By Bruce Duffie


Julian Patrick is a fine American singer with a low voice.  Usually, one notes exactly what category that voice falls into, but as you will see later in this interview, that’s not a question which has an easy answer in this case.  He’s been involved with opera for many years, and has done a variety of roles in numerous places.  Before coming to opera, Patrick was in the chorus on Broadway, and that has made an impact on his view toward music-drama.  “The music is important,” he says, “and I want to do it the very best I can, but I think of it as theater.  We have a number of fine American operas that should be done on the big stages.  They’re done in schoolsand there’s nothing wrong with thatbut they should be given elsewhere, also.  I consider opera to be theater, and that’s the way I always approach it.

patrickAmong his credits are numerous roles in Italian, German, and American operas, including televised productions on NBC of Amahl and the Night Visitors, and a staged performance of Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion.  “When you stage things for the lens it can be a real drama, and a camera can do many wonderful things you never do on the stage.”  When he made this statement, I inquired about using one of these effects for the Hagen/Alberich scene in Göotterdämmerung, and Patrick immediately remarked that it would be an incredible project to do the Ring for TV. “All the things would actually work!”  He went on to comment that he enjoys seeing pieces of the Ring during a season, but the more it’s done as a cycle, the more complete experience you have.

As it happens, Julian Patrick is indeed involved in the somewhat controversial production of the Ring in Seattle.  These performances of Alberich aren’t his first touches with Wagner.  He’s done a dozen performances of The Flying Dutchman in Strasbourg under the baton of Alain Lombard.  “It was received well,” he says, “but I’ve not been asked for it again.  People expect a darker and heavier sound.  I’d like to try it again now that I’m older and more into the style.  I find him a sympathetic character.”

Patrick also participated in a completely secularized version of Parsifal in Lyon.  “All the religious aspects were removed,” he said, and then noted that he couldn’t speak about it too much in a magazine or radio interview because his feelings are quite unprintable!  It was his only performance of Amfortas, and despite the wonderful cast and conductor, he called it “a complete aberration.  I’d like to do it again sometime in a more traditional version.  Sometimes the greatest stage directors can come up with an idea that is so far-fetched that they go off the deep end and it’s offensive to virtually everybody.  They’ve just gone too far.”  How far is too far?  “Good question, no answer.”

There are some roles he does not wish to do again, including Escamillo. 
Why on earth does Carmen want to run off with that guy?”  Of Seattle, he has a very good feeling not only for this Ring production, but also for Of Mice and Men by Carlisle Floyd, which he sang there in the World Premiere production.  He calls it “one of the high points of my life.”  He later sang the role in Holland, and also feels that Casanova by Dominick Argento “deserves to be in every opera house in this country.”

Coming back to Wagner, in November of 1985, Julian Patrick was singing his first performances of Beckmesser in Chicago.  At that time, it was my privilege to speak with him at his apartment.  When I arrived, he was reading a book on Wagner, so that is where we began our chat . . . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:    How much do you get involved in the history and letters of a composer when you’re preparing a role?

Julian Patrick:    When I’m preparing a role, you’ll be disappointed to find out, I don’t really bother myself with that.  I’m concerned with the words I have to say and learning the notes that go along with it.  I get that organized first because that is what I have to deal with when I get on stage.  That is really all I have to communicate with the audience.  When I get that done and I get to rehearsals, the director (if he’s worth his salt) has many ideas and lots of background to urge me to do what we wants me to do.  I try to draw all of my dramatic intents and what I do on stage directly from the libretto.  What people say to me and what I say to them determines what happens in the piece.  All the other trappings that the director and the designer give me only add an ambiance of what I’m trying to do.  They are very important to give that flavor and historical setting for the time, but the most important things are the words and notes.

patrickBD:    Do you work very hard on your diction, then?

JP:    I try to.  I learned my German in Vienna at the Volksoper, and they expect to understand every word.  They paid me a great compliment by saying that from the stage I had no accent whatsoever.  I sound (according to them) incredibly authentic, so I’m grateful to their training.

BD:    Do you work harder at the diction when you know the audience will understand all the text?

JP:    I try to work hard anyway whether or not they understand it, but I try to do it so that if there is someone there who speaks German, that they will be able to understand it.  I do the same in English or French, or whatever language I’m singing in.

BD:    Do you enjoy doing operas in translation?

