[Note: This article appeared in Wagner
News in September, 1987]
Thoughts From Edwin McArthur
By Bruce Duffie
This interview was originally planned to celebrate
the 80th birthday of conductor, accompanist, and biographer Edwin
McArthur [September 24, 1907 - February 24, 1987]. His death has
turned it into a remembrance and a
memorial to the man who was the friend and confidante not only of
Kirsten Flagstad, but also of so many other musicians. In
addition to over 1,000 recitals he played for Mme. Flagstad, he also
accompanied Gladys Swarthout, Ezio Pinza, Elisabeth Rethberg, and John
Charles Thomas. His conducting engagements included tours with
the Charles L. Wagner Opera (with which company he presented 75
performances of Madama Butterfly
in a single season!), and being
musical director of the St. Louis Municipal Opera for 23 years.
He also taught at the Eastman School of Music, and gave many master
No matter what else his career brought, the name
of Edwin McArthur will always be linked to that of Kirsten
Flagstad. His book, Flagstad –
A Personal Memoir, published by
Knopf in 1965, reveals the many-sided career which took the great
soprano all over the world, and involved McArthur in so much of
that international career. He conducted her performances in
San Francisco, Chicago, at the Metropolitan, and in the recording
studio. Being so closely involved with Flagstad, he
naturally became closely involved with the music of Richard Wagner.
In April of 1985, McArthur was in Chicago for a
dinner honoring the memory of impresario Harry Zelzer. It was
there that I had the opportunity to chat with him for about 45
minutes. Still tall and slim, he moved a bit more slowly than
before, but his mind retained numerous details from his most
distinguished career. He seemed pleased to be able to chat about
Wagner, and even though Mme. Flagstad did come up in conversation, our
thoughts centered mostly about Wagner in general – both recently and
farther removed. His opinions were forthright, and came from his
nearly unique background.
One special note: As readers of these pages
might remember, in March of 1985 I recently presented a long paper
devoted to performances of Wagner operas in Chicago before the
formation of Lyric Opera in 1954. In that paper, I noted the
“Flagstad/McArthur marathon of Thanksgiving 1939.” Looking over
the annals, it was clear that this was an out-of-the-ordinary event,
and in talking with one of the participants, I found out just why it
turned out the way it did. That, plus much more of the
conversation is all presented now…..
Bruce Duffie: How
has Wagner changed in the course of so many
Anything one could say as a reason would be a
personal opinion. Some of what I tend to say is dangerous, but
I’m at an age when I don’t have to be too careful. But to answer
your question, it has changed shockingly. When I went to New York
in 1925, Wagner had resumed his life in the history of the
Metropolitan. A person has to look at the annals to see what had
BD: His works were
simply not done during the First World War.
right. Artur Bodanzky was the great
conductor during that time, but he conducted quite another repertoire
during those years, so he remained on the staff at the Met. When
Wagner performances first resumed after the war, they were given
in English. Marion Telva, a great friend of ours, whose great
claim to fame was singing Adalgisa in Norma
with Rosa Ponselle, made
her debut as Brangaene with Florence Easton as Isolde. That was
one of those English performances. At that time, Wagner was
a regular bill of fare. It was unthinkable not to have Wagner –
and Verdi and Puccini. Those three. When people nowadays
say “We’re going to have Aïda
this year,” I have to smile because it
was never dreamed not to have Aïda.
It was just standard.
They might miss a season of Trovatore,
but not Aïda. And
first days in New York, there was always a Ring cycle. Remember, this
was in the days before Kirsten Flagstad. Too many
people from the younger generation date the whole thing of Wagner to
the days of Kirsten Flagstad because she was such an outstanding
personality, but long before she came to America, there was an
annual Ring cycle at the Met.
BD: We had Ring cycles here in Chicago in
1915-16 and 1916-17,
both times with Clarence Whitehill.
Whitehill was the first one I heard sing
Amfortas. Getting back to New York, there was not only a
Ring, but there was a Wagner
matinee cycle annually. Seven
performances of the Ring and Parsifal, and two other operas
would vary – one year it would be Meistersinger
and Tannhäuser, another
year it would be Lohengrin
and the Dutchman. Those
performances would be the only time during the year that the Ring was
done uncut! During the season, big cuts were made. Those
matinee performances would, almost without exception, be on Tuesday
afternoons. There was a good reason for that – they were
patronized by a large segment of the theater profession. Those
performers weren’t free on the regular matinee days because they were
giving their own shows. Also, people who went to the theater
matinees could come to the Wagner matinees since they were on
Tuesday. So that was the basic thing. Then for years there
was never a Good Friday without Parsifal.
