Baritone / Author Marko
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie
[List of what is on this CD appears at the bottom of this webpage.]
[Another, more comprehensive biography (in German) appears at the
bottom of this webpage.]
In the spring of 1985, I made contact with Rothmüller, and he
graciously allowed me to call him on the phone for a
conversation. He was very straight-forward about discussing the
topics I suggested, and we spent a wonderful hour together.
Names which are links refer to my interviews elsewhere on my
site. Also, note the distinction between, for instance, Rigoletto (the opera by Verdi) and
Rigoletto (the character in the opera).
Here is what transpired at that time . . . . . . . . .
You have been teaching at the Indiana University?
Correct, for twenty-four years. The first seven or eight years I
still sang with some opera houses, like Vienna and the Metropolitan and
Zürich, so I had leaves and wasn’t always in Bloomington.
University was OK with your going back and forth?
MR: Oh, they liked
that here. They like to have an active artist. We have Starker, for
instance, and Pressler,
and many people who concertize all over the world.
BD: Then when
they come back home, they do a little teaching?
Yes. We always have to make up missed lessons, of course.
[Laughs] For instance, when I was with the Met, we never had
rehearsal after Friday Noon usually until Tuesday. So I would fly
back to Bloomington on Friday to teach over the weekend, and Monday
night I would fly back to New York.
BD: Was that
too much for you?
no. It was a flight of two hours or so, which is not too
bad. I enjoyed teaching and I enjoyed singing. Music is my
been involved with young singers for a long time. Are the young
singers today prepared in the same way, or differently than they were
thirty, forty, fifty years ago?
MR: Not only
here, but in general, the whole attitude is a different one, partly
because the requirements are different. What we call bel canto repertory, when that is
done, it is not done the same way as before. Even at my
generation, we used to try to sing it as beautifully as possible, and
many of the parts where not so important as acting parts. I’m not
talking of Rigoletto or Scarpia, but the beauty and the technical
evenness was very important, and everything else was considered
inferior. At least to my knowledge, only a few artists are
of that kind today.
BD: Is this a
good thing or a bad thing?
MR: Oh, it’s
very bad for two reasons. It’s bad whenever a work is performed
which was written for bel canto
— with beautiful singing — and also
that the contemporary singers often have to sing parts which are not
written for beautiful singing, and don’t require the technique which
was worked especially in Italy for about four to six hundred
years. There are vocal requirements which are a different kind,
therefore the voices are often ruined too soon.
BD: At what
point in compositional time did we lose the idea of beautiful singing?
MR: I would
say this was mainly after the Second World War. Even with the
Richard Strauss works, and Hindemith, and Wozzeck, one was still expected,
wherever possible, to sing a beautiful vocal line, a musical line, and
have a wonderful phrasing, and so on. Now this is not so, even
when I listen to the top singers. I know the whole repertoire,
and not only my parts. You can notice how often these people
bring it, and if you bring it more often than good phrasing would
require, it’s inferior in this regard.
BD: It breaks
up the line?
MR: Yes, it
breaks up the line! That’s exactly right. We don’t have
that in the instrumental-style of playing, except for the so-called
contemporary music with the electronics. Otherwise, our
instrumentalists — like Perlman or Starker, or
any of those cellists or violinists or pianists — still
phrase, even when they play the more or less contemporary composers
like Shostakovich or Prokofieff. So you see how phrasing is
important. I can tell you a very amusing thing. Many years
ago I studied in Vienna, but then I went away. After the War, I
sang several years at the Vienna State Opera. First I sang
Rigoletto, and the second performance was The Barber of Seville. In the
Rigoletto, people see me only
in the mask, and they wouldn’t recognize me if I am as I usually am.
you’re all hunched over and everything.
Yes. So when I went to my dressing room for the Barber to change, a gentleman was
there, and asked if I was Mr. Rothmüller. I was the only one
whom he didn’t know, so he figured out that I must be the guest because
at first I was guest, and then I got a contract. He asked if I
was a string player. That was the first time somebody asked me
that, and I was very amused. I told him, “My
main instrument is violin, but I also played other instruments.
