Director Harold Prince
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie
Being firmly in the Classical Music side of the entertainment world,
it is not often that I get to meet with well-known figures in the more popular
arenas. Sometimes, however, they cross into the other portion, though
he would (and did) vehemently deny any barriers. Harold Prince is certainly
one who has given us countless evenings of theatrical enjoyment, and has won
his share of accolades in the process. Many of his accomplishments are
recounted in the biography from the Kennedy Center which is reproduced at
the end of this interview.
In the fall of 1982, he was in Chicago to stage Madama Butterfly at Lyric Opera.
We met between rehearsals in a dressing room backstage, and though he was
only able to give me a few minutes, he was bubbling over with excitement
and enthusiasm about his work in general and this production in particular.
Looking just as his photo suggests, with his glasses swept up to the top
of his heard, he enthused about this particular corner of his career while
sipping some wine that his assistants had brought to the gathering . . . .
Bruce Duffie: I appreciate
your taking the time to see me.
Harold Prince: A pleasure.
BD: Let me start out by asking
you a real simple question. Where is opera going today?
HP: Oh, I wouldn’t have the
arrogance to tell you because I don’t know how many people want it to go there.
I just know where I wish it were going.
BD: All right. Where
do you wish it were going?
HP: I wish that it tended
more to its theatrical obligations; in other words, the libretto, the story.
That isn’t denying the music by any stretch, but I just think they ought to
be better shows. When I’ve seen those productions which grab you as
theater, that in no way has compromised them vocally. There’s
so many things come to mind, like Peter
BD: When you’re starting
to think about doing an opera, how do you decide which operatic traditions
you will keep and which you will discard?
HP: Maybe it’s a good thing
I don’t know so much about operatic traditions. I know the score and
I study the score for a great long period of time. For example, I’ve
been working on Butterfly for two
and a half years. I studied libretto and so on, but I don’t know what
traditions you’re talking about. As a matter of fact, in this particular
production we’ve introduced the tradition of kind of kabuki stagecraft.
That’s a whole other tradition. I’m not pretending to be sophisticated
about it; I’m just being bold about it, kind of borrowing techniques that
BD: So then you approach
HP: Well, yes, I better!
BD: Because there is constant
music, is there ever enough time for the theatrical affects?
HP: I’ve never had a problem
with a conductor or a singer in that area. On the other hand, I’ve not
directed Caballé, and I think if I did we’d have a problem. I
think her voice is glorious, but we might have a problem. The other
aspect to the reply is that I’ve never chosen to do operas which don’t have
strong libretti. In other words, I’m interested that it will be strong.
This will be my second Puccini; I’m doing Turandot in Vienna in the spring.
The point is Puccini cared so much about the story and the characters that
I find when I’m directing a scene, if I want a pause because an actor should
pause there, I usually discover that Puccini wanted it too and so there’s
a pause in the music. I don’t feel double-crossed at all. One
place in this Butterfly I’m trying
to deal with right now... When The Bonze appears and Pinkerton and the
family accuse Butterfly of changing religions and Pinkerton chases them away
from the wedding ceremony, I’m bothered because Pinkerton is so upset.
He’s so angry, and yet what the family is doing is so mild. I would
have liked some crescendo, so I’m physically trying to give it a crescendo
but I don’t hear it.
BD: Is that something where
you’ll talk it over with the conductor and maybe get him to bring up the orchestra?
HP: I don’t think I can bring up
the orchestra. They’re all going, “Oh, Cio-cio san, oh, Cio-cio san.”
No, I don’t think that’s going to happen. I think I have to find another
solution because obviously that is not the way the composer heard it.
Maybe I’m seeing it wrong.
BD: Maybe you can approach
it from a different direction?
HP: Yeah, maybe. That’s the
only thing I’m going to try to deal with in the remaining rehearsals is that
BD: How do you deal with
the intermissions? Are you going to eliminate one?
