Conductor  Mark  Flint
== and ==
Director  David Gately

Two Conversations with Bruce Duffie

On this webpage are two conversations originally held to promote productions by the Chicago Opera Theater.  The first involved both the conductor and director, and took place in May of 1986 to talk (mostly) about Rossini
s opera The Turk in Italy, which was being sung in the translation of Andrew Porter.  The second took place exactly one year later with just the director, and dealt mainly with The Two Widows by Smetana.  Those performances were conducted by Pier Giorgio Calabria.

Portions of each chat were aired on WNIB, Classical 97, a few days after being recorded.  Now, 37 years later, I am pleased to be able to present the entire interviews.

We begin with the first encounter with both artists.  As they themselves remarked, the two work well together, and think in a conversational way.  So, many times I just sat back and let them discuss their ideas and responses without interruption.  At the appointed time, they had come from a rehearsal . . .

Bruce Duffie:   Can operas get over-rehearsed?

David Gately:   They can, but this one is not in any danger of that!  [Much laughter]

Mark Flint:   Yes, certain pieces can, especially if it’s a piece that you have done often, and the cast has done a great deal.

BD:   Is it easier to conduct or direct an opera that is perhaps less familiar, than one which is known to everyone in the audience and the cast?

Gately:   In some ways it’s easier, and in some ways it’s harder.
Flint:   Probably more from the stage-directorial sense, it’s easier because you’re not dealing with an entity which is well-known, so people come to see the show without many preconceived notions.

Gately:  As far as the singers go, they don’t have preconceived notions because they probably haven’t done their roles 950 times before.  So, they’re coming with a clean slate, and it’s more entertaining to develop their characterizations.

Flint:   It gives you a little bit more of a creative process.

Gately:   Yes.  You don’t feel like you’re just throwing something together.  You really feel like you’re discovering the piece as you go. 

Flint:   A piece like The Turk in Italy is a very interesting work of music.  It was written when Rossini was twenty-two, just one year before The Barber of Seville, which put him into major national fame.

BD:   How is The Turk different from The Barber, which we all know and love?  [Vis-à-vis the biography shown at right, see my interview with Ned Rorem.]

Flint:   There are many set pieces in The Turk, and even though it is essentially a true buffo piece, a lot of the music-writing is a different style from his opera seria.  It’s different in some of the harmonic structure, and the extreme classical influences.  A lot of it is almost Mozartian.  There’s one final trio which sticks in my head because we just finished rehearsing it.  This is the ‘Reconciliation Trio’ at the end, which is very, very much like Mozart.  It’s a different style, and of course you still have the bubble and the excitement, and the huge build in the crescendos which Rossini was so famous for.

BD:   It’s a buffo opera.  How do you make sure that buffo doesn’t become slap-stick?

Gately:   It’s not hard in this piece, because Rossini writes for pretty human people all the time.  They may not be as human as Mozart, but I don’t think that the people are at all necessarily cartoon characters.  The people in the show, especially the principal characters, all advance.  They all develop.  They all change through the course of the piece.  In fact, the leading lady learns a big, big lesson, so it’s not so difficult to stay away from that edge in this piece.  You can make them real people within a definite story-book world.  [Laughs]  We’re not talking about The Death of a Salesman here.  We’re in a storybook world, a comic world, and there’s lots of funny stuff going on.  But it’s more believable people doing funny stuff than just cardboard figures.

BD:   Are they real people or are they everyman-type people?

Gately:   No, they’re real people.  The leading lady is a very interesting modern woman.  She’s married to an older man, probably for money, and she has a lover on the side who she’s getting a little tired of.  Then the Turk arrives, and he’s a new lover.  She is just pursuing whoever she wants, and then in the end they all desert her.  She’s left totally alone, and has to deal with that.  She has to go crawling to her husband saying he is what she really wanted all along.  So, it’s not your everyman character.

Flint:   All of which makes also her musical structure different from, for instance, Rosina in The Barber of Seville, who is a young, flirtatious, tempestuous young lady, but not as worldly a woman as Fiorilla in The Turk in Italy, who definitely is.  When you look at his The Italian Girl in Algiers, it is the same thing because he was dealing with younger people then.

BD:   Is this a companion piece to The Italian Girl?

Flint:   Not really, no.  There are very, very few structural similarities.

Gately:   Alan Stone mentioned that it’s one of the reasons why the public didn’t like it at first, because they felt they were getting a warmed-over story.  The Italian girl wasn’t going to Algiers, but the Turk was coming to Italy instead.  But really there is very little similarity in the two pieces, other than you could probably recognize any Rossini piece just by listening to it.  But as far as the pieces themselves, they’re not that similar.

BD:   This being done in English.  Does that pose special problems or special joys?

Flint:   It certainly makes it much more readily understandable, and it’s in a very good translation by Andrew Porter.

Gately:   I don’t think an American audience would want to sit through this in a foreign language.  I’m a believer that comedy should be done in the vernacular.  I’m a fan of surtitles, and they work well in serious pieces, but even with them, when you do the comedies, you need a laugh response at a certain point, and it’s very difficult to time that with the surtitle.  It’s much more important to have the immediacy of the word, and in a house this small, with a cast that sings well, there’s no reason you can’t do it in English.  So for me, it’s easier and better.

BD:   Do you force them to work very hard on their diction?

Flint:   You definitely have to, especially because Rossini always has so much patter.  Having so many syllables in one given measure is the joy of the buffo singing.

BD:   Do you ever have to revise your tempos just to make sure that all the words get in?

Flint:   Definitely.  Absolutely!  There is a difference when you are conducting it in the original language.  When you are doing it in English, you sometimes simply have to hold the reins just to get out the very guttural sounds of our own language, as opposed to the fluidity which the Italian can give you.

BD:   There are more vowels in the Italian?

Flint:   Absolutely, and they all connect a little better.

BD:   Every singer says Italian is so much easier to sing.  Are they right?

Flint:   In many ways, definitely.

BD:   Is Italian easier to direct?

