Baritone  Roger  Roloff
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


Full disclosure (as we say in broadcasting):  Roger and I have been friends since we met in undergraduate school in Bloomington, Illinois back in 1968.  I was majoring in Music Education and though Roger was in History, he was always singing.  Our mutual interest in Wagner brought us together quite often to listen and learn and discuss and wallow.  He was a couple years ahead of me, but we found each other to be quite compatible.  He asked me to be an usher at his first wedding, and I even accompanied him to the draft board when he was called up.  He had flat feet (or some such malady), and we went back to his place to celebrate his not having to go off to Vietnam.  A couple years later I got a very high lottery number, and also was spared the military ordeal.

We stayed in touch off and on throughout the years, and I saw him again when he was singing in Seattle in 1987.  [The two of us with our respective second wives can be seen in the photo below.]  I had written about him in Wagner News in 1981, and this time we got together for a lengthy interview.  Parts were published in Wagner News in 1989, and I have included on this webpage the introduction from the published version, following which is the entire conversation.  Besides what was listed in that old biography, Roger won the Richard Tucker Award in 1984.  I have also added photos from various productions and links to a few of my other interview guests.

Fortuitously, Roger
’s second wife, Dr. Barbara Petersen, was for many years the Vice President of BMI, the music-licensing firm, and she helped me in obtaining many of the interviews of composers which were aired on WNIB over the years, and which now are also being presented on this website.  For my radio series, I won (ironically) the ASCAP/Deems Taylor Award in 1991, which was presented to me by Morton Gould.

After his successful singing career of over 20 years, Roger retired to upstate New York [shown in photo below] where he enjoys nature and writes poetry.  Some of his verses have been published and he has recorded a few onto CD.


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These days, productions of Wagner’s Ring are happening with a bit more frequency.  To fill the various roles, certain singers are being engaged.  Of those doing the central character of Wotan, it is Roger Roloff, perhaps less heralded than others, who bestows upon the Chief God the very essence of stature and poetic tragedy.

Recently 40, this baritone from the Peoria, Illinois, has built a steady career in music to where he now can select from among various offers, and sing the roles he feels are best suited to his artistry.  Besides Wotan, Hans Sachs, the Dutchman, Amfortas, and Kurwenal, Roloff is noted for several Italian parts including Baron Scarpia in Puccini’s Tosca, and Karenen in Anna Karennina by the English composer Iain Hamilton, which he has sung both in the US and London.

Now a resident of New York, Roloff maintains a busy schedule of operas, concerts, and lecture-recitals with his wife, Dr. Barbara Petersen, who wrote the definitive book about the song-texts of Richard Strauss, Ton und Worte [Sound and Words].  Indeed, a number of their friends refer to them not as Roger and Barbara, but as Ton and Worte!

Roger Roloff is best known to readers of these pages as Wotan in the Seattle Rings.  He sang the last season of the old production, and all performances in the new one.  A strong supporter of the concepts of director François Rochaix, Roloff has also sung the Dutchman there, and will return this summer for Hans Sachs, a role he performed to great critical and public acclaim in Hanover.

Having immersed himself in these great Wagner parts since his college days, it was my great pleasure to meet with Roger again during the most recent Ring in Seattle.  Readers may recall my essay about him several years ago when he was just on the verge of an international career.  Now that the promise has been fulfilled, it was a treat to speak with him at length about many topics.  Always forthright about his ideas and concerned to get them across accurately and in depth, we pick up the discussion with the character at hand in Seattle . . . . . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:    This is your third different production of the Ring?

Roger Roloff:    Yes.  Right.

BD:    Tell me about Wotan.  What kind of a character is he?

RR:    Very complex, and the more that I do him the more complex he becomes.  Maybe that’s partly a measure of my own maturity or fascination with the part, and partly what is in the score and in the libretto.  This is a man full of contradictory impulses.  Just to cite the most obvious problem he has, on the one hand he wants to uphold the laws, and on the other hand he wants to supersede them as he had done even before the beginning of Rheingold.

BD:    So that is not his first mistake?

RR:    No.  He claims and always insists that this whole bargaining with the giants is something that Loge led him into very sneakily and skillfully.  But it was his own wish.  He figured that he could use Freia as bait, and then settle for something else later on, to get them to change their minds.  Then in Walküre, about the marriage laws which his wife, Fricka, holds sacred, he says “It’s really unfair that people who don’t love each other should consider themselves married.

BD:    Does Wotan consider himself married to Fricka?

RR:    There are two things going on there.  To answer your question straight out, no, he doesn’t.  The other thing is that he doesn’t think Sieglinde is married to Hunding because they hate each other.  To him it’s the same.


BD:    Do they really hate each other or do they just put up with it?

RR:    They have antipathy, let’s put it that way.  It’s not love, certainly, and it’s not love in the way that Siegmund and Sieglinde love each other, and it’s not the love that Wotan feels for Erda
although he has ulterior motives for her, too.

BD:    Why did Wotan marry Fricka in the first place?

RR:    Good question.  I suspect
and it can be made credible by a production like the current one we have in Seattlethat he saw a beautiful woman who was a goddess whom he wanted to be linked with... spliced, I guess, is the word we would say.  But maybe it was partly that this was something that someone of his social standing wanted to do.  It’s very difficult to say absolutely why this happened, but he was obviously in love enough with her to risk the one remaining eye to win her.

BD:    He was one-eyed before he met Fricka?

RR:    Exactly.  This whole one-eyed business derived from a confusion that has been in people’s minds for years and which was pointed out, in fact, in a letter to Andrew Porter that appeared in the British magazine Opera a few years ago.  Wotan says in Rheingold that his one eye he bargained for, or that he put in the kitty as his bargaining chip for Fricka.  We don’t know what the wager was, but he obviously won it because he got Fricka.  The other eye that he forfeited was at the Well of Knowledge for Wisdom, which is depicted not in the Wagnerian text, but in the original Nibelungenlied.

BD:    I always assumed that Wotan lost an eye winning Fricka.

RR:    If that were so, Wagner would have worded it differently.  He was really risking a lot
in fact total blindness when he was going after Fricka.

BD:    So wagering his head with Mime is nothing new.

RR:    Precisely.  He is always this way, and in a way it makes the whole business of Wotan as a
Wagnerliterally the one who daresvery credible.  He is a wild man, and in a certain effect he is a real gambler.  This comes out when Alberich and Wotan have their big confrontation in Act II of Siegfried, when Alberich says, “After I go back to wake up Fafner, what is beginning?  What is this wild man starting now?”  Alberich cannot fathom what, and in this production I cackle a little bit to add to the effect. 

BD:    When we see them in Rheingold, how long have Wotan and Fricka been together?


