[Note: This interview first appeared in Wagner News in May of 1988.
Most of the conversation was published there, but for this website
presentation, the portions which were omitted have been restored, and
the entire chat has been slightly re-edited. Photos and links
have also been added here.]
CELEBRATING THE 50th BIRTHDAY OF KURT MOLL
By Bruce Duffie
Most of the interviews that I have the privilege of
doing are fun, but some are very special for one reason or
another. Besides simply meeting this fine artist, the chat with
Kurt Moll was particularly memorable because of the translator
Gordon. Readers of this journal will remember the
with him published back in May of 1982. When I met Moll in 1984,
he was in Chicago appearing as Osmin in Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem
Serail. The conductor was Ferdinand Leitner,
and the Pedrillo was none other than my friend, David
Gordon. So when Moll accepted my invitation for the interview and
indicated that while he would speak some English, it would be necessary
to have a translator, David immediately agreed to be there.
The speaking voice of Herr Moll is dark and rich and
deep, and I hope that some readers heard portions of the conversation
which were broadcast on WNIB on Easter of this year when we played his
recording of Parsifal to
celebrate not only the 50th birthday of the
bass, but also the 80th birthday of Herbert von Karajan. Besides
this last Wagner opus, Kurt Moll has sung and recorded all the great
bass parts with many of the world’s leading conductors. Among his
discography are Die Feen (!) (Sawallisch); Dutchman (Karajan);
Meistersinger (Solti); Tannhäuser (Haitink); Tristan (Kleiber); and
He has also recorded Mozart’s Entführung
(Davis), and other works; Stauss’ Rosenkavalier
(Karajan); Weber’s Freischütz
(Kubelik); and discs of sacred works and
Lieder. [Names with links in these paragraphs indicate my
interviews with these musicians.]
This famous and admired singer celebrated his 50th
birthday in mid-April, and as a tribute to that milestone, Wagner News
is pleased to publish this conversation with Kurt Moll. We spent
about an hour and a half together talking about mostly Wagner, and here
is what was said…
Let’s start right in with Wagner. You’ve sung
many performances all over the world, as well as in Bayreuth. Do
the acoustics there cause you to sing any differently than in
Kurt Moll: Basically, no. It
doesn’t change the way that
you have to sing on the stage in Bayreuth. Although there is a
completely different acoustical feeling because the whole sound of the
orchestra comes first to the stage where it is mixed with the voice and
then goes out into auditorium where the public hears both sounds
together. This is dangerous because you hear so much orchestra
onstage that you tend to over-sing. If you know how much you must
give, it’s OK, but the first time is always strange. For the
conductors it’s very difficult because they must always be quicker than
normal in beating. But the acoustics in Bayreuth are phenomenal.
BD: Are the
audiences in Bayreuth completely different from other cities?
KM: It’s different
because the audience consists mainly of people
who are Wagner specialists and they come from all over the world to
Bayreuth just to hear Wagner. It is a different audience from the
normal operatic audience. I know people who save all their money
all year and come to Bayreuth, and during the festival go to all 28
performances. The only place where only Wagner is played is
Bayreuth, and I don’t think they’ll ever play anything else there.
BD: Is there any
other composer who elicits such fanaticism?
not. The Salzburg Festival is allegedly a Mozart festival, but
they perform music of all different composers. The only place
where only Wagner is played is Bayreuth. I do not think they will
ever get the idea to play anything else there.
BD: Would it be
good to stage other operas either there, or in
another opera house of that design?
KM: Yes, I believe
so. The stage is very large, and it
would be very interesting to try music by another composer in that
space. They have tried to imitate the acoustic and build other
theaters like it, but have never succeeded.
BD: Do you read the
letters, etc., of composers whom you are singing?
KM: Sure, when I
first study the role I acquaint myself with the letters and so forth,
but when I perform the parts many times, with each new production I try
to find a new version, a new interpretation, a new way of looking at
each role. Sometimes with new stage directors and new conductors,
it is possible to see the role in a new light.
