Baritone  David  Pittman - Jennings

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


David Pittman-Jennings, American baritone; b. Duncan, Okla., Dec. 13, 1946. He studied voice with Elisabeth Parham and took his B.M. cum laude in oboe (1969) at the Univ. of Okla., and then his Masters degree in vocal performance (1974) at Calif. State Univ. in Northridge. He continued vocal training with Parham in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Paris until 1998.

In 1977 he made his operatic debut as Mozart’s Count at the Graz Opera, where he sang until 1979. From 1979 to 1982 he sang at the Bremen Opera. In 1982 he appeared as Fernando at the Paris Opéra. Following his debut as a soloist in Mahler’s Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen in Bordeaux in 1983, he made his recital debut in Nice in 1984. From 1984 to 1986 he sang at the Netherlands Opera in Amsterdam. In 1987 he was engaged as Wozzeck at the Opéra du Rhin in Strasbourg, a role he sang in Parma in 1989. In the latter year, he also portrayed Schoenberg’s Moses in Lyons.

After singing Germont at the Frankfurt am Main Opera in 1991, he made his first appearance at the Vienna State Opera in 1992 as Mandryka, a role he reprised at the Semper Opera in Dresden in 1994. In the latter year, he also was engaged as Pizzaro at the Berlin State Opera, as Don Alfonso at the Hamburg State Opera, and as Renato at the Bavarian State Opera in Munich. In 1995 he again portrayed Wozzeck at the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires and Schoenberg’s Moses at the Netherlands Opera, and then repeated the latter role at the Salzburg Festival in 1996.

In 1997 he appeared as Wozzeck at the Spoleto Festival U.S.A. in Charleston, S.C., and as Mandryka at the Santa Fe Opera. He sang Jochanaan at the Berlin State Opera and Scarpia in Verona in 1998, and then Rigoletto at the Leipzig Opera and Frank in Die tote stadt at the Teatro Colón in 1999. On Oct. 16, 1999, he made his N.Y. debut in Dallapiccola’s opera Il Prigioniero in a concert performance with the Montreal Sym. Orch. under Dutoit’s direction.

As a concert artist, he sang with many orchestras in Europe in an expansive repertoire ranging from Bach, Haydn, Beethoven, and Berlioz to Hindemith, Walton, and Zender.

[Two further biographies of David Pittman-Jennings can be found HERE.  While both have much duplicate material, each contains unique items from his performing career.  Also note that names which are links on this webpage refer to my interviews elsewhere on my website.  BD]

David Pittman-Jennings was in Chicago in March of 1999 for performances with the Chicago Symphony as Moses in Moses und Aron by Schoenberg.  Pierre Boulez was the conductor, and Chris Merritt sang the other title role of Aron.  As usual, it was a busy time for the guest, but he graciously agreed to spend an hour with me for an interview on the day before the first rehearsal.

[Note that the name of the opera is spelled correctly, using Aron rather than Aaron.  Schoenberg had triskaidekaphobia, which is an extreme fear of the number thirteen.  So, he altered the name of the character, resulting in the number of letters in the title to become twelve!  I have used that spelling throughout this webpage, even when the discussion is simply referring to the biblical character.]

Being an American, but having spent most of his career in Europe, Pittman-Jennings
special perspective showed throughout our conversation.  Part of the chat was used on WNIB to promote the performances, and now the entire encounter has been transcribed on this webpage.

As we were setting up to record, the conversation was about his current and future projects . . . . .

David Pittman-Jennings:   The way that Boulez and I have been working, I’m doing the Schoenberg Serenade on a concert in October, which I’ve never done before.  He is intending to do most Schoenberg works.

Bruce Duffie:   He has recorded many of them.

jennings DP-J:   He has done it several years ago, but, as with Moses und Aron, which he did in ’75 with the BBC symphony, when we got around to doing it again with the Concertgebouw, I said, “I’m just very curious how your interpretation has evolved,” and he said, “I have no idea.  I never heard that recording.  I don’t listen to my recordings.”

BD:   Those are just documents.

DP-J:   Absolutely.

BD:   Should the public be more educated that recordings are simply documents, rather than the only way to do a piece?

DP-J:   I am totally and completely in agreement that the public should be made more aware about exactly what recordings are.  I’ll be even more specific on that.  The public should be made aware of the fact that recordings are not even necessarily true representations of performance.

