Bass  Gwynne  Howell

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


Gwynne Howell , one of the world's leading basses, was born near Swansea June 13, 1938.  He obtained degrees from the University College of Wales and Manchester University before pursuing his vocal studies at the Royal Northern College of Music.

Recent North American engagements include Lulu for a return to the Metropolitan Opera, Dansker in Billy Budd, Benoit/Alcindoro in La Bohème for Houston Grand Opera, and Bartolo in Le Nozze di Figaro at Santa Fe Opera. In Europe, he has appeared in Gianni Schicchi for the Royal Opera, and Poppea for Welsh National Opera (televised and serialized by BBC Television). For the English National Opera, he sang The Croucher in the world premiere of The Silver Tassie by Mark Anthony Turnage, Bolkonsky in War and Peace, Schigolch in Lulu, Dansker in Billy Budd and King/Aida. He has appeared in Glyndebourne productions of Pelléas et MélisandeManon LescautDon GiovanniFigaro and Otello; and for Covent Garden as Schigolch in Lulu, Jake Wallace in La Fanciulla del West, Titurel in Parsifal, Old Convict in Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk and in the world première of The Tempest by Thomas Adès.

After several successful years with Sadlers Wells Opera, Gwynne Howell moved to the Royal Opera House Covent Garden, where he has sung most of the major bass roles with the company in productions including AidaRigolettoBallo in Maschera, Luisa Miller, Don Carlos, Simon Boccanegra, Otello, Forza del Destino, Boheme, Tosca, Don Giovanni, Eugene Onegin, Peter Grimes, Billy Budd, Parsifal, Tannhauser, Das Rheingold, Tristan und Isolde, Parsifal, Die Meistersinger, Die Zauberflöte, Khovanshchina, Boris Godunov, Norma, Fidelio, The Flying Dutchman, Katya Kabanova, Le Nozze di Figaro, Salome, Pilgrim's Progress, Mathis der Maler, Palestrina (including a tour to The Metropolitan Opera), and Stiffelio.

Gwynne Howell has returned regularly as a guest to English National Opera, most notably as Hans Sachs in Die Meistersinger, Banquo in Macbeth, Gurnemanz in Parsifal, and the title role in Bartok's Bluebeard's CastleFidelio, Ariodante, and Khovanshchina. He also sang King Philip in a production of Don Carlos for English National Opera, in which he "brought the whole performance to life and raised it to a higher plane of artistry."

Other operatic engagements have included King Mark (Tristan) conducted by Sir Reginald Goodall for WNO, Iolanta for Opera North, The Magic Flute and Ermione for Glyndebourne, the world première of Peter Maxwell-DaviesThe Doctor of Mydffai at Welsh National Opera, and concert performances of Les Troyens with Sir Colin Davis and the London Symphony Orchestra.

International performances have taken him to the Metropolitan Opera, the Chicago Lyric Opera [see chart below], and the major houses of San Francisco, Santa Fe, Toronto, Hamburg, Cologne, Munich, Paris, Geneva and Bruxelles.

Gwynne Howell has appeared all over the world with many leading conductors such as Abbado, Davis, Dorati, Barenboim, Boulez, Bernstein, Giulini, Haitink, Levine, Maazel, Mehta, Muti, Ozawa, and Sinopoli. Since making his US debut with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Solti, he has returned regularly for concerts with both that orchestra and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and also for concert performances of Oedipus Rex and Fidelio with Solti in Chicago, Bluebeard's Castle with Ozawa in Boston and Oedipus Rex with the New York Philharmonic.

His many recordings include Mahler Symphony No. 8 with Ozawa and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Ballo in Maschera and Luisa Miller and Rossini's Stabat Mater with Muti, Tristan with Goodall, the Messiah with Solti, and Beethoven Symphony No. 9 with Masur [DVD shown below]. He has recently completed a new recording of Un Ballo in Maschera for Teldec.

In 1998 he was awarded the Commander of the British Empire (CBE).

==  Biography from Colbert Artists Management  
==  Names which are links throughout this page refer to my interviews elsewhere on my website.  BD  

It was while he was in Chicago in October of 1985 for Samson at Lyric Opera that I had the pleasure and privilege of speaking with Gwynne Howell.  As we were settling in for the chat, my guest noted that he did not do interviews very often.  The word which comes to mind is
self-effacing . . . . . . . . .

Gwynne Howell:   So how did you pick me as a guest?

Bruce Duffie:   [With mock horror]  Should I not pick you???  You’re a famous opera singer!

GH:   [Smiles]  I don’t actually see that side of me as a person.  That’s my job, but I never think it begins and ends there, nor am I the sort of person that people are interested in what I’m doing, and how I’ve sung things.

BD:   Would you rather still be a city planner?  I read in your biography that’s how you started out.

GH:   No, not really.  Being a singer and having this sort of career is good fun, and it’s a privilege, a rather unusual privilege.  It leads to this sort of thing, or [gazing out the window on a grand cityscape] being able to look at that view, or going to play tennis or squash here, or going to a nice luncheon.  All those sort of things are a bit unusual if you do them at home, but when you say, 
I was in San Francisco last week playing golf, that’s a bit unusual... other than for singers who like that sort of thing.

BD:   Do you not like traveling all over the world?

