Conductor  Steven  Larsen

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


Steven Larsen’s distinguished conducting and energetic leadership has brought two “Orchestra of the Year” awards to the Rockford Symphony Orchestra and two “Conductor of the Year” awards for himself – honors shared by no other Illinois conductor. Critics have praised his ease with many musical styles and periods, his sense of line and dramatic tension, the lyricism of his approach and his ability to bring a work to life. Orchestral musicians have noted his efficient rehearsal technique, his clear and consistent conducting style and his warmth and collegiality. Soloists have commented on his sensitivity and flexibility as an accompanist. Board members and executive directors value his strategic vision and his collaborative attitude towards orchestral management and outreach.

In 1991 he was hired to rescue an orchestra that was near collapse; in the years since, the Rockford Symphony has grown to be Illinois’ third largest orchestra, experiencing a six-fold increase in revenues, quadrupling the number of performances and more than tripling its audience. Under Larsen’s leadership the orchestra has added a successful pops series, summer concerts, ballet, operas, special festivals and galas, and several educational programs. It has earned awards for its performance quality, stimulating programming, educational outreach, collaboration with other local and state arts groups and importance to community. The Rockford Register Star, in an editorial, stated that “Larsen is the best ambassador the RSO ever had.”

Similarly, soon after Larsen took the baton
at the Champaign-Urbana Symphony in 1996, the Champaign News-Gazette wrote, “The Symphony has pulled itself back from the brink, and showed itself well on the road to reintegration and success under the energetic leadership of a young and forceful conductor, Steven Larsen.. . A mood of routine was gone; a feeling of excitement and expectancy had taken its place.” Since he was named Music Director, the orchestra has tackled challenging and provocative repertoire, collaborated with many community and University of Illinois ensembles, expanded its season and achieved artistic respect.

Larsen is a native of Chicago, where he attended the American Conservatory of Music, receiving a degree in music theory and composition. As his interests in conducting grew, he auditioned for the graduate program at Northwestern University, earning an assistantship and leading to studies with Margaret Hillis and Bernard Rubenstein. He received that school’s first M.M. in orchestral conducting in 1976. In 1979 he was the only American to be awarded a fellowship in the prestigious Netherlands Broadcasting Company Conductors Course, leading to continued studies with the Russian conductor Kyrill Kondrashin. In 1981 he was invited to participate in the first Conductors Institute, held in Morgantown, West Virginia, as a conducting fellow.

A significant portion of his career was spent in
the world of opera. For thirteen years he was resident conductor of the Chicago Opera Theater, eventually becoming its Artistic Administrator and, after leaving the company in 1991, was asked to return as Interim Artistic Director. He has guest conducted for opera companies in Chicago, Detroit, Minneapolis, Honolulu, Cleveland, Westchester and Dayton, and served Dayton as Interim Artistic Director during a search. In 1985 the Chicago Tribune named him one of Chicago’s “85 to watch in ’85”, and the Chicago Sun-Times singled him out for praise, writing, “Consider the case of Steven Larsen, who is probably qualified to work in any opera house in the world. Symphonic guest conducting includes appearances with the Chicago Symphony, Milwaukee Symphony, Grant Park Symphony, Netherlands Radio Philharmonic and Chamber Orchestras, Tulsa Philharmonic and others.

Like any other conversation, this is a snapshot-in-time.  It speaks to the glories and problems of a specific date within a short era.  

At the time of the interview in March of 1987, Larsen was about to conduct a production of The Turn of the Screw by Britten, with the Chicago Opera Theater . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:   How much research do you do for any particular opera that you’re conducting?

Steven Larsen:   That depends a little bit on the opera.  Certainly, if we’re doing The Barber of Seville, just by being in the business, and being around productions, and coaching singers, and working with singers, and listening to performances, and reading program notes, you get a whole lot of background about it.  Still, I just did a production, and unearthed some interesting little tid-bits.  For a show like The Turn of the Screw that has such a profound literary and symbolic background, I did extensive research, probably more research than I’ve ever done in an opera in my life.

BD:   Is it ever possible to do too much research?

