Radio  Commentator  and  Author  George  Jellinek

Two conversations with Bruce Duffie



jellinek




This webpage contains two interviews with radio commentator George Jellinek (December 22, 1919 - January 16, 2010), long-time host of the nationally syndicated program The Vocal Scene.  Amazingly, however, what you are about to read is both typical and unique.  

The typical part is simply two interviews with a guest who was notable in the field of Classical Music, in this case specifically opera.  It is also typical that names which are links on this page refer to my interviews elsewhere on my website.

What is unique is that, to the best of my recollection, the second interview, from September of 1995, is the only case in my entire radio career when the conversation was done live on the air.  All the others were pre-recorded, and selections from the conversation were broadcast, along with recordings and/or promotion of upcoming performances.  This time, Jellinek and I were both in the studio together, and the program was being transmitted as it happened.  We inserted musical selections to illustrate specific topics, and we both knew various ideas we wanted to discuss, but it was live and not pre-done.  This did not bother either one of us, but, as I say, it was unique in my experience.

Jellinek was born in Hungary, where he lived until he was nineteen.  He developed his love for opera there.  Included on this page are a couple of photos of the Budapest Opera House, and images of recordings of some of the Hungarian operas he mentions during our discussion.

We begin with the first of our two meetings.  Jellinek was in Chicago at the beginning of 1988, and when we got together at his hotel, we jumped right into the topic at hand . . . . . . . . .


George Jellinek:   So, what are we going to do?

Bruce Duffie:   First, you can answer the burning question...  Where’s opera going today?

GJ:   Oh, just like that?

BD:   Just like that.

GJ:   Opera is going into many, many directions, and I hope that they will come soon to where opera will be returned to the people who create illusion, not necessarily the directors.  What I’m trying to say, in my awkward way, is that there’s too much power right now being exercised by stage directors, and designers, and producers.

budapest opera house BD:   Where should the balance be between the music and the drama?

GJ:   It is not the balance that bothers me.  It is the liberty that certain individual directors take in approaching the opera from personal and untraditional viewpoints.  I know that marks me as a deep-rooted conservative, which I’m not, really.  It’s just that some of the innovations, or very, very daring departures, bother me.  They seem like self-serving efforts rather than product or music-orientated efforts.

BD:   Do you expect the stagecraft to grow and be innovative?

GJ:   Absolutely, yes.  We’ve just had a very interesting Ring cycle in New York.  It did not please everyone.  In many ways it was traditional, but it presented a beautiful picture along traditional lines, and yet it did not have any of those antics with the helmets and stage mannerisms.  We have a generation of singers that has been pulled away from these stock gestures.  They’re intelligent, and often they’re good-looking, and do respond to intelligent direction, but that direction should not be bizarre.  Opera, after all, is not a modern art, especially when you deal with traditional works.  It’s useless to pretend that this is futuristic.  I have a feeling that this has grown out of a very distinguished past, and one eye should be directed to tradition.

BD:   Where should the balance be between the old traditional operas and the brand new works?

GJ:   You mean in terms of repertoire?

BD:   Yes.

GJ:   There again, I’m a very practical person, and I feel that if you ignore the demands of the box-office, opera will die, and there will be no opportunities for innovation.  Certainly, a smart manager must realize that his first goal is survival.  Let’s take your season in Chicago.  I don’t want to talk about the Met because, after all, I am in Chicago.  You have about ten operas per season.  Am I right?

BD:   Right.  It’s nine this year.

GJ:   With about ten operas, at least three or four of them should be repertoire staples, the kind that will assure one hundred per cent attendance.  For the remainder, there should be at least two twentieth century works, and I don’t mean necessarily Puccini.  I mean, perhaps more imaginary pieces, such as Peter Grimes, The Carmelites, Wozzeck, Lulu.  This is probably not a very popular view, but I don’t believe that a first performance of a very, very modern opera should take place in a major theater.  The major theaters
such the Met, Chicago, and San Franciscoshould not present a test of work.  I know that I’m probably contradicting myself, but La Fanciulla was not tested when the Met produced it in 1910, and a number of other successes came to mind.  But unless you have total freedom from financial pressuresand who has that freedom today?I don’t think you should take a work like, for instance, Penderecki’s Paradise Lost, which you did a few years ago.  It probably cost a fortune, and it has not been heard of since.  This is what bothers me.  If the opera is worth doing, it should be worth doing twice, or three times, or four times.  But if it results in a forbidding kind of failure, then who is going to be the suicidal impresario who will bring it back?  If you had a certainty that you had another Puccini in your hands, then I imagine you can be emboldened to do such a work.  But I will say that new works should be done under modest auspices.  Then, having tested the waters, if the work is navigable, by all means lead it into a safe harbor.

BD:   You’re advocating not taking any risks whatsoever?

GJ:   It’s easy for me to tell an impresario to take risks because it isn’t my budget.  The Met has done a certain amount of risk-taking, and they lost a lot of money, and I don’t want these major opera companies to go under.

BD:   Should opera ever be made to pay its own way?

GJ:   It cannot happen.  It is not on the cards.  I don’t see how.  A number of years ago, I was told by Rudolf Bing [General Manager of the Met from 1950-72], or one of his assistant managers, that every night they lose money.  At one time, it was a very dangerous thing to do.  There was a strike, and somebody in management at the Met took a very sardonic and unpleasant view.  I don’t know who that person was, but he said,
That’s all right.  We’re making money while the theater is dark.  It’s a horrible thing to say, and yet these are the horrid economics of the situation.

BD:   Then let me ask the big philosophical question.  What should be the place of opera in society?

GJ:   Opera in society has always existed.  It is an elitist art.  I don’t see opera as a populist art, so sacrifices must be made.  Subsidies must be given to sustain opera, but it would be unrealistic to expect a Federal government, or the State of Illinois, or New York, or California, to sustain opera.  There are too many social problems today that require grants and subsidies.  Much as I love opera
it’s been my lifebut it is not today’s first item on the agenda.  We have to face that.  We have to know that.  So, the sustaining of opera should come from private sources.  It should come from subscribers, and from the opera lovers.  Actually, we, as opera lovers, are taxed to sustain what we enjoy.  I’m not so sure that this is unjust, because you have to pay for the good things in life, and perhaps it is unrealistic to have people who would rather go to the ball game rather than the theater, and who don’t really believe in opera, for them to be taxed.  In a society like Austria, people who have never seen the inside of the Vienna State Opera are absolutely convinced that it is their pride, and it must go on, it must be lavishly budgeted.  We don’t have that kind of tradition.

BD:   Should we?

GJ:   I think we should but we are a different nation.  We have a different and very, very important traditions.  Traditions sometimes come from the old west
which can be just as cherishablebut they have nothing to do with the Viennese tradition of Mozart and people who went before Mozart.  We are a different society.  I don’t think it’s good for us to try to ape the European model.

BD:   Is having opera on the television, so that can come into everyone’s home, going to expand the audience and make it more of a populist thing?

bank ban GJ:   Yes, it is.  The one danger with opera on television is that we have been very anxious to create super-stars, and the television audience is geared to personalities.  People who watch Sutherland and Pavarotti on television may not be willing to go to a theater to see that same opera with a lesser but worthy cast.  Our audiences have been sort of guided along star-gazing, and insisting upon seeing the great personalities.  We don’t have that many right now.

BD:   Is there any way to get around that?  Can we let them know that Madam X does it almost as well, or even as well, as Sutherland?

