Vocal  Coach  Janine  Reiss
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


Janine Reiss (b. 1921) is a harpsichordist who specializes in the preparation of international singers for the French repertoire.  Her skill and ideas are in demand by opera houses around the world, and many recordings have also profited from her expertise.  At the bottom of this page is a partial listing of the commercial discs which are (or have been) available.  Among her most visible projects was the film of Don Giovanni directed by Joseph Losey. 

As always, names which are links on this page refer to my interviews elsewhere on this website.

Reiss had been in Chicago before, working with the soloists for large vocal works with the Chicago Symphony, and in July of 1982 she was giving Master Classes to aspiring singers at DePaul University.

She was staying just a few doors away from the studios of WNIB, so I invited her to visit for the interview.  As happened there on several occasions, our conversation was observed by one of the resident cats! 

As we got settled, I asked her if she liked Chicago . . . . . . .

Janine Reiss:    It’s difficult to answer such a question because finally when you go somewhere to work, you haven’t got the time to see anything.  I remember when I was very young, my father used to travel for his job, and every time was coming back from a country, I’d ask him what did he see and how did he like it.  He would say he hadn’t seen anything, and I couldn’t understand why.  Now I understand.  I see my hotel room and the people I work with, and the concert platform.

Bruce Duffie:    I’m afraid we keep you much too busy.

JR:    Well, happily you do!  [She laughs as a cat jumps down from his perch] 

BD:    That is Charlie, and he’s very friendly. 
You’re not allergic, are you?

JR:    No, not at all... and the cats choose you!  [Laughs]

BD:    Charlie loves attention. 

JR:    Ah, bon!
  Yes, you’ll get some attention.  [To the cat]  Voilà, c’est beau chat.  You don’t mind if I speak French?  You don’t?  [Back to the interviewer]  It has been interesting to be here.  The young people I’ve been working with are different, but generally speaking, good.

BD:    Do you find that the young people make as much progress as you hope?

reiss JR:    Yes.  The only thing I’m sorry about is that the time is really too short.  In fact the week is not a week, it’s just five days.  I got here Sunday night and I started Monday morning at 9 AM.  I have got nine females to work with, and it’s just too short.  I’m not accustomed to that kind of short time to devote to every singer.  Generally if I work privately, I give one hour, which is never one hour.  It is always something like eighty minutes for one hour.  So it’s very difficult because I’ve got a lot to do. 

BD:    How long have you been coaching opera singers?

JR:    Oh, God, since always.  I always wanted to be a coach.  I started when I was fourteen.

BD:    How are the singers today compared with the singers you first started
— are they better, more prepared, less prepared?

JR:    They’re more prepared, especially in England and in America.  They are the best singers in the world now because they have understood before the others that to be a good singer you must be a good musician, and you must know a lot of things about many subjects.  Just to know that you have two vocal cords is not enough now to be a good singer.  You must be an actor, you must know how to say a text, you must know how to move on stage, and if you have any idea about the orchestration or the way it has been built by the composer it helps, too.

BD:    So you find that the singers are more knowledgeable today?

JR:    More knowledgeable, and they know what training means.  When I started coaching years ago, they didn’t know that.  They just frizzled.  They had no idea about the style, which is still nowadays the weakness of many singers.

BD:    Is their knowledge of style because they’ve listened to so many recordings?

JR:    Yes, for a good part.  So many times I found myself in front of a singer doing things which obviously were not genuine.  I know they’ve been listening to the Callas recording.  You can tell, you can just hear it!  They haven’t been reading their score properly!

BD:    They’re learning it by rote from the ear rather than from the score?

JR:    Exactly.  Their memory and their ears work more than their eyes.

BD:    So then do they have to unlearn some of the things they have memorized?

JR:    As you know, that is much more difficult than anything else.  They forget the grace notes, and they add coronas because they have heard singers doing so.  Many of the bad traditions come from the singers that they have heard doing that, so they do it automatically.  It doesn’t mean anything.  It hasn’t been written by the composer, and it has been done from years and years ago since the first time by a singer.  For instance, many of the coronas on the high notes come from a singer who sang the part the first time and needed time to go up with the voice to reach the top note.  So it has become a habit, which instead of being called a
bad habit is called the tradition.  It’s more romantic and it sounds better to use that title, but it’s not better.

BD:    Are there any good traditions?

JR:    I think good tradition is the knowledge, just the knowledge; knowing also that you are always the son of somebody.  You have to learn from the great singers and the great conductors, but you have to learn from your score.  Everything is in the score.

BD:    Who did the great singers learn from
the great composers?

JR:    From the great composers, and the composers are always right.  The thing which is very interesting in the life of a coach is to find out that with respect to the text, through different kinds of singers you get different interpretations.  This is just because you deal with different personalities, different sensitivities, and different natures.  It’s always the same score, but always with the same respect for the text it comes out differently.

reiss BD:    So this is the individual genius of the interpreter?

JR:    Absolutely.  That’s amazing.  I’m still in wonder after so many years.

BD:    In some of these master classes, do you ever find a little spark of something that you had never heard before in an aria?  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at left, see my interviews with Ruggero Raimondi, John Macurdy, Kiri te Kanawa, José van Dam, and Lorin Maazel.]

JR:    In the master classes it is very difficult.  First of all the people who come to you in a master class are not absolutely themselves for many reasons.  Most of the time they are too young to have really found their own personality, and to come for the first time in front of somebody they’ve never met before, they are embarrassed.  They feel embarrassed, they feel shy or they don’t feel really free.  They try to do their best, which is not what they should do!  They should try to be themselves where there are mistakes.  It would be easier to work with them if they were introducing themselves as they are really.  They’ve never seen that coach before, they’ve never seen that conductor before and they try to be somebody else than themselves.  To start with that is very difficult.

BD:    Is this good training to be in front of you before they’re in front of a big conductor or another stage director or producer?

JR:    I think so.  It’s the usual way to learn your job.  We coaches are supposed to prepare them to be confronted with conductors and directors.  We’re supposed to help them to read a score and find their own personality.

BD:    Does it ever frustrate you to work with a singer for a long time and know they’re going to go to a conductor who will re-form everything?

