Conductor  John  Mauceri

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


John Mauceri, world-renowned conductor, educator and writer, has appeared with the world’s greatest opera companies and symphony orchestras, on the musical stages of Broadway and Hollywood as well as at the most prestigious hall of academia.

Mr. Mauceri served as music director (direttore stabile) of the Teatro Regio in Turin, Italy for three years after completing seven years (22 productions and three recordings) as music director of Scottish opera, and is the first American ever to have held the post of music director of an opera house in either Great Britain or Italy. He was music director of the Washington Opera (The Kennedy Center) as well as Pittsburgh Opera, and was the first music director of American Symphony Orchestra in Carnegie Hall after its legendary founding director, Leopold Stokowski, with whom he studied. For fifteen years he served on the faculty of his alma mater, Yale University, and returned in 2001 to teach and conduct the official concert celebrating the university’s 300th anniversary. For 18 years, Mr. Mauceri worked closely with Leonard Bernstein and conducted many of the composer’s premieres at Bernstein’s request.


He is the Founding Director of the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, which was created for him in 1991 by the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association. Breaking all records at the Bowl, he conducted over 300 concerts at the 18,000-seat amphitheater with a total audience of four million people. One of Los Angeles’ most beloved figures, he has been honored with many awards and commendations, including “John Mauceri Day” in the state of California, receiving a Treasure of Los Angeles Award, and the Young Musicians Foundation Award. For seven years (2006-2013) he served as chancellor of the University of North Carolina’s School of the Arts, America’s first public arts conservatory-university.

He has conducted at New York’s Metropolitan Opera, London’s Royal Opera House (Covent Garden), Milan’s Teatro alla Scala, Berlin’s Deutsche Oper, the New York Philharmonic, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, all the major London orchestras, as well as l’Orchestre Nationale de France and the Israel Philharmonic.

mauceriOn Broadway, he was co-producer of On Your Toes, and served as musical supervisor for Hal Prince’s production of Candide, as well as Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Song and Dance with Bernadette Peters. He also conducted the orchestra for the film version of Evita.

Deeply committed to preserving two American art forms, the Broadway musical and Hollywood film scores, he has edited and performed a vast catalogue of restorations and first performances, including a full restoration of the original 1943 production of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!, performing editions of Gershwin’s Porgy & Bess, Girl Crazy, and Strike up the Band, Bernstein’s Candide and A Quiet Place, and film scores by Miklós Rózsa, Franz Waxman, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Max Steiner, Elmer Bernstein, Jerry Goldsmith, Danny Elfman and Howard Shore. As one of two conductors in Decca Records’ award-winning series “Entartete Musik,” Mauceri made a number of historic first recordings of music banned by the Nazis. The intersection of the “degenerate composers” of Europe and the refugee composers of Hollywood is the subject of much of his research and his writings. In addition, Mr. Mauceri has conducted significant premieres of works by Verdi, Debussy, Hindemith, Ives, Stockhausen, and Weill.

In articles, speeches, radio and television appearances, John Mauceri has taken his passion for music and the importance of the arts to audiences throughout the world. These include Harvard University, Yale University, the Smithsonian Institution, the NEA, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Gramophone Magazine, NPR, BBC, PBS, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and the Huffington Post where he regularly writes a blog.

Mr. Mauceri is one of the world’s most accomplished recording artists, having released over 75 audio CDs and is the recipient of Grammy, Tony, Olivier, Drama Desk, Edison Klassiek, 3 Emmy Awards, 2 Diapasons d’Or, Cannes Classique, ECHO Klassik, Billboard, and four Deutsche Schallplatten awards. In 1999, Mr. Mauceri was chosen as a “Standard-bearer of the Twentieth Century” for WQXR, America’s most-listened-to classical radio station. According to WQXR, “These are a select number of musical artists who have already established themselves as forces to be reckoned with, and who will be the Standard Bearers of the 21st Century’s music scene.” The recipients were chosen for “their visionary talent and technical virtuosity.” In addition, CNN and CNN International chose Mr. Mauceri as a “Voice of the Millennium”.

--  Throughout this webpage, names which are links refer to my Interviews elsewhere on this website.  BD 

In January of 1987, John Mauceri first came to Lyric Opera of Chicago for the late-season run of La Bohème.  There were interesting problems to be solved, and he spoke in some detail about it all in the discussion I had with him at that time.  We also talked about many of the other aspects of his varied and complicated career . . . . . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:    I usually ask this of singers, but I have never asked it of a conductor before.  Do you like being a wandering minstrel?

mauceriJohn Mauceri:    I like being a wandering minstrel.  Not to give you a stupid answer, but the answer is really
sometimes.  Sometimes I am happy to be in beautiful parts of the world and being in new places, and other times it’s a real pain in the neck.  It just depends on your mood.  It just happens to be the way the job works.  So I suppose when all is said and done I do prefer traveling, but I also like going back to places I’ve been to before because you know some of the people and you know the lay of the land, and you feel a little more comfortable.  The combination of traveling and having jet lag, and speaking a foreign language, and being in front of a new orchestra, and trying to figure out your way to the theater and all of that combines to make the job even more difficult.  As you can imagine, being a conductor is the hardest thing you can do.  So, yes, it’s okay that we have to travel and there are some times when you’re really grateful to be in some wonderful place.

BD:    You say the conducting is about the hardest job you can do.

JM:    Yes.

BD:    Are conductors appreciated for the amount of effort they put into a production?

JM:    Well, I don’t know!!  I guess the answer is sometimes.  I don’t think anybody except a conductor really understands, and even a lot of conductors don’t know how hard it is to be a conductor.  It’s practically an impossible task, especially in opera where you are at the service of a work of art, where you have so many soloists all of them performing from memory on stage, being concerned not only for the music but also the drama and their costumes and their staging.  They have specific needs, and therefore you have to somehow be sensitive to those needs, and at the same time sustain your vision of the piece, which is the same as to say the integrity of the piece.  So it’s an extremely difficult task.  You have the orchestra down in the pit, and they do not play the work every day, unlike a symphony concert where you rehearse and then you do three or four of them in a row.   Between my performances of Bohème, there have been not only Gioconda performances, but worse, performances of Bohème with the Studio Cast and conducted by another conductor using other orchestra material.  Everything I’ve rehearsed it gets totally compromised when they get in front of somebody else and pay La Bohème.  They played La Bohème yesterday and I’m about to do it tonight, and it’s been almost a week since our last performance!  So my task is enormous to get them to remember.  They’re willing to be reminded, but you don’t just come back to it.  Right from the beginning you don’t want them to rush because I may do it slower than the last guy who did it a little faster, and there’s an accent here and not there, and all those things.  It’s very, very complicated.  And in case of Bohème, I don’t think anybody ever appreciates the conductor!

BD:    [Surprised]  Really?  Why?

