Tenor  William  Johns

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


William Johns was born on October 2, 1936  in Tulsa, Oklahoma. He attended Capitol Hill High School in Oklahoma City and then studied vocal performance and music at Oklahoma City University, followed by further study in New York. A national finalist in the 1965 Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, he made his professional début in 1967 at Lake George Opera as Rodolfo in La bohème. That same year he went to Germany and was primarily based there throughout the 1970s, first as a company soloist at the Bremen Opera (1967–1971), and then at the National Theatre Mannheim (1971–1975) and the Cologne Opera (1975–1979). He sang in five productions the Bayreuth Festival, initially in smaller roles such as Edler in Lohengrin (1968), Knappe in Parsifal (1969), and Augustin Moser in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (1968 and 1969), but returned there in 1987 in the leading role of Walther von Stolzing in Die Meistersinger.

The late 1970s and 1980s saw several major house and festival debuts in Europe and the United States. Johns's first appearance at Lyric Opera of Chicago was in 1976 as Hoffmann in Les Contes d'Hoffmann. He returned in five subsequent seasons [see full Chicago repertoire below], including Meistersinger the following year, which was the first time that work had been broadcast note-complete from an American opera house. He made his Metropolitan Opera debut in 1979 as Don José in Carmen and went on to appear there in 28 performances through 1993, primarily in dramatic tenor and Wagnerian roles. His last Met performance was in the title role of Siegfried. Other major house debuts during this period included the Paris Opera in 1985 as Tristan in Tristan und Isolde, La Scala in 1986 as The Emperor in the Die Frau ohne Schatten, and the Royal Opera House in 1987 as Bacchus in Ariadne auf Naxos.

William Johns at Lyric Opera of Chicago

1976 - Tales of Hoffmann (Hoffmann) with Welting, Cortez, Eda-Pierre, Mittelmann, Andreolli, Voketaitis, Kihlmann; Bartoletti, Puechere, Frigerio

1977 - Meistersinger (Walther) with Lorengar, Ridderbusch, Evans, Howell, Walker; Leitner, Merrill, O'Hearn

1980 - Lohengrin (Lohengrin) with Marton, Martin, Roar, Sotin, Monk; Janowski, Oswald (dir & des)

1981 - Ariadne auf Naxos (Tenor/Bacchus) with Meier/Rysanek, Schmidt/Minton, Welting, Negrini, Gordon; Janowski, Neugebauer, Messel

1984 - Frau ohne schatten (Emperor) with Marton, Zschau, Nimsgern, Dunn; Janowski, Corsaro, Chase

1985-86 - Otello (Otello) with Price, Milnes, Plishka, McCauley, Redmon; Bartoletti, Diaz, Pizzi, Schuler (lighting)
                 Meistersinger (Walther) with Johnson/.Wells/Griffel, Stewart, Patrick, Kavrakos, Graham, Del Carlo; Janowski, Merrill, O'Hearn

--  Names which are links refer to my interviews elsewhere on this website.  BD 


In the fall of 1980, William Johns was back in Chicago as Lohengrin, and he graciously took time from his schedule to sit down with me for an interview.  We spoke a great deal about his Wagner roles, and those remarks were published in Wagner News the following year.  Now the entire conversation has been re-edited and posted on this webpage.  Note that (for example), Lohengrin the opera is italicized, whereas Lohengrin the character is not.  I hope I have done it correctly throughout, but if there are ny mistakes, kindly send me an e-mail so they can be corrected.

As the tape started rolling, he was talking about his professional activities . . . . . . . . .

William Johns:    I just began studying these roles.  There is limited study time with a lot of music to learn.

Bruce Duffie:    So now you’re learning Walküre.  I assume you will learn it in German, though I know you have done some roles in translation.

WJ:    Oh, yes.  Most of my repertoire I’ve sung in several languages.  For instance, Tosca I’ve sung in English, German and Italian.  Hoffmann is another I’ve done in all three languages.

BD:    Do you prefer to sing things in their original?

WJ:    I prefer to of course.

BD:    But the translations don’t bother you?

WJ:    No, but it’s much easier to sing in the original language because it’s also musically more to the point.  I’ve never experienced so much difficulty as with that Meistersinger in English.  That was very difficult to learn.
BD:    Who’s translation was that?

WJ:    It was kind of a hodge-podge.

BD:    Do you feel that it’s beneficial to the audience to have it in their language?

WJ:    That’s a good question.  In America, yes, and in Germany, yes.  They translate most of the Italian repertoire thoughout Germany.

BD:    Are those translations standardized?

WJ:    Not always, and that makes it more difficult.

BD:    I had been led to believe that most of the usual Italian works had pretty much a “standard” translation.

johnsWJ:    Yes, well, before about 1965 there was one standard translation of most of the Italian operas into German, but then after that they started making more translations, so the singers have had to learn them since then.  Sometimes in Italy they still sing Lohengrin in Italian, and it’s very beautiful in Italian.  The music lends itself incredibly well to the Italian bel-canto school.

BD:    Do you enjoy singing Lohengrin?

WJ:    Very, very much.  It is very singable.

BD:    If you were asked to sing it in English, would you?

