Tenor  Michael  Schade

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


Hailed as one of the world’s leading tenors, German-Canadian tenor Michael Schade performs on every major opera stage and in the most prestigious concert halls of the world. His art form embraces a wide repertoire of performances in opera, recital, concert, and recording.

He continues his close collaboration with the Vienna State Opera in the 2014/15 season returning for a new production of "Idomeneo" under Christoph Eschenbach and Kasper Holten. At the Vienna State Opera, Michael Schade has performed all of the leading Mozart and Strauss roles. His subtle, yet powerful interpretation of Dvořák’s "Rusalka", Mozart's "La clemenza di Tito" and in Strauss' "Capriccio" with Renée Fleming won him critical acclaim and high praise from audiences.

He frequently performs at the Metropolitan Opera, the Munich Opera and the Canadian Opera Company, where he debuted his highly acclaimed Eisenstein in "Die Fledermaus" last season, at the Teatro alla Scala in Milan, the Liceu Barcelona, the Royal Opera House Covent Garden and the Opéra Bastille in Paris. In November 2013 Michael Schade was invited back by Simone Young to debut "Peter Grimes" at the Hamburg State Opera where his award winning Aschenbach in "Death in Venice" was their most recent collaboration. The unanimous critical acclaim for these role debuts, which includes his first Florestan in Beethoven’s "Fidelio" at the Theater an der Wien under Nikolaus Harnoncourt, have paved the way for more dramatic parts to be added to his already impressive repertoire. Further highlights include Berg’s "Lulu" with Fabio Luisi at the Metropolitan Opera, and "Idomeneo" with the Nederlandse Opera in Amsterdam and a new production of "Don Giovanni" for which he will return to the Canadian Opera Company in Toronto.

As one of the favorite artists of the Salzburg Festival for almost two decades, Schade has appeared in new stagings of Mozart’s "La clemenza di Tito", Purcell’s "King Arthur", Mozart’s "Die Zauberflöte", Haydn’s "Armida", Cherubini’s "Medée" and von Winter’s "Das Labyrinth". Recent highlights in Salzburg include Haydn’s "Creation" and "Seasons" under the baton of Harnoncourt and Schubert’s "Die schöne Müllerin" with Rudolf Buchbinder. In 2008 he initiated and was appointed the Creative Director of the Salzburg Festival’s Young Singers Project, where his public master classes are an audience favorite. In summer 2014, he presented himself in the title role of Schubert's "Fierrabras" with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra under Ingo Metzmacher, directed by Peter Stein.


In addition to his opera career, Schade has earned a reputation as a stellar concert and recital soloist. His immense repertoire ranges from Bach’s Cantatas and Passions to Mahler’s "Lied von der Erde".  He is frequently invited to perform with the leading orchestras and their renowned conductors such as Claudio Abbado, Ivor Bolton, Pierre Boulez, Semyon Bychkov, Riccardo Chailly, Christoph von Dohnányi, Valery Gergiev, Daniel Harding, Mariss Jansons, Philippe Jordan, James Levine, Fabio Luisi, Zubin Mehta, Riccardo Muti, Kent Nagano, Peter Oundjan, Sir Simon Rattle, Helmuth Rilling, Christian Thielemann, Robin Ticciati, Franz Welser-Möst, and Simone Young. Furthermore, his musical activities are strongly influenced by his frequent collaboration with Nikolaus Harnoncourt.

His 2013/14 season included Berlioz’ "Damnation de Faust" with the Montreal Symphony Orchestra under Kent Nagano, Mahler’s "Das Lied von der Erde" with the Boston Symphony Orchestra under Daniel Harding, Mendelssohn’s "Walpurgisnacht" with the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra under Pablo Heras-Casado, Beethoven’s "Missa solemnis" with Sir Roger Norrington at New York’s Carnegie Hall and Bach’s "St. Matthew Passion" and Haydn’s "Seasons" under Nikolaus Harnoncourt at Vienna’s Musikverein and in Melk. The current season leads Mr. Schade to Vienna’s Musikverein for Haydn’s "Creation" with Nicolaus Harnoncourt, to the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam for Bach’s "St. John Passion", to Luxembourg and Seoul for Beethoven’s "Ninth Symphony" with Iván Fischer and for the same work under Paavo Järvi in Paris and finally to the Gewandhaus in Leipzig where he will perform Mendelssohn’s "Lobgesang" and Rossini’s "Stabat Mater" under the baton of Riccardo Chailly.

