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.
I’m afraid we keep you much too busy.
happily you do! [She laughs as a cat jumps down from his
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!
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
to that kind of short time to devote to every singer. Generally
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?
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
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, 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,
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
learning it by rote from the ear rather
than from the score?
Exactly. Their memory and their ears work more than
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.
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
different sensitivities, and different natures. It’s always the
same score, but always with the same respect for the text it comes
BD: So this is
the individual genius of the
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?
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,
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
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
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
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
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
time I do this in Chicago. I’ve done a lot of things, but having
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
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.
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
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
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.”
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
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
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
years and years, but you’ll never love the person. Explanations
BD: Have you
ever worked with the student that you
feel would never get to this point?
JR: Oh, well
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
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
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
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
BD: So you
feel guilty for things that don’t go right, but
things that do go right...
JR: I just
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
BD: Is there
something to learn even from a bad
JR: Yes, even
from bad performance.
BD: Is there
something to learn even from a perfect performance?
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
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
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
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
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?
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?
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
receptive, and they bring humility. I’ve seen that so many
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
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
French, you must open the nasal sound. Otherwise it doesn’t come
BD: What do
you say to the critic who sits in the
audience and says it’s not a very authentic French sound?
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
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
BD: Who are
some of the French singers people should
Bacquier, for example. He’s a good one to listen to. Also
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
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?
Everything. A coach is a kind of
mixture of everything.
BD: How much
do you actually get into
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
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.
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
JR: Oh, I
work practically only with well-known
singers. It’s rather rare when I work with debutante.
most of the well-known singers
receptive to your kind of coaching?
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.
Yes. Five days
ago I was in Toulouse for a recording of Manon by Massenet.
[Eagerly] With Plasson?
BD: He was
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
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.
[Laughs] That would be a good idea, yes! He’s starting the
career, but quite well. He
has a good voice.
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
think exactly about the Manon
I sang last year?” I said, “I
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,
the sign of a real artist.
JR: A real
pro, as you say.
BD: Are most
singers like that?
at least all the great singers I
know. I worked regularly with
Domingo, and I know Kiri
te Kanawa, and
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
BD: He is
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
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.”
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
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
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!
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?
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
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
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?
wondered sometimes. I thought sometimes if Bach was not so
popular, maybe Lully would be more.
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
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?
the same advice I give people for Debussy.
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
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?
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
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
BD: How did
you get from your first opinion to your current love for this work?
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
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
didn’t seem to have a shape, a form.
BD: He was
something so completely new?
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
music. I wonder if that is not why I preferred
Bach or Mozart or Lully, because it was exactly the reverse.
Everything is prescribed?
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
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
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
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.
Exactly! It’s exactly that.
in Chicago in 1972, Lyric Opera did both Pelléas and
Wozzeck. I love both of
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
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.
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
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.]
about Vespri, Les Vêpres?
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
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
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.
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.
probably you’re right. It’s just about the music. For
instance, Pelléas in
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?
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
Pelléas a similar kind of character to
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.
BD: Would Pelléas work by moving the
setting, for instance if a director wanted to play it in 1982?
yes! For me, yes, because I’m sure that nowadays you can meet a
a man who is genuine. I would love to make a rapport, or a
between him and Parsifal, rather than between Pelléas and
Werther. Pelléas is really true and Mélisande 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
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
everything — being a liar and being a true
BD: Is it
difficult to play these faces onstage, to
change so completely within the context of one work?
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
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
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.
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?
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
BD: She is in
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?
Boulez, anyway. He really is ‘le
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.
mentioned Serge Nigg.
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?
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.
Ducasse? [At this point I got a lesson in exact
pronunciation. I had said doo-KASS, but meant Paul Dukas.]
more or less. Roger Ducasse [doo-KASS] and Paul Dukas [doo-KAH].
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
If you say ‘pourquoi’ to a
French, ‘le pays de la logique’
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’
‘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.
starts the next school? You can’t
jump all the way to Bizet and then Massenet, can you?
were minor composers like Grétry.
protesting] But he’s Belgian!
[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
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
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.
Vaughan Williams, really.
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
JR: To me,
Purcell is greater than Lully.
BD: Who are
the Italians at that same time?
Vivaldi, Gabrieli, Cavalli. Cavalli was
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
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
BD: Is that a
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
BD: Is it
like today listening to the radio during
JR: More or
less. When you read the Italian
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
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
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
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
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
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
[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
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?
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
BD: So should
we do it the way he would have seen
JR: No, no.
BD: We should
use the modern stage techniques?
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
JR: I didn’t
unfortunately. I was never free to
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
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
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.
musicians shouldn’t perform music just for
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
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
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
both readers and it doesn’t matter. We’ll get maybe
what we look for, or what our imagination shows us.
recordings spoiled the expectations of today’s
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
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 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
== == == == ==
From the box at left, there are three other names which
have been my Interview guests...
Tatiana Troyanos, HERE
Thomas Hampson, HERE
Teresa Berganza, 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
Barry for her help in preparing this website
To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been
transcribed and posted on this website, click here.
Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975
its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001. His
interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since
and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well
on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.
You are invited to visit his website
for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of
other interviews, plus a full list of his guests. He would also
to call your attention to the photos and information about his
grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a
century ago. You may also send him E-Mail
with comments, questions and suggestions.