Baritone  Cornell  MacNeil
 
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie

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Cornell MacNeil was born Sept. 24, 1922, in Minneapolis. His father was a dentist, his mother a singer. He told the New York Post in 1973, “I can’t remember when I didn’t sing.” He performed on radio at 12.

Severe asthma kept him out of the military during World War II.

When he decided not to go to college, his father stopped supporting him. Mr. MacNeil found work as a machinist at a Pratt & Whitney engine plant in Hartford, Conn., while studying at the nearby Hartt School conservatory.

He began to find small parts in musicals and summer-stock theater and made his operatic debut in 1950 in Gian Carlo Menotti’s “The Consul.” Mr. MacNeil was 30 before he gave up his job as a supervisor at a Bulova watch factory in New York to devote himself to opera.

He sang with the New York City Opera from 1953 to 1956, earning rapturous reviews, then traveled widely around the world.

Mr. MacNeil, who possessed a robust voice and a powerful stage presence, had modest success before leaping to operatic stardom in 1959. In the same month, he made triumphant debuts at La Scala in Milan and the Metropolitan Opera in New York.

After appearing in Verdi’s “Ernani” at La Scala on March 5, 1959, he was summoned to substitute for an ailing Robert Merrill in the title role of Verdi’s “Rigoletto” at the Metropolitan Opera on March 21. Mr. MacNeil arrived in New York on the day of the performance, with only enough time to be fitted for a costume before the opening curtain.  Over the next 28 years, Mr. MacNeil sang more than 600 times at the Met, including more than 100 performances of “Rigoletto.”

Music critic Winthrop Sar­geant wrote in the New Yorker in 1966 that Mr. MacNeil was “one of the truly great Rigolettos, with a voice of immense size and a fine grasp of character.”

He became equally renowned for his portrayals of Iago in Verdi’s “Otello,” Count di Luna in Verdi’s “Il Trovatore” and Scarpia, the malevolent police chief in Giacomo Puccini’s “Tosca.”

As president of the American Guild of Musical Artists, Mr. MacNeil represented performers in negotiations with the Met’s management for years.

In retirement, he lived in Toronto and Charlottesville, where he had an elaborate woodworking shop.  He died on July 15, 2011.

His first marriage, to singer Margaret Gavan, ended in divorce.

Survivors include his wife since 1972, violinist Tania Rudensky of Charlottesville; five children from his first marriage; two grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.

-- Part of the obituary in the Washington Post by Matt Schudel 




It is amazing that sometimes statements made years ago had a degree of omniscience which, at the time, could not be suspected.  I conducted several interviews in the early 1980s during which I spoke of having a running translation at the footlights of the stage.  Soon thereafter supertitles (or surtitles) appeared.  Oddly, I never received any royalties or residuals...  (!)
 
During one interview with a bass we spoke of the “Three Tenors” phenomenon.  I suggested that he and two others form a “Three Basses” alliance.  About a year later a cartoon appeared in the newspaper.  [To see that exchange, including the cartoon, click HERE.]


I bring this up because in November of 1982, I had the good fortune to interview Cornell MacNeil, who was appearing in Pagliacci in his final season with Lyric Opera of Chicago.


Cornell MacNeil at Lyric Opera of Chicago

1957 - Manon Lescaut (Lescaut) with Tebaldi, Bjoerling, Badioli, Velis; Serafin
           Cavalleria rusticana (Alfio) with Simionato, Sullivan, Nadell; Kopp
           Pagliacci (Silvio & Prologue) with Likova, Del Monaco, Gobbi, Caruso; Bartoletti, Rosing (dir)

1958 - Falstaff (Ford) with Gobbi, Tebaldi, Moffo, Simionato, Canali, Misciano; Serafin
            Madama Butterfly (Sharpless) with Tebaldi, DiStefano, Canali, Caruso; Kondrashin
            Pagliacci (Silvio (& Prologue?*)) with Likova, DeStefano, Gobbi, Caruso; Serafin, Rosing (dir)
            Rigoletto (Rigoletto) with Moffo, Bjoerling, Wildermann, Steffan, Krainik (Giovanna); Sebastian

1965 - Rigoletto (Rigoletto) with Scotto, Kraus, Vinco, Cassei, Krainik (Giovanna); Sebastian

1976 - Tosca (Scarpia) with Neblett, Pavarotti, Tajo, Giorgetti, Andreolli; López-Cobos, Gobbi (dir)

1982 - Pagliacci (Tonio) with Barstow, Vickers, Carlson, Gordon; Cillario, Zeffirelli (prod)

* According to the annals as posted on the Lyric Opera website, MacNeil sang "Silvio & Prologue" in 1957.  In 1958, MacNeil is only listed as "Silvio".  However, the production was the same, and Gobbi (who was again singing "Tonio") had sung the title role in Gianni Schicchi earlier in the evening.  Vladimir Rosing was the director both years, but the veteran conductor, Tulio Serafin, might have changed in 1958 what the then-young Bruno Bartoletti had allowed the previous year.

--  Note: Names which are links (both in this box and below) refer to my interviews elsewhere on this website


During the conversation, he spoke of problems in the operatic world, and was amazingly forward-thinking about some solutions to them.  He did not pull any punches, but his hearty laughter betrayed a sense of the absurd.

Here is that discussion . . . . .


Bruce Duffie:    We enjoyed the performance the other night very, very much.  I always look forward to the high A-flat in the Prologue!  I thought it was just magnificent.

Cornell MacNeil:    You look forward to that kind of thing as an isolated A-flat or a big dramatic finish?  [Sighs]  Well, let’s face it, there is an element in our business which makes it necessary.  It was not originally written of course.  There’s a whole lot of people that wait for it, and I guess if you didn’t do it, you’d get in trouble.  So you do it.  However, it seems rather sad sometimes to see a whole performance in the public’s mind rising or falling on a something as fragile as a high note!  [Both laugh]  It also leads to one of the wrong emphases in our business.

BD:    Vocal gymnastics?

CMacN:    If there were just vocal gymnastics anymore, I would say that would serve us very well.  It’s become that there are vocal gymnastics, power politics gymnastics, jet aircrafts gymnastics, the whole thing, which is a little out of joint at this point.

BD:    Is there any way to get it back into joint, or is it lost forever?

CMacN:    Hmmm!  We have to live with it.  It’s useless for me to say I wish to hell I’d never heard of television in terms of opera.  It’s here, it’s going to stay, it has to be dealt with.  We have to find a way to make it serve us.  Television is a very arrogant medium, and most of the people who work for it are arrogant as well.  It’s predicated on numbers.  You don’t have to be good to be on television, you just have to be there.  The numbers are so enormous, the end result of it is that the simple act of being there is sufficient to justify whatever you’re doing.  The content means nothing any longer.  This is something that we have to learn to deal with, and since we’re very limited in the sense that we’re constantly in deficit, we’re constantly asked to adjust to things that no composer and no librettist ever considered possibly been available.  We keep trying to keep our old magic lantern shows going on the way that we’d like them to be, the way composer and the librettist meant, but we can’t!  We have to adjust.  Then there’s the PR aspect of it, which is predicated on the numbers thing which is aided and abated by television.  The print media has become less important.  Nobody gives a damn what a critic says in a written paper any longer.  To begin with, you’re liable to get a chance to adjudicate that performance on television at some time or another whether you go to the theatre or not.

BD:    Does opera belong on television at all?

CMacN:    I don’t think so but there’s nothing I can do about it, and there’s nothing that opera can do about it, therefore we get to look at some means to help ourselves along.  I can see some things that might be possible, but they would be possible or likely only in situations where there are long seasons.  It would be difficult here in Chicago.