Gately:   Not necessarily.  Even when they’re well-schooled in the languages, young American singers don’t have the opportunity to speak the languages so much.  The languages aren’t second nature.  They won’t always admit this, but from a directorial standpoint it’s better for an American singer to sing in English, because their words mean a whole lot more to them.  It’s very difficult for Americans to have that facility with languages that the Europeans do.  Parisians can quickly bop over and they’re in Italy, and they can speak Italian.  They can also practice their German, but here in the United States we’re an isolated area that only speaks English, so we can’t have that immediacy with the language.  So for me it’s easier with young American singers to direct them in English because they really understand it more, and it’s not just that they know what the words mean.  They can deal with the language more.

Flint:   They certainly get it in a piece like The Barber, or any of the Mozart operas which have these secco recitatives, which go on forever.  That’s difficult on an audience, as well as for many singers that I’ve worked with, who tend to learn them not so much by what the text means, but how it sounds.  You’re getting a sequence of sounds without actual knowledge, and therein lies most of the glamor of the buffo style.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Since you’re talking about it going on forever, how do you decide what cuts, if any, you will make in any piece, and specifically this piece?

Flint:   We spent a considerable amount of time going over it beginning last fall.  Because the work has not been done that much, it’s relatively unknown.

BD:   There are no standard accepted cuts?

Flint:   Not standard accepted cuts, particularly in the recits.
Gately:   I’m all for cutting the recits, but I was very demanding that we not cut anything that makes the plot nonsense.  That
s what happens with a lot of the standard cuts in Italian opera.  When you do The Barber of Seville, they figure the audience knows what’s happening, and as you get later in the evening, they start chopping at the recitatives.  Then suddenly, if the audience is really listening and following, they don’t have any idea what’s going on.  It was important to me that we cut the recits down to their bare bones as far as not having any excess, and yet not take away any of the plot points that are really important.  It is a story, and one of the most important things I do as a director is tell that story.

BD:   What’s the most important thing you do as a conductor?

Flint:   It is to bridge the gap with that story.  One of the most difficult things in a piece like this is making sure of the continuity between what is a concerted number, and what has to dissolve immediately to a secco recit.  There must be no gaps, because the show has to have a built-in momentum.  Otherwise it’s dull, and you lose the audience.  It’s very easy to do that when you’re building a pace, and then you have some kind of a hold.  That can make them go to sleep very easily.  [All laugh]

BD:   If the audience starts going to sleep, where do we lay the blame
on the director, or the conductor, or the composer, on the singers?

Gately and Flint together:   That’s a good question!  [Much laughter all around]

Gately:   No, you won’t go to sleep in this production, because it’s a scintillating cast, and it’s going to be quite an entertaining evening.  But to seriously answer that question, it’s not necessarily the same person every time.  Sometimes it could be the director, other times it could be the conductor, and sometimes it could be the composer wrote sounds that are just boring...

Flint:   ...however hard you work to get around it.

BD:   Is it different each night, even in the same opera?

Flint:   It definitely should be.  I know a lot of people in this business who strive to make every performance as identical as possible, and for my particular standpoint as a performer, things have to vary with the reaction that I hear behind me in the house and audience.

BD:   You’re always conscious of the audience?

Flint:   Oh, you have to be, absolutely!  That’s what makes us live theater.  If you want a metronome up there beating away, so that everything is consistent, then put on a record!  Each audience will differ.  The reactions will be different, especially in a comedy.  The laughs will come at different places, and you have to be ready to adapt to it.

BD:   Do you prepare yourself for different audiences?  Is the Saturday night audience different from a Wednesday audience?

Flint:   [Thinks a moment]  When I have worked on a long-term basis with companies, I have learned that certain audiences react differently just because of that particular house.  But no, I don’t walk into the pit thinking that because this is a Friday-night audience I have to change a few things.  It’s basically a very instinctive feeling.

Gately:   This is my first time in Chicago, so I haven’t heard any of these stories.  But lots of times, the director only stays for the opening night.

BD:   Are you staying the whole run?

Gately:   No, I’m only staying for the opening night.  I will often hear that the opening night audience is always the crowd that comes to be seen, as opposed to see, but I’ve had some opening night audiences that have just loved the shows.  So you can’t have a preconceived notion about what the audience is going to do.

BD:   [With a wink to the conductor]  Is it good to get rid of him after the first performance?

Flint:   Nah, not him!  [All laugh]  We’ve done many shows together, and I’m very happy.  However, there have been certain directors that it sometimes becomes a blessing after they have departed...

BD:   As I look to both of you for an answer, let me ask the Capriccio question.  Where is the balance between the words and the music?

Flint:   I view it as 50/50 definitely.  In my career, I always have.

Gately:   That’s why Mark and I work together so well, because I’m a musician who directs, and he’s an actor-director-singer who conducts.  We both feed off of each other really well.

Flint:   It’s a matter of having a sense of the theater, which is crucial to what opera is.

BD:   How much of this is prepared, and how much of it is spontaneous each night?

Flint:   That’s why you spend the entire time rehearsing so much, especially with the orchestra.  It is always your last force to be added for the most amount of money, and it
s one of your most integral forces because they’re there the entire time.  You set up guidelines, things you want to have happen, but you have to be with the singer because the voice is constantly so susceptible to a variety of conditions.  You can’t just be regimented in what you plan to do if a singer’s about to lose his voice.

Gately:   You prepare it within an inch of its life if you can, and then that allows you the flexibility.  It’s only when you’re not prepared that you don’t have flexibility, because you’re too worried about what is supposed to happen next.  That is what makes you insecure.  If you’re totally secure in what happens, and you’re very comfortable, then if something happens
like if the audience suddenly falls apart laughing in a place where you didn’t expect itbecause you’re so prepared and you know exactly who and what you are, then you can play with it and flow with it.  It’s that preparation.  You work very, very hard in rehearsal to make sure that everybody knows moment by moment who and what they are through the show, both musically and dramatically.  That gives you the freedom to relax.

BD:   This is a question I often ask singers, so let me ask the director.  Should the singers portray characters, or become characters on the stage?

Gately:   [Laughs]  This sounds like a question about method acting...

Flint:   Yes, [laughs] the Stanislavsky idea.

