Tenor  Anthony  Rolfe  Johnson
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie

rolfe johnson

Anthony Rolfe Johnson (tenor)

One of this country's most distinguished singers, Anthony Rolfe Johnson sang with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under Solti, the Boston Symphony under Ozawa, the New York Philharmonic under Rostropovitch and Masur, the Cleveland Orchestra under Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic under Levine. Conductors with whom he worked also include Giulini, Harnoncourt, Rozhdestvensky, Eliot Gardiner, Mackerras, Dorati, Tennstedt, Boulez, Haitink and Abbado.

He has a vast range of recordings to his name, reflecting his worldwide reputation as an interpreter of Bach, Handel, Haydn, Mozart and Britten. He was acclaimed for his recordings of the great Handel oratorios, the Evangelist in both the St. John Passion and the St. Matthew Passion, and many award-winning recordings which include Haydn's Die Jahreszeiten and Die Schöpfung, Mozart's Die Zauberflöte, Idomeneo and La Clemenza di Tito, and Britten's War Requiem. He recorded the title roles in Oedipus Rex under Welser-Moest for EMI, in Samson under Harnoncourt for Teldec and in Peter Grimes under Haitink for EMI; Tom Rakewell (The Rake's Progress) under Ozawa for Philips; Florestan (Fidelio) under Mackerras for Telarc and Captain Vere (Billy Budd) under Nagano for Erato.  [Note: The recordings shown later on this webpage were selected because they had images of the tenor on the cover.]

He made his international operatic debut as Fenton at the Glyndebourne Festival. In London his roles included Don Ottavio, Tamino, Ferrando, Belmonte, Essex (Gloriana), The Male Chorus (The Rape of Lucretia), Florestan (Fidelio) and the title roles in Monteverdi's Ulysses and Orfeo at the London Coliseum and Jupiter (Semele), Oronte (Alcina) and Don Ottavio at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. He sang the title role in Idomeneo at the Salzburg Festival under Ozawa, the Vienna State Opera under Harnoncourt, the Paris Opera under Minkowski and the Metropolitan Opera under Levine. He has sung Aschenbach in Geneva, Edinburgh and the Met; and Peter Grimes at the Savonlinna and Glyndebourne festivals, in Tokyo, Munich and at the Met. At the Monnaie in Brussels his roles included Oedipus Rex, Peter Quint, Pelléas, and Polixenes in the world premiere of Wintermärchen, and with the Netherlands Opera he sang Ulysses in Amsterdam, New York and Sydney.

Anthony Rolfe Johnson was made a C.B.E. in the 1992 Queen's Birthday Honours.

--  Biogarphy from the Hyperion Records website (with additions).
--  Names which are links (in this box and below) refer to my interviews elsewhere on this website.  BD 

Anthony Rolfe Johnson was born on November 5, 1940, and when I asked him about this he mentioned that,
“In England the 5th of November is ‘Guy Fawkes Day’, which is the day a certain gentleman, Sir Guy Fawkes, tried desperately to blow up Parliament!  He was apprehended in the act, and later executed, and we celebrate this near miss by having fireworks on that day!

He had been in Chicago previously to appear and record the St. Matthew Passion with Solti conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Kiri te Kanawa, Anne Sophie von Otter, Hans Peter Blochwitz, Tom Krause, and Olaf Bär. When we met, in November of 1988, he was performing with Music of the Baroque in their production of Jephtha with Patrice Michaels Bedi, Janice Taylor and Jeffrey Gall conducted by Thomas Wikman.

The tenor was forthright about his work and his career, and spoke about the ups and downs and the ins and outs of his life.  While it is sad to think how it all ended a few years later, we celebrate his accomplishments both on recording and in performance with this conversation . . . . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:    You’re from London originally?

Anthony Rolfe Johnson:    Yes, I’m a Londoner, born and brought up in London till I was a mid-teenager, and then from there to the countryside where my parents moved.  My father was not too well, and they took the country air.

BD:    Is the country air good for a budding young singer?

ARJ:    It must have been.  I didn’t do any singing to speak of until I was 29, and I spent most of my early working life managing a dairy farm in the middle of Sussex.  In fact it was eleven or so miles from Glyndebourne, when I didn’t even know what Glyndebourne was or existed!

