Conductor  Laszlo  Halasz

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


Laszlo Halasz  (June 6, 1905 - October 26, 2001)

PORT WASHINGTON, N.Y. (AP)  Laszlo Halasz, the first music director of the New York City Opera, died Friday. He was 96.

Halasz became the opera’s first director in 1943. During his eight-year tenure, the New York City Opera became an important training ground for young singers.

The company also became an important venue for new works.

Born in Hungary, Halasz studied at the Liszt Academy in Budapest, where his teachers included Bela Bartók, Ernst von Dohnányi, Leo Weiner and Zoltan Kodaly.

He made his professional debut as a pianist in 1928, but in 1931 decided to focus on conducting.

He came to New York in 1936, and when the New York City Opera was formed in the fall of 1943, Halasz was appointed its music director. The company’s first season included productions of Puccini’s ``Tosca,″ Flotow’s ``Martha″ and Bizet’s ``Carmen.″

Halasz conducted the company’s first American premiere, Strauss’s ``Ariadne auf Naxos,″ in 1946, and the opera’s first world premiere, of William Grant Still’s ``Troubled Island,″ with a libretto by Langston Hughes. But the opera’s board was uneasy with Halasz’s ventures into modern opera.

When the board insisted in 1951 that Halasz submit his repertory plans for approval, he resigned. The board ultimately relented, but when Halasz became involved in union disputes later that year, the board fired him.

After leaving City Opera, Halasz began a second career as a record producer. He also conducted opera at houses in Frankfurt, Barcelona, Budapest, London and South America. As a teacher, he was on the conducting faculty at the Peabody Conservatory, in Baltimore, and the Eastman School of Music, in Rochester, N.Y.

-- Jeffrey Isner   

Like several other guests to whom I spoke on the telephone, Halasz remarked on my punctuality, and asked if I had read the Letter to the Editor he had written in The New York Times (which I had).  There is more about this later in the interview.  Names which are links on this webpage refer to my interviews elsewhere on my website.

We chatted momentarily while I checked the recording machine, and he gladly began to list some of the artists with whom he had worked.  That is where we pick up the conversation . . . . .

Laszlo Halasz:   I conducted a lot of people.  In fact, my American debut was Tristan and Isolde with Flagstad in St. Louis.  [Note: The annals of the St. Louis Opera Company, which are included in the book The New York City Opera - An American Adventure, list Paul Althouse as Tristan, and Sonia Sharnova as Brangaene.  The date was December 1, 1937.  The company was reorganized in 1939 and re-named the St. Louis Opera Grand Opera Association, with Halasz as music director.  Their first opera was Die Walküre on April 17, 1939, with Marjorie Lawrence as Brünnhilde, Lauritz Melchior as Siegmund, Fred Destal as Wotan, and Herta Glaz as Fricka.]

Bruce Duffie:   Do you remember anything about that performance?

halasz LH:   Everything, because the airplane was not yet an everyday thing.  Flagstad was unexpectedly asked to sing at the Met the night before.  So, she took a train, arrived at 2 o’clock in St. Louis, and missed the dress rehearsal.  We had a piano rehearsal, and she went onto perform it.  The prompter was a young conductor and chorus director, and I asked him to keep track of how many mistakes she would make.  She made one in the whole evening, and was one of the saints of the profession.

BD:   Could you lay this ability to perform roles so perfectly on the fact that she did very few roles?

LH:   I wouldn’t say that because very few people realize that Kirsten was an operetta singer before she went into opera.  She knew a lot of roles, and when we speak about Wagner roles, the length of just one is equal to two others.  Some people never learn their operas perfectly, and that was Melchior.  The only thing he did in the score was to mark each performance.  He sang Siegfried with me, and mentioned that it was his 168th performance.  I told him,
You still don’t know this opera, and he said, I’ve already forgotten it.”  [Both laugh]  [This was in St. Louis on November 20, 1939, with Marjorie Lawrence, Fred Destal, and Lorenzo Alvary as Fafner.]

BD:   You’ve been listening to voices for fifty years.  How are the voices today different from those in the 30s?

LH:   The voices are the same because God created them.  The training is rare, and the quality is zooming down every day.  First of all, they want to enter the career too early.  They want to do their so-called vocal studies overnight, and then they want to sing big roles the next night.  The next murder of today’s singing is the airplane.  I remember I was conducting in Buenos Aires, at the famous Colón, Domingo sang a Bohème.  He ran to the airport to sing two days in Salzburg, and from Salzburg he took a quick a train to sing Pagliacci in Verona, and then flew back to the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires.  By that time, he had no voice.  Later, he
came to Budapest to sing Aïda one day before the performance.  Today, the problem is the training, and also the demands.

BD:   You said that Flagstad took the train, and arrived at 2 o’clock before going on without a dress rehearsal.  Is this not comparable at all?

LH:   No, that was a necessity because of the Metropolitan contract.  They had an emergency at the Met... I think Marjorie Lawrence fell ill, so Flagstad had to sing.  I didn’t have the power of Toscanini who would have canceled the performance.  I’m very, very successful about my demands for preparatory rehearsals.  I did a new production of Tristan und Isolde with Birgit Nilsson in Baltimore.  She gave me one full week of rehearsals.  Herbert Graf was staging, and Ming Cho Lee, the (then) young unknown designer, was designing, and I had great singers in other roles.  But Nilsson gave me one solid week for rehearsals.

