Director  Sir  Peter  Hall

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


It is a safe bet that many people around the world worship both Shakespeare and Mozart.  It is also a safe bet that very few are able to bring both of those masters successfully to the stage.

My guest this time is one who has done just that, director Sir Peter Hall.  Here is a very brief summary of some of his achievements . . .

Peter Reginald Frederick Hall was born in 1930, and staged his first professional play in 1953 at the Theatre Royal, Windsor.  From 1954 to 1955, he was at the Oxford Playhouse where he directed several notable young actors, and in August 1955, he directed the English-language premiere of Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett at the Arts Theatre, London.  The huge success of Godot transformed his career overnight.  He was then hired to direct the stage play of Gigi, starring his future wife, French film actress and dancer, Leslie Caron.

From 1956–1959 he ran the Arts Theatre, and directed several plays including the English-language premiere of The Waltz of the Toreadors by the French dramatist Jean Anouilh.  He was at Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford-on-Avon for the 1957 to 1959 seasons.  There his productions included Cymbeline with Peggy Ashcroft, Coriolanus with Laurence Olivier and Edith Evans, and A Midsummer Night's Dream with Charles Laughton.

Hall founded the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1960, and served as its artistic director from that time until 1968.  He was director of the National Theatre from 1973 to 1988 and was also a member of the Arts Council of Great Britain, resigning from the latter role in protest over cuts in public funding.  After leaving the National Theatre Hall founded his own company directing a series of productions at the Old Vic.

From 1970 onwards, he directed a number of operas for Glyndebourne Festival Opera, including Francesco Cavalli's L'Ormindo, Benjamin Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream and Albert Herring, and the Mozart/Da Ponte operas The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni and Così Fan Tutte.  He also directed operas at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, before taking up the directorship of the National Theatre.  In 1983 he presented a new production of Wagner's Ring Cycle at Bayreuth, with Sir Georg Solti conducting.  This production was in honor of the 100th anniversary of Wagner's death.

Hall was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 1963 and in 1977 was knighted for his services to the theater.  In 1999, he was presented with a Laurence Olivier Award.  He was appointed Chancellor of Kingston University in 2000 and was awarded an Honorary Degree (Doctor of Letters) from the University of Bath in 2006.

Hall has married four times. His first wife was French actress Leslie Caron (1956-1965), followed by Jacqueline Taylor (1965-1981), opera soprano Maria Ewing (1982-1990), and present wife Nicki Frei (1990-  ).


He has six children, all of whom work in the entertainment industry. Producer Christopher Hall and actress Jenny Wilhide (with first wife Caron); director Edward Hall and theatre designer Lucy Hall (with second wife Taylor); actress Rebecca Hall (with third wife Ewing); and actress Emma Hall (with present wife Frei).

Hall has worked with every one of his six children at one time or another, directing all three actress daughters, his daughter Lucy designed one of his three productions of Hamlet starring Stephen Dillane; his son, Christopher, produced the television drama The Final Passage; and his son, Edward, was co-director with his father on the stage epic Tantalus. One of his sons-in-law, Glenn Wilhide, was also the producer of The Camomile Lawn which Hall directed for television in 1992.

Incidentally, Sir Peter Hall is not to be confused with Peter J. Hall (1926-2010), a costume designer who spent most of his career with the Dallas Opera, though his work has also been featured elsewhere including Covent Garden, La Scala, the Vienna State Opera, the Met in New York, and at Lyric Opera of Chicago.

Sir Peter first came to Lyric Opera of Chicago in the fall of 1987 to stage his production The Marriage of Figaro.  It was between rehearsals that I had the chance to meet with him and discuss various topics.  He mentions the names of a few singers and conductors, and those which are links refer to my interviews elsewhere on this website. 

Here is that conversation . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:    You are director in the theater and of film and of the opera.  Aside from the very obvious, what are the major differences?

Peter Hall:    The difference between directing plays and directing operas is that in opera you’re given the end result, which is the music.  That’s the atmosphere.  It’s the tempo, it’s the timing, it’s the meaning.  You have to work back from the music.  We’d say if that’s the end result, what do the people have to feel, and how have they got to be to make this the end result?  In a play, you have the text and the text only, and by considering the style of that text, the shape of that text, the nature of the characters and how they’re interacting with each other, you can make a fast scene or a slow scene by altering the timing of the atmosphere.  You can do almost anything.  For instance, a scene of Chekov you can see being played very fast or very slow.  The actual meaning may be the same, or very nearly the same.

BD:    Do you find that having this music imposed on you creates any real restrictions?  Is it confining you as a director?

PH:    No, not at all.  If I may say so, at the heart of your question is the idea that the director is some kind of creative maker or improviser.  I think a director is primarily an interpreter of another man’s form, another man’s vision, meaning the man who wrote it or the composer.  That’s not so in film.  In film you’re writing with the celluloid in a way.  In that sense, film making could be held to be more directly creative than being a director in either of the other two media.  But the fascination to me of theater is how speedier and how flexible it is.  If you give me half a dozen actors in a room, I can get you something in a day.  If you give me half a dozen actors in a film studio or on location, I can give you next to nothing in a day
— just a couple of minutes of film.  [Laughs]  It’s all to do with working with people, whatever media you’re concerned with.  A director’s job is stimulating the talents of people, and then editing them in order to make an overall picture.

BD:    I assume you are swamped with offers.  How do you divide your time then amongst these three media?

