Bass - Baritone Heinz Rehfuss
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie
Born: May 25, 1917 - Frankfurt am Main, Germany
Died: June 27, 1988 - Buffalo, New York, USA
The German born, Swiss, and later American bass-baritone, Heinz
(Julius) Rehfuss, studied with his father, Carl Rehfuss (1885-1946), a
singer and a teacher, and with his mother, Florentine Rehfuss-Peichert,
contralto. The family moved to Neuchâtel, and Rehfuss became a
naturalized Swiss citizen.
Heinz made his professional debut in opera at Biel-Solothurn in 1938.
Then he sang with the Lucerne Stadttheater (1938-1939) and the
Zürich Opera (1940-1952). He subsequently was active mainly in
Europe and in America. He became a naturalized American citizen.
Rehfuss taught voice at the Montreal Conservatory in 1961 and in 1965
was on the Faculty of the State University of New York at Buffalo. In
1970 he was a visiting professor at the Eastman School of Music in
Rochester, New York. He also toured Asia, giving vocal recitals in
India and Indonesia. He was successful mainly in dramatic roles, such
as Don Giovanni and Boris Godunov, but he was also a gifted Bach singer.
In April of 1987, just a month before his 70th birthday,
I contacted Heinz Rehfuss
and he allowed me to call him on the telephone for an interview.
As can be seen below, we had a wonderful conversation. His
English was excellent,
though, as is often the case, it was sprinkled with unintended
mannerisms and the occasional grammatical error. I have fixed
most of those, but some were simply so charming that they have been
left in this text.
I had admired his recordings for many years, and we talked about his
career, but we began with his pedagogical work . . . . . . .
Bruce Duffie: Let us start out with the
teaching. You’re professor of music at Buffalo?
Yes. I’m here now, for the twenty-second year. I joined in
1965 and at the same time I was also teaching at the Conservatoire de
Musique de Québec, Montreal, and sometimes at Eastman,
Rochester, New York.
BD: You’re teaching
both singing and stage acting?
and stage acting, and also I was staging some opera productions here
with the students.
BD: I read in
your biography that you got involved in opera productions very early in
because I studied with the very famous opera stage director, Otto
Erhart. He was for a long time in Buenos Aires at the Teatro
Colón, and I was his assistant for a while.
BD: Why would
somebody who was primarily a singer want to also get involved with
stage action so early?
because my parents both were singers, and I wanted to do something
else. I was attracted by the stage and by opera, naturally, so I
decided to study stage directing, and also I was also doing stage
design at the beginning. I was only eighteen years old, and
continued to do that but the vocal possibilities were stronger.
You know what it is when professional groups of singers have a young
fellow telling them what they should do in performing and acting!
Naturally it was much easier to start singing, and then singing
happened to be successful. So I prevailed there, but I continued
to do as much directing as time permitted.
indicate in that period it was not very good for a youngster to be
directing older singers, but now we seem to have quite a number of very
young stage directors with a lot of well-thought-out ideas. Has
the pendulum swung completely to the other side?
HR: I’m not
so absolutely sure about that because singers who have their so-called
traditions don’t want a young fellow to tell them what to do,
especially because they have much more advanced and revolutionary ideas
about staging. They get very uncomfortable if somebody comes and
pushes them away from their old ruts.
[Laughs] Should someone come and gently nudge singers out their
young people who have good ideas will prevail anyhow. Some who
have ideas which are a little bit too far-fetched will not be
successful. But I suppose a conscientious singer who thinks that
young stage director has a new approach and something which is
defensible will be willing to follow his ideas! But some really
are so eccentric that the singers almost rebel if they have to sing
upside down, or hang from the air. I did a performance of Intolleranza by Luigi Nono in
Venice at the Festival, and I was suspended in the air in a net.