BD: Have the stage
directors today gone, perhaps, farther than Wagner would have wanted?
yes. There is a whole lot of nonsense, especially with Wagner
while ignoring the enormous variety and complexity of the music and the
text. There is so much there that you really don’t
need to bring that much to it. You just need to perform the music
as it’s written and as the stage directions indicate.
It is truly gesamkunst, a
total art. The whole gestalt,
everything together – words, music, stage direction and
concept of the composer – is all so complex that you don’t
really need to bring much of yourself to it as a stage director.
You simply need to follow the directions that Wagner has left.
This is not to say that you have to look at these operas the way Wagner
looked at them through his own eyes in the Nineteenth Century. We
have new technical abilities involving stagecraft at our disposal and
we have new sensibilities which we should not ignore. But there
is a lot of foolishness done in the name of innovation.
BD: How much
alteration are we making, then, because we have lived another hundred
or more years?
KM: You must give
the audience members the opportunity to look at these operas through a
lens of the Twentieth Century. The art of interpretation, the
nature of interpretation has essentially changed during our
century. Today we see the works of Wagner as being
over-pathetic. Pathos is certainly written in, but today, in our
fast-paced life we look at these works differently from the time of
Wagner when people lived a slower and calmer existence. We should
honestly approach the pathos which Wagner intended without looking at
it through rose-colored glasses. We should look at the true
nature of Wagner’s music while not ignoring the Twentieth
Century’s sensibilities or stagecraft.
BD: Do these
characters that Wagner drew still speak to us today?
KM: I think so,
yes. Why not? In the book Wagner
Through the Eyes of a Jurist, it is funny. The writer
describes how many murders and robberies and other crimes are committed
in each opera, and he arrives at a figure of two hundred crimes which
would merit life in prison! [Laughter all around]
BD: Your voice
dictates that you sing these roles. Do you
like them, or do you have any latent desires to be a tenor?
KM: No, I don’t
want any other kind of voice. I’m very
happy with the voice that I have, and I’m very happy to be singing the
Wagner roles that I sing with a few exceptions. It’s not just the
voice, but a combination of the quality and your temperament.
BD: Let’s talk
about a few of these roles. You’ve
mentioned Gurnemanz. Is this the longest?
KM: This is the longest, and for me,
the most beautiful role, and
the one that I sing with the most pleasure. It’s a role in which
you find something new in every performance. You’re never done
with your development of the role. No matter how many times you
sing it, you never finish learning it. You always have to work on
it again and study it anew.
BD: I know this is
a dangerous question to ask, but is this your favorite role of all or
just your favorite Wagner?
KM: Just my
favorite Wagner. I am always engaged and involved with the one I
am doing at the moment. I also like Baron Ochs in Der
Rosenkavalier of Strauss and Osmin in Mozart’s Entführung. But
Gurnemanz is a special role because I identify somewhat with it
personally, with my temperament. I especially identity with him
in the third act.
BD: You feel old??
KM: Between Act
One and Act Three, Wagner states that he becomes three hundred years
older. It’s not a concrete literal aging, but a more figurative
and spiritual aging. The point of the 300 year gap is not
physical, but a matter of space and time, and most of all he is 300
years wiser. His character is transformed in
a transcendental way.
BD: Is Gurnemanz
completely overjoyed when Parsifal returns?
KM: I believe so,
yes. The difference in Gurnemanz between the
first and third acts is that in the first act, Parsifal has
to do something dramatic in order that Gurnemanz can recognize the
significance of Parsifal’s character. When he kills the swan,
demonstrates his guilt and feeling of pity and Gurnemanz recognizes
this. But by the third act, Gurnemanz has reached the
level of spiritual development that he would recognize Parsifal without
even actually seeing him. He would feel his presence. He
so sensitive. This is what the 300 years of development
represents. The other difference is that while Gurnemanz
recognizes Parsifal in the first act, he doesn’t recognize
the significance of Parsifal’s character as being a Savior.
BD: Is Parsifal
not the first to have come into their midst and
create a stir?