Gately:   ...and I don’t have a set answer to that, because I work differently with every actor’s tools.  Lots of directors are afraid of opera because they’re afraid of opera singers.  This is because opera singers aren’t often trained as actors and actresses.  But I’ve never been afraid of opera singers, because I find that they have a lot of instinctual knowledge, and sometimes that spontaneity and instinct is better than a lot of technique that they’ve learned on how to act.  So, I deal specifically with every single actor.  Some actors I literally have to spoon-feed through the role.  Then I have to take a totally exterior approach and say,
Okay, now that hand has to move here because it looks dumb if it does this, and you have to walk this way...  Then there are other actors I wouldn’t ever consider telling them anything physical, because their physicality is just perfect.  We only talk about what they’re thinking and what they’re feeling at the moment, and try to get them moment by moment through the show.  So, it’s all different.  I find that I have to be very flexible, and I wouldn’t want to be any other way.

Flint:   It gets dangerous sometimes when a singer becomes totally part of a role, because it starts to affect the throat.  That’s the first thing.  We have both done Madame Butterfly many times, and it
s very difficult getting those ladies through that last scene.  If they let themselves become so involved with that child, without a sense of artistic removal to whatever degree is necessary, they can get so worked up that the throat will clench and there’s nothing left.  It’s different from the straight theater because opera always has to maintain that musical element.

Gately:   Yes, you have to always be very, very careful with your instrument, and that’s a technique.  But some directors don’t find that terribly bad.  For instance, when Peter Brook was working with the kids who were doing Carmen at the New York City Opera, he was amazed at the range it suddenly gives those kids vocally as to what they can do, as compared to some actors whose vocal range is limited to a very small degree.  So, it’s a give-and-take.  The negatives are not necessarily negatives.  Sometimes, they’re positive.

BD:   You’re talking about the performers.  What do you expect from the audience that is coming to see The Turk in Italy?

Flint:   I hope they have a good time, and I hope they enjoy it on all levels
visual and musically and everything.

Gately:   Yes.  It’s a light-hearted, charming evening.  It’s fun, and it’s funny.  It’s not a Neil Simon laugh riot, but it’s fun, and it’s charming.  I was thinking about it the other day, and felt it’s a very Spring opera.

Flint:   It is!  It’s perfect for this time of year.

Gately:   It’s light and airy, and it’s the kind of thing you would want to come in and just let yourself go.

Flint:   And yet there are some wonderful cantabile moments that he wrote, which are very, very full of passion, and very, very romantic moments in the score.

BD:   Is there anything you’ve had to do to make sure that 150 years have not destroyed what Rossini was trying to say?

Flint:   [Thinks a moment]  It’s a matter of investigating exactly what he was trying to say.

BD:   Okay, what was he trying to say?

Flint:   That’s what we’ve had to work on a great deal, and how best to achieve that interpretatively.

Gately:   What he was trying to say has a  bit to do with what I was talking about the leading lady and her morals.  Her lesson is the focus of it.  The title role is merely a catalyst for her adventures.  We aren’t as concerned about how he changes as we are concerned about how she changes.

BD:   Is he more predictable?

Gately:   Yes, more predictable.

Flint:   Yes, I would say so.  His character doesn’t change much.

Gately:   He’s a bit more of a stock character.  He does have a bit of a transformation, and he goes back with a woman who he loved a long, long time ago and rejected.  That’s one of the reasons the leading lady gets rejected by him, because he goes back to his former love.  There are other stock-type characters around, but hopefully they’re different enough that they’ll throw you for a loop now and again.  The buffo, for instance, ends up with the leading lady and gets to kiss her, which is highly unusual.

Flint:   Even though she is his wife!

Gately:   Yes, exactly.  [Laughter]

Flint:   That’s the rarest of them all!  [More laughter]

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   We’re talking about opera being fun.  Is opera art or is opera entertainment?
Flint:   Ideally, it’s both.

BD:   Then where is the balance?

Gately:   By that question, I get the feeling that you think art can’t be entertaining.  For me, great art is very entertaining.  I don’t have to only be entertained by a TV program like Dallas or Dynasty or something like that.  That’s not the only kind of ‘entertainment’.  I’m greatly entertained by great art, and hopefully this is art that entertains.  I don’t see that there’s a balance between the two.

Flint:   Yes, there are all different dimensions of the word ‘art’.  It depends on how exactly you categorize it.

BD:   In this case you’re not competing against more than a couple of different recordings.  But when you deal with something like Butterfly or Barber, do you feel that in the theater you’re competing against twenty or thirty different gramophone recordings?

Flint:   Definitely.  I’ve always said that if I ever have a perfect performance where everything goes without one hitch, musically and dramatically, I will absolutely retire.  But, I’m not in grave danger of that ever occurring.  On a recording, a lot of audiences become conditioned to what is ‘the perfect performance’, because you have all the conditions and all the variables controlled.  If it doesn’t work the first time, you can splice it together, and if you can’t fill a balance problem, you can turn a knob, and it’s solved.

Gately:   Right, and you sit and listen to your speakers, and get this flowing huge sound.  Then, when you get into the theater and you hear the voices, they’re not as loud as they were on your stereo.  So we’re all competing with that in today’s world.

BD:   Then do you resent all the recordings?

Flint:   Not at all, no.

Gately:   No, because it popularizes the tunes.

Flint:   Exactly.

Gately:   You just try and educate your audience to know that this is not going to be the same.  It’s going to be different, and better in many ways.

Flint:   This is a live performance, not one that is canned!

BD:   Does opera belong on television?  [Vis-à-vis the review of the production shown at right, see my interview with Robynne Redmon.]

Flint:   It reaches a wide audience that way.

Gately:   Opera belongs on television, but the performances need to be done for television.

Flint:   I agree, not live from an opera house.

Gately:   I don’t like it live from an opera house, because the people on stage are playing for the opera house audience, and then you suddenly bring this camera in right next to them.  The size of the performance is so outlandish today.  The audience at home is feeling that they’re over-acting, or they’re awful, when in the opera house they’re singing for 3,000 people.  They’re playing for the people in the back rows of this big house.  Opera needs to be done for television in the same way as you do a film.  It needs to be done in a studio, with that intimate approach to it, so that the camera is in fact seeing a smaller performance.  [Remember, this conversation took place in mid-1986, and there has been a lot of progress in the technical end of live performance transmission.  However, in 2023 there are still lots of complaints about whether the singers should act for the theater audience or the camera.]