Why do you ask?” He said, “Because
in the orchestra we had a discussion. We were of the opinion that
you phrase as a string player.” String
players are sensitive to such things, just as painters are sensitive to
a painting, and the others are not. So that was funny because the
phrasing is very important, and if you play an instrument, you learn it
automatically because you don’t have to breathe. You can phrase
with the bow.
BD: Would you
recommend to all young singers that they study violin or cello for a
year or two?
MR: This is
always a very good thing. I usually recommend people to play the
piano because that’s a very useful instrument, and in the piano you can
learn all these principles, too. Bernard Greenhouse [cellist with the Beaux Arts Trio]
played The Swan, and it was
just one of those times when it was thousand per cent perfect.
The next morning we were talking about it, and I said, “I
always say to my baritone students they should sing as a good cellist
plays.” Then he said to me, “That’s
funny. I say to my students they should play as a good baritone
BD: So each
of you were looking for the ideal in the other!
something which should we should have in common. The moment you
listen to a singer, if you cannot compare it to any instrumental
music-making, it’s not good. A hundred and fifty years ago, if a
soprano sang, you didn’t know sometimes if it was an oboe or a soprano
because they sang so instrumentally. Also the production of the
tone was a different before the Romantic period. It was only in
the Romantic period that they started the change. It happened in
instrumental music as well. Before that, the vocal music was used
to express a mood, with expressions of longing, love and such
things. So you had to give to the tone something in addition to
just the pitch.
BD: Would it
be correct then to say that a hundred and fifty years ago every
musician learned musicianship, and then on top of that superimposed
whatever technique they were using, such as violin, or voice, or piano?
right in this only that they landed at the same time. In the
seventeenth century, and especially in the eighteenth century, vocal
training was whole-day training. All day you would learn
sight-singing, harmony, scales, staccati,
trills, everything. It was all day, and the days were
longer. They didn’t quit at five o’clock! [Both laugh]
Right! So have we really lost that tradition?
MR: Yes, but
some people will say we have gained other things. I personally
disagree because I like beauty. For me, I wouldn’t accept that,
and when I sang Wozzeck, I didn’t sing it as some people might.
If you have an opportunity, you can listen to the record of Wozzeck with Fischer-Dieskau.
There, every note is correct.
of Wozzeck, you studied
composition with Alban Berg (1885-1935).
MR: Yes, I
did. At that time I didn’t even intend in the slightest to ever
become a singer. During the time I was in Vienna —
before I came to him — I was already a paid
conductor of a choir. But before that, I also conducted
instrumentalists, and so on. My oldest brother, who took care of
us because we didn’t have a father anymore at that time, said I should
also take voice lessons because a voice teacher had said it would be a
crime not train my voice. So I had to do it, because otherwise I
couldn’t understand. It was only when I was with Berg for about
three years that people heard me, and I suddenly had success as a young
singer. Then I figured if I tried as a singer and didn’t succeed,
I could always turn to conducting, which I did. I conducted
orchestras and my own compositions during my life several times.
Even in the last ten years in Bloomington, I wrote for a play with
music, and I conducted it myself. But if I started to sing I
didn’t succeed or I didn’t like it, then it is very difficult because a
voice is an instrument which you have to maintain.
studying with Berg, did he gave you ideas about how to compose?
MR: He taught
very much the same way as Schoenberg did. I would compare it to
how a carpenter teaches his apprentice. That is how he taught me.
studying his teaching techniques and then studying his music, did you
find that Berg actually adhered to the kinds of things in his own music
that he taught?
sure! The thing is he didn’t really teach. He taught only
what he called ‘the strict style’. I didn’t go to him as a
beginner. I had already finished harmony very successfully.