PH:    Well, you left out one aspect in my life, which is running things. 

BD:    Administration?

hallPH:    Yes.  I founded the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1960, and ran that for ten years.  Then I went to the National Theatre, and opened the new theaters on the Southbank in 1973.  I’m leaving the National Theatre next year after fifteen years whenever my contract is mercifully up!  [Laughs]  Then I shall be more of a freelancer than I suppose I’ve ever been in my life.  I’ve always done quite a lot of outside work, although running these large organizations is the only way of actually defending your creative self.  It’s a kind of holiday for me to come here and have nothing to do except The Marriage of Figaro.

BD:    Does that make for a better Figaro?

PH:    No, I don’t think it does actually.  I wish it was as simple as that.  One thing feeds off another, but it’s certainly a refreshment to concentrate and just be one thing.  In England I do five or six hours of administrative work, and five or six hours of rehearsal in a day
at least. 

BD:    Does it make you at all schizophrenic?

PH:    Well, I’ve always done it and since I’ve always done it, I must assume I like it!  [Both laugh] 

BD:    You’re also Artistic Director at Glyndebourne, so tell me the differences between directing Mozart in that very small, intimate theatre, and this large barn that we have here in Chicago.

PH:    Glyndebourne is 850 seats, which is actually large for Mozart, if you think of what Mozart intended and the buildings Mozart wrote for.  One of the ‘grotesqueries’ of modern opera is that we do have to do our Mozart.  Even in the intimate houses they’re much too big.  Mozart intended his pieces to be for spaces that held 500 or 600 people, where you actually see the flicker of an eyelash and you see what people were thinking.  Glyndebourne is a blessèd place for two reasons.  One, you have an enormous amount of rehearsal time, always on the set from Day One.  That’s been the tradition since 1934 when it was founded by Carl Ebert and Fritz Busch.  So Day One you start on the set, and you have a full month’s rehearsal on the set.  And the other blessing is the intimacy of the place.  In the ensembles and the arias, the characters tell the truth to the audience as if they’re talking to themselves, where they actually share their emotions absolutely nakedly.  So Susanna is no longer a maid; she’s a woman with an acute sense of humor and an acute sense of reality.  The Count is no longer a count; he’s a man who suspects that he’s been made a fool of, suspects he’s being cuckolded, suspects he’s been betrayed sexually.  Then they put the mask back on again and behave as their characters to each other.  The whole basis of Mozart and Da Ponte’s drama lies in that tension between the mask and the behavior that they have to each present to other in the action. 

BD:    So it’s this inner conflict then?

PH:    Yes.  It’s a wonderful form of drama.  In our naturalistic theater, we are taught that talking to yourself is artificial.  When Hamlet says, ‘To Be or Not to Be’, it is a tiny bit of an embarrassment if you say it to yourself.  But it’s nice if you can put it on the screen and have the voice over with your lips not moving.  In fact in the Globe Theatre, Hamlet would have come to the front of the stage and said to the audience,
To be or not to be, that is the question.  What do you think?  He is sharing it!  Eighteenth Century Opera is a sharing, an emotional sharing, and Mozart is a sharing in aria and in ensemble.  The magic of Figaro is where you get five or six characters on the stage at once in an ensemble all saying the same text, but one saying it angrily, one saying it humorously, one saying it with great anguish, and they’re all talking to the audience as if only they, and they alone, were talking to the audience.  The audience can cut by looking at one character and then another so they see this extraordinary complex moment.  They see how five or six people are feeling in one minute, all at once.  You can’t do that on film and you can’t do that in the theater.  You can only do that in opera.  You can only do that in Mozart.  Of course you can do it very easily in a small theater and with some difficulty in a large theater, though so far I’m not too worried about that here.  We’ve built the set a little bit over the orchestra pit and brought it well forward, so I think there will be intimacy.  That’s not to say that the house is not too big for Mozart, but then all American opera houses are too big for Mozart without exception.  Most American opera houses are too big for opera in my view.  It’s the economics of the situation.  You get 3000 or 4000-seat places, you make the theaters bigger and bigger, but you don’t make the singers bigger.  You can’t.

BD:    You’re talking about involving the audience.  What expectations do you have of the audience that comes to see something that you have directed?

PH:    I don’t know.  It sounds terribly conceited, but I don’t do it for the audience.  I don’t do it for the money and I don’t do it for success or whatever that is.  I don’t do it for good reviews, whatever they are, as you sometimes get them and you sometimes don’t.  It’s a bit like the weather
— you don’t seem to have very much control over fashion and the give and take things.  I do it for those few days or hours of wonderful rehearsal you get in each project, when you actually feel in touch with what the man was creating, and all of youall the performers and you yourself, the directorbecome a little bit better than you thought you could be.  That’s the magic of the job and that’s why I do it.  I then come to the performance.  If I’ve been right in my responses I give the audience something they like, and if I’ve been wrong, I give them something they don’t like.  But there is nothing I can do about that at all.  I can only be honest to myself and hope that one in three things that I do are successful; then I’ll keep working!  But you cannot tailor your responses according to what you think the audience will like.  The audience won’t like what you think they will like because that’s last year’s likes.  They expect you to lead them not follow them. 

BD:    Then what can the audience expect of you, the director?

