[Note: This interview was held in Seattle in 1987 and originally
published in Wagner News in
May of 1991.]
Presenting the Conductor
of the Seattle Ring
By Bruce Duffie
This summer , the Seattle Opera resumes a tradition
— the Ring.
Three cycles are being given during the month of August, with Roger Roloff as
Wotan, and Hermann Michael in the pit. Those two, along with
François Rochaix were involved the previous time there were
cycles in the Pacific Northwest in 1987.
Since his Seattle debut in 1984 with Tannhäuser,
Hermann Michael has been making quite a reputation for himself.
He returned for Faust before
doing the Ring in 1987, and
showed his lighter side the following year with Die Fledermaus by Johann Strauss,
Jr. Then in the summer of 1989, he led Meistersinger, and Roloff scored
another triumph as Hans Sachs. This past January, Michael
conducted Ariadne auf Naxos
by the other Strauss, namely Richard. Among his engagements
elsewhere in the U.S. have been Fledermaus
at the Met, and Mozart’s Entführung
in San Francisco.
It was in 1987 that I had the pleasure of making my third trip to
Seattle for the Ring, and
then cooling off after the Immolation
by going farther Northwest — to Alaska!
But during the week in Washington I was able to interview several of
those involved in the Wagnerian opus, and to herald the return of both
Wagner and Michael, it is a pleasure to present the conversation with
the conductor . . . . .
This is your first complete Ring cycle?
Ja, my first. Many years
ago in Bremen, where I was director of the opera, I did Rheingold and Walküre. We couldn’t
find an adequate tenor, so we didn’t do the other two operas.
difficult is it to find a good Siegfried?
HM: It is
more difficult than ever. The big heldentenors like Max Lorenz
don’t exist today for the reason that the singers of today sing too
much. They go from one continent to another in half a day,
whereas in the past it took four days to go from New York to
Frankfurt. Also in the past, there were more days of between
performances. But it’s more money for them to sing more
performances even when there is a lot of fast travel.
directors and agents lean on them not to do quite as much?
HM: I don’t
believe they can. It’s the singers’ choice, but there are so very
few in the world who can sing the roles — maybe
five or six.
Wagner not write the part so it can be sung reasonably?
HM: It can be
sung, but the tenor needs a few days — perhaps
even a week — between the performances when he
doesn’t sing. It is possible to sing Siegfried and Götterdämmerung with just
one day between, but it is hard vocally along with all the other things
BD: So it’s
not just the Wagner, it’s everything else?
HM: Ja! They sing too much in
general, not just too much Wagner.
Wagner write the roles well for the voice?
HM: For the
high sopranos and high tenors, it is the maximum that a composer has
requested from a singer. When you hear the records from the past,
you can hear that they could sing it. It’s not impossible.
It is difficult, but not impossible.
there any other roles that are as difficult for a tenor as Siegfried?
After the first act and the Forging
Scene, we often have to have a second tenor standing by just in
case. After all the hard singing in the first act, there is
lyrical music in act 2, and at the end a duet with a fresh
a bit about conducting in general, is all your work done at rehearsal,
or do you leave something for the inspiration of the evening?
Especially in the Ring, where
you have sixteen or seventeen hours of music, you cannot do everything
in rehearsal, and it isn’t necessary for this orchestra that has done
more Rings than any other in
the world except Bayreuth. They have a good feeling for Wagner,
so you have more freedom for the performances. With other
orchestras, you have to fix every note and all the musical
events. Here, though, you can change things during performances
without causing problems or mistakes.
BD: Are these
changes inspired by the moment?
HM: Ja, ja. It depends sometimes
on how the singer is feeling — if he or she is
not quite up to it, or maybe has extra power that night. The
drama can also cause you to speed up or to relax. It depends on
BD: Do you
watch the singers all the time?
HM: Not all
the time, but I know exactly where they are, and they are in my reach.
BD: Are you
in control all the time, or do you sometimes follow them?
HM: Wagner is
very different from Italian opera. In Italian opera the singer is
the most important, and about 70% you follow them because they are the
melody. But Wagner wrote his operas in symphonic style, and that
is why the orchestra is so important. The conductor leads the
tempo and the singers must take it. Wagner wished it so.
BD: How do
you see the significance of the drama in the Ring?