It was always done.
BD: Even if there
were no other performances of Parsifal in that
EM: Having to put
up Parsifal for Good Friday,
always one or two or three other performances beside that. There
were always six or seven performances of Walküre, four or
five of Siegfried and two or
three of Götterdämmerung,
was hardly a season we didn’t have Tannhäuser
or Lohengrin. But
the point I’m coming to is that in New York, and Chicago along side of
it, just those two cities determined the tempo of opera in
America. They gave reason for a whole generation of singers
to work on the repertoire of Richard Wagner. Today, it’s very
difficult for young people to be encouraged to prepare themselves for
those roles, even if they may be the coming Melchiors and the coming
Schorrs. Where are they going to sing it? Where is there
going to be an outlet? In his wonderful autobiography, Giulio
Gatti-Casazza clearly explained what a tremendous Wagner enthusiast he
was – even though he was Italian. He ran the Met from 1908 until
1935, and was succeeded by Herbert Witherspoon who died just a few
weeks later. Then came Edward Johnson who lasted until
1950. But during those difficult years, especially during the war
when he couldn’t get singers from Europe, Wagner, along with
the bread and butter of the Metropolitan. Then when Mr. Bing took
over, he repeatedly stated that he didn’t have a feeling for Wagner,
and little by little it came out of the repertoire and was replaced
more and more by Mozart. Little by little, the Wagner singers
disappeared. There was a claim that the public was no longer
interested in Wagner, but that is absolutely ridiculous. They’ve
given two performances of Parsifal
in the last week and there are two
more coming, and you can’t buy a ticket for love nor
BD: The singers
today must have something going for them to
sell out the performances.
EM: When I went to
New York, the first thing I wanted to do was
go to the Metropolitan, and it happened that my first opera there was
Jeritza. Now when I went there from Denver, I had
every right to believe that I was hearing the world’s greatest.
Doesn’t a youngster today have the same right? If I tell him it’s
not as good, then I’m a sour puss. This is the danger in the
BD: Is there,
perhaps, too much opera going on today?
EM: Not as long as
people will go to it. There’s not too
much opera, but there’s not enough good singers to supply it all.
The great singers of my era were very difficult to replace, and I feel
the performances have gone down in quality because of a lack of
singers. Also the whole psychology of opera is different than it
was. The idea of a resident conductor who should be the focal
point of this fach no longer
exists in the same way. I’ve
heard the greatest performers in the last 60 years all over the world,
so it’s very difficult for me to sit and be patient when people are not
quite up to it. When they did Walküre
three years ago at the Met,
there was a great scramble to find eight girls to sing the
Valkeries. In the real days of Wagner at the Met – from the
1920’s through the 1930’s and early 1940’s – there were three girls for
every one of the eight parts. There was Thelma Votipka, who
started her career in the Chicago Opera, who was a great soprano, and
alongside of her was another American named Doris Doe.
She was a mezzo, and to make it complete there was also Dorothy
Manski who was German. Mr. Bodanzky never wanted to conduct
a performance of Walküre
that he didn’t have Votipka and Doe in the
cast because Thelma she could jump right in and nobody
would know. Doris Doe was the same with the mezzo parts. I
knew Thelma very well, and this is a true story – she would often go to
the opera house to sing Walküre,
and ask which role she was to sing
that night. It made no difference to her. That kind of
thing happened because there was an era of Wagner, and you could
encourage young people to study and know these things because there
were potential outlets.
BD: Is this true
of other repertoires, or just Wagner?
EM: We live in a
different age now. Another thing that has
happened, and not just to Wagner, is that the stars of the production
are the scenic designer and the stage director. Just before my
time, people went to the Chicago opera to hear Mary Garden or
Galli-Curci or Ponselle or Chaliapin. In New York they went for
these stars and also Geraldine Farrar and Enrico Caruso. In my
era they went for Kirsten Flagstad and Lauritz Melchior. Now it
makes no difference who sings. If it’s a Zeffirelli production,
then [chuckles] even the cleaning woman can sing!
BD: Is making such
a big deal about the production a mistake?
EM: I think it’s a
mistake because little by little, where are
the singers coming from?