BD:    There’s no redeeming factor of television, or redeeming qualities for putting opera on the tube?

CMacN:    I wish somebody would write for it!  Gian Carlo Menotti did Amahl and the Night Visitors.  It was one of the very first ones and, heaven knows, it was very successful, and has been translated to the stage successfully.  But that a rarity.

BD:    He wrote another one, Labyrinth, that utilized the effects available on television that couldn’t be done on the stage.  It was on television the once, and not been redone.

CMacN:    We need to wait until there is something that is perhaps like a whole series of television operas done.  That can develop a whole series of opera singers which wouldn’t necessary be the same singers that are asked to perform in the theater.

BD:    Mario Lanza types where one medium doesn’t translate to the other?

CMacN:    Yes.  They would never risk Mario in operatic performances.  There was too much going.  When I first moved to Rome to live, we had the same agent.  I had decided I would do a little PR so we had a man there who was doing things.  Mario was under suspension from the studio at that point, and made a quarter of a million dollars a year on his records alone.  So the urge for him was to go out and risk his talent, and every time he wanted to do it, he did I’m told.  I have no personal knowledge of this, but the gentleman who was working for both of us at that point said he very much wanted to go out and sing concerts, go out and sing opera, but that the people in Hollywood thought he was much too valuable material and would not risk him out there.  They’d keep him canned where they can control what’s going on.  Isn’t this what should be able to be, what television does for us?


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BD:    Who should then be in control?  The singer?  The producer?  The director?  The PR man?  The public?  The composer?  Any of them?

CMacN:    In the end it’s going to be the money-man!  You can’t fight it.  I once had the General Manager of the Metropolitan Opera Company say to me that he could not wait until we got on commercial television because it would have a much bigger public.  He said that he realized that if you tuned in to NBC in New York in prime time and you got a blank screen because of technical difficulties, you still had five per cent of the audience.  I don’t know what this means but I went into shock immediately because if you can get five per cent for a blank screen, I have grave doubts about whether you should be performing for that audience at all.  I also had some doubts about whether he should be running the Metropolitan Opera!  But he has led us full-tilt, full speed ahead into television and we have to deal with it.  What would I do?  What would I think about it?  Who should be in charge?  Well, first of all you cannot get away from the cinema aspect of opera.  The seminal aspect of it is that’s where you’d find the voices that are PR-able or moldable, moveable, and make the thing go around. 

BD:    Exploitable?

CMacN:    Even that, although they don’t really think in those terms.  It’s hard, but you can’t really think when people are stuffing money in your pockets at that rate that you’re being exploited!  That’s one of the terrible decisions for young singers. 

BD:    You don’t think they’re stuffing your pockets with money and their pockets with more money?

CMacN:    There’s so much with talking about those super personalities.  They’re not even opera singers anymore.  It’s a moot question.  Who cares?  I once had an accountant that worked for us and who did a lot of rock singers as well.  After they get to their third bill in the year, he said who cares what the taxes are!  What do you do with it?  The seminal aspect of it cannot be denied.  You have to have it to find the singers, to develop the singers, to get them to another point where you can do the things with them that you ought to do with them and ought to be done with them.  I don’t think you should hide them under a bushel or just have them come into the opera house because that’s the only place we want to hear them or see them.  That would be utterly ridiculous.  What can it do for opera?  I think it can do a lot of things for opera.  Take a situation like the Metropolitan, which is the major purveyor of television operas in this country at the moment.  I would go into television full-tilt with this idea, and cut down on the number of performances we do in the house.  Then I would apply myself of doing well thought out, well shot, well planned television things that mix the live aspect of it with the studio aspect.  You could get away from those moments when somebody gets lost, and all of a sudden the eyes roll back when the camera’s on him; or they’re turned around to look at the prompter or the conductor.  You would get rid of them; you’d fix them.  You could pick the moments which should be done intimately, and do the things you never do that are helpful.  I know many, many times as I watch myself on the screen, that if I could move a quarter of a turn this way, you would then have a good view of the emotion on someone who’s over my shoulder as well.  If I move just four inches that way, or even two inches that way, you would get a look at my son in profile while I’m clutching him in Traviata, or something like that.  All these are things which we never have time to give attention to.  Television in its vast arrogance says for us to just do our thing and they’ll take care of us!  Well, that’s utter nonsense.  They don’t take care of us well.  Things are not as slick as what’s on the rest of the tube.  We haven’t got the
slick that all the sit-coms have.

BD:    But isn’t that the current taste for truly live performances?

macneilCMacN:    What’s a recording?  Don’t you accept that?  Who’s going to say we can throw them all out
the Supreme Court?

BD:    Are recordings a fraud?

CMacN:    Of course they’re a fraud!  But anything electronic is fraud if you’re talking about the natural voice.  You’re recording me here.  You haven’t got your pencil and a notebook for taking it all down in long hand, and going back to transcribe it on your old Olivetti, for heaven’s sakes!

BD:    But if I cut your words up and make you say something that you didn’t say...

CMacN:    [Interrupting]  Happens all the time!  That’s why I ask going in where you are going to use this.  You’ve used a modern tool in exactly the same way that opera should use television.  It relieves you from certain things and allows you to do things better than you possibly could.  You couldn’t get down everything I said.

BD:    No, and there would be more chance for error. 

CMacN:    Much more chance for error.  Now if you want to go about confusing all of these marvelous things I’ve said to you for some reason or other, you will do it!  But I’m presuming that you’re honest, as most of us who have to get our butt out on stage for two or three hours a night.  You have to be honest because if you’re not, you get caught right away.  The public knows. 

BD:    So then a recording is like a best of all possible worlds of opera?  It’s all of the good nights patched together into one really
‘slick’ performance?

CMacN:    Are you talking about a TV recording, or a disc recording or a tape?

BD:    I was thinking of a disc recording, and then the possibilities of a TV recording with the cut-and-paste.

CMacN:    Well, it does different things.  The sadness of that aspect of recordings is the same sadness that pulls a body when you see what’s happening in the opera business, and that is all these diverse recording companies have about a half a cast usually.  They do a Bohème and they have a great tenor and a great soprano, and the rest of the cast you couldn’t care about; or they have a great tenor and that’s what they’re hanging it on when they don’t have a soprano.  Or they think they’ve got a soprano and a tenor so they don’t really need a conductor.  Somebody told me a little while ago about eleven La Bohème’s on the shelf they haven’t even released yet.  Now they have to record these things in order to keep the great names happy, and get them to do the things that they have which will sell.

BD:    Would it not be better for the record company to simply license certain specific Saturday broadcasts?

