Director Bodo Igesz
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie
Bodo Igesz was in Chicago in
February of 1988 listening to
auditions, and he graciously took time from a very busy schedule to
chat with me.
While setting up the tape machine to record our conversation, he spoke
a bit about his background. “I always had
an interest in languages, and at the University in Amsterdam I got
interested in music and drama and found the meeting place of those
two. I used the scholarship money to go to operas in Salzburg and
Bayreuth and Paris and Berlin, as well as seeing things in Amsterdam.”
As usual, names which are links refer to my Interviews elsewhere on
Here is the rest of our conversation . . . . . . . . .
From the viewpoint of the stage-director, where is opera going these
Along strange paths, I would say, very strange paths. I’m not
very sure one can say where opera is going at all, but I hope it’s
going somewhere. There are so many strange directions developing
that you wonder sometimes if it will even continue.
[Genuinely surprised] Really??? So you’re not optimistic
about the future of opera?
Igesz: Not so
very much. What you see happening at the moment in opera
production is sometimes the strangest ways of re-interpreting old
repertoire which has to be found because of the lack of new
repertoire. That is a major problem. Very few worthwhile
new operas are appearing on the horizon, therefore the direction that
opera production takes is by hook or by crook trying to find new hats
for old people.
you enjoy looking for new hats?
do enjoy it if a certain opera seems to be right for that new
kind of hat. What I think happens too often nowadays is that one
chooses the hat first and afterwards asks what is the opera, and that
is backwards. What you see happening often is that directors or
designers have a specific style that they neither adapt nor change for
whatever opera they’re doing. I have the greatest admiration for
directors and designers who look at opera first and ask what it is
about, and look at its history, and then try to find how to do it in
the right way. It can be “right” for our time or “right” for all
time, but they should not be looking to do their own ideas from this
viewpoint or from that angle or in that style, and only afterwards ask
what is the opera. That’s not done so much here in the US, but in
Europe it happens an awful lot nowadays.
there any way to get more new operas written and presented?
can give commissions, of course, but if you look at the lack of
interest for the few “popular” modern operas, you see how badly modern
opera sells. Especially in American there doesn’t seem to be much
future for it.
this the fault of the composer or the performer or the public?
not so much the fault of the public; I think it’s the whole development
of music. Look at symphony programs. You’re constantly
re-hearing the same symphonies of Brahms and Mozart and Schubert.
I enjoy going to them no end, but you don’t see anything new appearing
that really has a following. Opera, by necessity, needs a
following because it costs an immense lot of money to put it on, and
it’s done in larger opera houses. That, I think, is the crux of
the matter. And because the same old repertoire keeps being
repeated, you get this attempt to present the old things from new
angles. There are only a few ways to do a piece that make sense.
you make sure everything you do makes sense on the stage?
always try. If I have to do a certain opera, I start looking at
[Interrupting] The music or the text?
together, and the background of the work. Then I try to find a
style. I don’t necessarily try to find a new style. If a
new style presents itself to me, fine, but I don’t admire those
directors who look for a new style at all costs. That is
something that doesn’t work. If a new line is the way to go, the
new style will present itself to you. But to say the opera,
whatever opera you’re doing, must play on Mars or in a steam bath, is
very, very sad. Things like that have happened in Europe.
is the right direction for you?
a very difficult question. The right direction to me is something
that for my eyes and my ears today makes sense to the opera in question.
you re-examine it for each opera you do.
how do you decide which operas you will accept to direct and which
offers you will let go to someone else?
are certain things I rather accept, and other things I would rather not
accept, but my various bills must be paid each month. In general
I am basically interested in any kind of opera, and the more unusual
the better. In my career I’ve done pieces where the ink was still
wet as I was staging them. Sometimes the music was really awful,
but thank God the libretto was wonderful, so it was great to do.
Since I’m not the most famous director in the world, lots of
bread-and-butter operas come my way, but I thank the Lord when I can do
something else. I enjoy doing Monteverdi and Cavalli, as well as
Berg and anything that I’ve not done in the last fifteen years.
As a stage-director, I always keep looking for the chance to do certain
even if it was a standard work, if you hadn’t done it ever or in a long
time, you’d jump at the chance.
Igesz: Oh, of
course! There are some works you stage again and again, and
others you wait for twenty or thirty years to do. For example, I
just came back from doing my first Così
you put all the memories of having seen many performances of this opera
to work, or did you scrap those ideas and start completely fresh?
don’t think you can scrap that, whether it’s been good or bad.
you learn from others’ mistakes?
you learn from others’ greatness?
Absolutely. I hope everyone does!
you mention Così, who
winds up with whom at the very end?
was my first production, so the original couples wind up
together. But Così
is a very subtle work, and I don’t think you can put a very drastic
ending to it. It wouldn’t fit with either the libretto or the
music. But at the very end, I had the woman of one couple
(Fiordiligi) and the man of the other couple (Ferrando) look at one
another and make a gesture to the public that indicated they do not
know what will happen in the future. That kind of subtlety is
right with Mozart.
