Conductor Henry Holt
Two Conversations with Bruce Duffie
|Henry Holt (April 11, 1934 in Austria
- October 4, 1997 in Charlottesville) was an American conductor, opera
director and music educator.
Holt's family fled to the United States from Austria before the
Nazi occupation, and Holt grew up in Los Angeles. He was general
director of the Portland Opera from 1964-1966, and from 1966 to 1984 he
was music director of the Seattle Opera. He co-founded the Pacific
Northwest Ballet, and the Pacific Northwest Festival in Seattle. There
he performed Richard Wagner's Ring des Nibelungen for ten consecutive
years. In 1984, he returned to Los Angeles and became musical, later general
director of the Los Angeles Opera Theater, as well as artistic director
of the Baton Rouge Opera.
As guest conductor he joined the New York City Opera and the Chicago
Opera Theater. Among other things, he conducted the world premiere
of Carlisle Floyd's
opera Of Mice and Men. In 1996 he directed the Ring
at the Arizona Opera. As a music educator he devoted himself especially
to music education for children. He worked with the National Guild
of Community Schools of the Arts, the Kennedy Center Education Program,
and the E.D. Hirsch National Core Knowledge Movement. He also gave
opera workshops at the University of Southern California, Lewis and Clark
College, and Louisiana State University.
-- Names which are links in this box and below
refer to my interviews elsewhere on my website. BD
This webpage presents two interviews
I had with conductor Henry Holt. Having known of his fine work
with the Seattle Opera, including their famous Ring production,
I was glad for the opportunity to meet with him and chat about Wagner, and
other musical ideas.
We first met when he was in Chicago in March of 1980 to
promote the upcoming Ring, and then again exactly ten years
later when he returned to conduct The Lighthouse by Peter Maxwell Davies.
We begin with the first conversation, which was held in the studios
of WNIB, Classical 97 . . . . . . . . .
Bruce Duffie: This will be your sixth
set of Rings coming up this summer. How has it changed
over that period? [Cast shown below is from 1980 cycles. Photos
are from various years in which Holt conducted.]
Henry Holt: It’s developed
primarily from doing it so many times and with so many different
artists, and having done some of the operas separately in other companies,
but primarily from reworking it every year. I find myself starting
from scratch several months before rehearsals, and trying to rethink
every bar of music, or at least every phrase. I take out some
clean scores, sit down at the piano and start to play, and I try to be
open to discovering new things about the Ring.
BD: Do you find that the various singers
that come and go in your performances bring new ideas?
HH: Yes. One of the new things
is that some of the singers that have repeated with us over the years
— for example, our two ugly fellows, Malcolm
Rivers as Alberich and Paul Crook as Mime [shown in photo at right]
— created these roles for the first time with
English National Opera. They are the kinds of people that work
consistently on their craft and their roles all the time, so every year
they come with new input and with new depths. Then some relationships
are interesting, for example, Herbert Becker as Siegfried with Paul
Crook as Mime. They have developed fascinating business, and I
would say that their first act of Siegfried tops anything I have
ever seen in that opera [shown in photo near the bottom of this webpage.]
BD: Those two singers performed with
the English National Opera company, so they had learned the roles
in English. Had they ever performed them in German?
HH: No, the German was first with us.
BD: You then have an interesting situation
where some singers have sung it in German and are singing it German
and then English for you, while other singers have performed it only
in English, and are singing it in English and German for you.
HH: That’s right.
BD: How does the conception of the
work change from one cycle in German to a second cycle in English?
HH: First of all, I think of the four
works as one. I think of the Ring not as four operas,
but as one immense work, and of the two cycles as two different conceptions.
One cannot use the same tempi, or even the same dynamics,
or even the same accents arbitrarily from one to the other. It’s
a matter of finding the right thing for the totality of that production,
which means the singers, their vocalism, their ability with words,
their natural musical tendencies, their dramatic tendencies, make it
a very live thing. We’re talking about live performance, and
as a performer I am enough of a gambler that I will take chances and
run with something if it seems to be on a winning streak.
BD: Does it often work?
HH: Yes, it does! That’s what
performing is all about — you rehearse
and you prepare very carefully, and you have your conception, but
then in live performance you have a situation that you must be responsible
for. But going back to some new things and impetus, this year
we have a new Wotan and a new Fricka in the production. That will
change a great many things, and will really start to put a whole other
framework onto the production. Our new Wotan is Franz Ferdinand
Nentwig, who has done this role extensively. In America, he’s
only done one of the Wotans — Rheingold
at San Francisco — and was recently
at the Met doing Pizarro in Fidelio. I heard him in Hamburg,
and he’s a stunning artist. The Fricka is an American singer making
an American debut, Marilynn Hall. She’s been in Germany her entire
professional life, and is a very exciting woman. [These two singers
are shown below.]
BD: Do you find that the singers have
any problem negotiating the two different languages, or the two different
interpretations? Might they look down at you in the second cycle
for something they remember from the first cycle, and expect it
and not get it?
HH: It’s very difficult for them, especially
doing a long role. To have that much text going in your mind
at one time in two different languages is very, very difficult.
BD: Do you use a prompter?
HH: We do not use a prompter.
These are festival performances where singers should not rely on a
prompter. It’s not like doing a repertory season where you’re
doing twenty-five different works, and every night the same performer
has something else. Also, we’re not physically set up well for a
prompter. We do have assistant conductors in the wings who are following
along, and who can help out in case of an emergency, but we try not to encourage
their use as prompter.
BD: Have they been a lifesaver on occasion?
HH: On one occasion that I recall only
too vividly, yes! [Both laugh]
BD: You set aside these festival performances
of the Ring as a completely separate entity. Does Wagner
and Wagnerian opera fit into the regular season of the Seattle Opera?
HH: Yes, it does, and it will in March
of 1981. We’re going to be doing a new production of Tristan
and Isolde, and that will also play during the ’81 summer festival.
BD: So then the Pacific Northwest Festival
is starting to go along the lines of Bayreuth, in which you incorporate
a couple of Ring cycles plus a few scattered performances
of other Wagnerian works.
HH: That’s correct, yes.
BD: Will those Tristans also
be in German and English?
HH: Right now we’re not absolutely
set on that. It depends on a number of things. We have
announced at least one performance in German, and we’re waiting to
see the result of this year’s Ring to determine that.
BD: Talking about Wagnerian opera specifically
and other operas in general, do you prefer working in the English
language or in the original language?
HH: In terms of the work itself
— meaning the rehearsal period and the planning
for that — I must say that I always
prefer the original language no matter what it is. In performance,
it’s another story. Sometimes I enjoy the English Ring
more because of the communication with the audience. Because of
what happens between audience and stage, I find that very exciting.
BD: So you feed off the audience?
HH: Yes, very much so.
BD: Do the performers also feed off
the public in the auditorium? [Vis-à-vis the photo shown
at left, see my interviews with John Macurdy, and Julian Patrick.]
HH: I think they do. A live performance
is a combination and an exchange of energies. Three thousand
people out in the house send their expectancy energy, and this is
answered by the performers and by the back-stage personnel. The
amount of energy generated from the beginning of a performance through
the end is incredible, and that’s what makes a live performance ever
more exciting than any other form of appreciating the art.