RR:    That is hard to say; long enough to know each other’s minds, and certainly long enough to have gone through a fair amount of marital sparring, which they do almost as soon as they are awake.  In this respect, the scenes that they have in Walküre and Rheingold are very parallel, and in both cases Fricka’s right and she wins.  Of course, in Walküre she wins big, but in Rheingold she has every right to complain the way she does about this stupid bargain that he made with the giants.

BD:    I assume that Wotan had won previous wagers because it seems that in Rheingold we see the only side of him that loses.

RR:    Right.  But he has won in the past because we see the Runen on the spear.  These are the treaties that he has negotiated.  With the Niebelungs he has excluded Alberich.  In the second act of Siegfried he says, “You, Alberich, were never under those faithful runes.”  But the giants had agreed, and they point out to him, “You have got to be faithful to your bargaining.  This little mark on your spear says we get Freia, and we have done the job, so pay us.”

BD:    So Wotan has confused wagering with bartering?

RR:    Perhaps.

BD:    Is that what causes his downfall?

RR:    Perhaps, but in Rheingold it’s just that he wants to change the terms and all of the conditions.

roloff BD:    Was there a time when Wotan was a good guy?

RR:    I don’t know.  There may have been, but we don’t know.

BD:    Obviously the others respect him.

RR:    They respect him because he has the power.  If you had to choose between Alberich and his kind of domination and Wotan and his kind of domination, certainly Wotan would be the better of two evils.

BD:    [With some disgust]  Great, then we have the lesser of two evils rather than the better of two goods.

RR:    That’s the way I think he starts out
as just a very greedy god.

BD:    Where did he get the power originally?

RR:    He got it by tearing down this limb from the World Ash Tree, which makes the thing dry up and indicates a certain disruption of nature which later he and the rest of the world will have to pay for.  But it did grant him certain power, and so that was his new toy.  In a way, that was his ring, just as Alberich is able to fashion
or have Mime fashiona symbol of power.

BD:    Thinking about Wotan and Alberich, are they really the same two sides of the same coin?

RR:    Pretty close.  The big difference is that Alberich renounced love.  They’re both capable of it in the beginning, but I doubt very much whether Alberich is seriously romantically in love with the Rhine Maidens.  He certainly was out to put the make on them, and probably Wotan is somewhat romantically in love with Fricka.  At least it’s plausible, but Alberich does renounce love in order to be in this power of the ring, and Wotan really is in the same situation, as well as standing in danger of being in the same place because he’s ready to give up the goddess of love, Freia, for material goods, for power really, the increased power that the giants give him in Valhalla, even before the opera started.

BD:    If he had been able to actually live up to that bargain and give away Freia, would that have meant a different life for the gods?

RR:    The libretto says they would have died, so yes, that would have been a different life all right!  [Both laugh]  It’s that he never figured he would have to pay on it.

BD:    He liked danger?

RR:    That’s right.  He courts it, and with Loge around he thinks Loge can get him out of the bargain.  At least he gives us to understand this by all his stage business in that second scene of Rheingold.

BD:   Who’s more powerful, Wotan or Loge?

RR:    Loge was the brains behind the throne, let’s say that.

BD:    Then why isn’t Loge running the show?

RR:    He is for that part of the opera!

BD:    Why isn’t Loge holding the spear?

RR:    He doesn’t want it.  He’s interested in other things.

BD:    Could Loge have tricked Wotan out of the spear if he’s wanted to?

RR:    I think he could have.

BD:    Is Wotan a dummy???

RR:    No, I don’t think so.  He is very clever, but also very over-daring, bold, foolish, crazy, and foolhardy.  Loge is crafty because he knows what is possible.  Wotan knows what he thinks he can get away with.  That’s the thing, and Loge will try to help Wotan.  As Loge admits, he searched all over the world and just could not find a suitable substitute for love.


To read my Interview with Émile Belcourt, click HERE.

To read my Interview with Julian Patrick, click HERE.

BD:    Was he telling the truth, or was he just doing that as a sham?

RR:    I think he was telling the truth.  I really do.  Frankly, I think Loge is one of the few characters in the Ring who does tell the truth.  Loge is often portrayed as a very slimy type, when in fact he is not.  It’s that he is put into rather difficult situations and circumstances by Wotan, who wants so much and can’t quit.

BD:    Is there any way of making Wotan happy?

RR:    I’m not sure.  I think he feels it for a very brief while when Alberich leaves after denouncing Wotan with a curse.  You certainly feel it when you hear that great descending music which leads to the return of the giants and Freia.  I feel this great peace and calm descending on Wotan, and for maybe that minute or two he does have peace.  He has got the ring and he has the spear, and he thinks that everything is solvable now.

BD:    He thinks he can pay off the giants with the gold?

RR:    Right, and of course he learns that the giants are no fools.  Certainly Fafner is not, and they want everything just like he does.

BD:    Something I have wondered about ever since I was a kid...  Why don’t the gods just saw off a little bit of one of those big bars and move it around to fill the chink that the giants see through?

RR:    That, I think, is a dramatic expedience.  It has to turn out that way.  You’re right, it’s an incongruity; it doesn’t make sense.  There are any number of ways that another dramatist or composer could have written out of that, but of course the ring has to be given up.

BD:    If the ring would not have been given up, how would that have reworked the story?  Wotan keeps the ring for a little while, and then what happens?

RR:    He might still have had this confrontation with Erda, who says to give it back to the Rhine Maidens.  And he might have finally seen the light and done that, or he might have kept it, and then there would have been a tragedy of another sort.

BD:    So once we start with the Ring there is no way of averting the tragedy?

RR:    I don’t think so because in the great narration with Brünnhilde listening, he says whoever touched that ring is cursed.  It doesn’t matter if you don’t even know about it, and that’s what happens to poor Siegfried.  The Rhine Maidens tell him, and he doesn’t believe it.

BD:    Let me clear up a little point.  Is it just touching the ring?  For instance, if Wotan is wearing it and someone just touches it, no possession has changed so is that other person cursed?  Or is it possession that conveys the curse?

RR:    No, it is possession.

BD:    It was translated as
touch in the supertitles; “Whoever touches the ring...  I just wondered if that’s like Midas who touches everything and turns it to gold.

RR:    It really is possession, although the word in German means simply to touch, so that is literally true.

BD:    Is it like touching your life?

RR:    I think that’s more like it.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Why does Rheingold work so well in concert?

RR:    Because staging it can be a real bugbear.  It often amounts to a lot of traffic problems, and there are so many people on stage in scenes two and four, not to mention the Niebelungen in scene three.  They have to be pretty well choreographed, so much double-blocking has to be worked out so you don’t get in somebody’s way when they are singing.  When you have eight or nine principals onstage at once, that’s a big order.  A concert doesn’t have any of that to bother about.

BD:    But it makes a good sing?