I had five years training at the Academy, so I was already an expert in
writing polytonal music. When I was with Berg we went a little
bit back, and then went through all these things. When I asked
him when we would work on modern counterpoint, as we called it at that
time, after a while he thought he understood me. He said, “I
would consider myself quite a contemporary composer, but I wouldn’t
know what to teach you. I can only teach you the rules.
Which rules you ignore or change is up to you.”
So I did learn the rules of the twelve-tone music, which he wrote, but
he didn’t insist on any style. I only wrote a few twelve-tone
BD: If you
were still writing music today, would you write in the style of Berg?
I composed a lot of music but it is always, I would say, kind of late
Romantic. He himself was always trying his music at the piano,
and everything has to sound. It has to make sense as a sound, not
only look good on the paper. Everybody notices that if you take
these three composers — Schoenberg, Webern and
Berg — Berg is easier to listen to. Webern
most difficult than some of the others because it is too much the other
trying to figure out where composers in general went wrong.
MR: Oh, they
didn’t go wrong! I could tell you in very simple terms. If
you take the so-called Classic period of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven,
they didn’t mind if they used a theme of anybody else and made
something new out of it, either as a variation or in a quartet.
Haydn, and especially Beethoven, even used folk tunes. The
originality was first of all not required; it was music which was
required. But nowadays people try to do something new with
computer music, with electronic sounds. If you go to a recital of
so-called ‘contemporary music’, most of the time you hear sounds, or
noises, which you normally try to avoid. [Both laugh] If
you are at the railway station, you are irritated, but in the concert
hall you pay money to hear it!
BD: Have the
composers today forgotten about the public?
[Laughs] This is a little bit misleading because the composers I
mentioned very seldom considered the public. They wrote what they
felt should be written. Nowadays composers try to baffle people
and to surprise people. I’m now talking of people like Xenakis, and Eaton, and Cage. As far as
I remember, Cage said that if the art that is produced nowadays is any
different from life, then it is not a contemporary art. That is
his opinion. In times before ours, it was just the
opposite. If something was the same as it is in life, then it was
not art. When I was a teenager, I already knew that when I go to
the theater, I want to know that I’m in the theater. I don’t want
to be someplace where it is ordinary life.
BD: Tell me a
bit about the role of Wozzeck.
It is not easy to say a little bit in a short time. Basically I
will tell you that apart from the person I saw in 1930 in Vienna, who
had the advantage of Berg around, I haven’t found anybody who
understood the title role, or most roles, in Wozzeck correctly. From what
I’ve seen and heard, they all consider him as a Dorftrottel [village idiot], a
fool, a real fool that is stupid and silly. Just the opposite is
true. He is a very intelligent, perceptible person. He is
very sensitive and is little educated, and knows nothing apart from
what he heard. Therefore he cannot understand most of the
happenings around him. He goes from the Captain to his common law
wife, Marie, and then to the doctor, and asks for explanations, and
none of these people are capable to explain the things which he
asks. He asks what is it when the sun is so red in the
evenings. How come it’s like fire? How is it possible that
the toad stools are so regular? With such questions nobody can
guess, and they all think he’s going crazy... and at the end he does
lose his mind.
BD: Is he
asking these questions to expand his horizons and get more
intelligence, or is he just asking to survive?
No, no, no, he doesn’t go to school. He cannot afford it. He says
immediately at the beginning that he has not even the money to be
moral, much less to be educated. But the writer, Büchner, as
well as Berg, identify themselves with Wozzeck. They speak
through Wozzeck. They certainly don’t speak through Marie or the
Captain or the Doctor, or to any of the others. What they want to
say, they say through Wozzeck. Who would expect those people to
identify themselves with an idiot? Despite the trouble that he is
in, although he cannot afford morality, he’s very ethical and
moral. After Marie has committed her sin, it is very strange to
him that it doesn’t show in her face. He said one should actually
be able to see that if somebody is not moral, or upright anymore.