Flint:   Right, I agree.

BD:   The video should be more refined?

Flint:   Exactly.

Gately:   Yes.

Flint:   It should really be done as the medium of the film, as opposed to introducing the film medium into a theater.

Gately:   I haven’t ever found Live From the Met to be very satisfying.

BD:   Do you direct differently for a large theater or a small theater?

Gately:   You don’t really, but to some extent yes.  If I’m doing a black-box show with people all around, or theater-in-the-round, you don’t have to worry about cheating out.  In the opera, you have to have worry about cheating out because they’re singing over a huge orchestra in a proscenium theater.  I did Aïda one time, and it was on a thrust stage.  It was great because it was all miked, and all they had to do was sing to each other.  They didn’t have to cheat out because there was nowhere to cheat out.  However, you don’t really direct differently for a different sized house, but the singers know instinctively that certain emotions have to fill a bigger house differently than they do a smaller house.  Within the guidance of the director, he can say something is too big, or too small, or not clear, or it’s not quite understandable enough.  So in that way, minor points you do change, but basically I don’t have a different concept for a different house.

BD:   [To the conductor]  Do you find that you make small adjustments for a big house or a small house?

Flint:   Sure.  It
s just basically in balance, and sometimes in re-seating the orchestra.  A lot of that depends on the pit, and the acoustics of the hall.  If the pit will only accommodate people in one particular way so they won’t run into each otherwhich is true of most pits across the countrythen you’re limited in the experiments you can do down below.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Do you like being wandering performers, and going all over to this, that and the other place?

Flint:   Sometimes we do...  [Both laugh]

Gately:   ...and sometimes we’re off!

Flint:   It depends a lot on the repertoire.  That makes a lot of decisions.

BD:   How do you choose which operas you will conduct or direct, and which operas you’ll decline?

Flint:   It’s a matter of discussing with the management, and deciding what you do want to do.

Gately:   You don’t often have a choice.  You often take what you’re given.  You can’t say,
Oh, this year I’d like to do two Strauss, and now who will do those for me?  Often, some company calls up and says, Hey!  We’re doing The Turk in Italy.  How would you like to do that?  Well, okay!  You don’t always get to choose, but usually it’s great.

BD:   Are there some operas you would simply decline?

Flint & Gately together:  Yes!  [Both laugh]

Flint:   We each have one we won’t do.

Gately:   His is Carmen and mine is The Barber of Seville.

BD:   Why won’t you do Carmen???

Flint:   I’ve already done over sixty-five performances, so it needs to get back on the shelf for a while.

BD:   So you’re just bored with it?

Flint:   It’s just that now I’ve done as much with it as I possibly can.  Each time when I go back to a piece I’ve done, I like to find something else, and right now I’ve explored as much of Carmen that I possibly get out of that girl.  [Much laughter]  So, it’s time to lay low.

Gately:   I’ve done Barber fifteen times, and I can’t even look at it in the eye.

Flint:   We were just offered one together next January, and he fainted dead away!  [More laughter]

Gately:   Actually, I turned down three for next year.

BD:   You two seem to like working together.  Do you get hired as a team, or do you just wind up being put together?

Flint:   Often it’s happening now that we are.

Gately:   Yes, some of each.

BD:   Is that good?

Flint:   Yes, it’s great!

Gately:   Sure, because we have sort of a silent communication.  We don’t ever really even talk about concept.  He hears me and I hear him.  I listen to what he’s doing with the music, and hopefully I translate that to the stage.  Then he sees what I’m doing, and supports that.  So it’s mostly unspoken.

BD:   Does the conductor go to all the staging rehearsals?

Flint:   I do, yes.  I make it a point to do that.

BD:   Does the director go to all the music rehearsals?

Gately:   Sometimes, yes.
Flint:   Most of them.  That’s very important, and it rarely happens.  Alan Stone is one who does, and many are following his lead and have demanded that this occurs.  It’s crucial because a conductor cannot simply walk in when he gets the orchestra, and have any simpatico for what is happening on the stage.  I know there are other conductors who bury their heads in the score, and don’t care what’s happening on stage, but the entire creative process has to evolve in such a way that the conductor and the director are sharing, so that each understands the other.

BD:   Have you had any great disasters
scenery falling, or singers going the wrong way?

Flint:   I have had a few minor disasters at City Opera.  There’s a tendency for a singer to make their debut without ever having seen the stage.  I was doing Rigoletto once, and one of the new Dukes just walked into the wrong set.  We didn’t know where he was at one point.  He kept singing and finally worked his way back around on stage.  [Much laughter]

BD:   Was there anything you could do, or did you just keep beating time, and hope?  [Vis-à-vis the program shown at left, Flint would return to the Chicago Opera Theater in 1988 for Of Mice and Men by Carlisle Floyd, directed by Arthur Masella.]

Flint:   You just keep going.  The sweat runs down, and you just hope it’s all going to work out.

Gately:   I had an elephant run into the audience in Aïda.  We were in a sort of hockey rink, and the elephant got unnerved and ran towards the seats.  Everything was fine.  The conductor, who was back-stage, had no idea that it happened.  He just kept beating time, and the crowd on stage just kept singing away.  The trainer got the elephant out of the way.  Opera’s fun!

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   [At this point we went over the dates and times of the performances]  We’re doing eight performances, including one in Joliet at the Rialto Theater.

BD:   Is that too many times to do this opera?

Flint:   I don’t think so.  I’ve done a lot of repertoire, and the houses where David and I have worked usually only do two performances.

BD:   I would think that would be frustrating, to work for three, or four, or five weeks, and then do it twice and go away.

Gately:   I tell you, it does get frustrating.

Flint:   Yes.  It’s what we were talking about before, of the magnificence of the live audience.  You get to a point where a show can be very set, but you can start having fun with it.  You cannot take incredible chances, but  you do some things differently as you sense an audience is reacting.  A piece like this, which is such a tight ensemble show, can only get more cohesive.

BD:   Yet, if it was slated for thirty-five or forty performances, that would obviously be too much?