JP:    I like that if it’s a comedy.  I think it’s necessary in this country if it’s a comedy.  I’ve heard Die Meistersinger in English and found it very interesting.  It was at the New York City Opera with Norman Bailey as Sachs.  If it makes proper sense and reflects what the original has to say, then I welcome it, and I think more operas should be done in English.  I’m not one of these people who think the music is destroyed when it’s put into English.  I do think it’s unfortunate that the majority of those who translate operas into English do not have English as their first language, and thus don’t have at their fingertips all the many ways we have to express ourselves in the English language.  I also believe the American poets should lend their expertise to the business of making American translations that we’re not embarrassed to stand on the stage and sing.  They should make the effort to put good English, beautiful English, into our operatic performances.  When the translation has been done by Ruth and Thomas Martin or the Meads or Boris Goldovsky, we always wind up changing and changing words.  [See my Interview with Boris Goldovsky.]  Everyone comes with their own little pattern of what they want to do.  Unfortunately, I’ve not sung any of the Andrew Porter texts.  [See my Interview with Andrew Porter.]  I heard The Valkerie at the English National Opera and I found it very interesting.  It’s the first time I didn’t fall asleep during Wotan’s monologue!  That’s not actually true
I don’t fall asleepbut you know what I mean… 

BD:    I know you’re joking, but how do we get more people in the audience to not fall asleep in Wagner?

JP:    That’s a very difficult thing.  Unless a person understands what is being sung, it’s very possible to get bored with it.  It’s unfortunate to have to say that, but the music is not enough.

BD:    What do you expect from the audience that comes to hear you?

JP:    I only want them to enjoy what I’m doing and to understand what I’m doing.  That’s about as much as I can say on that topic.  You certainly feel it when they understand what you’re doing, and I don’t know how to describe that.  There’s something that comes back from them.  But I have no particular expectations except that I want them to understand and hopefully like me.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Do you enjoy seeing operatic performances?

patrickJP:    I can still be moved by a good performance.  We’re super-critical because it’s our business.  The audience may notice the same things, but I understand why.  I go with a critical eye, and if it’s good and performed well, I’m just pulled right into it and become totally involved.  On the other hand, I cannot listen to this Meistersinger I’m doing.  Even the parts I’m offstage for, I cannot listen to or I become too emotionally involved.  I think it’s so gorgeous and I respond to it too greatly.  I wouldn’t miss a cue, but I would be too caught up in it to come out and do what I’m supposed to do with any credibility.  At the end of a performance I’m always up – if it’s been a good one.  The adrenalin is still flowing and it takes a bit of time before I can go to sleep…  I’ve been seeing this opera for many years and just adore it.  Paul Schoeffler was the Sachs I knew from the beginning, and I think he was the best one I ever saw.  Thomas Stewart is wonderful, and I think he’s my second favorite, but I’ve never seen him do it until now when I’m doing it with him.

BD:    Tell me about Beckmesser.  [Photo at left in Seattle production.]  How much of a pedant is he?

JP:    Well, he really is one, there’s no doubt about it.  “Ped-ant” (said spitting out the final letter)
– that’s a wonderful term for him.  He is a stickler for rules.  He believes that one should live by them and he does his entire life I believe.  I think he’s a stingy man, and I kiddingly say that he lives with this Great-Aunt.  He’s been trying to get himself a lady-friend or a bride for sometime without any success.

BD:    Why is he a failure with women?

JP:    I think it’s because he’s so stiff and ungiving of himself.  Wagner doesn’t make a brutal joke out of what happens to him; Wagner only makes fun of him.  There are many people in our own groups who get poked fun at, right?  What would we do if we didn’t have our goat to pick at.

BD:    Is Beckmesser a loveable goat at all, or is he to be pitied?

JP:    I think in the end he’s to be pitied because of the joke that is played on him.  You must feel sorry for him.  I don’t think may people love him, but they respect him because he’s an intelligent man, very bright.  He’s a scholar, he’s the town clerk.  I think that his learning is book-learning.  Because of all the knowledge that he’s accumulated, he knows a lot but understands very little.  Hans Sachs is a very talented man.  Walther is a very talented man, but I don’t believe that Beckmesser has any natural talent.  He has a mind that grasps onto everything and holds onto it, but when he goes to sing his serenade, he can’t put the poem with a piece of music that makes any sense.  He should be able to, but he doesn’t have the talent for that.  He’s gotten to be a Mastersinger for some reason, and he’s a good singer who has learned all the rules.  He can take someone else’s music and express it truly as it was written while not bringing anything new to it.  But when he takes his own ideas about tries to do something with them – which is what the whole opera is about – he falls flat on his nose.  He’s vindictive.   Perhaps that’s not the right word, but when he sees that Walther is going to try out and be a Meistersinger, nothing pleases him more because he (Beckmesser) will be the marker.  He is going to mark all the faults, and before he goes into the box he knows good and well he’s not going to let Walther succeed.  If Walther isn’t a Meistersinger, he can’t even compete for Eva’s hand.