Michael Schade’s undisputed accomplishments and charm as a recitalist have inspired audiences at every major venue, including the Musikverein, Konzerthaus and State Opera in Vienna, the Concertgebouw Amsterdam, New York’s Alice Tully and Carnegie Halls, London’s Wigmore Hall, Verbier Festival, Schubertiade Schwarzenberg, Grafenegg Festival, and La Scala in Milan. His schedule for the current season includes recitals at the Wigmore Hall, Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, Salzburg’s Mozartwoche and the Konzerthaus in Vienna.

A prolific recording artist, Michael Schade has performed in Bach’s "St. Matthew Passion" with Harnoncourt which was awarded a Grammy for the best choral work. In a close artistic relationship with Maestro Harnoncourt, he has also recorded Handel’s "Messiah", Verdi’s "Requiem", Haydn’s "Orlando Paladino", Mozart’s "Zaide" and "La clemenza di Tito". Other notable recordings include Mahler’s "Lied von der Erde" with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra and Pierre Boulez, Mozart’s "Requiem" with the Berlin Philharmonic under Claudio Abbado, and Grammy nominated "Daphne" with Renée Fleming under Semyon Bychkov, including live recordings of the Mozart Gala at Salzburg Festival. His list of awards includes three Junos for CBC Records’ "Die schöne Müllerin" with Malcolm Martineau, Soirée Française and Mozart: Arie e Duetti. Recently he was featured in live recordings of "Die schöne Müllerin" with Rudolf Buchbinder at Grafenegg and DVDs of "Arabella" (Vienna State Opera), "Das Labyrinth" (Salzburg Festival) and of the "Summer Night Concert" of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra (Schönbrunn) in 2013 under the baton of Lorin Maazel.

In 2007, the Republic of Austria appointed Michael Schade to Kammersänger for his exceptional cultural merits. Mr. Schade was artist-in-residence at the Musikverein in Vienna, featuring his own subscription series in the 2009/10 season. He is the Artistic Director of the Hapag Lloyd Stella Maris International Vocal Competition and, together with Dee McKee, initiator of the Red Ribbon Celebration Concert, a fundraising initiative for the Clinton Health Access Initiative. The Internationale Barocktage Stift Melk has appointed Mr. Schade its Artistic Director through 2019.

--  Biography [text only] from the artist's website.  
--  Names which are links in this box and below refer to my interviews elsewhere on my website.  BD  


Michael Schade appeared with Lyric Opera of Chicago on two occasions.  First, in 1999, he was David in Die Meistersinger, along with Jan-Hendrick Rootering, Nancy Gustafson, Gösta Winbergh, Eike Wilm Schulte, René Pape, and John Del Carlo, with Christian Thielemann conducting.  Schade would return to Lyric Opera in 2005 for The Magic Flute in the famous August Everding production conducted by Sir Andrew Davis, and in 2017 the Chicago Symphony welcomed him for the St. Cecilia Mass of Gounod.

schade It was during his first visit in 1999 that we had the opportunity to sit down for a conversation.  Like his onstage character, Schade was eager to speak about the topics, and we had a lively and wide-ranging chat.

As we were setting up for the recording, our thoughts moved into the subject of recordings . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:   Do you enjoy making recordings?  
[Vis-à-vis the recording shown at right, see my interview with Karita Mattila.]

Michael Schade:   It’s the absolute dream of any singer to do recordings, really.  I guess the difference between us and people who do something like ballet is the fact that one can actually record something for the future.  The great thing about doing a recording is that it enables you to give your own very personal interpretation, whatever that may be at a given moment.  It does change, and it’s like a little time capsule for the future.  I’ve always seen it as the biggest complement to be allowed to do recordings.  These are tough times for the recording industry, but we still somehow manage to do a few.

BD:   Do you sing any differently for the microphone than you do for the public?

MS:   Not necessarily, although one has to admit that for the microphone, you’re allowed to.  The more piano you seem to sing for the microphone, the more it seems to pick up on that.  If you blow the voice full out for on the microphone, it often doesn’t read as well, funnily enough.  In general, it’s a mistake to think about singing as being different for different halls and different locations.  If you’re true to your voice and the instrument, you should try to sing the same.  In other words, if you’re singing a recital at the Wigmore Hall, or an opera role at the Lyric Opera, you really should basically be singing the same way.

BD:   [With a gentle nudge]  Even though one might be with piano, and the other against 85 guys in the pit trying to cover you up?

