Conductor  Gustav  Kuhn

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


Born August 25, 1945 in Turrach in Styria, Gustav Kuhn studied conducting with Hans Swarowsky, Bruno Maderna, and Herbert von Karajan at the conservatories in Vienna and Salzburg. He graduated from Salzburg University in philosophy, psychology, and psychopathology. Kuhn was only 24 years old when he won the prestigious international conducting competition of the Austrian Broadcasting Corporation (ORF). From 1970 to 1977, Kuhn workd as chorus director and conductor at the Istanbul Opera House, then as first Kapellmeister at the Dortmund Opera House. During this time, he gave guest performances in Palermo, Naples, and Bologna. Later he had engagements as guest conductor in Rome, Florence, Venice, and Zurich. He conducted the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, the Staatskapelle Dresden, the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, the London Philharmonic Orchestra, the London Symphony Orchestra, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, the Orchestra Filarmonica della Scala in Milan, the Orchestre National de France in Paris, the Academia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia in Rome, the NHK Orchestra in Tokyo, and the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra.

In 1974, Kuhn founded the Institute for Aleatoric Music in Salzburg. In 1977, he made his debut at the Vienna State Opera conducting Richard Strauss’ Elektra. Only a year later, in 1978, he made his debut at the Bavarian State Opera and the Salzburg Festival. The following season Maestro Kuhn made his conducting debut at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden in London and was engaged as General Music Director in Berne. In 1980, Kuhn conducted the opening production at the Glyndebourne Festival. More debuts followed in 1981 conducting Fidelio in Chicago, 1982 Così fan tutte at the Paris Opera, 1984 Tannhäuser at Milan’s Scala, 1986 Un ballo in maschera at Arena di Verona.

In 1986 Gustav Kuhn started to direct and produce operas so as to achieve a greater artistic union between a work’s visual and musical components. Kuhn produced and staged The Flying Dutchman (Trieste), Parsifal and La Bohème (Naples), Don Carlo (Torino), Mozart’s Da Ponte operas (Festival di Macerata), Rossini’s Otello (Berlin, Braunschweig and Tokyo), La Bohème, Falstaff and La Traviata (Tokyo), Capriccio (Milan), among others.

After making his debut as an opera director with his staging of The Flying Dutchman in Trieste (set design and costumes: Peter Pabst), he developed the “Hall Opera” series for Suntory Hall Opera in Tokyo (1993). Kuhn conducted at the Salzburg Festival until 1997 (1978 debut, 1980 Figaro, 1989 Un ballo in maschera, 1992, 1994 and 1997 La clemenza di Tito). From 1983 to 1985, Kuhn served as general music director at the Bonn Opera, which was followed by engagements as principal conductor of the Teatro dell’Opera in Rome and later as artistic director of the Teatro di San Carlo in Naples. Kuhn headed the music festival in Macerata from 1990 to 1994; from 1994 he served as artistic director of the Filarmonica Marchigiana, Ancona (1997-2002). Kuhn was artistic director of the Haydn Orchestra of Bolzano and Trento from January 2003 until December 2012. In October 2013 Kuhn conducted two performances of Wagner’s Parsifal in Beijing. This was a very special occasion because Wagner’s opera had never been performed before in China.

Gustav Kuhn has been artistic director of Neue Stimmen (New Voices), an international singing competition organized by the German Bertelsmann Foundation in Gütersloh, since 1987. In 1992 Kuhn founded the Accademia di Montegral, based at the Convento dell’Angelo in Lucca (Tuscany) in 2000. In 1997, Kuhn founded the Tyrol Festival Erl. After working on Wagner’s Ring for several years, Kuhn took the production on tour for the first time in 2005 (Santander) and produced the now legendary 24-hour “Ring”. The same year Dr. Hans Peter Haselsteiner agreed to become president of the Tyrol Festival Erl. The construction of the new Festspielhaus, which was opened on 26th December 2012, was made possible by Mr. Haselsteiner’s efforts and commitment.

In addition to its summer festival, the Tyrol Festival Erl now also hosts a winter Festival that runs annually from 26th December to 6th January, and Kuhn is the general artistic director. The new winter program focuses on works from the Italian and the bel canto repertoire as well as Mozart operas. In the summer the old Passionsspielhaus continues to be an important performance venue for the Festival’s Wagner and Strauss productions. With the performance of Lohengrin in July 2012, Kuhn brought his cycle of Wagner’s ten greatest operas at Erl’s Festspielhaus to a close.

Gustav Kuhn’s compositions include orchestral works, masses and solo pieces; his instrumentation of Janáček’s Diary of One Who Disappeared met with great acclaim at the Opéra National de Paris (released by Edition Peters). From 2007 to 2011 Maestro Kuhn performed a series of classical concerts entitled Delirium in his former hometown of Salzburg. His recordings are available on the labels col legno, BMG, EMI, CBS, Capriccio, Supraphon, Orfeo, Koch / Schwann, Coreolan, ARTE NOVA and others. His book Aus Liebe zur Musik (Out Of Love for Music) was published by Henschel.