GJ:   Recordings have done a lot to introduce new talent and to create a beneficial, or a benevolent attitude towards another artist.  The public does not move easily, and we have this powerful exposure to hype, which is difficult to overcome.  Public relations is a very powerful tool in all fields of American activities
certainly including music and operaand it is not easy.  Very often I have this problem, also [on my radio program].  I would feature an artist whose career is limited, or primarily concentrated in Europe.  For reasons of convenience, or family obligations, some wonderful artists — such as Margaret Price, or José van Damseldom come to New York.  Then, if they do come, the Met allows three or four years before they re-engage them for certain roles.  In the meantime, the public forgets about them, and then when I play a record by such a person, the reaction I get is, “Never heard of her!  Never heard of him!”  People conceive an artist revolving around the United States, and the Met and Chicago cannot pay the fees that La Scala or the Paris Opera pay their stars.  Consequently, they don’t come there.  In Europe, Artist X can sing in Milan tonight, Vienna the day after tomorrow, and in London three or four days later.  What’s involved is a few hours of flight, whereas coming here, it’s much longer.  It’s a strain on the voice.  You have to worry about air conditioning, jet lag, and all that.  People have to consider these things, so my hope is the rise of American talent.  I think the best singers today are Americans.  Just look over the galaxy which includes Marilyn Horne and Samuel Ramey.  Here in Chicago you’re going to have the debut of Susan Dunn.  I think she’s fantastic!

BD:   But how can we get the public to be curious enough to give these artists a chance?

GJ:   Good reviews will do a lot, and then you can have Miss Dunn on your show...

BD:   Which we will [and did]!

GJ:   ...and make the public conscious of them.  These are the artists of the future, and are not just the future.  They are here now!  There are some good tenors even coming up, such as Jerry Hadley...

BD:   Neil Shicoff?

GJ:   Shicoff, absolutely.  American artists are coming up because the quality of teaching is excellent, and the opportunities are getting better.  I would like to foresee a rise of serious local American opera.  In other words, I would like to see Cleveland, Cincinnati, Newark doing more.  San Diego is already there.  These almost-million-population cities should be having serious opera companies, beginning with maybe a five-opera repertoire and growing from there.

BD:   Here in Chicago we have the Chicago Opera Theater, which starts when Lyric closes, and they do everything in English with young singers and simpler productions.

GJ:   It’s wonderful.  Of course, now the surtitles are complicating the situation.

BD:   I wanted to bring that up at some point, so let’s wade into it right now.  Do you think it’s a good idea?

fiamma GJ:   I think it’s a very good idea.  I witnessed the beginning of surtitles at the New York City Opera.  The system did not work perfectly, and there was malice directed towards it.  They pointed out the mistakes in timing, and, of course, it’s not an unalloyed joy.  On the other hand, I believe they are now in their third season and it’s going fine.  I recently visited San Francisco, and they’re a huge success.

BD:   They seem to be a huge success here in Chicago.

GJ:   I remember at home listening to a broadcast of the San Francisco opera by delayed broadcast on tape of The Marriage of Figaro.  It’s a comic opera, and to hear the reaction, to hear laughter and the joy at the right places was a wonderful thing.

BD:   What about the people who complain that you see the line, and you laugh before the singer’s actually sung in those words?

GJ:   Well, that happened.  The system must work, and this is still to be perfected.  It also upsets the singer’s timing.  But I believe these are improvable things, perfectible things.  You don’t have to read the line if you’re a purist and you feel that you know the opera.  But there is a lot of pretense here.  How many Americans know every word in Boris Godunov?  Let’s be realistic.

BD:   How many Americans know every word in La Traviata?

GJ:   Or, for that matter, Peter Grimes.  City Opera is now doing surtitles for English operas as well, and it helps.  It also helps eliminate the misguided thinking in opera that the libretto is not important, that the text is not important.  That is very important!

BD:   Is the use of surtitles going to mean the death of opera in English?

GJ:   Not the death of opera in English because, for instance, opera at a local level may not be able to afford the luxury of surtitles.  The temptation for managers is to utilize the vernacular will always be there.  When you are dealing with the American talent, English comes naturally to them, but it is going to endanger opera in English.  I am mindful of the danger, and yet I think it’s an excellent experiment.  I deplore the fact that the Met right now has gone on record saying it will not employ it because the Met audiences are in no way superior to your Chicago audiences.  They don’t know any more, and possibly less about the text of operas, and they can use as much help and support as opera audiences anywhere else.

BD:   Do you feel that having opera on the television, with the translations there on the screen, has helped to bridge the gap, and allow it to come into the theater a little more easily?

GJ:   I believe so, absolutely.  I’ve yet to find a person who objected to it.  As a matter of fact, even people who object to surtitles in the theater point out that on television it’s something else.  I don’t know why, but they do like it on the TV.

BD:   Possibly because of the proximity?

GJ:   Yes, and the position is not distracting.  I find it equal.  If you want to be distracted, you are distracted, but I find it terribly helpful.

BD:   I’ve not seen them from the main floor yet.  My regular seats are in the front row of the top balcony, so I’m looking down on the stage.  It’s really just a flick of the eye to see the titles at the top of the proscenium, but I can think that the people in the fifth or tenth row downstairs would need to move their head a tremendous amount.

GJ:   Yes, but if it’s done right it can work well.  For instance, at the City Opera
and possibly here, toothey eliminate the repetitions.  They don’t write O Dio seventeen times.  I have not yet seen how they manage an ensemble piece, for instance, the Lucia sextet.  I’m very curious to see that.

BD:   We had it here in Figaro.  There were occasions when there were two titles at once, and even occasions when there were three titles at once, and they made sure that in the staging, the person singing each title was under in the right place on the screen.  In other words, a person singing that phrase was in the right position, so that you could co-ordinate what you were seeing up and down.

GJ:   And it did work?

BD:   It worked perfectly.

GJ:   There you are!  That’s wonderful.  I’m delighted.  I’m all for it.

*     *     *     *     *

jellinek BD:   I do want to be sure and ask you about Hungarian opera.  You are from Hungary originally?

GJ:   Yes, I was born in Hungary, and I left when I was nineteen.  I was born on the same day Puccini was born [he in 1858], and André Kostelanetz [1901].  André and I became friends when we discovered that we were born the same day.

BD:   You stayed there until you were nineteen years old, so your whole early opera-going was in Budapest?

GJ:   Yes, it was, and it was fantastic because my father’s business moved to the capital from the suburbs in 1937.  It was a restaurant in a theatrical section of Budapest, and that meant near the opera.  Maybe a year after that I became a very avid opera-goer, and I spent, by my later calculations, about 150 evenings per year for those two years that I still remained in Hungary.  I learned my repertory right then and there.  The Hungarian Opera had an enormous repertory of perhaps fifty operas per season.

BD:   In those fifty operas, how many were standard repertoire, how many were new operas, and how many were Hungarian operas?

GJ:   [Laughs]  It’s a long time ago, but very roughly I would say about a dozen Hungarian operas.  In 1937, Turandot was eleven years old, Arabella, which they did not play was about seven or eight years old, so these were the contemporary operas of my time.  La Fiamma [1934] by Respighi, which I did see, received its first performance in Hungary in 1935 [the same year it was given in Chicago!  See the newspaper review at right].  I saw it in 1937 so that was absolutely contemporary.

BD:   Now when you saw La Fiamma, did you feel that this was a work worthy to enter the repertoire, or did you feel that it would be something else that would just be forgotten?

GJ:   It was an unforgettable experience.  It was haunting, spooky, frightening, a demonic kind of opera, and I felt with my then fairly limited sophistication as a music-lover and as an opera-goer
remember, I was an adolescentthat this definitely belonged in the Italian tradition.

BD:   Why is it never done now?

GJ:   It was done in concert performance about a month ago in New York.

BD:   Yes, but that’s really a revival.

GJ:   It is one of the many operas that can and should be done like that.

BD:   But if you felt that it should be in the repertoire then, today it’s not even done as often as Il Trittico.

