands Radio Philharmonic, Budapest Festival Orchestra, Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra, London Philharmonic Orchestra, London Symphony Orchestra and Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. Recent operatic engagements have included Tannhäuser, Mefistofele, Otello, Samson and Madam Butterfly for the Metropolitan Opera New York, Pelléas et Mélisande, Turandot, and Berlioz’ La damnation de Faust for the Opéra National de Paris, King Roger at The Bregenz Festival, The Rake’s Progress, Euryanthe and Fidelio for Glyndebourne, Bataglia di Legnano, La Cenerentola, Attila, Lohengrin, Simon Boccanegra, Turandot, La bohème, Il barbiere di Siviglia, concert performances of Donizetti’s Dom Sebastien and Linda di Chamounix (both also recorded for Opera Rara), Cyrano de Bergerac by Alfano, Stiffelio and Ariadne auf Naxos , Elektra, Capuleti for Covent Garden, Don Carlo in Genova, and Hänsel und Gretel, Un ballo in maschera, Charles Gounod’s Faust for the Lyric Opera Chicago and Il trovatore in Florence. Future operatic engagements include Adriana Lecouvreur and The Tsar’s Bride for Covent Garden, Tannhäuser in Paris and Billy Budd at Glyndebourne. In May 2009 he conducted Götterdämmerung complete in concert with the Hallé Orchestra.

Mark Elder was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in the 1989 Queen's Birthday Honours. He won an Olivier Award in 1991 for his outstanding work at English National Opera. He received the 2006 conductor prize of the Royal Philharmonic Society. In April 2007, Elder was one of eight conductors of British orchestras to endorse the 10-year classical music outreach manifesto, "Building on Excellence: Orchestras for the 21st Century", to increase the presence of classical music in the UK, including giving free entry to all British schoolchildren to a classical music concert. In June 2008, Elder received a knighthood in the 2008 Queen's Birthday Honours.

--  Text from the Bach Cantatas website. 
--  Throughout this webpage, names which are links refer to my interviews elsewhere on my website.  BD  

Since his North American debut with the Chicago Symphony in 1983, conductor Mark Elder has returned regularly for orchestral concerts, as well as productions with Lyric Opera of Chicago.  On two occasions it has been my privilege and pleasure to sit down with him for interviews.  We met first in 1986, before a performance of the CSO, and then eleven years later, in 1997, we got together during the run of Peter Grimes at Lyric.

As often happens, I also saw him briefly a few times when he was back at Orchestra Hall, and on one occasion when we bumped into one another in a hallway he said,
“Oh, yes.  You were the one who was so well-prepared!”

Portions of these conversations aired on WNIB, and now I am pleased to share them in their entirety on this webpage.

As noted, he received his Knighthood in 2008, but, as these meetings took place earlier, I refer to him simply as Mark Elder, rather than Sir Mark.  It should also be noted that since the time of our first conversation and its reference to only a few recordings, many performances have been issued in audio and/or video.  I have scattered images from some of these throughout this page, some of which relate to the surrounding text, others do not.

We begin with the encounter of 1986 . . . . . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:    You are the Music Director of the English National Opera?

Mark Elder:    That’s right! 

BD:    Tell me how you feel about performing opera in translation?

ME:    [With wry humor]  You really want me to talk about that?  This is a very well-warn subject, very controversial one, and it’s something that people get very heated about.  I work with a company that is committed to doing every performance of every opera in the language of the audience.  Once or twice a year we discuss repertoire, and we think of pieces that we would like the company to do.  We ask ourselves if this is really worth doing in translation, and every year I think about it, and am convinced that if it’s not worth doing in translation, we shouldn’t be doing it.

elder BD:    So then there are some operas which are not worth doing in translation?

ME:    [Hesitates and then speaks firmly]  Yes! 

BD:    Are there some operas which are simply not worth doing?

ME:    There are many operas that are not worth doing
and some of them get done!

BD:    How do you decide which operas you will do and which you won’t
aside from the question of translation?

ME:    We must believe the piece has something to say now, and that it’s a piece we can cast well and perform well, given the resources at our disposal.  Every opera company management has to be, to a certain extent, committed to the small nucleus of pieces that everybody thinks they know, and what I call ‘Monday night operas’.  These are operas you can present on a Monday night and be assured of a good house.  The Magic Flute, Madam Butterfly, Carmen... these are all
Monday night operas.

BD:    Can these operas get over-done?

ME:    Yes!  Our experience in London shows that the public is actually becoming more and more fickle.  As a cost of evening’s entertainment
rises — a night on the town, and I don’t just mean the price of the seat but the price of the travel and the car park, or the dinner that goes with it, and the drinks in the intervalpeople are more choosey about how they spend their money.  It’s our experience that we can’t always predict the sort of audience response to a particular opera the way we were able to before.  All through the 70s and the beginning of the 80s, La Traviataone of the greatest operas ever written — would encourage people to come to the theater.  To a great extent we could organize ten performances within a six-week period, and be sure that we could sell ninety per cent, and our theater holds 2,200. 

BD:    Is that the right size for a theater

ME:    It’s a little large for us.

BD:    In America we’re used to houses being around 4,000.

ME:    I think they’re all too large.  We are in great danger of building up an opera audience that actually experiences opera for the wrong reasons.  I’m very against large theaters.  2,000 is too large for communication.

BD:    Then what are the right reasons to experience opera?

ME:    As it’s mingling together of so many art forms, it seems to me that it’s at its best when the synthesis is actually at its most balanced.  There are many operas that need a large stage and a large orchestra, but a large auditorium imposes an enormous pressure on the singers.  It imposes great stamina and vocal strength, and all over the world
— not just for us in Londonit’s very hard to go on casting operas while having to think of that quality before you can really book somebody.  The best way to enjoy opera is in an acoustic that has sufficient warmth for the music to come over with refinement and beauty of tonei.e. not a very dry theater, as so many contemporary theaters and so many multi-purpose theaters areconcert halls as well — but also in an atmosphere where the play, the speech of the artists actually communicates effortlessly to the audience.  In that way, the Italian theaters were built to scale.  They’re all different sizes.  La Scala is at one end, and there are tiny ones.  Traviata and Boccanegra and Rigoletto were all written for Fenice.  I was there earlier on this year for two Verdi operas in one day, and it was a thrilling experience, a fascinating experience.  One of them was performed very badly, and the other one was performed wonderfully.  One was Aroldo, the rewrite of the earlier one Stiffelio, and they did them both on the same day.  It was fascinating.

BD:    That would be fascinating, yes!

ME:    But what was really interesting was to hear Verdi in this theater which meant so much to him, the way his music was heard the first time because the acoustic of this theater is designed quite specifically so that the speech communicates as well as the song.  Our company in London exists to try and develop a style of music theater where the audience will feel absorbed and drawn into the experience; where they will concentrate because they know that the rewards will come by concentrating; where they know that we are trying to give them a theatrical musical entertainment that involves their participation.  That means we will play Carmen
a new production at the end of Novemberin such a way that it will not be, what I call a Benidorm Carmen, like ‘Welcome to Marbella’!  It won’t actually present Spain in a tourist-way.  It can’t!  I don’t believe in Carmen in that way, unless you do, as Francesco Rosi did, and make a film of it and take the cameras there.  That’s different, but in the theater, you can’t do that.

elder BD:    Then let me ask the capriccio question.  Which is more important in opera, or which should be more important in opera, the music or the drama?

ME:    Well, as you well know, Capriccio ends on a question mark!  There is no answer to that.  What is important, and what is interesting about operaand why I love spending time with it and working on itis to make the synthesis; to find the balance between the two; to work with directors who love the music, and know that their success as a director in an opera house depends upon their working through the music, and not hoping that it will look after itself.  This happens by working with directors who listen to the music criticallyI don’t mean that they are rude about it, I mean critically in its original sense.  They actually think about it, and analyze it, and understand it, and really hear what it sayswhich may be quite different from the expected, or, until now, the traditional view.  Chéreau’s Ring, for instance at Bayreuth made us listen to the music in a completely new way very often.  Because of the visual images suggested by the set on stage and the way the characters performed, it had one aware of resonances in the score that perhaps, in the past, had been allowed to go under-played.  The Pelléas and Mélisande that I did in London with Harry Kupfer, the East German designer, presented a very stark, rather sinister picture on stage, which had its own beauty, but, as a result, he emphasized the immense amount of darkness and fear and cruelty and uncertainty in that piece, rather than just the French whimsy.