BD: This Ring cycle in 1980 will
have a bigger orchestra than the previous Ring cycles?
HH: That’s right. We would have
started with the full orchestra had we had the space, but just after
the last bars of Götterdämmerung in last year’s English
Ring, we started a project that had to be completed in six weeks’
time of rebuilding the entire orchestra pit, which meant tearing out
a great many structures that were there. The work is completed,
and we have been using it in the regular season. The pit now will
seat the full complement that Wagner asks for. What we had done in
the past was to use fewer strings. We didn’t use a reduced orchestration,
but we could not use the full complement of strings and harps that he
BD: What orchestra do you employ in
the pit — the Seattle Symphony?
HH: Yes, the musicians that make up
the Seattle Symphony sign a contract with a multiple employer. They
are then the Symphony of the Opera and the Ballet, and the summer
festival is part of that work.
BD: So then they have nearly year-round
HH: The Orchestra now is going to a
BD: How do the players feel about playing
Wagner every summer?
HH: It’s mixed, like everything else.
There are those who consider this the most exciting part of the
year, and they thrive on it, and do a great deal of work on their own,
and come in with great many questions throughout the season. They
even have their own parts by now. Then for some of them it’s an
incredible chore and a headache they’d rather do without. But I would
say that overall, it’s still a very exciting event for them, and mostly
BD: Tell me a little bit about the
orchestra. Would they rather play opera, any opera, or would
they rather play symphonic concerts on the stage?
HH: We’ve been very lucky in Seattle
that opera got off to a good start. The company started as
a fully-fledged professional entity doing high-level work, so we’ve
also treated the players very well. We’ve always made the orchestra
a very important part of the production, and given them an attitude
that they’ve reflected on, so it’s positive. Every symphony orchestra
has to spend the bulk of its time being a symphony orchestra, or they
simply won’t be good enough. The kind of refinement required of
the symphony orchestra in our time is extreme —
not that it isn’t required in opera, but the focus isn’t that
much on it, and the sound is a little more diffused coming from the pit
than it is coming from the stage.
BD: Do you also conduct concerts with
the Seattle Symphony?
HH: Yes, I am in charge of the Seattle
Symphony Education Programs, and I have my own concert series related
BD: I hate to ask this question but
which do you enjoy more — the symphony
concerts or conducting opera?
HH: Oh, that’s very simple. My
profession is opera, and I do enjoy the symphony work very much.
It’s a great hobby. [Both laugh] I have another great
hobby which I love dearly, and that is conducting ballet. That’s
a wonderful time, and we have an excellent young company. But
my profession is opera.
* * *
BD: You conduct the Ring cycle
as a festival each summer. How does this differ with the operas
during the season, where you also conduct the standard repertory?
Do you find the Ring as exciting to prepare, or is it completely
HH: What is most exciting
is to prepare new works, and the only thing I would ever, ever trade
the Ring for would be the opportunity to do a lot of new music.
Have you conducted some world premieres?
HH: Yes, I have. I was involved
in the world premiere of Carlisle Floyd’s
Of Mice and Men. However, I didn’t do the very first performance.
I worked with another cast because we had a double-cast situation
BD: Where was this?
HH: This was in Seattle, and I did
quite a number of Thomas Pasatieri’s works. I did the world
premiere of Black Widow [shown at left], and I did
the West Coast and East Coast premieres, but not the world premiere,
of The Seagull, which may be his most successful work to date.
I also did the world premiere of his Washington Square in Detroit.
[More about that production is shown farther down on this webpage.]
BD: If a young composer comes up to you
and asks what you look for in a new opera, what advice would you him
HH: My first question is always is
about the dramatic premise of the opera.
BD: Do you expect the music to be fitted
around the drama?
HH: That’s right. With some composers
— for instance, with Pasatieri, or with
Carlisle Floyd — I know all of their
works, and I know what their musical capabilities are. So, if
they pick a subject that I think is far removed from what I know, I would
question it. For example, Tom Pasatieri wants very much to do an
opera based on Elmer Gantry. Well, that’s very far removed
from anything he’s done, and so I asked a lot of questions about it.
BD: But still if he writes it, would
you go ahead and produce it?
HH: Most likely, yes. [To
date, he has not written this work.] My other advice is
to find an idiom that still allows singers to be protagonists as
singers, and that really requires find vocalism from them.
BD: [With a gentle nudge] You
don’t just want an obligato part over the orchestra?
HH: [Smiles] No, and I don’t
want the kind of vocal noise-making that isn’t really singing.
BD: You’ve mentioned Pasatieri and Carlisle
Floyd, a couple of very fine American composers. Are there other
American composers that you are very interested in?
HH: Yes, I’m just now looking at a
work by Lee Hoiby.
I’m very interested in what he does, and I also very much want
to produce Black River by Conrad Susa. I have looked
at most of the works of recent vintage of all the American composers,
and a new composer who is making the scene now is Henry Mollicone, who’s
written some ‘one-acters’ that I find absolutely delightful
BD: Do you find it is satisfactory
to present a couple or three one-act operas on an evening, as opposed
to a single work?
HH: I find it always very interesting.
I, as audience, love to go, but that sentiment is not shared by
the bulk of the ticket-buying opera public. So, it’s a rare
event with us.
BD: Have you done some composing yourself?
HH: Yes, I have. There was a
period from about 1967 through 1971 that I was involved in a statewide
project having to do with education, and I was in a very fortunate
position to being able to do multi-media shows and experimental stage
works, and I wrote one.
BD: Do multi-media events work?
HH: Those were the early days of multi-media,
and we did it on a low budget. It was very challenging, but
I have no idea. I was a protagonist. I was composer and
performer, so at the time I thought it was just the greatest thing
in the world. In retrospect, I find it a little over-rated,
and not as interesting now as I thought then.
BD: It’s passé?
HH: Yes. Imagine a chess game
with unlimited squares, that you can move and move and move in any
direction. It would not be such an interesting game. The
very fact that that a chess board has boundaries makes it the stunning
game that it is, and I find a strict discipline a source of real excitement.
BD: Do you feel that composers are
getting back to the boundaries that you’re talking about?
HH: I don’t know because composers are
going in so many different directions. One wonderful trend and
that is composers are discovering that one can also make music out of
music; that one does not need to rely purely on electronics, or the
unlimited possibilities of dodecaphonic music. The fact that composers
are willing today to write real tonal music is not step back but a step
BD: So we’ve gone afield and now we’re
coming back. Are we coming back with a great insight?
HH: I think so, yes.
BD: We’ve talked about American composers.
Are there some non-American composers that interest you, or would
you rather stick mostly with American works?
HH: No, there are lots of non-American
composers that interest me. I’m studying right now some scores
by some Japanese composers. Though it is not a new work, we’re
planning to do a production of Szymanowski’s
King Roger, which dates from 1926, and which we’ve scheduled for
two years’ hence. I’m interested in music from everywhere, however
I do feel a strong commitment to American music and American composers.
These are people whom I know as friends, and I know directions that
they can take. I like to be influenced by them, and in return,
influence them. I like a working relationship with them.
I feel that the composer’s been too much removed from the performance
scene, and I want to do my part to change that.
BD: Will the Szymanowski be given
in Polish or in English?
HH: We do everything in the original
language and in English, so we will double-cast and we’ll do that.