BD:   What year was this?

LH:   This was 1960.

BD:   That was right around the time of her Met debut.

LH:   Yes.  By the way, I auditioned her in Stockholm around 1948.  She handed me her repertory, and I asked her to sing Turandot.  She was a young girl.  I was there to find singers for the (New York) City Opera, and I wrote down that she still had to develop her high notes.  [Both laugh]  We are very good friends now, and she keeps on reminding me of this.

BD:   You conducted Flagstad, and you’ve conducted Nilsson.  Could you compare those two voices?

LH:   It’s hard to speak about voices in that way.  I also had a third very distinguished Isolde, and that was Astrid Varnay.  So we have three different personalities, and three different voices.  If you ask me what I think of each, Flagstad was a woman, Nilsson was a real instrument, and Varnay was in between.

BD:   After a career of leading roles, Varnay is now singing smaller parts.

LH:   Oh, yes, she won’t give up.  She’s a fantastic musician.  I heard a Valkyrie performance in Barcelona, at the Liceu, and the tenor had to be changed at the last minute.  The prompter was able to sing the role, so Varnay said,
You need a prompter for the first act, and I’m not in it, so I’ll prompt.  So, she went into the prompter’s box and closed the score, and prompted by memory.  That’s my dear Astrid.

BD:   She is both talented and gracious!

LH:   Yes.  But today, I have a great beef on the teaching of conducting.  I just finished a long session with my young protégé, Tullio Mucaro, whom I consider will one day be a most famous conductor, and not that long from now.  We went over La Traviata and Cavalleria Rusticana, which I conducted in Verona in the ‘good old times’ with Stignani.  We also went over Entführung, which was done in the Met yesterday.  That work doesn’t belong in the Met because the house is too big.  I don’t know what’s going on at the Met.  I’m just about to write a letter to the new boss, Mr. Crawford.  They must change over to the Stagione system, because they cannot handle this repertory opera style, where one singer gets sick and the other doesn't show up.

BD:   [With a gentle nudge]  You mean there shouldn’t be a revolving door of artists???

LH:   You can’t, not unless you give up quality.  They are not creating artists.  They are creating stars, and some of them are on the downhill of the voice.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Coming back to Wagner, did you conduct all ten of the big Wagner operas?

LH:   Yes.  I conducted the whole
Ring.  My examination piece in Budapest was Die Meistersinger at the State Opera.

BD:   To conduct a performance?

LH:   Oh, yes.  We had to do a lot in Budapest to get a diploma... not only conducting a whole opera, but we had to know how to build scenery, how to sew costumes, and know about lighting.  By the way, I have memories of lighting in Chicago because the first modern switchboard was built there by Insull.  They call it an Eisenhower board, but this was much before President Eisenhower.  You have a beautiful theater in Chicago, but you don’t use it.  I don’t mean the Civic Opera House, but The Auditorium.

BD:   It’s a lovely place.

LH:   Acoustically it’s absolutely superb.  I conducted a whole lot in Chicago.  My debut there was on November 24, 1941.  [The opera was Falstaff, with John Charles Thomas in the title role, Dusolina Giannini (who would later be Tosca in the first performance of the NYCO in 1944) as Mistress Ford, Hugh Thompson as Ford, Glaz and Sharnova (who had sung Wagner with Halasz as noted above) as Mistresses Page and Quickly.]  By the way, what’s happened to my friend and enemy, Claudia Cassidy?

BD:   She is still around.  She is no longer writing for The Tribune, but she’s doing a bit of writing, and reviews performances on a different radio station.

LH:   She had a beautiful pen, but very little knowledge of the material.  She made one big mistake with me, because in one of my performances, which I didn’t conduct
it was Morelshe penned about a baritone who didn’t sing.  [Both laugh]  She didn’t want to write a correction, so I put a paid advertisement in the Tribune.  Afterwards we became very good friends.

Jean Paul Morel (January 10, 1903 in Abbeville – April 14, 1975 in New York City) was a French-born naturalized-American conductor. He served on the conducting staff of the New York City Opera from 1946-1951. He had a long association with the Metropolitan Opera as their chief conductor of the French repertoire from 1956-1971. He also taught for 22 years at Juilliard School, where he was the director of the Juilliard Orchestra and professor of conducting. Several of his pupils became famous conductors, including Herbert Blomstedt, James Levine, Jorge Mester, and Leonard Slatkin.


See my interviews with William Schuman, and William Bergsma

BD:   I still see her once in a while at performances.

LH:   Yes, she was a beautiful redhead.

BD:   Where did you conduct the Ring?

LH:   The Ring I conducted in 1965 and 1971 at the Liceu in Barcelona, which is a top theater.  In Spain, they have a gentleman’s agreement... Barcelona is the opera place, and the capital [Madrid] is for the symphony.  They have no opera house in Madrid because when they started to build it, they found a river under it.

halasz BD:   What kind of casting did you have for the Ring?

LH:   Oh, all big names.  We had Astrid Varnay, and all the Bayreuth gang.  In fact, we imported to the Liceu the whole theater, meaning we had the same lighting equipment as they have at the Festspielhaus in Bayreuth.  There are 238 units of lights, but they still don’t know how to use more than 120... except when the Wagner company came.

