Director / Translator  Richard  Pearlman

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


Opera Director and Educator Richard Pearlman Dies at age 68.
He was director of the Lyric Opera of Chicago's Center for American Artists.

By Vivien Schweitzer   Playbill, April 10, 2006 [with additions]

Richard Pearlman (July 17, 1937 - April 8, 2006) served as director of the Chicago training program from 1995-2006. Previously, he was director of the Eastman Opera Theatre at Rochester's Eastman School of Music from 1976 to 1995. While serving as assistant director for an absent Zeffirelli, Pearlman directed his first opera, Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor at the Lyric Opera of Chicago in 1961, with Joan Sutherland, Richard Tucker/Carlo Bergonzi, Mario Zanasi, and William Wildermann, conducted by Antonino Votto.

William Mason, general director of Lyric Opera of Chicago, said, "Richard Pearlman brought the Lyric Opera Center to new levels of excellence and renown, and no one in the country was a greater champion of young American singers or of American music than he was. He was important in the career development of so many artists."

These students included Renée Fleming, Matthew Polenzani, David Cangelosi, Dina Kuznetsova, and Nicole Cabell. Bass-baritone Jason Grant, who worked extensively with Pearlman at Eastman, said, "He was encyclopedic in his knowledge of singing and was the most influential person I encountered during my student years. He held me to standards that I didn't think I was capable of achieving at such a young age, but he convinced me that I would achieve them. At the end of his second decade at Eastman, when most other educators would have been lethargically coasting, he was always finding new ways of reaching audiences."

"My favorite memory of Eastman," Grant added, "was performing at inner city schools. It seemed that we reached audiences in those performances like no other I have sung for in my life. Bringing opera to the children in Rochester was one of the many concepts that Richard brought to fruition."

Pearlman was born in Norwalk, Connecticut. He received a degree in English from Columbia University before apprenticing with legendary directors including Gian Carlo Menotti, Franco Zeffirelli, and Luchino Visconti. His directorial debut was the first American staging of Berlioz's Béatrice et Bénédict during the 1964-65 season of the Opera Society of Washington (now the Washington National Opera).

He served as the Washington company's general director from 1968 to 1970; his work included a production of Menotti's The Medium recorded by Columbia Records [photo of recording shown near the bottom-right of this webpge], and a production of Britten's The Turn of the Screw with Benita Valente and Eleanor Steber.

His first production at the Santa Fe Opera was Così fan tutte in 1975. He returned in 1982 to stage the world premiere of George Rochberg's The Confidence Man. In 1971 he staged The Who's rock opera Tommy (starring Bette Midler) for Seattle Opera, in 1979 the American premiere of the Mahler/Weber Die drei Pintos for Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, and in 1983 the American premiere of Iain Hamilton's Anna Karenina.

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

Early in 1989, Pearlman was staging a rarely-done Mozart opera with the Chicago Opera Theater.  We got together to talk about it, and to discuss other aspects of his very successful career.

Bruce Duffie:   The opera you are doing is La Finta Giardiniera.  How are you translating the title?

Richard Pearlman:   When I’ve done this in the past, I haven’t attempted a literal translation.  I’ve called the work Lunatics and Lovers, because it’s the only opera that I know which has a double-barreled mad scene.  Both the tenor and the soprano go insane simultaneously.

BD:   Since it’s by Mozart, I assume it has his genius?

Pearlman:   Absolutely!  He wrote it in 1775, when he was about eighteen years old.  That means it’s a work of his maturity!  [Both laugh]

BD:   Have you done other Mozart works such as Così Fan Tutte or The Marriage of Figaro?

Pearlman:   I’ve done just about all the standard ones, including Idomeneo.

BD:   How does La Finta Giardiniera fit into the rest of the Mozart cannon?

Pearlman:   If you know Mozart’s later ones, especially the Da Ponte operas, you see little precursors.  In particular, the subject matter of La Finta Giardiniera makes it like a prologue to Così Fan Tutte, because the subject docket really is that love is never what you think it’s going to be.  Frequently, love hurts.  Just when you make up your mind, and think you know what you want, you find fate deals you an entirely different hand.

BD:   Is this the message that you’re trying to convey, or that Mozart is trying to convey?