RR:    It does and I’ve found it is theatrically good if people are positioned well onstage.  When we did it in Paris with Janowski, we had the giants off to one side.  Fricka was across from me, so we had the sense that we were already sort of separated and not seeing eye-to-eye right then.  The Rhine Maidens were on the right, and the dwarfs came and sang by me.  Alberich was on the other side so that we have this confrontation, too.  It was very cannily platformed, and I credit Janowski for that because it was his baby.  He is a fine conductor.  I hope I get to work with him again.

roloff BD:    Is Wotan fun to sing?

RR:    Very.  It’s a big challenge, but it is fun.  And it’s fun in an odd way, because in working with an ensemble here, you get to know how certain people will react.  With Loge, for example, you know that he is always kidding and always sort of needling in.  So there is a certain amount of that to be gotten through before you really get down to business with him.  There also is the time when early in Rheingold when Wotan has fun with Fricka.  He is saying, “I wasn’t the only one who wanted that castle up there.  You were just as greedy as I, my dear.”  There are other places, too, where there is more laughter than you might expect.  Certainly in Siegfried I have fun with Mime, and when I leave Alberich in the second act he is very uncomfortable.  But it’s ultimately a tragic part, and that’s the dimension you have to bring to it.  That’s the challenge.

BD:    Are there Wotans in our society?

RR:    I suppose.  There are people with those desires.  Whether or not their lives turn out as badly as his all depends.

BD:    What can we learn from watching Wotan?

RR:    Wieland Wagner’s concept back in the 50s and 60s was something like this, “My grandfather says to me
that this is the way you are.  In other words, to make the world better you have to change.”  The great hope at the end of Götterdämmerung seems that maybe things will be better the second time around, or maybe somehow we will all be bettered through love.  That seems to be the only hope there is, instead of letting power bring down love and letting the great tug of war between love and power take over.  In that way we have to admit that love is the only way.

BD:    You see it as an upbeat ending then?

RR:    Yes, I do.  It’s a tragic ending, but it does offer a way out, a solution.  I don’t think it’s one that will probably ever be taken.  That’s my own view.  I don’t see people changing.

BD:    The tragic ending is the Immolation, but then Wagner writes another five minutes of music turning the corner back up again?

RR:    Right.  That’s the way I feel.  Otherwise the music would not end the way it does in that transfigured key of D-flat major.  It goes down a whole step from the beginning of the cycle.  There are the seeds of success of a positive ending.  That’s the point of the great Immolation that Brünnhilde sings.  Now she knows all and what she could have done, but it’s too late.

BD:    Is there any way to stopping Brünnhilde from killing Siegfried?

RR:    No, I don’t think so.

BD:    If she’d not killed Siegfried, would it have made for a better world?

RR:    I doubt it.  I think, once again, you have that ring to deal with, and Hagen would have surely ended up figuring out a way to kill Siegfried himself.  As long as the ring is lost in the world, there is trouble.  That is what bothers Wotan as soon as he knows from Erda that the gods can really die, that it is the mortal curse he is holding on his finger.

BD:    So he’s glad to give it up to the giants?

RR:    No, he is not.  It’s very difficult because of all he had gone through to gain it, and of course it still has this great power.  He hasn’t seen the curse work yet, you know, and after Fafner kills Fasolt, then things begin to be borne in on him very quickly.

BD:    Would the ring work for Wotan?

RR:    I don’t think so, no.

BD:    It only works for Alberich?

RR:    I see what you mean.  You are asking if it is effectual.  No, it works for whoever has got it.

BD:    There are some lines in the text where Alberich says he is the only one who can make the power of the ring work.

RR:    I will have to think about that.  Of course, Fafner says he had changed himself into a dragon.

BD:    But that’s not the ring; that is the Tarnhelm.

RR:    Right.  Fafner has no need to worry about putting anybody under his dominion.  I have to think that theoretically he could figure out how to use the ring... but maybe not.

BD:    And yet Mime could not use the Tarnhelm even though he made it because he doesn’t have the magic.

RR:    It’s funny, itsn’t it?  That’s the inconsistency.  It’s a good point.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Did Wagner know how to write well for the voice?

RR:    I think so.  In many cases he wrote more realistically for the voice than Verdi did.  Many of our best voices are not
money note voices.  In other words, not the High C-type voices or, in my case, High Gs and high A-flats.  These voices are very good; they just don’t have those extreme top notes.  But this is something that you don’t have to particularly bother about in Wagner, at least in my particular parts.  I have a fairly capacious range to deal with — from low F to high F sharpbut the tessitura of the part lies in the middle of the voice, so that you are roughly a minor third lower than most things that you would get in Verdi.  For example, if Verdi had written something comparable to the Abschied, it would have been up at least a whole step, if not a minor third.  Wagner writes in the score that the Wotan is to be sung by a high bass, but I think he means someone who sings bass and has good top notes.

BD:    A real bass-baritone?

RR:    Exactly.

BD:    Are you a bass-baritone or are you a baritone?

RR:    I am more of a baritone with decent low notes.

BD:    I ask because in the Monologue in the second act, that bottom F is the lowest note in the Ring.  Even Hagen doesn’t go any lower nor Fafner nor anyone.

RR:    I have got the bottom right there, that’s true.  It’s just that it’s scored very comfortably; good for voice.

BD:    Why then was Wagner so cruel to the man singing Siegfried?

RR:    [Laughs]  Well, the part is so long.  That’s one thing.  Also, in those days he had a very great tenor in Joseph Tichatschek.  I don’t think Tichatschek ever did Siegfried, but he did Tannhäuser with great success, and this was probably the voice that he had in mind.  Unfortunately, that kind of a voice doesn’t grow on trees...

Josef Aloys Tichatschek (11 July 1807 – 18 January 1886), originally Tichaček, was a Bohemian opera singer highly regarded by Richard Wagner. He created the title roles in Wagner's operas Rienzi and Tannhäuser. As the first of the great Wagnerian tenors, he effectively was the original Heldentenor, although it is unlikely that his voice was as powerful as that of 20th-century Heldentenors such as Lauritz Melchior or Jon Vickers, given the smaller volume of sound produced by orchestras in his heyday.

Wagner referred to his voice as "ein Wunder von männlich schönem Stimmorgan." Berlioz, referring to a Dresden concert in 1843, wrote: 'Tichatschek, the tenor, has a pure and touching voice, which becomes very powerful when animated by the dramatic action. His style of singing is simple and in good taste; he is a consummate reader and musician, and undertook the tenor solo in the Sanctus (from Berlioz's Requiem) at first sight, without reserve, or affectation, or pretension.' The singer's contemporary, Sincerus, emphasised that he was equally effective in works requiring romantic softness and sweetness of tone, having a very natural vocal production. His intonation and diction were above suspicion, but his 'coluratura' was imperfect and his acting sometimes a little awkward.

tichatschek The title role of Rienzi was written for Tichatschek, and was exactly suited to his robust and dramatic voice. He learnt the part by singing it at sight from score during rehearsals, rather than by home study, with the result that he brought little reflection or dramatic intelligence to bear upon it. The first performance lasted about six hours and caused great excitement. Wagner instructed that cuts should be made, but Tichatschek refused saying it was 'too heavenly'. After six performances it was decided to give the opera over two nights, but people objected to paying twice, and so the cuts were made. The work did not meet the same success in Hamburg and Berlin because Tichatschek did not appear there, and he was the only one whose voice and presence were then adequate for the role. Berlioz wrote: 'Tichatschek is gracious, impassioned, brilliant, heroic, and entrancing in the role of Rienzi, in which his fine voice and large fiery eyes are of inestimable service... I remember a beautiful prayer sung in the last act.'