BD:   That would have been the Wolfgang Wagner production?

LH:   No, no, no, the Wieland.  My whole affiliation was with Wieland, although I bumped into Wolfgang in Budapest last year.  He came to see what they did with Meistersinger.  He will stage it in Dresden.  I was invited last year to the opening of the opera house.  They rebuilt the old theater a hundred per cent correct.

BD:   Does the Teatro Colón have wonderful acoustics, as everyone says?

LH:   That is a perfect theater because it was built, and rebuilt, and rearranged by Toscanini.  In fact, the beautiful thing is that in front of that glorious theater, they have a big statue of Toscanini, and they called the place Plaza Toscanini.  They have also a beautiful thing... Each rehearsal hall has a saying by one of the conductors who conducted there
Bruno Walter, [Ettore] Panizza, Toscaniniand it brings you into your work. 

BD:   Do you feel that helps both the performers and conductors?

LH:   The usual practice today is that the repetiteur, instead of teaching, is learning from the singer.

BD:   Is this some of the advice that you give to the young conductors coming along
to be a teacher rather than learner?

LH:   Do want to ask him?  Tullio’s on the phone with us.  If you have a question about that, he should answer, not me.

Tullio Mucaro:  The ultimate situation is where the preparation is one hundred per cent.  Obviously, you can never go into any conducting situation where you are learning, or where you’re not doing your job.  Maestro Halasz’s number-one priority in teaching me is that I am completely and thoroughly prepared for the opera stage before the symphonic stage.  That comes after, whereas most people do it the other way around.

LH:   With that article, I made two big enemies at the very end of it.  [Halasz is referring to the lengthy Letter to the Editor, published in The New York Times on Sunday, September 13, 1987.  The headline was Filling Opera Podiums.  In it, Halasz mentions several great names, all of whom were excellent pianists who came from the opera house and then went to the concert hall.  This apprenticeship, as he called it, gave them experience for an international career.  At the end of the letter, Halasz lamented the appointment of Christopher Keene and Sergiu Comissiona to succeed Julius Rudel at the New York City Opera.  The reason being that while they were excellent symphony conductors, their careers had not, so far, included the necessary operatic experience.]  Those conductors were learning the opera right there.

BD:   In America, is there enough opera going on for a young conductor to be able to learn his craft the old-school way?

LH:   The answer is no.  First of all, the singers don’t want to go to rehearsals.  Even the youngsters, but that goes deeper.  They don’t want to rehearse because they don’t learn.  The people who teach them do not know more than the young singers.  Number two is the cost of rehearsals.  There is just very little in the hall with the pianists, not to mention about the orchestra and staging.  My young Tullio almost fell off the chair when I told him that Bruno Walter, with whom I prepared the Entführung, we rehearsed it for one month with singers who know knew it.  So, it was virtually the same style, the same diction, and then for two weeks they went with orchestra for staging.  Try to do that today!

BD:   [Proudly speaking about Lyric Opera]  Here in Chicago, we’re actually very lucky because most of the productions are, as you say, the Stagione system.  We have two to four weeks of rehearsal for each production, and then the casts stay together and sing all of the performances before they disperse when the opera has finished its run.

LH:   [With an astonished tone]  They stay there for four weeks of rehearsals???

BD:   It’s at least two or three weeks.  The production of Così is coming up three weeks from now, and the cast has already arrived.  Lulu had five weeks rehearsal.

LH:   Oh, Lulu!  I was there at the premiere in Vienna.  Did they do the whole thing with the extra act?

BD:   Yes, yes, the whole thing.

LH:   It was released not long ago because it was the property of Mrs. Berg, and she said that it shouldn’t be performed.  I knew Berg very well during my Vienna days.

BD:   Tell me about working with him.

LH:   He was the sweetest, most unassuming man I ever knew.  He had immense knowledge in theory, and was very interested in the text, whether it’s Wozzeck or Lulu.  He wrote the music, and really didn’t think it would be performed.

BD:   Then why did he write it?

LH:   Dedication!  He went through an immense evolution, because if you listen to his first songs, they are a Straussian-Brahmsian mixture.  Then he did Lulu.  By the way, he wrote a beautiful Suite out of it.

BD:   If he had lived longer, would he have written yet another opera?

LH:   Oh, yes, he planned one or two.  But the strange thing is he would not compose until he found the book which he
admired.  It had to be a total mixture of drama and music.

BD:   Ah, the Capriccio question.  In opera, where is the balance between the music and the drama?

LH:   Well, it
s a bastardized art, don’t forget.  You have the drama, the acting, then you have ballet, then choral singing, then soloists and orchestra.  Starting with things like Cavalleria, it’s fifty-fifty.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   How do you decide which operas you will conduct, and which operas you will let go?

