Bass - Baritone / Director  Andrew  Foldi

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


Andrew Foldi (Hungarian: Földi András; 20 July 1926 – 21 November 2007) was a Hungarian-American bass baritone and educator whose singing career spanned four decades.

Foldi was born in Budapest, Hungary. As an infant, his highly musical grandmother recognized his perfect pitch, as he was humming Don Giovanni in key before his first words. Foldi fled Hungary in 1939 with his father, and was raised in Chicago, Illinois. He attended the University of Chicago, and studied voice with Martial Singher.

Foldi made his professional debut in 1954, as Biondello in Vittorio Giannini's The Taming of the Shrew in the first season of the Lyric Opera of Chicago. For his second professional performance, the young singer was cast as Doctor Grenvil in La traviata starring Maria Callas and Tito Gobbi. He was selected by John Crosby as one of the original 14 cast members in the inaugural 1957 season at the Santa Fe Opera, which included working under the baton of Igor Stravinsky in Oedipus Rex. Foldi was selected by intendant Herbert Graf as leading bass at the Zürich Opera in 1961.

Foldi established himself as a character actor of the first rank in other opera houses throughout Europe and the U.S., among them La Scala, Wiener Staatsoper, Züricher Opernhaus, Glyndebourne Opera, Cincinnati Zoo Opera. He created the roles of Mr. Parker in Norman Dello Joio's Blood Moon at San Francisco Opera (1961) and John W. Diller in Armin Schibler's dance-burlesque Blackwood & Co. (Das Jubliämsbett) at Zürich Opera (1962).

He made the first of his eighty-five appearances at the Metropolitan Opera in 1975, as Alberich in Das Rheingold. During his years on the roster, Foldi appeared as Schigolch in the company premieres of Alban Berg's Lulu (directed by John Dexter, 1977, which was published on DVD in 2010), and Dansker in Benjamin Britten's Billy Budd (1978) as well as playing Dr. Bartolo in the premiere of Günther Rennert's Met staging of Le Nozze di Figaro (1975). By the time his unforgettably seedy Schigolch shuffled through the Met premiere of Berg's opera, the role had become a career specialty for Foldi, who sang more than 100 performances of Lulu in San Francisco and Europe before his first New York Schigolch. Foldi continued to sing the role throughout the 1980s, with memorable appearances in Santa Fe (1980), Chicago (1987) and at the Met (1988). He was also well known for the comic part of the quack "snake oil" salesman, Dr. Dulcamara, in L'Elisir d'Amore by Gaetano Donizetti.

Foldi was also active as a teacher and as an author. In 1979, he joined the faculty of the Cleveland Institute of Music and went on to serve a decade-long tenure as the chairman and artistic director of its opera department. From 1991 until 1995, Foldi returned to Chicago's Lyric Opera as the Director of the Lyric Opera Center for American Artists under General Director Ardis Krainik. In 1999, Leyerle published "Foldi's Opera: An Accident Waiting to Happen", a collection of humorous reminiscences.

==  Names which are links in this box and below refer to my interviews elsewhere on this website.  BD  

I caught up with Foldi during rehearsals for The Merry Wives of Windsor by Otto Nicolai.  He was directing the production with the Chicago Opera Theater in February of 1990, and we had a nice discussion of that work, plus his own onstage roles and experiences.

foldi Bruce Duffie:   You’ve been a singer on the international scene for many years, and now you are directing a company of young professionals.  Tell me the joys and sorrows of bringing your ideas of a lifetime to them.

Andrew Foldi:   There are really very many joys.  I’ve been doing it for quite a while... I was doing it already while I was performing, so as early as 1964.  The benefit of one’s experiences of performing can bear very, very good fruit in undertaking directing, because your insight into a piece comes from really all the various points of view that you need.  You obviously have the point of view of the composer, the librettist, the player
like Mr. Shakespeare in this casebut also, having been a performer, you are very acutely aware firsthand of what the performers’ problems are in doing an opera.  Some stage directors are neither aware of, nor are they willing to even recognize that they exist.

BD:   Will singers, then, take great pains to make sure that they have you for a director, because you are more sympathetic?

Foldi:   I don’t know whether they do that, but in any event, I’m very much aware of the fact that a singing actor in opera does not control his own timing as an actor on the so-called legitimate stage does.  The timing is controlled first by the composer, and then by the conductor.  This presents very peculiar problems to a singing-actor.  For example, you might have to deliver your line on the downbeat of that measure, and make it look perfectly believable that you have three beats before that during which you have to accomplish a specific action, finish it, and then turn exactly at the correct moment.  An actor doesn’t have that, because if he’s a moment late or a moment early, as long as it plays, it plays.

BD:   Are you a collaborative artist with that conductor?

Foldi:   Oh, very much.  That’s indispensable.  You cannot stage an opera without being collaborative, and also in total agreement, or almost total agreement.  If the conductor and the stage director don’t see eye to eye, then you get a performance that’s total hash, and the performers are at wits end trying to figure out what to do.

BD:   Are performances today mostly coherent, or are they mostly hash?

Foldi:   [Laughs]  I don’t know whether it’s
mostly, but I’ve been involved in both.  I won’t name names, but you certainly do run into directors who are very acutely aware of this, and direct accordingly.  They have very good insights into theater and music, and are superb directors.  Then, you have others who are not, and you get into a situation that’s just ludicrous, where the performers take charge quietly, and work it out among themselves, because the director obviously hasn’t the vaguest idea what he’s doing.

BD:   What advice do you have for someone who wants to do some stage directing of opera?

Foldi:   First of all, you need to be aware and study stage directing if possible with a legitimate stage director.  Then there are certain very basic qualifications.  You’ve got to read music.  Some stage directors don’t, and that is a disaster.

BD:   They work just from the libretto?

Foldi:   Just from the libretto.  Secondly, and this is a very important one in this day and age, is they’ve got to know languages.  With the advent of supertitles, vast numbers of opera companies perform things in the original language, even small regional companies.  Now, stage directors can stage an opera when they don’t know the language in which it was written.  That’s just nonsense, and yet some do it.

BD:   Is the advent of the supertitle going to mean the death of opera-in-English?