BD:    So some of their cows wandered over during the performance?

ARJ:    That could be!  [Laughs]  It wasn’t quite as close as that, but it wasn’t that far off!

BD:    Now you sing mostly Mozart and early works?

ARJ:    Yes, but I sing a very broad band of repertoire.  I’ve done a lot in the early work, and with the baroque music of Handel and Bach, of the classical period with Haydn and Mozart and Beethoven, but I also sing Britten and other things too.   Really, as an English singer, one has to be very versatile.

BD:    Why?

ARJ:    They tend not to classify.  A tenor is a tenor is a tenor, so one gets the opportunity to sing such a broad band of repertoire.  For example, something like Monteverdi’s Orfeo is in my repertoire, and also The Dream of Gerontius of Elgar, which is quite the other end of the scale, or a piece by Franz Schmidt, which I sang last year in Salzburg, Das Buch mit Sieben Siegeln.

BD:    Oh, The Book with Seven Seals!

ARJ:    Yes, a huge, almost quasi-Wagnerian piece.

BD:    Did he write this for a lyric tenor?

ARJ:    He wrote it for a heldentenor, but I had no problems with it.  This is the extraordinary thing.  In later life, at this point, the voice has taken on a new color, a new edge, which is fascinating for me at this stage.  I’ve been singing since I was 29, and I was a student for four years, so I suppose I’ve been singing thirteen or fourteen years as a professional.  So it’s interesting to suddenly be presented with new problems and new experiences.

rolfe johnsonBD:    [With a gentle nudge]  Have you any Siegfrieds in your future?

ARJ:    I don’t think so! [Both laugh]  No, it simply means that I can sing more repertoire, which includes such things as Idomeneo and Titus, with a great deal more authority than I was able to before.

BD:    So then the voice is always getting larger and darker as you go along?

ARJ:    It’s changing.  I don’t know whether it always goes larger.  One hopes that it increases in focus, which is the important thing.  After all many very big voices are just super-focused, and it becomes more efficient as an instrument.  In my case it’s hopefully lost nothing of what it had before, but gained this extra dimension, particularly at the top.

BD:    Tell me the secret of singing Mozart.

ARJ:    Courage!  Mozart is the most difficult music that one can hope to succeed in.  It’s very, very exposed.  The line is so pure that any blemish shows immediately, and you have to have a lot of faith and lot of courage to stand there and do it.  Nevertheless I enjoy it enormously.

BD:    Is singing Mozart correctly more than just not having any blemishes?

ARJ:    Of course.  There are many other things involved as well.  I’ve spoken to many people about it
conductors and coaches and so onand they’ve spent hours working on every small detail of such roles as Idomeneo and Titus and Tamino, Ferrando, Belmonte.  The more one does, the more one realizes that he really is the most sublime of composers.  Though the music is difficult, it is also a gift for one to sing.  It’s beautifully written for the voice.  The style is very illusive, and it changes.  One needs purity of line and legato singing.  It is quite a good idea to maintain one idea per phrase.  Often it’s unnecessarily fussy to introduce detail.  He does it for you, and the simpler one reduces the thing, the better it is in some ways — just as it is with Schubert in a different way.  It is best to just say things as simply as possible and be true to what he wrote.

BD:    Can you add any interpretive value to it at all?

ARJ:    Of course.  Along with the way he’s written the music
whether he intended to or not, or by just by his geniushe’s also written into it that element which appeals to one’s own senses and one’s own interpretative ability.  This brings out quality that you have yourself to bring to the music.  I never stop experiencing revelations about him, even when I sing something frequently.  I sang the Mozart Requiem two months ago, and was astonished just simply what happened to me personally during the time I was performing this piece.  One can almost do this on automatic because one does it so well, but at the same time there was  a whole range of things happening to me as a performer while it was going.  It was a wonderful experience.

BD:    But how much of this is the genius of Mozart, and how much of this is you maturing to understand Mozart’s genius?

ARJ:    I would like to ascribe most of it to him.  I think that my maturity perhaps was just refusing to face up to what’s actually there until lately!  [Laughs]  I claim much credence for that.  But I just love singing his music, and I’ve had a wonderful time recently performing it.  I’m looking forward so much to recording it with John Eliot [Gardiner] in 1990 and 1991.  We will do Idomeneo and Titus, and also with [Roger] Norrington the Zauberflöte.  Those are to be.

