Composer  Leonard  Kastle

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


Leonard Kastle dies at 82; writer-director of 'The Honeymoon Killers'

Leonard Kastle's only movie, released in 1970, was hailed for its pure, grim realism. He also wrote operas and other compositions and taught at the State University of New York in Albany.

May 29, 2011 
By Dennis McLellan, Los Angeles Times [text only - photo from another source]

When Leonard Kastle's debut movie as a writer and director, "The Honeymoon Killers," was released in 1970, critics raved over the grimly realistic, low-budget, black-and-white crime drama about a lowlife lothario and his overweight nurse lover whose partnership in conning lonely women leads to murder. French director Francois Truffaut called it his "favorite American film." Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni considered it "one of the purest movies I've ever seen."

Kastle, whose first film was destined to be his last, died May 18 at his home in Westerlo, N.Y., after a brief illness, said Tina Sisson, a friend. He was 82.

Kastle is considered one of America's most intriguing one-shot movie directors. Neither he nor producer Warren Steibel had any filmmaking experience when they set out to make "The Honeymoon Killers," which gained cult status in America and Europe.

Kastle was an opera composer whose work had aired on television, and Steibel was the producer of William F. Buckley Jr.'s TV series "Firing Line." But after a wealthy friend of Steibel's agreed to put up $150,000 to finance a low-budget movie, Steibel asked his friend Kastle to write the script.

"The Honeymoon Killers" was based on the true-life story of Martha Beck and Raymond Fernandez, the so-called Lonely Hearts Killers who were executed at New York's Sing Sing prison in 1951. The movie was shot on location in and near Albany, N.Y., in eight weeks, with Shirley Stoler and Tony Lo Bianco playing Beck and Fernandez.

The film's original director was a young Martin Scorsese. But Scorsese's filmmaking pace was too slow and he was soon removed. Industrial filmmaker Donald Volkman then stepped in for a time before Kastle took over as the credited director. Like Steibel, Kastle envisioned the movie as a starkly realistic contrast to "Bonnie and Clyde," starring Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway. "I was revolted by that movie," Kastle said in an interview on the 2003 Criterion Collection reissue of the film on DVD. "I didn't want to show beautiful shots of beautiful people."


"'The Honeymoon Killers,'" The Times' Kevin Thomas wrote in his 1970 review, "is the kind of movie that restores your faith in the possibilities for the commercial American cinema." "This extraordinary little movie," Thomas wrote, "belongs to that long but now virtually extinct line of B movies that examines the dark side of American life with a perception and honesty traditionally lacking in our expensive escapist fare."

In his review of the film in The New York Times, Roger Greenspun described Kastle as "the real star of the movie," saying that his direction placed him "among the important deliberate artists of his medium." But then Kastle vanished from the world of cinema, to the point that two decades later Daily Variety's Todd McCarthy was telling readers that Kastle was one of the directors about whom people most often asked him, "Whatever happened to?" "No one," McCarthy wrote when "The Honeymoon Killers" was re-released in theaters in 1992, "ever disappeared faster and more mysteriously than Kastle."

After making the film, Kastle returned to composing and later began teaching — not that he didn't try to make a big-screen comeback. He wrote a number of screenplays over the years. And for decades, he tried to make "The Wedding at Cana," his story of corruption involving the Catholic Church and organized crime set in the 1970s. He came closest to making the film in 2001, but financing fell through. "It was a lot of almosts and near-misses," Kastle said of the failed project in a 2001 interview with the Albany Times-Union. "I felt like Sisyphus rolling the stone up the hill." But, as Kastle wryly pointed out in his interview for the Criterion DVD, he at least was always able to say, "I never made a bad film after 'Honeymoon Killers.' "

The son of Russian immigrants, he was born in New York City on Feb. 11, 1929, and grew up in Mount Vernon, N.Y. A child prodigy, he began his musical training at the Juilliard School in 1938. After studying piano and composition at the Mannes Music School (now Mannes College) in Manhattan, he earned a bachelor's degree from the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia in 1950. His early career included serving as assistant musical director and conductor for "NBC Television Opera Theater" from 1955 to 1959, during which he directed his own one-act opera, "The Swing." NBC also aired his three-act opera, "Deseret," in 1961.

Other Kastle operas are "The Pariahs," "The Passion of Mother Ann: A Sacred Festival Play" (a trilogy), and a one-act children's opera, "Professor Lookalike and the Children." Kastle, who also wrote orchestral works and songs, taught composition and other classes at the State University of New York in Albany (now the University at Albany) from 1978 to 1989.

He is survived by his sister, Norma Merker of San Francisco.

Most of the conversations in this series are interviews.  That is, I ask questions and my guest will respond.  Most are cordial and many are very friendly, and a few are quite raucous with much laughter from both of us.  This conversation, while it has many of the friendly and even raucous elements, is more of an encounter.  I cannot really explain it, except to say that I think you will agree with that assessment once you have finished reading the text.

