This interview was originally published in The Opera Journal in December, 1988.


by Bruce Duffie

Every opera singer in the world is indebted to many people, not the least of whom are the teachers and coaches who helped develop their artistry and technique, and instilled in them pride and enthusiasm.  One such man is Robert Gay, who spent twenty-five years in, as he put it, “the best job in the United States,” namely running the opera department at Northwestern University.  Himself a student of Boris Goldovsky, Gay has guided many students to know and love the business of operatic performance, and a number of them are currently performing all over the world.  [See my Interview with Boris Goldovsky.]

Now retired and directing the occasional opera as the mood suits him, Robert Gay celebrated his seventy-fifth birthday in November of this year.  Enjoying a quiet lifestyle in Albuquerque, far removed from the pressures and demands of Chicago, he returned to the Windy City a few months ago to breathe excitement again into Puccini’s La Bohème.  I had the pleasure of speaking with him about his favorite subject, and this is much of what we talked about that afternoon.

Bruce Duffie:    Where is opera going today?

Robert Gay:    I suppose forward.  It’s the oldest dying art.  It’s been dying forever and somehow it won’t roll over.  A lot of people think it’s going in the direction of what used to be musical comedy.  The Sondheim material is so serious now.  I’m not much of a seer in this.  I’m pretty confident that it will survive surtitles, and directors that want to put it in space, and whatnot.  It seems to be able to save itself somehow.

BD:    Do you like the various areas stage directors are exploring these days?

RG:    It’s difficult to answer that in a categorical way.  The talented stage director can make anything work.  I just saw a tape of The Magic Flute done in space, and the idea worked well and the set was beautiful and the direction was imaginative in terms of the technical aspect of it and the use of space.  I didn’t think the actual development of character was particularly interesting in space clothes.  I find that I’m uncomfortable with text that doesn’t fit the visual and, most especially, the visual that doesn’t seem to motivate the music — or vice versa.  I’ve seen good performances and bad ones of many operas.

BD:    Then how much leeway do you think the composer allows in the performance of a work?

RG:    I should think they have no choice once they’re dead!  Carrying on the torch is up to the rest of us who remain, and it’s up to them to have written so succinctly that we understand it.  It’s easy to cut Verdi now that he’s dead and gone, but when he was alive, he would cut you off at the waist!  I feel strongly that we should adhere to what we think or what we believe the composer and librettist wanted.  Some directors feel that we’re serving them better than they got in their own time because of the techniques available now and because of the changes in the audience.  I wonder if any composer imagined that he would be as popular in this space age as Mozart is.  Audiences are vastly different, and I hope Mozart understands that if we shorten some of his works it’s because our audiences are moving at a different tempo and cannot sit through the full length of Idomeneo or some others.  On the other hand, he might feel flattered that we want to hear every note that he wrote for both the Vienna and Prague productions of Don Giovanni. 

BD:    Is it right, then, that managements put on operas that are 100 or 200 or even 300 years old for contemporary audiences?

RG:    Oh, I think it’s very right.  Besides the obvious necessity, there’s an audience for them or they wouldn’t be done.  They are works of art or they wouldn’t survive.  Nobody does Salieri because he wrote for his own time.  The movie got him some notice for a little while, but he’s gone again.  I wouldn’t put him down for what he was.  He attracted composers from all over the world to study with him.  I’m not saying his works should never be done, but there’s not much of an audience for them.  I’ve done scenes from a couple of his works and one complete opera just because of his historic value, and found out a whole lot about him.  He was a very able composer, but he was mostly writing pastoral comedies which were the audience fare of the time.  The nobility are always the good guys and the peasants are always the bad guys; the good guys are always brave and the bad guys are always cowards, and if a peasant is actually a good guy and not a coward, it turns out that he’s the lost son of a nobleman from another country or something!  The first audiences were largely aristocracy and nobility, and then the rest of the people wanted a shot at it, so there was a court theater and the city theater.  We’ve evolved now into a democratic or rather homogenous audience made up of various segments.  There are those who will come to hear everything and others who want only Mozart, and some who want all Wagner, and so on.  In my experience, there are two kinds of peoplethose who like Pelleas et Melisande, and those who don’t, and they don’t convert.

BD:    In general, should we try to convert, say, sports fans and/or rock enthusiasts to come to the opera house?

RG:    That’s a good question and it’s been around a long time.  It may be that that conversion will never happen, and it’s unreasonable for anyone who loves opera to expect everyone else will love it too.  I’m amazed at the fear of Culture that exists.  When someone introduces an opera director, they look at him as though he’s from another world.  They’ll say, “How wonderful,” or “Oh.”  The word “opera” has a social stigma and implication of a certain class of people, and if you like opera, you’re bound to be different from the working class or however it’s all sorted out.

BD:    Is the availability of opera on television adding a new joker to the deck?

