Bass Robert Lloyd
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie
|One of Britain greatest singers,
Robert Lloyd became the Principal Bass at the Royal Opera House, Covent
Garden in 1972. He has since sung an enormous range of repertoire with
the company and is now their senior artist.
Robert Lloyd was the first British bass to sing the title role in Boris Godunov at Covent Garden and
made history when he sang the role with the Kirov Opera in St
Petersburg. He sings the great roles of his repertoire in Paris,
Salzburg and San Francisco and for many years has had a particularly
close association with the Metropolitan Opera, New York.
He has a vast discography of over seventy audio and video recordings.
In the 1991 New Year Honours List, Robert Lloyd was created a Commander
of the British Empire (CBE). Robert Lloyd collaborated with the artist
Pip Woolf and pianist Julius Drake in 1999 to produce a recital
/exhibition at the National Museum of Modern Art in Wales of Schubert's
subsequently led to the production of a CD/book complete with
paintings, drawings and his personal score of the music.
Robert Lloyd made his debut in Chicago as Sarastro in The Magic Flute in January of
1991. He would later return for Don Diègue in Le Cid and also Fiesco in Simon Boccanegra.
Between performances in that first season, I had the pleasure of
meeting with the distinguished bass at his apartment. While
setting up the tape recorder, I explained the various purposes of the
interview. Besides including portions during broadcasts of
complete operas on Sundays, I celebrated “round
birthdays” of my guests with special programs. So I
asked him for his birthdate (March 2, 1940, which he gave me
accurately) and seemed amused by the idea . . . . . . .
It’s a very round number in my life — 1940
— beginning of the War in England and that’s when I was
So now you are fifty, or almost at fifty-one. Are you where you
expected to be in your career?
pretty well where I would have hoped to be, really. I’ve done
most of the roles that I want to do. There are one or two which
I’d still like to do, and one or two that I might venture upon,
slightly foolhardily, maybe. And I’m singing in all the greatest
opera houses in the world, so I can’t really complain. It worked
out quite well. For a bass, life is a good deal more orderly and
straightforward than it is for young women, or for tenors.
we get more relevant the older we get. We’re always playing these
old men, gray bearded creatures I might say. We’re fathers and
priests, and symbols of authority.
priests, and devils seem to always be the bass.
only one devil, but I suppose there are several manifestations of
Mephistophele, so that’s true, yes. I always forget about him,
but I never think of the Gounod Mephistopheles as the devil. He’s
rather a charming lad, I think. [Laughs]
BD: Do you sing him?
RL: Yes, I’ve
BD: Do you
also sing the Boito?
RL: No, I
haven’t done that one. I’ve done the Berlioz, but that’s really a
concert piece. I have actually the small part of Brander on stage
in a staging in London, but for the Mephistopheles I’ve only done that
BD: You like
playing the Devil?
RL: Oh yes,
yes. As I say, he’s rather a charming chappy.
BD: Are you
making him, perhaps, too charming?
Hmm. I don’t think Gounod takes him terribly seriously.
[Both laugh] I’m not too sure Gounod takes anything terribly
seriously. It’s very difficult to make him genuinely
sinister. Probably the way to play that Mephistopheles is in the
old-style tradition, where they put spangles on their eyelids to make
them flash in the lights, and just play it up, really camp it up into
something rather sharp and brilliant. To play for the
heavyweight, lugubrious, sinister-ness doesn’t work.
BD: So it’s
right, then, that he actually loses in the end?
RL: Oh, sure!
BD: Does it
become a morality play, then?
RL: I suppose
it was designed to be something of a morality play. That sort of
thing wouldn’t have, I suppose, survived the censorship unless it had
an element of morality about it. I don’t think he could let the
Mephistopheles win, not on the Victorian stage.
BD: Should he
RL: He seems
to, doesn’t he, quite a lot?
BD: He winds
up with Faust, but not Marguerite.
RL: I didn’t
mean in the opera, I meant in life in general. He seems to have
quite a degree of success.
Hmmmm! Should opera, then, be made relevant to preach to today’s
society and maybe get them back on the straight and narrow?
RL: It would
be nice if we could find a medium where we could communicate something
worth saying on the operatic stage. It’s a very powerful
medium. Unfortunately, the composers seem to have lost their
grasp of the audiences. It seems to me that composers
increasingly in this century have composed for one another rather than
for their audiences. I’ve been very impressed by the initiative
of the Chicago Opera in this with their “Towards the Twenty-First
Century.” I think that’s a marvelous idea, really
wonderful. People tend to think of the 20th Century as a century
of difficult compositions with strange and inaccessible
compositions. But in actual fact, some of the greatest pieces
that we regularly perform are, in fact, 20th Century. I mean, all
the Puccini pieces...
that’s very early on.
right, and Bluebeard’s Castle,
which is perhaps one of the most intelligent operas I’ve ever
performed. Peter Grimes
is a sensational masterpiece. There’s a lot of stuff there in the
20th Century, but somewhere in the middle we lost our way. We
didn’t communicate with the audiences properly.
BD: Do you
have some advice for composers who want to write for the human voice?
RL: It’s a
bit sort of cliché. I’m not really able to give advice; I
can only speak from my experience, and that is that I do believe that
the human voice is an exceedingly exciting instrument. It’s got
so much opportunity for range, color, excitement and nuance, that it’s
sad when a modern composer treats it as a percussion instrument or an
instrument of the orchestra, not consulting the essential richness of
color in the human voice. It only has that color when it expands
fully, when it’s being used fully and sonorously to its maximum.
With a great deal of modern music, you just can’t do it. You
can’t use the voice fully. It’s being used as a staccato
instrument, which I think denies its very nature.
BD: So really
you want the composer to exploit the powers of the voice more than they
RL: I do,
very much so, yes. And of course, to some extent that means
writing tunes. [Laughs] There’s nothing quite to compare
with a tune. It’s a bit like talking about novels or any art form
really. The form it takes is so important. The essence of a
good novel is the story line. The characterization and the
dialogue and all those other things are extremely important, but the
story line is what really holds the audience. That’s what we need
in opera. We need to look at opera for what it really is.
It’s a fantastic medium for conveying high-powered emotion through the
human voice. You’ve got to use the human voice to the maximum to
realize its real nature. That’s my feeling.