As mentioned in the biography above, Gustav Kuhn made his debut at Lyric Opera of Chicago in the fall of 1981 for eight performances of Fidelio.  Johanna Meier and Eva Marton each did four performances as Leonora, Jon Vickers was Floristan, Leif Roar was Don Pizarro, Paul Plishka and John Macurdy (in the final performance) sang Rocco, and Dmitri Kavrakos and John Del Carlo (again in the final performance) sang Don Fernando.  James Hoback and Elizabeth Hynes were Jacquino and Marzelline, and Robert Alan Cole and Terry Cook were the two Prisoners.  Hans Hotter was the stage director (!), and Duane Schuler did the lighting.  Later in the interview Kuhn said,
I love to conduct Fidelio.  For a conductor it’s one of the best things you can do.  [Note that names which are links refer to my interviews elsewhere on my website.]

The conductor and I met at
his apartment on a day between performances, and while our wives had tea, we spent ninety minutes discussing both deep and mundane things.  He presented many wonderful insights, and we both enjoyed much laughter.

While setting up to record the conversation, there was some chit-chat about a few singers who were notorious in various ways . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:   Is it more difficult for you to work with a personality, or with a non-personality?

Gustav Kuhn:   [Laughs]  That’s very funny!  People think sometimes that I would have difficulty with personalities, but I never have.  Never, never!  Everybody was afraid of Jon Vickers, but I have had a nice career in Europe.  In opera I conducted all the festivals, and Vickers never accepts a conductor he doesn’t know.  So, he accepted me.  He sang with Karajan at the Salzburg at Easter time, and I was born and brought up in Salzburg, so I knew him since I was maybe fifteen.  I thought I wouldn’t have difficulties with him even at the first meeting.  I’m a doctor of psychology, first of all.

BD:   When I talked with Tom Krause, he mentioned that he had studied psychiatry for quite a while before becoming a singer.  [Conductor Giuseppe Sinopoli was also a psychiatrist!]

Kuhn:   I received a doctor’s degree, and then I changed to music.  Sometimes I think I’ll go back...  [Much laughter]

BD:   Psychiatry and psychology are two different things.  You were in psychology?

Kuhn:   Yes, but in Germany when you go into psychiatry it is part of medicine.  In Austria you can mix it up.  You don’t have to become a medical doctor.  You can be a Freudian and a psychologist.  You can be both in one.  Anyway, within five minutes we were comfortable, and it was a very good result.  It worked very nicely, and I’m very happy with him.

BD:   Is it difficult for you, as a conductor, to come into a new production with a singer who has done a role a hundred times?

Kuhn:   Yes, and I hate it!

BD:   Is that difficult?

Kuhn:   I had a marvelous contract in Vienna where I conducted three years ago.  I was like the first conductor of the State Opera, and after two years doing it, I refused a new contract because there you have no time.  In one month they put on for me old productions of Salome, Rosenkavalier, Tristan, Rheingold, and Figaro.

BD:   In one month???

Kuhn:   In one month!  You can’t rehearse.  You only say,
Hello, good evening, I’m doing this tempo, even if they are used to another tempo.  You can’t rehearse because you have no time, and this is what I didn’t like.  The singers in these houses are used to doing what they want more or less.  It’s not that I don’t like to do what the singers want, but there must be a reason.  It is not a compromise, but you can decide.  Let’s say you feel a tempo a certain way.  For example, I felt the aria, when it says poco allegro, Vickers took it very, very slow.  I never heard it as slow as he does it, and that’s too slow for me!  I don’t like it slow because the second part of the aria you can’t sing it at this tempo.  It is so slow that it kills you.  So you must move on.  I have a very strong meaning about conducting in the classical period, and you mustn’t think this is a classic piece.  You must put all the heart and emotion in, but there are still some elements you should respect.  This is the point of the classical period, and the funny thing is then Vickers agreed.  He said that I was right, and so we did it faster.  Then suddenly I heard how marvelous he can do it.  He has this enormous middle voice.  It is like a stream.  So, to kill it for an intellectual reason, and lose this very, very singular expression of his Florestan at this place, why shouldn’t I do it slowly, and then move on a little.  Nobody will realize it, and I’m sure Beethoven would like it this way.  This is always the final result for me.  He thought that I would take it in my faster tempo, and when it came to the first orchestral rehearsal, I took it very slow.  This was the beginning of the good working relationship.  When the aria was finished, he stood up and went in front of the orchestra, and said, Thank you very much, maestro.  You’re a treasure!  [Both laugh]  It’s not that I’m a treasure, but immediately when I heard this, I knew it would work better in this very singular occasion.

BD:   So, you wouldn’t do that with any other singer?

Kuhn:   No never, unless he has the middle voice of Vickers.  Maybe in twenty years there will be somebody, but I don’t see anybody who will have this.

BD:   Is there anybody on the horizon that has the voice of Vickers?

Kuhn:   At the moment, no.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Let
s talk a bit about Wagner.  Where have you done a full Ring?
Kuhn:   My first one was in Italy, then another with the Austrian Radio, and the one I liked most was the Ponnelle production in Stuttgart.

BD:   I didn’t realize Ponnelle was getting into the Ring.  I know he had done Tristan at Bayreuth, but what did he do to the Ring?

Kuhn:   [Bursts out laughing]  That’s a very good question!  [More laughter]  It’s a Ponnelle production!

BD:   Did you like it?

Kuhn:   I like Ponnelle very much, but there are things I would change.

BD:   Earlier we were talking about various singers, so who did you have singing Siegfried?

