Director  Rhoda  Levine

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie

rhoda levine

RHODA LEVINE is the author of seven children’s books (two of which were illustrated by Edward Gorey) and is an accomplished director and choreographer. In addition to working for major opera houses in the United States and Europe, she has choreographed shows on and off Broadway, and in London’s West End. Among the world premieres she has directed are Der Kaiser von Atlantis, by Viktor Ullmann, and The Life and Times of Malcom X, and Wakonda’s Dream, both by Anthony Davis. In Cape Town she directed the South African premiere of Porgy and Bess in 1996, and she premiered the New York City Opera productions of Janáček’s From the House of the Dead, Zimmerman’s Die Soldaten, and Adamo’s Little Women. She also directed Orpheus Descending by Bruce Saylor when he was composer-in-residence with Lyric Opera of Chicago.

Levine has taught acting and improvisation at the Yale School of Drama, the Curtis Institute of Music, the Juilliard School, and Northwestern University, and is currently on the faculty of the Manhattan School of Music and the Mannes College of Music. She lives in New York, where she is the artistic director of the city’s only improvisational opera company, Play It By Ear. She is the recipient of the National Institute for Music Theatre Award.

==  Names which are links in this box and below refer to my interviews elsewhere on my website.  BD  

In February of 1988, Rhoda Levine directed Orfeo and Euridice by Gluck with the Chicago Opera Theater.  The conductor was Steven Larsen, and the translation was by Walter DuCloux.  A few days before the opening, Levine (pronounced leh-VEEN) sat down with me to discuss this work, as well as a range of other items in which she was involved . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:   You are directing Orfeo and Euridice with the Chicago Opera Theater.  This is a piece which reformed opera.

Rhoda Levine:   Yes, that is true.

BD:   Are you doing anything specific to reform opera again, or are you directing within the bounds of what Gluck and the librettist originally intended?

Levine:   Hopefully I’m directing within the bounds of what they intended, which was to provide an audience with a very human experience that really connected with their own lives.  The balance in this case are the sets and costumes by Louise Nevelson, who’s really an extraordinary artist.  Unfortunately, I was unable to have conversations with her.  When you come as a director to a set, rather than evolve a set with a designer, there are certain givens that you must accept.  It’s very interesting for me, having done this work at the Holland Festival with a designer named José Varona [shown below-left].  The musical shape of the piece was quite changed from the shape that’s being done here, which was based on some writings of Gluck that we all had read.  So, this is another experience, and a new one for me because the shape is basically determined by the producer.  It’s always interesting.
jose varona
BD:   Is every opera interesting?

Levine:   Every opera.
BD:   Is every opera interesting in a different way?

Levine:   Yes.  There are operas one feels profoundly connected to.  When you do an opera, you feel connected, and you try to hear what it’s talking about, and what the composer is trying to do.  Then you do it the best way you can.  All you’ve got as a director is yourself and your own sensibility.  You’ll hear it in your own terms, and hope that those are terms that an audience will relate to.
BD:   Do you work closely with the conductor?

Levine:   Oh, yes.  It’s unfortunate to be a freelance director, I must say, because often you don’t have that chance.  If you work consistently in an opera house, as I have done for many years at the Netherlands Opera, you know the conductor.  Your conversations are such that you almost don’t have them anymore, because you’re so in key with one another.  I usually work with a set designer named John Conklin, and another designer named Robert Israel.  We have known each other for so many years that our conversations are given, and that, for me, is one of the genuine joys of doing a theater piece.

BD:   Things don’t become stale, do they?

Levine:   No, they never become stale.  In a funny way, it’s like a good marriage.  There are moments of disagreement, but those designers, and most conductors, make me better than I am, and I’m really quite interested in that.  They enhance the way I feel about things, and they change the way I feel, as do performers.  I’m a director who profoundly trusts performers.  People always say that opera singers can’t act, but they can if they’re trusted, and if they are allowed the space to be intelligent.  Often they’re not, due to the circumstance, particularly in America, in unsubsidized houses having to produce results very quickly.  So sometimes, directors who would give them the space are unable to because they’ve got to get it done, and that’s sad.

BD:   You work with experienced singers and also younger singers.  Is there any big difference?

Levine:   Experience does change the way you view the world.  Often, anxiety is less in more experienced people, though sometimes it’s more.  There are no rules about that.  I love young people, and I work a great deal with them.  I’ve taught at Juilliard, and Curtis, and at the Yale Drama School, and I have infinite trust in them.  I love working with them.

BD:   Here at the Chicago Opera Theater you’re working with opera in English.  Do you feel that is a bonus or a detraction?

Levine:   I like opera in English.  I like the fact that half the secret is not kept to itself, that an audience can understand.  My background is Broadway and television, and those audiences must understand when they go to a show.  One of my favorite contemporary operas is Lulu.  When you do that piece, to hear the language and the music that says what German does, just in terms of your ear, is extraordinary.  However, if I could do Lulu three or four times, I would start in English and then invite an audience back.  Operas are not simply one-shots.  They provoke curiosity in people, and when they come back, if they understand it, then I would want to do it in German, because the language is wonderful.  I’m not very dogmatic about doing it this way or that way.  We find out as we do things how to do them. and what things mean to people.

BD:   Is all this constantly changing and evolving?

Levine:   Yes.

BD:   Then let me ask the
Capriccio question.  From the director’s point of view, where is the balance between the music and the drama in opera?

Levine:   It is absolutely balanced.  One does not go in and simply ignore the music.  I love Frank Wedekind [whose plays are the source of Lulu], but the joy is to see what’s chosen by the composer [Alban Berg], and what speaks to the audience.  When you look at Abraham and Isaac of Benjamin Britten, and you look at the original Miracle Play, Britten’s choices are so brilliant.  Britten has made me love poets that I have not been interested in, and it’s because of the way he sets them and illuminates them.  You cannot separate the music because of the composer’s intention.  If a composer is as emotionally accurate as, for instance, Mozart, you cannot not hear in your own terms what he means.  We don’t know what Mozart thought, but the best we can do is listen with our ears, which are 20th century ears, and translate his sounds into our own framework and point of view.