BD: The Ring is not really double-cast.
It has a few singers that do both, and few that are just in
one or the other.
HH: The practical circumstances seem to
dictate that that’s the way it’s to be done, and we do it in the
regular season that way also. Generally, the strenuous roles
that the singers could not sing five times in a row are the ones that
are double-cast. So in the Ring, for example, it is Siegfried,
and Brünnhilde, and Wotan that really must be double-cast.
BD: The rest of the roles can
be performed by the same singers?
HH: That’s right.
* * *
BD: You’re also involved in education?
Yes. I find my work in education most enjoyable, challenging,
exciting, and I don’t really want a separation.
BD: Is this education for youngsters,
or for adults, or both?
HH: It’s both, and my approach to it really
is to make a grid. Along one side I list all the population
groups that one can possibly identify and hit with an educational
project or a program. Along the other side I list all of the projects
that we’re presently doing, and some that we might be doing in the future.
I then check the resulting squares with where a project really
hits a particular population group. The goal is to have a grid
filled with squares, by which I mean that we are doing a lot of work
in the public and private schools. But we’re also interested in
working with ethnic groups, handicapped people, senior citizens, and
with people in industrial settings. Wherever we can find a potential
group of people to work with, we’ll try to dream up an education project.
BD: How do the children respond to
opera? Do they like it?
HH: It depends on how they approach it.
The traditional approach is to take a group of children and say, “Children,
you’re going to see this opera. It’s a great masterpiece, and
you will enjoy it because generations before you have enjoyed it.
This is the story, and this is who these great singers are.”
Then you bus them over to the opera house, and they see it,
and you take them back to the classroom, and say, “Let’s
write a letter to the producer, or the conductor, or a singer, and
tell them what your favorite moment was!” That’s
deadly! In spite of it being deadly, there will be maybe five
or six per cent, or maybe even ten per cent that will still like it
in spite of that traditional treatment. Now, breaking away from that,
what we’re trying to do is to approach it not from the ‘great
cultural heritage’ point of view, but rather
from ‘this is singing, and this is drama, and this is acting in drama,
and this is costuming, and this is make-up, and this is lighting.’
BD: And let them find out that opera
HH: Right! We show them all these
things somewhat separately, and we get them involved in these various
disciplines, and enjoyment. We then get them to create something
of their own. Our best projects have been those where we’ve had
the kids write their own libretto and their own music, produce their
own opera, perform it themselves, and tour if it’s any good. Then
they really get the full impact, and those kids who go through that kind
of program, love it.
BD: Do you use the same kind of approach
then when you’re dealing with adults?
HH: We have one that is very similar.
For instance, we’re starting to work that way with senior citizens
because they have the time to do it. We generally try to think
in terms of music-theater rather than opera. It’s a little less
threatening, and it gives them an idea that it isn’t such a foreign
element. But it’s a matter of fitting the approach to the group.
Sometimes I will work with a group and I’ll see, right at the very beginning,
that they demand a traditional approach. If they wouldn’t trust
anything else, we give them a traditional approach.
BD: Is this where you think opera is
going today — bringing it to as many
people as possible?
HH: I think it is. Opera’s is
incredibly expensive, so in order to make it viable at all, we’re
going to need more than that less-than-one-per-cent of the public of
an urban community. We have to be close to two per cent now to
make it work in the city. If we were at about ten per cent, then
we wouldn’t to do the crazy kind of fundraising we do, and that’s what
we need to work towards.
BD: How is the budget going in Seattle?
Are you managing to make it with contributions and everything, or
is this a question I should ask Glynn Ross, the General
HH: No, every artistic decision is a financial
decision, and vice-versa. So, I have to be as aware of budgetary
restrictions as Glynn.
BD: Is he supportive of all of your
HH: Yes, we are very mutually supportive.
Glynn is just a wonderful person to work with, and working ‘with’
is the key word there, because he demands that each member of the
staff really hold their position and fight for it. The budget
is now at about $3 million, and only about half of that is earned income
at the box office. So, the fundraising part of that has to be solid.
The rest we have to fund through public funds, through foundations,
through help from industry, and help from private individuals. There
should be a balance of all those things. Right now, we are pretty
well balanced. I would say that industry is the one that could
* * *
BD: We touched on it, but let me ask directly.
Where is opera going these days?
HH: I’m Chairman of a couple of committees
of Opera America. The ones that I’m involved with are ‘Education’,
and ‘Opera in English’.
We’ve got a couple of very interesting projects going right now.
The ‘Opera in English’
project is really to identify all of the factors that are involved
in making quality performances of opera in English, whether it’s a
translated opera or an original. We’ve generally thought that
intelligibility is the sole responsibility of the singer, and that’s
simply not so. There are so many other factors involved, such as
the acoustics of the house, the relative dynamics for orchestra, and the
construction of the sets, and things like that.
BD: Do you find singers generally prefer
singing in the original, rather than an English translation?
HH: I would say by and large most singers
want to study roles and perform them in the original language, but
there’s an ever growing group of singers, and some really fine top singers,
who are very willing and eager to sing opera in English.
BD: What do you say to the singer who
doesn’t want to work on an American opera? They would rather
do a Traviata than a new opera by Pasatieri, or even an established
opera by Pasatieri?
HH: It depends on who they are.
If it’s a singer that I really like a great deal and that I admire
as an artist, then I will try to convince them of the viability of American
opera, and particularly someone like Pasatieri who writes a great
vocal line. I’ll play some music for them. I’ll play some
tapes for them, or I’ll sit down at the piano with them, and go through
something that I particularly like, and say why I think it would be
good for them. I’ve convinced lots of singers to use Pasatieri’s
arias as audition pieces, because some of them are stunning audition
pieces. On the other hand, if it’s a singer that I don’t particular
care for, or that I don’t think would fit into a contemporary American
opera, then I don’t try to convince them of anything. I may be
grateful that they’re going to stick to the standard repertory because
they may not be an asset to our American opera.
BD: Do you enjoy conducting standard
HH: Very much! I love the repertory,
and I’ve conducted practically the entire standard repertory, as well
as many other things. But I would still say that the greatest
thrill is doing new works.
BD: So you find then it’s a good balance
for you going back and forth?
HH: Yes, it is.
BD: If you could have any single
wish for opera as an institution as it’s going today in America, what
would it be?
HH: You said a key word, ‘institution’,
and I feel that’s part of the problem. All of human endeavor
goes through various stages. It starts with an idea, and that
idea results in some activity, and that activity is then organized,
and the organizations become institutions. When this has become
institution, then decisions are made not on the basis of what the original
idea and activity were, but on the basis of ‘how do you maintain the
survival of this institution?’ I want opera to survive and develop,
and I don’t care about institutions nearly as much. I do care
about them because they provide me with a livelihood, but I don’t care
about them as much as I do about opera. So, we need to get
away from all the institutional gearing to the presentation of opera,
and we need to do a lot more experimental work, and a lot more new works.
We need to raise audiences to expect to see new works in a season.
Our theater audiences and our dance audiences are now expecting that.
You cannot put on a ballet series, or a dance series, or a repertory
theater series without doing some new works, and I hope we get to that
point in opera.
BD: Boulez said a few years
ago that we should blow up all opera houses! This is not your
aim, is it?
