Baritone  Thomas  Stewart

Two conversations with Bruce Duffie


Obituary by Barry Millington, published in The Guardian, Friday 29 September 2006 10.07 EDT

Thomas Stewart

US baritone with a magisterial voice and striking presence

Thomas Stewart, one of the leading baritones of the postwar generation, has died at the age of 78 in his home city of Rockville, Maryland. He suffered a heart attack while playing golf with his wife, the singer Evelyn Lear, to whom he had been married for more than 50 years. Magisterial of voice and striking of presence, Stewart played a prominent part on the operatic scene in the US and Europe: he took several major roles, including that of Wotan, at the Bayreuth Festival between 1960 and 1972, and was a familiar and popular figure on the stage of the Metropolitan, New York, where he sang 169 performances of 23 roles over 14 seasons.

Born in San Saba, Texas, Stewart discovered at the age of 10 he had a voice that commanded attention. He studied with Mack Harrell at the Juilliard school in New York, with Jaro Prohaska at the Hochschule für Musik in Berlin and with Daniel Ferro in New York. It was at the Juilliard that he made his stage debut in 1954 as La Roche in a production of Strauss's Capriccio - the first time the work had been performed in the US. In the same year he made his debut, as the Commendatore in Don Giovanni, at New York City Opera and in Chicago as Baptista in Giannini's Taming of the Shrew.

He married Evelyn Lear, also a vocal student at Juilliard, in 1955, and they travelled to Europe the following year to study in Berlin on Fulbright scholarships. Within weeks, Stewart had been offered a job as a member of the Berlin Städtische Oper, making his debut as Don Fernando in Fidelio and remaining with the company until 1964.

Again it was not long before his talent was spotted. By the late 1950s, his name was being mentioned, usually favourably, in reviews. By 1960, major invitations were beginning to come his way. That year he received the summons to Bayreuth, taking the roles of Donner and Gunther (The Ring) and Amfortas (Parsifal) with distinction. In the same year he made his Covent Garden debut, as Escamillo in Carmen, though he initially made less of an impression in the role of the brash toreador than he had a few weeks before in the Wagner parts.

At Bayreuth, however, he went on to assume the mantle of Hans Hotter, chiefly in the role of Wotan, which he sang there first in 1967, adding the role of the Wanderer in 1969. Hotter gave him enormous encouragement at this time and they remained close friends. Stewart also sang Wotan/Wanderer on the Karajan recording of the Ring, a portrayal some critics felt lacked something of the tonal strength and depth of a true bass-baritone but which others praised for its fine line and attractive tone. The Bayreuth performances of the role were similarly praised for their intelligence and elegance of phrasing.

His Dutchman there, sung under Karl Böhm and also recorded, achieved, if not quite consistently, the desired demonic pungency and a sense of existential desperation. Certainly the performances of all the major baritone roles at Bayreuth in these years consolidated Stewart's reputation as one of the great Wagner singers of his time.

He was equally at home in a range of roles including Falstaff, Golaud (Pelléas et Mélisande), Count Almaviva (The Marriage of Figaro), Jochanaan (Salome), the villains in Offenbach's The Tales of Hoffmann, Iago and Balstrode (Peter Grimes). Although contemporary music was not his forte, he created the role of the tragically deceived king in Aribert Reimann's Lear (San Francisco, 1981), a performance judged to have struck the ideal balance of action and passivity and praised as one of his greatest.

In retirement, Stewart and his wife set up, in collaboration with the Wagner Society of Washington DC, the Thomas Stewart and Evelyn Lear Emerging Singers Program, facilitating the careers of dozens of young professionals.

Perhaps Stewart's finest recording is his performance of Hans Sachs on Rafael Kubelik's version of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, taped in 1967 but not released until 1996. The humanity that radiates from his characterisation of the cobbler-poet somehow encapsulates the generosity, kindness and integrity of the man to which all who knew him testify.

He is survived by his wife, son Jan and daughter Bonni.