GJ:   No, you’re right, but it’s been recorded, and that’s a very good beginning.  It was not forgotten in Italy.  Any number of operas by Mascagni, by Giordano, by Montemezzi, by Cilea are occasionally revived in Italy.  They don’t necessarily travel well.  Francesca da Rimini [by Zandonai] was given a few years ago at the Met, and got mixed reviews.  But it definitely belongs.  It deserves an occasional revival.  The Met was planning to do Il Piccolo Marat by Mascagni, but because of the economy they canceled the production.  Turandot was not given at the Met for about thirty years, and that does not mean that Turandot was not a viable opera.  Don Carlos was brought back to the Met by Rudolf Bing in 1950 after an absence of about twenty-five years.  Don Giovanni was out of the repertoire for twenty-five years at the Met, and so on.  So, when Chicago can only do nine or ten a year, how many operas are there that Chicago music-lovers would like to and cannot see every season?  This is something that you have to live with, and that’s what records are for.

BD:   Ardis Krainik [General Director of Lyric Opera of Chicago from 1982-97] has abandoned the idea of trying to balance any one season, so she balances three.  That means in any one season, like this season for example, we get two contemporary operas.  Last season we had two Strauss operas.  Next season we’ll have three Verdi operas, but if you look over any group of three seasons the balance is there, but any one season might be tilted in some way.

GJ:   Yes, you cannot really judge then, but whatever she does, she does it well.  I just read this report in The New York Times, and I think she should give lessons.

BD:   [With a proud smile]  Exactly.  Let’s come back to the Hungarian operas, because you have a particular taste and knowledge of all of this.  Why do we not know the operas of Erkel?

GJ:   They don’t travel too well.   First of all
and this may come as a great surprise to youright now they have a problem with the Erkel operas in Hungary.  They are intensely nationalistic operas which were born in those revolutionary years around or following 1848.  Remember the Risorgimento operas of Verdi?  These Erkel operas are heated up by the same intense emotion.  Hungary is not an occupied country, but it cannot do anything that displeases the Russians, and one thing that displeases the Russians is Romantic Nationalism, because they know what happened in 1956.  Hungarians are really a peppery people, and the Hungarian government does not want its own people to get revolutionary ideas, because it would mean independence, and that would get them into political trouble.  Therefore, you cannot perform an opera that is built on that kind of emotion, and then temperate it and apply the brakes.  You cannot do it.  So they do play them, but not often.  They play Bánk Bán and they play Hunyadi Lázlo, but not too frequently.  [Recordings shown above and below.]  The public loves them, and they would like to see them.  They are, I think, marvelous operas.  They are very old-fashioned period pieces, but in that period, they stand a comparison with just about anything that was written at that time.  Bluebeard’s Castle by Bartók is a different situation because that is kind of a mythological, mystical play.  It’s like Pelléas and Mélisande.  It’s ageless, mediaeval and it lends itself to all kinds of staging.

BD:   Perhaps if Erkel had been forced, as Verdi was, to move the locale and move the time, would they then be a little more acceptable?

GJ:   Oh, they’re acceptable.  Don’t get me wrong, the public loves them.  It is just politically unwise to put too much emphasis on them.  No, they’ll never go out of style.  [There is just a bit more discussion about Erkel (as well as illustrations of his image on six Hungarian postage stamps!) in my interview with
Ádám Fischer.]  They have a few very good contemporary operas, too.  They have a few good composersSzokolay for one — and his Blood Wedding was also recorded.  [Image of recording is shown below]  It is an excellent opera, but the public is just as tradition-bound as our public here.  They’re not much for experimentation.  They have a problem with Háry János because there currently is a tendency in Hungary to turn against folklore.  I don’t know why.  For a number of years, while Kodaly was alive, his teachings prevailed.  Now that he’s dead, there seems to be... I don’t want to call it a giant killing tendency, but all of a sudden everything that was fashionable for so many years is unfashionable today.

BD:   Will it come back again?

GJ:   It’ll come back.  The tradition is too rich to kill, and it is just that the Hungarian composers of today are caught up in this scene, the international maelstrom.  They write music that is international and interchangeable.  It’s lost its national character.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Now we’ve just brought up the subject of popular appeal and social fashion.  Is the public always right?

GJ:   No, the public cannot always be right, but I think history is right.  We wait a few years, and we’ll see what happens.  For some of the operas that initially failed, or did not please the public too much, eventually history sets them into the right perspective.  So, you have to wait and see what happens.  On the plane coming here, I read in today’s New York Times Mr. Messiaen was interviewed.  I hope I’m quoting him accurately, but he said that the ancient modes were in fashion for about ten centuries, and tonal music was in fashion for about three centuries.  Serial music was in fashion for fifty years, and minimalist music will probably be in fashion for about a few years.  It’s too soon to judge, and I disagree with Mr. Messiaen in one respect.  He seems to write off tonal music.  We haven’t seen the end of that yet.

jellinek BD:   We’ll be coming back to that?

GJ:   We are coming back to it, but, again, this is also a passing phase.  What happens today is that we live in a very fast-moving world.

BD:   Too fast?

GJ:   [Laughs]  Too fast for someone of my age, yes, but not of yours!  When I was a young man, we used to think that a generation meant thirty years.  That used to be more or less what we regarded as a generation.  The changes today in five or ten years are more vast and more radical and more drastic than the generational changes of my youth, and that is why someone in his sixties, as I am, cannot so easily comprehend these vast changes, not just in music.  [Pauses a moment]  I didn’t really mean to get involved in all that philosophy.  I don’t know if you are a parent, but I am.  I’m a grandparent.  I have thirteen-year-old granddaughter, and I listen to her in amazement.  I listen to the topics that she knows about, and the vocabulary she uses.

BD:   Does she go to the opera?

GJ:   She goes to the opera when her grandparents take her.  [Laughs]  Her parents have other interests.  They live in San Francisco, and they do go to the opera, but they don’t share my one-sided enthusiasm.

BD:   I’m just wondering what is the right age to bring children into the operatic world.

GJ:   Gradually and gingerly, and without forcing them.  I would say around ten.  Never to make it a chore, never over-sell, but let them go to something light
preferably now that we have surtitlessuch as Rossini, Bizet’s Carmen, Aïda, something that offers more than just pretty music.  It should be a spectacle or fun.  Not Don Giovanni, not Rosenkavalier.  I was exposed to Rosenkavalier at fourteen or fifteen, and it made no sense to me.  Because everybody knows the big waltz, I thought that’s all the opera was going to be.  Everybody would be dancing around.  Subtleties I didn’t have the mind for.  But the important thing is not to force anything.  No generation would stand for thatnot just today, but even in my time.  When it was an obligation, I didn’t like it.  Opera should sell itself.

BD:   Is it succeeding in selling itself enough to ensure its future?

GJ:   [With slight consternation]  I detect a concern in your voice about opera’s future.  [Both laugh]  I believe in opera’s future.  It’s always been a tough fight, and it will be a tough fight, and, yes, the audiences are growing.  They’re not growing in the proportions I would like them to grow because I’m an old-time record man, and I talk to record merchandisers.  I’m told about the figures, and I don’t like the figures.  In this overall huge recording industry, classical music represents five or six per cent of records sold.  In Europe it’s about ten per cent.  It should be ten per cent here in our country, too, and I hope that this rebirth of the record industry now with compact discs will inject a fresh new phenomenon.  It will increase sales once the hardware cost is absorbed, and, hoping for a continued reasonable economy, we’ll find rebirth of the classical recording industry also.  But the proportions I’m not too happy about.

BD:   You’ve brought up the whole subject of recordings, so let’s talk about opera on record.  Being such a dramatic art form, how well do you think it translates to a purely aural medium?

GJ:   It translates extremely well because, first of all, this is a brave new world, and now we have video opera, which has grown beyond my expectations.  I am not an avid fan of video opera, but I recognize its necessity.  You asked me a few minutes ago if I thought that televised opera would lead to an increase of the viewing audience and opera-lovers, and when I said yes so quickly, I would include video cassettes.  They’re helping immensely, and the repertoire is really quite considerable.  Much is being imported from Europe, not just legitimate items, but quite a bit of what we call ‘pirated editions’ have appeared.  Let’s leave legalistics aside, but they’re also helpful, and suddenly opera is a wonderful medium on records.  You can use your imagination, and if you don’t care, you just sit back and enjoy the voices, and not just the voices, but the total music.