BD: Are you
optimistic about the future of opera?
RL: I get
little, maybe one or two glimmers of hope. It’s been a bit of a
dark period all the time I’ve been singing. I’ve very much
regretted the fact that I haven’t been able to find modern composers
that I feel I can relate to.
you’d like to find someone to champion?
right, absolutely. I would like to feel like a creative
artist. I would like to take part in something new. I would
like to say something. I would like to communicate important,
urgent messages to my public, but it’s really not possible to do
that. It’s such a shame that the great issues of our day are not
explored in opera. Apartheid, nuclear holocaust, all the various
holocausts of the last fifty years aren’t explored in opera.
These are tremendous subjects with a lot of the things that voices are
good at expressing — like pain, joy and
conflict. So yes, I’d love to find some vehicle for that.
BD: Are there
not enough vehicles in what’s already been written of past problems,
which may or may not have been solved already?
they’re trying to do is reinterpret past operas to make them creatively
relevant to the present by changing the period, by changing the
costumes, by updating it as they call it, and that seems pretty
unsatisfactory to me. Sometimes it works. Just occasionally
it works sufficiently to make the whole process really interesting and
not something you can dismiss out of hand. But it works very
infrequently, and it seems to deny very much the nature of opera.
leaving it in the correct period with costumes and staging that would
be completely relevant and completely straightforward for the piece, do
you enjoy re-creating these pieces that have been around for a hundred
or two hundred years?
sure. Oh, absolutely! They are wonderful things, and of
course they don’t have to be completely in period. I can quite
see that to do, for instance, Rigoletto
in medieval costumes, with the clown with his jangly bells and
things. But once you’ve seen it like that a few times, it does
pall a little. There’s a case for doing it like that from time to
time, of course, because it has a kind of historical quality,
especially in an environment where you’re not actually in touch very
much with medieval history, like the United States. It’s really
quite important that you see things in period costume. In Europe,
though, it palls us after a while, but there is no need for it to be
any specific period. It just doesn’t have to be in Nazi costumes
as far as I can see it.
BD: In other
words, if you’re going to do a Nazi opera, write a Nazi opera?
Precisely, yes. I saw a performance of Rossini’s Mosè at the London Coliseum
where people were going around with Tommy guns and wearing gray striped
suits. It didn’t line up with Rossini’s formal musical
construction with lots of florid writing. It just wasn’t
consonant with the music in any way.
everything has to agree — the colors, the staging, the music, the
drama. Everything has to be a unit for you?
indeed. I think any director of opera has to listen very, very
intently to the music and let his interpretation of the piece grow out
of the music. The problem that we run into a great deal is
because there are a lot of opera directors nowadays who come from the
straight theater, they tend to look only at the text, or at least
predominantly at the text. They construct their production
edifice from the text. Now you know as well as I know that a lot
of texts in operas are pretty absurd and very limited. It is in
the nature of music that it releases the undertones and the overtones,
the nuances and the colors and the emotions that go inside a very
simple text. Music makes any text much bigger than it really
is. I always think of the text as a kind of seed, and out of that
the whole tree of the musical form grows. But it’s only the
starting point; it’s not something that you can put too much weight
upon as it is, and that’s the problem with most modern directors.
They read only the text.
BD: Where is
the balance, then, between the music and the drama?
no way I can generalize about that. You have to take a specific
example and start listening a lot to the music until it becomes part of
your muscle structure. Another problem that modern directors have
is that a lot of them don’t quite understand how much the music becomes
part of the psyche and the muscle structure and the reflex system of
the singers. Sometimes we turn up to rehearsals and we are being
encouraged to do something in a particular way which runs counter to
everything the music says to us. That puts us under tremendous
stress! I mean real, real stress. That’s real ulcer country
when that happens. [Laughs] I’ve come to understand that’s
partly because the producers don’t have that same actual physical
reflex, a physical reaction to the music, because they don’t know the
music so well. The singer lives with the music for a year or
more, and if you’ve done a role a few times then you’ve lived with it
for many years. Even if it’s new, you would have lived with it
for several months.
BD: And no
matter what you’re doing, you’re still living with the same music!
right, yes. It has its own rhythm and its own shape, and it
suggests movements to you. You’re always reacting to the music as
it presents itself. The producer isn’t doing this; he’s standing
outside the scene looking in, and that’s a source of an awful lot of
difficulties. I don’t think all this has quite hit the States
yet, but with Peter Sellars it’s coming. I think the opera world
in the States is going to have a difficult time for the next few years.
BD: Or are we
going to skip it? Are we going to see what it’s doing to Europe,
and decide we don’t want this coming over?
RL: It may be
that you pick up the good bits. That’s possible, yes. That
would be a very shrewd thing to do. [Both laugh]
you’re on stage, are you portraying a character or do you actually
become that character?
RL: Ah well, people
vary on that. My family tend to think I become the character, but
I like to think I portray it. I don’t know whether everybody has
to work this way in order to get a good result, but the way I work is
that I have to find the character. I have to find the personality
in myself at some stage during rehearsals. King Philip I always
think of as a tyrant who is a tyrant because he’s fundamentally a
wimp. He lashes out at everything in a rather uncontrolled
fashion because he deeply distrusts his own real inner core. So I
look for those characteristics in myself and write it out from
there. By the time I arrive on the stage for the first night,
I’ve discovered this character. I’ve photocopied him, as it were;
I can reproduce him at will. But I don’t think at the time, on
the stage on the first night, I’ve been King Philip. I’m doing a
duplicate version of something I discovered in rehearsal.
BD: Now of
course Philip is actually an historical figure. Does your study
process change when you’ve got someone you can really see and know in
history, as opposed to a fictional character that’s made up out of some
RL: When I
first started these lead characters, I had to make some
decisions. I started life as a historian myself, so I thought the
serious and earnest and intelligent thing to do was to look at these
characters historically to discover the operatic character. But
then I discovered that the operatic characters are so far from any sort
of historical context. [Both laugh] Don Carlos, for
instance, if I remember correctly, would be a ten year-old half wit
rather than a forty year-old tenor if historical accuracy was being
consulted. So I tend to look at the period for background color,
but not the historical identities of the characters because they’re
misleading. If you go along and try to do King Philip as you
discover him, then it doesn’t work for you. You have to actually
look at the music and see what it says. Listen to the music;
start from there.