BD:   We’re talking about major operas.  Do you also have the opportunity to direct lesser works?

Levine:   I don’t really think about them that way.  As you know, I write children’s books.  
Works in which the forces are smaller than in a big work like Macbeth are not lesser works.  They may seem more modest, but they can be genuinely important.  I’m also very interested in contemporary composers.  I’ve worked and written with Luciano Berio because I do write libretti.  I write what interests me.  Bruno Maderna and people like that I love very much, but I’m also very interested in young composers.  I worked with Anthony Davis on Malcolm X, which was a three-year process, and one that I deeply believe in.  Anything I can do to help and support those people is important, because it is so difficult to be a composer in America, or anywhere.

SEATTLE OPERA: During the opera’s development—especially while you were workshopping it—did you make any major revisions. Were there areas that were changed or cut?

ANTHONY DAVIS: The workshop process was amazing. Working with Rhoda Levine [opera director, choreographer] was really amazing. Rhoda was a big part of X. She was, in effect, our kind of dramaturge, because of all her experience in opera and doing so many contemporary operas, like Kaiser from Atlantis and the other operas she was associated with. It was part of my learning curve, how to do an opera. I remember her staging Louise’s scene. There was an instrumental interlude that happened before Louise sings. Rhoda asked me, ‘What is Louise doing during the interlude?’ We ended up writing more words for the scene. Thulani wrote a recitative that sets up the scene as a way to explain where she is and how she's feeling before she sings her aria. That made it ten times more effective than it was originally. There were lots of examples of that. I learned about crafting opera while we created X—what goes into an opera, how the drama works with the music. I think that that was important. I think particularly for a composer doing his first opera, workshops are vital for that.

==  From the Seattle Opera Blog, August 21, 2023, as a preview to the production scheduled for February/March, 2024  

BD:   What advice do you have for young or even mature composers?

Levine:   There’s a section in Sinfonia of Berio in which someone keeps saying,
Keep going, keep going,” and against all odds, I think one must, because ultimately there are no guarantees.  You will gather together a group of people who support what you’re doing, and who will work and try and get it done.

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BD:   When you’re directing, do you have the audience in mind?

Levine:   Yes.  You are their advocate.  That is what a director is, because clarity is all.  Whether the audience likes it or not, whatever your intention is, you must deliver that intention to them.  That’s your job as an actor, an actress, or as a musician.  You hope you’re clear.  Now, you’re also not a jukebox, so you try, and you do the best you can.  That’s really the only way I think about directing.  I also am absolutely devout in my belief that the rehearsal process must be a happy experience.  That’s what makes liveliness on stage.  If people are worried or nervous, trying to please someone other than themselves, you get worried and rather stilted performances.  But if you have a good time together, it will work.  When I did Lulu with Stratas in the Netherlands, which was her first time as that character, as tense and as overwhelming as that work is, still in the process of doing it, it was happy and simply interesting.  Audiences want something that is interesting, that provokes them to think rather than coming in and rather mindlessly basking at something called an
opera.  They think about it, and when they walk away from it, maybe they hate it, but at least they feel compelled by it.  So I do think of audiences that way.

BD:   Is there ever a case where an opera can get over-rehearsed?

Levine:   If you work with directors from East Germany, such as Harry Kupfer or Götz Friedrich [both students of Walter Felsenstein], they like to have six weeks.  

Harry Alfred Robert Kupfer (August 12, 1935 – December 30, 2019) was a German opera director and academic. A long-time director at the Komische Oper Berlin, he worked at major opera houses and at festivals internationally. Trained by Walter Felsenstein, he worked in the tradition of realistic directing. At the Bayreuth Festival, he staged Wagner's Der fliegende Holländer in 1978 and Der Ring des Nibelungen in 1988. At the Salzburg Festival, he directed the premiere of Penderecki's Die schwarze Maske in 1986, and Der Rosenkavalier by Richard Strauss in 2014.

kupfer Born in Berlin, Kupfer studied theater at the Theaterhochschule Leipzig from 1953 to 1957. He was the assistant director at the Landestheater Halle, where he directed his first opera, Dvořák's Rusalka, in 1958. From 1958 to 1962, he worked at the Theater Stralsund, then at the Theater in Karl-Marx-Stadt, from 1966 as opera director at the Nationaltheater Weimar, also lecturing at the Hochschule für Musik Franz Liszt, Weimar from 1967 to 1972. In 1971, he staged as a guest at the Staatsoper Berlin Die Frau ohne Schatten by Richard Strauss.

Kupfer was opera director at the Staatsoper Dresden from 1972 to 1982. In 1973, he staged abroad for the first time: Elektra by Richard Strauss at the Graz Opera. He was from 1977 professor at the Hochschule für Musik Carl Maria von Weber Dresden. In 1978, he was invited to direct Der fliegende Holländer at the Bayreuth Festival, conducted by Dennis Russell Davies. He staged the story in a psychological interpretation as the heroine Senta's imaginations and obsessions.