BD:   You’ve experienced much opera in the theater.  Are the voices captured on the records really truthfully as they’re heard in theater?

ponselle GJ:   Very often better than truthfully!  You know what I mean...  [Both laugh]  Very flatteringly very often, yes.  The audio engineer has his or her power to modulate the balance between singing and orchestra.  Many of our conductors today have a tendency to dwarf the singers.  Sometimes it’s almost essential or necessary, because singers sometimes let them down, and being buried by a very considerate conductor when a singer is in distress is a thoughtful act.  But that isn’t always the case.  There are exceptions, but I would say that yes, generally speaking the balances are good.  The singers are caught to their advantage.  The problem there is that if the singer is a great dramatic artist, but a somewhat flawed vocalist, the dramatic art will not be fully conveyed to you through records, and the vocal flaws will be magnified.  I don’t want to name names but quite a few really captivating singers, especially women, really can hold you enthralled.  Then, when you hear that same interpretation and the visual magic has gone, the vocal imperfections are what you must consider because that
s all thats communicated to you.  These are not necessarily bad singers, but this is what happens.

BD:   At one point does the manipulation on the audio track become a fraud?

GJ:   I’m reluctant to even use that word, because recordings impose different standards.  Many years ago, there was a remarkable and very significant producer in England named John Culshaw, who was very vocal on this issue.  His view was to forget about the theatrical illusion.  Recordings represent a new art form, a different art form.  It has its own standards, and the record producer has many options at his disposal, so let him exercise those options.  I think he went a bit far in some of his productions.  Possibly he was enticed by such a dynamic conductor as Sir Georg Solti, and in some of those Wagner operas the orchestra was just too overpowering, too powerful.  Culshaw applied the same technique to some of the early Puccini operas, such as La Bohème on London records, and those early stereo records created an imbalance which was not at all judicious for vocal music.  But still, I would not call that fraud.

BD:   Do you feel that the perfection of recordings sets up an impossible standard that cannot be hoped for in the theater?

GJ:   Perfection is always unobtainable.

BD:   I know, but the records can be put together, spliced up, and fixed.

GJ:   That I don’t believe in.  No, that comes close to a fraud.  In other words, it’s the same as a pianist who cannot master a certain passage.  He would break down in the middle, and would have to start from the middle to complete it, and then you fuse it together.  That is fraud.  I don’t believe in that.  It should be long takes.

BD:   [Gently protesting]  But every record will have these imperfections removed, so that you really have something that is reasonably close to accuracy, and you never get this same accuracy in the live theater.  Do you ever feel that the public is expecting the same kind of thing they hear at home when they go to the theater?

GJ:   Frequently, yes, because for a record you have a producer.  You are dealing with human beings, and when something breaks down you have to think if you want to be
honest and carry that imperfectionwhich is sometimes severeonto a record, because you want to be honest in representing whatever happened in the studio.  The prospective buyer will have to live with that imperfection forever.  [In my interview with Margaret Hillis, who founded the Chicago Symphony Chorus, she remarked, A concert hasn’t yet happened.  With a recording everything happens exactly the same way every time through.  If you have ever heard any of the old recordings of Toscanini broadcasts, when they took place, they were enormously exciting.  You play the recording through once and it’s just great.  You play it through again and you find that this tempo changed or the orchestra is scrambling over here and the intonation is a little out, and you become a little disenchanted with it.  Then you play it a third time and you become annoyed.  So there is a certain kind of technical perfection that a recording requires that would be nice if you could get it in a performance.  If I’ve got my choice between technical perfection and musical excellence, I’ll take the musical excellence any day.]

BD:   But even if it’s not an imperfection, every singer will get all the details right over a number of performances.  We’re just stringing all the right parts together, and yet no performance will have the right parts on one performance.

GJ:   There have been some electrifying performances where everything just works right, and don’t forget you’re much less critical in the theater than you are with records.  You don’t mind if a singer occasionally gets a fly in her throat, and produces a tone that does not immediately arrive on pitch.  But the singer makes an adjustment, and you end up with the right note and you go away happy.  But on records, that would be kind of silly to preserve such a mistake.  I realize that we’re dealing with an amplitude of possibilities, and it is really foolish to go into the studio with a singer who has a history of break-downs, and an inability to carry through a performance.  But if you go in with a professional and successful cast, and the occasional imperfections develop, which you can easily correct, by all means correct them.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Let me ask about contemporary operas.  Are you pleased at all with any of the directions that new works are going?

GJ:   [Thinks a moment]  I really am not that familiar.  For instance, I am not familiar with the Philip Glass operas.  I’ve not seen them staged, but I am pleased by the variety of ways into which operas are going
ranging from Menotti, who, incidentally got a horrible press for his last opera, to Mr. Adams with his very successful Nixon in China, which I also have not seen.  Yes, I would say I’m pleased by the variety, but I’m still waiting for that great talent.  Incidentally, I did see Casanovas Homecoming by Dominick Argento, and I thought it was marvelous.  It’s coming back to the City Opera this year.  It’s traditional, which tells you a lot about my taste, but it’s got a wonderful thought-out libretto, and was extremely well staged.  No company will have any difficulty with the staging part of it.  Though it requires good acting, I don’t believe it requires anything extraordinary in terms of vocal demands.  This man knows how to write for the voice.  He writes for the natural registers of the voice, so he is one of hopes of opera.

blood wedding BD:   Do you feel that this idea of composer-in-residence is this a good one?

GJ:   I think it’s a very good idea because neither composer, nor opera, or orchestral organization work in any kind of a vacuum.  There is an interaction.  A conductor and the composer will benefit from the performer’s viewpoint.

[At this point, a phone call from a friend of his interrupted our conversation]

GJ:   [Upon returning]  We are very old friends, [laughing] part of the Hungarian Mafia!

BD:   [Thinking of other Hungarians]  I had an interview with [cellist] Janos Starker a few weeks ago, and Victor Aitay [long-time concertmaster of the Chicago Symphony] was there.  I also had just done a phone-interview with Lazlo Halasz...

GJ:   [Interjecting]  I meet him occasionally.

BD:   ...and Halasz said be sure to say hello to Victor when I saw him.

GJ:   Does he come to Chicago?

BD:   Halasz?

GJ:   Yes.

BD:   No, he doesn’t.  We did the interview on the telephone.

GJ:   He’s getting on... he is in his 80s.

[We then chatted briefly about birth dates, and calendars which list musicians.  I said that I relied on Nicolas Slonimsky
s book, since it was the most accurate volume.]

GJ:   I saw him two weeks ago.  Incredible man.

BD:   Wonderful man.  I did an interview with him on the phone, also.

GJ:   He
s irreplaceable!

BD:   I’m trying very hard to find a lot of the older singers and conductors, and get a hold of them before they leave this world.  I’ve managed to speak with quite a number of them.  If there are some others, I will ask your advice...

GJ:   I don’t know if you’ve done her, but if you want to give yourself an enchanting time, speak with Jarmila Novotná.  [As you can see from the link, we did meet eventually!]

BD:   I’ve tried for a long time.  She and I went back and forth several times, and she didn’t want to do it on the phone.  If I had been in New York, I probably could have done it...  I was waiting now for her book to get published, and hoped then she’d be coming around.

GJ:   I don’t know if she’s going to be coming around.  She’s in excellent health.  She’s taking very good care of herself and she’s a beautiful woman, a wonderful woman.  And, of course, Bidu Sayão.  I’m sure you have met her?

BD:   Yes, I’ve talked with her.

GJ:   That’s an experience, too.

BD:   Absolutely, yes.  I managed to get her in an upbeat mood, and asked her questions that she could answer in a positive way.  I’ve seen several interviews where she’s been down on this and down on that, and hates this or that.  I try to get my guests to be upbeat as much as possible.

GJ:   Well, you cut what doesn’t please you...

BD:   But, I don’t want to use the scissors too injudiciously.