BD: So, you
have to do King Philip as Verdi and the librettist discovered him?
right, yes. They’re figments of the imagination, really.
They’re not genuine historical characters at all. They’re so
circumscribed by the mood Verdi happened to feel in that day. He
wrote tunes according to his feeling. He didn’t write tunes
according to his historical research on the character.
back briefly to what we were talking about earlier, if he were to start
to do an opera on Apartheid and you had to write a character of Mandela
or somebody else involved in that whole movement, the people today
would know enough about him that they would know when the character
deviates from real life. So you wouldn’t have that kind of
expansion and expandable liberties.
true, yes, but you would be writing now about Mandela from a point of
view that knows Mandela reasonably from the media. When Verdi was
writing, he didn’t know Philip II. He was at the same sort of
distance from Philip II that we are, and that makes the
difference. In any case, I’m not sure that music is so good at
doing pen portraits of people. It creates emotional moods.
It creates the environment in which people happen. A very good
example is Boris Godunov.
I think it’s absolutely astounding opera. The more I do it, the
more I think it’s quite wonderful.
the title character, have you also sung Pimen and Varlaam?
I studied Pimen and understudied it once at Covent Gardens. I got
to know him quite intimately. Varlaam doesn’t really interest me
at all. It’s not the sort of thing I do.
BD: It’s got
a fun song.
Yes. [Both laugh] It puts me in mind of a famous bass at
Covent Garden. I don’t know if he ever sang here — David Ward.
BD: We know
of him, but he never sang here.
RL: He was a
splendid gentleman, a really much-loved singer. I remember one
day he was asked to sing Rocco in Fidelio
by the conductor Joseph Krips, and his reaction was very
characteristic. He said, “What, me play a peasant???” [Both
BD: He was
Yes. Basses tend to fall into that frame of mind, you know.
Anything less than a king is a bit in for a dig. No, the only
person that did those three roles was Boris Christoff. He created
a kind of precedent that nobody could quite live up to because he only
did it on record. He didn’t do it in real life.
Right. Occasionally, for instance, the American bass Paul Plishka
alternates. Some nights he’ll sing Boris and some nights he’ll
RL: It suits
him to do that, but I don’t. I don’t fancy myself as Pimen
really. Perhaps one day when I’m genuinely old — as
opposed to just fifty, nearly fifty-one — I
might be interested in Pimen. But once you’ve played Boris, I
think Pimen must be pretty uninteresting.
BD: Boris has
those five wonderful scenes, huge scenes on the stage.
RL: Yes, but
what I was thinking about him was that in a sense he’s not an accurate
portrayal of a historical character either. His historical
evolution on the operatic stage has distorted the nature of Boris
Godunov quite a lot. The Chaliapin-esque tradition, pursued by
Boris Christoff of making him into some sort of extraordinary ogre with
a big, black beard, is not in any sense historical accuracy. Nor
in fact do I find it very accurately representing Mussorgsky’s
music. Mussorgsky makes him a much more sensitive character than
the Chaliapin tradition makes him. Boris was a very great
man. I think the analogy between Boris Godunov and Gorbachev is
fabulous. It makes fascinating study! I went this year to
Leningrad to sing Boris with the Kirov Opera.
BD: Were you
RL: Well, I was
obviously very nervous. I didn’t know how they would accept me
because I went as a bit of a package deal with the Tarkovsky production
of Boris, which we did at
Covent Garden. I don’t know whether Andrei Tarkovsky’s a known
character in the States, but he’s an icon. He’s a real saint in
Russia now, and he’s the doyen, really, of art movies throughout
Europe. He developed a style of art movie. I’m a little out
of my depth when talking about art movies, but it’s extremely literary
and poetic. It shows scant interest in the normal conventions of
cinema, like moving the plot along, or having clearly identified
characters and so on. What he tries to do is to paint almost
abstract paintings, or write obscure, abstract poetry on the
screen. It’s an extraordinary achievement, very compelling.
transforming all this to opera is right up his alley?
yes. Boris is the only
opera he ever produced, and we were very lucky to be there because he
died two years later. Once he was dead he became a real
icon. When Gorbachev came along in the Soviet Union, Tarkovsky
was reinstated as a great Russian hero, having been exiled for most of
his working life. He was given the Order of Lenin and turned into
a great hero posthumously. As a part of that process, they
decided to take his production of Boris
Godunov to Leningrad from Covent Garden, and I went with
it. Only me, nobody else. It was all the Leningrad people
except for me, and that was pretty, pretty daunting thing to do.
But they accepted me. I was overwhelmed with it. It was
beautiful. The opera was going to be toured around Russia after I
finished with it, so there were five casts there all watching the
rehearsals. There were five Borises, sitting there with their
leather blousons and their arms folded, watching me. [Both
laugh] But I was really overwhelmed with the response. Each
of them came up to me and made quite long, generous speeches of
praise. I was really touched by it. It was
extraordinary! In London, the style that I was working in that
Tarkovsky had got out of me is something largely unknown in the Soviet
Union. They still act in a rather stylized, conventional
fashion. They strike poses on the stage. They sing to the
front. They seem rather stilted and old fashioned in the way they
perform, which is terribly surprising when you consider that
Stanislavski was a Russian, and Chaliapin, upon whom Stanislavski based
an awful lot of his writings, was also Russian. Yet somehow
they’ve got ossified in their acting style, and they were very, very
surprised and very excited by what we were offering them. So I feel
quite pleased with all that. That was great. I was most
afraid, of course, that my Russian pronunciation wouldn’t pass muster,
but it did.
BD: I was
going to ask you if you touched up your pronunciation, or made a few
little corrections as you heard things.
RL: I did a
lot of work on it, actually. The trouble is you only have one
life, and you have to work. Being an English speaker —
and you Americans have the same problems — we
haven’t any native opera, so we’re always performing in foreign
languages. Life for the Italians must be an absolute breeze, as
you say, or doddle, as we would say. [Both laugh] They go
around singing in their own opera in their own language in their own
style and are made into great stars. We have to sweat away at all
these languages, and life’s too short to do them all properly. So
you cut corners, and it was Russian that I cut the corner on. So
I was doubly anxious when it came to going to Leningrad, but apparently
I was fine.
