Bass  John  Macurdy
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


John Macurdy (born in Detroit on March 18, 1929) has received international acclaim as a leading Bass (basso cantante). Since his debut at the Met in 1962, he has performed over 1,000 times and has sung over 40 roles with that company alone.

Following his service in the military during the Korean War, Macurdy made his formal debut with the New Orleans Opera Association on the opening night of the 1952-53 season, as the Old Hebrew in Samson et Dalila, with Ramón Vinay and Blanche Thebom in the cast, which was conducted by Walter Herbert and staged by Wilhelm von Wymetal. He went on to appear with that company until 1959, in Thaïs, Die Entführung aus dem Serail (conducted by Julius Rudel), The Consul by Menotti, and Norma. He was to return to New Orleans for Sarastro in Die Zauberflöte, in 1979. During those years, he also occasionally performed with other companies, notably portraying Mr Earnshaw in the world premiere of Carlisle Floyd's Wuthering Heights, at the Santa Fe Opera in 1958.

In 1959, Macurdy made his New York City Opera debut, as Dr Wilson in Street Scene. Among his other roles there, until 1962, were Jabez Stone in The Devil and Daniel Webster, the Basso Cantante in Six Characters in Search of an Author (world premiere, with Beverly Sills), William Jennings Bryan in The Ballad of Baby Doe, Mr Earnshaw in Wuthering Heights (opposite Phyllis Curtin and Patricia Neway), Créon in Œdipus rex (conducted by Leopold Stokowski), Colline in La bohème, Timur in Turandot, President Prexy in The Cradle Will Rock, a Priest in Il prigioniero (with Treigle), Sparafucile in Rigoletto, Don Alfonso in Così fan tutte, the King of Egypt (later Ramfis) in Aïda, Reb Bashevi in The Golem (world premiere), and the Reverend John Hale in The Crucible by Robert Ward (with Chester Ludgin). He made a return to that ensemble in 1979, for a single performance of Raimondo in Lucia di Lammermoor.

macurdyIt was the Metropolitan Opera that would become Macurdy's artistic home, starting with Tom in Un ballo in maschera, in 1962. From then, until 1997, he would sing more than 1000 performances in a great variety of roles, including the King (later Ramfis) in Aïda, Alessio (later Count Rodolfo) in La sonnambula (opposite Dame Joan Sutherland), Don Basilio in Il barbiere di Siviglia, the Commendatore in Don Giovanni (perhaps his most acclaimed role), Ferrando in Il trovatore, Prince Gremin in Eugene Onegin, Colline, Count des Grieux in Manon, Daland in Der fliegende Holländer, Sparafucile, Agrippa in Antony and Cleopatra (world premiere), King Heinrich in Lohengrin, Sarastro, Ezra Mannon in Mourning Becomes Electra (world premiere), Alvise in La Gioconda, Hunding in Die Walküre (with Jon Vickers), Count Walter in Luisa Miller (with Montserrat Caballé), Timur, Raimondo (to Renata Scotto's Lucia), the Grand Inquisitor in Don Carlos (with Franco Corelli), Titurel (later Gurnemanz) in Parsifal, King Marke in Tristan und Isolde, Rocco in Fidelio (with Anja Silja in her Met debut), Méphistophélès in Faust, Pimenn in Boris Godunov, Oroveso in Norma, and Tirésias in Œdipus rex (in John Dexter's production). In the year 2000, he returned to the Met, for Hagen in Götterdämmerung, under James Levine.

Macurdy has performed throughout Europe, debuting in 1965 as Prince Gremin in Eugene Onegin in Marseille. He has also appeared at the Paris Opéra (Arkel in Pelléas et Mélisande, 1973), Teatro alla Scala (Rocco in Fidelio, 1974), Teatro Colón, and the Gran Teatro del Liceo in Barcelona, and has sung in all the major European centers as well as numerous productions in Lyon, Strasbourg, Bonn and Stuttgart. He appeared at festivals of Ravinia, Tanglewood, and Salzburg, and often appears at the Orange Festival in France.

In 1978, he portrayed the Commendatore in Joseph Losey's famous film of Don Giovanni, with Ruggero Raimondi, Edda Moser, Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, Kenneth Riegel, José van Dam, and Teresa Berganza, conducted by Lorin Maazel. [See poster farther down this webpage.]

Throughout his career John has received critical acclaim on the concert platform. He has sung with many major orchestras and collaborated with some of the greatest conductors of our era including Carlo Maria Giulini, Claudio Abbado, Riccardo Chailly, Rafael Kubelik, Erich Leinsdorf, James Levine, and Robert Shaw, Karl Böhm and Charles Munch.

--  Names which are links (in this box and below) refer to my interviews elsewhere on this website.  BD 


Macurdy first appeared with the Chicago Symphony at the Ravinia Festival in July, 1966 for the Verdi Requiem (with Endich, Forrester, Barkin; Steinberg, Hillis).  It was not until the end of 1980 that he returned and appeared with Lyric Opera of Chicago in two operas.  He sang the Commendatore in Don Giovanni (with Stilwell, Tomowa-Sintow, Neblett, Dean, Buchanan, Winkler; Pritchard, Ponnelle), and Count Ribbing (Samuele) in Ballo in Maschera (with Scotto, Pavarotti, Nucci, Battle, Payne, Voketaitis; Pritchard, Frisell, Conklin, Tallchief).  Once the second opera had opened, he agreed to meet with me for a conversation.  In the end, on the appointed day I had a cold, so we spoke on the telephone, even though his hotel was just a short walk from the radio station!  I was not about to possibly infect the singer, and he understood perfectly. 

Keep in mind that this conversation took place in December of 1980, so some of the technical situations he speaks of were very different back then from the advances we have today... and presumably ever farther from those of tomorrow!  Also at that time, Macurdy
’s home house, the Metropolitan Opera in New York, had just settled a protracted labor dispute, so he was heartened that things would soon return to normal for this ‘house bass’. 

The chit-chat before getting down to the serious interview was about what was generally available on television . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:    As long as we’re talking about this, what do you feel is the role of the electronics, the audio and video, vis-à-vis grand opera?