Kupfer was chief director at the Komische Oper Berlin from 1981, ane simultaneously, he was professor at the Hochschule für Musik "Hanns Eisler" in Berlin. At the opera, he staged Mozart operas in the order of their composition, including Die Entführung aus dem Serail in 1982 and Così fan tutte in 1984. He also staged there Wagner's Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg in 1981, Puccini's La Bohème in 1982, Reimann's Lear, Verdi's Rigoletto and Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov in 1983, among many others. He directed there the premiere of Judith by Siegfried Matthus. In 1988, he staged at the Bayreuth Festival Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen,

Kupfer premiered several operas, including Udo Zimmermann's Levins Mühle  at the Staatstheater Dresden in 1973, conducted by Siegfried Kurz. He staged the GDR premiere of Schönberg's Moses und Aron there, also conducted by Kurz in 1975. In 1979, he directed there the world premiere of Zimmermann's Der Schuhu und die fliegende Prinzessin, conducted by Max Pommer, also the premiere of Georg Katzer's Antigone oder die Stadt at the Komische Oper Berlin in 1991, conducted by Jörg-Peter Weigle, the musical Mozart by librettist Michael Kunze and composer Sylvester Levay at the Theater an der Wien in 1999, conducted by Caspar Richter, and in 2000 Reimann's Bernarda Albas Haus, at the Bavarian State Opera, conducted by Zubin Mehta. Kupfer co-wrote the libretto with composer of Penderecki's opera Die schwarze Maske. He directed the 1986 world premiere production in Salzburg and the US premiere production at the Santa Fe Opera in 1988.

Kupfer and his wife, the music teacher and soprano Marianne Fischer-Kupfer, had a daughter, Kristiane, who is an actress.

He died on 30 December 2019 in Berlin.

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friedrich Götz Friedrich
(August 4, 1930 in Naumburg, Germany – December 12, 2000 in Berlin, Germany) was a German opera and theatre director.

He was a student and assistant of Walter Felsenstein at the Komische Oper Berlin in (East) Berlin, where he went on to direct his early productions. He first came to international prominence with a controversial 1972 production of Wagner's Tannhäuser at Bayreuth. He defected to the West whilst working on a production of Jenůfa in Stockholm later the same year.

From 1972 to 1981 he was principal director at the Hamburg State Opera. Between 1977 and 1981, he was also director of productions at the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden in London, where he staged the first British performances of the three-act completion of Berg's Lulu. In 1981 he took up the post of general director of the Deutsche Oper Berlin where he stayed until his death in 2000, staging productions across the whole of the operatic repertoire.

He was particularly known for his productions of Wagner. He staged his first production of the Ring at Covent Garden (1973–76, conducted by Colin Davis). The designs by Josef Svoboda centred on a revolving hydraulic platform. In the 1980s he directed a new production for the Deutsche Oper in Berlin (the so-called 'Time Tunnel' Ring). Covent Garden later imported this production to replace a planned production by Yuri Lyubimov, which had been abandoned after Das Rheingold. Bernard Haitink conducted complete cycles of the second Friedrich Ring, in 1992. The production was also staged in Washington and Japan.

In 1976 he directed the world première of Josef Tal's Die Versuchung (The Temptation) in Munich. He directed the world premières of Luciano Berio's Un re in ascolto, Ingvar Lidholm's "Ett Drömspel" and Henze's Raft of the Medusa.

He was the initiator of The American Berlin Opera Foundation (ABOF, now named The Opera Foundation), located in New York City.

*     *     *     *     *

felsenstein Walter Felsenstein (May 30, 1901 – October 8, 1975) was an Austrian theater and opera director.  He was one of the most important exponents of textual accuracy, and gave productions in which dramatic and musical values were exquisitely researched and balanced.  In 1947 he created the Komische Oper in East Berlin, where he worked as director until his death. 

Preparations for each new production could last two months or longer.  If singers meticulously coached and trained in their parts fell ill, performances were simply canceled.  Since the glamorous superstars of the day could never spare the time Felsenstein required, he worked with his own hand-picked troupe of devoted singers, most from Eastern Europe and virtually unknown in the West.  Everything was sung in German, usually in his own translations.  Whoever wanted to experience this singular operatic mix had to make the pilgrimage to East Berlin, a trip that became even dicier after the wall went up.

Together with the Komische Oper troupe he visited the USSR a few times.  In Moscow it was stated that his way of the opera staging was similar to the principles of Konstantin Stanislavsky.  His most famous students were Götz Friedrich and Harry Kupfer, both of whom went on to have important careers developing Felsenstein's work.

In this country, we are result-oriented.  As long as it feels neat, we’ve got it, but neatness is nothing, like obedience.  What’s interesting is you keep thinking about it, and trying it different ways.  That’s often hard for young American performers, not because they’re not interested, but they’ve been trained to work quickly.  We are a country that has something called
summer stock.  I did that when I used to be a choreographer.  I choreographed eleven musicals in twelve weeks.  It was like running the Grand National.  [Laughs]  It was like a contest of seeing how nervous you can be and still make music.  I’m not sure that’s what it’s all about.  If American performers were given a sense that there was time, and that the use of protracted rehearsal periods could be wonderful for them, I know many of them would love it.  Many of them might feel they are unnecessary, but it depends on how imaginative the director is.  As an ex-performer myself, thinking about the piece is sometimes not done during rehearsal, but after.  Sometimes you need a day just to sit around and think, and maybe even not about the piece.  You can think about spaghetti, but at least the piece lodges in your mind when you have time for yourself.  From my own experience, performers constantly rehearse to prove that they can produce.  Of course, they can produce or they wouldn’t have been hired...  [Both laugh]
BD:   You call yourself an
ex-performer.  Do you not feel you’re a performer when you direct???

Levine:   I was a dancer, so I was a performer on the stage.

BD:   Isn’t directing, performing?

Levine:   Yes, I guess so, to a degree.

BD:   Let me ask the big philosophical question.  What is the purpose of opera in society?

