[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 classes.
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
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
One special note: As readers of these pages might remember, in March
of 1985 I 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. [To read that paper, with additional photos and
other material, click HERE.]
That, plus much more of the conversation is all presented now…..
Bruce Duffie: How
has Wagner changed in the course of so many years?
Edwin McArthur: 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
BD: His works were
simply not done during the First World War.
EM: That’s 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 from
my 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
BD: We had Ring cycles here in Chicago in 1915-16
and 1916-17, both times with Clarence Whitehill.
EM: Clarence 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 which
would vary – one year it would be Meistersinger
and Tannhäuser, another year
it would be Lohengrin and the Dutchman. Those matinee 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 season?
EM: Having to put
up Parsifal for Good Friday, there
were 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, and there
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 Verdi, was 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 money.
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 Tannhäuser with 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 whole thing.
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 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
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 or Melchior?
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 Interview with
Giuseppe Sinopoli.] This would be unthinkable years ago.
People 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 conducted Lohengrin with the Chicago company – here
and on tour in Milwaukee – but the singer was René Maison every time.
He also sang Siegmund 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. [See my Interview with Rose Bampton.]
By the way, Marjorie Lawrence sang her first Sieglinde with me in San Francisco.
But on Thursday of that 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
BD: Should 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.
[See my Interview with James
Levine.] 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 for 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 standard cuts.
BD: Are you happy
with the records you made with Flagstad and Melchior?
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 widely available?
EM: Yes, if they’re
explained properly and the people know that they’re broadcasts. She
never sang a complete broadcast of Götterdämmerung
with 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 flakes.
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 anymore. There 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.
* * *
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* * *
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 the 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 has a 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
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 Opera
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 director August
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, 1985. Sections
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.
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.
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.