WJ:    No.

BD:    Tell me a little bit about the character of Lohengrin.

WJ:    It’s a relatively difficult character to portray on stage.  It presents unique problems because he has to have an ethereal type of aura, and he still has to be very human and realistic.

BD:    Is he really a human being?

WJ:    Oh, yes, definitely.

BD:    He’s sort of transported mystically to us.

WJ:    Right.  He’s endowed with super-human power through the power of the grail.  That is the point.

BD:    Do you think he would have been happy living with Elsa if she had not bombarded him with the questions?

WJ:    Absolutely.  The crux of the situation is about the feminine aspect of the curiosity.  All she had to do, according to Wagner and according to Lohengrin, was to have been true in her belief of Lohengrin for a year.  Then the problem would have been solved.  Of course Lohengrin is at fault to a degree because he didn’t tell her that.  He didn’t inform her of the fact that it would have only been a year.  For her, it’s an indefinite time period.  In the last act, one of his parting phrases includes the words, “Nur ein Jahr...” [only one year].  It’s a powerful phrase with a big A natural. 

BD:    So why didn’t Wagner see fit to impart that information to Elsa at the beginning of the opera?

WJ:    I think it’s because of Wagner’s personal psychological makeup.  He always expected absolute truthfulness and fidelity without question from anyone that had anything to do with him.

BD:    So he expected her to agree with no conditions, and then would relieve her of that burden after a year.

WJ:    Absolutely.  Her brother would have been returned as the protector, and he would have been the new Graf there, the new Count, and would have been in power.  It’s very clear-cut in the text.

BD:    Is there no way Lohengrin can prevent the tragedy, or does he try and fail?

WJ:    He tries.  I think that one weak point in the characterization
by modern standards, not in the period in which it was composedis the question of mentality.

BD:    When we look at a part like Lohengrin from the eyes of 1980, how much do we have to allow in production and in singing and characterization, as opposed to productions of the 1850s?

WJ:    That’s a very very interesting question, and that is precisely the problem that posed the greatest complexities for me here.  I portrayed Lohengrin the way that I believed and moreover the way the producer (or the stage director as he is called here in America) wanted it
precisely in the 1850s.  In my judgment, it fell short of modern-day standards in the characterization.  So I changed it since purposely so the second performance was a different character altogether.


BD:    How much leeway do you have?

WJ:    There are certain ways to make a character more believable.  I’ve purposely introduced more interplay between Lohengrin and Elsa.

BD:    Did your colleague, Eva Marton, go along with it?

WJ:    Absolutely.

BD:    Why was this not done in rehearsal?  Why did you not go to Oswald and tell him your ideas?

WJ:    I did go to him several times and he said, “No, that’s the way I want it and it’s fine, and that’s the way it should be.”

BD:    If he came back and said to change it back to the way he staged it because he is the director and not you, would you?  Who has the final say?

WJ:    He does, of course.  He’s a great gentleman and he would probably allow me to make the compensations which are necessary for this particular production.

BD:    [Playing devil
’s advocate]  But he did not do that for the first performance...

WJ:    Obviously he didn’t.

BD:    Aside from changes in concept, do you grow in each performance?

WJ:    Absolutely.  After all, I’ve only sung Lohengrin a few times and the last time was two years ago.  So since that time, I’ve grown a great deal in the role through study and musical refinements.

BD:    Do you ever find that when you
’re singing another part, you think of something that might fit into Lohengrin?

WJ:    No.  Lohengrin is a problem unto itself character-wise.  Vocally there’s not that much difference.  The difficulty is really in the third act.  It is so immense in relation to other roles.

BD:    Is Lohengrin Parsifal’s natural son or spiritual son?

WJ:    As far as I can ascertain frocm all that I’ve read and studied, he
’s the natural son.

BD:    Then the question becomes, who is Lohengrin’s mother?

WJ:    Well, it’s a moot point.  I’ve never found any information on that.

BD:    Have you sung Parsifal?

WJ:    No.

BD:    Do you want to?

WJ:    Yes, of course.  I want to sing all the Wagner roles eventually.

BD:    [With mock horror]  Even Siegfried???

WJ:    Sure.  That will be the last one I will undertake.  I would like to do the others, then Tannhäuser, and the young Siegfried.

Review/Opera; 'Ring' Moves On to 'Siegfried'

Published in The New York Times, April 12, 1993

The Metropolitan Opera's first performance of Wagner's "Siegfried" this season -- as the third entry in its Saturday matinee "Ring" cycle -- was a reminder that any mounting of this opera is a heroic effort that can seem as foolhardy as the title character's ventures. The most imposing task is in casting: to find a tenor who, over more than five hours, is able to sustain good tone, often in a high tessitura, and create nuanced interpretations against an orchestra often blaring fortissimo. This tenor must also seem hopelessly callow and blustery one hour ("a regular Li'l Abner type," Anna Russell once said) and incurably passionate the next. And at the end of his quest he must find a soprano of surpassing power to justify the first love duet in Wagner's cosmic history, leaving far behind the opera's fairy-tale dragon, shattered sword and riddle-posing god.