Foldi:   I don’t think
death by any means, but there’s much less opera done in English right now than before.  It’s surely a very popular fad, and whether it’s going to last decades I don’t think anybody can predict.  But it certainly has helped for audiences to understand what’s going on on that stage.  That’s the pros of supertitles.  Indeed, when you are doing an opera that the audience does not understand, it’s not that they’re singing Swahili up there.  The negative aspect of it is that the audience is playing ping-pong between the supertitles and watching the stage.  Then, if the supertitles are not timed perfectly you’ll get into some very peculiar problems.  That’s assuming you’re doing an opera with recitatives, like the Marriage of Figaro and Barber of Seville.

BD:   The fast comic operas.

Foldi:   Yes.  The recitative is like spoken dialogue, but with simple harmonic accompaniment.  It is unpredictable because no two performances are the same.  There, you control it as a singing actor, like a stage actor does.  But you can’t really time when those titles appear, because no two performances are exactly alike.  The supertitle could flash too soon, and the audience laughs before the joke was said.  For an actor, that’s death.  So, that’s the negative aspect of it.  It’s a compromise.  Even in the ideal situation, when everybody sings in the original language and everybody in the audience understands that original language, that doesn’t happen always.

BD:   Maybe we should have everything translated into Esperanto.  [Both laugh]  Do you prefer directing in the foreign language knowing these titles are there, or would you rather direct when it is sung in English?

Foldi:   That depends on the opera.  A comic opera like the Barber, in most places I would say it’s probably better in English, because the communication problem becomes almost insurmountable with the supertitles.  If you’re doing Bohème or Aïda, absolutely in the original language, no question about that.  Some operas translate quite well, and some operas don’t translate.  Some can’t be translated.  Pelléas and Mélisande cannot be translated, as the melodic line is married to the inflection of the French language.  There is no way any other language can follow that melodic line.  If you change that melodic line, you change the piece.  So, that has to be done in French.  Doing Figaro and Così in English is probably advantageous.

BD:   Does the size of the auditorium make a difference?

Foldi:   Yes, it certainly does, because if you have a barn, then no matter what, you’re not going to be able to project the text in English, or in any language for that matter.

BD:   When you yourself are singing, or when you’re getting the youngsters to sing, do you work harder at the diction when it is in English?

Foldi:   I have worked very hard at the diction in any language, and not only at the diction because it’s not just the question of how to pronounce a foreign language correctly, but the singing actor must understand what he or she is singing on the stage every second of the time.  If not, you can’t work as an actor.  It becomes just absurd when you don’t know what you’re singing, but that happens.

BD:   Do you encourage the people to portray characters, or do you want them to actually become those characters?

Foldi:   To become those characters, I can count on the fingers of one hand the people I know who can actually do that... and maybe have a couple of fingers left over.  [Both laugh]  But you at least encourage in that direction because the more you can become that character, the more believable this is going to become.  That’s almost self-evident.  It’s an ideal that you strive for, and once in a blue moon you’ll achieve it.  When I first began singing, it was here in Chicago during my second season.  I was singing Count Ceprano in Rigoletto, with Gobbi as Rigoletto.  We were waiting backstage together to go on in the third act, and he is exceedingly nervous.  I was very surprised at that.  I was a young beginner, and here was a man of this stature being nervous.  I asked him, “Mr. Gobbi, you seem terribly nervous.  How often have you sung this role?”  He said, “Today is my 357th.  Once it was good.”  I learned a lesson from that.

BD:   Not even,
Once it was great, but, Once it was good.

Once it was good.  That’s what he said.  But, that’s why he turned in the performance by demanding it of himself.  He was one of those singing actors who was really quite extraordinary.  [In the chart below, one can see a number of distinguished artists with whom Foldi worked in those first years of Lyric Opera of Chicago.]

Andrew Foldi at Lyric Opera of Chicago

1954 - Taming of the Shrew [Giannini]  (Biondello) with Jordan, Thompson, White, Stewart, Gramm; Rescigno, Harrower, Ritholz
            La Traviata (Dr. Grenvil) with Callas, Simoneau, Gobbi; Rescigno, Wymetal
            Carmen (Zuniga) with Simionato, Picchi, Guelfi, Jordan; Perlea, Wymetal
            Tosca (Sciarrone) with Steber, Di Stefano, Gobbi, Stewart, Badioli, William Mason (Shepherd Boy); Rescigno, Wymetal

1955 - La Bohème (Benoit) with Tebaldi, Di Stefano, Gobbi, Rossi-Lemeni, Lind; Serafin, Vassallo
           Madama Butterfly (Commissioner) with Callas, Di Stefano, Weede, Caruso; Rescigno, Koyke
           Rigoletto (Ceprano) with Gobbi, Bjoerling, Stich-Randall, Wildermann, Dunn, Ardis Krainik (Giovanna); Rescigno, Wymetal
           Un Ballo in maschera (Tom) with Cerquetti, Bjoerling, Gobbi, Bonini, Turner, Wildermann; Rescigno, Wymetal

1956 - Fanciulla del west [Opening night] (Happy) with Steber, Del Monaco, Gobbi; Mitropoulos, Vassallo
            Andrea Chénier (Fouquier-Tinville) with Steber, Del Monaco, Gobbi, Reynolds; Emerson Buckley, Vassallo
            Salome (First Nazarene) with Borkh, Vinay, Welitsch, Lipton, Alexander; Solti, Wymetal
            La Traviata (Dr. Grenvil) with Steber, Simoneau, Bastianini, Ardis Krainik (Annina); Bartoletti, Vassallo
            Don Giovanni (Masetto) with Rossi-Lemeni, Corena, Steber, Likova/Lind, Simoneau, Wilson, Schõffler; Solti, Wymetal
            Tosca (Sciarrone) with Tebaldi, Bjoerling, Gobbi, Badioli, William Mason (Shepherd Boy); Bartoletti/Kopp, Vassallo

