Conductor  Hal  France

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie

During a thirty five-year professional career as an opera conductor, Hal France has led organizations and performed with opera companies and symphony orchestras around the United States. While conducting throughout the United States and abroad his activities include speaking and advocating for arts education. He has completed tenures as Executive Director of KANEKO (2008–2012), Artistic Director of Opera Omaha (1995–2005), and Music Director of the Orlando Philharmonic (1999-2006). He served as an Adjunct Professor at the UNO School of Music from 2007-2016.

Mr. France has collaborated with many of this country’s opera companies. In 1981, he made his professional debut at Washington’s Kennedy Center. He served the Houston Grand Opera first as Associate Conductor and later as Resident Conductor over a four-year span. He has conducted performances for the New York City Opera, Seattle Opera, Florida Grand Opera, Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, Santa Fe Opera, Glimmerglass Opera, Opera Company of Philadelphia, Lyric Opera of Kansas City, Chautauqua Opera, Minnesota Opera, Cleveland Opera, Opera Carolina, Wolf Trap Opera, Opera Festival of New Jersey, Tulsa Opera, Portland Opera, Kentucky Opera, and Orlando Opera.

He has guest conducted the Royal Philharmonic, the National Symphony, the New Jersey Symphony, the Richmond Symphony and the Jacksonville Symphony. In 1992, he made his European opera debut with the Royal Opera of Stockholm with a production of Maria Stuarda.

Hal France has been involved in numerous community collaborations that include:

- BlueBarn Music Festival
- Habitat for Humanity Omaha’s Multi-Faith Music Festival
- National Hunger Awareness Day Convocation
- Why Arts
- Omaha Performing Arts 1200 Series Young Artist Nights
- Kountze Memorial Lutheran Food Pantry  

He served as the first Executive Director of KANEKO a non-profit organization founded by the artist Jun Kaneko and his wife Ree in Omaha, Nebraska. During a four-year tenure he was integrally involved in every aspect of the organization’s creativity based programming and infrastructure. He promoted and helped design an extensive number of community partnerships, the Great Minds Lecture series, performances, exhibitions, workshops and educational outreach programs that brought people into a forum of ideas and collaboration.

Mr. France served as Music Director of the Mobile Opera and Lake George Opera Festival and as Music Director of Opera Omaha before assuming the position of Artistic Director. He has been on the music staffs of the Glyndebourne Festival, Aspen Festival and the Netherlands Opera. He has degrees from Northwestern University and the University of Cincinnati College Conservatory of Music and a fellowship from the Juilliard Opera Center. Recently he received an honorary doctorate from the University of Nebraska at Omaha and an Admiralty in the Nebraska Navy from the Governor of the state.

Recent Activity (Selected Highlights)
- Pianist, Vespers Music: Recital Performance with Taylor Stayton.

- Pianist and Music Director, Performance of students from Speed Dating with Sound Health, Buffett Cancer Center, UNMC.

- Musician and Speaker, Food for the Soul Series, Omaha Conservatory of Music

- Guest Conductor/Instructor Hansel and Gretel opera performances, Depaul University.

- Music Director, Indecent, BLUEBARN Theatre.

- Pianist, International Vocal Health Day Performances, Buffett Cancer Center, UNMC.

- Performer, Chamber Music, Crossroad Music Festival

==  From the website of the University of Nebraska Omaha  

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Hal France is a sought after guest conductor of opera throughout the U.S.A. He has conducted nine productions for the Houston Grand Opera, eight productions for Central City Opera (Show Boat, La Fanciulla del West, L’Italiana in Algeri, Gloriana, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Gian Carlo Menotti's The Saint of Bleeker Street, Candide, and Carlisle Floyd's Susannah), four productions for Opera Theater of St. Louis (including the world premiere of Stephen Oliver's Beauty and the Beast), five productions for Kentucky Opera, three productions each for the New York City Opera (Oliver Knussen's Where the Wild Things Are, The Ballad of Baby Doe, and the world premiere of Ezra Laderman's Marilyn) and Orlando Opera (Macbeth, The Merry Widow and Il Barbiere di Siviglia), and two productions each for Cleveland Opera (Tosca and Rigoletto), Madison Opera (La Boheme and The Magic Flute), Calgary Opera (Tosca and The Ballad of Baby Doe), and Utah Opera (Lucia di Lammermoor and Romeo et Juliette).