Pearlman:   Somehow in his adolescent working of his own feelings, I think those are the things that he himself gleaned from the story.
BD:   Is there a secret to directing Mozart?

Pearlman:   Yes, and I would say you could sum it up in one word
listen.  As you know, there are many, many great composers who could not write opera, or were not successful as opera composers.  The way I like to put it, especially with Mozart and Verdi, and the other people who really know how to write operas, is that they know how long it takes to get to the door.  There are times when very, very intense emotions are being expressed, but then there also need to be times in the orchestra both to accommodate the reaction to a strong emotion, and to accommodate certain physical stage business.  Certain composers have an unerring instinct about how long to make those things, and I would say that Mozart is one of them.  If you listen very carefully to his operas, he will tell you how to stage them.

BD:   He was writing for a theater about the size that you’re using [just under 1000 seats, and shown at right]?

Pearlman:   Right.

BD:   They wouldn’t work so well in the Lyric Opera House, or the Met [with 3600 or 4000 seats]?

Pearlman:   There probably would be a way to make it work, but it would be an accommodation.  It wouldn’t be doing it as Mozart envisioned it.

BD:   So, you’re happier doing this work in this size house?

Pearlman:   Absolutely!  Also, there’s an immediacy of diction and comprehension on the part of the audience in a smaller house.

BD:   You’re performing this in English.  Are you pleased that you’re doing it in English rather than in Italian with supertitles?

Pearlman:   Yes, especially since it’s my own translation!

BD:   Can we assume that you are in favor of doing things in translation?

Pearlman:   Yes, I am.  I know that this is a town where supertitles are big, but I hate them.  Every time I think of something that has thrilled me about an operatic performance, part of that is the facial expression of the person singing.  It’s not at all like films, because of the scale of a film screen.  If there’s a subtitle on the big screen or on television, you can actually read what’s happening and see the expression on someone’s face.  In an opera house, either you’re looking at the people who are singing, or you are reading the supertitles.  I know they have advantages in terms of the audience understanding more precisely what the singers are saying, but to me there’s nothing that is a substitute for a vernacular performance, and an intelligent and well-thought-out translation by artists who are committed to the work, and audiences who have the concentration to listen.

BD:   [Gently protesting]  Far from being a town where we love supertitles, we’re glad to have both versions with the two companies.

Pearlman:   Right.  If you’re doing an opera in Italian, and you have five different nationalities on stage, Italian is clearly the lingua-franca of that kind of cast.  So probably supertitles are a good idea because it makes it accessible to people who would not ordinarily go to the opera.  But I have seen places where they use supertitles with a cast and a stage full of people who would starve to death in a pizzeria.  They have no idea what they’re singing about, and the audience has no idea what they’re talking about.  So there it is a third-hand experience.  It’s interesting to me, because on such occasions the audiences are always restive, and they don’t know why.  I think that’s because the people on stage have no idea what they’re saying, and supertitles in that kind of case do not help.

BD:   You’re the stage director of many operas.  Where’s the balance between the drama and the music?
Pearlman:   Many of my colleagues would probably disagree with this, but I think there is no balance.  The music has to come first, because it’s what I said about listening.  When you express the metaphor in the music, you have succeeded, and if you try to go against the music, no matter how clever your idea is, or how intellectually respectable, it will never work.  There was a book by Joseph Kerman called Opera As Drama, and his thesis is that in opera the dramatist is the composer, and I feel that is a correct premise.  [Covers and information about the book, as well as a photo of Joseph Kerman are shown in the box at left.]

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Do you spend most of your life directing operas, or do you also do straight plays?

Pearlman:   I do straight plays, I do rock’n’roll, I do any interesting project.  My motto in life is
reasonable offers receive reasonable consideration.

BD:   Then what is unreasonable?

Pearlman:   Unreasonable is trying to stage a long opera in a week and a half, which is what many opera companies do.  I call that
‘instant opera’.  Or they go with colleagues who are unsympathetic.  Sometimes it’ll be a work that I think is wonderful, and as a member of the audience I will pay my money and go to see that work.  But I don’t have a personal sympathy with it, and so I don’t think I should direct it.

BD:   What is it that makes an opera grab you so that you will want direct it?