CMacN:    They tried it, and they ran into enormous amounts of trouble with our unions in this country.  But I think television could solve that, too.  If we paid attention to television rather than allowing them to come in and distort out medium
which I basically think they do nowlet’s join hands here and make a better product for us, and let’s make a better product for you.  They would then be recordable, disc-able, tape-able, sale-able.  As they are, they’re not really.  I don’t think they really can be until somebody takes the time.  What we would expect to get out of this as an opera company would be income, which will relieve us from the increasing burdensome contracts that our unions are forced – and I say forced – to ask of them because living within New York City costs what it does.  It’s incredible, and where can you go?  Well I say let television pay for it.  On the east side of New York at this point there are some services that offer you an antenna dish186 channels before the year is out.  They’re now converting this into popular use, delivering it in popular situations.  Nobody has really figured out how to control it.  But forget about the control.  At this point they’re taking old movies off the shelf that they never could sell because they were so lousy.  They could not sell them and they could not get anybody to put them in a movie theater, so they sell them to the television cable networks for a million dollars.  They’re getting their money back on these monsters.  So if you went at opera in a really sensible way and did it well, they’re going to want the best product in the end.  I don’t care if you’ve got nine million channels.  In the end, they’re going to look at the one that is giving them something that they want.  Now every opera company in the world is going into television.  Here in New York, we start to sit down and bargainand I haven’t bargained for yearsbut I talk to the people who do, and they keep telling us that the Deutsche Grammophon has a deal going with the ‘Zilch’ Opera Company, and Covent Garden is opening up with Phillips, and they’re all going to make productions for television, and that if we don’t get in on it in a hurry, we’re going to lose out.  I constantly am amazed to find that in all these conversations, nobody says, Never mind that.  If we do it better, that’s what they’re going to want.  It seems to me that television could bring something special to opera.  It’s an isolated situation.  It might eventually come to have a production here in Chicago completely underwritten by television, and they would give the time to it and give the attention to it!  Get some of the money out it and change the face of opera so that you could leave that part of it which we like to do on the stage for the public that likes to come and hear us intact, and help to defray some of the continuing costs we have.

BD:    So opera’s really becoming a two-headed animal, or a five-headed animal... or a twenty-channel-headed animal?

CMacN:    It always has been.  It’s the most expensive performing medium there is.  You have a symphony orchestra and a ballet company, a full chorus and a complement of singers to fill up all those small ‘cena è pronta’ (
dinner is ready) parts.  Then hopefully you can impose upon this a group of singers that now rush around the world at increasing rates of speed and singing three continents in one week, and hope that everything comes out well.  I think that television could supply the money to abandon that approach to things, both in the theater and reshooting it in part in the theater – probably not in the studio, but literally on the stage of the theater.

BD:    To record a couple of live performances and then go back on a dark night and re-take a couple of odd shots?

CMacN:    Yes. 

BD:    But then it’s two different things.

CMacN:    It is two different things, but to stop the one thing from disappearing altogether, you have to make some adjustments.  We can’t deny that that thing [pointing to the TV] is sitting right across the room looking at us, and that they all come when it beckons!

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    You’ve been in the business for thirty-odd years.  How do you tell a young singer not to sing so much, not to accept so many roles?  How do you twist the young singer’s arm to say
‘no’ occasionally?

CMacN:    I don’t know.  It seems to me that you have to have a personal rate, and I don’t know how to tell young singers very well. 

macneilBD:    How difficult is it for Cornell MacNeil to say no?

CMacN:    Not difficult at all!  I take three months off every summer unless there’s something I want desperately to do.  Like the summer I went to Rome and made a movie of Traviata, which will be shown in movie houses.  But it was something I had never done.  It was something that suited me well, and I thought the cast was good.  Franco Zeffirelli was absolutely perfect as the director of it, although I could not tell you at the moment that they really had finished the picture.  I’m sure they left out a few bars here and there.  [Laughs]  They say no, but I think it’ll be a dandy.  I have great hopes for this is the kind of thing that I’d like to see duplicated in a minor way in the theater. 

BD:    Is it note-complete?  I always miss Germont’s Cabaletta.  They never do it in the theater.  Did you sing that for the film?

CMacN:    No, we did not sing that, but I’ve done it in the theater.  It’s a God-awful drag, and that causes the whole end of the act to fall right on its ass.  It is terrible, dreadful, unbelievable what it does to the audience response. 

BD:    Oh I disagree.  Of course, you’re talking about what it does to the audience response, but the only times I’ve listened to it I think is makes much more cohesion for the end of that act.  Otherwise Alfredo goes up too much like a fire cracker.

CMacN:    That’s what he is!

BD:    I know but he should have a little longer fuse with his father.

CMacN:    How many children have you got?

BD:    None yet.

CMacN:    I have five!  [Both laugh]  Your fuse is going to shorten with each one.  I have one who’s a tenor, by the way, which is why I perked up when you asked me what advice I give to him.  It took Walter a long time to make up his mind, and when he went into it, he quit his job and went at it.  He was offered a contract with Western Opera, which is affiliated with San Francisco Opera, a small company, travelling all around the United States singing the Duke in Rigoletto.  Now, for a young tenor who had not been back at his studies long enough – he’d been on and off – to accept such a thing was a risk.  We discussed the whole thing, talked his maestro and mine, and in the end he made his own mind and he went and did it.  As I get telephone calls or find him here and there and there or the other place around the country at this point, I ask him how did it go.  After about ten performances, the day before yesterday he said he finally did one in Sacramento, California that he thought went well from beginning to end.  I thought it was one hell of a risk.  One of my friend’s advice to me about Walter was that I can’t expect him to be the way I was.  I look at things and realize these are different times.  I couldn’t recommend to any young tenor – my son or any other one who had the limited experience that he had
that they go out and sing what will probably end up being twenty Dukes in Rigoletto as his opening entrée to the opera business!  Although I haven’t heard him, there seems to be some evidence so far that he will survive.  It’s very difficult to say no.  Then you get another series of choices that come along with it.  If you start out in your professional career singing the Duke in Rigoletto, how do you come down to singing smaller roles that larger companies are going to ask you to do?  Endless numbers of things come along.  At this point, I find myself constantly struggling with the fact that I don’t know the people who are stage directors and stage managers and other singers.  The ones that I grew up with, we had all supported one another.  All these people have either left or they’re my aging friends at this point.  I don’t know the young ones that come along.  People say I ought to listen to so-and-so.  Time and time again I have to stop and say that I don’t know, so don’t ask me questions about young singers!  They’ll all find out by themselves! 

BD:    They’ll learn through experience!

CMacN:    One thing I would say to them is that they’d be surprised at the people that you never think are going to make it.  You might think someone is the worst stage director and never could possibly become anything; he’s lousy stage manager, he doesn’t know one word of music... and he turns up in your face for the rest of your life, especially if you have been utterly mean to him!  So be careful! 

BD:    Are there some singers who should make it and don’t for some reason?  They have the voice and everything but never hit it big?

CMacN:    There are many more ways to fall on your ass today.  I’ll tell you a story about the Rodgers & Hammerstein musical called Allegro.  It was on Broadway when I was working in Broadway, and it was not an enormous success.  It was a very avant-garde kind of thing for that period, and they had populated the chorus with people who had nothing but operatic voices.  Not too many of them moved on into big things.  David Poleri was in that chorus!  Lucilla Udovich was in that chorus, who went to have a career in Italy for a long while.  [To read brief bios and see photos of these two artists, click HERE.]  Anyway, those were the kinds of voices in it.  I have a friend who now runs a chain of pizza parlors in California who was in that chorus.  When we get together, we say whatever happened to so-and-so?  And we look each other in the eye, and we know what happened to him.  All those people we knew in those Broadway days and had worked in a show with me before fell on their butt for precisely reasons we could have told you they would at that point.  It’s evident fairly early on, and they keep coming up with new ways of doing it all the time.

BD:    These days, a lot of singers
as well as shows that failhave been preserved on film or tape.  Do you see those as being more historical documents than just entertaining?

CMacN:    Well, things change so much.  You can look at those wonderful old things from the shows, for example early Sid Caesar shows.  You see a lot of them since he’s written his book.

BD:    The ones I like are the Ernie Kovacs shows because he knew how to use the medium.

CMacN:    He used the medium beautifully, beautifully.

BD:    He was doing things twenty years ago that they’re still trying to understand!