Flint:   That would be far too much, yes.  That would be aiming for the Broadway run, and that’s a different metier.

BD:   Eight is a good number, and thirty-five is way too much.  Where’s the break-off point?

Flint:   I would say up to about fourteen.  Many opera companies are now doing a fourteen-performance run with things which are a bit more bridging the gap between opera and musical theater, like Sweeney Todd and the other Sondheim pieces.  Those can extend themselves a  bit more.

BD:   Are you optimistic about the future of opera?

Flint:   I think so.  I’m not too optimistic about all of the financial arrangements for it, but I’m very optimistic about running the Illinois Opera Theater at the University where David and I also work.  He’s coming next year to do A Midsummer Night’s Dream for me.  I’m encouraged about the developing young talent we have in this country.  That is something which is very, very encouraging, and there are many, many provincial opera houses which are surviving.

BD:   It’s no longer a case that you have to go to Europe to get work?

Flint:   No, in fact it’s almost the opposite.

BD:   Europeans are coming here?

Flint:   Sometimes, but the houses in Europe are not as open as they used to be.

Gately:   They don’t take as many Americans.  Americans are finding it easier to get their careers started here.

BD:   That’s a good thing?

Gately:   I think so.

Flint:   I think it’s terrific.

BD:   Should a young singer aim to be a wandering minstrel around the various American theaters, or should they aim for a career at the Met, Chicago and San Francisco?

Flint:   They won’t get careers there until they do a bit of traveling around, although San Francisco is now developing a very good training program which will take a young singer through many phases.

Gately:   But even these training programs get you prepared to a certain point, and then they let you go.  You still have to go around to the provinces, the regions, and do your repertoire because they’re not going to do all your repertoire at the San Francisco Opera.  You have to learn your repertoire, and do lots of performances in front of people, and learn your craft.  So the provinces serve a big, big purpose, and they keep us all busy.

BD:   Are you ever horrified that a certain singer is cast in a certain role?

Gately:   Often!

Flint:   About once a week!  [Laughter all around]

Gately:   Why’s he doing that???

Flint:   He’ll never make it through that!

BD:   How do you guide them through a role, even though they shouldn’t be singing it?

Flint:   Tactfully, and with great care.  [More laughter]

Gately:   That happens with me all the time.  Sometimes, where I’ve got some large person playing some petite role, you just have to do it the best you can.  There’s obviously some reason that person was cast in that role.  It may be that the reason may have eluded you, but often times it’s because it’s the right voice, and it’s just the wrong physical type.  [Shrugs]  Well, this is an opera, and you have to deal with the fact that it’s the right voice.  Less in the United States than in Europe, but producers now are very concerned about casting the right physical type for the right role.  But it still happens.

BD:   Thank you both very much for speaking with me today.

Flint:   My pleasure.

Gately:   You’re welcome.

We now move forward one year, to 1987, when director David Gately returned to the Chicago Opera Theater
for The Two Widows by Smetana, conducted by Pier Giorgio Calabria in his COT debut . . . . .

BD:   What is special about The Two Widows?

Gately:   The Two Widows is a real sleeper because I don’t think anybody’s going to know anything about it.  That’s one of the things we’ve enjoyed, because there are absolutely no preconceived notions about the way this piece should be done.  I suppose there might be some slight minority that knows this piece, and has some ideas about the way it should be done, but basically we have been free to interpret it the way we see it and hear it.  You’re not often able to do that with a nineteenth century opera.

BD:   So, it is easier than doing, say, Barber of Seville or Bohème?
Gately:   Yes, because we’ve only got one cast member who has done it before, and she is very, very flexible.  We’re being very faithful to the score.  I’m not saying that we’re going off and doing whatever we want, but there’s just a real sense of freedom about it, and a creativity about the work.

BD:   What’s the most surprising thing you’ve discovered about this opera?

Gately:   It surprises me that it hasn’t been done more.  It’s an enchanting musical work, and very progressive for the time.  The leading lady, Karolina, is a feminist before her time.  She owns and runs a farm, and she enjoys being a widow.  She didn’t like being married.  She was in an arranged marriage, and her husband died, so she’s perfectly happy to be running this farm all by herself.  She loves all the attention that it gives her, and she loves going to town meetings and being the only woman on the Board.  It’s quite a progressive idea.  This woman must have traveled a lot, because I don’t get the feeling that there a lot of women like this in Czechoslovakia.  Her horizons are very broad.  I might be wrong, but the whole piece almost feels like a French operetta.

BD:   [With mock horror]  She’s not encouraging other women to go out and be widows, is she???

Gately:   [Laughs]  No, but she’s saying to deal with it.  That’s the whole conflict between the two widows, because the other widow is very traditional.  Her husband died two years before, and she still wears black.  She’s still in mourning.  It turns out that she has a deep dark secret that we find out through the course of the opera, but the merry widow, Karolina, is constantly trying to get her cousin, Anezka, to cheer up, and to stop wearing black because it’s not a very cheery color.  Kids tease her all the time about how sad she is.  So, while Karolina doesn’t encourage people to go and kill their husbands so that they can be widows, she’s saying they must learn to deal with it.  They must go on with their lives, which was pretty progressive in those days.

BD:   It becomes a poignant comedy?

Gately:   Yes, it does have incredible moments of poignancy.  Anezka’s deep dark secret is that in fact she fell in love with another man, Ladislav, before her husband was dead.  She didn’t do anything about it, but it was just the mere sin of the heart.  Just the fact that she considered marrying him, or having sexual thoughts about this man, was a huge sin for her, and she’s lived with that.  That’s one of the reasons why she can’t acknowledge this fact whenever this man comes around.  She pretends not to have anything to do with him, not to love him at all, because she feels that that would be making the sin even worse.  In the end they finally do get together.  Anezka has quite a huge scena in the second act, a big aria where she deals with all of her feelings, and they finally come out into the open.  We’ve been seeing it in snatches throughout the whole opera, but she finally discusses with herself her feelings for this man, and then resolves to do something about it.  Karolina sees that electricity between the two of them, so she immediately starts plotting to get them together.  She pretends to fall in love with the man herself, and Anezka comes in and thinks it’s too late, because she thinks she sees Ladislav proposing to Karolina.  She has a moment hopelessness at that point.