MS:   [Laughs]  Exactly, because if the 85 guys are blowing you out of the water, then they’re not doing their job, because it wasn’t written to be blown out of the water.

BD:   Is that the conductor’s responsibility to make sure that the balance is right?

MS:   Yes.  The big thing here is teamwork.  Yes, there are people with large voices, and people with smaller voices, but I’m a firm believer that voices are about color.  Every person has a certain voice color.  Even non-singers have voice colors, so it’s like fingerprints.  It’s something that no one can duplicate whatsoever.  It’s a certain freedom we all have that makes us very individual and very unique.  The whole point about recording is to get that one unique person’s view and voice.  So, if you do have a big voice
or a smaller voiceyou still have to be able to be heard, and if you go against your color, if you somehow manipulate your voice, you lose your uniqueness.  It all sounds very grand, but it really is true because it’s just a fact of nature.  It’s as biological fact that if you go against your nature, against your voice, you will not be heard as well, or your voice will not read as well on a recording.  It’s an interesting sort of phenomenon.  There’s an obsession in North America about voice size.  You don’t have to have a big voice to be heard in a big hall.  If you’re true to your voice, and if you sing properly, you will be heard.  People who are known not to have big voices, are still heard at the back of the Met.

BD:   They have focus?

MS:   Exactly, which is what it’s all about, and they stay natural to their voice.  You often see a lot of people who sing heavy Wagner things, push and push and push, and you don
t really hear them all that well.  I might add that none of the singers in our cast fall into that category.

BD:   When you talk about color, do you try to bring out all the shades of that color?

MS:   Yes, absolutely.  Another interesting thing about voice color is that I’m a strong believer that your voice color has a lot to do with your background.  We all know the singing of John McCormack, the Irish tenor, but there’s a real sort of English sound these days, which is the Peter Pears school.  But we have Robert Tear, we have this new fellow, Ian Bostridge, or we have a very Italianate sound which is, obviously, the Pavarotti and Andrea Bocelli voice.  You also have a Spanish-Latino sound, like Alfredo Kraus or Giuseppe Sabbatini.  Obviously, I’m only talking about tenors here at the moment because those are the ones that I studied most.  We have a very German-lyric sound, a Wunderlich or Peter Schreier, and I associate myself in that lineage.  Then you have the very Swedish sound, which is a Björling sound, yet each of these sounds can do different repertoire.  It just will bring a different shading or a different color.

schade BD:   From your observation, is there an American sound yet?

MS:   This is a very, very curious thing, because while there’s an obsession here about voice size, American singers by far have the bragging rights for having the greatest number of fantastic singers in the world.  The Americans generally tend to have very great respect amongst their European and Italian colleagues.  I guess it is just the number of people who study voice in this country.  They keep producing great, great, fine voices.  In my field, that would be people like Paul Groves, who would be essentially an arch-rival if you want to look at it from a business point of view.  But he and I are good golfing partners and good friends.  He’s stayed in my apartment in Vienna while I stayed in his apartment in New York.  But in America you have very much a melting pot of cultures, so when I help young students I always do say that they should look back at their lineage, which is, in a way, why you find certain music easier to sing, and you get a lot of people who have a certain sound.  For instance, Jerry Hadley is a very interesting mixture because I believe his mother was Italian and his father is from a British background.  And sure enough, he’s able to sing both the lyric and the spinto repertoire.  It sounds dangerous
especially when you’re doing Meistersingerto talk about races, but there is, in my eyes, a definite lineage to the voice.

BD:   Not so much race, as pedigree?

MS:   [Laughs]  Yes, I guess it’s like a dog breed.  We singers are dogs in a way...

BD:   [Taking it to the absurd]  Should we be breeding the ideal tenor some place?

MS:   [Continues laughing]  God forbid!  The only thing many colleagues of ours would agree is that the only ideal tenor is the tenor that isn’t on stage!

BD:   You mentioned that you and Paul Groves are close, and we know of The Three Tenors.  Is there competition amongst tenors?

MS:   I keep saying that if two tenors can’t get along, then there really is no hope for the world peace.  Another friend of mine, who is also a tenor and studying in Canada, once said to me that the only thing a tenor needs to have employment is a heartbeat.  The fact is we are a little bit more rare than the lyric mezzo or the lyric baritone.  So, now we’re in a different era where people get along on stage.  This production here in Chicago has been a fantastic time, and it’s one of the nicest casts that I’ve ever worked with.  One could argue that’s because they’re Wagnerites, and they have even less things to worry about because really, how many Hans Sachs’s are there in the world?  Maybe five?