BD: If the
populous could understand your words, then you’re all set.
Yes. In fact there was speculation in the press as to whether I
had a Russian mother, so I’m proud of that.
making the analogy with Boris and Gorbachev. Would it be wrong to
build a production around that idea and have Boris with the little mark
on the head?
RL: Oh yes,
sure. Actually, let’s go back to that because that’s quite an
interesting line of thought. I had noticed the analogy with
Gorbachev some years before, but I’d kept it all to myself. Then
I worked on Boris in Amsterdam with a director called Harry Kupfer, and
he mentioned it en passant as
an idea. So I explored the idea a bit more. But when we got
to Leningrad and did our performance of Boris, it became very clear who
this man was. He wasn’t an old fashioned ogre with a black beard;
he was a man really struggling to try and rule his country with a
sensitive imagination and creative political skills. People
immediately noticed it. The Russians saw it. They said, “My
God, this is Gorbachev!” Then the analogies became very
clear. Boris says that he’s been in power for several years and
everything was okay, but then suddenly, everything went wrong.
There was a problem in Lithuania, Boris says. There was a problem
in Poland. Then there was pestilence, and you could read
Chernobyl for pestilence. Then there was famine, and if you talk
about food shortages and distribution problems, you’ve got
famine. Then you’ve got religious uprisings, and throughout the
Soviet Union now there are problems with ethnic religious groups like
the Muslims. So you’ve got in the opera Boris Godunov a portrait of Russia
— not then, but always. It’s a very, very fascinating
BD: I wonder
if there’s someone in the politburo
now who is a real Shuysky, who is going to come in and take over.
RL: Well, for
Shuysky, read Yeltsin. Hmmm? N’est-ce pas? [Both
laugh] It’s fascinating. When I was there, Gorbachev was in
the middle of a big political crisis which, in the west, nobody knew
about. Being in Russia we could see it happening. People
were glued to their television sets throughout Leningrad, just as we
were last week with the beginning of the Gulf War. Everybody was
going home and switching on to find out what would happen. That was
happening in Leningrad because there was a political crisis which none
of us understood. They wouldn’t explain it to us, but there was
some talk of corruption in high places. I saw Gorbachev make a
speech which went on for hours. He spoke extemporaneously —
apparently without notes, brilliantly! I couldn’t understand what
he was saying, but he looked so capable and competent and, quite
honestly, brilliant. He was confronted with a huge hall full of
the most grim-faced people imaginable. They were exactly the
Boyars that I knew from Boris Godunov.
For me it was a riveting experience.
BD: We have a
Leningrad connection here in Chicago. The Chicago Symphony and
the Leningrad Philharmonic did a swap earlier this season.
Leningrad came here and Chicago went there.
that’s very good, yes.
BD: Have you
recorded any of Boris?
RL: Again, it
was a great stroke of fortune for me. The BBC decided to take an
interest in this trip to Leningrad, and they sent an outside broadcast
unit. Several great big wagons drove all the way to Leningrad,
and they relayed the first performance live to London and to the whole
of Europe and to the whole of Russia. It was also recorded and it
will be issued as a laser disc and a videocassette. It’s coming
out fairly soon, so it’ll be available in the shops.
there be a purely audio version also?
RL: Yes, and
there is some move afoot to broadcast it on PBS. I don’t know
whether that’ll happen, so that’ll be nice. Last year was a good
one for me because I also did Bluebeard’s
Castle of Bartók.
BD: On stage
or in concert?
RL: This was
a film. The best opera I’ve ever taken part in is Boris Godunov. The best opera
I’ve ever seen is Khovanshchina,
also by Mussorgsky. I think it’s absolutely brilliant. It’s
like a giant essay on historicism. It’s really wonderful.
Then Bluebeard. It is
just so psychologically fascinating. I was very fortunate the BBC
made a film of it which was directed by Leslie Megahey, the head of
music and arts. He did very well with it. He won the
biggest European television prize, the Prix Italia, for it. So
that went down very well, and that’s also going to be issued on video
here sometime in the future, I believe.
Good. We’ll look forward to that. I’m afraid I just wait
for the fifth door and those huge C-major chords.
BD: It’s the
loudest thing I’ve ever heard in Orchestra Hall, and I’ve heard
Bruckner and Mahler and Wagner there! It just blew me away.
RL: Yes, it’s
wonderful. The one that I like best is the watery one.
Ah... bloop, bloop.
bloop! Yes, that’s right. [Laughs] It’s a piece which
is eternally fascinating, very much the married man’s opera, I
think. What you do with that last scene, really, determines your
approach to the opera. Our producer decided that Bluebeard was,
in fact, a kind of collector. He had them almost, as it were,
skewered to the wall like butterflies.
that’s the sort of image. They were very beautiful images, rather
after the style of Klimt. If I were put to it, I would probably
say that I didn’t agree with that ending, but I then I wasn’t put to
it. I think it’s more psychological than that.
BD: You are
here in Chicago singing Sarastro, so tell me the secret of singing
goodness! I don’t think that singing Sarastro is singing Mozart,
really. Sarastro is an exception. Sarastro is very
difficult to sing well. It’s one of the most difficult of the
Mozart roles for anybody to be convincing in.
RL: It’s one
of the most difficult ones to cast adequately because it requires
something which most Mozart singers are not required to do —
good old fashioned Italian bel canto. Basses are not
often asked to do that, especially on the low notes. I think the
only way to sing Sarastro is totally bel
canto, and I discovered that by listening to Ezio Pinza.
He sang it in Italian, which it makes it much easier. The problem
with German is you’ve got so many consonants; how to get around in a
word like nicht — there’s
not a lot of vowels in there. There’s an awful lot of consonants,
and to get seamlessly from one vowel to another, as you have to in bel canto, takes an awful lot of
work, an awful lot of practice. You have to be a very dedicated
Sarastro singer to actually master it. Most basses that I know
hate singing Sarastro because it seems terribly exposed. There’s
nowhere to hide. You can’t cover up a bit of phlegm with a bit of
BD: Is it a
grateful role to sing, though?
depends on how well you sing it. [Both laugh] That’s the
truth of the matter. You can’t act your way out of trouble.