Tichatschek rehearsed Tannhäuser with Wagner as it was being written, in company with his Elisabeth, the mezzo-soprano Johanna Jachmann-Wagner. It is said that when they had finished going through the Act 3 recitative for the first time, he and Wagner embraced each other in tears. His voice, however, did not hold up well during the second and third acts of the first performance, and the repetition (for the next day) had to be postponed owing to his hoarseness, and when it did appear many cuts were made in the part. It is said that the virtual failure of Tannhäuser was owing to Tichatschek's inability to grasp the dramatic meaning of the work. This had been foreseen by Schröder-Devrient, and his lack of psychological subtlety, of dramatic insight and detailed study, soon became painfully apparent. Above all, Tichatschek's failure to bring off the dramatic meaning of the extended passage in the finale of Act 2 ('Erbarm' dich mein!') resulted in the need for this to be cut, much to Wagner's sorrow. In 1852-3 Wagner went over this ground in his essay On the Performing of Tannhäuser, but the cuts had become so customary that he had to explain the matter afresh (and with no happier outcome) to Niemann who was to sing the role at Paris in 1861. He and Johanna Jachmann-Wagner remained friends for many years: she was Valentine opposite his Raoul in Les Huguenots at Dresden in 1846. They appeared together in Tannhäuser at Dresden again in 1858.

Tichatschek was also a distinguished Lohengrin. The Dresden management presented Lohengrin in Wagner's absence during 1858-1859, when Tichatschek made an urgent plea for them to send Wagner (then in exile) a honorarium of 50 louis d'or - which they did. In 1867, when planning a production of Lohengrin for Ludwig II, Wagner recommended the almost 60-year-old Tichatschek for the role, saying that his Lohengrin had been the one really good thing the tenor had done, assuring the King that, while his singing and declamation in the role suggested a painting by Dürer, his appearance and gestures were like a Holbein. Wagner was delighted with his singing at the rehearsal, but Ludwig, thoroughly disillusioned by the singer's less-than-ideal appearance, forbade him to be employed for the performances, resulting in a rift between the King and the composer.

Tichatschek first told Wagner of the young Karlsruhe tenor who was to become his own successor, and more-than-successor, Ludwig Schnorr von Carolsfeld, in 1856.  Von Carolsfeld sang for Wagner and also created the role of Tristan in 1865 shortly before his own untimely death at age 29.

BD:    What advice do you have for singers who want to sing Wagner parts, either baritones or other voices?

RR:    I would say go into it a little bit.  The way I happened into it was first doing a few concert pieces.  In my case, I sang a contest where I got to sing the Dutchman
’s Monologue in Montreal.  I was able to see how it worked, so my advice to others is to see how it feels afterwards.  It’s just trial and error.  If it doesn’t work, go with something else, but I would not write it off simply because one is not old enough or somebody thinks that you have to have a voice the size of Hans Hotter to sing it.  That’s not true.  What it really requires is a voice with a good focus.  Not a small voice, certainly, but one with good technique and one which is capable of piercing through the orchestra or riding it, as the case demands.

BD:    Do you ever feel you are competing with Hotter and everyone else who has sung and recorded the role?


To read my Interview with George Shirley, click HERE.

To read my Interview with William Wildermann, click HERE.

To read my Interview with Terry Cook, click HERE.

RR:    Sure.  This is what, unfortunately, many of our critics think.  What they have in their heads are recordings of these great artists doing these parts where the mikes can do everything for them.  If they would hear, for example, tapes of live performances of these artists, then they would be a little more considerate, I think.  But when you come to the opera house expecting to get the kind of vocal presence that one can get from careful mastery of CDs or whatever the technology affords, there is no way anyone can compete with that.  It’s a different medium.

BD:    At what point does that become a fraud?

RR:    It becomes a fraud in the very beginning, and it should be recognized as such.  I wouldn’t really say it is a
fraud’; it’s just a whole different medium that people need to recognize has its own rules, and those rules do not conform to anything you might hear in a live concert.  I remember going to a lieder recital with Hermann Prey in Carnegie Hall a few seasons ago.  He was really in voice that night, but people were grousing next to me at intermission saying, “It doesn’t sound like he does on records at all.”  Well, of course not.  They were not listening to a recording.  If they want to be overwhelmed with sound, they have to go back to their records.

BD:    What do you expect from an audience that comes to see you, either in a lieder recital or singing Wotan in the Ring?

RR:    I expect some awareness that there is a lot going on.  There is a lot a singer and stage artist has to deal with including the costumes, the setting, the position on stage, the contact with the pit, acoustics of the house, and so forth.

BD:    Do you expect them to be aware of all of these things?

RR:    I should think they would take them into account when they are making any sort of a critical assessment.  I guess what I’m thinking of is mainly the critics who are reviewing the performance.

BD:    What should be the role of the critic?

Two snippets from reviews which appeared in The New York Times . . . . .

[From a review of "Guntram" performed by the Opera Orchestra of New York.]
By Donal Henahan, NYT 1/21/83

Standing out in the large cast were Peter Wimberger as Guntram's friend Friedhold, Roger Roloff as the old Duke and Peter Kararas as the Fool. Geraldine Decker, as an Old Woman, poured out an idiomatic Strauss-Wagner sound and gave a spunky account of her small part.

*     *     *     *     *

[From a review of the "Ring" in Seattle.]
By John Rockwell, NYT 8/10/86

Musically, there was much to admire, although the Seattle company is not in a position to afford a top-level international cast. The conductor was to have been Armin Jordan, best known for his conducting and acting of Amfortas in Hans-Jurgen Syberberg's film of ''Parsifal.'' Mr. Jordan led the ''Walküre'' last year to general acclaim, but bowed out this summer with a back problem. He was replaced by Manuel Rosenthal, much admired for his work in the French repertory but here leading his first ''Ring'' - at the age of 82. Mr. Rosenthal did many lovely things, especially in lyrical moments.