HM: The most
difficult thing in the Ring
is that you have to go not only from note to note and from act to act,
but from opera to opera. It’s a whole thing from the beginning of
Rheingold to the end of Götterdäammerung.
In any moment you must know where you are — like
a journey — and again, it’s all very
symphonic. Siegfried is
like the scherzo. It’s more complicated than operas where you
have a first scene, then an aria, then a duet, and so on. In the Ring you are always within the
drama, and for a conductor that is the most difficult thing.
Giving the right interpretation at the right moment is crucial because
the motives often appear with the same notes, but the tempo or dynamic
may be quite different. Wagner’s sense of drama depends on where
that motive appears for the first time. You must be careful to
know how to insert the motives and make them fluid to relate from one
moment to the next. This is only for the Ring. I’ve conducted all the
other Wagner operas except Meistersinger
so I know them very well. [As noted above, in 1989 there was a
successful production of Meistersinger
with Roloff as Hans Sachs and Michael conducting.]
BD: In the Ring, is all the drama in the music?
HM: It’s in
the music and in the words, too. That is a difficult point for an
audience that doesn’t know the language, and the idea of supertitles is
one of the most marvelous inventions I’ve seen. From the first
moment I saw them here in Seattle in 1984 with Tannhäuser, I thought they
were strange, but the audience was much more involved in the drama so I
knew the idea was good. Wagner, of course, was not only the
musician but also the poet, and his texts are not written in the common
language you’d speak on the street, but very poetic, and often have two
or three different senses to the words. To translate that into
English is very difficult, and sometimes you lose a little from the
poetry when you see the title. You don’t see how poetic his text
is, but the meaning of the scene is made clear.
BD: OK, the Capriccio question. In the
Ring, where is the balance between the music and the drama?
HM: Of course
the music is always more important, but the music always comes from the
words. We experience it all together, so really there is no
difference between the music and the words since he set his own words,
and the phrasing is exactly that of the text. The rhythm of the
words has been captured exactly.
Wagner a better poet or a better composer?
HM: A better
composer, certainly. That’s clear. For a composer, he was a
very good poet. [Laughs] The musical level is much higher
than the textual level.
Wagner have been better off working with a different poet?
because he was so involved in all the problems of his works
— lyrical problems, vocal problems, staging problems,
lighting problems, acoustic problems. He was involved in all
these, and looked for the right people to do things in Bayreuth.
He found sponsors and supporters. He didn’t rest until he had
found the right people.
BD: Are the
operas too long?
depends on your state of mind when you go to a Wagner
performance. If you go after a full workday, you will find it too
long. But Wagner wrote his operas not for working days, but, as
they do in Bayreuth, as festivals. The whole day is dedicated to
the opera, and that is the right mental preparation for Wagner.
Then, the intermissions are longer, too. Each is one hour, and I
think that’s right because Wagner needs a longer break for the
orchestra, for the singers, for the audience, for all. I can see
the problems of that in the U.S. where extra time costs so much.
In Europe it is much better from a financial standpoint.
BD: You were
music director in Bremen for ten years. At what point do the
financial considerations override the artistic decisions?
HM: It’s a
complex question. In Europe, generally the financial resources
come not from sponsors but from the state. Every person pays
taxes and helps to support the opera. Some states in Germany give
more to culture than others; Bavaria gives more than any others.
But you have more freedom there because you don’t have to be concerned
about how many people come to an exhibition. In the United
States, you need to have at least 90% in order to exist. So
Europe can make more experiments instead of always repeating only the
famous and popular things that are sure to bring the public. On
the other hand, the US has a closer relationship between the audience
and the company because people give the money for the production.
BD: As music
director in Bremen, were you not conscious of the attendance?
course. We try to have a balance between the famous and the
novelties. It was about 2/3 sure-things, and 1/3 or 1/4
experiments. That is the balance.
BD: Do you
feel the American public understands Wagner the way he should be
difficult for me to answer because I’m not here that much. In
Seattle, because of the long experience with the Ring for so many years, perhaps
they understand Wagner better than in other towns, I would imagine...
at least the Ring
itself. In 1984, when I did Tannhäuser
here, it was the first time for Seattle.
BD: How much
do you as the music director get involved with the staging?
depends on the stage director and what your relation is with him or
her. When you have a good relationship, it’s a wonderful thing
— not only in Wagner, but in any work. You get to
speak about the problems because many staging problems are connected
with musical problems. There is always an interchange between
those two positions.