Larsen:   It’s certainly possible to do get too much impressed with your scholarly abilities.  [Laughs]

BD:   How much of this research do you expect on the part of the audience coming to see The Turn of the Screw?

Larsen:   I expect very little.  Certainly, a number of people are going to be certainly familiar with the Henry James novella.  They’ll have read it, or at least have heard something about it, or know something about the story.  However, I expect very, very few people have the seen a production, and probably even fewer have recordings of the piece.  The object, of course, is to make the piece successful and meaningful to them without having to force them to spend hours pouring through libraries and reading up on James and Britten, and listening to recordings.

BD:   Is it a work that is accessible to a typical public?

Larsen:   Quite!  Yes.  It’s a remarkable piece in that it is attractive on an immediate level, and it’s certainly modern music.  There’s even a tone row in it!  [Both laugh]  I don’t mean to scare off any listeners, though, because they’ll never know it.  It’s a piece that you could listen to and enjoy on a very casual level, and yet, as I’m continuing to find out every time I look at a page of music, I find something in it that I didn’t see before.  The piece is apparently bottomless.

BD:   Is this what determines a great work of art
something that one can keep delving into and never find all that it has?

Larsen:   That’s certainly a characteristic.  For my money, this is the greatest Twentieth Century opera.

BD:   [Genuinely surprised]  Really???

Larsen:   Without a doubt!  It’s not the most popular Twentieth Century opera, but it may be the greatest opera of all times in terms of just its craftsmanship.  The way that it is put together is absolute perfection of a musical score.  The vocal writing is perfection of the synthesis between the composer and the librettist.  I’ve never seen or heard a piece like it, and to say that it’s the greatest opera of all time is not to say that it’s ever going to be placed with La Bohème, or Madama Butterfly, or Carmen as the most popular.  On the average day, I’d rather go to see Carmen than sit and put myself through The Turn of the Screw because it demands quite a bit of you, but it’s incredible in its clarity.

BD:   Would you call it a masterpiece?

Larsen:   Oh, yes!

BD:   Why is it not better known?

Larsen:   Several reasons, but mostly because of the intimacy.   This piece was written for the English Opera Group that Britten founded.  It was written for small theaters and a small ensemble.

BD:   But not small voices?

Larsen:   [Thinks a moment]  No, but not necessarily big voices either.  It so happens that the original people did not have small voices, but you don’t have to have a big voice to sing any of these parts.  But the text is so important, so critical to this piece, that anybody foolish enough to do it in a 3,000 or 4,000 seat opera house is going to have a flop on their hands, a real, honest to goodness flop.  They’ll have people streaming to the exits.  You’re not going to get the big tunes, the big choruses, the great arias in this piece.  This is a piece that demands total concentration and a great deal of effort by the audience.  It's not a pleasurable piece to listen to in that sense, but it’s a very rewarding piece, and not a difficult piece.  I happen to like Wozzeck very much, but I know a lot of people have a great deal of trouble making it through that work.  The Turn of the Screw is a piece that requires a small theater with very good acoustics, such as we have.  It’s an extraordinarily demanding piece from an actor and actress’s point of view, very difficult for the singers, and if you don’t have top notch actors and actresses in every part, the piece isn’t going to work.

BD:   Let me ask the ‘Capriccio’ question.   In this particular opera, where is the balance between the drama and the music?

Larsen:   I would say there isn’t a balance, so much as there is a unity.  The really incredible thing about this piece is that the music is the drama, and the drama is the music.  There’s such a complete synthesis of the two that you’re really hard pressed to excerpt the piece musically without taking into consideration what it’s going to look like, how it’s going to be, and how this is conceived dramatically.

BD:   Now you talk about this as being a difficult piece to get into and yet a rewarding piece.  In this opera, or in opera in general, where’s the balance between art and entertainment?

Larsen:   [Thinks a moment]  That’s certainly a question that keeps on popping up.  The theatrical value of the Henry James novella is what interested Britten.  He was attracted to it first of all as the subject for a film.  He was being pressed in the late
40s to do a film-opera.  He never did one, but, as you may know, his first musical job was writing music for the film scores for a documentary company, and this idea intrigued him for a while.  He finally came back to it in the 50s, and began to work with Myfanwy Piper to put together a libretto for this piece.  

piper Mary Myfanwy Piper (28 March 1911 – 18 January 1997) was a British art critic and opera librettist.