There was a fair amount of heroism in this performance (as listeners to the radio broadcast would have heard), but there was also a fair amount of effort. Siegfried, found after much scrambling around in the minuscule heldentenor circuit, was William Johns. He has enough of the equipment and physical stamina to provide an often respectable rendering, itself no mean feat. For all the artifice of the part and the posing, there was some palpable energy in the sword-forging, and even, in blunt fashion, in the final duet.   (...)

BD:    Are you pacing yourself for a long career?

WJ:    As far as is humanly possible.

BD:    Do you enjoy the roles you sing, or might you prefer different characters?  For instance, in Lohengrin, is there a time when you’d rather sing the character of Telramund or King Henry?

WJ:    Telramund is a very interesting character, but I’ve sung enough villains in my time so I don’t have the burning desire to sing another right now.

BD:    I thought the tenor was rarely the villain!

WJ:    I’ve sung antagonistic characters... For instance, in 1976 I did a production of Il Bravo in Rome, and he is an assassin.  In that production he was a sympathetic assassin because the consiglieri in Venice have absconded with his father and are threatening to do away with him if Il Bravo doesn
’t do their bidding.  I think that Telramund is a sympathetic type of a villain because he is being tremendously influenced by Ortrud.  If she had not started the whole process with the transformation of Gottfried, then the drama wouldn’t have taken place in any case.  He is a victim.  He sings of losing his honor, and he lost it though Ortrud whom he calls a terrible woman.

BD:    Is Ortrud completely evil?

WJ:    Well, it would be difficult to find a character that was more villainous.  Throughout the complete text of the opera, there are very few redeeming phrases for Ortrud.  I’d have to contemplate that very deeply to find even one.  Every phrase that she sings is negative.

BD:    And she keeps coming back again and again, even at the end for one last stab.

WJ:    Yes, with eight A naturals and one A# to push the point home in a Wagnerian-like manner.  [Both laugh]

BD:    Do you think that the opera Lohengrin would have made a different impact on the audience if Wagner had composed it in A-flat or B-flat instead of A?

WJ:    Oh, definitely.  I think that the color of A major is ideal, even though that key is very difficult for the tenor voice.  A-flat would have been too somber a color to it, and I think possibly B-flat also.  A-flat would have been a much easier key to sing, and as a result, instead negotiating E-naturals and F-sharps, it would be E-flats and Fs, which in the tenor voice, according to natures’ makeup, is most important.  Then we would have maybe 50 tenors in the world instead of about 10...  [Laughs] 
Il Bravo, which was written in 1839, was written for a special singer, Domenico Donzelli [see box at bottom of this webpage], a very famous tenor.  The role is at least a third lower than Lohengrin, so it is similar in tessitura to Siegmund.  So it needs a big tenor voice, and I think possibly a lyric baritone with a very good passaggio could negotiate it. 


BD:    Is Mercadante a major composer who is worth reviving?

WJ:    Absolutely.  Il Giuramento is performed very often... But to get back to the question of the caliber of the tenors, we must consider that the first high C in chest voice, or voce di petto, was negotiated in 1831 by Gilbert Duprez [see box at bottom of this webpage].  Before that, tenors were not singing above F# or G with chest mixture.  It was done mostly with head mixture which was taught in the old Italian School of Singing. 

BD:    When you get up into that high register, does head voice make it easier to do the coloratura?

WJ:    Absolutely.  You can do more coloratura because it
’s a lighter and more floating-type of singing which does not take as much pre-thought as chest mixtures. 

BD:    Are there times in Lohengrin when you use the head voice?

WJ:    Yes.  There are some piano phrases, some soft passages that must be negotiated in that manner.

BD:    There seemed to be some moments in the Bridal Chamber scene where you employed this technique.

WJ:    That’s the way it’s composed.  I try to sing it the way it’s written, nothing more and nothing less.

BD:    But you bring as much as you can to the work...

WJ:    ...yes, following the composition.  I think it’s a masterpiece, and if one sings it the way it’s composed, that’s sufficient.  As a matter of fact, that’s almost a direct quotation from Toscanini.

BD:    If a conductor or director were to ask you to make alterations in the score, would you rebel against this?

WJ:    Yes.

BD:    What about the staging?  Did you approve of most of it, or were there other things with which you were unhappy?


WJ:    I felt like we were relatively cramped on the stage.  In Lohengrin one must make as much use of the stage-area as possible.  In theatrical terms it is “dressing the stage”, and that could have been used a bit more positively.

BD:    What about the movement of the chorus?  There has been a lot of controversy about that.

WJ:    I really don’t think all of that movement was necessary.

BD:    Do you think it detracted from the work?

WJ:    Sometimes.

BD:    If  you were directing this work, would you have the chorus be much more still?

WJ:    Yes.

BD:    Then at what point does it become an oratorio?

WJ:    Well, becoming an oratorio does not depend on the movement of lances and spears.  I would have the chorus as an integral part.  There’s no question that the chorus is one of the most important factors in Lohengrin, but I don’t believe that the usage of lowering of the lances and spears, etc., enhances the production to any degree.  I think it was almost against the style, the true style of the idea, the original idea that the stage director was trying to produce.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Let’s talk a little bit about Meistersinger.  This is the other big Wagner role that you’ve been involved with.  In the last few years you’ve done productions in both German and in English.  You mentioned before that the English was particularly difficult for you to project.