JR:    No, not at all.  It’s very funny because very often people have asked me if I’m not frustrated because I’m not a singer or if I’m not frustrated because I’m not a conductor.  I’m not frustrated because after having learned the part with me they go to work with a conductor who maybe will ask them something different.  I’ve never been frustrated for anything.  Maybe this is something I miss, I don’t know, but probably I never thought of that.  I feel fine.  I’m perfectly happy in my job, so probably it helps me from being frustrated from anything.

BD:    Do you find the singers grow for you?

JR:    Yes, yes.

BD:    Do you usually work with one singer on a role over a period of several days or weeks to get that role in shape, rather than just in the master class situation?

JR:    That is generally the way I work.  By the way, that so-called
master class is the first time I do this in Chicago.  I’ve done a lot of things, but having a master class in front of an audience in the afternoon is the way we work here.  In the morning I give private lessons to every one of the nine singers, and in the afternoon they sing in front of an audience.  I correct them and I go on with my coaching in front of the audience.  Time is too short.  Five days with nine singers, we had so much to do.  It’s too short, but I must say it’s nevertheless a very courageous and rewarding experience of De Paul University to do this.  I came last year with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. I was engaged by Solti.  I work a lot with Sir Georg for a lot of things.

BD:    Do you play piano for his rehearsals, also?

JR:    I play piano eventually, but I’m rather his assistant.  I prepare the singers for him, mostly for French operas of course.

BD:    If you’re preparing a singer for Solti, do you gear your preparation toward his temperament, or do you just prepare them in the role and let him take over?

JR:    It’s a very clever question, bravo!  In fact I never prepare a singer for a conductor.  I always prepare a singer for the composer.  I never thought of that before.  You’re the first one to ask me that!  It’s very strange and it’s very interesting.  If a singer is well prepared for the composer, even if the composer is dead three centuries it appears that if the conductor is a great conductor
it happens that you have more or less the same vision of the music, the same ideal of the interpretation.  So it cannot work on such a big difference.  We all come to the same point.  I am so happy in my life I work mostly for great conductors.  I do this job for a long time now, and little by little it always happens in a career that the more you grow the more you happen to be engaged by the best people.  It’s like in jungle, a kind of natural selection.  I have had the privilege to work with Solti, Colin Davis, Pierre Boulez, Karajan, all these people.  [Pauses a moment]  You reminded me of something.  Years ago I was the harpsichordist of the chamber orchestra of the French radio, and David Oistrakh and his son, Igor, came to Paris to make a concert with only Bach’s music.  I was engaged by the chamber orchestra to play harpsichord for the whole concert.  They played the Double Violin Concerto, and Igor played one concerto himself.  They had sent the program and it was very strange.  That’s the only time I saw something like that in a program which was made for two violinists and a chamber music orchestra, in the middle of the program they wanted to play a double sonata for two violins and harpsichord.  I had never met them before, so I worked on the sonata and I made the registrations for harpsichord.  I waited for the day they were arriving in Paris, which was just two days before the concert, so naturally I was so busy working the preparation of that concert that I didn’t even have time to have stage-fright.  When they arrived they rehearsed with the orchestra, and I played the continuo for all the concertos.  Then came the time when we had to rehearse the sonata.  They were in Paris with their interpreter because I don’t speak Russian.  No one spoke Russian in the chamber orchestra.  So we were in a studio, David and Igor, the interpreter and me, and at that very moment, I started to have stage-fright.  I thought, God, why did I accept to play with David and Igor Oistrakh?  I was crazy, I could have said no.  It was ridiculous, and they will find me so, so bad that they will send me home.  I was absolutely sick.  I was absolutely out of my mind.  I was in front of my harpsichord, and the only thing I had to do was to start.  So I started, and every bar I thought they’re going to stop in the next one.  We went to the end of the first movement, and I looked at David and said, So?  He looked at me in a very nice way and he said, So, let’s play the second.  So I started the second, the Adagio, the slow movement.  It was a very, very beautiful movement.  So I played it, and at the end I looked at him and he said, So let’s play the third one.  I thought, Oh God, I get it, I’m so bad that he doesn’t even dare to say anything because if I wasn’t so bad he would tell me.  He would say here it should be a little more ceci, celà, and let’s make a ritenuto, would you change your registration and so on.  So we went to the end of the sonata and I said, So please tell me something.  He said, Of course I’ll tell you something, but first we’ll play the sonata once more from the beginning to the end.  I said, But tell me about the registration.  He said, The registration is okay.  The tempi, the introduction it was very good.  I thought that’s not possible, so I said, Please tell me exactly the truth.  He replied, “This is the truth.  Why are you so nervous?  I just smiled and he looked at me and he said, I know what you mean.  We’ve never met before.  We’ve never made music together, but when somebody new knows how to read the music, it doesn’t need any explanation.  Good music is the same music for every good musician.

BD:    So you were both speaking the same language then, the language of Bach!

JR:    I say this with all the modesty and all the pleasure and all the humility I can.  I work with these towers, these great, great, great musicians, but it was a very good lesson in a way because it was a kind of confirmation of what I had been thinking for such a long time.  It is the same way of reading a score.  Then from that moment you can talk about music, if it is the same way to read the music.  In fact he was right.  If there is such a difference, it’s another world and you never meet.  You never really come to the same point.  It’s another conception so far from the other that even if you try to explain, it won’t come together.  In life, if you don’t love somebody, and they come and say,
Why don’t you love me?  You are so clever and so good-looking and so marvelous and so sensitive...  You can hear that for years and years, but you’ll never love the person.  Explanations don’t help.

BD:    Have you ever worked with the student that you feel would never get to this point?

JR:    Oh, well yes.

BD:    What do you tell that student?

JR:    It’s a rule in my life, which costs me a lot.  In every part of my life, private or professional, I tell the truth no matter what.

BD:    So if you’ve been working with them and you don’t see any kind of progress, you tell them they should do something else?

JR:    Yes, do something else.  It is very hard and it is very cruel, but I think it’s a must.  There are so many crimes committed under the pretext of making money.  Actually a teacher is a teacher, and you’re supposed to earn a living by taking money from the people who come.  These young people who start a career make so many sacrifices.  I’ve known so many young singers washing-up cars during the night, or ...

