Bass  Spiro  Malas

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


See my interviews with Paolo Montarsolo, Marilyn Horne, James Levine, and David Stivender

Spiro Malas (January 28, 1933 in Baltimore - June 23, 2019 in New York City)

Spiro Malas, a stalwart at New York City Opera and the Metropolitan Opera, was celebrated for his acting ability. His voice was modestly scaled, but he used it cannily, always finding ways for voice and gesture to illuminate character.

Malas’s family owned Duffy’s, a restaurant in Baltimore’s Southwest neighborhood. When he told his father he did not plan to join the business, the elder Malas staked him to four years of singing lessons. Malas attended Towson State College in Maryland and taught geography for a year after graduation while continuing his vocal training at Peabody Conservatory, where he caught the attention of Rosa Ponselle. In 1960, he was a winner at both the American Opera Auditions and the Met National Council Auditions.

He made his City Opera debut as Spinelloccio in Gianni Schicchi that year and over the next two decades appeared in hundreds of performances with the company, in roles ranging from Mozart’s Figaro and Daland in Der Fliegende Holländer to General Boom in The Grand Duchess of Gerolstein, Don Magnifico in Cenerentola and King Dodon in Le Coq d’Or. He first worked with Joan Sutherland and Richard Bonynge in 1964, as Giorgio in I Puritani with Sarah Caldwell’s Boston Opera Group. His collaboration with the soprano–conductor team lasted many years and included a tour of Australia in 1965, the Decca recordings of Semiramide, La Fille du Régiment and L’Elisir d’Amore and the children's television series Who's Afraid of Opera?

Although his career was largely based in the U.S., Malas appeared at the Edinburgh Festival, Florence’s Maggio Musicale and the Salzburg Festival. His Met debut came in 1983, when he joined Sutherland and Bonynge for a Fille revival, as Sergeant Sulpice. He went on to appear with the company 155 times over seven seasons in such roles as Frank in Die Fledermaus, Capulet in Roméo et Juliette, Zuniga in Carmen, the Police Commissioner in Der Rosenkavalier and the Innkeeper in both Manon and Manon Lescaut.


Malas’s career took a surprising turn in 1991, when, at age fifty-eight, he starred in a revival of The Most Happy Fella at Connecticut’s Goodspeed Opera House. The production of Frank Loesser’s 1956 musical/opera hybrid earned raves, especially for Malas. Frank Rich, The New York Times’s notoriously exacting theater critic, wrote, “The scrupulously truthful Mr. Malas … makes Tony enormously appealing without shortchanging the character’s obtuseness…. [He] surely fulfills Loesser’s highest intentions when, in his final aria, he seems to be thinking in song while sorting out what remains of his life.” The production moved to Broadway the following season, where it ran for 229 performances. Malas later acted in episodes of Law and Order and Sex and the City, among other television series. He served on the faculties of the Manhattan School of Music and Curtis Institute of Music.

Malas married mezzo-soprano Marlena Kleinman, a City Opera colleague, on September 30, 1963, in a City Hall wedding that took place between opera rehearsals. As Marlena Malas, she is now a celebrated voice teacher.

==  Obituary by Fred Cohn  
==  Names which are links in this box and below refer to my interviews elsewhere on my website.  BD  


We met in May of 1982, when he was in Chicago singing Frank in Die Fledermaus at Lyric Opera.  The cast included Winifred Faix Brown/Carol Gutknecht,
Sunny Joy Langton/Claudette Peterson, Tonio Di Paolo/Gualtiero Negrini, André Jobin, Timothy Nolen/Stephen Dickerson, Gerald Isaac, Rush Tully, and Carol Madalin, conducted by Lee Schaenen, and directed by Lotfi Mansouri, in the production by Robert O’Hearn, with ballet by Maria Tallchief.
Being in the special spring season, there were several performances grouped together, unlike the usual distribution during the regular fall season.  Malas invited me to his apartment on one of his rare open days.  Besides the interview, he was doing his laundry at the coin-op in the basement, and I assured him the informality was perfectly all right!

A few years before, I had seen Mozart
s The Abduction from the Seraglio on the TV, so that became my first question . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:   Tell me about doing Osmin on the television.