HH: [Laughs] Not in the least,
no, certainly not. I don’t think that’s wise or necessary,
but I understand Boulez’s impatience with existing institutions. He
just overstated his case. We need to be awake and alert to our
times and the needs of people in our time, and not rely just on the
BD: You’re a theater conductor.
What is your view of non-theatrical performances of opera, such as
recordings, films, television?
HH: I enjoy them. I use them
— as anyone in our time of the electronic age
does — to learn pieces that I wouldn’t
otherwise be exposed to. Often there are recordings and tapes
more easily available than scores, but basically I don’t like them.
They give us a misconception of the work. I don’t mind hearing
a tape of an opera after I’ve seen it, but I much prefer seeing it.
You’re missing five-sixths of it if you don’t see the work in performance,
so I’m not as interested. I don’t like opera on television.
It’s valuable, and we should continue doing it, and I’m planning
to do some myself, but I don’t like it. It’s neither good opera
nor good television. Unless you do a simulcast and have great stereo
equipment, the problems with the sound are excruciating. Also, the
limitation of the TV screen is bad, so it’s not great opera. [Remember,
this interview was held in 1980, and as it is being posted (nearly forty
years later), the technology in both video and audio has advanced tremendously!]
The subject matter of opera doesn’t lend itself to be good television.
There was an example of one that could be both, and that was Pasatieri’s
Trial of Mary Lincoln. That came very close to being
satisfying both operatically and as television.
BD: It worked very well. It was an enjoyable
thing to watch, and it was a small-scale work that ran only an hour.
HH: That’s right.
BD: So, you find films and recordings
should be used, perhaps, as a stepping stone but not more than that?
HH: I think that it will take care
of itself. I don’t think opera on television will get the kind
of massive audience with great ratings that it would need to become
commercially viable. [Again, consider the time which
has passed since these comments were made.]
BD: What about the people who
sit at home and play a video tape of their favorite opera?
HH: I think that’s fine. Anything
that people do for their own enjoyment is fine. I applaud it.
We should try to make opera available in as many forms that we possibly
can. The joy and the excitement of the live theatrical experience
will always be there, and nothing will ever eclipse that.
* * *
BD: As a theater conductor, you’re
bombarded with professional and amateur criticism all the time.
Do you read the newspapers and magazines, and what they have to say
about your performances?
HH: Yes, I always read them, but I
read them in two different ways. Let’s say I’m in Seattle,
and I’m doing a production which runs about two weeks before we’re
finished with performances. I wait until I have finished the last
performance before reading any of them. But then I read them
all because I do find them interesting and instructive in a variety
of ways — not in terms of their accuracy,
but in terms of what is accepted today as criticism. I find
least interesting the comments about what was good and what was bad.
The least interesting thing a reviewer or a critic can say is that good/bad
side of it. Sometimes they have interesting insights about how
things happened, or surmises why they happened.
BD: Is it important that they say how
it worked in the theater?
HH: I find that interesting. Sometimes
they really do their homework, and have interesting historical things
to report. They are wonderful in this way. Andrew Porter’s
collected reviews for the New Yorker make really wonderful
and valuable research materials. Sometimes a review is good entertainment
because some critics have a very witty style of presentation.
It is not much help to a performer, though, because one really can’t
totally believe either the good or the bad. One has to develop
one’s own convictions about who one is a performer, and how it works.
BD: If a critic tells you something
didn’t work, or something came off beautifully, would you believe him?
HH: I believe that he believes that.
He, and probably a slice of the audience may have similar feelings,
and that’s significant. Sometimes I will read a review of something
that has been put on tape, and I’ll go back and compare and see whether
there is validity. Often there is, but that’s only one opinion.
The other way that I read reviews is as an administrator, and that’s
quite different. I read the reviews where I did not conduct
as someone concerned about the future of that company in that city,
and how the reviews affect ticket buying, and so on and so forth.
That’s an entirely different thing. Also, it’s different when
I am a guest conductor. I read reviews from a slightly different
point of view than I would in my own home town.
BD: Do you prefer conducting in your own
home town, or do you prefer going on the road and guest conducting
in various other companies, and then coming back?
HH: I would say they’re both very necessary.
I most prefer working at home, because it’s building those circumstances
that have made up the major part of my life for the past fifteen years.
But in order to gain artistic experience and a wider range of possibilities,
I do a fair amount of guesting. This season, for instance, I
was at the New York City Opera doing Bohème. I was
also in San Antonio doing Wozzeck, and just recently in Winnipeg
doing The Merry Widow.
BD: A wide range of operas.
HH: Yes, and I found all three experiences
most satisfying in some ways, and frustrating in other ways. For
example, the New York City Opera is a wonderful company right now.
They do a beautiful Bohème production, and it’s been
on the board for some time. I had an excellent cast to work
with, and very fine working circumstances.
BD: Did they give you enough rehearsal
HH: They gave me quite a bit of rehearsal
time, including even an orchestral rehearsal, which is unusual for
them to do with a repertory opera. At the first performance I
was very pleased, but the second performance was a week later, with
many changes in orchestral personnel, and I found that almost everything
that I had rehearsed orchestrally was eroded. The Wozzeck in
San Antonio was fascinating. First of all, just doing that kind of
a work in San Antonio is already amazing, but I had ample rehearsal time,
and the orchestra reached a level that I’m told is really extraordinary
for them. It was generally a first-rate production, and let’s face
it, any time one gets to do that work, it’s a great day! [Both laugh]
BD: That’s right!
HH: Then to Winnipeg with a wonderful
orchestra there. In addition to being the Symphony, they are
also the CBC Radio Orchestra, and they’re a very polished group.
That was a very fine experience.
BD: Do you have any use for old operas,
such as Handel, Vivaldi, or Cavalli?
HH: Yes, and that’s a very interesting subject.
I started off my musical training with a great harpsichordist. Her
name is Alice Ehlers, and she was one of the people who did a tremendous
amount for that research and interest in baroque music. She taught
at the University of Southern California for many years, so I had a
lot of background in baroque music.
Alice Ehlers (1887-1981) began piano lessons as a child, later
studying the instrument under Robert and Leschetizky, and music theory
with Schoenberg. In 1909 she matriculated at the Berlin Hochschule
für Musik as a piano student. Immediately upon Landowska's
appointment as professor of harpsichord in 1913, Ehlers became her
pupil and remained with her until 1918.
After a successful concert debut in Berlin, she toured as a
harpsichordist in Europe, the USSR and the Middle East. She also
taught at the Berlin Hochschule until 1933, after which she left Germany,
taking up temporary residence in England and Austria. She first
toured the USA in 1936, and moved permanently two years later, settling
in California and becoming an American citizen in 1943.
In addition to making film and radio appearances, Ehlers toured
extensively, especially on the Pacific coast. She
also had a long association with Dr. Albert Schweitzer both as a student
as a colleague. A selection of letters they exchanged between
the years of 1928 and 1965 was published in the book Albert Schweitzer
& Alice Ehlers - A Friendship in Letters.
She was a featured performer in Samuel Goldwyn's
Wuthering Heights (1939, shown below), where she performed
onscreen Mozart's Rondo Alla Turca for the assembled party
guests on a double-manual harpsichord.