Mr. France has served as Artistic Director of Opera Omaha, as Music Director of the Orlando Philharmonic, as Resident and Associate Conductor for the Houston Grand Opera, Music Director of the Mobile Opera, Lake George Opera Festival, and as Music Director of Opera Omaha before assuming the position of Artistic Director. He was also Music Director of the Orlando Philharmonic. Early in his career, he served on the music staffs of the Glyndebourne Festival, Aspen Festival, and the Netherlands Opera. He began his professional career as assistant to John DeMain at the Houston Grand Opera.

Elsewhere, he has conducted productions for Seattle Opera and Florida Grand Opera (Floyd's The Passion of Jonathan Wade), Minnesota Opera (Madama Butterfly), Opera Company of Philadelphia (The Rake’s Progress), Santa Fe Opera (Ingvar Lidholm's A Dream Play - world premiere), Portland Opera (Tosca), Chautauqua Opera, Glimmerglass Opera (Iolanthe), Tulsa Opera (Don Pasquale), Opera Carolina, Chicago Opera Theater, Wolf Trap Opera, Opera Festival of New Jersey, Lyric Opera of Kansas City, Hawaii Opera Theater,, Arkansas Opera Theater, Mobile Opera, the Manhattan School of Music (Street Scene), and Ricky Ian Gordon's The Grapes of Wrath. In Europe, he has conducted Maria Stuarda with the Royal Opera in Stockholm.

Recent engagements include productions of Bluebeard’s Castle and Falstaff for Opera Omaha, Macbeth for Chautauqua Opera, Rigoletto, Carmina Burana and I Pagliacci and The Magic Flute for Hawaii Opera, Man of La Mancha for Utah Opera, Mark Adamo's Little Women for Northwestern University, Show Boat plus a double-bill of works by David Lang for Portland Opera, and The Pirates of Penzance for Lyric Opera of Kansas City.

On the concert stage, he has conducted the Richmond Symphony, Orlando Philharmonic, Nebraska Festival Orchestra and Jacksonville Symphony in subscription concerts, and the Chautauqua Festival Orchestra, Juilliard Symphony, and St. Louis Symphony in special galas

==  From the website of Pinnacle Arts Management (with additions)  
==  Names which are links in this box and below refer to my interviews elsewhere on my website.  BD  

We met in late March of 1989 for an interview.  Portions were used on WNIB, Classical 97 four days later to promote performances of Albert Herring with the Chicago Opera Theater, directed by David Gately.  Now I am pleased to present the entire conversation on this webpage.

Bruce Duffie:   Let us talk a little bit about Albert Herring.  Is this the first time you’ve come in contact with this particular piece?

Hal France:   Yes, it is.

BD:   Are you enjoying it?  Is it everything that it’s cracked up to be?

France:   Indeed, it is.  A piece like this has a lot of appeal to musicians because it’s so well crafted.  I find Britten a very interesting composer for the theater.  He’s very imaginative, and his music is full of character.  Formally it’s very interesting to study.  He uses a lot of classical forms, and there’s a lot of contrapuntal music in it, as well as fugues.  There are thirteen characters, and a number of enormous ensembles.

BD:   You say the music has a lot of character.  Does the character of the music match the character of the players?

France:   That goes without saying.

BD:   Always?

France:   Yes.  Otherwise I wouldn’t have brought it up.  The element between Britten’s music and his librettos, and the characters in his operas is a wonderful marriage.  He really knows how to create through music characterization.  It’s one of the big challenges of writing music for the theater, and a lot of great composers didn’t necessarily have that particular gift.  Britten really had it.

BD:   Have you done other operas by Britten?
France:   No, but I’ve studied other ones.  In preparing for this, I’ve had a wonderful time familiarizing myself with Peter Grimes and The Turn of the Screw, and looking at his overall operatic output, which is very substantial.  After Albert Herring came another dozen operas.  Most of them are highly successful, and have continued to be in the repertory.

BD:   How does this particular work fit into the overall scope of fifteen operas by Britten?

France:   The distinctive quality of it is that it is a comedy.  The only other comic music that I know of that he wrote 
aside from some children’s operasis in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  So Albert Herring is unique in that sense.  It was also one of the three operas that he wrote for the English Opera Group in their early years, which was designed so that it could tour, and also that it would be very performable.  He orchestrated it for only thirteen musicians in the pit, and probably not coincidentally there are thirteen singers on the stage.  So that’s wonderfully symmetrical.  In the early years of the English Opera Group, they toured these three works in the late 1940s and early 50s.  It’s a wonderful orchestration, and it’s a great test of an orchestrator to make the thirteen draw an evening’s worth of varied colors out of a small ensemble, some of which make them sound like it’s much larger than a thirteen-member ensemble.