Gwynne Howell at Lyric Opera of Chicago

1977 - Meistersinger (Pogner) with Ridderbusch, Lorengar, Johns, Evans, Riegel, Dooley; Leitner, N. Merrill, O'Hearn, Tallchief

1985-86 - Samson [Handel] (Manoah) with Vickers, Shade, Plishka, Anderson, Gordon; Rudel, Moshinsky, O'Brien, Tallchief

1986-87 - Parsifal (Gurnemanz - 1 performance of Act 3 (replacing Sotin)) with Vickers, Troyanos, Nimsgern; Perick, Pizzi
                 Lucia (Raimondo) with Greuberova, Shicoff/Di Paolo, Raftery, Kunde; Mackerras, Reichenbach, Bardon

Gwynne Howell with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra
== All performances and recordings conducted by Solti, with Hillis preparing the chorus ==

April, 1975 [US Debut] - Requiem [Verdi] with L. Price, Minton, Pavarotti (Performances in Chicago and Carnegie Hall, NYC)

January, 1976 - Oedipus Rex (Creon) with Pears, Veasey, Gramm, Walker, Klemperer [Program shown below]

May, 1977 - Missa Solemnis [Beethoven] with Popp, Minton, Walker; (Performances in Chicago and Carnegie Hall, NYC
                                                                                                              & Recording - Grammy, Best performance of a choral work)

May, 1979 - Fidelio (Don Fernando) with Behrens, Hofmann, Adam, Ghazarian, Sotin, Kuebler  (Performances in Chicago and Carnegie Hall, NYC & Recording)

April, 1983 - Rheingold (Fasolt) with Nimsgern, Becht, Schnaut, Jerusalem, Tear, Smith, DeGaetani; (Performances in Chicago and Carnegie Hall, NYC)

September/October, 1984 - Messiah [Handel] with Hynes (performances)/Te Kanawa (recording),Gjevang, Lewis; Schrader (Harpsichord)

January, 1990 - Mass in B minor [Bach] with Lott, van Otter, Blochwitz, Shimmel (Performances, & Recording - Grammy, Best Choral Performance, Classical


GH:   Oh, I do, but the thing is you don’t normally meet other people who have such an expansion in their life.  It just doesn’t happen.  There was one incident with our next-door neighbor.  He’s traveled quite a bit, and had a very varied life himself.  He’s a Frenchman, and he works for a newspaper in Fleet Street.  I was asked at reasonably short notice to go and sing a Beethoven Ninth in the Carnegie Hall with Bernstein and the Vienna Symphony on tour.  I had been previously asked to do the concerts
one in Washington and one in New Yorkbut I couldn’t do the Washington one, and I thought the whole thing had died.  All of a sudden, about four or five days before this particular concert at Carnegie Hall, his secretary rung me up and said Lennie would like you to come and do this.  He wasn’t happy with the bass that did it in Washington.  I was free on the night of the concert in New York, but I had Bohème performances at Covent Garden with Kleiber on either side of that.  So, the only way that I could get out there was to fly on the Concorde, do the performance, go to bed, get up the next morning, and fly back.  It was very unusual for my neighbor to say he hadn’t seen me around for a couple of days.  He asked me where I had been, and I said, I just went to New York and did a concert and came back.  We’re always pulling each other’s legs, so he said, No, no, what were you really doing?  I didn’t see you this morning.  I didn’t see you jogging.  I said, “No, I actually went to New York and sang!  I can’t believe it myself, but I actually did do that!  So, I suppose you can’t really treat life like that.  It’s real, and yet it’s very unreal, and I think that maybe symbolizes a lot of the profession.  It’s stage performances or concert performances, and they’re real.  People are sitting in the audience, the orchestra are playing, the singers are standing on the stage, that’s real.  But the whole unusualness of it is somewhat unreal, and perhaps it’s that which I can’t really relate to.  So you being here for an interview is perhaps more of an unreality than the reality of actually doing it.  Do you understand?

howell BD:   [Waving his hand overhead]  I’m actually going to disappear now...

GH:   [Laughs]  I don’t shy away from the publicity of it, but I don’t harbor it either.  It’s just something that happens, and you accept it.

BD:   Do some singers seek out too much publicity?

GH:   I know that some of my colleague friends have got PR people working for them to make sure their photographs appear in papers, or that something is written about them.  I suppose it would be very hard, under cross-examination to say that you didn’t actually covet publicity for yourself, but I would never seek it out.  I was staggered when somebody said about somebody that I know fairly well that he’s got a PR person working for him.  I said,
What on earth for?  I didn’t really quite understand it, and obviously that involves time on your own behalf to evoke that sort of need.

BD:   Is that PR person somebody different than the agent?

GH:   Yes, a pure PR consultant, working and getting gossip columns or feature writers to write articles, or mention them.

BD:   Would that make it more unreal to come into San Francisco and find your name in a column, and come to Chicago and find your name in another column?

GH:   Not really in that aspect because I haven’t done anything other than I was coming to sing in the opera, and if it was a feature on who’s singing.  But if it was somebody trying to rustle up notice, or if I was actually paying somebody to create PR for myself...

BD:   Maybe not a column on the opera, but that you had dinner at a famous restaurant, or you were seen jogging down by the lakefront?

GH:   Yes, I would think that’s a bit unusual.  Is it really of any importance for somebody to tell somebody that I’m actually jogging along the lakefront?  To actually feel that you, as a personality, need PR like media people or film stars, seems unbelievably crazy.  I really couldn’t.  Whatever time it took to devote to that seems to me to be rather a waste of time.