She remained active as a teacher, first privately, and later
as professor of harpsichord at the University of Southern California
at Los Angeles, a chair which she held from 1942 until her retirement
Paul Hindemith, Alice Ehlers, Rudolf Hindemith (l-r)
There are two ways in which baroque operas are presented.
One is to try to do a fairly traditional approach with authentic instruments,
and so forth, and the other I would call the Raymond Leppard way, which
is to make modern viable stage-worthy pieces out of them.
BD: Which do you prefer, or do you
find a place for both?
HH: I find a place for both.
Without someone of Ray Leppard’s excellence, I really have great
respect for him, and his drive in getting these works out. Without
him, we might be seeing much less. However, I still don’t think
we’ve seen anything like the optimum, and that would require a lot more
research and resources to try to recreate the visual spectacle that these
works gave. A great deal of baroque opera was spectacle.
BD: Even with the considerable limitation
of the stages of the day?
HH: They weren’t as limited as you might think.
Look at how Lully’s operas were produced, and the size of the forces
there, or the late works of Rameau, and others of the French baroque.
But I’m afraid that we don’t have the artists with the right kind
of training. The type of vocalism of that period, and the type
of training that singers went through is very different from what passes
as vocal training today. I’m not saying it was all great, but
it was totally different, and at some point it would be nice to create
a school of baroque performance, and do these works properly. I
don’t think it’s possible to do them properly today. [Yet again,
we can see the amount of progress made since this interview took place!
For instance, let me cite the work of Nicholas Harnoncourt, William Christie and
BD: So you don’t foresee bringing them
back with any regularity during the Seattle season?
HH: To this day we have not done a baroque
work, and that’s simply because I don’t want to do it in a less than
excellent manner. I find standard performance and production practice,
and the kind of rehearsal periods that one can get together, and the
way in which one generates scenery and costumes all work against the
presentation of a really excellent baroque opera. So, I don’t want
to do it that way.
* * *
BD: Do you feel the future of opera
in America is getting more and more healthy, especially through your
work with education, and the performances that you are able to give?
HH: Yes, I do. The diversity is what
makes it so healthy, and that the fact that every opera company has
its own artistic conceptual head, and none of them agree with each
other. They all think something else is important, and they all
put their eggs in different baskets, and at the same time they are totally
convinced that theirs is ‘the way’, and that’s very good. The
fact that Carol Fox [General Manager of Lyric Opera of Chicago]
and Glynn Ross are never going to see eye to eye on opera is an advantage.
BD: So we, as a public, benefit by
being able to experience both?
HH: That’s right. Yes.
I am always going to be a protagonist for the composer. I feel
the composer is the most important person in opera, and has to be recognized
as such in our time.
BD: Maybe a hundred years from now,
you’ll be remembered as the composer’s friend?
HH: [Smiles] Well, I don’t care
about that. How I’m remembered is not as significant as what kind
of work I generate while I’m able to.
BD: Has the Seattle Opera done any
commissioning of new works, or does it intend to?
HH: The answer to the first part of the question
is no. We have presented new works, and we’ve done some world
premieres, but in both cases they were works that had been previously
commissioned but not performed. I would like to do some commissioning
in the future. There are problems with commissioning that haven’t
been totally solved yet in terms of how much money is a decent amount.
I feel most commissions are too low. One expects a composer to
devote a year or more of his life to something, even when one pays him
much less than a year’s wages for it.
BD: If you commissioned something,
and it came in substandard, would you still produce it, or would
you let it go?
HH: That’s the other big problem.
Because of the amount of money involved — not
just in the commissioning itself, but in the gearing up of a production
— one must protect that investment. Therefore,
one must have time to spend with the composer, and know early in the
game whether it’s headed in the direction that one considers usable.
BD: Do you feel it would be valuable for a
composer to have a work presented, even though it’s not done very well,
and then perhaps do extensive revision on it, or just draw on that experience
for another work?
HH: I was involved in a project that
ended up that way, Pasatieri’s Washington Square, which was a
two-act work with some real problems. It was very successful in
its premiere [by the Michigan Opera Theatre at the Detroit Opera House],
but not nearly as good as it should have been. Then it was revised
to a three-act work. Some material was deleted, and some material
was added, and some vocal lines were very much changed. The entire
tessitura of one part changed. So it depends on the individual
circumstances of where it’s being produced, and the producing company,
and who the audiences are to be. We should take a more sporting
attitude about the whole thing. We shouldn’t expect that a composer’s
going to hit a home run every time he comes up to bat. I don’t mind
an occasional single, or even a strike out. Sometimes a healthy swing
and a miss is worth something. The only thing is that one shouldn’t
lose the team as a result of that. One shouldn’t lose the opera
company because of idealism of that sort, so one needs to find the right
way. One right way is coming in these composer-workshops
that are being organized in various parts of the country. This is
where, during a two- or three-month period, a composer can see his work
come out it in a minimal kind of production, and he can do some work on it,
and make some revisions.
BD: Do you think there’s any value
in studying original conceptions and how the revisions are made?
HH: Very much so. I try whenever
possible to get hold of the original source material to see what the
original form of an opera was. For instance, for years I conducted
Madama Butterfly mindless of what the work had been in its original
form, until finally I was able to get all that material together.
Now, some of the rather awkward musical transitions make sense to me
because that’s where the cuts were, and he never really bothered to totally
clean it up. I worked very closely with Carlisle Floyd on revisions
for Of Mice and Men before the first production. An entire
scene was omitted from that opera, but there were two very important
arias in that scene that had to be inserted somewhere else, and we found
the places for them. But we had to do it in a hurry, and it was
done without all the necessary plastic surgery.
BD: So the bandages are still apparent
as you look at the final version?
HH: That’s right. Anyway, to
answer your question, it’s very valuable, and I find as long I’m
in this business, the more research I do, and the more I try to get
hold of original material.
BD: Do you enjoy doing the work that
you’re doing? You seem to be very happy. [Vis-à-vis
the program shown at right, see my interview with June Anderson.]
HH: Tremendously! I like all
aspects of it. There’s nothing in the opera business that
I find tedious or boring. Whether it’s work on promotion, or
with an opera guild, or education, or the box office, it’s all interesting.
And I find that it gets more and more interesting the more one
knows about it. At the beginning, it was all a great mystery.
I was a musician, and I knew the score, but I didn’t have any
idea about anything else in opera. As I began working in workshops,
I found great satisfaction in doing stage-managing, and working as
a lighting assistant, or in the make-up room, and learning how to sew
a wig. One can’t afford too many areas of ignorance in opera.
One has to really know quite a bit about everything. Then one
doesn’t have the wool pulled over one’s eyes. [Laughs]
[At this point we went over a few of the specific details
of dates and singers for the upcoming Ring to use as promotion
on the radio, as well as how people could write to get tickets... which
led to a couple of funny stories...]
BD: Last time when Glynn was here,
he said that someone just put ‘Ho-Yo-To-Ho’ on an envelope, and apparently
it got there!
HH: Right. I do remember that. People
come from all over the world. We had a funny incident last summer
at the airport. Two fellows talked while picking up their baggage,
and went in search of a cab into town. When they got into the
cab, one of them said something like “Nice
day,” to the driver, and the driver replied, “It’s
always nice when the Ring is on!”