I first heard the name Leonard Kastle when a friend of mine, who provided me with many audio tapes of unknown operas, gave me Deseret.  It was the NBC Opera production, and I enjoyed it quite a bit.  Later in my life, when I was working for WNIB, I remembered this work, and decided to make contact with the composer.

After a bit of back-and-forth about what material he had that could be aired, we got down to the business of discussing his career and ideas . . . . . . . . .

Leonard Kastle:    I’ve written a lot of works.  There’s another work that was done and it happens to be really rather nice.  I wrote an opera last year, and it was done in January 1987 to celebrate the Albany tri-centennial.  It was commissioned by the tri-centennial committee in the University of the State of New York, where we did it.

Bruce Duffie:    Right!  Lester Trimble wrote a symphony for the occasion.  [Note: Throughout this page, names which are links refer to my interviews elsewhere on this website.] 

LK:    Yes, that’s right.  My opera was about the Shakers.   They were a religious sect, and it was called The Passion of Mother Anne.  The orchestra came from the Crane School, which is that music school in the university system.  It’s part of Potsdam College.  There isn’t an overture, but there’s a lot of nice music and it’s not very long.  It’s a funny work.  The Prologue has no orchestra at all and no accompaniment but chimes.  I played a piano concerto with the Albany Symphony, but I didn’t like the performance!  It was one of those performances when we had rehearsals but they never got to the Concerto.  We had a twenty-minute rehearsal of a piece that was forty minutes long.  [Both laugh]  The whole piece ends with a big double fugue, and at the end I was improvising so that we would end together just for the sake of the way it would look!  That’s how new works are done!  [At this point we chatted briefly about some recordings of chamber pieces which might be used on the radio during my presentation of portions of this interview]  I don’t just write chamber music.  I have a lot of operas and no one’s doing them.

BD:    Why is no one doing your operas?

LK:    I don’t know!  I don’t know.  I have had incredibly funny luck.  I wrote Deseret many years ago, and it was done by NBC.  It was seen all over the country, and without boasting, it got the most incredible reviews you’ve ever seen.  People like Irving Kolodin* [see box immediately below] in the Saturday Review said it was a masterpiece.  Winthrop Sargeant** wrote favorably about it in The New Yorker.  In fact Albert Goldberg*** wrote a Sunday piece and he said that it was probably the best American opera ever written!

*Irving Kolodin (February 21, 1908 – April 29, 1988) was an American music critic and music historian.

Kolodin was born in New York City. He wrote for the New York Sun from 1932 to 1950 and for the Saturday Review starting in 1947. He was best known for his popular Guide to Recorded Music. He also wrote program notes for the New York Philharmonic and Metropolitan Opera, and a 762 page "candid history" of the Met up to 1966.


**Winthrop Sargeant (December 10, 1903, San Francisco, California – August 15, 1986, Salisbury, Connecticut) was an American music critic, violinist, and writer. He studied the violin in his native city with Albert Elkus and with Felix Prohaska and Lucien Capet in Europe. In 1922, at the age of 18, he became the youngest member of the San Francisco Symphony. He left there for New York City in 1926 where he became a violinist with the New York Symphony (1926–28) and later the New York Philharmonic (1928–30). He abandoned his performance career in favour of pursuing a career as a journalist, critic, and writer in 1930. He wrote music criticism for Musical America, The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, and The New York American. He was notably a music editor for Time magazine from 1937–1945, and he served as a senior writer for Life magazine from 1945–1949.

From 1949-1972 he wrote the column Musical Events for The New Yorker. He continued to write music criticism for that publication up until his death in 1986 at the age of 82. His books included Jazz: Hot and Hybrid (1938), Geniuses, goddesses, and people (1949), Listening to music (1958), Jazz: a history (1964), In spite of myself: a personal memoir (1970), Divas (1973).


Former Tribune Music Critic Albert Goldberg

February 11, 1990|By John von Rhein, Chicago Tribune

***Albert Goldberg, a distinguished former music critic of the Chicago Tribune and a music critic for the Los Angeles Times since 1947, died Feb. 4 in Nashville, Tenn., where he had been hospitalized for a broken vertebra. He was 91.

Born in Shenandoah, Iowa, Mr. Goldberg studied at Chicago`s Gunn School of Music and in 1935 became Illinois director of the Federal Music Project, a Depression-era program under the auspices of the Works Progress Administration.

From 1935 to 1943, he and Izler Solomon were co-conductors of the federally sponsored Illinois Symphony, a 90-member orchestra that performed for audiences who paid 25 cents a seat at Chicago`s old Great Northern Theater. During its brief history the ensemble gave the first local performances of some 150 works.

Mr. Goldberg and Solomon earned from $90 to $100 a month for their efforts. They rehearsed six times a week under federal guidelines that required the exclusive use of unemployed musicians.

A pianist by training, Mr. Goldberg worked as a music critic at the old Chicago Herald and Examiner before joining the Tribune`s arts staff in 1943 at the invitation of chief critic Claudia Cassidy. He wrote reviews for the Tribune until he became chief music critic of the Los Angeles Times in 1947.