BD:   Should that be?

DP-J:   Yes, they should be.  I like live performances, and I like live recordings.  I also like the way Boulez records, which is immense huge takes.  Then, he’ll go back and perhaps make corrections of a note here and a note there.

BD:   But the basic take is a 20-minute segment?

DP-J:   A big scene, yes.  When we were recording Moses und Aron, we would take a scene, and if there was a place to stop, then he would stop, and then he would go back and take that scene again.  With this opera, there is a difficulty finding places to stop, except in some of the big chorus scenes.  But now, given all the wonderful electronic possibilities that we have, you can go in and take out any particular notes you want to from any particular instrument or voice, and add in one that has been made on totally different day, perhaps even taking that note from somewhere else in the opera to put it in because the one that was there wasn’t good.  The public is not aware of this.

BD:   Should they be?

DP-J:   Well yes, I think they should be, because, for instance, young singers that listen to recordings of great singers or our time are being fed a lot of fallacious material.  Those great singers do not sing that way live, nor do they always even sing the same repertoire.  I think that is cheating.  Personally, if I want to listen to truthful recordings, honest recordings of Wagnerian repertoire, or even the Italian repertoire, I will go back to the older singers that were educated in the
30s and 40s, and were still singing in the 50s and early 60s.  This was back before it became quite the mode to push up a button on singer X, and pull down a button on singer Y, and to add in this note here and this note there.  You get much more of an honest idea of what the performance is about from those earlier recordings, and if they were from broadcasts, you feel the excitement of the performance.

BD:   You have quite a huge range of repertoire.  You sing standard roles, and you branch into the new operas, also.  Do you enjoy these different and contrasting styles?

DP-J:   I very much enjoy singing the entire range of all the repertoire.  Now I’ll say something that I don’t know if you’ll ever hear anybody else say this again, but I don’t like to be limited!  I don’t feel that I should be limited.  A great instrumental soloist is not limited to a certain repertoire.  A great violinist may play the repertoire from Bach all the way to the most contemporary of composers without any questions ever being asked.  A singer, on the other hand, will quite often be cubby-holed into a particular repertoire, and I don’t think that is necessary nor desirable, at least not for me.  I sing Bach, I sing Mozart, I sing Strauss, I sing Wagner, I sing Puccini, I sing Verdi, I have sung Rossini, and probably would again if I were asked under the right circumstances, as well as Bellini and Donizetti.  I sing anything and everything, including just about anything that has been written in the 20th century.

BD:   You must have a lot of faith in the composers who are writing today that they will treat the voice well, and not like a violin or a clarinet.

DP-J:   Not necessarily.  It isn’t that I have faith, but I always make informed decisions.  I never accept any piece of music without seeing a score.  Just before coming here to Chicago, I was totaling up the weight of the scores that I have to prepare within the next year or so.  Some of them are imminent, and some of them are less imminent, but I had on my piano 7.6 kilos of scores.

krenek BD:   [Surprised]  Oh, you’re talking poundage!

DP-J:   Yes, the actual weight.

BD:   I thought you meant the vocal weight.

DP-J:   No, I’ll weigh that later.  [Both laugh]  My next project is a Rigoletto, which is around 500 grams, or a little over a pound out of all of that.  The rest of it is Gurre-Lieder, Glückliche Hand, and the Serenade all by Schoenberg, Karl V of Ernst Krenek [CD shown at right], and Peter Grimes of Benjamin Britten.  All of these are 20th century music.  Also, Dallapicolla’s Pirgioniero, which I will sing in October in Montreal, and New York at Carnegie Hall.  A lot of people in Europe that know me and know my work often say to me, “You are a specialist of 20th century music.”  For many years I would say, “No, I am not a specialist of 20th century music.  I refuse to accept that limitation.”  But just recently I have really begun to mellow out.  I’m not really a specialist, and I don’t consider myself a specialist, but people do ask for me frequently in that repertoire because they have faith that I will not only perform it as the composer intended, but I’ll go further and make it sound good.

BD:   They obviously have faith in you!

DP-J:   They do, indeed.  So, in essence in that respect, I suppose, yes, I am a specialist.  When they say, “You’re a Schoenberg specialist,” I say, “Okay, fine.”  He’s a great composer of the 20th century, and at the end, when I’m finished with everything, if people want to say that I’m one of the greatest Schoenberg interpreters there was, okay, fine.  It’s not going to bother me.