But he cannot notice everything. “You look
exactly as you did before,” but he feels he has
to be the arm God, and that’s how he kills her. Then in the next
scene, when people are upset because they see he has a little bit of
blood on him. They don’t know from where it comes, so he says, “I
must have cut myself.” Then he says, “I
am murderer!” That somehow makes sense to
him, and then he goes and acts like any other murderer. Then he
drowns. He doesn’t drown willingly. He just goes into the
water to wash the blood off, and he drowns. There is a moment
where his mind was ‘kaput’.
BD: You say
that Berg spoke through the character of Wozzeck. Do you find
that most great opera composers speak through one or another of the
characters in their operas?
sure. Verdi is a very simple case. He wouldn’t have made
Traviata such a good person if felt she was just a prostitute.
Then he speaks through Rigoletto. He does not identify himself
with the Sparafucile, who is a hired killer, or with the Duke; just
with Rigoletto mainly, and then Gilda to a certain extent.
BD: Is there
ever a case where a composer speaks through two of the characters in
the opera, rather than just one?
MR: Oh, yes,
that could be so. In the music which was written after the middle
of the past century, the thing can be much more complicated in the
whole Wagner business, and in Strauss. If you take Elektra, Orestes and Elektra are
BD: In Rosenkavalier, is it both Octavian
and the Marschallin?
MR: Well, Rosenkavalier I wouldn’t take that
seriously! [Both laugh] There are many things said through
the Marschallin, and through Octavian there are certain things, but
this was all done by Hofmannsthal.
BD: You sang
with Strauss conducting?
BD: How was
he as a conductor?
MR: I’ve never
seen a better one and a more brilliant one. I saw him conduct
many times before I sang with him. He was the most brilliant
musician you can imagine. We don’t have such people around.
BD: Was he as
brilliant with his own music as well as the music of others?
MR: His own
and the music of the others! I heard him do Mozart, Beethoven,
and all kinds of things.
BD: What made
him special, or was that just the spark of genius?
he did, he was a many-sided man. But he did it with such an ease,
and so brilliantly that if he would have been a better character as a
human being, he would have been a double for Beethoven. But
unfortunately he was, you know...
BD: So all of
his genius was concentrated in his music?
MR: In music
he was marvelous, but out of his music he didn’t have too much
character. You could leave out whatever you want from his works
as long as you paid the royalty. I heard him speaking that way
when I was young. I felt like strangling him because a composer
should fight for humanity, for human beings.
BD: Was there
no chance that he just wanted his music on the stage, even though it
might have been hacked to shreds?
MR: No, no,
no, no, no. It was both he and Stravinsky. The funny thing
is both have the first four letters the same. They were only
after money. [Pauses a moment] Well, I wouldn’t say ‘only’,
but the money was so important to them both.
BD: So they
wrote music for the money, rather than for their art?
MR: No, I
wouldn’t say that... I will give you an example. Stravinsky
was directly commissioned, but not with a contract, at Covent Garden,
the Royal Opera House. The manager said to him to write an opera
in English and they will perform it. Covent Garden performed his
other operas in German, of course, and also in translation, but he
wanted one in English. So Stravinsky wrote The Rake’s Progress, but then he’s
offered $2,000 more, and he gave the first performance in Venice!
His publisher told me that, so I knew it really happened that
way. As to Strauss, a rich American — I
don’t know who it was — paid him, as far as I
remember, about $10,000 to copy another full score of Rosenkavalier.
BD: To make a
BD: And he
MR: And he
did it! I personally consider all Strauss’ music, especially his
full scores, whether it was manuscript or printed, to be like
etchings. It’s fantastic. For a musician, if you look at
it, it is just so perfect. Somehow it is a combination of an
etching of a picture and music. It is fantastic. You can
see that it must sound beautiful as well. His handwriting is
something marvelous. Approximately a year before he died, I saw
him in the Tate Gallery in London, and we spoke. But then I
watched him. He was looking at the etchings as a painter
would. He was fascinated by the strokes of the pen. He
studied it. I have never seen a painter or a man who draws look
at it with greater interest. He was a marvelous mind.
