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
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 requested.
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 forty-five-week
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
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
* * *
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 different?
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
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 forward.
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 is
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
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 decisions?
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 appreciably improve.
* * *
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 repertory
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
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 past.
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 in
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
* * *
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
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
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
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
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
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 the
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 what happened.
BD: Are these flashbacks made clear in
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
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 opera?
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
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 craft?
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 extent.
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 The
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 again?
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 of stage.
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 it!
* * * *
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 happen.
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,
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
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 it.
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 it credibly.
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
[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
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.
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.