Duffie: So it
was the right thing to end with a question mark?
Exactly, and the libretto gives no indication.
you stage both old and new operas, is it more difficult to do a world
premiere because there is no point of reference?
Igesz: No, I
don’t think so. It might even be easier because you have nothing
to fight off. You start completely from scratch. No matter
what opera I am doing, I always have the memory of a production I’ve
seen somewhere, and even if you don’t follow the pattern, the good
things you’ve seen will always sneak themselves in somehow.
the singers will mostly have sung the work under different directors.
Igesz: That I
usually don’t find to be a problem. Usually there are very
interested in what I have so say about the work. A major part of
the work of a stage director is to be a psychoanalyst, to work on the
psyche of people to get them to see things your way, and to make things
work in a way that fits those people. I’ve never had the
experience of someone saying he couldn’t do it any other way than what
he’s done before. Especially in America, singers are more than
willing, even grateful for the chance to do something new, especially
if they’ve sung the work many times before.
you ever get too much rehearsal?
much rehearsal is worse than too little. I’ve never had too
much. I’ve learned how to make do with one week or with two weeks
or with three weeks or with whatever length of time there is. One
time I had five weeks and I thought it would be a luxury, but we just
managed to get it ready by the skin of our teeth. That was Henze’s The Young Lord, and it was the only
time where, in the fourth week, I thought it would not be ready for the
work with big, established stars in the major opera houses as well as
with students at the Music Academy of the West. What are the
differences for you in those two situations?
don’t think that you can really generalize it. “Working with
major stars at the Met” really doesn’t exist. There is a vast
difference between working with Elisabeth Söderström and with
soprano X, and a vast difference between working with José van Dam
and with baritone X. Singers can be difficult to work with or are
protected by management or things like that, but in my personal
experience that is very much the exception. The difference
— which is why working at the Music Academy of the West is
so interesting — is that you have the chance to
discover roles with young singers because you automatically get people
who have absolutely never done anything like it. When working in
the big opera houses in Europe and America, there are certain things
you take for granted that you don’t even touch any more.
Suddenly, in order to take steps C and D, you have to teach steps A and
B, and that is nice.
you’re in Chicago listening to voices. What do you listen for?
musicians from the Academy who are here with me listen to the
voices. I also listen to the voices, but I also look at how they
present themselves and how they would develop as actors and whether
they would fit into our productions. As you may know, Santa
Barbara offers places for 20-22 singers, and since we’re doing
Britten’s Midsummer Night’s Dream,
most of the singers in our program will have to be in the
production. So we’re especially looking for a certain amount of
men. I suggested the opera, fully aware of the problems,
including the need for counter-tenors! When we put an ad in Opera News, I asked that a note be
included that counter-tenors could apply, and we’ve had several
audition! I was amazed and yet pleased, having originally feared
that we would have to get somebody from outside to do the role of
Oberon. Since the program is not only opera but also lieder interpretation and art
songs, we look for people who would benefit by joining the program in
the applicants aware that a stage-director will be listening to the
auditions as well as just the musical staff?
Probably, since I’m listed as Director of Productions. They sing
an aria of their choice, and then give us a list of others from which
we choose what we’d like to hear. Naturally, whenever possible we
choose to hear something that will show different aspects of the
voice. That can give a whole different outlook on the
possibilities of the individual.
then work with the winners at the Academy?
Igesz: I just
stage the operas, but with each one double-cast and the singers taking
voice lessons as well as lieder
classes, it takes six to eight weeks to stage each opera.
You’ve also worked in Europe?
worked in Frankfurt and in my home country in Amsterdam as well as
other towns in Holland. I’ve also worked in South America, but
because I live in New York and I’ve been at the Met for many full
seasons, most of my career has been centered in this country. I
started at the Met in 1963, which means I did two seasons
at the old house. The
new house is a big house, with all the advantages and disadvantages of
a big house. It no longer has the kind of “company” feeling that
it once had. It is constantly enlarging and getting to the point
it’s terribly impersonal, and that’s not very good for an artistic
the audiences different from country to country?
yes, very much so. Until a few years ago, audiences were much
more open to new things in Europe than they were here. That is
not necessarily the audiences’ fault. There is much more
introductory and preparatory work done by publicity in European
newspapers. I often try to convince managers of regional
companies to do lesser-known works, and they complain that they can’t
sell them. But I’ve found even here that if there is enough
publicity and lectures, and if the work is presented right and it is
worthwhile, it will sell.
makes a work worthwhile?
it’s something that works onstage, that works in the opera house either
as music or as drama or as both. There are certain works that
audiences get bored with, and for good reason. They are not
you shy away from those that don’t work so well?