Levine:   I ask myself that all the time, and I have to tell you, I’m not quite sure.  For me, it is an art form that has touched me and moved me.  For instance, I believe that the Coronation of Poppea [by Monteverdi, first performed in 1643] is really the great political opera on Earth.  Having seen it, I found how easy it was for me to forgive that Nero killed Seneca, and exiled his wife.  I sat there lulled in that extraordinary duet at the end, and I thought how easily we forget the crimes that are perpetrated as long as the music’s lovely.  I thought how extraordinary that was because it really changed me.  It made me very conscious of the possible fascist that lives in all of us, and that even opera can do that for me.  Plus, one is terribly moved.  Opera is a very juicy art form, and if more people were exposed to it, and really made to understand that it’s not an elitist thing that you look at, but that it’s about your life, and that it could be very moving, it would command more respect.  I feel very strongly about this.  There are whole communities in this country that are absolutely not invited to come to operas.  They are usually disenfranchised groups, such as the black community.  There must be a true effort made to invite people, and let them understand that the opera is about them.  The setting may be happening in Rome, and I may live in Chicago, but it’s about me, and all the issues of the human heart we share together.  One of the reasons that I found The Life and Times of Malcolm X so important for me was that I found that it was so important for a community, and that suddenly people came to the opera house owning an opera.  There have been many wonderful black composers, but this is one of the first times that an opera by a black composer has been performed in a major opera house.  That is very important because it says that they belong there.  I feel very strongly about that.  [The first opera by a black composer to be given by a major opera company was Troubled Island by William Grant Still, presented at the New York City Opera in March, 1949, conducted by Laszlo Halasz.]

BD:   In an interview I did with Hale Smith, and he was talking about having been at X, and he said,
“During an intermission I went around holding my posterior for, as far as I’m concerned, Anthony Davis kicked a lot of us, and we were pretty tender.  He did a beautiful job.

Levine:   He is correct.  It was a long struggle to get that piece done.  Another thing that’s amazing is sometimes youth is disenfranchised.  I teach in schools (Juilliard, the University of Maryland, Queens College) where my students cannot go see the thing they want to do, because tickets are too expensive.  There is no place for them.

BD:   Television doesn’t help that at all?

Levine:   No.  If you want to train to be a lighting designer, looking at a box is not going to help you very much.  They must be there in a hands-on, or even eyes-on way.  John Conklin, my colleague and I, talk a great deal about it.  He’s at NYU, and we talk about the problem of trying to include students in our experience, so that they’re not simply standing outside it all the time becoming more and more anxious.  So, to have a young composer write an opera that is, in some way, taken seriously, it doesn’t matter.  I don’t know what a perfect opera is, but it doesn’t matter if it’s perfect or it’s not perfect.  It matters that it’s done.  Apropos of X,  I had a very interesting and exciting experience at City Opera.  There was a stagehand who was really interested in what we were doing.  One night we went out for beer, and he said he liked X, and that for him it was the greatest opera he’d ever seen, because it wasn’t silly like the one about the lady in the white nightgown who sings with the flute [Lucia di Lammermoor, program shown at left.  Notice that the flutist is listed with the cast!].  He said,
“It makes no sense.  I said, What would you do if I told you that Lucia and Malcolm X are the same opera?  He said, Oh Rhoda, you’re kidding!  I said, “If you really read the libretto of Lucia, it is an opera about someone to whom no one listens.  She is basically a commodity in the hands of others.  When no one listens long enough, you end up killing Arturo, or Malcolm X.  Whether you are a community who is not honored and listened to, or just a little lady in Scotland, we provoke our own murders by not listening.  It’s very hard to listen because we’ve all got a lot of problems on our minds, but we must.  You can point those things out, not by being didactic, but by doing operas that people can place themselves in, and that’s very important to me.

BD:   Then you look for ways of bringing the opera to each person in the audience?

Levine:   Not consciously, no.  The more I think about what I think about, no, I don’t get up there and say that.  It has to do with who I am.  In Italian, the word for rehearsal is prova, which means a try.  What we do is just try.  Sometimes it’s close to our intention, and sometimes it
s not exactly what we want because of various circumstances.  But it doesn’t matter as long as we keep going.

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BD:   How do you decide which operas you will direct and which operas you’re not interested in?

Levine:   There are a lot I’ve not been interested in.  Sometimes it has to do with one’s finances.  [Laughs]  That’s a reality.  Sometimes there are things that I just need to do.  I did an opera in Amsterdam called The Kaiser from Atlantis, which was written in the Theresienstadt camp.  That one I had to do.  Luckily, I was chosen to direct it, because it is a work that is close to my heart.  Then there
s Lulu, and so many operas, including all the ones of Mozart.  Sometimes people bring me things that I would never think I’d be interested in, and suddenly, you read it and you find that you are.  It’s very funny.  I did Don Quichotte [Massenet] in Holland with John Conklin and a lightning designer from San Francisco named Tom Munn.  Our Don Quichotte was an enormous man, Ulrik Cold.  He was Sarastro in Bergman’s film of The Magic Flute.  I had a wonderful cast... but I always have wonderful casts.  I’ve been very lucky, and I accepted that.  Cervantes is my favorite writer, but then after you read the French libretto, and it’s not Cervantes.  I went to John Conklin and we started talking about heroes, and what that means, and how we often resurrect and kill our heroes.  We started talking about it, and somehow the business that it was not exactly Cervantes disappeared.  It became fascinating for itself.  I had a wonderful conductor, Kazimierz Kord [biography in the box below], from Warsaw, and that was a team where a conductor is so committed.  One day I told him about something I did at the end of the piece.  He asked me what I thought was happening there, and I said that he’s sick, and asked what we could do.  He said to start three measures later, and it worked!  When you have someone who’s supportive and interested, whos not telling you, but suggesting, that’s joyous to me.  Another opera I love very much is The House of the Dead of Leoš Janáček.  I really do like a lot of music.  I also like pop music.