BD:   For many years there were about two and half Ring casts that went around, and they would mix and match from this group of people wherever they were doing a Ring.

MS:   That’s a very interesting point.  I’m certainly not one of them.  I just do a lyric role within a very Wagnerian piece, however, I’m not a Helden voice by any stretch of the imagination.  But the thing that really struck me about the Wagner world is the fact that there are so few of them.  I do believe that this is because those works have often been badly performed in the past.  There is an obsession to having a muscular voice that goes over the top, and there are very few voices who can do that.  Even most who can do that don’t seem to last very long.

BD:   Are you glad that Wagner put this lyric role in the midst of his big opera?

MS:   I’m very happy because I get to hang out with the big boys!  I don’t see these guys very much because I usually hang out in Mozart-land.  But if you look at the way Gösta Winbergh sings his role [Walther von Stoltzing], he approaches it from a Mozart point of view.  He starts from the lyric, and just adds all of his experience.  He moved into this repertoire, but I don’t hear him straining.  I sing with Jan-Hendrik Rootering as Hans Sachs, and he stays true to his voice and he doesn’t ever sing to get over the top.

schade BD:   So you’ve been taught to sing Wagner properly?

MS:   [Smiles]  Well, I don’t know.  I just think that these singers do it properly and they will last.  I’ve heard so many places where the singers seem to be singing at the edge, and while that is very exciting for certain phrases, perhaps, it is not necessary sing a whole evening like that.  You will get terribly tired, and will pay the consequence later.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Now you’re singing David here.  Have you sung the Steersman in The Flying Dutchman?

MS:   Yes.

BD:   Will you ever sing Mime or other roles like that?

MS:   No, I’m not what you would call a character tenor.  I’m definitely a lyric Mozart tenor.  I sing all of the major Mozart roles.  I’ll be singing Tamino this summer at the Salzburg Festival, and I also do Rossini.  I’m going to be singing The Barber of Seville next season at the Met, and Cenerentola in Hamburg and places like that.  So I am a lyric tenor who has the opportunity to sing these roles.

BD:   You have a certain kind of voice.  Do you like the roles that your voice imposes upon you?

MS:   Yes.  I’m very honored to sing the repertoire, and to be able to have a career in singing.  But the thing about the voice and the kinds of roles that I get to sing has to do with the limitations of the voice.  It is a little like weight-lifting, or running, in the sense that there are some people who are specializing in sprinting and others who eventually get all the way to the marathon, or somewhere in between.  I’ve been very lucky that ever since I started to study, whenever I’ve opened my mouth, people say I should be singing this and this and this.  That really is a three-faceted thingopera, oratorio, and recital.  My main center of activity in opera is Mozart.  In oratorio it is Bach and Haydn, and in the recital is Schubert.  Again, that has to do with the voice color, and the type of voice that I have.  David is an interesting thing because the role enters that area between what one would call a Spieltenor, or character tenor, and a lyric tenor.  The difficulty about the role of David, as is the role of the Steersman in The Flying Dutchman, is that these are lyric roles that are conceived for a voice like mine, which essentially are Mozart tenors.  David has a lot to do that is what a character tenor does.  He has to be sort of goofy, and it’s very parlando.  He has to say a lot of words, and often in Europe it is cast to a character tenor who would later do things like Mime, or Monostatos in The Magic Flute.

BD:   Rather than the Tamino-types?

MS:   Yes.  In North America in particular, it has to do with the size of the house.  They often like a much more lyric voice, and, funny enough, Peter Schreier
who was one of the great lyric tenors that I look up towas one of the best ever Davids that I ever heard.  The thing about it is that David requires really three things which combine and sum up my career well.  First is the dramatic lyricism of Mozart.  You have to have a way of communicating, a parlando way of singing, and yet be able to give the words that are found in the Passions of Bach.  Second, it has lovely, very naïve and genuine phrases that you would find in Schubert, much like a Schubert Lied, especially when Wagner talks about the kind of prose that has to be written to the kind of new music that has to be written.  He almost becomes Schubertian.  At the very beginning of Meistersinger, during the David Monologuewhich takes a good fifteen or twenty minutes at the beginning of the showthere’s one lovely moment where everything stops.  Thielemann has done a great job.  We have a little pause before it, and all the Lehrbuben stand still.  Walther, too, is amazed because essentially David, who is sort of in between man and boy, says something very importanteven though he doesn’t really know he’s saying it!  Third, the role of David is extremely high, which many of the character tenors often have problems with in the end.  So it’s a role I like to sing, but by no means am I a character tenor.

schade BD:   I trust you don’t feel deprived not being able to sing Otello or Enrico in Lucia, or even the Duke in Rigoletto?