1957 - Mignon (Jarno) with Simionato, Misciano, Moffo, Wildermann, Nadell; Gavazzeni, Baldridge
            Manon Lescaut (Naval Captain) with Tebaldi, Bjoerling, MacNeil, Chabay, Velis; Serafin, Vassallo
            Andrea Chénier (Fouquier-Tinville) with Tebaldi, Del Monaco, Gobbi, Ardis Krainik (Countess); Gavazzeni, Vassallo
            Marriage of Figaro (Antonio) with Berry, Moffo, Steber, Gobbi, Simionato, Badioli, Nadell; Solti, Hartleb
            Un Ballo in maschera (Tom) with Cerquetti, Bjoerling, Protti, Stahlman, Turner, Wildermann; Solti, Vassallo
            Tosca (Sciarrone) with Steber, Di Stefano/Bjoerling, Gobbi, Badioli, William Mason (Shepherd Boy); Bartoletti, Vassallo

1958 - Gianni Schicchi (Spinelloccio) with Gobbi, Moffo, Misciano, Wildermann; Serafin, Piccinato
            La Traviata (Dr. Grenvil) with Steber, Simoneau, Bastianini, Ardis Krainik (Annina); Serafin, Piccinato
            Boris Godounov (Border Guard) with Christoff, Hoffman, Sullivan, Wildermann; Sebastian, Rosing

1959 - Cenerentola (Alidoro) with Rota, Monti, Corena, Gramm; Gavazzeni, Maestrini
            Jenůfa (Mayor) with Brouwenstijn, Cassilly, Fischer, Ardis Krainik (Pastuchyňa); Matačič, West
            Un Ballo in maschera (Tom) with Nilsson, Di Stefano, Gobbi, Stahlman, Kramarich, Harrower; Bartoletti, Maestrini
            Gioconda (Monk) with Farrell, Tucker, Taddei, Dalis, Greindl, Kramarich; Bartoletti, Maestrini

1974 - Don Quichotte (Sancho) with Ghiaurov, Cortez, Paige; Fournet, Tajo, Samaritani

1987-88 - Lulu (Schigolch) with Malfitano, Trussel, Braun, Lear; Davies, Ljubimov

1992-93 - La Bohème (Benoit) with Mazzaria/Esham, Sabbatini/Farina, Summers, d'Arcangelo, Lawrence; Bartoletti, Mariani

BD:   Is there any chance that we demand too much of the singing actor?

Foldi:   I guess so, because ideally what you demand is in some cases almost superhuman.  You have to have a very fine voice that is very well-trained.  Then, you have to be an extremely good musician.  A good actor in opera is first and foremost a good musician, somebody who’s good musically can begin to act.  Then, they do have to be good actors.  They have to be very good linguists.  Some operatic styles demand someone who has the gracefulness of a ballerina on a premiere concert, and that’s a demand that in many, many cases becomes unattainable.  But it’s a goal you strive for.

BD:   Is this what each individual artist has
certain qualities and certain other qualities, and is it the combination that differentiates?

Foldi:   Yes, I think so.  Some are very good at this, some are very good at that.  Some are very good at many things, and once in a while you find someone who’s superb in all of them.  That’s such a great, great gift, and it’s very rare.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Thinking a little about your own career, how did you decide which roles you would accept to sing and which roles you would decline?

Foldi:   When you’re young, the tremendous pressure you put on yourself is just to get the jobs.  It’s not even very much of a choice.  You don’t have that many jobs offered, so when you get a job offer, you take it.  Then, as you become a little bit older and a little bit wiser, you find out what your own limitations are.  First and foremost, you try not to accept roles that are vocally just not good for you.  Sometimes you are not successful at doing that.  I had one instance when I was in San Francisco singing everything from soup to nuts.  The director of the opera company wanted me to sing Rocco in Fidelio with Nilsson and Vickers.  No one knows better than I that I never had the voice to sing Rocco with those people on stage.  I could not persuade him that I shouldn’t do it.  He absolutely insisted and I had to do it, and it was lousy.  I knew from Day One that it would be poor, because I simply didn’t have an instrument in which I can sing a role for duets with Nilsson on stage, and compete with a sound like that.  You can’t hear me.

BD:   You could have sung that role with a different Leonora?
Foldi:   Yes, with some.  Actually, it’s not a role that I should sing, and I never sang it again.  Later on, as one develops, you get to a point where you can really try to explain it to the directors who ask you to do something.  If they don’t know you particularly well, you can say you don’t think that it’s right for you.  You can explain to them, very dispassionately and objectively, why you don’t think this, and most of them have sense enough to listen.  Or, in many cases when they know you well, they have even more sense, and don’t ask you to sing roles that are not right for you.

BD:   [Somewhat surprised]  Really???  I had the feeling that it was the other way around, that singers and agents were trying to push singers into as many demanding roles as they possibly could.

Foldi:   Some of them do and some of them don’t.  Yes, there are some agents who like to push them into things just to keep going and keep going.  If you do that, then you discover what was going to be a great career, at the age of 35 your voice has burned out and you have no career.  If you have good people advising you, then you can avoid pitfalls like that.

BD:   You’re listed as a basso buffo, yet you also do great many dramatic roles.

Foldi:   I ultimately specialized in comic or character bass roles, and they’re not all necessarily comic.  The part that I play in Lulu is anything but funny.  It certainly is a character art in which both kind of things are written vocally, and the type of things that are demanded on stage fall in the general overall category.  It’s not Sarastro or King Marke.

BD:   Did you ever sing Sarastro or Marke?

Foldi:   Not professionally.  I fooled around with it when I was 18 years old, and finally discovered, not too many years later, those are really roles I should not sing.  I don’t have that kind of voice.

BD:   Did you enjoy singing the comic roles?

Foldi:   Enormously.  Once you find out that you have a flair for it
which one finds out really more or less by accidentthen it begins to take off, and they’re marvelous parts to play and to sing, and are enormously enjoyable.  It’s lots of fun.

BD:   How do you keep a buffo role from becoming slapstick?

Foldi:   By treading a very delicate line, and exercising great self-control.  At the beginning one doesn’t.  When I sang Dr. Bartolo in the Barber the first time in Santa Fe, in ’57 and subsequently in ’59, I’m sure it was overdone.  I ended up doing it more than 300 times, and you begin to discover how much to do, and what you do to avoid it if you’re conscious of it.