Polish conductor Kazimierz Kord was, born on November 18, 1930 in Podgorze. He graduated from the Music Secondary School in Katowice in the piano class. In 1949-1955 he studied piano with Vladimir Nilsen at the Leningrad Conservatory, and in 1956-1960 – conducting with Artur Malawski and Witold Krzemienski at the State Higher School of Music in Krakow. He was chorus master and conductor at the Warsaw Opera in 1960-1962. In 1962-1969 he was the director and artistic manager of the Municipal Musical Theatre in Krakow, where he prepared close to 30 premieres, including Charles Gounod‘s “Faust” which he directed, with stage design by Jozef Szajna.

kord The success of this production opened the way to the Gartnerplatztheater in Munich (“The Queen of Spades” by Pyotr Tchaikovsky, “Duke Bluebeard‘s Castle” by Bela Bartok), and then to the Metropolitan Opera in New York (“The Queen of Spades” (first performance there in Russian), “Boris Godunov” by Modest Mussorgsky, “Aida” and “Macbeth” by Giuseppe Verdi, “Cosi Fan Tutte” by Wolfgang A. Mozart). In 1969-1973 he was the director and artistic manager of the Polish Radio and Television Great Symphony Orchestra in Katowice. From 1977 to 2001, he was the director and artistic manager of the National Philharmonic in Warsaw. Together with the National Philharmonic‘s ensemble, he went on a number of large tours in Europe, the United States, Australia, China and Japan as well as making numerous radio and CD recordings. During that time, he was also a conductor of the Sudwestfunk Orchestra in Baden-Baden (1980-1986). He has performed with many famous orchestras in Leningrad, Cleveland, Chicago (debut at Ravinia in 1973), Cincinnati,Pittsburgh, Detroit, Tokyo, Toronto (1974 – a European tour with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra after the demise of Karel Ancerl), London, Prague, Munich, Stuttgart, Rome, Milan, Paris, Amsterdam, Berlin, Frankfurt, Athens. He was Principal Guest Conductor and Music Advisor of the Pacific Symphony of Orange County, California (USA) for their 1989–1990 season.

He has prepared productions at the opera theatres of New York, London (Covent Garden), Munich, Dusseldorf ("Eugene Onegin" by Pyotr Tchaikovsky, "The Rake‘s Progress" by Igor Stravinsky), Amsterdam ("Orlando" by George F. Handel, "Katerina Ismailova" by Dmitri Shostakovich directed by Aleksander Bardini, "Wozzeck" by Alban Berg), Copenhagen (Royal Opera), San Francisco ("Rigoletto", "Otello" and "Falstaff" by Giuseppe Verdi, "Boris Godunov" by Modest Mussorgsky, "Gioconda" by Amilcare Ponchielli). He has many recordings to his credit, including works by Jean Sibelius and Pyotr Tchaikovsky‘s Symphony No. 4 with the New Philharmonia (Decca), "Fidelio" by Ludwig van Beethoven, "Requiem" by Giuseppe Verdi (Polskie Nagrania), "Don Quichotte" by Jules Massenet, with Nicolai Ghiaurov in the title role, Gabriel Bacquier as Sancho Panza, and Régine Crespin as Dulcinée. He has also made a large number of television recordings for Sudwestfunk (including the masses of Joseph Haydn, "Requiem" by Wolfgang A. Mozart, works by Karol Szymanowski and George Gershwin).

He is the initiator of the Lutosławski Forum – a series of concerts combined with a presentation of visual arts as well as a discussion forum. He is the winner of many artistic awards, including the Critics‘ Award at the Music Biennial in Berlin (1971), the Golden Orpheus at the Warsaw Autumn Festival (1972), Conductor of the Year in Munich (1972). In 1976, the Minister of Foreign Affairs presented him with a diploma of appreciation for his great contribution to promoting Polish music abroad. He received the Minister of Culture and Art‘s First-Degree Award in 1977. In 2001 he received the Knight's Cross of the Polonia Restituta Order.

At the Polish National Opera, Kord prepared “The Queen of Spades” by Tchaikovsky, which premiered on 19 December 2004 and conducted the New Year‘s Eve Gala on December 31, 2004. Then he prepared Puccini‘s "La Boheme" (March 2006), Mozart‘s "The Magic Flute" (June 2006) and ballet evening "Szymanowski and Dance" (October 2006). In 18 July 2005 he was appointed Music Director of the Teatr Wielki - Polish National Opera and as per 1 February 2006 acting General Director (until June 2006).

Kord died on April 29, 2021.

==  Biography from the Mariinsky Theatre website (with additions)  

BD:   Do you have a special affinity for Massenet?  You’ve done at least three of his operas.

Levine:   That’s right.  It all happened in one year.  I couldn’t believe it myself.  I did Don Quichotte, Manon, and Werther.  In a funny way, maybe it happens for a reason.  Certainly it did with Werther.  I read a great deal, so my connections are often literary when I hear a title.  I knew about that German writer [Goethe] who wrote that story called The Sorrows of Young Werther.
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BD:   Is Werther German because it’s Goethe, or is it French because it’s Massenet?
Levine:   It’s looked at totally with French eyes.  I get always worried about French or when something is French or Italian.  I’m not sure why, and I don’t know why I feel this, but it certainly is not Werther.  This is exactly what a good stage director doessees something through the eyes of a French composer via the eyes of an American director.  We get all these strange ideas that things have got to be something, that Massenet meant it this way.  We hope that it’s what he meant, but the truth is, as long as it’s lively, the composer wouldn’t have minded it, and we will never destroy it.

BD:   Is this what contributes to making it a great work of art
that it can be looked at from so many angles?