MS:   I know there are many colleagues who would feel that way.  Maybe it
s just because their parents listened to a lot of Italian opera.  I grew up listening to Schubert, Bach, and so on, and Mozart is for me the best of all opera composers.  There is no great operaother than Le Nozze di Figarowhich I don’t sing.  Don Giovanni and Magic Flute are things which are just wonderful.  Così is one of the greatest works I’ve ever, ever heard or performed.  Where music is concerned, the center for me is Mozart, and the fringe is a little bit of these fun roles like David.  I used to sing Jaquino in Fidelio a lot at the beginning of my career, but I’m also stretching the other angles that go towards the heroic side already.  There’s a difference stretch in the sense that I’ve done, for instance, Oedipus Rex of Stravinsky, which is often sung by heavier voices than mine.  It was one of my greatest successes when I did that in Toronto last year.  My aspiration is to sing more French repertoire eventually.  I would like to sing Manon and eventually Werther.  I would also like to look at Clemenza di Tito and Idomeneo.  There are two versions of Idomeneo, the lighter and the heavier one.  Mozart wrote it for a lighter voice, and then had a very old Kammersänger who couldn’t sing anymore, and Mozart had to redo the part because the voice had sunk and he couldn’t handle the fast notes or the coloratura.

BD:   What about the role of Idamante?  [Vis-à-vis the DVD shown at left, see my interviews with Vesselina Kasarova, and Barbara Bonney.]

MS:   Idamante I can sing now, but I’m looking at Idomeneo himself just because there’s a lighter way of doing it.

BD:   Would you ever sing the French version of Orfeo?

MS:   I’d love to!  There’s one of the greatest recordings of that with Leopold Simoneau, who was a great Canadian tenor, whom I’ve met, and is one of the greatest people I know.

BD:   I met him also.  He was a wonderful tenor, and was here in the early days of Lyric Opera.

MS:   He was ‘the man’ before Wunderlich and all these guys.

BD:   Absolutely.  So, you look up to the old singers who idealized these vocal roles?

MS:   I learned one thing in my days in Vienna.  Vienna is a bastion of old traditions, and they taught me so very much.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Let me ask, now that we’re slipping back into the German tradition, what is your pedigree?

MS:   My pedigree is essentially a German background.  I was born of German parents in ’65 in Geneva, Switzerland.  My dad worked for Union Carbide as an executive, and eventually switched to a Canadian company which had European offices in Germany in 1970.  We moved back to Germany, and in 1977 he was transferred to the head office of Inco, which is the biggest nickel producer in the world.  So, that’s how the Schades ended up in Toronto!  I then went to a choir school in Toronto, so even though I have got a very German background, my musical heritage is essentially almost English in the sense that I went to a school that had a choir school to it.  We sang Palestrina and William Byrd, and the only difference was that we were Catholic.  We went to St. Michael’s Choir School, where I sang for years and years, and where my voice broke as well.  In 1984 I started to study pre-medical sciences with a dream to be essentially James Herriot when I grew up.  I wanted to be a veterinarian, so I just kept up my music and singing just for fun in university.  Then I ran into a voice teacher who asked me why I wasn’t studying music.  I got a scholarship after the first year, switched faculties, and it all snowballed.  In ’88 I went to the Curtis Institute of Music where I did a masters in opera performance.  Even then, I was always a big advocate of the oratorio while my friends were laughing at me.  I won the New York Oratorio Competition, and got to sing Messiah at Carnegie Hall in 1990.  I got Columbia Management, and that’s how it happened.  Essentially, through doing a Magic Flute
funny enough in Italian, in Bologna in 1991and through the work with Helmuth Rilling, the great Bach conductor, I got to sing a lot in Europe.  In 1992 I jumped in for Ramón Vargas with three hours notice to sing The Barber of Seville.  The Vienna State Opera has become my home in opera really.

BD:   Rather than making it very confusing, it gives you all the elements you need for an international career.

MS:   Yes, in a way I’ve been blessed with three languages, and being at home both here and in Europe.  Had I wanted to become a singer at an earlier date, I couldn’t have done anything better, looking back in terms of languages and so on.