BD:   We were talking earlier about translations about supertitles.  Can you be more subtle when you’re either singing in English or you know you have the titles above you?

Foldi:   Probably yes, because what you can do really is play the text.  You don’t have to act out the text, because the danger if you’re doing it in a foreign language and you know the audience doesn’t understand, you start acting lines to illustrate what you’re singing.  That’s not really acting.  But, if you know that you have a verbal communication, you don’t have to do that because you know they understand.  Then you can indeed be much more subtle as an actor, and as a singer as well
meaning to color your voice in a certain way because you know that it can get across to the audience because they know what you are singing.  Whereas if they don’t, then that can be lost, and you do it for the benefit of yourself and six people in the audience.  [Both laugh]

BD:   Are you conscious of the audience when you’re out there singing on stage?

Foldi:   Not terribly, I must say.  You really have to get your act up in what you are doing.  Yes, when they are laughing or applauding, it would be foolish to say that you’re not aware that they are doing that.  But, if you become too conscious
, like a nightclub comedian, and start playing off an audience, you’re dead.  You really have to be the character in that situation.  You might play it differently in every performance, because new things develop on stage.  You might have different colleagues, different this and different that, but not really in the sense of changing it because of audience.

BD:   Let me ask the Capriccio question.  In opera, where is that balance between the music and the drama?

Foldi:   That depends very much on the piece.  People have said, “prima la musica, e poi le parole,” first the music, then the words.  Ironically, there are things in Don Giovanni and Figaro where it’s absolutely inseparable, the marriage between text and music.  In an opera like Aïda, you’re going to have to think about voice and music before you think of acting as the primary factor.  The difference between a well-acted and a poorly-acted drama is is not that easily discernible, but the difference between a bad and well-sung one certainly is.  Then, you go to Falstaff
which is not that many years laterand you’re dealing with a work that may be sung a little bit less-well.  But if you don’t play it, you don’t have an opera on that stage.  To some extent, a piece like The Merry Wives of Windsor that we’re doing now, is actually closer to Shakespeare than Verdi’s Falstaff... or Boitos Falstaff, if you will.  Many things about it are such that you have to have singing actors or singing actresses on that stage, because if they just stand and sing it’s not going to work.  To be sure, Fenton and Anne Page are less-demanding dramatically than the other roles, but the other roles really need first-rate actors as well as singers.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Let’s talk a little bit about this production that you’re involved in here in Chicago.  Have you got a group of singers that can put across your ideas, as well as the ideas inherent in that opera?

Foldi:   Oh, I think so.  I really do.  Today, we lost our Mistress Ford, I have not met our new singer, who is arriving tomorrow.  I hope that she’s a fine actress, but what we have is really an amazingly good bunch, including some of the ones singing smaller roles.  I was very pleasantly surprised.  Alan Stone picked some very, very fine people, and it is very well-cast.  They’re good for their parts, and they bring out details which we work on during rehearsal.  A couple of visitors who came were just amazed to see that one does that in an opera.  But this piece needs it, and for the most part we’ve been quite successful.

BD:   This piece has enough details to keep it all interesting?

Foldi:   Oh, yes. 
All interesting may be an overstatement, but I would say 75% yes.  There are certain pieces that become a bit static, and I to try to superimpose something on it.  What some stage directors do is a mistake.  During the love duet that Anne and Fenton have, that is a relatively reflective and quiet piece, and there’s not of a heck of a lot going on stage, and I don’t think there should be.  I’ve known of instances in that scene where all sorts of nonsense goes on behind their backs while they’re signing, and I just totally disapprove of that nonsense.

BD:   Why is this piece not better-known?

Foldi:   I have a theory, and I think it has to do with the dialogue.  The original version that Nicolai wrote has dialogue that’s ten miles long.  It just does not stop.  So, when you translate that in its entirety, it becomes very, very lengthy.  The Merry Wives is not Shakespeare’s best play in the first place, but with all sorts of extraneous stuff added you have to really make an adaptation.  There is one version that’s in print, and because it’s in print it’s most often performed, and has almost no dialogue.  I don’t think that works because you don’t have any kind of dramatic continuity.  The piece becomes just a series of song numbers strung together by four or five lines of text that are spoken.  It doesn’t have any coherence.  What we have done is use a translation that Allen and I knew about, made by Donald Pippin out on the West Coast.  We had asked him specifically to write dialogue which is brief enough to make it manageable, but long enough so that the piece makes sense.  What he has done, and I think very cleverly, is take an assortment of sections from the play itself, so that suddenly in the dialogue we do get the Bard, which really pulls these pieces together.  I hope that this is going to resolve the problem of the piece itself.  I think that’s basically why it has never taken off.  The other reason is it has a very curiously weak ending.  The final scene builds up with these wild dances, and then suddenly it peters out in German operetta style, in a rather simple enough excessively effective trio.  It doesn’t have Tutto nel mondo è burla [the final section of the Verdi opera], or something like that.

BD:   You would not feel comfortable putting in some kind of new ending?

Foldi:   No, actually that’s nonsense.  This is the piece that Nicolai wrote.  If we’re going to perform it, then that’s what we’re going to do, and let’s find a way to make that trio work at the end.

BD:   Have you found that way?

Foldi:   Well, I don’t know.  [Laughs]  I think I have found a way that makes it really manageable.  It’s not slam bang, because it just isn’t written down, but those are the two problems of the piece, and why I think it is not all that popular.  The ending you can’t really do anything about, short of doing total violence to the piece.

BD:   What do you expect of the audience that comes to see The Merry Wives of Windsor?

Foldi:   I hope they will be having a heck of a good time.


BD:   What can the audience expect of you?

Foldi:   We hope it is a well-sung and well-played performance that’s faithful both to Nicolai, and as much as possible to Shakespeare.  I’m a great believer that a performer’s first and foremost obligation is to the composer.  The composer is the only creative artist who’s dependent on a middle-man to bring what he created to an audience.  A painter doesn’t need that, an architect, novelist, nor even a playwright doesn’t have to have it.  You can read a play, but you can’t read a symphony any more than you can read an opera.  You need to see a performance of it.

foldi BD:   [Gently protesting]  There are people who can sit and read a score...

