Bass  Michael  Langdon
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


After studying in London, Michael Langdon (November 12, 1920 - March 12, 1991) joined the Covent Garden Chorus in 1948, making his solo debut with the company as the Nightwatchman in Arthur Bliss' The Olympians during a performance in Manchester. By the 1950 - 1951 season, Langdon was being heard as Sparafucile and Varlaam and, during the following season, he created the role of Lieutenant Ratcliffe in Britten's Billy Budd. For the Coronation season, the bass' King "upheld the honor of the resident company" against the Aïda of Maria Callas, the Amneris of Giulietta Simionato, and the Radames of Kurt Baum. The same season, Langdon created the Recorder of Norwich in Britten's Gloriana. In 1955, he shared with Frederick Dalberg the role of the He-Ancient in the first performances of Tippett's The Midsummer Marriage. Opportunities grew and his repertory gradually expanded to include Sarastro, Osmin, Daland, Hunding, Fafner, Hagen, Rocco, Kecal, Don Basilio, Bottom in Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream, and Verdi's Grand Inquisitor.

Two Strauss roles came within Langdon's orbit -- Count Waldner in Arabella, and Baron Ochs in Der Rosenkavalier.  After studying the role in Vienna with bass baritone Alfred Jerger (the first Mandryka in Arabella), Langdon went forward to more than a hundred performances of the role.

After retiring from the stage in 1977, Langdon assumed the directorship of the National Opera Studio for some eight years, proving himself an able instructor in the stagecraft required of young singers. His autobiography, Notes From a Low Singer, issued in 1982, reflects the writer's dry wit and his commitment to the professionalism required by his art. Among Langdon's recordings is a disc of excerpts from Der Rosenkavalier which provides a memento of the singer's participation in a Scottish Opera production; and his malignant Claggart is heard under the composer's direction.

--  From a biography by Erik Eriksson 

Bass Michael Langdon came to Chicago in 1981 to appear with Lyric Opera of Chicago in The Merry Widow with Evelyn Lear in the title role, and Neil Rosenshien, André Jobin, Gualtiero Negrini and others, conducted by Lee Schaenen, directed by Lotfi Mansouri, with lighting by Duane Schuler.  [Names which are links refer to my interviews elsewhere on this website.] 

He graciously took time from his schedule for a conversation.  His remarks would eventually be heard on WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago, but I was also giving some of my interviews to Wagner News, published by the Wagner Society of America, so that is where we began . . . . . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:    Is this your first trip to Chicago?

Michael Langdon:    My very first, yes.

BD:    How do you like our city?

langdonML:    Very much from what I’m able to see of it.  With the very heavy rehearsal schedule, there’s not much time to get around.  People always seem to think that being an opera singer and seeing all these famous cities, you have a chance get a street map and go around and visit all the places of interest.  It’s often very difficult to do much other than commute between the theater and the hotel.  From what I have seen, it’s very awe-inspiring city, especially as I tend to look over the wrong shoulder when crossing the road!  I’ve always done that in the States.  Driving on the left in England, you always look the wrong way for the traffic.  But after you’ve had a couple of shaves with the Chicago bus, you quickly learn to look the right way!  [Both laugh]

BD:    Let us start with your roles in Wagner.  You are a principal singer at Covent Garden and your roles include Hagen, but do you sing in all four of the operas in the Ring?

ML:    Yes, on four occasions done Fafner in both operas.  I always did Fafner in Rheingold...

BD:    Rather than Fasolt?

ML:    It suited me better, yes. 

BD:    Why?  What is the real difference  between those bass parts?

ML:    Fafner is slightly deeper pitched.  The tessitura for Fafner is a little lower, and if you’re doing all four roles you tend to want to save yourself as much as you can.  Having a deeply-pitched voice, Fafner suited me better, so I used to do Fafner in Rheingold, Hunding in Walküre, Fafner-Stimme, of course, in Siegfried, and Hagen in Götterdämmerung.

BD:    Do you think it works better when the man who sings Fafner in Rheingold also sings the Fafner voice in Siegfried?

ML:    It is an advantage because, after all, the four operas are one.  It’s four episodes of the same opera, and it’s good to have that continuity.  If it happens to be a distinctive voice, that it can be recognized in the two roles, it adds a sort of dimension and linkage, rather than just some outside embodiment coming in to simulate the Dragon.

BD:    But what about then the same voice singing the Dragon and Hagen and Hunding?

ML:    Here again you get different characters, but in the audience’s mind they see Fafner because it is just the voice from behind the scene.  So there is a linkage.  If you see Hunding and you see Hagen, you see entirely different characters on stage.   Fafner-Stimme is a disembodied voice and should bear some relationship to the real Fafner.  If you follow the cycle through, you have got set in your mind from the first opera.  That’s my feeling.  But it’s like any operatic role.  Once you get the costume and make-up on, you should become or simulate very effectively that person.

BD:    Do you feel it’s easy to simulate the evil embodiment of Hagen?

ML:    I always find it difficult.  One of the reasons why I didn’t sing more performances of Hagen, perhaps to some of the other Wagner parts, was the fact that I’m essentially a very genial sort of chap, and while I can put on the harsh sound which is required, it is a chore when one has to work at it.   There are much better Hagens than me around; people who can naturally get that hard quality that is required. 