GJ:   Good.

hunyadi laszlo BD:   I’m glad we’re talking about this.  I don’t want to ask you if singers are better today than they were before, but I do want to ask if the singers who are acknowledged to be great today are on a level with the singers who were acknowledged to be great in the previous generation or two.

GJ:   Absolutely, absolutely.  What I note with regret is the brevity of singers’ careers, and for that you need a more scientific person to explain it than myself.  But it does relate to the tempo of modern life, and possibly the air we breathe.  Careers of stars in the old days lasted longer.  Again, I don’t want to mention names, but there have been many, many very promising artists who came and went.  I will cite Anita Cerquetti...

BD:   ...and Elena Souliotis?

GJ:   Souliotis, yes.  Right now in Hungary we have Silvia Sass [featured in the recording shown at right].  She’s still singing, and she will probably continue singing for a several years, but the bloom is gone.  We have quite a few in our midst who seem to feel that a five- or ten-year career is not mandatory, but seems to be the pattern.  I always feel that the real magic occurs when the youthful voice is retained, and enough artistic maturity is combined with it to make a marvelous combination.  In my various programs, more than once I have celebrated that youthful voice
the young Pinza, the young Rethberg, the young Gigli.  These people all had long careers but the legacy that they have left us lives most thrillingly in their youthful recordings.  Certainly, there is a lot of stage wisdom, a lot of shading and color, and intellect in later recordings, but the voice no longer obeys the mandates of the intellect.  I will give you a classic exampleFischer-Dieskau.  Frankly, he should stop recording.

BD:   [With a playful nudge]  But the world needs his twelfth Winterreise!  [Both laugh]

GJ:     You said it!  The world is still in his debt for revealing so much German literature, music that if it hadn’t been for him, nobody else would have recorded.  This constant search for material leaves us his legacy which is really interesting, and so much to be admired.  But the voice is a shadow of what it was, and it’s doing his art no justice.

BD:    Is there any way that managements can get out of a contract they made a couple of years ago with a singer that is no longer singing as well as should be on their stage?

GJ:   It’s happening all the time, but it’s costly.

BD:   [Somewhat surprised]  The houses have to buy them off???

GJ:   Yes.  That’s only fair.  Will Crutchfield had an interesting article on that a few weeks ago in The New York Times.  The possibility is that a star takes off, and immediately European houses are quicker to act than some of our American organizations.  So, they sign up these stars.  Then, the Metropolitan falls in line, generally after Chicago.  Chicago gets them first, and then the singer, or the management, says all right, fine, we’re ready for you in three years... if they can agree on repertoire.  Comes that season, and the bloom has gone.  If not off, it’s not as brilliant as it once was, and what we get, for a great disappointing experience, is a singer past his or her prime.

BD:   And that’s happened in just four or five years?

GJ:   Yes, because there is no such thing as an overnight sensation.  These singers work for fifteen, twenty years, and then they are discovered... maybe not fifteen or twenty, but five or ten years.  They work very hard, and the breaks don’t always come, and suddenly they’re discovered.

BD:   Despite all this, are you optimistic about the whole future of opera?

GJ:   I would like to be optimistic, and I think I’m optimistic.  Opera is something that simply cannot go under.  The richness is justly overwhelming.  It provides such a classy escape for all of us from our very mundane lives.  I know movies are there, I know TV is there, but opera is escape with an uplift.

BD:   Even when there are lots of corpses at the end of the story?

GJ:   Oh, sure!  Absolutely!  First of all, every once in a while the right characters get killed.  Then there are all those beautiful teary, romantic endings where you feel that, as they say in many texts, there is a reward in Heaven for sacrifice in heaven.  Take, for instance, La Forza del Destino.  The music is so beautiful it makes up for all the tragedy around you.

BD:   Is there a reward in Heaven for sacrifice on Earth?

GJ:   [Laughs]  I hope so, but opera makes our world worthwhile.  It is one of the better things in life.

BD:   You enjoy putting together The Vocal Scene?

GJ:   I love it!  That’s really the fun part, putting it together.  By the way, I’m doing my 1,000th The Vocal Scene very soon, and you’ll probably hearing it a few weeks later.  Yes, it’s been fun. I hope I can stay with it for a few more years.

BD:   I hope so too.  
Thank you for sharing your joy with me today, and for so long on the radio.

GJ:   My pleasure.


--------        --------        --------


Nearly eight years later, in September of 1995, Jellinek was back in Chicago to promote his book.  We arranged to do a special version of his Vocal Scene on WNIB the day before one of the book-signings, and this, as I mentioned at the top, was the only time I did an interview live on the air.

heppner I was the regular announcer on duty, so as the previous programming was just about over, George joined me in the control room.  It was a tight squeeze, since it was not set up to do interviews, but we got comfortable and enjoyed the hour.

The voice of George Jellinek was very familiar to listeners in Chicago, since his program had been broadcast here for many years.  Perhaps the audience was surprised to hear me during the hour, but we made the show run as a typical segment.  Besides the conversation and the recordings, he spoke of things which had aired previously, and others which were contained in future programs.

I ran an air-check of the program, so here is a transcript of what took place that evening.

The hour began with a recent recording . . . . . . . . .


     [RECORDING of Ben Heppner singing Ch'ella mi creda from La Fanciulla del West of Puccini]

GJ:   Hello, this is George Jellinek in Chicago, and Ben Heppner may just turn out to be a tenor we’ve all been waiting for, for all these years.  Very, very talented, and not only promising.  By now that I feel Ben Heppner has arrived.

BD:   That’s from the new RCA recording, which contains verismo arias from quite a number of roles.  As you mentioned, Ben Heppner might be a tenor we’ve been waiting for.  He’s been in Chicago, and we are glad to have him back again.  Now, George, you’ve been a student of voice, and voices, and voice types for so many years.  Is Heppner going to be one that is going to stand up amongst all of the legendary tenors, and even the not-so-legendary-tenors?

GJ:   Certainly among the not-so-legendary-tenors.  As far his becoming a legend, maybe it is a little too soon to tell.  There have been many, many tenors who started out with great promise, and somewhere along the line they leveled off and did not fulfill that promise.  The reason why I think that he may have more to offer is that his career has been very carefully and well managed.  He was not pushed into anything.  As a matter of fact, I first heard about him some years ago from a gentleman called Matthew Epstein, who’s an impresario and I believed managed him at the time.  Heppner was groomed as a Wagnerian tenor, and now as I can see in addition to his lyric Wagnerian roles, he is extremely good in Puccini, Verdi, and the mainstream repertory.  He’s not going to be rushed into Siegfried that Melchoir sang, and I think it will come in time if it is what he chooses to do.  But he is right now a very good all-around tenor.

BD:   Is this the advice you would have for young singers
not to take too much, too fast, too soon?

GJ:   It isn’t I, it is a greater authority than myself.  Lauritz Melchoir was the one who advocated that, and to quote him, because I had the pleasure of interviewing him on his 80th birthday way back in 1970, he said that Heldentenors, heroic tenors, are not born.  They are made, and they have to mature, and it takes time.

BD:   One has to take a lot of care to build the top to the voice?

GJ:   Absolutely.  Interestingly enough, Melchoir started out as a baritone.  His favorite saying was that you have to have a foundation for everything, and he felt that his well-placed low notes were the foundation on which he then built the solid high notes.  It may or may not work for every singer but it worked for him.

BD:   Shouldn’t every singer though who wants any kind of local or international career have a solid foundation?

GJ:   Absolutely.

BD:   Are there enough good voice teachers around?

GJ:   That’s a very, very tricky question to answer, and, as a matter of fact, it’s a very timely one.  I just produced a program in New York, which will be coming to Chicago very soon, called ‘Great Singers taught by Great Teachers’.  I selected twelve or thirteen famous singers who turned out to be successful teachers, because they taught such people as Maria Callas, Renato Tebaldi, Tito Gobbi, Nicolai Gedda, and Martti Talvela.  I played the recordings of those singers, but it doesn’t mean that every singer can be a good teacher.  Some teachers who had virtually no career, or certainly not international careers as singers, turn out to be teachers of great singers, and you can’t figure out any logic in this.

ruffo BD:   I would assume that a singer who has a lot of natural ability might not be a good teacher, because they really don’t know what they’re doing.  It just comes easily out of their throat.