BD:   But then, they’ll hear your Rigoletto...

DP-J:   [With a broad smile]  Absolutely.  But the key to all of this
and this is where I wanted to get to a moment agois that I consider the vocal instrument to be a bel canto instrument by nature.  This is in the real sense of the word, meaning well-sung.  It is by nature a singing instrument, which means that anything and everything that is written for the human voice, if it’s well-written with the human voice in mind, and with any understanding of the human voice, must be bel canto in nature, which means it must be well-sung.

BD:   Then, you do place a little faith in the composers who are thought to understand the voice.  Do you find that these new composers understand and know how to make the voice produce beautiful sound?

DP-J:   Inherently, a composer hears beautiful sounds.  I cannot conceive of a composer who hears ugly sounds.

BD:   Are we not re-educating them now with these recordings which can be made to have perfect intonation and balance with the orchestra?

DP-J:   But we have to talk about live performances as compared to edited recordings in this case.  Music does not live in recordings.

BD:   But they get that sound in their ear.

DP-J:   They do get that sound in their ear, and sometimes you have to say to them,
I’m sorry, but this is not feasible or possible.  But then, it’s my responsibility as the performing artist to understand not only the musical language, but also the musical vocabulary, and the means of expression.  It’s like learning a spoken language.  You have to first be able to read the alphabet that it’s written down in.  You have to understand the smallest compositional bytes that this composer has used in putting this composition together.  Then you have to be able to put words together, and you have to be able to put phrases together, then sentences, and finally you have make thought out of this.  One hears often in France, That is not the original.  That isn’t my kitchen.  That isn’t my responsibility.  There are a lot of singers who think that if they learn the notes and the words, that’s all there is to it.  No, I’m sorry, that isn’t all.  There’s a huge responsibility when you accept to sing contemporary music. You really must understand enough of it, so that you can put in all of that work, find the kitchen door, and make music.

BD:   Is this something that intrigues you about a lot of new music, that there is depth to it?

DP-J:   It is intriguing, and it is fascinating to be able to analyze and understand and make sense out of something.  If I cannot make sense out of it, then more often than not I will say,
I’m sorry, this is not for me to perform.

BD:   Would you even give it a shot?

DP-J:   I look at it.  As I said before, I’m very careful with my choice of things.  I never accept anything sight unseen, and I never accept anything until I’ve had the score long enough to have gone through it, and made the decision as to whether or not I can make musical sense that audience will understand.  Not musical sense for myself, or for the composer, or for the conductor, or intellectual musical sense, but musical sense for everyone.  That’s what this is all about, communication.

BD:   So, you’re really looking at the end product, and then delivering it to the audience.

DP-J:   Absolutely, that’s what it’s all about.  We’re not up there to satisfy our own egos.  It
s all about communication.  We’re up there to try to reveal to those who are listening and experiencing and seeing, something they may not have experience before, which may reveal or provoke in them some sort of a reaction.  It may be a negative reaction, or a positive reaction, but reveal to them something that is beautiful, something that will open their perspective to an experience that they may never have had before, or may never have an opportunity to have again.

BD:   Each performance, then, is unique?

DP-J:   Every performance is unique, yes.

BD:   Does it bother you that if a performance is recorded, that every time thereafter it is exactly the same?

DP-J:   No, not unless I have made an error... which does happen in recordings.  Listening to an error over and over, one does get a little bit fatigued, because usually after having done it once, you learn what you did wrong.
BD:   Next time you don’t make that one, but maybe make new errors?

DP-J:   [Laughs]  Yes, absolutely.  Progress is always to be desired.

BD:   In this particular work, Moses und Aron, you are not singing, but speaking.

DP-J:   I have exactly eight bars of sung-music, and that is optional.  The rest of it is what most of the composers of twelve-tone music called sprechgesang.  Peter Stein, who was the stage director of the production with Maestro Boulez that we did in Amsterdam and Salzburg, called Speech Melody.  In our preparation for the stage production, we approached it from first from the sense of the speech
what we wanted to sayand then compared it to these sprechgesang notations.

BD:   This is all notated, not like dialogue in an operetta?

DP-J:   Right.  But, there is a bit of that in almost all of Schoenberg’s writing, where it progresses from pure speech unrhythmically annotated, to notated rhythmical speaking, to sprechgesang, in which approximate pitches are spoken.