· Thomas Stewart, baritone, born August 29 1928; died September 24 2006

Presented on this webpage are the two conversations I had with Thomas Stewart.  The first was held early in December of 1981, and the second took place nearly a decade later, on the last day of January of 1991.  The first interview dealt exclusively with Wagner, and was published in Wagner News the following March.  Portions of the second were used three times on WNIB, and another segment was given to Lyric Opera of Chicago for use on their website during their
50th Anniversary Season which saluted several Jubilarians who were significant in the history of the company.

Stewart was a towering figure during his career, and as such it is sometimes difficult for such a personality to differentiate between being himself and being the character.  When speaking about one of his characters, Wotan, for instance, there were times when Stewart would use the name and other times when he would say, “I do this,” or, “It comes to me.”  In all instances, I have used the character-names so as not to confuse the issue or the references. 

Both times we met he was very friendly to me, and candid with his responses.  He was also generous with his time, as each visit lasted about 80 minutes.  As mentioned, the first encounter was just about his Wagner roles, and the second dealt mostly with other aspects of his career and philosophy.  With the exception of one brief segment which duplicated his previous ideas, all of the conversations are presented here.

As usual, names of other artists which are links refer to my interviews elsewhere on this website.

Since much of the first interview was published in Wagner News, I have included the introduction from that presentation . . . . . . . . .

Thomas StewartThe Romantic Wotan

Every generation produces singers who become identified with certain roles.  Thomas Stewart is one who will always be identified with the Wagnerian characters despite the vastness of his repertoire.  The most prestigious opera houses in the world have enjoyed his portrayals of the leading baritone parts in all ten of the major Wagner operas (and he has also recorded most of them).  But his career has balanced these with standard works and unknown operas as well as world premieres.  His self-confessed three favorites reflect this diversity
Hans Sachs, Goloud, and Falstaff.  Last fall, he sang the title role in Reimanns Lear which was hailed as a masterpiece at its premiere in Germany.

Married to the soprano Evelyn Lear (!), they are one of the very few teams to remain together after many years.  Though their separate careers take them all over the world, they manage to be together whenever possible
either in opera or recitals.  It was before one of these duo-recitals that I was able to chat with Thomas Stewart.  We met at the small restaurant in their hotel, and with the breakfast dishes waiting to be cleared we settled back to discuss many things, mostly Wagner.  Even without makeup, his face is that of the Flying Dutchman and his presence is that of Wotan, while beneath it all beats the heart of Hans Sachs.  This combination is completely captivating.

Bruce Duffie:  Let me start by asking you about the Ring.  You have been involved in quite a number of interesting productions, and perhaps the most famous one would be the Salzburg cycle under von Karajan.

Thomas Stewart:  Yes, probably.

BD:    How is von Karajan’s conception of the Ring different form other conductors and producers?

TS:    I would start off by saying that by today’s standards of the Ring and what is being done in the Ring, they’re so “far out” today.  Take the Chéreau Ring, or the new Ring by the Germans in Paris.  Th
ey kind of made a swapFrance and Germanywith Chéreau going to Bayreuth to do his ridiculous one [the centenary cycle in 1976], and the Germans [Peter Stein and Klaus Michael] going to Paris and trying to outdo him.  Then among all the provincial theaters of Germany, it seems to be more important to them to try to come up with something more extreme than the other.  So when you ask me, my having done so many different productions of it, it’s a little strange.  I can hardly look at it that way because compared with the production I have done, what is going on today, what I do, they’re all so tame because they’re very romantic.  They’ve almost been relegated by many people to a traditional’ style, and you know the old stigma that so often attaches to tradition.  That is just a comment that I would like to make before I get around to answering your question!  I feel more comfortable in a traditionalif I may use that termsetting for the Ring, or a more romantic setting than I would in one of these extreme modern productions that are going on now.  I have had the good fortune not to have been exposed to that because first of all, when inquiries have come to me to do such productions, I have been lucky enough to have been engaged or to be doing something else, and so I haven’t been put in the position of having to say no.  Or, through a little political and diplomatic maneuvering I have been able to get out because I am not the least bit interested in doing any of them!

BD:    Is it wrong for these productions to try experiments?

TS:    Those kind of experiments, yes.  They go too far in that they make you forget the work itself that you’re listening to and seeing.  In any stage production, whether it be in the opera or in the legitimate theater or whatever it may be, anytime you do a work where the director and designer make you forget the work that you’re seeing...