If you don’t sing it well, they don’t clap so much. If you sing
it well, then they clap very well. It’s a frightening role to
perform, and it never stops being so. I’ve sung it many, many
times now. I’ve probably sung is more than anything else, and it
never gets any easier. One gets better at it, probably, but it
doesn’t get any easier.
BD: Is it
particularly difficult to go from singing to speaking?
RL: That doesn’t
help matters, no, certainly, because to project, especially in a house
the size of your American houses, you do have to speak extremely
strongly. You also have to pitch the voice very high in the
tessitura in order to carry. All the greatest big voices,
speaking voices, have been tenors. I did a radio program once
about the way people use their voices professionally in non-singing
ways. I talked to evangelists and sergeant-majors — you call them
Drill Sergeants — and politicians and
people like that, all people who professionally use their voices.
The conclusion that I came to was that most of the greatest speaking
voices for public oratory without microphones were tenors. They
had a tenor level of projection because in the old days they had to
project extremely far. There are references to John Wesley, the
great British evangelist, talking to thirty-two thousand people, which
is really, really incredible! I spoke to the most famous open-air
evangelist in England, Donald Soper, Lord Soper, who has been preaching
on Tower Hill in the center of London for fifty years now every Sunday,
in the open air. I asked him how many people he could speak to in
the open air and be heard, and he said a densely packed thousand,
perhaps. He boasted at the size of his voice. So what John
Wesley was like, God knows. [Laughs]
BD: He was
thirty-two times bigger, obviously.
that or he wasn’t as honest as evangelists are supposed to be.
BD: There was
a wonderful cartoon years and years ago in The New Yorker... Gandhi is
sitting there under his umbrella speaking to a huge throng and saying,
“Now can you hear me — you boys in the
back?” [To see that cartoon, click here.]
[Laughs] I spoke to a famous drill sergeant and he was clearly a
heldentenor; there was no doubt about it. He pitched the voice
right up really high. When speaking on a big stage here, a bass
has to raise the voice to the top part of the tessitura.
BD: How much
is projection and how much is focus?
RL: I think
they’re synonymous, really. If you have it fairly high in your
register and it’s beautifully focused, then it will carry. But
you do have to put a bit of force behind it, and you’re using force in
the high part of your voice. Then you’ve suddenly got to sing “O Isis und Osiris.” So the
speaking doesn’t help, in answer to your question.
BD: Do people
expect that Sarastro, with these wonderful low Fs, then to speak in a
round, low sound, and are they surprised when it’s high?
RL: I think
they are, yes. But quite honestly, you can’t be heard if you
mumble away [mumbles in German in very low register]. [Both laugh]
BD: Maybe we
should give you a throat microphone.
that’s a thorny path, that is. I heard that Domingo was saying he
didn’t see why an opera singer shouldn’t from time to time be allowed
to use microphones. I think that’s a slippery slope, thin end of
a wedge, which I don’t want to get into because once you get into
microphones, then you lose some of the very basic elements of
opera. The athleticism of the sheer physical energy of
it, the sweat, and the color of an extended human voice is very
BD: If it
were done with a real professional at the controls, but if it’s just
public address, then it won’t work at all.
Yes. I know in certain places they do use what they call
heightened sound, so that the ambience of the hall is more favorable to
the voices than it would otherwise be. I think that’s probably
okay. I’ll sort of accept that. [Laughs]
BD: This, of
course, leads us right into the question of recording. Can you
perform the same way in front of a microphone as you do in front of
four thousand people?
absolutely not. I’m not a friend of audio recordings. I
don’t like them at all.
[Surprised] And yet you have made a number of wonderful ones!
RL: Well, you
have to. That’s the way to a big career. The problem with
audio recordings is that the whole record industry has distorted my
profession a great deal by making the voices that are most in demand
not necessarily the personalities that are most interesting on
stage. Records also reduce the range of acceptable vocal
sound. Record companies seem to choose a particular type of voice
to record, and there are many other sorts of voice which are equally
valid, and not so listen to-able in a domestic context.
of their sound or their color?
Both. For instance, a singer like Jon Vickers in the later part
of his career had a voice of tremendous interest. [See my Interview with Jon
Vickers.] In the theater it was thrilling beyond
belief! You just couldn’t believe that he was doing some of the
things, but it was not a good voice to record in the later part of his
career. Such a shame that his excitement isn’t somehow available
to us. Voices for recordings seem to have a great deal of
refinement and clarity, and they mustn’t have rough edges and no phlegm
— many of the things that make any human voice really quite
they’ve selected you, so you must fit into at least some of that
RL: Yes, to
some extent. I’ve made a lot of recordings but there are many
more I would like to make. But I would much prefer to become a
well-known video performer rather than an audio performer because I
think it’s more valued as an artistic form. Once you’ve made a
record — after you go out there and sing it
through four or five times, sometimes a whole take, sometimes a few
bars at a time — then you have no control over
what happens. The recording engineer does everything else.
He balances the thing. He decides how loud you’re going to be,
how soft you’re going to be, how you’re going to stand out in an
ensemble. He can smother you with the orchestra if he wants
to. It’s an artifact of the recording engineer once you’ve done
your bit, so you have no artistic control over it at all, and I find
that very unsatisfactory. Whereas on video, if you’re out there
performing they can’t take that away from you. If they can see
what you’re doing, then nobody can take that away. Even that can,
of course, be edited in a way which can be helpful, but it can also be
upsetting. I noticed with the Boris
video that there were one or two moments which I was very proud of as
bits of internal acting, which were cut away from by the editor because
he’d seen something else on the stage which was more interesting.
So even then, you see, you don’t have control.
said that about recordings, are you basically pleased with the
recordings of your voice that have been issued?
problem is that as soon as you’ve made a recording, you know you can
make it better because the experience of having made it qualifies you
to make it better. I don’t think many recording artists are
satisfied with anything they do. They would like to do it again
immediately. Stop! Hold the world! I want to do it
BD: Then when
you’re finished with that, do it again-again!
RL: Yes, and
for five to ten years afterwards I find I can’t bring myself to listen
to them at all. I think, “Oh, God! Why didn’t I do
that?” But then, say ten or fifteen years later, you listen to it
and think, “Oh! That wasn’t too bad at all.” [Laughs]
Did I really sound like that?