BD:   The words are notated up and down, to rise and fall?

DP-J:   Yes, with a speech melody.

BD:   Just not an exact pitch?

DP-J:   It’s always left up to the performer’s discretion whether or not it is that particular.  There are a lot of singers that will talk and speak precisely the pitches that are given.  Bravo, if it works, but if it doesn’t work, if you want to give another impression, then given the intellectual concept of twelve-tone music, you may transpose within those as long as you keep the basic form.  You don’t have to attain the exact pitches that he’s noted, and he says that very clearly.  If you don’t, then you have quasi song, which is precise pitches that are noted, but it’s all still spoken in those precise pitches.  It is almost sung, but not quite sung.

BD:   Is this more or less of a straightjacket for someone who is used to singing exact pitch and exact duration all the time?

DP-J:   With sprechgesang, especially in the role of Moses, everything must be very, very precise.  It is notated extremely precisely, to the point where I would hesitate to think that a performer who is not well-trained in musical notation and well-trained in the role itself would ever dare to attempt to perform Moses.  It’s very interesting, and having prepared this with Peter Stein within the constraints of the composition itself, I learned a different way of speaking.  I’m very thankful for having had this opportunity to learn it with him, because a singer who is given this role and approaches it from a singing standpoint will use all sorts of speaking tools that should be used very sparingly.  For instance pathos, which is an expressive tool, but which should be used as one would a musical ornament, namely sparingly, so that it has the proper effect.  It’s very interesting, and I don’t find it limiting at all.  I was thoroughly excited to have learned a new way of using my instrument.  It was most amazing, coming out of performances in Amsterdam, to have people come up to me asking, “Do you sing Wotan?”  I don’t sing Wotan yet, and I’m only interested in one, that’s the Rheingold Wotan.  I haven’t sung him yet, but to think that my voice, even in a speaking register, would have enough power and resonance and core to it that people would think this is an immense voice, and that this man should be singing Wotan, certainly is not based on the eight bars that I sing.

BD:   I wonder if they’re saying that this man should be singing.

DP-J:   I’m very happy if they think that.  My point is that I don’t think people notice if it was spoken.  They have no idea what it is.

BD:   Should it have been a sung role?

DP-J:   No, it shouldn’t, because we’re dealing with Schoenberg’s own personal method of dealing with what the Bible says, which is that Moses was handicapped in some way.  We don’t know how Moses was handicapped, but he could not communicate with the Hebrew people.  Therefore, he was given his brother Aron as mouthpiece.  He could also be seen as an interpreter.  So, given the fact that according to old stories, Moses raised in an Egyptian household, that in itself could very well be the only handicap he had.  Perhaps he couldn’t speak Hebrew very well, and had to have someone who spoke Hebrew.

BD:   The tablets are presumably in Hebrew presumably.  Does he understand what he has in his hands coming down from the mountain?

DP-J:   I think he understands very much.  The Moses that we see in Schoenberg has a very deep understanding of everything, and is very frustrated with what he feels.  He understands, of course, very clearly what Aron is saying, and he is not saying it in the manner which Moses chooses to express it.  He is an extremely impatient person when it comes to not being happy with the way that Aron is re-interpreting the words that were given to him from God.

BD:   Yet Aron has to be an interpreter.

DP-J:   Moses has been given the responsibility of relaying these words to Aron, and having Aron interpret them.  Aron says, “It’s my job to make the people understand, to the best of my ability, what you have told me.”

BD:   Is Moses perhaps feeling the frustration with Aron that God feels with people on the Earth?

DP-J:   I think that very much.  We’re made to understand that Moses is extremely impatient and frustrated.

BD:   Is this, perhaps, a look into God’s soul?

DP-J:   Perhaps...  Moses is very close to God, at least in the Schoenberg.

BD:   Do you feel God-like?

DP-J:   I feel very human as Moses.  I feel a great deal of frustration in the role of Moses.  No, I don’t feel Moses is a God-like individual.  I feel that Moses as very fallible, irritable, and impatient, but as we go down the line and name the faults that Moses exhibits, in all of those faults he’s very human.

BD:   Is it special for you to come back to this role?