BD:   Is it your job to make thirteen sound like fifty, or is it Britten’s job to make sure that it sounds like fifty?

France:   It’s not often you’ll be in a situation where you would hope that the numbers you have will sound more than they are.  This is a case of just being what it is.  But it just so happens that he orchestrates very well, and he knows how to get the maximum out of an ensemble like this.  Several times it sounds a lot fuller than thirteen players, and at other times it’s extremely delicate.  There are a lot of solo passages.  There’s a very famous duet passage for alto flute and bass clarinet which is very intimate, and has a mysterious and wonderful quality.  He uses the harp well, and has a fairly extensive percussion handled by one player.  It's challenging for everybody.  The string players are basically a quintet, and there are five winds.

BD:   Do the winds all double?

France:   The winds don’t all double.  He didn’t double the oboe or bassoon.  He does not use the English horn, which is kind of surprising.  But the clarinet also plays bass clarinet, and the flute also plays alto flute and piccolo.  He leaves the bassoon to take the bass line pretty much consistently throughout the piece, and the horn also at times.

BD:   With a small orchestra, does that make it easier for the voices to project and get their diction across?

France:   Not necessarily.  I just did Carmen, and everyone was saying how transparent it was.  That’s another function of the orchestra which makes the difference.  In this Albert Herring, so far we have encountered a lot of balance problems.  The diction is of the highest essence in this carnival work.  It’s written in our language, although we will do it with an English speech that’s not American.  At least that’s what we’re aiming at.

BD:   You haven’t tried to Americanize it in any way?

France:   No.  We’re doing the production true to its locale, which is Suffolk, which was Britten’s birthplace.  He wrote with great affection for the types of characters that were right there in his town where he lived, although this is not set in Aldeburgh which was his later home.  It is an imaginary place called Loxford, which is strikingly like Yoxford, and Orford, and whole bunch of little English villages in Suffolk.  But getting back to the diction, it’s essential in this piece because the level of language in the libretto is so high.  Especially for us to hear not a translation of something from another language, but something written in a very fine English, it would be a shame to waste it.  So, of course, we have worked very hard on that.  There are times where his musical ideas challenge the ability of singers to get words out on high notes, and in certain passages, or in big ensembles where everyone is using different texts, you can’t possibly hear what they’re saying at the same time.

BD:   In this work, or in any work, where is the balance between the musical idea and the dramatic idea?

France:   It shifts all the time.  First of all, the music is the drama.  There are moments where time stands still in operas, and where music speaks in a broad universal way, but it’s usually because something has been set up inside the drama that makes this moment significant, and then we appreciate it.  There’s a wonderful piece in the final act, which, because of the nature of the thing is somewhat of a spoof.  We don’t necessarily take the situation in which ten of the characters sing what he calls a ‘Threnody’ on the supposed death of Albert Herring.  Of course he’s not dead.  He’s just gotten a night out on the town.  But that’s where time stands still a little bit, and music is the essence of the idea.  It’s very much a musical form.  There’s a kind of a ground that the ensemble keeps repeating in text and in harmony and melody, and against this, each character emerges with a solo descant that expresses their own individual thoughts.  It’s a wonderful musical moment in the piece, but it would not be as wonderful if it weren’t for everything that leads up to it in terms of the story and the drama.  We wouldn’t have these operas if they were just drama, because it is the music that makes the form unique.  It is what makes the work not straight theater, or not operetta...  Operetta is another thing altogether, but in this case, it’s an opera, so the music is extremely important.  [Laughs]  As it happens, I’m studying The Merry Widow, which is an operetta, right now.

BD:   Have you conducted any musical theater, musical comedies?

France:   Yes, I’ve done a few of those.

BD:   Does the balance between music and drama shift a little from where it is in opera?

France:   No, I don’t think so.  It just is a different function.  It’s different writing a
numbers piece where you have text and dialogue, and then have music.  It alternates between those two, so that’s a whole different form.  It’s more challenging in some ways for the composer.  Doing something like he does in a through-composed waywriting music from beginning to end, that has to both represent moments of reflection in characters as well as move the action forward, and constantly characterize, not so much like recitative-aria, but constantly be developing the plotmust be the hardest thing to do.  It takes a lot of craft to enliven a story with music from beginning to end.  It’s a different craft to write numbers, like in musical comedy, that are of high quality and at the same time entertaining.  There, one has to continue the characterization and develop the characters in some way, but not do it from beginning to end.  You have words and dialogue separate from the music, and have to establish them.  This is a big question...  [Laughs]

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Here’s another balance question.  In opera or operetta or musical comedy, does the balance shift between art and entertainment?