The cast was variable, though hardly ever less than competent. The standout was Roger Roloff, light of voice but really magisterial in timbre, phrasing and intelligence as Wotan. Julian Patrick's sure Alberich and James Patterson's cavernous Fafner were also worthy of special praise. Other fine performances came from Emile Belcourt, musically cavalier but theatrically vivid as Loge; Hubert Delamboye, a solid Mime; Johanna Meier, in full, firm voice as Sieglinde; Warren Ellsworth, sometimes iffy of rhythm and pitch but a sympathetic Siegmund, and John Macurdy, a strong Hunding and Hagen. Linda Kelm, singing her first complete Brunnhilde, has all the vocal heft and technique needed but seemed dramatically blank and visually awkward. Edward Sooter, as Siegfried, has vocal weight but little else, lacking nearly all the requisite poetry.

RR:    He has to know the medium very well.  It would be ideal if he had heard the singer before so he would have some sort of gauge to go by, and in certain instances, to be able to give the benefit of the doubt to the performer, who, after all, is the most beset in the whole production.  If a poor stage design forces you to sing, for example, the Dutchman’s Monologue upstage and up high, mainly into the flies, that’s going to hurt your projection.  I don’t care how big your voice is or how good your technique is.  Then, if you have to sing through a scrim, that cuts down the high overtones, the high partials, and you are in trouble again.  The voice doesn’t sound like it really can unimpeded by that gauze.

BD:    You don’t feel that the stage effects justify all this hindrance to the voice?

RR:    Often not, no.  We’ve come too far in this domination of the stage by set designers and stage directors, and frankly with the willing compliance of conductors who just don’t know voices any more.

BD:    What advice do you have for the conductor?

RR:    It’s a hard thing to say, but maybe use some of the older recordings as study materials.  Go back to these voices which, regardless of poor technical quality, had the requisite ping and heft to deal with the orchestra.  What it basically comes down to is that singers and conductors have to start thinking of voices as amplified properly and not muffled and not made woofy and used in ways that impede the natural resonance that is there.

BD:    The recordings that you are referring to have often been of singers who, in their time, were lamented as being not as good as the singers were years before that.  It seems that we are always looking back one generation or a generation and a half or two generations to perceive perfection.

RR:    No, that never existed either.  There are bad recordings from those days, too, but in the older days, when recording techniques were not so perfected and didn’t have electronics to rely on at all, you had to bloody well know how to project your voice or you weren’t going to get a part in an opera.  So there was more attention given to putting out volume, I wouldn’t say at the expense of beauty, but certainly for the sake of just being heard, getting it across, of figuring out the best possible resonators that would carry, whatever the size of your voice.  I’m thinking of Elisabeth Schumann (1888-1952), who sang Sophie in the Rosenkavalier at the old Met.  That house wasn’t good acoustically to voices.  I am told it was certainly not as friendly as the new Met, even though the new Met is bigger.  But hers was a voice that was focused like a little jewel, and carried.  That’s the thing people have lost sight of.  When they think
big voices these days, they think you have to have this big cavernous sound, this yawning thing, most of which stays on stage and very little gets out to the public.  They think the big voice is fine if he could just get it out somehow.  The problem is he is not going to get that voice out.  He will get that voice out if he learns how to put it in the right position, and is not swallowed and is not twisting it around with his tongue or jaw.


BD:    Are you conscious of all this every moment when you are singing?

RR:    You can’t be.  There is a point at which what you do technically has to become second nature.  In fact, as Hotter told me, there are many times when you just need to throw the books out the window and just sing it, and not think too hard about technique.

BD:    But have the technique there so you don’t ruin the voice?

RR:    Right.  It requires a lot of study, and frankly, it requires someone with a really good pair of ears, a voice teacher who will not allow you to try to sound too huge, especially when you are twenty-two years old.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Tell me about Amfortas.  Is he a sympathetic character to portray?

RR:    Very.  I haven’t really done Amfortas.  I’ve rehearsed it, but I had to bow out of the production in Hanover last fall because I developed a sore throat which just wouldn’t go away.  But I did all the rehearsals so I could do it.

BD:    At what point should a singer be willing to bow out?

RR:    In my case it was sort of an ultimate decision.  We had the final stage rehearsal and either I was able to sing it or they had my substitute do it.  After I’d done the second act I just felt really bad, and the voice was not in good shape.

BD:    That must take a lot of guts to say, “No, I’ll not sing it.”

RR:    Yes, right.  I wasn’t going to risk ruining the voice or getting into vocal trouble going forward that way because it’s not worth it.

BD:    No one engagement is worth that?

RR:    No, not really.  But to get back to your question, Amfortas is very sympathetic.  It’s a great part, also because it’s shorter.  You have the two big scenes, and it’s a part that you can do a lot with the words and a lot with the acting even though many times you are doing it from a litter.  There is really little body movement involved, but it’s great music; fantastic.

BD:    What makes music great?  What makes any music great?


RR:    You are asking me for my own personal criterion.  To have survived as well as the Wagner opera have all these years is one yardstick.  For another, people constantly find new and interesting things in these works, new ways to put it across, new ways to stage it, and quite honestly, singers never to get tired of singing it.  There must be something there that speaks very deeply to us, which compels us to retain these things
even if they are museum piecesto keep them before the public like the exhibition of great paintings.

BD:    Is the opera house becoming a museum?

RR:    It always has been in great respect because the great period of vocal opera is over.  We have people who still write in a mainly tonal idiom... Dominic Argento is one, also Pasatieri, and Iain Hamilton in England.  Frankly there are quite a few, but for whatever reason they haven’t caught the public fancy quite as strongly as the pieces by Wagner and Verdi and Puccini and so on and so forth.

BD:    Why?

RR:    It may be a great many of us still feel our roots very strongly in the 19th century and before.

BD:    Where is opera going today?

RR:    It depends on who’s writing the opera, and on what ensemble the composer may or may not have in mind.

BD:    Have the composers become a collective Wotan waiting for Das Ende?

RR:    No.  It has a lot to do with changes of entertainment forms, and a general decline in musical standards, frankly.  If I had my druthers, almost all of popular music would not exist.  I see so little mental power behind all this.  It’s baffling.


BD:    In opera, where is the balance between the entertainment value and the artistic merit?

RR:    That’s it in a nutshell!  You have to have something that stimulates the public but yet has enough going for it artistically to matter to people who want to perform it, who want to produce it, to rate as worthy of being on the stage in the first place.  Of course some people feel if it’s popular and you can make a few bucks off of it, that’s enough, but I do not feel that way.  It has to have more.  A composer should know his craft, a librettist should know his craft, and it shouldn’t be something that is slapped together in two days.

BD:    Then the balance question I often ask composers...  Where is the balance between inspiration and technique?

RR:    Brahms would say that it’s 10 percent inspiration and 90 percent hard work, which, I suppose, goes into really crafting the thing and not making it a piece of junk which will pander to the lowest common denominator.  It’s always been an elitist art form because it requires a level of sophistication which not everybody possesses, and requires, frankly, a level of patience (which many people don’t have) to sit through
particularly these Wagnerian things.  They were written for another age.  There was no television; there were no movies; this was the big extravaganza of its time, and so the greatest entertainment one could have was five hours in the opera house.  But certainly in those days, too, there were just as many Philistines in the opera housepeople seeing and being seenas there are now.  It’s a very small core of people who are discerning, who care about the form, and who sustain it.