Since both the fellows were going to the Ring, one of them said,
“Let’s place a little bet that I’ve traveled more
miles than you getting here.” The other
fellow agreed, so they placed a $5 bet. The first fellow said,
“I’m from Montreal,” and
the other fellow said, “You lose. I’m from
New Zealand!” [Much laughter]
=== === ===
Exactly ten years later, in March of 1990, Holt was back in Chicago
to conduct The Lighthouse by Peter Maxwell Davies, in a production
by the Chicago Opera Theater. We arranged to meet again, this time
backstage at the theater, and here is what was said . . . . .
BD: Tell me about working with the
music of Sir Peter Maxwell Davies.
HH: It’s fascinating. I had not played
much of his music. I worked on Eight Songs for a Mad King
once before, and coached a singer, so I knew about his very unusual
vocal style and use of alternate sounds and strange harmonics, but
I hadn’t really worked on conducting a score of his. So when I
received this score, I plowed into it. At first it looked very
arbitrary, like he was making it unnecessarily difficult. But
as I got into it, I saw what a brilliantly crafted piece it really
was. The virtuosity pays off, and the extreme rhythmical complexity
pays off, and it all really works.
How does it pay off?
HH: It pays off in that edge it puts on the
performers. The kind of energy that it takes to play the score
is extreme. You can’t lay back in this piece, so the energy
coming out of that twelve-piece ensemble is remarkable. It also
pays off in that the way in which he sets text is very unusual. It
goes frequently rather against normal speech patterns, but only in
certain places, and only when specific dramatic things happen... for
instance, when there’s a narrative and they’re not quite telling the
truth about what really happened. It’s really quite brilliant.
Also, the colors are wonderful. In this ensemble he uses solo strings,
two woodwinds, a few brass instruments, trumpet, horn, trombone, also
guitar, banjo, celeste, and an out-of-tune upright piano. There
is also a whole group of percussion instruments played by the others doubling.
It’s a very interesting ensemble, calling forth some really remarkable
colors. When did you last hear, for example, an ensemble featuring
guitar, celeste, crotales for extended sections?
BD: It’s not just a momentary
HH: No, no! There are extended
sections with these instruments playing. Or, on the other end
of the scale, an ensemble with cello, bass, and bass clarinet.
BD: Is this work designed to be an
opera, or is it more of a music-theater piece?
HH: The hard line is becoming much
softer and blurred. It’s a music-theater piece, but it definitely
is an opera. It is all sung, and requires singers of amazing stature.
BD: Are you getting that stature that
HH: We’ve got it. We have
three wonderful singers for this, and I’m very pleased with them.
To learn these roles is excruciating. The vocal lines are every
bit as complicated rhythmically, or even more so, than the instrumental
lines. There are things like having to sing seven notes in the
time of five, and always against the beat of the conductor.
BD: You’re used to it because you’re
working with it every day, but what impact does this make on the audience
which is not used to the style?
HH: The audience needs to be open to this,
and hear what it is, and not to try to compare it to anything else.
There can be people who come and wonder where’s the Puccini melody,
or where are the wonderful rhythms that one hears in Verdi. You
can’t approach a piece like this in that way. You have to be open
to what it brings. Peter Maxwell Davies is telling a very fascinating
story which is based partly on a true story. Very briefly, it is
in the year 1900, off the north coast of Scotland, where three lighthouse
keepers very mysteriously disappeared. When the relief officers came,
they found the lighthouse empty — or so
they said — and the court of inquiry could
come up with nothing damaging to anybody. They just mysteriously vanished,
and so the composer takes this story and creates a remarkable multi-level
almost ghost story out of it.
BD: Does he answer the question at
HH: Well, he answers it, but maybe
as enigmatically as Wagner answers what the end of the Ring
is all about. It may be he took a page out of Wagner’s book, in
knowing if you dot every I and cross every T, you’re not likely to get
as many people talking about it. People will talk about this opera
because it’s so mysterious. The three singers start off as the
relief officers at the court of inquiry. They’re being questioned
by the court, and the questioner is the French horn in the orchestra. So,
we get from their answers what the questions really are. They’re
being asked to describe the whole situation of their going to relieve these
people, and what they found there. In the process of doing this,
there are flashbacks where they really recall exactly where they were and
BD: Are these flashbacks made clear
in the score?
HH: They’re very clear in the text,
but it shifts from past tense to present tense. We are there,
and then we are suddenly back to the court of inquiry again. It’s
almost a cinematic technique that he uses.
BD: There was a recent movie with a
lot of flashbacks, and the critics were saying you couldn’t tell where
the flashbacks were, and the characters were not enjoined one to another,
so you couldn’t follow them.
HH: We have tried to clear this up with the
lighting and with the use of a garment — a
slicker, or a raincoat with a rain hat — which
they use when they’re in flashback, and I think it will become quite
clear to the audience. In the main act of the piece, they are
the three lighthouse keepers who mysteriously disappeared, and we find
out that they are very interesting individual characters, each of whom
has an autobiographic song, which are in the popular musical styles of
that time. The baritone starts, and he sings a kind of parody of
Gilbert & Sullivan, except that it’s with a banjo accompaniment so
it sounds almost like a Hillbilly song. The second one sings a Victorian
love ballad, and the third one sings a Salvation Hymn. They reveal
the skeletons in their closets, and as the time gets longer and longer,
they’re not relieved, and they start going slightly off their head.
But I don’t want to give the entire story away. At the very end, we
see them suddenly become the relief guard again, and then they come back
once more as the ghosts of the three who disappeared.
BD: Does it make a tremendous impact on the
audience as well as on the performers?
HH: I think so. It has been a
very successful work. Since 1980 when it was first performed,
it’s received maybe sixty-five production, so it’s become quite a popular
BD: It’s not a terribly long piece...
HH: No, it’s quite brief. The
net music time is about an hour and fifteen minutes, so with intermission
it will be a bit over an hour and a half.
BD: Can it be done with anything else
on the bill?
HH: No, it’s a full evening.
Believe me, it is so intense that you couldn’t take anything else
after. It's like Salome. What can you do with that
BD: [With a gentle nudge] Elektra?
HH: No! [Gales of laughter from
both] That would be the killer bill of all times!
BD: Is there any chance that The
Lighthouse is too intense for the average opera audience?
HH: It might be, but then it’s a question
of what kind of intensity. Certainly nothing gets much more
intense than the duet between Santuzza and Alfio in Cavalleria Rusticana.
BD: But at least there there’s a tune
that people can hang onto and recognize.
HH: Right. There are some tunes
in this. The three songs are real tunes, and they sing a kind
of a hymn at the end... though they sing it in the most outrageous
fashion because they’ve turned almost into beasts at that point.
There are some tunes, but it’s a different aesthetic altogether, and
you’re right, it may not be everyone’s cup of tea. There are maybe
two ways composers can make an indelible mark in opera. One is
to write great vocal melodies like Verdi and Puccini, and another way
is to do something similar to what Alban Berg did in Wozzeck, which
is to create a musical ambiance, a musical atmosphere that immediately
calls to mind that particular piece. I will always be able to
recognize music from that opera whenever and wherever I hear it because
it’s that remarkably unique.
BD: Is that what makes it special
— that it is unique?
HH: Yes, absolutely! You can
see immediately there’s a real super craftsman at work, a real artist.
Every note of the score betrays a master.