France:   Oh, wow!  That’s a question!

BD:   You seem to have pondered these things, so that’s why I don’t hesitate to ask.

France:   I will answer that because yes, I have thought about it.  Working in opera, and working in the theater, there is always a sense of wanting to develop a show that will please and delight the audience.  That’s what entertainment is.  However, saying that it can prove a diversion of sorts from the regular stream of life into something that’s a little bit more fantastic, or funny, and that reaches people in that way would be a terrible minimalization of what opera is.  The ideal is to bring something of high quality to people that is entertaining, but does not necessarily achieve it by not challenging them in any way, shape or form.  Art probably requires more concentration and energy of an audience that they probably have to contribute.  As a result, it can be much more entertaining to them, although sometimes it’s hard to take the plunge when one is choosing between several kinds of things one would go and see.  Very often, far greater value is gotten when one chooses something that is more challenging rather than easy.  There’s an easy road that will be pure entertainment, but probably would not necessarily enlighten you or bring to bear something about life that needs to be reawakened.  Art really makes connections.  Even a comedy makes connections with things that are real, and this Albert Herring is a comedy that gets all of its strength from the feasibility of all its characters.  Even though it’s set in a Victorian age, it’s still very feasible to think about certain people, and how judgmental they might be, and how people who are self-proclaimed moralists decide they have the key to human behavior that everyone should follow.

BD:   It’s more of a universal message?

France:   Yes, without being harsh.  The group of town leaders that set up the whole story of Albert Herring are there to try to preserve moral values.  They have decided that morality has taken a tremendous swing for the worse, and it’s up to them to uphold and try to rejuvenate the idea of great morality in their community.  It’s not something that would be limited to the Victorian era.  It still exists.  In this particular case, it’s a very humorous look at them and what they’re trying to do.  Lots of kids have been repressed in some way, and any of us, at a certain stage in our life, really need to break loose.  This opera really centers around the moment in which Albert asserts himself and breaks loose.  It’s not just about a lot of laughs.  It happens to be funny and enjoyable, but it also happens to be true.

BD:   You bring up the idea of morality.  In a general way, do you feel that opera as an art form contributes to the uplifting of morality, or the decline of morality?

France:   [Laughs, then thinks a moment]  Things of value contribute to the uplifting of the human spirit.

BD:   [With mock shock]  So is opera of value???

France:   [Smiles]  An opera is of value, as are so many things.  Any work that focuses attention on human dilemmas
and very often shows the triumph of the human spirit over circumstances and oppression, as this art form can, and doeshas contributed to the betterment of our society.  It does not always reach everybody.  This is another thing.  It’s not always an accessible art form, and there’s a lot of money involved in the production of it, and it has not always succeeded in reaching a large portion of the population.  It’s not to the taste of a lot of people, but in these kinds of works, like Albert Herring, so much of what goes on in the opera companies definitely contributes to an uplifting.  What morality is, I’m not really sure.  That’s an idea which has so many ramifications by so many different people that I would say it is of value.  Thus, it is something that probably contributes to the overall morality of people.

BD:   Should opera be for everyone?

France:   Yes, I think so, but that’s hard to say.  It can be for everyone, and a lot of people are discovering it is something that interests them.  It may not be opera.  The symphony is the same way.  Ballet is the same thing.  It might not be that everyone should be interested in all of the arts but to have this kind of experience where you discover surprises becomes something that you thought was one way, and it is totally different.  It turns out to be something that you thought was maybe not entertaining, but it is.  Something that you thought was a bunch of loonies turns out to be meaningful to you.  Those kinds of discoveries are important for everybody to have, because they tend to open up possibilities in other things in your life.  A precedent gets set, and people who discover things in the arts, discover a world they didn’t know about.  It’s a general opening up of many other things as well.

BD:   You’ve conducted opera in various large and small centers across the country.  How are the audiences different from Mobile to New York to Chicago, and various other places?

France:   They are totally different everywhere.  Different regions, different parts of the country, and different cities have their own personalities.  They also have various ethnic make-ups.

BD:   Is this diversity good, or bad, or just there?