Pearlman:   If I can listen to it, and read the text, and familiarize myself with it, and say yes, I know those people because I’ve had those feelings myself.  So I can be an effective advocate for this work to singers who, in turn, in the heat of the moment in performance, must be effective advocates to the audience.  If I can’t do that, then I shouldn’t be doing the work in the first place.

BD:   Are all the works you stage
great works, or do you also do some lesser works?

Pearlman:   If you limit yourself to the great works, you have a problem.  What are the great works?  In the context of Western civilization, the Mozart-Da Ponte operas have a very special place, and if you expect all operas to be up to that level, you’re in deep trouble if you want to make a living working in opera.  But I enjoy all of the works that I do from Monteverdi to Offenbach, and I’ve also done a lot of contemporary operas.  I’ve done several world premieres, and American premieres, and I’m actually a great advocate for contemporary opera.  Unless we start having some viable contemporary operas, in fifty years there’s not going to be any opera.

BD:   What is it that makes a contemporary opera, or any opera, viable?

Pearlman:   [Being consistent]  First of all, a composer who knows how long it takes to get to the door!  [Both laugh]  When I study a score, the vocal line should be the conscious life of the character, and the orchestral line becomes the subconscious life.  As with us in our lives, sometimes those things are parallel.  Sometimes our subconscious thoughts and our conscious thoughts are going very closely together, and sometimes they’re wildly divergent.  A successful opera composer understands that about the human condition, and is able to translate that phenomenon successfully into music.

BD:   Now you’re talking about the human condition, and the ultimate message.  Is there a balance between the artistic achievement and the entertainment value in these operas?

Pearlman:   I think there’s a balance, but I don’t think there’s any conflict.  For instance, let’s take the subject of comic opera.  Freud said that what is funny is the instantaneous recognition of a truth, and unless it’s based on recognizable human behavior, any kind of drama is not going to be entertaining.

BD:   But should it be entertaining, or should it be meaningful?

Pearlman:   Absolutely both!  I don’t see any conflict there.  I wouldn’t think of doing an opera unless I felt that it had some content in the first place, and that I was able to express it.  The whole point of the exercise is to get rear ends into those seats, and communicate whatever you are communicating to someone.  Then, if it’s not entertaining, you’re not going to do that.  They’re going to get bored, and think about what they had for dinner, or their appointment calendar for next week.

BD:   You say you’re trying to get rear ends into seats.  Are you trying to get everyone’s rear end into those seats?

Pearlman:   I honestly believe in my heart that most people are susceptible to the charms of opera.  There are some people who will never get over the fact that they
re singing instead of talking, and that will always strike them as irreconcilably weird.  OK, let those people go to the movies!  But I have worked in many places where members of the audience are seeing their first opera, and invariably their comment is, Gee, it’s nothing like I thought it was going to be!  That, to me, is a great complement, because what they mean is they thought it was going to be boring, and it was, in fact, engaging.

BD:   Are there some operas that you have to work too hard to make them engaging?

Pearlman:   [Laughs]  Yes there are, and I try not to do those operas.

BD:   Do you know that ahead of time before you reject the contract?

Pearlman:   I’ve been very lucky because I ponder.  If it’s a new work, I do ponder for a while before I decide if I’m going to do it, and at a certain point when I’m thinking about a work, I listen to the score and I’m able to see the action in my head.  I’m able to absolutely visualize from beginning to end what this is going to be like.

BD:   Are those ideas set in stone, or are you flexible to the actors that you have?

Pearlman:   Absolutely, I’m totally flexible.  I’m one of those people who thinks that if you’re going to change, you need something to change from.  I recently read an interview with a colleague who said that he feels that it impedes his creativity to come into rehearsal with any ideas whatsoever.  [Laughs]  I would shoot myself if I had to walk in there with no ideas in my head!  I can have a very clear idea in my head, and when I actually see the human being who needs to inhabit that role, I can do 180-degree change and do something exactly the opposite of the way I thought I was going to do it.

BD:   Is the new idea equally valid?

Pearlman:   [Thinks a moment]  It is equally valid for that moment.  For instance, this is the fifth time I’ve done La Finta Giardiniera.