It’s not too comfortable to sing that way. It’s not the way you
feel it should happen in order for you to get your breath control and
BD: At what
point does the stage direction become too much, too far-fetched?
difficult to say. Naturally with some opera houses
— particularly in Germany, Austria, or France, and even in
Italy — definitely I would say the singers
themselves are young, and try to understand what the stage director is
trying to experience with them. They are more willing than in a
traditional opera house — talking of Germany,
like Munich or Berlin or Vienna — where they
don’t have the interest, and maybe not the time, to rehearse accordingly
— except when it is the festival and there’s a lot of time
to prepare the show. They don’t like to be too much pushed into
experiences and experiments.
BD: Are you
basically pleased with the ideas that are going around in stage
HR: Yes, I
think so. Some opera houses are really famous and renowned for
being experimental, and you expect these things to happen there.
I saw such performances when I had a sabbatical last year. I was
touring Europe and getting a little bit of information about what’s
going on, and I was rather pleased and amazed because opera is
something which is not a museum art. It has to go with your time,
and this includes the traditional, not just the contemporary composers.
BD: So there
has to be new life breathed into the old operas as well as the new
Right. But somebody said if you dust, you should not take away
the polish when cleaning up the traditions. If you go really down
to the bare bones, there’s no more life and energy remaining.
BD: We were
talking a little bit about stage direction, so let me ask you about
singers. How have singers changed in the last twenty, thirty,
forty, fifty years?
HR: I think
they are coming back now more to the ‘bravura’ style, and they are
digging out again operas with a lot of coloratura and florid
passages. The human voice as a ‘bravura’ instrument is getting
more accepted and requested now in the repertoire, so you see the
renaissance of the Donizetti operas, of the Bellini operas, and all the
BD: Is that a good
HR: I think
so because singers really have to work harder on their technique, and
probably they last longer that way.
BD: How do
you get young singers to take the time to build a career carefully
instead of trying to emerge too quickly?
that’s a good question because if a young singer is very promising, has
a talent, has a good voice, and has an acceptably ready technique, they
are sometimes pushed into parts they are not ready for yet. This
goes for their interpretation, and also technically and volume-wise
because the young voice has to develop organically and cannot be pushed
too soon into the Strauss operas or some of the ‘verismo’ works where
you really tense up too much to produce a big sound. This is also
because some of the opera houses are acoustically not the best for
young voices to mature.
BD: You sang
all over the world. Did you adjust your technique at all from
house to house?
HR: I tried
to. Also, it’s interesting... For example, here in America
you have an overlapping of all these different multi-cultures, which is
excellent. But in Europe, since I’m from Switzerland, I was
fluent in French, German, and Italian, so I could see what they do in
French opera houses, in Italian opera houses, in German and Austrian
opera houses, and the style is very, very different from country to
country. The Italians go more for generous, big voice, beautiful
voice, legato singing in the repertoire. Sometimes the same
operas are very differently produced in these three countries or
BD: Is that
because the expectations of the audiences are different in these three
HR: Yes, and
I think it’s also because of certain traditions. In Europe you
have two different big systems. In Germany, for example, they
have a so-called ‘repertoire’
theater where the whole company of singers sing according to
availability of repertoire. But in Italy they have the ‘stagione’ principle where they have
good singers who are very famous for certain parts and they sing these
parts all over, touring from town to town.
BD: Which is
better, or are they just different?
HR: I don’t
know. The ‘stagione’
is probably better because the young singer who has proven his
possibilities in a part can mature, singing it several times in
different cities under different conductors and stage directors.
They may grow more organically than somebody who is pushed into a part
which is maybe not yet the best for him. He cannot judge
absolutely what is the best for him because he has an appetite and he
wants to get access as soon as possible to the parts. He would
like to sing but he’s not always counseled correctly by the conductor
or by the stage director, or even by the voice teacher.
BD: I would
think the voice teacher would be looking out for each singer!
right, but sometimes the voice teacher is somewhere else, and he gets a
letter or they send him a program and reviews, but the singer loses
some of the contact with the teacher because the teacher is far
away. He might just attend the opening night and give some
advice, but he has not the possibility to keep the young singer under
steady control. Also the young singer who wants to follow up and
improve his technique and overcome short comings sometimes goes to
another teacher in the city where he’s employed. That may be an
opportunity for him, and he can have another idea about him.