PH:    [Laughs]  Oh, that’s a very hard question.  They have a right to expect that I shall do, to the best of my ability, what I think the composer and the librettist wrote; that I won’t impose on it either subjective fantasies, which come out of my own psyche, or political theories, which come out of my own brain.  I don’t think that is a director’s job, and it’s very easy to do that.  It’s terribly, terribly easy to set it all in the Weimar Republic, and have bicycles...  It’s much harder to try and get at what the man meant.  You can’t do antiquarian productions because if we could reproduce an original production of Mozart, it wouldn’t mean to us what it meant to them.  All the ground rules have changed.  But you have to try and find out what the man meant, and then convey it in a modern language which doesn’t betray it, to the best of your ability.  It’s very hard.  For instance, the fourth act of Figaro is a miraculous series of mistaken identities and disguises.  In this the piece is revolutionary, and it’s at the heart of Da Ponte and Mozart’s drama that a man with his clothes off is the same in bed, whether he’s a count or a valet.  That is revolutionary, and all these mistaken identities
the Countess disguised as the Maid and the Maid disguised as the Countess, etc., etc.are all part of that.  But it’s so dark that no one can tell who anybody is.  Now in Mozart’s original candle-lit theatre, all the candles would have been on.  Figaro comes out and says how very dark it is, and at that moment the audience says yes, right, fine, it’s dark.  That’s what we’re meant to believe and it is right we believe that.  They can then go on seeing who everybody is, but they’re playing the game of make-believe that it’s dark.  Now in our theater we can create darkness, so we create darkness and you can’t see anybody!  So half of the point of the comedy has gone.  The right of the ‘Lord of the Manor’ to deflower each virgin on the night of her marriage before handing her over to her husbandwhich is a feudal custom of the utmost barbarityactually wasn’t much practiced by the eighteenth century, but that’s the main spring of The Marriage of Figaro.  Will the Count call in his rights or won’t he?  It is the old world challenged by the new.

BD:    Does it stem from a power play that helps to keep the servants in their place later on?

PH:    I suppose it was so in the first place.  The old tribal idea was that the leader of the tribe had the right to every woman, which I suppose you can still see in some animals, some herds.  But The Marriage of Figaro and Don Giovanni and Così Fan Tutte are all revolutionary pieces
— with a small ‘r’in that they are all about the fact that men are men, and whatever their social standing, they all have the capacity to blinded by lust and sex.  But I don’t think that you can take the revolutionary aspect further than that.  The Beaumarchais playThe Marriage of Figaro, which the opera is based onis socially a more revolutionary piece than the opera.  They had to be careful with the opera because they didn’t want to offend the Emperor, Joseph II, in Vienna.  But I also think Mozart and Da Ponte are too ironic.  They mock dogma so easily; they send everything up.  I can’t see them ever accepting a politicalism of any kind, and I don’t find that absurd.

BD:    You have staged this work before.  Did you come to this new production and rethink it completely?

PH:    I first did this The Marriage of Figaro at Glyndebourne in 1973 with a very young Frederica von Stade making her first appearance as Cherubino, and with Kiri te Kanawa making her first appearance as the Countess, and Ileana Cotrubas as Susanna.  The production was then in the repertory for eleven years with a succession of different people in it, and I reworked it year after year after year.  I’ve done it in another form in Geneva, and actually every single person in this cast
with the exception of Antonio the Gardenerhas been in my production either at Glyndebourne or in Geneva at some point in the last fourteen years.  But they’ve never done it all together!  [Full cast listings for this and subsequent years are listed at the bottom of this webpage.]

BD:    Does that make it easier for you?

PH:    It makes it much easier.  It was like a home-coming.  The more you know about these masterpieces, the better work’s going to be.  The sets are different, though they are certainly are based on previous experience of John Bury, the designer.  We can’t forget he’s designed before; can’t forget that he’s made certain solutions before, and if they worked you develop them and keep them.  But it looks different, and we all know more about it.  There must be hundreds of years of knowledge of The Marriage of Figaro rolling around our stage.  It doesn’t mean it’s going to be a great production, but it’s been an enjoyable one because of that. 

The new Production in Chicago apparently caught the attention of the press in New York City.  Here is a brief portion of a review . . . . .


By DONAL HENAHAN, Special to The New York Times
Published: December 11, 1987

Metropolitan Opera audiences who know Peter Hall only as the director of two famously lackluster productions, ''Macbeth'' and ''Carmen,'' must have a seriously distorted view of his talents. As often happens, the right man was hired for the wrong jobs. The prolific Englishman's work is more justly represented by his stagings of Mozart operas, particularly for the Glyndebourne Festival, of which he has been artistic director since 1984. In any event, the ''Marriage of Figaro'' that Mr. Hall has produced for his debut season with Lyric Opera of Chicago demonstrates that he is a Mozart man to the bone, one who knows the difference between an ensemble and a collection of singers.   (...)

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Let me ask a big philosophical question.  In opera, where’s the balance between the artistic achievement and the entertainment value?

PH:    [Thinks for a moment]  Opera is a very perverted art form in many respects.  When it’s right
which is almost neverwhich is when the musical standard is of the highest and fuses incandescently with the dramatic meaning and the acting and the look of it, it’s the greatest form of theater that can possibly be.  Usually I don’t find it has much drama; I don’t find it has much meaning; I don’t find it has much human relation because singers don’t look at each other and they don’t relate to each other.  Most opera is extremely conventional and extremely boring.  People go to it for the music, which is fine, but I prefer to listen to it at home or to hear it in concert performance, than to see a lot of improbable people in improbable costumes not acting!  I hate that!  So I go to opera all the time in hopes, but I’m always never fulfilled.  But then I want it be about the drama as well.  A lot of people don’t care, and still don’t care. 