BD:   I assume there is a good
wash scene’, when everything comes out in the wash?

Gately:   [Laughs] Yes, everything ends quite happily.  Carolina says she was just joking, and Ladislav is there for her.  Everybody is happy except a servant, whose name is Mumlal, which means
grumble in Czech, and that’s what he does.  He grumbles through the entire thing.  He’s never happy with anything.  In fact, he’s very proud of Anezka for wearing black and being a true wife.  He says that if he ever died, he’d come back and haunt his wife if she ever tried to forget him!  So he’s quite happy with her the way she was, and when she transforms and becomes happy, then he’s angry again.  He’s never happy!  He’s the only one that doesn’t get to be happy in the end.

BD:   How does the drama link with the music of Smetana?

Gately:   This is actually my first Smetana, and I was pretty surprised.  I’ve never done The Bartered Bride, which would be the other opera that everyone has known.  I had seen it once a long time ago, but I don’t remember a whole lot about that particular production.  I was really surprised at what a music-dramatist Smetana really is.  It’s a little difficult in the translation, because I imagine setting Czech to music is a can of worms.  Then there is the problem of translating it, and trying to make the English fit.  The emphasis in the Czech language is different, meaning the accents fall in different places.  So trying to get an English line that works has sometimes been difficult.  But nonetheless, the musical emotional back-up to the text is always there.  It’s always in the music.  You can just delve right in, and he helps you.  Smetana rarely does something that you feel he just did for a musical moment.  So I had to sit there and think about how dramatically to make that work.  But he’s very helpful.  He’s very easy to direct, actually.  I was very excited to see what a really wonderful music-dramatist he was.  
There’s lots of energy going on, on that stage, and it’s actually a short piece.  It’s not going to be much longer than two hours and fifteen minutes with an intermission.  So it’s really a compact, highly energized piece of music.

BD:   So, you’re very glad to come to this particular piece?

Gately:   I was, and I’ve been excited about it.  Alan Stone and I have been very excited about this from the very beginning.  We thought it would be a sleeper, and that people weren’t going to expect this work.  They’re going to be pleasantly surprised when they see it.

BD:   Is this going to encourage more people to go to more different operas?  If they come to one and find they enjoy it, then maybe they might experiment a little more?

Gately:   You’d hope!  I’m a big fan of [Britten’s] The Turn of the Screw, and I wouldn’t say anything against it, but perhaps if they came to see that as their first opera, they may not understand the music.  Therefore that might not be a good one to start.  On the other hand, The Two Widows has totally approachable music.  It’s light, and oftentimes it feels operetta-esque.  This would be a perfect opera to start with.  People could come and see it, and it could really turn them on to the opera.  As usual with this company, it’s cast with young American singers who are wonderful actors and actresses, and they look like their roles.  There’s nobody up there just marking time.  Another wonderful feature of this particular production is how fabulous the chorus is.  They are a terrific group of people, and you really get the feeling that you’re watching a play with music, even though it’s an opera.

BD:   Is there any spoken dialogue?

Gately:   None in this, no.  There’s a lot of accompanied recitative, which is another difficult thing because the recitative is all accompanied by the orchestra.  It’s not with a harpsichord, which is one person following a singer.  It is all conducted recitative, so it’s tricky, and a lot of extra time has been put in musically on making those recits.  That has put an extra burden on the conductor to get through that.

BD:   Are you going to have enough time to get everything ready by the opening night?

Gately:   We have plenty of time.  A wonderful thing about this company is that Alan insists on three full weeks of staging rehearsals.  They’ve already had a week of musical rehearsals before that, so they come in to my staging rehearsals really ready to go.  There’s no messing around with people still trying to remember words.  They’re really ready to work, and three weeks is a comfortable amount of time to get an opera together.

BD:   It’s not too much, is it?

Gately:   No, it’s not too much.  Six weeks might be too much, but three weeks isn’t too much.

BD:   Can an opera ever get over-rehearsed?

Gately:   It depends on the work.  Some operatic librettos don’t have a lot of depth, and it gets to be like beating a dead horse after a while.  You keep digging and digging, and you keep trying to find new ideas to make it work.  In that case, it can become over-rehearsed.  It also depends on the cast.  Some singers are just never finished working, which is what I like.  I enjoy that in a singer because they never want to rest on their laurels.  There’s always something different.  There’s always some shading, or something that continues to give them revelation about their character.  With that kind of cast you can rehearse a long time and keep finding stuff.  As long as you’re working and finding new things about the piece, then rehearsal time is valuable.

BD:   As the director, do you ever expect the opera to improve after the opening night?

Gately:   Always!  There are always these funny jokes about the director who goes away, and then comes back a week later to take out the improvements.  [Both laugh]  Some of that does happen, depending once again on your cast.  Especially in a comedy, a less-experienced cast will hear the laughs, and then they’ll start to play for the laughs.  Then the character will go out the window, and they’ll start to mug.  That kind of thing happens, and that’s what you worry about in a comedy.  You hope that they will stay with the truth of the character and the truth of the scene, and not just go off.

BD:   How do you guard against that?

Gately:   You make it very clear from the start what the performer is trying to accomplish.  You don’t just do business.  You work very specifically with the singer as to what his intentions and motivations are.  Therefore, they’ve always got some hook other than ‘Oh, this is a laugh-line!’  They’ve got some dramatic meaning that they’re actually playing.  You also just have to be careful.  You have to watch it in front of an audience a couple of times, and see how that performer is going to respond to certain things.  But going back to the question you asked before, it does improve after opening because in a live performance the audience is part of the performance, and until you get that audience in there, you can’t really tell how a show is going to go.  That’s why on Broadway they do a week, or weeks of previews, because they have to figure out how this piece is going to work with an audience.  They see what the audience’s input into the evening is going to be.

BD:   Then they make refinements?

Gately:   Exactly, and in the opera world we never have that.  We never get to have previews.  We just do it.  We just open, and so it’s always going to improve after opening, and after you find the pacing with the audience.  You find where the laughs are going to happen.  Then, it will improve.

BD:   Tell me about the scenery and costumes for this particular production.