BD:    You do alter your vocal production then for Hagen?

ML:    One almost inevitably has to adjust to the character one is doing to some degree.  While one doesn’t alter the basic placing of the voice, the color that is required for a part like Hagen is more often dark than any other color.  So whereas with another part you bring in the dark shades when necessary and the lighter shades and the brown shades when necessary, with Hagen you’re faced with a pretty black canvas all the way through.  And as black singing probably comes harder to me than the more richer-type of singing, I probably have to work harder at that role.

BD:    A more genial part might be Pogner.  Have you sung him?

ML:    Several times I was asked to sing Pogner, and the reason I never sang Pogner
and it may sound stupid to youis the top F at the end of the big address, the line ‘Eva, mein einzig Kind’.  I was never sure whether it was going to be a good note or a bad note, or whether on a bad night I wouldn’t get it.  For some reason the tessitura of the two pages preceding that particular F worried me.  I don’t know how true it is, but I was told the story that Kipnis had the same worry about Pogner.  I’m not maligning him I hope, but this is the story I’ve heard... that as the orchestra goes up to that top F major chord, if he felt that maybe that F wasn’t going to come as good as it should, Kipnis would turn and with great authority breathe and open his mouth and go [imitates singing a silent note] and then come onto the bar on the C.

BD:    Just leave the note out???

ML:    Leave the note out.  But he did it with such great authority that within the fabric of the hall, people would say,
What a top F!

BD:    They would hear the F over the orchestra?

ML:    They’d hear the F simply because he’d hypnotized into hearing it.  [Both laugh]  Whether that’s true or not I don’t know, but it gave me great hope that maybe a famous man like Kipnis might have had the same trouble.  So Pogner was not for me.  Wagner wrote two different types of bass parts.  He wrote the higher tessitura basso, like Heinrich in Lohengrin, and Pogner, and some basses can even take on Hans Sachs, although they often ruin their voices trying to do it.

langdonBD:    But I must admit myself when I listen to it Meistersinger I like the added weight of the basses who sing Hans Sachs.  I’d rather hear the Hagen sing Sachs than the Wotan sing Sachs.

ML:    Yes, although I say a bass has to have a very, very good top to do Sachs, a very, very good top.  Other parts like the Landgraf [shown in photo at left] are so beautifully written for the bass voice.

BD:    It lies nice and low?

ML:    It lies beautifully.  Not that there are so many low notes in it, but the general tessitura.  One of my favorite Wagner parts is Daland.  I love Daland.  That, again, lies beautifully for the voice.

BD:    Let’s explore Daland a little bit.

ML:    I once had a review that said,
Michael Langdon not just sang, but acted Daland as if he was a congenital idiot.  That was one review I had.   Coming to think about Daland and the playing of the part, he must have been an idiot because here is a man with a daughter who is in love with this semi-mythical character whose portrait hangs in Daland’s house.

BD:    Is he aware that she is madly in love with this portrait?

ML:    Oh, I’m sure Daland knows.  If he’s not an idiot, he would be aware of the fact that she has some sort of rapport.  She’s always looking at it.  A man couldn’t live with a soul for twenty-five years and not notice that some part of the furniture had a fascination for her.  Daland must have looked at this picture himself, and then there he is becalmed after a storm.

BD:    Does Daland make the equation when he first meets the Dutchman?

ML:    This is the whole thing.  Here is Daland who has this picture in his house.  Later he meets this very character who comes aboard from another ship.  They have a long conversation in which the character says,
Could you put me up for the night, and have you a beautiful daughter?  Yet Daland is not supposed to put those two ideas together at all and have the slightest suspicion.  He doesn’t really feel that there’s too much supernatural about the sudden appearance of the Dutchman.  It’s a difficult character to put over.

BD:    Being a seaman, is it possible that he is slightly inebriated?

ML:    That’s one way of looking at it!  When this reviewer said I played it like a congenital idiot, I thought that’s not a bad idea.  That solves all the problems!  He is a bloody congenital idiot!  What a thing for somebody to write, but he said I sang it well, which made it better!  But it is a very, very difficult part to put across with any sort of realism, because I always look in any part I do for the sympathetic side.  There’s a sympathetic side to everybody, even Hagen.

BD:    [Genuinely shocked]  Even Hagen???

ML:    Even Hagen!  One I feel should feel sorry for this terribly twisted person who is foredoomed.  He’s foredoomed to be the character he is.  Take these young kids nowadays who mug old people and kick hell out of them.  I don’t believe that they have anything going for them at all.  I am very suspicious when people say they had a deprived upbringing, or they saw something they shouldn’t have done when they were three and a half years old.  I just say baloney to them!   But if we come to Wagner’s conception of The Ring, Hagen had no choice about the type of person he was.  He was born evil.  There was nothing he could do about it.

BD:    And he was trained to be evil?

ML:    He was born and trained evil.  My feeling about Hagen is that somehow at some point in the opera, if the bass can get it across to the audience, the fact is that there’s nothing he can do about the way he is.  There is another character who has a great affinity with Hagen, and that is Claggart in Billy Budd.  This terribly twisted character says,
“The depravity to which I was born.  There’s a lot in his harshness.  It’s the same type of vocal writing.  It’s the same type of consummate evil.