BD:    You’ve used the word ‘speech’ a couple of times.  Do you conduct differently with the English National Opera at the Coliseum, where things are done in English, as opposed to Covent Garden where the opera will be in Italian or French or German?

ME:    I don’t think I would conduct differently.  It is true that I am more sensitive about the balance of the orchestra vis-à-vis the singers in the Coliseum than anywhere else.  Wherever I’m conducting in the language of the audience, I’m very sensitive to the balance, and fascinated by it, and determined to achieve greater refinement all the time.  I have experienced this not only in London but, for instance, in East Berlin, where I did a performance of Madam Butterfly in German.  I rehearsed for ten weeks, and when we only had five stage and orchestra rehearsals before the dress rehearsal, the orchestra complained and said it was not enough.  It’s the only theater in my experience where that’s ever happened.

BD:    Is that Felsenstein’s old theater?

ME:    Absolutely!  His grave stone was there.

felsenstein Walter Felsenstein (30 May 1901 – 8 October 1975) was an Austrian theater and opera director.  He was one of the most important exponents of textual accuracy, and gave productions in which dramatic and musical values were exquisitely researched and balanced.  In 1947 he created the Komische Oper in East Berlin, where he worked as director until his death. 

Preparations for each new production could last two months or longer.  If singers meticulously coached and trained in their parts fell ill, performances were simply canceled.  Since the glamorous superstars of the day could never spare the time Felsenstein required, he worked with his own hand-picked troupe of devoted singers, most from Eastern Europe and virtually unknown in the West.  Everything was sung in German, usually in his own translations.  Whoever wanted to experience this singular operatic mix had to make the pilgrimage to East Berlin, a trip that became even dicier after the wall went up.

Together with the Komische Oper troupe he visited the USSR a few times.  In Moscow it was stated that his way of the opera staging was similar to the principles of Konstantin Stanislavsky.  His most famous students were Götz Friedrich and Harry Kupfer, both of whom went on to have important careers developing Felsenstein's work.

BD:    Can a piece get over-rehearsed?

ME:    Yes, it can!  It’s possible the cast can become saturated with effort.  It’s possible that a conductor or a director can leave so little to the spontaneity of the evening that the cast is merely going through a series of extremely clever, often well-rehearsed ideas, and in many respects very detailed directorial instructions.  Then they are actually not free to create something spontaneously in the evening themselves, and that is a danger.

BD:    Is it your responsibility, or the director’s responsibility, to bring that pitch at opening night?

ME:    It’s why opera’s so fascinating.  It’s a joint responsibility.  Maybe it will be a matter of time, but I’m not a great believer in the idea of the conductor and the producer being the same person.  I’ve experienced it a little, and I’ve talked to people who have worked with it, and I am rather against it.  What’s interesting is the tussle that’s being waged, the fronting up.  It’s like sometimes between two bisons or two antlered animals that get locked together, and it’s a question of how you shake free and what comes after it.  That’s what is fascinating in having two different personalities.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    You’ve done some Wagner.  Are the Wagner’s works more unified because he was both librettist and composer?

elder ME:    No.  Well, on one level they are, but I don’t think that that they’re more or less fascinating than when the opposite was the case.  I love Wagner’s texts actually.  I admire them a great deal.  I think Rhinegold, for instance, has a wonderful text, but I don’t think that the fact that he wrote the libretto means anything more specific than that.  One is dealing with a different sort of sophistication in writing operas in the theater, but that comes from his great skill as a librettist, and the fact that Rhinegold, which I mentioned, was the last libretto to be written of the Ring and the first music.  His control of the libretto by that time was just wonderful, and the strands in Rhinegold and the discussions are just fascinating and beautiful and musically controlled by the poetry.

BD:    Have you done a whole Ring?

ME:    No.  I’ve done Rhinegold in concert in Australia in English with the lights only half down so that the audience could follow.  It was wonderful, really wonderful.  You felt them listening.  I also did Valkyrie in London.

BD:    Is it right to break up the Ring, and just do a piece or two?

ME:    Whether it’s right or not, I’m not sure.  As a conductor and as an enthusiast, I believe it’s not wrong.   But what is indisputable is it’s always happened and always will go on happening because his music has such power, and because the individual demands of each of the four Ring operas, are, despite some casts being in common, are very different.  Valkyrie is by far the most popular of the four.  It is always proved to be that.  Rhinegold is the least, Götterdämmerung the second, and Siegfried the third.  If you can cast a good Valkyrie, it’s a very, very good for the repertoire.  This may seem an extremely cynical thing to say, but it’s not intended to, it’s very practical thingGötterdämmerung is the only one that involves the chorus.  The non-choral operas that exist in the repertory are treasured by all operatic managements throughout the world more and more as the unions tie our hands behind our back.  The organization of an opera chorus is tied throughout one season, and is one of the most horrendously complicated pieces of opera planning.

BD:    Are there any other financial-type decisions that enter into your repertoire decisions as Music Director?

ME:    Yes!  There are grievances in my theater
and I’m sure in many othersabout what you can rehearse around very long operas.  Many operas are very long.  Symphony concerts are short in comparison.  We think of Bohème as being a short opera, but it is always a three-hour evening in the theater.  You can get the whole of Bohème into the last act of MeistersingerMeistersinger consequently brings with it certain restrictions.  As an artist I understand these restrictions, but it means that one has to be very careful about planning it in the repertory.  You cannot, for instance, rehearse on the morning of a long opera.  Don Carlos is a long opera.  There are many, many long operas.

BD:    Forza too!

ME:    A complete Forza would be a long opera in union-negotiation terms.  It runs close to four hours.

BD:    There must be people in the audience would say Götterdämmerung is over in a flash, and yet Bohème drags on and on forever!

ME:    I hope that there would be nobody in the audience who’d say that!  It must be a very poor performance of Bohème if that’s the case.  [Both laugh]  Bohème should never seem to drag.  It should just go like a flash.  Even for people who don’t find the music particularly attractive, I cannot imagine they could ever say it was too long.  Götterdämmerung, of course, can be very long.

BD:    Do you expect the public that comes to Meistersinger also to come to Bohème, and also to come to Pelléas, and also to come to Midsummer Marriage?

ME:    Yes.  I hope by carefully balancing the content of our repertoire we will fascinate an audience by perhaps bringing new interpretative imaginative ideas to accepted works, and then presenting unfamiliar works in interesting and viable ways.  It’s possible to develop an audience that will be prepared to put their money on a night at the Coliseum because they know that even though they may be made angry sometimes, or they may be surprised and disappointed, they will never be bored.  If one bores an audience, that’s the worst thing, and the business of how one transmits the text through the music is the key to this.

BD:    Then comes the big question.  Is opera art or is opera entertainment?

ME:    It has to be both.  We are all in the entertainment business, and I tell you who said that most recently was Reginald Goodall.  [Imitating Goodall] 
My dear, he said, we’re all in the entertainment business!  We are purveyors of sound!  It’s true, it really is true!  I don’t think the theater should be considered as a ‘Heiliger’ [holy] Temple.  It should be a place where people come for a certain sort of nourishment, and laughter and tears are all part of that nourishment.  The more the brain is absorbed and drawn into the occasion, the more you will be entertained.

elder BD:    Stimulation is part of the process?

ME:    Absolutely!

BD:    Is the opera audience different from the concert audience?

ME:    Yes!  I find the world over that it is.  Obviously there is common ground.  There are music lovers all over the world, but there are people who find in straight music
pure music in the concert halla certain sort of enjoyment and relaxation that they find difficult in the theater.  This is simply because when they’re in a theater they’re dealing with so many variables.  It’s fundamentally a theater, but has a great musical stimulus.  Correspondingly, there are people for whom the theater is a great thrill and it’s a great enjoyment.  The combination of very good strong singing and orchestra playing and fervent dramatic playing is actually something to lose themselves in.  This is one of the things that opera provides, and you have to surrender to it.  The people who so loathe Wagner are the people who really are unwilling to give in to the extent that he demands.

BD:    You have conducted Wagner at the Coliseum and also at Bayreuth.  Was Wagner right in the design of Bayreuth?

ME:    He absolutely was but not for the piece that I conducted there, which was Meistersinger.  That one was written for the proscenium arch.

BD:    Is it a mistake to do Meistersinger at Bayreuth?