JM:    Because most people appreciate the conductor only if there are large orchestral passages that you remember.  They think that the conductor conducts the orchestra, and in Bohème there’s very little that the orchestra actually does that is separate from the drama.  In Butterfly there’s a huge intermezzo, and there are orchestral interludes.  In Tosca the orchestra comments a lot.  Certain operas have big overtures or other instrumental things.

BD:    Do the singers on stage appreciate your work?

JM:    Yes, that’s not a problem.  I’m just saying from a public perception, a critical perception, Bohème is one of the most thankless operas to do because it is the hardest of the traditional operas to do.  To do what it says is well-nigh impossible.  About ten% of the score is ambiguous, and therefore major decisions have to be made because there is no really correct edition of Bohème.  In order to prepare this when I first did it, I only studied the autograph.  I bought the recording that Toscanini made and the one that Beecham made because both of them dealt with the composer their performances are almost antithetical.  So between that and what a lot of other people do with Bohème, I kept a series of notes and calculations, and figured out actually how to do what Puccini said, and try to get back to what he envisioned when he first wrote it before Toscanini conducted it as a very old man many, many years later, or indeed how Beecham conducted it some thirty years after he had talked to Puccini about what he thought it should be.  Where Beecham and Toscanini and the autograph all are the same, and different from the printed score, then you can be pretty sure that it’s correct.


See my Interviews with Jerry Hadley, Gian Carlo Menotti, Sheri Greenawald, and Martin Feinstein.
Also in the cast (but not pictured) was Richard Stilwell as Marcello.

BD:    You’ve learned a lot then from these recordings.   Do you study other recordings also?

JM:    Sure, of course.

BD:    Many conductors say that recordings are the last thing they listen to.

JM:    They lie.  There isn’t a conductor I know who doesn’t.  In the nineteenth century you studied with living conductors.  You heard live performances.  Now if you go and do Prokofiev’s Third Symphony, you find three or four recordings and listen to them.

BD:    Do you listen to them once, or listen to them over and over?

JM:    It depends, but usually once.

BD:    Then essentially you’re going to a performance.

JM:    There are things happening that you might not have thought of.  There are a lot of things you would never think of doing.  It’s not like you imitate somebody else, because you can’t imitate someone else.

BD:    When you perform Bohème, is it the right vision, or is it just your vision, and is it your vision of today which will continue to grow?

JM:    First of all I believe it’s the right vision, otherwise it wouldn’t be my vision, and you have to decide that because we’re dealing with interpretation.  It’s a question of whether you like or not.  I do what it says; I literally do what it says; I almost do nothing in there that isn’t what it says.  The only changes I make have to do with balance, just because there are certain places in the score where the orchestra and orchestration is heavier and louder than any singer could sing against.  That’s one of the reasons I listen to recordings, and not necessarily studio recordings.  On live recordings, pirated recordings I can hear what went wrong.  It’s a tremendous advantage to have something like a hundred years of experience in a score that you have never conducted.  You’ve heard it at the Met, and you’ve heard it under great conductors, mediocre ones, terrible ones, and then you hear it under the baton of conductors whose sympathy with the scores is not necessarily that as yours.  For example, Solti’s recording of Bohème did nothing for me except in the last act to where he interpreted the muted horn as meaning almost stopped.  Because it sounds very metallic, I realized he was absolutely right.  No one else ever did that, so I have the horns do that, imitating Georg Solti for all the notes that the horn plays in Act 4 that are stopped.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Is all your work done at rehearsal, or is there a little something left for the performance?

JM:    Of course it’s all in the performance.  You do everything.  You set everything up in the rehearsal, but it all happens in the performance.  The life of a conductor is very different now from what it was fifty years ago.   We have much less rehearsal time, and body language has to be much more specific.  Toscanini didn’t have to do very much of anything…

BD:    …except scream!

mauceriJM:    Except scream, yes.  That’s what he had to do, but that was his nature.  You see film of Richard Strauss or Furtwängler conducting, and they didn’t actually have to physically do what we do now because they had twenty times more rehearsal than we have.

BD:    Yet you get a conductor like Boulez whose movements are minimal.

JM:    Yes, but he doesn’t conduct La Bohème, and you wouldn’t want to hear him do it!  [Both laugh]  I don’t mean to be cruel about Pierre because I happen to love listening to him, but listening to Pierre Boulez conducting Beethoven’s Fifth is in every way different from anything I would do.  It’s always interesting, and that’s why I’d listen to a recording.  I might listen to what Karajan does with a Tchaikovsky symphony, or what Bernstein does with a Tchaikovsky symphony, and what Markevitch does.  Mind you, unless some of that might ever stick on you, you wouldn’t try and imitate it note for note or bar by bar because anyway you couldn’t.  It’d be stupid.  Even in trying to imitate it, no one would even recognize the imitation because your body is different.  Then we’re dealing with me interpreting what I think hear, and then you interpreting what you hear me doing and thinking you know what I’m doing...

BD:    So it’s farther and farther removed?

JM:    Yes.  So anyway, that’s not why you do a piece.   You don’t do a piece because you want to imitate someone else.  You do a piece because feel something about it passionately.  No one performance can illuminate everything in it, and therefore anything you do is a partial success.  It’s changeless, and you change every time you do it.  We conductors are only waving our arms and inspiring a certain something to happen.  Players are playing it, and you in the audience are hearing it.  Just changing your seat will change the performance.  Perhaps you’d hear more trumpet, or you’d hear more bass, or you’d hear the singers more.  At the Lyric, if you sit under the overhang the balances are perfect.  If you sit in front of the overhang the orchestra may drown out the singers.  If you sit upstairs, the sound is fantastic.  So with all that in mind, remember you’re only dealing with interpretation and an interpretive art, and it is all a totally ephemeral one because it’s over about two seconds after it’s over.  All there is is memory of it.  I can’t say,
“Here is my performance of such-and-such.  It’s a process.

BD:    Even if you have a tape of it?

JM:    That’s kind of a simulacrum [unsatisfactory imitation or substitute] of the event that it represents.  It’s an analogue of the event, but it’s so different from being there because a performance is a co-operative venture among many elements between the audience and the performers and among the performers with themselves.  A great performance is, in fact, a tacit agreement between the audience and the performers.  Those are the great performance when the audience in fact is linked with the performer.

BD:    Do you expect the audience to get involved with the performance?

JM:    Absolutely, absolutely.  Otherwise you might as well play to an oil painting.  A lot of what I do is meant to do that, and what I do in 1987 to get you involved may be different from what I would do 1997 or what I did in 1967.  Certain dramatic gestures in music are meant to be dramatic, and if they’re not totally predictable then they’re not your oil painting anymore.  It’s like the end of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth.  At the coda Tchaikovsky wrote poco meno mosso [sings it].  Then it became a big real surprise for conductors to [sings again much slower].  That was a big surprise, and they did that for about thirty years.  Then it stopped being the surprise.  Now conductors are sort of going back to [sings faster], and that’s a surprise!  It’s meant to be a surprise.  Toscanini was great because of who proceeded him, and what he did in response to that.  His music making today would be much less meaningful because we’ve already assimilated all he had to teach us.  He would probably be teaching conducting to some great university right now because no orchestra would be willing to play for him because of his attitude to musicians, and because he would be considered kind of rigid.