BD:    Let me turn it around.  Are there some singers who really should make it, who have the talent and the drive and the ambition, but don’t because just they haven’t gotten the right break, or haven’t been in the right place at the right time?

JR:    That does exist, too, but in my experience now that doesn’t exist as much as the other.  I just had dinner with my nine students and they wanted to talk a little bit out of the sessions.  One of them said,
Do you think there is a chance for American singers to find engagements?  I answered right away, There is a chance everywhere for anybody who is talented, and I do believe that.  When I started years and years ago, I heard the contrary many times.  You needed to meet the right people; you needed to be lucky; you needed to have a relationship; you needed to have money.  All that is not true!  Now, for all that I have seen, after all my experience, I know it’s not true.

BD:    It seems like many singers spend ten or twelve or fifteen years to become the overnight sensation.

JR:    I think that’s mad.  You need talent and an enormous amount of courage, courage, courage.  As long as I remember, I had been working twelve hours a day, not to get anywhere or not to get anything, just to get something right.

BD:    Do you ever just go to the opera and enjoy a performance yourself?

JR:    All the time.  Every chance I get.

BD:    Are you a good audience, or are you thinking maybe they should do this or that?

JR:    I am a very good audience, and I’ll even tell you something else.  When I have coached a singer I go to the first night.  This happens all the time because if I’m engaged by a theater, generally my contract starts one month or six weeks before and goes through the opening night.  I beg you to believe me because I have felt this so many times that I know it’s true.  I sit in the audience, and I have been working with the whole cast, so if in the cast a singer is good, I forget completely that I have been working with him.  And I think,
God!  He does that so well.  That’s so good.  He’s really great.  And if he’s not good, immediately, I remember I’ve been working with that singer, and I think, God, I haven’t been able to explain to him how it should be done! and I feel guilty.

BD:    So you feel guilty for things that don’t go right, but things that do go right...

JR:    I just enjoy it.

BD:    Do you ever go back to the fifth or tenth performance, or a performance of something that you hadn’t worked on with any of the singers, just to see how it goes?

JR:    Oh, oui, lots of times, because when you stay five or six weeks in a theater, a theater is running every night.  So if I’m not dead, as I am often every night I’m free, I go.  There is always something to learn.

BD:    Is there something to learn even from a bad performance?

JR:    Yes, even from bad performance.

BD:    Is there something to learn even from a perfect performance?

JR:    Probably... especially then!  [Both laugh]  But a good performance is really a real miracle made of a mixture of courage, work, talent, and sweat.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    I want to ask you about the French style.  You have this in your blood.  Do American singers or German singers or English singers or Japanese singers really understand the French style?

reiss JR:    Well, Japanese, German, American, English, Italian, they all are different.  But what I can tell you undoubtedly is that generally speaking the singers with whom I get the best result are the Anglo-Americans for many reasons.  First of all there is the training.  They know what is hard work.  The first time I had the opportunity to work with Anglo-Saxon singers, I understood that the best singers had been trained like sportsmen.  They realize that the singer is not only a pair of vocal cords. 

BD:    It’s more disciplined than that?

JR:    Yes, more disciplined.  They have a body, they have a brain, they have a soul, and all that has got to be used for their art.

BD:    There’s a special heart, a special soul of French music when it’s performed by the great French singers.  Can that be duplicated by the Italian singers or the American singers?

JR:    Strangely enough, especially by the Italian.  The Italians are our neighbors and we have the same kind of culture.  We’ve got the same kind of cities, the same kind of history, the same kind of past, the same kind of background.  Probably because of that, they take it for granted, and when they work French repertory
as well as when the French singers work on Italian repertorythey don’t think it necessary to make a special effort to get the feeling, to be in the mood.  They think they’ve got that in their blood, which is not true.

BD:    So they don’t put enough effort into it?

JR:    They don’t put enough effort into it.  When an American singer comes to you, he knows that he knows nothing.  Even if he knows a lot he thinks he knows nothing, and so he comes with an open heart, open mind, open hands.

BD:    He is more receptive?

JR:    More receptive, and they bring humility.  I’ve seen that so many times.  Every time I go to the Met, which is two or three times a year, not only do I work with the people who are engaged by the Met, but immediately like the tamtam in the desert, they know I am at the Met and they run from everywhere.  They ask for private coaching.  Young students or young artists, most of them have made their debut already.  They come and they say they know nothing about French style.  So it’s a good start.  From the moment you know nothing, you’re ready to know everything.

BD:    How do you then go about teaching them French style?

JR:    I start by the study of the language.  There is a terrible bad tradition about the French itself.  The way it is taught in college by French teachers is in a very tight, very closed way, which is very bad for the voice.  There are two ways to use the French, and if you sing in French the way you speak French, it’s very bad for the voice. Strangely, now one of the main reasons we haven’t got so many good French singers is because they use their own language, and they don’t have enough distance where their mother language is what they are singing.  So all the defects they have in their language they use in the singing, for instance, nasal sounds.  You should never sing any nasal sounds, never, really with the nose closed and the sound in the nose, which is the typical nasal sound.  So if you sing in French, you must open the nasal sound.  Otherwise it doesn’t come out.

BD:    What do you say to the critic who sits in the audience and says it’s not a very authentic French sound?

JR:    They don’t realize if it’s well done!  On the contrary, if you sing the way you speak, they don’t get the words at all because it’s so closed in the nose, and it stays inside.

BD:    It is produced too far back in the throat?

JR:    Too far back in the throat, and this is the main defect of the bad French singers.  I have been fighting many, many times in my life against bad use of the French by foreigners who have been listening to bad French singers and try to imitate them.  In a way they’re right because they think they have good masters.  They are French, they know how to use the French, and so I’m going to listen to the records, and do exactly the same.

BD:    Who are some of the French singers people should listen to?