Spiro Malas:   It was about ten years ago, and it was a great experience in some ways, and not such a great experience in other ways.  At the time, I didn’t think the set design would work too well on TV, and yet when it was rebroadcast about four years later, it was more accepted than it was the first time.  With Osmin, you have to sing low notes and high notes [demonstrates both].  The first take of my big aria, which goes down to a low D [D2], I had a low D that was terrific.  Then they said that we had to repeat it because of technical trouble.  I asked about keeping the low D, but they said there was no way of doing that.  [Has a big sigh]  I can’t believe they couldn’t do that, but then we did it again.  It was about 2 o’clock in the morning after having worked all day filming.  How many times can you sing it and keep it low???   We repeated it, and then there was some orchestra boo-boo, and then there some other kind of boo-boo.  On the fifth take, my low D was good, but not quite as good as the first time.  I also did My Heart
s in the Highlands on the television.

BD:   That was by Jack Beeson?

Malas:   Yes.  I was the father, Kosak, and had a terrific aria.  It was a terrific scene, and I was very proud of that.  That’s one of the few times I’ve walked away from something happy that I’ve done.

BD:   [Surprised]  Really???  You usually walk away disappointed?

Malas:   Well, to the point you just wish you could do it again.  One performance in a hundred I feel it’s about as good as I could do it, or as well as I think I could do it.  But then, sometimes what you think is your best is not really your best, and other times when you think you’re really off, it’s not as off as you think.  So it’s difficult.  I have no idea how to compare them.  After a while you lay down, and you go eat, and you come back.  You just have different feelings about yourself at different times.

BD:   Is it easier to record where you can do things over and use the best takes?

Malas:   Most of the recordings I’ve done, we would just go for one or two takes at a performance level, and if there is a flaw, then let it be a little bit flawed, because they don’t use absolutely perfect recordings.  They’d rather have a real performance.  When we recorded The Daughter of the Regiment, the technicians had been with us for all six performances.  Then when I started to sing, they said,
Spiro, stop vocalizing!  Just give us the performance you did the other night.  They want it at performance level, and they didn’t care about every pearl-shaped tone.  They said that to Luciano and to Joan as well.  We did the trio in one take!

BD:   I am amazed at that!

Malas:   Joan was in the middle, Luciano was on one side, and I was on the other side.  The producer said,
That’s it.  Terrific!  We looked at each other, and we just couldn’t believe it.  Then, since we had about five minutes left in the recording session, Luciano says I feel a good Do [as in Do, Re, Mi]..., a good high C.  So he goes and sings it for ever and ever.  Then the next day he records the whole aria, and when he gets to the very ending, he says, “It’s in the can!  [Much laughter]  They spliced it together, but the thing is he could have sung it.  There was no reason he why he couldn’t have done it again, but he said, “It’s in the can!  It was funny.


BD:   Is he more touchy now about his recordings?  I’ve heard that he takes a lot more care, and is a lot more reluctant to release them.

Malas:   I think he gets too critical of himself.  By the time we did The Elixir of Love, it was seven years from the first time I’d done it with him in Australia in 1965.  Back then, he just sang ‘Una Furtiva Lagrima
so sweet and pure, like a little kid really dying of this love.  By the time he came to the recording, all of sudden every note had to be exactly perfect and stretched.

BD:   Was it more intense, too?

Malas:   Yes, and it got to the point for him it was a big vocal thing, instead of just singing.  I asked him where was that little simple boy who used to sing this thing, and he said
, But now it’s important.  For the records they expect this and that.  The truth is that because he has such wonderful natural instinct, when he does it the way he really should do, and feels he should honestly do it, it’s usually right because he’s terrific that way.

BD:   Do you rely on your natural instincts more than just working for each pearl-shaped tone?

Malas:   Yes, I basically consider it, even though I’m first a voice.  I do a lot of recitals, and include a lot of heavy stuff, such as the Mussorgsky Songs and Dances of Death.  But I still feel in the interpretation that it’s a performance I’m giving, so if one note goes astray, to hell with it.  When you sing about death, and it says ‘death’, what are you going to sing?  [He sings different ways of singing the word 
‘death’.]  You have to give a little bit once in a while to get the feeling, so it’s not always the same.  I get a little bit upset with singers that are so set in their ways.  Their vocalizing is always exactly the same.  Every note is perfect, but when you sing with them, it’s like singing with a computer.  It never varies.  They never really give you heart.  They never really make you cry.  But when you work with other people that might splatter a note here and there, they give you more feeling.  On the other hand, that’s why they’re orchestra favorites because there are no mistakes.  One wonderful singer is Judith Blegen.  She’s terrific. She also plays the violin, and when we did Die Fledermaus, suddenly in the ‘Audition Song’, she picked up the violin.  The audience went wild.  [Sylvia McNair also played the violin, and we talk about it during our interview.]

*     *     *     *     *
BD:   Let me ask you about translations.  Do you prefer singing in translation because it’s more communicative?