BD: Has he balanced the art and the
HH: I think so, I really think he has.
* * *
BD: Let me ask a big philosophical question.
What’s the purpose of opera in society?
HH: I think that it needs to be broadened a
little bit. I can answer a little bit better if the question
were about music-theater, because some form of a combination of music
and drama has been with humanity since the very beginning. We know
from even Neolithic times that there was this kind of ceremonial and
sometimes extreme dramatic presentation with musical theater. It’s
a way in which humanity has gotten out its hopes, and dreams, and fears,
and mythology. Opera’s a special case. Opera came about somewhat
by mistake and somewhat by happenstance, and featured as principal element
the human voice. So, it’s a very special kind of music-theater,
but it’s serves a very vital purpose. Our problem in America is that
opera has been bit of a layered-on art form. It did come from Europe,
and all of the people in opera were from Europe originally, and it’s taken
a long time to get rid of that, or, let’s say, to minimize that to a certain
BD: Is this what music-theater is doing
— trying to get some of the layers off?
HH: Possibly... Every
piece of music-theater creates its own rules, so what we’re missing
is the richness of literature in repertory that’s really performable,
in presentations that will really hit an audience squarely in the
heart. That is still not present in contemporary times.
We have some very unusual and very wonderful pieces, of which this
Lighthouse is one, but I don’t think that this is a piece that
makes us forget Carmen and Bohème. It’s
not meant to. It’s set up for an entirely different aesthetic.
BD: Are you trying to get the audience
of Carmen and Bohème into the performance of
HH: Yes, and also people who’ve never
gone to an opera. This is a theater piece that would attract a pure
theater audience. This is also a piece that certainly would attract
a contemporary music audience.
BD: But should we try and get the audience
of The Lighthouse back into Carmen and Bohème?
HH: By giving them something really
challenging to chew on in the form of opera.
BD: Is there enough that is challenging
in the old warhorses, and even in the lesser lights from the past?
HH: I think there is. I do the warhorses
all the time. It’s unusual that I have a chance to do something
as interesting and challenging as this. I just came from a season
where I was doing Butterfly and La Forza del Destino,
and I will be going into Carmen after this, and Don Giovanni
after that. So, I do them all the time. I find them challenging
every time, and if one does a really honest job of them, and really looks
at the content and actual musical events of those pieces, it’s always
challenging and it’s always interesting.
BD: So, one of these new pieces will
then keep the older ones fresh?
HH: That’s right. The older
operas have less validity without the contemporary repertory.
Then it’s just a club that likes to hear the old tunes. But if
we have a strong and vital new music-theater, then it’s wonderful as
a contrast to hear what we consider classics.
BD: Will someone who wants to hear
just new music want to go and hear Bohème and Carmen
HH: They might. They might be interested
in some of the artists that are performing it. There are so many
ways in which people can be drawn into opera. Just the phenomenon
of the performance values would draw some people in.
BD: Do you feel that opera is for everyone?
HH: Potentially, yes. I don’t think it’s
an elitist art form by design, and I certainly don’t think that it’s
difficult to understand, particularly these days. Even though
I’m not crazy about supertitles, when you are able to read the text,
certainly that has been a help in bringing a lot of people to opera who
wouldn’t otherwise come.
BD: [Genuinely surprised] Aside
from James Levine,
you’re about the only one I’ve talked to who’s involved in opera on
a day by day basis who really doesn’t enthusiastically
support the supertitles.
HH: I will tell you why I don’t like
them. Getting into opera means getting the totality, so you do
not have one element that supersedes all others. The minute you
print text up there for people to read, you’re saying inadvertently that
the words are the most important thing. You’re also causing people
to do a reading process, using a part of their brain which maybe isn’t the
most interesting, to engage in at an opera performance. So, I’m not
thrilled with it, but I am thrilled with the number of people that it’s
bringing to opera. I hope that gradually they’re not going to need
those idiot words! [Both laugh]
BD: You don’t feel that the trade-off
is of more benefit than not having them?
HH: Again, you have to go piece by
piece. There are certain pieces where it’s a real help to
have the text, and there are pieces where I feel that you get so
busy reading that you don’t watch the artistic value of the performance.
A live performance is just that — you
watch a singer go through an extended scene, and you watch him or
her moment for moment, and see how they create this moment of truth
BD: Are they creating it,
or has the composer-librettist team created it?
HH: Well, sure, the composer and the librettist
team has created it, but in their recreation, the performers can add
a great deal to it. One of the wonderful things about even a
tight composer like Peter Maxwell Davies is that he still leaves a
great deal for the interpreter to do.
BD: So he expects the interpreter to
add the colors and the dimension?
BD: Verdi and Wagner did this too...
HH: Certainly. In Wagner, for
example, he didn’t even put metronome markings in his scores.
He said, “I don’t want to put a number there so
that any idiot with a metronome thinks he knows how to conduct my music.”
That’s not where it is. It’s in how the music itself develops,
and how flexible the conductor is in his choice of tempi.
BD: So it really is from the heart
of the conductor going to the heart of the audience?
HH: That’s right. You’ve got
* * *
BD: I assume opera continues to grow
and change as you watch it and participate in it. Is it growing
in a good way or a bad way?
HH: There are a few things that are dangerous.
We’re in an era where the producer — the
stage director and sometimes the designer — is
pretty much at the top of the heap, and can dictate absolutely to
an opera company what he or she wants to do.
BD: Has he gotten to the top of the
heap by clawing his way there, or is he there by default?
HH: Probably by default, but different kinds
of personalities emerge. When a person like the late Jean-Pierre
Ponnelle emerged as a strong force in a public, with very strong
ideas and with the research and background that he had, he certainly
made an impact. The problem is when these ‘concept’ productions
are not in the hands of the great artist who is also sensitive to the
original intent. What happens is that the composers become liars.
The music no longer tells the truth, and to me personally, I feel
that opera is at its best when it presents on stage moments of such absolute
and unquestionable truth that we are drawn into that. Then that
becomes an indelibly memorable moment for us. Though that does not
happen very often in these productions that we’re getting where the producer
has changed the time and period, and forced performers into guises which
have very little to do with the original intent.
BD: [Being Devil’s
Advocate for a moment] Yet, of course, the stage director will
argue that that is exactly what he was trying to do.
HH: Yes, the stage director can argue
— sometimes very successfully
— and I argue with him in many cases that we also need
to look at the impact that this piece made on its contemporary audience.
We also want to recreate some of that, and in the hands of a sensitive
person, this is terrific. It’s wonderful, but it doesn’t often
BD: I assume you don’t want opera performances
to be a museum.
HH: No, but I also don’t think it should
never be a museum. I would like to see once, for example, a performance
of Freischütz very much the way it was done in Weber’s
time. It might be wonderful.
BD: With just a flat piece of scenery as background,
and the tree?
HH: Well, it wasn’t just with a flat
and a tree. There was all kinds of stage machinery that was
used for the Wolf’s Glen Scene. There were many things,
and when you say just a flat and a tree, not let’s forget about the
great scenic artists that we’ve had in this business; artists of real
stature that have painted wonderful, wonderful things on canvas.
Now we don’t use that anymore very much, but the fact is that there
were some great artists that did that, and again I would like occasionally
to see that, too.