BD:    What do you do if you get a producer who does not bring this evil out?

ML:    You have to be diplomatic!  [Laughs]  If I may go onto one of my favorite hobbyhorses...  I’m always highly suspicious when managements engage famous producers of the straight theater to produce operas.  The first thing I want to know is: 1) do they know anything about opera; 2) do they happen to like opera, and 3) are they prepared to accept that producing opera is an entirely different job to producing a straight play.  In opera you must always be aware in which direction the paying customer is sitting.  In the straight theater, holding between 1,200 to 1,800 people, you can deliver lines from any direction and at any angle.  They would get across to the audience.  There’s not 120 musicians sawing away down there in the pit.  In opera you have to make sure that what you have to say and sing gets across to the audience as much as possible because this is what they have paid to hear.  I find that a lot of straight theater producers do not understand this.  Since I became Director of the National Opera Studio, where we train young singers in England, I always go either for opera singers who have a flare for production or producers who really know their opera.  The best way is to get a singer who really knows the stuff to come and teach younger singers how to comport themselves and make the best of the stage production.  Now the guy who’s just produced The Merry Widow here, Lotfi Mansouri, there’s a man who knows his opera.  Lotfi is full of ideas.  Lotfi will drive you crazy because he’ll ask you to do impossible things just to see how much of it you can do!  But at the end of a Mansouri production, there’s nothing ever been taken away from the music.

BD:    That’s the secret.

ML:    The secret
you mustn’t take away from the music!  I have the feeling that some producers think that opera is a play with a bit of music tacked on, and it isn’t!

BD:    Have you ever worked with Ponnelle?

ML:    I haven’t worked with Ponnelle.  I saw his production of Don Pasquale with my friend, Geraint Evans, in London.  Now I had the good fortune of doing Don Pasquale produced by Peter Ebert.

BD:    Carl’s son?

ML:    Yes, the son of Carl.  We did that for Scottish Opera, and it was a delight.

BD:    Was that the one that was updated to about 1910?

ML:    That’s the one.  I rode a bicycle in it!  Ah, it was lovely.  We had a great lot of fun and nothing was taken away from the music.  Think of the contrast between that and what I saw at Covent Garden, where if I remember rightly, the set was full of sleeping cats.  He had a thing about Don Pasquale being fond of cats.  Everywhere there was a stuffed Moggy, as we call it in England, stuck up a corner or on a banister or on an armchair.  It was big gimmick.


BD:    Was Evans happy with that production?

ML:    I don’t think so.

BD:    I ask because he was here in Chicago to sing in Figaro of Ponnelle, and he left.

ML:    I know.  I don’t think Geraint was happy about it, and I spoke to Geraint actually about that very Figaro.  I’m a singer
s man.  My sympathy is with the singer.  Geraint is a very, very experienced man, and he’s an easy guy to get on with.  He knows what he wants.

BD:    And he’s done some directing.

ML:    He’s done some fine directing.   I have worked under his direction in Peter Grimes.  I think he did Billy Budd here, did he not?

BD:    He sang Claggart and also staged it along with Ande Anderson.  [That production in 1970 also had Theodor Uppman as Billy, Richard Lewis as Capt. Vere, and Arnold Voketaitis as Lt. Ratcliffe.  Bruno Bartoletti conducted.]  He also staged the Grimes here in 1974 [again with Anderson, and sang Balstrode.  Jon Vickers was Grimes and Teresa Kubiak was Ellen Orford.  Bartoletti again conducted.  Evans staged it alone with the same cast in 1977.]  It was marvelous.

ML:    He knows what he wants.  You cannot come in and say to an opera singer of thirty years experience in the top flight,
“You can’t do that.  That’s bad!  You must compromise.  You’ve got to hum and haw about it a bit and have a few cups of coffee.  From what Geraint told me, I’d have done the same thing.

BD:    Where should these compromises and cups of coffee come
— with the production team, or with between the production team and the singer?


ML:    There are three ends.  If you’re going to get a good old bloody production, you first of all have to have a fine relationship between the producer
you call it the stage directorthe conductor and the cast.  I remember the great team of Fritz Busch and Carl Ebert.  Ebert would sit out front with his friend, John Christie.  He’d listen to the orchestral rehearsal, and Christie would point out to him, whenever he was in any doubt, exactly what the orchestra would be saying.  What I miss with many producers is that they’re asking you to do something that the music is not telling you to do.  Wagner of course, practically slammed it on with a sledgehammer.  You cannot possibly raise your spear when Wagner is telling us something else, but in many other operas where these themes are not quite so heavily underlined, you have to know what that music is saying.  And you have to say it with your body.  You don’t have to be singing at the time.  You have to say things with your body, with your expression, with your general demeanor.  You are echoing what that music is saying, or rather to put it more accurately, the music is echoing what you are thinking.  This is the right way round.

BD:    So the singer is the motivation?