HP: We’ve eliminated one,
yeah. There are two in the score, but we will have just one.
BD: So there’ll be just one.
The vigil goes right into the sailor’s return. The second act is all
one act. I like it that way, and this set very much accommodates the
vigil. The vigil is no longer something the audience just closes its
eyes and listens to, and is no longer something in which Butterfly just sits
there and waits the 11 or 12 minutes that it goes on. We have something
happening all through it.
* * *
BD: Are you one of these
directors that utilize preludes and interludes?
HP: I certainly am.
There are instances when the composer resents it some. I think it depends.
I don’t want to impose anything; I really don’t ever think of it that way.
The story is frequently served by something happening during the overture.
I would never do anything for the overture of The Marriage of Figaro.
HP: Because I don’t see any
action, and I was studying The Marriage
of Figaro very carefully. I don’t see any action that is required
BD: But there other overtures
that you do see the action in your mind?
HP: Sure, this one.
It’s a very short prelude. It’s not really an out-and-out overture
but I’m doing something with it because I want to establish the kabuki aspect
of the opera.
BD: Is all of this designed
to try and get the audience to participate and get involved more?
HP: Sure. I think audiences
want a good show. And by the way, I have never accepted a job directing
an opera that I had seen produced and directed so well that I wouldn’t go
near it. I have no desire to top something that I was in awe of, so
you’d never catch me doing a Bohème
— much as I adore the opera — because I’ve
seen a few productions that I was crazy about. On the other hand, I’ve
never seen a Butterfly that totally
satisfied me. They always had longueurs, I thought.
BD: When you go to something,
are you always looking for something more to do?
HP: No, no. I am just
deciding... well, I’d never seen a Butterfly
that totally knocked me out, that’s all.
BD: Do you ever have fights
with the designer? The two of you have to work very closely…
HP: I work very closely with
designers, always. I go to the designer first; the minute I decide I’m
going to do something, be it a musical theatre piece or an opera.
BD: Do you tell him then
what you have in mind?
HP: I tell him what I think
I have in mind, and there are usually so many holes in what I have in mind
that he feels the invitation to collaborate and create something.
BD: Then the two of you fuse
HP: Yeah. I didn’t
think of putting Butterfly on a
turntable; I thought of putting it in the kabuki style, and the designer
came back with the turntable which solved everything. A turntable is,
of course, indigenous to most kabuki productions if not all of them.
BD: Are there some operas
that you will not do?
HP: Because they’re too static.
BD: Couldn’t you bring something
special to them?
HP: I don’t think I could
bring anything to Pelléas et Mélisande.
That doesn’t mean the music isn’t ravishing; I don’t think I could bring a
thing to it. I’m intimidated by it. I was asked by Covent Garden
to do a new production of The Magic Flute,
but I was intimidated by it. I didn’t feel I understood it well enough
BD: But is that something
you’re keeping in the back of your mind for the future maybe?
HP: No, not particularly.
I’m just thinking I’ll do Turnadot
this summer. Götz Friedrich sent me Die Soldaten to listen to...
BD: Oh, the Zimmermann opera!
HP: …and I can’t do that
because I was booked. But I was interested enough in the material to
think that’s an interesting one. There are a whole bunch of things
I think I’d like to do, but there are a whole bunch of things I wouldn’t
go near because I don’t think they’re right for me.
BD: Would seeing a production
maybe change your mind? Perhaps if you went to a Pelléas that almost fit your concept,
could you see how to improve on it?
HP: Yes, I suppose so, but
I doubt it would happen. My assistant mentioned Elektra and I’m crazy about Strauss, but
I listened to it when they asked me to do it in Santa Fe a couple of seasons
ago, and I just thought, “I don’t know what to do here.”
* * *
BD: Are you a good audience?
HP: When I’m having a good
time; I’m a terrible audience if I’m bored. My threshold is very low;
I’m not patient. On the other hand, I am extremely patient at Wagnerian
BD: Would you ever do a Wagnerian
HP: Yeah, you bet I would. I’d like to.