CMacN:    I’ve seen some of those too.  They were an exciting use of the medium and an alive use of the medium.  If we were to put on opera allegedly live from Lincoln Center, then it’s true.  We don’t do anything different for that than we do for our regular performance, unless you’re very camera-wise and very ‘hip’.  They turn the lights up a little, and all of those midnight scenes take place in opera are done in full sunlight.  The audience that comes is told this, and they sort of participate and enjoy it.  But it isn’t good enough.  You couldn’t put The Ernie Kovacs Show or Your Show of Shows on prime time television now, and expect them to run regularly.

BD:    It would be a small, esoteric audience!

CMacN:    Yes, and that’s what opera has.  That’s the other element of it.  It’s always been an elite art form. 

BD:    Okay, so we get opera on Channel 73 and there’ll be a few loyal viewers, and that’ll be it.  Is that not enough for opera?  Is that not enough for you to know that you have this small but loyal following?

CMacN:    We’ve got them in the theater! 

BD:    But not everybody can go to the theater.  What about those who live away from the major cities?


macneil


CMacN:    These are the arguments I got from the Met management when I told them I didn’t want to be on their television things anymore.  They would have to write me out of a contract, and of course they then threatened me with unemployment.  So we have the reverse secondary boycott here!  I’ve had a completely different view of this thing all along, anyway.  I’ve resented terribly when our poor old stage hands who have been faithful to the Met for years and years
many of them could go into television and make more money for less work any day in the weekbut they stay around because they love the theater and like what they’re doing.  Then in comes one of these allegedly non-commercial television stations, and they set up four tables with champagne and drinks everywhere.  Everybody brings their girlfriend; everybody’s wearing designer jeans, and they stand around... and this is television.  They pay one-third higher for their crew than ours.  Our guys stand around looking at it and it’s no wonder they’re a little unhappy at contract time.

BD:    Are musicians today getting as much as they deserve?

CMacN:    It doesn’t come down to that any longer.  Yes they are getting as much as they deserve but they have to work harder to get it.  They have to work longer hours.  One of the things that came out of the last contract negotiating of the Met was that the orchestra managed to get fewer hours.

BD:    Should the orchestra work fewer hours?

CMacN:    If they want them to play well!  I’m amazed, for example, to come here and find the Chicago Opera Chorus sounding fresher
of voice than our chorus at the Metropolitan Opera.  But your people all have other jobs.  They sing three shows a week maximum, they rehearse ‘catch as catch can’ and not a lot then.  Our people in New York sometimes do nine shows a week when we’re doing student matinees, and they always do seven shows a week.  We have a much smaller chorus than we’d like to have because they can’t afford it anymore.  That’s one of the things television could correct neatly.  They could have twice as big a chorus, work three-quarters of that twice as big chorus half as much, and end up with a much better sound and a much better trained chorus.  We literally do not have time any longer for people selecting the chorus to have a luxury of selecting voices they’d like to have.  They must always select musicians who can learn the music rapidly and are trained in that sense, because there is hardly any time to take them into the room and refine what they do.  They have to do it on stage while they’re doing it, and they have to know their music when they get there.  I don’t find anything wrong with their knowing their music when they get there, but I have a strong suspicion that very often people are selected for their ability as a musician.  This is not to be sneezed at, but is that exactly what you want in an opera chorus?  I think that’s one of the places where you could get a little of this revenue that’s out there in television, from all the people who will tune in Channel 73 to hear us at those strange hours of the day and night that they manage to send us out.  They might help to get us a bigger chorus and one that hasn’t got to work as hard. 

BD:    Is it the place of the union to dictate which services each chorister will give?

macneilCMacN:    No.  I don’t think it has to be done that way.  The adversary situation between unions and management in the theatrical business is necessary.  I think it’s good, and I don’t think it’s always destructive.  There are certain things built into it for which nobody will ever know the reason why.  Nobody knows where it started out that orchestra members began getting more money than chorus members, and it is a constant thorn in the side of negotiations and it never will be resolved.  By the way it is exactly the same way in Moscow.  The orchestra gets more money than the chorus.  It’s been that way in any theater I have come across. 

BD:    And dancers get less than anybody else.

CMacN:    Dancers also work hard.  They amaze me constantly.  A singer couldn’t work that hard.  You obviously can train your muscles so you can do eight to ten hours a day as a dancer and not destroy yourself.  They’re in pain all the time.  This is something most people don’t know.  They hurt, but it can be done and they survive at it.  If any singer sang that much, how long would they last? 

BD:    Maybe a couple of weeks!

CMacN:    That’s it, yes.  So those things are built into it.  There are a lot of things that we can’t really solve.

BD:    But more money won’t solve them.  It might just change and give you different problems.

CMacN:    All I said was that if you could divide things up in a manner that took the pressure off performing on our stage seven nights a week.  You could cut down some of it because you’re replacing it with productive time in television to make the television a better product, and perhaps even bring in some of the marvelous television money up there in the sky yonder.  That could resolve a lot of the pressures that are constant on any performing opera company.  That’s the only formula I can propose, and I proposed a lot of wild things to the Board of the Metropolitan back when I was head of the Union.  I remember meeting with George Moore [President of the Metropolitan Opera Association] after the big troubles in 1968.  They were giving us seminars on what the financial problems of the theatre were between negotiations, and we got into one and they gave us a run-down.  We understood that their deficits were and then they asked us if we had any suggestions.  So I asked Moore what the top ticket price would be if the public in the house were paying the cost of the performance that night, and he said it would be $50 - $55 for a top seat.  Now all through this last negotiation we heard constantly that they were subsidizing a bunch of singers and actors and dancers and orchestra members, and so on, and that the deficit was X millions of dollars every year, and that we were the people who were causing this because we were being subsidized.  So I suggested that we’re not.  The person who’s in that seat those days at $27.50 top is being subsidized to the tune of the difference between $27.50 and $55.  Now if somebody can spend $27.50, or $55 for two tickets, at which point they have to park their car in the garage or take a taxi cab, and if you take your wife to dinner, before the evening’s over, they spent $100 easily, plus the babysitter at home.  Do these people who have this kind of money available really need  to be subsidized?

BD:    Would you get the same number of people coming at twice the price?

CMacN:    Oh, I have a solution.  You raise the price to what it costs, and you let your public know that they’re paying the cost of the performance that night.  Then you go right on raising the money.  Then Moore said that they’d lose a lot of the subscribers.  I suggested he condense the subscription series so they don’t have as many.  There would be a lot more evenings which were non-subscription performances
first come, first served.  Not only that, you could reduce the top price to, let’s say, $12.50.  You bring a whole new public into the theater.  It doesn’t cost you any more money, and you’re subsidizing a whole new audience who eventually we hope become those people that pay you your $55 a ticket, as they move in the scale of things.

BD:    So you’re shuffling everything around a bit?

CMacN:    He was worried about the people who’d been box holders for years and years, whom it turns out, after a little research, were not any longer paying anywhere near the cost of what they would receive.  They were no longer in that particular group, giving the kinds of money to the Met that they had over the years. 