JR:    Gabriel Bacquier, for example.  He’s a good one to listen to.  Also Christiane Eda-Pierre and Mady Mesplé.  We haven’t got so many good tenors.  We have a very, very restricted amount of good French singers, and that is just because they don’t know really how to use the language.  I’m absolutely persuaded of that.  They close the nasal.  There are some words which are very, very dangerous for the voice, words like ‘Dieu’, God.  If you sing ‘Mon Dieu’ as ‘Mon Deoo’, the voice doesn’t come out.  So you’ve got to make a compromise, and sing ‘Mon Dier’.  Then it comes out like ‘Mon Dieu’ finally because when the voice comes around the word, it’s okay.  You hear ‘Mon Dieu’.  Otherwise you just hear ‘Mon Deoo’, and nothing comes out.  I made them laugh many times this way because I say they sound too French!  It’s not good.  It’s not French, it’s too French!  So you asked me about that, and that is how I start.  I really try to open the language, to make it understandable as much as I can, though I know, as everybody knows, that you lose already a few words from a singer because when he goes to the top of the voice you can’t understand a singer as well as an actor.  But still you can understand a singer if the voice is well projected, if it carries away so the voice carries the words out.


Mady Mesplé has a cousin in Chicago named James Mesplé who is a widely-respected painter.
Many of his paintings are of musical themes, or feature musical instruments.
To see a few of his works, click HERE.

BD:    Do you help singers with projection, or do you just help them with singing in style and roles?

JR:    Everything.  A coach is a kind of mixture of everything.

BD:    How much do you actually get into vocal technique?

JR:    Yes, I go very far with vocal technique.  I don’t think you can be a good coach if you haven’t got any idea of the vocal technique.  You must be able to help a singer, even with some technical help.  If you hear a sound which is flat, for instance, it very rarely is that you can’t sing a note.  If that’s the right note just a little under pitch, it’s a technical reason.  So you must be able to help the singer by saying,
You put it in the nose, or, “You darken your voice, or, “You should put more head resonance in it. 

BD:    Do you tell them to
‘sing in the mask’?  That’s another illusion I’ve heard.

JR:    The mask is, in my opinion, one of the expressions which has been the most dreadful for the singers.  We have used this expression a lot in France and it’s very dangerous.  In fact there isn’t another place to sing than the mask, but the mask means all the face, and very often when you say that in France, the result you get is to sing in the nose.

BD:    And as you have just told me, that you should try to stay away from!

JR:    Voilà!  [Both laugh]

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    You are here coaching young singers.  I assume you also work with well-known singers?

JR:    Oh, I work practically only with well-known singers.  It’s rather rare when I work with debutante.

reiss BD:    Are most of the well-known singers receptive to your kind of coaching?

JR:    Only receptive!  The well-known singers, the stars, really deserve to be stars, so it means that they have done all that they could to become a star.  Here again, I don’t believe in money, I don’t believe in publicity.  It helps a little bit maybe, but when you’re on stage you can have had the best publicity, the best help, the best public relations in the press and all that, and still get nothing.

BD:    It means nothing if the material isn’t there.

JR:    Yes.  Five days ago I was in Toulouse for a recording of Manon by Massenet.

BD:    [Eagerly]  With Plasson?

JR:    Exactly! 

BD:    He was here to conduct Samson and Delilah and I had a nice conversation with him.

JR:    He’s a very, very nice man, and a very good musician.  We work often together and we get along very well together.  So I went to Toulouse for a recording of Manon with Ileana Cotrubas and Alfredo Kraus, and Van Dam was the Father.  Lescaut was Gino Quilico, the son of Louis Quilico.  Gino is a light baritone. 

BD:    We should get Gino Quilico and André Jobin together to do a recording since both are sons of great singers.

JR:    [Laughs]  That would be a good idea, yes!  He’s starting the career, but quite well.  He has a good voice.

BD:    Cotrubas is Romanian.  How’s her French?

JR:    I work often with Cotrubas and her French is perfect.  She speaks good French with a little accent, but every time she has ten words to sing in French, she comes and works.   I have known Cotrubas singing Traviata at La Scala every three years, and between the performances, jumping in a plane, coming to Paris where I was, to work for Louise, to work for Manon, to work for Shéhérezade, to work for anything.  Though her French is very, very good, she never does anything without working very hard, even if it’s not the first time she sings the part.  Even though now she has worked with the Manon very carefully and done the recording and everything, if she does it again she’ll come back and work!  She has been singing Manon at the Paris Opera, and the first time she sang it she worked with me maybe three weeks.  And after she sang it, when she made the revival, she called me from where she was and she said,
What do you think exactly about the Manon I sang last year?  I said, I think it was good, but it wasn’t perfect, especially the first act.  You didn’t sound as a very young, girlish Manon, and I think you can improve immensely the first part of your role.  Then she came back before the revival and worked so hard.  She got exactly what she wanted, and one month ago, before the recording, she came to Paris and spent ten days, and we worked again on the part as if it had been the first time.  [To read what Cotrubas herself said (in a different article) about working with Janine Reiss, click HERE.]

BD:    That’s the sign of a real artist.

JR:    A real pro, as you say.

BD:    Are most singers like that?

JR:    Many... at least all the great singers I know.  I worked regularly with Ricciarelli, Raimondi, Domingo, and I know Kiri te Kanawa, and they work very hard all the time.  Strangely enough, because I work with the most well-known singers of our time, I had never met Alfredo Kraus.

BD:    He is just marvelous.

JR:    Absolutely marvelous!

BD:    We’ve been so lucky here in Chicago.  He has given us so many wonderful parts.

JR:    When he knew I was going to Chicago, he said,
Ah, give my love to Chicago!  He really is a Monsieur, a gentleman.  So we had never met before, and the artistic director of Pathé Marconi, whom I know very well because I work a lot for them, said, I don’t know which kind of relationship you’ll have with Alfredo Kraus because I think he knows Des Grieux very well.  I don’t think he’ll accept easily criticism or anything like that.  I said, I’ve never met at great singer who has refused to listen to what I said because I never say anything nasty or just for the pleasure of bring critical.  I always say something that has to be said.  So I would be surprised if Alfredo Kraus wouldn’t be like that, but we shall see.

BD:    How did it turn out?