Levine:   Maybe.  It’s just so continually interesting.  You could do or fail in many different ways.  In this case, it’s very interesting to see what happens to an Orfeo that’s done in a landscape provided by a particular American artist, with costumes by this particular artist.  Louise Nevelson heard that music, and apparently did this set and made these costumes with her initial director, and I am sure they had all kinds of conversations.  In our case, there is no model of the set.  I only saw pictures, and there are things I discovered on stage that I didn’t really know were there.  In fairness, I might have made better use of the pieces themselves had I had them somehow in hand.  But this really is a wonderful group of people, particularly the dance group which has come in.  Lynda Martha is a wonderful lady.  I just love her, and she also has a great sense of humor.  The dancers are all singular.  Nobody’s anonymous in the company.  They’re allowed to be who they are, and I love that very much.  We’ve done this together.  She has staged the major ballets, but the movement of the dancers throughout the piece are done as I set it up and she refines it.  I used to be a choreographer, and I used to have that role.  She’s a splendid and very gifted woman.  We’re doing this piece as a madrigal opera, wherein the chorus are participants, and later, in a funny way, witnesses.  They provide the voice, and the dancers play out the opera in a dance frame.  It’s an interesting way of doing it.  Partly, it has to do with the number of rehearsals, because you can’t have the chorus every day.  There is a quality of dance in that music.  Clearly, the number of dances in the piece looks of a relationship to writing dance music.  I wonder whether he wanted to write that much music, particularly in the Paris version.  Either way, he had great ability to do that.  So, if you begin to look at this piece in that way, the music has particular flow to it, a continuum.  It is a prova.  It’s been very interesting for the singers.  There has been a wonderful dialogue between the dancers and the singers.  What we’ve all learned about it is amazing, and they came more and more to respect each other, and what each other does.

BD:   Tell me about being a choreographer.

Levine:   I used to choreograph for the Met National Company.  It was operating when Bing was still at the Met, and we had that experience as well.  But there are places where the dancers come in and dance, and never the twain shall meet.  Then, the opera looks like no one’s ever met.  I had the great good fortune to choreograph for Luchino Visconti, a man I loved.  He used to write me letters and call me
La Levine.  [Laughs]  How could you not love him?  He was so funny.  In Traviata , I told him that I didnt want the gypsy dancers just to come in and everyone not know who they are.  I don’t believe they’re a gang of visiting fortune tellers.  It’s a party where people are a little drunk, and that’s just how I want to use the singers.  He said that I must respect what people know about their own countries, and in our rehearsal time, that won’t work.  I had to take the company as it was.   So, rather than have them look like dancers, I had them look like singers, and try and drop all their ballet training.  They looked like drunk people doing this dance.  Then, when Violetta enters, it’s into a grotesque world.  It was very exciting.  There again, it was not an invitation for a ballet company to come do their usual thing.  That’s the loveliness of the experience.

BD:   Do you always need to innovate?

Levine:   I really can’t think about innovating.  It really has nothing to do with me, and I don’t think it has to do with a lot of my colleagues.  It’s something people do, but my colleagues like Peter Sellars or Bob Wilson don’t ever say they’ll be innovative.  It’s like a composer saying he’ll write a new kind of music.  It may happen to you when you’re very young, and it certainly does help you feel that you are singular.  Generally, though, people do what their sensibilities tell them to do, and when we really make a mistake.  There are a lot of people who want to get attention.  They need attention, but the truth is, after a while they don’t need it so much anymore.  Most directors say that they’re dealing with the work, and feel this way about it.  Then, if it accidentally falls out that no one apparently has felt that way about it before, people pay great and grateful attention.  Often in the performing arts, people are no longer interested in these kinds of things.  If we talk to audiences and let them tell us what they really feel, I wonder what they’d say.  I feel sorry for Intendants [theater managers] in this country.  They are half producers, and half collecting money.  I believe in subsidy if the government leaves you alone.  I lived for many years in Holland, a country that has subsidy from the government, but they left us alone.  That company, in its modest, non-public way, did Monteverdi works.  They had conductor Gustav Leonhardt [a leading figure in the historically-informed performance movement which used period instruments
].  It was so thrilling.  The general manager invited singers who no one had ever heard of, like Kathy Battle, or Catherine Malfitano.  The gesture was not to please anybody, but do the best job you could, and give young people a chance in a house that was plausible.  Thats another thing... we keep building these huge halls.  I’ve looked at some of these halls and wondered if Albert Speer built them.  Singers who are wonderful actresses and actors rush to the front and just scream at me.  They need to look at each other when they sing, but their job is to fill the house with their sound, and they do.  They’re very courageous people, but the problem is that’s not who they are.  They’re afraid to turn their heads, for fear that the sound will fall apart.  Then, audiences feel very bereft and angry.

BD:   Have you ever had any problems with singers who insist on doing it their own way?

Levine:   No... maybe once, but if you explain why it wouldn’t be appropriate to do it that way, they usually come around.  I’m very sensitive to performers who tell me they have bad knees, and cannot kneel.  That’s who that person is, and their character will be a person who has bad knees.  You must adjust to that.  [Pauses a moment]  It just so happens that I teach improvisation for singers and actors.

BD:   That seems like an anomaly, to teach improvisation!

Levine:   Actually, I don’t teach improvisation at all.  I just lay it out, and they do it.  I am a non-teacher.  I usually leave people alone, and they make the most wonderful things.  There is no Hamlet.  There’s you, and you understand Hamlet because, though you’ve never been a Prince of Denmark, you might have been the oldest son in a family, and that’s like being a prince.  You might have felt very much in danger or betrayed.  We’ve all had moments in our lives when we don’t know how to deal with what we know.  What do we do?  What did he do?  I can’t think of a performer ever saying they’ve got to do it a certain way, though I’ve worked with several performers that others call

BD:   They’re not difficult for you?

Levine:   No.  I found that they’re bright, and all they want is to is have someone talk with them, and also let them talk with the director.
rhoda levine
BD:   You don’t impose your ideas on anyone?

