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
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
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?
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?
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
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.
BD: So this is the individual genius of the interpreter?
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
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
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
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
BD: Is there something
to learn even from a perfect performance?
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?
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
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
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 repertory — they 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
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
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
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
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
BD: It means nothing
if the material isn’t there.
Five days ago I was in Toulouse for a recording of Manon by Massenet.
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.
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
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
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
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?
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.
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.
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?
BD: That’s the
same advice I give people for Debussy.
JR: 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?
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.
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.
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
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.
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 Mélisande
— if 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?
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
both — are 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 everything — being a liar
and being a true person.
BD: Is it difficult
to play these faces onstage, to change so completely within the context of
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.
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,
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.
[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?
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
BD: A complete
JR: A complete
BD: Who starts
the next school? You can’t jump all the way to Bizet and then Massenet,
JR: There were
minor composers like Grétry.
BD: [Gently protesting]
But he’s Belgian!
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.
BD: And then a
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
JR: To Vaughan
Williams, exactly. Almost Britten! It’s incredible. Purcell
still nowadays is one of the greatest composers of all time.
BD: Is Purcell the same school as Lully?
JR: Yes, with I
think more genuine inspiration than Lully.
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
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
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 something, “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!”
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
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?
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
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
here. To read my thoughts on editing these interviews
for print, as well as a few other interesting observations, click here.
* * * *
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.