BD:    What would happen to Beckmesser if Hans Sachs decides to compete?

JP:    There’s a part that’s normally cut
an exchange between them in the last act when Beckmesser says he still cannot make sense out of the song, and Sachs asks him why he doesn’t give up.  To this Beckmesser replies that since Sachs is not going to compete, he (Beckmesser) can beat all the others.  Sachs was the only competition.  Beckmesser has a great deal of conceit.  It’s not self-confidence but conceit, and there’s a difference between the two.  He’s a very proud man.  He has all the faults that we say that people shouldn’t have.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Are you a baritone, a bass-baritone, or a bass?

JP:    Yes!  [Both laugh]  For American singers, those categories kind of fall by the wayside because in order to make headway in this business, we find ourselves doing many different things.  The Germans – and often the Italians – are the ones who have things carefully categorized.  When people say I’m a bass-baritone, I just nod my head.  When they say I’m a heldenbaritone, I just nod my head.  A colleague of mine said, “We’re all whores in this business.  We just do whatever they’ll pass us for until we finally decide that we want to have our own say-so about what we do, and we start saying yea or nay.

BD:    So how do you decide which roles you’ll sing and which you’ll turn down?

JP:    I do it according to how interesting the opera is and how interesting the character is.  I almost quit this business about ten or twelve years ago because I only had three jobs that year.  So when I decided to stay in it, I decided I was only going to do those things that were of interest to me.  Friends knew I was still singing well
but not oftenurged me to change managements, so I did, but I told them I’d only do what I wanted to do.  One doesn’t have to sing for a living.

patrickBD:    Let’s move over to Alberich.  [Photo at right in Seattle production.]  Is he likeable at all?

JP:    [Laughing]  I think you must feel a bit sorry for him.  He’s the one who has the guts to actually steal the gold and do something with it – even though it’s all pointed in the wrong direction.

BD:    What’s his ultimate goal?

JP:    I think it’s something that happens to him.  He is looking for a little love and couldn’t get it, so in anger he steals the gold when he hears what it’s about.  His ultimate goal then is power, which is what the whole Ring is about
– the gaining of, and the misuse or abuse of power. 

BD:    What would he do with the power once it was his?

JP:    All he wants to do is be a tyrant.

BD:    Is he sadistic?

JP:    I don’t know. What do you think?  I don’t think that it’s his main aim.

BD:    Do you like playing a dwarf?

JP:    I don’t think of him as a dwarf.  Because of my stature, I can’t possibly think of making myself look smaller.  I play the character.  How many dwarfs do you find that can sing Alberich?  Since people ask me to do it and it’s obvious that I’m six feet all, they must be willing to suspend belief, too.  I don’t try to make myself short, but I do hold my body in such a fashion that people are surprised when they see how big I am when I stand up.  [Note: During this, Patrick was scrunching his body on the couch to indicate how it would be done.]

BD:    Did it surprise you when people offered you this role?

JP:    As a matter of fact, yes.  I’d never even thought of doing it.  I auditioned for Speight Jenkins when he took over he Seattle Opera, and I thought he was going to be doing a production of Tales of Hoffmann.  I’ve sung the four villains a great deal in Vienna and in France, so I sang that for him.  Then he asked for something German, so I sang the Dutchman’s Monologue – which I’ve also done.  Then he told me he wasn’t doing Hoffmann, and asked if I’d ever thought of doing Alberich.  Until then I’d not really paid too much attention to the Ring because there were too many other things I had to learn.  So Speight told me to look it over.  I learned parts of it and sang it for him, and he said he wanted me to sing it if I was interested in learning it.  I did the role in the last season of their old production, and the summer before that I did the concert version of Rheingold in Washington D.C.  (Speight had signed me up well in advance, and word got around that I was doing it…)  But I don’t know the history of these roles and the many different people who have done them.  I know some of the people who have done Beckmesser because I’d fallen in love the Meistersinger so long ago, but I wasn’t that interested in all the characters in the Ring

BD:    Did you assume that if you would do a Ring you’d be Wotan?