JR:    So I got there.  He had no idea who I was because we had never met before, and obviously never heard my name before.  We started working and I played the piano for Plasson, and then I said I had the whole afternoon to work with the singers.  I didn’t ask him to come.  I thought he knows Des Grieux, so what I must do is listen to what he does.  I won’t tell this Grand Seigneur to come to a lesson.  Ileana came and Gino Quilico came.  There were the three girls who were very good for Poussette, Javotte and Rosette, and Charles Burles, tenor, was Guillot, so it was a very, very good cast.  The next day we started rehearsal with everybody, and I heard Kraus make a few mistakes in the French, and one or two breaths which were not very good, and one or two things which could have been better about feeling, expression and things like that.  So I went to him and I said,
Would you allow me to tell you something? and he said, Certainly!  Anything you want!  So I said, I think here is not spontaneous enough.  It’s the first time you meet Manon, and it’s a little bit too operatic.  You’re not a singer, you’re just a man, a young man meeting a beautiful girl for the first time.  He said, Yes, you’re right, thank you!  And this is the way it started.  I was careful and cautious of what I was saying every time, and every time we went up to listen to the playbacks he said, Are you pleased with that?  Is it okay?  Is the French good?”  When we finished the recording, he came to me with his score and said, Would you write me a few words on my score? 

BD:    So he would check things with you during the sessions?

JR:    Absolutely, and I wasn’t surprised.  I would have been surprised of the contrary.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Let me ask about Jean-Baptiste Lully.  Does his music speak to us today?

JR:    To us, I don’t know; to me, certainly.  It’s a very controversial question if there be music of a certain period speak to us today.  It depends on so many things
the way it’s interpreted, the way it’s received by the audience, the way it’s used by the musicians.  Lully is such a transparent and genuine music, it should speak to everybody today.

reiss BD:    I just wondered because he was writing for such a certain prescribed fashion, and if that fashion is now not used at all, is his music lost?

JR:    I wondered sometimes.  I thought sometimes if Bach was not so popular, maybe Lully would be more.

BD:    Really?  Our craving for that style is satisfied by Bach, so we don’t enough to Lully?

JR:    I think so.  I don’t know, maybe I’m totally wrong.  God knows I admire Bach and I need Bach, and being a harpsichordist I play Bach.  Just a musician like me can’t deny the incredible impact of Bach over the music of all time.  But I think also that Bach has been forever established as a genius, as a must.  It satisfies in the same time musicians and snobbish people, the people who know something about music, the people who know nothing about music.  It takes a great deal of the audience, and I think maybe it projects a kind of shadow on a musician like Lully.

BD:    What can I tell an audience today about Lully to get them more into his music?

JR:    Hmmm... I don’t know.  Maybe nothing or many things.  Maybe before anything else, listen to Lully without any preconceived idea.  Let them come to the tune, which is very beautiful.

BD:    Let the music waft over them?

JR:    Yes.

BD:    That’s the same advice I give people for Debussy.

JR:    Why not?  Why not? 

BD:    Is there a direct connection between Lully and Debussy, or is it just an ancestral connection?

JR:    I don’t think there is a connection between Lully and Debussy.

BD:    I just wondered since I give people the same advice for both composers.

JR:    I think it should be the same advice.  I remember when I was very, very young I trained to be a professional musician.  I started to play piano when I was five, and at fourteen or fifteen I had already studied harmony, counterpoint and all that, because I wasn’t doing anything other than music!  But when I came to Debussy, I hated Debussy.  I was about thirteen or fourteen and I just hated Debussy.  I couldn’t bear it.

BD:    The piano music or also the orchestral pieces?

reiss JR:    Everything, everything!  And above all Pelléas et Mélisande, which now, if I had to choose only one opera, I would take that one.  Before I started coaching Pelléas et Mélisande and working on it for recording or anything like that, I was almost reluctant because I knew I was going to suffer, and nobody likes to suffer.  So I’m very much conscious of that.  It’s a kind of reluctance even on my flesh, on my body because I love that work so much that it’s a kind of ‘sofferenza’.

BD:    How did you get from your first opinion to your current love for this work?  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at right, see my interviews with Mirella Freni, and Neil Shicoff.]

JR:    At fourteen or fifteen when I listened to Debussy for the first time, I didn’t see the shape on which I had been trained as a musician.  I couldn’t tell that.  The famous music of Le Poire by Satie was a good answer to the trained musician [referring to the work Three Pieces in the form of a Pear, which satirized the Impressionistic style of Debussy].  He said,
I’m going to write the music in the form of Le Poire.  I don’t give a damn about your form, the sonata form, the Lied form, the ballade.  I’m going to write like the form Le Poire.  Why not!  So probably I was irritated, because I was very stupid, by the fact that Debussy didn’t seem to have a shape, a form.

BD:    He was something so completely new?

JR:    Something so completely new, and so completely free.  It escaped.  It seemed to escape any kind of discipline.  I couldn’t describe it.  I couldn’t classify that music.  I wonder if that is not why I preferred Bach or Mozart or Lully, because it was exactly the reverse. 

BD:    Everything is prescribed?

JR:    Exactly!  But I understood suddenly one Sunday afternoon.  I was brought by the friend of mine to a concert where Paul Paray was conducting Pelléas et Mélisande.  We were students in the same music school, and he said,
You must come with me.  We must go to this.  I said, Please, please, please, not Pelléas et Mélisande.  I can’t bear that.  But he said, You must come, you must come!  Open your heart, open your ears, and don’t try to understand.  You want to understand everything!  There are things which mustn’t be understood but just felt, just smelled.  Just let yourself go.  And I had a kind of revelation.  Suddenly I was struck dumb and I couldn’t move.  When the concert was finished my friend shook me and said, Let’s go out.  It’s finished.  And I couldn’t move.  I was in tears, and I was absolutely fini, fini pour tous la vie [my life was finished].  Probably that day I didn’t bring my knowledge, which was just nothing.  What did I know when I was fifteen?  Nothing!  Even now I know nothing, probably.  I think I know a few things, but what do you know in a lifetime, even if you work all your life?  You just know enough to know that you know nothing.  C’est vrai où non?  [That is true or not?]

BD:    C’est vrai!  My mother used to tell me that when you go to college you don’t learn anything, but you learn how to find it.

JR:    Exactly!  It’s exactly that.

BD:    Here in Chicago in 1972, Lyric Opera did both Pelléas and Wozzeck.  I love both of those operas, but I could understand why people were walking out of Wozzeck.  I didn’t want them to walk out, but I understood this.  But there were just as many walking out of Pelléas as were walking out of Wozzeck, and that I could not understand!