BD:   Do you ever regret not going into veterinary medicine?

schade MS:   [Smiles]  Actually, the same approach to solving problems has really enabled me to have a very systematic approach to studying roles.  I still look at that as a very important part.

BD:   When you’re asked to sing a role, do you know how long it will take to learn it and get it into your throat and into your mind?

MS:   It depends on the role.  For instance, I do a lot of Richard Strauss.  It’s stretching that side of the repertoire, going more towards the heroic, and that does take a little longer.  Just this summer I made the mistake of doing too much.  Last year I had five new opera roles and two new recitals all in one season.

BD:   That’s too much!

MS:   Absolutely, and so the problem was that at the end of the summer, I had six weeks to learn and memorize Cenerentola.  There’s a lot of notes in Rossini, and it took me six weeks, door to door.  I have to ashamedly admit that I hadn’t cracked the score open once, not even as a student, so it really took all of the six weeks.

BD:   Did you rely on a prompter then?

MS:   No, no, they didn’t have a prompter in Hamburg.  Actually, David in many ways is much more difficult than many of the roles.  It took a long time to learn David.

BD:   It’s longer than many of the roles you sing.

MS:   Yes.  It doesn’t seem like the biggest role in the world just because the opera is so long, but there’s a lot of words in there.  I love doing him.  I think it’s great fun.

BD:   In Don Giovanni, for example, you have two arias and a couple of ensembles, and that’s it.

MS:   Yes.  In Giovanni, which I’m doing next, one only remembers the two arias and how wimpy the guy really is, but there’s a lot more to it.  There’s the two finales.  As a singer, the thing that kills you about Mozart is all these big ensembles.  The chorus always plays the minor role, and the Act One and Act Two finales are always very long.  They’re normally twenty-five minutes each, and it wears you down.

BD:   Are Ottavio and Donna Anna happy in
Act Three?

MS:   No!  There’s no way that Anna and Don Ottavio can ever get together.  The big question is in Così.  Can the lovers ever be happy together?

BD:   The question is who winds up with whom.

MS:   Definitely.  Everyone has tried everyone, and the original lovers do get back together, but the final chorus basically talks about the fact that ‘happy is the man who can laugh at fate and then himself, and therefore become a greater person’.  Guglielmo is the big winner because essentially, he’s going to dump everyone and move on with his life.  He thinks that it all was sort of weird, whereas Ferrando is destroyed.  Fiordiligi is more like Guglielmo, and Dorabella is also destroyed.  It’s obvious that Fiordiligi and Ferrando belong together more than Dorabella and Guglielmo.

BD:   But I would think that Fiordiligi would be more destroyed than Dorabella because she’s more idealistic.

MS:   Indeed.  It’s funny, when you think of it, that Fiordiligi and Ferrando are like Tamino and Pamina.  They just seem to fit better, but it’s already different at the very beginning.  Ferrando brags about Dorabella, so essentially, if you were to combine the two men into one man, and the two women into one woman, you would have the perfect person.  But it obviously doesn’t happen that way in life.

schade30 BD:   What about Tamino and Pamina?  Are they happy?

MS:   We don’t know because it’s very much the beginning of the day.  They’ve gone through fire and water already, but we really don
’t know what happens to them later.

BD:   I would think they would look at Sarastro for marriage.

MS:   [Laughs]  What’s apparent to me at the end of The Magic Flute is that Tamino and Pamina are going to very much forge their own ways and leave these crazies behind.  Essentially, they’re children of divorced parents in a way.  Everyone’s been telling them what to do when they’ve gone through fire and water, and now they’re going to be their own couple, and move to the West Coast rather than hang out in Jersey.  [Both laugh]

BD:   In Meistersinger, the opera that you’re currently doing, are David and Magdalena happy in
Act Four?

MS:   [Laughs]  Oh, they
re a weird pair, aren’t they?

BD:   How much older than David is she?

MS:   She’s supposed to be a little bit the old maid, and David is very eager.  She’s obviously been Eva’s maid, but she’s also a little bit of an old maid.  We don’t really know how much older she is, and depending on who does it, she can look very old.  Some directors don’t like this tradition of having Magdalena being very old, but it is very curious because you have the old maid and the young David, who is just a little bit older than the Lehrbuben, but not much.  So my guess is that David is about twenty-two in today’s terms, and Magdalena is maybe thirty.  Back then it would have been seventeen and twenty-five, but I don’t know.  It’s an ambiguous thing.

BD:   What does David see in Magdalena?