LH:   My repertory is now seventy-eight operas that I have conducted in my life.  Among them are some which you have to do because you are engaged at a place and they assign you some works.  But today, I am going back to Richard Strauss.  It might be because of this visit of mine in Dresden.  Strauss had several operas premiered there.  Some people think, for example, that Der Rosenkavalier must have been premiered in Vienna.  No, it was premiered in Dresden.  It was for me a very emotional moment when I saw their performance of Salome because I have from Strauss congratulatory letters about my Ariadne and SalomeAriadne I premiered in New York.  It’s a very, very rich in tradition there in Dresden.  In fact, you had there in Chicago Fritz Reiner, who worked closely with Strauss.  He was director in Dresden [1914-1921].  He’s one of the great conductors of his time.

halasz BD:   Are the operas of Strauss a continuation of the Wagnerian tradition?

LH:   I would not say so, because one of the important features of Wagner is that he wrote the texts, and Strauss never wrote the texts.  He had this wonderful affiliation with Hofmannsthal, and others.  But harmonically and in the musical construction, you talk about the mixture of Debussy, and then Wagner.  His genius is still not fully discovered.  The French now begin to have his operas, and I wouldn’t say that Strauss was a real personality there.  The man who probably influenced all of them is Berlioz.  It’s still not recognized.

BD:   Did you ever conduct The Trojans?

LH:   No, not The Trojans, but I conducted his Romeo and Juliette.  I have the original edition of this score.  He’s still not discovered fully.  We need to have more performances of his Mass, and even the songs.  But if you ask me if Strauss was a continuation of Wagner, I have to say no.  Rather it is Berlioz.

BD:   You’re talking about some composers being genius-composers, and writing masterworks.  Should an opera company only put on the masterworks of the literature?

LH:   Who can decide what is a masterwork?  Bizet’s Carmen was a failure.  [Both laugh]  So who can decide?

BD:   Let me turn the question around.  Who should decide whether a piece of music is a masterwork?

LH:   Oh, my God!  Now you ask me who is a prophet!  [More laughter]  Who should decide?  Well, I tell you...  [Ponders a bit]  There are things in life...  You know I was Toscanini’s assistant.  He brought me to America, and he always said that he never would conduct Tchaikovsky.  But, at the end of his life, he did.  I remember after one of the symphonies
I don’t recall which onehe said, They’re not too bad.  The problem today is that we, the conductors and directors of opera, don’t have the musical and economical authority like he had.  For example, after the dress rehearsal of Trovatore, at La Scala, he didn’t like it so he just said there will be no performance.  I’d like to do that today, but we cannot do that economically.  I have to tell you a very sweet conversation which I had with him when he was already here in the U.S.  He asked me to help him with the Requiem of Verdi.  We spoke about Aïda, and I told him I was going to do it at the Colón.  I mentioned that I was going to have eight rehearsals, and he said, “That’s not too many.  I got thirty.  So I said, Maestro, for you to conduct an Aïda with thirty rehearsals is not a big amount.  He looked at me and said, [emphasizing the word] You try to get thirty rehearsals.  [Much laughter]  He was a great, sweet man.  Certain things happened where he blew up.  It was for some things which he could explain.  For example, in Aïda, a famous soprano sang her first aria, which ends like [he demonstrates], and she slowed up [more demonstration].  He blew up, and told her to get out.  He didn’t take her back.  I asked him one day why he did that, and he said, “Look at the score where she goes to a C.  She was sliding to a B natural, and it sounded to me like an Igor Stravinsky piece.  It is as if you put a knife in my ear!”  Then he stopped, and turned back, saying, Not only that, but she turned the knife around in my ear!  These kinds of things happened, but all in all he was a really nice man, very educative.  He really taught me everything.  I could ask a million questions and he answered them.

BD:   Is there ever a case where an opera can get over-rehearsed?

LH:   No, no, because everybody who is rehearsing is smart, so they
mark.  This so the singers don’t have to sing full voice.  The big problem today is they are coming from all over.  There are different styles, and there are different approaches.  Bartók, my former teacher, told me that if you find the style to a piece, you have fifty percent of the solution.  What’s happening now is there are great singers, but different styles and different approaches.  I can assure you that in Germany, an Italian opera sounds different than in Italy, even when they sing it in Italian.  To get a unified style, take, for example, the Traviata recording of Toscanini.  They rehearsed it for one solid month.  Licia Albanese practically lost her voice, and Jan Peerce in the end, could hardly talk.  But then he gave us one week to mature, with no rehearsal and no singing.  [Pondering a moment]  In scores which I have neglected in the last twenty years, but now have to revive, I find things which I didn’t find in them before.

BD:   Is this what makes it a masterpiece
that there’s always something to find?

That’s why some people become masters and some people don’t.  I consider myself today on the top of my musical interpretive powers.

BD:   You’ve always been a champion on new music.  Where do you go to look for new scores?

LH:   I found one in Chicago, in the basement!  You have to go to the pit by walking under the stage.

BD:   The vault is down there, also.

LH:   Right!  This was not in the vault, but there was a pile of music which was to be thrown out.  So I called my secretary because I had to go to conduct, and told her to pick up one or two of those scores to see what they were throwing out.  One of them was The Love for Three Oranges, because it was such a failure in 1921 when Prokofiev conducted.  I quickly gathered the music because I didn’t want to let them throw it out.  That was one of the biggest successes of City Opera.