Kuhn:   Manfred Jung.

BD:   Is he a compromise, or is he really a good Siegfried?

Kuhn:   A compromise.  I’m not joking when I say it’s a quarter of Vickers’ middle voice.  Every voice has its limit, but he knows what his limit is.  To make the whole thing understandable, and give it a very strong artistic conception, I agree to compromises.  You have to.  This is a compromise we have to accept in life.  You can’t have everything, and this is the case with Jung.  He’s a young man, a nice man, but everybody gives him the big roles now, like Siegfried.  The whole thing is too much for him.  He should sing Siegfried in five or ten years, not earlier.

BD:   Is he going to be burned out?  [Note that the recording shown at right was done nearly twenty years after this interview.]

Kuhn:   Of course!  His voice is not ready for it, and this is what makes me furious because I know that Wagner would hate it.

BD:   Is there anybody else who could sing the role?

Kuhn:   [Laughs nervously]  No, and that’s the point.  So, if he decides not to do it, you do it with singers like him.
 The really strong brilliant heldentenors were North American.  There were James King, and Jon Vickers, and Jess Thomas.

BD:   What about in the recent past, such as Ludwig Suthaus?

Kuhn:   Suthaus was incredible!  This was a voice like Vickers.

BD:   One other name comes to my mind, and that’s Ramón Vinay, the Chilean tenor.

Kuhn:   Funny enough that you said it, because Vinay also occurred to me.  He did the Otello recording with Toscanini, and that
s the best I ever heard.

BD:   Are we having the same problems with sopranos in the role of Brünnhilde?

Kuhn:   No, not at all.

BD:   Who was the Brünnhilde in this production?

Kuhn:   In Siegfried it was an American soprano, Jeannine Altmeyer, who is now doing extremely well.  [She sang Sieglinde in Walküre.]  For Walküre and Götterdämmerung I had Catarina Ligendza, who has not at all the voice of the heavy Brünnhilde.  She’s a very lyric Brünnhilde, but she has this personality.  She’s known as one of the most difficult singers who are on stage now.

BD:   Difficult temperamentally?

Kuhn:   Temperamentally, because she starts to scream, and says she can’t sing.  I get along with her like she is my sister, but there is a point.  She thinks that if she does an accelerando, she tells you why she does this accelerando because on page 200, there is the same music in the flute.  She knows the score, it’s clear because it’s written accelerando earlier.  So this phrase is not new.  She shows you what she thinks of every line, and you see the whole thing!  It’s marvelous, but we fight sometimes.  If I say I don’t like this idea, then she starts to cry!  But this is what I like, we had the most marvelous time together.  But others who say they have to do an accelerando because they’re used to it, or they did it with somebody else, such as Sawallisch.  I love Sawallisch, so it
s no problem, but I tell them that now they’re doing it with me!  [Both laugh]  It’s a totally different temperament.  Sawallisch makes very small movements, and works sitting down not standing up, in the old German way of conducting.  He is very clear, and technically marvelous.

BD:   Boulez is the same way, indicating everything with very small movements.

Kuhn:   Sawallisch is the real Deutsche Kapellmeister tradition at its high point, but my ideal in Wagner is more the direction of Knappertsbusch, and this old tradition.

BD:   Is he your mentor?

Kuhn:   I can’t say.  My mentor in music is Bruno Maderna.  It’s far away from Knappertsbusch.  Actually, I never saw Knappertsbusch, but I know the recordings.   Keilberth is also a man I liked very much, with this strong and full-blooded tradition.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   One of your Rings was a concert performance.  How does your conception change, if at all, from stage to a concert?

Kuhn:   Not at all.  Think about the Furtwängler Rings.  He did one at La Scala, and afterwards the concert version on the Italian Radio (RAI).  It’s dangerous to say, but the radio performance is not weaker than a very good performance with a middle-class stage production.
  It’s so strong, and nobody believes it, because you think the Ring needs the stage, but it does not at all!  It was tremendous.  He did it in Rome, always in performance, one act at a time.  It was not this stupid kind of production so that everything is clean, and you’re bored from the beginning to the end.  While he was doing it he was so involved in it.  When I did it onstage in Stuttgart, my wife and my assistant and my personal secretary all told me that I changed totally.  I couldn’t think of anything else.  I had only the Ring going because there are so many things to think of all the time.  But in the radio production, the funny thing is that you miss the stage, not at all.  Even the public doesn’t miss it.  Maybe it can be great if it’s really a very good production, and a very good producer, and you have a lot of time, and if you have no technical problems, like we had in Stuttgart.  Ponnelle did a conception for Catarina Ligendza which was all covered.  It was an incredible thing made out of wood and steel, which made the whole stage like a shell.  Ligendza could go even twenty meters back, and the voice was always reflecting out.  It was very clever, but it was so difficult to move.  We had to close the theater for two days to pull down the set!  They really can’t play anything else while we are doing the Ring.  Fortunately, it was totally sold out.  But about Furtwängler, because it’s written as a Gesamtkunstwerk [total art work], he never thought the music alone would be so strong.  This is what he found out by doing the radio performances.


See my interviews with Arleen Auger, Peter Schreier, and Walter Berry

BD:   Is this why the Ring is so successful on gramophone records?

Kuhn:   Yes, exactly.  Do you remember the critical writing of Debussy?