BD:    You’ve recorded some Mozart already, have you not?

ARJ:    Only the Masses.  Operatically, not.  This will be my first.  John Eliot and I have done Idomeneo several times in several productions, and it’s a much loved and well sharpened interpretation.  So I look forward to it immensely.  Titus will be a new venture for us as a unit, although I’ve sung it several times and he’s conducted it several times, I think.

BD:    But never together?

ARJ:    But never together!  We’ll pool our resources over this, yes.

BD:    These recordings will be after stage performances?

ARJ:    They will be after.  Some of them will be staged and some of them will be semi-staged concert performances.  All of them sung by heart and performed for audiences.

BD:    You will do the performances and then go into the studio?

rolf johnsonARJ:    Yes, that’s right, yes.  It’s really the only way to do it.

BD:    You’ve made a number of recordings already.  Do you enjoy making records?

ARJ:    Mostly, very much, yes.  A friend of mine once said the wonderful thing about recording is that you know you can do it again, and the awful thing is that you know you’re going to have to.  I think that really sums it up.  I’m enjoying it more and more because it’s something that everybody is getting better at, both technically and from the point of view as a performing practice.  We’re getting more experienced, but it varies, of course, depending on what the piece is.  If one is doing a solo record of Schubert Lieder, then it’s a monstrous undertaking.  But, for example, to do the War Requiem, as I’ve just done in the circumstances as they turned out, it was the most enjoyable experience.

BD:    Is there any chance that a record can wind up being too technically perfect?

ARJ:    Oh, I think so, yes.  There’s a great danger of that now.  Since we’re able to cut in to almost a sixteenth note, the temptation to tinker is certainly there.  But I must say that most of the people I work for recently have reacted against this and gone for the big take.  For example, with the War Requiem, with only one exception we made every movement as a complete item, and some of those movements are twenty-six minutes long.

BD:    Then if you make two or three complete takes they can inter-cut from one to another.

ARJ:    That’s what they hope to do, so that one retains all the time an atmosphere of performance.  In some cases now they’re even going one stage further where they will make three public performances from which they cut and edit a disc, and they usually reserve one day for patching up.

BD:    Is there any chance that the public now is listening to these gramophone records at home that you in the theater, even doing the same work cannot live up to this expectation?

ARJ:    [Thinks a moment]  There’s nothing that’s better or greater experience than live performance.  The live performance almost always provides something which a record can never do, despite the fact that we now have CDs and this silent no-hiss situation because they were originally conceived as public objects.  So it is best to hear a Mozart opera or a Handel piece either in the concert hall or in the theater as they were conceived.  If you just take the one situation, removing the dimension of the live dramatic performance and simply reduce it to four- or five-inch disc, you’re going to lose something no matter how perfect.

BD:    How much are you going to lose
— so much that you regret making the disc?

ARJ:    Sometimes!  Yes, I think that’s probably true.  My very great friend, Ben Luxon and I have been working together recently.  He makes many records and is deeply involved at the moment doing all Schubert series of the cycles, and was confessing to me that he felt that sometimes it is a mistake.  You leave the recording studios thinking,
I should have done it differently, or I should never have done it!

BD:    [Playing Devil
s advocate]  And yet the public says to you that these records are wonderful. 

ARJ:    Yes, that’s true, but then that’s their experience.  They hear the voice but never have to produce it, so for us it’s a different problem.  I don’t know of any singer who really who enjoys listening to his own voice.  One can never divorce the analytical problem, the picking aspect of what you do from the finished product, which is what the public hears.

BD:    Should the public be conscious at all of all the little details and problems that you face and overcome?

ARJ:    Absolutely not, no.  They should just hear the product.  Unfortunately it’s very difficult for us listening to somebody else’s record.  One can do that, yes, but not for our own.

BD:    You don’t think of yourself as a commodity, do you?

ARJ:    Oh, no!

BD:    You’re talking about a product, and listening to a product.

ARJ:    That’s how it’s packaged these days.  Perhaps it’s a Freudian slip on my part, but no, I think the music is very organic and that it should always remain so.  It’s probably just as well that there are blemishes here and there, or little slips or little things one would ideally like to redo, because that’s the nature of things.  That’s what being human and having an organic instrument is about.