Mary Myfanwy Evans was born into a Welsh family in London. Her father was a chemist in Hampstead, north London. She attended North London Collegiate School, where she won a scholarship to read English Language and Literature at St. Hugh's College, Oxford.

From 1935 to 1937, she edited the periodical Axis which was devoted to abstract art. She married the artist John Piper in 1937, and lived with him in rural surroundings at Fawley Bottom, Buckinghamshire (near Henley-on-Thames) for much of her life.

Between 1954 and 1973 she collaborated with the composer Benjamin Britten on several of his operas, and between 1977 and 1981 with composer Alun Hoddinott on most of his operatic works. She also wrote the libretto for Easter by Malcolm Williamson.

She was a friend of the poet John Betjeman, who wrote several poems addressing her, such as "Myfanwy" and "Myfanwy at Oxford".

She and John Piper had two sons and two daughters. Her elder son, painter Edward Piper, (born 1938) predeceased her in 1990.

They worked very diligently to take the novella
which is a real classic Gothic horror storyto make the necessary changes and adapted it as an opera.  The idea of ghosts is a constant in English literature and English opera.  Somebody once said that English music is either hunting or haunting, and this is certainly haunting.  We were talking about theatricality, and the entertainment aspect of this piece.  What has fascinated people about it, first of all, was the story, and where James went with it.  It may be that The Turn of the Screw has had more written about it than any other work of Twentieth Century literature.  It has provoked comment from literary critics, students of drama, students of psychiatry, students of psychology, social critics, and musicians.  Absolutely everybody has had something to say about this piece, and it started with a very basic argument that appeared very shortly after the first serialization was done in 1897.  Are the ghosts real, or are they not real?  The ghosts never speak.  As it is explained in the Prologue, the story is being recounted from a manuscript written in faded ink in a woman’s hand, and it’s being told as a fireside ghost story.  But the Governess has been dead twenty years, and the story took place twenty years before that.  We have only the Governess’s word that this happened.  Nobody sees the ghosts but her in the story.

BD:   Do you answer this question as to whether the ghosts are real?

Larsen:   Yes, and no.  The James story appeared, and people began to debate it right away.  One group of people said yes, indeed this is a ghost story, and a very good one, and another group of people said they’re missing the whole point, which is that the Governess was mad.  This story is of a deranged hysterical woman, who was sexually obsessed with her employer.  She was the guardian of the two children, and while fantasizing she just created this whole hysterical story out of her sexual obsession.  The controversy has raged ever since then.  This is responsible for the depth of the story.  This is just not a ghost story.  It isn’t a Stephen King story.  We don’t expect to be frightened in the very blatant, obvious sort of way that we do when go and see A Nightmare in Elm Street.  There is no Freddie waiting around the corner to slash us.  It’s not that sort of a story.  It is a more horrible story because we don’t really know what’s happening.  It’s the ambiguity.  Are the ghosts menacing the children?  Are they there to get the Governess?  Are the children evil, or are they good?  Is this whole thing just a figment of the Governess’s imagination?  Is she creating the whole thing?  The levels on which this can operate fascinated Britten, who, as you know, had set a couple of other real masterful psychological studies in his operas
Peter Grimes, Billy Budd...

BD:    Owen Wingrave?