BD:    Should we try to enlarge that core?

RR:    Sure, but you can’t try to force it, and by trying to popularize opera in vulgar ways.  Shortened versions, for instance, is just not where opera is going or should go.

BD:    Where should opera go?

RR:    Opera should stick by its high aspirations, its high ambitions, to try to unite the best of many different art forms
scenery, singing, music from the orchestra.  If one really tries to bring the best in that way, then you’ve got something.  I must say in sort of rebuttal to myself that I haven’t thought much about these things, and it’s hard for me to think on the spur of the moment just what I believe.  But I do really believe that so much of opera is a preserved art form that should stay that way.  Wagner was an acknowledged genius, and there is a certain amount of respect that singers, stage directors, set designers, and conductors should have for what he put in those scores.

BD:    [Being Devil
’s advocate]  Should we doggedly try to do it just the way he did it?

RR:    No, but when we differ, we should differ with great respect after thinking about it for a while,  There may be better solutions than he had in his day.

BD:    Who is to say which is better and which is not?

RR:    That’s a matter of debate, but we shouldn’t just be capricious.  It does require a certain amount of head-strongness just to simply do it differently, to say the libretto was all wrong and rewrite the words.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Do you like being known as a Wagner singer, or would you rather be known as just a singer?

RR:    It’s a limiting thing because there are fewer opportunities, although there are good opportunities.  I’m not complaining about that at all, but it does tend to constrict the public’s view and also directors
’ view and opera companies views of what you can do.  I think of myself primarily as first a musician, a singer, who has a certain variety of roles, styles, parts in his repertoire, and in that variety is the spice of the artist’s life.

BD:    Let’s talk about some of your other roles.  You’ve been doing some new works and some old works.  What is the work you did over in London?

RR:    That was Anna Karenina by Iain Hamilton.  I did Karenin, the betrayed husband.  Actually, I think Iain miscalculated and gave Karenin the best role, the most sympathetic role in the opera.  Frankly, in Tolstoy’s novel he is not very sympathetic, but he does come off quite well in this opera.  I was very happy to do it, and it was a treat to get to do it twice, both in Los Angeles and in London.


This fall in Los Angeles I will do Ruprecht in Flaming Angel, which is another whole kettle of fish.  This is something Prokofiev wrote in 1930 which is only now coming into vogue, and is being done in quite a few opera houses over the world.  I like it a lot.

BD:    What piques your interest in that one?

RR:    It’s a big dramatic challenge.  The singing is certainly worthwhile, but it’s a part in which I am onstage practically the whole opera.  Basically I am the unrequited lover of the heroine, and she is a very strange personality, thinking that she’s in love with an angel who, nevertheless exists as a man.  They end up burning her at the stake at the end of the opera.  The opera is set in 16th century Germany, and in the beginning I am a rake who has just come back from America.  [Laughs]  I see this very attractive girl and try to get her into bed the first night.  She won’t have it, and I am very struck by her resistance and also by her utter hopelessness.  There is a certain mysterious beauty about her, and so throughout the opera I continue this love relationship and try to win her for myself.  I ask her to marry me and she says, “No, no, I can’t do that.”  There are a lot of transformations, and that’s what piques my interest.

roloff BD:    What else do you look for in deciding whether you will accept or reject a part that you are offered?

RR:    To be quite blunt, I take a good look at the score to see if it’s comfortable vocally.  If it’s not, I don’t do it.

BD:    So first it’s voice and then it’s character?

RR:    Right.

BD:    What if it’s a great role for the throat but a terrible character that you are not interested in?

RR:    I’d have to think about it, but I probably wouldn’t do it.

BD:    Do you sing the same from house to house?  Do you use the same technique in big houses and small houses?

RR:    I don’t think one’s voice changes that much.  You can kind of gauge the acoustics of a house and decide how much and how little you have to give, but that one basic technique never really changes.  People will always recognize my singing wherever it is.  I have a distinctive vocal timbre, and that’s that.  However, depending on role, depending on the house, the conductor, the acoustics, a lot of things can change in shadings, inflections, and phrasing.

BD:    Do you prefer large houses over small ones?

RR:    I prefer live houses, whether they are large or small.  It’s very dispiriting to sing in a house which is small and dead.  You expect a little bit of difficulty in a newer large house because modern architects seem to have been completely baffled by the science of acoustics.

BD:    [Picking up on the pun]  Baffled by acoustics???  [Laughter all around]

RR:    A nice unintentional pun there, but that’s been my experience.  The Seattle house has good acoustics, and Dallas is another which is even bigger and has very good acoustics.  In fact, now that I remember it, the Siegfried that I did there was through a scrim and I never had any complaints from critics that the voice was getting buried by the orchestra.  So I have to chalk that up to the acoustics.

BD:    Do you sing with the same technique when you sing Verdi or Puccini or Wagner and Iain Hamilton?

RR:    The voice sounds a little different, and that comes about because of the different vowels.  A vowel, like an umlauted
ü in German, whether it’s short or long is going to sit slightly differently in your mouth.  There will be some changes, and I notice it when I’ve done Scarpia, for example.  People will comment on how really bright and brilliant the voice is, and I say, “It’s an Italian part, and Puccini knew what he was doing.  He put good vowels on certain notes, and that’s the way it ends up.”  A lot depends on what voice teachers call placement.  I really do think the basic placement of the voice should be one to enhance the brilliance, and not to bury it back in the throat which makes one sound prematurely old.  The placement will sound different depending on what language you are using.  With French it’s different and with German, it’s different.

BD:    Do you sing into the mask, as they say?

RR:    If you mean the maxillary sinus cavity and the bones that you have in your nose and forehead, then yes.  The idea is to get the tone resonating there rather than keeping it resonating in the throat.

BD:    Are you happy with the way you sound?

RR:    Yes, most of the time.  I get unhappy when I have to work too much, such as when I’m forced to rehearse more than I want and the voice gets tired.  Then I start
marking a lot, and that can be dangerous because sometimes when you mark you don’t support enough and then you get even hoarser.  It’s not a good thing, so that has to be done judiciously.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    You’ve sung the Flying Dutchman, so tell me a bit about him.

RR:    It’s a great part, and I’m very lucky to have done it my first time last January and February in San Diego with Sabine Hass (1949-1999).  It
’s an odd name which means ‘hate’, but she’s a wonderful colleague, a Viennese woman who has done it many times.  I wasn’t so good because of the awful staging director we had.  He really didn’t know which way was up, and the set design really conspired to do me in.

roloff BD:    But you had good success?

RR:    Yes.  The audience like it, but the critics were carping.  They wanted more projection, and of course we had a scrim.  I was upstage, up high on a bridge on a so-called ship.  I’ll be doing it here in Seattle in ’89.  Julian Patrick is doing the Silver Series, by the way.