BD:   But you don’t mind doing a few isolated interviews?

GH:   No, no, the thing is that I didn’t generate it.  I knew you wanted to see me without my having prompted it in any way.  What I’m saying is other different sorts of singers, or their agent and their PR person, would be getting in touch with you so that you make sure that this takes place.  In seventeen years of singing, this is the third one of these that I’ve done, and that seems to be okay.  [Laughs]  In fact, I did one about six or seven years ago for Welsh Radio, and then this summer I did another one, and strange as it may seem, we were at a small college in Wales, and they both were done in exactly the same room.  I said, 
I’m down here on holiday, and if you want to do that, then let’s do it where I am.  It’s easier to do, and so they just came.  That’s fine if there’s some interest, so let’s do it!

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   You sing some Wagner, so do you think of yourself as a Wagner singer at all?

GH:   Until recently, I didn’t define myself as any sort of singer.  I just thought of myself as a singer.  If I
m asked to sing something, I’ll consider singing it, and if I want to sing it, I’ll sing it.  If I don’t want to sing it, I won’t sing it.

howell BD:   How do you decide if you will or you won’t?

GH:   With the sort of opera career that I have, I was fortunate enough to go slowly up through smaller roles to medium roles, and then to big small roles, and then big medium roles, and then really big roles.  So, my progress through my opera career has been pretty gradual, and I’m grateful that I had a chance at least to sing most of the things in the bass repertoire, although I can’t say that I’ve sung many of the big roles many times.  I’ve sung most of the Italian major bass parts, and most of the Wagnerian bass parts, and it seems that at the moment, if you were taking a cross-section, it probably comes out weighted in favor of the German-Wagner repertoire, rather than the Italian.

BD:   Does that please you, or does it not make any difference?  [Vis-à-vis the DVD shown at right, see my interview with Robin Leggate.]

GH:   I don’t think it makes any difference, really.  I have a feeling that if you look at most of the Wagner singers, to sing Wagner on top of Wagner on top of Wagner on top of Wagner, doesn’t help you to continue to sing well for a long period in your career.  I suppose the only one I know of that’s survived a tremendous amount of Wagner and still sung well to the end of her career is probably Birgit Nilsson, whom I had the pleasure of singing with.  That’s the only one that I know that I’ve sung with who’s still singing other things.

BD:   So if you were asked to sing what you thought was too much Wagner, you might cut it back and ask for more Italian roles?

GH:   Yes, I would say I’m going to do this and this and this this year, and that’s it.  Then I would look for other things to sing.  I was just talking to Jon Vickers while we were rehearsing Samson, and in talking about most of his major roles he said,
I do this in January, I do that in May, and this in September, and then I do other different Italian things in between to get a balance, to lighten it off, and not to keep the voice in one particular style or weight of singing.  I don’t know whether it’s conscious, but I get the feeling that perhaps Domingo is somebody you look to as being a great technician and giving proper planning his career as much as he can.  I don’t think even he sings too much of any one thing, because it’s wear and tear on the voice, emotion, even physique.  You have to work tremendously hard in a performance, and I suppose you could just liken it to any sort of sport.  No boxer wants to be having a really tough fifteen-round fight all the time.  No tennis players want to be playing three and half hour-five-set match-finals all the time.

BD:   Is singing like an athletic contest?

GH:   I would think it’s a sport.  You’re using two muscles to sing.  You’re using your strength, and your breath, and your concentration.  Name me a sport that doesn’t need all those things!

BD:   So, you find it’s really more athletic than sitting behind a desk and doing paperwork, which uses, perhaps, more concentration?

GH:   Yes.  You need to be strong and fairly healthy to be able to do it.  I’m not saying fit, but fairly healthy and strong, and it does require strength, and stamina, and courage.

BD:   Do you find yourself keeping more fit doing this than you would if you were having a desk job?

GH:   It’s easier to keep fit while I’m doing this because I have days free, and I try as much as I can to exercise at least three or four times a week, even when I’m at home.  That may be a variety of things.  It’ll soon be too cold to jog, but since I’ve been here I’ve run three or four times a week down from this building, to the Natural History Museum on this side, across the freeway, and back up the lake and back again.

BD:   That’s quite a little distance!  [The whole trip would be about four miles.]

GH:   I don’t know how far it is, but it takes me about forty-five minutes, depending on how I feel, if I run fast or slow.  Then I play a lot of tennis and squash, and I’ve knocked a few golf balls up on the driving range at Diversey and Clark, and I walk there and back.  [That is about four miles each way!]  Then what happens is you fall into the syndrome of feeling good, you sleep well, you eat well, and really you should sing well.  You don’t get so tired.  You’ve got lots of stamina and resources to fall back on.

BD:   Do you need more stamina to sing Wagner?

GH:   Yes, I think you probably do.  You need the stamina and concentration, and that burns up a lot of energy.  You need vocal stamina and you need a tremendous amount of concentration.  I’m not saying that you don’t need concentration to sing the Verdi parts, but they tend to flow easier.  You get into an aria, and you sing it.  Wagner doesn’t really have arias, as such.  They’re rather argumentative or philosophical, and that demands a lot of concentration.  There’s not
Addio a thousand times, as you’ve got in some of the Italian operas.  Everything is rather profound.  If you just stand there and sung it like a puppet, it wouldn’t register.  You have to think, and then the color and the energy of whatever you’re thinking comes out.