BD:    Was Mozart human?

ARJ:    Oh, yes!  Wasn’t he just!  [Both laugh]  He expressed everything that was human from birth to death, happiness and sorrow, suffering and so on in the same degree of intensity, I think, as Bach expressed so perfectly the spiritual strengths and weaknesses of our human nature.  Mozart was a real proverb to the center of the human condition.  I love him for it.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    You sing operas and you sing concerts.  How do you divide your career between those two?

ARJ:    It divides itself very nicely.  The two things blend very well.  I try not to be away from home too long a period because I have a young family.  Even six or seven weeks on the road can mean developments which one sees in children as little as two to six years old, which mine are.  So I like to be back near my sheet anchor.  My family is my root, and I’m very fortunate.  It works very well so far.

BD:    Do you like being a wandering minstrel?

ARJ:    Yes, I do.  I’m obsessed by it.  I have to do it because it has few compensations outside the musical realm, compensations that really if you didn’t love it or weren’t obsessed by it, you wouldn’t do it!  You must know yourself.

rolfe johnsonBD:    You’ve sung and recorded quite a bit of Monteverdi.  Is Monteverdi more difficult than Mozart, or just different?

ARJ:    Different.  He began this movement where he isolated and crystallized the use of word and music as a natural form in his accompanied recitatives.  There are very few arias as such in Monteverdi, but wonderful human music, very accurate, brilliant portrayal of human emotion.  Take something like Orfeo where it’s just fantastically constructed.  The music is pure emotion and swinging from the gaiety of the wedding celebration in the first and second acts, to that jolt immediately after the Messenger’s arrival to tell of Eurydice’s death.  The two pages that Orfeo sings at that moment are, for me, some of the most devastating musical moments.  That pain and sorrow just pour off the page.  Monteverdi was past master, genius at that, and we have many wonderful things from him, including the Vespers of course.  I get to tackle Ulysses next year, which I’ve known for a long time but never actually sung.  I look forward to that very much.

BD:    Does this music, being so far removed from our own age, still speak to us today as we head into the twenty-first century?

ARJ:    Absolutely, like an arrow, straight, direct to the heart.  Music of that quality will always reach us, and especially if you have performers who allow the music to be the important thing.

BD:    In opera, where is the balance between the music and the drama?

ARJ:    [Laughs]  Prima la musica... yes!  I don’t know!  I really don’t know the answer to that.  I guess that in every instance the opera was composed after the composer read a libretto, so he was inspired by the words to start with.  They created colors and images in his mind, which he translated into the music we have.  They’re inseparable, and the nearer natural expression in the music becomes to the words that are imposed on it, then the better the result; even with ‘opera seria’ and the formula of the baroque opera, with its recitative and aria, in their own way they are complete.  Handel, for example, though he wrote such wonderful display music, if you look it at all closely you will discover that his inspiration was just the same as Monteverdi and Mozart.  It was the human element.  The expression of despair from Jephtha in ‘Deeper, deeper still’ is extraordinary, and that’s pure emotion, even though he may have composed it very easily and with great facility.

BD:    When you’re doing the old operas, do you like the orchestra to use old instruments?

ARJ:    The tendency nowadays is to use old instruments, and I think that that’s right because the works were composed for those instruments, and the composers had those colors in mind.  Handel would have been amazed and delighted by a piano, but it’s neither here nor there because he didn’t have one, and he composed for what he had.  It’s very important that we hear the music in the way that he perceived it.

BD:    We should not try to jump at the chance that he would have jumped at?

ARJ:    No, I don’t think we should.  Mozart did it for him in four arrangements for [Gottfried] van Swieten, and I must say that I prefer the original in every case.  Use clarinets in Messiah???  [Both have a huge laugh]  Thank God he didn’t have a saxophone, that’s all I can say!

BD:    Or an electric keyboard!

ARJ:    Oh my word!  What would he have done with a synthesizer or a sound track!

BD:    Without mentioning specific names, do we have composers today who are on the level of Monteverdi and Mozart and Handel?