John Macurdy:    Oh, I think it’s tremendously important.  I was talking with a friend in my home town the other day about recordings and tapes, and he was saying that it’s wonderful to have all these innovations; that you can carry a little tape recorder around.  You can make cassettes and can hear wonderful music, but they still haven’t found anything really to replace the record.  The statistics bear out the fact that record sales have actually moved up in the last couple of years in the classical music vein, and it doesn’t matter that there’s maybe fifty Beethoven Ninths on the market.  Every time a new one comes out, people want to hear how it was done this time.

BD:    That never ceases to amaze me.  We seem to be flooded with them, and yet the record companies would not be putting them out if they were not selling.

JM:    That’s a fact.  There are certain singers who might even be repeating the same roles!  That’s another thing, but there’ll be another orchestra, another conductor, or a different interpretation, and people want to find out if there’s any musical difference in it, or interpretational changes.  With the television, this is something that’s really wonderful because it’s opened up a whole new area for performer and viewer participation.

macurdyBD:    Sure.

JM:    I was in one of the early television opera programs they made with NBC.  In 1960 we did Don Giovanni

BD:    Was it done in English or in Italian?

JM:    That was done in English in the studios over in Brooklyn.  We had a complete run through in the morning, and then in the afternoon we went live.  The director was Kirk Browning.  You need somebody who understands camera angles.  This is the one problem we still face when we do something live, like when they do live from the Met now.  You can light a studio with a lot of light to get the effect that you need to bring up the various colors and moods.  But when we do our normal performance with lights as they are set, you have an audience that sees what is there but you don’t have to rely on the camera to relate it to you.  When using a lens we have to raise the light level considerably, and thereby you destroy some of the magic for the in-house audience.

BD:    We haven’t yet gotten to the point where you can have both the in-house audience and the in-home audience being served equally well at the same time.

JM:    Right.  Then you’ve got the audience with a stationary eye, and you have a camera that has a roving eye.  Having to readjust all the angles and trying to play it differently for the one television performance makes it a bit hectic since the cameras in the house are stationary.  I think there are three of them that they use in the shooting when they have a live show.  Since the audience still sees it, they need the expanse, the width and depth of the stage, but you can’t use it quite the same way as the television camera.

BD:    When they filmed Faust here in Chicago last season [with Freni, Kraus, Ghiaurov] they took out some seats near the middle of the main floor, and they took out a few other seats here and there so they had a bit more leverage, and a bit more opportunity for different camera angles.

JM:    They set one camera right up in the middle of the house when they do that at the Met, too.  They also have one up in the balcony and two on either side so they can pick their shots.  But it has created such wonderful response because most of the public can’t get to see the opera.  Even when you multiply the number of performances by the number of seats, all of a sudden you see there are not that many people who could get to see an opera!

BD:    One of the commentators said that more people saw the first Live From The Met Bohème in 1977 than had ever had seen it in the house.

JM:    We do approximately 230 performances a year at the Met, so with 3,820 seats that is only about a million people.  However, in one showing on the TV you can hit maybe 17 million people or more.  That is quite something.  It is spectacular, and it has created tremendous amount of interest.  At the Paris Opera, for instance, most of the premieres are televised of every new show they put on.  This is part of the service their government provides to the residents of the country.  Unitel Group just did Rosenkavalier from Munich.  I didn’t get to see it, but this is what more and more people want.  They would like to see it because they know the music, and they can hear the tunes and wonder where they came from and how they fit in.  It’s just a wonderful thing that this is made available now to the public at large. 

BD:    Do you think that maybe one of the reasons that the old NBC operas didn’t get as much response as they could have is because the people were not as experienced with opera as they are now?  So many people have been brought to the artform through recordings.

JM:    Actually, I think a good part of it was the fact is that not everybody had television sets.  It was in color.  Our Don Giovanni had Cesare Siepi, Jimmy Pease, myself, Leontyne Price, Lisa Della Casa, and Judy Raskin.  When they saw it, everybody couldn’t believe it could be so beautiful.
  My kids ask, “Did you have radio in the olden days?  [Both laugh]  That’s all we had!  In the ‘30s and ‘40s they became more generally available.  Then the first television sets were coming in the ‘50s, and NBC did its first productions around that time.  Their operas were more of a novelty in a sense to see if it could be done, and while they did some wonderful things, there weren’t that many people that could avail themselves of seeing it on television at home.

macurdyBD:    Now 97% of the households have at least one television.

JM:    We’ve got a medium that we can use and utilize, and I think it’s great.

BD:    It’s got great potential?

JM:    Yes, and also film.  Just listen to the Don Giovanni movie that Joe Losey made with Ruggero Raimondi.  [Poster shown at right]  Golly, they couldn’t believe how many people have gone, not only to see it already, but keep going back!  Like The Magic Flute a few years ago, now the Giovanni, it’s an expanding medium, and they don’t have to be concerned about rights so much for the music.  All they have to do is find a place and a situation that they might want to present it.

BD:    Let me ask about translations.  You did the NBC operas in English, and the things that are being done now on TV and film are in the originals, perhaps with subtitles.  Do you think this is the best compromise
to do the operas in the original and then have subtitles going on?  [Remember, this interview took place before the use of supertitles in the theater.]

JM:    Yes, I do because so often all of the English isn’t understood.  In our Giovanni, though I didn’t know all of my colleagues’ lines I understood everything they said.  Part of it is being familiar with the music so you could concentrate on the words and the action, rather than listening to how is a musical line was going.  This sometimes interferes, but so often it is the case when something is done in English that the words just don’t come across as clearly as they might, for whatever the reason.   I can listen to operas in the original language because I know them and I know what’s being said, but if I listen what is being sung I don’t get all the words either.  [Both laugh]  I think putting the translation as subtitles underneath or translating it as it’s running is a very good idea.

BD:    Do you think there is any place for opera in English?

JM:    Oh, sure, absolutely.  I’ve never had so much fun as when we would do The Barber of Seville for student audiences.  We would do it in English, and my goodness, I was hissed and booed off the stage!

BD:    [With a gentle nudge]  I assume that is to say your character of Basilio was hissed and booed...

JM:    [Laughs]  Oh yes, but they got the idea.  Everybody else in the cast was applauded and they got all the words.  The kids were really laughing at the right places and were happy with the performance.

BD:    I would think the translation would work especially well in a comic opera with a lot of patter.