WJ:    Yes.  After singing close to 30 performances of Meistersinger in the original language, then I had to switch to another language.  It’s possibly the most difficult undertaking of a translation that I have been involved in.

BD:    Was this because of the alliteration and the plays on words?

WJ:    Absolutely.  It was incredibly difficult.


BD:    When you were in Houston for these performances in English, did you feel any special closeness with the audience when you were projecting a line of text?

WJ:    No, I didn’t.  Don’t misunderstand me, I believe that in America for most operas, especially in a comical vein or lighter vein, I think that it’s advantageous to translate into the vernacular.  The people must understand them, but for Wagner, especially, or even some of the heavier, later Verdi pieces, the people should sit down with the libretto before coming and study it to know enough to where they can appreciate it without having it translated.  I believe that to be a fact for all countries.

BD:    So there should always be a certain amount of preparation before coming to the opera house?

WJ:    Yes.  There’s more appreciation that way.

BD:    The more you know about it, the more you’ll understand the subtleties.

WJ:    Of course. 
[Remember, this interview was done in 1980, before the use of supertitles in the theater.]

BD:    What about the role of television bringing opera closer to people?

WJ:    I think it’s marvelous.

BD:    Does having the running translation seem to enhance it for you?

WJ:    I think it’s a good idea, I really do.  I approve of it, and think it’s a most interesting approach.  Television has a great future in opera.

BD:    Have you participated in some televised works?

WJ:    Only one, but it was televised live so it wasn’t really what you would call a true television studio type of thing.  But I think that a live performance can be televised just as aptly and as well.

BD:    Do you think that televising a live production is really significantly different than sitting down and filming it piecemeal?

WJ:    Oh I think it would be.  I really haven’t had that much experience and don’t feel like I’m qualified to answer that, but logically speaking and from my experience in theater, you could possibly project more aspects if you weren’t doing a live performance, if you were doing a studio performance.

BD:    Does the same hold true for audio-only recording?

WJ:    I would imagine, even though most of my particular recordings are all live.

BD:    Do you think that recordings as they are today set up an impossible standard?

WJ:    I wouldn’t say it would be impossible.  I’d say it makes it perhaps unrealistic.

BD:    What about the early Wagner works
have you done Rienzi?

WJ:    I was supposed to have done Rienzi in April, but unfortunately I was ill and could not sing it.  But I definitely have plans for Rienzi in the future.  As a matter of fact, in March of 1982, we will be doing Rienzi in New York and Washington D.C.  These will be in concert, and then there is a possibility for it perhaps in Buenos Aires in 1983.

"Rienzi'' has enough life in it to hold an audience throughout its five long, strenuously noisy acts, as Eve Queler and her Opera Orchestra of New York demonstrated with their concert version Wednesday night in Avery Fisher Hall.  (...)  [The performance was also presented at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.]

The audience found something to cheer in William Johns's stentorian portrayal of Rienzi, the last tribune of a dying Rome. Mr. Johns, an American who has been at the Metropolitan Opera as Don Jose and Radamès, produced a Wagnerian sound that had the true heldentenor ring to it. Moreover, he threw himself into the role unstintingly, attacking every phrase as if it were his last gasp and managing to sustain the necessary intensity and volume to the end.

--  From a review in The New York Times by Donal Henahan, March 5, 1982 

BD:    Does that work fit in with the rest of his output?

WJ:    It’s one of his very early works and it has tremendous possibilities for production.  I personally think it’s a marvelous opera, though it’s a little bit long.  Some early productions were done in two nights.  It’s six and a half hours long, and that’s a lot of opera.  It also depends on the performer who’s singing the title role.  He sings as much
if not more thanthe young Siegfried, and, it’s a tremendously difficult role.

BD:    Is it as declamatory as Siegfried?

WJ:    Yes.  It has just about everything in it, and there’s a tremendous amount of declamation in it.

BD:    What about the earlier two
Die Feen and Das Liebesverbot?

WJ:    I don’t know too much about those.  Just from observation, they seem to be much less important than Rienzi; at least they’ve proven themselves to be less important.

BD:    Have you sung Tannhäuser?

WJ:    No.

BD:    You will do it eventually?

WJ:    I hope so.  There are a lot of people who are not aware of the fact that Tannhäuser is a most difficult opera.  Only the true Wagnerians who have studied the works for a long time are aware of the fact that Tannhäuser and the young Siegfried are the most difficult roles he ever composed for the tenor voice.


BD:    But they’re very different from each other.

WJ:    Yes, they’re very different.  Tannhäuser should be sung, ideally speaking, before the young Siegfried.  Young Siegfried should be the last role that a heldentenor should undertake.

BD:    In a performance of the Ring, do you approve of having different singers portray the two Siegfrieds?

WJ:    I approve of it, however I think ideally speaking, it should be sung by one singer.

BD:    Is it the same with the Wotans and Brünnhildes?

WJ:    Ideally, yes.  The power is so great that it can be sung by different singers and still produce a marvelous effect.