Foldi:   Yes, the highly specialized musicians can do that, but an audience in general cannot, and our first obligation is to try to bring to the audience what the composer wrote.  I don’t think it’s a director’s prerogative to do something totally wild with this piece.  Then it’s no longer Nicolai’s Merry Wives of Windsor, but Mr. X’s Merry Wives of Windsor, and in the process do something to the piece that was never intended.  It is not The Merry Wives of Bucharest in 1990.  It’s The Merry Wives of Windsor in Elizabethan England, and I don’t think transplanting it is going to make it more accessible, or popular to our young audiences.  In the process of doing something like that, you massacre a piece.

BD:   [With a gentle nudge]  So, you have resisted any temptation to make it The Merry Wives of Foldi?

Foldi:   Yes, very much so, very much so.

BD:   What if the person in charge of printing the program puts your name above Nicolai?

Foldi:   I certainly hope they did not do that.  The top billing is the composer.  If they’ve done what you just suggested, I would be very surprised.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   How can you keep this, or any opera, fresh on the fifth or the eighth or the twelfth performance?

Foldi:   One of the curiosities of operatic stage directing is that normally one is there only for opening night, and then goes home.  Sometimes the stage director leaves after dress rehearsal, so how fresh it’s kept is really in the hands of the performers.  Hopefully they keep it fresh.  I don’t like the system.  It is just absurd in some places.  In many places, one of the things I’ve done is asked them to permit me to stay through the last performance, and, if necessary, rehearse them between performances.  They do that with a play, and they do it on Broadway.  The stage director or an assistant is out watching, and when they see that something gets loose, or the timing isn’t right, you then talk to the performers.  Sometimes that’s sufficient, or you take a certain section and rehearse it again.  That needs to be done in opera sometimes.

BD:   Is there ever a case where you all of a sudden get a flash of brilliance, and change something around?

Foldi:   I don’t think it’s fair to do that to the performers, unless I have a lot of time, or the flash of brilliance is a short one.  Usually it is what you have already created up on that stage, and it gets loose.  So you tighten it up.  Most people can’t really do that because to do major rehearsal between close performances, I have to think about their voices, and that’s very difficult to try to do.  You should think of that before opening night.

BD:   When you come to the first rehearsal, do you have all of your ideas in place, or do you build off of what the singers and conductor can help you with?

Foldi:   I have a very careful general plan, and that’s all written down.  I certainly don’t impose characterizations on them.  It’s an exchange, because no performer can perform something against his convictions.  They have to believe in what you might suggest.  You also get ideas from them that help mold a character, so even if you do the same production someplace else, it’s totally different, because you have different people.  I do have ideas of what these characters are like.  If not, I shouldn’t be staging this opera.  [Laughs]  On the other hand, I’m not locked into it to such an extent that I can’t exchange ideas with them.  You will learn from them, because they may have a very valid idea that you never thought of that is very good to incorporate.  That’s one of the things I like very much about this cast, because we are free to exchange.  They are open to suggestions.  They’re not just locked into some pre-conceived notion, and at the same time, they’re intelligent people and they have ideas of their own.

BD:   This is a young cast, and it’s a fairly unknown opera.  If this were an experienced cast in a routine opera that they’ve done before, would you find more resistance?

Foldi:   You might.  Again, it depends on the individuals.  It depends also, very often, on their nationalities.  Americans are very open to ideas.

BD:   The show must go on!

Foldi:   Not even so much that the show must go on, but they don’t come with that many preconceived notions into which they’re locked, even if they’ve done the piece very often.  You can get somebody who’s done a role 200 times, and they’re really hungry for new ideas.  Very often you get singers from certain other countries, and they can be sometimes rather closed, especially when they’ve done it 200 times.  They don’t want to rehearse, and they don’t want to hear anything new.  They just want to come in for as few days as possible, and get your money and run.

BD:   They want to do their version of it?

Foldi:   That’s right.  Or, you sometimes get people and you will hire them because of what you know their version of the role is, and then you, as a director, would be rather foolish to start tinkering.  Let’s assume the absurd case, that I would have directed a Tosca with Tito Gobbi as Scarpia.  I’d be out of my mind to try to tell him how to play Scarpia, because he knows it a lot better than I do.  You get into situations where you’re going to direct Miss or Mister So-and-so in a certain role for which not only are they well-known, but there’s a very good reason why they are well-known.  You will have to do things regarding the way the piece is blocked, but that has to do with geography and geometry, and not necessarily with character.  After that, you leave them alone.

BD:   [Mildly concerned]  But you’ve got to be more than just a traffic cop.

Foldi:   You’ve got to be more than a traffic cop, and we certainly will exchange ideas, but not like that example I mentioned of Gobbi doing Scarpia, who knows every nook and corner of a role, and knows anything that is possible to know about that opera.  You really believe in him.

BD:   But isn’t someone of the brilliance of Gobbi sometimes itching to have someone come and look at this corner that he hasn’t explored before?
Foldi:   I cannot imagine that he would have a corner that he has not explored, but people like that are very scarce.  I’ve worked as a performer in a similar situation with directors who knew when to make suggestions, and also knew when to leave the performer alone.  If you have faith in your performer, sometimes other than giving some basic general ideas, you need to step back and watch what happens.  Then, if you see something that you don’t like, or you want to add or subtract something else, fine.  But essentially the performer then can really do something.  I have a classic example that happened to me when I was performing Lulu in the three-act version for the first time with Teresa Stratas.  John Dexter directed.  I had hit it off with John from years before.  We had a meeting of minds.  We had done the two-act version, maybe ten performances at that point with Teresa.  We’d been rehearsing the third act duet, and John sat back and smiled and said, “We are now going to watch Ms. Stratas and Mr. Foldi give us a performance of how this duet should be done.”  He never said a word.  We did it, and we gave the performance on opening night.  He just left it alone because he knew both of us, and knew that we knew what we’re doing with this scene.

BD:   Obviously, though, it had to fit into his overall concept.  [Vis-à-vis the DVD shown at right, see my interviews with Frank Little, Lenus Carlson, James Levine, and Jeffrey Tate.]