JM:    This is true, and Così works beautifully.  The Martins have done such wonderful translations for most of the Mozart operas.  [Ruth and Thomas Martin translated about 50 Italian and comic-German works, and helped to spark the revival of interest in the Mozart operas.]  There’s one opera I just love to hear in English
and there’s got to be a lot of purists who are going to wonder how I can say that — but I love Gianni Schicchi in English just as much as I like it in Italian.  There is so much to be said when you get the total juxtaposition of what all these people are saying.  It just becomes a delight, but Tabarro has to be in Italian.

BD:    Why?

JM:    It’s something about the music and the drama and the intensity of it.  It just doesn’t seem to translate.  The sound falls wrong on the ear.

BD:    So there are some operas that will not work, perhaps like Pelléas?

JM:    Well, that’s such a special opera.  I’ve done it in Paris, and I’ve done in San Francisco.

BD:    That must have been a thrill to do Pelléas in France!

JM:    It was such a strange thing because I was called on April Fool’s Day by Joan Ingpen.  She asked if I would like to sing Pelléas in Paris and I said it would be great!  But I found out, much to my surprise, that Pelléas had not been there before.  When it was written by Debussy and offered to the Paris Opera (Opéra de Paris), it was done at the Opéra-Comique because the Paris Opera at the time didn’t feel it was really worthy of their kind of music.  So it was blown over to that other house with Mary Garden.  [See my article Massenet, Mary Garden, and the Chicago Opera 1910-1932.]  So actually when we did it at the Paris Opera [1977] with Dick Stilwell and Flicka von Stade, it was just incredible because that was a first time it had ever been done at the Opéra de Paris.

BD:    Did the Parisians appreciate your French diction?

JM:    Oh, yes!  You work on it, and when you come back to the States to do something in French, they’re trying to make you more French than you already are, and that gets to be a bit of a bother.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Let me swing the conversation around to Wagner.   Do you think that Wagner specifically will work well on television?

JM:    Having the right moods and given the right settings, yes.  I saw the Tannhäuser they did at Bayreuth.  Actually we have such a much better Tannhäuser at the Met. 
[This  production would later be televised, as seen in the Hirshfeld caricature below.]  It’s a brighter, lighter thing, but you got a problem with the Venusberg scene.  That is dark, and this becomes a problem of having an in-house audience and lighting, because once you light it for the television, you destroy the spectacle for the audience.


BD:    Perhaps could you have a special performance with just an invited audience that knows what it is getting, maybe at reduced prices.

JM:    That would make sense.  That might be a reasonable way of doing it.  I’ve seen the Dutchman that they have done for the television, and that came across very well.

BD:    Was that the one in English with Norman Bailey and Stafford Dean from the BBC?  [That also had Gwyneth Jones and was conducted by David Lloyd-Jones.]

JM:    I’ve seen that one and it came off very well.  But there is another one in German with Donald McIntyre.  [This one also has Caterina Ligendza, Bengt Rundgren, Hermann Winkler, and is conducted by Wolfgang Sawallisch.]  They did it like a motion picture on location rather than doing it in the opera house to be presented for television.  I was very pleased the whole thing worked because the colors and the feeling were there.  I don’t know how they were able to keep the lighting and keep those balances because this is one of their major problems.  If you’re going to do it in an opera house, then you’ve got the production people have seen and like so well.  That can create problems.  We have a wonderful Meistersinger that Robert O’Hearn designed and Nathaniel Merrill directed.  In the scene in the second act where Hans Sachs is outside of his home in the evening you want the lights down, but if you’re going to do it for television you’ve got to bring the lights up.  This is the problem.  We’re going to do a Ring cycle again, and they would like to see if they could televise that because we have another wonderful set that Guenther Schneider-Siemssen designed.  He did the whole thing, and it’s a through-running idea.  When you start Rheingold and go through Götterdämmerung, you’ve run the entire gambit.  You have one man’s idea running through the entire thing in the design. 

BD:    It would be interesting to see the Met’s production on television, and then compare it with the Chéreau production, which has been filmed for television also.

JM:    Well, the Chéreau is quite a bit different!  At the Met we’re harking back to the way it was written where there are gods and goddesses, rather than modern-day garb. 

BD:    [With a gentle nudge]  Hagen is not going to come out in the full dress suit?


JM:    No, Hagen comes out in a leather jerkin in our set, and there isn’t an Immolation at the end.  I was absolutely reduced to an absolute limp rag one night.  She got done and threw that torch onto the set and it started crackling.  You heard this pine bark start to crackle and the fire started to take over.  Then Hagen is looking for the ring, trying to get the Rheinmaidens away from it, and all of this is happening at once.  Then everything disappeared and you have wave upon wave upon wave come with this beautiful mountain of gold.  The gold has to come.  It makes a full circle.  In Paris we started this ill-fated Ring that only got into two of the operas.  We got with Peter Stein, who is a tremendous theater director over there.  He did the Rheingold, and he really had done his homework.  We were in late nineteenth century garb, but it worked.  So with Chéreau, this idea wasn’t absolutely brand new.  Then in Paris, God, we had another designer by the name of Gruber for the Walküre, and it was the most impossible set of different ideas with the same groups of people.

BD:    And it just didn’t work at all?

JM:    It was an impossibility and this is basically why it stopped. 

BD:    I would have thought that they would have engaged someone to design the entire Ring.

JM:    They actually they wanted done this way.  Mr. Liebermann, as in all of his career, wanted this to serve as a catalyst in creating controversy in the arts, and in a sense it isn’t all bad.  In this case it wasn’t all good.  But it made people think about different sets of values, just like Giovanni here presently here in Chicago.  Many people are way up on it, other people are way down.  However, it makes you think. It creates a talking point.  There is this thing that it makes a statement.

macurdyBD:    It makes you think about the characters and odd relationships, and gives you ideas?

JM:    Sure, so there is a validity to it.  But again, going back to the televising, I just think that all of our operas could be very handily televised and handsomely, but it would take a bit of doing.

BD:    How would you handle the dark portions, like in Siegfried, for instance?

JM:    Put the light on!  [Huge laugh]  Because that way you can see the beauty.  By your angles and shooting, I gather you can just bring out what you want, and the only unfortunate thing is you have to have light in order to have the color come up, because if you don’t, it’s all becomes black.