BD:    Interesting...  Wotan and Albrecht singing the same role!

RR:    Oh, Julian’s great.  I really like him.  He has a good vice.

BD:    So tell me about the character of the Dutchman.

RR:    This is a real tormented guy.  He has this curse on him, and frankly he just wants to die.

BD:    Doesn’t Wotan just want to die?

RR:    Well, yes.  When he sings
Das Ende, I think he’s ready for it, but Wotan still stays in the game and thinks there is hope in Siegfried.  The big idea for him is this division of what he can do and what he wants to do.  Erda points it out to him all the time, especially at that big scene in the third act when she tells him, “You are not what you call yourself.” 

BD:    Is Wotan a phony???

RR:    No, it’s just that his ambition outruns what he is about to do.  He has great plans.  He’s a visionary, but it’s just that his rapprochement that he would like to make with Siegfried doesn’t come off.

BD:    Could it have come off?

RR:    No, and he knows it can
’t, but he tries.  He hopes against hope that they will be able to work something out.  Anyway, going back to the Dutchman, he simply wants to be free of this great curse.  He needs a faithful woman who will be true unto death, and hence let him die so that he can escape.  That’s why he says in his great monologue, “The planets, the universe... Stop, I want to get off!”

BD:    Stop the world?

RR:    Yes.  That’s basically what it’s about, and he certainly is happy at the end when he’s redeemed by the love of Senta.  Of course they both have to die for that to happen.

BD:    Could they not have been happy if there had not been the problem with Erik?

RR:    No, I think he’s a dramatic expedience, really.

BD:    If it hadn’t been him, it would have been somebody else or something else?

RR:    Exactly.  Push would have come to shove, and Senta would have had to prove herself and somehow.  The Dutchman would have to say, “I can’t stand you anymore.  I’m going to leave,” and she would throw herself off a cliff.  That’s the real erratic impetus of that one.

BD:    Do you prefer this opera in one piece or three?

RR:    I’d like to try it in one act.  We did it in three in San Diego, but I think it certainly would work, and has in many different productions as a single act.  It would not have been vocally a big problem for me as I have a lot of time offstage between numbers.  It’s much tougher on the Senta.  When she enters into the second act, then she’s on.  But it’s certainly a worthy idea.  Certainly that’s the way Wagner thought of it, too.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Which is your role in Tristan?

RR:    Kurwenal.  My first time will be this fall in Los Angeles, six performances between Thanksgiving and Christmas, and I look forward to that because we have Jonathan Miller directing.  I wonder how he will set this, what the staging will be.  [The cast included Jeannine Altmeyer as Isolde, William Johns as Tristan, Florence Quivar as Brangäne and Martti Talvela as King Marke, conducted by Zubin Mehta.]

BD:    Will you do Telramund in Lohengrin?

RR:    If everything works out, I have been offered to do it in Nice in 1990.  I’ve stayed away from it because this is one of those parts where it has both high notes and high tessitura, and my voice is basically either/or.  I can do the high notes or high tessitura but not both.  But I looked at it again and it’s not a long part.  It’s forty-five minutes worth of singing, and that I can hack.  Although it is high, I think I can make a success of it vocally and dramatically.  It can certainly be a good part dramatically.

BD:    How much singing is there for Wotan in Rheingold?

RR:    I bet no more than twenty-five minutes, whereas Walküre is upwards of ninety.  He’s on stage about another fifteen minutes, I think.  The Wanderer in Siegfried is, as Hotter told me, even longer, although I tend to doubt that.  There may be actually more to sing, but I don’t think you are onstage quite as long in Siegfried.  It’s a difficult part.  It’s a hard one, but Rheingold is so damn hard because you are onstage longer than the other two.  You have to emote and really be in the drama, and react and not fall asleep and really be with it.  That’s what takes its toll.

BD:    Now for the really big one.  Tell me about Hans Sachs.

RR:    [Takes a deep breath]  Oh, boy!  That’s probably the nicest part, the most noble part that anybody could ever hope to do.  The trouble is, it’s so long, and in a way it’s just a self-congratulatory portrait of Wagner so it’s very hard to do.  It really is draining.  You have to suffer so much.  You are onstage for three-and-a-half hours.  The singing is two hours and ten minutes, which is longer than any other part in the whole repertoire.  It is the longest role, period.  So you find yourself in the very unenviable position of having this great stuff to do almost all the time, and having to remember you have to save something for later in the opera.  That’s hard because as an actor I like to be able to emote as much as possible onstage, to really put these feelings across, and that requires a certain amount of psychic, if not physical energy.  You have to be able to do that and yet sing and go through the whole evening and feel like you’re still with it.  So that’s the big challenge.  It’s a tremendous part, and I must say it can really break you up.  I know the first time that we had a stage-orchestra rehearsal of the third act, at the final scene, the orchestra sings this wonderful hymn to me, and in the staging I’m facing upstage, which is a very good idea because I was just weeping uncontrollably at that.  To have that beautiful music sung to you at that point... I try not to think about it too much in the actual performances.


BD:    When you are doing any opera, are you portraying the character or do you actually become that character?

RR:    I try to become him.  Maybe an actor with more technique than I have can take off and put on these various personas more readily, but I have to think about it.  I have to look at the text.  I have to plan it out to a certain degree, and then I have to try to put myself in that other’s shoes so that I feel I’m really going through whatever it is that that character is experiencing
laughter, joy, turmoil, whatever.

BD:    That doesn’t get you too close to the guy?  Might you weep uncontrollably at the wrong times?

RR:    It has, and that’s a danger.  But for me it works best, and frankly you can self-destruct this way a lot easier, too.  But I have learned, particularly with the Rheingold Wotan
which is such an awesome challengewhere I can save, where it’s not so necessary to be there with both barrels at once.  With Walküre it’s much more difficult because you have to be prepared to give everything at any given moment.  That character is so pent up and fraught with really murderous emotions so much of the time.  That’s a heavy evening.  Sachs is one where you can be very careful and save if you know what you are doing.  In the Quintet, for example, you can have the stage director put you as far downstage as possible, or in the Fliedermonologue you can sing very lyrically and not get too bent out of shape.  There are other places where you have to let fly, though.  In the Shusterleid you can’t fight the orchestration.  You’ve got to sing it or else.  But to come back to the thrust of your question, as I go on I pick up more tricks, as the Germans would call them, of what to do at the given momentwhere, for example, not to give too much with both body and voice at the same time when one would suffice.  In Siegfried, for example, you can do a lot with the spear.  It makes lots of points without having to really get behind some of the vocal lines and sing like the living daylights.

roloff BD:    But you are still giving enough?