JP:    I was asked to do Wotan two or three times about nine or ten years ago, and sure, I thought that if I ever got involved in it that I might be doing Wotan.  But to those who asked me for it I said, “You’ve got to be kidding me.”  Then I thought that maybe they heard something that I couldn’t, so I looked at the Walküre Wotan and found that I could sing it.  But no one’s asked me since then.  Later someone asked me for the Wanderer and I said yes, but it turned out that I had conflicts and couldn’t make the dates.  Now that I’ve learned and sung Beckmesser and the three Alberichs, I’ve listened to other performances and recordings and I think, “Gee, I don’t like that – they don’t even sing!”  One of the things that has been said to me concerning these parts is that I’m someone who can not only do them, but also sing them rather than bark them.  It’s a trap that one call fall into very easily.  You have so many words, and for Alberich they’re so alliterative.  You might have a string of twenty eighth-notes with a different word on each one, and you start to sound like a chicken.  It’s easy to start merely speaking on pitch without singing, and I try very hard not to.  There’s wonderful music there if you can avoid the speaking trap.

BD:    Is Alberich a grateful role to sing?

JP:    I find it so.  In Rheingold, are you kidding?  In a number of places he gets to sing wonderful things like the duet with Wotan.  The final curse makes my own hair stand on end, so I must be doing something right.  [Both laugh]

BD:    Do you like the fact that he appears in three of the four dramas?

JP:    Yes, I do.  That last appearance in Götterdämmerung is a very unusual sort of piece of music.  It’s not like anything else he sings before that.  The stage directions indicate that Alberich appears in a sudden shaft of light, kneeling in front of Hagen who is half-asleep.  Now is Alberich dead, or is this some of his magic trick used to remind Hagen of what he should do?  Or is it Hagen’s dream?  Is he a phantom?  Is Alberich eternal?  It leaves itself open to many interpretations, and I’m just getting into all the Wagner research.  And if I do find out what he is, how am I going to convey that to the audience with what I have to say?  Perhaps Wagner was using the scene to remind the audience that Hagen is Alberich’s son, and to make the connection that Hagen is to carry on the tradition of what Alberich was trying to do – to gain power over the world.  It’s a dramatic device, and no composer is free from that vice. 

BD:    Perhaps the way to do that scene would be to have Hagen close down-front and put Alberich upstage away and a little fuzzy.

JP:    If it works, why not?  By the same token, why is Beckmesser in Sach’s shop the morning after the big fight?  Wagner needs Beckmesser to “find” the song for his denouement and to move the plot along, but there’s really no particularly good reason for Beckmesser to be there.  I have to convince the audience that there is a reason, and came up with the pantomime involving the fact that my shoes hurt.  I hope that makes it clear to the audience why I am there, but you see how you need to find things in the story to make it all work.

BD:    Is Wagner a better musician or a better dramatist?

JP:    Hoo boy!  I would hate to say that one was better than the other.  The total genius of the man was beyond belief.  I’ve always liked Wagner, but the more I learn, the more I find it incredible.  The music is so wedded to the drama.  In the pantomime we were just speaking of, the music tells you exactly what is in Beckmesser’s mind.  

BD:    Is Meistersinger too long?

JP:    I don’t think it’s too long.  The more I work on it, the shorter it’s become!  It can get to be too long for the audience if they don’t understand it.  You have to make some effort when you go to something like this.

BD:    Are Wagner parts harder to sing than Verdi or Puccini?  [Photos below of two Puccini roles - Sharpless in Madama Butterfly (left) and Lescaut in Manon Lescaut (right).]

patrick               patrick

JP:    I think so.  You should sing Wagner the same way that you sing Verdi and Puccini or Bellini.  When he wrote the pieces, he didn’t have any “Wagnerian” singers.  They were trained in the Bel Canto school, and he liked them a lot.  There’s no reason why we still can’t do it that way.  The “Wagner Singer” is a creation of the past 60 years, and they call them that because they specialize in the parts and can sing them without falling apart in the process.

BD:    Are you pleased with the recordings that have been made of your roles?

JP:    I don’t like to listen to my recordings after they’re made.  I make my judgment about what was done at that time, and if I thought it was good I stick to my guns.  If I think I was lousy, even if others say it was good I still stick to my guns.  I get to do what I enjoy the most, and people are crazy enough to pay me for it.  I just work hard at my business, and I’ve been fortunate to make a living at it.  I would like to sing Sachs someday, though I don’t know that anyone will ever ask me.  I would like to do it and can do it, but they will have to hurry up before I quit.  I would like to continue to sing as long as I can do it well.  When my voice starts to go and I can’t accomplish it the way it should be accomplished, I hope I have sense enough to say “Bye, bye” and let somebody else start doing it.  When it gets to that point and people are still offering me work, I don’t know if I’ll have the courage to say no or not.  When the fire bell starts ringing and you’ve got the performer’s blood, you want to get out there and try it.