DP-J:   I will always love coming back to this role because it’s an incredible experience, and all the more incredible for having Pierre Boulez conducting.  He reads the score, and brings the orchestra to a reading of the score, which is so transparent and so precise, and yet not intellectually frigid.  It is certainly not heavy-handed.  You really can take this music the way you really must take much of 20th century orchestral accompaniment to a drama.  He allows it to happen.  It’s incredible music, but no one in the audience should be made aware of the intellectuality of this music.
BD:   They should just be swept along?

DP-J:   They should be paying attention to what’s going on on the stage, and to what’s happening in the drama itself.  What you have in the orchestral score is an underlining, an underscoring for the drama.  It
s the same thing with Alban Berg in Lulu and in Wozzeck.  People are so afraid to listen to these pieces.  They say, “Oh, no, it’s too intellectual for me.  I can’t possibly understand it. It just grates on my ears.”  They should forget the music.  They should take the music as though it was a film score, and just put in the back of their minds.  The way Maestro Boulez plays the score, it’s totally and completely possible to understand what you want to understand, with the clarity that you don’t get in some of these heavy-handed renditions of the score.

BD:   This is what he’s noted for

DP-J:   Absolutely.  In listening to the DG recording, I just am amazed.  It’s like chamber music, and yet it’s an immense orchestra.

BD:   He can see through it, and make sure that little details come out all the time.

DP-J:   He’s excellent at that.

BD:   It is happier for you when you’re working with great colleagues?

DP-J:   Of course it is, absolutely.  We all have dream-experiences of working with only the best and the most capable, but there is also a great thrill in seeing someone who never thought they were capable of doing something, catch the flame from someone who does it well and without any complexes.  You then catch that flame of excitement, and begin to grow in their understanding of how to perform this music.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   [Remembering that he started by studying oboe]  Are you glad you didn’t stick with the oboe?

DP-J:   I do miss the oboe, but I’m very happy for my training in voice.

BD:   Have you ever sung Schwanda?  That’s not an oboe, it’s a bagpipe, but it’s close...

DP-J:   No, never anything to do with Schwanda.  It’s not my bag.  [Both have a huge laugh]

BD:   If someone wanted to write a score with you in mind, what advice do you have for that composer?

DP-J:   They should understand the nature of the vocal instrument equally as well as they understand all of the orchestral instruments for which they’re writing.  This includes the limitations and the possibilities that the instrument provides, and they should respect the instrument, and not desire something that will make the instrument sound less than it should.

BD:   Have you had things written for you?

DP-J:   I have, yes.  I had the very great privilege of performing a work in the centenary of Van Gogh’s death that was written by a Dutch composer, Jan von Vlijmen (1935-2004) entitled Un malheureux vêtu de noir
[An unfortunate man dressed in black].  The text was based on the correspondence between Vincent and his brother, Theo Van Gogh.  [Recording of this work is shown at left.]

BD:   Was it in French or in Dutch?

DP-J:   This was in French and in Dutch.  Fortunately for me, I didn’t have a lot of Dutch to sing.  It’s one of those languages which doesn’t sing easily.  There are a lot of sounds in Dutch that are not necessarily resonant by nature.  I also performed an opera by Hans Zender (1936-2019), which was written for me, Don Quijote de la Mancha
(1993) [Don Quixote of La Mancha].  That is a piece which I’m sure Mr. Zender knows very well I have no desire to sing again.  It was a totally impossible piece.

BD:   Musically or dramatically or both?

DP-J:   It was extremely long, and it was written for a few instruments all on individual microphones, and a huge computer which gave innumerable possibilities for recording and playbacks and echoes and mutations of what was recorded.  To give you an example, my very first scene on stage was a trio with myself.

BD:   I hope you had at least some fun with it...

DP-J:   I had great fun.  The last bit of the music to be played I recorded in June, and the performances took place in September, October, and November.  Then there was actually one part that was recorded live and played back.  The entire piece had been laid down on tape, and the conductor was doing nothing except repeating beating time to the tic of the organ’s ear.

BD:   He had a click track!

DP-J:   Yes, he had a click track, and I must say this is not my idea of making music, or being musical, or being creative.  Generally speaking, it doesn’t matter what opera I’m singing, or the difficulty of the opera.  If I have done my work correctly, by the second or third performance I’m able to relax, and make music, and enjoy, and perform.

BD:   Why should that not have happened using the dress rehearsals instead of the first performances?