BD: Are there
singers today who could take the place of Flagstad
EM: We don’t
know. Nobody knew about Kirsten Flagstad until
she came out of obscurity. I’m not running the thing and it’s
very easy to criticize – and perhaps not politically correct to do so –
but years ago in Bayreuth there were those great conductors who were
close to the family and knew the traditions; men like Dr.
Furtwangler and Hans Knappertsbusch. Now this young Italian
Sinopoli, who did an OK Tosca,
is going there to conduct
Tannhäuser. [See my
Giuseppe Sinopoli.] This would be unthinkable years
used to have to grow up to these things, and it’s not just age -
Mozart died in his 30s and look what he wrote.
BD: You did Wagner
in New York and Chicago and San Francisco. Were the performances
very much the same in each city?
EM: I had pretty
much the same casts all over, so the
performances were similar. As it happened, I only conducted
Lohengrin with the Chicago
company – here and on tour in Milwaukee –
but the singer was René Maison every time. He also sang
in Walküre. But
with Flagstad and Melchior, they knew their
staging and they did their performances and that was about it.
BD: Did any
director ever try to do something different?
EM: Perhaps in a
subtle way, or if it was a new
opera, of course. They did a new Flying Dutchman, and she took
over Fidelio – much to the
unhappiness of Lotte Lehmann – and she did
rehearse for that. When she did Fidelio
in San Francisco, it
was a new production and she very willingly rehearsed them.
Hebert Graf directed. But I remember that usually Flagstad would
just go on the stage before the curtain to see the set and that was all.
BD: Let me ask you
about the performance of Tristan
EM: That was here
in Chicago in 1939 and I conducted it. He
did very, very well. I have a good memory
for dates – it was the 24th of November, 1939, a Friday night.
The following Monday we had Lohengrin
and Wednesday Tannhäuser.
Then we did Walküre on
Saturday which was the occasion of Rose
Bampton’s first Sieglinde. By the way, Marjorie Lawrence sang
her first Sieglinde with me in San Francisco. But on Thursday of
week, Henry Weber, who was head of the opera company then, called me
and said he had a terrible catastrophe. Lily Pons was supposed to
sing Lakmé the next
night (Friday) and was sick
and couldn’t sing. So Weber asked me if I thought Mme. Flagstad
would be willing to sing an extra performance. Flagstad was very
strong and I said I’d ask her. We could do another Tristan, but
by that time, Martinelli had gone back to New York. However, Carl
Hartmann was here for Tannhäuser,
so they asked him if he’d sing
Tristan. We had no
rehearsal. I went to Mr. Hartmann’s
dressing room and we discussed two or three cuts in the Third
Act, but they were the standard ones used the world over.
performances of Wagner operas be cut?
EM: Of course they
should, but as long as James Levine is
in charge of the Met, they won’t be. There’s only one cut that
Levine makes and that’s the standard cut in Lohengrin which is used
even in Bayreuth. But he does music that I never heard in my life
except in Bayreuth. Tannhäusers the world over sing only two
verses – except in Bayreuth. The Parsifal the other night lasted
almost six hours. It’s too much for the public and it’s too much
the artists, but we won’t cut anything. There’s no opera house in
the world – except at festival times – that doesn’t have absolutely
BD: Are you happy
with the records you made with Flagstad and
EM: On the whole,
yes. Those were made before LP’s.
Flagstad always felt that the Kundry/Parsifal scene made in
Philadelphia was her best thing on records. After 1941, they
never sang together again; they never even saw each other
again. I made two trips to London in 1956-58 and made 5 LP’s of
songs with her. Fortunately the Immolation
Scene she made with me
is no longer available. It’s fortunate because she made such a
great one with Dr. Furtwangler. That was with a much better
orchestra. She never OK’d the one she made with Ormandy and the
Philadelphia Orchestra. She liked Ormandy very much, but she
didn’t like that record.
BD: Is it good that the
broadcast tapes are now becoming more
EM: Yes, if
they’re explained properly and the people know that
they’re broadcasts. She never sang a complete broadcast of
Melchior and was very unhappy about that because
she would have liked to have had a recording of it.
BD: Are recordings
in general a good thing for the public?