Malas:   Yes, in the comic operas.  Most composers of comic operas wanted their audiences to laugh.  If the opera is in a language the audience doesn’t understand, it loses a lot.  I do a segment of my concert called
Spiro and Spirit Gum.  I do the first half of a concert which is absolutely straight.  I start with Handel and Mussorgsky, and then some Greek songs, and then I do this segment where I’m changing the make-up.  I go from Pasquale, to Dulcamara, to Prince Galitski, to Bartolo and Figaro, and end up with ‘If I were a Rich Man’.  In the Dulcamara section, I say that he’s a one of the greatest charlatans of all times, and I sing five minutes of the aria.  Then I turn around and sing the same section in English, and the people go wild!  [Singing an example]  My special pain reliever does away with labor pains, and also the fever!

BD:   They didn’t know opera was so much fun!

Malas:   In that one particular section, I feel that I do bring a certain bravado, but I wouldn’t want to hear Otello or Aïda in English.

BD:   What about the Songs of Dances and Death?  When you’re talking about death, do you want them to feel its chill?

Malas:   Right now I do it in English.  I have a good translation, because I’ve done them in Russian, too.  But sometimes when I’m singing in Russian, and I’ve forgotten what the word means, it registers on my mind that I am an idiot.  
What are you singing this for?  You don’t know what you’re singing!  I hate that feeling.  Fortunately the Russian sounds are a little easy for me because I speak Greek, and it is helpful.  But as far as really understanding what I’m saying in Russian, it’s a little difficult.  But I’ve seen comic operas at the Met where the audience just sits on their hands, and they don’t know what the hell’s going on.  That’s where a lot of the buffo acting started to be really overdone, and the characters just went over-board with slapstick to make the people laugh when they didnt understand the words.

BD:   Then everything is circus a act?

Malas:   Yes.  When Salvatore Baccaloni came over, he started doing nothing, and the audience felt he was not really very funny.  So he started the comic business to make them laugh, because nobody understood him.

BD:   How difficult would it be to get singers to learn roles in English when they’re performing all over the world?

Malas:   Most Italians are not about to learn English, or sing in English.  The Americans are the only ones that are able to really sing all the other languages.  Luciano is going to sing his first song in English for his movie.  His English is really pretty good...

BD:   If they don
t know the language, is it easier for an American to sing an opera in Italian, or to sing it in English?

Malas:   It all depends on somebody’s ear.  Siepi speaks beautiful English and beautiful German.  He just happens to have a great gift for it.  Cornell McNeil speaks perfect Italian, but you would never know it because the accent is so terrible.  It’s absolutely grammatically perfect, so it all depends on the ear.  I heard an Italian once try to sing ‘Old Man River’ and I thought it was the funniest thing I’d ever heard.  It was [imitating the English with an Italian accent] Old-uh Man-uh Reevairrrr.  So, it’s difficult to say, but if someone has an ear for it, and wants to do it, fine. 

BD:     I’ve often put forward the theory that they should put a little TV screen on top of the prompter’s box, with a running translation like they do in the television.   
[Remember, this interview took place in 1982, before the invention of supertitles in the theater.  Perhaps if I had actually put this idea forward at the time, I could have supported my own opera company, or maybe retired to my luxury villa... *sigh*]

Malas:   I have a better theory.  They ought to put the music on a score board there so I don’t make any mistakes as I’m singing.  [Both laugh]  I’d love that.  It would feel like a prompter for us. 

*     *     *     *     *

[After my guest momentarily tended to his laundry, we resumed the conversation.  He was grumbling a bit about the poor review he got in one of the Chicago newspapers.]

Malas:   The role I do is not that crucial, but it’s the first time I’ve ever been knocked like that for doing this role, and I’ve done it everywhere.  [Amazingly, that particular review complained about most of the cast, which (in my opinion, since I had seen the performance) was completely uncalled-for.]  I wonder how he can say that about the tenor, who is so adorable.  Tonio di Paolo is just a wonderful gifted guy, and Winifred’s got a hell of a voice!  I’ve never heard her before this, and she is really incredible.  It’s a major voice for a certain repertoire as far as I’m concerned.  I’m not a hundred per cent sure that Fledermaus is for her, because you have to be a little more flamboyant, but maybe that will come.  No matter, she really pours out a beautiful sound.
BD:   Without mentioning names, are there singers around who should have front-rank careers that don’t?

