Radio Commentator and Author
Two conversations with Bruce Duffie
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
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.
BD: Where should the balance be between the music and
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?
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
the Met, Chicago, and San Francisco — should
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 pressures —
and 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
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
life — but 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 cherishable —
but 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?
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 opera
— and 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 Dam
— seldom 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
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
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
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
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, too —
they 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
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.
* * *
BD: I do want to be sure and
ask you about Hungarian opera. You are from Hungary originally?
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 . 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
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 
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
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
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 adolescent — that 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
GJ: They don’t travel too well.
First of all — and this may come
as a great surprise to you — right
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
Fischer.] They have a few very good contemporary
operas, too. They have a few good composers
— Szokolay 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
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.
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 surtitles
— such 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 that — not 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
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
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?
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 that’s
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
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 imperfection — which
is sometimes severe — onto 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
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
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 Casanova’s
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.
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
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
BD: ...and Halasz said be sure to say
hello to Victor when I saw him.
GJ: Does he come to Chicago?
BD: No, he doesn’t. We did the
interview on the telephone.
GJ: He’s getting on... he is in his
[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
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
BD: But, I don’t want to use the scissors
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 example
— Fischer-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
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
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
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.
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?
BD: Are there enough good voice teachers
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
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
[RECORDING by Titta Ruffo singing Alla vita che
from Un Ballo in Maschera of Verdi]
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
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
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 all — from 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
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
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
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
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 Pearson
— tomorrow 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.
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
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
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
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 much — then 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
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.
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 recitals — regularly,
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 days
— certainly my time — John
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
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.
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
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
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 tenor
— who 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
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
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
[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.
---- ---- ----
© 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.
winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was
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.