Gately:   The scenery is designed by Chicagoan Tony Norrenbrock, and the idea was to go Slavic, but one or two scenes have the influence of a French feel in the music, and that makes it light.  We see the forest all the time, so we wanted the ‘woodsy’ feel, but it’s not a real forest.  The trees look like they’re from one of the lighter Chekov plays, so it has an Eastern European feel to it, but it’s not real heavy.  When you think of a Slavic folk opera, you get the idea that we’re into a lot of heavy-duty folk dancing, with lots of bric-a-brac and gingerbread.  Our scenery doesn’t have that kind of feel.  It’s a lighter, airier, more open feel.  But even when we’re in the interiors, we have a sense of the forest around us all the time.  The costumes are being rented.  They were built for a production of The Two Widows in Canada, and they are really fabulous.  They were beautifully constructed, and I don’t think they have been used since that production, so they’re very fresh, and actually probably richer than we would have been able to build on our budget.

BD:   It seems like you’re very pleased with everything
the cast, the chorus, the costumes, the scenery, everything!

Gately:   That’s true.  I am very pleased.  It’s going really, really well.

BD:   [With a quizzical look]  Is that a bad omen?

Gately:   No, I never think so!  [Both laugh]  I’m not of the belief that a bad rehearsal gives a good performance.  A good rehearsal gives a good performance!

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Do you also direct plays?

Gately:   No, I haven’t directed a play, but I do direct a lot of musical comedy.

BD:   What’s the difference then between directing a full-blown opera and a musical comedy?

Gately:   Basically I go about it the same way.  The book is the book.  I deal with the words, and what the music and forms mean.  I understand what the words are saying because the music gives you a lot of emotional input.  When I do musicals, I’m working with a different kind of performer.  They’re usually Equity artists, actors, instead of opera singers.  They work in different ways, but one is not necessarily better than the other.  They’re just different, and so my input has to be slightly different.  An opera singer often wants to be, or needs to be given a little more information directorially.  An actor often wants to experiment more.  Their craft is in finding the character.  That’s their job.  An opera singer isn’t as well-trained in that aspect, so they need a little more information given to them.  It doesn’t mean that the final product is better or worse.  Hopefully, in the final product you don’t know the process that got them there.

BD:   Is there any truth to the idea though that the opera singer is more straight-jacketed because they have the music, whereas the straight actor can play around with the tempo and shading a little bit?

Gately:   Yes, it’s absolutely true that in a play with dialogue you create your own rhythms.  You make up the arc of a scene as you find it works best for you.  In the opera, you are given the rhythms and you have to make it in time.  You have two measures, and you have to get to this emotion.  So do it!  [Both laugh]  On the other hand, the opera singer has a tool that the actor doesn’t necessarily have in that the composer has given you a lot of information in those notes... that is if he’s a good composer!  I was speaking about Smetana, and he gives you a lot of dramatic information by the way he sets that text.  An opera singer has more to actually draw on in creating his character than just the play, so there are advantages to both.

BD:   How do you decide which stage pieces you will accept the directing assignment, and which ones you will turn down?

Gately:   At this point, I accept almost anything that’s new to keep myself excited about what I do.  I very rarely turn down a piece.  More and more what I would turn down is a piece that I’ve done too many times.  For instance, I’ve directed The Barber of Seville fifteen times, and I don’t direct it anymore because I have nothing else to say about that opera.  I have said it all, and there is nothing else in my soul that I can possibly say about that piece.  [The program from one of those productions is shown below-left.  See my interviews with John Del Carlo, and Archie Drake.]
BD:   There’s no reason to go to a new company with old ideas?

Gately:   No, and I’ve done it at fifteen different companies, so I can’t bring anything else to that piece.  Maybe in ten or fifteen years, when I’m older and have a different look about life, and different thoughts on life, I’ll have something else to say about it.  But dramatically in the opera world, anything that’s different is actually a challenge to me, and I really do run the whole spectrum.  In the last year, I did Frank Loesser’s Where’s Charley, La Forza del Destino by Verdi, a French opera The Pearl Fishers, and a lot of bread-and-butter operas, such as Tosca and Benjamin Britten
s opera A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  I really try and give myself as much of a varied diet as I can, so that I don’t get bored.  I hate to specialize.  I hate to put myself in a one Fach, and say that’s what I do best.  Actually, early in my career that happened.  I was known as ‘the comedy director’, which got me into the The Barber of Seville.  So when any of those Rossini or Donizetti comedies would be done, they would say, Oh, let’s get Gately!  He can do that stuff!  That got old fast, and I was aching to do a Bohème or just anything that got me into a little heavier kind of thing.  That happened, fortunately, so now I do all kinds of stuff.

BD:   Let’s talk just a moment about comedy.  How do you keep comedy from becoming slap-stick?

Gately:   You start at the very beginning, in your initial rehearsals with your cast.  [Thinks a moment]  It’s hard for me to explain what I do, but you just make it very clear from the beginning that things are too big, or things are too broad.  In your suggestions of bits of business, you just don’t bring out the slap-stick.  You just don’t bring out the pie in the face unless it’s called for.  Only then you bring it out, and you do it.  You try to have a sense of what the music is telling you, and you can get a good sense if the music is big and broad, or if it’s more delicate or more sophisticated.  I’ve done some pieces different ways.  For instance, Gianni Schicchi I’ve done in a more elegant manner, and I’ve done it as a broad farce.  The most broad thing I’ve ever done was a production of Gianni Schicchi, and I’ve liked it both ways.  I’ve liked it with a little more taste and little more fun, and I’ve liked it as an all-out hysterical comedy, and it worked for me both ways.  In those cases, it depended on my designers that I was working with, and the input that they wanted to give, and the casts that I was using.  The broad one was actually at a university.  I was working with younger kids, and they just were more comfortable working in broader strokes, bigger strokes.  They understood it.  It was something they could latch onto.  That’s what their strengths were, so we ran with that, and it was a very successful production for them.

BD:   It
s good to know that you work with the strengths of the people you have at hand, rather than imposing your will on them.