ME:    From that angle, it remains the hardest opera to do successfully at Bayreuth.  Now the reason is a practical one
it’s a design one.  When he imagined his own opera house, he imagined it for the Ring and for Parsifal, and the writing for the orchestra in those pieces is different from Meistersinger.  I know Meistersinger came in the middle of the Ring, but to give you a specific example, his contrapuntal use of the orchestra treats the various instrumental colors in a rather different way from the mature Ring and Parsifal.  By that I mean, there’s a melody that can be shared with the violins, then go to the cellos, and then be imitated on what I call a democratic level, a Meistersinger level, a ‘Burgerisher’ level by the clarinet or by the horn.  So you need for the ear to have these various instrumental strands on a par.  But because of the design of the pit in Bayreuth, the violins are up here [points to the right] in the opposite way round.  I don’t know whether many people realize this, but because of the roof that goes over the pit in Bayreuth, the first violins sit on the conductor’s right so that their sound actually goes towards the stage, bounces off the stage, and then goes onto the auditorium.  The trombones sit on high chairs, really old nineteenth century, wonderful wicker chairs at the bottom of the pit, miles away from me.  I sort of peer through everybody else to say good evening to them!

BD:    Down in Nibelheim!

ME:    Nibelheim, absolutely!  The second violins are on my left, and the violas are stretched out in a sausage on one step.  Then on the next step down you’ve got all the cellos, so it means that the woodwind solos in Meistersinger are very difficult to project out.  Whereas in Parsifal, the writing is more like an organ.   He writes for the whole brass choir, or just the strings, or just the woodwind.

BD:     Did he register it like organ registration?

ME:    Well that’s right.  He thinks of it in those terms, and so the full sonority is a most wonderfully conceived thing with that design of his orchestral pit in mind.  The first sounds I ever heard at Bayreuth were the beginning of Lohengrin, and that is a wonderful opera at Bayreuth, although it’s much earlier in his output.  It does sound beautiful there.  Again this is a wonderful halo around the sound.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    I want to be sure to ask you about recordings.  You’ve recorded Rigoletto?

ME:    Correct, and Otello.  Those are on records.  I’ve also done a video of Gloriana which we made just before I brought it to the States in 1984 [photo of DVD cover is shown farther down on this webpage].

BD:    Being such a theatrical medium, do you find that opera works well in a purely aural sense?

ME:    That’s a very good and interesting question, because a lot of people derive enormous enjoyment from operatic recordings.  There is an enormous amount of the repertoire that doesn’t work so well for me off records.  I have quite a large collection of gramophone records, and it’s interesting that there are certain pieces when I think,
I’ll put on a record and try and relax to something.  It’s the same thing.  There are whole areas of music that I’m not really interested to hear.  In the past, I have enjoyed putting on Strauss so that I can listen to the brilliance of the invention without having to look.  There’s a whole part of Strauss that is for purely musicians’ delight.  It’s like a delicatessen shop.  There are so many different sort of sausages everywhere, and I love all that.

BD:    [With a nudge]  Covered with Schlagobers!  [Schlagobers [Whipped Cream] is a ballet, Op. 70, by Richard Strauss.]

ME:    Yes, yes, and a hell of a lot of Schlagobers, with a few waltzes lurking around every corner!  I enjoy listening to music that I don’t know well in the theaters, including a lot of the verismo composers.  I’m very interested, for instance, in Mascagni’s other operas.  I enjoy listening to those, and I enjoy listening to very well recorded performances of Rossini at home.  There are a few.  There’s a lovely recording of Otello of Rossini, for instance, which I’ve enjoyed listening to purely musically.

BD:    Are you pleased with the recordings though that you have made?


ME:    The two recordings that I’ve made
Otello came first, and then Rigolettowere opposite in terms of the experience of putting them on record.  Otello we did from three performances in the theater.  The microphones came in and listened to some rehearsals, and then took three whole performances, and we decided how to make the best of them.  So you hear the theater; you’re aware of the theater; you’re aware of the audience participation, the noise, the acoustic of the theater, and the fact that there are few little errors here and there.  The balance of the sound and the noise from the stage does reproduce the live performance.  The Rigoletto we did eighteen months later in the studio.  As always happens, it was cut up into little slices, depending on the availability, and to try to spare the leading singers so they didn’t kill themselves day after day.  I found that a completely different experience.

elder BD:    [Wryly]  Did you say ‘leading singers’ or ‘bleeding singers’?

ME:    [Smiles]  Well, in Rigoletto they should sweat but not bleed!  It was a very hard experience for me, much, much tougher
not that I was out of my element, or the orchestra were unused to being in a studio, because that’s not the case; I’ve been in the studio a lot — but it’s a question of finding the bow line between the whole evening and when you’re actually just doing a bit of a scene there, and a bit of a scene there.  All music has to have a pulse running through it, however long the piece, and you have to have control.  I always say it’s like a fishing line into the river.  You have to throw the line through a net, and to do that in segments is very hard.

BD:    At any point does this style of recording become fraud?

ME:    My feeling is that in the middle of the
70s, the development of the quality of hi-fi and digital recording started to gather momentum, and it became clear by the 80s that this was actually a different art form from live music.  It became clear, and I hope that it will go on becoming clear to the general listener that one should make as much distinction between the recording studio and the live performance as is possible.  Everybody should learn to understand that in the Trovatore recording of Pavarotti, for instance, we all know that he recorded ‘Di Quella Pira’ without the top Cs, and came back on another day and just recorded the top Cs.  As I understand from someone at the session, he swilled his mouth out before one top C, and spat water all over the carpet in the studio!   Such is the license of the great!

BD:    Do you ever feel that you’re competing against recordings when you’re in the theater?

ME:    Yes, of course we all do, and in the concert hall, too, particularly because we’re always in danger of letting people down.  I hear them say,
It’s not as good my recording!  But that’s why I love working in the theater, and making the theater my life.  I prefer to go on thinking it is more like a circus and not like some pretty porcelain ornament up there.  It should be something risky and something raw.  This Carmen that I’m going back to do is going to be set it in the slum of a Latin American city.  Nothing specific, but it’s not going to be sort of cozy in that way.  The curtain will go up and people will be affronted.  I hope that they will find enjoyment and stimulation in it, as well as disappointment.  We learn to live with all that side of it, but there’s a new audience that we have to think of as well... people who haven’t been to Benidorm, you know! [Laughs]

BD:    Is opera in the theater an athletic contest, like the Christians versus the lions?

ME:    Yes!  There’s more of that in it, I believe, and there should be these igniting the event then and there.  When the singers have to do it for the audience for that night, that’s when their prowess and their artistry are really to be found.  The greatest singers in my book are the ones that can live up to the challenges of the moment.  There are certain people who have careers because they are very good recording artists, and I don’t denigrate that at all.  There are certain conductors who are excellent recording artists, and they may also be wonderful conductors in the flesh as well.  The Music Director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Sir Georg Solti, is a man I very much admire, and he is a wonderful recording conductor because he learnt so much of his job and career in the studio.  He’s done so much work there that he’s a master of how to cope with that situation, and one can learn a lot from him, as I did when I was a young man.  But there is a certain element of recorded music that is the antithesis of live music because of its security and because of its emphasis on precision.  In a concert or in the theater, you know if something isn’t quite together because the singer turns away just at the wrong minute, or spontaneously goes for something different, and it may mean that the co-ordination is difficult to control at that point.  But it soon passes.  In a recording it’s going to be there forever.  I see the microphone like The Terror, the scourge of the post-War generation because it’s changed our minds.  Reginald Goodall didn’t worry about whether or not it was going to be together.  Those conductors know that sometimes it’s not going to be together, but it very often is because they conduct the music rather than the beats.

BD:    Is this what you try to do
— conduct the music rather than the beats?

ME:    Yes!  But I say to myself so often,
“If something isn’t right and there are too many beats, free it up!

BD:    Then does that hamper you in the recording studio?

ME:    When I did that Rigoletto it did.

BD:    Will you be making more recordings?

ME:    Oh, I hope so.  There are many plans put in London for that sort of thing, and there’s a lot of brinkmanship in terms of the finance that has to be found.  So we keep everybody up the boil, and then we hope to find the finance to achieve it for the last minute.

BD:    Will you be recording only opera, or also concerts?