France:   It’s fine.  It’s just there.  The exposure that audiences in a city like Chicago, as opposed to cities in other places, is very different, and the taste is very different.

BD:   Do we expect more because we have more available?

France:   It’s probably an on-going progression.  More exposure leads to more appreciation, more refined viewing, and a more varied appetite.  There are places where it’s more conservative than others.

BD:   Has television and the availability of opera literally in every home, changed the attitudes and expectations?

France:   Television is an enormous force in our lifetime, and it affects everything.

BD:   Does it help that opera is there, or can be?

France:   It hasn’t hurt any.  Certainly, there’s been a boom since the broadcasts have increased in the last twenty years.  It’s created a lot of interest in cities that were not on the Met tour, or where you have to travel long distances to other cities, or create your own little company.  Those were the choices for a long time, and television in places like that has helped make the third of those choices, which was to create your own.  In some ways, television has fed that, making people desire their own opera companies.  They’ve watched it, and have developed an interest in it.  A lot of cities take a lot of pride in their arts organizations, as well they should!  One of the major functions of an arts organization is to provide a part of a city’s identity, and offer something to its population whereby they can say, “We care about the quality of life in this city!”  That’s a lot of what has helped opera and symphony and ballet to grow in the last twenty years.  I don’t know what it is statistically, but opera companies have really taken large strides in America lately.

BD:   Is it a conscious decision on your part to do opera rather than symphony or chamber music?

France:   As a conductor of chamber music, there wouldn’t be much of a career!  [Both laugh]  But leading a chamber orchestra, sure.  I love chamber music, and I love doing small things, but opera sort of chose me.  This is the route that opened up for me.  I’m a pianist, and I went to school at Northwestern, as a matter of fact.  I got my degree studying there.

BD:   Did opera make the right choice in luring you?

France:   [Laughs]  I have no idea!  But I enjoy it.  Although there are times when it is very complicated, and somewhat compromising, it is a very stimulating activity for me.  Musically, I find that the involvement with the totality of opera provides a stimulus, and I quickly discovered that I really liked working in the theater when I was first introduced to it.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   When you’re preparing a piece, do you do all of your work in rehearsal, or do you leave a little bit of spontaneity left for each one of those performances?

France:   That’s a good question.  First of all, I don’t think anyone controls anything that infinite.  You’d have to be immortal to be able to do that, because it’s not just a question of control.  There’s a lot of work that a conductor does in rehearsals to create a good sense of stability in the work, so that it has the greatest opportunity to succeed in performance.  That’s a lot of what rehearsing is
trying to get everything to gel, and to become as integral as it can be.  It’s also important to understand the group of performers you’re working with.  Things happen in performance because of the presence of an audience, and because of the phenomenon of inspiration.  One of the real gifts of being able to do this work is to be able to discover those moments where everything seems to go well.  It is not that you didn’t work at it, but that little bit of something extra comes into it that you could not have planned.  You don’t control it, but every now and then, when we’re in a final dress rehearsal, and things are going very well, I start to get into that extra thing that we’re talking about.  I worry a little bit, and maybe once or twice I have purposely triedby making some commentsto keep it on an Earth-bound level at that point, so that an extra thing can be preserved.  We do eight performances here now, so there’s plenty of time for that, so I wouldn’t worry about it very much.

BD:   Let me turn the question around.  When you get to your fifth and sixth and seventh performance, how do you keep it fresh?  How do you keep it exciting?

France:   A lot of that has to do with so many things, like the group of people.  It also helps when you have a really good show, and that everyone enjoys working together.  Of course, the work has a lot to do with that, too.  There are pieces that you feel like you could do, and do, and do, and do, because they continually amaze you with variations that they have in them.  Then you, as a performer, can continually be seeking to find them, and that keeps you alive in the piece.  Those are the things that make the difference.  This is not such a long run, but there are times when you’re doing a longer run
such as tourswhen it’s very difficult to preserve your level of involvement.  The danger is when it becomes automatic, or when it could become automatic.

BD:   Because after automatic, it becomes routine?

France:   Yes.  There’s a downward slide that can happen when the total involvement of everyone’s mind is not into it.  When you discover you can do it on thirty per cent, then it starts to be a problem.  It will not be the case with something like this, because you can’t do it on thirty per cent.  It takes too much concentration.  I’m really looking forward to having a run of eight performances of a piece like this, because I know that it is one of those works that will provide discovery as it goes.  Also, there will be variations in it, which will keep the performers attuned.  The audiences play some role in this, too.  There are times where an audience is like having the home-team advantage.  It can’t make the performance, but it can make a difference for a performer.  You feel that coming towards you.