BD:   You’ve sung some of these parts in both English and German.  Do you have to concentrate more in German, or can you concentrate more in the English and bring it across?

howell GH:   I think they’re probably about the same.  What you have to do is just know where to color the words.  I myself feel that if you’re not German, then there’s a strong argument about singing the big roles in your own language.  This is not to assist your understanding of it, because you can do that through the German, but to get a better feeling near to how you feel about it in your own language with the music.  That gives you a better foundation for an expression in a foreign language.  But I’m maybe wrong...

BD:   No, you’ve got a great supporter in Reginald Goodall.  When I talked to him a few years ago, he mentioned that you had sung some of these parts, especially King Marke, very, very well, and then when you started singing Marke in English, you came into your own.

GH:   [With a broad smile]  Right, and I think that they interplay on one another.  One is a foundation, and I can’t see any real difference.  It’s not the same in English, but it’s only the music with the words.  As you said, I’ve both sung roles first in German and then in English, and also sung them in English and then in German.  If you were talking about Sachs or Gurnemanz or Wotan, it’s not too bad an idea to feel them in your own language.

BD:   Do you feel there’s more communication when it’s in your own language, and when you sing a line you know that the audience knows exactly what you said?

GH:   [Thinks a moment]  I don’t see any difference.  I’ve sung roles in Russian
I did Khovanschina in San Francisco a year agoand I don’t speak Russian, my wife doesn’t speak Russian, but I love singing in Russian.  It’s a wonderful, wonderful language.

BD:   Very singable?

GH:   Very singable, and they had supertitles above the proscenium.  [Remember, this interview took place in the fall of 1985, when the use of supertitles was just starting to gain popularity.]  My wife came out and saw two performances, and she’d seen the opera before a couple of times at Covent Garden when I did it there.  She said she found that a great distraction.

BD:   [Surprised]  Really???

GH:   Yes, she much preferred to listen and watch and hear.  The plot is not terribly complicated in this opera, but I was surprised.

BD:   The only time I’ve seen was in Seattle for Die Walküre.  They’d started a new Ring up there, and we saw it with the supertitles.  They were wonderful, and I found them a great help.  I know the opera intimately, but I enjoyed it and found that audience did, too.  [See my interview with the Seattle production team
conductor, director, designer.]

GH:   Do you feel because you knew it so intimately, your desire to read every word was not compelling because you’re well versed in what you were listening to and watching in the performance?

BD:   I was watching it because of course the Wagner moves slowly enough.  The line would be up there long enough to read it, and yet when the line disappeared and you’d finished reading it, there was still more of the line coming on stage.  I don’t know how it would work in a comic opera, or an opera with lots of recitative.

GH:   Perhaps it has a merit.  We slowly have to make that sort of adjustment, and then all of a sudden you feel something that remains in suspension takes a definite stride forward, and perhaps it will bring a greater understanding and kill that myth that you have to be a virtuoso linguist to be able to enjoy opera in a foreign language.

BD:   Will it kill the idea of singers learning operas in translation?

GH:   I hadn’t thought about that.  No, I don’t think so.  You have to have the music of the piece, and if it’s in German, then the best music in Wagner is the German language.  But we’ve been very fortunate in getting very, very skillful translations in English.

BD:   The ones by Andrew Porter especially?

GH:   The Porter ones, and there’s a wonderful translation of Meistersinger, which is a mixture of two or three, that’s been adopted through the towns.  It is very clear and explicit.  In percentage terms, it’s probably ninety or ninety-five per cent as good as the German text, and brings other qualities of understanding of both character and communication with the audience because that is a high communicator.

BD:   So then you gain much more than you lose?

GH:   You gain much more than you lose.  The audience very much are listening to the thoughts and the interplay of the characters on the stage, and, of course, it’s moving very slowly.  Certainly, for English audiences, perhaps it could be said that they get much, much more drama out of it if it’s in English.

*     *     *     *     *

howell BD:   How deeply do you delve into the various roles that you sing?  You said you have sung a lot of roles not very many times, so do you get a chance to really probe the character?

GH:   This question first came up when I did King Philip.  The question about his background, and I said,
As far as I know, King Philip was about five foot four, about 145 lbs., and suffered with gout.  I’m six foot four, 220 lbs., and I don’t suffer with gout!  What I thought then I don’t think has changed very much.  All of a sudden you are the king.  You’ve got the circumstances of the plot, you’ve got the music, you’ve got the costume, you’ve got the scenery, and all of a sudden you’re doing the role.  All sort of major things are set there for you, and it’s how we react to all the things that you’re given that determines how you interpret a performance.  I’m not going on and trying to do a direct take-off of any known character.  I’m not doing a President Reagan, or a Charlton Heston.  All I’m trying to do is to be that kingly person on stage so that the other members of the cast can relate to it.  It must have enough strength that they can relate to it, and that the audience can recognize it.  That, I feel, is the next stage of the development of the character.

BD:   But you still want to be at least some King Philip II of Spain.  You don’t want to be King Howell I of the opera house?

GH:   [Laughs]  No, obviously not, but I think that it should grow out of it.  It’s like taking very small steps on stones across the river.  I don’t really want to jump to the other side; I want to just go carefully, and each circumstance in the opera will begin to grow.  It’s like, perhaps, feeling your way in the dark.  But if you go on and say,
I’m going to do this here and I’m going to do that there, that sort of thing never works.  For me, at least, it’s never worked, and I’ve never seen it work for anybody else.