BD:   [Genuinely surprised]  You must be the only one in the world doing it!  [Both laugh]

Pearlman:   I think I hold the world’s record with this one.  Whoever thought it would be my bread-and-butter piece?  There are certain interpretive points that are absolutely radically opposite from one cast to another, because I see that a person’s life experience is leading them to do it in a certain way, and I go with that.

BD:   Do you have any great philosophies about making sure the works you stage, especially works that are 150 or 250 years old, speak to us today?

Pearlman:   Joseph Campbell is a great anthropologist and scholar on the whole subject of comparative religion and mythology.  He was a follower of Jung, and he felt that there are five stories in all civilizations, all religions, all literature, all art, and that everything, was a retelling of those five basic stories.  I think the same is true in opera, and if I’m able to study a score and figure which of those five basic stories is the one being told in that opera, then I go with that.  If I can’t figure out what that universal human denominator is, I leave it alone.  For instance, let’s take a work which is considered to be a very difficult work, The Magic Flute.  Everyone knows that it contains some of Mozart’s very greatest music, and yet it’s considered notoriously difficult to stage.  Well, for me it wasn’t particularly difficult at all, because, having studied my Jung, and my Joseph Campbell, and my history of mythology, I knew that The Magic Flute is a story about how one grows from being a child into being an adult, which is something all civilizations, and all cultures, and all of us have to face.  To me, it is a very understandable story, and very human, and I thought I dealt with it very successfully.

BD:   Are you conscious of the audience’s reaction when you’re directing things, and are you directing for the audience?

Pearlman:   You bet!  [Both laugh]  I’m very lucky because in many instances I do masterpieces, and if it’s a work that I’m doing for the first time, there are many, many things that I need to learn about that work that I will not learn until I see an audience reacting to it.  I take copious notes, both mental and actual notes that I write down for the next time I do that work.  That way, each time I approach a work there are numerous refinements that are absolutely based on audience reaction.

BD:   Can you make any of those refinements for the next performance of the same production?

Pearlman:   It depends.  If I’m the impresario, I can call a rehearsal.  If I’m working for someone else, I’m at their disposal as to whether they want to me to do that.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Let
s talk about contemporary operas.  Is it more difficult to stage an opera that has never been seen before, than one which has been done and is known?

Pearlman:   It has different kinds of problems.  Certainly one advantage you have in doing a world premiere is that you don’t have the weight of tradition.  You know that anything you do is the right way to do it because you’re doing it for the first time.  On numerous occasions I’ve worked very, very happily with composers trying to express what it is they saw when they wrote the music.  I have also had some bad experiences...  For instance, one time a few years ago, I did the world premiere of an opera which had a libretto written by the composer’s wife.  She attended every rehearsal, and could barely let me get a sentence out of my mouth before she interrupted me, and that was not pretty.

BD:   I trust you still got the work done?

Pearlman:   You bet!  [Both laugh]  I was not going to let her stop me!  Actually, it had an interesting reverse double-whammy effect.  What makes a great performance is the performers, and every single one of the singers in that cast was united behind me and my concept of the work.  They realized the difficult situation I was having, so they tried extra especially hard to bring things together, and the opening night performance was tremendous.  It just really swept everything away, and though the press hated it, I came out smelling like a rose.  [Both laugh]

BD:   Talking about performances and repeat performances, how can you guarantee that each successive performance, perhaps even in a long run, will be fresh?

Pearlman:   There’s a certain built-in latitude.  My method in directing is not just to say,
You go stage-right, and you go stage-left, because frequently it doesn’t matter who goes stage-right and stage-left.  I’m not a traffic cop!  What I try to do is instill in each artist a certain psychological viewpoint about every moment they’re on stage.  Hopefully that will give them tools to recreate that moment over a long series of performances.

BD:   Do you expect them to come up with new bits of business, or new motivations, or new ideas as the performances run?

Pearlman:   What I try and do is build in that possibility.  I love people who are creative on stage.  If you want automatons, you should get a video tape.

BD:   Do you think opera works well on television?

Pearlman:   It can.  Unfortunately, the history of opera on television is regress rather the progress.  I don’t know if you remember, but when television was first starting out in the 1950s, there used to be something called NBC Opera Theatre.  Those productions were just wonderful.  [Photo and information about the series are shown in the box below.]  They got terrific people to direct them, and they commissioned translations. They also got the finest young artists, but most importantly is that each project they did was conceived for the medium of television.  As a result, they did very, very fine work.  Not everything was equally successful, but they maintained an extremely high level. 