BD: In your
career, how did you decide which roles you would accept and which roles
you would decline?
HR: I was
very cautious. I was never the Italian baritone. I was
more, what they call in Germany, the ‘Cavalier Baritone’ — the
Mozartian parts and the dramatic parts, but not the very heavy parts.
HR: I sang
Wolfram and Klingsor, and Kothner in the Meistersinger, but never, never the
heavy stuff. You sing with your muscles, and the more you work
them out, the stronger they get. It’s like tennis, or like
weight-lifting. After a certain while you get stronger, and you
can touch repertoire which you were not physically and intellectually
ready for at the beginning of your career.
singing a performance like an athletic contest?
HR: To a
certain extent! Singing an opera lasting five hours, like some
Wagnerian parts that are very exacting, helps your stamina. You
need a lot of strength and endurance.
recorded several French roles, so let us speak about a couple of
those. First the roles in Hoffmann.
often they are divided between a baritone and a bass-baritone and a
high-baritone. Dapertutto is usually sung by a high-baritone,
especially if the aria is sung in the original key. Sometimes
they transpose it if it’s a lower voice. Dr. Miracle is
rather a character bass, and the other one in the first act is always
the buffo. So we must be very versatile, but if within the scope
of your voice you can adjust it, it’s better to have one person to
singing all the three characters, and even the character in the
prelude. It’s a little bit more difficult naturally, but
there is no problem for Hoffmann because he stays in the same
tessitura. Even for the four female parts, one is dramatic
soprano, the doll is a coloratura, and in the last act it is a lyric
soprano. But some singers have that versatility and technical
flexibility to do them all.
BD: Do you
feel all of these characters are different sides of the same coin, and
by portraying them with the same singer it brings that out?
HR: It seems
to me to be the original idea of Offenbach when he wrote it.
becomes quite a ‘tour de force’ then for the soprano and the baritone!
BD: Who is
the real hero of that opera?
E. T. A. Hoffmann, the writer because he is, let’s say, the German
Edgar Allan Poe. That’s the magic and the phallic undertone which
goes through the whole opera. You know that the opera even was
banned because some people said it was bringing mishap to the
theaters. The first time it was performed in Vienna, there was
the famous fire where the opera house burned and there were a lot of
casualties. For a very long time, some people had apprehension to
put in the repertoire. It was a doomed opera. It came back
in the ‘20s when Max Rheinhart and his people were doing extraordinary
stagings, and there was Klemperer who was conducting the Sadler’s Wells
performances. Then the doom was forgotten and the opera houses of
the world over had to courage to play and put it in the repertoire.
BD: There are
a couple of versions of this opera, are there not?
Yes. It’s not really two versions, but several. There is a
possibility to finish with the Venice Act and do the Munich Act before
because it’s stronger. And there is also a version where the Muse
at the end has a long monologue and he’s extending when the chorus has
gone away off stage. Then there’s a version which finishes with
the students singing at the end. Basically Offenbach couldn’t
finish it completely because he died shortly before it was first
performed. In France they gave always the opera with the spoken
dialogue, but a student of his wrote the recitatives so it could be
given at the Grande Opéra. There was a habit in Paris that
what was given at the Opéra-Comique had dialogue, while what’s
given at the Grande Opéra everything has to be sung. So
when they performed it at the Opéra, he added the
recitatives. The same thing that happened with Carmen.
BD: Which is
better? Which is the stronger performance?
personally would think that the recitatives are better because it’s
very seldom that singers speak a very good dialogue. He loses a
little bit of the stage presence.
projection. Also it’s not so good for the voice because if you
continue after an aria and suddenly talk, you must carry much more than
if you continue to keep your breath control, continuing and going the
opera singer’s way. You will notice, for example, in the Italian
repertoire there is very seldom spoken dialogue. Everything is
recitative because the singer wants to stay afloat with his voice
singers who are singing these roles in Hoffmann, Carmen or The Magic Flute should be taught
how to speak like actors?