BD:    Can conducting actually be taught?

JM:    No, but you hear of the teaching of it.  In that sense, nothing can be taught.  Conducting is nice in that you learn it the way you probably learned to make shoes or barrels in the Middle Ages.  You observe masters doing it, then you ask questions, you object to their answer, you react, and then you go and do it yourself.

BD:    Is John Mauceri an artist or a craftsman?

JM:    The art comes out of the craft.  The craft is what you study.  The art comes with the letting go of the part of me that would be the shell that would protect me from my vulnerability.  So as I get older, I get seemingly better because I’m less afraid. 

BD:    Less afraid of the audience, of the work, of what?

JM:    Less afraid of exposing myself to you.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    How do you decide which works you will conduct and which works you won’t?

mauceriJM:    Half the time it’s decided for you.  It’s a romantic idea that conductors are totally under the spell of that period of the 20s and 30s where there are maestros.  I think the ‘maestro’ is sort of a dead concept.  When we get into the next century it will become less and less, rather than seemingly more and more silly.  That tyrant guy who has thrown batons at people and walked off the stage because somebody played an F# instead of an F is part of a period of twentieth century history which brought up such ‘delightful’ people as Adolf Hitler and Mussolini, and it’s part of our thing.  Probably someone will write a book about the response of the Industrial Revolution and the destruction of monarchies, and the rise of political leaders who then, in their own right, become more autocratic than the kings and queens they deposed.  While Toscanini was democrat from the point of view of his politics, he was a total authoritarian.  That doesn’t work anymore and it is not necessary.  In fact, it’s the opposite of what’s necessary right now.  Only certain music needs a conductor.  It’s a certain period of time when composers were really writing with conductors in mind, and that happens especially in opera somewhere in the 1860s.  When you do Rigoletto and you have a conductor standing in front of the orchestra grinding his teeth at them and forcing them into speeds that are faster or slower than they’re written, that’s not what Verdi had in mind in the 1850s.  There was no guy there.  That person who was there had his back to the orchestra, and the orchestra was sort of facing the stage, and they had to rehearse it with the singers and the composer present.  Verdi left very specific instructions so that after he died it could be done the way he intended, including metronome markings.

BD:    Should we be trying to bring the Rigoletto that Verdi knew in 1851 to audiences in 1987?

JM:    Yes.

BD:    Exactly the same???

JM:    It’s not possible to do it exactly the same.

BD:    How close should we try to get to it?

JM:    That’s interpretation.  I just did it in London very differently than the way you’re used to hearing it because I used the new edition.  But by using the new edition I don’t mean that we had just had the parts in front of us.  I actually allowed for vocal ornamentation to exist in cadenzas, and also observed very carefully his metronome markings.  Verdi’s one of the very few composers who used metronome markings right up to the end of his life.  Wagner didn’t, so in that sense, Verdi was much more German than Wagner.  Verdi did write ‘andante’ or ‘lento’ or ‘largo’ in Rigoletto as the same pulse as 66, because first he will write the mood and then he will give you more details.  He’ll write the art and then he’ll give you the craft.  How do you get this?  You beat 66, Sir!  What happened is that the traditional Rigoletto that we’re used to hearing comes from the 1920s when people tried to make it specifically like Toscanini and those who followed him
— to make it more dramatic than it was, not in twentieth century terms.  Therefore he conducted a Rigoletto that was closer to, say, Puccini’s Rigoletto or Montemezzi’s Rigoletto.  So people expect now that ‘Questa o quella’ is a fast aria, where it is a very slow aria.

BD:    Do you ever feel that confining, though, to beat 66 if you feel 70, or 62?

JM:    No, because actually you’re always within one metronome mark.  I’m pretty good at it, and you don’t do it if the singer can’t do it, and you don’t do it if it doesn’t work.  The bottom line is, does it work?  You try it.  I simply start out by saying,
“Let’s do what it says, and let’s see if we can make it work.  If it doesn’t work, it’s either our fault or the composer’s fault, but then nonetheless we don’t want to give a bad performance.  Is it confining to play the Eroica in E-Flat major? 

mauceriBD:    You have no choice about the key, but the speed is very different.

JM:    Why?  Because of a tradition of allowing one thing to be free and something else not to be free?  Why should Toscanini be allowed to take the Rigoletto Prelude at 44 when it’s written as 66, and you say it’s not great!?  Speed is something that we have allowed to be something that one can choose, whereas articulation maybe not.  It’s purely and simply a choice that people have made.  People are more or less sensitive perhaps to it at a moment-to-moment basis.  I don’t go around with my little metronome every time I conduct something, but in the case of Rigoletto, the tempo markings were so different from what I’ve heard all my life that I couldn’t believe it was possible.  I went to the President of the Verdi Foundation and my first response was that this is crazy!  They all said,
Yes, that’s what Verdi wrote and that’s what Verdi wanted!  Why don’t you give it a try?  People haven’t gotten it right probably in eighty years.  Now is that not my responsibility to try it?

BD:    Sure, it is your responsibility to try it.  But if we’ve gotten used to bad performances, are you re-educating the audience in what Verdi wanted?

JM:    We’re always educating.  Isn’t that the reason what we do?

BD:    But are the audiences of 1987 enough similar to the audiences of 1851?

JM:    Yes, they’re people.

BD:    [Gently protesting]  But now we have motor cars, and the pace of life has gotten so much faster.

JM:    Are you telling me that we should now be playing Handel the way they played it in 1900?  Should we have trombones in Messiah because people are used to big orchestras?  [Staring intently at BD]  Well, what’s your answer?  Say it loud into your microphone!  [Says it very loudly]  No!!!