Malas:   [Sighs]  I’ve been singing for twenty years now, and I don’t believe it.  Jeez!  I finished college in 1960, and when I came to New York in 1961, I started working almost immediately.  There were guys like Norman Treigle, who should have been at the Metropolitan getting top dollar.  He just never really quite achieved what he should have achieved.  It was not as beautiful a voice as Siepi, but you’ve got to respect somebody that can have 3,000 people standing on their feet stamping their feet, cheering, saying bravo, bravo!  He deserved the best, and to see that not happen to him really hurt me a lot.  This is not taking anything away from Sam Ramey and Mike Devlin, who are exact copies of Norman, but they’re having the major careers now.

BD:   Why one singer and not another?

Malas:   It is because their lives were managed a little differently.  They had an influential manager at the time, and the things were just going a little different way.  But they are carbon copies, and it sort of makes you sick to think that it should have been Norman.  He might still be alive today had he’d gotten his due the way he should of.  Chester Ludgin was another one that was really not treated the way he should have been.  But who’s to say?  It’s a matter of likes and dislikes.  Beverly Sills and I argue about roles I’d like to do.  She says absolutely not to something that I’ve had the biggest success with in my life, like the four villains in Hoffmann.  I know it
s just because I’m big, and everybody thinks he should be thin.  But I’ve done it playing him big, and it’s been a major success for me.  She says she doesn’t see me in that green costume!  So, OK, let’s make it black!  What does it matter what color it is?  You get your likes and your dislikes, and opera companies change hands.  Every time they change hands, they have their favorites.  That’s how this business works.  Unless you’re really somebody who is box-officelike Beverly Sills, or Luciano Pavarottithey go with their favorites, and sometimes they’re not the best people, unfortunately.  But I’ve got to be very thankful because there are enough people that have me as a favorite.  I work all the time, and that’s a very important thing.

BD:   Sure, you’re very lucky for that, but it is well deserved, of course.

BD:   Do you prefer doing opera or concerts?

Malas:   It varies.  I really like both.  I’ve been doing concerts for about five years now, ever since I fell on this gimmick of
Spiro and Spirit Gum’.  I did it to entertain some board members of the San Francisco Opera, and one of the stage directors was there and said to me, You’ve got something going there.  Take a couple more wigs, and get a couple more things, and you’ve got a whole act.  Then when I presented it to Columbia Artists Management, they were not so hot about it.  So I said, Just give me fifteen minutes in front of the representatives, and we will see what happens.  The next day I had twenty-seven offers!  [Both laugh]  So, evidentially, it was not such a bad idea!  I do anywhere from twenty-five to thirty of them a year.  If they want a straight concert, then in the second half I do the Ibert Don Quichotte Songs, and another aria, and then end up with ‘Mama Mama’ and ‘If I were a Rich Man’.  But just this year, Fort Myers, Florida really wanted a straight concert.  I said, “Why not take a chance?  I think your people will like it, and of course the people went wild.  It’s just you and that audience.  You rise or fall by yourself.  The only standing ovations I’d ever been part of were with Joan Sutherland, Beverly Sills, or Luciano Pavarotti.  Standing there, holding hands with these giants of the music world, I knew that the people were really standing for them and not me.  Yet about my fifth solo concert in, I was performing in a small town, and the people were standing.  They stood up immediately.  It was not like they were running for the door, they were standing up yelling bravo.  I turned around to see who they were standing up for!  I turned around to my accompanist, and I kept turning around, and finally I realized they’re standing for me.  I started to cry!  I was so distraught I couldn’t do any encores.  It took me a while to realize I had my own genuine ovation.  There were maybe 500 people in the audience.  It wasn’t 5,000, but it was a good size, and when I do concerts now, nine out of ten times I get standing ovations.  That’s a very gratifying thing, because I’ve been to every bass concert possible, and I never see standing ovations.  Besides the singing, I give them something of me.  I’ll end up maybe with no throat that night, but there’s a special communication that, somehow or other, I must have given them.

BD:   You make it an enjoyable evening!

Malas:   Yes, it’s an enjoyable evening, and the word gets around.  The next thing is that the management asks me how many I want to do next year? 

BD:   Do you mind working this much?  Do you ever find yourself working too much?

Malas:   No.  What I don’t like to do is sing every day, even like this Fledermaus.  I don’t like doing it every day in a row, but this is the way it was scheduled.  They gave me the option of having an extra person for some of the performances, as some of the others do, but since it’s not a big vocal part, I figured it’s not going to kill me.  I’m here for the week, so why not take advantage of it and do it.  Actually, it’s only because there’s nothing scheduled after the week.  When I finish this, I’m off for three weeks.  There’s just nothing scheduled, and if something comes up, I would accept it.  But...