BD:   Yes.  He used the pen name Monsieur Croche.  
[A croche is how the French refer to an eighth note.]
Kuhn:   Yes, Monsieur Croche.  He said that Wagner’s Ring is, for him, like if he would have composed the street railway map.  A theme enters, and later comes back again like the timetable.  It’s very nasty, but I think Wagner would like the joke very much.  He joked himself about doing that.

BD:   [Gently protesting]  But as the drama progresses, each time the motif comes back, it’s changed just a little bit.

Kuhn:   Yes, and its very important that you say each is a little different, because Wagner was so marvelous in always changing the motif a little bit.  Some conductors try to make each motif always the same.  This is so boring, and I hate it so much.
BD:   They miss the point.

Kuhn:   Right, they miss the point, and it’s in the score.  I can’t understand it.  The personality has changed, so the motif has to be changed.  [As an example, he illustrates by singing some of the variations to the sword motif in the different operas.]  It’s incredible.  Wagner was a genius.  For instance, I change it the first time it comes in Walküre.  I put it out like a jewel with the spotlight on it.  It must be tremolo and trumpet.  It always takes a long time to rehearse because you must see it.  This is why you don’t need a stage, because if you do it musically right, it’s in your imagination.  The picture is all so clear!  I also change it later in Walküre because it’s telling us about something, so it’s involved in the wave of the story.  When it comes the first time, you must hold back the tempo, and change it later.  The rhythm is played very sharp [sings it with the double-dot], and then it is legato [sings it smoothly].

BD:   [We then briefly discuss the curse motif.]  When Alberich sings it, it really doesn’t make a huge impact, but after Fafner kills Fasolt, and the motif sounds in the brass, it seems to be much stronger and much more important.

Kuhn:   Yes!  These are exactly the places where you really get it.  When you look through the whole Ring for one motif, then you understand immediately that it can’t always be the same.

BD:   Let me ask you about one more, the nature motif.  We hear it at the very beginning of Rheingold.  When it comes back in the third act of Götterdämmerung, it seems very much the same.

Kuhn:   Basically yes, but you do it in a completely different style, because in Götterdämmerung it is done as remembering.  It’s nearly the same music, but in Rheingold you develop it from nothing.  Then you start slowly and build it up.  In Götterdämmerung you have no time to build it up.  In the third act it starts more or less immediately.  There is not much difference, but you must do it very fresh, very lightly, and very bright after the enormous second act.  There’s a reason for all of this.  You have not only the motifs, but you have also the tension in a performance.  You must build the whole Götterdämmerung.  You must do the first act, and you must do the second act, and then there is the third, and you must put it all together.

BD:   Does the time of the intermission make a difference, if you have a short or a long break between the acts?

Kuhn:   No, I don’t think so.

BD:   I just wondered if that would destroy the tension.

Kuhn:   No, I don’t think so because the time you relax is so different.  I wouldn’t like five hours in between like Karajan did.  He did one act in the morning, and then the next at 5 o’clock in the afternoon.

BD:   I didn’t realize he started that early.  At Bayreuth do they still start at 4 o’clock?
Kuhn:   Yes, and that’s okay.  The ideal intermission is one hour.  In Stuttgart we do half an hour, or thirty-five minutes.  That’s not too short for me, but for the audience.  They have to relax and recover.  [Pauses a moment to reflect]  I will never forget Götterdämmerung from last year.  We did a perfect second act.  Really!  I’m very rarely content with myself, but this was a second act I will never forget.  Everything worked!  Even the orchestra got excited because the feelings were so good.  It was incredible.  Because it was a cycle, you feel the audience and you are of one mind.  Like when you go to church, you’re all together.  You feel that even in the last row they’re working with you.  You don’t just feel that you have an audience in back of you.  We’re all working together.  It’s such a force, and it all went quite well.  At the beginning of Götterdämmerung, the public loved it so much that when I came in, and got the orchestra to stand up, I took my bow, and they screamed and clapped for five minutes!  The orchestra sat down and stood up again and again.  Do you know how long it is to begin with five minutes of applause?  It never ends!  The Stuttgart Orchestra for Wagner is very good...

BD: good as Vienna?

Kuhn:   [Smiles]  Vienna is something special, I must say.  But in Wagner it’s as good as Munich, and this special evening, after the five-minute ovation from the public before we played even one tone, the orchestra played like a mixture of the Chicago Symphony and the Vienna Philharmonic!  It was incredible!  I thought I was dreaming!  I looked at everybody, and every last violinist played with full vibrato and with full bow.  It was so beautiful.  At the end of the second act I thought I never can do it like this again.  Then in the third act we had not this enormous concentration anymore because the intermission was too short.  This is why I don’t like just thirty minutes.  I’m not saying you can feel it in everything.  The Ring is a singular thing of the world.  If you only do Götterdämmerung, you can’t find it.  But if you do a whole Ring together, the conception is incredible because he wrote it over such a very long space of time.  Wagner was not only a very good musician, he was a special genius.  Within Siegfried there is this enormous break musically.  You have the first act and the second act, then the third act is totally different.  [In the midst of composing Act II, Wagner broke off and wrote Tristan und Isolde, and Die Meistersinger.]  Götterdämmerung is very much like Die Frau Ohne Schatten of Strauss.  It has a little bit of inspiration from the big Wagner operas.