BD:    [With similar intensity]  No!!!  [Laughs]

JM:    Right.  All I’m saying, in answering you back to the Maestro idea, is that as we get closer to the next century, the 19th century will be two centuries away and will be dealt with a lot differently than it has been in this century when we were reacting to it.  We apply onto it certain aesthetics, certain reactions that usually are what forms traditions in performance practice, traditions that get set which are not from the live performances of the world premiere.  They usually happen the generation after, around the time that the work is getting older.  Some person
maybe even the composerwho’s feeling his old work needs a little ‘vitality’ to it will change things.  Look at Stravinsky (1882-1971)!  At the end of his life, the way he conducted those works is the exact opposite of the way he conducted them and had them performed at the beginning of this century.  A perfect example is Richard Rodgers (1902-79)!  He started getting new orchestrations in the 50s for his shows that were written in the 30s, and they’re horrible now.  If he were alive today he would want them to sound contemporary.  There’s nothing wrong with that except that we lost the original form.  That’s all.  All I’m suggesting is that the originals should be available to the public to choose.  Everyone is now playing the Beethoven symphonies with a small orchestra.  That’s right and that’s great, and I can assure you that in the next century there are going to be more small concert halls and more chamber orchestras.  It will be fairly unusual to hear the Chicago Symphony doubling the woodwind and the brass to play the Eroica because you’re going to say, Why are they doing that?  It’s exciting and everything, but it’s also exciting to do Handel’s Water Music with 150 players.  I’m now talking about Rigoletto, and when I’m talking about Rigoletto, I’m not talking about OtelloOtello was written for La Scala, for a huge orchestra and a conductor standing up there like I stand up there, but not Rigoletto.  That’s all!  In other words, we have lumped all those things together.

BD:    We are ignoring the progress the composer has made?

JM:    That’s right.  Now that we’re getting out of this century, it’s like the Museum ‘Moderne’.  It’s ridiculous.  They have to take the name ‘modern’ and put an ‘e’ on the end of it, and call it the ‘Museum Moderne’ because it’s a museum of twentieth century art!  Most of it is actually late nineteenth century, but it’s not about that.  The whole concept of modernism is old and dead.  It’s future, past.


BD:    It should be the Museum of Modern Art Up To A Certain Point?

JM:    [Laughs]  Well, the Museum of the Concept of Modern Art.  The whole idea of The Future is one that has affected the twentieth century.  It’s part of the reason why the middle of this century was so screwed up with atonality because the Music of the Future which Wagner wrote about and people were ready for, that Buck Rogers school of music is over.  [Ironically, Buck Rogers is called a
‘space opera’, which is a sub-genre of science fiction.]  We’re living in that era that they were all predicting, where we were all going to living on Mars and Saturn, and be floating around.  We’re not there yet!  The future was in the microchip, and who knew that?  We’ve got a new century and a new millennium coming in just a dozen years, so we have a very, very different attitude toward the nineteenth century and toward what conductors are supposed to be.  So when you asked this question about choosing music, I said we conductors have a problem.  We like to appear that we are totally in charge of everything, but if I had said, No, no, I won’t do La Bohème here in Chicago but I will do such-and-such, this would have been nonsense.  They asked me to do La Bohème, and it’s the first time they’ve asked me to do anything.  I’ve had a big career in Europe, and they don’t hire American conductors, but they asked me to do Bohème.  It was on very little rehearsal and it was the end of the season, but I said yes because I figured, “Well why not?  Otherwise they won’t ask me ever again, or they might ask me in ten years.  But I’m available now and I like La Bohème.  I would not have chosen that for my début, and I certainly would not have chosen it to be a Sunday afternoon with two rehearsals and a dress rehearsal.  But I know that I’m good enough to demonstrate what I can do, even under those circumstances.

BD:    What if they offered you an opera that you absolutely hate?

JM:    I would not have done it.

BD:    So obviously there’s comes a point where you break from,
“Yes I will do it, to, “No, I won’t do it.

JM:    That’s true, of course, but right now I’m in the middle of choosing a program with the London Symphony which I am totally in charge of what I am choosing.  So it varies.  Now, at the age of 41, I have a little more say in it, but all of us
Georg Solti, Leonard Bernstein, everyonehas to fit into repertories and programs and rehearsal conditions that exist because we don’t exist alone.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Are you optimistic about the future of opera?

JM:    Do you mean performances or composing new ones?

BD:    We were talking about performance, so let’s start there and then we’ll go into the writing of new ones.

JM:    Performance, absolutely.  That’s no problem.  There are some young singers who are now emerging who are major disappointments because they’re crawling into their predecessors’ costumes and doing the same cadenzas and being successful.  That’s disappointing because they’re perpetuating the
30s and ’40s, but others are not.  The others are the ones that interest me.  If you want to crawl into your Serafin recording of Rigoletto with Maria Callas, I love that recording and I’m happy to hear it, but I could never conduct like that.  I wouldn’t want to, and there’s no reason to.  It exists, so there it is!  You ask about recordings, and they’re interesting and they’re valuable. They’re documents, and they’re one moment in time.  So you study them, and then you make your own choice.

BD:    You’ve made some recordings?

JM:    Not of operas yet.  Actually the only things I’ve recorded are musicals.  They’ve all been historical recreations, like Candide.

BD:    Do you conduct differently in the studio than you do in the concert hall or the opera house?

JM:    No, I just like it a bit more because you can fix anything.  You can go into the room and adjust it.  You are the audience.


BD:    But at what point does the tampering become fraudulent?

JM:    Never, because that’s what I try to do for you at every moment in the theater, but I cannot service every one of you in the audience because your seats are in different places.  I try and balance the C# minor chord near the end of La Bohème between a bassoon and two clarinets so that it sounds like a triad as opposed to a bassoon going [imitates a bad bassoon sound] and two clarinets playing too quietly, which is what it normally sounds like.  But I can only do that for my ears where I’m standing, and having an assistant at a rehearsal saying it is balanced, but that’s where he’s sitting in Row 12.  So in a studio I can do and give you what I think the composer meant, and control that because you will hear from the same seat in the audience as I’ve heard it from when I’ve made that choice.  So I don’t think it’s fraudulent.  It’s another medium.

BD:    I would think that you, on the conductor’s podium, would actually be in the worst possible place for balances.

mauceriJM:    Absolutely, which is what Wagner invented at his theater in Bayreuth.  It solved certain problems he had vis-à-vis the size of his orchestra and balance.  He wanted to see the stage and not be encumbered with harps and tops of basses and things like that, so he put the pit down there, made it deeper and covered it.  It created tremendous problems, and morale problems for the orchestra which sits under the stage.  They don’t know what the hell’s going on upon the stage.  They feel like animals.  No orchestra likes playing in a pit.

BD:    Even when they hear the sound is better?

JM:    It’s not better for them.  It’s loud and impossible in the pit, and it
s hot and crummy.  It’s a terrible place.  Most orchestras that play on the stage have in their contracts that they won’t even consider playing in a pit.   No, it’s a terrible arrangement from a human point of view.  They can’t see the stage.  At the time of Rigoletto they were meant to be sitting at the stage level, facing the stage.  They had the vocal parts in their scores.  They were accompanying the stage.  They had their backs to the audience.

BD:    But don’t you want an orchestra to be more than a big guitar?

JM:    I didn’t say that.

BD:    I mean if they’re accompanying what’s on the stage, does it not reduce them to being merely a guitar?