No. I like to try and make them interesting. I did Midsummer Night’s Dream in 1975 in
Central City, Colorado. We sold out ten performances, and
Colorado is not particularly operatic minded. It was
publicized. I would love to do one of those wonderful Lortzing
operas, but no manager with try it. They work in Europe, and with
a good translation could work well here. But managers hesitate,
and have a real fear of not selling. I think that fear is
opera work well in translation?
not against opera in English at all, as long as it’s a good
translation. Not those Ruth and Thomas Martin jobs, please.
I’m not in favor of supertitles. They work for serious operas but
not comic operas because the pacing of the titles is different from the
stage action. Having said that, I should tell you that I make my
own titles. That way I have control as to what appears
there. I’ve noticed that other translators fail to take into
account whether each title could be misinterpreted in a funny or
pornographic way. I speak French and Italian and German, so it’s
easy for me to say the titles are not needed, but I can see why the
public likes them.
you spend your life working with this tradition and passing on these
ideas. What about the people who spend their time in other
businesses and come to the opera after a long hard day at work?
synopsis and a good production should be all that is necessary.
There are a few exceptions, but in general, that should be
enough. The idea of using subtitles came first from movies and
then from TV, but that’s a whole different ball game. You are
looking at the screen, and with the same look you see the action.
I know many singers who feel it’s an insult to have these things
flashing above them. On the other hand, I’m told that the titles
seem to have brought more and new public to the opera.
big question, then. Is opera art or is it entertainment, and
where is the balance?
both. For me, it’s 80% art.
but I’d rather have a good translation than titles. In serious
operas, it depends on how important the text is. You have to be
so careful what you translate for titles because much of what you
translate is even more ridiculous than the original. I know
because I’ve done it! [See
program from Seattle Opera below.] You can explain the
story of Tosca or Rigoletto or even Trovatore in a very tight
synopsis. Why do you have to understand every last word?
Even if you speak fluent Italian or whichever language the opera is in,
you don’t understand every last word.
don’t feel it brings the audience closer and gives them an added
doesn’t give it to me. I can do that at home with my record
player. I know I’m in the minority with that opinion, though some
do agree with me.
course you’re working primarily for the Met, whose management has said
there will not be titles in their house.
has nothing to do with it. I don’t speak for the
Metropolitan. I often disagree with the Metropolitan and they
very often disagree with me. I’m not sure that people get more
out of opera now than they did twenty years ago. It’s an acquired
opera for everyone?
Igesz: No, I
don’t think so.
what is the purpose of opera in society?
is the purpose of plays or concerts or football matches in society?
mock horror] Are you equating the Chicago Bears with the Lyric
people are as enthusiastic about the Bears as others are about
Opera. That’s everybody’s own personal choice. It’s
interesting what you say. What they’re trying to do with
subtitles is to draw everybody into the theater — even
people who are not that interested in it. It’s wonderful to sell
seats, but maybe that is the wrong way.
What’s the right way?
good productions and presenting works that get people interested!
Do works that are accessible, such as a good Fledermaus or a good Abduction. Also do youth
programs and dress rehearsals for youthful audiences. It’s
difficult for me to discuss this because I’m from a European
background. It may be a little bit different here, but the whole
thing gets much too much stress at the moment. In the final
analysis, they do more harm than good.
you think opera works well on the television?
Certain things, yes, especially the way the technique has gone ahead
and the quality of the TV broadcast has improved. It has the
disadvantage of people seeing that one Turandot or that one Turn of the Screw and thinking that
is the way opera has to be. The same is true with audio
recordings. I have lots of records, and I prefer the “live” ones
to the studio ones. I like recordings and I like live
performances in the theater, and you can’t compare the two.
there anything you can do to streamline performances a bit?
Igesz: I like
to eliminate intermissions. The
Marriage of Figaro should be done with one intermission, and Bohème with two, not
three. But doing that depends on where the production is being
given, and takes a certain sophistication on the part of the
audience. You can’t play high-and-mighty and say the audience
must sit for an hour and a half. Festival situations are
different from subscription evenings after workdays.
about cuts in the music?
depends on the conductor and the director. There are many cuts
that are traditional. They are done just because it’s always been
done that way, and it’s wonderful to open those cuts. Then there
are cuts that have been made for a Very Good Reason, often by the
composer himself. We can judge these things by performances that
are now being given completely uncut, and you wonder why on Earth must
we do it with every repeat. It’s very nice for a recording, but
not in the opera house. That’s very personal and everybody will
judge it differently. When I begin working on an opera, I try to
look at the libretto as though I’ve never heard or seen it
before. That’s a very good standpoint from which to view the
whole score. Then when it comes to cuts, I ask if it adds to the
performance to open the cut.
closely do you work with the scenic designer?
it’s a new production we work very closely. But these days with
the lack of money, regional companies don’t do many new
productions. They will rent a setting or use an existing set and
change it around. That’s sad. But to do a new production is
wonderful, and for a stage director it’s gourmet food.
closely do you work with the lighting designer?