DP-J:   Even with the amount of rehearsals that we have, very seldom is anything ever rehearsed well enough, so that in a stage production you are completely at ease with the entire production, or with the music, or with the orchestra to the point where you can really relax.  It
s not the nerves, but with the creation of something for the first time, you never really begin to understand exactly what it’s all about until you’re into performance.  You always learn something new every time you open your mouth in a show like that, but by the second or third performance of this piece, I started relaxing a bit, and immediately scared myself half to death thinking that I’d lost it completely.  I realized that this was one piece that you can never relax!

BD:   Are you perfectly happy singing other music by this composer?

DP-J:   The other piece that I have sung by Hans Zender is Canto VI, which I recorded in Saarbrücken for the Saarland radio.  It is an earlier work, but still it was one of those pieces where I never could for a moment relax.  It’s just the nature of the way the man composes music.  On the other hand, while I would not be happy singing Don Quijote again, I would very much be willing to go to the effort to perform Canto VI, because I find it to be an incredibly moving piece of music.  [Note that in an e-mail I received from DP-J after notifying him of this website posting, he said that he did sing Canto VI again later in Essen, with Zender conducting, and that the composer was quite pleased with the performance.]

:   [Thinking of another version of the Don Quixote legend]  Would you ever sing Don Quichotte of Massenet, or is that too low?

  I would have to look at it.  It probably isn’t too low, I wouldn’t think.

BD:   You’re a baritone, not a bass-baritone?

DP-J:   I’m a baritone, but I have extremely good lows.  The Don Quijote of Zender was written for me, and had a low D below the staff, which I sing.

BD:   Then you can do Osmin [Die Entführung aus dem Serail (The Abduction from the Seraglio) of Mozart]!

DP-J:   [Laughs]  No, no, no.  There are things like that which are not written for me.  I have to take into consideration the weight of the voice.  Also, the timbre of my voice is not right.  The timbre of my voice is a baritone.  The instrument is not right for Osmin, nor is it right for Sarastro, or for any of the other really great bass roles.  For instance, Boris Godunov, which was offered to me last year.  I looked at it, and I could sing it, but then I heard someone else sing it, and I knew my voice was not right for this role.  The character needs a darker sound.
BD:   So, you have the little D, but it’s just an extension of the voice, rather than a principal part of the voice... or are we just talking color?

DP-J:   Actually, it’s a totally sung-sound low D.  I have all those pitches down there.  I work steadily down there, from low D to high A above the staff, above middle C.  Basically, I don’t perform high As.  I don’t think a baritone is necessarily called upon that often to sing high A.  I suppose if I were called upon to sing a high A, I would figure out how to do it.  A-flats, on the other hand, are perfectly within my comfort zone.

BD:   So, you sing it in the Prologue from Pagliacci?

DP-J:   Yes, and they’re in Dr. Schön in Lulu.  There is a high A-flat.

BD:   I wasn’t aware of that one.

DP:   Yes, it is in the first scene with Lulu.  When they’re having a big fight, he sings a nice big sustained well-sung A-flat.  It’s not even optional.  The optional is a lower note.  The Tales of Hoffmann has G-sharp in it, which is optional, but it’s traditional.

BD:   Do you like things that are tradition, but which are still optional?

DP-J:   I do. I’m in the process now of preparing Rigoletto next, and there are many traditions which are optional, but not optional.  For instance, the high Gs that one inserts.  Those are not really optional.  If you can’t sing the high Gs, you really shouldn’t think about singing Rigoletto.  Then, in the very last scene, there’s an optional F-sharp as Rigoletto is getting ready to throw the body that he thinks is the Duke of Mantua into the river.  Robert Merrill always adds an F-sharp there.  And then, at the end of the opera, there is la maladizione! [the curse! (the character
s final phrase which closes the opera)], which has an A-flat.

BD:   But that’s really just a cry.

DP-J:   It is a cry, but it must still be good, and still has to be sung.  It has to be full of emotion.  But, as my voice teacher always said, the emotion must not go beyond the voice.  The emotion must have been experienced.  You mustn’t perform the emotion.  We’re not up there to perform the emotions.  We’re up there to give the impression, and one doesn’t act with the voice.

BD:   [With a gentle nudge]  I thought you were supposed to act.