JM:    Of course not.  It’s chamber music.  Who’s the guitar and who’s the player?  [With a mischievious twinkle in his eye]  Are you going to bait me with some more questions like that?  I warn you, I’ve got low blood sugar now.  I might get violent!  [Both laugh]

BD:    [Pretending to show a lack of concern]  We’ve got a table between us...  [More laughter]  Let me ask one more dangerous question.  As the conductor, what is your relationship with the producer/director?

JM:    That depends on each producer/director, and each opera.  When you come into a production that pre-exists, like this production of La Bohème, you have to buy the scenery and you have to buy the basic staging.  I changed a lot in this La Bohème simply because some of it doesn’t make sense.  Some of the people were saying the wrong thing to the wrong character, and that bothered me.  Also a lot of the silences that Puccini writes in this score with fermatas [stops or holds] over them are never played, therefore most conductors just don’t observe them and most stage directors don’t stage them.  So therefore in some ways you inherit someone else’s conducting of the opera when you inherit the staging of it.  For example, before Mimì dies there’s a fermata over a rest, and it says pausa lunga [long pause].  When she says dormire [sleep], the minor triad does not come in right away, but in fact comes in way late and after much, much silence.  I said we must try this.  Rodolfo kisses her forehead and walks away from her while she’s smiling, and he thinks she’s asleep.  He is about to ask what the doctor said, and that’s in tempo and just before he gets up-stage to ask that question.  So she dies all by herself, and that’s a major moment that can change the feeling of the whole scene.  When Musetta enters, again there’s a big fermata over a rest.  The boys are playing, and in this production for some reason it
’s baseball, which was somebody’s joke.  It makes the audience smile, but why are these guys doing it?  I guess it’s set in 1876 because there’s a Statue of Liberty in Act 2.  So presumably the boys in Paris have learned baseball, and so they play baseball.  But never mind about that!   I can’t get the baseball cut out of the last act that everyone laughs at, but the fact is that when Musetta comes in you have to wait as there is a fermata over a rest.  For a while those guys either think it’s a joke, or Maracello thinks to himself, What’s that bitch doing here?  I just fought with her the other day, so what are you doing here.  We’re having fun.  Then the look on her face makes them realize that this is very serious, and all that happens in a silence.  It’s not Musetta! boom!  It’s Musetta! [pause] boom!  That’s what it says in the score.  You’ve never heard it except it when you’ve heard me conduct it because no one that I know of has ever done it.  Maybe they did it in the first performance somewhere...  Silence, as Erich Leinsdorf said once, is the most powerful tool in live performance.  It’s meaningless in recording, but in silence in the theater, the audience all comes down to you.  They all get scared because they don’t know what’s happening.  As long as you keep making sounds at them, they’re slightly lulled by the comfort of hearing it.  As soon as you get quiet...  It’s amazing what happens when Mimì dies with an audience of 3,600 people here in Chicago.  They don’t even know it’s happening.  Ardis Krainik [General Manager of Lyric Opera] said to me she knew the end was different and it was really moving, and asked what I did.  I told her that there is about a seven second silence before the chord that comes in.  It’s all psychological.  If you ask anybody if the orchestra was playing then, they would hesitate to give an answer because they’re just observing the scene.  Puccini knew what to do.  It’s like the final curtains for Act 1 and Act 3.  In this house the curtain used to come down slowly and people would clap before the end of the music.  I asked them to please do a black-out instead because Puccini specifically wants a different kind of curtain [such as the one illustrated below-right].

curtainBD:    Our curtain can open and close that way.  Why didn’t you demand that?

[Gently mocking]  ‘Demand’... aren’t you cute!  Guest conductor making his debut says, I demand...  They’d look at me and they’d laugh.  There’s no such thing as a ‘demand’ like that.  If you’re a Music Director of La Scala, you demand before you get into rehearsal if it’s a new production.  The fact is that there’s a lot of lighting equipment between the folds of that curtain.  When you use that kind of curtain, it will get all into the lights, and all you’d get is a catastrophe.  There’s not enough light in the front of this theater, and then when you bunch up the curtain all’Italiana, it folds its way and covers up the lights.

BD:    [Sighs]  They used to open it that way all the time, and I miss it.

JM:    Demanding doesn’t get anything these days.

BD:    [A bit sheepishly]  Well, ask strongly!

JM:    Convince!  No, even asking or however you do it, how can you succeed?  In this case, after this production being God knows how old, they changed the ends of Act 1 and Act 3 for me even though they performed it several times at the beginning of the season.  Without the director even present there was only one dress rehearsal, and when it was the time to do it they watched it and they said OK.   On the opening night, no one applauded at the end of Act 1 until after her High C and until the music was over.  I can tell you the orchestra was thrilled.  It was the same thing at the end of Act 3.  It used to be that when the curtain starts coming down, everyone starts applauding.  It doesn’t happen now, so when you ask the question about how much I can get done, it’s a lot because I’m also a producer.  I’ve co-produced On Your Toes.  I’ve always been on stage.  When I do a new production, it’s a collaboration.  I just did a new production of Carmen in Scotland.  How I physically conducted it was totally linked with how we were doing on the stage.  If I were taking over somebody else’s production of Carmen, I would conduct it quite differently, but every gesture, every tempo had to do specifically with that set and that production and those people, and how it sounded while linked to this physical production.

BD:    So then if you did Carmen in another place, even if it was a new production, you would do it differently?

JM:    That’s right.

BD:    Would you rethink the score right from the beginning?

JM:    Absolutely.

BD:    Conduct from a clean score?

JM:    Absolutely... as clean as you can make it.

BD:    None of your pencil marks and other notations?

JM:    Well, there are certain pencil marks that would stay in the sense of how things balance, things like the internal balance and tuning the score to the hall.  This is what every conductor used to do, and conductors seem to have forgotten how to do it.  The worst part of musicology is people saying,
I do exactly what it says!, which you heard me say twenty-five minutes ago.  Yes, I do exactly what it says.  I do what needs to be done so that you hear exactly what it says.  How’s that!  In other words, sometimes the violas have to play fortissimo, even though they’re marked mezzo forte for you to hear them mezzo forte.  I try to achieve psychological dynamics and balances that are equivalent to what is written on the page.  What we have to do to achieve them in the air is quite different.

BD:    That’s where the heart comes in?

mauceriJM:    That’s where the heart comes in, but also the technique.  I knew Stokowski a little bit near the end of his life, and for some reason he reminisced a lot with me, which surprised his secretary a great deal.  He told me lots of fantastic stories, which have never been published because he never wrote his memoirs.  He was always talking about the future.  He was at the rehearsals for the world premiere of the Mahler Eight in September of 1910.  He would show up with an empty violin case as if he were in the orchestra, and go up into the balcony because all the rehearsals were closed.  The part of this that’s relevant to this conversation is that he said the orchestra hated Mahler because he kept changing the orchestration.  For instance, it was because in that hall he needed to hear that line so he added three clarinets.  That’s why there are so many versions of Mahler’s symphonies.  It’s not that he was rethinking for old time sake, he was rethinking it for the Vienna Opera House, or he was rethinking it for Carnegie Hall, or he was thinking about it for the Concertgebouw, or wherever he was conducting because he rebalanced his symphonies
and everyone else’sfor the hall.