Foldi:   Of course, but I had done it with him, and Teresa had already been rehearsing the first two acts with him.  So he knew that we were going to work very well.  If he would have seen things that he didn’t like, he certainly would have said so because this man has an eagle eye and razor-sharp mind.  He can spot when something is wrong, and he knows how to fix it.  He also has a sharp enough mind to know to leave it alone.  It happens once in a while, and I learned as a performer when to do that.  Now, as a director, if I give someone an idea about how to do an aria, and then they take it home, when they come back I watch what they do.  When it’s magic time, it’s magic time, and you know it, and you say that it is terrific, and leave it alone.

BD:   Even if it’s not exactly what you might have suggested?

Foldi:   That’s right.  If you see that the way the character develops in that scene is really a very valid continuation from where you arrive and where you want to go, and you have a wonderful singing actor or actress to work with, the smart thing to know is when to let them do what they’re doing and how they’re doing it, because it works.

BD:   Are we getting lots of smart singing actors and actresses these days?

Foldi:   More than we had, because in this day and age, just standing and singing doesn’t work.  Audiences don’t accept it any more, and I think that’s all to the good.  Then, you have singers who have much better acting training.  I teach at the Cleveland Institute of Music.  I direct the opera department, and I make darn sure that those kids have acting classes.  This semester I have ballet classes, so that when we do 18th-century operas, even if they are chubby they know how to move.  It’s not that I’m turning them into ballet dancers, but it pays off.  We did the production two years ago of Falstaff, and I put it up to them if they wanted to do it in English or Italian, because it has a very good English translation.  I was enormously pleased when it turned out that by a vote of 7 to 2, with 1 abstention, they wanted to do it in the original language.  [Both laugh]  For a school ten years ago, it was unheard of to do things in anything but English.

BD:   Were they thinking that if they ever use the role again, they would want it in Italian rather than English?

Foldi:   Oh yes, but they want to do it in the original because that way they have the opportunity to do it and learn what Verdi wrote.  They had someone to work with who can help them learn how to do it, because I brought in an assortment of people for special lectures.  For instance, there’s a man at Oberlin, named James A. Hepokoski, a musicologist who wrote the Cambridge Handbooks in their opera series on Falstaff and Otello.  He’s not only an extremely learned and erudite man, but a marvelous teacher and lecturer.  I had a chat with him, and we decided he’d give a two-hour lecture on Boito’s pentameter.  Now that sounds pretty academic and dry, but when he finished, he got a standing ovation from the kids.  He had just a way of making these go, and what the kids absorbed by learning Falstaff in Italian is something that’s going to stand by them the rest of their lives.  We’re doing Figaro in English this year, because to do it with two casts, to learn the recitatives in Italian would be a little much.  There’s not enough time for me to go around.

BD:   [Making a preposterous suggestion]  Clone yourself!

Foldi:   [Has a huge laugh]  Oh, please!  One is more than enough!

BD:   Did you sing differently in the big houses as opposed to the small houses?

Foldi:   You do, because you are preoccupied with the problem of being heard.  You have to project better, and sometimes sing bigger.  Even the way you play is different.  You can’t really turn to the side at all, because you simply will not be heard over an orchestra in a big house.  Whereas in a smaller house, you don’t necessarily have to sing out all the time.  You can really play off your colleagues a little differently.  If you sing in a house that seats a thousand, you don’t have to do it the same way as if it seats four thousand.  It’s the nature of the game.

BD:   Where is opera going today?

Foldi:   I don’t know.  Right now the great fad is modernizing.  I don’t think that’s going to go on forever.  I can’t imagine that, but right now, it’s going that direction, with such productions as Don Giovanni set in the Bronx, and so on.  There’s a lot of that.  You’ve had one here in Chicago, the Tannhäuser done by Peter Sellars.  That idea seems to be very fashionable right now.  Whether it ultimately heads that way, I don’t know.  Contemporary opera presents all sorts of problems, because you have many, many operas being written.  There were lots during the fad of the twelve-tone period, which were essentially unsingable and unlistenable.  Their kind of melodic line that’s written for the voice is written really against the voice.  I don’t think that’s a direction which has any place except into a dead end.  You have all sorts of exploratory things reacting against that.  The minimalists now are showing one direction in which it goes.  Another one is to become almost unashamedly neo-romantic, where they start writing melodic lines for the voice again.

BD:   Is that good or bad?

Foldi:   I’m not the one to make that judgment.  The public has to make that judgment.

BD:   Is the public making a judgment on that?

Foldi:   I don’t think they make the same judgments all over the world.  It depends where you are.  Germany right now is very avant-garde, and the singing and the vocalism take almost second place in many of these productions.  I don’t think you can do that style in Italy.

BD:   In Italy, voice is still superior?

Foldi:   In Italy, the voice rules, so that the melodic line and melodic operas are the ones which are still in the repertoire.  The very modern 20th-century pieces, except in a few isolated cases, are not that frequently done, and certainly not that frequently attended.  With a national subsidy, a government subsidy, they don’t have to worry about the box office.  So, if you have a certain avant-garde director of an opera house, they will do contemporary operas, and if no one’s there, they don’t care.  In the United States you can’t afford to do that.  If you do that a couple of times, you’re out of business.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Tell me about Alberich.

Foldi:   [laughs]  I laugh when I think of Alberich because I always think of Anna Russell.  [Imitating her famous line]  
You remember Alberich???  [Both laugh]  He is a perfectly horrid creature, power hungry and power mad, and he’s willing to do anything to seize that power.  When he loses that power to Wotan and Loge, then he is, again, willing to go to any lengths whatsoever to get that power back again.

foldi BD:   Are there any redeeming qualities of Alberich at all?

Foldi:   I would have to hunt very hard.  Can you think of any?

BD:   Not off hand, but you’ve sung it, and I’ve just observed it.

Foldi:   [laughs]  Not really.  He is a man who feels sorry for himself.  He renounces love for money, but obviously doesn’t renounce sex for money, because he has children after he’s renounced love.

BD:   At least one child.

Foldi:   At least one, who is even more awful than he is.  In some respects, it’s a rather monochromatic character.  There are not too many facets to his personality.  What you do is really play a bad guy from beginning to end.  There are different gradations of how he does that, with the innuendoes that says to Hagen when he’s sleeping.