BD: Let us
move over to Wagner. You sang a number of his roles, and one in
particular — Amfortas — you
have on your list that you sang it in three different languages
— German, English and Serbo-Croatian.
MR: Yes, I
sang it first in Serbo-Croatian, then in German, and then in
Bloomington in English. For twenty years, always around Easter
time, they had Parsifal.
They stopped it about ten or twelve years ago, or so.
Parsifal an opera or a religious drama?
MR: I don’t
like it as an opera. For me the best performance, or the one I
enjoyed most, was that one we had in Zagreb because there it was done
with the intention to be as it was in Bayreuth. We also had the
intermissions as in Bayreuth. It is a Catholic town, and in the
chorus you could see that these people considered that they don’t have
to go to the church. They would just do it there. It was a
marvelous spirit, and as a teenager I went. I was in the standing
room for the students. It took six hours with the intermissions,
and I saw it twice in succession — Friday and
Sunday. You didn’t see the orchestra or the conductor because it
was covered just as in Bayreuth. In all the other towns where I
saw it or sang it, it was done like an opera.
BD: That destroyed
it a little bit?
MR: Oh, not
necessarily. The trouble is not with that. The trouble is
that nobody performs Parsifal
with the right tempi
now. I haven’t heard it done correctly for over fifty
years. The overture, for instance, is done, I would say, three
time as fast as it should be.
BD: So the
performance should be very slow?
slow. I have demonstrated to my colleagues the difference in the
very beginning of the Grail motive, and after a few measures you are
BD: There are
a couple of recordings on the market now with Knappertsbusch which are
very slow. Is that slow enough?
could be. Knappertsbusch was slow. He conducted also in
Bayreuth. I didn’t hear it but he was a marvelous conductor.
BD: Tell me
about the character of Amfortas. How did you see him?
MR: It is a
part which is composed just perfectly with the words to express
everything, but it is not musically or vocally easy. He is a very
deep-felt person. We had two performances in front of the
Cathedral in Zagreb. In the first row was the bishop, and in the
second scene, as you know, I do take the chalice and do a cross with
it. I always did it so slowly and so in the mood because it is a
sacred work, not an opera. With that music you can do it, but I
have never seen it that way. Parsifal himself also does it in the
last act, but they never have the intention to do it that way. I
am a little bit different in this regard for many reasons. I had
marvelous teachers in my life, especially for music. When I
studied to be a conductor, one of our main teachers in the Academy, who
taught us orchestration said, “Don’t forget you
are the representative for the composer. You have to fight for
what you think he intended. You might misunderstand, but what you
think he wanted and how he wanted the music, you have to fight for
it. If he is a dead composer you have to do it doubly.”
This made sense to me. There was a famous man, the teacher of Zubin Mehta, named
BD: Oh, Hans
Swarowsky, yes. He also worked on this with Strauss, and he
translated everything for Strauss. He was also very
brilliant, but he just didn’t have any character. We did several
things together, including Don Carlo
and Luisa Miller by Verdi,
and he would leave out one or two measures. So I said to him, “Who
are you to correct Verdi?” Once I had such
a fight with him we were not on speaking terms for a while.
BD: When a
musician on stage has a different idea than the musician in the pit,
MR: I would
always do what the conductors asked. I sang Rigoletto with many
people. In the third act, there is a marvelous scene where he
sings to his daughter she should be crying, piange, piange. That is
marked in the score as an eighth note at 60, which means one to one
second, and I wanted it in that tempo. Swarowsky said to me, “We
don’t have nerve today to do it so slowly.”
I said, “If you don’t have the nerve, don’t
conduct it!” [Both laugh] Sometimes
we have to compromise, and sometimes we have to rule with it, but you
cannot fight a conductor. He’s the boss in the performance.