JR:    I can’t either.  I have been twice or three times to the Metropolitan Opera for Pelléas, and every time when the opera starts, the house is full.  At the first interval, a third or a quarter of the audience goes out and doesn’t come back.  Generally the end of Pelléas is given in front of half an audience, and when it’s half, it’s not too bad.  I don’t know.  Maybe Pelléas is too special for everyone.

BD:    Does Pelléas work in translation?

JR:    It’s a terrible question because for me nothing works in translation, nothing, nothing, nothing!  Because when I hear it in translations, I don’t hear the music anymore.  That’s terrible.

BD:    Should Don Carlo (of Verdi) be done in French?

JR:    It’s the original.  I’m working now precisely on the French because I’m going to assist Abbado for a recording of Don Carlo in French.  [This recording includes material that had been recently found by Andrew Porter.]

BD:    What about Vespri, Les Vêpres?

JR:    Verdi knew exactly how to use the French language, so there’s no problem.  It has been meant for French.  But when you hear Carmen in Japanese, as I had the opportunity to hear it, you don’t hear the music.  It doesn’t come.  For me, when any opera is translated I don’t hear the music anymore.  It’s a disease of the mind.

BD:    Is there any point, then, in doing translations?

JR:    I think no.  It’s an eternal discussion, an argument about that.  There are so many people who are for, and so many people who are against.  Last year when I was in New York I went to the City Opera and heard  Le Nozze di Figaro in English.  I didn’t know I was listening to Le Nozze di Figaro.  Tell me really, for a story, a libretto like Le Nozze di Figaro do you really think that people need to understand every word?  Anyway they don’t get every word, even if it’s their own language.

BD:    Here in Chicago, we have the best of both worlds.  We have Lyric Opera where everything is done in the original, and then we have one or two small companies which do everything in translation. 

JR:    [Briefly turning the tables]  What is your personal opinion about this?

BD:    I like them both, but I freely admit that I’m greedy!

JR:    That’s a very interesting point of view.  It’s a barrier between music and me.  It’s a very strange.

BD:    Some translations work better than others.  I’ve heard translations which were just horrendous, but sometimes the translations are very, very good, and when they’re good, it doesn’t interrupt the flow of the line very often.  You hear the words and they seem to fit the mold pretty closely.  The fact that you’re getting all of the words and hearing the nuances, the gestures then don’t have to be so big, particularly in the comedies.  In a comedy, if you’re doing it in Italian or in French in America, it seems like the gestures have to be so big that it’s almost a slap-stick or a burlesque.  Whereas if it’s in English, it can be more subtle.

JR:    Yes, probably you’re right.  It’s just about the music.  For instance, Pelléas in English.  Pelléas is probably the most typical French opera.  It’s so special.  Something very interesting is you can’t make a Pelléas.  If you work with a singer on the part of Pelléas
and much of the part of Mélisandeif he hasn’t got the imagination and the behavior of a Pelléas in himself, you never make it.

BD:    Does it matter if it’s a tenor or a baritone?

reiss JR:    No.  It matters just if you can reach the high notes.  If you can’t, you shouldn’t sing the part.  But he’s got to have a natural genuine poetry, part of dream, a real distinction; something raffiné [refined].  That’s something you can’t teach.  That’s something you can’t give.  That’s something you can’t bring to somebody.

BD:    Is Pelléas a similar kind of character to Werther?

JR:    Yes, there can be something in common, but I don’t exactly think Pelléas is a romantic hero.  Werther is really a typical romantic hero of the nineteenth century literature, but Pelléas is a man of all times.  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at right, see my interview with Nadine Denize.]

BD:    Would Pelléas work by moving the setting, for instance if a director wanted to play it in 1982?

JR:    Oh, yes!  For me, yes, because I’m sure that nowadays you can meet a Pelléas, a man who is genuine.  I would love to make a rapport, or  a comparison between him and Parsifal, rather than between Pelléas and Werther.  Pelléas is really true and Mélisande is not.

BD:    Is Mélisande deceitful, or is she stupid?

JR:    No, she a liar.  She is deceitful, and she struggles for life.  It’s not a judgment because I love Mélisande.  It’s just an observation.  She’s different in front of different people.  She has a different behavior.  She’s one type of woman for Golaud, and another kind of woman for Arkel, and yet another type for Pelléas.  The two best Mélisandes I’ve seen
— this is just my opinion and I’ve worked with bothare Teresa Stratas and Ileana Cotrubas.  Both of them give all different dimensions of that woman, who is a real woman. That’s to say they envelope everythingbeing a liar and being a true person.

BD:    Is it difficult to play these faces onstage, to change so completely within the context of one work?

JR:    That’s always difficult for every part, especially to project it as far it goes to the listener, to the spectator.  But if it comes really from the bottom of your heart, then it carries on very well.  You can see that, you can hear that in the different colors of the voice and in the way you pronounce certain words.  You use different kind of diction for different kind of reactions.  If I coach a Mélisande, I suggest to her to have a different kind of pronunciation if she talks to Golaud or if she talks to Arkel or to Pelléas.  I think we all are like that a little bit.  If you see somebody for the first time, you don’t behave, you don’t speak, you don’t act the same way that you do for somebody you’re known forever or somebody who’s intimate.  There are very few people who are natural who are really as they are.

BD:    Does her outward attitude change from the first moment she meets Golaud throughout the opera, or is it the same?

JR:    Oh no, because when she meets Golaud, she is frightened to death.  It’s a well-known fact that she has been one of the wives of Bluebeard.

BD:    She escaped?

JR:    She escaped, and obviously she has been raped by Bluebeard because she didn’t want belong to him.  She’s been raped, and from that rape comes her terrible anxiety, her terrible fear for men. 
Ne me touchez pas; ne me touchez pas!  [Do not touch me!]  Why ne me touchez pas?  Obviously Golaud is a very good man.  Even if you meet Golaud in a forest, you mustn’t be afraid of him.

BD:    So is Golaud a victim of Mélisande?

JR:    Oh, absolutely.  More or less everybody’s a victim of Mélisande!  She manipulates the puppets.  I think so, and I argue every time with the conductors or the directors who try to make Mélisande a pure, innocent girl who just goes through the whole thing without being responsible for anything.