BD:    And of course they are improving the cameras all the time.
  A few years ago you would have had to have had huge floodlights.  Now at least if you just bring the existing lights up a bit.  Maybe eventually they’ll have a camera that actually can pick up all the details in the actual theater light.

JM:    Oh, it
’s tremendous what they’re doing.  Even the little motion picture cameras that are on the market now can really work with just a veil of a light.  So it’s just a matter of time.  I’m sure as time goes on they’ll solve that problem, and nothing would make me happier than to participate in something like that.

BD:    I think we’ll be able to see it very soon.  It’s the kind of thing, you know, another two, maybe three years, you know more refinements and everything.

JM:    We look forward to that!  The Met has made a commitment to do a Ring for the next three years.  We’ll do four or five complete cycles next Fall, and then the following year there will be three.  Then in our centennial they will also be doing it.  So at least it will be completely broadcast on radio.  That’s maybe as close as we’ll get in this particular situation because, you know, there’s six hours of television time when you’re talking about Götterdämmerung!

BD:    That’s a lot of time.  Maybe again, here we could use the technology to our advantage.  Tape the thing, and then show it at a more convenient time [as is the case now with the series on PBS].  Or perhaps, in the case of Götterdämmerung, show it in two pieces.  Do the Prologue and Act one, which is two hours, on one evening, and then the next evening do Acts two and three, which would be about three hours.

JM:    You could do it that way.  As a kid I used to wonder if this will ever end.  Now, being in it, I wonder how it got done so quickly.  If you don’t have a tape machine for video, you can’t record it and you
re really are out of luck on that!  [Both laugh]

BD:    A lot of people do have these video tape machines now.

JM:    Well, that’s great.

BD:    They can record it and then watch at their leisure, perhaps when they’re more settled or when they’ve more time or when they’re in a proper frame of mood!  [
It’s really amazing just how prescient we were!]

JM:    Wasn
’t there a station that broadcast a complete Ring from Bayreuth in a day?

BD:    Oh, yes!  I know there was a station in New York City that did it, and my station [WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago] did the Solti Ring in one day.  I guess people would drift in and out all day keeping track of the progress of the operas...

JM:    Sure!  But if it’s live television there’s no way it could be done.  [Starts laughing at the idea of doing it piecemeal like episodic television series.]  You really can’t come back and say,
Well, yesterday Hagen swore that he’d get the ring from Brünnhilde...

BD:    Maybe do it like a serial, like a cliffhanger...  Will Hagen get the ring?  Will Brünnhilde get Siegfried back?  Tune in tomorrow for the next exciting installment of Wagner
’s Ring!

JM:    [Continues laughing and starts reminiscing about blooper moments]  In one performance a few years ago, Jess Thomas was trying to take the ring from Brünnhilde at the end of the first act, and for some reason it popped off her finger and rolled down into the into the pit.  [Both laugh]  It was awkward because they didn’t have a spare!  Everybody was sort of playing makeshift ‘ring, ring, who’s got the ring!’  [Both are nearly hysterical with laughter]  Another time we were doing Walküre with Jonny Vickers...

BD:    [Anticipating another funny story]  He didn’t lose the sword, did he?

JM:    Well, yes!  Berit Lindholm was making her debut as Brünnhilde and Leonie (Rysanek) had gotten ill.  So
Birgit (Nilsson) had agreed to sing Sieglinde.  As Siegmund pulled the sword out of the oak, the blade went into the orchestra and he’s standing there with the handle in his hand.  Birgit said she would never cross to that side of the stage again because she had made a cross from stage left to stage right where he was.  She kept her distance after that.  It just broke, whack!  There he was, so he threw it off at the stage right!

BD:    Maybe you should put out a little pamphlet, ‘What has gone wrong in the Ring!’  Just collect all of these anecdotes...

JM:    When you’re there and it happens, it’s a little more personal.  I was really there and it really did happen!

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    How can we get more people into Wagner?

macurdyJM:    We popularize it!  A few years ago I heard the Swingle Singers or somebody like that something on Beethoven.  May be some group could popularize Wagner in the same way.  It was done very tastefully at that.

BD:    I just can’t see Hagen going out there going doo-bee-doo-bee-doo-bee-doo!

JM:    No, no, no, but some group(s) could be getting it in people’s ears.  One of my sons wanted to borrow the whole Ring cycle from me to take it up to college to listen to it!  I couldn’t figure out what was going on.  I thought he must be sick because he doesn’t have more than two classical recordings to his name
which is normal at this time.  My first recording I ever bought was a Beethoven Ninth.  It was the old Toscanini 78s, and the next one was the Beethoven Third because I thought it was great music.  [Macurdy would later make his own recording of the Ninth, which is shown at right.]  We had one of those hand cranked machines at home.  But once people hear some of this great music, somehow they have to hear more of it.

BD:    [Optimistically]  Once they hear a little bit of it, they’ll be bitten by the bug?

JM:    I think the more you hear the more you maybe want to know, and the more you want to see how these things match up.  We were criticized roundly in Amsterdam this past winter [November 20, 1979] when we only did the first act of Walküre, which is an opera in itself.

BD:    Was it a concert performance?

JM:    Yes, with Bernard Haitink and the Concertgebouw.  We had Leonie Rysanek, Peter Hofmann and myself. 

BD:    That makes a nice half-concert.

JM:    It was.  He did a Schumann symphony to begin, and then we sang the first act of Walküre, but many people said it’s a shame that they couldn’t have heard the whole thing!  It whets the appetite.  Maybe it might just make sense to play whole sections or segments of the various Wagnerian operas just on a routine basis.  Then they might want to hear the rest of it!  I know Anthony Bliss, who is presently our executive director of the Metropolitan Opera told me that when he was a kid, his father took him regularly to the opera for one act.  His father had board meetings, and as soon as they were over, off they went.  So he told me he got to hear one act of all the various operas at different times!  But what it did was to keep piquing his interest to want and hear more!  It might be as simple as just doing the opening to the Walküre.  That music tells you so much.  You’re hearing the Nibelungen theme, and chasing Siegmund, and if somebody can make a verbal description of what the opera is about and just play the segment, it might grab people.  I know orchestras love to play it.  To me it’s one of the most exciting things I ever heard.  When Maestro Steinberg did it at the Met, he got the double basses playing [imitates the opening of the opera] and building this intensity, and then when the horns came in it was just like a shock of the daylight because you were really scared.  You know something’s about to happen, or has happened, and by repetition you become acquainted with it.  A lot of us don’t want to admit we don’t know it, and just by having the opportunity of hearing something it’s a help.