GJ:   Absolutely right, and the voice that you’re going to hear next, the legendary Titta Ruffo, is a good case in point.  He did not become a teacher.  He was a natural singer.  Also, Pinza did not teach.  How can Pinza explain what he was up to?  How could he teach someone else to be a Pinza?   You cannot teach them that.

BD:   Next we’re going to hear a recording by Titta Ruffo, which was made in 1920.  Tell us a little bit about this particular recording.

GJ:   The reason I chose this particular recording is that I remember that Tito Ruffo was associated for many, many years with the great past of the Chicago Opera, and he made some of his most appreciated and wonderful appearances here.  Back in 1913, he undertook the impersonation of Don Giovanni, and a very esteemed local critic, Edward C Moore, in his book called Forty Years of Opera in Chicago, mentioned that this was a role Ruffo should not been allowed to sing!  The chances are that he was rather immature in his conception, but, as this recording indicates, with a certain liberty he takes inserting high notes he could not resist, you will find that you have a beautiful, really truly seductive-toned Don Giovanni at work.

     [RECORDING of Titta Ruffo singing the Serenade, Deh vieni alla finestra from Don Giovanni of Mozart]

BD:   To those of us who know only the modern recordings, this was a very unusual recording of the Serenade from Don Giovanni, sung by Titta Ruffo, made in 1920.

GJ:   No contemporary baritone or bass could get away with that insertion.  Conductors wouldn’t let them, but I suppose they were freer times, and it did not happen in the theater.  It happened in the recording studio.

BD:   How much freedom should the singer be allowed, and how much control should the conductor exercise?

GJ:   Difficult question.  The singer should not be allowed to depart radically from the written word, in my opinion.  Unfortunately, there are conductors who interpret the written word very inflexibly, and they fail to allow some singers to phrase with a certain relaxation, and the proper breathing that music requires by adhering to a strict tempo.  After all, the metronome markings are also flexible.  Many, many composers reconsidered their original markings.  They may have been found too fast or too slow, whichever the case may be.  There has to be an understanding and an intelligent interplay with the singer and conductor, and if singers have constructive ideas, I believe that conductors should listen to them.

BD:   Much of this, of course, is tradition that is built up year after year, and production after production.

GJ:   Some of those traditions are perhaps ill-founded, but you cannot just ignore tradition that was born of experience.  Some of the so-called liberties that you find in the old recordings occurred when Verdi or Puccini were alive.  They attended rehearsals, and sometimes conducted the performances.  Frankly, whatever may have been good for a Verdi or a Puccini in one of their operas should be allowed to stay.  I happen to know from personal experience that a gentleman who was a student of Gigli was told that when the opera L’Arlesiana by Cilea was new, and Gigli performed in it, the tenor came to the composer and said,
Maestro, at a certain point I sense this B natural is coming up, and I feel that the aria would improve if I would do that.  Cilea replied, Beniamino, anything for you!  Of course, he did it, and many, many tenors since have departed at that junction, and created the very emotional high effect.

BD:   So it’s the conductor’s job to make sure that each person who puts in the high note is really worthy of putting in that interpolation?

GJ:   Yes, indeed. There are many conductors, for instance, who deny the baritone the high G and A-flat in the Prologue of Pagliacci.  Many times audiences feels let down, because even though those notes are indeed not in the score, we expect to hear them.  The baritone should be allowed to sing those notes that the tradition has sanctified... if he can perform them, if he can do them right.  Otherwise, he should not attempt to sing them.

BD:   Let’s hear one more bit of Titta Ruffo.  This is music of Giuseppe Verdi, from Un Ballo in Maschera.

   [RECORDING by Titta Ruffo singing Alla vita che t
arride from Un Ballo in Maschera of Verdi]

ruffo BD:   Titta Ruffo, in a recording made in 1912, now back out on a compact disc, so it’s been cleaned up.  This was music from Un Ballo in Maschera of Giuseppe Verdi.  You’re listening to The Vocal Scene with George Jellinek, and my name is Bruce Duffie.  George Jellinek is also, happily, in Chicago, and he will be at Border’s Bookstore tomorrow, Monday, beginning at 7 PM, to autograph copies of his book called History through the Opera Glass, an entertaining and carefully researched account of major events and personalities of more than 2,000 years, and how the world’s leading composers have portrayed these people and events in nearly 200 operas.  [slight pause]  We’ve just listened to Titta Ruffo.  Tell me a little more about him.  You seem very excited about this particular voice.  [Note: Titta Ruffo was born in 1877 as Ruffo Cafiero Titta.]

GJ:   This particular voice started me on record collecting almost sixty years ago, so I feel a personal debt to it.  I did not have the pleasure of meeting Titta Ruffo in person, but when he died in in 1953, I wrote an appreciation of his art, and that turned out to be my first article published under my by-line.  That was forty-two years ago, and it, in turn, led me to a lifelong friendship with the son of Titta Ruffo, Dr. Ruffo Titta, who is now in his 80s and lives in Rome.  My article came to his attention, and he contacted me in New York.  Subsequently, my wife and I visited him in Rome, and he came to New York some years later to visit us, and we became lifelong friends.  As you indicated, this artist means an awful lot to me.  I owe my beginnings to him.

BD:   Now you, of course, heard him first on 78 rpm records.

GJ:   Yes, indeed.

BD:   You have the sound of the 78s in your ear and in your memory.  They were later transferred to long playing records, and now have been put on compact discs.  Has the sound of the records changed appreciably
or at allfrom those early days to now?

GJ:   When I hear a Ruffo record, or a De Luca record, or a Caruso record, regardless of how it comes to me, part of my mind retains that original 78 rpm sound experience.  Some modifications were made, and depending on who does the mastering at what studio, and what love and care goes into it, some of the mastering of 78s emerged on LPs and subsequently on the CDs very insensitively, because by eliminating the surface noise, they eliminated some of the brilliance and the overtones of the voices.  So, some of the characteristics that we remembered from the original 78s have disappeared.  I’m happy to say that they followed a very good procedure here with this particular Ruffo re-issue.  I hear it minus the intrusive surface noise, and yet much of that original magic is there.  Some voices, such as those of Ruffo or Caruso, recorded naturally, and they came out.  [In the photo at right, Ruffo is on the left, with Caruso on the right.]  Chaliapin, too, and Pinza.  Some of the women’s voices did not take to the original recording horn with as much fidelity as did the men’s voices.  I am not enough of a technical person to explain why this is so, but overtones have a lot to do with it.

BD:   Even today, we have some voices which we say ‘record well’.  They sound better on the record, perhaps, than they do in live performances... or at least they sound better on their records than other contemporaries.  Ruffo was one that made a good impression on the wax, because these were acoustical records
not sung into a microphone, but into the big end of megaphone, and the sound cut directly into the wax on the original.  [Drawing by Caruso showing him making a recording is below.]

GJ:   I spoke to a number of people many, many years ago who saw Ruffo on stage, and they said that he was just phenomenal in acting as well as singing.  His was a gigantic voice.  I recently quoted Tullio Serafin, who conducted opera for something like seventy years of his life, and, according to him, there were three vocal phenomena
Caruso, Ruffo, and Ponselle.  [Autographed photo of Ponselle appears above on this page.]  The others were wonderful singers, but these three were beyond comparison.

BD:   Without mentioning names, are we getting any vocal phenomenons today?

GJ:   I would say that Marilyn Horne comes close to that.  She may be remembered as a vocal phenomenon, but it’s too soon for us to judge.

BD:   Talking about Ruffo, the sound on the record is good, and also the sound in the theater was good.  Are we getting a continuation of a line from Ruffo through the singers in the
30s and 40s, and the singers who are the older generation today, and the younger generation today?  Again, you don’t have to mention specific names...