ML:    I think so, except in rare occasions when suddenly there is a thunderclap or sacred surprises.  Then, obviously, the motivation is from the pit.  But generally speaking, the singer can be writing at a desk and a thought is going to occur to him, and he’s a good enough musician to know exactly where the orchestra is going to suggest that thought.  But his reaction comes just that split second before the orchestra picks it up.

langdonBD:    Now let me ask about one specific instance here.  When Hagen is giving Siegfried the draught, there’s a trill going on in the orchestra and all of a sudden the trill changes.  We know that at that point Siegfried’s mind has been clouded.  So is Siegfried’s mind changed first and then the trill changes?

ML:    It depends on the singer.  Let’s face it, all singers are not brilliant intellectual like me.  [Both laugh]  It depends really on what the singer’s idea is at the time.  There has to be a bit of body language.  I would still say that the right way round is for the singer’s expression to suggest the change just before the change is echoed in the orchestra.  This is the greater impact because the audience sees more or less sees what’s happening.  They look at his face and then it’s underlined in the orchestra.  That would be the strong way of doing it.  Some people may disagree, but that’s the way I feel about it.  The rule I teach young kids is that first comes thought, movement, sound.  If a producer wants you to move from this chair to that chair while you sing these lines, the first thing I would ask is the reason for me to move.  Why don’t I just stay in this chair and sing them the lines?  He has to convince me that there is a motivation behind it, there’s some thought that causes me to change position.

BD:    I remember in my student days years ago, a stage director I was working with told me that when anyone was ever coming onto the stage he always asked,
Where are you coming from?

ML:    That’s right.

BD:    Then when you’re leaving the stage,
Where are you going to?

ML:    Where are you going to!

BD:    Usually the ‘going to’ is pretty easy because there is a reason for the exit.  Why they are coming on the stage can present a problem.

ML:    Absolutely!  There’s a perfect example in the opening of Aïda.  You see Ramfis and Radamès come on together, and the Ramfis starts (sings)
!, the first note of the opera.  They are obviously in the middle of a conversation.  If you get two singers who psyche themselves up into more or less having something of a conversation, then the curtain goes up and it’s such a natural thing.  You are fading in in the middle of a significant moment.  But if you get it too magnificent singers who come on, and the bass thinks this is a G natural and it’s a good place in my voice so I’m going to impress the audience with the power and quality, when the orchestra plays quietly it’s nothing. 

BD:    If you were directing this, would you maybe have the singers walk around backstage and time it so that they would just come on at the right moment?

ML:    Yes.  I think I would probably would!  I certainly wouldn’t have them standing still and talking about the latest results!  You really do have to work at this, you know.  And it’s even more so in comedy.  I don’t know who said it, but comedy is a very serious business, believe me!

BD:    Do comedies adapt more to updatings, like the Pasquale you mentioned?

ML:    Well they do.  I hate all the abstract stuff that’s come into Wagner.  Why the hell don’t they do it as Wagner wanted it?

BD:    What would happen if you had a production of the Ring updated like this Pasquale production?

ML:    I wouldn’t like it.  I wouldn’t like it at all.  There have been updated performances of the Ring.  A few years ago at Bayreuth, they did that Ring by Chéreau, and he had people in old army greatcoats and God knows what!

langdonBD:    But what if they updated the whole thing and made it consistent?

ML:    Well, maybe.  That’s a possibility, but I’m a great traditionalist.  I’ve done many performances of Hunding [shown at left].  There is that fantastic moment where the door swings open of its own accord, and the
dappled moonlight’ comes in.  Sieglinde asks, “Who went out? and Siegmund says that nobody went out, but Spring came in.  I’ve never yet done a Walküre when I had a door to come through!  They do that by a change of lighting, but what could be better than a door?  It makes my skin go gooseflesh to think of that door suddenly, in the middle of the night, swinging open and letting in this moonlight dappled with leaf shadow. 

BD:    Is Sieglinde concerned with Siegmund at that moment, or is she concerned with maybe Hunding’s going to wake up in the next moment and interrupt them?

ML:    No, I don’t think it’s anything to with Hunding at all.  She’s completely entranced by the moment, and by the strange thing that’s happening which is entirely outside her control.  But you need a door!  After the War, when they hadn’t any scenery worth speaking of, they did a brilliant thing at Bayreuth.  They put it on with indications by lighting of a ring, and it was brilliant.  But what’s happened since?  Everybody does a Ring now and has a ring somewhere in it.  You hardly see a production of the Ring where there isn’t a ring.  It’s almost as if they’re so afraid some idiot in the audience is going to say at the end of Götterdämmerung,
“What happened to the Soldiers’ Chorus?  [Both laugh]  This is the ring, the ring.  I wouldn’t mind if they’d make it square occasionally, just for variety’s sake.  That first one had real creativity.  This to me is clever and good, but now there has to be a ring, and it disappears, and later it comes back again.  I think the people who love the Ring and know the Ring don’t need reminding.  They see enough of the ring on fingers and being thrown down and picked up and wrenched off and talked about.  I don’t think you need super colossal ring just to drive the point home.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Can we talk just a little bit about Parsifal?

ML:    Parsifal is not an opera that I’ve appeared a lot in.  The only part I’ve ever done in Parsifal is Titurel.  At the time I first did Titurel, the Gurnemanz was Ludwig Weber, and I must say after hearing him sing it I thought
I’m never going to get anywhere near this.  Naturally I studied the part as it’s a great part to study but I never felt that I could set the world on fire with Gurnemanz.  It’s beautiful.