DP-J:   That’s very dangerous if you get out there and start acting with the voice.  You act with your face.  You act to the colors of the voice.  You have to experience all of that to get out there and start just improvising and acting with the voice.  The voice is, by nature, a very precise instrument, and can do many, many things.  But one thing it cannot do is function on unclear orders.  Everything has to be very carefully controlled.  That’s why one has to learn and experience the emotions, so that one can give the impression to the audience of that emotion.  But that has to be learned, and not experienced on stage.

BD:   So, you learn and you do it, and you repeat it each night, yet it must appear spontaneous?

DP-J:   Almost always, because nothing can ever be exactly the same twice.  [After re-considering]  Actually, there are things that have to be the same exactly, and there are always moments where a singer has to literally turn off, put on their public face, and just say,
“Excuse me, folks, but now I’m going to sing an A-flat.  This is the way we do that.  Of course, that’s another one of those things where you close the kitchen door, and the audience is not supposed to know it.

BD:   Are you aware of the audience when you’re singing?

DP-J:   I’m generally aware of a good audience.  You’re always aware of an audience that is enjoying and participating in the performance, which is to say they are receiving the energy that I’m giving, and they’re sending back energy to me.
  You’re also aware of the lack of that, if that should be the case.

BD:   Is it different in the opera house and the concert hall?

DP-J:   No, not really.  If anything, you’re more aware of the audience in a concert hall, because generally they’re much more well-lit.  In the opera house you generally don’t see the audience, but you feel them... at least you hope you feel them.

BD:   Do you change your technique at all for the size of the house you’re singing in?

DP-J:   No.  I try not to, and I’m not aware of it if I do.  It would be very dangerous for someone to try to do that.  I know that there are a lot of people who have different ideas about this, but basically I have worked my entire life with one teacher.  She died a year ago, but we always worked exactly the same way.  Everything I sing is sung precisely with the same technique, given stylistic changes and demands that the music may impose on that technique.  But usually, the technique is the same because the instrument is the same.

BD:   You make sure that the technique can encompass old music, romantic music, and 20th century music?

DP-J:   Absolutely.  That’s my task
to make sure that I can, with my technique, understand how to perform all these styles of music.

BD:   All of them?

DP-J:   All of them.  Why not?

BD:   It just seems like that would be an immense task.

DP-J:   It is, but why not dream big?  My repertoire includes new works, but I perform constantly Mozart, Haydn, and Bach.

BD:   [With a gentle note of sarcasm]  It’s not your goal to sing every piece that’s ever been written???

DP-J:   [Laughs]  Oh, absolutely not.  No, no, no, there are many pieces that I have not sung yet, and I know it’s too late for them.  It’s not my dream to sing everything, but it is my dream to be able to sing everything that I personally feel is suited to my talent and my instrument.

jennings BD:   Are there still some things that you’re hoping to get the opportunity to do?

DP-J:   Yes, I have an entire list of things that I would like to do in two years, three years, five years, ten years.

BD:   So, you’re really looking for the long career?

DP-J:   I’ve already had quite a long career, and I’m looking for it to be even longer.  Why not?  The secret to enjoying a career is not necessarily to have a short flash-in-the-pan, and be the flavor-of-the-month for perhaps five years, and then worry about what you’re going to do the rest of your life.  I enjoy singing too much for that.

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BD:   Your principal career is in Europe.  Being American, is this tougher than it should be?

DP-J:   I don’t think so.  I enjoy myself immensely.  Two years ago I made my United States opera debut after having been in Europe for 20 something years.

BD:   Where is home for you?

DP-J:   Paris.  I spend a lot of time there, and that is home, yes.

BD:   That is where you hang your hat, and keep your scores?

DP-J:   That’s where I keep my scores.

BD:   Are you at the point in your career that you want to be right now?

DP-J:   Yes, I would have to say I am.  I’m quite content with what I’m doing.  I would be an extremely unhappy person if I spent a lot of time saying that I should have done this differently, or that I could have done that differently.  I might have been somewhere else in my career, had it been different, but at the same time I have nothing to complain about.  I’m singing the roles I want to sing, and I’m being offered the roles I want to sing.  People generally like what I sing.  I love what I sing, and I’m absolutely passionate about singing.  How many people in the world can earn a living doing something that they love, about which they’re absolutely passionate?  I consider myself so fortunate.  I’m not an unhappy person.  It’s not in my nature to be unhappy.

BD:   Do you like traveling all over the world?