BD:   Do you enjoy the three weeks just to yourself?

Malas:   Oh sure.  I am very much a family guy.  Being with my two boys and my wife, we’ll have a wonderful time together.  My wife is one of the biggest voice teachers in New York.  That’s all she does, poor thing.  She just sits at that piano teaching all day long.  She has fifteen or twenty people from the Metropolitan, and they come from all over the world.

BD:   When you get three weeks off, does she cancel lessons for those three weeks to be with you?

Malas:   No.  She takes Wednesday afternoons and the weekends off.  But we’ll be together all summer in Chautauqua.  I’m doing South Pacific, and she won’t work that much... except there are a lot of students who come up there to take lessons.  She’s that good that they come all that distance to spend a week, two weeks, three weeks, just to have isolated lessons like that during the summer.

BD:   Do you take lessons with her?

Malas:   Oh, yes!  Whenever I’m home, it’s Sunday morning at 11 o’clock.

BD:   Even after Saturday night performance?
Malas:   No, then it’s within reason.  That’s usually how it goes.  But she doesn’t teach on weekends, and I’m a morning person, anyway, so we work Sunday morning.

BD:   How do you get around being a morning person, yet having to be fresh in performances near Midnight?

Malas:   When 4:30 pm comes, I take an hour snooze.  I’m up at 7:30 am, and I’ll read the paper, and at 4:30 pm, I just sack out for an hour, and rejuvenate.

BD:   That keeps you fresh and buoyant?

Malas:   Yes, hopefully.  [Both laugh]  But everybody does it differently.  I think people who sleep too late miss something.  There’s something about the mornings that are so terrific.  When I was in college, that’s how I got through school.  One hour of study at 7 am was better than trying to study three hours at night, because in the morning my eyes were clear, and I could photograph things, then go and take the test, and that was fine.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Let’s talk about some of your other roles.  You sing Boris Godunov?

Malas:   I’ve always done that in concert form.  On the opera stage, I’ve done Vaarlam and Pimen.

BD:   Do you do those two in the same performance?

Malas:   I’ve done that with Treigle as Boris.

BD:   What it’s like doing the two roles in the same evening?

Malas:   I like it because you get a chance to be as solid as can be, and as elegant as possible, and sing as prettily as you can.  Actually, when you’re doing both in the same night, you do both roles better, because if you’re only doing the one, you only concentrate on that one, and you don’t quite reach the extreme of a role the way that you can when you’re doing both.  I like to have that challenge of changing, as I do in Hoffmann.  Vaarlam is thought of as being sort of a buffo, but I don’t like to think of it as a buffo.  I call it a charm role, or a dimple role.

BD:   Do you put on a bulbous nose?

Malas:   Yes, but to have a chance to do this comic role and then a serious role, it can go from [demonstrates high to low].  Then you turn around and get serious.  Somebody told me once the one who is going to make you cry the most is Red Skelton.  I disagreed, but then I heard him do the Pledge Allegiance to the Flag, and that meant so much to me.  I’ve got this ability to do ha-ha-ha, but then I have got the strength to stand there and turn things around.  When I did Fiddler on the Roof last summer, I saw people there in the audience with their handkerchiefs.  Then I would get choked up.  On the opening night, I was in tears eight different times.  I was so moved, and then I had to sing ‘Little Bird’.  It was wonderful dramatically, but vocally it was the pits.  But still, what can you do?  You go by how it hits you at the time.  Then there’ll be other performances where I wouldn’t be crying, and ‘Little Bird’ came out with perfect bell tones.  The first time I cried eight times, and then I had it down to about four times by the end of the run of the show.  I wondered when I was ever going to stop crying doing this opera.  Then another friend of mine said he felt sorry for the guy that can do the show and doesn’t cry!

BD:   Do you consider Fiddler to be an opera?

Malas:   The way I sang it I do.  I croon a lot of it, but there are many powerful places that I never knew were to be sung.  Usually they speak them.  When I sing these lines, the audience responds to the voice.  You have these sounds coming out, and it makes a big difference.  Fortunately, the opera singers of today can act.  They don
t have to get a Broadway-type because an opera singer can’t do it.  When I go to do my commercial calls, or my Broadway readings, they don’t know that I’m a singer.  They don’t even know who I am.  I go there and I get the parts, and I have to laugh because it’s only later they find out that I’m really an opera singer.  They know Pavarotti, or Sills, or Sutherland, but they don’t know me, and they don’t know Paul Plishka, and they don’t know Nicolai Gedda.  They just don’t know.  If they’re not in the know of opera, they don’t know!