ME:    Both really.  I’m halfway through a number of records.  I completed one just before Christmas, and I’ve another one I need to finish next year of some music by a young British composer, Dominic Muldowney.  I did his Piano Concerto here in Chicago the last time I came, and we’re recorded that.  Now I need to do his saxophone concerto for the other side.  [Remember when LPs had two separate sides?]  We’ve also just made a video of Dvořák’s wonderful opera Rusalka, which we did in a most extraordinary production in London.  [Photo of DVD cover is shown farther down on this webpage.]


BD:    Does opera work on television?

ME:    Not for me!

BD:    Going back to this idea about translation, let me ask one last question.  Operas which are televised usually have translated subtitles on the screen.  Here in U.S. we have this gimmick of the supertitles in the theater.  Do you think that is a good compromise?

ME:    I would love to see more.  I would love to have seen Parsifal the other night in the Lyric Opera with subtitles.  That would have been really fascinating to feel whether or not the audience could become more involved in the experience.  I suspect that they have a great value.   Instinctively, because I believe in performing in the language of the audience, I’m rather against them, and I feel very hurt and very disappointed when people say that we should have them at the Coliseum because they can’t always understand the words.  I know that our acoustic has a lot to do with it because when you take the singers into another venue, or you’re sitting in one of our stage boxes where the acoustic is different
(it’s drier), you suddenly realize that the casts, by and large, have a much, much better control of the articulation than in the acoustic of this huge wonderful Parsifal-like cupola we have in the auditorium.  So I think that surtitles will survive.  They’re in their infancy, but I don’t think it’s a passing thing.  They will go on developing.

elder BD:    Will they mean the death of opera in English?

ME:    No, because I think they are a compromise.  Opera in translation is a compromise by itself, of course, but there is no substitute for the immediacy of hearing somebody while they are actually acting.  If it increases the understanding of what’s going on, that’s worked one part of the process.  But actually the communication that exists between actually hearing a row on stage between two people, or a coming together of love scene and seeing them create it and ignite it in that moment, there is no substitute for that.  The Italian audiences in Verdi’s day knew that, and I hope that some of our audiences in London feel that occasionally, too.

BD:    Are you optimistic about the future of opera?

ME:    [Hesitates]  I must be, but I’m full of concern for two things — the rising, spiraling costs, and the incredible restraints that labor relations impose on us.  I am optimistic about the ability of composers nowadays to write pieces that will be enjoyed today.  That is how opera came into being.  The nineteenth century was full of excitement about the next opera for the next season.  Since the War, and since the disbanding of conventional tonality, it’s proved incredibly difficult for composers to write popular operas.  But there is so much new and interesting music being written nowadays, that I’m convinced that if companies keep pushing at it, and give composers the stimulus to believe that their work will be performed, it will be possible for composers to write music now that will be loved by their generation, and appreciated and enjoyed.  Something we are trying at the moment is to launch a whole series of them at the Coliseum with that in mind.  The future of opera depends to a certain extent on that, and it depends on there being somehow enough people who believe in ensemble opera; who believe in actually making a team of people who will unselfishly work and perform together.  My point is that there will always be great voices.  There always have been and there always will be, and they will give pleasure in the way that they always have.  I love all that, and I didn’t speak about it in our conversation very much because I feel that I have a guiding torch.  I have a light for something more than that.  But there’s nothing I like more than going to hear Pavarotti and Domingo on a good night, because singers on that level show us what we should all be aiming for.  My ideal would be Pavarotti for Italian, where everybody could understand because his text is so clear.  There’s a wonderful story about when Callas was at La Scala with Traviata, and Toscanini was still alive, a very old man.  They told him, You must come and hear this wonderful Greek soprano we’ve just found.  She’s absolutely amazing.  We don’t think you’ve ever heard her, but she’s absolutely wonderful.  So he staggered along to rehearsal, and at the end of the rehearsal they asked, Maestro, what do you think? and he said, The tenor has good diction!  [Both laugh]  That’s recorded in Harvey Sachs’s wonderful biography of Toscanini.  That’s where I read it.

BD:    Thank you for spending this time with me today.  I hope we can continue this sometime in the future.

ME:   Right!  That’s very good.

BD:    Will you be back in Chicago?

ME:    Oh, I hope so. It’s a little early to say yet, but I’d love to come again.  It’s always a great joy.  I love the city, and each time I come I feel I’m getting to know it a bit more, and am able to see different parts of it.

[At this point, the representative of the Chicago Symphony, who had set up the details of our meeting, arrived to escort the conductor to his dressing room for the concert that evening, and she asked her own question!]

CSO Representative:    Have you ever done productions at the Edinburgh Festival?

ME:    My company you mean?  No.  The Edinburgh Festival would be very unlikely to bring us there because the opera that they have built up in the last few years is a mixture of bringing foreign companies, and using Scottish Opera, which are based in Glasgow and always perform in Edinburgh.  There was a time in the
’50s, when Giulini was at Glyndebourne, and they went up to do Edinburgh.  But it would be seen as a rather uninspiring or unimaginative idea to use the finance available to do that now.  Not, of course, that people of Glasgow and Edinburgh see much of our work now because we don’t tour anymore because it’s just too expensive.  But, no, we don’t.  The Edinburgh Festival is in jolly great danger, actually.  It’s looking for its identity.  It’s a very parochial attitude up there with the locals; very hard.

elder CSO Representative:    Have you ever attended the Chicago Opera Theater here?

BD:    [Clarifying for the conductor]  It’s the second company here in town.

ME:    I’ve heard about it.

BD:    It’s ten years old, and what they do is take young artists and do everything in English.  They do what they can do, just three operas a year in a small theater the seats nine-hundred, and it’s just wonderful.

CSO Representative:    Everyone just raves.  It’s such a success story.

ME:    Oh, how thrilling.  I was going to say about eight- or nine-hundred seats is ideal.

BD:    I always tell people that in London you have really the ideal situation.  You have the international company at Covent Garden, and you have everything in English with first Sadler’s Wells and now the English National Opera.  Here we have the international season at Lyric, and now we have everything in English at the Chicago Opera Theater, and this is the balance that a city needs.

ME:    That’s the point.  It’s always worth saying that a big, important city must have both.  I’ve never met a composer, or read about composer, who didn’t want his pieces to be understood by the audience.

BD:    How can we get more big singers to learn opera in translation?

ME:    Birgit Nilsson and Elisabeth Söderström, both Scandinavians, sang all their repertoire in Swedish in their own town before they left went on to international careers.  It’s a beautiful language.  Have you heard that Bergman [film of] Magic Flute?

BD:    Yes!

ME:    It sounds lovely!  But the blame really is the microphone’s responsibility, and the jet, and the autobahn.  Everybody racing around the world!

BD:    Singers are too busy!  Are conductors too busy?

ME:    Much too busy!  This is a fascinating topic.  The business of racing around the world will now begin to change.  I talked to Simon Rattle about this.  I know him very well, and he’s sticking here with his orchestra, and I’m sticking here with mine in London.  I’d love to have a symphony orchestra one day, and perhaps that’ll come, but perhaps one could mix the two.  The idea of staying, as Furtwängler did in Berlin, will come back.  We get tired having to build a bond every time.

BD:    Would you take the orchestra from the opera company and make it into a concert organization?

ME:    That’s a dream of mine.  I said to them when I started that I’d like to do that, but anything that you do in that way is outside our labor contract with them.  It would be an exception.

BD:    There are seven full-time professional orchestral orchestras in London.

ME:    Yes!  I mean they are the big ones.

BD:    Five concert orchestras and two theater orchestras?

ME:    That’s right

BD:    And they are all working!

ME:    Yes!  And there are many other really major groups like the English Chamber Orchestra, the London Mozart Orchestra, the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, and a lot of other orchestras as well.  These orchestras are called ‘symphony orchestras’ but are actually an amalgam of people from all over the five!  When you hear a wonderful violin solo, and it could be any of the leaders of any of the London orchestras!

elder BD:    It’s going to be a nightmare in the twenty-first century to go back through the records and pull out who played in what group and when...

ME:    That’s right, it will!

BD:    There will be several doctoral dissertations on it, I’m afraid!  [The conductor has a huge laugh]  Thank you so very much.

ME:    Oh, not at all.

[Ten days short of eleven years later we met again and continued our discussion]

BD:    The last time you were here for the symphony, we talked quite a bit about opera.  So now, when you’re doing the opera, let’s talk a bit about symphony, and then come back to the opera.  [Both laugh]

ME:    Yes!

BD:    How do you divide your career between symphony and opera.  You seem to be doing a lot of each these days.