RG:    Probably.  If somebody stumbles across it and leaves it on, they may discover what opera is and can be.  But I’m sure they usually just click over to another channel as soon as they see what’s on.  Sometimes that’s justified, but actually many of the opera productions on television have been excellent.  They’re produced in the original language with subtitles, and on TV that works very well.  I think that has helped to get more people interested because then they really know what’s going on.

BD:    Are subtitles a good compromise?

RG:    I tend to think that subtitles insult everybody in opera, especially the composer, but also the director and the singers and the audience.  I’ve always believed in opera-in-English, and it’s been close to fifty years that I’ve been involved with it.  I’ve seen it succeed and I’ve seen it fail.  Part of it depends on whether you can actually get the words out, and that’s difficult in any language.  When people hear an Italian opera, they don’t realize that they’re not hearing all the text.  They think they’re hearing it all but just don’t understand it.  When they don’t hear all of the English text, they feel they’re not getting their money’s worth.  I’ve heard people wish opera wouldn’t be sung in English because then they have to sit on the edge of their seats to catch every word.

BD:    OK, then, the Capriccio question — where is the balance between the music and the drama?

RG:    The balance is always on the side of the music, I think.  The music says so much and it’s so much more specific than people give it credit for.  You can say something and be misunderstood, but it’s rare that you misunderstood the music.  I’m not an orchestral conductor, but it’s difficult — if not impossible — to direct an opera and not know what the music is talking about.  The music is what the speaking-theater would refer to as “sub-text,” that is the thought that goes on in the character’s mind and makes the character say what he does.  It becomes so much more lucid when you are working those two together.  If you understand the music, you don’t have any confusion about what he means.  The orchestra has so much to say about that.  It’s a subtle craft of its own.

BD:    Do you want your singers to portray the characters, or actually become those characters?

RG:    In the ideal, I would like them to become as close to those characters as they can.  There are certain constraints and restraints.  To sing is very difficult, and singing a full evening in the theater is an athletic event.  The pacing is very important and the composer has paced the work, but the singer must be economical, too.  Even the best tenor must have some extraneous thoughts as to how high the C will be that night, so that ideal is only approachable, not attainable.  It may be easier in the spoken theater to stand outside of yourself to give direction to what you’re doing because we all have a strong response to music and the singer becomes infused with the music.  After all, he is the recreative artist.  In his body movement and the text of his voice, he’s reproducing what the composer has done.  He’s actually playing the music as well as the part.  The initiative should be on the stage, and the actor is making a physical action that is commensurate in architecture with the music.  An acting phrase has a beginning and an end and a peak, and a tempo and sense of excitement.  If singers start after the music, they look like puppets; if they start too early, they know it too well.  They should move like the characters, whether natural or unnatural or supernatural.

BD:    During your career at Northwestern, how did you decide which operas and scenes to stage?

RG:    Scenes are much easier, and I would stage them for a variety of reasons.  We would work up to twenty scenes in a class, but the operas were chosen very consciously.  The conductor was always involved in the decisions, and the voice faculty was always consulted about the ability of certain people to negotiate the roles without doing damage to the voice.  We tried in a four-year period to expose singers, the audience and the orchestra to different periods and styles.  That was an ideal we couldn’t sustain always because there’s so much music of the romantic period that young voices can’t sing.  So we only managed to do two Verdi operas (Falstaff and Traviata) and one Strauss (Ariadne) and no Wagner.  I’m not sure we should have done that Ariadne, but the orchestra did well and liked it because it was a difficult piece.  Sometimes opera orchestras think they’re just down there sawing away.  They don’t know they’re the sub-text!  

BD:    You were conscious of what the voices should and shouldn’t do at that point in their lives, but were you always careful about the individuals at every turn?

RG:    I was, but I sometimes stretched them a bit.  I tried to maintain a very close liaison with the voice faculty for that very season.  I wouldn’t let them tell me not to cast someone because they would never do the role later, but I didn’t want to cast someone in a role that would damage the voice.  Invariably, when I had heard everyone in the class for the first time and assigned various scenes, I would tell them to check the parts with their teachers to make sure they were all right for them to sing.  Having been a singer myself but never a voice teacher, I would know they could sing the notes and the words, but I would not always know (and did not want to be blind to the fact) that the part might lie in a tessitura that was out of line with what the teacher was working on during that period of development.

BD:    When you were working with these students, were you thinking of preparing them for a professional career?

RG:    I was thinking of giving them what would stand them in good stead in a professional career, knowing full well that very few would have an extensive professional career in opera.  I’m pleased with how many are doing it.  It’s terribly hard to get a job singing opera.

BD:    Is it too hard?

RG:    Probably not.  The process weeds out the ones who haven’t enough talent or are temperamentally unfit.  I get letters from former students who say that a director was asking something very difficult, but they themselves didn’t have any trouble because we’d done it in class a few years before.  I think that’s what classes are for, and I think that was what I tried to communicate.  People say it’s not the real world, but I came into the academic area from the real world with a “trade-school” attitude, and gradually became a believer in general education.