Larsen:   Owen Wingrave, yes, and Death in Venice.  They are all very much involved with this, not just as pageants, not just presentations of wonderful stories or pretty arias, but showing deep psychological insights into the human character.  This fascinated Britten, and, for the same reasons that the Henry James novella is great, the opera, is great.  Here is an example where the opera is as good as the book.  It is different... everybody sees the ghosts in the opera.  The ghosts sing.  After all, this is opera.  If people aren’t going to sing, we’re not going to have an opera.  The ghosts are not silent characters.  So, on that level, the ghosts are much more apparent than they are in the story.  They’re much more part of the story than they were in the original.  What Britten has done is given us the whole aspect of musical color.  He uses a kind of a Leitmotif technique.  Peter Quint is always identified, even by the casual observer, by a little three-note passage that appears most often in the celeste in the orchestra.  Even when Quint is being alluded to, you hear this music.  Miss Jessel is depicted by a low F# in the contra-bassoon, with a stroke of a low gong.  These little things keep occurring to tie things together.  Quint’s key is E-Flat.  He always sings in E-Flat until the final scene when Miles is liberated from his power through death.  Miles dies, and after that Peter Quint sings in the key of E for his little passage at the end of the opera.

larsen BD:    Is it significant that it moves up a half-step?

Larsen:   Very significant, because that brings him into concert with the Governess, who’s been singing in E through most of that scene.  It’s a mind-boggling score, and I don’t mean to make so much of the complexity of it, because this isn’t an academic piece.  This is not a piece that you have to go through and analyze musically before you can appreciate it.

BD:   It's makes the impact in the theater on a first-time audience?

Larsen:   Very much so, and it’s a tribute to Britten’s genius that he was able to do this, while being able to write a piece that you really can go through the score and not find a note that is out of place, or just casually placed.  Everything has a meaning.  Everything is in balance.

BD:    Do you think that he took more trouble with this than with his other operas, or is this just the way Britten worked
taking trouble with every note?

Larsen:    That’s a very good question, and I wrestled with it myself.  He took extraordinary trouble with his operas.  He wrote very carefully.  He didn’t write for effect.  He didn’t write at the piano.  He wrote in his head, then wrote things out, and then finally played them.  In this piece, there is an incredible level of complexity
the ghost story, the psychological story, the relationship of the characters, all of which drove him to an incredibly complex relationship of musical values.  This entire opera is constructed as a theme and variations, which may be unique.  There’s a Prologue, and we go immediately into the theme, which is very distinctive in its use of fourths.  It also uses all twelve notes of the chromatic scale, and each scene then is preceded by a variation, which goes into the scene and provides the musical material for the variations. There are no stops.  We go to the end of the first act, and aside from the intermission, there are no stops.  The music flows seamlessly from variation to scene, to variation to scene until the opera is over, all building onto this basic musical material.  Its just a fascinating layout.

BD:   Is this the first time you’ve come in contact with work?

Larsen:   Yes, the first time.  I’ve heard the piece before, but it
s the first time I’ve ever worked with it myself.  I haven’t done another production.

BD:   Have you done any other works of Britten?

Larsen:   This is my first staged work of Britten, though I have done a few concert pieces.

BD:   I just wondered how this fits in with the rest of his operas.

Larsen:    I can tell you how it fits in with the rest of his output, because I am quite familiar with his other operas.  This lies pretty much in the center of his career as an operatic composer.  Perhaps it’s a bit redundant to say his
career as an operatic composer because that is Britten’s single greatest contribution.  He was a theatrical composer.  Even when he was not writing opera per se, he was writing for the theater, and he was really only comfortable when he was writing for voices with text.  He wrote no symphonies, really.  The Simple Symphony is somewhat different, not really a serious symphony as we would think of a symphony.  In spite of the influences, including Shostakovich, who was a strong influence on him, he did not follow Shostakovich’s lead as symphonic writer.  Practically everything he did was keyed to voices.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   You’ve worked in the Athenaeum Theatre before...

Larsen:   Many times.  [Both laugh]


Located in the Lakeview neighborhood of Chicago, the Athenaeum Theatre was built in 1911.  According to their website, it is the “oldest continuously-operating off-Loop theater in Chicago.”  None of its 985 seats is more than 95 feet from the stage.

BD:   Is that a good place to bring voices out?

Larsen:   It’s an ideal place, especially for an orchestra of this size.  There are only thirteen instruments
string quintet, single woodwind, one horn, a harp, a pianist who doubles on celeste, and percussionso the textures are very chamber-like.  Even in that small combination of instruments, frequently he only uses two or three or four of them at a time in various combinations.