GJ:   I’d like to plead the fifth!  [Both laugh]

BD:   One of the other singers that you have decided to play tonight is Victoria de los Angeles.  Tell me a little bit about your special affinity for her.

GJ:   She is no longer singing before the public, but I regard her as a contemporary singer who achieved her greatness in
the ’50s, 60s, and part of the 70s.  No female singer has given me so much unalloyed pleasure as did Victoria de los Angeles.  Her wonderful radiant personality manifest in her recordings, and I was fortunate enough to interview her several times, and to share some time with her.  I found her vibrant and a lovely person, and I suppose the personal association also enriched my involvement with her recordings.  Of all her recordings, I would say that the one you are about to play is closest to my heart because it captures so much of Victoria.

   [RECORDING of Victoria de los Angeles singing a zarzuela excerpt]

BD:   That was Victoria de los Angeles singing one of the Zarzuela excerpts for which she is so very famous, from an EMI compact disc reissue.  You’re listening to The Vocal Scene with George Jellinek, a program heard each Sunday evening during the seven o’clock hour here on Classical 97, WNIB in Chicago, and WNIZ in Zion.  Normally George Jellinek is on tape and I can sit here in the control room and watch the tape go around.  However, at this moment I have the great privilege of looking George Jellinek in the eye, and having a chat with him.  George Jellinek will be at Border’s Bookstore, at 830 North Michigan Avenue
that’s at the north-west corner Michigan at Pearsontomorrow evening, Monday, September 18th, at 7 PM, to sign copies of his new book History Though the Opera Glass.  He has graciously decided to come and do his show live here at WNIB this particular Sunday, and we are very grateful that he is here.  [slight pause]  Since we’ve just heard a little of Victoria de los Angeles, let’s talk a bit more about her.

GJ:   She had a very unusual career, as you probably know.  She won a singing contest in Switzerland at an early age, and she did what many singers who are trying to get ahead in this very difficult life and career, she followed the various leads.  She even ended up in Bayreuth and did Elisabeth in Tannhäuser, which was very well received, and made a wonderful recording of that music.  But eventually she found her niche, and became interpreter of French and Italian opera, and a wonderful Lieder interpreter.  When I say Lieder, I mean German as well as the Italian classic repertoire, and, of course, she was a fearless interpreter of Spanish music.  She was truly an all-around charmer.

BD:   Is it the Zarzuelas for which she is perhaps most beloved, simply because that is her native music?

GJ:   Yes, but she never got around to record a complete Zarzuela, because in her heyday, the record companies did not think that a complete Zarzuela would be marketable internationally.  Right now, thanks to Plácido Domingo and Alfredo Kraus, we have quite a few Zarzuelas, and they are coming to The Vocal Scene as well, I’m happy to say.

BD:   This is a little bit the era of the Spanish singer.  We’ve had the era of the Italian singer, and the French singer, and the German singer, and now the Spanish singer.

GJ:   That’s right.

BD:   You mentioned recordings.  Record companies can do a great job of recording and promoting and preserving voices, but there’s also a flip side to this.  Is there enough of the good side to overcome the flip side?

GJ:   One of the flip slides that distresses me is how often and how quickly a major record company deletes an otherwise worthy recording, or even make artists disappear from the market.  This is something that has to do with the curse of bigness, because the sales department tells the A&R [Artists and Repertoire] people that unless they sell X thousand copies in X amount of time, then that recording should be removed from the catalogue.  The people who do the planning and the thinking are probably as distressed by that decision as I am.  But they listen to the marketing people, and recordings go.

78s BD:   [Being optimistic]  But then when we collect the recordings, we can be armchair impresarios!

GJ:   Well, this is what makes collectors smart people.  [Both laugh]

BD:   That’s right.  All record collectors are smart people.  You heard it here!  [More laughter]

GJ:   Some of them are quite nice people, too.  I just completed a very entertaining hour devoted to the Vocal Record Collectors’ Society in New York, and I had with me two of their Board of Directors who claim that they are as mad as the rest of the membership.  We had a very entertaining hour talking about
how shall I say?the eccentricity of record collecting, and the people that this particular hobby attracts.

BD:   I’ve been collecting records, as you have, from 78s to LPs and CDs, but I don’t get involved very much with collecting societies.  So tell me, are the record collectors happy that these are coming back on CDs, or are they keeping their 78s?  What is the general thought?

GJ:   I don’t think there are two collectors alike.  Some record collectors I know actually sacrifice family life for the pleasure of collecting.  They have basements and apartments full of recordings, beginning from 78s all the way up to the present, and there is no room for any kind of a private life.  This is a situation where a hobby can become a mania, and I don’t endorse that at all.

BD:   [With a gentle nudge]  I was going to say, there doesn’t seem to be downside to that...  [Both laugh]

GJ:   It’s just that you have to know not so much when to stop, but just how much your house and apartment can take.  I myself came to a very personal decision some time ago, dictated by an important incident in my life, known as cardiac bypass.  I disposed of all my 78s in one major quick decision.  I have my LPs, and I certainly have my CDs, and as I find certain CDs have replaced my LPs at a satisfactory audio level
in other words, when I don’t feel I’m being cheated out of those overtones that I cherish so muchthen I have donated a number of my LPs (hundreds of them actually) to a worthy cause and to a library.  I’m happy, and I think most collectors are happy with CDs, because certain rarities that they would spend a lot of money for on 78s and even on LPs, are not available to them, and they’re enjoying a large variety of collectable records on CDs.

BD:   Do they miss having the twelve-inch round flat platter?

GJ:   You miss that experience as you tend to look back on your youth, and to the extent that we miss our youth, we miss that, too.  But there is certainly a good side to modern recordings because they give us seventy-five minutes on one CD, and you can’t improve on that.

BD:   Eventually CDs may go over onto the other side...

GJ:   Then you will improve on that too!

BD:   Records used to be round and flat, and go around real fast, and have music on one side.  Then through all of the progress we’ve made, CDs are round and flat, and go around real fast, and have music on one side!

GJ:   I have this crazy dream that someday they’ll invent a record that will stand still, and we’re going to be running around them!  [Both laugh]

BD:   Of course, time doesn’t stand still, and we have lots of fine singers to listen to today.  We’re going to hear next a soprano who burst onto the scene not too long ago.  Her name is Barbara Bonney, and here she is with some music of Felix Mendelssohn.

   [RECORDING of soprano Barbara Bonney singing On wings of song by Mendelssohn]

BD:   That was soprano, Barbara Bonney, singing a song by Felix Mendelssohn – On Wings of Song.  It’s from a Teldec compact disc of Lieder.  She is one who is bringing back the idea that opera singers should also do Lieder.  Let’s wade into that just a little bit
the idea of opera singers also singing songs.

caruso GJ:   Opera singers should sing songs if they know how to sing them.  It’s very interesting that you play this recording, because only last week in New York I heard a concert for a special occasion, where a very good opera singer sang this very song, and it was not done right.  It did not have the intimacy of what a song should have.  It is possible for an opera singer to over-emote when doing a song recital, and this is what they must guard against.  An entire different approach is needed.  They are performing different kinds of music.  We have the example of Dietrich Fisher-Dieskau and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, certainly in the older days there was Elisabeth Schumann and Lotte Lehmann.  These were marvelous opera singers who were song recitalists as well.

BD:   These are the biggest names, but was it more common then that many opera singers would give Liederabende
song recitalsregularly, or was it just those special few, as it is the special few now?

GJ:   I would say it was always that
a special few.  There were always some opera singers who were persuaded to do recitals, and they managed to specialize in certain types of songs.  For instance, in the older dayscertainly my timeJohn Charles Thomas was a fabulous recitalist, but he did not do German Lieder.  He was a wonderful recitalist for English, Scottish, even French song, because he had excellent French training.  As a matter of fact, he did some Beethoven in English because he was so good at it, but you do not become automatically a good Lieder singer because you are a good opera singer.  It’s wonderful if you can pursue these two careers in tandem, but it doesn’t always work.