ARJ:    That’s a very difficult question to answer.  Haydn was well celebrated, but the majority of those composers were not celebrated in their time.   We understand and realize and appreciate them now, but they weren’t appreciated that well in their own time, and I guess the same thing applies to our modern day composers.  I feel that Britten, for example, is growing in stature in my own estimation as a composer.

BD:    Since his death?

ARJ:    Since his death, and the early works of Tippett also I feel are great pieces.  Perhaps it’s something to do with the accessibility
that one gets used to the style and the way in which they composed.  But there is not a really modern composer that I feel easy with, though I admire them.  For example, people like Harrison Birtwistle in England, and Philip Glass here.  I admire what they do.  I appreciate what they do, but I don’t like it yet.

BD:    But you still perform it?

ARJ:    Yes, yes.

BD:    This brings me into the question of how do you decide to accept or reject an offer when it comes in?  How do you decide which roles you will sing and which you will let go?

rolfe johnsonARJ:    It’s not too difficult if it’s a standard work, but if it’s a modern piece, then I have to see the piece.  I have to see how much is involved because for me, having started to study music at a very late stage, it’s not something which is easy for me.  Most people who sing nowadays are very good theoretical musicians.  They’re often good pianists or instrumentalist of some sort, and I didn’t have the benefit of any of those things.  So often music takes me longer to prepare than perhaps the quickest of our performers these days.  But that’s a good thing because then it introduces an element of digestion about what you do and, to be quite honest, I still feel that most really modern composers have to go through a process where they must be turned into music by the performers.  The symbols on the page have to be made alive in a way, which we can readily do with the conventional classical background.

BD:    Is Mozart more innately musical, or is it just that we’re more used to making the music out of his notes?

ARJ:    [Thinks a moment]  He’s more innately musical as we understand it, but perhaps our children won’t see it quite like that.  They’ll understand it rather differently.  Their perception of it will undoubtedly be different.

BD:    Why?

ARJ:    Let’s jump across from music to computers.  It takes me a long time to play with my computer, but my eldest daughter, who is only six, already has as good an understanding as I do.  This is simply because she is a computer child and I’m not.  The same applies to music as we hear it nowadays.  Having had the background of a great tradition, it is more difficult to shake free of that and to look at music of today as it is.  We always regard it in the light of what we already know, whereas perhaps they won’t have to do that.

BD:    Are you saying that the gap between ourselves and our children is bigger than the gap between ourselves and our parents as far as understanding?

ARJ:    It might be.  We may be simply spinning faster and faster, and that means that the children are acquiring these new skills and knowledge and understandings faster than we ever did.  But that’s very philosophical!

BD:    Exactly!  As long as we’re on philosophy, let me ask you what is the purpose of music in society?

ARJ:    My goodness me!  It’s soul food, I think.  It is an expression of where the state of man never changes, really.  No matter how modern we are, we are as vulnerable and as wayward as ever we were, and the expression which Monteverdi created for Orfeo still applies today, absolutely in a new modern situation.  That combination of sounds creates the same jolt to the emotions that it did when it was first written. 

BD:    Really?  Even though people have changed so immensely in two or three hundred years?

ARJ:    I just realized what I said there is a direct contradiction to what I was saying earlier.  I don’t want to get into too deep water here because Monteverdi and his contemporaries and people who followed after him were workmen.  They were commissioned.  They were court musicians.  They had patrons who paid for their activities, so they composed a great deal and they composed for the next day sometimes.  So their work was very much out of what was happening, and it was an expression of what was happening.  It was an enhancement and a demonstration, an expression perhaps of sorrow for a state funeral or just a fun piece to be heard only by the Royal Family and two or three friends.  But it was all music directly out the situation where they were right then.  Nowadays we have commissions which are much less frequent.  A commissioned composer doesn’t have the opportunity to write as often as these earlier composers unless he’s very motivated.  And the performing of them is even less frequent, and therefore we are less able to reach into what our composers are saying.  So it takes longer for us to absorb their style and their system, and then for us to express it again in our way, adding what we have to it.  That sounds a little confused, but I feel that we have a time lag here which they didn’t have, and it has to do with the fiscal system and the way that people are financed.

BD:    But coming back to the idea of making the same kind of impact, is it perhaps right to say that the music of Monteverdi makes the same impact on us today as it did three hundred years ago, but the two cultures are starting at different points to make the impact?