DP-J:   That’s part of it.  That’s the downside of it, and yet, although I did get tired after having arrived here after a nine-hour trip from Paris, to be out in the streets of Chicago enjoying this wonderful weather that we’re having, and discovering the city and wonderful people, it’s exciting.  This is part of it.  That’s part of the David Pittman-Jennings which is totally private.  No one knows me out there when I’m on the street, and that’s wonderful.  I like that.  I can just act like a totally naïve person, and just stare and gawk at this wonderful architecture, and see the mixture of old and new.  There are a lot of people that would give their left arm to be traveling half as much as I am, and yet when they travel, they probably spent a lot more time in museums than I do.  I’ve never been anywhere that I haven’t sung, but I don’t have plans in the future to go anywhere that I’m not singing.  But I’ve probably seen less of those cities than most people who go there on vacation.  There’s always the rehearsals and performances that have to come first, and if the weather isn’t just right, then there’s always the care that one has to take of not getting out in bad weather.

You’re a part of the museum, rather than appreciating museum, and you then become part of the artistic legacy of each city.

DP-J:   That’s a very nice way of putting it.  Yes.  Thank you.

BD:   Thank you for bringing your artistic achievement to Chicago.

DP-J:   It’s my very great pleasure.

BD:   I hope you will come back.

DP-J:   That remains to be seen, but I would be on next plane from Paris given the opportunity.

BD:   There are only two performances of Moses und Aron?

DP-J:   There are only two here, but we have another performance in Berlin.  The entire production is going to Berlin for the Berlin Festival weeks.  In fact, aside from Chris Merritt, the rest of the soloists are members of the Staatsoper Berlin, so they’ll be going back home.  I also will have some friends coming over for it.

BD:   I look forward to this very much.  I have very fond memories of the first time the Chicago Symphony did this work here in 1971.

DP-J:   Yes, with Solti.

BD:   It was Hans Hotter as Moses, and Richard Lewis as Aron.  [The recording with Franz Mazura and Philip Langridge was from a later set of performances in 1984.]

DP-J:   [Visibly awed]  My goodness, what an artist Hotter was.  I won’t even pretend to try to live up to it.  I will bring my own truth to it.

BD:   It was so really overwhelming because it was in English.  So, he was speaking all those words right into our ears.

DP-J:   Chris Merritt and I have had many performances before this.  We will have the score in front of us for security since we’re not having a lot of rehearsals, but I thoroughly expect by the time we get to performances, Chris and I will be doing Moses and Aron as we have done in the past.  A concert version of an opera certainly profits when you have singers who are actually in their character performing as they would on stage, especially these two.  Of course, we must never forget the primary character in this piece is the choir, because it’s the people.  I can hardly wait to hear this chorus sing this piece.  I have known about this chorus since I was a student in University of Oklahoma, and the fact that I’m finally singing with this chorus is a great thrill for me.


BD:   We managed to keep the tradition that Margaret Hillis established. She built the chorus, and now that she’s gone, Duain Wolfe is doing very well at keeping the tradition.  They spent a long time finding him.  They had to make sure that it will be someone who could carry on from her.

DP-J:   It takes a great personality to handle a talented chorus.  If there’s anything I miss in Europe, it’s the American chorale sound.  There are many American singers over there, but they’re all soloists, not chorus.  The chorale tradition, especially in continental Europe, is mostly a very wide gutless sound.  The Netherlands Opera Chorus, having been trained primarily by Americans, is excellent, as you’ve heard on the recording.  They cut through this piece like it was the St. Matthew Passion, and I’m sure this chorus will do the same.

BD:   There is no question about this chorus.  I hope it’s as satisfying for you on stage as it will be for us in the theater.

DP-J:   We’ll see.  I have no idea what the arrangement will be, whether we’ll be in the front or behind.  Personally, my wish is that we would be behind the orchestra, so that we have a bit more perspective.  We’ll know tomorrow.  [As seen in the photo below, taken in Berlin, the two title characters were placed in front on either side of the conductor, while the rest of the soloists and the chorus were behind the orchestra.]

BD:   Thank you for the conversation.  I appreciate it.

DP-J:   It’s my pleasure.


© 1999 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in Chicago on March 18, 1999.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB five days later.  This transcription was made in 2021, and posted on this website at that time.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.  To read my thoughts on editing these interviews for print, as well as a few other interesting observations, click here.

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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.