KM: Parsifal is
not the first to have done such a thing, but he’s
a different type. He doesn’t know who his father is or where he’s
from. He doesn’t know anything of himself, but he feels that he’s
done something wrong and he feels some kind of pity or empathy with
another living creature. Gurnemanz sees all of this, but operates
during the whole first act without knowing the significance
of Parsifal’s character or really understanding who Parsifal is.
At the end of the act, when the alto sings the one line, he hears it
still not sure. Something clicks in his mind, but he’s still
uncertain. I’ve experienced stage-directions where Gurnemanz
hears the voice and takes a few steps in Parsifal’s direction as though
he wanted to catch him, as though he had an intimation of who Parsifal
BD: Then does
Gurnemanz simply wait three hundred years for Parsifal to return?
KM: I believe
so. At least one hundred and fifty years! [Much laughter
the intermissions at Bayreuth too long?
KM: No. It’s
exactly right because Bayreuth exists for the
audience to totally experience Wagner. So, when you have any act
that lasts maybe two hours, an intermission of an hour is not too
much. Remember, the public is there for no other purpose except
to hear this performance.
BD: OK, but from
the point of view of the singer, is that
interval too long?
When I do Gurnemanz, I have time to go to dinner
between the two acts that I sing.
BD: Is that like
doing two operas – having to come back and start
all over again for the third act?
KM: Yes. You
have to warm up again before the third act,
and the first act is so long that one is physically tired
already. Of that two hours, I spend an hour standing on the stage
with only a few phrases to sing, but I must be onstage.
BD: [With a sly
nudge] Do you get bored with it?
[Again, much laughter]
BD: If you were to
direct Parsifal, would you
ever think to have the same man do both Amfortas and Klingsor?
KM: No. They
are two different characters.
BD: Not two sides
of the same figure?
KM: You have to
look at the story rather than deal with some kind of philosophy.
Very often, a stage director’s philosophy will intrude on
the story that Wagner clearly sets forth. Klingsor has left
because he is searching for something that he has not found. He
really has wounded himself; in a sense he has emasculated
himself. Amfortas was wounded by Klingsor.
BD: One time at the
old Met, Hermann Uhde sang both roles in a single performance, thus
being his own worst enemy.
KM: [Ponders it a
moment, but is un-amused] Of course it is possible
that both parts could be sung by the
same singer, the same voice, but in the story these are two entirely
different figures. If you look at the premiere of Don Giovanni, the same singer sang
both Masetto and the Commendatore.
BD: Is it ever a
good idea to have the same singer do two parts in one opera
– perhaps a Norn and Gutrune?
KM: In the
ensemble, certainly it’s possible, but when you have leading
roles, it’s not a good idea. While you can
do them with the same voice, you should have two different
characters represented. For an Esquire and a Flower Maiden, that
is all right.
BD: Have you done
KM: Yes, and I have
done Sparafucile, but not in the same production.
BD: Would you do
them both if asked?
KM: No. They
are not onstage together, but the scene-change is so quick that it
would be virtually impossible to do it. The one scene ends with
Monterone and the next thing you know Sparafucile is there. There
isn’t time for one singer to do both. It might work in
an extremely small theater when they needed to save money...
BD: Are there any
Wagner roles you haven’t sung yet that you’d
KM: I’ve sung all
the Wagner roles except Hagen and I’m really
not interested in that one because it doesn’t seem to suit my nature
particularly well. You need a kind of a raw voice, one that’s
knife. You need to almost yell more than sing. You must cry
out rather than sing in a bel canto
BD: Is that the way
Wagner wrote it, or has it just come down to us that way today?
KM: It’s possible
we’ve come to the point today where Hagen is a role for someone who
really can’t sing other parts any more.