HR: I think
so, yes. There’s the exception of Magic Flute which was, at Mozart’s
time, almost like a musical nowadays. It was performed for the
enjoyment of the public. Also Mozart, besides his genius, kept
the tunes very popular. There’s a mixture of grandeur in the
chorus and in the so-called Egyptian scenes. Then the contrast of
Papageno and Papagena, with a lot of jokes, and they sing relatively
easy tunes. Naturally they were rather singing-actors than
singers who have to talk dialogue.
BD: Then let
me ask a balance question. Is opera art or entertainment?
HR: Oh, it
should be both. It should be very artistic and
entertaining. Some are more stilted due to their libretto and due
to the character of the composer. If you think of the Ring, naturally Wagner did not have
an idea to entertain his public. He wanted to elevate them to
almost a cult, and make it a celebration. But on the other hand,
staying with Wagner, in his Meistersinger
he would want maybe to entertain and be more down to the man in the
street. After all, it’s a comedy.
BD: You say
Wagner wanted to elevate the audience to a height. Was he trying
to elevate them to praise Wagner or to praise music or to praise God,
HR: I don’t
know. It is blasphemous, but I think he wanted to squarely praise
himself. It’s dangerous to say that, you know, but he wasn’t a
very humble or modest man. He was not only a composer and a
philosopher, but he was a visionary. I don’t know any composer
who built his own theater, and it’s still there after a hundred
years. Mozart got his Salzburg Opera but that was done by his
admirers for the grandeur of his genius. He was from Salzburg,
which by the way, he didn’t like at all! Strauss and Hoffmansthal
and Max Reinhardt and others created a Mozart Center there in
BD: You sang
HR: Oh yes. I
did Don Giovanni, I did the Count, and in the ‘50s I was the Don
Giovanni at the Aix-en-Provence Festival. I did recording of it
and also Le Nozze di Figaro.
That was at a time when Rosbaud was taking over, and he was an
excellent Mozart interpreter.
BD: Tell me
the secret of singing Mozart.
HR: Mozart is
so complete because you have to know not only the libretto but also the
essence and the style. It’s so specific, and I contend that if
you can sing Mozart you are ready for almost everything because
everything is included — bel canto, drama,
philosophy. He was the most complete genius. Who else wrote
the perfect symphony, the best chamber music, the best art songs and
oratorios, and also operas? I think he’s the most complete of all.
BD: Are there
any others who approach Mozart — perhaps in one
or two of these areas but not in all of them?
for example, was unique, but in opera-drama. Beethoven only wrote
one opera and was discouraged. It is a magnificent opera but he
was so criticized that he was discouraged to start again. He
wrote, as you know, for different overtures. He wrote all kinds
of rearrangements. There was ur-Fidelio
[Leonora] and then another Fidelio. Probably Verdi would
have had the versatility to do everything because one of his best
productions is his Requiem,
which is an oratorio. That is very dramatic, and he wrote
fantastic chamber music, but probably due to circumstances he was
forced or at least inclined to write opera because he had to make a
living. That was also Italy’s first concern to have operatic
composers. Every year produces possibly outstanding opera.
They were expecting each new production like one expects a book from a
famous author. They want the next production.
BD: Why have
we gotten away from that today — the expectation
of a new work each year, from the great composers?
HR: Are there
any really very big composers today? I’m waiting for one.
Maybe in our time, after Richard Strauss, you could expect a new
production of Britten. In Germany there are some composers, but I
don’t have the impression that the world is keeping back its breath to
see what comes next from these people. Mind you, I don’t want to
put them down at all.
BD: Why have
we lost this excited-ness?
HR: Isn’t it
perhaps because opera became such an extravagantly expensive thing in
our world? To put on an opera production now, especially in this
country it’s very, very difficult. In Europe you get support from
the government or city. Here in this country you get subsidies
from big enterprises, but you really have to worry enormously before
you can even think of putting on a production — except,
naturally, in opera houses like where you are in Chicago, and New York
City, and San Francisco. Now more and more opera houses get a
real solid support from the authorities, but it’s a free-enterprise and
it’s a terrible risk.
BD: In Europe
where they have the state subsidy, are they getting better opera, or is
it simply more opera?