The NBC Opera Theatre was an American opera company operated by the National Broadcasting Company from 1949 to 1964. The company was established specifically for the purpose of televising both established and new operas for television in English.

The company performed a total of 43 operas for NBC, and garnered 3 Primetime Emmy Award nominations. All of the performances were broadcast live from an NBC studio, and were not pre-recorded or edited before airing, although kinescopes and later videotapes were made of live broadcasts for delayed broadcast purposes in some areas.


During its 14-year history, the NBC Opera Theatre commissioned several composers to write operas specifically for television. The most famous and most successful of these works was the very first new opera staged by the company, Gian Carlo Menotti's Amahl and the Night Visitors, which premiered live on December 24, 1951 [photo shown above] as the first installment of the Hallmark Hall of Fame program. It was the first opera specifically composed for television in America. Other operas commissioned by the company included Bohuslav Martinů's The Marriage (1953), Lukas Foss' Griffelkin (1955), Norman Dello Joio's The Trial at Rouen (1956), Leonard Kastle's The Swing, Stanley Hollingsworth's La Grande Bretèche (1957), Menotti's Maria Golovin (1958), Philip Bezanson's Golden Child (1960), Kastle's Deseret (1961) and Menotti's Labyrinth (1963).

Now [1989], what happens is that they just set up a camera at some live performance, and we look at the diva’s tonsils a lot.  To me, that’s a little bit proselytizing to the already-convinced.  People who like opera as a sort of documentary of a performance happening in Lincoln Center can certainly enjoy these performances, but someone whose experience of live performances is limited, and who are used to seeing things that are edited and shot for film and television, probably find these events extremely boring.  An exception to this was when they did Patrice Chéreau’s Ring from Bayreuth.  They set the theatrical scenery up in a studio, had many different cameras, and edited it very cleverly.  As a result, it was thrilling.  I happened to see each one of the four operas with a different group of people, all of whom thought they hated opera... and at the end they loved it!  So, I think that opera can be done very successfully on television.

BD:   Does that give you encouragement to do Wagner occasionally?

Pearlman:   [Thinks a moment]  Actually, I do love Wagner’s operas.  The way things have worked out for me in my career, I frequently work with young singers, and, of course, young singers and Wagner are, or should be, antithetical.  But if anyone offered me a production of Tristan and Isolde with a plausible cast, I would do it.

BD:   Assuming you’d have enough time to think out the whole production?

Pearlman:   Oh, absolutely!  Actually, Tristan is a work that I have thought about a lot, and I think that I have some feeling for the work.

BD:   So you could go to it next week?

Pearlman:   Right!

BD:   [With a gentle nudge]  But the Ring might take you a couple weeks?

Pearlman:   Right!  [Both laugh]  Or maybe a month!

BD:   Is there ever a chance that an opera can get over-rehearsed?

Pearlman:   Only if the rehearsal process is not handled right in the first place.  It certainly is possible if the rehearsals consist of mindless repetition, like a spelling-drill.  Mechanical stock things are just ingrained into the performers by that kind of rehearsal, and the more you do it, the worse it gets.  On the other hand, a few years ago I did a production of The Marriage of Figaro for Music Center Opera in Los Angeles that toured all over southern California for a period of two years.  Every time they had a cast change, which was fairly frequently during the run, they would fly me in to re-rehearse it.  Some of the people were veterans of the original production, and we found things, and refined things, and changed things on and off for those two years.  As a result, I think that is probably the finest piece of work I’ve ever done in my life.

BD:   Would it have gotten even finer if it had continued for three or four years?

Pearlman:   [Smiles]  There’s probably a point of diminishing returns, at which it’s time to re-conceive it.  Peter Hall, who has worked at Lyric Opera, has an interesting idea.  He thinks that any production-concept has a shelf-life of about five years.  Then, history and events and people have changed, so you need to re-think it.  I would say that’s quite an astute observation.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   How closely do you work with the set designer?