The Love for Three Oranges
was the result of a commission during Prokofiev's successful first visit to the United States in 1918. After well-received concerts of his works in Chicago (including his First Symphony), Prokofiev was approached by the director of the Chicago Opera Association, Cleofonte Campanini, to write an opera. Conveniently, Prokofiev had drafted a libretto during his trip to the US. He had based it on Carlo Gozzi's play in the Commedia dell'arte tradition, (which was itself based on Giambattista Basile's fairy tale "The Love for Three Oranges"). The eventual libretto was adapted by Prokofiev from Vsevolod Meyerhold's translation of Gozzi's play. The adaptation modernized some of the Commedia dell'arte influences and also introduced a dose of Surrealism. Due to Prokofiev's own scanty knowledge of English, and as Russian would have been unacceptable to American audiences, the initial version was set in French, with the possible assistance of the soprano Vera Janacopoulos, as L'Amour des trois oranges.

The opera received its premiere performance on December 30, 1921 at the Auditorium Theatre in Chicago, conducted by Prokofiev. It received its first Russian production in Petrograd (now St. Petersburg) in 1926 and has since entered the standard repertoire of many opera companies.

The initial criticisms of the Chicago production were generally harsh, e.g., "it left many of our best people dazed and wondering", "Russian jazz with Bolshevik trimmings" and "The work is intended, one learns, to poke fun. As far as I am able to discern, it pokes fun chiefly at those who paid money for it". The newspaperman and author Ben Hecht, however, gave it an enthusiastic review: "There is nothing difficult about this music – unless you are unfortunate enough to be a music critic. But to the untutored ear there is a charming capriciousness about the sounds from the orchestra".

The opera was not performed again in the United States until 1949 when the New York City Opera resurrected it. As staged by Vladimir Rosing and conducted by Laszlo Halasz, the production was successful. Life magazine featured it in a color photo spread. The New York City Opera mounted a touring company of the production, and the opera was again staged in New York for three successive seasons.

Many of the costumes used for the original 1921 Chicago production were discovered in a warehouse, and the New York City Opera used many of them for lesser characters in the 1949 production.

BD:   It was finally revived here about ten years ago, and was a great success.

LH:   I performed it there with the City Opera, which was, by the way, profiled in Time Magazine, and then in the Russian magazines.  That was really because they had been rehabilitating Prokofiev.  I also conducted the first [professional] performance of Menotti’s first opera, Amelia Goes to the Ball.  [This was in St. Louis on November 14, 1939.]

BD:   Did you know at that time that Menotti would be turn out to be a fine man of the theater?

LH:   I thought at that time that he would be a fine composer.  It was a little bit Wolf-Ferrari-ish.  We are very dear friends.  I also premiered at the City Opera the staged performance of The Old Maid and the Thief.  [This opera was conducted by Thomas P. Martin, and was paired with Amelia Goes to the Ball, which Halasz conducted.  Being the music director of the company, Halasz can certainly claim credit for inserting it into the repertory.]  And, of course, [elsewhere] I performed The Consul.  I think Gian Carlo lost the battle of becoming a very great composer when he started to flirt with Broadway, and money.  I don’t think that any of the great composers, before Strauss lusted for money.  He liked money.  I visited him after the War in Montreux at the Palace Hotel.  He was just finishing The Four Last Songs.  In fact, I was the one who played them for him for first time.  Later, he wrote me thanking me for doing his operas, and his first question was,
Why don’t I get my royalties?  I told him that there was this strange law for enemy aliens, where you cannot send money.  They have to put it in the so-called Alien Property Custodian funds.  So finally they sent money to him.  La Guardia said, Send him the few dollars, and I said, Mr. Mayor, if I go to jail, we go together.  [Laughs]  He was the last great boss I had.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   I want to ask about Eugene Zador.


Jenő Zádor
(5 November 1894, Bátaszék – 4 April 1977, Hollywood, California), also known as Eugene Zador, was a Hungarian-American composer.

He studied at the Vienna Music Academy and in Leipzig with Max Reger. He taught from 1921 at the new New Vienna Conservatory, and later at the Budapest Academy of Music. On the outbreak of World War II he emigrated to the US, where he became a successful composer of film scores for Hollywood. He also wrote a number of operas in which the characterization and orchestration are worthy of note, and orchestral pieces in a style that owed something to Reger and Richard Strauss, including the popular Hungarian Caprice (1935) and concertos for such instruments as the cimbalom (1969) and accordion (1971).

Although his operas are said to be strongly characterized and skillfully orchestrated, his compositional style remained within the late romantic language of Richard Strauss and Max Reger (he claimed to occupy a position "exactly between La Traviata and Lulu)".


Autograph letter signed "Eugene Zador" to "Tyler"  [For sale by J&J Lubrano, Music Antiquarians]

2 pp. Large quarto. Dated [Los Angeles,] May 6, [19]60. In blue ink on personal stationery with Zador's California addresses printed and handstamped at head. With autograph corrections to printed address.

Concerning the Suite for Brass Instruments (1960-61), which Zador hopes his correspondent, a brass player, will premiere at a music festival in Colorado. He is sending a piano recording of his "experimental" piece later than anticipated because his wife has just had a "severe operation."

"... I am enclosing a record to save you some time. You will find out that I am not a pianist, in fact I never learned the piano, and sometimes I had to turn the pages too. Because it is an experimental work (though [!]absolut tonal), I feel that the world premiere should take place at a music festival... by writing the score myself, I saved about $150 – which I gladly would turn over to you to pay the other 6 brass players (but of course very confidentially)... I was never performed in a music festival in America and besides, I am looking for a good excuse to see Colorado... "

Creased at central fold; blank left margin of verso lightly browned, with small paper clip stain not affecting text.