BD: So you
have to have confidence in what you’re doing?
RL: Yes. You
just have to do it and take your money, and hope that it’s going to be
all right, really.
BD: Do you
enjoy it when people come backstage afterwards and say, “I liked your
performance, and I really like the recording”?
that’s nice. It is a great pity, though, that so much of an
operatic career is determined by recordings. It really is.
There’s no doubt at all that very few artists would sing at the
Metropolitan Opera unless they’d first made records. It’s the way
things are nowadays. It very often leads to poor casting, not
necessarily at the Metropolitan Opera, but in opera companies
generally. People are selected for their famousness through
recordings rather than for their ability to perform that particular
BD: Do you
sing differently from house to house, depending on the size of the
RL: Yes, I
think that is inevitable. Your American houses do create problems
for us, and of course the other way around. They create problems
for your American singers, too. One of the things that we tend to
notice about American singers when they come to Europe is that their
vocal style is somewhat more grandiloquent than the Europeans.
It’s quite clear once you’ve sung in one of these opera houses why
that’s so. You do have to belt it out, not to put too fine a
point on it. You have to actually push out the sound in as great
a quantity as you can to impress an audience as big as that.
BD: And yet,
you don’t have to push and strain.
no. Certainly not. But in a house like Covent Garden it
really feels very intimate. You can do almost anything you like
with the voice there. You can sing incredibly small.
BD: How many
seats are there?
2200. In fact most of the bigger European opera houses are about
the same size — Paris, Vienna, Munich, Berlin,
London. Leningrad was a bit smaller, but I think the Bolshoi is
about the same.
houses then are nearly twice that size.
Yes. In actual internal space — cubic
capacity — they’re almost certainly twice the
size of most of those houses. In terms of audience capacity,
maybe half again, but in order to get that amount of audience in you’ve
got to have more actual area. So they do seem enormous. The
only places I’ve sung in bigger than the American ones are in Seoul,
Korea. It’s an absolutely gigantic place!
BD: Have you
sung in open air, like in Orange?
RL: Not in
Orange. I’ve sung in Aix-en-Provence, which is kind of half in
open air. You’ve got a cover to the stage, but the audience is in
the open air. I’ve sung in a park in San Francisco which was
really quite an experience, but I haven’t sung in Verona or any of
those big amphitheaters. I can’t believe it’s really too artistic
an experience. If there’s a thread to the way I select work, I
try to be sure that’s it is going to be as artistic as possible.
It’s not always possible in opera because people are interested in
things other than the art. They’re interested in volume; they’re
interested in personality; they’re interested in glamour; they’re
interested in wealth; they’re interested in social activity and social
display. All these things come into opera. But as often as
possible I choose something I think is going to be an artistic
experience though that’s not always possible.
BD: You’re a
bass and you are limited by the number of roles you can sing because of
the tessitura and the amount of range that you have, but are you
pleased with the characters that these roles offer you?
RL: I do feel
a bit limited sometimes, yes. I’m glad I don’t have to play the
tenor roles that are always the young lover. I think that would
be a very difficult thing to do especially as you get older. We
tend to say that basses become more relevant as we get older. We
put on less and less makeup as time goes by, and the tenors put on more
and more makeup as time goes by. That’s why they have such big
fees, you know, to pay for the makeup. [Gales of laughter all
around.] The baritones and tenors have some wonderful tunes, and
we could do with a few more tunes, us basses.
BD: Have you
ever been tempted to do a baritone-type role?
RL: I’ve done
Don Giovanni which is bordering on that territory, and apparently it
didn’t suit me very well. So my agent doesn’t look for
opportunities for me to do it.
too bad. I’ve heard bases and baritones do Don Giovanni, and I
like the extra weight of the bass.
Yes. I quite enjoyed doing it, but it didn’t go down too
well. I’m constantly tempted by Wotan and I think probably I’ll
capitulate one of these days. But I had a very shrewd old agent
once who said, “Better to be a world famous bass than just another
Wotan.” I think there’s something in that. If you sing
Wotan and you’re really a bass, you can burn your boats, and there’s
really no way back then to cantabile bass singing, which is really what
I like doing.
BD: Let’s stay with
Wagner a little bit. You’ve sung Gurnemanz, so tell me a bit
RL: That’s my
next job at the Met, actually, to do Parsifal
with the new production. James Levine’s conducting, with
Plácido Domingo and Jessye Norman. It’s going to be quite
an occasion. [Ponders a moment] I’m not sure there’s a
great deal to say about Gurnemanz because he’s almost, in a sense, a
non-character. He’s more like a commentator or a voice off, in a
way, telling the story several times over. His own personality
doesn’t emerge very much in it at all. He’s an elderly man.
BD: How old
RL: I don’t
think it matters. He just has to register as elderly in
comparison with the other people around. I’ve seen pictures of
the very first Gurnemanz. He had a gigantic cotton wool beard
that came down almost to his waist.
BD: In the
first act, or just the third act?
RL: That I
don’t know. There is the passage of time, but I’m not sure that
chronology’s got too much to do with it. It’s more like the passage of
the spirit rather than the passage of actual chronological time.
But what is interesting to talk about is the opera Parsifal, which in a sense is what
Gurnemanz is about, because Gurnemanz expresses the opera. He
tells the story. He sets the scene. He narrates what goes
on. Not actually a great deal happens in the opera.
Most has happened before and during interval, which Gurnemanz
explains. It’s a wonderful part to sing because there’s some
wonderful spasms of melody in it. You feel as you’re performing
it as though you’re afloat on a warm, rich, rather oily ocean of
sound. Especially the Good Friday music at the end is a wonderful
experience. You feel at the end of it totally spent because
you’ve been there and pouring out sound for an awfully long time.
It’s true catharsis. You’ve really purged yourself of your spirit
BD: Is the
work an opera or is it a sacred play?