HR: They get
more opera. If you open a newspaper all over Europe, you will see
that there’s a production every night, and sometimes two
productions. These artists are on a steady salary, and whether
they sing or not they get the same pay. This excludes some
exceptional singers who attract the huge audiences. Beside the
fact that they are very expensive, they are still relatively cheap for
their producers because if Pavarotti sings or Domingo sings, naturally
the people are willing to pay a bit more. I think it was
Gatti-Cazzaza [General Manager of the Met 1908-35] who said that Caruso
was the cheapest tenor he ever had because even though he had to pay
him a very high fee, he had twice the box office income. [Both
laugh] You have people without names who may be very, very good,
but the public wants to see these happy few. They probably have
them on records at home and they read about them. It’s almost
like a sport where each club has one or two big shots who get the big
money, but they also bring in the big money.
BD: So they
deserve their super-stardom, you feel?
yes; certain ones if they stay good and strong. You see, the
longevity of the voice is relatively limited because the performer is
also his instrument. So if he loses stamina or gets into
problems, that’s it. A pianist has a good technique and can play
the piano, but if you have enough money in the bank you can buy another
piano. A singer cannot buy a new voice.
BD: Let us
talk a bit about your commercial recordings?
HR: I did a
lot of recordings mainly in the ‘50s, including a lot with Ansermet
such as operas, etc. for Decca. We also did some for
Deutsche Grammophon. I must have over sixty or seventy
recordings, and some won the Grand Prix du Disc like Pelléas et Mélisande,
and Les Noces with Stravinsky
conducting. I also did Oedipus
Rex with Stravinsky which was a Grand Prix du Disc.
BD: Did you
enjoy making recordings?
yes. It’s very, very important because probably I otherwise
wouldn’t have had the opportunity to come to this country. I was
known by my recordings, and that’s why people got interested in getting
me over here.
BD: Did you
sing differently for the microphone than you did in live performance?
HR: I don’t
think so, no. Sometimes the technicians came and would say, “Step
back,” or “Turn your head this way,” but I think if you want to give
the full extent of your interpretation, you shouldn’t be handicapped by
that little machine which is in front of you. It’s the
technician’s job to balance the excesses which may happen.
They’re pretty good at it now.
BD: Is there
a chance that a recording is too technically perfect?
perhaps. I like to work for Decca, which in this country is
called London Records. They have very good people, but that’s
twenty years ago, and they’re still very, very good. They were
pioneers in this FFRR system. I seldom listen to my own
recordings, but sometimes if I have friends over and they say, “Play a
record!” It’s really astonishing how technically accurate they
were already in the ‘50s.
BD: Do you
think the public has become, perhaps, enamored of their recordings?
you may be right there.
BD: Opera is,
of course, both music and drama. Do you feel it works well on a
purely aural medium?
naturally something which is missing because if I analyze the word
‘personality’ — which means personal, sounds
through — you can translate through the voice
enormous expression. This needs, naturally, visual realization as
well, but you can visualize something through a voice — as
when you recognize voices on the telephone. You don’t
see the person but you do get a personality through the
recording. You should compare, for example, several performances
of the same opera. It’s very, very interesting to compare
them. That’s probably also the fact that it’s kept for posterity,
that you can compare what the style was in the ‘20s, and then in the
‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s. That is a big evolution, and it depends also
on the personality of the conductor. Karajan recordings have the
imprint of Karajan. In a Maazel recording, you hear the
personality, you don’t see it, and even if you’re not specialist, you
can feel the difference. You can feel the aura which is in the
recording. [See my Interview with Lorin
Maazel.] Technology has really gone so far now. Very
little is lost of what the performer gives you if you see it when you
BD: Now the
technology has gone one step farther, and we have operas on
television. Do you feel that opera works well on the small screen?
HR: It’s a
little bit too small but what is good is that it reaches a large public
who otherwise would not get in touch with opera. Or it can help
others who would probably hate it unless they have seen that it can
give them enormous impact, enormous pleasure and enjoyment. They
can see it on public stations, and also they have now videos discs and
video cassettes. So I think a lot of public will gain from that,
and it will decrease the thought that this kind of music is considered
for eggheads and not for people who are not totally in the field.