The Suite for Brass Instruments (for four trumpets, four horns, three trombones, one tuba) comprises three movements, and "is intended as a real virtuoso display for brass performers." It is dedicated to Gustav Koslik (1902-1989), a noted Austrian conductor. Since its publication in 1961, it has appeared on many American concert programs, and was professionally recorded for the first time in 1967.

LH:   We were together in Vienna when he was moving into the symphony field.  Ormandy and Reiner liked to conduct his Variations on a Hungarian Theme.  Do you know that I recorded and performed his Christopher Columbus?

BD:   I have that recording, yes.  [An autographed copy is shown below]

LH:   That was commissioned by the Ford Foundation because of my bad tongue!  They asked me if I would do something for the bicentenary, and I said,
“Let’s look for something about Christopher Columbus.  They said, No, no, no!  We want something that involves our American history.  So, I said, You wouldn’t be here, sir, whoever you are, without Christopher Columbus.  [Both laugh]  They gave in immediately and approved.

halasz BD:   Is it a strong work?

LH:   Like when we talked about Berg, it was a strong work because I succeeded in finding the narrative to it, which was read by Barrymore.  He was dead when I got it.  Barrymore was studying composition with Zador.  Barrymore wrote a symphony!

BD:   [Surprised]  Has it ever been performed?

LH:   Oh, yes.  [Returning to the discussion of Christopher Columbus]  I performed it here, but I didn’t like the performance.  So before the recording, I found out from Zador that the inspiration for it was the interlude speeches.  So I contacted the family and told them that it seemed there was a tape in existence, and asked them to help me find it.  They looked and eventually found it.  Then I asked how much they want for royalty if I included it in the recording, and they said,
We don’t want money.  You just use it.  So, it’s in the piece.  But we speak about Berg and we speak about Zador, and the original Christopher Columbus was written about the same time as Lulu.  Then it was revised for my performance and the record.  Just play ten bars of one and ten bars of the other, and I don’t have to explain anything more.

BD:   Of course.

LH:   [Changing the topic to new music in general]  Let me tell you about a big movement which is known in the whole world.  I ask you, why not a melody?  The Sprechgesang killed the melody, because they were speaking.  Then the voices were underneath the symphony orchestra, and they made sure that you won’t hear the speeches anyhow.  But today, the latest operatic compositions go back to the melody.

BD:   Is this a good thing?

LH:   [Laughs]  For the singers, certainly!  The evolution is now beginning to be with synthesizers.  Bartók was very interested in it, and now it is here in America.  They built them for the Brussels exhibition, the computerized music machine, which is about like the Moog synthesizer in a very crude form.  Ansermet was a very big enemy of this, but there were some friends for it, and I think that is the future.

BD:   [Somewhat shocked]  The future of music is in electronics???

LH:   Yes.  The only problem is that instead of having a genius who composes for the electronic music, they play Bach, and put it through the synthesizer.

BD:   [Gently protesting]  But there are quite a number of electronic compositions
music originally written for the electronics beginning in the 1950s with people like Otto Luening and Vladimir Ussachevsky.

LH:   I know.  I agree with you.  The first one was Edgard Varèse.  We were very close friends.  In fact, Bartók, Varèse and I were sitting in his apartment here, glowing with all the synthesizers, and trying to synthesize the human voice.  We did not succeed.  Instruments, yes, but voice, no.  One night, between one and six in the morning, Varèse and Bartók synthesized Beethoven’s Third Symphony.  Then I said to them,
Why don’t we take a simple song, whatever you want, and let’s synthesize the voice.  They said, We cannot do it.

BD:   They were not able to come up with it?

LH:   No, and nobody has been able to yet.  You can really reproduce almost any instrument.  I was in Budapest recently where they experimented with this.  They played horn solos, and I asked,
Who is the player?” and they said, “Nobody.  But the human voice they can’t do.  They may in the future, but the only thing is there has to be a Beethoven born to write the music for it.

BD:   A Beethoven of the synthesizer???

LH:   Yes, or a Strauss, or a Berg.

BD:   So, you are talking about the need for someone to understand the synthesizer...

LH:   ...and be at the same time a genius.  A super genius.  Everything is ‘super’ today, as you know.


:   Let me ask the big philosophical question.  What do you feel is the purpose of music in society?

LH:   Why don’t we go back.  Originally, it was religious, even if it was really primitive.  Today’s music would never have been here if Pope Gregory wouldn’t have been in this world, and had the Gregorian Chant, and the other music writing.  Then, the next thing was for the very rich and the very famous.  They had these salons in their castles for the invited audiences, and that’s how Mozart and this period got started.  Then there were some of the emperors who felt the need to give a little bit to the middle class.  Today, we give it to the people so it’s fully democratized.  I don’t condemn people who like jazz, neither do I condemn the Rock’n’Roll.  I condemn the volume-level at which they played, but not the content!  [Much laughter]  Music has a very important role.  The only thing is that it has many facets from the many population groups.  Think, for example, of the Can-Can.  Don’t you think Rock’n’Roll is today’s Can-Can?