Levine:   Oh no.  I present them.  I’ve been thinking about what the issues here may be, and then I go around the room.  Sometimes what they think is quite contrary, and I will give my reasons, and ask what does it mean?  That’s how it evolves.  In Orfeo, we all know the experience.  It’s very interesting.  There are two people in this play, one man and one woman, and they show what happens in our relationships when someone keeps asking,
Why don’t you look at me?  When the response is, I can never tell you why, what happens to us?  We’ve all had that experience.  It’s interesting hearing women talk about that, and it’s interesting hearing men.  We did an improvisation in my class, and for the first time in my life, I had a class of only men, and because I was doing Orfeo, it came up during the conversation.  If someone who is desperate becomes manipulative, and tries everything to make her husband look at her, it’s very interesting to hear what people really think.  Euridice is deeply human.  She’s human enough to be a little petulant, guileful, desperate, but human.  If you think about it, what is Elysium?  What is The Inferno, and what does that mean?

BD:   Everyone has a different aspect for their own reality.

Levine:   Of course.  So if you are Lynda Martha, you choose the movement which you feel conveys your sense of what that is.  I believe that Elysium is a place without conflict, and it is a place of friendly women.  So, for the ballet I asked her if she would do it just for women.  It is a place where nothing’s at stake, and everything’s swell.  Then if someone comes and tells you to go home with your husband who you barely remember, it’s awfully hard to leave that place.  If you look at what Gluck has done, it’s really remarkable.  He takes a lot of time. They keep telling her to go with him.  Why do they say it so often?  She may have doubts, and those are the questions directors ask themselves.  In the duet between Turiddu and Santuzza in Cavalleria Rusticana, why do they say the same things over and over again?  The language never changes.  Perhaps, if you are not a literary person, you have very little language for your passions, and you are doomed to repeat the same thing over and over again.  What happens when you say that to an actress is incredible.  It’s not that the man can’t invent other things to say, but they’re locked into
I love you, I love you,or Go away, go away, because in the end, they cannot say anything else.

BD:   They’re in a rut.

Levine:   You bet, and it may be more than a rut.  In their landscape, in that village, language is not the issue.  They are not having this conversation at a university seminar.  They are really in a small town, and I’ve lived in very small towns in Italy, like Spoleto, which no one’s ever heard of.  When you are walking to the well to get water, those silences happen.  It’s a world often of silence and privacy.  Maybe their whole conversation is going on in their heads.

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BD:   Let’s go back to Massenet just a little bit.  In Werther, is there any way that you can make Charlotte any stronger than she really is, or is there any need to make her stronger than she is?

Levine:   I don’t think strength is the issue at all.  If you look at the imagery in the opera, it is about childhood and infancy.  It’s very infantile.  You have to forgive me, particularly if you’re a Massenet person, but I’ll tell you my feeling.  The character who’s interesting to me in that opera is Albert, because he changes.  Everyone always gives that part to someone who seems to float in and out, but for me he is an amazing and honest character.  He changes, and becomes enraged quite rightly.  Werther and Charlotte are two people that are familiar to us.  They are locked in a kind of obsessional behavior that they cannot get out of.  I love doing the opera very much, but I wouldn’t want to meet them at dinner.  They interest me as characters, but the truth is I find them so locked in their obsession, so unable to be curious about themselves, that I find it very interesting.  I know a lot of people like that, and I also know a lot of people like Albert.  In a funny way, he has made certain assumptions that are absurd.  He didn’t write to her for six months.  There are those appalling assumptions he makes about his own importance, and the rage he feels when he has been undone.  He didn’t understand what was happening, and finally gets it.  All characters come with certain assumptions, and the opera will tell them whether they were right or not.
rhoda levine
BD:   If Charlotte had not promised her mother she would marry Albert, would she have gone off with Werther?  And if so, would they have been happy?
Levine:   We’d be talking about a totally different woman.  You can’t predict that.  Promising her mother is an exceedingly safe thing to do, because you can say, “Mother asked me to do it, so I did it.”  The interesting thing is we all have done that in one way or another.  What’s interesting is to reveal to ourselves who we are.  She might have said she was crazy about Werther, and waved good-bye to Albert.  It was hard to find what Werthers center is, be it poetry or being a diplomat, but when you listen to his language, and his yearning for childhood, the truth is he thinks he’s left it, but he’s only gotten bigger and taller.  His needs are profound, and he doesn’t even know what they are.  He’s linking himself to this lady.  It’s great to love someone who’s unavailable, because you are never going to have to do the dishes.  [Laughs]  I hate to reduce it to that, but we don’t know what we would have done in that time.

BD:   Sure.

Levine:   Fantasy is a knockout.  Fantasy is great.  Anything can happen.  Reality is tough, and Charlotte has an incredible kind of courage.  She’s also very self-bidding.

BD:   What is she like in the
fifth act, after Werther is dead?  Does she go back to Albert or not?

Levine:   I should think so because she lives in a society where her choices are very limited.  She can’t go out and start dancing at the Music Hall.  She’s not trained for that, nor would she ever make that choice.  The interesting thing is, will he have her?  She can always go back to Dad and the children.  We talk about these operas,
but every character in every opera really believes that the opera’s about them.  Barbarina thinks The Marriage of Figaro is written about her.  Beppe thinks Pagliacci is his story, and the minute you explain to actors that it is their opera, you’d be surprised what happens.  We always leave out Sophie.  What’s brilliant in the opera is dealing with this adolescent.  Sophie’s wonderful.  She’s an orphan, and is made into a cute little girl, but she’s not.  She’s a miserable adolescent.  After all, they love Charlotte better than they love her.  She is what my mother used to call neither here nor there.  She’s not old enough.  What are her fantasies?