ME:    That’s true.  There’s never been a year in my life when I haven’t done both things.  When I started conducting twenty-seven years ago, I did so much in the opera house, and it was the real training for me.  It was preparation for me.

BD:    Years ago, it was the usual routine that the conductors would be repetiteurs and then conductors in the opera house, and then move into the symphony.

ME:    Yes, and it’s something I very much believe in.  I wish more people would find the patience to learn their craft that way nowadays.

BD:    What is it about the opera house that makes a good symphonic conductor?

ME:    Giulini is a conductor I very much admire, and I’ve only met him once.  He was a bit of a myth to my generation because by the time we all became aware of music, he’d stopped conducting in the theater.  He came back a little later just to that famous Falstaff that he did all over the world.  There were other projects that didn’t really come to anything, and some recordings, but I longed to see him working in the theater because everybody said how wonderful he was.  He said to me that there are two reasons for conducting in the theater.  One is to realize how all music has to breathe, because you can’t conduct an opera unless you let the singers breathe to sing the next phrase.  You have to learn to how to give the music time to breathe, and when you hear how music breathes when singers breathe with it, if you then manage to find that in your music-making when singers aren’t there, your music-making is much, much more natural and organic.  The second thing is that working in the opera house enables one to understand how music can express the psychology of character.

BD:    Even when there’s no text?

ME:    Sometimes yes, absolutely.  Think of the wonderful experiments that Berlioz did in his great symphony Romeo and Juliet, when he tried to make the kernel of the play, the poetry of the play, be expressed purely through the symphony orchestra without any words.

BD:    But that seems to be a transitional work because it’s based on a real drama, rather than being a purely abstract work such as a symphony.

ME:    Right, but I think that what Giulini was after was the realization that through the combination of word and music the conductor has to learn and develop his own awareness of how the sounds can express the inner life of the characters’ thoughts.  Consequently you have to understand the characters’ thoughts before you can begin to understand how to make the music sound.  He’s absolutely right, and it’s something that I spend an enormous amount of time thinking about, because any chord, any passage, any melody can be changed in a plastic way.  It can have its own character and its own tension that must derive from the psychology of the character to whom the music refers, and I always think that’s interesting.

BD:    Are there times in the opera
perhaps in a lesser piece where the music really doesn’t agree with the character — where the composer has not been in sync with his librettist?

ME:    It’s very interesting that, Bruce, because there are times when you can’t understand why the composer has written the music that he’s written on the face of it when you think of the words.  It is maybe that the composer can’t either
if you were able to talk to him again.  There’s a little bit in Peter Grimes that makes a very strong impression on me from that point of view.  There’s this sudden great outburst from the orchestra of enormous weight, and then it all sort of gradually dissolves.  One wonders if Britten had a very clear thing in his mind, or he just wanted to write the music which welled up inside him that way.  He didn’t really understand or analyze it because Britten never analyzed his work, and he hated other people doing it whether or not he realized actually the emotional potential in the music.  Part of the joy of working in the theater is uncovering the layers of emotional fabric that are inherent in the music.


See my interview with Richard Van Allan

BD:    Is there any way to get through all of the layers to rock bottom?

ME:    [Thinks a moment]  I shouldn’t have thought so!  It’s a constant journey, a constant search, and coming back to a piece that you may have been conducting off and on for a long time
twenty years or somethingit is good to try and re-think it, re-discover it. 

BD:    When you come back to a piece after you’ve not done it awhile, do you get a clean score and start fresh?

ME:    No!  No, no, no, I love my scores.  They’re like friends.  I live with them, and I buy as many as I can afford because they’re now incredibly expensive, particularly music where the parts need a lot of preparation, such as Verdi, the early Italian repertoire, and Mozart.  I can’t bear giving scores back.  It’s one of the most painful things of my life.  You have to have a love affair with a score.

BD:    I suppose it’s like a divorce to give back this book?

ME:    Absolutely, yes.  It fractures something that you’ve been with for years, in some cases.  It’s very important the relationship you have with the score.  The way it looks on the page, and everything, is to me very important.

BD:    How do you decide which edition you’re going to study?

elder ME:    [Thinks a moment]  With operas that’s not generally a problem.  Funnily enough, the one person where it is a problem is Wagner, because there are different publishers
Peters, and Breitkkopf, or Schotts.  So there are choices to be made with Wagner sometimes.  I am preparing my first Parsifal at the moment, which I’m going to do in London in about fifteen months’ time, and I need to fix which score I’m going to conduct from because the layout is very different, and that affects the experience you have.  What you see affects what you hear, and it’s nice in operas not to have too many bars on one page.  You can begin to get the whole fabric of itwhole big paragraphs, rather than just the little details. 

BD:    You’ve got, perhaps, the totality of western music to choose from.  How do you decide which works you are going to study and which problems you are going to try to solve?

ME:    For me that’s always a mixture.  There’s a list of works off to one side that I’m dying to get to and want to live with and have a relationship with, if you like, and there’s another list that I get asked to do.  People who have perhaps heard me do a piece will suggest that I should look certain pieces, or urge me to do things that perhaps I hadn’t necessarily thought of.  It happened the other day.  Somebody I very much admire said,
I want you to do the Brahms Requiem because I heard you do a Brahms symphony many years ago, and I thought it was a new sound in Brahms.  It sounded so interesting and different, and you could really help the Requiem because it’s a piece that can often be stodgy.  The Brahms Requiem is not a work that is anywhere near my list of pieces that I want to do, but it made me think perhaps I should look at it!  I’ve got a beautiful score of it that I bought in East Berlin when I was there.  I bought a lot of music in East Berlin before the Wall came down because it was embarrassingly cheap.  I got all that great German-Austrian repertoire in beautiful editions, and I’ve got this Requiem score.  I’ve often taken it out and looked at it, and I’ve never had the time to really get into it, but perhaps one day I will. 

BD:    Do you make sure that you have time to look at your scores, and study the scores that you have to do?

ME:    Absolutely.  One of the great joys about coming to Chicago this time, with this beautiful weather, now that the performances have started I have some time in between them, and I have an enormous study program ahead of me for this next month.  A lot of repertoire is coming up in November and December and January and February that I need to start now, sowing the seeds and getting to know some of these pieces that perhaps I haven’t ever come across before.  For instance, next month, I’m going to Birmingham, an orchestra with whom I’ve worked a long, long time.

BD:    Is that Rattle’s orchestra?

ME:    Yes, and we have a very good relationship.  I’m going to do the concerto that Takemitsu wrote for the Canadian percussion group, Nexus.  Do you know this work?

BD:    I don’t know this work, but I interviewed Takemitsu when he was here in Chicago many years ago, and I’m very fond of many of his pieces.

ME:    Yes, it is exquisite music.  The five percussionists of Nexus have stations in various parts of the platform, and they all have these bells with different colored ribbons that are attached to the ceiling of the concert hall.  They’re very tiny, delicate bells, and at certain points the percussionists just shake them, and very delicately in the distance, in the heavens, come these tiny little bell sounds.  Isn’t that magic? 

BD:    Sure.

ME:    I have to study that work here, and I have to start preparing the B Minor Mass of Bach.

BD:    Now, you’re in Chicago doing Peter Grimes, and you’re studying Takemitsu, and you’re studying Bach.  Will that in any way affect the last two or three performances that you do here?

ME:    No.  What will affect the last few performances of Grimes is the continuum of having such a wonderful group of performances beautifully spaced out.

BD:    So the first three performances will affect the last three performances?

ME:    Yes.  It’s a constant evolving thing, or it must be, and it’s part of my responsibility to ensure that it is by finding the energy for each performance as if it was the only one performance by galvanizing the cast, who always give of their best.  That’s not hard because they’re a wonderful group of people, and they’re very committed and willing.  But it’s a challenge for a company to sustain a long group of performances.  Ten is a good number.  Eight is the sort of number that I’m used to, and so ten would be wonderful.

BD:    So perhaps you would have turned down the contract if it had been eighteen or twenty-two?

ME:    [Thinks a moment]  No!  That’s an academic question because I suspect no company would do eighteen performances of  Peter Grimes in one go.

BD:    Maybe if it’s going on tour?