I did Rigoletto in Berlin with a conductor who made up
suggestions. He said to me, “Don’t you
think this is right?” I said, “For
me, the conductor is always right!” He was
right, of course. That is the basic rule. You cannot fight
the stage director. You can suggest, and you can try, but he has
the last word, and the conductor does, too.
BD: Are the
stage directors today perhaps having too many last words?
MR: I don’t
know any stage director like that. People like that should not be
directing... with very few exceptions, and the exceptions are always
when people who were singers became stage directors, then they do the
same thing that they did, so that is good. For instance, here (at Indiana University) Rossi-Lemeni
did several things, and he did very well. But the so-called stage
directors always want to be original, and they always disregard
intentions of the composer. You can see this, for instance, very
well in works like Carmen,
which are so simple. They try to make Don José as bad as
he is in the novel — which means he is a
murderer and a deserter — but Bizet did not put
that to music. He didn’t make him at all that character.
Just think of the duet with Micaëla. This is not such a
character, and nowhere in the dialogue is he such a person.
BD: Where do
we draw the line between breathing new life into a piece and going too
what I would like to know, but I don’t know when was the last time I
personally had contact with a stage director I could agree with or
accept. I will tell you of one very well-known stage director who
came once to stage an opera here. He’s with the Met and all the
big houses. I don’t want to say his name. I was told how
marvelous he is, and he was a very nice person. I met him and
spent a marvelous evening with him. That was very good, but when
I went to the rehearsal I couldn’t believe my eyes. It was a
simple opera called La Bohème,
and in the last act, for instance, what Musetta should be saying to
Marcello, he made her say to Schaunard! Even the snow was in the
beginning of the second act instead of the third act. If you ask
me, there was not one single minute which was correct.
MR: And this
is one of the leading stage directors. Mostly it comes because
they want to do it differently, and they want to be original.
Sometimes probably they misunderstand, and they want to put something
in a work that isn’t there.
BD: But I
assume you don’t feel the work should always be staged exactly the same
way, slavishly adhering to one concept?
MR: No, not
at all. We had rehearsals for Wozzeck
in New York, at the Met. I had sung it before in London and
Buenos Aires, and so on. The stage director was Herbert Graf, who
was a Viennese and very intelligent man who knew Berg personally.
In one scene, Wozzeck comes to the window, and Marie tells him to come
in. He says he has no time, and then he goes. Graf made
Wozzeck come into the room while she still saying to come in.
Hermann Uhde sang the performances (along with Eleanor Steber as
Marie), and he did what Graf asked. However, I stayed at the
window. Erich Kleiber was the conductor and he helped me
enormously. He knew the work better than Berg himself musically
in every regard. He explained to me many things when we first did
it. He was my conductor when we did gave it for the first time at
Covent Garden in 1952, and he was the original conductor in 1925.
So I asked Kleiber what I should do, and he said to do it
correctly. Suddenly when I did it, Graf said, “Now
it makes sense to me.” You see, if you
don’t do it right, it doesn’t make sense, but there are several ways of
doing it right.
BD: Was it
being sung in English?
MR: That was
done in English, yes.
BD: Do you
feel that opera works well in translation?
Absolutely, if the translation is good. It is always important
that the audience understands it, and above all that the singer
understands it. Immediately after the War, we had Aïda in Vienna in
Italian. That was the only opera they did in the original.
Since about 1960 they do most operas in the original, but before that
everything was done in the language of the country. So first of
all, the Radames had such bad pronunciation that it was impossible, and
of course he didn’t understand one word he was singing. He could
emphasize the wrong word very easily. On the other hand, I had
the experience when I sang it in one language and a guest sang it in
another, that can be also very awkward. I remember a funny
instance in Butterfly.
There was a guest, Dusolina Giannini, and she sang in Italian. So
at one point I asked what day is today, and she asked if I had an
orange because the translation didn’t go at the same time. [Both
laugh] In London we had Tosca
in English. At that time, they did everything in English.