BD:   Is this really like turning the Athenaeum into Aldeburgh West?

Larsen:   Sure, why not?  Although the acoustics are very, very good at the Athenaeum, we are hampered by the fact that it’s a little bit small and not deep enough, but this is not going to be a problem in this production.  As a matter of a fact, a deep big pit would have been a liability.  The piece was written very definitely as a chamber opera in its scope, and the dynamics of the score are scaled in such a way that the conductor does not have to worry about bringing or keeping the orchestra down.  The fortissimos are written in places where they’re not going to cover singers.  Being a boy soprano, whenever Miles sings, the music drops down to a very small level.  You asked the reason this opera has not been more accepted, and more performed, and certainly the fact that there are two children in the cast has a great deal to do with that.  I don’t think the piece is very well-served by having girls sing the part of Miles, for instance.  You really need to have a boy soprano, and it was important for Britten.  His background as an English choral composer certainly predisposed him to that sort of sound.  You must have a boy.

BD:   Have you got a good boy for this production?

Larsen:   Yes, a very, very good boy.  But the problems in casting that boy were horrendous.  If you get somebody that is in terrific vocal shape, two months later the voice changes, and you’ve lost him.  You also have to deal with the problems of school schedules.

BD:   You really need to catch someone just on the verge of maturity?

Larsen:   Yes.  That’s when the voices get to be the best, just before the voices change, and unfortunately this is what happened with us.  We had the part double-cast, and they were going to split the performances.  Matthew is older, and had a stronger, more resonant voice than Jedd, but each of them was quite good in his own respect.  Between the time we cast the part in December and the time we started rehearsing in mid-March, Matthew’s voice began to change.  He’d lost the top, and wound up is serving very capably as an understudy.  If something happened to Jedd, Matthew would be able to get through the opera, but he simply couldn’t sing it properly anymore.  Hormones had just caught up with him.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Where’s opera going today?

Larsen:   I wish I knew.  We have a bigger opera audience in this country than we had five, or ten, or twenty years ago.  We also have a more sophisticated audience in a lot of respects.  A great deal of opera is being performed in English, and conversely, a great deal more is being performed with surtitles, so the understanding is beginning to be a bit more profound.  Theatrical values are much higher than they were twenty, thirty, fifty years ago, when people used to gather together on the stage with basic blocking, and that was it.

BD:   Do you think that surtitles will mean the death of opera-in-English?

Larsen:   No, I don’t.  There’s certainly always going to be a place for opera in the original language with or without surtitles.  Companies, especially in smaller theaters, are going to continue to do opera in English.  I saw Of Mice and Men done by the Miami Opera.  It was in English, of course, since it was written in English [by Carlisle Floyd], and frankly it didn’t work very well because the theater was too big.  It’s a big house, and I was seated in the first third of the rows, but I still missed much of the text.  When you have somebody singing Aïda in Italian, it doesn’t matter that you don’t understand every word of the Italian because it’s beautiful.

BD:   [Gently protesting]  Yet Verdi was very careful with his diction, and screamed at his singers all the time about it.

Larsen:   Exactly, but in the houses like ours where it is possible to have a deeper theatrical commitment, there’s always going to be opera in English.  If the Lyric isn’t going to do operas in English, they will use surtitles
as they’ve started with this yearand they should.  There’s going to be a mix, and I hope that they can get some of the technical problems ironed out with surtitles.  I don’t want to sound like a purist, but it’s very disconcerting having a line flashed on the screen just before the line is sung, and have the audience laugh and not to hear the line sung by the singer.  This does not to give them the opportunityeven in a language that is not understoodto express it with their gesture, with their inflection, with their coloring, and to give them the opportunity to make themselves known from that level.

BD:   So, the translation should come just slightly after the line is sung?

Larsen:   Yes, absolutely.  The thing that I am worried about in this country is the effect of the recording industry on opera audiences.  The Compact Discs are now the latest in the recording technology, and you get wonderful recordings, but they’re so artificially balanced.  You put the record or the compact disc on, and you hear your singers that sound like they’re singing two feet in front of you.  The orchestra has been turned down, and the singers have been turned up.  Things can be balanced like that, and the living-room listener is hearing a balance that can never be achieved in an opera house.