BD:   Tell me about Don Pasquale.

Malas:   Oh yes, that’s one of my favorites.  I do that all the time.

BD:   When you were talking about seriousness, my mind went to when he gets slapped by Norina.

Malas:   Yes, it’s a very moving part.  You really have to play that hurt, and hopefully that the people join you in feeling badly.  That’s a very moving section.

BD:   Have you done that opera in Italian as well as English?

Malas:   Yes.  I’ve done it with Alfredo Kraus in three places in Europe
Naples, Rome and Las Palmas.

BD:   Do you find you’re able to communicate with the Italian audiences in Italian as well as you’re able to communicate with American audiences in English?

Malas:   I think so, except that the way it’s written in Italian is not as much for laughs as it is in English.  When they translate, sometimes they get a little too cute English-wise, rather than sticking with the Italian as it is to the Italians.

BD:   Are Americans building up a tradition in opera now, like something that the Italians have had for 200 years?

Malas:   Luciano says that the opera houses in Italy are not really that full any more, not the way they used to be, except when the tourists are there.  But look at all the companies we have in America now.  My God, every city has a company, and it’s fantastic because there are so many different places where a young singer can get a little more training.  San Francisco has a smaller company, and Chicago has all these kids around here that they train [at the Lyric Opera Center for American Artists].  The Met has kids that they train, and there are many places where they get first-rate coaching, voice lessons, and all types of stagecraft.  When I started twenty years ago, you couldn’t get that.  I was just fortunate.  I don’t know why, but I guess I was good enough to just go right into the New York City Opera, and every major role I ever did was in front of 3,000 people!  It’s a little scary!


BD:   They took a chance on you, and it paid off.

Malas:   Yes, I think so.  I hope so!  [Laughs]

BD:   Do you think these opera companies should take chances on young talent?

Malas:   I think so.  Not always from an audition, but after a few good rehearsals you can tell if somebody has the talent.  Mine was a sort of a strange case.  I was just doing Benoît and Alcindoro [in La Bohème], and then in 1964 they were doing A Midsummer Night’s Dream [of Benjamin Britten].  I had heard that Bottom was a great role.  I had only done small roles, and I went in and literally locked Julius Rudel [General Director and Principal Conductor of the New York City Opera] in a room, and told him that I want to sing some things for him.  He’d never really heard me sing, and I sang Mephistopheles, and Boris Godunov, and three or four things, and I said,
“Who do you have that can sing these parts that well?  When it hit me what I had done, I thought I’d lost my job and everything, so I started apologizing.  He said, Don’t apologize.  You’ve proved your point, and the next thing I had was the role of Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  Then Rudel said, Spiro, I have a problem.  The director is Bill Ball, the founder of the American Conservatory Theater.  He was really a fantastic director, and he wanted more of an actor who can’t sing.  I said, Let him work with me for one three-hour rehearsal.  If hes not pleased with me, I’ll leave and nobody will know.  You will save face, and everybody will get their way.  About an hour into the rehearsal, Bill Ball just kissed me on the cheek and said, Let’s get to work.  That was it!  It was a big turning point.  There was no question about it.  It was my first major success in New York, and from then on, all of a sudden I went from the minors to the majors with that one role.

ball William Gormaly Ball (April 29, 1931 in Chicago – July 30, 1991 in Los Angeles) was an American stage director and founder of the American Conservatory Theater (ACT). He was awarded the Drama Desk Vernon Rice Award in 1959 for his production of Chekhov's Ivanov and was nominated for a Tony Award in 1965 for his production of Molière's Tartuffe, starring Michael O'Sullivan and René Auberjonois. He was also a noted director of opera.

Ball founded the American Conservatory Theater in Pittsburgh in 1965. This was a company of up to 30 full-time paid actors who studied all disciplines of the theater arts during the day and performed at night. Ball had a falling out with ACT's financial benefactors in Pittsburgh and took the company on the road. His 1966 productions of Albee's Tiny Alice, Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of an Author, and others at the Stanford University Summer Festival led a group of financiers to offer his company a home in San Francisco, which had recently lost the Actor's Workshop to New York's Lincoln Center.

In its first season, Ball's ACT produced twenty-seven full-length plays in two theaters over the course of seven months. Some actors would do one role in the early part of a play at the Geary Theatre then run two blocks up the hill to the Marines Memorial Theatre to appear in the last part of another. Ball's 1974 production of Cyrano de Bergerac and his 1976 production of The Taming of the Shrew were televised nationally on PBS. In 1979, ACT received the Tony Award for excellence in regional theatre.