BD:    They were the ones who made up the deficit

CMacN:    There’s a whole different thing that happens in your theater at this point.  Whatever the myth that you constantly perpetuate, that every performance any night of the year is as good at the Met as any other performance, we all know is nonsense.  For your audience that was paying the full price, give them absolutely first-rate one hundred per cent international casts, slipping in some new singer from time to time to startle them a little bit.  The rest of the time you would have an absolutely prepared cover system of younger singers and maybe some of the older singers who are going down, and some of the not-first-rate singers that are necessary to any opera theater, particularly one that’s in a country where opera isn’t in every little town as it is in Europe.  This would be very beneficial.  The singers who are up there at the $55 performances are going feel the hot breath of all of those young singers who are down at the $12.50 performance on their neck!  It’s going to create a discipline which you couldn’t buy any other way.  All these people who can’t quite get to rehearsals when they’re supposed to; all these people that just have to stay elsewhere to sing an extra performance and leave your cast and orchestra and conductor and everybody sitting around doing nothing...  It will make an enormous difference in the discipline of the place if they know that Joe was singing very well, and he may only be 23 or 24 years old or even 30 years old, but he’s ready to go!  It also does something for you with your public.  You’re going to have a public that doesn’t have to sit there feeling guilty because you have had to go out and raise $13 million to subsidize them in their seat.  They paid for it!  Now they may turn on you if you don’t give them a good performance, but you created another situation which is very healthy there.  Of course you couldn’t make this idea go at all.  It is much too radical.  They don’t seem to be able to make that leap in this country of presenting a different strata of costs of performances. 

BD:    There were
workers nights here many years ago.

CMacN:    All the time!  Every theater in Europe does them, and that’s the way they do them.  The last figures I saw of the budget of the Metropolitan was seventy-one per cent for salaries.  Now that’s all salaries.

BD:    Singers and secretaries?

CMacN:    Yes, the whole thing.  So it would even help that figure a little, I think.

BD:    Are there any decisions that are made in running an opera house that are not based on economics?

CMacN:    They’re getting to be fewer and fewer, and there’s power involved in this now.  There was never any doubt that Gatti-Casazza was in charge of the theater.  [Giulio Gatti-Casazza was manager of La Scala 1898-1908, and then the Met 1908-1935.]  There wasn’t even any doubt most of the time that Rudy Bing was in charge of the theater.  [Rudolf Bing helped found the Glyndebourne Festival and organized the Edinburgh Festival, and was manager of the Met 1950-72.]   Now we have a situation where nobody’s quite sure who’s in charge of the Met, and it may be the same in other places. 

BD:    Is it a case where some people get their way sometimes and other people get their way other times? 

CMacN:    Yes, and the whole thing gets bigger if it gets further and further removed from what we are supposed to be doing.  I have a friend in the management there who says he doesn’t know what the hell to do there.  It seems to be a little over-balanced, and he’s absolutely right.  It’s the same attitude that television has
that all we have to do is be there!  They had a public that was fighting for tickets for so long at the Met, that they don’t have to think about a lot of things like that.  There are also a lot of dangers involved in what happens to the economy of the country at this point.  We’re sold outas they are here in Chicagoalmost ninety-nine per cent, and this translates to managements, as far as I can see.  I watched it happen in the ’75 recession/recovery as it gets to where money becomes less valuable to people.  Those people who have it will spend it on the most luxurious item they can find.  What’s the top ticket?  Metropolitan Opera!  Chicago Opera!  You can’t get in, and then they got to have it!  So they’ll buy and they’ll buy anything they can, and they’ll come to anything but they don’t have to know what opera is.

BD:    As an artist, would you rather have an audience built of these people, or people who understand the opera that you’re singing?

macneilCMacN:    I’m accustomed to the best of all worlds, of course.  [Both laugh]  It’s a little disconcerting to find that, after the A-flat that you were talking about on the opening night, the audience burst into applause and I had to try and quieten them down.  They didn’t understand what was going on at all.  My assumption is there’s a lot of people out there who never heard Pagliacci.  My God, I thought everybody knew Pagliacci!  They didn’t know that I wasn’t through yet!  There’s a great danger in this, and I see it happening.  They take a look at the bottom line, as it’s become known, and see that it’s good, and this translates into the idea that there’re doing well
which isn’t the same thing at all.  It simply means that there’s a lot of money out there that wants the most prestigious ticket they can find.

BD:    Do you alter your performance if you know that it’s a different kind of crowd?  For instance on the second night, when I was there, there was silence after the A-flat.  Somebody started to applaud, and you just gave a little motion and set it right.  It was just a couple of people who didn’t know, rather than the whole audience that didn’t know.  Do you adjust your performance at all, knowing that maybe this crowd is either a little more alert or a little more knowledgeable?

CMacN:    I was talking with Hetty Vickers, Jon Vickers’ wife.  She told me that I take my clown wig off at a certain point and look up, and then after the A-flat I put it back on again.  Putting it on looks like I’m bowing, she said, and confused lots of people into thinking that they should applaud there.  So I’m probably not going to take the wig off.  I never understood why Franco Zeffirelli wanted me to take the damn wig off anyway.  Perhaps it is to show the difference between the never-never world of our performing and what is real, but I have to find a way as an actor to overcome this.

BD:    Perhaps take the wig off, but then leave it off and motion with the wig as you exit.  Maybe even put it in your left hand and lead yourself through the curtain with it.

CMacN:    I’ll call Rome immediately and see what Zeffirelli says!  [Both burst out laughing]

BD:    Do directors let you get away with things like that? 

CMacN:    Oh, yes.  Fabrizio Melano, who directed the Zeffirelli production here, is marvelous in being able to maintain the core of the production and still let the individuals, who have some powerful needs of their own, manage to do their thing and keep the production going straight.

BD:    Are there some stage directors who impose their ideas on you, or do they only impose them on singers under forty-five?

CMacN:    Oh, no!  There are all kinds of them who would like to.  It’s funny to watch people from the theater come into opera.  They presume all sorts of things.  They think it’s easy because the music goes on.  After all, it’s the music, so they’ll ask you to do a hundred-yard dash and a double summersault and arrive on top of a top cliff before you get into your great aria.  I always suffer watching the Nedda in this production leaping around us.  Damn pile of rocks up there, with those little kids, and arrive at the end of the aria out of breath.  Not our present Nedda, who is marvelous and an absolute theatrical animal, but a lot of them.  You’re asked to do a lot of things these days that nobody would have ever asked in those times when Caruso never came to rehearsal with anything but his hat and cane and spats, and wore them all through the rehearsal.

BD:    Is opera better for having these directors because they demand more?

CMacN:    If they know where they’re going, if they’ve done their homework.  It’s horrible when they get there and find out that you can’t do these things and they have no way of adjusting.  They’re constantly with a score in their hand and they’re reading the English translation, which doesn’t necessarily fit with what you’re saying in the original language.  And then their assistants, who have been in the theater a long time, come to them and tell them they really can’t do this because they’re speaking to the person that’s over there.  The stage picture’s lovely, but you have to arrange it so that the people who are communicating are together.  When this happens for about the fifteenth time, the assistant is suddenly fired and is replaced by somebody who will say ‘yes sir’.

BD:    We are somewhat in the Age of the Director.  By 1990 are we going to be in the age of the bank manager?

CMacN:    No, but we might by that time call it the age of television.  I can remember in early television when NBC had their opera theater. 

BD:    Back to David Poleri again!

CMacN:    That
’s right.  I was being asked to perform in one of their operas, and everybody will remain nameless except me.  I sang an audition for them, which they recorded, and they said they would like to have me do it again and try and cut down on what I was doing, vocally.  I said that’s the way it’s written, so that’s the way I sing it, but they felt they’d like to have somebody who could condense or compress suppress the voice somewhat. 

BD:    Treat you like a trumpet and give you a mute!

CMacN:    It turned out that the soprano, who was then currently in favor in a variety of ways in that company, had a very small voice, and they were recording the whole thing from one mike.  Consequently everybody had to tailor their performance to this particular ‘prima donna!’ 