BD:    You’re not expecting too much of it?

hallPH:    No, I don’t think I am.  When I read Mozart’s letters or Verdi’s letters or Wagner’s letters, that’s what they were expecting.  They were expecting theater!  Too much opera is not about theater, and it has no meaning.  But it’s always been like that and always will be. There are very few people who can sing and act at the right level as it’s a terrifyingly difficult thing to do.   There are very few great singer-actors.  There are very few conductors who actually have a dramatic sense, and there are very few directors who have any sense of music.

BD:    Do you have a sense of music?

PH:    Well, that’s for others to say, isn’t it?  It’s not for me to say.  I can point to my credentials that I was trained as a musician.  I was church organist and I can read a score, and I know what the problem of being a singer is to some extent, I suppose, with being married to one.  And I work from the music, not from the text.  But whether my productions are musical, it must be for others to judge.  I tell you this, though, my acid test operatic production is that I don’t care how good it is.  If it doesn’t look like the music, I can’t accept it.  That’s a subjective remark but for instance, I saw a production of Tosca recently which was set in Mussolini’s Rome in the 40s.  Well, it didn’t look like Puccini.  It was drab and grey and it had nothing to do with the sensuality and sexuality, not to say the perverted sexuality of that huge sensual score.

BD:    It looked like Shostakovich?

PH:    Yes!  That’s right, that’s right!  It has got to look like the music, therefore however much it glows, The Marriage of Figaro has to make comments about where it’s set.  It’s a French Spain where Italian-speaking people live in Vienna!  [Both laugh]  It’s a most extraordinary mélange anyway, but unless the sets have elegance and proportion, and the costumes belong to the extraordinary form of Mozart, I don’t think the piece can work.  A modern dress Figaro would be out of the question. 

BD:    What about a translated Figaro?

PH:    When I began in this world, I used to think that audiences must understand what was being said.  There was a strong case for translation.  But then I got terribly worried because if the sound that the singer is saying is different to the sound that the composer heard when he set the musical line, there’s a perversion going on.  Mozart in English I find absolutely an abomination.  I can’t stand it. 

BD:    Even though composers such as Mozart and Verdi did want their operas translated?

PH:    Yes, they did.  But I wonder if they would have wanted them now, when the opera industry goes all round the world, and there would have been such a huge audience.  I wonder whether Mozart really, really would have liked Figaro to go round the world in other languages.  I like surtitles, but they’ve got to be well done.  I get terribly irritated when I go to opera and hear a line that I know what it means, and I look up to check it out and I see something quite different
some adaption that’s going on, some creativity on the part of the translator.  But I think surtitles help enormously.

BD:    Are they the answer?

PH:    They may well be.  We did Salome in Los Angeles last year, and it was my first experience with surtitles and with the impact of the work
, which is highly verbal.  The text is Oscar Wilde’s play, but the fact that the audience could understand what was going on, second by second, was an enormous plus in the medium of the piece.  It was very, very good. 

BD:    Have you done any opera on film?

PH:    I’ve done a number of video films of Glyndebourne productions
Carmen, Albert Herring...

BD:    But those really are films of the stage production?

PH:    Not quite because we do them after the season is over.  They’re not transmissions with the audience present.

BD:    No, but it’s not something that you have created with outdoor sets?

PH:    No, no, it’s not.  It is specially shot and done over several days.

BD:    So you’re getting the best of a Glyndebourne performance?

PH:    Hopefully, that’s the idea, yes.

BD:    Can that ever be too perfect, and people will get to expect too much when they come to the live theatre?

PH:    No, I don’t think so.  Nothing’s too perfect for this!  I’ve never done a ‘nude’ film, as it were, of an opera, and I don’t actually think I want to really. 

BD:    Why?

PH:    I think opera’s an extremely artificial medium, like theater.  I don’t really think Shakespeare works on the screen.  I don’t think opera works on the screen.  If you start saying,
Here am I singing this aria over a plowed field! there’s some kind of disparity between the actuality of the plowed field and the fact that you’re singing.  People don’t sing arias to the plowed fields!  You can represent a plowed field on the stage, abstract it and design it so that it’s possible to sing in this plowed field, but it’s no longer a plowed field.  I find that all very difficult.  I’m going to do a film of Salome at the beginning of next year that in a studio, but even that will be based on the experience of doing it in the theater in Los Angeles and Covent Garden and here next season.  So even that’s not starting from scratch.

BD:    What about, as you said, having the singer do the aria without their lips moving.  Might that be a plus?

PH:    No it’s not.  I think that is an embarrassment.  I don’t think that’s what it is.  The aria is the character saying to the audience,
This is the way I feel; this is what my heart is feeling; this is what my brain is saying.  No holds barred.  I’m not hiding anything, and I’m certainly not lying.  Let me share this with you!  You can’t really do that any other way than to walk to the front of the stage and open your heart to the audience.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    How do you decide which operas you will undertake to direct, and which ones you will decline?

PH:    It’s gut instinct really.  It’s the same with plays.  If I study something and it’s of great interest, if I study it hard, then I can talk myself into most things.  But I learnt that that is a fatal thing to do.  You have to just listen to it.  I play through it if it’s not a modern score.  I’m not up to that, but I can play a Mozart score through and I would like to feel it in my fingers.   But as we speak now I know the operas I want to do, and I know the ones I don’t want to do.   I don’t want to do Rosenkavalier, for instance.  I quite enjoy seeing it, but I don’t want to do it because although I think the Marschallin is one of the greatest characters in opera, I don’t believe the love affair between Sophie and Octavian, and I don’t quite believe the length of the comedy.  I do find that Ochs goes on and on and on, and I don’t think I can deal with that.