EM: I think
recordings are a great advantage. Maybe the CD
will change the whole thing but they’re so expensive. Today,
though, someone living in Denver can be exposed to opera by virtue of
two things – radio/TV, and recordings. We had touring opera –
Fortune Gallo and the San Carlo used to come every year, but that was a
piecemeal exposure to opera. But someone who has it in their
blood to make a career can go to a center and be exposed to it all the
time. It’s the same with languages. The hardest thing for
an American is to learn to speak a foreign language because we have no
opportunity to speak it. If you’re a young singer in Stuttgart or
Ulm, you speak German, and if you’re a young singer in Rome, you speak
Italian, and when you sing opera in German or Italian you already speak
it. But here you have to study to speak it.
BD: Are you
optimistic about the future of opera?
EM: I’m not
optimistic about the quality. This country,
which I know pretty well, is full of enormous talent. So is
Europe, but I just don’t see the outlet for it. I don’t see
where it’s going to go. The whole idea of managing opera used to
be impresarios – men dedicated to the art.
Now it’s more
business. I never cease to be shocked when I read the roster of
an administration of an opera company to see “Director of
Marketing.” That’s like selling corn
BD: [With a gentle
nudge] Opera shouldn’t be on the commodities exchange?
EM: Maybe so, but
it’s more than a business. People have a
difficulty now growing up in opera. Another thing that’s happened
in all the arts – not just opera – is that the days of the individual
patrons of distinction are gone. Chicago was famous for its
patrons. Edith Rockefeller McCormick, Mr. and Mrs. Charles Swift,
and Charles Dawes – they don’t exist
is no longer an Otto Kahn in New York. The patrons haven’t been
around since the depression, so opera’s had to be more
commercialized and more informalized in the way of sponsorship.
That spells a difference.
BD: Is the jet
plane destroying many careers?
EM: Oh of course,
but the young
generation needs the guidance of the seasoned generation. Take as
an example Erich Leinsdorf. [See my Interviews with Erich
Leinsdorf.] He’s about my age, and as a young man
he had the guidance and supervision of Toscanini and Bruno Walter in
Salzburg, and when he first came to the Met, Mr. Bodanzky. Whom
do the young people have today? Also, because things come so fast
and are so commercial, I found young people are not as anxious to
learn. I’ve gone to many master classes and given a few also, and
one thing I try to do is to give to everybody in the class something
that they can take home with them and make use of.
-- -- -- -- --
* * *
Interviews by Bruce Duffie appear regularly in
Wagner News. In addition
to the names mentioned last time, the
next issue will have a chat
with bass Don Garrard. He will be
appearing soon as King Marke in Toronto’s production of Tristan.
Then in the fall, Tatiana Troyanos, and the long-awaited interview with
Jon Vickers. Both of these conversations will be printed at
time of the new production of Parsifal
at Lyric Opera of Chicago.
Also of interest to people in the Chicago area is Nit & Wit,
Chicago’s Literary Arts Magazine. This bi-monthly, which is being
revived after a year’s absence from the scene, will present interviews
by Bruce Duffie on a regular basis. The January/February issue
conversation with the
British baritone Benjamin Luxon, and the
following issue (March/April) will have a chat with conductor Daniel
Barenboim. It was Barenboim’s performance of Act II of Tristan
with the Chicago Symphony that prompted the interview – some of which
was aired on WNIB as a preview to those performances.
Announcer/Producer Bruce Duffie is completing his
12th year with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago. A regular
contributor to several scholarly magazines, his interviews appear both
in print and on the air. In these pages later this fall, his chat
with soprano Anna Tomowa-Sintow, who will be returning to Lyric
of Chicago. Then in January of 1988, a conversation with
conductor Maurice Abravanel in honor of his 85th
birthday. Abravanel led Wagner performances in Australia in the
mid 1930s, and has some interesting remarks about his
adventures. A year from now, a conversation with
Everding to mark his 60th birthday. These
and others coming soon in these pages.
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© 1985 Bruce Duffie
This interview was recorded in Chicago on April 14,
were used (along with
recordings) on WNIB in 1987, 1995 and 1997.
It was transcribed and published in Wagner
News in September, 1987. It was re-edited, photos and
links were added, and posted on this
website in 2012.
To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been
transcribed and posted on this website, click here.
broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago
from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of
2001. His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and
journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM,
as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.
You are invited to visit his website
for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of
other interviews, plus a full list of his guests. He would also
to call your attention to the photos and information about his
grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a
century ago. You may also send him E-Mail
with comments, questions and suggestions.