BD:   You don
t find this in Rosenkavalier?

Kuhn:   [Emphatically]  No!  No, no, no!  Die Frau Ohne Schatten is the nearest to the enormous Wagner operas.  [Pauses again]  I never was a Wagnerian...

BD:   When did you get into Wagner?

Kuhn:   [Bursts out laughing]  A few years ago I told my wife that I will never conduct Wagner!  Now I have done them all.  The first Wagner I did was The Flying Dutchman.

BD:   Should that be done in one piece or three?

Kuhn:   I think in three with intermissions.  I must say I’m a very bad audience.  If I don’t like something, I get very easily tired, and then I can’t concentrate on the music.  It’s much easier with the breaks for me to concentrate on the music than if it goes on and on and on.

BD:   [With a bit of trepidation]  I trust you wouldn’t ever put a break in Rheingold.

Kuhn:   [Smiles]  No.  First of all there’s no possibility.  But for this reason it’s a very hard piece, running about two-and-a-half hours.

BD:   Do you put an intermission into Capriccio?

Kuhn:   We did.  I did Capriccio in Munich with the little extra music which was inserted before the intermission break, and I must say I liked it.  Nobody knows if it’s from Strauss or not, and I must tell the truth and say I don’t think that this part is from Strauss.  I’m very sure it’s not!  It was made by Hartmann after the War.

BD:   Rudolf Hartmann, the Intendant???

Kuhn:   Yes.  He was the producer, but he didn’t compose it.  Some Kapellmeister composed it.  Hartmann was the producer of Capriccio in 1942, and I was very lucky to do the revival with him.  He told me it was amazing for him.  
At the premiere in 1942, Munich was already experiencing a lot of bombings in the evenings.  Mostly the bombings started at 10 o’clock, so they wanted to be finished with the opera by that time, because when the bombers arrived, the public had to go out and be in the cellars.  So Strauss wrote it in one piece, but the original conception was always with a break.  I can’t understand the reason to do Capriccio in one piece lasting two-and-a-half hours.  Hartmann said that the original plan was to have an intermission.  After Strauss died, Hartmann looked at the Spielplan [the plan of operas to be played], and then he found an old Skizze [sketch book].  

At this point I had to turn over the cassette, and while doing that we continued discussing some of the early operas of Strauss

BD:   You’re saying that Strauss had a better feeling for the drama than Hofmannsthal???
Kuhn:   Yes, sure.  You must read the letters between them.  Strauss was always the man who fought for the music for the stage, for what we call the Wirkungfund [effect] that comes through to the public.  Strauss was like Mozart.  Everyone thinks it was all Da Ponte, but Mozart had this enormous feeling.  Otherwise you would know the other Da Ponte operas!  [According to one source, including the three for Mozart, Da Ponte provided libretti for 28 operas by 11 composers.]  Mozart made the librettist work to get the best dramatic form for the opera, just as Strauss did.
BD:   Is there ever a reason to do something else with either Salome or Elektra?

Kuhn:   Salome was originally conceived to go with something else, but not Elektra.  If you do something with Elektra, you must be an idiot!  [Much laughter]  Nothing can work with Elektra.  [Pauses again for a moment]  We did Feuersnot in Munich, which never worked.

BD:   How do you stage the last scene?

Kuhn:   Funny enough, we had 240 people on stage, and I was there, the poor little conductor, putting them all together!  Children were all around and screaming, but it was a good production.  Anyway, Feuersnot was never done by itself.  It is one act, and takes an hour-and-thirty minutes, so it was always together with something.  But this time we decided to do it by itself.  Maybe the first time I did it, it took nearly two hours, but [giggles] as you get to know it, then it gets faster.  It’s really exactly the same length as Salome.

BD:   [Wildly speculating]  Would you ever do a double-bill of Salome and Elektra?

Kuhn:   [Laughs]  You could do it!  I have thought about this, and you could do it for a very special festival, but you would need a one-and-a-half hour intermission... and you must find two orchestras for it.  But, it’s useless.  Why should you?  It must be a joke.

BD:   If you’re masochistic, you could sit at home and listen to recordings one after the other.

Kuhn:   Yes, you could.  For me, Elektra is the high-point of the Strauss works.

BD:   More than Die Frau Ohne Schatten???

Kuhn:   Much more so, because Die Frau really has some parts you must cut.

BD:   Do you ever make any cuts in Wagner?

Kuhn:   No, not one.  Not one bar, but I think some cuts help Die Frau Ohne Schatten.

BD:   Are there any other operas where you would never make any cuts for any reason?

Kuhn:   In Mozart there are nearly no cuts.

BD:   Not even in the recitatives?

Kuhn:   No, no,  In Don Giovanni I make not one single cut, not even in the recitatives.  I did Figaro without any cuts at Glyndebourne.  It was marvelous.  Peter Hall, the producer, made me believe in it.  I thought it wouldn’t work, but it worked marvelously!  But you must have time, because Figaro without cuts is four-and-a-half hours.  It’s so wonderful to be able to include the Marcellina aria!

BD:   Did you do it in four pieces or two?

Kuhn:   We did it in four pieces, with three intermissions.

BD:   [Gently protesting again]  But there are only two finales!

