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
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?
My very first, yes.
BD: How do
you like our city?
ML: 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
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
ML: Yes, on
four occasions done
Fafner in both operas. I always did Fafner in Rheingold...
ML: It suited
me better, yes.
Why? What is the real difference
between those bass parts?
ML: Fafner is
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
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?
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?
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?
times I was asked to sing Pogner, and the reason I never sang
Pogner — and it may
sound stupid to you — is 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
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
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
breathe and open his mouth and go [imitates singing a silent note] and
then come onto the bar on the C.
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!”
would hear the F over the orchestra?
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.
BD: 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
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.
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
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.
Daland make the equation when he first meets
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
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.
[Genuinely shocked] Even Hagen???
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
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
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.
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?
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
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
BD: I ask
because he was here in Chicago
to sing in Figaro of
Ponnelle, and he left.
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.”
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.
should these compromises and cups of
coffee come — with the production team, or with
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 director — the 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
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
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.
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.
BD: 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?
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
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.
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
BD: Then when
the stage, “Where are you going to?”
ML: Where are
you going to!
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.
Absolutely! There’s a perfect example in the
opening of Aïda.
You see Ramfis and Radamès come on together, and
the Ramfis starts (sings) “Sì!”,
the first note of the
opera. They are obviously in the middle of a
conversation. If you get two singers who psyche themselves up
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
quality, when the orchestra plays quietly it’s
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?
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
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
would happen if you
had a production of the Ring
updated like this Pasquale
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
BD: But what if
they updated the whole thing and made it consistent?
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
the ‘dappled moonlight’ comes in.
Sieglinde asks, “Who went out?”
says that nobody went out, but Spring came in. I’ve never yet
done a Walküre when I
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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
my very first season at Covent
Garden, and she sang Brünnhilde.
BD: Was that
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
with my torch hanging down my side, and the flames were shooting
floor! I got it back up just
shocked] Was this a real torch???
[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
London now. It is a very clean city. I mean that.
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
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.
BD: Tell me about
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
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...
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.
mentioned Tristan and Isolde.
since sung King Mark?
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!”
BD: Let me
ask you how you feel about opera in translation.
ML: By and large I’m
not for it. Here, the Opera School of Chicago do what I do in my
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
English for forty performances?
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
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
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.
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
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.
ML: 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
went into German, and I’ve never sung in any other language. Just
I’ve sung one act of Rosenkavalier
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
but there are more young people going to opera now than ever.
BD: This is
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
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
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
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.
role with a nice long low note is Osmin.
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.”
probably shoved the mike down the guy’s
throat for that one!
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.
BD: The Kleiber Rosenkavalier had a
cast that knew the work and had done it on stage.
right. They were performing it at
the Staatsoper and they did the
recording. This is one of the truest, most beautiful
recordings of all.
about a recording that’s actually made in the
it does work. Some
of your pirate recordings are a damn sight more realistic and exciting
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.
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
BD: I wonder
what would have happened if there had been a really serious mistake in
that Kleiber recording of
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
[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!
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.
always sing the low C?
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
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
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
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
BD: So he
would make the best performance with his
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
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?
I don’t like operas anyway that are being done cleverly
on television with super-impositions and voices off. I hated that
Marriage of Figaro. Te
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
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
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
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
Balen’ and you get the message across. The minute you
thinking ‘I’m going to be clever here; I’m going
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
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
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.
© 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
at that time. My thanks to British soprano Una
Barry for her help in preparing this website
To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been
transcribed and posted on this website, click here.
Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975
its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001. His
interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since
and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well
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
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.