BD:    [With a slight nudge]  What happens in the fourth act?

hallPH:    [With a big smile]  What happens in the fourth act indeed!  No, I think I shall always pass on that one.  I’ve been asked to do all sorts of things over the years which have not felt right at the moment that I was asked, or I didn’t feel the way of doing them.  I’ve never done any Puccini, and I should want to do Puccini very much.  I’m going to do Tosca in Los Angeles in a couple of years’ time, and I’m going to do The Trojans at Maggio Musicale in Florence, which is a lifelong ambition.  I’m going to do Michael Tippett’s new opera, New Year, in Houston, and I’m continuing my love affair with Mozart in that I’m doing Così Fan Tutte next year in Los Angeles, a new Figaro at Glyndebourne in three years’ time, and then a new Così Fan Tutte and a new Don Giovanni also at Glyndebourne because one could keep on doing these pieces.

BD:    Is that what makes them great, that you can keep doing them?

PH:    Well, I like that very much.  I’ve done twenty-six of the thirty-seven Shakespeare plays, and my only regret
now being in my mid-50sis that I can’t see I shall go round the world again, although I’d like to!  Conductors have the great benefit that it doesn’t take them three or four or five weeks to prepare a concert.  They get through a lot more and they repeat the repertory very much more than directors do.

BD:    But shouldn’t we be expanding the repertoire, or should we constantly be presenting these first line and maybe second line master works? 

PH:    In the theater I do new plays all the time.  I do one if not two new plays every year as a director.

BD:    So if opera is theater, why don’t we have two or three new operas every year?

PH:    Because there aren’t the people to write them.  There’s a crisis.  The problem with opera is that the repertory is about fifty works which we all see too much and do too much.  So people will get silly and do silly things with them in order to draw attention to themselves.  Critics even like that because it gives them something to write about!  [Both laugh]  They must get as bored as everyone else with the umpteenth Butterfly and the umpteenth Bohème.  The real reason for the crisis in modern music is because however powerful and interesting many things are in the modern musical scene, there is a schism between the general public and modern music which doesn’t seem to get that much less.  A hundred years ago, the new Verdi or the new Wagner was a matter of international populist concern among audiences.  I love Michael Tippett.  He’s a great, great composer, and I’ve worked with him before, and I’m really looking forward to doing his new piece, but I can’t pretend that his is mainstream in the way that Wagner was a hundred years ago.  The difficulty in modern music is also because of the inanity of much of the popular music, which has gotten more crass and stupid.  So instead of developing people’s tastes, it has done the reverse.

BD:    Does that spill over into the opera house with the public that comes having experienced all of this modern music perhaps?

PH:    To some extent, except that it’s not as simple as I am making it sound because there is a bigger public for opera now than probably any time in history.  There is a more educated opera-going public, and a more interested one seems to be growing, particularly in this country (America).  The interest in opera seems to be still on the up, but all the same, where are the new works?  Any healthy theater, whether it’s opera or theater or whatever, should be living on its new work, not on its old work. 

BD:    But if we were to present new works all the time, wouldn’t we find the masterworks among them?

PH:    Yes we might, but I don’t know where these pieces are.  I don’t believe that on either this side of the Atlantic or in Europe there are scores of masterpieces lying unperformed, or that there are composers who are not being encouraged.

BD:    Shouldn’t we be encouraging these composers by producing a new opera of each writer every couple of years so they could work on these things and develop their own talents?

PH:    We should, ideally, but economically it isn’t possible.  Since Britten, no one has really been adding to the central repertory, by which I mean the works that you simply have to have.  It’s a terrible problem.  We’re taking care of it at Glyndebourne as far as we can by commissioning new works and doing a new work each year.  I mean we’ve just done a Nigel Osborne work which Peter Sellers has directed, called The Electrification of the Soviet Union, which has just opened now.  And the Tippett opera is for Glyndebourne as well as for Houston.  It’s a co-production.  So one does one’s best, but you can’t do works that aren’t there, and they’re hard to find.

BD:    Are you optimistic about the future of opera?

PH:    Not frightfully.  Because of television and because of the show-biz quality of it and the need for sponsorship, opera needs huge money and huge houses.  It’s getting to be a great big circus, and there are very few singers who can draw the crowds.  They get paid too much, and they don’t rehearse, and they do their own thing!  I think serious work which is properly rehearsed that has meaning is getting more and more difficult.  It’s impossible at the Metropolitan Opera to do any serious work, but it is possible in Los Angeles because it’s like a festival.

BD:    Is it possible here in Chicago?

PH:    It certainly is in Chicago.  I liked it very much here.  This place has manners, unlike the Met.  At the Met you feel part of a factory.  You pop in one end and you’re spewed out the other, and nobody cares very much whether you’re there or not, or what you do or not.  There’s great care here.  They spend time, and there’s been a feeling that you’re doing it for some purpose.  But that’s quite rare, I have to say.  I don’t mind being rude about the Met, but I can’t be rude about other opera houses on this continent as I haven’t worked for them.  But I’ve enjoyed it here, and I enjoyed Los Angeles.  It has the kind of way, the concentration that ideally we get at Glyndebourne, where singers come for a month and there’s no messing about.  If they can’t go on for a month, we don’t have them
like if they want to fly off and do big concerts in the middle of it, and so on.  You really prepare it musically and you really ask the question ‘What is this for?’  This takes time.  If you don’t ask questions but just put it on and do a formula job, that’s easy.  That can be done, and sometimes it produces results.  But mostly it produces opera which is devoid of meaning, and I don’t really like it.  I don’t actually like working in it, I really don’t. 