BD:   At what point does that become a fraud?

Larsen:   It’s a fraud right then, and unfortunately it conditions audiences to expect the same sort of balance in the opera house.  They want to hear the singers as if they had the microphone turned up.  Every Broadway house in the country now is amplified.  You can’t hear a Broadway show without amplification anymore.  It’s not because there aren’t singers around who could sing it, because there are.

BD:   I trust you’re going to reject the idea of any kind of amplification in the opera house?

Larsen:   Absolutely!  It’s not necessary.  It should not be amplified, and the audiences should know that there is a different standard of balance of what they’re going to hear in the Athenaeum than they hear on the recording.  As much as we try to keep it, there’s going to be a difference, and we, unfortunately, hear a lot of criticism from people in the audience who are expecting that kind of living-room presence in the voices.  Even with the best voices, the biggest voices, the most penetrating voices, you can’t get that.   It’s an artifice.  It’s not real.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Are we building up any kind of great American operatic tradition, either in performing old works or in writing new works?  

Larsen:   [Thinks a moment]  I’m hardly an expert on this because I haven’t conducted opera in Europe.  I’ve only conducted opera in this country, but it seems to me that the United States is where opera is happening now.  Some of my colleagues have looked to the United States for the trends, and for the fine performances, and we are the leaders here.  Despite their wonderful State subsidies, Germany is experiencing very, very small audiences now, a marked diminution from previous years.  When you give carte blanche to stage directors over a period of time to do whatever they want to, they start getting really crazy because they know that they don’t have to depend on the box office.  Thus, the quality suffers.  We are very dependent on the box office here, so we have to strike a balance between income and artistic quality.

BD:   Does that ever hamper the artistic quality?

laarsen Larsen:   I don’t think so, no.  We are very fortunate at Chicago Opera Theater because of the works that we do.  We can do works that many of our colleagues in other companies would love to be able to do.  We’ve established the tradition for doing them, and for doing them well, and we have a following.  As far as the composition of new operas, I’m a bit puzzled right now.  Things are going in a couple of divergent directions.  We have Philip Glass on the one hand, and the so-called Minimalist operas, which is making a huge splash everywhere.  They’re playing to sold out audiences.  I don’t particularly care for them myself, and it’s not because I’m a conservative, not in the least.  I just find them to be, by operatic standards, extremely vacuous.  They’re not operas.

BD:   Are they perhaps transitory?  Maybe they will be here today and gone tomorrow?  [Vis-à-vis the chart shown at right, see my interviews with Virgil Thomson, and Oliver Knussen.]

Larsen:   I certainly hope so!  [Both laugh]  Glass would be the last person to say that Satyagraha is an opera.  In fact, I’ve heard him say that it’s not an opera.  Those are not operas.  They are theater pieces, but in the musical-theater tradition that we understand opera to be, they’re not operas.  They can be highly entertaining pieces in their own right, but I don’t think that they’re going to be the trend for the future.  I don’t know what the trend is, but it is certainly away from the bigger orchestras.  Economics have a lot to do with that.  We are going to see more of the smaller orchestras of twenty-five, twenty-seven, thirty, thirty-two people.  Composers want to get their works performed, and they know that if they write a piece for 120 musicians, they’re not going to have it performed.

BD:   Are you optimistic about the future of opera?

Larsen:   Quite!  Looking around the country in general, opera companies are doing better than symphony orchestras are.

BD:   [Surprised]  Really???

Larsen:   Symphony orchestras are in deep trouble in many, many cities.  Oakland has folded, San Diego, I believe, has folded, Kansas City died a few years ago, and has reorganized now.  San Antonio has canceled their next season, and there are others.  Even orchestras that are planning future seasons are in serious economic difficulty.  It’s a very complex situation.  Opera companies seem to be doing a little bit better, which is paradoxical because opera companies are much more expensive propositions to run.  Not only do we have to pay orchestra musicians, we have to pay singers, we have to pay for a set, and it’s much more labor-intensive.  Opera is a much more expensive proposition to put together than any other art form, and even though they’re not rolling in money, by and large they’re doing better than other arts organizations.  They
re struggling, certainly, which is probably a good thing, but theyre doing better nonetheless, and I certainly hope that this is a trend that’s going to continue.  Opera is losing its elitist appeal.  It’s becoming more accessible through education programs, opera-in-English, and opera-with-surtitles.  Its building an audience to which it never held an attraction before, and that bodes well for the future.