RR:    You have got to give enough, but you just don’t want to feel that you are giving every last ounce of energy.  The other thing is to know your conductor well, and to agree with him ahead of time on spots where the orchestra is going to be held down.  You need to assiduously point out to the conductor if he fails to notice where it says pianissimo in the orchestra because there are a lot of those places in Wagner
a lot more than people realize.  In that respect he is easier to sing that Richard Strauss, who is not often dropped down to pianissimo when the voice enters.

BD:    Did Strauss construct his vocal lines very much like Wagner?

RR:    Yes, and they can be longer, too.  Sometimes the voice line can be several phrases, but the actual musical line that the orchestra is playing can go on for about a half a page of music.  So you have a really long phrase unit in that respect.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Is singing fun?

RR:    Oh yes.  I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t like it, but I must say that singing is sometimes a job, though.  When you have a lot of rehearsals and when you think, “I don’t need to go through this.  I know this.  Why are they bothering me?” then it can NOT be fun.  But, no, I don’t think I’ll ever lose that “song in my heart,” as my mother would probably put it.  That’s why I continue to do it.  That’s why I like it.  It’s just part of me.  It’s something that I always wanted to do, and through God’s will I was able to do it.

BD:    How far ahead are you booked?

RR:    I have dates into 1990.  I will sing Die Liebe der Danae in Munich next summer.  The name of the part, by the way, is Jupiter.

BD:    That’s the part Hotter created?

RR:    He never sang it as an official premiere.  He only did the dress rehearsal in ’44, then they closed the theaters, and that was that. 

BD:    They had the premiere in Salzburg in ’52.

RR:    Yes, and Paul Schoeffler did it.  Then Ferdinand Frantz did it in Covent Garden, and there have been others.  It’s very hard to cast, though, because it doesn’t play especially well.  You have got to have a really full dramatic soprano to sing it, but she has got to be able to float a high D-flat.  It’s one of these things like a Madama Butterfly, and very difficult to find a really good one.  So it isn’t easy, but I’m looking forward to doing it, and I’m looking forward to working with Wolfgang Sawallisch because he will be conducting.  I don’t know who the director will be, but I assume that with Sawallisch being the sort of careful man that he is, there won’t be anything strange going on onstage.  [Others in the cast included Sabine Hass as Danae and James King as Pollux.

BD:    When you are singing onstage, are you always conscious of the conductor?

RR:    Yes, or at least in my subconscious.  Herman Michael (conductor of the 1987 Seattle Ring) points out things to me every now and then.  In Rheingold where I was jumping an entrance, I could never follow him.  So I asked him to give me the cue because when he brings the orchestra down his beat becomes almost imperceptible.  I need a cue at that point, so he gave it to me, and we had no trouble after that.  But the good side of him is that he does conduct small, and this is something that not every conductor will do.  When you get a guy in the pit who waves his arms, the orchestra has no inclination to play softly even if he is indicating it with the left hand.  I run into very few who have been able to do that.  Most are just wildly gesticulating all the time, and I’m surprised they don’t have tennis elbow or conductor’s armpit or whatever they call it because they just go at it hammer and tongs the whole time! 

BD:    Do you want a prompter at all?

roloff RR:    This is something that I’m used to in Germany more than here.  It would be nice to have a prompter for the wings because it is just humongous undertaking, but they haven’t done it in Seattle, and they paid the price in some earlier Rings where people would just get lost.

BD:    How about translation?  Do you ever sing any of these roles in languages other than the original?

RR:    I’m not opposed to it in theory.  In practice, what turns out to be hard is forgetting the original.  It’s one thing to learn the translation, but to try to block out the original text is hard, and then when you are used to doing opera in translation, say Marriage of Figaro, the problem is to relearn each new translation and try to erase the old one.  That’s very difficult.

BD:    Is this idea of the supertitles above the stage the answer?

RR:    I prefer it, frankly, as long as the supertitles are accurate and well-placed and well-timed.  There are all sorts of problems involved with them.  Ideally, people should read the libretto and come to the opera house knowing what is going to be done.  Here again, opera audiences ideally ought to be a little more elite.  That’s just the nature of the animal.  Supertitles are a device to bring more people into the house, but it does change the art form.  It’s somehow a kind of a movie because what many people
particularly the ones that don’t know beans about the languageare concentrating on are the subtitles, so it becomes a kind of silent movie with sound.  You are one step away from the actual immediacy of the stage presence because you can be getting the line before it happens or after it happens.

BD:    Here it was done very well.

RR:    That’s good.  Of course, they have had a little time to practice.  Still, there are a few places where the audience is laughing where they shouldn’t be.  I very much regret the whole business about when I offer Fricka a handkerchief.  It’s a beautiful line, one of the very few legato constabulary lines I get to sing in the opera and people are laughing at it because it’s a joke line.  Sure, he’s conning in that spot.  He’s always got something going on, but it’s with this very honey-sweet tone, and it’s not something that you should laugh at.  Rather, it’s something that you think, “Ah-ha!  He is a really sly devil, isn’t he?”  That would be the proper reaction for the audience.  To look at him trying to wheedle and cajole her just like Don Giovanni would be to Elvira.  There is a lot of that in him, too, such as in Rheingold when he goes over and comforts Fricka and says, “Oh, don’t worry.  I didn’t really mean it when I bargained away Freia.  I wasn’t thinking carefully then...”

BD:    Was Wagner a better dramatist or a better composer?

RR:    That’s a toss-up.  It’s the music which drew me first.  It was years before I saw anything on stage by Wagner, and then it was not a great.  But if you get really compelling actors it’s hard to say because Wagner was such a man of theater.  I don’t think that you can consider his music as concert music really, and that’s why I regret it when I hear excerpts, such as the Entrance of the Gods into Valhalla on radio.

BD:    Even though Wagner himself did do concert excerpts to raise money?

RR:    Exactly.  There you go
he had the piper to pay!  But Wagner was just definitely a man of the theater.  Brahms knew this and so he did not attempt it.  For me, in most of his scores there is always something new to discover, things to act or react with, and that’s the joy of being onstage with Wagner.  There is so much there.  There are so many things that are interwoven that you could play with and against.  It’s marvelous.

BD:    You’ll never come to a definitive answer?

RR:    No, no.  And it’s good, too, because if you did you would get bored with it, it wouldn’t be so fun.  It would just be the sort of attitude where one phones it in, and I don’t want to get that way with this.  I got into this business because I really loved to sing on stage, and I still do, and that’s the way I want it to stay.

BD:    I hope it stays for many years.

RR:    I’ll drink to that.  Thank you.

BD:    Thank you for the interview. 
I’ve been looking forward to this one for a long time.

RR:    Me, too.  You are welcome, Bruce.  It was a pleasure.


© 1987 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in Seattle, Washington, on August 6, 1987.  This transcription was made and much of it was published in Wagner News in February, 1989.  It has now been completed and re-edited, the introduction, pictures, and links have been added, and it has been posted on this website early in 2016.

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.

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.