BD:   [Dodging the question]  Perhaps...  What is next?  Gaze into your crystal ball.

LH:   I
ll tell you, but you will hate me for saying this...  We are subverting composers in America.  They give money, commissioning composers whose works die from the very moment they put it on paper.  They don’t let things develop by themselves.  It’s big industry just get a commission.  Yesterday, I went through some music with Tullio, and I saw a work by Pasatieri.  He had sent me one of his operas.  What’s happened to him???  Can you tell me?

BD:   He’s written a number of operas...

LH:   Yes, but what’s happened to them?

BD:   They’ve not been done very often.

LH:   They’ve been done.  They all get a premiere, good write-ups, interesting text, and what’s happening to them?  [Long silence]  I am trying my best to revive the The Dybbuk by Tamkin, and I still couldn’t get together all the money.

The Dybbuk is an opera in three acts by composer David Tamkin. The work uses an English libretto by Alex Tamkin, the composer's brother, which is based on S. Ansky’s Yiddish play of the same name. Composed in 1933, the work was not premiered until October 4, 1951 when it was mounted by the New York City Opera through the efforts of Laszlo Halasz. Prior to the premiere, Tamkin extracted excerpts from the work and made a concert version in eight movements for tenor and orchestra. This was given in Portland, Oregon (where Alex Tamkin lived) in 1949, with Jan Peerce, conducted by Werner Janssen, and in New York City. The opera was originally supposed to premiere at the New York City Opera in 1950 but was postponed for financial reasons. The opera was also performed at the Jewish Community Center in Seattle in 1963.

According to The New York City Opera - An American Adventure by Martin L. Sokol, the world premiere performance was recorded by the Voice of America for overseas broadcast only. Years later, a group known as the Dybbuk Restoration Committee (or the Dybbuk Sponsoring Committee) negotiated with the unions involved and obtained permission to bring the performance out on records. It was not sold, but was given as a premium to supporters of the committee. The album consists of two records, and bears the number Phoenix IX. Later, they secured domestic broadcast clearance, and it was finally aired in the U.S. about twenty-five years after it took place.


Besides this setting of the play, there is a ballet by Max Ettinger (1947), and other operas including one by Shulamit Ran, (Between Two Worlds) premiered in Chicago in 1997.

There is the good old Stokowski saying, ‘water has to find its level’.  People should write because they are dedicated.  You asked me why do they write?  Dedication.  Why do they write today?  Because it’s a commission, and then the people try every trick in the book to get out of performing it, because it costs too much money.

BD:   Is there any hope for opera?

LH:   In its present form, no!  And I’m an opera man.  When you go to the Met, you can buy a ticket for every performance on the day of the performance.

BD:   That’s very sad.

LH:   Now there are more cancellations of singers.  Eva Marton, whom I discovered, and I conducted her first Frau Ohne Schatten in Newark, just canceled all her performances of Macbeth because she says the conductor is not the one she originally wanted to do it with.


BD:   [Returning to a previous subject]  You made the recording of the Zador work, and there are couple of old recordings with the City Opera.  Are there any other recordings that you have made?

LH:   Oh, yes, in South America.  I commissioned The Emperor Jones of Villa Lobos.  Then I recorded it in Rio [shown above].  I don’t know if I should say it, but I recorded for Remington four or five records, but with a false name because Petrillo, at that time, didn’t let us record.  [They laugh]  He would tell us he would cancel our membership in the union.  
We were not permitted to make records in Europe, but it was the Berlin Philharmonic and the RIAS orchestra.  I changed my name...

BD:   What name did you use?

James Caesar Petrillo and (March 16, 1892 – October 23, 1984) was the leader of the American Federation of Musicians, a trade union of professional musicians in the United States and Canada.

Petrillo was born in Chicago, Illinois. Though, in his youth, he played the trumpet, he finally made a career out of organizing musicians into the union starting in 1919.

Petrillo became president of the Chicago Local 10 of the musician's union in 1922, and was president of the American Federation of Musicians from 1940 to 1958. The round-faced, bespectacled man dominated the union with absolute authority. His most famous actions were banning all commercial recordings by union members from 1942–1944 and again in 1948 to pressure record companies to give better royalty deals to musicians.

Petrillo joined the orchestra at WBBM in Chicago, Illinois, in 1937. Before that, he had played trombone in the orchestras of Paul Whiteman and Vincent Lopez, among others. For a decade, he had been assistant conductor and orchestra member at three Chicago theaters. In 1940, he became the conductor of the WBBM orchestra. In 1943, he was promoted to music director at WBBM, "supervising all live and recorded music on the station."


RIAS (German: Rundfunk im amerikanischen Sektor; English: Radio in the American Sector) was a radio and television station in the American Sector of Berlin during the Cold War. It was founded by the US occupational authorities after World War II in 1946 to provide the German population in and around Berlin with news and political reporting.

By the end of 1945 the US military administration in Allied-occupied Berlin decided to establish its own broadcasting system, after the Soviets had refused to provide air time on the Berliner Rundfunk radio station. Supervised by the US Information Control Division, broadcasting commenced on 7 February 1946. For the first months the program could be distributed via telephone line only (as DIAS – Drahtfunk im amerikanischen Sektor), until a first medium wave transmitter was installed in September.