BD: Is there
any artistic value in this, or it is promotion and exposure?
mainly exposure, but since it reaches such a large group of people it
is also good thing which can broaden the artistic value. Compare
if you lived, say, fifty years ago in a city somewhere in Europe, which
didn’t have the money to produce good opera. Their local opera
house gave them the best that could be achieved, but now they can see
it with a world standard what really can be achieved in an opera.
BD: So you
feel it’s worth the exposure to have operas on the television?
Certainly, because it becomes a very lively art. It becomes
something which is in our time excites not only specialists, opera
buffs, but a larger audience. The people in the rural areas would
probably never think of going to an opera because they never have it in
their lives. And to attend an opera now, you know how expensive
it is. You have to be almost extravagant to attend.
through your career you’ve been a proponent of twentieth-century opera,
of new works.
BD: Where is
opera going today?
wouldn’t be a composer nowadays! I wouldn’t know where to go
because on the one hand if they get classical or neo-classical, if they
get to this neo-veristic or expressionistic style, they become
imitators, and if they are too radical, too much making scenic and
musical experiences, they don’t get an audience. In Europe
sometimes, some opera houses can afford to bring operas they know in
advance that will not attract a crowd because in the budget they will
compensate with Aïda or La Bohème, or something like
that. Or in English-speaking opera houses they can go with
Gilbert and Sullivan, or with Lehár or Kálmán in
Vienna. So one section helps to finance the other, and that’s
also a good principle which unfortunately we don’t have in this
country. If somebody was totally unknown and who seems very weird
for the audience, where do they get the money to produce it?
Sometimes the music publishers help a lot, and also in Europe the radio
and television stations help a lot in producing them. We did a
production of an opera by Ernest Krenek in Munich, which was very
avant-garde, called Die Kaiserin.
[See my Interview
with Ernst Krenek.] No theatre probably would have the
courage to put it into the repertoire. I know that Chicago did a
lot of new things. They did the world premiere of The Love of Three Oranges by
BD: That goes
back to the early ‘20s, yes.
HR: Yes, but
we were very courageous then, and sometimes some opera houses get that
reputation to be the helpers for these young composers. Then they
get an audience internationally interested in all their world
premieres. For example, when I was Zurich, there was the world
première of Lulu by
Alban Berg. There was Mathis
der Mahler of Hindemith. In the mid-century they even had
performances of Busoni operas which were absolutely weird in the
beginning of the century. So that stage got a reputation of being
an avant-garde theater, and they have their visibility much more
extended than it would be locally because the critics came and there
were reviews all over. Even in the score it’s written World
Premiere there on that date. There’s interchange of commercialism
and of promoting contemporary opera, and I think it’s a good thing
because one helps the other.
advice do you have for a young composer who wants to write opera today?
HR: In Europe
there are some of these composers who have the support of their
publishers. For example, Schott is very active there, as is
Universal Edition UE in Vienna. They need to promote new operas
because when they print them, it’s not only performed but all the
libraries all over the world buy the score and put on their shelves.
BD: But then
do they get done or do they just sit on the shelf?
HR: If an
opera is good, it prevails, don’t you think so?
BD: Well, I
hope so. Should opera be done in translation?
good point. Yes and no! Yes, because it’s more accessible
to be understood by the audience, and no because the vowel which was
used by the composer to make the voice growing is a little bit
betrayed. But I think for certain operas, especially where there
is a lot of fast recitatives and it’s absolutely impossible to follow
and to understand what’s going on, it’s better to give it in a good
translation. Now there’s a system of projection of titles in the
BD: Do you
like this idea.
HR: Yes, why
not? It’s better because it’s a compromise. It’s helping
the acoustical genuine-ness of producing the opera, and to make it
understood! On the other hand, if there’s too many words, then
you really have to read and you’re too much distracted. But I
think they do a good job now. You have it in Chicago as well?
we’ve had it the last couple of years.