BD:   You sang in all three of the Ring operas in which Alberich appears?

Foldi:   Yes.  That was my debut at the Met.  Vocally it is not ideal for me by any stretch of the imagination.

BD:   Then, why did you do it?

Foldi:   They made me an offer I couldn’t refuse!  There are other roles that are much more suitable to me vocally than Alberich.  It has to do with when you need a cannon to be heard in that role, especially in Rheingold.  If you don’t have that cannon in your throat, there are periods where you simply will not be heard, and there’s nothing you can do about it.

BD:   You also sang Beckmesser (Die Meistersinger)?

Foldi:   Yes.  That’s something else.

BD:   Is that a fun role?

Foldi:   It’s wonderful, and it’s also ferociously difficult.  For instance, in the serenade, just keeping the text straight for those three stanzas is a major problem because it’s similar, but not the same.  Then, you’re accompanying yourself, and it has to look absolutely believable on the lute.  Again, each of the stanzas is just similar enough that if anything happens on that stage, you can really be thrown.  You have to memorize that lute part like you know the palm of your hand.  Then Sachs starts knocking, and he has to do it exactly at the right point.  Musically it is incredibly complicated to keep straight.

BD:   Everything is completely interdependent, and if anything goes, you’re all lost?

Foldi:   You’re off, and you can’t think about any of that, because if you start thinking of that, you can’t play the scene.  It has to be so ingrained in you that you know it in your sleep, and that’s difficult to do, I must say.  It’s probably the most difficult role I’ve ever played.

BD:   I assume there are redeeming qualities...

Foldi:   Oh, there are wonderful redeeming qualities.  It’s a fascinating character because he’s not all black, whereas Alberich is a very complex personality, who’s rather distasteful.  Beckmesser’s very bright, but has a rather twisted mind.

BD:   Didn
t Wagner think of naming him Hans Lick?

Foldi:   Oh, it’s surely is a caricature of the critic Eduard Hanslick.

BD:   Would the opera be better if instead of Beckmesser, he’d been finally named Hans Lick?

Foldi:   [Laughs]  He would have had to change the syllabilizations in the text.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Are you optimistic about the future of opera?

Foldi:   Oh, I have to be optimistic about it, otherwise what am I doing in it?  It’s growing just leaps and bounds in the last quarter of a century in this country.  It used to be a very isolated art form for the elite, and for a few established people who came to the opera to be seen, and not necessary to see, and heaven knows not to hear.  That’s an unfair generalization, but it certainly was true of 75% of the public back then.  Today, you have opera in cities that never even heard of opera twenty-five years ago, and there are really high-caliber productions that are viable, and they are drawing audiences.  An awful lot more people know what this art form is, and are drawn to it than was the case many years ago.  So, from that point of view, it’s all a rosy garden.  Obviously there are lots of problems, primarily economic ones, and because of the economic problems, you don’t have the rehearsal time that you need, especially with the orchestra.  That’s a negative aspect of it.  I don’t think very much can be done about that, certainly not major changes right now.  But if you have people who are well-prepared, then in a relatively short amount of time it’s quite amazing what can be accomplished.  Part of the problem in operatic rehearsals used to be that people would come terribly unprepared, singers as well as directors.  Then, you spend your time on kindergarten stuff, just learning basic ABCs of what the piece is about, or what the notes are, and what you sing when and where, and so on.  Today that’s really almost never tolerated, and that’s a wonderful step ahead.  Then, because of the increased importance of the theatrical values in opera productions today, you really get much closer to Wagner’s idea of Gesamtkunstwerk, the all-encompassing artwork, in which all the different aspects
scenically, musically, dramaticallyall come if not into equal proportion, each one has its proper place.  That way you do get a performance that really is a viable musical-theatrical experience, and that’s a wonderful step ahead.

foldi BD:   Are you pleased with the records you’ve made?

Foldi:   [With a grin]  Oh, one is never pleased.  Some of them are okay, and if I could do it over again I will, because I find all kinds of things in all of them that I just don’t like.  I haven’t made all that many records.  The Pietra Del Paragone is not bad.  Some things in it are quite good.  The Barber that I did for Concert Hall in Europe is very, very dry and straight.  I don’t like it.  I don’t think it’s ever been distributed in this country.  I made a bunch of records for Concert Hall in Europe that are essentially unknown in this country.  There were excerpts of Rossini works.  I did the Cenerentola, Italiana and the complete Barber.  We also did all the stage music of Beethoven, the unknown material.  Then, we did the Fiddler on the Roof.  It was very funny... because of all sorts of technical problems, somehow they couldn’t get the dialogue recorded in the opening scene the way it was supposed to.  Ultimately, I did dub in all the voices.  So, if you listen to this recording, I am the rabbi, I’m Tevye... [laughs].  It’s terrible.  It’s awful.  Then, I did a Saul in Geneva.  I saw a pirated copy at Tower Records in New York when LPs were still available [shown below-right].  It has some interesting people in it, most at the beginning of their career.  There was the British mezzo, Della Jones, for instance, and the American tenor Grayson Hirst.  What’s lovely is that Hughues Cuénod plays my son, David.  He
s almost old enough to be my father!  [Cuénod was born in 1902, lived until 2010!  Foldi, as noted in the biography at the top of this webpage, was born in 1926.]

BD:  Let us move to the French repertoire.  Tell me about Sancho in Don Quichotte.

Foldi:   That’s a very complex character.  On the one hand he loves his master enormously.  He’s very much aware of his foibles and shortcomings, and would try to really rectify and make Quichotte see
common sense, which, of course, he can’t possibly do.  Then, at the same time, I think Sancho adores him a little bit.  He wishes he could be like that, but can’t.  There are all sorts of interesting problems in how to play a role like that.  For instance, the aria about the women in the second act is mocking Don Quichotte, and yet in the big scene in the fourth act, he’s saving his life.  When he dies, Sancho, falls apart.

BD:   What happens in the
sixth act?

Foldi:   [Laughs]  I don’t think he does what Leporello does, which is to get a new job and find a new master.  It’s much more difficult for Sancho to do that because he becomes emotionally tremendously attached to Don Quichotte.