BD: Is it a
KM: Yes, but there are certain
special voices that can stand the
punishment of this role. As a matter of fact, I was singing in a
production of the Ring in
Paris with Solti conducting, and we were
supposed to do all four operas, but the last two were dropped because
of difficulties with the stage-direction team. I was supposed to
sing Hagen, and despite the fact that they were dropped, I was paid
anyway, and I decided at that time that there was no way that I could
ever earn that much money again by not singing a part. [Laughter
around] I also find that Hagen is so rough on the voice that it
interferes with other parts of my career which I really enjoy, such as
BD: Tell me about
Hunding. Is he really a nasty fellow, or
just somebody who’s been betrayed?
KM: Hunding is not
just your everyday guy. He’s someone who
has gotten in over his head and has been betrayed. He’s gotten a
really raw deal. He’s not like Hagen. Hagen is, by his very
nature, an evil character. Hunding, on the other hand, is a
temperamental man. He is easily excited and quick to anger and
quick to violence. He’s not an evil person, but you can’t make
him into a nice guy. From his very first entrance, he finds
himself in a situation where he is provoked into evil action. He
is defending himself. He is provoked into this and becomes
evil. He is the man of the house. He is uncouth and he’s
of a hooligan. He sees what’s going on, and he’s not
stupid. At the same time, he doesn’t react immediately. He
sees what Siegmund is doing, but he gives him some time to
explain. By saying that the fight will be tomorrow, he gives
Siegmund a chance to get out of the situation.
BD: Does Hunding
want Siegmund to escape?
KM: I cannot say
that, but he gives him the possibility to escape. A truly evil
man would demand the duel then
and there. He is a strong man. He tells Sieglinde to go to
the kitchen and work there. It is possible that Hunding wants to
battle. He’s not a bad man, but the situation and circumstances
force him into unpleasant behavior.
BD: Is it a
grateful role to sing even though it is short?
KM: The role
itself is not a very long one and I like to sing it
very much. You can make a great deal out of it, although there
isn’t very much to sing. There is also the dramatic potential
that you have a lot of time to sit and listen and react to what others
do. It is dramatically and theatrically, as well as vocally, a
BD: Is there any
way to successfully stage the end of the second
KM: If you take
into account all the mystical aspects of Die Walküre, then it’s
not difficult to find this particular scene believable.
BD: Have you sung
one of the Giants?
KM: Yes, I’ve sung
BD: Which one is
KM: Fasolt is much
better to sing. It’s a very beautiful
role to sing, but Fafner is a much better role to make money with
because Fafner appears in two operas, and Fasolt only in one.
BD: Why is Fasolt a
more beautiful role to sing?
KM: He’s a more
simpatico fellow. He has a
heart. He is a nice fellow and must show during the entire opera
that he’s in love with Freia.
BD: Could he
actually have actually been happy if he could live with her?
KM: Yes of course,
if it hadn’t have been for his brother.
Fafner was the capitalist. He wants only the gold, and is capable
of murdering his own brother for it. The line is ironic – he
says, “The bigger half for me.” That is unrealistic, but he
would have gotten it!
BD: Would Fasolt
have been willing to take a smaller portion?
It’s all the same to Fasolt. He
feels here [gestures to his heart]. He looks for Freia as the
gold is piled up
and tries to see her through the tiniest hole, as though he doesn’t see
the gold. He only wants to see Freia. He is very sad when
he no longer sees Freia.
BD: So instead of
being concerned with the bargain and the amount
of gold, is he making sure his memory of Freia is gone completely?
KM: He doesn’t
care about the gold. He’s only concerned with the catching one
last glimpse of
Freia. In fact, it’s only when he hears Loge tell Wotan not to
worry about the gold as long as they keep the ring that he realizes
that it has do with anything materialistic. That’s the first
inkling that he has that this is more than the original bargain.
He literally lets the ring slip through his fingers. Fasolt has
no feeling for material things. He thinks with his
heart and Fafner thinks with his mind.
BD: Does Fasolt
have any home life, or is he looking to begin one with Freia?
KM: Maybe. I
BD: Is he a good
is an architect and
Fafner is the builder. Fafner, meanwhile, is totally obsessed
with the gold.
BD: Fasolt is the
brains and Fafner is the brawn.