BD: Are we
living now in the age of the Stage Director?
HM: When you
read the newspapers you would think that, but not for the
audience. The music is the same since it was composed.
That’s the reason the newspapers concentrate on what is
different. The staging can be much more different than a musical
interpretation. Musical interpretation comes from the notes, but
staging comes from the text and from the stage directions, and there
are many more possibilities. This Ring was very shocking because
Seattle was used to a more traditional staging. Europe, and in
the case of Wagner, Bayreuth, went through all this upheaval some years
ago. The Chereau Ring
was booed at first. In the end it was a classic and you can buy
BD: Is it
right to continue this kind of experimentation?
HM: Ja, when the experimentation is not
against the music. For me, that is the point where we should
look. This can bring Wagner to our days in a different way than
they did it in the past.
makes a piece of music great?
difficult to answer... a high musical level that is understood by not
only one person or a few people. It must be that not only
musicians feel it is marvelous, but the audience, too, without
necessarily understanding the technical aspects.
BD: Who makes
the decision as to what works stay in the repertoire — the
management, the musicians, the public?
public; only the public. That public has been 99% right in the
past. I don’t believe there is a masterpiece in the world that
the public has not discovered. History is always right.
Perhaps not at the moment, but over the long period it is.
BD: Is there
no place in the concert hall or the opera house for works of less than
should be a place, but in the US, where all the money comes from the
public, there is not the space for the second-line works. It’s
nice to have a first-class dinner, but sometimes you just pick up a
flip the coin. Are there any works which are considered
masterpieces which really are not?
HM: No, I
don’t think so.
opera be for everyone?
HM: A General
Director will say yes, but I think the great music was written for a
few. Many appreciate it, but it was written only for a few.
Every composer has someone in mind for whom he writes each piece.
|Obituary in The New York Times, September 14,
Hermann Michael, Maestro, Dies at 68
By ANNE MIDGETTE
Hermann Michael, a conductor who appeared around the world and was
music director of the Phoenix Symphony for seven seasons, died on Sept.
1 at his home in Uffing, Germany. He was 68.
The cause was aplastic anemia, a rare blood disease diagnosed in 1999,
the orchestra announced.
In addition to working in Phoenix, Mr. Michael had a special
relationship with Seattle, where he appeared nearly every season as a
guest with the opera company after making his American debut there in
1984. He led three complete "Ring" cycles in Seattle, and regularly
performed with the symphony.
Mr. Michael conducted at the Metropolitan Opera a number of times,
leading "Fidelio," "The Flying Dutchman," and "Die Fledermaus." Other
guest appearances took him to the Berlin Philharmonic, the London
Philharmonic, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and many other major
ensembles in Europe and North America.
Born in Schwäbisch Gmünd, a Bavarian town, in 1937, Mr.
piano and cello at the Stuttgart conservatory, but had had no formal
conducting training when he audited a master class of Herbert von
Karajan's in Berlin in 1960. Afterward he announced to Karajan that he
could do that, too. Karajan had him come back the next day and conduct
the Sibelius Fifth Symphony. Even more surprisingly, he approved of
what he heard.
After this experience and a three-week master class with another
acclaimed conductor, Hans Swarowsky, Mr. Michael was invited to take
part in the first Cantelli Conducting Competition in Italy, which he
won. He later served as Karajan's assistant at the Vienna State Opera
and undertook some significant guest engagements before becoming
director of the Bremen Opera from 1970 to 1978.
His debut in Seattle came at the recommendation of the American
baritone Dale Duesing,
who sings frequently in Germany and Seattle.
Later in his life, Mr. Michael taught conducting at the Munich
Musikhochschule, a position he gave up in 2000 because of ill health.
Mr. Michael met his wife, Brigitta, a violinist, when he was 21. She
survives him, along with their four children, Ariane, Angela, Ramon and
Dunja, and 10 grandchildren.
© 1987 Bruce Duffie
This conversation was recorded in Seattle, Washington, on
August 6, 1987. The transcription was made and published in Wagner News in May of 1991.
It was slightly re-edited, photos and links were added, and it was
posted on this website in 2016.
To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been
transcribed and posted on this website, click here.
Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975
its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001. His
interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since
and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well
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.