Kuhn:   Yes, it’s a mistake to do Figaro in four pieces, but they couldn’t do it in two because of a scenic problem.  We would have loved to have done it in two, but this in Glyndebourne where you can do Mozart without cuts.  We would have had a one-and-half hour intermission, where they are all going on the lawn, and having their picnics, and can relax before the second act.  Somebody said the picnic is more important than the music!  [Laughs]  They come so relaxed, and the public appreciates it always.  I always say that in Glyndebourne, before the intermission you have a very English distinguished, educated public, and then after the break you have Neapolitans or Sicilians because they’re all a little bit drunk, and then they scream!  [Much laughter]  It’s amazing.

Gustav Kuhn at Glyndebourne
[Selfishly, I have only listed artists whom I have interviewed.  BD]

1980 & 1983- Die Entführung aus dem Serail with Valerie Masterson (1980) as Constanze; Gösta Winbergh (1980) Ryland Davies (1983) as Belmonte
1981 & 1984 - Marriage of Figaro [Peter Hall producer] with Felicity Lott (1981) as Countess; Alan Titus (1981) as Count; Faith Esham (1984) as Susanna
Ugo Benelli (1984) as Don Basilio; Mimi Lerner (1984) as Marcellina                              
1981 - Ariadne auf Naxos [John Cox producer] with Gianna Rolandi as Zerbinetta; Dennis Bailey as Bacchus; Dale Duesing as Harlekin
[One performance at Glyndebourne, and one performance at Royal Albert Hall, London]                              
1983 - Intermezzo [John Cox producer] with Felicity Lott as Christine  [DVD shown above-right]
1984 - Così fan tutte [Peter Hall producer] with Carol Vaness as Fiordiligi; Delores Ziegler as Dorabella, Ryland Davies as Ferrando; J. Patrick Raftery as Guglielmo;
Claudio Desderi as Don Alfonso                              

BD:   Glyndebourne is a small theater.
Kuhn:   Yes, 840 seats now, of which they are very proud.

BD:   Does the size of the house make a difference to you?

Kuhn:   Yes, very much so.  Until now, I didn’t sign the contract for a Salzburg Così Fan Tutte because I’m so worried about being in the big house.  I would like to persuade them to do in the small house.  I can’t do that opera in a house with 2,700 seats.

BD:   That opera’s too intimate?

Kuhn:   Yes, it’s too intimate.  It’s the same for Lieder recitals.  Lieder recitals in the Grosses Festspielhaus [large festival hall] are so ridiculous.

BD:   They should be in the Felsenreitschule [rocky riding school, with 1412 seats, plus 25 standing places].

Kuhn:   Yes, or in the Mozarteum, which is ideal with about 1,000 seats.  But the Grosses Festspielhaus has an enormous stage!  [The stage is 100 meters (330 feet) wide]  The singer looks so small, as does the piano.

BD:   It’s like cinemascope.

Kuhn:   Yes!

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Where’s opera going today?

Kuhn:   [With a smile]  That’s a question!  People always say that it’s a museum, and in one way it’s true.  I love to go into the museums, so why not have this kind of museum?  If you look through the whole of the last two or three hundred years, there were several certain periods where there was no real exciting opera for twenty or thirty years.  

BD:   Are there any modern operas that grab you?

Kuhn:   Some Britten works are marvelous without any doubt, and Prokofiev.  They will become classics, I’m very sure.  Time will show which ones.  The Love for Three Oranges is really worth staying on.  [This opera had its world premiere in Chicago on December 30, 1921, conducted by the composer, and it was just two weeks after he had played the solo part in the premiere of his Piano Concerto #3 with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.]  From the very modern things, I don’t find anything at the moment which I think will stay.

BD:   Nothing of Henze?

Kuhn:   No, I’m sure not.  I don’t think Lear will stay in the repertoire.  [
Aribert Reimann wrote the title role specifically for baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, who had suggested the subject to the composer as early as 1968. The world premiere, in a production by Jean-Pierre Ponnelle with Fischer-Dieskau in the title role, occurred at the National Theatre Munich on July 9, 1978. The US premiere, in an English translation, was presented by the San Francisco Opera in June of 1981, with Thomas Stewart as Lear.]  I always say to look at Telemann (1681-1767).  He wrote many operas in his lifetime, and we don’t know even one!  [According to one source, he may have written over 50, but only 9 are preserved complete.]  In his time, there was a need for his operas, and they made Mozart possible.

BD:   What about Alessandro Scarlatti (1660-1725) [who wrote approximately 63 operas]?

Kuhn:   They’re very good by the way.  They’re marvelous.

BD:   Other composers whose operas I have wanted to explore are Albinoni (1671-1751) [who claimed to have written 81 operas], and Johann Christian Bach (1735-1782).

Kuhn:   When I started to study music, there were two well-known operas of Donizetti
Lucia di Lammermoor and L’Elisir d’Amore.  That’s it, and now from his seventy operas, we know about ten.  [Kuhns recording of Adelia, one of the more rare works of Donizetti, is shown below at the end of this interview.]

BD:   Is there a place then in the world today for unknown operas by great composers?

Kuhn:   I think so, yes.  Take Attila [Verdi].  Ten years ago, some specialist in Italy knew that there is an opera called Attila, and that was it.  [Perhaps he was referring to Philip Gossett, who was General Editor of the new Verdi Edition, as well as the new Rossini Edition.]  Now, every theater plays that opera.