HR: And you
also have it in Toronto. I would support it basically.
BD: Let me
ask about a couple more roles that you have recorded. Tell me
about Golaud. What kind of a man is he?
HR: Golaud is a very
tormented man. On one side he’s deeply in love with
Mélisande, but he’s old and he competes naturally with the
younger and more attractive brother, Pelléas. He’s also a
little bit quick in temper and that’s the reason why he kills his
brother. He’s devastated about his activity. It’s a very
interesting role, very, very interesting. It is very difficult to
bring out the drama of that man. He’s very suspicious all the
time. You see the grandiose scene when he holds his son Yniold to
check whether something is going on in the bedroom upstairs.
That’s really great, but it’s very difficult to bring out the drama
because he’s not a bad man, he’s just tormented. He cannot cope
with his desire to kill his brother because he almost killed him
already when they go to the grotto. He almost pushed him down,
and he said, “I cannot do that.” But then his jealousy gets so
strong that it’s beyond his control, and he kills his brother.
Also he wants to know whose child Mélisande is carrying.
child is it? Is there
HR: I don’t
know. I don’t know whether Pelléas and Mélisande
were platonic. I think it was a kind of platonic relationship.
BD: So then
the child would be Golaud’s!
HR: I think
so, but he has doubts about it. You should ask Maerterlinck what
he meant! [Both laugh] But I think probably it’s his child
because probably with Pelléas it was platonic more than
erotic. I also don’t feel in the music that Debussy thought it
was really erotic compulsion which put them together.
Mélisande is half a child, so she doesn’t know what’s happening
to her. Some stagings are very realistic, and others are more
esoteric according to the trans-lucidity of Debussy’s music. It
not totally realistic in the real world. It comes out with the
sets and with the handling of the orchestration. If you play it
energetically, it comes out very, very strong, very Wagnerian. It
was a hate-love of Debussy of Wagner. He wanted to prove that
Wagner was wrong. He was caught in his hate-love, yet some
passages sound exactly like Parsifal.
They are literally in the same key, so that is the problem.
Pelléas then, is one of the great masterworks?
certainly. I’m not a musicologist, but I think that in the first
part of this century there are only three great innovations in music
— Pelléas, Wozzeck, and an opera from a
composer who didn’t write a lot of opera but he innovated, that’s Bluebeard’s Castle by
Bartók. It’s a short opera, as you know, but very
special. These are the three more radical innovations at the
beginning of this century.
BD: Did you
ever sing Bluebeard?
HR: Oh, yes,
BD: On the
stage or in concert?
HR: On stage
and even for television, and in several languages, but not in
Hungarian! I didn’t dare. I sang it in German, in French
and in Italian. The production we did for the Belgian Radio a
long time ago — at least thirty years
— was quite interesting, and it went on all over Europe for
BD: If that’s
being done in the opera house, what else should be done on the bill
we did Falla’s Maese Pedro,
the puppet play, or we did L’Heure
Espagnole, or even L’Enfant
et Les Sortilèges.
BD: Do the
two Ravel operas work well together as an evening?
HR: It’s a
possibility, sure. Sometimes we did it also with Oedipus Rex, and there were nother
combinations we had. Whey did it once with Le Roi David of Honegger, and even
with Jeanne D’Arc au Bûcher,
the other Honegger. There should be a contrast because the
Bartók opera is very gloomy and very mysterious. It’s
almost a written philosophy of doom, so you must have a contrast to
that, something lively.
advice do you have for the young singer today?
HR: Study; be
serious about what you want to do; be patient; don’t ride too far out
too soon; let your personality and your voice mature, and observe what
your forerunners did and continue the tradition.
BD: Are you
optimistic about the future of opera?
certainly, certainly. There are excellent talents around,
beautiful voices, and there is a kind of renaissance of opera going
on. Talking now about the availability of young hopefuls
— naturally, if you teach a lot of students because you
have to have a full load — not all of them will
make a career. But there’s always one or two per generation in
every town who are ready to be promoted to get the possibility to show
BD: As you
approach your 70th birthday, is there any one thing that stands out in
your mind as being surprising that you never thought would happen?