BD:    She is in control?

JR:    She is in control!  To me she is in control, and I think if you can get that, it makes the part much more interesting, and it changes the lighting of the whole thing. 

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Who are the French composers of today that are worth listening to?

JR:    Pierre Boulez, anyway.  He really is ‘le chef du file’ [the head of the queue].  Also Betsy Jolas.  She is a very well-known French composer.  She comes regularly to Tanglewood here in the U.S.

reiss BD:    Plasson mentioned Serge Nigg.

JR:    [Ponders a moment]  I’m really looking for what I consider serious composers who will stay.  Serge Nigg is one of them.

BD:    Is there a line from Lully through half a dozen other composers, to Massenet, to Charpentier, to Boulez?

JR:    I’m afraid I don’t think there is a line from Lully.  That’s very strange.  For the others, yes.  There is a line, not a direct line but there is something in common between Massenet, Charpentier, Rousseau, Bizet, Saint-Saëns, Roussel, Pierne, more or less.

BD:    Ducasse?  [At this point I got a lesson in exact pronunciation.  I had said doo-KASS, but meant Paul Dukas.]

JR:    Ducasse, more or less.  Roger Ducasse [doo-KASS] and Paul Dukas [doo-KAH].

BD:    [Very grateful for this instruction]  I see... Pourquoi?  [Why?]

JR:    C’est la question que n'est jamais fait.  [This is a question which is never asked!]  [Both burst out laughing]  If you say ‘pourquoi’ to a French, ‘le pays de la logique’ [the country of logic], he will reply,
Il est pêchu!  [It’s peachy!]  [More laughter]  Generally when an ‘s’ comes after an ‘a’, it darkens the ‘a’.  I’ll give an example.  In the old French, an hôtel was an hostelerie [hostelry], and it has become hôtel.

BD:    [Since we were speaking and not writing]  With a circumflex?

JR:    With a circumflex, which means that the ‘o’ is darkened.  Instead of ‘hôtel’ [pronounced like hot] it’s ‘hôtel’ [pronounced like note], and the ‘s’ disappeared.  So for Paul Dukas, it’s not Dukas [pronounced like cat] but Dukas [pronounced like car] because of the ‘s’ which remains, but it’s the old spelling of the name.  For a name it’s rare that the spelling changes.  [Returning to the topic]  Lully, Marc-Antoine Charpentier, Rameau, Couperin, all the composers of that time, more or less, could be classified together.  After that, there really seems to be another school.

BD:    A complete break?

JR:    A complete break.

BD:    Who starts the next school?  You can’t jump all the way to Bizet and then Massenet, can you?

JR:    There were minor composers like Grétry.

BD:    [Gently protesting]  But he’s Belgian!

JR:    [Laughs]  Yes, but it’s more as the French culture.  There were minor composers, but there’s a kind of hole, a gap.

BD:    Is that because there were political upheavals at the time?

JR:    That’s very difficult to say.  One has to go really deeply into history where you get many financial difficulties, difficulties of traveling, wars, lack of culture, lack of communication between the different chapels...

BD:    But it seems like you’re setting aside the time of the last few Louis’s.

JR:    Yes.

BD:    And then a break?

JR:    Yes, then a break.  But look what happened in England after Purcell. 

BD:    Sure, it was exactly the same thing.

JR:    And the gap was much bigger.

BD:    To Vaughan Williams, really.

JR:    To Vaughan Williams, exactly.  Almost Britten!  It’s incredible.  Purcell still nowadays is one of the greatest composers of all time.

reiss BD:    Is Purcell the same school as Lully?

JR:    Yes, with I think more genuine inspiration than Lully. 

BD:    [Surprised]  Really???

JR:    To me, Purcell is greater than Lully.

BD:    Who are the Italians at that same time?  Vivaldi?

JR:    Yes, Vivaldi, Gabrieli, Cavalli.  Cavalli was before Vivaldi...

BD:    Cavalli goes more with Monteverdi.

JR:    Yes, more with Monteverdi, but I going to add Rossi.  Rossi was really a very rare composer.  One day somebody will come who will reveal the music of Rossi and Caldara.

BD:    Should we be doing those operas today?  Should the Paris Opera, the Met, Chicago be doing Lully, Grétry, Purcell, Caldara?

JR:    If you talk about opera houses, there are so many elements which are in favor of choosing one composer rather than another.  It has to be taken under consideration how the public is going to take it, or how it’s going to be produced, who is going to be the director, which kind of mise en scène [scenic design, or visual theme] you’ll get because in an opera house, it’s not only the music which is important, it’s the visual too.  The visualization of an opera, especially nowadays, is more important than the music itself.

BD:    Is that a good development?

JR:    It’s a reaction against the previous time in which only music was exhilarated and nothing else.  Think of a time which is not so far from us, where people used to go the opera house and have supper in their boxes with the curtains closed.  They just opened the curtains for the high C of the tenor or the high E of the soprano, and then closed the curtain and went back to their supper.

BD:    Is it like today listening to the radio during dinner?

JR:    More or less.  When you read the Italian Chronicles by Stendhal, La Scala in the nineteenth century was exactly like that, and it was like that in France, too.  So why would we have to ask the singers to be actors, to rehearse with their colleagues or rehearse with the conductor?  The conductor was just a kind of servant.  It’s a well-known fact that, for instance, when ‘La Patti’ used to go a city to sing an opera, she was traveling with her maid, her hairdresser, her valet, and all that.

BD:    And her lover!

JR:    Bien sûr [of course]!  It was very important to have un bon ami [a good friend].  Then she used to send her cadenza to the conductor by her maid, and she was never going to the theater to rehearse.  She was not interested in mise en scène because there was no mise en scène.  Why would there be one when the spectators were not interested?

BD:    Not even for the people on the main floor?