BD:    But you, as a recreator, cannot go back and tamper things, and take out a trombone line or add a clarinet here and there.

JM:    Oh yes, I can.

BD:    [Genuinely surprised]  How much???

JM:    It’s a question of taste.  You wouldn’t know what I’ve done.  All you’d say is,
God, I never heard that viola line before!  When you play at La Scala, the acoustics of the pit are such that the harp is the loudest thing in the world.  It’s so loud, I never thought I’d ask a harp player to play quieter.  That’s impossible.  All you do as a conductor is to ask the harp to play louder, usually.  When I was there doing Bernstein’s opera and subsequently doing Turandot, the harp made a huge sound.  I believe that’s the reason why a lot of the harp dynamics in Puccini are so quiet because that is where the operas we played before the scores were published in Milan.  Now when you do Bohème in Chicago, the harp has to play mezzo forte at the end of Act 3 for you to hear what she’s playing vis-à-vis the solo violin, which is a wonderful part.  Puccini composed at the piano, and when you play it all together and they’re all the same dynamic as when you’re sitting at the piano, it’s beautiful.  In reality, you’ve never heard it.  You don’t even notice the harp is there.  I know where you notice and where you don’t because it’s one of the reasons I listen to all those tapes of at the Met and the City Opera with different people, and even the studio recordings.  It is so beautiful.  I have a bound set of parts, and the harp part is now marked mezzo forte.  You hear it piano, but you hear it because she’s playing mezzo forte.  So yes, it’s tampering I suppose, but it’s what we’re supposed to do.

BD:    But that’s just tampering with the dynamics.

JM:    That’s what we’re talking about.

BD:    Before we were talking about adding a line or adding more instruments.

JM:    Oh, you never add a line.  You may support a line.  I have done that.  I have certainly done that because Stokowski said everybody did, everybody used to do that.  Instruments have changed over the years and the halls have changed.  Certain things can’t be heard now or can be heard better than before.  You look at the page and use all your experience and everything you’ve studied and all the history and your analysis of it.  You realize that it’s absolutely essential that you hear this sound and you figure out how do you assure it is heard.

BD:    Now you say instrument change and halls change, but don’t people change?

JM:    Yes!  But still the desire for hearing the clarity of it, hearing a musical figure that travels through a piece of music is the basic continuity of how you can understand the piece.  So it’s your obligation to bring that out.

*     *     *     *     *

mauceriBD:    Are you a big fan and advocate of contemporary music?

JM:    [Matter of factly]  Yes, I am.

BD:    Is it a love or a duty?

JM:    [Laughs]  It’s a love because it’s the future.  I only am involved in music and the arts because I believe it’s the continuity of human expression.  That sounds like a very big phrase, but I believe that’s the link.  It’s what holds us all together
painting, philosophy, psychology, words, music, all of thatmore than history, more than people writing about it instead of people doing it.  The aesthetic choice is what links us all together, therefore continuing that continuity in my own lifetime, insofar as I can help encourage it, goes beyond whether I consider it to be a duty.  It’s just part of life, like eating breakfast.  But you asked the question earlier about the future of opera......

BD:    Yes, and you spoke of the performance side, so let’s move to the creativity side.

JM:    About that, no, I’m not optimistic.  Because I’m a little tired, I’m saying things are a little more black and white than I normally would. 
I think it’s more or less dead, just like the American musical is more or less deaduntil someone comes up with one tomorrow!  I’d be happy to be wrong, and I’d be happy to encourage people, and I do, God knows I do!  There are piles of scores at home, and I listen to every tape and read every score that’s sent to me.  When I have an opportunity to do a premiere, I conduct it, and more important, I do second performances.  I believe in that and it’s important, and I may be very wrong but I think the era of opera is a finite period of time, just like certain eras come and go.  The era of Italian opera happened at a certain point and it stopped with Puccini.  You can say there may be someone else coming along, but someone else hasn’t come along in seventy years, and I don’t think that someone is hiding in Florence who’s been writing operas.  Gian Carlo Menotti kept something going in his own way, but I don’t think that, in any way, is as long lasting as what it seemed to be modeled on... but I may be wrong.

BD:    Do you think it’ll ever come back?

JM:    No!

BD:    [Being eternally hopeful]  Might it skip a generation or two and then come back?

JM:    No, I don’t think so.  I think it’s over.

BD:    [Trying another argument]  English music was dead at the end of Purcell, and notwithstanding Perry and Stanford, it really comes back with Vaughan Williams...

JM:    Yes, but it was different.  Purcell wasn’t writing operas.  I think most of the young talent today who would be Mozart, who would be Wagner, who would be Puccini, those people are doing very different things, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

BD:    What are they doing?

JM:    They’re writing for film and they’re writing in the studio.  If there are great lyrical musicians, they’re not writing for the theater.  They were discouraged from writing for the theater during the middle part of this century by the atonal school, by the people who would make us believe that theirs was what the musical future was, which brings us back to that.  In other words, the people who followed Schoenberg and Webern, and who went into universities to teach, and went into journalism and then wrote, made people who wrote tonal music feel like morons.  They were not admitted into the world of serious music.  Two major splits happened in this century, two cataclysmic ones which are now hopefully going to be spliced together. 
Somewhere in the beginning of this centurymaybe in the 20ssomething happened that made popular Music Theater and opera separate.  It never really was much like that.  There was always a sort of boulevard of Music Theater, but the fact is that popular music was always linked to opera but not Music Theater, whatever that was.  So the tunes people were singing, besides some folksongs, had to do with the likes of La Donna e mobile and other tunes from opera.  Puccini was probably the last guy to do that, so Musetta’s Waltz and songs like that became kind of popular music.  Then opera decided to be really highfalutin, and composers didn’t write things like that anymore.  Since it’s got away from writing arias and ensembles and linking it all together, that need for ‘lyrical song’ moved into the Musical Theater.  So in America we had an era of about fifty or sixty years of the greatest Music Theater ever written.  It was invented here, so all within each others lifetime we had the likes of people such as Victor Herbert, Jerome Kern, George Gershwin, Richard Rogers, Cole Porter, and Irving Berlin.  It was unbelievable, and they are making fun of opera about a third of the time because opera was getting snootier and snootier.  The only guy who was actually continuing to write operas was Richard Strauss, who lived on forever and seemingly never died!  But while they were repeating the old operas at the Met, there was someone like Cole Porter writing, You’re a Melody from a Symphony by Strauss.  He knew that Strauss never wrote symphonies!  When he was at Yale, in fact, he had all the Strauss’s operas on his piano because he studied them all the time.  But he was sending it up.  In how many musicals do we see of the stuffed-shirt musician versus the jazz person?  Hey, come on, let’s swing it pops!”  [Both laugh]

mauceriBD:    Not only onstage, but also in movies and even animated cartoons!