HR: I don’t
believe that I’m 70! I don’t feel like that. But the
calendar says it so, and I have to believe it. Also in the state
of New York, at 70 you have mandatory retirement, so I will retire in
June and take it a bit easy. I may do some lectures. I’ve
been invited by several of the universities to do some lectures or give
a master-course. I also have a lot of notes which have
accumulated during all these years, and maybe I’ll put them together
and they may come out with a little brochure. But there are so
many already around that you must be very careful not to duplicate what
others said already... and maybe better than you can do it. But
if you are very sincere and you honestly try to explain what were the
problems during your long career, it may be helpful for young
people. So I plan to do that.
BD: I look
forward to that very much. I meant to ask you, did you ever sing
here in Chicago?
HR: I was
there once with a company, just after the War, but unfortunately there
was a lot of intrigues. There was somebody who was supposed to
back the whole thing with money, and he withdrew because he got
political aspects. Some of the singers were thought to be ex-Nazi
or ex-Fascist, or something like that, which was not true. So it
was a little bit tug of war between local artists, who were a little
bit worried and displeased that new people were imported from
Europe. So we had to interrupt the season. I think it was
in early ’47. Can you imagine, forty years ago! I cannot
believe it. It was a big experience because at the end of the
season we did Turandot, and I
was also cast to do Athanaël in Thaïs
by Massenet. It was supposed to be a good season. There
were good people there. There was [Marjorie] Lawrence, the two
sisters [Hilde and Anny], [Salvatore] Baccaloni, Ebe Stignani, all
people who were very important at
BD: And it
all fell apart?
HR: They were
all stranded there, so we sailed home after three weeks.
BD: I’m so
sorry that happened to you here.
HR: No, I
still keep a good memory of that time. I was at the very
beginning of my career.
BD: Did you
sing any other Massenet besides Athanaël?
HR: Yes, on
radio I sang Don Quichotte in a concert version. It has some
very, very good moments. If you have a strong personality for Don
Quichotte, I think it’s worth doing it. It was written, if I’m
correct, for Chaliapin, and there was André Pernet in
Paris. He was famous for the part, as was Vanni Marcoux.
There’s a recording of him, which is very impressive.
BD: In a
couple of seasons [1913-14 and 1929-30] we had Vanni Marcoux as Don
Quichotte (among other roles) here in Chicago. [See my article Massenet, Mary Garden, and the Chicago
really? But you’re not that old that you could see that!
BD: Oh, no,
no, no! I see it in the history books.
HR: That was,
by the way, a very good interpretation of the work. It’s too bad
that Ravel didn’t write the whole Don
Quichotte. His three songs for Don Quichotte are so really
genuinely Spanish because he was not only the elegant Frenchman, but by
his parents he was also half-Spaniard. So he would have written a
great Don Quichotte
probably. When he wrote his piece, it was for the film, and he
didn’t even make it. It was Jacques Ibert who was accepted.
He won the competition, and his music was used in the movie.
BD: Tell me
HR: It’s kind
of popular in French-speaking sections. I did one performance in
Geneva, and we did one in Strasbourg, which is a very good opera house
because they have the technical possibilities of a German opera house
because it was built by Siemens. So it was one of the best stages
in France. Naturally now, everything has improved
enormously. We’re talking about the ‘50s and early
‘60s. But now most of the opera houses in France have got a
very good technical equipment. Some were very, very not up to the
technical things, because there was no money after the War. But
things are better and they have done a great job.
BD: Thank you
so much for being a singer! This has been a fascinating hour
talking to you.
HR: Oh, thank
you so much. Thank you for your interest.
© 1987 Bruce Duffie
This conversation was recorded on the telephone on April 26,
1987. Portions were broadcast on WNIB the following month, and
again in 1992 and 1997.
This transcription was made in 2014, and posted on this
at that time. My thanks to British soprano Una
Barry for her help in preparing this website
To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been
transcribed and posted on this website, click here.
Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975
its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001. His
interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since
and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well
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
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.