BD: Ok, now from
the other side, is Fafner right in trying to get
all the gold?
KM: Yes. He
tries to get it all.
BD: So then why is
he later incapable of doing anything with it
except stand guard as a dragon?
KM: What else can
he do with the gold as a dragon – he can’t spend it. He can’t
do anything with it.
BD: So why does
Fafner turn into a dragon?
KM: It happens
during the interval between the operas, and Wagner
didn’t write down why. There is nothing to indicate this.
It’s not part of the tale of the
Niebelungen. Fasolt and Fafner are part of traditional North
mythology, the saga, but the dragon is just something that is suddenly
there in Wagner’s story. In Germany he’s
Wagner-Fafner”. Wagner just thought it
BD: It seems like a
terrible waste. I always wonder why Fafner didn’t have
enough intelligence to do anything with the gold.
production once at La Scala where Fafner represented the figure of
Lenin, and I sat on a factory roof with about twenty or twenty-five
BD: I guess you
could call them Niebel-Lennins!
[Laughing] Fafner-lungen! When Siegfried came to slay me,
he took a red scarf
away from me, which represented the blood. Actually, you can
solve all this Fafner problem by doing it the way Wagner originally
wrote it. Fafner was to be sung from behind the scenes with a
megaphone, unseen by anyone. The megaphone created an unnatural
BD: Is it wrong to
actually see the person onstage?
KM: I think so, yes.
BD: Were you every
actually put inside the dragon onstage?
KM: No, I’ve never
actually functioned as a dragon onstage.
I’ve always been behind the scene except for that production where
instead of Fiddler on the Roof, I was Fafner on the Roof.
BD: One last
question about the Ring – is
it one opera?
KM: What you
should do is what someone tried once. They used a large football
stadium and played all four operas together at the same time! But
it doesn’t work because Rheingold
is so much shorter than the others. [Laughter] Seriously, it
is not one opera, but one great single unified work.
You can’t play one opera alone because it is such a total musical
work. They all belong to each other
as a unit together.
BD: Let’s move on
to the Dutchman. Do you
like playing Daland?
KM: Oh yes.
BD: Is Daland a
KM: He’s very
naïve. He’s a typical seafaring man who
dreams constantly of some great material monetary windfall, and then
all of a sudden, he finds himself in a situation where it is laid at
his feet. He wants the
best for his daughter, and he has dreamed of this for so long.
BD: He has no
hesitation about handing over his daughter to this man just because he
KM: Just a little
bit, perhaps. He
is perhaps a little mistrustful of this Flying Dutchman, but he sees
the ability to have both – the wealth and the happiness for his
daughter. So he takes care of both of these things at once.
BD: Should the
opera be played in one piece or three?
KM: In one, I
think. The famous Ponnelle production which we did here in
Chicago last season
was very good because it was all played in a sort of mystical way like
fairy tale or Dickens. It brought out the magical qualities of
the opera, sort of unrealistic.
BD: Ponnelle made
it all the dream of the steersman. Is
this a good idea?
KM: No, I don’t
think it has to be a dream. The piece
itself is good as it stands. The Bayreuth production of Kupfer
makes it the
dream of Senta. Wagner was always so exact in his directions that
if he had
wanted it that way, he would have written, “This is the dream of the
Steersman” or “This is the dream of Senta,” but he didn't
write those things.
BD: Could it be
the dream of Daland?
KM: Maybe a stage
director will get that idea sometime. [Laughing] Why not?
BD: This is why I
asked earlier if stage directors have gone too far.
sure. Maybe too far. It’s very difficult to know
how far to go as a stage director. It’s always
possible to go as far as you can, artistically, and then take one step
too far. That makes the concept too much.
BD: What about
King Marke – is he a sympathetic character?