ARJ:    We have the benefit of all that’s gone on since then, and we can reach back and instantly recognize by education what Monteverdi had in mind musically and also emotionally.  That music is as direct as it ever was.  To hear an aria just as a pure emotional statement must have been as direct as ever it is now.  Musically perhaps it was a little less accessible, maybe a little strange, a little worrying.  Certainly one reads many times of Beethoven’s symphonies causing uproar.

BD:    Should music cause uproar?

ARJ:    [In a devilish way] Yes!  How else is it going to get noticed?

BD:    But it should it cause uproar just for uproar’s sake?

ARJ:    Oh no, but it should be contentious because it makes people think at least.

BD:    What do you expect from the audience who comes to hear you sing, if anything at all?

ARJ:    If it’s standard repertoire, I expect them to have enough knowledge of it to enjoy it.  It helps enormously if you know a little bit about what you’re hearing so that you can relate to the story.  I’m sure it helps people listening to the St. Matthew Passion and the St. John Passion, knowing, even if it’s in German, that this is the story of the Crucifixion.  It’s not difficult to follow under those circumstances, nor is the form that he wrote it in complex.  There is the recitative-statement-information side of him with the Evangelist, and Christus as an actual person, and then the emotions of the onlookers and the disciples being stated either as a choral statement or as a personal statement from the soloists.  This is a format that readily avails itself to anybody listening once they know what the piece is about.  It’s very important that they should know something about the piece so that they can get as much enjoyment out of it as possible at the time.  It’s also nice to do something which they know less well, but not too often.  The golden rule in recitals is to do two-thirds what’s known and a third unknown so there is an introductory element to it all, but perhaps not to digress too far away from the main track, and just bring in gradually those things which are equally beautiful but perhaps less known into what’s going on.

BD:    In any of this music that we’ve talking about, where is the balance between the artistic achievement and an entertainment value?

ARJ:    The entertainment value is very important because that also contains communication of what you really want to sell to the audience.  So yes, every performer worth his salt has to be an entertainer, but an entertainer with integrity so that you don’t sell for the sake of it.  You sell as a means to open the way for the audience to enjoy the piece that you are performing, and also to make a two-way communication between you.  It is a means of reaching you, of taking you by the hand and saying,
Come on now, look at this!  Just see what I discovered yesterday.  This is a fantastic piece!

BD:    You feed off the audience at each performance?

ARJ:    Oh, yes, absolutely.  It’s more difficult over a large-scale piece, and it becomes more intimate in a recital situation.  There it’s very strong to speak and feed off them. 

BD:    Do you alter your vocal production if you’re singing in a large theater or a small recital hall?

ARJ:    Basically it remains the same.  One extends to match the situation that one finds oneself in.  In an opera it is necessary to be bigger than life.  In a recital, it’s often very nice to be on a level and to be very intimate, and that’s not terribly easy at the Met or the Lyric Opera where there are close to 4,000 people.  That’s much more difficult; but in a hall of up to nine hundred or a thousand people where nobody
’s that far away, it’s much better to be intimate.  Also they feel you’re doing something which is particularly for them.

BD:    Something like a Monteverdi opera was designed not even really for a theater, but just for a great hall in a palace.  Are we wrong to impose it upon a theater that seats three or four or five thousand people?

ARJ:    One penalty of performing a work like that to large numbers is that one loses a certain amount of that contact.  The performing styles have altered to take care of that, but the way that he wrote, particularly his decorative ideas which one takes on board as one goes along, are something which can’t be done loudly.  They’re far too quick and far too subtle.

BD:    Do you think we should restrict performances of these works to Glyndebourne and Drottningholm?

ARJ:    No, I don’t, no.  We have to realize that a little something gets lost, and maybe we gain something by speaking to more people.  The balance has to be always a compromise, I guess.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Let’s talk about the roles which you have recorded and will be recording.  The complete operas that you’ve recorded include Orfeo?

ARJ:    Yes, and Semele.  Would you consider Jephtha as an opera?  I suppose it is.  It’s a theatrical piece anyway.  Also Acis and Galatea in all its versions!  That is to say in the five-part version and in the Mozart rearranged version in German.

BD:    Which is better?