RL: I spent a
lot of time thinking about it before I performed it first. I
thought that I ought to turn up to the first rehearsal with some ideas
about it. Probably that was a mistake, because it meant that I
had to spend an awful lot of time getting rid of my ideas and
recharging myself with the ideas of somebody else. But it was
fun. It was intellectual fun trying to work out what Parsifal was all about. It’s
a long time ago now. It’s difficult to reconstruct the stages
through which I went. I went through stages of trying to identify
with the characters in it. There were moments in it that I
absolutely recognized, that actually touched me right to the heart
— like the moment that Parsifal shoots the swan and
Gurnemanz tells him off. He says, “Why have you shot this swan
here, of all places, in this place where animals are sacred?” and
Parsifal suddenly understands what he’s done. It never crossed
his mind that it was wrong to shoot swans, but as soon as Gurnemanz
explains to him he’s cut to the quick. He realizes it and he
smashes his bow and throws it to the ground. I absolutely
identify with that because I went with my father shooting — what you
would call hunting — wildfowl, geese and ducks in the marshes of
Essex. It was a very beautiful, melancholy, exotic sort of thing
to be doing on those wild places, and I loved it. I loved the
experience of the early morning, and seeing the geese coming up over
the marshes. So I shot one and I couldn’t bear it! There
was this thing on the ground. It wasn’t quite dead, and it was
struggling and it was squawking and it was bleeding. I had to
kill it, finish it off with the butt of my rifle, and I hated myself
for doing it. It was a wonderful, exactly Parsifal moment in my life.
Then as time went on, I saw more and more moments like that in the
course of the opera that I could identify with. I thought, “Maybe
this is what Parsifal is
about. Perhaps what you have to do is to find yourself in the
opera.” So I pursued that line of thought for a while, but I
couldn’t tie it up. It didn’t come to any sort of conclusion in
my mind. Then I met a producer, Filippo Sanjust, a man of
extraordinary brilliance, who was the designer for a number of
Visconti’s operas and films. He never had the success as a
director that he had as a designer, but as a personality, as an
individual person, he was extraordinarily brilliant. And he said,
“Oh, Parsifal, that’s
easy. Everybody’s the same person in Parsifal.” That set me
thinking. Could it be that these various characters — Parsifal,
Kundry, Gurnemanz, Amfortas, Klingsor — all
these are aspects of one person? They’re elements of the
psyche? That’s an interesting idea. Then I had the
extraordinary fortune of making a film of Parsifal with Hans-Jürgen
Syberberg, the maverick German film producer. We discussed it a
lot, and one day at breakfast he said, “Of course, Wagner is Parsifal.” I said, “Do you
mean the character Parsifal is Wagner?” He said, “No, no.
Wagner is the opera.” That made very good sense to me and has
remained really, the core of my thinking about Parsifal ever since. In
actual fact, Parsifal is a
kind of artistic autobiography where Wagner traces the development of
his own search for his own personal grail, his really, and that was
artistic maturity, full artistic self-expression. It might be too
offensive, or you could suggest that the moment he kisses Kundry is the
moment he met Cosima. That the meeting with Cosima opened up the
most productive period in his life. In the film with Syberberg,
he did the very extraordinary thing after the kiss of changing the sex
of Parsifal. Parsifal was no longer a boy but now a kind of
slightly androgynous girl. So the suggestion there was that at
that point Wagner discovered his anima, that the truly creative,
lyrical element of his personality was discovered after he met
Cosima. Then he was able to complete The Ring and do Parsifal and all his mature things.
Parsifal loses the boyhood and becomes, as you say, sort of partial
woman, does he lose his sexuality or does he gain more sexuality?
RL: In the
film, neither of them have a great deal of sexuality because in the
film you can use non-singers. I was fortunate that he chose me to
do the singing and the acting. That was, I think, simply because
he couldn’t find an actor willing to learn all that text and
synchronize with the music.
[Laughs] That’s right. For the Amfortas, they had the
conductor, Armin Jordan, act on screen. [See my Interview with Armin
RL: Yes, that’s
right. That was a very shrewd move because the conductor knows
the text and he looked very much like an Amfortas. But he found
these two young people. [Photo
at left] I think he saw one of them in a restaurant and he
saw the other one in the street and he said, “I must have them for the
film.” The boy was actually a good deal older than he looked, but
he looked very unformed, terribly aesthetic... kind of beautiful but in
a rather shapeless way. It was much more like that on film than
he was in real life. And the girl had an asexual quality on film,
a blandness, a sort of nothingness in the face, which was faintly
reminiscent of one of those Renaissance Madonnas but not quite as
pretty as a Renaissance Madonna without expression. So the move
from the boy to the girl wasn’t as long a step as you might have seen,
but it was still pretty odd to hear Reiner Goldberg’s voice coming out
of a girl. [Both laughs] That idea of the opera being
Wagner was extended by the fact that the whole film took place on or
inside the head of Wagner. He’d constructed a gigantic death mask
of Wagner out of concrete and plaster which took up the whole of the
huge sound studio where we were working. It could be divided into
segments so that the chin could come away from the cheeks and the
cheeks could come away from the forehead and so on, making kind of
Grand Canyons in between these things so that people could move into
the head of Wagner and go into a completely different
environment. You could go into the side of Wagner’s face and
enter a woodland, some beautiful place.
BD: Sounds a
little bit like the Ring that
they did at Bayreuth in 1960, which was a disk. It started as a
disk and then broke apart into all kinds of pieces throughout the
cycle, and eventually at the end came back and was a disk once more.
yes. Same idea. It led to things like the Kundry, for some
reason at some stage is in a pool of water and the pool of water is in
the eye socket.
that’s right. The garden is obviously a very fragrant place full
of flowers, and that’s just under the nostrils. It’s a difficult
film. People do find it difficult, but maybe anybody listening to
this might use what I’ve said as a key to understanding it a little
Exactly. What other Wagner have you done? You’ve done the
Yes. I do that fairly often. It’s not one of my
favorites. In the old days I did Fasolt in the Ring. I liked Fasolt very
much. I thought he was a lovely chap. He was the only
genuinely nice person in the whole of the Ring cycle.
BD: Then he
gets bopped off right away.
right, yes. [Laughs]
BD: Was it
your choice or the producer’s choice to cast you as Fasolt rather than
RL: At the
time I think it was inevitable that I would be Fasolt because my voice
tended to be lyrical, and for Fafner you had to be able to bark.