JM:    Right.  Helen Traubel was told she could not sing in nightclubs during the season or she would be fired from the Met. 
So that’s going on.  We have two worlds of Music Theaterthe opera world which is repeating and repeating the old stuff, getting older and older and finding new ways to perform it to make it seem contemporary, with some people writing new ones which are basically using the old formulas, and there’s the new stuff of popular Musical Theater which has gone onto Broadway.  Then somewhere around 1950 or 55, another split happens in that world.  Producers decide they’re not all going to let popular music into the Broadway musical anymore because popular music then was Rock ‘n’ Roll, the great immoral influence.  They don’t want any of that stuff, so they continue encouraging the ever-ageing audience for musicals.  Now the audience starts getting older, and I can tell you when you go to a Broadway musical nowif you can find onethe audiences are near death.  We’re practically into the next generation because as they were getting older in the 60s, they were happy to support shows like Mame, which could have been written by Irving Berlin.  After all, Irving Berlin wrote Alexander’s Ragtime Band in 1911, the year that Mahler died.  So the Broadway musical itself became a thing that started trading on itself, and while the great masses of people were supporting Country & Western music, and Rock n’ Roll, and the likes of the Beatles and Judy Collins, those people who might have written for the theater never wrote a note for the theater.  I can tell you if the Beatlesany one of themhad written a show, and any two of their hit songs had been in that show, that show would be like Oklahoma.  But they never wrote a show.  They made a couple of movies in which the songs were just songs to be sung in the movie, but they were not songs that led out of dramatic situations particularly.  This continues on today!  Musicians like Elton John or Bruce Springsteen, or any of those people who are performers, composers, and producers on albums, that kind of talent, or people like John Williams who writes for the movies, are not being called into the theater, and they’re certainly not being called into the opera house.  Those people are the ones who would have been the future of opera and musical.  Now there’s nothing really wrong with saying the period of the great American musical was a finite period, because life goes on.  We can appreciate those shows.  We can revive them and do them.  There’s nothing wrong with that.  We can encourage young people who want to write musicals to write them, whatever they are, and someone may come up with a new form and make this entire conversation a total mistake.  Right now, somewhere in America someone’s inventing something... at least I hope so.  Wouldn’t that be great?  I have sat on panels of Opera America and the National Institute of Music Theater.  I go, and anybody who seems to show a glimmer of talent finds that I’m there.  I have a number of former students who bring their operas to me, and I suggest things, and they’re writing things that maybe someone will produce.  But quite frankly, who goes to a contemporary opera?  Who here in Chicago’s going to buy a ticket?  If Ardis Krainik produces it, how many performances can she give?  And if it gets anything but the greatest reviews in the world, will anyone produce it again?  The answer is probably no, therefore why would a creative person do that unless he is totally fired up by the commitment to the thing called ‘opera’, and that would be fine.  But if he has the opportunity to write for something where it gets produced and heard by a million people, and it's on an album or a song for Barbara Streisand, or it’s something for television...  With television, with film, with recordings being what they are, it’s is a different world.  Mozart himself may have not been writing for the theater today.  That’s why I’m saying to you that I’ve yet to see a great contemporary opera.

In 1989, two years after this interview with John Mauceri, Lyric Opera of Chicago launched its Toward the 21st Century artistic initiative – the most important artistic initiative the company had undertaken to date, and one with far-reaching impact on American opera in North America as well as in the international opera community. Throughout the 1990s Lyric produced one 20th-century European and one American opera each season as part of the regular subscription series. Within this initiative Lyric commissioned three new works: William Bolcom’s McTeague (1992-93), Anthony Davis’s Amistad (1997-98), and Bolcom’s A View from the Bridge (1999-00).  Other operas by Americans included The Voyage of Edgar Allan Poe by Dominick Argento (revised for this occasion in 1990-91), Antony and Cleopatra by Barber (1991-92, and telecast by PBS), Susannah by Carlisle Floyd (1993-94, and 2003-04), Candide by Leonard Bernstein (1994-95), The Ghosts of Versailles by John Corigliano (1995-96), The Consul by Gian Carlo Menotti (1996-97), Mourning Becomes Elektra by Marvin David Levy (1998-99), and The Great Gatsby by John Harbison (2000-01). Then in 2014-15 Lyric Unlimited presented three world premieres: the mariachi opera, El Pasado Nunca Se Termina by José “Pape” Martínez and Leonard Foglia; The Property by Wlad Marhulets; and Second Nature by Matthew Aucoin.

Prior to these, the Lyric Opera Center for American Artists had engaged its first Composer-in-Residence (William Neil) whose Guilt of Lilian Sloan (libretto by Frank Galati) was produced in 1985-86, and its second Composer-in-Residence (Lee Goldstein) whose The Fan (libretto by Charles Kondek) was produced in 1988-89. Subsequent productions by the Lyric Center included The Song of Majnun by Bright Sheng (libretto by Andrew Porter) in 1991-92, Orpheus Descending by Bruce Saylor (libretto by J.D. McClatchy) in 1993-94, Between Two Worlds (The Dybbuk) by Shulamit Ran (libretto by Charles Kondek) in 1996-97, and Lovers and Friends (Chautauqua Variations by composer/librettist Michael John LaChiusa in 2000-01.

It should also be noted that early in its history, Lyric presented two operas by the American composer Vittorio Giannini - The Taming of the Shrew in 1954, Lyric's first season, and the world premiere of The Harvest in 1961.

I think that Dominick Argento (listed in the box above!) is one of the finest composers of opera we have in America, or even in the world.  I love his music.  I’m going to try and bring some of them to Scotland.  I did Leonard Bernstein’s A Quiet Place both in Milan and in Washington.  In fact, after I saw it in Houston I suggested the three act version of it.  He wrote two one-act operas, and the problem here is a balance one.  I demonstrated to him how to rewrite it, believe it or not.  I’m that kind of person.  I love him.  He tells me what he thinks of my conducting, and we share our scores.  That’s what we’re supposed to be as colleagues.  I could no more conduct like him and compose like him, but the fact is that we respect each other.  I said,
Look, this is how it would work,” and it took him two months.  He fought it, but his librettist thought it was great, his sister thought it was great, everyone thought it was great, and finally he said, I think you’re right.  When we finally premiered it at La Scala, he said to me, Thank you for the third act.  It never would have been that otherwise, and that one is better because of my input into it.  But who’s producing that opera?  It got terrible reviews.  In this country, instead of talking about Leonard Bernstein writing his first full-length opera, what did they do?  Everybody went to Houston and they killed him!  The critics wrote the meanest stuff ever.  It was a kind of Kamikaze situation.  Now, who’s going to write another opera?  Before Lenny had that premiere, he kept saying, I think I’m just going to write operas.  I’m so thrilled with the idea.

mauceriBD:    Now he’s gone off the whole project?