BD:   How can we get more opera audiences to enjoy song evenings?  It seems to me there’s a wide gulf between the opera audience and the song audience.

GJ:   It is unfortunately so, and some of that has to do with economics.  Concert management is somewhat distrustful of songs, as I’m sorry to say, is my own station, WQXR in New York City.  I cannot speak for your station here, but there is a tendency not to program songs.  I’ve nothing to do with that policy, but I understand from the point of view of the way they read the audiences, that songs and Lieder and canzone command a smaller audience than does opera in this country.

BD:   So we’re short-changing that small audience?

GJ:   I’m afraid we are.  It is not true in Germany, nor in Austria, and Italy is a special situation because the Italian songs are something else again.  The Italian songs are very much in the province of anyone in the domain of the opera singer, because who is to tell Franco Corelli or Luciano Pavarotti not to sing Torna a Surriento, or O Sole Mio.  That’s as much in their blood as La Donna è mobile, so it’s a special case.  When it comes to French chansons, again an artist like José van Dam is just as good in song as he is in opera.  Gerard Souzay was even a better singer of songs than he was of opera, so these things vary with the traditions, I would say.

BD:   You’re listening to The Vocal Scene, a program heard each Sunday evening here on WNIB, and our special guest, the host of The Vocal Scene, George Jellinek, who, as I mentioned, will be at the Border’s bookstore location at 830 North Michigan Avenue.  If you’d like to drop by tomorrow, Monday evening, say hello to George Jellinek, and pat him on the back for... how many years of The Vocal Scene?

GJ:   Twenty-seven years in New York.  I don’t know how long it was heard in Chicago, but for quite a number of those years.

BD:   Probably most of that time.

GJ:   This gives me an opportunity not only to greet the Chicago audience of The Vocal Scene, but also to express my deep appreciation to your station, and also for the audience, because I’m getting some very nice letters from the Chicago area, and I certainly appreciate it.

BD:   We’re all very glad that you have chosen to make vocal recordings your life’s work, and to present them and to share them with us.  Listening to your program each week, I’m always amazed at the kinds of things you’re able to find and discover.

GJ:   Thank you.  It’s a labor of love, and I think it radiates with every one of my programs.

BD:   As we continue along, we are going hear another up-and-coming singer.  This is another mezzo soprano who’ll be making her Met debut in the not-too-distant future.  Her name is Jennifer Larmore.

GJ:   I am happy to say that she has made her Met debut.

BD:   Good.  She, along with Cecilia Bartoli, are perhaps going to be the Callas and Tebaldi of the next generation.

jellinek GJ:   If the media will have their way, they’re going to create a few dust-ups!

BD:   That’s one of the nice things about collecting records
we can have both artists in ample supply.  Here is Jennifer Larmore.

   [RECORDING of Jennifer Larmore singing an aria from The Barber of Seville by Rossini]

BD:   Mezzo soprano, Jennifer Larmore, taken from the complete recording of The Barber of Seville singing Rosina’s aria.  Talking a little bit about lower voices, do they record better, or sound better, or are they just different on recordings than higher voices?

GJ:   They are just different, but with modern technology they don’t present any kind of special problem.  There always have been singers who recorded better than others, but I would say they record equally well.

BD:   Is it a special joy that the lower voices are getting the fioritura, and all of the other coloration that the sopranos have been using for years?

GJ:   For that you need technique, and a very good example comes to mind, Samuel Ramey, who sings Rossini’s fioritura with a grace and agility that many sopranos would envy.  As a result of that, on some of his recordings we hear more notes that others bass voices in the past may have hidden from us.  But they’re there in the score, and Sam is in a position to deliver them as written.  A special agility in Italian writings for the voice is required.  You can do without it, you can simplify those lines, but it’s wonderful when you hear them all as Rossini set them on paper.

BD:   Is it the responsibility of the management to take advantage of the voices that we have available, and build the repertoire around them?

GJ:   It’s not so much the responsibility, but if they’re smart, they do it, and it has been the case in many situations.  There’s nothing new about that.  We all remember that Adriana Lecouvreur would have been a forgotten opera had it not been for Magda Olivero and Renata Tebaldi.  There are many other examples with Marilyn Horne, whom I mentioned before.  Without her, certainly L’Italiana in Algeri would not have been revived by the Met, and possibly other theaters.  They were all specialists.

BD:   I was wondering which comes first
the chicken or the egg?  If we have the repertoire, do we find singers to fill it, or if we have singers, do we make the repertoire for them?

GJ:   I think it’s easier to have the singers, and then ask Madame So&So what she would like to sing, because we know that we can fill the house with her.  [Much laughter]

BD:   Aside from the biggest stars, is there ever a case when the management actually asks what they would like to sing?

GJ:   I’m quite sure that there is, but it’s a give and take situation.  When you sign up a singer for two or three years, the contract, and the price, and the purpose will have the unwritten element there.  They will do this and that if you give them a new production of the other work.  I see nothing wrong with that, because we have very enterprising company in New York called the Opera Orchestra of New York, which does opera in concert form.  These are rarely heard operas led by Eve Queller.  She made absolutely no bones about the fact that if she finds that commanding singer
be it a soprano, baritone, or tenorwho is dying to do something that all managements have denied, she will accommodate them.  For instance, William Tell.  Who is going to stage five hours of William Tell with its murderous writing?  But Eve did it twice or three times over the last ten or fifteen years.

BD:   Obviously, it makes for a good sing.

GJ:   Yes.  She did it first for Nicolai Gedda quite a number of years ago, and then for Franco Bonisolli.  There were many sopranos who excelled, and left their memorable imprint in various roles that they could not do on stage, because the difficulties are finding funding for very expensive operas which subsequently they’d remove from the repertoire because they couldn’t find the right cast for them.

BD:   I know there have been cases where the performance in concert has encouraged the opera company to actually stage the work.

GJ:   It happened time and time again, even at the Met.  For instance, Eve gave Rusalka by Dvořák with Gabriela Beňačková in the title role.  The Met took their cue, and a couple of years later they did it.  Eve did Khovanshchina before the Met got around to reviving it.  That’s a very tough opera to do, but it was the desire of the late Martti Talvela, and they revived Khovanshchina after many years.  It turned out to be an audience-pleaser.

BD:   We’ve had it here in Chicago a couple of times...

GJ:   That’s right, you had the fabulous Boris Shtokolov here years ago [in 1969].

BD:   Something that I wish would come back would be Der Freischütz by Carl Maria von Weber.  Here’s a little music of Der Freischütz.  We’ve heard Jennifer Larmore who’s a low female voice.  This is Kurt Moll who is a low male voice.

   [RECORDING of Kurt Moll singing an aria from Der Freischütz by Weber]

BD:   An aria from Der Freischütz by Weber, sung by bass, Kurt Moll.  Unfortunately, that is all the time we have for The Vocal Scene with George Jellinek, a weekly program each Sunday evening.  George Jellinek is in Chicago, and has been my guest in the studio today.  He will be at the Border’s bookstore, at 830 North Michigan Avenue, at the corner of Michigan and Pearson in Chicago, tomorrow, Monday at 7 PM to sign copies of his book, History Through the Opera Glass.  I’m sure there’ll be lots of people who’ll want to buy the book, and say hello to George Jellinek to congratulate him for all of the work that he has done.

GJ:   Thank you very much.  I hope to meet some of you tomorrow at Border’s, and I want extend my thanks to you, Bruce, to your colleagues, and to all of the audience of WNIB in Chicago.  It’s been my great pleasure to be here.

BD:   It’s a very special pleasure for me.  Thank you very much.



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© 1988 & 1995 Bruce Duffie

These conversations were recorded in Chicago on January 7, 1988, and September 17, 1995.  Portions of the first conversation were broadcast on WNIB in 1989, and the second conversation was aired live in 1995.  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.

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.