BD:   The old joke is that she’s too old to be a brownie and too young to be a bunny.  [Both laugh]

Levine:   That’s right.  In my production, I had a wonderful young Dutch singer, and when I staged it, I had Albert come back with flowers.  Before anything is said, she unreasonably hopes they’re for her.  She knows they’re not, but it’s just terribly touching.  She does not understand what’s at stake for Werther and Charlotte.

BD:   What about Manon?  Is she another completely different character?

Levine:   I had the great good fortune to do that with Reri Grist, who is a lady I like a lot.  Women put themselves in the place of others, and that’s what directors do.  That’s what I do.  I am Hamlet, so what do I feel?  Gender doesn’t enter into it.  It’s who you are, where you are, and what you want.  As Manon, what would I feel if I were going in a coach to a place I don’t know?  What happens to you when suddenly things you never knew existed are possible?  You give up everything you’ve known in the world.

BD:   In her case, she knows that anything is better than what she’s heading to, which is why she escapes.

Levine:   Exactly, and you watch her play that out.  It’s very interesting.  I hadn’t thought of this before, but Werther and Don Quichotte I did in my own sets.  Then later I did one in someone else’s set, and it had less reality for me.  I find myself having very strong feelings about the things for which I have provided my colleagues with the landscape.  I wonder why.  Maybe it’s a bossy quality that the choices will always be mine, mine, mine.  [Laughs]  I don’t really believe that...
BD:   Maybe it’s just your total concept.

Levine:   My concept, yes, that you realize for better or worse came out of your own head.

BD:   But probably the same emotions that are directing your feelings, direct how you set things up, and then what you set them in.
Levine:   Right.  The important visual things to me are that I am part of that choice.  I never really thought about it until I met you, so it’s good that we met!

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:   Where is the balance between art and entertainment in opera?

Levine:   I get so scared of those questions.  I have no idea what that means.

BD:   What I’m looking for is how you view the whole process, and how you want the outcome to appear.

Levine:   With the help of my colleagues
singers and dancerswe put on something in the hopes that it will touch somebody, whether it’s my intention or not.  Maybe they may think the dancing girls are pretty, and that’s okay.  Maybe they’ll think the dancing girls are very moving, and that’s also okay.  No one’s going to think the same way. People who say it’s how my audience thinks doesnt realize that no audience thinks collectively, particularly about something they haven’t even seen.  I don’t know what entertainment is.  [Laughs]  Really.  We should look it up in the dictionary.  People come to have an experience together.  Sometimes it will be an amusing one, and sometimes it may even be a boring one.  They can always leave.  I just can’t think in that way.

BD:   Would you rather an audience leave, or would you rather they stay and be unhappy, and maybe boo at the end?
rhoda levine
Levine:   If they were really bored, I don’t see why they should spend a lot of time in there.  If it were me, at the interval I would go have a vodka.  But if they’re angry, I hope they would stay and boo.  I’ve been booed.  I was booed for a production of Marriage of Figaro.  It was done by young people, and they asked if I was upset.  I said I was thrilled.  I’ve seen more times in which everyone was asleep, but here no one was.  There were people cheering and people booing, and I stood there and thought it was extraordinary.  I felt absolutely elated.  No one forgot this production for months and months.  They argued and talked about it.  The particular purpose of the production was to make these young people think about Mozart.  We used quotes from Bruce Springsteen, and William Butler Yeats, and Friedrich Engels, and the kids were excited.  They started reading.  It was an extraordinary time of discovery for them, and it was lively.  All the young people in the audience thought it was hot.  Some people are addicted to tradition, and found that they needed something that they had met in their earlier life.  People do feel that, and they may be right.  They found it was not for them, and I thought it was swell because then you can define what is for you.  I don’t think any director asks that you love everything they do.  If they want you to love it, they will hope you do.  They hope that they don’t get bad reviews, so they can get hired again.  That’s real, but I have to tell you that I don’t care!  I’m not being arrogant, but I care that we have, to the best of our ability, done what we’ve done.  Also, I do other things besides opera.  I teach, and I write, though I love working with people, and I love opera because operas are so interesting, and the colleagues who work in it are so interesting.  But there are other areas of endeavor that are also interesting.

BD:   Should there be this enormous gulf between Broadway and opera?
Levine:   I don’t think so at all.  That’s something people make up.  I don’t think there’s a gulf between Sting and classical music, if you really want to know.  It is all made up because it keeps you safe.  You like classical and he likes rock, but what’s interesting and hopeful is lots of people like Anthony Davis.  We feel so safe when we categorize stuff.  You like music.  You like some music.  You like soft music or loud music.  You like some performers, but you don’t like that performer.  You don’t respond to them.

BD:   Have you ever done an opera that you didn’t like the music?

Levine:   There are two operas I’ve done that I found the music sort of overproduced.  Maybe the word one would use is
romantic.  I found the libretto tough, and the music romanticized the issues and the piece.  It’s extraordinary to try and deal with that, but it was really interesting.  I usually like what I do, or I can’t do it.  There are things I know I can’t do.

BD:   You just don’t accept those contracts?

Levine:   Right, because I don’t know what it’s about.  I was once asked to do an opera of Richard Strauss, and when I read the libretto, I didn’t know what it was about.  So I told the producer it wasn’t for me.  You can’t do what’s not for you.

BD:   One last question.  Is directing fun?

Levine:   Yes, it is.  You ought to try it.  It’s fun because it is interesting, and there are so many things going on.  Each person you deal with is not the same person.

BD:   Thank you for all that you have given us.

Levine:   It
’s my pleasure.  Thank you.

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© 1988 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in Chicago on February 9, 1988.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB later that evening.  This transcription was made in 2023, and posted on this website at that time.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.  To read my thoughts on editing these interviews for print, as well as a few other interesting observations, click here.

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Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.