Only during the June Festival Wagner was done in German, but now they
do everything in the original. We had once a guest Tosca who sang
in Italian, so I sang all our scenes in Italian because Scarpia is very
much with Tosca. Whenever we were together I sang with her in
Italian so as not to say something and then have her answer something
different. I thought it was better that way.
BD: How evil is
MR: He’s very
evil, but somehow everybody likes him. I can be particularly evil
as Scarpia. In the first act when I come on the stage, the fear
and the audience being scared is so translated that you can feel it on
the stage. Nobody is other than tense, and on the stage certainly
you understand that. In the second act I preyed very much in this
sadistic way. I’m so nervous all the time when I’m interrogating
and not getting the answer I want, that when Tosca suddenly bursts out
where Angelotti is you can see how my full tension is gone. I’m
suddenly relaxed! At first you see how he tries to be very
dangerous, and that’s very important. But everybody likes him,
and that is shown in a funny thing. We had Tosca in London, and Hilda Zadek
sang the title role. There was an elderly gentleman who was a
great admirer and friend of her, and one evening after a performance,
Zadek said it was her birthday and there was to be a little
party. So we went, and there was that gentleman. He was a
Hungarian, a very sweet person. Later on we were friends with the
family, but suddenly, at that first meeting he said (with amazement)
that I was a very nice man! He always thought that I was such a
horrible police chief as Scarpia. [Both laugh]
you’re on the stage, how much are you portraying a character and how
much do you become the character?
MR: I am not
myself anymore. I become the character. When I was a
student, I heard Lotte Lehmann. Her brother was one of our
teachers in the Conservatory, and one day she came for a visit.
Everybody sang this and that, and then he asked her what helps her when
she’s portraying something. She said, “When
I am portraying something, I always try to imagine what this person
will do, and how this person would act and react.”
That was still at the time when I didn’t want to become a singer.
I never thought I would become a singer, but I already sang certain
things in this opera workshop. I felt that this idea was wrong,
but later, of course, I came to it. I’m never thinking of the
person. When I sing The Barber
of Seville, I am the mischievous young boy, and I act as I would
act when I’m him exactly. When I’m Scarpia, I’m terrible.
There was another opera where I have to strangle the tenor [probably Il Tabarro, also of Puccini]. We didn’t
have stage rehearsals because we didn’t have enough time, and suddenly
comes the dress rehearsal. The stage director at that time, who
was a good one, said that we hadn’t rehearsed that strangling. So
I jokingly said to him, “You, a Swiss, want to
teach me, a Yugoslav, how to strangle a person???”
[Both laugh] Of course, I was trying to do it especially well and
satisfactory. When I strangled him, I didn’t really strangle him,
but on my face you could see a strangler! Even if the part is
something I wouldn’t like, the moment I’m on stage I am that person.
BD: Then how
long after the performance does it take for you to let go of that
moment I’m off the stage, probably. There are some parts which
for hours before and hours later I am the same person. My
colleagues, the stage hands and so on used to watch me when I was doing
Rigoletto. I’ve never seen a Rigoletto who is immediately a
Rigoletto. I’m Rigoletto, even behind the stage. Otherwise,
how can it come across authentically?
BD: When you
leave your dressing room, that’s when you become this character?
moment I put the costume on, certainly. When I was a young
singer, a very esteemed critic and musicologist in Zurich, who also
taught at the university and was a known author of books about Wagner
and so on, once came to me and asked, “Tell me,
Mr. Rothmüller, how are men with your background not bored or
irritated doing the same parts over and over again?”
I was a young man, only twenty-seven years old at that time, and I said
to him, “I never sing or do the same part twice.”
Yes. I have spoken to many artists and conductors, and they all
have the same attitude — it’s never the
same. It’s always new unless you become a mechanical person.
BD: So that
is the heart of the characterization?