KM: You have to understand that not
looking at it from a musical standpoint, but in history he’s not
a very humane king. When you look at the operatic role, you must
see it through the music of Richard Wagner. The music is, for me,
the very intonation of humanity. Wagner makes King Marke much
more humane, and much more sympathetic than the general
history upon which Wagner drew for the opera. I’ll tell you of a
situation in Munich. The stage director wanted to
give me a bald head and a big mustache and a wolf-skin coat so that I
looked like Genghis Kahn. I came out for the first
orchestral rehearsal with this on and said, “I’m
sorry, I can’t do
this with me looking like that. I can’t sing it that
way.” I didn’t have voice at all. I
took off the mustache and the coat and the bald-head and
I just laid them on the prompter’s box and went back to the dressing
room. Within a few minutes the director came to me and said I
could look as
normal, and his entire concept was changed. My point is what
concept for Tristan could he
have had thought out so carefully and painstakingly if he could change
it in a matter
of two minutes?
BD: Did he have
strange ideas for the other characters?
KM: No. He
didn’t have any kind of strange concept for the other
characters in the opera, only for King Marke because he
wanted to show that he knew some
of the history of King Marke and wanted to display that.
BD: Would King
Marke have been happy with Isolde if she had not
fallen in love with Tristan?
KM: In Wagner’s
representation of him, King Marke was remarkable
in that his heart was big enough that he could still love Isolde even
though she was, obviously to him, in love with Tristan. He could
accept this situation and live with it.
BD: So, is he
happy for them?
KM: No – “happy”
is not the right word. “Happy”
else altogether. He is not unhappy. He is disappointed with
Tristan and forgives him. He understands.
BD: If Tristan had
not been wounded, it might have been a happy
KM: I think so,
BD: Could Tristan
and Isolde have been happy together?
KM: Not after the
first act, certainly not.
BD: Were they in
love anyway and the drink just pushed them toward it, or was it totally
the result of the potion?
KM: This is another
story that must be looked at in a more mystical and abstract way rather
a realistic and concrete representation of reality. The opera
represents a melding of their two souls. This is a very mystical
representation. In every Wagner opera,
there is some mystical aspect – even in Die Meistersinger.
BD: Do we try to
psychoanalyze Wagner too much?
KM: Yes, perhaps a
bit too much. By the same token, it’s
good to psychoanalyze Wagner because there are so many other pieces of
music that one cannot psychoanalyze at all.
BD: Is Die Meistersinger completely
different because the
characters are completely human?
KM: Yes, it’s
entirely different. It’s the only Wagner
opera where all the characters are just normal people taken out of
normal everyday life.
BD: Was Wagner
successful in writing about normal everyday people?
BD: Your role is
Pogner, but do you ever want to sing Hans Sachs?
KM: Sure, but I
doubt that I ever will. The tessitura is
not right for the kind of voice that I have.
BD: Tell me about
Pogner. Do you like the man?
KM: No. I
like the role, but I don’t like the character
because he’s too quick. He doesn’t think about what he’s
saying. He makes a speech in the first act which begins
very poetically, about the beautiful festival. Then, in two
phrases at the end of the speech, he says he’ll give his own daughter
for the prize for the best singer.
BD: Doesn’t she
have any choice in the matter?
KM: No. She
has no possibility of any choice. He says
he will give her to the best singer. She can refuse, but if she
refuses, she can never marry anyone else.
BD: Is there any
connection between Pogner and Daland?
KM: Yes, there is
but Daland is more honest, I believe.
BD: This is too
bad... I always used to like Pogner! [Laughter all around]
KM: With Pogner,
everything is couched in this
“Biedermeier” or pompous bourgeoisie. He is not a likeable
character at all; he is not an honest character. He is the big
merchant, the big rich man. Everything is well-dressed and has a
good appearance and is pompous. There is toil and drudgery along
with a conceited, pompous
nature to him. Daland is only interested in the material side of
things because it’s to his advantage. Pogner wants material
things because it makes him look better in front of his peers.
BD: Doesn’t Pogner
care about Eva’s happiness?
KM: Pogner himself
doesn’t think about it. He makes a
decision in the first act and then in the second act he regrets
it. I think he would retract it if he could, but
he can’t. He expresses this clearly in the scene when he’s
walking with Eva towards Sachs’ house.