At the New York City Opera, from 1959 to 1964, Ball directed productions of Weisgall's Six Characters in Search of an Author (world premiere, with Beverly Sills), Mozart's Così fan tutte (with Phyllis Curtin), Egk's The Inspector General (with the composer conducting), Gershwin's Porgy and Bess (with Julius Rudel conducting), Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream (with Tatiana Troyanos as Hippolyta), Mozart's Don Giovanni (with Norman Treigle in the title role), and Hoiby's Natalia Petrovna (world premiere).

BD:   Do you enjoy doing twentieth-century music?
Malas:   Not particularly, no, because I have a hard time learning any kind of music.  I’ve done Don Rodrigo [by Alberto Ginastera], which was a big success in New York.  Some new music is very good...  I don’t know how you feel about it, but most of the time there’s that one performance, and then it’s shelved.  It’s a lot of wasted money.  Look at the Met with Antony and Cleopatra [by Samuel Barber, which opened the new Met in 1966 with Leontyne Price and Justino Diaz].  Paradise Lost [by Krzysztof Penderecki, commissioned by Lyric Opera] was lost, wasn’t it?
BD:   Pretty much so, but I enjoyed it.

Malas:   If you’re going for the spectacle, it’s one thing, but I like to hear music.  I like to hear melody.

BD:   I agree with Bruno Bartoletti [Artistic Director and Principal Conductor of Lyric Opera], who said that the only way to get lots of good new operas is just to have so many new operas, and keep getting the composers to write operas, and more operas, and let them practice their craft.

Malas:   I wonder about that...  I don’t know.

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BD:   Let’s go the other direction.  Do you do early music such as Monteverdi and Cavalli?

Malas:   I’ve done Seneca in The Coronation of Poppea [by Claudio Monteverdi].  It was not one of my greatest successes, but it was nice doing it.  You always have to try everything, and then what doesn’t work well for you, you just forget about, and stick with the ones that you can have a success with.

BD:   Did you sing the low C?

Malas:   As a matter of fact, yes.  I also took the low C in the first act of Rosenkavalier.  Johanna Meier looked at me and said,
All these basses that keep telling me how great their low notes are, but they never came out any better than yours!  I thanked her for that.  [Both laugh]

BD:   Tell me about Baron Ochs.

Malas:   That was a little bit of a disappointment because I’ve never worked so hard in my life.  I did it mainly because Beverly was going to do the Marschallin at City Opera, and she wanted me to do the Baron Ochs.  It was all set, but I wanted to get a performance under my belt somewhere.  We were going to do it in English, so I did it in Fort Worth, Texas with Elizabeth Hynes and Johanna Meier, a good cast.  I put them through hell because I didn’t know my part exactly.  I didn’t realize how difficult all the back and forth, and back and forth was.  Anyway, finally, it sunk in and I did it, and I’m telling you it was one of the most gratifying experiences of my life!  When I finished doing that performance, never having dropped an eighth note, and knowing that I’d sung it well, and acted it well, I walked off and I was in tears.  I was just dissolved.  The guy who I was sharing the dressing room wondered what was wrong.  He thought somebody had died, or something.  It was just the special feeling of having accomplished doing it.  But the bad experience is that I’ve never had a chance to do it since.  It was in 1977, so it’s out of my head now.  If somebody asked me to learn it again, I don’t know if I’d go to all that effort unless I had a series of them to do, because it’s such a big work.

BD:   It’s difficult to ask a singer to do something limited.

Malas:   The thing is I thought I was going to do it at City Opera that following year, and it would have been terrific to do performances there.  Had it been a success, maybe I would do it here and there, and then make it one of my international roles.  That would be terrific, but it didn’t work out that way.

BD:   Have they ever asked you to do something that from the start you’ve said,
No, I can’t do that?

Malas:   Yes.  I had in my contract many times at City Opera, one performance guaranteed of Mephistopheles in Faust, but it was always me who chickened out.  Rudel was willing to let me try, but all I could think of was that everybody was used to the skinny Norman Treigle.  Frank Corsaro said that we could play it in an entirely different way, but I never had the courage to do it.  Yet vocally I could have sung the hell out of it.  They didn’t want to bring the German guy back from Germany for it, and Rudel said to me,
There’s only one performance.  Would you learn it?  I saw this aria, and knew it would really be a challenge.  I wanted to do it, and again, it was such a success for me.  But again, I put everybody through hell because they asked me six weeks before the curtain.  I thought I’m going to kill myself learning this thing, and then the conductor started griping.  He said I didn’t know the music.  He was going to protest me, and he did protest me.  Rudel came up to me and asked what I thought.  I said, “Julius, I think I’m going to be terrific!  He said, Fine!  Then I don’t care what the conductor says.  The conductor bitched, and bitched, and bitched, and again, I was learning the last note as the curtain was going up.  But I didn’t drop an eighth note that whole performance, and it was a very moving experience.  Then came the curtain calls, and the conductor, Ernst Märzendorfer came running across the stage to me.  I thought, Oh, my God!  What I did I do?  But he kept pushing me out for a solo curtain call!  He said, You were fantastic.  You are a hero.  You were sensational!  He went from protesting me, wanting me out of the opera, never to see my face again, to pushing me down to the footlights!  That’s quite a turnaround, so I thought I really had done the job.