``We hated to lose him,`` Cassidy recalls. ``He was a dear friend, a valuable person to have at the paper, wonderful at getting the (critics) department established. His death removes someone very remarkable from our thinning ranks.``

A man of wide culture and discerning taste, Mr. Goldberg was known for the elegance, point and evenhanded nature of his criticism. He wrote witty and graceful reminiscences of some of the greatest musicians of his era, including Percy Grainger, Lauritz Melchior, Josef Hoffman, Arthur Rubinstein and Vladimir Horowitz, whom he adored.

He also was a staunch defender of conductor Georg Solti during the latter`s beleaguered, short-lived term as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic in the early 1960s.

Mr. Goldberg was considered the first of the serious musical commentators in Los Angeles, drawing regular fire from the arts establishment but sticking to his critical guns. Although he retired as Times music critic in 1965, he continued to contribute reviews and feature articles until shortly before his death.

Survivors include a niece, Sandy McSeveney, of Nashville, Tenn.

= = = = = = =

Albert Goldberg: An Appreciation


Albert Goldberg, who died on Sunday, wasn't like other music critics.

He served time, early in his distinguished career, as a pianist and conductor. He lived with music and for music, with a little time out for decent literature and fine food.

Unlike some of us, he didn't like going to movies on a free night. He switched on his infernal, newfangled television set only under duress and then only with careful, often futile instruction.

He couldn't stop learning about the things he deemed important. He considered a biography of Franz Liszt good bed-time reading. Only a few months ago, he called to chat about his excitement at rediscovering some ancient recordings by Enrico Caruso. Tenors today, he muttered, don't have that sort of dynamic finesse.

He couldn't stop writing. He typed his last piece for this paper--a perceptive review of Zubin Mehta and the Israel Philharmonic--on March 21, 1989. That was three months before his 91st birthday.

We didn't know at the time that this would be his critical swan song, but the subject turned out to be apt. He had been one of Mehta's earliest, staunchest and most persuasive supporters.

Albert always attended concerts even when he didn't have to. He went eagerly. He went compulsively. That probably helped keep him young.

He could remember Kreisler, but was curious about Anne Sophie Mutter. He grew up with Toscanini and, formatively, with Frederick Stock, but wanted to know all about Esa-Pekka Salonen. He recalled Paderewski and worshipped Horowitz, but mustered great interest in Jean-Yves Thibaudet.

His aesthetic priorities were wonderfully quirky. A discerning romanticist from Shenandoah, Iowa, he tended to find Bach dry, Figaro long, modern music unpleasant. Yet he was always willing--and pleased--to be surprised. His sense of humor did not preclude occasional excursions into self-mockery.

He was, essentially, a gentleman of the old school. He respected common courtesies, and uncommon ones too. No one confused him, however, with the traditional mild-mannered reporter. He once engaged none less than Igor Stravinsky in a feisty public battle of wits and priorities. In the distant past when the extramusical powers at The Times attacked Georg Solti--then the beleaguered and short-lived music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic--Albert refused to toe the line. He kept his integrity.

He was a stylist. His deceptively gentle prose revealed elegance, balance, point.

He was a scholar. He knew far more about the piano, about pianists and about the piano literature than most of us could ever hope to know.

He also was a generous colleague. When in 1965 he reached official retirement age--actually he had exceeded it by a couple of years--he had to contend with a brash young writer from New York invading what had been his turf. Others in his position might have registered resentment. Others might have withdrawn and waited gleefully for the foolhardy newcomer to make an ass of himself.

Albert Goldberg did nothing of the kind. He stepped aside, offered help and voiced encouragement.

A quarter of a century later, the foolhardy newcomer still thanks him for that.

[Continuing]  You know how many performance that opera has had?

BD:    How many?

LK:    About three!  It was shown on New Year’s Day, 1961, and the reviews all came out the day after that.   Now, the very funny thing about it was I was ahead of my time.  I wasn’t writing this kind of experimental stuff that was the rage then.  Everything had to be very, very dissonant, and if you wrote something that was lyrical, they told you you were fifty years behind the times.  The one bad review that I got was Paul Henry Lang who was writing then in the Herald Tribune.  His great complaint was that it was so old-fashioned it could have been written fifty years ago [laughs], as if that to me was a complaint!  That was absurd.

BD:    A tune is an anathema!

LK:    It’s like some priest said about a church that is married to this generation is a widow in the next generation!  That’s the trouble with so much of the music today.  But I suffered then, and that was one of the problems with it when I wrote.  It was so unabashedly lyrical and tonal that it wasn’t chic.

BD:    Did you write it to be unabashedly lyrical?

LK:    I wrote it to say what I wanted to say!  I write what I feel!  I write what I wanted to write.

BD:    I’m glad that you didn’t let anyone dissuade you from writing tonal music.

LK:    No, and I’m still writing tonal music.  The funny thing is now it’s become chic-y to write tonal music, but in my opinion the tonal music that’s now chic-y is as bad as the angular stuff that Winthrop Sergeant used to call ‘foundation music’.  It’s devoid of meaning as far as I’m concerned, so I lose out on both levels.  In those days when I was a younger composer, I was writing very tonal romantic music, and it was out of fashion.  Now tonal music is in fashion, but it’s not the same thing.