JR:    A little bit more than the people in the boxes, but still a singer at that time was not judged, or very rarely judged for acting.  We keep the memory of a few singers who were really actors.  It’s known that Malibran was a very good actress and that Pauline Viardot was a very good actress, but Patti was just a singer.  It is not restrictive to say that, but she was a singer.  She had a beautiful technique, a beautiful voice, and she just sang.  I have been the head of the musical staff for seven years at the Paris Opera under [Rolf] Lieberman, and many times during a meeting discussing the coming season, I heard Lieberman say that s
omething, “Would be a good thing, that it would be a good idea, but who’s going to be the director?  Probably if I give (one director) that opera he’ll do something all too modern or too avant-garde and it won’t help you to hear the music.  But if I give it to (a different director), he’ll make something too conventional so it will sound even more old-fashioned, so it won’t work.  So no, let’s do something else!

reiss BD:    [Laughs]  It was too much of a dilemma?

JR:    Too much of a dilemma!  So you see, it proves that an opera in an opera house nowadays is not chosen uniquely only for the music.  There are a lot of elements which come in the balance.

BD:    If you had sole control of the opera house and you could tell the director how to direct and the singers how to sing and the audience how to react, would you then do Lully?

JR:    Sure, many things by Lully.  I’m sure that even nowadays Lully could be a very popular musician, very, very attractive musician, but I don’t think that it should be avant-garde.  I think it should really come back to Lully’s time, and we should go back to the source of his inspiration, too.

BD:    So should we do it the way he would have seen it?

JR:    No, no.

BD:    We should use the modern stage techniques?

JR:    Yes, absolutely, but not send them on the moon being astronauts or anything like that.  I don’t believe in that form of theater.  I’ve seen that too many times, and if you go too far in that direction, it just means that you deal with a director who projects his own fantasy on the work.  On the other hand it was necessary to make the theater move forward, and that was one of the very good things Lieberman brought to the Paris Opera.  He brought people like Jorge Lavelli, and especially above anybody else, Chéreau who is really a genius.

BD:    Did you see his Ring in Bayreuth?  [On the page with my Interview with Boulez, there is a photo of  the two of them together.]

JR:    I didn’t unfortunately.  I was never free to go.

BD:    How do the French react to Wagner?  Do the French like Wagner?

JR:    Oh, very much.  It’s a must to like Wagner anyway.  When you said
the French’ or when you say an audience’, I always have to think which kind of audience, and what does audience mean.  So often in my life I have been in a concert hall or in an opera house listening to music and never doing, but immediately after when the light comes back, when it’s the interval, I am looking at the people around me and thinking that I got such and such things, but what did they get?  I’m sure that the language you get through the music being a musician is not the same that just an ordinary music lover gets.

BD:    But musicians shouldn’t perform music just for other musicians?

JR:    Absolutely not!  It would be the biggest mistake.  When I make a recital, just after or just before I have that marvelous feeling of maybe being useful and have a justification or something of an art, which something can seem futile.  I have the justification of all my life when I think I have brought something to an audience which is not made of musicians.  I have brought something probably they need because they came to look for that.  It is something they can’t get themselves because they are not able to play or sing or to make music by themselves, so they come to take what we are ready to give them.  But I’m sure on the other hand that they don’t get the whole thing, the whole message.

BD:    But their hearts must be touched!

JR:    They are, and I say they are, but they don’t listen exactly as we do, and they don’t hear exactly the same music that we hear.  It’s not a pity.  It doesn’t matter.  It’s just how it is.

BD:    Is that because the music itself exists on so many levels?

JR:    Yes, I think so.  I don’t think finally it’s only valuable for me.  If you read a book and I read the same book, maybe we won’t get the same things.  We’re both readers and it doesn’t matter.  We’ll get maybe what we look for, or what our imagination shows us.

BD:    Have recordings spoiled the expectations of today’s audiences.

JR:    Yes and no.  They have spoiled the expectation of today’s audience, but they have helped them to come to performances and to come to knowledge and to become more and more demanding, more and more exigent.  So that’s a good thing.  It has also helped the singers and other the musicians to try to be better and better because they try to look like their recordings.  They try more and more to be perfect because they know that, through the recordings, the audience has come to knowledge that didn’t exist before.  But every weapon has a double edge, because nowadays audiences have become so cruel and so unfair to artists.

BD:    It seems that they’re looking for mistakes.

JR:    It is terrible.  Because of my job at the Paris Opera, every evening I am in my seat when I am not rehearsing in the studio.  But when you have been working with people for a month or five or six weeks, on the first night you realize that these artists are being judged just like that in five minutes by people just because they have paid for their seat.  Sometimes they destroy an artist just because they ‘boo’, and it’s so cruel and so unfair.  There’s something I could never bear, never admit, never, never.

BD:    Are you optimistic about the future of opera?

JR:    I am not optimistic about the future of our society, of our world.  But if our world goes on, as I do hope from the bottom of my heart, I’m very optimistic about the future of all art, because I think that more and more it’s a need for human beings.  If nuclear weapons are not stronger than we are, music will live forever as long as the human race survives.

BD:    Then we start getting into politics, and that area I try to stay away from.

JR:    So do I, but we’re surrounded by fear and menace.  We seem to be voiceless.

BD:    Thank you for coming to Chicago.

JR:    Mais non, thank you!  I can tell you love the opera because you know so much about it.



To read my Interview with John Aler, click HERE.


To read my Interviews with Jennifer Larmore, click HERE.

To read my Interview with Thomas Moser, click HERE.

To read my Interview with Giuseppe Sinopoli, click HERE.


To read my Interview with Jon Vickers, click HERE.

To read my Interview with Ryland Davies, click HERE.

To read my Interview with Anne Howells, click HERE.


To read my Interview with Jesús López-Cobos, click HERE.


To read my Interview with Sutherland and Bonynge, click HERE.

To read my Interviews with Sherrill Milnes, click HERE.

To read my Interviews with Nicolai Ghiaurov, click HERE.

==  ==  ==  ==  ==

From the box at left, there are two other names which
have been my Interview guests...

Tatiana Troyanos, HERE
Thomas Hampson, HERE

© 1982 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in the studios of WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago on July 21, 1982.  A few quotes were used in Opera Scene magazine the following November.  Portions were broadcast (along with recordings) on WNIB in 1988, 1990 and 1996.  A copy of the unedited audio was given to De Paul University.  This transcription was made in 2014, and posted on this website early in 2015.  My thanks to British soprano Una Barry for her help in preparing this website presentation.

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.

*     *     *     *     *

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.