BD: But is it right to expect the audience who
has come through conflicts, and wars, and depressions, and diseases,
and experiments, and space shots to really understand an opera with
a beautifully painted drop in the back?
HH: I think they can understand it. If
opera companies do production in many different styles, and occasionally
really try to recreate the original production, and use the musicologists,
and the students at universities to recreate as much of the performance
practice and style as possible, occasionally that’s a very worthwhile
task. It would be particularly interesting, for example, in
works that were not produced. I’m
thinking of a work like Rameau’s last opera, Les Boréades,
which was not produced because he died. I don’t think it’s seen
a stage production since it’s been recorded, and I happen to know the score
because I’ve done excerpts from it. It would be wonderful to
really dig into the performance style of late Rameau, and produce Les
Boréades exactly in that style. It would be wonderful
task! Give it its world premiere in the style in which it was
intended to be originally performed.
BD: Only three hundred years late...
HH: That’s right. [Both laugh]
BD: You conduct operas in different
styles. Do you have a particular affinity for any specific style,
perhaps even the American style?
HH: Yes! There are some that are terribly
close to me. Mozart certainly is right at the top, as is Wagner,
as is Verdi. I enjoy very much conducting the composers of
the verismo period — Puccini, Giordano,
and so on. I don’t feel I have quite as much of real importance
to say about that music as I do in some others, and yet occasionally
I will be given a chance to do a Butterfly, as I did recently,
which is quite remarkable, and intrigued me just as much as anything
else. It’s hard to say. The classic answer to that question
is ‘whatever piece I happen to be working on,’
but I will tell you that given an opportunity to conduct a repertory piece,
or something new, I will always pick the new piece anytime.
BD: Because they don’t
come around as often?
HH: Right. Over anything, I will
pick a new piece.
BD: You have garnered a bit of fame
for doing the Ring year after year in the two different languages.
Now that you’ve gotten away from it a bit, do you still hark back
Wagner? Do you still do a little bit of Wagner?
HH: Oh yes, certainly, and I’m actually preparing
the possibility of another Ring. I’m not at liberty
to say any more about it at the moment, but you might guess because my
partner in crime is Glynn Ross. So, you can probably figure
out what I’m talking about. [This would be the Ring by
the Arizona Opera.] But once you do the Ring, it never
leaves you alone, and I find myself rethinking all of those pieces. I
certainly rethink the mise-en-scene of what that really should
be. I’ve seen many Rings since I did my last one in 1984,
and I’ve seen four different productions since then. Some of them
were quite wonderful, but none of them was the way I would like to see
BD: Is it more enlightening or more
frustrating to sit in the audience for a production of the Ring?
HH: [Smiles] Oh, I’m not an itchy-fingered
conductor. If a production is going well, even if it’s very
different from what I would do, I can enjoy it a great deal.
No, I don’t feel that I have to be up there doing it to enjoy it.
I very much enjoy going to opera. I’m a great member of the audience.
BD: What advice do you have for youngsters
who would like to get into the opera conducting racket?
HH: The biggest help is to work with
singers, and to approach it from the piano as a coach.
BD: As a repetiteur?
HH: Right, but there’s a difference
between coaching and repetition. The coach is the one who really
studies the opera and tries to know it better than the singers, to be
able to teach the singer some special things about it.
BD: But for that you really need an
old head on young shoulders.
HH: No, I don’t think so. A little
bit of that is very helpful. Then, in addition to that, one
should have a real instrumental background in playing in orchestras
as an instrumentalist. But more important than anything else
is a real love and dedication to it, so that you really make those scores
BD: Are you trying to make each one the best
Verdi, or the best Wagner, or the best Maxwell Davies?
HH: No, you’re over-stating what I
meant. By making your own, I mean that you really know them
inside out. You memorize large portions of them so that you feel
you could step into any one of the characters of that opera and perform
BD: So you really take it into your
heart, rather than just your mind?
HH: Yes, so you know that special feel for
every character in the opera, and for the orchestration, and for the
whole thing, so that it doesn’t stay at the surface. The conductor
is the one who really most dramatically represents the composer.
BD: You’re the composer’s advocate?
HH: Yes, I think so. We also have to be
detectives, and figure out why the composer wrote the piece in the
first place, and how he went about it. Where were the inspirations?
Why was this scene chosen instead of another scene, and why does
this aria come to this character instead of another character? You
need to know how the whole piece moves. What we have to do as conductors
is to make every moment of music sound inevitable, like it’s the only
right moment of music that could come out of the previous one. That
takes a lot of quality.
BD: Are there some pieces that just
simply don’t work because they’re not strong enough?
HH: Yes, I think so.
BD: Should they be done anyway, or
should they be consigned to the library, or the waste basket?
HH: One looks to see where is the value.
Is it in wonderful arias and great melodic material that’s memorable,
or is it in an unforgettable drama? Generally, the popular operas
are so popular because of the marriage of the characters with their
music, so that it all becomes inseparable. You can’t think of Carmen
without thinking of the Habanera, the Seguidilla, and
the Card Aria. You can’t think of the Barber in The Barber
of Seville without Largo al factotum. Their principal
music becomes absolutely associated with them, and we find it in all
the truly popular operas. So that gift of the composer to characterize
the leading figure in an opera is a key part of that, and it is a conductor’s
job to thoroughly delve into that, and to discover why these things
work the way they do.
BD: Is that something you can impart to other
composers, and say certain things work for this particular reason,
or try this, or go in that direction?
HH: Yes. I’ve done quite a lot
of work recently with composers and librettists, and also with conductors.
I’ve worked with composers and librettists on how they should really
work together, and what kinds of things they need to work out between
them in order to create a libretto that is compose-able, and that also
will hold the stage. I also did an opera conductor’s
seminar two summers ago, along with Gunther Schuller. We
had about eighteen young conductors there.
BD: Are you optimistic about the future
HH: Absolutely! There’s a lot of vitality
in the field. To go back to your previous question about how I
feel generally it’s going, some of it’s going very well. I mentioned
the producer who is changing the style and period, and I didn’t really
mean to get off on that exclusively. Many things are going
very well. There’s a tremendous amount of talent
— vocal, instrumental, conductors, directors, designers.
We’ve just loaded with wonderful talents.
BD: We’ve made so many strides, technically,
and we’re getting technical perfection. Are we getting musical
HH: Not in the sense as you pronounced
the word ‘musical’, no. We’re not getting enough of that.
We’re not getting enough music-making that people really care about,
that people really love. Opera people tend to go off for extremes
— high notes, how long did the tenor or soprano
hold this note or that note, things like that — which
are really extraneous. One of my pet peeves about this business
is that conductors are always thought of as dealing with the orchestra,
and because that’s the way reviews are written, that’s what everyone
things about it. Certainly, the conductor conducts the orchestra,
but he spends infinitely more time with the singers than he ever does
with the orchestra.
[At this point we were abruptly informed that our particular
backstage space was needed for something else, so we had to quickly end
BD: Thank you so much for meeting with me again.
It was nice to talk to you.
HH: Great to see you, too.
© 1980 & 1990 Bruce Duffie
These conversations were recorded in on March 19, 1980, and in mid-March
of 1990. Portions of the first one were broadcast on WNIB two months
after it was recorded, and the second one a few days after it was recorded.
This transcription was made in 2019, 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.
winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with
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
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.