BD:    Over the course of twenty-five years, how did the raw talent change — if at all?

RG:    It improved, but that’s true of American student singers everywhere.  You’ll find all over this country an uncommon talent pool because the schools have taken an interest in having an opera department.  Also, the voice teachers association [NATS] has raised the standard of teaching.  Athletes are running the mile faster than ever before, and I think the singing is also better.  You can never say which students will have great careers, but you know when a person has enough talent to do the job and go far if he gets the break.  They may not be world-beaters, but they can make a living, and it’s fun to make a living in what you were trained at.

BD:    It used to be that singers went to Europe to get their training.

RG:    A lot still go to Europe — not so much for training, but to get work.  We still don’t have very many theaters in America which run a ten-month season.  We have many more theaters across the country now, and I think that’s good.  We need to de-centralize and not take all our money to New York to feed the Met.  I’m not against the Met, but I’m for opera wherever it works, and it works almost everywhere.  What makes it work is somebody who’s dedicated and energetic and intelligent, and stubborn enough to make it happen.

BD:    What advice do you have for the impresarios?

RG:    Good luck! (Laughter)  Read Danny Newman’s book [Subscribe Now!] and find somebody who has a good rapport with the people who have enough money to come and support you, and give them a good product that they can feel good about supporting.     

BD:    What advice do you have for the young composer who wants to write operas these days?

RG:    This is coming along, too.  We have a good market in the college and university.  Write for the voices that are there and for what they can do.  We all need to be stretched, so write a little more than we can do, perhaps.  There is a market for short operas with limited orchestration.  It’s easy for me to sit here and talk about it, but I’m amazed that anybody can write an opera.  I wish that the composers today would take the same attitude as the great ones did and recognize the importance of orchestral interludes.  There must be scenes in which the actor is onstage but is not expected to sing.  I’ve seen many composers’ first opera, and there is no chance for the voice to just rest while the action continues.  Operas need connective material that makes logical the sequence of events, as well as orchestration that supports the emotion of the moment and also deals with it intellectually.

BD:    What advice do you have for the young singer?

RG:    There’s not a whole lot of advice you can give young singers besides just do your best — or even better.  Have integrity to yourself and to the music.  You never know who will hear you.  There might be three people in the audience, but one will be the guy who will hire you next.  I never try to dissuade a singer.  In the first place, it’s impossible and, frankly, I don’t know for sure.  I’ve had some students that I didn’t really think had a whole lot of talent who are doing just fine, and others that I thought really would do well and haven’t gotten anywhere for whatever reason.

BD:    Any advice for the conductor?

RG:    Be as good as you can so you’re not nervous when the singers don’t look at you.  That’s true of all good conductors.  Too many come from orchestral backgrounds where everything is precise.  If all the singers do is watch the conductor, the drama is gone.  Most operas are so well written that after they’re rehearsed, they can be done with almost no direct visual contact.

BD:    How do you keep those very popular and often-done operas alive?

RG:    I think they’re popular because they are alive.  In a work like Bohème, there are things that pop up at you every time you do it, and people always have differing understanding of situations than I do.  When something happens in rehearsal, I ask why it was done, and the singer gives me a reason.  So I have to either go along with that singer or convince him that my way is better.  But there is a vitality in these works.  Everyone in the arts has been a bohemian, or been poor, or been frustrated.  Everyone (I hope) has been in love, not as tragically or wildly as the various characters, but we have all experienced most of what goes on on the stage.  So it’s alive and people like melody.  It’s innate.  There are, I suppose, as many bad productions of any opera as there are good ones, and a whole lot in between, and I believe that all works of art survive on a kind of timeless quality, a universality.  I don’t know what makes one piece immortal and another temporal.

BD:    Is the public’s judgment always right in that?

RG:    In the long run it has a better chance of being right than in the short run.  There are some operas that pop up again and again but don’t sustain a continual place, but they must have something for them to come around regularly.  And there are many works that should be seen once so you know something about them without having them around all the time, but that’s asking a lot of the producer to pull one of those off the shelf and present it in a way that won’t sink the company.

BD:    Are you optimistic about the future of opera?

RG:    Yes, I am.  It’s a very compelling form no matter how exclusive it may appear to be.  I’m very pleased with the quality of what’s being done these days, and it can only get better and better.

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Bruce Duffie is a programmer for WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago, and lecturer for the Lyric Opera of Chicago.

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© 1987 Bruce Duffie

This interview was recorded at the College of Du Page in suburban Chicago on July 17, 1987.  Portions (along with recordings) were used on WNIB two days later, and again 1993.  It was transcribed and published in The Opera Journal in December, 1988.  That version (as published in 1987) was posted on this website in 2012.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here

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

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