Pearlman:   Totally!  I wouldn’t think of doing a production in which I didn’t have a hand in the design.  My training in opera was with Franco Zeffirelli.  In fact, many years ago, my first solo flight as a director was in Chicago, and this is the first time I’ve been back since then.  Zeffirelli was scheduled to do Joan Sutherland’s Chicago debut in his production of Lucia di Lammermoor.  I was sent as the advance-man to work with the chorus, and see that the costumes were unpacked and stuff like that.  He had various complications in Italy, and sent Carol Fox [one of the founders and General Director of the company] a telegram saying that he was not going to make it for the rehearsals, and suggested that I direct the production.

BD:   So, you did it???

Pearlman:   And so, I did it, yes!  Carol Fox and her friends referred to me as ‘Il bambino’ [the child] at the time [both laugh], and at my first rehearsal Fox and some Italian gentleman I didn’t know, and several members of the Board were sitting in the first row with their arms crossed, looking at me, as I conducted this rehearsal.

BD:   I bet the gentleman was Pino Donati [photo and brief biography shown in the box below].

Pino Donati (9 May 1907 – 24 February 1975) was an Italian composer and for many years artistic director of the Chicago Lyric Opera.

Donati was born in Verona. From 1936 he was superintendent of the Arena di Verona, and then from 1950 the Teatro Comunale of Bologna. In 1958 he left Italy for Chicago to work for Carol Fox and remained employed there until his death in Rome at the age of 67. His wife, who survived him, was the soprano Maria Caniglia.


Bruno Bartoletti, Carol Fox, Pino Donati (left-right)

Pearlman:   It was Pino Donati, and they were all very nice to me.  Sutherland and Richard Tucker were happy, and Claudia Cassidy [critic for the Chicago Tribune] was happy!  [More laughter]  So it was fun.

BD:   Now you work mostly with younger singers, but you also have worked with established stars.  Is one easier than the other?

Pearlman:   It depends.  For instance, I had a stint at the Metropolitan Opera as a staff director, and I found that there were certain artists who were not interested in what any director had to say.  They had their way of doing things, and that was it.  The company just had to make sure their shoes fit, and that someone got them out of the dressing room in time.  There was nothing more you could do.  But one of the artists that I worked with was Dorothy Kirsten, and the role she was doing was one she had been doing before I was born.  I had some rather radical ideas about it which I discussed with her in principle, and she was thrilled and excited.  She herself called extra rehearsals.  She was one of the most eager, co-operative artists I’ve ever worked with, and that is, of course, why she had such a long and distinguished and honorable career.

BD:   She was always open and thinking!
Pearlman:   Right.  She was a wonderful, and I feel, an under-valued artist.
BD:   She was certainly valued very highly in some circles.

Pearlman:   Yes, among those of us who know.  That’s true!

BD:   A singer can do too much by singing too much.  Can a director do too much by directing too much?

Pearlman:   You mean too many performances per year?  Absolutely!  I’m a maverick because under no conditions will I do more than two new productions a year.

BD:   [Genuinely surprised]  That is very limiting.

Pearlman:   This is because I won’t go into the first day of rehearsal of any work unless I feel that I have absorbed that work into my pores.  Somewhere circulating in my blood is that music.

BD:   So, you’ll do two new productions and maybe a couple of revivals?

Pearlman:   Yes, right.  It takes me six months to learn a work the way I feel I need to know it before I can get up in a rehearsal and direct it.

BD:   When you’re working on an opera, do you concentrate on just the one at a time, or have you got other things going on?

Pearlman:   As a matter of fact, this year I am doing two works I’ve never done before
The Coronation of Poppea by Monteverdi, and Albert Herring of Britten.  So I sort of alternate them over the course of twelve months.  In the case of Poppea, I did my own new translation from the ground up.

BD:   As you get into rehearsal of La Finta Giardiniera, or any work that you’ve translated, do you occasionally modify the words?

Pearlman:   All the time.  As far as I’m concerned, it’s a work in progress which is there to be changed... as the cast of the production will tell you!  [Laughs]  Every day I’m coming in with something new.  There is nothing radical, because I don’t want to burden them with it, but if my ear tells me there’s a better way of saying something, it would be foolish not to ask them to do it that way.

BD:   You’re actually making it easier, rather than more difficult?