Gately:   That’s the only thing that saved me when I was doing fifteen productions of The Barber of Seville.  I tried to use the strengths of the people that I had each time.  I was doing the productions so close together that I never had enough time to develop a total new conception for each one.  But even though I was within the framework of what I was doing, each performance was different, because one time I had a strong Rosina, and one time I had a strong Bartolo, and that changed the weight of the production by who suddenly becomes the star, the central figure in the piece.

BD:   Where’s opera going today?

Gately:   For a long time, when I was getting in opera in the middle
70s, there was a real up-feeling about where opera was going.  More and more opera companies were starting out.  Opera in the United States was expanding all over the place.  Touring companies were taking opera everywhere, and there was this very optimistic feel about where opera was going.  In the past few yearsmaybe we could say seven yearsmoney has started to dry up.  Audiences haven’t expanded all that much, and I’m not sure where opera is going.  There are a few strong companies in the United States that have lasted through these years of recession, and the years of funding being cut off.  They have remained very strong and vital organizations, and that’s been exciting.  But companies all over the United States are reducing the numbers of performances, and they’re canceling productions, and some companies are folding.

BD:   Can we assume this is sheer economics, and not lack of interest?

Gately:   It’s economics, but there has to be some lack of interest behind, because economically it’s not just getting the money.  The interest is not picking up where the money ended.  In other words, there aren’t people saying they’ve got to have this, so they’re going to go out and raise this money.  It’s a little of each.

BD:   Has the availability of opera on television, and the enormous amount of recordings helped or hindered this whole process?

Gately:   I don’t know if I’m a really good one to ask about that.  I don’t think that television is the best medium for opera, because my feeling is that opera is really larger than life.  Though emotions are big, the performances are big even when there’s a subtle well-thought-out performance.  When you put a movie camera or a television camera up close to it, it suddenly becomes large and silly.  Television and film acting is different than stage acting, and the slightest little thing in the movies reads.  Then suddenly, when you’re doing these huge Puccini-esque emotions, you put a television camera on it, and it starts to look corny.  When I
m watching television, if I were just a normal average everyday American, I would think that’s really corny!  I wouldn’t think that this is great drama, whereas if I were watching it in the theater, that same performance would be gripping.  So, I don’t know whether it’s been a help or a hindrance.  If you are going to do opera for television, you need to do television opera.  You need to do it as you do a mini-series, or a play.  You really need to plot it out, think it out, direct it for that medium, and not direct it for one medium and then stick it in another medium.  That doesn’t work.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Are you coming back to Chicago Opera Theater?

Gately:   Yes, I’ll be back next year to do Don Pasquale, as will our conductor, Pier Giorgio Calabria.  He’s terrific.  This is our second collaboration.  We did Romeo and Juliet together in Hinsdale, and it was one of the most pleasurable experiences for both of us.  We are both very proud of that production, and the collaboration this time has been equally pleasant.  It’s a terrific collaboration.

BD:   Have you done any Massenet?

Gately:   I haven’t yet, but I get to do my very first in January of next year [1988].  That will be a new production of Manon, which is one of my favorite operas.  I feel this affinity for French opera.  I really love French opera.  Some people find it frivolous and stupid, but I find it very romantic.

BD:   Are there any the operas that you’re just dying to do, but you haven’t had the opportunity, or the dates have been wrong?

Gately:   That was one of them.  It’s more a direction than an actual opera.  I would like to get more into the twentieth-century works.  I did my very first one, a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which I’m doing again in the summer.  I had a wonderful time because twentieth-century works have a tendency to be treated more as a play set to music.  So you don’t have to do as much work writing your own screen plays, so to speak.  A lot of that work is done for you, and you can concentrate on other things.  It’s more exciting for a director and not such hard work, so I’m really looking to do more twentieth-century works, and more Strauss.  I love Strauss.

BD:   Are there some good new American operas coming along?

Gately:   Not enough, and the problem is that it’s so expensive to mount an opera that opera composers can’t get new works done.  So, there may be new works out there that I don’t know about and that should be done, and we have to find some way to resolve that situation in the opera world.   There has to be some way that young composers can get things done.  Chicago Opera Theater made their own stab at that by presenting new operas in Curtiss Hall that gave young Chicago composers a chance to hear their works performed in a concert version.  They get to hear the music sung by singers, and that’s what should be happening all over.  At least in the major cities, people should be given chances to hear their pieces performed.  [One such presentation was The Diva by William Ferris.  He speaks of this at length during his interview.]

BD:   In opera, where is the balance between music and drama?  You’ve talked about differences in musicals and opera, so where is the balance, or does it change all the time?

Gately:   It does change, except that a good operatic composer is always writing dramatic music, especially Verdi.  He wrote what you can consider to be concert pieces.  They’s definitely an aria, then an ensemble, etc., not in Falstaff or Otello so much, but certainly in his early works.  But even in those pieces, there is so much dramatic intent behind what he did that they’re not just stand-there-and-sing operas.  The singers might be just standing there, and they might just be singing away, but there is great thought going on behind what he’s done.  He wrote great music drama.

BD:   With romantic tension?

Gately:   Yes.  Even in some of his cruder early works, you could see where he was going.  So, the balance question is really hard to answer.  For me, I won’t allow a purely musical moment.  That’s just not what we’re about.  There are moments that you will think are musically ravishing, and then I don’t do a lot of action.  I’m not saying that every minute of every piece has to be staged within an inch of its life.  But an actor has to be able to think dramatically moment by moment through their whole role.  There’s never a moment where they just break out and do pure music.

BD:   Is there any time where they break out and do pure drama?

Gately:   I don’t think so, unless it’s a dialogue show such as The Magic Flute, where there are moments which are just spoken.

BD:   [Gently protesting]  But isn’t the dialogue somewhat musical?

Gately:   Yes, but there you are back to where you have a little more freedom to make your own shapes and pacing.

BD:   Thank you for taking the time to chat with me today.

Gately:   You’re welcome.  It’s always easy talking with you.

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© 1986 & 1987 Bruce Duffie

These conversation were recorded in Chicago on May 14, 1986 and May 11, 1987.  Portions of each were broadcast on WNIB a few days later.  This transcription was made in 2023, and posted on this website at that time.  My thanks to British soprano Una Barry for her help in preparing this website presentation.

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

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

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