BD:    There’s no point in wasting your time on such productions?

PH:    There’s no point.  You get six great
Stelluh Arteesteswho condescend to come in and rehearse for five days, if you’re lucky.  They really only want to do it the way they’ve done it before, and in the costumes they’ve worn before.  They don’t want to think about what it actually means, and then they want to get on to the next engagement as soon as possible.

BD:    To do the same thing again?

PH:    Yes!  And anything you achieve will disappear as they board their jet plane because the next cast that comes in for the next revival will not have met you, and they certainly won’t know what your production is.  My central point is that an opera production is not the set and series of moves.  An opera production is something far more intangible and complex.  It’s about human meaning, and it’s almost impossible to revive that unless you get a new group of singers and the same director and start all over again.  That’s why the routine revival is usually a fairly empty activity.  It may have a good performance; it may have somebody emerging; there may be a great conductor popped in and done it.  But this real ensemble, the real coming together of all the elements?  Forget it!

BD:    That’s why we’re very lucky here in Chicago.  It really is like a festival.

PH:    Yes, it is!

BD:    Every opera gets its rehearsal period and has the one cast for the entire run.

PH:    That’s right, and then that’s it!  It’s a short run and it’s done seriously.  That’s the only way.  Opera is basically a festival art.  It always has been, and once you start making it, as they do at the Met, seven or eight performances a week for months and months and months, with everything in the repertory, it’s just a huge machine.

BD:    Is opera an elitist art?

PH:    Yes!  I don’t necessarily think one should be ashamed of that, though.  I think all art is elitist in that it’s produced by one man, and nobody else could have produced it.  What he says to us is extremely particular, and he demands responses.  Maybe he demands intelligence and knowledge, which is not given to all of us, but it may encourage us to find out.  I think art should be elitist.  Now I do NOT mean by that that art and opera should appeal to a very tiny, moneyed audience, and that the young should not be encouraged to go to it, and that people should not be educated to try it.  Of course I don’t.  But I don’t think you’re ever going to make opera or theater popular in the way they were in the nineteenth century, in that they were a popular sport.  We’ve got the junk on television to do that.  That’s our modern junk.  After all, most Italian opera a hundred years ago was junk, just like (TV soap operas) Dallas or Dynasty!  It is a particular kind of junk!  I’m rather ‘for elitism’ in the arts, but you’ve got to make sure that it’s available to as many people as needed, and encourage them to need it.

BD:    So it’s really a mental and spiritual elitism?

PH:    I think art is the only thing we’ve got, because whatever the statistics say, I think the West is basically Godless and has no religion in terms as societies in the past have had a religion.  Some people have faith, some people do not, but I feel that our moral standards and our ethical standards and our aesthetic standards are in total chaos.  One of the reasons why the art of the past is so turned over and we
re obsessed by it is that the artist is the kind of priest of the present.  We look to art for some kind of spiritual salvation, so we look to Mozart for something we don’t get from other places.  We’re the only age who have feverishly turned over the past like that, hoping for answers.  Previous ages have always thought their own art was infinitely superior to anything of the past.  The Eighteenth century thought that Shakespeare was barbaric, and the Nineteenth century re-orchestrated Bach!  But we say we must have the original instruments playing the original score.  Let’s get back to the actuality.

BD:    Maybe they were right?

PH:    Yes, and I think we are, and maybe they can give us something.  Maybe they can give us a truth.

BD:    A truth that we haven’t found in ourselves?

PH:    One we haven’t found in ourselves.  I think art is terribly important in a Godless time.  That’s why we destroy it, underfund it and kick it around at our peril.

*     *     *     *     *

:    Let me ask you about Wagner.

PH:    I have a love-hate relationship with Wagner.  I did Tristan at Covent Garden with Solti in the early 70s, which was a terribly happy experience.  I got near to doing what I wanted and it was very successful.  I did the Ring at Bayreuth five or six years ago, again with Solti, and it was a fairly hideous experience, partly because our Siegfried blew up on us, and we lost him between the general rehearsal and the first night.  This was partly because there’s a lunacy at Bayreuth, which started in 1876, that you do all four Ring operas at once.  It nearly killed Wagner.

hallBD:    Didn’t he have his singers come in 1875 to rehearse, and then in 1876 to rehearse again before the performances?

PH:    Yes, but he put them all on at once.  Then he turned to Cosima and said,
I wish I were dead!  [Both laugh]  He had it better than succeeding generations for ever since, where it’s been the Bayreuth tradition to do all four at once.

BD:    Would that be a way to solve the problem, to have rehearsals one year with no performances, and then come back and produce it the following summer?

PH:    That is a way.  When Solti and I were asked to do it, he said we’ll do two one year and two the next, but Wolfgang said no!  So we agonized about it and then decided to risk it.  We made a mistake.  You cannot do it.  The history of every Ring is first year a disaster, second year some measure of acceptance, third year success, fourth year deification, fifth year mythology!  It’s the way it always goes, but I’m very glad that I did it.