BD:    In your opinion, what is it that makes a piece good music?  Or what are some of the traits that contribute to making a piece of music good, or even great?

LK:    The personality.  It’s the person who writes it.   I teach composition, and I tell the students not to try and be anything but yourself.  You have to live with yourself, and you have to have something to say as an individual.  If you have individuality it will come through what you do, and then it will be different because it will be you!  Beethoven said he never tried to be original, and when Beethoven was writing, the symphony was considered by these lunatics as a dated archaic form.  It was the aristocrats’ entertainment, and it had no more use.

BD:    It had died with Haydn and Mozart?

LK:    It had died, exactly!  Beethoven wrote symphonies, which had apparently died, but what Beethoven wrote was so original.  What is good music or good art or good anything is somebody who has a unique view and a unique personality.  That will come out in what he does, whether he paints, whether he writes books, or whether he’s an interesting person.  The great composers were great very interesting people.  They were interesting personalities.  None of them were dull and boring as most composers are today.  They are absolutely boring!

kastle BD:    [With a gentle nudge]  Is Leonard Kastle an interesting person?

LK:    I don’t know, but I do know that most composers are really bored!  They’re not interesting!  All that they’re worried about is the accouterments of the art, not the basics of it.  It
’s not whether you’re tonal, or whether you’re in this movement or in that movement, or whether you’re like this or that.  It’s if you have something in you that is unique, that you have something to say, and that is something you can’t learn.

BD:    Without naming names, are there composers today who are interesting and who are not boring?

LK:    I think Shostakovich is one of great composers of all times.  Now he’s dead, but he is very much of our time.  He is masterful, and is one of my favorite composers in the whole world.  Prokofiev, to me, is a very, very great composer, as is Richard Strauss.  Recently I saw a review in the New York Times that one of his works is not trashy as everybody said it was.  I could have told them that a long time ago!  Berlioz is one of the greatest composers that ever lived, and he really has a personality.  You hear two bars of Gershwin and you know it’s Gershwin.  He is also marvelous, but I don’t find others the same these days.  I know I just sound like a bitter, frustrated man, which probably I am, but when I hear all these pieces that are played just once, they’re all the same!  It’s all one non-entity!  All of them are writing the same kind of stuff that has exact same sound and no individuality whatsoever.  Like what Andy Warhol said, we all have our moment of great success.  We’re all famous for a few minutes, but when I think about people who are called ‘artists’ today, I want to really throw up!  I’m not going to mention names, but I put on the radio and I hear a piece of music that goes on and on and on and on, with three chords, and the composer if famous!

BD:    Then let me turn the question back on itself.  What is the purpose of music in society?

LK:    I don’t know!  [They both laugh] 

BD:    [With mock horror]  You mean you’ve been wasting your life???

LK:    [Laughs]  No, but I don’t know what the purpose of it is.  I guess the purpose of all art is that we are communicating.  I take a very religious attitude.  We’re here on this planet, and we don’t know why we’re here.  It’s very strange, and art is somehow a way of expressing the mysteriousness of our inexpressible feelings.  Schopenhauer said that music has one facility that no other creative process has.  He said that music was the way of coming directly out from the unconscious.  All other art has to go through consciousness first.  It’s a beautiful idea.  Wagner was very impressed by one of the things that Schopenhauer believed.  You listen to Mozart’s music, and George Bernard Shaw said that if you listen to The Magic Flute it is as if God spoke.  Talking about Sarastro’s two arias, Shaw said that if God could speak, that’s probably what we would hear!  That is the view I take about music, and it’s not very fashionable today.  It’s not even fashionable if you talk about God today.  You’re supposed to talk about foundations and I don’t know what else, but if you ask me what is the role of art, I think that is the role.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Let me pursue this just a bit.  Who is it that dictates fashion
— is it the public, is it the critics, is it the historian?

LK:     I can’t tell you.  [Laughs]  I don’t know!  I mean, I really don’t know.  What I can say is that there are people who are writing from something deep inside them, and I suppose the people that I used to think are writing music that is meaningless probably say the same thing?  So who’s to say?  I heard this marvelous piece which has a C major chord and then it has a G major chord, and that goes on for four hours!  That’s some very great statement.  Who’s to argue?  John Cage said that art is  what you can get away with!  Unfortunately that is a lot of the philosophy of a lot of the present day artists.

BD:    So you differentiate great art and mediocre art by the genuineness of the intent?

LK:    By the genuineness of the intent and by the importance of the person who is writing it.  Some people think musicians are stupid because they only know notes.  I always tell my students that the great composers are not people who just knew how to put notes together.  Read what they wrote!  Look at their lives.  They were philosophers.  They were really, really very brilliant men.  None of them were stupid.  They were very, very sensitive-centered.  If you read the letters of Mozart, this was a man who really was really consumed by some kind of a burning flame.  He was an incredible man, an incredibly sensitive man.  Or take Berlioz!  Read his Memoirs.  Wagner anticipated Freud and Jung in the Ring in such an incredible way.  All of them were brilliant.  They were super people, and that’s why their music is marvelous.  None of them were stupid, and that’s why it really comes down to being very exceptional.  Someone said that people of true genius are never only directed in one channel.  They are generally directed in various channels, and I think that’s what makes their work marvelous
the fact that they have an incredible personality and some kind of a wonderful connection to eternal things.