ME:    Yes, you’re right.  I might have asked for an assistant to be allowed to do some of them in order that my own energies are not depleted.  Next time I’m going to do a very long run of performances of an opera that I adore, Simon Boccanegra, in Glyndebourne for the festival there.  The last performance is going to be in the Albert Hall, in the Henry Wood Proms, which will be a great night because of course that audience is wonderfully invigorating and supportive.

elder BD:    So the audience on that one night will make it a different performance than at Glyndebourne?

ME:    Yes, absolutely.  The acoustic of the building, and the fact that we will all have done the piece together so much means that it will be really a run-in.  We need that stimulus, that excitement, that originality, that novelty of that event.

BD:    Will you do an extra polish-up rehearsal?

ME:    Absolutely!  But we will have done fifteen performances of it in Glyndebourne, and it’ll be very exciting to do in Glyndebourne because the new opera house is a great success.

BD:    It’s a little larger than the old one?

ME:    Yes, and it has a good acoustic, and wonderful contact with the public.  The orchestra can take on some of these fuller scores that were really not suitable to the old building.

BD:    Does your approach to Boccanegra change because it’s in a very small hall rather than Covent Garden?

ME:    That’s interesting because I did the first version there this summer at Covent Garden.

BD:    Oh, with no Council Chamber Scene?

ME:    That’s right, yes, and what a fine work it is.  Of course, we missed the Council Chamber Scene, and we missed the melodic twists and harmonies and things that he added later.  But that early work has its own integrity, its own rough strength.  It was fascinating.  I did it with Placido, and it was the first time we’d met, and the first time we’d worked together.  It was great.  He was wonderful.  I think that it will, above all, give me the confidence to honor the huge range of effects that Verdi calls for in so many of his operas.  In this one, almost as much as in Macbeth, it’s very hard nowadays to bring off some of the quiet music, the quiet declamation, the whispered conversations in the larger buildings.  In Glyndebourne there’s the best opportunity I know in England to do that.  It has a lovely live acoustic.  The audience are just there; you can just lean out into them.  When they did the piece ten years ago, one of the singers who is in the cast told me a painful story.  They could see the audience because they’re so close, because the pit is very narrow in that old building, and they often could see at Glyndebourne, particularly after the dinner, a gentleman in the second row snoring his head off.  One night, his head was just back and his mouth was open, and he was completely out to the performance.  Somebody nudged somebody, and they all got the giggles because it looked so funny.  But it was terrible because the man had actually passed away!  The man actually died in the performance, and nobody noticed.  [Pauses briefly to consider this sad event, then resumes with another story.]  This summer at Glyndebourne they did Rossini’s wonderful Count Ory, and it wasn’t a very good production, I didn’t think.  It was too vulgar.  At the beginning of the second part, the curtain goes up and beautiful girls come together in this castle to save themselves from marauding knights.  They sort of club together, all these beautiful maidens, and they were all bathing each other.  The producer had got some special actresses who were prepared to go topless.  So there were these lovely old baths, and these girls with beautiful bodies were being gently washed by the other girls.  It was all very delicately erotic, and there was apparently a lady in the front row, who suffered from Tourette syndrome, when you can’t stop swearing out loud.  At Glyndebourne, can you imagine this frightfully pucker audience, this terrifically establishment institution?  She was with a whole party who were so embarrassed.  She was calling out these terrible words all the time, out loud in the performance, and they all left her to it!  [Both laugh]  It was so funny!  The cast must have found it hysterical!

BD:     I would think it would be very hard to keep your concentration on stage, especially if you’re seeing a problem in the audience.

ME:    Yes, terribly hard!  You really have to know how you’re going to do that, and that comes with the rehearsal process, and from one’s discipline as a performer.

BD:    I have a very technical question.  As in the instance where someone has died in the audience in the performance, if you are aware of it do you stop the performance, or do you keep going?

ME:    In an opera, the decision to stop the performance will never be with the conductor.  It’s very important.


BD:    Will it be with the Stage Manager?

ME:    Yes.  The Stage Manager must have control, and the way to stop a performance is the Stage Manager will bring the curtain in.  Then somebody would come to the back of pit and signal to me.  Somebody would then come to talk to me, and it has happened.  It usually happens because of technical problems or where something’s gone wrong on the stage.  It happened to me recently, earlier this year in a German opera house when a chorister injured himself very badly by falling into a hole during a performance.  The rest of the chorus, who were on stage with him, broke the performance saying to bring down the curtain.  But I don’t think I’ve ever had it stop because someone has been ill in the audience.  The staff in the auditorium will look after the person.  I don
t think I’ve been involved in a performance where somebody has actually died.  We’ve had bomb scares, which are terrible!  That is the most awful thing because there’s nothing to show for it.  It’s just a rumor.  There’s been a scare, but the performance has been discontinued, and the theater has to be cleared.  It happened to me in the middle of Don Carlos once.

BD:    [Slyly]  Was it after the ‘Auto-da-Fé’?  [Both laugh]

ME:    Yes, it’s very significant you should say that!  I think it was just after the ‘
Auto-da-Fé actually.  We all went out into the street...

BD:    That would be the way to time it.

ME:    Yes, absolutely!

BD:    There’s an operatic novel where apparently a singer belongs to some underground cult, and he’s arranged that during the performance of this new opera in the new opera house, where there’s a big explosion scene, and he’s loaded all of the artillery with live ammunition instead of blanks.

ME:    Oh, God!

BD:    It’s a novel, but very gripping.

ME:    Right!  A fantasy.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    I asked if learning the new scores will affect your performances here.  Does performing Peter Grimes when you’re learning Bach change the way you approach Bach?

ME:    No.  To me, the relationships that you have with a scores are about looking into them and assessing what the style is, what the tone of the particularly piece is, how you’re going to solve the problems that it creates, and how you’re going to love the music.  You allow the music to come into your being before it can come out again through the re-creative process.  I don’t find any problem, and I wouldn’t expect there to be any.  This may be subliminal, or there may be something that I’m not aware of where the influences cross over, as it were, as one might call it.  I’ll give you an example!  At the moment, the most exciting project that I have is preparing a concert performance of Donizetti’s late ‘semi-seria’ opera Linda di Chamounix...


BD:    A very rare work!

ME:    ...yes, which I’m going to do with Mariella Devia, who’s here now in Chicago.  We’re going to do it together in London for Donizetti’s 200th birthday.  There are very few celebrations in Britain for his birthday, and I want this to be the really important one, the real highlight.  I’m doing it with the original instrument orchestra The Age of Enlightenment, with whom I’ve done many such projects.  For me, it is a dream come true to be able to rehearse this sort of music with that orchestra, and have a wonderful cast of singers.  We’ve got Alessandro Corbelli to do the ‘buffo’ role; the young Spanish tenor, Marcelo Álvarez, who has yet to make his debut in Britain, and who is a very, very exciting young talent; and three young English singers who I know well, who are sensationally gifted.  It’s a lovely work, though it’s quite long.  It’s a really beautiful piece.  It’s funny and touching.

BD:    I only know the one aria, and the very old recording.

ME:    Right!  Performances that one can get from the past are mutilated, as was the custom in the
50s and early 60s.  They can be mutilated sometimes beyond recognition, with whole numbers being left out.  As a result, the proportions of these acts are not given properly.  Now the recording industry is more alive to the potential in this sort of market.  Gruberová and Devia herself have both made pretty complete recordings, and in fact I found her recording here in Chicago.  It’s a very beautiful piece.  Donizetti, as you probably know, was a lovely man, a very sympathetic man.  I’ve just made a film about him for television, an hour and a half film including a lot of on-camera stuff.  We went to Bergamo, and I talked about him and his background and his life and the sort of man he was.

BD:    Did the film include scenes from his various works?

ME:    Yes, specially staged scenes, as I did in my Verdi film two or three years ago.  I’ve enjoyed enormously spending time with this man.  He had such an influence on Verdi, and yet he was very generous to Verdi.  This is the first time I’ve conducted an opera by Donizetti, and my thirty years work with Verdi comes to bear on my studying of Donizetti.  He wrote sixty-eight operas, and this is number 64.  Right at the end, just before syphilis really took a hold on him, it’s fascinating to see how Verdi was just there, and as soon as Donizetti was no more, Verdi was ready to take on what Donizetti had given him, and fill it with his own personality and his own originality.  Donizetti was a real role model for Verdi.  When Verdi started with his great Nabucco, Donizetti was the ‘King’.  In that same season, some of his most popular operas at that time being performed at La Scala.  Verdi would have certainly had a relationship with him, and would have certainly listened to his music and learned from it.  Now, after so many years of Verdi, I’m now looking at that role model and realizing how much it did influence him, and seeing how Donizetti’s maturing skill must have been an inspiration to the young Verdi.