BD: Does Pogner
hope it will be Hans Sachs who wins the contest?
KM: No, I don’t
think so. He promised Beckmesser to put in
good words for him, and it’s possible that Pogner would be happy if
Beckmesser won. But by the same token it’s entirely possible
that he promised Sachs and maybe some other Meister the same
thing. We don’t know. In the finale, though, he thanks
Sachs. What else can he do?
BD: Is Pogner happy
in the end with how it turns out?
KM: Sure. He
has to appear to be happy
whether he is or not. We’re not sure, but he cannot show that he
unhappy with the outcome. He’s the type of guy who will put up a
BD: Is there ever
any inkling of the relationship of Pogner and
KM: There is no
mention in the opera of the wife, only the fact
that he is a widower. If he were married, he would surely bring
her to the festival scene.
[Adding an observation of his own amongst the translating.
Remember, Gordan has sung the role of David in this opera.] I don’t
know about that. If Pogner would bring a wife, were they all
widowers? There’s not a single wife present among all
the Meisters. They’re all there without their wives.
KM: I doubt
that he would have made such a
crass decision about giving his daughter away if he had a wife.
BD: Does he need a
KM: He is too old
BD: What kind of
decisions would the wife had made for Pogner?
KM: She would have
taken care of Eva.
[Again an observation of his own] Another indication of this is
the presence of
Magdalena. She was probably a nanny hired to take care of things
when Pogner’s wife died.
KM: The wife
probably also been a sort of go-between for Eva and Sachs when she
noticed there was an interest between them.
BD: Would she have
But in any event, she never would have allowed the
father to say that tomorrow he was going to give the daughter away to
the highest bidder. She might have urged her husband to give a
very expensive gold watch to the winner as a gesture.
BD: Perhaps a date
KM: [Smiles, laughs
quietly, and ponders this a bit]
BD: What about
King Henry in Lohengrin? He seems to just
stand around and put in his two-cents worth every now and then.
KM: Henry is a character who is very
interesting because he
actually existed and you can view him. He was a real
person. He was the first king who built fortified castles in
Germany. Henry established provinces which were able to
defend themselves against vandals. These fortified castles gave
protection at night from roving bands of terrorists. He was a
good king and kind king. Wagner always used a lot of poetic
license in creating the characters such as Hans Sachs (who really
existed), but in the case of
Heinrich, he was very true to the actual figure. Tannhäuser or
Parsifal are examples of
historical situations into which Wagner put a
BD: In the case of
Parsifal and Lohengrin, were they literal or spiritual father and son?
KM: It is a
spiritual relationship. It is all myth. There really was a
Tannhäuser, but Wagner
created the Venusberg. This is typical poetic license of
Perhaps the Venusberg scene was a daydream of Wagner himself.
BD: Do you think
that Wagner was writing a self-portrait in any
of these characters? Is Wagner Walther von Stoltzing or
KM: Certainly not
Gurnemanz... perhaps Parsifal. That
opinion, however, is not shared by
many stage directors who let Wagner walk
onto the stage in the personage of Wotan or Hans Sachs. Maybe
Wagner thought about this, but you should do the piece the way Wagner
BD: Parsifal was written specifically
for the Bayreuth theater. Does it work in other opera houses?
BD: Wagner said the
piece was only to be performed at Bayreuth.
KM: I don’t
think he was that serious about it. He might have been thinking
materialistically of having a monopoly on the performance rights to the
BD: Is there a
direct line from Wagner to Strauss?
KM: No. In
musical development, maybe, but Strauss is, in my opinion,
another book. Wagner, in his own mind, was always the poet and
musician together. Strauss usually
used another writer as librettist. The musical side is also
different. In Strauss, it’s often a kind of dialogue, a
conversation, but in
Wagner it’s on a higher level where word and music become one thing
rather than the music expressing the words.
BD: For that
reason, are the Wagner operas are more unified, more
organic because he was his own librettist?
KM: Yes. The leitmotivs and things draw them
BD: Would Wagner
work well in translation?