BD:    Then each work in its specific idea is multi-faceted?

LK:    Yes.  Absolutely!  Well, that’s what I think, and that’s why they’re scarce.

BD:    Is this the kind of thing that you try to impart to your students?

LK:    Yes.  I teach a course called ‘Six Great Masses Plus One’.  The
‘Plus One’ is my own Mass.  I wrote a Mass for Chorus and Orchestra, but I teach the Bach B Minor, the Beethoven Missa Solemnis, the Verdi Requiem, the Berlioz Requiem, the Fauré Requiem, and the Mozart Requiem.  It’s very interesting because most of those composers said that this piece was their great piece.  Beethoven’s favorite was not the Ninth Symphony.  When his famous portrait was painted, the one by Schindler, he asked to be holding the manuscript of the Missa Solemnis.  Then he gave instructions to the artist to be sure that one could see on the paper that it said Missa Solemnis.  That was his favorite piece.  Berlioz said, If all my work had to be burned, I would beg for the Requiem to be spared.  It’s an interesting course because you take each of these people, and it shows to the students what profound religious philosophers they were.

BD:    Whether or not they practiced the religion themselves?

LK:    It didn’t matter!  Verdi used to take his wife to church and then he would go for a drive.  When he was a little boy, he was knocked unconscious by a priest because he was serving at the altar and he was listening to the music.  He was so entranced by the music he didn’t do what he was supposed to do, and the priest kicked him down the steps!  Berlioz was rejected by his mother because he wouldn’t listen to his family about being a doctor, and she was very uptight.

BD:    Do you feel that that music their religion?

LK:    Well, there is a religion in music, yet I think the religion in music is very personal.  I’m a very religious person, and as I’m careening to my finalis, I’m very healthy and still pretty young, but I have become more aware of this component in our voyage here on this earth.  Their music is a religion, but I think music is a religion that is very much hooked up to the Creator.  I don’t think it is a religion by itself; it is a means.  One of my favorite composers is Elgar!  You very rarely hear Elgar.  What do you hear of Elgar besides Pomp and Circumstance?  Do you ever hear the three great oratorios?  The Dream of Gerontius is known a little, but what came after are two oratorios
The Apostles, and The Kingdomthat are so incredible.  I taught a course in Elgar.  There again was a man who was a real original, as were even the so-called lesser great composers.  I like Delius a lot.  I’ve got a good ear but I’m not a magician about recognizing these people, but you hear one bar of Delius and you know that’s Delius.  Why is it?  I don’t know.  You can take it apart and say he does this, he does this, he does this, he does this, but that’s like taking a dead body and looking at what makes it go.  It doesn’t mean anything unless there’s the life in it.  You just can’t take chords and say he was partial to this or that.  It’s just a miracle.

BD:    Is it possible for future historians to take apart your music and say,
This has got to be Leonard Kastle?

LK:    I don’t know.  I just do the best I can.  I know what I love.  I love all music.  I adore Berlioz, but I don’t know that this shows in my music.  Listen to Deseret and tell me!  That was written quite a while ago.

BD:    Is composing fun?

kastle LK:    Yes!  It has to be.  It’s a lot of fun.  It can be very, very frustrating.  I generally march around for a quite while being very unhappy and putting it off, and fighting to keep away from it.  When I’m starting something my house is so clean you wouldn’t believe it.  I’m vacuuming all day long.  I’m sure it applies to everything creative, whether it’s a book or a poem or a painting, but there is an invasion of an unknown territory, and an invasion very often doesn’t succeed.  You make a beachhead with a little idea, perhaps, and it’s a little tiny beachhead on this invasion to the unknown world of creating something out of nothing.  This is how you should compose, and I wish a lot of composers, who don’t write that way, did.  Then sometimes it gets wiped out.  Very often it gets wiped out and you tear it up, or you never continue with it because for some reason the beachhead wasn’t inspiring enough for you.  At least this is how I compose, and it always works out that way.  That beachhead is like the landing when Eisenhower invaded Europe and the supplies started coming.  If that beachhead is valid  and inspiring, it’s amazing what can come out of a little beachhead.  A beautiful piece of music, or any great art, is something God made.  It’s like a tree which starts to grow and starts to leaf out, and when it leafs out, everything starts to affect everything that you began with.  Then it really starts to grow, and then it has life and it has shape and it has validity.  But it’s very hard.  I think that’s the way you have to compose.  You don’t just add measures on.  You have to have a real idea.  Any great work of art is like that.  I’ve been teaching the Ring lately.  It’s one of the courses I like to add to the curriculum.  There were 106 students in my last class, which is rather incredible.

BD:    Were they getting into it?