BD:    I hope Linda comes off very well.  [He would later make a recording of this work (with a mostly different cast) for Opera Rara, shown below.]


ME:    I have great hopes for it, I really do.  It’s a piece that has such variety.  It’s a piece of duets, like Verdi’s Don Carlos.  Apart from her ‘little aria’ at the beginning, which is, of course, a show-stopper, the tenor has an aria in the second act, and all the other pieces involve a least more than one person.  The ‘buffo’ has a wonderful aria with the young people in the chorus with him at the same time, and the bass has a marvelous duet with the tenor, which is always cut.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    You mentioned this relationship between Donizetti and Verdi.  Are there other types of relationships that you’ve found or explored?  Then to follow up, is there a link that goes all through music history?

ME:    Yes!  Another example is Weber and Wagner.  In the mature great works of Weber
Freischütz, Euryanthe, and Oberon — you can see the forefathers right there just around the corner for the developing Wagner.  I would say Euryanthe, despite its appalling problems with the libretto, is a much greater piece of music than Rienzi, or even Flying DutchmanEuryanthe is a wonderful work.  The music is of such power, and freshness, and originality.  Dutchman is certainly a marvelous opera, but it’s a young man’s opera.  It’s terrific, slightly raw, not yet quite a personal voice.  It’s immature Wagner against the best of Weber, and there’s more subtlety in Euryanthe.

BD:    Are there any composers who just stand alone, or does everyone come from someone and lead to someone?

ME:    No... well, that’s an interesting point.  The name that flashed through my mind was Charles Ives!  But then Ives had so many influences on him
— all the military bands, all the organ music that he played.  He gathered from everywhere.

BD:    So rather than a composer, for him it was styles?

ME:    Right, yes!  But then by the end of his life, one could say that he stood alone against all the trends that were around him.

BD:    Is this something you look for when you’re doing a work by a living composer
that composer’s roots and that composer’s directions?


ME:    Yes!  I do that because it interests me.  It’s a natural part of studying the music, or befriending the music, as it were, drawing it into yourself.  It’s one of the reasons why it’s very important for all performers
instrumentalists, singers, conductorsto work with live composers of both sexes!  Let’s face it!  Ninety-five per cent of what we do with our time, the composer’s dead.  I spend a lot of time working with composers.  It’s something that I’ve always believed, however challenging and demanding it is.  Some of the new pieces I’ve done have been incredibly difficulttechnically, musically, intellectually, mathematically — and it’s been thrilling to share the experience with the man who conceived it.  He is the person who, at nine o’clock in the morning was faced with blank manuscript paper, and he started to create something on that paper.  I’m in charge of realizing it for the first time for him.  Doing world premieres can be a most fulfilling experience, particularly, I may say, if the composer’s idiom is not so clear and not so professionally sophisticated.

BD:    It takes you to refine it?

ME:    Well, perhaps to refine it, but to understand the inner voice that the composer was after.  It’s been very exciting to me when you see something and wonder what all this is.  Then you talk to him, and you ask,
“What was this about in your mind?  What was this section, as I don’t get it yet?  He might just say a couple of things that explain where the musical ideas come from, and now I’m off!  I’m away!  I would love to be able to ask Verdi that!

BD:    This is not the kind of thing that is in the history books about Verdi.

ME:    Right, because a real composer is the conduit through which the music comes, and they can’t always tell you what it’s all about.  Sometimes it would be lovely to say,
“This is an incredible gesture in the orchestra.  What did you mean?  It doesn’t seem to match anything that they’re saying!  Or if it’s purely a symphonic piece, How does this section come out of the previous bit?  What was the thought behind it?  Many years ago I did an enormous piece for huge orchestra, electric guitar and mezzo-soprano.  It was settings of Provençale troubadour poetry.  The electric guitar was like the twentieth-century equivalent of the troubadours harp or lute.  It was an immensely successful piece, and there’s a record of it now.

BD:    What was the name of the piece and the composer?

ME:    The composer is John Buller (1927-2004) and the piece is called Proenҫa.  I did the world première at the Proms, and it was very exciting.  A lot of people were quite taken with it and its drama.  John doesn’t write music down the way that Ben Britten does, with all the I
s dotted and all the Ts crossed.  John writes something inside himself, and I got these pages of manuscript and thought, My God, how am I going to conduct this?   How am going to help the players realize it?  It seems so sketchy.  It seems like Janáček’s pages [which are notoriously un-readable].  You can’t make head nor tail of it!  But as soon as John started to talk to me about the violence of that time in mediaeval period in that southern part of France, and about the blood-thirstiness and the massacres that happened, and how the intensity of the love poetry was more erotic than the many centuries that came after it, I saw that he had really responded to that.  It’s a funny language, Provençale.  It’s very difficult to pronounce and very difficult to understand.  But I was away!  To me, it was a wonderful help and wonderful inspiration to hear that from his mouth, and to realize it for him.


BD:    Do you feel that these composers have created something new, or have they’ve just discovered something that already existed somewhere in the atmosphere?

ME:    [Thinks a moment]  I sense overall, actually, that the process of writing has so many different levels that it would be facile to say it just has two levels.  The composer forms an overall impression of the piece in his mind.  In his ear he forms gradually the individual notes that are going to make up the material of the work, and that is consciously organized when he starts writing it.  It’s hard work.  It’s not a question of,
[in an aristocratic English old man’s accent] Oh, inspiration, where are you?  It’s actually nine o’clock in the morning, I’ve got to get on with this!  Come on, let’s write something! and having the clothes’ hanger onto which he’s going to put the suit of clothes that will be the piece.  One part of his art is a visionary part.  What is this piece about?  Why do I feel I want to write it?  What’s it calling from me?  What gestures do I need?  Then the other part of his art is the craft of finishing it off, working at it, honing it, criticizing it, and revising.  This is hard work!  The answer to your question is that they are the vessel through which something must pass, but there is an enormous amount of hard effort, application, experience, and technique involved as well, and through that they may then discover that they’ve written something they had no idea was inside them.

BD:    What advice do you have for composers?

ME:    [Choosing his words carefully]  To believe above all your own voice.  Don’t be put off by criticism when you’re young.  Hang on to what you have inside you.  Hang on to this inner voice, because if composers in the past hadn’t done that they’d have been knocked off their own paths.  I’m thinking of Mussorgsky.  If he thought,
I must be as suave as Rimsky-Korsakov because he’s so successful! or if Janáček had tried to be more like Dvořák and had smoother edges, we wouldn’t have the Janáček that now we need.  He has been one of the great human compassion ‘poets’ of the century.

BD:    I’m glad we’re going back and finding these scores, especially the Mussorgsky.  We’re getting rid of the Rimsky editions, and going back to the original thoughts.

ME:    That’s right!  The honey-glaze that is on every restaurant menu nowadays is what Rimsky gave Mussorgsky.

BD:    Maybe it was needed in the 1880s and
90s, but now we don’t need it anymore?

ME:    Yes, and there’s another in my lifetime, in my career experience.  One of my first things that I did as a very young man was to be the chorus master and assistant to Ray Leppard at Glyndebourne for Cavalli when he did La Calisto.  [This was in 1970.  The opera was first performed on November 28, 1651, and had a run of eleven performances].  I prepared that with him, and it was a thrill.  I remember the hair standing on end the first time it all came together, and how brilliantly Ray did it, and how he conceived of it, and brought it all to life.


BD:    This is 300 years removed from the original production!

ME:    Right!  But then, years after that, other people got hold of the microfilm of Calisto, and they all realized how free Ray had been in his attitude to what we know Cavalli wrote.  A lot of the effects and colors that Ray put in were very specific and very individual to him, and so we have other versions of Calisto now, other performances of that opera with the scenes in the original order.  Ray changed things around, he transposed things, he invented bits, put in arias from different operas, and so on.

BD:    Was all this similar to the Stokowski orchestrations of Bach, which we needed in the 1920s to keep it alive, but now we can go back to the originals?