BD:    Solti did not go back the following year.

PH:    No.  I did go back, and I went on working on it a bit.  It’s wonderful to have lived in it and got to know it.  I’d like to do it again but I cannot imagine where.  First of all, Wagner wrote longer operas than anybody else with longer parts.  Then because of the shortage of Wagnerian singers, and the popular misapprehension of the opera houses that all you have to do in Wagner is stand still and sing, they get about half the rehearsal time, whereas they should get twice as much!  So if ever I try the Ring again, I would want to do it one at a time with enough time to ask questions, as I normally do. 

BD:    Could it be a unified cycle with just one per year?

PH:    I think you could do two a year; two and then two.

BD:    Two and then two, and then four?

PH:    Yes, and then all together.  And of course we need a new generation of Wagner singers.  That’s the biggest problem.  I don’t know where the Siegfried is.  It’s extraordinary, but there’s never been a Siegfried again as there was when you look at it.  There’s always been that problem throughout history.

BD:    There’s Melchior and that’s it!

PH:    There’s Melchior, and then that’s it.  That’s right, that’s right.  I love Wagner but I don’t have the total adoration of Wagner that I have for Mozart or for Shakespeare.   I think Wagner is so full of contradictions and so full of perversities, but that’s part of his fascination.  I hope to do Meistersinger in the next few years.  There is a plan to do that, and that will be my lot with Wagner, I should think.  I’ve done my Wagner.

BD:    We need a new Ring here in Chicago.   Last time we had it one per year, so maybe we could twist your arm...

PH:    Oh, I wouldn’t need much twisting, believe you me!  When I got involved with it at Bayreuth, I actually remember Solti suddenly rang me.  I’ve worked with Solti about eleven times in all sorts of things
Schoenberg’s Moses and Aaron, Eugene Onegin, a whole variety of things.  He rang me up one day and said, I need to see you!  I’m coming round!  He came round to my office at the National, and I mean fifty minutes later he said, Now listen!  I remember my heart sunk.  I knew I didn’t want to do it because I knew it was impossible, and I knew I couldn’t say no because you can’t resist the temptation to tussle with that huge work.  And I know it would happen to me again if anybody ever actually asked me to do it.  I would think, Oh God, save me!  [Both laugh]  It’s a very interesting moment now in Bayreuth production because the whole post-war Wieland Wagner thing, which was wonderful in its day, is over.  I also think the German subjective school is over, which politicizes and fantasizes it.  I think that’s all over.  It’s an interesting moment now.  What is the Ring to be?  We made some statement, and we try to bring it back to something extremely romanticwhich I think basically it isand very much routed in naturewhich I think it isand the archetypes of nature.  But it would be good to try again

BD:    You’ll be back for Salome next year?

PH:    Yes, it’s the end of next year. 

BD:    Is there ever a case where something else should be done in the same bill as Salome?

PH:    No, I don’t think so.  If Salome works, it quite enough.  It’s too much I think.  It’s the most excessive, repulsive work.  If you really get it to happen, it stuns the audience.  They certainly don’t want anything else. 

BD:    I’ve always had this nightmare dream of doing a double-bill of Salome and Elektra.  [Both roar laughing] 

PH:    You’re an addict.  That’s real torture.  Elektra is a superb work, and that’s something I’d like to do one day.  I think those two Strauss works are really honest Strauss.  Later he gets more into confections.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Is directing fun?

hallPH:    Oh, enormous!  I’ve been doing it for thirty years.  I’ve never been anything else.  I started directing two weeks after I left university, and I had my first theater to run at 24!   So I’ve always run theaters, and I’ve always been a director.  But I like directing, and now even more than I started.  It’s an enormous fun.

BD:    What advice do you have for young directors coming along?

PH:    Go and direct!  It sounds silly, I know, but if you can get a room and three performers, put something on!  You have to make your opportunities.  You have to do them, to do it yourself.

BD:    Learning your craft?

PH:    You learn your craft by doing it.  It’s a bit like being an actor.  No one’s going to be made into an actor who doesn’t have an acting talent.  No one’s going to be made into a director who doesn’t have directing talent, but there are elements of the craft which you can and should learn, of course.  Probably the best way of learning that is to watch a few good people doing it, and then do it yourself. 

BD:    Do you have any advice for singers?

PH:    I’ve been a bit rude about singers when I reflect on this conversation.  They’re much better than they were twenty years ago.  They’re much more dramatically aware and dramatically adept, and thanks to telecasts, they’re more concerned about the way they look
— some of them, not enough, but more.  My main thing would be to convince them music is not enough in opera.  Music leads us to the meaning, and what they have to do is express the meaning.  There are still a lot who don’t, who are scared of doing that, or can’t do that, just by talent.  I know about fifteen great singer-actors, not more.  My definition of a singer-actor is somebody who modifies their performance because of what’s just been sung to him.  The boring great singer delivers his performance irrespective.  There’s no interplay, no interplay at all.  One of the joys of this Figaro is that there’s a large number of my fifteen in it!  That’s very good.  But, to be honest, I have a love-hate relationship with opera.  It is the most ridiculous thing when it’s badly done, and the director is still, to some degree in opera, on sufferance.  So he either behaves badly and sets the scene in some impossible period, and asks the singers to ride elephants and swing from a trapeze and do ridiculous things, or he’s a kind of not a very well paid butler who shows people onto the stage to make sure they don’t bump into each other.  The real getting together is with a conductor, which is the most important thing because collaboration with a conductor is quite rare.  My advice to opera directors would be to be careful which conductor you work with because they can totally screw you up.  They’ve got to make the music with you as you make the drama, just as you’ve got to make the drama as they make the music.  There are still too many opera houses when the director gives the moods and then about five days before the opening night, the conductor arrives and lifts his baton and says, Oh, can you restage that?  He can’t see my baton.  He doesn’t know what the scene’s about or why they’re doing it the way they’re doing it.  So the way he hears it, the way he makes the music will have no dramatic integrity at all with what’s been on the stage.