BD:   Now you take all of these steps in rehearsals.  Do you still take more steps each performance?

GH:   Yes.  Different things happen in performance because you’ve laid the basic foundation of how you do it.  If you’d laid the whole thing out too carefully, then you’ve got no room to move if anybody does.  You might come off stage and say to another artist,
You didn’t sit down in the same place tonight! Or, “You should have looked at me like you did before.  If you’d gone on with such a preconceived idea in your mind of how it’s done, then you can only play the character one way, and that’s a very dangerous precept to have.  Let’s look at another sporting analogy.  If a golfer can only hit a five iron from any particular spot, someone else would say, But you don’t need a five iron here!  You need a seven iron because the ball is in the rough and it’s not in the exact same place!  You would not be quite sure what to do then.  The thing is that an opera role has to have a foundation, and enough freedom for you to create a performance.  Otherwise you might get to the point where you’ve done the character so much that if you went into a new-thinking-production, you’d be in a whole heap of trouble.

BD:   Do you like new-thinking-productions?  There’s certainly a lot of them now.

GH:   Yes, I do, provided they’ve got a strong element of common sense about them, and are not just abstract art.  [Both laugh]

BD:   Have you been involved in some that have no common sense at all?

GH:   I did the premiere of Maxwell Davies’s Taverner
, which is the most modern thing that I did.  [Ragnar Ulfung sang the title role, and Howell sang the role of Richard Taverner, the composers father, and would later sing the premiere of another Maxwell Davies opera, The Doctor of Middfai, as well as premieres by Adès and Turnage.]  Through the rehearsals, the music, which, to my ears is not like singing Schubert or Wagner (but it’s not meant to be), I found it a bit of a shock to discover how I hear music.  When the production started, I felt this was just crazy, but in the end, I found quite an expression in it.  Although we had three-four bars and four-two bars and five-eight bars and nine-eight bars and nine-seven bars all in succession, and the conductor was doing all sorts of strange jerky thingsby which I mean he wouldn’t know which bar he was in, and in one or two performances it went astray a bitI was able to put it right because I had absorbed some of the actual music, which I found was rather surprising.  It went wrong, and we got it right.  I don’t think any of the audience would ever know that there was anything wrong with it.


BD:   Was Maxwell Davies out there?

GH:   Yes, he was!

BD:   Tearing his hair out?

GH:   No, he wasn’t tearing his hair out.  He was aware that it was difficult, and even though he knew it was difficult for the singers, he wasn’t making any excuses for his composition.  He knew that we were trying to do the best that we possibly could with it, and the overall production was actually sold out, and brought back, and it sold out again.  It was a very interesting concept, but I’m not sure that I would really like to do it often.  If you’re talking about doing new and different things, that seemed to be very, very hard work, and the reward was you’d done it and mastered it, but it wasn’t an ongoing thing.

BD:   Did the public like it?  You said it was sold out.

GH:   It was! It had a sort of almost helicopter set.  It had these tremendous arms on the scale of balance, and they were rotating on the stage.  Ben Luxon was the jester who was dressed in black and white.  It was an intriguing bit of theater, a bit of an unusual theater.  It was very well-produced, but I don’t know if it would last.  It hasn’t got any lasting qualities.  I’m sure that it will come back again.  Somebody will want to express it as a bit of theater, but then you can’t always have everything.  It’s a mixture of things.  You can’t always have Taverner like you have an ongoing Ring cycle, or an ongoing Otello, or an ongoing Mastersingers, or Tristan, or Parsifal, or Masked Ball, or Bohème, or whatever that have got to be eternally in the repertoire.  Just occasionally the producers and conductors will feel that they want to revive something, or do something different, and then you go and look, and see what can be put into the repertoire, and just do it.  Those things are that sort of function.  I suppose you could say that Handel’s Samson probably also falls into that sort of category.  It is an interesting production...

BD:   But not one you’d want every year?

GH:   Not one that you’d want regularly, but one that when Handel or Bach becomes more involved than other times, you say,
Yes, it did work, and it was interesting to see that.  I suppose that is how the operatic art will either survive or not survive.

BD:   [With hopeful anticipation]  Are you optimistic about the future of opera?

GH:   I am!  It
s been talked about a lot during my career as to whether there will soon be opera performed even at the end of my career.  But I’m very optimistic about it because the music is beautiful.  You just can’t beat it.  Some of the music in some of the operas is just tremendous.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   You talk about some operas, and say it’s theater, and in other operas it’s music.  Where’s the balance?

howell GH:   The balance may be in the audience sometimes.  You have music and you have theater.  One feels that in the main, perhaps the American approach is to pay to be entertained.  We were talking about how the American audience would take to Samson, and I said I was not sure.  I feel that they pay for the ticket, they go in, they sit down, and they want to be entertained.  That means that for one hundred per cent of the time it has to be pushed out from the stage to the audience for them to be entertained.  I said that Samson isn’t like that.  You’ve got to actually lean forward to involve yourself into it, so that you can then set up the process of tapping the enjoyment of it from the stage.  It also demands more concentration than the average opera that the American person might go and see.  I don’t know... that’s only as I feel it.

BD:   It takes a different kind of understanding than Bohème or Meistersinger.