BD:   He really does just wander off and fall apart?

Foldi:   Certainly for awhile.  Your guess is as good as mine.  It will take a long, long time before he can bring himself to try to find that kind of employment with someone else.  He would become a depressed and lonely person for a while before he could collect himself... if he can collect himself.

BD:   Is it good to have both Quichotte and Sancho be basses?

Foldi:   It has problems.  For instance, when I did it with Ghiaurov, it’s difficult for the other bass to be heard.  You need voices which are more or less of equal magnitude, and are very different in color.  When you get a real basso cantante with probably a darker vocal color as Don Quichotte, you need someone brighter and more baritonal as Sancho.  But, again, if you have tremendous difference in the dynamics that they can have by nature, it becomes a problem.  For instance, in the unison things, or a canon tat-tat-tat-tat, one of them won
t be heard if you have someone who just goes wang-wang-wang all the time.  It was wonderful to do it with Italo Tajo when he did it.  He moved you to tears on stage.  You really had to get hold of yourself as a performer not to be moved by him. He was extraordinary.

BD:   Did Massenet write well for the bass voice?

Foldi:   I don’t think in Don Quichotte it’s all that terrific, really.  In the other operas, he’s really a soprano-tenor composer, and the lower parts are not that satisfying, or really terribly well-written.  Sometimes he will write just heavy enough orchestration that when you’re singing in the middle range it’s very, very difficult to try to cut across.  Then, you become preoccupied constantly with projecting the voice, and if that’s what you’re doing, you can’t be preoccupied with playing the scene.

BD:   Have you done any other Massenet works?

Foldi:   I’ve done Werther and I sang Conte Des Grieux (Manon) once.  Of all places, it was in Havana, three weeks before the revolution.  [Both laugh]

BD:   What was that like?

Foldi:   Total chaos.

BD:   You got out in time?
Foldi:   We got out on time.  We had no idea that was going to happen.  You could smell something was in the air.  You didn’t know Castro was coming, but it could not go on the way it was.  It was total anarchy.

BD:   Does that kind of thing affect an opera performance, or do you just go on with the show?

Foldi:   You go on with the show, but it affects the performance because it’s like the Marx Brothers.  They put up the gambling scene, and as we were ready to do it, we discovered that they put the left side of the stage by accident upside down on the right side.  [Both laugh]  So then, the intermission is another twenty minutes.  They had to dismantle this set and put it up correctly.  The assistant conductor asked when the act could begin, so he would know when to call the orchestra back.  It turns out that it
s when the last man is back from the restaurant.  He lets you know, and then we start.  The performance was to have begun at 9:00 o’clock, and it began at 11:20.  We got out of there in 3:00 o’clock, so I made my entrance on stage at 1:00 o’clock.  My biggest problem was keeping awake.  I’m in the house always two hours before the show starts, so I was there from 7:00 until 1:00 waiting to go on.

BD:   Don’t you adjust your body clock, so that you’re at your peak when you need to be at your peak on stage?

Foldi:   I had no idea we’re going to start at 9:00, nor did I have any idea that the intermissions would really totally get out of hand.  So the whole thing became just absurd, and indeed you cannot turn in a top performance under those circumstances.  There was total anarchy in the theater.  Anybody could do anything.

BD:   Who else was in the cast?

Foldi:   The cast was wonderful.  Victoria de los Angeles was Manon, and Campora was Des Grieux.  It was the only time I ever sang with my teacher, Martial Singher.  He was Lescaut.  It was a pretty classy cast.  It was a three-ring circus, but in spite of all this, they were wonderful, and it didn’t really matter.  I’ve never seen anything like it.  None of it mattered, because there was just anarchy in the theater, and it was a social affair for people.

BD:   Which role did you sing in Werther?

Foldi:   I did the Bailli at the MET.

BD:   Is that a gratifying role to sing?

Foldi:   Not the most gratifying role in the world by any stretch of the imagination, but it was a wonderful set of people, and it clicked.

BD:   Did Manuel Rosenthal conduct?

Foldi:   No, Bonynge conducted the one set that I did.  Those were rather splendid performances mostly because the three were so wonderful.  Kraus was just great in the title part, and Crespin was wonderful as Charlotte.  Kathy Battle, very early in her career was Sophie.  Those performances were a magic time.

BD:   Is there a particularly French idiom that you can fall into for these roles?

Foldi:   There is a French idiom in the sense that you’ve got to do the language, and you sing differently because of the way the piece is written.  You’re dealing in a language which doesn’t have a tonic accent.  You simply don’t sing tom-totom-totom-totom as you do the other languages where you have a tonic accent.  You have to adapt, otherwise stylistically you’re not singing the right thing at all.  The style of the language influences the melodic line the composer writes, and the kind of music that he writes.  That’s most salient in Debussy and Ravel, who really set the French language to music per se.

BD:   Did you sing either role in Pelléas?

Foldi:   No, I have not.  There’s really no role that’s right for my voice.  Arkel really requires a much bassier bass than I am, and Golaud requires more of a baritone with a different color voice.  I love the piece but I would feel self-conscious getting on stage doing either of those parts.

BD:   Would you direct it?

Foldi:   [With a broad smile]  Oh, I’d love to direct it because I have some very, very definite ideas of what that piece is like.  But I would need a cast that really speaks French fluently, because otherwise you can’t perform that piece.  If the people don’t speak that language, it is just deadly.

BD:   If you learn the French style, then can sing in it?

Foldi:   Yes, and you could not have a better teacher than Singher.  It was just absolutely incredible to work with him.  Because of his linguistic abilities, he could adapt from French to German to Italian.  It would be quite remarkable to watch how he goes about doing that.  He’s a lovely man and very, very learned man, and a very elegant performer.  He is quite exceptional.

BD:   Thank you for all you have given us, and for spending some time with me today.

Foldi:   My pleasure.

========                ========                ========
----        ----        ----
========                ========                ========

© 1990 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in Chicago at the beginning of February, 1990.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB at that time, and again in 1991.  This transcription was made in 2021, and posted on this website at that time.

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.

*     *     *     *     *

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.