BD: What about Wagner fascinates
HP: Part of me is very German;
my antecedents were all German and I have a very German taste. One whole
side of my character is very German.
BD: Would you bring back
rams and chariots and spears and helmets?
HP: If I were doing The Ring, you mean? I was very impressed
with the Patrice Chéreau Ring.
Curiously enough that’s the sort of thing I do, but not with The Ring. I like it a lot and
I was excited, but with The Ring
I think I would really do mad Ludwig’s nightmare. I love all that kitsch
BD: Do you think opera works
HP: I think some opera does,
but a lot of things you shouldn’t translate. Beverly Sills asked me
to do Merry Widow and I said, “Better
do it in German, dear.” I know it gets done in English all the time;
embarrassed the hell out of me! So I think it needs a new libretto.
But Candide, I did that in English.
BD: Would you do Candide in German?
HP: I think it would be very
difficult in German because it’s so funny; humor is the hardest to translate
between one country and another.
BD: I would think that would
be at the heart of the translation — to get the jokes
HP: It’s the hardest part.
That’s why it doesn’t work. A Little
Night Music was translated into German and I directed it in Vienna.
I kept thinking, “Something is really wrong here,” and it was the absence
of the subtlety of the humor. There are all sorts of operas can be done
in English and I think that’s wonderful if they can be. It’s a matter
of getting the lyrics right.
BD: Do you think opera works
HP: I know opera works on television.
BD: So you are happy with
the things you see on the tube?
HP: Well, I’m happy with
the things of mine that have been translated to television, and I’m very
happy with what I’ve seen. I thought that Schlesinger’s production
of Tales of Hoffmann came off very
well on television. I think Willie
Stark, which I did in Texas, came off well on television. Sweeney Todd came off well on television;
I consider that an opera. It will be in opera houses all over the place
so I guess that will make it an opera.
BD: How do you see the fusion
of musical comedy and opera — the blurring of the lines?
HP: I think the lines have
HP: Unless some damn fool
comes in and sets up a wall again to separate the two into different disciplines
— which I think would be damn foolishness. I think opera
suffers from it; it has lost an audience of young people. Of course
there are a lot of young people who love opera but there are a lot of young
people who don’t because it doesn’t speak to them. It would, if they
went and saw Sweeney Todd along with
the rest of the repertoire. They might find out why Butterfly is so good or why Bohème is so good but they get
turned off by something and then they don’t go back to taste the water.
BD: Does Butterfly really speak to us today?
HP: Well, it speaks to me.
We’ll see how this production works. As I said, I have very strong feelings
about what this is about.
BD: How far are you willing
to go out on a limb to try and experiment?
HP: Oh, I get into terrible
trouble all the time! I don’t like experimentation for the arbitrary
sake of it. I don’t like people just yanking a piece 400 years ahead
just to prove that it’s contemporary. In fact, I think it’s much more
interesting if you leave it where it was because it proves that nothing changes,
that people are always the same. We’ve put Butterfly back 25 years instead of forward.
It’s 1875 or 1880 now instead of 1900, and I think that’s fine. On the
other hand, what it’s about — the American’s attitude
and the spoiled young man and the seemingly second class citizen who is the
woman and yet certainly the stronger character as a human being
— all that stuff’s very contemporary. So why bother putting
into contemporary costume? It resonates just as easily over a hundred
years as it would as if it were made today.
* * *
BD: How much influence on
you are the prose writings and the letters of the composers and librettists?
HP: A lot. Oh I love it. That’s what makes directing
fun as far as I’m concerned, the material in context with the life of the
author, with the period he’s writing about, with political currents.
I’m very politically oriented so I’m very interested in the politics beneath
a piece of work, and so much opera has politics informing it.
BD: So then will you try
to do things the composer wanted but couldn’t do because of exigencies of
HP: I haven’t approached
it that way. Obviously you’re talking about something like The Marriage of Figaro...