BD:    Do you have some other advice for a conductor?

PH:    If you’re going to do opera, you’ve got to go to rehearsals
which a lot of them don’t like doing.  But if you’re going to do opera seriously, you have to.  I’ve actually worked with very few conductors advisedly.  I’ve had wonderful collaborations with Solti, and with Bernard Haitink at Glyndebourne, with John Pritchard, with Raymond Leppard, Jeffrey Tate.  I’ve got a whole series of operas I’m doing with Andrew Davis, which is another Glyndebourne colleague.  But you’ve got to be careful because the way he makes the music can contradict all the work you’ve done, or vice versa.  It’s a collaboration.  It’s not a question of who’s boss.  Neither of you is boss.  You’ve got to make one together.

BD:    Thank you for being a director.

PH:    I’m very glad to have a job that I love.  When I see most people going off to earn their money, probably thinking of nothing except when is their next holiday, I feel very lucky to do something that I love doing.  I do three plays and three operas a year
six productions a year.  I go from one to the other, and I know what I’m going to be doing more or less for the next three years.  I’m preparing stuff, and I always have a lot of things on the back burner, simmering.  It’s lovely to go from one to the other like that.  I go from this to doing The Tempest, Cymbeline, and The Winter’s Tale at the National Theatre.

BD:    You ask the singers to be flexible.  Are you also flexible with the singers in the productions you are involved in?

PH:    I hope so.  One of the things that I find, particularly in Germany, is if the director says,
I don’t know, they think that he’s incompetent and that he shouldn’t be there.  You’re supposed to tell everybody what to do.  There’s another kind of singer I don’t like, and that is the one who says to you, What would you like? to which I always say, I don’t know what I want until I see you responding to this material with your personality.

BD:    You have to have something to mold?

PH:    Absolutely.  I don’t work out my productions beforehand.  I don’t give moves, but on the other hand I have to be in the state of high preparation.  It’s very difficult to describe.  The moves aren’t worked out beforehand....

BD:    ...but you know what you’re after.

PH:    Yes, but I don’t know how I’m going to get there.  You have to find that.  It’s a journey that we all go on together.  Maybe I’m the guide, maybe I’m the leader, but sometimes we end up in a place where we didn’t think we were going to be.  That happens.  Sometimes that’s good and sometimes it is not.  The worst thing about being a director is that you know on the first or second day of any project, whether it be a play or an opera, whether it’s going to be a total disaster.  You don’t know how good it’s going to be.  You know it’s going to be all right, but if there’s something really seriously wrong, you know it immediately.  Perhaps somebody’s miscast or somebody is not able to cut it, or something is completely wrong, etc.  You know it will be a disaster.

BD:    [Genuinely concerned]  So you have this black cloud over you the whole time?

PH:    Oh, you have to pretend that this is not so for the sake of everybody for three or four weeks.  That’s the worst thing about being a director.

BD:    [Being optimistic]  I hope that happens very infrequently!

PH:    Yes, but it does happen.  Then you have to think what can be done, if anything.  Usually nothing can be done, but it is infrequent.

BD:    Thank you so very much for sharing your ideas with me today.

PH:    Thank you.  Pleasure to talk to you.

Productions of Sir Peter Hall at Lyric Opera of Chicago

Marriage of Figaro

1987-88 with Ramey, Ewing, Lott, Raimondi, von Stade, Korn, Benelli, Kern; Davis, von Heidecke
1991-92 with Ramey, McLaughlin, Lott, Schimmel, von Stade, Loup, Benelli, Palmer, Futural (Barbarina); Davis, von Heidecke
1997-98 with Terfel, Futural (Susanna), Fleming, Hagegård, Graham, Travis, Davies, Cook; Mehta, Tallchief
2003-04 (Opening Night) with Tigges, Bayrakdarian, Swensen, Mattei, McNeese/Krull, Silvestrelli, Ziegler, Davies; Davis, von Heidecke
2009-10 with Ketelsen, De Neise, Schwanenwilms/Cabell/Majeski, Kwiechen, DiDonato, Silvestrelli, Curnow, Jameson; Davis/Vordoni, Tye

Salome 1988-89 with Ewing, Nimsgern, King, Fassbaender, Farina; Slatkin
Così fan tutte 1993-94 with Vaness/Magee, Ziegler, Lewis, Black, Rolandi, Desderi; Davis
Otello 2001-02 (Opening Night) with Heppner, Fleming/Esperian, Gallo, Kaufmann (Cassio), Davis
Midsummer Marriage 2005-06 with Watson, Kaiser/Ramsay, Rose, Tappan, Wyn-Rogers, Arwady, Langan; Davis

© 1987 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in a dressing room backstage at the Civic Opera House in Chicago on November 5, 1987.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB three days later, and again in 1990.  This transcription was made in 2014, 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.