ARJ:    Oh, the five-part one is the best.  It’s how he originally wrote it, and it’s beautiful.  It’s a pastorale, nothing more than that.  Things like Lucio Silla, an early Mozart opera, is extraordinary for somebody who was fifteen or sixteen years old.  Also La Finta Semplice, La Finta Gardiniera...

BD:    You’ve recorded all these?

ARJ:    All these, and the very first opera that he wrote, Apollo and Hyacinth, which he wrote when he was eleven I think, which is all in Latin!  But even in that, although it’s quite obviously an adolescent or a very early Mozart, there is a duet, which could have come directly from Così.  I’ve recorded Così for video, as I have Gloriana of Britten.  It’s a wonderful piece.  It’s extraordinary.  So I have done quite a few, really, and with Tito, Idomeneo, and Zauberflöte and probably Entführung to come.  It’s a very exciting prospect!  We might do Ulysses, but I don’t know whether that will happen after we’ve made it into a stage production next year.  It could well be.  And then all sorts of things like L’enfance du Christ, which I’ve done as an opera.  I’m not so sure it works terribly well, but it is a very dramatic piece and has fantastic music.  I enjoyed that very much.  I also have a feeling, although I may be talking out of turn here, that Peter Grimes is on its way, as is Onegin.

rolfe johnsonBD:    Now your Grimes [shown at right in the Met production] would be closer to Peter Pears than Jon Vickers?

ARJ:    Yes, yes.  I think most people’s Grimes are closer to Peter Pears than Jon Vickers!  This is, for me, a very interesting comment on Britten’s music because it’s quite extraordinary that a piece should suit a Peter Pears and a Jon Vickers so perfectly.  But it does, and everybody in between I guess.  I’ve also performed, but never recorded, Aschenbach in Death in Venice, which I think also is an absolutely wonderful piece.

BD:    That’s sort of a ‘tour de force’ for you?

ARJ:    Oh, it’s a tremendous piece for the tenor.  It’s a bit of a holiday for everybody else...

BD:    Well, not for the baritone!

ARJ:    No, he has got a lot to do.  It’s a tremendous piece and I would love to record it.  It’s super.  Almost the only one I haven’t done now.  There are two actually.  One is the Grimes and the other is Billy Budd.  I’ve not sung that yet, but that can wait.

BD:    You can wait until you’re an old man for that one!

ARJ:    Yes!

BD:    We had a wonderful production of Billy Budd here in 1970.  Theodor Uppman was Budd, Geraint Evans was Claggart, Arnold Voketaitis was Ratcliffe, and Richard Lewis was Vere.

ARJ:    Uppman created the role of Billy.  He sang the baritone roles with me in Death in Venice in Geneva.  We did a joint production with the Scottish Opera by François Rochaix, which was magnificent, a brilliant production.  It took away from the piece all those elements that one was a little uncomfortable about.  The ballet music became real athletic, and suddenly the whole thing had a great deal of more veracity for me.  This whole idea of the beach, and Aschenbach’s collapse eventually into that state, and the admission of that state that he found himself in was far more poignant because everything else was so much more real around him.  But that’s just my opinion.

BD:    It seems now that you sing Early Music and some new things, and just that touch of Romantic music which leaves this big gaping hole in the middle.

ARJ:    Well, I’ve sung Verdi.  I’ve sung Fenton when I was at Glyndebourne, and I sang Strauss also there in Capriccio.  I didn’t do much in Capriccio but I did one of the roles in Intermezzo, and those would be something naturally that I would quite like to do.

BD:    There’s a role in Schweigsame Frau that would probably suit you very well.  Wunderlich sang it in Salzburg in 1959.

ARJ:    Schweigsame?  I don’t know that piece too well.  When you’ve spent your time singing the kind of music that I spent my time singing, then it’s very difficult when the voice changes and it becomes suitable to sing other repertoire.  For example, as a regular play object I sing ‘Che gelida manina’ and the
Ingemisco’ from the Verdi Requiem and other arias of that nature.  You realize that a very strong lyric tenor would cope with that music perfectly well.

BD:    Do you feel you’ve been typecast, and that you’re being kept into some of these roles?