BD:    Do you feel that Hotter approached that level when he sang Gurnemanz?

ML:    Frankly no.  For me, Weber had this black sympathetic quality.  People talk about a black voice as if he always has to be sinister.  Weber was marvelous, with a dark quality of voice.  I love Kipnis’s voice, but on record very often Kipnis comes across as a great voice, but whatever he’s singing it’s still a great voice and I sometimes don’t get the underlying feeling.  He sings ‘O Isis und Osiris’ [Sarastro in Magic Flute] beautifully, but when he sings ‘Wer ein Liebchen hat gefunden’ [Osmin in Abduction from the Seraglio], I don’t hear the laugh in the voice, whereas a man like Weber had such an expressive voice and was such a wonderful guy.  I’ve known a lot of  great Wagnerians, and Hans Hotter is a personal friend.  I love Hans very much, but in my early days, the person in Wagner who made the deepest impression on me was Kirsten Flagstad.  I was in the chorus as a Torch Bearer in Götterdämmerung in my very first season at Covent Garden, and she sang Brünnhilde.

BD:    Was that in English?

ML:    She did do it in English the very first season, but I came in the second season.  My first season at Covent Garden was 1948, and they had put it into German by then.  She sang Brünnhilde, and right in the middle of that final scene I was standing about two yards from her and I heard somebody say,
Pssst, pssst, pssst.  I thought, Who the hell’s making noises like that whilst this woman is singing?  It was the stage manager trying to attract my attention.  I was so lost in the sound that I was standing there with my torch hanging down my side, and the flames were shooting towards the floor!  I got it back up just in time. 

BD:    [Quite shocked]  Was this a real torch???

ML:    [Laughs]  No, it was one of those electric things with spiky bit of material as the flame.  If it had been real I
d have felt it, but it looked realistic, and since there were others, it must have looked incongruous as I gave the game away with the damn thing falling straight down.  But Flagstad was a great lady.  I joined the chorus that year, and a friend and I had digs (you call them lodgings), and we were walking one day, a typical foggy London morning...  May I say we don’t get many fogs in London now.  It is a very clean city.  I mean that.  I’ve got to get a plug in!  Anyway, we’re on our way up to the Opera House for the morning rehearsal, which started at 10 o’clock in those days, and we were feeling our way through the fog when a taxicab pulled up.  The window wound down and the lady inside said, Aren’t you boys in the chorus of Covent Garden?  We said we were and she told us to get in.  It was Flagstad and she gave us a lift!  She was a lovely, lovely lady.

langdonBD:    Tell me about Karl Rankl.

ML:    He was a vastly under-rated musician; the man who started Covent Garden and ran it between 1946 and 1951.  I’m writing a book at the moment [shown at left] about my thirty-odd years as a principal at Covent Garden.  A lot of biography comes in as a matter of course, but it’s not a biography as such.  I find a lot of biographies very dull when they just chronicle dates and places and other details.  Mine will have my own impressions of the place, and Karl Rankl is a person I talk about most of all.  Not to put too fine a point on it, he was badly treated by Covent Garden at the end of his career.  When Rankl left the Garden in 1951, his next visit was to see Moses and Aaron.

BD:    In 1965 conducted by Solti?

ML:    In 1965, and as far as I know Rankl paid for his own ticket.  I may be wrong about that latter remark, but that was the next time he visited the theater.  He was not asked to come back and conduct as a guest.  I don’t know what went on...

BD:    It sounds like politics backstage.

ML:    Oh, there obviously was.  There must have been.  Rankl’s last performance as conductor of the Royal Opera House Covent Garden was on the night Flagstad had made the announcement that it was to be her last Wagnerian performance on stage, and it was Isolde.  I was out front as I wasn’t in the chorus of that one, and I listened to her singing.  It was magnificent, and the Brangäne was Constance Shatlock.  I remember Sir David Webster, he was Mr. Webster then, going on stage and making this speech saying that this indeed was Madam Flagstad’s last stage performance in Wagner.  There were  groans from the packed house and cries that she mustn’t.  On the other hand, Constance Shatlock was making her fiftieth appearance as Brangäne, and just coming into a great Wagner career, but not one word about Rankl!  He stood there, this diffident little grey-haired man stood there and not one word was said of Rankl.  When I was writing this passage, I typed it out and started to read it to my wife, and I couldn’t finish.  A lump came into my throat and I started to cry in the middle of it.  I felt terrible after all those years.  Of course I wanted to stand up in that house and shout,
What about Rankl? but I was a chorister and things were going just my way and I was beginning to be noticed...

BD:    Better not rock the boat!

ML:    So better not rock the boat.  I was weak, cowardly, call it what you will, and it hit me hard.  I’ve still got Rankl’s letter to me.  I wrote him a letter saying how deeply I regretted his leaving, and to thank him for the opportunity to do principal parts.  He had said no chorister would ever sing as a principal while he was musical director, and I broke that.  He wrote me a letter in his spiky handwriting saying that he thought that with my voice and musicality I was going to have a big career, and thanked me for my good wishes.  He was never invited back, and he was the guy who really put Wagner on the map straight after the war at Covent Garden.  He insisted on bringing over people like Weber and Hotter.  Schwarzkopf did Meistersinger there.  This is straight after the War and we’d been at it six years knocking hell out of each other, but everything went beautifully.