BD:   This can add to the excitement?

France:   Yes.  You can feel when you’re wanted, and sometimes you feel you’re not.  In that case, it’s just that they may be a little bit more reserved.

BD:   Is there any way you can help to get them  less reserved?

France:   That’s what our job is!  The idea is not to roll over and play dead when that happens, even if it means I’m going to get a little feisty.  I’m going to wake this group up!  You feel that!  Even as a conductor in an opera performance, you feel the theater around you, and it’s very important to be sensitive to that.  There are times where I have felt that my colleagues have given their very best performance, and the audience was the least receptive.  That’s an intangible, and you can’t really do much about it.  That’s gets into the definition of being professional.  You take your craft seriously, and you’re not just there for the applause.  You’re there to represent the work that you’re doing well.

BD:   It would be like rolling dice to get the top performance together with the top audience?

France:   Yes, that’s always the way.  Also, companies that have subscription series very often will develop an identity.  They know one night which they think is their best audience.  It may be filled with people who are more vocal, or more appreciative, or know more.  So, you may emit more that night.  This is not to take away from any other performance, but we’re human, and the experience of doing a good performance for a good audience gives us a lot more.  We feel a lot more gratification for it, and the lift that performing can give is greater.

BD:   I assume that you’re still at the stage of your career where you’re offered works and you really have very little choice.  You either take them or you don’t work.  But eventually you’re going to be able to decide which works you’re going to conduct, and which works you don’t want to conduct.  How will you make those decisions?

France:   I don’t think it would be very complicated.  It wouldn’t be on any deep philosophical grounds.  I would want to accept works that I felt I could bring something to, in the same way we’re talking about, and that I had great interest in.  I would want to feel I could sustain the work.  There would also be a list of things I’ve done that I question whether or not I have a great interest in doing again.  It’s a process of elimination in that way.  I wouldn’t get terribly interested in doing musical theater.  Although I enjoy the process of putting musical theater pieces together, and there is a flexibility to a lot of them, they’re not as gratifying ultimately to conduct as operas are.

BD:   Do you have less control over them?

France:   No, the nature of the pieces usually don’t have a lot of discovery as you go deeper into them.  The thing about doing musical theater is that you work at trying to find the right pacing for the show.  Very often that is because there’s choreography, and once you’ve found that pacing, no one ever wants you to change it.  So it’s just a question of turning it out each time, and I don’t particularly like that.  Consistency is important, but I don’t like repetition.

BD:   [With a gentle nudge]  You’re not a robot???

France:   Right.  That’s a little bit of how musicals work.  But there’s so much repertoire in the operatic field that I certainly hope to get an opportunity to conduct in my lifetime.

BD:   What kind of pieces are you’re looking forward to?

France:   I’ve done Falstaff, but I did it much too soon in my life.  I would love to be able to do that again, as well as more Verdi, including the other late operas, Otello and Aïda.

BD:   Those require enormous voices and enormous resources.

France:   Right, and I haven’t conducted any Strauss.  I would love to do many of the Strauss operas.  They’re really interesting to me.  I’ve had a chance to do a fairly good number of Mozart operas, and I would hope to do a lot more of that.  But then there are Peter Grimes, Jenůfa, Boris Godunov...  There are lots of great pieces that I would like to do.

BD:   Are you on track now so that those will come your way in the next five, ten years, fifteen, twenty years?

France:   That’s a question I ask myself every morning!  [Laughs]  I don’t have an answer, but I hope I’m on that track.  There’s a different track that is somewhat of a frustration for me, in that I am not on a symphonic track.  It seems to be much easier for symphonic conductors to reach a certain reputation, and then to be able to cross over into opera, and it doesn’t seem to work the same way from opera to symphony.  When opera companies get to doing Wagner and Strauss, and those things that we don’t do very much in this country except for the bigger places, they tend to hire conductors who have a greater reputation in the symphonic world.  That is not necessarily a dead-end for me.  I hope that I’ll have the courage as this all develops, and not get stuck in a comfortable position where I get a reputation of doing a certain repertoire, and not be able to do anything but that repertoire.  The repertoire that we’re doing in the regional circuit, which is basically what I’m on right now in my career, is pretty small, and there’s not a lot of adventurous stuff.