BD: Perhaps, or the Masked Ball.
HP: Yes I suppose so; if
you can, why not? It certainly makes more sense to do the Masked Ball in its own period that elsewhere.
BD: In Sweden instead of
HP: Yeah, right. I
think it depends on the piece entirely.
BD: You enjoy directing opera?
HP: I enjoy directing.
BD: So you don’t make any
HP: No, I don’t think there
is any. If there is one I haven’t been able to figure it out.
You have to bring your own criteria to the opera house. You have to
make your own demands, and with some of them, you’ll benefit by the cooperation
of some people who are not quite used to them. There’s no question that
in certain opera houses, historically operas were directed one way.
Singers traveled all over the place, and they just walked into a company,
met people for the first time, and moved to the same spots onstage and did
all that stuff. That’s not interesting.
BD: Do you work with the
individual singers bringing out what they can bring?
HP: In a very limited amount
of time, sure you do. It depends on how much time you get. If
you get five weeks with Candide,
you get five weeks’ worth of time to work with the individual singer.
If you get two and a half weeks with Butterfly,
it’s a little more limited. On the other hand I haven’t felt very
frustrated with this production at all. I’m crazy about the Butterfly.
BD: Can an opera get over-rehearsed?
HP: I think anything can
get that way, but you’re talking to the wrong fellow. Felsenstein rehearsed
for seven or eight months, but I couldn’t. I wouldn’t know what to do
with the last four.
BD: So you’d want more time
than you have but less time than he got?
HP: Only depending on the
piece. Really it all depends on the piece.
BD: [Hearing the call-to-the-stage
on the squawk box] Thank you so very much for your insights and for
all of the productions.
HP: Pleasure, pleasure.
We’ll go down to do the second act. Sure you don’t want any of this
BD: No, no, I’ve got to be
at the radio station tonight...
|Director and producer Harold Prince has won
20 Tony awards and received the National Medal of Arts in 2000 from President
Clinton for a career spanning more than 40 years, in which "he changed the
nature of the American musical." Prince attended the University of Pennsylvania
and graduated in 1948. He first emerged as a producer in New York in 1954
at the age of 24 with a production of The Pajama Game at the
St. James Theater on Broadway. He produced Damn Yankees the following
year and won Tony awards for both productions. Among others, Prince also produced
West Side Story, Fiddler on the Roof, Fiorello!
and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. As a director,
he has worked on the premiere productions of She Loves Me, Cabaret,
Company, Follies, Candide, Pacific Overtures,
A Little Night Music, Sweeney Todd, Evita,
The Phantom of the Opera, Parade and Bounce. Among
the plays he has directed are Hollywood Arms, The Visit, The
Great God Brown, End of the World, Play Memory and his own
play, Grandchild of Kings. His opera productions have been staged at
The Chicago Lyric, The Metropolitan Opera, San Francisco Opera, Houston Grand
Opera, Dallas Opera, Vienna Staatsoper and the Theater Colon in Buenos Aires.
Currently, Prince is working on a new national tour of Evita, as
well as an updated version of The Phantom of the Opera set to open
in 2006 at the Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas. His film credits include movie
adaptations of The Pajama Game, Damn Yankees and A Little
Night Music, starring Elizabeth Taylor. He also directed the original
screenplay Something for Everyone made for National General. Prince
has also directed several notable television productions, including Candide
as a part of "Live from Lincoln Center" and a RKO-Nederlander production of
Sweeney Todd. In addition to his work in the theater, Prince
has served as a trustee for the New York Public Library and on the National
Council of the Arts of the NEA. He was a 1994 Kennedy Center Honoree.
[Biography from the Kennedy Center]
© 1982 Bruce Duffie
This interview was recorded in Chicago on November 11, 1982.
Portions (along with recordings) were used on WNIB in 1990. This transcription
was made and posted on this website early in 2010.
To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed
and posted on this website, click here.
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.