LK:    [Laughs]  They want to go to Bayreuth and they want to go to the Met next year.  Do they get into it?  It’s amazing.  But when you think about that work, that’s one of the great works of all time.  Every part of those four evenings grows.  It’s staggering when you think about how it grows in every way, not just the leitmotifs or the ideas.  Wagner was an idea man.  He really was.  I love Wagner.  That course is the best thing I teach.  There’s a very interesting book called The Ring and Its Symbols.  I don’t go along with all of it because some people, when they want to make a point, go to too far.  It’s written by a Jungian...

BD:    That’s by Robert Donington?

LK:    Yes.  Donington, that’s his name.  Have you read that?

BD:    I read it a long time ago.

LK:    That’s an interesting book, but he goes too far.  There is another incredible book on the Ring that you must read, and it’s not written by a musician.  It’s written by physicist, L. J. Rather, and it is called The Dream of Self-Destruction; Wagner
’s Ring and the Modern World.  It is an incredible book, very short, and I would really recommend it to you.  It also goes into the whole anti-Semitic business about Wagner, and about the whole Jewish business and the rap he’s gotten on that, and the whole Nazi business.  It’s a fascinating book.  I’ve written a lot of operas; a tremendous amount.  After Deseret I spent almost ten years on a work called The Pariahs, an enormous Wagnerian kind of American opera.  It all takes place in Nantucket, Massachusetts, and it’s inspired in a way by what inspired Moby Dick of Melvillean actual case when a whale actually sank a whale ship.  It happened in 1820, and Melville mentions the Essex in Moby Dick in one of the early chapters when he talks about the power of the whale.  I investigated this case; a most incredible case.  Melville couldn’t write about it at the time, and he didn’t choose to, because in the course of Moby Dick, the whale capsizes the boat, and they all go down to the bottom of the sea.  But what really happened Melville knew very well about, because he knew the son of one of the survivors who went out to sea with him on the Acushnet as a whaler from New Bedford.  This was a boat that was sunk in 1820 by a crazed whale in the middle of the Pacific.  It was broken in half by the whale, and then they lashed the little whale boats together in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.  Nantucket whalers had opened up the sea of Japan in 1820.  Nantucket is a gorgeous little island, and it was the whaling capital of the world.  It’s a Quaker Island, home to a very, very, very tyrannical form of Quaker religion, in which the whaling owners and the religious peoplethe eldersworked hand in hand to keep the profits and keep everybody in line.  Anyway, this boat was sunk and the man drifted for days and days and days.  Finally the food ran out and men died, so they began to throw the bodies overboard.  Finally they were reduced to the terrible necessity of living on the dead corpses.  They reached the state somewhere on the eightieth day when there was one boat Captain, first mate, second mate, and a young boy, what they call the ‘ship-keep’, who was about fourteen years old. 

BD:    Like a cabin boy?

LK:    Really an apprentice.  They cast lots to see who would be shot.  The Captain had the gun, and the boy drew the lot.  The Captain begged the boy to let him take his place, but the boy said no and he laid his head down.  Then he said,
I like my lot as well as any other, and they killed this child and cannibalized him.  This is what you see in the background.  He is peering about.  Lo and behold, life is stranger than fiction because two days later a boat from Nantucket picked them up.  These boats used to go out and go down around Cape Horn and into the Sea of Japan.  These men were off the coast of Chile.  By this time they had drifted that far.  The Captain of this Nantucket boat was on his way out on a whaling voyage which lasted for about four years.  He had a meeting with the boat that was on its way back several days later.  They often would pre-arrange meetings to exchange mail, and he could have put these three men on this boat and they would have been home in a matter of a month or so.  But he realized that what had happened was just too tremendous and violent for the society there.  Remember this was 1820, and it was a very inbred and closed society.  So he wrote a letter to the people of Nantucket telling them that he had found these three men, and that the Essex was at the bottom of the sea.  He said that all the men were dead and that the whale had sunk the boat, which was something never had happened.  But they had told him the whole story of what had happened, the lot and everything including the little boy.  He took the three men with him on this two-year voyage that was ahead.  The Nantucket-bound boat came back about six weeks or so later, flying the black flag.  When the town saw the boat coming into the harbor flying the black flag, they rang the tower bell which was the signal that there was some big news.  All this was the Prologue of the opera.  All the people came down into the square, and the letter, which I found, was read.  The mother of the young boy fell down and prayed.  Cannibalism was crime worse than murder, and several years later these three men came back on the boat that had picked them up.  The whole town came down to the water and turned their backs on them.  The opera is the story of the spiritual survival of these three men, mainly the Captain.  After Melville had written Moby Dick, and after he was very, very famous, he went to Nantucket.  He’d never been to Nantucket when he wrote it, although he described it perfectly.  He went solely to meet this Captain who now could never get another voyage or go to sea again.  He was the night watchman, which was about the most menial job you could have in a very type-cast conscious kind of society, and yet he wrote to Hawthorne that he had never met a more impressive man who had reconciled himself to what life had done to him.  That’s the framework of this opera.  It’s an enormous work and I never got it done.  It was sent to Beverly Sills at the New York City Opera.  Her assistant called me on the phone and he said, This is the most marvelous opera that has ever come to my attention.  I’m a going to tell her that.  She asked me to come in and see her and she said, We never could do it.  I just couldn’t raise money for a work like this.  Our orchestral pit probably isn’t big enough.”  I said to her that was okay, but did she know about Deseret?  It’s never been seen in New York, and I gave her the wonderful reviews.  I said it has six characters, no chorus and a medium-sized orchestra.  She said she would think about it.  She wrote me a letter about two months later saying Deseret was not in her plan.  Then it was sent to James Levine.  He had it for quite a while and there was someone there who was helping to remind him about it.  He asked me to come in, and the first thing he said to me was, I’m so glad you could come in.  I wanted to see what the man who could write a work like this looked like.  So I was really thrilled!  Then he said, This is a work I have to really think about.  I can tell you though, I will do this opera.  This was when he was involved in some contract negotiations about how long he would stay.  I remember him saying to me, If I don’t do it here, I will do it somewhere else, but I will do it.  Give me a year.  I have to think about it.  It will take great casting and a lot of thought.  I’m off for the summer, so get back in touch with me in a year.  When I got back in touch in a year, I got a message that it was not in his plan.  [Laughs]  Well, that’s what goes on!  Seattle wanted to do it.  Sarah Caldwell once wanted to do it in Nantucket, of all places.  She wanted to do it and float the scenery on rafts in the harbor.  So that’s what goes on...  I spent ten years on this piece, so it’s very frustrating.