Pearlman:   Absolutely, and that’s especially true of the spoken dialogue.  When I hear the speech pattern of a certain person, I try and adapt the way the dialogue comes out from that person.

BD:   Are you making this Finta into more of a singspiel?

Pearlman:   Yes.  There are two versions contemporary of Mozart.  The original version has the recitatives, but shortly after the premiere, his father decided he could earn a few extra bucks by cooking up a tour of the Austrian provinces where the work would need to be done in German, as Die Gärtnerin aus Liebe, and made it into a singspiel version with dialogue.  Leopold Mozart and his son collaborated on this version.  I’ve read in various program notes that it’s a spurious version, and that’s absolutely not true.  As far as I’m concerned, any version of a work which has the imprint of the composer is genuine.  You can look in the Neue Ausgabe score and see Mozart’s own emendations of the recitatives.  That is not a spurious work.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   What advice do you have for youngsters who want to start or continue with operatic stage direction?

Pearlman:   [Thinks a moment]  That’s a tricky one.  I would say to be sure of what it is that you yourself have to say as a human being.  There are many productions of operas done by directors who relate what they do to other opera productions, rather than to their own life experience.  Those kinds of productions might appeal to tired opera freaks who have seen a work fifteen times, and want something radically different just to be radically different.  But the greatest productions, the work of people who are my masters, like Tyrone Guthrie, for whom I worked at one time, or Walter Felsenstein, for whom I didn’t work but whose work I’ve observed, didn’t have particularly radical ideas.  [Photos and biographies of these two men are shown in the box below.]  There were no actors on roller skates, but what they did was use their small interpretative touches in terms of the behavior of the actors on stage.  Making them be true to life was what made their productions click.

Sir William Tyrone Guthrie
(2 July 1900 – 15 May 1971) was an English theatrical director instrumental in the founding of the Stratford Festival of Canada, the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and the Tyrone Guthrie Centre at his family's ancestral home, Annaghmakerrig, near Newbliss in County Monaghan, Ireland. He is famous for his original approach to Shakespearean and modern drama.

In 1924 Guthrie joined the BBC as a broadcaster and began to produce plays for radio. This led to a year directing for the stage with the Scottish National Players, before returning to the BBC to become one of the first writers to create plays designed for radio performance. From 1929–33, he directed at various theatres, including the Cambridge Festival Theatre in 1929 and a production of Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of an Author at the Westminster Theatre in 1932. His work in London at the Old Vic and the Sadler’s Wells theatres earned him acknowledgment as a significant director.

During 1933–34, and again from 1936–45, he was director of the Shakespeare Repertory Company. While in Montreal, Guthrie produced the Romance of Canada series of radio plays for recalling epic moments in Canadian history. The series was broadcast on the Canadian National Railway radio network. Hubert Butler translated the text for Guthrie's 1934 production of Anton Chekhov's Cherry Orchard, for perhaps its first English-language production.

In the 1940s Guthrie began to direct operas, to critical acclaim, including a realistic Carmen at Sadler's Wells and the Metropolitan Opera in New York.

Guthrie produced Gilbert and Sullivan's H.M.S. Pinafore in 1960 and The Pirates of Penzance in 1961, which were televised in Canada and also brought to the Phoenix Theatre in New York and on tour in the US. In 1962, as soon as the Gilbert and Sullivan copyrights expired, he brought these productions to Britain. They soon played at Her Majesty's Theatre and were broadcast by the BBC. They were among the first Savoy opera productions in Britain not authorized by the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company.

Sir Peter Hall wrote, "Among the great originators in British Theatre...Guthrie was a towering figure in every sense. He blazed a trail for the subsidised theatre of the sixties. He showed how to run a company and administer a theatre. And he was a brilliant and at times great director..."

*     *     *     *     *

Walter Felsenstein (30 May 1901 – 8 October 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.

BD:   So, the advice you have for youngsters is to get to know yourself?
Pearlman:   Get to know yourself first of all.  My own training was in literature.  The ability to manipulate words is very important, and I would suggest they read as broadly as they can.  Go to as many museums as possible, and see as many films by great directors as they can.  Simply just know as much as you can!

BD:   What about young singers?  Is there a blanket bit of advice you have in general for young singers coming along?