BD:    Let’s go the other way.  How about one singer singing more than one role in the Ring
like doing both Siegmund and Siegfried?  Is there a loss there because it is the same voice?

WJ:    Ideally, yes, I would say so.  Of course it depends on the particular singer.

BD:    Could you be happy just singing Wagner for the rest of your career, perhaps if you were told you could not do any Strauss or Puccini?

WJ:    I would miss something.  I do love to sing Wagner, but after all, I was trained in the Italian School of singing and I’ve sung most of the Verdi and Puccini roles and many of the other composers.  I also do a tremendous amount of concerts, and that all makes an artist’s life more interesting.  If I have to sing eight performances of Lohengrin in a row, that tends to become quite a feat to eliminate boredom, even though it’s very, very interesting.  Just the question of gearing yourself for each performance is a challenge.  I prefer a variety.

BD:    Do you find the same depth in the Italian roles as you do in Wagner?  The same complexities?

WJ:    The same complexities?  I would say so in some of the Verdi roles.  I think that Andrea Chenier for a tenor is a most interesting role; also Otello and Forza del Destino.  Oh there are many roles I would say which are as interesting in their complexities, but the only thing is the complexities are different.  For instance, the singing in Andrea Chenier is different from the singing in Lohengrin simply because of the bel canto approach.  Lohengrin can be approached from the bel canto idea.  The only problem is with the language, because in German, comparatively speaking, you have two and a half times more consonants than you do in the Italian language, and you have different vowel sounds.  So these all present problems which must be solved and analyzed.  The tessitura of Chenier is very similar to that of Lohengrin.  The only thing is that he’s required to sing Bs where Lohengrin only goes as high as A.  There are many A naturals, but still they’re not as high as B.

BD:    Do you find singing in a big Verdi opera as difficult as singing over the Wagnerian orchestra?

WJ:    I would say it’s not quite as difficult.  Verdi studied voice as a young man and he knew the voice extremely well, and he was a little bit more cautious in composing vocal lines than Wagner was.

BD:    Do you find it very difficult to sing behind a scrim?

WJ:    This is only the second or third time I’ve had to sing behind a scrim, and it certainly presents problems.  On the opening night, some of the very quiet passages I tried to negotiate were actually too soft.  I heard this from several individuals, even though they had carried very well in the dress rehearsals.  But we all overlooked the fact that a full auditorium absorbs about 35% or 40% more sound.  So, some of the piani did not carry as they had in rehearsals.  It was a delicate situation, however I did want to try to present the passages the way they were composed, and not forte as is generally the custom.  But  I made adjustments in the following performances and it’s been a different story since then.

BD:    Would you rather that the broadcast and the reviewed performance be later in the run rather the opening night?

WJ:    Absolutely.  They should be the last two or three performances, not the first one. 

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Let me ask about some of the Strauss roles.

WJ:    Richard Strauss was not a friend of the tenor voice!  He wrote some very beautiful music for the tenor, but it
’s extremely high and difficult.  The tessitura is always high in Strauss tenor roles.  Pick any of themAriadne, Daphne, Schweigsame Frau, the Italian Tenor in Rosenkavalier which scares just about every tenor that ever lived...

BD:    Have you sung that one?

johnsWJ:    Oh, many times. 

BD:    Is it upsetting at all to go from the long endurance required by a full Wagner role to the brief appearance of the Italian Tenor?

WJ:    The Italian Tenor only sings about five minutes, but it
’s highly difficult and concentrated.  Also, if you don’t sing it well, you don’t have another chance to redeem yourself!  [Laughs]

BD:    In speaking with Hans Sotin, he mentioned that when he does sing an Italian role, he goes out and before he knows it he
’s finished.  It leaves him almost in the lurch...

WJ:    [Laughing]  In relation to Gurnemanz in Parsifal, yes!  Of course, one should compare complete roles, rather than the Italian Tenor, which is the exception to the rule. 

BD:    But even something like Rodolfo in La Bohème...

WJ:    [Interrupting]  ...but Rodolfo is a big sing.  Rodolfo sings all four acts and the time required to sing the role is quite long.  He sings as much as Lohengrin in actual singing time, though it’s not as heavy, with not as much declamation involved, and not as much thick orchestral texture.

BD:    Do you have any special preparations when you are getting ready for a performance, and if so, do they change from role to role?

WJ:    Yes, I try to approach Lohengrin from a standpoint of pacing myself, which I’ve never had to do with any other opera, other than Meistersinger.

BD:    [With a gentle nudge]  Well, you’ll have to for Siegfried...

WJ:    Siegfried sings almost three hours!  That is really almost inhuman, especially all the declamatory type of singing.

BD:    Do you have certain routines that you try to adhere to?

WJ:    I try to get as much rest as possible.

BD:    What about modern opera?

WJ:    I
’ve sung a great deal of modern opera.  I have enjoyed it in the past, but I’ve not done much of it in the last five or six years.  Like everything else, it’s a question of specializing. 

BD:    Do you have any suggestions about writing new operas or producing them?