By its creative and innovative programming, the station quickly gained much popularity. Its importance was magnified during the Berlin Blockade in 1948/49, when it carried the message of Allied determination to resist Soviet intimidation. At the same time, the RIAS Symphony Orchestra under chief conductor Ferenc Fricsay (still existing as the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin) and a professional chamber choir, the Rundfunkchor des RIAS (present-day RIAS Kammerchor) were also established by the US forces. Together with the RIAS Dance Orchestra and the RIAS Big Band, they largely contributed to the station's entertainment program under the editorship of the former Berliner Rundfunk employee Hans Rosenthal.

After the Berlin blockade, RIAS (by now carried on terrestrial medium wave and later FM transmitters) evolved into a surrogate home service for East Germans, as it broadcast news, commentary, and cultural programs that were unavailable in the controlled media of the German Democratic Republic. By its own account "a free voice of the free world", the station aired the chime of the Freedom Bell each Sunday at noon, followed by an excerpt from the text of the "Declaration of Freedom". Listening to it in Soviet-controlled East Germany was discouraged. After the workers' riots in East Germany in 1953, which were the end result of the government's raising of food prices and factory production quotas, the Communist government blamed the incident on RIAS and the CIA.

Eventually RIAS was jointly funded and managed by the United States and West Germany. Under the supervision of the United States Information Agency from 1965, the station was staffed almost entirely with German employees, who worked under a small American management team, and broadcast programs for specific groups in East Germany, such as youths, women, farmers, even border guards. RIAS had a huge audience in East Germany and was the most popular foreign radio service. This audience began to shrink only when West German television became widely available to viewers in East Germany.


LH:   I reversed my name.  Instead of Halasz, I said Zsalah!  But up to this day, I didn’t have to say anything to the Union, but now I don’t care anymore.  I fight anybody if I have to!  [Much laughter]  The world is big!  By the way, when La Guardia engaged me to be director of the City Opera [see photo above], he gave me one week with a three-year option.  After the one week, he called me and he spoke in Hungarian!  He said,
Laszlo, you did a beautiful job, and there is never a problem with your music making.  You are very, very good.  You stayed on budget but, will you have troubles.  So I said, Mister Mayor, you are an experienced man.  Will you be kind enough to tell me how to avoid them?  He said, You’re barking up the wrong tree.  I have the same problem.”  [Both laugh]

BD:   I assume you are still very busy?

LH:   Yes.  Can you tell me how to turn twenty-four hours into thirty-six?  [Both laugh]

BD:   We all need thirty-six hours a day, and eight days in every week!

LH:   I would like to have that, yes!  [More laughter]  Let’s shake hands on it.

BD:   I want to wish you lots of luck, and continued success with everything that you do.

LH:   Thank you.  It was good to speak with you.


V-Disc ("V" for Victory) was a record label that was formed in 1943 to provide records for U.S. military personnel. The label was a morale-boosting initiative involving the production of recordings during World War II by arrangement between the U.S. government and record companies. Many popular singers, big bands, and orchestras recorded V-discs. The name referred to both the label and the discs, which were 12-inch vinyl 78s produced from October 1943 to May 1949.

The V-Disc project began in June 1941, six months before the United States' involvement in World War II, when Captain Howard Bronson was assigned to the Army's Recreation and Welfare Section as a musical advisor. Bronson suggested the troops might appreciate a series of records featuring military band music, inspirational records that could motivate soldiers and improve morale. By 1942, the Armed Forces Radio Service (AFRS) sent 16-inch, 33-rpm vinyl transcription discs to the troops from concerts, recitals, radio broadcasts, film soundtracks, special recording sessions, and previously issued commercial records.

Under the leadership of James Caesar Petrillo, the American Federation of Musicians (AFM) was involved in the 1942–44 musicians' strike in which there was a recording ban on four companies. On October 27, 1943 George Robert Vincent convinced Petrillo to allow the union's musicians to make records for the military as long as the discs were not sold and the masters were disposed of. Musicians who had contracts with different record labels were now able to record together for this nonprofit enterprise. The program started for the Army, but soon music was provided for the Navy and Marines.

The V-Discs were a hit. Soldiers who were tired of hearing the same old records were treated to new and special releases from the top musical performers of the day. The selection included big band hits, some swing music, classical performances from symphony orchestras, jazz, and military marches. Radio networks sent airchecks and live feeds to V-Disc headquarters in New York. Movie studios sent rehearsal feeds from the latest Hollywood motion pictures to V-Disc. Musicians gathered at V-Disc recording sessions in New York City and Los Angeles. V-Discs were pressed by labels such as RCA Victor and Columbia.

The V-Disc program ended in 1949. Audio masters and stampers were destroyed. Leftover V-Discs at bases and on ships were discarded. On some occasions, the FBI and the Provost Marshal's Office confiscated and destroyed V-Discs that servicemen had smuggled home. An employee at a Los Angeles record company served a prison sentence for the illegal possession of over 2500 V-Discs.

The Library of Congress has a complete set of V-Discs, and the National Archives did save some of the metal stampers.

© 1987 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded on the telephone on November 28, 1987.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB in 1990, and 1995.  This transcription was made early in 2020, 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.

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.