BD:    I was hoping they’d see how flexible you were so that you would fit in with the gimmicks of television!

CMacN:    Hello, that is the same thing that had prevailed all the way along in opera!  [Both laugh]  There was a favorite, and everybody else fitted to that! 

BD:    Do the stage directors working in the theater today have good ideas in this old-type arena?

CMacN:    Only if they know where they’re going.  Not if they come in from the outside thinking they’re going to take over this old broken-down, woe-be-draggled medium and make something out of it.  Then they get into trouble.  [Bruce laughs]  Verdi has more balls than all the stage directors that the world has ever seen.

BD:    But does the public accept the balls as the Verdi saw them or do they demand something else?

CMacN:    Providing the singer has them, too. 

BD:    Something that would shock an audience in Verdi’s time won’t shock an audience now, so do we have to compensate to get the same amount of shock, or do we speak as Verdi did and get no shock?

CMacN:    Would you rather have Verdi or Penderecki?

BD:    I want both!

CMacN:    All right.  So let those stage directors who are not traditionalists go to Penderecki because they really can’t win.  They just simply end up mucking up the whole thing.

BD:    So it’s really an individual basis.  Some directors have good ideas and push opera forward while other directors have bad ideas and muck it up?

CMacN:    John Dexter in non-standard repertoire at the Met has been absolutely spectacular.  In standard repertoire, he’s completely lost. 

BD:    Non-standard, both old and new?  I mean Oberto as opposed to Lulu.

CMacN:    Lulu and that sort of thing, yes. 

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Let’s talk a little bit about Verdi.  You have sung many of his parts.  Do you like being known as a ‘Verdi baritone’? 

CMacN:    Absolutely. What in the hell would there be for the baritone except for Verdi?  Not a lot!  Mozart, which I’m going to do some, although I have never done any yet.

BD:    By design or by lack of opportunity?

macneilCMacN:    I have never been driven to sing everything that was ever written, although some people seem to be.  I have also regularly taken vacations every year in the summer, and I work with my maestro nearly every day.  We only live five or ten minutes apart, and all through the season if possible I work with him on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.  The end result of it is that my willingness to undertake things outside of repertoire, which I have moved along in, was very slim.  I didn’t go to festivals because I thought it was more important to repair the things that I was going to do for the next season.  So I have never worked as much as most other modern singers have, and the end result of it is that I have not had an enormous amount of time for new things.

BD:    Do you like the characters you play?

CMacN:    They’re more interesting than tenors!  [Both have a huge laugh] 

BD:    You never want to be a tenor, eh?

CMacN:    There was a point when people were pushing me that way.  They said I was going to be a heldentenor, but I didn’t think it was a dandy idea. 

BD:    I could see you as Siegfried!

CMacN:    Twice, and then I’d have to retire!  Now I don’t have to, at least not yet!  You can get pushed into all kinds of things, but I’m sixty years old, and my maestro who I worked with before I went to the Metropolitan Opera and remembered what I sounded like when I was twenty-five, twenty-six years old, says that on most days I sound exactly the same way as I did then
maybe even better because I’m smarter.  Now this doesn’t come from singing too often.  It doesn’t come from running around the world on jet aircrafts making money, which after all the government takes most of anyhow, so why bother!  And it doesn’t come from not resting in and reworking your things.

BD:    In some operas you kill people and in other operas you get killed.  Which would you rather do?

CMacN:    I like the ones when I go home after the second act!  Ernani is marvelous.  You go out there, wham, bang for two acts, and go home and leave them there for that awful third act!

BD:    Scarpia is another one who gets skewered in the second act.  Do you actually leave the theater and go home?

CMacN:    Certainly!

BD:    What if the producer wanted you out there for a curtain call after Act 3? 

CMacN:    We’d have a fight! 

BD:    Who would win?

CMacN:    I would!  Nobody’s ever asked me.  Why would you do such a thing to a poor singer, unless he were an absolute evil genius.  Everybody else has sung for the whole last act, and the audience is going to forget you!

BD:    What if there are no curtain calls until the end of the opera?

CMacN:    They do have performances at the Met where people are asked to do that, and it may be valid.  I personally get traditional about it.  That kind of participation the public enjoys.  They like to be able to applaud for you.  It’s part of what you get to do in an opera performance, which is not the case in a play.  You don’t really applaud Hamlet’s Soliloquy.  It’s an audience participation thing from way back and on those occasions when it gets out of hand, the audience participation is not always so dandy, but at least some of them are expressing themselves. 

BD:    Does the audience occasionally express itself too much?

CMacN:    We haven’t learned how to do it well.  There’s the great American sense of fair play which is dear to us all, and is misunderstood in the rest of the world.  Somebody can get out and give an incredibly feeble performance, and most of the time our audience will give them enough applause to get them off gracefully.

BD:    Should we be taught to boo?

CMacN:    We should be taught to be silent.  The God-awfulest thing that can happen to any performer is silence. 

BD:    That is worse than booing?

CMacN:    You could say there were only three of them, but silence, that’s the whole megillah.  I preach this all the time.  You don’t have to attack people.  You don’t have to go through some ridiculous charade.  You simply have to be quiet.

BD:    Does opera work in concert?

CMacN:    Yes, magnificently.

BD:    Better than on stage?

CMacN:    For some operas, yes.  I’ll give you an example.  A number of years ago we went to the Teatro Massimo in Palermo in Sicily, which has a remarkable theater.  In many ways it has the best-produced opera that you get in Italy, partly because they have a better budget since they’re an autonomous region.  They have a subsidy from the Italian government, from the region and from the city as well.  In any case, they got themselves into a situation where they were rebuilding their theater and it didn’t get done on time.  It was a complicated process, to be fair to them, because there were other theaters involved at the same time.  The opening was to have been Nabucco, and they ended up with all three theatres completely unavailable.  So they decided they had to cancel the performances of the opening opera.  The Intendant was lamenting the fact that they had to cancel, and a friend of mine who runs a festival in Lucca said to do Nabucco in concert.  That opera you can do in concert very well.  They put a phony roof in the back, and we did it on the stage which was built out into the audience.  We had a good dramatic cast with Suliotis and Christoff and Bondino.  I had come from the United States to Rome, where I’d been for a while, but I hadn’t brought any formal clothes with me.  Their costume shop made me a set of tails, which I still wear.  We rehearsed with De Fabritiis, a marvelous old man.

 
Oliviero De Fabritiis (June 13, 1902 - August 12, 1982) was born in Rome, where he studied with Refice and Setaccialo. He made his debut at the Teatro Nazionale in Rome in 1920, and later moved to the Teatro Adriano. He was artistic secretary at the Teatro dell'Opera di Roma from 1932 until 1943. He inaugurated the summer performances at the Baths of Caracalla in 1937, with Lucia di Lammermoor.

He conducted widely in Italy, notably in Verona from 1948 until 1980. He conducted many operas with Beniamino Gigli, with whom he also made recordings of Andrea Chénier, Tosca, and Madama Butterfly. In 1951 De Fabritiis conducted a series of performances in Mexico City with Maria Callas. In 1956, he conducted the television production of Madama Butterfly which launched Anna Moffo's career. That same year he conducted the soundtrack of a filmed Tosca with Maria Caniglia (voicing the on-screen Franca Duval), and Franco Corelli. He also conducted Leontyne Price in her first operatic album for RCA (a 1960 collection of Verdi and Puccini arias, known as "The Blue Album"), and Luciano Pavarotti and Montserrat Caballé in recordings of Mefistofele and Andrea Chénier.