BD:    Specifically about the Wagner operas, they are longer than most of the Italian ones.  If you sit for two hours, you can hear a whole La Bohème but you would have only heard one third of most of the Wagners.

JM:    Maybe you should play half, play one hour of it and say,
To be continued!  [Both laugh]  This would infuriate anybody who knows the work, but actually something like this fanfare entrance of the singers in the Tannhaüser, oh golly, they might just go to see or hear that!  I’d love to hear this brass ensemble of the Chicago Symphony take that up.  People would say, “Gee, that’s great!  I don’t know how they could not say it wasn’t great if they just went to hear it, and they might want to hear more.  Wagner wasn’t too great for writing overtures, except in the Meistersinger, but there are other orchestral excerpts.  Götterdämmerung, to me, was the ultimate.  There is so much music in it.  When I did Hagen, my job was to take vengeance on Siegfried, which I did at each and every performance.  But then when they started the Funeral Music, it is just enough to tear you apart.  I feel so fortunate just to be a part of it.


BD:    Let’s go back to the beginning of the Ring.  You sing one of the giants...

JM:    Right, I do Fasolt

BD:    How do you decide whether you’re going to sing Fasolt or Fafner in Rheingold

JM:    It’s very simple.  [Laughs]  If they ask you to sing the other one, you say,
Oh, dear, I’d rather do the other because he’s got a better line than that one!  Fafner is equally a fine part, but Fasolt has this wonderful line about not being able to see the eye of Freia before he’s killed by his brother.  He is so upset by this, and I can’t explain it any other way other than the fact that he won’t see her anymore when this little hole in the pile of gold has been filled.  But It is a beautiful line to sing.  I’ve done both, and I done Fafner as well as Fasolt at the Met, but if I have choice I’d rather sing Fasolt.

BD:    Have you done the Dragon in Siegfried?

JM:    Oh yes!  That’s fun.  Actually what happens is that you generally are double-cast at the Met.  So I will do Fasolt, my colleague will do Fafner, and then we will split Hunding, Siegfried Fafners and Hagen.  We’ll be together for the four performances of Rheingold and then split the others to each do two Hundings, two Fafners and two Hagens, and then cover each other.


BD:    Do you have an ambitions to sing Wotan?

JM:    No!  [Laughs]  It’s one thing to sing the Abschied and the Magic Fire Music since all the notes are there, but you need a voice that resounds about a tone higher than mine.  It’s a very wearing role on any voice where it’s written.  So just to do Wotan for the sake of saying you’ve sung it, no thanks.  I would much rather sing Hagen which is just as high and lower than anything Wotan has to sing, only you’re not kept up there forever.  It’s a bit like practically any bass or baritone for that matter, where you could sing the opposing roles but you don’t want to make a habit of it.  And if you did it once and you did it well, you’re going to be asked twice.  It’s like doing Fidelio.  It’s one thing to sing Pizarro, and many people say it’s much easier than Rocco.  Well, Rocco has a lot more to sing than Pizarro.  It’s a special part.  I don’t know if there is such a thing as helden bass.  We have the Helden baritone and Helden tenors, but it’s a funny thing, especially since we are playing it with a 440+ A.  That A didn’t come in until sometime in this century.  It wasn’t 440 when they wrote these operas, and quite honestly it makes a difference.  It might sound crazy because it’s only relative to what you hear, but the composers knew pretty much what they were doing.  Everybody adjusts to the pitches as they are in the roles that they do.  There are all the bass roles in Wagner that I sing, from Pogner, Marke, Hermann, Heinrich, Gurnemanz... I do them all with the exception of Rienzi, which I’ve never sung.  But the thing is I am a bass.  My voice is a bass, and I’ve looked at the record.  Emanuel List never sang Wotan.  I think he did Sachs, but there are many singers in their career who have done all the leading bass roles, but Wotan they left to Schoeffler and Hotter and George London of my generation and Theo Adam presently, and Donald McIntyre.  They have the same notes, they’re different quality.

macurdyBD:    But every once in a while you get someone like Hans Sotin moving up from the bass into Wotan.

JM:    Hans is a little higher voice.  It’s interesting.  I was just talking with Hans here, and he going to be doing his first Sachs in Germany this December.  He’s a really good colleague, and I’m delighted that he’s doing it because quite frankly, as I told him, I’d be delighted to sing Pogner to his Sachs any day in the week!  I learned Sachs and maybe I might feel more comfortable in a few more years, but presently it’s not for me.  I’d much rather sing than be bothered with it.  [Laughs]

BD:    I can understand that.  It’s a lot of work to learn a new role, and then to begin learning a new repertory.

JM:    The problem is that you do that.  If you learn this one role, if it’s the Walküre Wotan, then the next thing is you will be asked for the Rheingold Wotan, and then they’re going to be doing The Flying Dutchman, so of course forget Daland, because now you have to think of you in terms of Dutchman.  This is the unfortunate way this thing creeps along.

BD:    How much is that the fault of the agents?

JM:    I don’t think it’s any fault of the agents.  It’s just the maestri.  They want the depth of sound, and unfortunately the thing is that singers can run out of voice, but they don’t run out of arm!

BD:    In Meistersinger I feel a bit more satisfied when Hans Sachs has just a little deeper, a little more sonorous sound.

JM:    Yes, it feels a little bit better in that voice, but still, the third act is a killer.  You have the whole opening, which is an hour and thirty minutes, and then you have to end up with [sings the theme heard in the first notes of the overture].  At that point, the opera’s five hours long, and you been singing a good part of the night, and you really have to come up and hit them right between the eyes again.  It’s just a question of stamina.  One of the finest Hans Sachs I’ve ever sung with was Paul Schoeffler.  He was in his late 60s, and then a younger man, Giorgio Tozzi, was a fine Sachs at the Met.  His voice just seemed perfect for it.  Giorgio wasn’t a deep bass, but it had the color.

BD:    And yet his parts included Mephistopheles.