We had Matti Salminen as the logical choice there because he’s such a
wonderful, dark, strong bass. He was tremendous;
awe-inspiring! As for other Wagner, I do Daland in The Flying Dutchman. I do
that quite a bit, too.
BD: Is Daland
a nice fellow or is he just an opportunist?
RL: I worked
it out with a producer in Munich. Unfortunately, I’ve forgotten
his name — very, very creative thinker. We thought that Daland
was probably not a very nice man. He was really much too
interested in the money. He didn’t ask anything like enough
questions as to who this man, the Flying Dutchman, was, and he was
prepared to trade his daughter for the money really too quickly.
nothing on the other side — that the daughter’s
been around just a little too long and Daland has seen her be just a
little bit too neurotic?
[Laughs] I think so, yes, but in that production it was done very
much as though it were inside the psyche of Senta. So she was
presented as a girl who was totally dominated and obsessed with her
father’s world. Her whole world was full of pictures of ships and
ships and seamen and ropes and all that, so when she saw this seaman,
this ultimate seaman arriving, she immediately fell in love with this
replacement for her father. So Daland was played as a very
dominant and domineering father. I like to think of him rather as
that Shakespearean character who could smile and smile and still be a
BD: Do you
sing Wagner differently than the Verdi characters or Mozart characters?
RL: I try to
sing as much as possible always the same way. With Daland I allow
a certain roughness to come in during the first scene, but as much as
possible I like to try and sing bel
canto. I’m sure that’s what Wagner wanted. I’m sure
that’s how Wagner perceived all his roles, with bel canto singing.
Unfortunately all these things have come to be performed with
orchestras which are much too large, in opera houses which are much too
big, and with conductors who want to build their reputations upon the
loudness of their singers’ voices. The whole thing’s become an
awful competition for loudness.
BD: Is there
RL: Not a
lot. I think Wagner is going to go on ruining tenor voices.
He doesn’t do quite so much damage to basses, but he does a lot of
damage to bass-baritones. If only they could find an environment
which they could sing more gently. Mind you, I have sometimes
wondered what sort of genius he was, who gave all that music to tenors
in that tessitura.
thought of them as characters rather than as human beings. The
Siegfried character as being just Siegfried, rather than a tenor who
has to sing it.
yes. I must say, it’s very nice to hear Domingo singing the Lohengrin. I did it with him
in Vienna recently and I look forward to the Parsifal because to hear an
Italianate sound on the Wagner is really good. I sometimes think
that Wagner’s used as an excuse for lazy singing by some singers.
It falls into the hands of singers who don’t try hard enough at singing
bel canto. You hear
someone like James Morris, who all his life sang as a lyric bass and
then suddenly becomes a Wotan, and you hear magnificent Wagner singing
without any sense of that Bayreuth bark. That’s beautiful,
BD: You said
you are thinking of essaying Wotan at some point?
RL: I might,
BD: One or
three. I could do the Rheingold
with no problem at all, straight away. The difficult one is the Siegfried. But we’ll see how
it goes. I do most composers, really, from time to time.
One area which I’ve always wanted to do more of is the early
music. There’s a lot of very good bass stuff written by
Monteverdi and Cavalli and people like this... beautiful, beautiful
[Contemplating the early works] You’d be a terrific Seneca.
RL: Yes, I
did Seneca. That also is available on videocassette from
Glyndebourne. I enjoyed Seneca enormously. I also did
Neptune in Ulysses by
Monteverdi at Glyndebourne. That also is on cassette, and there’s
a lot of Purcell which I would like to have a go at. There are
some beautiful Purcell songs. Unfortunately we get
pigeon-holed. People think, “Oh, he sings Wagner or Verdi with
the occasional Zoroastro.” Then they think, “Well, he wouldn’t be
interested in Monteverdi.” But I am! I would very much like
to do that. Also there comes a time when they think you sing too
loud for those ancient instruments. But that’s not necessarily
so. I can sing quietly. [Laughs]
BD: One last
question. Is singing fun?
interesting you should ask that question. I did a radio program I
spoke of earlier, about the way people use their voices. I was
interested in why people sing. I wondered if any research had
been done into what makes people sing. I wrote to the professor
of psychology at Oxford University and asked him. He wrote back
and said that as far as he knew there wasn’t any research on that
subject, but people had researched why birds sing. Birds sing,
apparently, for three reasons. One is for sexual display, the
second is for territorial advantage — marking
out their territory — and the third is for the
hell of it, because it’s fun. [Laughs] In answer to your
question, singing is all those three things at various times in one’s
career and at various times in one’s life. I don’t think any
great singer would be a great singer unless they were, at some stage in
their career, interested in the sexual display element, and a lot of
them go on being interested in that right through their careers.
The territorial advantage is represented in terms of money and travel
and the power and fame that it gives. But the for-the-hell-of-it
element, the fun element, has got to be there, otherwise I don’t think
you’re a genuinely interesting singer. I’ve found that it’s got
more fun as time goes on because the other two have become less
important as I’ve got older. Recently I was taking part in a sitzprobe. That’s when the
singers first meet the orchestra, and you go through it sitting down,
stopping and starting and doing the difficult bits several times.
That’s the time that the singers actually hear the orchestra most
intimately. You’re sitting there right in the middle of the
orchestra. You’re right in the middle of this music! You’re
not on the stage, only half hearing it; you’re caught up right in the
middle of it, and that’s when it’s at its most exciting. All
singers like the sitzprobe.
It’s the best time, and many times recently I’ve had the feeling that
I’m really very privileged to be there in the middle of this
music. This is not given to everybody to do this. You know,
I’m not as young as I used to be. I’m not going to be able to do
this forever, so I’ve got to enjoy this. I’ve really got to take
this and relish it. So it has become, in a sense, more... “fun”
is perhaps not absolutely the right word, but I certainly do it more
for the hell of it than I used to.
hope you keep doing it “for
the hell of it”
for a long time.
RL: Oh, thank
© 1991 Bruce Duffie
This interview was recorded at his apartment in
Chicago on January 22, 1991. Sections were used
recordings) on WNIB two months later (during the broadcast of his Parsifal on Easter Sunday), also in
1995 and again in 2000.
It was transcribed
and posted on this
website in 2013.
To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been
transcribed and posted on this website, click here.
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
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.