He appeared widely in Europe, America and Japan, mostly conducting the standard Italian opera repertory. He was admired for his Italianate warmth of expression, and for his skills at balancing consideration for voices and instrumental details.

He was also the composer of a number of vocal works.
fabritiis
 

They lit it well, and they had a set of steps coming down where we made entrances and exits, and they indicated things.  On their local television, they did a whole hour’s study of opera-in-concert, and it was accepted marvelously.  Part of the reason is that you can bring a kind of attention to facial detail.  You’re much closer to the audience because you haven’t got the pit.  So you can do things with your face that we can do on television, but the attention primarily goes to the music.  You can have the kind of musical ensemble which is spectacular in terms of what happens without the distance between the stage and the orchestra and the conductor in most operatic performances.  The other thing is the basic structure of Nabucco, which is a relatively static opera, and can easily be done in concert with just as much effect, if not more, than can be done in the theater.  Since that time, I understand that they have done more operas in concert there, but as an art format, I don’t think it’s ever going to catch on in Italy.  It’s just not their tradition, but I know a number of opera companies in this country certainly that have started from a symphony orchestra giving performances of opera in concert, and I see no reason why it isn’t an economic solution and a musical solution to a lot of problematic things.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    You keep talking about tradition in opera.  The tradition in Europe is for smaller theaters, and the tradition here is for large theaters.  Are the American theaters too big for opera?

CMacN:    Certainly, but again I don’t really see anything to be done about it.  There’s an economic factor at work here.  Most European opera theaters perform on a schedule that’s about like what is performed here in Chicago
three or four performances a week.  At Covent Garden they share it with the ballet so there’s always something going on, whether there’s an opera performance or not.

BD:    But it’s really two different things?

CMacN:    Two different things, two different rehearsal schedules, basically two different managements as well, and it takes a lot of pressure off.

BD:    Whereas the Met has to do seven shows a week.

CMacN:    Yes, and we do it better under those circumstances than any theatre in the world.  The only other theater that even comes close to it is the Staatsoper in Vienna.  Theirs is sheer drag unless it’s a new production.  Absolutely the most hideously unrehearsed and for me, how shall I say it...

BD:    Unprofessional?

macneilCMacN:    No, not that.  It’s professional, otherwise they wouldn’t get away with it, but it’s uninteresting.  Just terribly dull most of the time.  It can only be that way.  That’s what the lack of time for rehearsal does to opera all over.  You are constantly in a defensive rehearsal situation, unless you have absolute faith in the people that surround you and the stage director as well.  Sometimes the conductor even comes into it.  If he doesn’t look up at the right moment, you’re hung!  Or if you don’t look at him at the right moment, he’s hung.  It’s all mutual.  But you have to have a lot of faith in your colleagues to do this all the time in a very hurried rehearsal situation, because you can’t do anything overt dramatically.  You can’t get yourself out on that dramatic limb that you can’t crawl off of by yourself, because you’re liable to get out there and get it cut off with no place to go.  If you need help from your colleagues to get you off a dramatically very overt thing, you better be damn sure of the colleague.  So it tends to even things out unfortunately.  Part of the things that operatic stage directors always want to do is overcome this particular aspect of it.  Felsenstein overcame it by having a four hour rehearsal with every chorus member, and six months of rehearsals.  Almost invariably singers were so bored that they couldn’t perform when they got to the performance. 
[In 1947 Walter Felsenstein created the Komische Oper in East Berlin, where he worked as director until his death in 1975.]  Other directors want to do some dramatic thing that will make people talk.

BD:    So most productions are under-rehearsed but some may also get over-rehearsed.  Can there be a balance?

CMacN:    The Felsenstein example is very bad.  Not many operas ever get over-rehearsed. 

BD:    Okay.  But it is possible?

CMacN:    [Pauses for a moment]  Can we remember one?

BD:    Not necessarily one that you’ve been involved in.

CMacN:    No, I cannot remember a situation where I was involved in one, even in recent times at the Met.

BD:    Does opera work in translation?

CMacN:    Not for me, but I can see it being necessary.  I don’t know the answer to that one either, because if you translate it literally, it’s usually unsingable and in stilted English.  Even Verdi wrote in something that can only be called ‘librettese’.  It has nothing to do with the Italian language;  Boito even less a lot of the time.  The end result is that it’s archaic, it’s stilted, it’s repetitive and so on.  But what do you do with it? 

BD:    So you would turn down engagements to sing in translation?

CMacN:    The last time I sang in opera in English was in Fort Worth, Texas, where they tended to do everything in English in those days.  It was Aïda with Herva Nelli, and she didn’t get the English very good so we suddenly fell into Italian about half way through the opera, and sang the rest of it that way.  I don’t think the public knew the difference!  Oh, I also sang Mahagonny in English, and it worked. 

BD:    That one works because it’s Mahagonny, not because it’s opera?

CMacN:    Yes. 

BD:    When opera’s done on television, do you like having a running translation, or does that distract?

CMacN:    I don’t see them, of course, when I’m performing them!  The response that they get is enormous, and a great number of people in audience were very pleased with it. 

BD:    Should it be the kind of thing you can shut it off?  You could have the translation or not by closed captioning on the television.

CMacN:    It would be dandy because a lot of times it really destroys some moments.  It’s like going to foreign films with subtitles.  They
are probably here to stay.  It would be nice if you could turn them off.  They’ll find a way electronically.  They can do anything!  But for opera, I constantly tell people that if they’re going to spend the kind of money they have to go to the performance, for God’s sake get the libretto and at least read the thing through.  It will immediately increase their enjoyment in an enormous way.  It will allow them to concentrate on different things. 

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Are you optimistic about the future of opera?

CMacN:    [Pauses to think a moment]  Yes!  As with the explosion of an understanding of fine foods, which is the in-place in this country, there is an equal explosion that started sooner and has been a little slower and probably will go on in the same way over a long period of time.  There is a greater interest in opera by far than there was when I came in.  My son called me before we came out here and told me that this is the first year he’s been in opera, and he’s got a full year’s work already contracted.  He goes to Denver, and when he gets done with that he comes back to New York for a month.  Next fall he goes back to San Francisco for the season out there. 

BD:    The point is that he’s always working?

CMacN:    He’s constantly working.  This is one of the things that always amuses the hell out of me.  When I started out in show business, nobody expected to work all the year long.  Nobody in the whole of show business ever expected to work all year long!  Who expected to have you around in employment?

BD:    You were expected to do your show and then go look for something else?

CMacN:    Or, if you were on Broadway, which I was for a long while, you got a hit show and it went for three years.  Whoopee!  You could believe it would never close!  But you knew deep down that it was going to.

BD:    But you didn’t worry about it then.  You just did the show, and then when it closed you would go and look for something else?

CMacN:    Or when it got along toward the end and you’d been getting a little antsy, you begin to go round looking for other jobs.  You went and auditioned, or you went out and found yourself a summer stock job!

BD:    Is it good that singers are booked so far in advance?

CMacN:    No!  How the hell do I know what I want to do four years from now that people are asking about?  And they make terrible errors, too.  Think of the pressure it puts on a management.  Singers have ups and downs.  Some years they’re very good and some years they aren’t so good.  Someone is singing great and you book them up three years solid, and boom!  They get divorced or they have a miscarriage, and the next thing you know they can’t sing worth a damn, and you’ve got them booked for three years!  What are you going to do?

BD:    But the opera houses book everyone three or four years ahead!

