Director Hal 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. Hal 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
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
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.
Hal Prince: A pleasure.
BD: Let me start out by
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.
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
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 I’ve seen.
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
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
there’s a pause in the music. I don’t feel double-crossed at
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
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
HP: Yeah, maybe. That’s
the only thing I’m going to try to deal
with in the remaining rehearsals is that moment.
BD: How do you deal with
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
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
HP: I certainly am.
instances when the composer resents it some. I think it
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
required during that.
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
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
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
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 something together?
HP: Yeah. I didn’t
think of putting Butterfly on
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
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 to do.
BD: But is that something
you’re keeping in the back of
your mind for the future maybe?
HP: No, not
just thinking I’ll do Turnadot
this summer. Götz Friedrich sent me Die Soldaten to listen to...
BD: Oh, the Zimmermann
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
BD: Are you a good
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
BD: Would you ever do a
HP: Yeah, you bet I
would. I’d like to.
BD: What about Wagner
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 German stuff.
BD: Do you think opera
works in translation?
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
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 across.
HP: It’s the hardest
part. That’s why it doesn’t work. A Little Night Music was translated
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
English and I think that’s wonderful if they can be. It’s a
of getting the lyrics right.
BD: Do you think opera
works on television?
HP: I know opera works on
BD: So you are happy with
the things you see on
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.
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 —
blurring of the lines?
HP: I think the lines
have been blurred.
HP: Unless some damn fool
comes in and sets up a wall again to separate the two into different
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
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
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
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
second class citizen who is the woman and yet certainly the stronger
character as a human being —
that stuff’s very contemporary. So why bother putting into
contemporary costume? It resonates just as easily over a hundred
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
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
very politically oriented so I’m very interested in the politics
beneath a piece of work, and so much opera has politics informing
BD: So then will you try
to do things the composer wanted but
couldn’t do because of exigencies of that time?
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
BD: You enjoy directing
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
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
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
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
BD: So you’d want more
time than you have but less time than he
HP: Only depending on the
piece. Really it all depends on
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.
pleasure. We’ll go down to do the second act. Sure you
any of this wine?
BD: No, no, I’ve got to
be at the radio station
|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
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
© 1982 Bruce Duffie
This interview was recorded in Chicago on November 11,
Portions (along with recordings)
were used on WNIB in 1990. This
made and posted on this website early in 2010.
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
for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of
other interviews, plus a full list of his guests. He would also
to call your attention to the photos and information about his
grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a
century ago. You may also send him E-Mail
with comments, questions and suggestions.