BD:   We had it here in Chicago last season [1980] with Ghiaurov and Hines, led by Bartoletti.
Kuhn:   The roles are wonderful.  Attila, Ezio, and Odabella are marvelous roles.  There are also other wonderful things, such as the Handel operas in the edition of 1920.  These were new versions, very much cut down in an enormously rude stylistic way sometimes, but going to the dramatic high points.  In any event, they are really wonderful operas.
BD:   Is there too much emphasis now on using original instruments, and original versions?

Kuhn:   I don’t know if it’s too much.  What I hear now is that some critics start to complain when Mozart is played on modern instruments.  That’s rather stupid, because if you play Bach right musically and intelligently on a Steinway, I don’t mind at all.  It’s wonderful music.

BD:   Even though it’s not a harpsichord?

Kuhn:   Even if it’s not a harpsichord.  If it’s done in a very clever and musically understandable way, I don’t mind at all.   I don’t mind if you play the solo sonatas on the cello and not on the gamba.  I don’t mind if you play things on the modern violin with a modern bow, and not with a baroque bow if the music comes out.  I always say that in the modern music, you need the avant-gardists to find the whole surrounding of music.  You need a John Cage, who does a composition like the piano player who goes to the piano and doesn’t play for 4 minutes and 33 seconds.  It shows you this is a possibility to think about music.  In the same way, the old instruments show you something new.  As an example, if you go to an old Mozart piano, not a Steinway, the trills and the ornaments sound very easily.  If you touch these pianos hard [sings aggressively], they don’t work well.  So you have to change how you play them.  [Sings without being aggressive to show the light ornaments]  You see?  If you hit them as you would a Steinway, they sound [makes a horrible noise].  It isn’t the right sound anymore, but that’s the style of playing we get on the Steinway from some pianists.  This shows you that just as you couldn’t do it on the old instruments, it’s a completely wrong idea.  I did some Mozart concertos for the radio, where I played myself and had the orchestra around me.  I’ve no time to practice anymore, but my wife says I should do it again because it gives me such pleasure.  I think I enjoy them because it’s like doing an opera.  A Mozart piano concerto is like an opera.  [Laughs]  It is really the same!  I can tell you all the characters, and how they are moving around.  It’s very, very funny.

BD:   [With a gentle nudge]  When you’re doing it yourself, you don’t have to worry about the singers!

Kuhn:   That’s the marvelous thing!  [Much laughter]  The funny thing is that as I have no time to practice, and the Steinway has such a heavy action, so I used a Bösendorfer.  In the end, either you practice every day, or you leave it, so I left it.  Two years ago I found a Mozart piano.  You don’t have to use any force because it’s more or less like cembalo.  So, suddenly I could play all my concertos again.  

BD:   When you conduct a Mozart opera, do you play your own recitatives?

Kuhn:   I did sometimes, but now I don’t do it anymore because I have very good assistants, and they love to do it.

BD:   [Again, with a bit of trepidation]  You don’t conduct the recitatives, do you?

Kuhn:   [Laughs]  No, never, but I always use continuo in Mozart recitatives.  It is always cembalo and cello, not just cembalo.  I’m the only one, though Harnoncourt does it now.  But you must work with the cellist.  They get it very easily.  It only takes a day, and everybody asks me why it’s so beautiful.  When I did Figaro with the continuo, I sometimes added the double bass.  You get the line of the singers together with this beautiful sound.  Glyndebourne said it would be ridiculous, and that nobody did it, and it wouldn’t work... but then it worked!  I did it, and it worked marvelously.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   How do you decide what further operas you’re going to study and perform, or do you want to just expand to all the Mozart, all the Strauss, and all the Wagner?

Kuhn:   The funny thing is that now I must start to decide because I’ve done all the Mozart, and all the Strauss, and all the Wagner.  Now I only pick up things that I really like to do.  I was very interested to do this Fidelio with Jon Vickers.  This is what interests me here in Chicago.  Then I do Don Giovanni with Ruggero Raimondi in Covent Garden, and after that I do again the Ring in Stuttgart, and my Feuersnot in Munich.  I also do Così Fan Tutte in Paris, and that
s it for operas this year.
BD:   The rest of your performances are orchestral concerts?

Kuhn:   Yes, very many concerts.

BD:   Which do you like better
orchestral concerts or operas?

Kuhn:   It’s really the same.  I really need both, I must say.  I get very bored if I conduct three or four months of only orchestral music.  I need the atmosphere, and the feeling of having singers twenty or thirty meters in front of me.  I adore doing concerts, but the real high, the most exciting things happen in opera.  There is little possibility of doing anything like the Ring, or even just Götterdämmerung in the concert repertoire.

BD:   A Mahler symphony doesn’t do it for you?

Kuhn:   Not it doesn’t do it, I must say.  You can come very near with a Verdi Requiem, but then you have the singers again.

BD:   When I talked to Piero Cappuccilli, he had the score for the Requiem under his arm, and I asked if that was an opera, and he said yes, it was Verdi
s greatest opera!

Kuhn:   Yes, absolutely.  It’s a very good one.  The Beethoven Ninth Symphony is the nearest to that, but that also uses the voice.  The voice is the most exciting musical instrument of the world.  In the concerts, I like the Bruckner symphonies more than the Mahler symphonies.