JM:    He tried to start writing another one, but didn’t find a librettist, so it stopped and it started.  We could have had maybe another ten years of operas by Leonard Bernstein, but no one supported it.

BD:    Are you saying that most of the creative talent in this country sold out for commercial success?

JM:    No, not sold out for commercial success.  You’re saying that.  I’m not saying that.  I’m saying if they sold out for anything, they’ve sold out to be able to communicate to people.  What’s the point in your lifetime of writing something that no one’s going to produce?  Or if it gets produced there’s some much at stake in it.  One bad review and no one will ever hear it again.

BD:    Are they still writing what they want to write, or are they writing what they think will get good reviews and lots of success?

JM:    If anybody knew how to write what would get reviews, they would.  I don’t even know what that is.  How do you write to get good reviews?  I surely don’t conduct to get good reviews.  In fact, sometimes I know I’m going to get into more trouble, and I say to myself,
My God, if I take that tempo I’m going to hear about it in the morning because it’s slower than their record!

BD:    Do you feel you’re competing again records all the time?

JM:    Not records, but memories.  Records do have a way, though... famous recordings.  When I conduct Rigoletto, I know what I’m up against as far as memories.  People are comfortable.  They go to Rigoletto not to hear it sound different.

BD:    So you conduct Rigoletto to open their eyes?

JM:    Not necessarily.  I conduct it the way I think it should go.  That has to be the bottom line.  My wife says to me,
Are you going to teach a lesson, or is this going to be a kind of medicinal performance... listen to it, it’ll be good for you!  Call me in the morning!  No!  At the end of the day, it is what you have to do.  The most painful thing is doing what you have to do and knowing that it’s going to disappoint some people because they expected something else.  The whole point of judging greatness in a performer is the quotient of surprise within what is expected.  If somebody does exactly what you expect, they are routinier, and it is just that routinier who will come in and do Bohème, and it’ll always sound just the way you expected.  Then there are the guys who are so unexpected in what they do that you say, He doesn’t understand the style, or, “He’s totally incompetent and doesn’t know what the hell he’s doing.  It’s too fast, it’s too slow, it’s just...  Now between those twothe routiniers and the incompetent ones or the ones who don’t understand the styleare the great ones.  The great ones vary in each generation depending on what you’ve heard before, and what you expect, and how much newness you’ll tolerate.  We’re always exposing something new because we couldn’t ever do it the same.  You’re not the same, I’m not the same, but how much ‘not the same’ you will admit before you say [makes disapproving sounds]?

BD:    Is John Mauceri a great conductor?

JM:    Oh, I’ve no idea about that.  Actually I know
certainly not!  [Asking his own question]  Can Mauceri become a great conductor?  Maybe.

BD:    This is what you’re striving for?

JM:    I don’t strive for that. 

BD:    What do you strive for?

mauceriJM:    I strive to be totally comfortable inside myself with what I’m doing.  As I live, I know that all these experiences in my life somehow inform my art, whatever that is, and also sensitize me to what the music is saying.  So I do think I’m getting better, but even that is subjective.  The other day I listened to a recording of me conducting the Sibelius Second Symphony from something like thirteen or fourteen years ago.  I loved it, and I have no physical or emotional linkage with it that says that’s how I do that!  There were lots of new things, and things that I’d forgotten because I haven’t conducted it since those performances.  My memory of the years before that have to do with standard performances of the work.  So when I studied it, I did whatever it was that it came out to be.  When it said molto largamente, I conducted molto largamente.  I didn’t cheat those bars, which a lot of people do.  They don’t hold the chord, for it’s a long time.  He wrote molto largamente, and it stays there for a very long time.  So I did all that, and I listened to it the other day, and I must confess that I loved it.  I didn’t like the first movement.  It was too fast and not graceful enough, but the rest of it I really did love.  But if I conducted it tomorrow, I don’t know if I can imitate myself from fifteen years ago!

BD:    Would you try to imitate yourself?

JM:    No!  As I say, I’d have to start all over again from scratch.  I don’t know what it would achieve to try and duplicate it.  Someone could put on a tape recorder and play it for me, and we could time it and say it was short, or this was long, or this was loud, but ultimately it’s a journey.  You could take moments of the journey, but it is something that has to be pursued through time, and when it’s over you can decide whether it was worth your time or not.
  This is one of the reasons why last year I conducted opera at La Scala, Covent Garden and the Met, was musical supervisor of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Song and Dance on Broadway, and produced Carousel in Washington, recorded Richard Roger’s Ghost Town and conducted Shostakovich’s Fifteen in the New York while getting ready to orchestrate a few other things.

BD:    Are you coming back to Chicago, I hope?

JM:    They seem to think so.  All the conductors are booked somewhat years in advance, and so am I, but it looks that way. I’ve been very happy here.  It’s been a very difficult challenge doing this on no rehearsal and changing it to the way I’d like to hear it, which comes from years of studying the score.  I was not here in the fall, so I have no idea what it sounded like back then.  Apparently it was very different, and that is the way of most recent performances.  I showed up with my own orchestral material, edited from the manuscript and from the autograph, and the orchestra was kind enough to be willing to play from it.  They’re comfortable with their old parts and bowings and coffee stains and preventative accidentals, and they made a tremendous leap to do what I asked them to do on very little time.  I’m very grateful to them and to the company.  They’re wonderful people, really wonderful people.  Ardis and Maestro Bartoletti have been tremendously supportive.  It was difficult... the whole cast changed the morning I arrived.  I got off an airplane and they said,
You don’t have a Mimì and you don’t have a Rudolfo!  Then the Marcello cancels!  So Ashley Putnam (Musetta) is the only one left of the scheduled cast.  [The rest of the principals included Esperian, Hadley/Leech, Wroblewski, Washington, Kreider, Capecchi, staged by Copley in the production by Pizzi.]  But there is a certain professionalism where you just say, Well, okay, now let’s make the best of it.  Let’s just go out and just do this.  What can we do?  How can we make it as good as we can?  Because everyone pulled together, it has continued to be a very satisfactory experience.  So I’d be very happy to come back, yes.  [It would be 16 years before he returned, but he did give us three more productions...  2003-04 Regina with Malfitano, Woods, Travis, Langan; 2006-07 Romeo and Juliette with Kuznetsova, Polezani, Langan; 2008-09 Pearl Fishers with Cabell, Cutler, Gunn, van Horn.]

BD:    Thank you for spending this time with me today.

JM:    You’re welcome!


© 1987 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in Chicago on January 30, 1987.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB in 1990, and again in 199 and 2000, and on WNUR in 2003 and 2013.  This transcription was made in 2016, 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.