BD:    You mentioned Tristan and Isolde.  You’ve since sung King Mark?

ML:    Yes.  I did it with Amy Shuard [described as the best English dramatic soprano since Eva Turner (who was her teacher).  This was on the BBC in 1969 and also had Ronald Dowd (whom Langdon later called
indestructible), Josephine Veasey, and John Shirley-Quirk, conducted by Colin Davis.]  Shuard died rather tragically.  I always felt Amy’s heart was broken by what happened in La Scala, Milan.  I think it was La Scala...  She was sent out at pretty short notice to take over Turandot, and she got ‘the bird’, as we say.  I think it was a put-up job, and to make it worse, when she got back to Heathrow Airport, there’s a whole phalanx of reporters waiting to ask her what was it like.  She carried it off very well, but somehow I feel it did a lot to break her spirit.. although she was tough, a real cockney girl.  She always said to me [in a cockney accent] I hate going abroad; can’t get any bloody fish and chips!  [Both laugh]

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Let me ask you how you feel about opera in translation.

langdonML:    By and large I’m not for it.  Here, the Opera School of Chicago do what I do in my own National Opera Studio in London.  They teach the young singers the roles in the original language first, and that is important because in translation invariably get changes in notation to accommodate the different language.  When you are a young singer, or if when you’re doing a role for the first time, you’ll learn those changes in notation as a matter of course, and when you come to put it back in the original, you find yourself with a problem.  The same problem does not occur when you coming into your own language because you can say an opera in English and forget a line, and dub another one at the drop of a hat because it’s your language, even if it means altering notation on the spot.  So I firmly believe that whenever possible, opera should be in the original.  Now I’m going to make a proviso here.  When it comes to introducing non-operatic audiences to opera, that is the time when opera can profitably be put into English so that people can hear the story and follow it and get it going.  But for big houses, to always sing in the vernacular is a mistake.  If you want the greatest protagonists you’ve got to do it in the original.  You’re not going to get Domingo learning Carmen in English for four performances.

BD:    But what if you could get him to learn Carmen in English for forty performances?

ML:    Maybe...  I don’t know what he’d charge!  [Both laugh]  I think some operas translate better than others.  There are some operas that are almost untranslatable.  I don’t like hearing the Ring in English. 

BD:    Even in Andrew Porter’s translation?

ML:    The one at the English National Opera?  Do you know what I found when I was listening to it?  I started getting worried, and I said to my wife,
What is it that I’m not getting out of this performance?  The voices, as you know, were Rita Hunter, Remedios, Norman Bailey, real Wagnerian voices.  Then I realized I was trying too hard to hear the translation.  I knew the German and I didn’t know the English, and I was trying too hard to get the translation.  You never get every word in opera.  Anybody who tells me they go to an opera and can hear every word, I just do not believe them!  They may have read the libretto and think they heard every word, but give me somebody who does not know the libretto of an opera, and can go to it and take down every word in shorthand, and bring it back to me, there’s a miracle man!  I was worried so much about hearing the English, because that was the whole object of the exercise, that I was missing so much.

BD:    [Gently protesting]  Was that the whole object of the exercise???  I thought it was to put on a good Ring that happened to be in English!

ML:    The idea is that Lord Harewood feels that opera done in London in his house should be in English, and to introduce a wider public so that they could follow the story of the Ring more easily.  Let’s face it, it’s hard enough to follow no matter what language it’s in.  But once I stopped worrying about hearing the words, I started to enjoy the music, and to me it could have been in German because I just listened to the story that Wagner tells.

BD:    But you were schooled in the German, so then you were used to it.

langdonML:    I was schooled in German.  I was used to it.  I think I did sing Wagner in English very, very early on at Covent Garden.  I’ve got a feeling that very first year that I did something...  it might have been Fafner-Stimme, but it very quickly went into German, and I’ve never sung in any other language.  Just like Rosenkavalier.  I’ve sung one act of Rosenkavalier in English in my whole life.

BD:    But you wouldn’t contract to sing a whole performance in English?

ML:    Oh no, no.  Quite apart from the fact that I am lazy, it’d take too much time!  I think the music loses too much.  It’s conversational, and Erich Kleiber, the old man, said that when you’re learning a part like Ochs or any of these parts where there’s a lot of conversation, before you learn the notes you must learn the rhythm of the words and speak it in rhythm.  He said you get so much into your body and your mind and your bloodstream, that it becomes a natural thing.  Then you add the notation.  Now you take an opera like Rosenkavalier and put it into English, which once again your notation is altered, you suddenly find that a beautiful umlaut sound that comes good on a top B natural is now an open AH, and you wonder what the hell you’re doing with it.  Too much trouble!

BD:    Let me ask you an impossible question.  Where is opera going today?