BD:   That’s interesting, because Vickers also mentioned Bruckner.  He was talking about the great composers, and mentioned Bruckner in the same way as he did Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven.  He called Wagner a genius, but questioned if he was a great artist.

Kuhn:   Yes.  That might be too modest for Wagner, but Bruckner is one of them, funnily.

BD:   [Being facetious]  I love the Bruckner Symphony.  He only wrote one, then did it nine times.

Kuhn:   Now you are being Monsieur Croche!  [Both have a huge laugh]  Yes, you can say that.  As much as I adore Mahler, to compare Mahler and Bruckner is like Brahms and Schumann.  Brahms is a perfect composer, and Schumann is sometimes more of a genius, but the whole thing is not at all perfect.

BD:   To continue the comparisons, Bruckner and Mahler, Brahms and Schumann, then Debussy and Ravel?

Kuhn:   Yes.

BD:   Bartók and Kodály?

Kuhn:   Yes, you can do this pair, but Bartók is an exception for me.  Kodály was not as genius as Bartók was.  Mahler is sometimes really a genius in his conceptions, and, as you say, Bruckner wrote only one symphony.  This is what Mahler changed all the time, but what I mean is the perfection of composing... [musing] Bruckner’s Seventh, Eighth, and Fourth...

BD:   What about Five and Six?

Kuhn:   Five and Six are not so great.

BD:   For me, Four and Eight are master strokes.

Kuhn:   Yes, exactly.  They are masters.  They are incredible, and don’t forget the Ninth Symphony.
BD:   I have yet to really get into that one.

Kuhn:   Oh, you must.  It’s the best one.

BD:   Do you ever do the Bruckner Ninth, and follow it with the Te Deum?

Kuhn:   I did it, and I did it without.  I prefer to do it without.  What worked very nicely was at the beginning of the program I did the Beethoven Choral Fantasie.  Here is this young fresh Beethoven with the conception of the finale of the Ninth Symphony.  It’s really such a joy there.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Have you ever done Pelléas et Mélisande?

Kuhn:   No, no, no!

BD:   Do you want to do it?

Kuhn:   Yes, but I must have one year, more or less, really to learn it, to get prepared, to put my French up at this level.  When I started doing Italian operas I really spoke Italian, and now I do all the Italian operas I want if I have time.  Now, I have no time to study French, and this is the problem.  Getting in this heavy Wagner Schlafsfach [sleep compartment (here used ironically)], it takes all your time and you get no sleep!

BD:   Let me ask you about the two Berg operas, Wozzeck and Lulu.

Kuhn:   I do Wozzeck in 1984, and I must say that I’m not so fond of Lulu.  Without a doubt, Wozzeck is one of the real outstanding things of the twentieth century, but I don’t think Lulu is, and this makes me a little bit sad sometimes.  I do a lot of modern music.  Nearly forty or fifty per cent of my work is modern music, and when you open the score, you see immediately the weak points of Lulu compared to Wozzeck.  But many musicians see something in the same style, and in the same direction, and think it must be the same quality.  Rienzi is not the quality of The Flying Dutchman.

BD:   Are we then trying to make Attila the same quality as Rigoletto?

Kuhn:   It is!  It is nearly the quality of Rigoletto, and that’s the point.  We’re not just trying to make it so.  Nabucco is not the quality of Attila, but it’s still a good quality, and worth doing.

BD:   Would you ever do Rienzi?

Kuhn:   No, I really wouldn’t do it.  I don’t see any reason to do it anymore.  I studied it very carefully, and what I want to do is a Meyerbeer opera.  You need enormous forces, and you need a public who really has nothing to do!  [Laughs]

BD:   Is this because it’s so grandiose?

Kuhn:   Yes, it’s so grandiose.  If we have the World Exhibition, and there is a public for five weeks, I still wouldn’t do it.  I think it’s not worth doing anymore.  We should always do Fidelio and Don Giovanni.  Those are like a good art museum.

BD:   It’s a living museum?

Kuhn:   Yes, so why not?  I love museums, as I told you.

BD:   Do you ever do any works in translation?

Kuhn:   I just had a discussion about this with Ponnelle, and I would do them if they work.  As you know, all composers wanted their works translated.  Wagner wanted them translated, but there is no longer so much need of translation because you can read it, and you can buy the disc and compare it to what you don’t know.  But I would never do a new opera without a translation.  Never.  It’s stupid!  It’s ridiculous!

BD:   You want to get as much across as you can?

Kuhn:   Exactly.  
If I were to do a new opera in England by a good Austrian composer, of course I’d use an English translation.   It’s stupid without.

BD:   Is the public more aware today because of the recordings?

Kuhn:   Yes, much more, and because they have the possibility, you can say it’s their problem if they don’t read the double-text, and listen once to a disc. 

BD:   [Noting that he had to get to a rehearsal with Eva Marton, who was singing the following day]  Thank you very much for the conversation.  You’ve been very gracious!

Kuhn:   It
s been a pleasure for me.  Thank you.


© 1981 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded at the conductors apartment on November 19, 1981.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB ten years later, and again in 1997.  This transcription was made in 2022, 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.  To read my thoughts on editing these interviews for print, as well as a few other interesting observations, click here.

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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.