WJ:    I think the composers should be nudged in a different way.  I would like to see a composer like Gian Carlo Menotti compose more than he has recently.  He
’s been concentrating his efforts on stage-direction and he’s a magnificent stage-director.  I’ve enjoyed working with him immensely, but I would certainly like to see him do more composing.  He’s a great man of the theater, a great talent, and I’m sure he will do more composing in the future... at least I hope he does. 

BD:    If he or some other composer were to write a work with you in mind, would you have any suggestions?

WJ:    If he asked me, I
’d give him as much help as I possibly could!  It’s a great honor to work with him. 

BD:    What about other composers?

WJ:    If they would ask me to sing six high Cs in a row, I
’d ask what he was trying to say.  I’d prefer not to do something like that.  I don’t think it has a point.  A lot of modern music has been composed from the viewpoint of sensationalism, which I don’t believe belongs in opera to that degree.  Opera does have sensational moments, but they should be moments and not minutes. 

BD:    Should music be the handmaiden of the dramatic situation?

WJ:    No, I think it
’s a combination of the two.  I wouldn’t say handmaiden; it should be a marriage.  The word came before the music.  We were speaking before we were singing, that’s for sure.  Singing is a relatively young acquired aspect of the human utterance.  The Bel Canto School of Singing was founded in the seventeenth century.  Opera itself is still very young, really, and in America even more so. 

BD:    Where is opera going today?

WJ:    Opera is expensive.  Economically speaking and as far as America is concerned at this particular period, we’re not in the best economical position that we’ve been in in the past, and in relation, everything else is dependent upon that.

BD:    How much should economics dictate what is done?

WJ:    Operatically speaking, the economic factors in managing a large company have proven to be immensely difficult without any government subsidies.  As a matter of fact, when I was in the University, I contemplated this question of whether or not I really wanted to become a singer, or if I even wanted to be in music at all.  From that standpoint, economically speaking, it certainly was not realistic at that juncture.  I thought that opera was certainly on the wane.  But I think that it’s had a resurgence in the last fifteen years.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Do you like the life that you’re forced to lead, being here and there all the time?

WJ:    I knew through conversations with other singers who were kind enough to enlighten me about the life of traveling minstrels, that it would be difficult.  But I enjoy meeting people and I enjoy the challenge of the different mentalities and languages.  That’s all part of being an opera singer.  It’s a sacrifice of home life especially if one is married.  I’m very grateful that my wife understands these problems with the same frame of mind and objectivity as the artist.  She always travels with me, fortunately.

BD:    I would seem easier for a wife to travel with the husband rather than the other way around.

WJ:    Yes.  That
’s the way society is made up.  The psychological aspects are that way.

BD:    Are you a good audience?

WJ:    Yes.  I like to go to as many other performances as possible.

BD:    Do you attend works where you have a role, or do you avoid them and just go to works where you have no role?

WJ:    Both.

BD:    What do you think about when you attend a Lohengrin or a Meistersinger?

johnsWJ:    I try to be in rapport with the particular artist, and try to put myself in his position on stage and to identify with the interpretation.  If the interpretation adheres to the score, then I’m very happy; if it departs from that, then it upsets me.

BD:    If you notice something that you like, do you incorporate that into your own interpretation?

WJ:   Yes.  Sometimes.  I wouldn’t call it imitation because we’re all different, but I think that an artist should be objective enough to learn from anything and anyone else.  

BD:    Do you enjoy working with the various conductors?  Do they help you a lot?

WJ:    Well, I don’t know about helping.  Some of them do...

BD:    Do you enjoy doing both operas and concerts?

WJ:    I’d say ideally I’d like to do 60% opera and 40% concerts.  But I enjoy both. 

:    Have you done Peter Grimes?

WJ:    I
’ve studied the score.  It’s a most interesting, challenging role.  I hope to sing it in the future.  I wouldn’t want to be compared to Vickers, though.  I have not had the opportunity to watch him sing it, but from all that I have seen and heard, it must be THE interpretation of the role. 

BD:    Have you ever been in the audience at a opera you don’t sing and thought to yourself, “My God, that’s a role I must sing!”?

WJ:    Yes, several times.  As a matter of fact, that’s what happened in Meistersinger.  I never really contemplated singing that role until I heard Giorgio Tozzi sing Sachs.  Then it was kind of a revelation to me in that he negotiated Sachs with an Italian Bel Canto approach, and I thought that is the way I would like to sing Wagner.  So that was instrumental in my accepting the part of Walther here in Chicago.  That was my first time in the role.

BD:    Was that your first Wagner?

WJ:    I had sung the Steersman in the Dutchman, but that was all.  At that time in my career, I was a much lighter tenor.  The voice has grown with the number of performances and the maturing process.

BD:    There was a production recently where the same man sang both Steersman and Erik.

WJ:    Why not?  It depends on the concept of the production.  That was Ponnelle, and I think the idea was interesting.  It’s another approach.  I don’t think that it was Wagner’s original idea, but it’s interesting.

BD:    Do you prefer that opera in one piece or in three?

WJ:    Ideally it should be in one, but for the sake of the singers and for the audience it had better be in three.

BD:    Have you thought about Tristan?