BD:   Rudel knew you and trusted you.

Malas:   Yes.  Julius was very fair with me.  That’s one thing I loved about him.  He would come back after something wasn’t so good and say,
We’ll leave that for another time.  Then I’d do something else, and that’s how it goes!  It was very sweet that we had that type of relationship, because it meant a lot to me.  It would allow me to grow, and we’d try different things.  He’s always given me the last performance of something to try.  Beverly doesn’t do that now to see how someone will fare.

BD:   Rather than the last performance, should a youngster be given one in the middle of the run?

Malas:   Whatever it is, just so long as they get a chance at it, and have something to work toward.  Then you also watch rehearsals.  Most of the times I had to take over from Treigle.  We were so different size-wise that there was no way I could really copy him.  I had to do it my own way, and there’s something about doing things without ever having an orchestra rehearsal.  People complain they don’t have them, but the one reason I don’t sing a lot in New York is because they always want too much rehearsal.  I get so bored after a while, I can
t stand it.  Why would I want to rehearse five weeks for Don Pasquale when the performance in three days would be just as good.  We just did The Abduction of Seraglio in New Orleans with four days rehearsal, and it was terrific.  We had John Garrison, Faye Robinson, Sonny Joy Langton, myself, and we just did a bang-up job because we all knew it and we worked hard.  Then there’s that extra energy on stage when you wonder if this is right?  [Laughs]  But when you rehearse, rehearse, rehearse, you lose all the spontaneity.  Everybody looks at it differently, but I thrive on those performances were you just go out, and have two days rehearsal, and do it.
BD:   Maybe this is because you’re more of an instinctive actor.
Malas:   I don’t know what it is, but I don’t like to hear people saying that you can’t do this.  That’s wrong. 
Watch the dotted note!  Watch this, watch that.  You can’t do this because once you’re on stage in front of 3,000 people, it’s too late.  Maybe you didn’t dot the right note.  Maybe you didn’t hold that phrase long enough.  Maybe you held something too long, but basically, it’s a performance, and the thing that comes across is exciting, and that’s what it’s all about.  The first tour I ever did, was Don Giovanni with Boris Goldovsky in 1961.  Sherrill Milnes was the Masetto, Justino Díaz was the Commendatore, Ron Holgate (who is out on tour now with Annie) was the Don.  We also had soprano Jeanette Scovotti who had a perfect career as a coloratura.  [Laughs]  Not a bad cast for a Goldovsky thing.  One time I left out a phrase, and I was just feeling so bad about it, and Goldovsky said [in his Russian accent], Speed-o my boy, it’s not always the best musical performance that makes the performance fantastic.  Sometimes you can forget many things.  It’s the performance that counts, and what happens at that time.  Just because every note is right doesn’t make it the best performance.  There’s something to be said for that.

BD:   Maybe this is what’s wrong with recordings?

Malas:   Yes.  In defense of Joan Sutherland, I must tell you that when we recorded Semiramide, and she recorded the big aria ‘Bel Raggio Lusinghier’, we all went into the booth to listen to it.  It was so fantastic.  It was absolutely perfect, and she said to the producer,
I guess we’ve got to do that again.  I asked why, and she said, It was too perfect.  People will expect me to sound like that on the stage.  I told her that I didn’t believe her, and she said, It makes singing too difficult then, because they always expect you to sound like that.

BD:   Did she record it again a little less perfectly?

Malas:   Well, she recorded it again.  It was still fantastic, but not of the level of that first take.

BD:   Thank you so much for coming to Chicago, and for meeting me today.

Malas:   Thank you.  It was fun to chat with you.

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© 1982 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in Chicago on May 19,1982.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB in 1987, 1989, 1990, 1993, 1997. and 1998.  This transcription was made in 2022, 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.  To read my thoughts on editing these interviews for print, as well as a few other interesting observations, click here.

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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.