GH:   Right, but the thing is that when you go and see those, it’s easy.  It’s all happening in front of you, and you just have to enjoy it.  What happens when you have to turn that around a bit and get more involved in what’s happening, and concentrate, and listen?

BD:   How much do you as a performer expect from an audience?

GH:   [Thinks a moment]  That’s a hard question to answer!  I never thought about it in those terms.  The way I feel is that I go out on stage, and I actually perform to my limit at that time.  If they don’t like it, I can’t really affect that too much.  If I’ve given of my best, I hope that some way I’ll have made a communication with them.  Perhaps if they didn’t like it, they may think that I failed to communicate in general terms.  I suppose if they didn’t like the production, and didn’t like the singing, there’s not really much that you can do.

BD:   You’ve done your best.

GH:   There’s no way you can go other than that.  You can’t do anything about it.  Other than that, you probably think that you have perhaps failed.

BD:   I trust you don’t feel you failed very often.

GH:   No, I hope not.  It’s very hard to be consistent, although we try to.  Earlier on in my career I used to think that perhaps audiences thought we are a bit inhuman, that we can actually do it all the time to a high standard.

BD:   Do records contribute to that feeling that singers are inhuman?  They hear their record again and again, and you always do it exactly the same.  Then they come to the theater, and it’s a little bit different.

GH:   Yes, I think they’ve not helped at all.  That
s one of the disservices, and it’s a much talked about among singers themselves.  However, there are far fewer recordings being done now.  When I started singing, they recorded half the operatic repertoire every year in Rome, and Berlin, and London.  One of the disservices was that lots of singers sang things on record but you never, ever see them singing those roles on stage.

BD:   Is that a mistake?

GH:   I think it is.  You might just find that you’ve been asked to do it on a recording when you haven’t as yet done it on stage, but you surely don’t want to end up saying he or she could only do it in the recording studio; they couldn’t actually do it on the stage.  That’s like trying to run a world record on your own private track on the grounds of your estate, but not actually doing it at the Olympics where everybody else has to do it.  Let’s take a big Wagnerian role.  You might find a Brünnhilde that’s marvelous in the recording studio because there’s a technician there, making it sound like three people singing.  But if you’re actually here you on stage, it doesn
’t come across.

BD:   Then are records frauds?

GH:   They distort sometimes what a singer really sounds like.

BD:   Are you pleased with the way you sound on recordings?

GH:   Very often these things come out and the record companies never tell us about it.  Or you have to ring up and say please can you send me a record of so and so, so I can hear what it was like.  However, I don’t listen to them very often.  It’s not the sound that I hear, and I can’t get used to it.  I did Christus in the St. John Passion very early on with Benjamin Britten when he conducted it in Aldeburgh.  [Cover of the LP and insert from the CD re-issue shown below.]  It was a wonderful experience to work with him and Peter Pears, and when I heard the play-back, I thought, gosh, that really does sound like me!  But the recordings often remain boxed in the house.  They’re in the past, and I’m not too keen on going back and listening.  But if I listen to it just when it comes out, it’s never been any good, really.  I feel they missed it, somehow.  I did a broadcast of the bass arias of St. Matthew Passion with Abbado and the London Symphony at the Edinburgh Festival, and I didn’t think I sang particularly well in the concert.  But I did an interview with the London Music Society, and the interviewer asked me to bring some things along.  So I grabbed a few things, and actually found the cassette of this one in the car as we were driving there.  I listened to one or two of the arias, and I was a bit surprised that it did sound quite nice.  I asked my wife if I really sing that well, or can I really sing that well?  I listened to it, and I thought if it were somebody else, I would have said it was really, really good singing.  I suppose it’s hard for me to think that I actually can sing that well at times.  It’s all a bit a strange... I might give the impression in this interview that I’m a bit overwhelmed by it.  I’m not, really, but it’s very unusual.  I’m okay when I’m doing it.


BD:   Can I assume you like doing it, and are fine while it
’s going on?

GH:   I like doing it.  I love doing it, but when I stand back and look at it, it seems a bit strange, a bit odd.  I’ve always felt like that.  But I love doing it and I really enjoy all the things that go with it... but not to blow it up out of proportion, and not to go for the PR.  When I look back, it’s a thing that I can do best.  If you say how you view one’s career, I think I’ve been very, very lucky to find something that I can do best.

BD:   How do you balance opera and concert, and is that a conscious thing, or do you just take what comes?

howell GH:   I basically take what comes, but I’ll try and be careful not to mix too many things.  You look carefully at what you sing before and what you’re going to sing afterwards, to make sure you’re not trying to demand too many different things from your singing.  A recent example is when Domingo sang Otello at the Met, and then he followed that with Tosca, which kept the voice light.  He went back to a light way of singing.

BD:   You’re singing Handel here in Chicago.  Is that keeping your voice light?  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at right, see my interviews with Elly Ameling, and Anna Reynolds.]

GH:   Yes, I think so.  It’s been very good singing the coloratura, and the way you think about it, and it’s not too taxing.  I’m going back to do Gurnemanz in Parsifal, and singing Semiramide.  I was going to do Sachs again, but the dates got all mashed up, and I had to take that out of the repertoire.  Eighteen months ago I sang Sachs in The Mastersingers at the English National Opera, and that was, I suppose, an enormous major departure.  I didn’t think so myself, but lots of people thought I wouldn’t get anywhere, and I shouldn’t do it.  I didn’t know whether I should do it, either.  All I did was to learn it and give it my best shot.