ME:    Absolutely, and both have their purpose!  Who’s to say that what’s happened now is better?  It may be based on more direct historical understanding, but without the work that Ray Leppard did in those early performances of Monteverdi and Cavalli, we may not be as far along as we are now!  He showed the world what excitements the whole of baroque opera contain!  He wasn’t the only one of course, but he was a great figure in that.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    What advice do you have for younger conductors?

elder ME:    [Again, he ponders the question]  Don’t be too impatient to push on and do things before you’re ready.  Be prepared to let things marinate inside you.  Value that process!  We all realize, as the years go by, that more often than not, if it doesn’t sound as we want it to sound then there’s something we can do without saying anything to the orchestra to make it sound the way we want it.  Part of the job in rehearsals is finding the way to draw out the music from the players by what we do.  Consequently, the rehearsal process is very much concerned, in my experience, with dividing up and helping the orchestra to learn the piece, to get their fingers round it.  But it is also necessary to find the way to physicalize the inner life of the music, to drawn them to play it expressively the way we want them to, and that demands an astonishingly personal self-criticism which you don’t necessarily need to show that you’re undergoing.  So that it’s a balancing act, and all conducting is getting the balance right.

BD:    But you have to be absolutely convinced that what you’re doing is the right way.

ME:    Yes!  You have to have a great deal of confidence, and yet you have to have enough humility to criticize yourself ruthlessly as it’s going along.  Then in performance, forget that!  Forget that self-criticism, and just perform.  Bring it alive, and think of being there for the players.  It’s something else that I’ve learned enormously from working in the theater, and that’s when something’s not right, it’s most likely to be my fault. So the next time you do it, say to yourself,
Was I there for them?  Was I really communicating with them?  Perhaps if I communicated more, or in a different way, I would get something back from them that I need; that I missed last time we did it.  That’s a central ingredient in conductor’s art.

BD:    Do you have any advice for audiences?

ME:    Keep coming!!!  [Both laugh]  I’m very, very dedicated to getting the idea over to people that they don’t need a university degree to enjoy music.  If they feel that there are aspects about classical music in or out of the theater that are elitist, or putting off, or they feel that they don’t know enough to enjoy it, the responsibility lies with us, the performers, to break down those walls, those barriers of communication, and to let people feel that they can come however they want to.  They can come in their jeans, they can come in their trainers, but they must come with open ears and an open heart.  If they do that, they might find something they never believed was there.  They might find something for them that they find very moving.  They don’t necessarily have to understand it.  They don’t have to be able to talk about it in words.

BD:    Just let it hit them?

ME:    Yes.

BD:    But is it right to expect the audience to enjoy Traviata and enjoy Lulu in the same season?

ME:    Yes, it’s right to expect that, but it’s possible the public will come to both pieces and take something away from it that is very passionate and very powerful.  Yes!  The two works complement each other, and it’s healthy for an audience to have the experience of both of those widely different styles in the same season.  That’s really important.

BD:    Is it different, though, when you have an audience that’s made up mostly of people who’ve been knocking their brains out in business all day?

ME:    This is important!  This is important to take this challenge head-on for any opera company.  You’ve worked in the office all day, and you turn up at the theater, and there’s this long German Expressionist opera about this woman who screeches high notes all the time, and everybody gets wild about her.  It needs to be considered absolutely how you program it.  Lulu is a good piece to come and see on a Saturday when everybody’s a bit fresher.  We do this in London.  We start earlier on Saturdays so people can get there earlier and it doesn’t go on too late.  You should sell the pieces, put them over, appeal to the public, breed the vision and enthusiasm to try out different things.  Build the relationship with the public where they know they will never be bored when they come to the theater.  They might not feel that they have enjoyed it as much as they did last time, but I can assure you, in my experience, that the people who came to the Traviata and thought,
God, such a sentimental story!  Music seems so facile, will perhaps come to Lulu, and love that mad, twisted, decadent world that Berg so evokes.

BD:    The brutality of it?

elder ME:    Yes!  Absolutely.  They will feel the harshness that is very, very powerful in the complete three-act version.  It’s the job of an opera company, surely, to present as wide a palate to the public as possible, to keep everybody thinking about why we admire opera as much as we do, and to keep the options open for people who are not sure that they will keep trying.  It is for those who might say after Traviata, Well, I didn’t quite like that thing I saw last time, about the lady who apparently was supposed to be dying of consumption but she looked all right to me!  [Both laugh]  You hope to bring them back, and perhaps Peter Grimes will be the piece that they would be completely overwhelmed by, and that will start them on a lifelong enthusiasm to try different things.

BD:    So really you’re asking them to put their trust in you and the company?

ME:    Absolutely!  And if the company bores the audience, that is the worst fault!

BD:    One last question.  Is conducting fun?

ME:    [Thinks a moment]  When you find yourself in the right working atmosphere, with people giving unselfishly, the thing that matters is the piece.  The piece is the thing that’s bigger than all of us.  When you’re working with musicians who are equipped to measure up to the standards of the piece, and the standards that I, as the conductor, demand from them, and when in a performance all the preparation can be ignited into a performance that really takes off and has strength and courage and conviction behind it, it is immensely fulfilling, and it is certainly fun.  Rehearsals by themselves can be enormous fun.  They can sometimes be extremely funny!  Musicians have a way of corpsing me
making me break upbecause they have such hysterical sense of humor.  Musicians have the ability to say two or three words that completely pricks the balloon of too much earnestness and too much seriousness.

BD:    I assume you encourage that?

ME:    Absolutely!  I’m a great believer of knowing strategically and psychologically in a rehearsal when to lighten the tension and lighten the moment by allowing laughter.  It’s a great contributor to work.  Conducting is fun.  It is also very, very demanding of everybody.

BD:    Too much so?

ME:    No, never!  Although, I’m rarely satisfied with myself.  I’m often pleased and thrilled with performances, but the challenge of it is to enable oneself to grow and develop.  For a conductor, this is very, very allied to one’s development as a person, as a man.  To allow this development to happen one must not press it or force it.  To retain one’s personal center, to be true to oneself and other performers
singers and orchestral players — one can see so quickly when somebody isn’t when we just step up those few little inches above the orchestra.  The psychological gesture gives us immense seriousness and immense attention.  The best orchestras realize that they need to be conducted, however, the best conductors are the people who make the orchestra feel that they’re not being conducted.  

elder BD:    It becomes a real collaboration?
ME:    Yes.

BD:    Will you be back in Chicago?

ME:    I very much hope so.  There’s actually, right at this minute, nothing in the diary, but I hope that it would be possible to find time for another project because I’ve had a very, very happy memorable experience here.  [At this point we chatted briefly about his various recordings...]  There are not so many of them... Have you got the Busoni Piano Concerto on EMI?  Peter Donohoe and I did that, and it might be the best thing I’ve done! 
It was an enormous task.  We’re great friends, and we’ve done a lot together, and he really wanted to do it, but it took me six months before I agreed to do it.  [Whispers, as though it was a secret]  It was done out of the Proms, and we didn’t know when we did the performance that it was going to be made into a record!  It may be deleted by now because we did it some years ago.

BD:    I’ll hunt for it.  That work has the male chorus at the end.  Did you make it the way it’s called for in the score
with the chorus nude?

ME:    [With a huge smile]  You’re the first person I’ve ever talked to who knows that!  I did the next best thing.  I put them up in the gallery, so they were invisible, so you didn’t see this male chorus on stage for the first hour of the piece.  Nobody knew they were there!  It worked fantastically well in that hall, because the sonority of that last movement, the majesty of it when suddenly this extra dimension came and nobody could see where they were.  They just sort of filed the air because they’re pillars.  They’re singing pillars!

BD:    That would probably also work for the Planets, with the women at the end.

ME:    I’m going to do that next year there.  It has a perfect acoustic in which to do it, like the Venusberg Music in Tannhäuser with those off-stage sirens.  I did that at the Albert Hall.  I had them and their orchestra at the other end of the hall high up, so the sound just sort of drifted over.

BD:    We’re now in the days when you’ve got a camera trained on the conductor, so they can actually watch you from anywhere, and you don’t have to have three assistant conductors relaying your beat.

ME:    Relaying, that’s right!  They just have to account for the time lag, and that’s quite hard.

BD:    Thank you so much for meeting me again.

ME:    Always a pleasure to talk to you, Bruce.

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© 1986 & 1997 Bruce Duffie

These conversations were recorded in Chicago on October 20, 1986 and October 10, 1997.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB in 1997 and again in 2000; and on WNUR in 2003 and 2009.  This transcription was made in 2016, and posted on this website at that time.  My thanks to British soprano Una Barry for her help in preparing this website presentation.

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

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

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