JM:    Most basses can sing Mephistopheles easily.  I don’t think there’s any problem there, but Giorgio never did Wotan.

BD:    Wotan and Hans Sachs need to be at their best near the end, which is almost midnight.  Does it make a great deal of difference to a singer to do a matinee performance which would end around six?

JM:    It depends upon your body chemistry.  I love matinee performances. That’s generally when my physical peak is at its highest.  Unless I am performing, around 11 o’clock I would just as soon toddle off to bed and get a good night’s sleep!  When I go to Europe it’s a great thing for me because their performances start right where my body rhythm is at its high.

BD:    That’s right, the time change would do that.

JM:    On the other hand, my colleagues coming from Europe generally are quite disadvantaged, not only for days but weeks while they’re here because they have to perform at a really ridiculous hour for them on their body clock.  But I just think that matinees are the greatest thing that were ever invented... also because you get home earlier!

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Let’s talk a bit about some of your Wagner parts.  Tell me about Daland. 

JM:    I’ve sung him at the Met, the first time was with Dr. Böhm conducting, and I really had the great pleasure of appearing with George London and Leonie Rysanek, and Sandor Konya as Erik.

macurdyBD:    What kind of personality is Daland?  Is he money grubbing as a lot of people try to make him out, or is he just an opportunist?

JM:    I’d say those traits are rather closely allied!  He sees an opportunity and he grabs at it.  Quite frankly I don’t think he so much cares about his daughter’s happiness in terms of a suitor, so far as that particular suitor can provide her with a home and provide him with possibly the acquisition of another ship.

BD:    So he’s really not concerned with whether or not Senta is happy?

JM:    At that time?  I hope the ladies will forgive me, but women were chattels and daughters were conveniences.  Sons grew up to take over the father’s business or trade, and the daughters grew up to being married off well so that they could provide somehow security for the grandchildren
which, of course, doting Daland could have a great deal of fun with.  Actually first of all he wants to get home, but he sees an opportunity.  He can’t believe what he’s been presented with, and all the man wants to do is get a wife!  Daland thinks for that he can have me too!  [Both laugh]  Yes, he’s looking out for himself.  In performances at that point I’m taking out a pipe and offering him some tobacco.  Daland realizes what he’s looking at, and you can get carried away.  You can go into certain depths of discussion but it really wont make the character necessarily play any better.  You have to visualize him because you’re structured by what you have to play within.  It has to come through the eyes.  In the new production that we’re now doing at the Met, everything is played as the Steersman’s dream.

BD:    Do you think that’s a good idea to have the same singer play Erik and the Steersman?

JM:    It’s a very reasonable one, but the problem is how do you keep everybody back off-stage on the scene deck in a one-actor?  You have to contend with the physical aspect of the fact that they’re all at sea.  There are waves, and they’re in a bay that’s sheltered from where they want to be.  They arrive there and the women come on board.  They come on deck, and they’re all on the same boat.  To me it doesn’t work that well, but the idea has a lot of merit.  Everybody in this production
is about thirty or forty feet back from the front of the house.  The storm is riding all over the place during this dream, and the audience is supposed to be taking this all in.  Now when you have contact, at least you can see things happening in eyes when you can get closer to the audience and you can have contact between the two forces.  But here it’s a different ball game.  In our older production, maybe it was too much realism for now, but we were in oil skins and slickers, which you would be in this kind of weather.

BD:    Do you find that kind of costuming cumbersome?

JM:    It’s cumbersome but it fits because it also helps the body movement.  When you come forward, you put a hand out and it’s exposed.  It moves the right way.  One of the problems is getting really immersed in some of these roles.  We do them with so low a frequency at the Met.  In Europe they’re doing these operas with a certain amount of consistency
that is consecutive years, year in and year outso it’s easier to keep a lot of these on top of your head.  Quite honestly I haven’t done Daland now in about five years because there hasn’t been a call for it.

BD:    Then a new production or a different production would force you to rethink it?

JM:    To rethink it, and then you find different values, and different ways of doing it, and different things that you want to bring out in it.

BD:    How long can you let a role go in your mind before you actually have to sit down and start over again?

macurdyJM:    Last year the Met had a problem in their Parsifal.  I was doing Oroveso, and they called me and said they needed some help to protect the performance!  I told them I could probably have it sixty per cent back in my head by tomorrow night, but by Saturday I would have it completely rememorized.  I hadn’t done the opera in four years.   [Vis-à-vis the image at right listing the 1974 broadcast, see my Interview with Boris Goldovsky, and my Interview with Edward Downes.

BD:    Gurnemanz is a long role!

JM:    Yes.  It’s one hour and fifteen minutes of singing that you have.  So I had it completely rememorized by Thursday.  I just pulled it out of my head!

BD:    It’s stored up there, and then you just have to call on it?

JM:    It’s stored in the residual memory.  I have fortunately some degree of photographic recall.

BD:    Was it hard in the early days to learn all these roles?

JM:    No.  Strangely, I heard so many horror stories about how long one should spend working on it to learn, because they were such enormous length that I thought there’s not enough years in one’s life to do this!  Well, much to my surprise, and only working part-time on it, I put all of Parsifal in my head in less than six weeks.  My German colleagues were absolutely dumbfounded because you can’t do this.  But you can!  [Laughs]

BD:    But it’s one thing just to memorize pitch and duration and text, and then another thing to really get inside the role. 

JM:    Sure but you unless you can do that basic work with a fair degree of speed, you’re never going to have a chance to get into it either!  The first season of this production of Parsifal by Robert O’Hearn and Nathaniel Merrill, Cesare Siepi came down with a horrendous cold and Mr. Bing asked me if I’d stay there the whole evening.  I was doing Titurel, and Gurnemanz was something I knew.  So I was ready to do it that evening, but as it turned out I didn’t have to do it.  But in the spring, a colleague canceled it and I got my opportunity that year.  I found that some of these roles are almost second nature to me, and I don’t know why.  It’s like I’ve known them, although I maybe hadn’t ever seen them before.  Something about them is just like an old friend!

BD:    Maybe it’s because you enjoy it so very much?