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BD:    Do you think opera works well on television?

kastle LK:    Yes, I think it works... it could work.  It’s a big compromise, but I think it’s here especially if an opera is written for television.  I think it will work a lot.  I’m writing a lot of stuff!  Nothing stops me!  I got a commission last spring from the New York Arts Council for the Albany School district, and I wrote children’s opera.  They asked me to write an opera about racial understanding.  We have a school here in Albany called Albany Hill, and it is a really marvelous school that’s all minority.  We have Afghanistan kids, we have black kids, we have Puerto Rican kids, we have East Indian kids and Asian kids...  So they asked me if I’d work with them, and I wrote an opera called Professor Lookalike and the Children.  Professor Lookalike is a crazy professor
I’ve known plenty of themand he invents a pill.  He’s got all these pills, they’re called lookalike pills and they’re kept under lock and key.  The first child takes the first pill, and then every other child who takes a pill after that will look ethnically just like that first child.  The whole opera is really for television, and I’m hopeful I’m going to get it on television.  It’s really rather charming.  There’s somebody quite interested in doing it.  The whole opera is a meeting of the legislature.  We set it in New York, and the Governor calls a special session of the New York legislature to enact legislation about what that first child should be.  Professor Lookalike is one of the witnesses, and he comes with all of his pills guarded by State troopers.  Then there’s an ethnologist who’s a witness, and an anthropologist is a witness, and they debate.  Of course, the black one says to make them all black to make up for slavery, and the light one says, no make them all light.  They argue and get to a stalemate, and one of them keeps saying, Why not make them both Hispanic, at which point the whole orchestra starts playing a Habanera.  They say, We’re at a stalemate!  We’re in a muddle!  We’re in a mishmash!  We’re in the wrong opera!  [Both laugh]  Then suddenly all these kids from this school come in and break up the meeting.  They have decided among themselves which child should take the first pill, and they’ve elected five kids to speak to them.  One is black, one is Hispanic, one is Japanese, one is Arab, and one is white.  So they let the kids decide, and it’s really adorable what happens at the end.  That is really a TV opera.  When I wrote it I knew it had to be done on the stage, but it’s really for TV, like Amahl by MenottiAmahl is marvelous on TV.  I think operas should be written for television.  I worked for the NBC Opera for several years before they did Deseret.  I was the vocal coach and translator for an assistant conductor, and we did The Marriage of Figaro in two parts, and we did Salome, and Macbeth by Verdi.  I thought it was very, very successful.  One of the reasons why it’s very successful is you can have people who look the part because they don’t have to sing out into an enormous hall.  So it can be much more realistic and dramatic.  We did everything in English, and of course if it’s on television you understand every word.  You don’t need titles.

BD:    This is the big question now.  Should you do operas in translation, or should you do them in the original and have titles?

LK:    I’m not the one to ask.  I simply don’t want to decide because I think opera is not for composers.  It’s for other people.  It should be whatever is more effective for people to be able to understand this marvelous form.  I tell my students that drama is impoverished opera!  Opera has such a stupid reputation because of the nonsense that’s being done.  I think it’s the most marvelous of all the forms of art.  There are people who can be called purists, and they only like baroque music or only like string quartets or this and that.  To me, opera is ‘it’.  It’s everything, and however it can best be presented so that people, just plain people, can get into it, that
’s fine with me.

BD:    It’s for everyone?