ML:    I don’t know where opera’s going.  I’m not actively singing too much now.  I do know that opera could become more popular now than it’s ever been in its whole history judging by the interest that is presently being taken by young people in England.  I don’t know what it’s like here in the States, but there are more young people going to opera now than ever.

BD:    This is encouraging?

ML:    I find it very encouraging.  In fact, after seeing a performance of La Bohème one told me that it’s just like a musical!  Now there’s a great thought, it’s just like a musical!  Which came first, La Bohème or South Pacific?  [Both laugh]  People who say they can’t stand opera because people in real life don’t sing to each other, suddenly realize something.  These are the same people who go to see Alfred Hitchcock and never wonder where the orchestra is on the sound track.  They never feel that the orchestra is building up the tension as that guy waits with a razor behind the bedroom door!  If suddenly they stopped the soundtrack, they’d want to know what happened.  They are listening to opera!  They’re listening to music enhance the action, and that’s what opera’s all about.

BD:    What the role of gramophone recordings?

ML:    I think a dangerous role.  I’m very much against the ultra perfect recording.  I hate it because it encourages people to expect more than is humanly possible.  The best Rosenkavalier to my mind is still the old Erich Kleiber one, which he did act by act with all the warts, all the mistakes there.  Never mind, let it go.  He said he wanted a performance.

BD:    So he did it once through each act and that was it?

ML:    Once through the first act, once through the second act, and once with the third, and they did it all in one session, as an opera.  All they did was set up the mikes and then play the opera.  None of this building him up a bit on a B flat, take him down on the D, and give him a cup of coffee before the top C, and let him have a nice rest before the bottom C!   I don’t like it. 

BD:    Another role with a nice long low note is Osmin.

ML:    His bottom D goes on for eight bars, and you’ve been dancing around and whipping people.  I could always get a bottom D.  Somebody once said to me afterwards,
“Marvelous performance, Mr. Langdon, and we know you have a basso profundo voice, but our only disappointment was that we felt that your bottom D wasn’t as heavy as so-and-so is on the recording.

BD:    They probably shoved the mike down the guy’s throat for that one!

ML:    The story was that he just took a tuning fork home, and when he woke up in the morning, he sang [makes a fog-horn of a sound!] ‘Auch’, and they took it to the studio and spliced it in.  Well, Christ, I’ll do the damn thing a third down if you want it that way!  [Huge laughter]  This is the attitude of mind that’s encouraged by recordings.  They hear the perfect, and it’s so perfect it isn’t real.  It’s like artificial flowers.  I like flowers where the petals fall off.  I don’t want to come home every day and see the same exact thing.  Another thing I do object to strongly is where a singer will make a recording of a role that he has not a cat in hell’s chance of singing on stage.  It’s dishonest.

langdonBD:    The Kleiber Rosenkavalier had a cast that knew the work and had done it on stage.

ML:    That’s right.   They were performing it at the Staatsoper and they did the recording.  This is one of the truest, most beautiful recordings of all.

BD:    What about a recording that’s actually made in the theater?

ML:    Sometimes it does work.  Some of your pirate recordings are a damn sight more realistic and exciting than your commercial recordings because you hear all the frogs in the throat, you hear audience reaction, everything.  Really and truly, opera is the nearest thing to a real fight you’ll ever get.  People want blood.  They want  to hear whether the voice will last out.  They want to hear people get tired and still make it.  They want people to look exhausted.

BD:    Are they hoping for the high C to break?

ML:    I don’t think they’re hoping for it to break, but they’ve got that glorious uncertainty in their loins that it may, and then when he doesn’t, ahhh!  But on a record?  You’re never going to hear a high C that breaks.

BD:    If it breaks, they just do it again!

ML:    Just do it fifteen times before they get a good one.

BD:    I wonder what would have happened if there had been a really serious mistake in that Kleiber recording of Rosenkavalier

ML:    I think the old man said before they started that short of a disaster they’d go on.  Obviously he’s sensible enough that if something really disastrous had happened, he would have stopped.  [Facetiously]  Knowing the old man, he’d have probably said,
Okay go back to the beginning of the act! 

BD:    [With a gentle nudge]  Even if the Ochs missed the low E at the end of Act 2?

ML:    [Smiles]  But Weber didn’t miss the E, you know.  Although, I must say, that is a note that worries a lot of basses.  Right from the start of the opera they worry about the bottom E at the end of Act 2, even though he sings a lower note than that at the end of Act 1!

BD:    The bottom C?  But very often they opt for the octave above.

ML:    Yes, but if you know what Strauss did in the score, the octave above is the optional.  It’s about the only composer I’ve ever seen that’s made the bottom C the note, and the Middle C the option.  Usually the difficult note is the optional one.  I haven’t been forced to use that option because I’ve always had good low notes.

BD:    You always sing the low C?