CMacN:    The booking keeps going further ahead all the time.  This is also part of our great jet-set opera singers’ routine.

BD:    You don’t like knowing that four years from now on a Thursday afternoon in May, you’re going to be singing Forza del Destino?

CMacN:    Four years from now on a Thursday afternoon in May, I’m going to be in the garden, I guarantee you!  [At this point, he is reminded that he has contracts to 1986
which was four years henceand gives a look of utter frustration.]

macneilBD:    Is there going to be a time when you give your management notice that you are going to go home and work in your garden?

CMacN:    I’ve given it to them but they keep coming back!  All these young baritones fall by the wayside, and they keep having to call me.  It’s terrible! 

BD:    How have voices changed in the last thirty years?

CMacN:    Nobody learns how to sing anymore!

BD:    Really???

CMacN:    NO!  They listen to the latest recording marvel, and that’s what they try and copy, and they’re in trouble right away.  Nobody has to learn.  Look at my son!  I don’t think he should be singing Rigoletto, but he is! 

BD:    What should he be singing
— Borsa and Gastone?

CMacN:    No, I didn’t do that and I don’t think he has to.

BD:    Should he be doing Brigadoon or something like that?

CMacN:    Well, he couldn’t do that in this country but he could go to Europe and make a hell of a career doing that.  No, he should be doing some of the things that he will be doing.  He’ll be doing Cassio, for example and he will be doing Alfredo in student performances in San Francisco next year.  At the core of it he should have had more years of study.  Our maestro, who is eighty-something years old
Dick Marzolo is his namehas been an assistant to every great conductor including Toscanini, and has worked at La Scala.  Walter worked with him, and his feeling is that another three months on Rigoletto would not have been amiss, but the time schedule was not there.

BD:    Three months on Rigoletto or three years in the studio doing everything?

CMacN:    He can’t do two or three years in the studio anymore.  He has to earn a living!  So that is changing in our business through all kinds of situations that give young professionals support by means of a scholarship and training.  They have it at the Met, they have it here in Chicago and they have it in San Francisco.

BD:    Are these opera schools a good idea?

CMacN:    Oh, I think so They’re good for the companies since they create an affiliation and, if it’s done well, with the young singer.  However, there is no way of holding down a very talented young singer.  People hear about it and away they go.

BD:    Is it easier to be starting out on a career now than it was?

CMacN:    It’s easier to start out and harder to last!  They’re much better musicians but there’s very little preparation in any university program that I know for what I call ‘rough and tumble’.  I always said that when I quit singing, I wasn’t going to teach voice, I was going to teach ‘rough and tumble’!  That’s how to get your finger in the eye before they get theirs in yours... that sort of thing.  They need to know how to conduct an interview.  I can remember coming back from my debut at La Scala, and I had a friend in New York who was connected.  He had gotten Time Magazine to come from their Rome bureau and spend a couple of days with me whilst I was doing it.  He wrote a very nice article on it.  Then, when I came back to New York, I was going on to San Francisco to work with the old Cosmopolitan Opera Company out there.  I didn’t even have time to stop at home!  But I got off the plane and all of a sudden people are taking photographs of me
the old kind with the big ‘hoopy’ thing on top!  And reporters had their notepads out and were asking me things.  It looked like one of those old Cary Grant movies, for God’s sake.  But all I wanted to do was to find my wife and children, and say hello to them because I was going to the airport hotel to sleep all night, and go on the next morning to California!  So here’s my friend up at the top of the departures’ lounge behind the glass going crazy because I was ignoring these people who were trying to make me rich and famous.  [Both laugh]  I wouldn’t do that now, and I don’t think many kids would either.  I was incredibly naive in the sense of not understanding what the opportunity was.  You have to pause in your personal life, at whatever sacrifice is there, to do these little things in order to make your career go along.  Some of it is good, and young singers have to deal with these kind of things more often all the time.  Look at the media out there!  Television gobbles up words and words and words and words!  As an historical record, then it’s very valid.

BD:    Thinking of the media in an artistic sense, does it bother you at all that a thousand years from now people are going to be watching your Traviata?

CMacN:    No that wouldn’t bother me.  It is just that I will not be getting paid for it!  [Huge laugh]  This is another ridiculous thing.  I came out of the old Metropolitan Opera Texaco broadcasts.  They’ve supported us all these years, but when I started out I got nothing for it.

BD:    The broadcast was no extra money for you?

CMacN:    No extra money!  Then we got $25.  Now I get $108 for three hundred stations.  We presume the company gets income from it, and it’s helping to keep this deficit operation going.  That’s the basis of how it has been sold to us all these years.  Then along came television.  The only place we could get on, since we could not dislocate I love Lucy, was on PBS.  Naturally, this is Culture, and this means you don’t get any money for Culture. 

BD:    You do it for the art?

CMacN:    You do it for the art!  This whole thing has developed over the years.  The first time they did television from the Met, I was offered $268 for Amonasro.  Everybody in the company was going to get the same amount of money.  Everybody!  Leontyne got $268, everybody got it.

BD:    The guy carrying the spear would get $268?

CMacN:    Everybody... stage hands, everybody. 
My manager said that is not going to work, so we didn’t do it.  I feel very strongly that ever since that first cave man got up on a flat rock and did his turn better than the other cave men, the guy who does it best gets more!  But I was told that I was simply trying to reverse the entire history of show business, and I was not going to be able to make it work so I might as well face it now.  I knew we were not very important on television then, but I suddenly realized where we were going!  We’re the biggest theatrical deficit operationunless you’ve made a bum movie for $20 million!  The gap between what we take in and what we pay out gets bigger all the time.  I don’t look at television as a monster.  I look at it as an opportunity, and I wish somebody else would look at it that way.  The whole thing is completely out of balance now, and I don’t know if it’s ever going to be settled properly.

BD:    Doesn’t come back, though, that you’re not as popular as I Love Lucy?

CMacN:    Of course it comes back!  The only answer is I am worth more than a few dollars to be telecast on the entire television networks of Europe and America.


BD:    One last question.  Are there any operas that you are looking forward to now that you haven’t done yet?

CMacN:    Yes!  I’m going to do Così fan tutte at the Met in two years, with Jeffrey Tate conducting, which is the main reason I accepted doing it.  I think he’s absolutely astounding.  He is an incredible and an astounding human being.  Never mind also that he’s an equally astounding musician!  Jeffrey is absolutely marvelous, and his career is going boom, which is great.  He deserves it.  I’ve seldom had such instant relationship with anybody.  I mean, the first day I did a rehearsal with him on Mahagonny, I refused to let him go home.  He was exhausted, but I insisted on going and buying him a drink, and sitting and talking for a minute.  I simply had to know more about this man, and it has continued.  I absolutely think he’s remarkable.  Now all I have to do is learn the thing!  [Both laugh]  It is a whole new style.  Jeffrey is an incredible coach, but I doubt that he could do vocally what Maestro Marzolo does.  That’s a completely different approach to things.

BD:    I always assume that you would learn the role to a certain point, with lots of rough edges, and then go to each conductor and let them refine it their own way.

CMacN:    Most conductors will
if they’re running their own rehearsals, which is rarity these days.  That’s one of the reasons for working with Jeffrey.  He does not conduct a cast that he hasn’t prepared.

BD:    Thank you so very much for speaking with me today.

CMacN:    You’re welcome.


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© 1982 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in Chicago on November 11, 1982.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB in 1987, 1992 and 1997.  This transcription was made in 2014, and posted on this website at that time.  My thanks to British soprano Una Barry for her help in preparing this website presentation.

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

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

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.