BD:   A few Mozarts, a couple of Puccinis, and some new works?

France:   Right.  Then there are five or six French operas that get done.  I haven’t gotten tired of doing those because there are a lot of works, even in that repertoire that I haven’t done.  As long as there are some new venues for me, I feel stimulated by that, and I am adding to my repertoire, and hopefully learning something about my strengths and weaknesses.  I like doing unusual works, and I like doing new chamber works.  That’s why I like working for the Chicago Opera Theater.  They have developed something which a lot of regional companies don’t have, and that is they can program almost an entire season of unfamiliar works, and make it work.  Other companies couldn’t even do one of those unfamiliar works, and make their budget work, because their public is demanding the familiar all the time.

BD:   They have got to do Traviata and Butterfly.

France:   Yes, and those are the seasons that I look at and hate the most.  Now, if you’re doing La Traviata and Madame Butterfly, and you’re also doing Pelléas and Mélisande, and Peter Grimes, and The Rake’s Progress, great!  But if your season consists of three Italian war-horses, and not even La Forza del Destino, or something like that, that’s the wimpiest season you could possibly imagine.

BD:   Even though those are great works.

France:   Even though those are great, great works!  I love conducting any of those works, but philosophically, it really bothers me to see that companies have to stack those things just to make it work.  What they want is the familiar, but we have this huge universe out there of possibilities of repertoire.  Mind you, there is a lot of good work being done right now.  There are lots of works that are receiving world premieres that could be done again.  There are lots of composers writing works, but the familiar just keeps being done.  As we’re going into the twenty-first century, the list of familiar works is getting smaller and smaller and smaller.

BD:   The repertoire is expanding, but the familiar is shrinking?

France:   What operas that so many places are choosing from gets smaller and smaller.  It’s a little discouraging.

BD:   Then where is opera going today?

France:   [Hesitates a bit]  I’m a little discouraged about that.  What we have just been talking about is the one phenomenon that’s a little disturbing, which is the over-use of familiar works that companies are doing because they’re having to become fiscally responsible and sound.  Of course, they do have to give their audiences what they want, and it’s a real danger because that’s only part of their responsibility.  The other part is to challenge their audiences, and bring them to places that they didn’t know they were supposed to go.  If it’s just a question of audiences dictating what the arts organizations are going to do, it gets pretty washed-out after a while.  So, where opera is going now must include interesting possibilities.  I happen to be very much in favor of bringing standard works into the twentieth and the twenty-first centuries.  It really depends on the piece, and on the approach, but I’m not against people trying to shed new light on familiar stories.  So I am not in the camp of saying that the opera directors are ruining opera.  I feel quite the opposite.  Audiences need to be challenged, and if you are going to present a lot of standard works, let’s do interesting things and new things with them.  These operas often center around human themes, which are universal.  Our minds, and where we are in human progress determines a lot what stimulates us, what kinds of things we find meaningful, and what we find old-fashioned, or antiquated.  There are things in opera that are timeless
including the music!that hold a power that will be relevant as long as we keep it alive.

BD:   Are we keeping it alive by rejuvenating the old works, or by bringing new works into the repertoire?

France:   It has to be a balance of both.  By bringing new works into the repertoire, we are constantly rediscovering the power of music and word together, and that we can be a vital part of what’s going on in the world.  It’s not just entertainment, but it is a real statement.  It’s attempting to reveal parts of our perceptions of the world that we live in.  New work is essential because there is imagination out there.  There are creative minds that need to be able to make their statement, and people need to hear what they have to say.  This is why I get discouraged, because for this to happen, the money to produce these things is going more and more into the private sector.  It’s done by private donations, and a lot of cities just simply cannot afford to take the financial risk without some help and financial assistance.  There are programs that help in this.  Opera America has one called
Opera for the Eighties and Beyond, which has been functioning for several years now, and I think it’s going to continue for a number of years.  It is designed to provide some assistance to companies who are trying to break some ground, and are trying to do what we’re talking about, doing something new by blending into their seasons a premiere.

BD:   In other words, do the Traviata, and the Bohème, and then do a Carlisle Floyd?

France:   Yes, or any number of other new things.  That’s the only way opera will have a future.  We can’t just keep reproducing the same things.  The artists are all very stimulated when we are part of something new.  Even when it doesn’t always work a hundred per cent, it involves a function of the performing artist which is also creative.  Then, at the same time, part of the brain perspective should be able to bring back new ideas to the way we look at standard works.  It’s part of the overall stimulation.  We should not get too entrenched in one thing.  Variety is a great stimulus.  That way doing a contemporary work can very often give you a different look at a Mozart opera.