ML:    Oh, always!  The last one I did was when they called me out of semi-retirement last year.  English National Opera North, which is the Northern subsidy of English National Opera, were touring, and they’d got to Hull in Yorkshire, and the Ochs wouldn’t be released by the man who was producing Fidelio in London.  He  wanted nine-weeks rehearsal for it, or something, to explain the political implications.  They asked if I would go up and do it, and I said I’d do it in German.  Everybody else sang it in English, and I did it in German.  The opera went absolutely beautifully, and it was the best write-up I’ve ever had.  It said
Langdon took a bottom C like a water spout!  I thought that’s great.  I hope I don’t sound as if I’m blowing my own trumpet, but another person who complimented me on that was Josef Krips when he conducted it in 1971 at Covent Garden.  Those were the best performances I think that I ever did.  We had Fassbaender, Lucia Popp and Sena Jurinac, and Hammond-Stroud was making his debut as Faninal.  When we first went through this with the orchestra, I sang the bottom C.  Krips turned and said something to somebody behind him, and that person came up and said to me afterwards and told me that Krips said that’s the first true bottom C he’s ever heard sung in this role, really sung.  Later he said, “You’re the best Ochs I’ve ever worked with.  He’s told that to lots of other people.  That was a great moment for me as an Englishman to be complimented like that.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    What’s it like to create a role?  Did you create Claggart?

ML:    No, I didn’t create Claggart but I did it for the first time with Britten.  I created the part of Lieutenant Ratcliffe in the first Budd, and then I did Claggart.  Ben asked me to broadcast it with him, then he asked me to do the television and then he asked me to do the Decca recording.  Great; it’s marvelous.  Working with living composers makes you realize that they are entertainers.  They want their characters to be realistic and successful.

BD:    Some composers?

ML:    Oh, most.  There may be some who are very pedantic about exactly what the text should be, but Britten would always say,
How does that suit you?  I’m sure if he wanted to put in an optional note, he would have no objection.  The same I think would apply to Verdi or Puccini.

BD:    So he would make the best performance with his cast?

ML:    With his cast.  He wanted the best performance possible from each of his singers, and if what he’d written didn’t bring out the best, he’d be prepared to adjust it.  He wanted a performance.

BD:    Do you feel that the Budd on records is a performance?


ML:    Yes, I think so, but I don’t think it’s as much a performance as the television video tape was, which was produced by Basil Coleman.  It’s one of these few operas that’s lent itself to television because it’s a claustrophobic opera.  With all the action below decks and everybody crashing around, somehow the television screen enclosed you.

BD:    So that would not work on a big cinematic screen?

ML:    No.  I don’t like operas anyway that are being done cleverly on television with super-impositions and voices off.  I hated that Marriage of FigaroTe Kanawa was lying on the bed singing ‘Porgi Amor’, and I thought to myself,
“What the hell she’s doing?  Anybody not knowing the opera would think somebody outside with a very beautiful voice is singing an aria and the Countess is listening to it.  And Bartolo?  One minute he’s at the bottom of the stairs, then he’s at the top, then he’s sitting down and then he’s standing up.  And then ensembles were suddenly transposed.  The nearest thing I could enlighten it to was a camera floating free in a space ship in orbit.  I thought it was too clever by half.   Some effects on the cinema screen or the television screen are good because they can only be achieved in that medium.  But, like comedy, it’s got to be under-played.  You mustn’t keep banging the same thing.  It’s look out wherever we are.  This camera is shooting the ceiling; this camera is shooting the floor, and after a while people will want you keep it still for a while so I can rest my eyes.  It’s like producers who feel that if somebody is singing a great aria, they don’t seem to realize that the music is saying it more simply by the singer’s standing and delivering it.  He’s saying more to the audience than having extraneous things going on  in the background, like a kid having the pee against a pond, or someone coming across rolling a hoop!  You don’t need that sort of thing!

BD:    The music carries it!

ML:    Yes.  Take ‘Il Balen’ [Trovatore].  What do you want?  You want Di Luna, you want the night, you want the light, you want the orchestra, you want the audience, and that’s all you want.  You sing ‘Il Balen’ and you get the message across.  The minute you start thinking
I’m going to be clever here; I’m going to educate this audience into something that they haven’t realized before’, you’re killing the whole damn thing.  Opera is entertainment, or should be entertainment; even the heaviest, even the most dramatic, it’s entertainment.  You don’t go to the opera house really to go to school.  You go to be entranced.  Opera singers are great people for debunking opera, of course.  When I see non-operatic people sending up opera or making fun of an operatic scene, I always smile a bit to myself because I’ve seen it done so much better.  I like baseball.  If you want somebody to do something funny whilst pitching a baseball, you pick a man who knows the game and can do anything with a ball.  You don’t get a kid out of the street and say do something funny with it.  It’s the same thing with opera.  If you want somebody to be funny as Rodolfo, you get a Pavarotti or Domingo to do it because they know all the tricks.  They’ve done all the plays on words.  We’ve done it unashamedly at Covent Garden for the Christmas parties.  Flagstad shagged off with somebody else and did a parody of the Cigarette Chorus of Carmen.  It was incredible.

BD:    Thank you so very, very much for spending the time with me today.

ML:    Not at all, Mr. Duffie, it’s been very nice to talk to you. 
I hope it’s been worthwhile.


See my Interview with Helga Dernesch

See my Interview with Anne Howells



See my Interview with Teresa Berganza

See my Interview with Margaret Price
(who, like Te Kanawa, would later sing the Countess!)

© 1981 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded backstage at the Opera House in Chicago on June 2, 1981.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB in 1985, 1995, and 2000.  This transcription was made in 2014, 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.