WJ:    Oh yes, I’ve thought about it, but I’ve never touched it.  There are certain roles that I never approach because I don’t feel I’m mature enough yet.  I don
’t even look at the scores because I don’t want to become involved with them and convince myself that I can sing them when I know that I shouldn’t.  There are several roles that I can sing now but I don’t want to sing them because I know that I’m not mature enough for them. 


BD:    That’s the way you pace your career.  I hope the voice continues to respond just the way you want.

WJ:    God willing.  When you consider that 12 years ago I was singing Almaviva in Barber of Seville and Bellini and Donizetti, that’s not too great a length of time for a voice to mature from that repertoire.

BD:    Could you sing any of those today?

WJ:    I believe so.  I never actually put any of my roles aside; I just don’t have the opportunity to sing some of them now.  It’s partly the way the human mind functions.  Now that I’m singing Wagner and Strauss, the audience would wonder why I would sing Almaviva.  We are pigeon-holed today much more so than before the turn of the century.  The tenor Fernando De Lucia (1860-1925) sang both Almaviva and verismo roles.  The real question is what our ears want to hear and what we’ve been subjected to.  It’s a question of color, also.  It can handicap singers and that is a problem today.  If we have to assign “fault” perhaps it should be placed with management, because if the people are presented with something that’s good and enjoyable, why not?  They want to hear it.

BD:    Would you have to lighten your voice to sing those roles now?

WJ:    It would take preparation to sing them. 

BD:    Are managers pushing the young singers too hard and too fast?

WJ:    I would say so, yes.

BD:    Is that the advice you would give to young singers
to pace, to take it easy, and to say no?

WJ:    Yes, but it’s not easy to put an old head on young shoulders.  It’s very difficult to say no, especially in America because the opportunities just don’t appear that often.  Doing those roles too soon can be injurious to the singer
— not all the time, but most of the time.  America is the richest country on Earth and should have more opera, but Germany has 70-odd opera houses, and that’s more than almost the rest of the world put together. 

BD:    What’s the answer?

WJ:    Exposure and nurturing of the intellect.  I would like to think I’m doing my best along those lines with my contribution to opera and music per se.

BD:    You enjoy singing.

WJ:    Yes, I do, very much.  I
’ve always enjoyed singing ever since I was three or four years old. 

BD:    This comes across in performance.

WJ:    Well, thank you.  That’s a great compliment.

BD:    Thank you for coming.

WJ:    I’ve enjoyed it.

A little bit about the two tenors referenced earlier in the conversation . . . . .

Domenico Donzelli
(February 2, 1790 – March 31, 1873) can be regarded as an offshoot of the so-called Bergamo tenor school which had originated with Giacomo David and Gaetano Crivelli, and which also included Giovanni David, Andrea Nozzari, Marco Bordogni, and Giovanni Battista Rubini.

donzelliDonzelli made his debut in his home town, in 1808, as a second tenor in an opera by Johann Simon Mayr. He soon moved to Naples and performed many roles there, including that of Cinna in a revival of Gaspare Spontini's La Vestale. He became well known in 1815 when Rossini wrote for him the role of Torvaldo in Torvaldo e Dorliska, and when, the following year, he made his first appearance at the Teatro alla Scala as the protagonist of Ferdinando Paër's Achille.

His career made subsequent headway in major Italian theatres, in Paris, and in London, gaining fame for many of his Rossini roles, especially Otello. His performances ranged from the protagonist of Pacini's Cesare in Egitto (1821), to the role of Cavalier Belfiore in Rossini's Il viaggio a Reims (1825), from the first Pollione in Bellini's Norma (1831) to the chief part in Mercadante's Il bravo (1839). He appeared also in several premières of Donizetti operas, for instance, as Almuzir in Zoraide di Granata (1822), Ugo, conte di Parigi in the opera of that name (1832), and Don Ruiz in Maria Padilla (1841).

Donzelli retired from the stage in 1841. He returned briefly in 1844/45 to sing in Naples, but his voice had irreparably deteriorated. He died in Bologna in 1873, at the age of 83.

In Donzelli's artistic career, it is possible to discern three separate periods. In the first he was mainly a comic opera tenorino; the second, more substantial period (enduring until about 1822), was spent as a singer of the Rossini stamp; the third, and most significant, was spent as a "tenore di forza" (a category of dramatic tenor). Donzelli was in fact an old-fashioned baritone-type tenor in the traditional Italian manner, with a fairly narrow vocal range. In the central period of his career he could sing up to high C, but only in "falsettone", a sort of head voice, but much more forceful and expressive than the proper falsetto.

Little versed in coloratura, but decidedly powerful of voice, he had a dark timbre, a firm accent, great phrasing and passionate acting. Despite criticisms of his voice's strenuousness and lack of agility, Donzelli can be held to represent the junction between the old neoclassic style of baritone-type tenor and the romantic "forceful tenor". He was the model for the real founder of the latter category of singers, Gilbert Louis Duprez, who was to become famous as the first practitioner of the high C from the chest.

