[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.]


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
David Gordon.  Readers of this journal will remember the conversation 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 Walküre (Janowski).  He has also recorded Mozart’s Entführung (Böhm); Zauberflöte (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…  

Bruce Duffie:    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 other theaters?

mollKurt 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?

KM:   Apparently 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?

KM:   Unfortunately, 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?

mollKM:    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, Parsifal 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 would be 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 but is 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 was.

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 all around]

BD:    Are 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?

KM:    Yes.  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?

KM:   Yes.  [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 Monterone?

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 like to?

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 like a knife.  You need to almost yell more than sing.  You must cry out rather than sing in a bel canto style. 

BD:   Is that the way Wagner wrote it, or has it just come down to us that way today?

KM:   It’s possible that 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 voice-killer?

mollKM:    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 all 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 Lieder recitals.

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 kind 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 avoid the 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 say and do.  It is dramatically and theatrically, as well as vocally, a very interesting role.

BD:    Is there any way to successfully stage the end of the second act?

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 both.

BD:    Which one is better?

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?

KM:    Yes.  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 don
’t know.

BD:   Is he a good construction engineer:

He 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. 

KM:   Yes!

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 German mythology, the saga, but the dragon is just something that is suddenly there in Wagner
’s story.  In Germany he’s called “The Wagner-Fafner.  Wagner just thought it up. 

BD:   It seems like a terrible waste.  I always wonder why Fafner didn
’t have enough intelligence to do anything with the gold. 

I did a 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 other Lennins around me. 

BD:   I guess you could call them Niebel-Lennins! 

KM:   [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 voice.

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.  [Laughter]

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 smart character?

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 has money?

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 a 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.

KM:   Yes, 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?

mollKM:    You have to understand that not looking at it from a musical standpoint, but in history he’s not presented as 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 is something 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 ending?

KM:    I think so, perhaps.

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 than 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?

KM:    Certainly.

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 is unhappy with the outcome.  He’s the type of guy who will put up a front.

BD:    Is there ever any inkling of the relationship of Pogner and his wife?

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. 

David Gordon:    [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 wife?

KM:   He is too old now.

BD:    What kind of decisions would the wife had made for Pogner?

KM:    She would have taken care of Eva. 

David Gordon:   [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 would have 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 stopped it?

KM:   Maybe.  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 with Eva?

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.

mollKM:    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 mystical figure. 

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 Wagner.  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 Gurnemanz?

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 wrote it.

BD:   Parsifal was written specifically for the Bayreuth theater.  Does it work in other opera houses?

KM:   Sure. 

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 work.

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 somewhat 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 together. 

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 Porter.]

KM:    Probably 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 not have 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 he is 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 swimming.

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 Loewe. 

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 some recitals?

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.

Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.