JM:    Well, that immensely.  I enjoy singing so much, I can’t tell you.  Maybe all of my colleagues aren’t as happy as I am.  This past weekend Miss Fox [General Manager of Lyric Opera of Chicago], through John Pritchard, asked me to do the ‘Coronation Scene’ from Boris.  [This was for the Italian Flood Relief Concert of December 7, which featured most of those artists who were singing in Chicago at that time.]  I was asked on a Friday, and I hadn’t sung Boris in two and a half years.  So I started running the tape in my mind, and by Saturday afternoon I had it all together.  Then I got the score and found everything was just as I remembered it.  It’s like a good suit of clothes.  The ones that fit, fit very, very well, and the other ones just hang in the closet!  I look at how Wagner wrote, and every one of the bass roles fits my voice like the day it was made.  It’s also true of Verdi.

BD:    When they were composing they had a certain kind of voice in mind, and you happen to be that kind of voice.

JM:    That I don’t know, but I feel very fortunate that I can fit those suits of clothes!

BD:    We’re talking about Parsifal, so what kind of a man is Gurnemanz?  How much of a different man is he in Act Three from Act One?

JM:    Of course, there’s the age difference.  That’s immediately apparent.  He’s a little more startled by a sound and he moves more slowly. 

BD:    How much time has elapsed between Acts One and Three?

JM:    Gosh, it’s got to be a good twenty years.  It’s at least that because this sojourn that Parsifal went on to recover the spear didn’t happen overnight.  He must have fathered a son, since Lohengrin much later says ‘Mein Vater, Parsifal’...  So somewhere this didn’t just happen.  It wasn’t an overnight excursion he made.  He left the temple and wandered into the wood inadvertently as he was destined to.  ‘The Pure Fool’ had to be there.  He had to shoot the swan, and he had to not know what he was saying.  In Act One he sings Durch Mitleid wissend, der reine Tor [Enlightened by compassion, the pure fool], and it is heard again at the end of Act One.  It says to Gurnemanz,
“You’ve just experienced it!

macurdyBD:    Does Gurnemanz realize it at that point?  [Note: Despite being spelled
‘Thor’ in the musical example at left, the correct word is ‘Tor’.]

JM:    I think so, but he already booted Parsifal out.  Then in Act Three he starts to go back to the Grail hall, and all of a sudden you hear this theme again, and there he is.

BD:    So in your portrayal you have to show the audience that he realizes what he’s doing?

JM:    This is like that bolt, like the light that comes to illuminate the Grail.  This is the same thing illuminating him.  I go right down on my knees because it’s a realization.  This hopefully may be our salvation.  I don’t know if this is a proper corollary, but if Christ were to walk among us today, who would know it?  It’s only because afterwards we were aware of it, and this blameless ‘fool’, this pure one was there and then he was gone.  We didn’t know!

BD:    In this twenty-year break before the third act, does Gurnemanz ever lose faith?  Does he ever think maybe this wasn’t the ‘Pure Fool’?

JM:    In the moment it hits him.  Time moves along and other things happen, and this recedes from the memory until Parsifal comes back and he says,
“This is the one!  Amfortas is getting progressively weaker and weaker.  Titurel has passed away.  His death was imminent at the end of the first act, but in the interim he has died without knowing redemption, or having regained the spear and reuniting it with the Grail.  The one person that knows everything about this was Gurnemanz, because Gurnemanz knows the spear, he knows the Grail.  He’s the one thread that moves for the whole thing this way.  He ties it together and in my mind.  He recognizes the spear and the flood gate breaks forth.  It’s in the words and it’s in the music. 

BD:    [With a gentle nudge]  What if a director would want you to imply,
What took you so long, kid?

JM:    I would probably challenge him on the spot!  Maybe this might be my failing that I look at my character and what I’m doing at that particular moment in the scene and what I’m going to be saying to him, but the music doesn’t have this in it.  There’s reverence, admiration, exultation.  You can’t respond to this person in such a way.  Unfortunately there are directors who ask you to do things that are contrary to either the music or the words.  I really don’t know what they’re searching for.

BD:    Have there been times when you’ve said,
No, I will not do this?

JM:    Yes!  But we resolved our differences.  I was in a Magic Flute production, and the person wanted to show that Monostatos was my alter-ego, so I was to threaten him with the knife.  I said no, I can’t, I won’t!  He was right and I was right, and we were both wrong.  He had an idea, but I just couldn’t see my character doing that.  On the other hand, I could see Gurnemanz kicking Parsifal out of the Grail hall when he asked him if he understood what he saw.

BD:    [Somewhat surprised]  So you could see Gurnemanz actually being rather physical?

JM:    Oh yes, really!  Oh, yes!  In fact he is really hurrying him off out of the room. 
Weiβt du, was du sahst? [Do you know what you have seen?]  Nothing, nothing.  You know nothing!!!  And Parsifal just looks at him with this blank stare.  Then Gurnemanz says, You are just an idiot, get out of here!  We don’t have any time for you!  All of a sudden he’s gone, and then comes this beautiful ‘Durch Mitleid wissen.’ 

BD:    Do you think that perhaps he has kicked others out of the temple?

JM:    Probably, but not to the same effect.  Actually he could have but if somebody come to the hall and understood it, that wouldn’t necessarily make him the pure, ‘der reine Tor’.  It had to be this one.  This is the one who had to be there.  He had to do the deed of killing the swan.  Swans still today are reverenced.  They’re held in very special regard in Europe.  Killing one was a criminal act.  Gurnemanz wonders how this boy could do such a stupid thing.  Gurnemanz is a very human person.  He’s very real. 

BD:    You say Gurnemanz is real.  Is Parsifal real?

JM:    Sure, but he’s a personification of an ideal too.  He comes in as a very real person, having shot the swan, but he becomes more than that because of what he transcends, what he becomes.

BD:    Did you ever entertain any thoughts of singing Klingsor?

JM:    No, but I think Amfortas should because that is the alter-ego.

BD:    There was a performance at the Met with Hermann Uhde where he did actually sing both Amfortas and Klingsor.

JM:    Yes, but that makes good sense because that is his other side showing through.  Maybe Amfortas was so mad at his father for bringing him up this way.  He wanted to get rid of the darn thing.  I’m sure there’s some very, very learned men who have taken this idea apart!  [Both laugh]  I think it fits to do both roles.  The notes are the same, but Amfortas has a very difficult role to sing just from standpoint of saying what he has to say and the inner feeling he has to come out with.  Klingsor is right out in the open, just wreaking havoc on everything. 