Stories are told that an attempt to emulate Donzelli's robust singing style might have been the cause of the demise of a young colleague of his, Americo Sbigoli, who had been engaged, together with Donzelli, in 1821, to execute the première of Donizetti's Zoraide di Granata at Rome's Teatro Argentina. In trying to match Donzelli's performance during rehearsals, Sbigoli reputedly burst a blood vessel in his throat and thereupon died.

===   ===   ===   ===   ===   ===   ===   ===   ===   ===   ===   ===   ===

Gilbert-Louis Duprez, to give his full name, was born in Paris December 6, 1806. He studied singing, music theory, and composition with Alexandre-Étienne Choron and made his operatic début at the Odéon in 1825 as Count Almaviva in Rossini's Il barbiere di Siviglia. He worked in that theatre without much success until 1828, when he decided to try his luck in Italy. There, the operatic scene was more active and developed. As a result, Duprez was able to immerse himself in work, beginning principally with tenore contraltino roles such as Idreno in Semiramide and Rodrigo in Otello, both by Rossini. He appeared, too, as Gualtiero in Bellini's Il pirata. The latter role proved to be his first undisputed stage success, probably because it was free of elaborate coloratura passages, which were not considered to be his strong suit as a vocalist.

duprezIn 1831, in Lucca, Duprez took part in the premiere Italian performance of Guglielmo Tell, singing for the first time (in an opera theatre) a high C sung not in the so-called falsettone register, as other tenors of that time were accustomed to do, but with a full voice, often described as coming "from the chest". His Italian career then proceeded on a highly successful course. It embraced, among other things, two premieres of operas by Donizetti, namely Ugo in Parisina at Florence in 1832, and, more significantly, Edgardo in Lucia di Lammermoor at Naples' San Carlo in 1835.

His Italian reputation strongly established, Duprez returned to Paris in 1837 and scored an immediate success at the Opéra with his exciting new style of vocal delivery as exemplified in William Tell. Consequently, he obtained equal billing with Adolphe Nourrit as "principal tenor" of the theatre. Nourrit responded by leaving for Italy in emulation of his competitor; but unlike Duprez, he failed to master the new singing style during studies with Donizetti and committed suicide.

Duprez maintained his leading position at the Opéra until 1849, singing the title role in the première of Berlioz's Benvenuto Cellini in 1838, and taking part in several further Donizetti premieres, including those of La favorite (as Fernand) and Les Martyrs (as Poliuto), both in 1840, and Dom Sébastien (in the title role), in 1843. Ironically the role of Poliuto, which Donizetti had written expressly for Nourrit in order to help him to maintain his exalted position, was to become associated in the public's mind with Duprez.

After singing in London at the Drury Lane theatre in the years 1843-1844, Duprez began to cut back on his stage performances, with a notable exception being the lead role in Giuseppe Verdi's Jérusalem. His last public appearance was in 1851 in Lucia di Lammermoor at the Théâtre des Italiens. He then devoted himself to teaching, first at Paris's Conservatoire (where he had been appointed to a professorship as far back as 1842), and afterwards privately. His students included the celebrated French virtuoso bass Pol Plançon (1851–1914), whose voice is preserved on gramophone recordings made in 1902-1908. Duprez also devised a system of written exercises for singers and composed a few less than successful operettas.

In his 1880 book Souvenir d'un chanteur, Duprez, a close friend of Donizetti's, related in deeply felt terms the bitter setbacks and obstructions which the Bergamo composer had suffered in the theatrical world.

Duprez died at Poissy, near Paris, in 1896.

One can differentiate two distinct phases in Duprez's artistic life. Initially, being equipped by nature with a clear but comparatively thin voice, he appears to have stood in the French haute-contre tradition of singing. So, when he first went to Italy, he naturally assumed equivalent tenore contraltino roles in operas written by Rossini. However, he failed to make any great impression on Italian audiences with his Rossinian endeavours, perhaps because of his deeply rooted disinclination to indulge in displays of coloratura.

While in Italy, he began by modelling himself on the bel-canto tenor Rubini, whose bravura vocalism was a byword for sweetness and elegiac inflexion. Soon, however, he found a new source of inspiration in the person of Domenico Donzelli, the then greatest living "baritonal" tenor. Donzelli possessed a robust voice and a deliberately darkened timbre, coupled with firmly accented diction, immense nobility of phrasing and a vibrant, intense method of acting. The merging of Rubini and Donzelli's contrasting styles in Duprez, and the introduction of the famous high C from the chest (which soon became a standard feature of Romantic singing), gave rise to a fresh category of tenor, the tenore di forza. The dramatic tenor of the present day is a direct descendant in terms of range, tessitura and tonal thrust from this kind of mid-19th century voice first exemplified by Duprez.

Duprez was a small man and, regrettably, the chest high C was an element of his vocal mechanism which soon took a toll on his physical resources. According to Berlioz, his voice sounded "hardened" as early as 1838, at the premiere of Benvenuto Cellini, and over the next 10 years, despite some isolated successes, his singing continued to deteriorate. Finally, Duprez was driven into an early retirement from the stage and he took up teaching.

© 1980 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in Chicago on November 30, 1980.  Portions were transcribed and published in Wagner News in November, 1981  The transcription was completed and re-edited, photos and links were added, and it was posted on this website early in 2016.

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, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also 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.