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BD:   Do you like being a wandering minstrel?

France:   I’m fairly new at it.  I’ve only been doing this for five years, where I have been just freelancing.  Before that, I was in one place, and working.  I was four years at the Houston Opera, and that was very valuable.  I gained a tremendous amount from that.

BD:   You learned your craft there?

France:   I learned a lot.  I don’t know if I know my craft yet.  I’m not sure, but I learned a lot, and I’m certainly learning equally by being a wandering minstrel.  Going from place to place you learn flexibility, and you also have a lot of circumstances that you enter into that you don’t know how they work.  Very often that requires a whole different psychology in how you will deal with the situations, and how you project yourself, all with the basic aim that you are there to get the best results that you can out of that group of people.  Every place is different.  Some places have more rehearsals, and sometimes there are fewer, and sometimes even less than that.

BD:   Do you ever get enough rehearsal time?

France:   Definitions of enough rehearsal time vary greatly.  I worked in Holland once, and we had fourteen dress rehearsals for Intermezzo by Strauss.  It was a hard piece, and I remember an orchestra player saying that they felt they didn’t have enough rehearsal.  I was astonished!  [Both laugh]

BD:   After fourteen dress rehearsals, how many performances were in the run?

France:   I don’t remember, but I don’t think there were fourteen.  It’s state-support that makes that possible.  The artists can determine what is enough, and the stories go on.  Felsenstein used to rehearse for six months, so that’s one side of it.  The other side of it is that there have been places where somewhere along the line, twenty years ago, they decided that one orchestra read-through and a dress rehearsal was what you needed to put on an opera.

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

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

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

BD:   That’s sounds like just throwing it all together.  [Both laugh]

France:   I don’t work anywhere like that.  That might have been the starting block in a certain city, and then some innovator came in and thought they’d do something revolutionary by adding an additional orchestra read-through.  Then maybe I get to a situation where I see the orchestra four times, and maybe we rehearse the entire cast for eight or nine days.  That’s pretty short, but there are places that do even less.  That is not enough to accomplish certain kinds of things, but there are also other variables.  If you’re working with a cast that has knowledge and familiarity and many performances of their roles under their belts, it makes it a lot different to do it in eight days than it does with people who are doing it for the first time.

BD:   I assume that’s easier because they know it, and yet you might have to make them unlearn some things.

France:   That’s the name of the game.  Maybe not
unlearn because that’s not what you go for.  You look at the situation and realize this is not the way to do the best thing here.  The way to do the best thing is to find out how this group of people will do this work.  That’s not always the most satisfying artistically, although sometimes it can be very, very satisfying.  It really depends on the people.  There are all kinds of people.  There are people who are familiar with something that they’ve done, and get to some point that they feel where they feel they have become an expert on it.  They may be somewhere along the line of experience where they found the exact right interpretation, and then they decide that they want to do it like that forever!  [Both laugh]  Then there are other people who have done it a lot of times, and yet are still open, and are even coming into the situation hungry for you to suggest something different that they might try.  Then there is a give-and-take all the time, but that varies.  The most satisfying thing is always to have enough time that you are able to work carefully.  Sometimes a scene which runs five minutes may take a day to come together, or just a couple of hours, or even a couple of days apart, and it’s nice to have that time.  So, I look forward to working in places where the rehearsal time is plenty but not too much.  It’s where a company has made a philosophical decision to base their whole procedure around producing the work well.  Those are the places where I like to work, but that’s not always the case.

BD:   Rather than just getting it ready quickly?

France:   That’s it!  That’s exactly right.  The COT happens to be a company that gives very careful consideration to those things, so I enjoy it.  I wouldn’t want to have to do Albert Herring in a week, for example.  That is where you get into tremendous trouble.

BD:   How long have you had?

France:   Three and a half weeks.

BD:   And then eight performances?

France:   Yes.  It’s a good balance.  Alan Stone has focussed in on what is a very good thing.  A lot of places wouldn’t be able to do it in the way that he’s been able to accomplish it here.  Chicago has something to do with that, too.  It’s a rich cultural city, and it’s possible to get eight audiences to come to the theater to see something like Albert Herring.

BD:   Thank you for coming back, and for this conversation.

France:   Oh, my pleasure!

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© 1989 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in Chicago on March 24, 1989.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB four 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.