ARJ:    It is very difficult to change horses at this stage.  This has all come about during the last four years.  I have to take this very carefully here.  You can use your discretion about what I’m going to say.  Over the last four or five years I’ve experienced a lot of problems vocally.  There has been a gradual diminution of ability, which is very worrying, and I could put it all down to being a certain type of voice.  I looked around the profession and saw perfect proof of it in people like George Shirley or Eric Tappy
— voices which were dark and baritonal, but also very tenor.  I wondered if I was going to end up having the same shortish career.  It all came to a great jolting halt in January of this year when I was supposed to be making a debut at the Met to sing Pelléas, and found to my horror that I couldn’t sing.  We got as far as the piano dress rehearsal, and I really ran out of voice.  This was not the first time this has happened for a concentrated period of work, particularly stage work in those recent times.  So I became very anxious, and actually reached the stage when I probably was not going to be singing by the summer of this year.  When you’re two or three thousand miles away from home, it’s very difficult to know what to do, but I had some very good advice and I went to see a friend who directed me to a couple of doctors.  I’d been to doctors to see what was wrongif there was anything wrongand nobody had found anything.  I’d even gone to the extent of having a video made of the mechanism working.  There was some apparent fatigue, but it didn’t seem to be anything else.  However, on my third visit to these lovely men in New York, they discovered what was wrong.  It was very simple and very easy to put right, and it was also diagnosed as being about a hundred per cent successful.  So all that trouble I’d been having for the last four or five years in a gradually escalating way vanished in fifteen seconds!  Since then, having sort of rehabilitated myself in a sense, I discovered wonderful things about the voice that I never knew before.  All the development that was trying to happen while this problem was gradually growing, suddenly was there.  When I first began to sing after the little operation, which was necessary, caution dictated that I should shut up for a couple of weeks and did just very special exercises.  When I began to sing afterwards, I had the most extraordinary experience.  It was my first concert, having just made very little exercises, and not sung but worked the music of the piece.  Fortunately it was a very small involvement, but I’d learned it almost without singing.  As I began to sing, this flame-thrower of an instrument shot of my mouth and obliterated the surrounding countryside, and it’s been like that more or less ever since!  Of course it’s calmed down now, and it’s become everything that it was and more, but it has been a very interesting experience.  Because of that, what would have made absolute perfect sense three or four years ago is now possible.  Three years ago I sang Manon at the Coliseum, which should have been absolutely ideal, but was not because I had already some problems.  Now of course it would be perfect.

BD:    So now you’ve got to convince management that this is what you should be doing?

ARJ:    I’ve got to convince management, but I’ve also got convince myself that I want to do it.  So far, what I’ve done is simply sing music which I am already involved in, for example, Idomeneo and Titus.

BD:    You’ll come back to the Massenet?

ARJ:    Perhaps.  Perhaps Manon or Werther.

BD:    Have you done Werther?

ARJ:    I know it well, but I’ve never sung it.  I studied it when I was a student, and I’ve always loved it.  But Manon I would certainly like to tackle again.  It would be interesting because the impression that I get from the work I’ve done is that now the voice welcomes the kind of flowering necessary, this rather larger, rather more generous finding of the sound.  For example, I sang two performances of The Dream of Gerontius earlier this year which were a complete revelation to me.  Things which had always been problematic suddenly vanished, and there was this fantastic feeling.

BD:    Is it really almost like you’re starting a new career?

ARJ:    Yes, it really is.  I have a lot to be thankful for, and I owe a lot to my teacher.  I have a teacher here in Chicago, Diane Forlano, who I teamed up with a couple of years ago when I was working with Solti.  I found her very refreshing, very interesting and stimulating, and very matter of fact, and with the new development I needed it to be matter of fact!  She has a wonderful saying, which is,
Up is up!  You just have to do it!  This is something which, perhaps with the repertoire I’ve sung, I’ve been less able or less willing to embark on.  But I must just get out there and do it, and it makes a lot of difference.

BD:    We look forward to lots of new and interesting things in career now as you progress.

ARJ:    I have my first Oedipus in February of next year, and already the work that I’ve done on tells me it’s very dearly going to be good fun.  I wouldn’t have dreamed of singing in Oedipus two or three years ago.

[With that, we both had other appointments to attend, so we said our good-byes and wished each other all the best.]

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© 1988 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in Chicago on November 19, 1988.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB the following year, and again in 1990, 1992, 1995 and 2000.  This transcription was made in 2015, 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.

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.