Yes. Once I had a terrible time because we had several Traviata performances in less than
two weeks. This is a part which is beautiful to sing. It is
not easy to sing, but as an acting part there is not much
development. So it doesn’t need such a great investment of
concentration. So it happened after a few evenings, after the
second act the conductor comes on stage, and asked if I could see
him. I didn’t even know. It became so mechanical because
there were too many performances in succession. That can
happen. But while I was singing, obviously he didn’t notice
BD: This is
really more from the heart than technique?
Absolutely! Technique is only the means you use. It’s a
tool. The more technique you have, the more you can use it, but I
have never found it so that you could see it in a trained singer.
The General Manager in Zurich, who was a great admirer of mine, said to
me often, “For you singing is nothing. You
just sing.” They all thought that I just
open my mouth and can sing, and I don’t have to use technique. In
truth, I never sing one note without knowing how and why, but I don’t
show it! It must look almost as if I would speak. That’s
also what I try to teach. If a blind person hears you, he must
always hear a very even melody. If a deaf person notices that you
are singing, he must never know when you’re singing low notes or high
notes. You can see it all on the faces of so many singers.
For instance, with opera performances on the television, you can turn
off the sound but you can still know when he or she is singing high
notes. [Bruce laughs]
BD: It’s all
in the face?
MR: Yes, and
it’s not supposed to be. It has nothing to do with it. The
high note is not made by the face. It’s not made by the
mouth. It is made in your larynx, in your voice box.
supported by the diaphragm?
BD: Let me ask you
about another composer — Heinrich
MR: He’s a
very nice young man... at that time he was a young man!
BD: Was he a
good opera composer?
MR: Well, I
didn’t find him too original, but he was a very capable composer, and
what he wrote worked on the stage. I would say he was much like Menotti, only I
liked him better than Menotti.
about Benjamin Britten?
MR: There you
are in a different level. That was a marvelous, marvelous
musician, marvelous composer, marvelous man, but he had also his
strange characteristics. He didn’t consider Brahms to be a good
composer. That can happen, although he had something in common
with Brahms. I just realized that Brahms always played his things
for his friends, and they would make suggestions but he would change
nothing. Britten and I became very good friends, and his
publisher told me he could sell The
Rape of Lucretia to many theaters if it had a normal
orchestra. The work is written only for thirteen
instruments. Once after a performance when we were in Aldeburgh,
we were talking, and Britten was in marvelous mood. So I said
that Dr. Hawkes told me that he should make a version for a normal
orchestra. He was suddenly so angry! He said that he cannot
do it. It’s only for this group, and he wouldn’t change it.
You know, Berg did write Wozzeck
for quite large orchestra, and then he made version for a small
BD: So there
are two versions?
MR: Yes, one
with a smaller orchestra. When I did it in New York at the City
Opera, we did it with this version. I believe all the woodwinds
were in twos and not threes, but then the sound is always the
same. I didn’t notice any difference.
given a lot of ideas to think about, and you continue to give a great
deal to your students.
MR: I’m not
teaching anymore unfortunately, although I like to teach. We will
have this masterclass, but that’s only one week or so.
you’ve given so much through your many performances on stage, and
thousands of lessons to students. Do you feel that your students
can carry on the flame that you had?
do. I wouldn’t know any exceptions to those who carry on the
morals, or the ethics that I instilled in them, even if they are not
all performers. That’s my Credo.
certainly appreciate you taking the time this afternoon to talk with me.
MR: Thank you
very much. I enjoyed it.
© 1985 Bruce Duffie
This conversation was recorded on the telephone on May 18,
1985. Portions were broadcast on WNIB in 1993 and 1998.
This transcription was made in 2017, and posted on this
at that time. My thanks to British soprano Una
Barry for her help in preparing this website
To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been
transcribed and posted on this website, click here.
Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975
its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001. His
interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since
and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well
on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.
You are invited to visit his website
for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of
other interviews, plus a full list of his guests. He would also
to call your attention to the photos and information about his
grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a
century ago. You may also send him E-Mail
with comments, questions and suggestions.