BD:   It seems now that we’re getting the deepest voices to sing Sachs, rather than the baritones.

GH:   Strangely, Lord Harewood at the English National Opera was more supportive and encouraging to ask me to do these things, more so than Covent Garden, which I really think of as my house.  I didn’t know whether it was a good thing or not.  He told me to learn it, sing it, see what I thought about it, and if I discover when I’m actually singing it that it’s not for me, then say so.  So, it started out that I did two performances of the Wanderer in Siegfried.  I suppose it was like a pilot scheme, and they went well.  It was pretty demanding, but I enjoyed it, and it was with Goodall.  I knew I wasn’t going to do myself any particular harm at the Coliseum, which holds 2,500.

BD:   Does the size of the house matter?

GH:   No, I don’t think so, although it’s a bit awesome when you’re on stage here in Chicago.  My own feeling, having been in the audience and on the stage, is that the pit is a little wide and it’s not covered in enough.  The orchestra, by virtue of the openness in front of the stage, is sometimes too loud for the singers.  That’s why singers get a bit nervous about singing here.

BD:   Of course, you’re very lucky, because about ten years ago the floor of the pit was about four feet higher than it is now.  They’ve been digging it down in the last few years.

GH:   They should cover it, I think.  Why does music sound so well-balanced at Bayreuth?

BD:   We did Frau Ohne Schatten last year, and they had a screen cover, like a heavy scrim over the pit, with a little hole for Janowski when he was conducting.

GH:   After all, it’s not singing accompanied by a symphony orchestra; it’s the balance between the two.  If you’re a Goodall fan, you know what it can sound like.  Because I wasn’t involved with the Ring cycle at the Coliseum, I sat through all his first night performances.  You’d sit there for an hour and twenty minutes and say,
Oh, that’s finished?  Gosh, so quick! because everything was in proper balance.  You wouldn’t say, Thank God it’s the interval! with your ears ringing.  It’s the proper balance.  It was music!  If you ask anybody who is a sort of mediocre about music to listen to Wagner, they would say, Wagner???  Oh, no, I never listen to Wagner.  It’s loud!  It not ought to be, but it always is huge French horns, and big drums, and banging, and all of this.  That is a total misconception, as Goodall proved.  Like Schubert or Puccini, it all is music.  When you’re on stage, you don’t really want to blast your voice for five hours, because it’s a bit boring.

BD:   So there has to be a shape and a delicacy to it?

GH:   There has to be a shape and a delicacy.  It’s like having too much food, or too much of anything.  It’s got to be in balance.  You’ve got to have that nice five-course dinner with a spectrum to each part of it.  If it’s too loud, then we’re all too loud.  We’re singing full out, the orchestra is full out, and it just doesn’t become interesting.  You don’t hear the colors.  It’s like an artist just painting in black.

BD:   And pretty soon the canvas is just covered?

howell GH:   And pretty soon the canvas is just covered.  There’s some vague shapes, but you can’t really tell much, and in the end, you get bored with it.  It’s too much, an unpleasant trauma because you’re not getting what’s happening on stage.  It’s pretty unreal.  If singers are singing that loud, they’re just shouting at one another.  If you get two neighbors trying to speak to one another while somebody else is revving up a motorcycle, that’s what it sounds like, and it’s a bit unreal. 

BD:   Then, the one time you need it
such as the end of the second act of Meistersingerthen you’ve got it.

GH:   Right, absolutely.  When it’s supposed to be noisy, it comes out of all that peace and quiet.  Then, of course, comes the contrast when all the noise has finished, and it’s very quiet.  The Monologue is just transparent thoughts.  I sometimes feel with those things that it would be nice in that scene if you were perhaps on stage, having already sung it, listening to yourself singing it, and those are your thoughts.  They’re not really part of the same place.  The audience are listening to your thoughts, and not your voice because that what it really is.

BD:   So if this were done for television, would you want him to sit without opening his mouth, with the music going on like a soundtrack?

GH:   That could well be
Sachs sitting in thought.  You could certainly that on television.

BD:   Does opera in general belong on television?

GH:   I don’t know.  I’m not enough of a futurist.  Television, as I see it at the moment, probably doesn’t give it enough dimension.  It sometimes needs that CinemaScopic feeling in the theater
part of the excitement that we’re all in here, the doors are closed, and we’re seeing the opera.  It’s like steam in the bathroom... you open the door, and it all escapes, but if you’re in there, it’s all happening.  I think that’s all the excitement.  We’ve all been to performances where the duet is wonderful, or somebody is singing so well you feel terrific.  You can feel the buzz, and it’s a tremendous feeling which you can’t get on television.

BD:   That wouldn’t even come across on a live broadcast happening at that time?

GH:   It might do.  We have heard some tremendous concerts, and you can almost feel it.  I don’t whether it’s because I know it to be the Proms and this sort of thing, but sometimes you can just feel that there is something happening.  I don’t know how they get it on the radio, but you can sort of hear it, and you know when the last chord
bangthat the applause doesn’t take you by surprise because you already feel that motivation.  The television is an education in seeing it performed and listening to the music, but its harder for you to feel that motivation.  Do you know anybody who gets really taken up by watching a video of Bohème?

BD:   Some people get involved in it as much as they can, but it’s still one step removed from the real thing.