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Bruce Duffie, Announcer/Producer with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago, is a regular contributor to these pages.  Besides Wagner News, his interviews have appeared in Nit & Wit Magazine, the Massenet Newsletter, and The Opera Journal, which is a quarterly with international distribution.  Lately, he has also had great success with his series of programs on WNIB devoted to music and conversation with American Composers.  Coming in the September issue of this magazine will be his interview with the late Edwin McArthur, on what would have been his 80th birthday.

Obituary | Julian Patrick, 81, famed baritone

Julian Patrick, a longtime Seattle baritone who was a fixture at Seattle Opera and on the faculty at the University of Washington, died May 8, 2009, in New Mexico.

By Melinda Bargreen, Seattle Times staff reporter

Julian Patrick, the Seattle-based baritone whose credits extended from Broadway theater to Wagner's "Ring," died in his sleep of natural causes May 8 while on vacation in Santa Fe, N.M. He was 81.

A much-revered teacher (he was a University of Washington emeritus professor) as well as a singer of tremendous versatility, Mr. Patrick created the role of George in Carlisle Floyd's opera "Of Mice and Men," [Photo below (added for this website presentation) in Seattle, 1970, with Carol Bayard.] and was in the original casts of the Broadway shows "Once Upon A Mattress," "Bells Are Ringing" and "Fiorello."


Mr. Patrick also performed more than 100 major roles worldwide with significant European and U.S. opera companies; in Seattle, he drew international raves for his Alberich, the central villain of Wagner's "Ring." He performed with Seattle's 5th Avenue Theatre as Benjamin Franklin in "1776," Tony in "The Most Happy Fella" and Judge Turpin in "Sweeney Todd."

A true man of the stage, Mr. Patrick created many remarkable performances here in Seattle, as well as at the Metropolitan Opera, Theâtre de Genève, Vienna Volksoper, L'Opéra du Rhin, Marseille Opera, Netherlands Opera, Welsh National Opera, New York City Opera, San Francisco Opera, Chicago Lyric Opera, Houston Grand Opera and Dallas Opera.

Even late in life, this born performer loved the stage: He created the acting role of the tormented Gad Beck in the 2007 premiere of "For a Look or a Touch" with Seattle's Music of Remembrance, and later recorded it on the Naxos label.

Born in Mississippi in 1927, Mr. Patrick grew up in a music-loving family and joined the Apollo Boys Choir of Birmingham, Ala., beginning a singing career that continued through high school and a stint in the Navy. He went on to the then-Cincinnati Conservatory to study music.

Early performances with the impresario Boris Goldovsky led to some operatic appearances, but the young singer's work on a master's degree was interrupted when he was drafted back into military service in 1951 during the Korean War. Based in New York as the singer with the First Army Band, Mr. Patrick found that his uniform got him into Metropolitan Opera standing-room for free.

Mr. Patrick later began auditioning for Broadway shows, finding his first success in 1954 with "The Golden Apple" — leading to other opportunities, including operatic ones, touring the country with the Metropolitan Opera National Company for two years.

In addition to familiar operatic roles in "La Boheme," "Madame Butterfly" and "The Marriage of Figaro," Mr. Patrick undertook roles in such new works as Douglas Moore's "Carry Nation" and Leonard Bernstein's "Trouble in Tahiti."

A creator of roles in many opera and Broadway premieres, Mr. Patrick had strong views on what made new music successful.

"If a composer writes something that is melodically and harmonically accessible and is dramatically compelling, it's very likely the critics won't like it," Mr. Patrick told one interviewer.

"They are somehow wedded to pieces that are outrageously difficult to play and listen to because they think it is the 'future' of music. I think that the return to melody, however derivative it seems, is most welcome. You may say, 'Oh, it sounds like Puccini.' Well, thank God. That's wonderful. I think that returning to singable lines and to pieces that are dramatically convincing is the right step. There are so many wonderful new pieces now. The greatest of them take compelling stories and set them to music that enhances them and connects to the audience."

Mr. Patrick is survived by his life partner for 56 years, Donn Talenti, and also by the Talenti-May family and two cousins, Dr. Bernard Patrick and Ann Nelson Lambright. A memorial service will be scheduled for late June.

© 1985 Bruce Duffie

This interview was recorded in his apartment in Chicago on November 24, 1985.  It was transcribed and published in Wagner News in July of 1987.  It was re-edited, the photos, links and biography at the end were added, and it was 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.

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.