BD:   How about television?  Is that a good development, putting opera on the tube?

Larsen:   I don’t think so.  It’s not a bad development, but it’s just not a real positive step.  I have seen operas on television that I enjoyed, and have video-taped some of them.  By and large, though, I don’t think the average audience, or even opera devotees who would go to the Lyric and/or the Chicago Opera Theater religiously, wants to see opera singers contorting their faces.  Have you ever seen Pavarotti sing on The Tonight Show?  It’s hideous!  I love Pavarotti, and I love to listen to his voice, but it is agony to see the contortions that the man puts himself through just to sing.  If you move fifty or a hundred feet away, that’s wonderful, but I don’t particularly like the see him six inches from the camera.  I like to have the little bit of distance that an opera house gives you.  It makes the art form more accessible to people, and that’s a good thing.  I don’t think TV’s going to create large new audiences for opera, and I hope it doesn’t, because I want it to be a live art form.  I’m against having it performed with recorded music.  I’m against having it performed with synthesizers.  I want it to be a live experience.  It may be an anachronism, a throwback to the Nineteenth Century to have it done that way, but I hope it stays an anachronism.  I hope people will still have to physically go out to a theater, sit down, listen to an overture, and then partake in this experience.  It’s one of the links to the past that we have, and I don’t think we should try to break it, and have it transferred to the medium of the television tube.  We’ve got enough things that we can watch on television.

BD:   Do you see opera at all as a participatory art on the part of the audience?

Larsen:   No, simply because the skills are so specialized.  In order to sing opera, you have to be able to sing opera, and if you can’t sing, there’s no point in being in an opera.  The whole point is the singing.  It’s the voice.  If we try to take the voice out of opera, we’re not doing an opera any more, we’re doing melodrama or incidental music to a play.  The voice is what this entire art form has been built around for the last several hundred years, and it’s going to continue to be.  The nature of the operatic voice is what has kept us out of amplification this long.  We demand singers that can be heard.  If they can’t be heard in an opera house, they don’t get hired.  Pretty voices aren’t enough.  You’ve got to be able to get that voice heard.  Certainly we have singers that are great successes at the Chicago Opera Theater who aren’t going to sing on the Lyric Opera stage because of the difference in the size of the houses.  We have a lot of singers that we audition, and we hear them and say,
I’m sorry, we can’t use you because the voice just doesn’t have the development that is required.

BD:   They have been even very lucky in getting good voices for the size of the production and house that you have?

Larsen:   Alan Stone [the Founder and Artistic Director of COT] is a genius in casting.  Being a singer himself, he has an instinct, a sixth sense that goes beyond technical knowledge of the voice in casting.

BD:   He started out to do what he could do, rather than a season with Aïda and Götterdämmerung.

Larsen:   Right, and then fold up the shop.  We can do a work like The Turn of the Screw, and make it a box office success, as well as an artistic success.  This is because Alan had the guts and the foresight years ago to program works like The Mother of Us All [Thomson], Albert Herring [Britten], and Summer and Smoke [Lee Hoiby].  These are pieces that other companies have tried, and they were huge flops, just absolute disasters from the box office point of view.  Alan started with small audiences who were devoted, and gave them contemporary music theater in the highest possible form that could be delivered without apologizing for it.  We feel a responsibility to do it.

BD:   Thank you so much for being part of it, and thank you for the conversation.

Larsen:   Thank you!  I’m very delighted we could do this.

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© 1987 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in Chicago on March 25, 1987.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB the following week.  This transcription was made in 2021, and posted on this website at that time.  My thanks to British soprano Una Barry for her help in preparing this website presentation.

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

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

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