KM: I don’t
know. I think not.
BD: For instance,
we have a wonderful translation now by Andrew Porter of The Ring. [See my Interview with Andrew
English is the best language to translate German
into. I don’t think it works as well in Italian or other Romance
languages. The flow of the language, the similarity between
English and German is very close, and that allows the sounds to be
translated easily from one to the other, but the similarity is not
there between German and other languages. I heard Lohengrin in
Italian and it sounded very good, but it was something entirely
different. It was a different piece.
David Gordon: I
heard a recording of Parsifal
in Japanese when I was in Japan. [Laughter]
BD: Wagner speaks
to the whole world.
KM: I believe you must
to have a translation into another language to understand him because
he puts so
many helpful things into the music to help you understand the message
trying to convey. If you spend a little time learning the musical
language, then you understand what he’s trying to say, and you don’t
necessarily need to understand every word of the German language.
I think that Wagner is, in a sense, computer music. If he’d
had a computer in his time, he absolutely would have used it to help
him write his operas. He would have put all the different
combinations of leitmotivs
into the computer in order to figure out ways to use them together and
to combine them.
BD: But the leitmotives are always changing as
the characters develop.
KM: He turns two motives into one and they
develop. He would use it as a pallette.
BD: Some people
would say the computer is too exact and is a tool which has no heart
and would take the soul out of the music.
KM: A painter who
goes to the store and buys the best paint in the world has the same
opportunity to paint just as good a picture as one who takes hours and
days to make his own paints from scratch. Maybe “computer”
is too limiting a word, but if he had some mechanism like a computer,
he certainly would have. Maybe he might have been
able to write ten more operas!
BD: Would Wagner have
also jumped at the chance to use television and recording techniques?
KM: Sure. It’s
difficult to say. He was very enthusiastic about all
sorts of new developments in stagecraft and stage technology. For
example, he used the apparatus which made the Rheinmaidens appear to be
BD: Thank you for coming
to Chicago again. It’s been wonderful to speak with
you. Will you return to Lyric Opera?
KM: Yes. I don’t
exactly know yet, but I will come. After this I go to New York
for a recital in Carnegie Hall of Schubert, Brahms, Schumann and
BD: When you sing a
recital, do you have to tune your voice down a bit?
KM: Yes, but it’s
very good for the voice.
BD: Is it good for
the voice to balance your career with some Wagner and other operas and
KM: For me it’s
good. [And with that we said our good-byes.]
My special thanks go to David Gordon, the splendid lyric tenor who
translated for us during the conversation. For several years an
artist with the opera in Linz, Gordon did his first Wagner part there
in 1977 – the second nobleman of Brabant in Lohengrin, singing a total
of 27 performances. He has also performed David in Meistersinger
in San Francisco under Kurt Herbert Adler, with Karl Ridderbusch as
Sachs, and sang Mime in Rheingold
there in 1983, repeating the role in
Washington, D.C. Other operatic appearances in Chicago and the
world include Beppe in Pagliacci
(with Vickers as Canio) and the
Philistine Man in Handel’s Samson
(again with Vickers) – a role he has
sung at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. [See my Interview with Jon
Vickers.] In great demand in
oratorio, he has also performed major parts in Bach works with Karl
Richter, and is a specialist in contemporary music.
Bruce Duffie is a regular contributor to Wagner News, as well as the
semi-annual Journal of the Massenet
Society. He can be heard on
WNIB in Chicago, as well as on the Classical Collections program aboard
United Airlines. Coming this summer in these pages, a chat with
Christopher Keene, conductor of the Ring
at Artpark. [To read that interview, click here.]
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© 1984 Bruce Duffie
This interview was recorded at his hotel on October 22,
1984. He spoke in both English and German, and portions were
translated by David Gordon. Segments were used (with recordings)
on WNIB in 1988, 1993, 1997 and 1998. It was transcribed and
published in Wagner News in
May, 1988. The
transcription was slightly re-edited and posted on this
website in 2013.
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.