Usually very closely. The ideal situation is when the set
designer is also a very good lighting designer. I’ve done many
new productions with someone who did both, and it produced wonderful
results. But I must say that today there are many fabulous
lighting designers. I grew up at a time when Europe was
discovering that lighting could take the place of 50% of the scenery,
and I’m very much of that belief. If you have a really good
lighting designer, you can come out with a far smaller budget for
advice do you have for someone coming along who wants to be an operatic
Igesz: Try to
find a really fantastic stage director whom you can assist in a theater
for a few years. I’ve worked with Zeffirelli, but I learned from
only one man — Gunther Rennert. He would
meet an opera on its own terms.
you allow someone to apprentice themselves to you?
but I would not advise that. I’m not that great. I have
people asking me, but I’m not so filled with ego. I can do very
good productions and I have a good knack for working with people, and
it happens from time to time that I will let someone work with me for a
while, but I don’t pretend to be someone at the highest level.
Yes. It can be bloody murder, but to me it’s mostly fun.
Otherwise, I wouldn’t have stuck with it for thirty years.
you have any advice for young singers?
Igesz: Try to
get somewhere and find a company who will hire you on a season’s
basis. Not a huge house like the Met, but one where you can sing
a lot of big roles and small roles during the season to learn.
The Lyric Opera Center for American Artists is great. Then
don’t shout it all away in the first five years of what could have been
a forty year career. That happens so often. Get
experience, and for Heaven’s sake, get your languages together.
There are so few people who really know how to do French, Italian and
German. I’ve seen works in Swedish or Russian or Czech
— that I don’t speak — and I take
the trouble to read the synopsis in an opera guide that I have. I
also read the program. Until recently, nobody in Europe would
dream of having subtitles in the opera like they were in movies.
I find that for myself, I get the very best results when I do a work
— any work, old or new — for the
first time. A second production of something will never be as
good as the first one. Somehow I fail to bring that kind of
freshness to it. Opera is a conglomerate effort — singers,
designers, conductor, director. The stage director can be
over-accentuated these days sometimes. I’m not doing MY opera,
but rather the COMPOSER’S opera. It’s as I see it, but it is the
composer’s opera. To prepare a production, I work very hard at
home and write down everything I want to do.
do you slavishly stay with that?
Igesz: I stay
slavishly with the general concept and embroider onto that. My
experience is that singers are intensely grateful if you work with them
like that. Singers have the responsibility to know what is in the
score when he comes to rehearsal. A director, unless he is a
Brilliant Improviser, must have a certain detailed idea of what he’s
going to do. Singers have told me horror stories of working with
directors who block scenes and then after a few days re-block, and
later re-block again. They arrive without the foggiest notion of
what they’re going to do. Problems have to be worked out ahead of
time, unless something just doesn’t go well.
you capitalize on the strengths and weaknesses of the singers?
yes, definitely. And having worked with many of the artists, I
will know some of that in advance. The world of opera is not so
big, and if you don’t know someone, you don’t plan something terribly
tricky. You can always add more if the singers are up to
you have any advice for the established singers?
is going too fast, especially for musicians. You have to get
there the next day instead of growing slowly. I’m always
intensely happy to meet a singer who says he was offered a role and
told them maybe in 15 years. Thank Heavens, somebody who
thinks. I also did plays early on in my career, but I
happy doing operas as long as the general working atmosphere is nice,
and usually it is. I’m not a
frustrated conductor, but my hobby, when listening to broadcasts and
recordings is conducting.
that make it better when you’re communicating with the conductor on a
yes. I think so. I hope so.
Duffie: Is it
at all frustrating to work every day until the premiere and then leave
Yes. It’s always a letdown. On the other hand, you don’t
have to see your product disintegrate after a few performances, which
you come back after the third or sixth performance and do a little
touchup or scream a bit?
[Laughs] Well, you don’t have to scream, but I give notes.
Usually the first, second and third performances are the best of the
production in the opera world. It’s different if you have an
ensemble theater and a cast that is the same throughout.
would think a new cast member might keep everyone on their toes.
but it’s not the way to keep a wonderful production alive.
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© 1987 Bruce Duffie
This conversation was recorded in Chicago on February 13,
1988. The transcription was made and published in The Opera Journal in March,
1995. It was slightly re-edited, the photos, links and biography
were added, and it was posted on this
website in 2016.
To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been
transcribed and posted on this website, click here.
Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975
its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001. His
interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since
and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well
on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.
You are invited to visit his website
for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of
other interviews, plus a full list of his guests. He would also
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.