LK:    Yes!  I’ve been teaching at Suny, Albany, and I have been a popular professor because somehow these kids have this crazy idea that I’m interesting.  I’m a very tough teacher.  I give them a lot of tests and I insist that they come to every class.  But I get a lot of students who don’t even know about opera.  They’ve never seen an opera, and they think opera is boring and opera is stupid.  I’m not a Svengali, but when they get through and they make anonymous comments at the end of the semester, boy, I’m very, very delighted when I see what happens.  They really want to make a trip and go down to the Met and see the whole Ring!  [Both laugh]

kastle BD:    This is great!  You’re making converts to the cause!

LK:    Yes!  But of course you’ve got to present them with something that is legitimate, and you’ve got to present them with something that you are enthusiastic about.  My real feeling is that it’s for everybody.  That’s my whole feeling, and that’s my whole feeling as a composer.  That
’s why I’m not chi-chi!  I’m not interested in writing for other composers, and I’m not interested in writing for composition departments or faculties.  I’m interested in affecting people.  I’m interested in communicating something I have to say.  I’m not being pompous now, but what I have to say is unique.  Unique doesn’t mean it’s so great; it just means it’s okay.  It’s what I have to say, and it may be very, very unimportant and easily forgottenwhich is probably the case!  But one thing that I will say is it is me, and that’s important.  That’s the only important thing.  I will tell you how un-chic I am!  I think George Gershwin is the greatest composer America has ever produced.  I really do!  I like Sam Barber.  I studied with Sam Barber, and I studied with Menotti, but can they hold a candle to Gershwin?  Not for me!  Not in a million years.  You play Sam Barber’s Piano Concerto and then play the Gershwin Concerto in F!  Whenever I hear the Concerto in F I’m ready to fly out the window, I feel so good!  That fourth movement is a masterpiece.  When the piano enters with that kind of cakewalk, it is as beautiful as anything Mozart ever wrote!  Actually Gershwin is very Mozartian!  Now don’t misunderstand me.  I think Barber is an excellent composer.  I think he’s one of the best of American composers.  All Im saying is that Gershwin is so damn marvelous.  He’s so wonderful.  Every one of those tunes, every one of those songs in any one of those shows are gems.  They’re as good as any Lieder that Schubert ever wrote.  That’s what I mean, but I’m certainly not snob.

BD:    Are you optimistic about the future of music?

LK:    I’m not optimistic about the future of the whole world, my friend, so it’s hard to be optimistic about the future of music.  I’m not!

BD:    We’re going to blow ourselves up?

LK:    I don’t know if we’re going to blow ourselves up, or if we’ll just end with a whimper.  We may just choke ourselves.  Did you hear the news the other day about what’s going on in Brazil?

BD:    With the rainforest?

LK:    Yes, the rainforest.  It’s being chopped down and they’re all raising cattle.  I’m sorry, but that really will not last more than a couple of years.  They’re chopping down the whole rainforest, and now they’re saying it’ll melt the North Pole and we’ll have floods.  This is a very precious place that God put us on, and we’re screwing it up!  It’s all in the Ring.  The Ring tells the whole story!  I’m not optimistic.  I’m not optimistic when we have the kind of candidates that are running for president.  I’m very un-optimistic.  I think it’s very bad.

BD:    [Trying to salvage something of our existence]  But you have to persevere?

LK:    Yes, I think you have to.  I don’t think you can give up, but you can’t be Pollyanna about the situation that the world is in today.  We’re choking ourselves, and it’s all greed.  It’s all utter greediness and, in a way, intellectual and emotional slovenliness, which is what I really object to about the art we have today.  Earlier we spoke of the purpose of art.  Art does have a social standing today.  It really reflects the mess we’re in, and that’s very, very sad.  A lot of it is as rotten as the air we’re breathing.  It’s phony and it’s hooked up, and it’s utterly commercial.  If you’re a painter and even if you’re any good, you better just forget about it.  I really mean it!  You won’t sell.  There is an artist in New York who just started and got very, very disgusted.  So he just started painting junk, and he got a dealer and they loved it.   So then he decided he didn’t even want to do it.  He got friends to come in and do the canvasses, and the gallery said they were marvelous and he started selling like crazy.  He said that his friends had come in and were kidding around with the canvasses, and the gallery said it didn’t matter.  It was marvelous and the painter didn’t realize it was marvelous!

BD:    [Astounded]  Amazing...  I appreciate speaking with you today.

LK:    It was good to talk to you. 
I like to talk about what you asked.  You sound like a reasonable individual!  You probably don’t think that I am, [laughs] but honestly, I really am.

I assured him that I felt he was most reasonable, and after discussing some recordings he was going to send me, we said our good-byes.  He also asked for a cassette of the program, which I sent him after it had been aired, and then I received the following reply from him.  [Alan Stone (1929-2008) was the Founder and Artistic Director of the Chicago Opera Theater, a smaller company that produced quite a varied repertoire each spring after Lyric Opera had completed its season.]


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© 1988 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded on the telephone on October 23, 1988.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB about four months later.  This transcription was made in 2015, and posted on this website at that time.  My thanks to British soprano Una Barry for her help in preparing this website presentation.

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

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