MS:   I think David sees in Magdalena the chance to be part of the grown-up crowd.  David prides himself in knowing all the rules to become a Meister, and I think that’s what he sees in Magdalena absolutely.

BD:   Does David become a Meister in
Act Four?

MS:   I think he does.  The biggest compliment I ever got about doing David was in Vienna where the critics said, 
You could already hear the young Walther in what David was saying.  There’s these two very famous phrases that go up to high B, that are very difficult to sing, and they tell the whole thing about David.  They’re huge, glorious phrases that are Meister phrases.  It appears to me that he would become a Meister, and probably very good once because he had a very lenient and very humane Master himself.

BD:   [Somewhat shocked]  Really???  Hans Sachs is lenient???  I thought he would be a stern task-master.

MS:    But loving!  It’s amazing to me how much he lets David grow.  He knows he has a star student in David, and yet he lets him have personal freedom.  There is the whole idea that he’s allowed to be close to Magdalena.  It’s okay, and it’s approved by the Master, so this is, to me, a sign of benevolence, really.  The best teachers and the nicest teachers are also the ones we fear most.  I don’t know what your school background was, but the instructors that I remember best are the ones that were stern and good, but they had big hearts as well.  They were stern for a reason, and I think that’s what Sachs is.

BD:   So then coming back to my original question, are Magdalena and David happy together?

MS:   Yes, I think so.

BD:   They have a bunch of Lehrbuben of their own?

MS:   [Laughs]  Yes, I think so.  Magdalena is a good cook, and David obviously has an eating disorder of some sort.  He’s always got cake, or talking about sausages...  [Both have a huge laugh]  I completely understand him.  He’s a hungry boy!

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Let me ask a general question.  What’s the purpose of opera?

MS:   To me, the purpose of opera is a combination of many, many arts.  Opera, I think, should principally be about music.  Again, we have so many different types of operas.  We have grand Italian opera, we have opera seria, we have modern operas, we have Mozart operas, and we have Monteverdi operas.  But to me, it is the expression of the human drama that is sung
and accompanied by an orchestra, where the characters are in costumes.  Plain and simple as that.  It is larger than just an orchestral evening, or just a recital, or just an oratorio because it has sets and hopefully good lighting and so on.  So, it is supposed to be the biggest of all the arts, and yet the most natural of all the arts, because here we are singing, which is what everyone does in the bathtub or in the shower, and probably always has.  The idea of opera is the fact that it should remain natural.  As a performer who does oratorio and recitals as well, the curious thing is that in many ways opera is the most difficult because it combines so many of the situations.  Often, for instance, in many ways the recital is the most rewarding for the singer and for the audience because there you normally have just a very simple accompanist.  This is not to take away anything from the great pianists of our day, but you have a more simple accompaniment than an orchestra to songs that are normally intended to go very much the core of the meaning of the poetry.  When you have moments in opera that are supposed to portray very much the same thing, you often have the difficulty of trying to sing a phrase that is supposed to be like Schubert, and for some reason you can’t see the conductor very well, or the lights are so badly in your face, or the costume you’re wearing is not as comfortable as you’d like it, or you’re slipping on something and your shoes aren’t gripping, or you’re standing on some couch and the balance is weird, and it takes you away.  So overcoming those kinds of things, and making it natural, is an all-involving thing for the audience.  It’s not just supposed to be about standing there and singing pretty.  It’s supposed to be about playing a play, and singing the words.

schade BD:   Are these characters, real people?

MS:   Sure!  In particular, in Meistersinger they’re very, very real.  If you look at all the different Masters and all their various reactions to this new upstart, this yuppie ‘prince-boy’ who comes into this town that is very established, and where everyone has their role, he
s describing a new world order instead of the old German ways, and it’s just very upsetting.  It’s very interesting to see all the Masters and their eccentricities.  They very much represent all of Chicago or Toronto.

BD:   Was Wagner putting himself onstage as Walther?

MS:   Oh, he was putting himself wherever he could.  Never was there a greater egocentric than Wagner.  I think it is actually God’s great joke on us that many of the great, great composers and musicians are real pigs as people.  If you look at Mozart, he always told dirty jokes, and Wagner liked nothing more than to talk about himself.  But the fact is these people were geniuses.  They had great genius.  They were bigger than life in what they said, and what they did was more important than who they were.

BD:   Is that, perhaps, a requisite to being a genius
to have a fatal flaw in their character?

MS:   Not being a genius, I don’t know...

BD:   But you have worked with material that geniuses have left us.