GH:   Yes, it’s lacking in some dimension.  It’s hard to determine.  Maybe it just does bring opera to people who otherwise wouldn’t experience it or see it.  I don’t know whether it is the same over here, but even though I don’t smoke, I know that at home now each cigarette company has a little thing saying that you should be aware that smoking is harmful.  Perhaps they should put a notice on the video saying,
This is just a video, but please go to the theater and see it!  This is not the definitive version!  Please go and see it so that you get the whole picture.

BD:   Repeated listening can distort your ears!

GH:   Absolutely.  Perhaps each video production should come with a twenty-dollar subsidy to go and see the opera in the theater.

BD:   Or maybe the tape should self-destruct after ten viewings.  [Gales of laughter all around]

GH:    Right.  [Laughter continues]

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Going back to Meistersinger just a little bit, now that you’re singing Hans Sachs, if someone asked you to sing Pogner, would you do it?

howell GH:   Yes!  I don’t discriminate.  It’s hard to say with how I sang it at the ENO whether Covent Garden would ever ask me to sing Hans Sachs there.  I hope that they won’t cross me off, and I’ll end up not singing Pogner, either.  But I see no reason why I shouldn’t.  I wouldn’t be vain enough to feel that I should be singing Hans Sachs instead of Pogner because it’s a real test of your courage and stamina for you to get through that role.  They did approach me about Sachs, and if I could have prepared it properly, yes, I would have been delighted to give it a go.  I know some of it in German, but
it’s got to be re-studied.  It’s not one you can just pick up.  You have to feel that you’re capable of doing it.  It’s like training for the 10,000 meters, or a marathon.  You may get away with it in the short-term, but in the long-term, you’ve got to be very careful to leave enough time.  You also should enjoy doing it.  You don’t want to be on a cliff-hanger.  You’ve got to make sure that you’ve got three or four days between each performance.  You don’t want to find you’re singing one on Saturday and one on Monday.

BD:   [With a gentle nudge]  What about when you did Bohème at Covent Garden, then flew to Carnegie Hall for the Beethoven, and then back to Covent Garden?

GH:   [Laughs]  But I wouldn’t be doing that the following week, or the following week, or the following week.  It was just a one-off thing.  Bohème was okay.  I felt well and I knew what I was doing there, and going to Carnegie Hall to just sing for five or six minutes, and you have one day between that and the next performance... so that was okay.

BD:   Was it worth flying across the Atlantic for five or six minutes?

GH:   Sure, just to fly the Concorde.  [Laughs]  I’ll balance that out by saying that I’ve been asked quite a few times to go somewhere at two or three days’ notice to sing something.  Even if I find that I have some idea I’m going to do it well, and if I am going to try and do it well, I sometimes don’t really want to do it.  Then on the other side, sometimes it is great fun even if there is no compensation at all.

BD:   I’m glad you can say no when it is necessary.

GH:   The thing is that I’ve said no when I wasn’t in a position to say yes, or because I just felt that I wasn’t going to do it well.  Maybe I wasn’t on, and I just didn’t feel happy about doing it.

BD:   Then you really are much more of a singer than you like to admit, because you’re thinking of your career, your voice, and your well-being.

GH:   Yes, but I’m also thinking of being fair to the people who are offering it to me, the people in the audience, the other people in the opera.  I need to know I can do it well to say yes.  It’s a lesson you have to learn, and you have to screw it up once.  I went to Cologne when I should have known that I didn’t feel so good.  I was at the airport and the flight was delayed two hours.  Then I felt a little bit better, and I caught the plane, went to Cologne, and started to rehearse the Verdi Requiem.  Then I got up one morning and said,
I’m sorry, I’m not well, I have to go home.  So, I just got on the plane and went home.

BD:   I’m sure they weren’t very happy about that.

GH:   They weren’t very happy about it, but I talked to the conductor, and he said,
“If that’s the decision you make, fine, and I’m sure you’re making the right one.  Just try and sort it out.

BD:   Do you find that most conductors are kind, or do they ride roughshod over their musicians?

GH:   I won’t mention the conductor, but I have been in rehearsals where all of us are a bit tired.  There are conductors who the only way that they feel happy with the rehearsal if they have the definitive version every time.  A rehearsal is only a rehearsal.  You must have something for the performance.  You can’t have it all within the rehearsal, and in the performance, and in the next performance, and in the next performance.  We’re treading a very thin line here.

BD:   Do you ever get things over-rehearsed?

GH:   They can over-rehearse, and the conductor can ask for too much.  Some singers can do it and some singers can’t.  Part of being a professional singer is to know when you’re able to do it, or when you’re able to give it a bit extra, or when you can’t.  It’s no good singing very well in the rehearsal, and then in the evening going and making a real mess of it. 

BD:   Thank you for being a singer, and for spending this time with me today.

GH:   Oh, a pleasure.


Three recordings of Ballo in Maschera, one where Howell sings Samuel, the other two where he sings Tom.
See my interviews with Martina Arroyo, Piero Cappuccilli, Fiorenza Cossotto, and Robert Lloyd.



See my interviews with Thomas Allen, and Gillian Knight


See my interview with Anthony Rolfe Johnson

© 1985 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in Chicago on October 23, 1985.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB the following year, and again in 1989, 1993 and 1998.  This transcription was made in 2018, and posted on this website at that time.  My thanks to British soprano Una Barry for her help in preparing this website presentation.

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

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

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