Pearlman:   A lot of my time is spent as Director of the Opera Program at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester.  So for the past decade I’ve been thinking a lot about what to tell young singers, and the most important thing is that it’s a very competitive business, and if you’re not willing to hang in there, don’t do it.  Take up computer programming!

BD:   Are there perhaps too many young singers coming along?  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at right, see my interviews with Regina Resnik, Judith Blegen, Julian Patrick, and Jorge Mester.]

Pearlman:   Absolutely!  I would say that for every job available, there’s probably 200 singers competing for that job, and what’s interesting is that it’s not always the most talented person who gets the job.  It’s the most persistent.  The other thing that I tell my singers is if you do your best in an audition and you don’t get the job, you have to realize that it doesn’t mean that you’re a bad person, or a bad singer, or a bad artist.  It just means that the person that you were auditioning for probably had a very specific pre-conceived idea of what they wanted, and you just didn’t happen to measure up to that idea.  If you allow yourself to take that kind of rejection personally, you’re not going to last in this business.

BD:   You really have to develop a thick skin?

Pearlman:   I fear that’s true.

BD:   Is there any hope?

Pearlman:   If you believe in yourself, and can be an effective advocate for yourself, you can make it... assuming you have the chops, and the pipes, and the musicianship, and so forth.  The other thing I tell them is that there’s no such thing as an audition.  Every time if you see three people waiting for a bus, you should stop them and sing an aria, and give a performance.

BD:   [Laughing]  They’d get arrested!

Pearlman:   [Also laughing throughout]  Yes, but they’d get their name in the paper, and probably start a career that way!  The headline would read The Bus-stop Soprano!

BD:   [After a brief pause]  Coming back to reality, are you optimistic about the future of opera?

Pearlman:   [Thinks a moment]  That’s a mixed question.  When I see the level of talent at a place like Eastman’s School of Music, I know that the people are there who can change opera.  [Photo of teaching session shown above-left.]

BD:   For the better or for the worse?

Pearlman:   For the better!  They really can get out there and be superb entertainers.  The way I train people, some of my students have ‘ace’ voices, meaning voices that are destined for La Scala, and Covent Garden, and the Met, but I make sure that they get extremely detailed acting training and dance training, to the point where they can pass a Bob Fosse singing-dance audition for a Broadway show.

BD:   That’s not asking too much of the young singer?

Pearlman:   Absolutely not!  It’s a business which is based on discipline and self-discipline.  That’s something which is required at a very early age, or you’re probably not going to make it.  Let’s face it... if somebody comes in and they have a voice like Birgit Nilsson, they don’t need me!  They can just go out and sing and make their living.  But what we’re talking about is someone who is going to either make a career or not make a career by how versatile they are, and how much they’re able to do all different kinds of things onstage, and be an asset to all different kinds of shows.  Places like the New York City Opera and Houston Opera are now doing a balance of musicals and standard repertory operas.  It’s like what Woody Allen said about being bi-sexual,
“It doubles your chance of getting a date on Saturday night, if you can do pop music and opera.  [Both laugh]

BD:   Where do you go from here... back to Eastman?

Pearlman:   Yes, in fact, two days after the premiere of this work, I begin rehearsals for my version of The Coronation of Poppea.

BD:   Is it frustrating to mount a production, see the opening night, and then split?

Pearlman:   Extremely!  Although I’m glad it worked out, I wish things had been such that I could have stayed for future performances [laughs] simply because I enjoy my own work!  I also like to eat my own cooking, and I can learn a lot by seeing the work enjoyed by an audience.  Also, the cast here is just fabulous.

BD:   Is directing fun?

Pearlman:   It is!  I love it!  I have a ball!  At rehearsals, my job is to create an atmosphere where people feel they can do their best work.  In fact, that is the most important part of my job, and by doing that I also am able to do my best work, and have a good time doing it.

BD:   Thank you for coming back to Chicago, and for speaking with me today.

Pearlman:   It
’s been my pleasure.  Thank you.

========                ========                ========
----    ----    ----    ----
========                ========                ========

© 1989 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in Chicago on January26, 1989.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB the following week.  This transcription was made in 2024, and posted on this website at that time.  My thanks to British soprano Una Barry for her help in preparing this website presentation.

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

*     *     *     *     *

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

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