MS:   Perhaps when you’ve really got something to say that is so important, you somehow don’t seem to take care of how you say it.  The most important thing is that it has to go out there, and it becomes bigger than how you say it.  Perhaps that is why so many of the performers and composers of the past and present have a tough time just being normal people.  I, for one, find it very important to have my family in my life
my little daughter and so onotherwise it becomes a very difficult and uncertain path.  You need a keel to go against the sailboard up against the wind, otherwise it just gets drifted all over.

BD:   The operas that you sing, are they for everyone?

MS:   No, no, absolutely not.  Obviously, not everyone likes triple-layered chocolate ice-cream, and many people who will have just read this phrase will probably think I’m nuts!  But it is a fact that there are people who do not like chocolate.  I think they’re crazy, and you may think they’re crazy, but such is life.  There are people who do not like chocolate, so there will be people who do not like opera.  However, there’s one important thing for everything in music, and probably everything in life.  If I bring someone to a performance, and it is a fantastic performance, a really great performance, all those big elements will be packed together.  Even if it’s an opera in Swahili that nobody understands a word, and nobody knows what the subject is, yet it is a really fantastic performance, the fact is that you will be able to go home and appreciate what has just been done because something has touched you deeply down inside.  Everyone, therefore, can go home with something.  We have a little rule in our house which is that you have to try something before you’re allowed to say you don’t like it.  So, I urge everyone to at least try it.

BD:   Do you think opera is becoming more ubiquitous because of being on the radio, and on records, and on television?

MS:   Opera is really having a wonderful revival in many ways, like cigars seem to.  It’s a phenomenon, and I think it’s great!  I’m convinced that opera in the classical world is probably the biggest seller at the moment.  It absolutely is, and a lot of that has to do with what it had, which is pomp and circumstance.  Opera is more than even the performance of a sung drama.  It is about the chance to get to rub elbows, and to sit in a nice balcony, and to be noticed (or not) by neighbors, to get to that drink in the lobby first, and to have the valet parking experience.  You name it, it’s about the whole thing.

schade BD:   It’s all the peripheral stuff as well as the performance on stage?

MS:   Absolutely, and it’s a mistake to say that it’s not.  It’s got a certain amount of snob-appeal that really does it.

BD:   [Gently protesting]  But you’re not a snob!

MS:   No, it’s not what I’m in it for.  On the other hand, it’s a mistake to say that people only go to Salzburg Summer Festival to hear Mozart opera because they love Mozart!  They go because they love Salzburger Nockerl, and they love the sound of the music, and they love the mountains and the sort of chocolate-milk-commercial atmosphere.  It really has a Swiss chocolate commercial atmosphere.  It’s about the whole nine yards.  It’s not just one thing.  For some people it may be just about the production, or about the singers, but for the general public it’s about something much more interesting than that.  It’s about experiencing a part of life, getting away, and having a good time.

BD:   Are you at the point in your career that you want to be in at this age?

MS:   Yes, but sometimes it’s scary.

BD:   [Surprised]  Scary???  How?

MS:   The fact is that I’ve been very lucky very fast, and I’m very thankful.  A professor at university once told me it’s a long way to climb, but it’s an even longer way to fall.  At the choir school when we were choir boys, there was a rule that if you sang well you got to go on tour.  But there was a bigger rule than that.  We only had two tours a year, and they were two weeks off school.  We were gone two weeks seeing the world and getting away from home, and the bigger rule was that every boy got to do at least one tour, even if that boy was not one of the greater singers.  This meant that one of the greater singers had to stay home.  Sometimes this was because his behavior wasn’t good, and therefore another guy got to go.  Now, the quickest way not to be picked on every tour was to assume that you had a place on a tour.  That really told me a lesson for life, so this is not false humility or anything.  I’ve had ten years of a professional career.  I started very early, and the first three years I was still studying part-time.  But even in those ten years, I’ve seen a lot of people come and go, and I’m very happy to be here.  I hope to stay a while, that’s all.

BD:   We hope you stay a long while!

MS:   Thank you.

BD:   Will you be back in Chicago?

MS:   We’re hoping.  There are a few possibilities brewing, and I can’t wait to come back.  It
’s been a good time.



See my interviews with Philip Glass, and Dennis Russell Davies

© 1999 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in Chicago on February 25, 1999.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB the following year.  This transcription was made in 2018, and posted on this website at that time.  My thanks to British soprano Una Barry for her help in preparing this website presentation.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.

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

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.