BD:    Klingsor has a much more clear-cut motive

JM:    Right.  Maybe it’s Amfortas’s own motive of self-destruction.  We have in ourselves the seeds of our own destruction.  They lie within us, and maybe that’s the seed of his.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Speaking of doing two roles in one evening, this leads us logically to Tannhaüser. Do you think that Elisabeth and Venus should be played by the same woman?

JM:    Birgit did it.  Why not?!  There is somehow this seductress in all of us, and this might be that part of her.  It might be that other side of Tannhaüser, the side that he really doesn’t want to be, but we all have our fantasies, so maybe this is his fantasy.

BD:    Then why wouldn’t Wagner have written it for the same person, or directed it to be done by the same singer?

macurdyJM:    Maybe he didn’t have a singer that could encompass both of them.  It’s an interesting thing this idea.  I’ve done Tannhaüser with Leonie as Elisabeth, and in the production we did we had Grace (Bumbry) as Venus.  [James McCracken sang the title role, and James Levine conducted.]  The vocal requirements are different however, but if you have one singer that can encompass it, it’s a certainly a great thing to be able to play this other person and then come back for this wonderful schoolgirl effect that Elisabeth is.  She really wants to make it with Tannhaüser, and he is her fantasy.  Maybe the opening act is both of their fantasies laid out before us and we haven’t even thought of it in that way.  Actually you can find all kinds of values in these operas if you want to look beyond the parameters that are generally used.

BD:    Your role in Tannhaüser is Hermann, the Landgrave.  Can you make him more than a two-dimensional character?

JM:    I give him as much life as possible.  I’m not really too happy about seeing Tannhaüser again.  I felt we were rid of him in the first act, but after he returns, Hermann says,
Come on, we’re happy to have you back if you promise to be a good boy from this day forward.  So Tannhaüser says he is going to turn over a new leaf, which is fine.  However, no sooner than he’s turned the new leaf then he’s right back to where he was.  They welcome him to the guests, and that’s almost heroic, and I make a statement to everybody about how happy we are that they’re here in this hall, and we’re going to hear some of the finest music that’s ever been made.  Then the guy starts off on this other tangent again and brings up this unspeakable subject.  In a sense, to me it’s like using expletives in polite company.  It’s something you just don’t do.  Hermann says, “Enough!  There’s only one way to make atonement.  And so Tannhaüser leaves!

BD:    When Hermann sends him off to make atonement, does he think that he’s finally rid of Tannhaüser or does he think he’s really going to be able to succeed and be forgiven?

JM:    Probably Hermann hopes it happens.  He banishes Tannhaüser, but he says,
The only way that you can come back is if you go to Rome!  Tannhaüser has to make a decision and he goes, but in Hermann’s mind he’s saying good riddance.  He probably hopes, but he doesn’t expect to see Tannhaüser again.  He’ll hear any word or any news of him, and yet what comes is that because of the impetuousness of Hermann in expelling Tannhaüser from the Court, Elisabeth’s heart is broken.  Later on he returns and is redeemed, but he doesn’t live to enjoy it.  Everybody regrets the situation that develops as a resultto some of the most beautiful music in the world.

BD:    Wagner was able to write such beautiful music for such tragic situations.  I sometimes think it’s too bad this music couldn’t have been used in a happier story.

JM:    Well, he did.  He wrote one and it’s called Meistersinger!

BD:    Actually the Ring can be thought of as a happy ending.

JM:    It comes full circle, so to speak.  We didn’t do it at the Met this year because of the labor difficulty, but gosh, I really can’t wait to get running at it because it all hangs together so perfectly.  They talk about cuts, but you really can’t cut it.  The moment you cut, you make the opera longer because you make it tedious and tiresome.  It’s not like where Verdi made cuts.  I just did Tristan in Washington this year, and there’s a standard cut in the Marke aria.  It’s a basic ABA form, and the people would always say it’s a very tiresome, boring aria because they only do A and A. 

BD:    There’s no contrast?

JM:    No.  When we did the production at the Met, it was the first time it had been done complete, and the people said they couldn’t believe it was such a beautiful aria.  Mr. Hotter was there at the Met the day we did the dress rehearsal, and he said to me,
“John, I’m so happy they did it complete because in my time here, it was always cut.  Even Maestro Leinsdorf wanted to be sure to do the whole aria.  By doing it complete makes it slightly longer but it feels shorter!  In this sense you gained a tremendous lot by allowing it to run just as it was written.

BD:    What kind of fellow is Marke?

JM:    He’s a real father figure in the sense that Tristan is as a son.

BD:    Is he happy with Isolde at all?

JM:    He was happy when he saw her, but then all the rumors that Melot was spreading around set his mind ill at ease.  As he says in the aria to Tristan,
“You asked me to take a wife.  I didn’t want to, and then you brought me this beautiful woman.  Now what do I find?  The person who brought her to me is staying up nights with her!  He’s absolutely nonplused, and he is so unhappy.  He sees this as a bad dream, but the trouble is it’s reality.  It is Marke’s Liebestod.

BD:    I never thought of it that way.  It would be Marke’s Liebestod in Act Two.

JM:    Sure, Isolde has hers, but hers is almost an enjoying rapture.  Marke is just torn.

BD:    Let me ask one more speculative question.  If Tristan and Isolde had not been together, the tragedy then had not happened.  Do you think Marke could have been happy with Isolde
this older man and the younger woman?

JM:    I don’t know, but it happens all the time, so probably!  But everything conspired for them and against them.  Brangäne conspired to change the potion from poison to a love potion!  Isolde thought that’s what she was having, so she drinks it, he drinks it, and therein hangs a tale!

BD:    Let me thank you for speaking to me today, and for all of the performances you have given.

JM:    Thanks a lot.  I have enjoyed it very much.

BD:    I hope we see you back in Chicago again.

JM:    I hope the vibrations are there.


To read my Interview with Walter Berry, click HERE.



To read my Interviews with Yvonne Minton, click HERE.

To read my Interview with Ileana Cotrubas, clilck HERE.

© 1980 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in Chicago on December 11, 1980.  This transcription was made in 2015, 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.