BD:    Too much effect for its own sake?

stewartTS:    Yes.  You find it distracting from the essence of the original work of art.  Fine, if someone wants to compose a new Ring and create a whole new work of art, that’s wonderful, that’s fine.  It becomes another thing, but don’t take a work of art and play with it and bastardize it and prostitute it until you don’t even recognize the work itself.  It’s like taking a Rembrandt and trying to improve upon it to the point you don’t even realize it’s a Rembrandt.  They say, “Oh, you’re old fashioned.  Art has to move forward!”  Well, certainly it does, yes.  But in the process of moving forward, don’t move forward on the back of great works of art that have gone before us.  Create your own.  Don’t try to bastardize something that is beautiful from earlier years and try to claim this is your own furtherance of the art form that you’re working with.  It’s not.  It’s simply a tearing apart of it.  Now, I still haven’t answered your question about Karajan!  The feeling that I got from his approach to the Ring was essentially based upon the music of Wagner.

BD:    More so than the drama?

TS:    More so than the drama, in opposition to Wieland Wagner who essentially went from the theatrical values and the dramatic values in the Ring.  He was aware of the musical values, the same as Karajan was aware of the theatrical and dramatic values, but I feel that each of the men took his own personal impetus from the music of Wagner (Karajan) or the theatrical aspect of Wagner (Wieland).

BD:    Could there ever have been a way of bringing those two together?

TS:    It would be fantastic.  Unfortunately here, you’re dealing with an impossible situation.  There was an attempt to get them together in Bayreuth many years ago, and it did not work because, as so often is the case, you have two incredibly strong personalities who have their own ideas and are very set in their ideas.  It was difficult for them to find common ground.  This is unfortunate, because if there ever could have been a meeting of minds of two men like that, it would have been an extraordinary experience for all the people listening and those who might have the privilege of working with two such men.  But maybe it’s better that they never did, because then you would have not had two worlds in which to immerse yourself.  Those of us who could, immersed ourselves in the work of Karajan and his Ring, and on the other hand in the Ring of Wieland Wagner which was a completely different conception.  So maybe it’s better that the twain never did meet.

BD:    Was Karajan’s Ring more unified than when you have a different conductor and producer?

TS:    I don’t think it was different.  When you have a different conductor and producer, there has to be a meeting of the minds between the two of them.  This is the ideal.  When you don’t have the meeting of minds between producer and conductor, then essentially the final rendition will suffer from it.  Because he took his impetus from the music, the well from which he drew his inspiration so to speak, I felt Karajan was from the music.  He then projected that on to the stage in collaboration with Günther Schneider-Siemssen who was the designer.  They all combined.  Maybe it was more homogeneous because you have one man controlling the two primary aspects, the music and the stage-realization of the work.  Yes, I’m sure there was.  I was not aware of it, but I’m sure there was.


BD:    In that production the stage was swept fairly clear of trees and rocks, like a grand sweep. Would you be happy to be in a production where there are pine trees and shields and helmets, etc.?

TS:    Sure, why not?  I’m happy to be in any production that does not distract from the essence of the work of art itself.  It’s up to me as a performer.  I have my feelings about that, but any time an audience is in a performance where they are being distracted, whether it’s by the sets or by the costumes or whatever, when they are distracted from the work that Richard Wagner created and the characters he created and the general essence of the piece, then I would get uncomfortable.  But I have no objections to new ideas.  I am willing to sing Wagner under any circumstances, and have sung it under many different circumstances in many different productions with many different designers and many different conductors.  That’s part of it.

BD:    Is there a validity to doing concert performances?

TS:    Oh, sure.  The validity comes from the musical standpoint.  Then you treat it simply as a musical work. 

BD:    Does that strip away the drama completely except for the text?

TS:    Except that part of it that the individual performers can bring to it, and the drama that’s inherent in Wagner’s music.

BD:    Do you enjoy making recordings?

TS:    Not really, no, because I think it comes up short.  You’re getting only half of a work of art.  Opera is a composite work, not just a musical work of art.  Unfortunately that is too often the case, especially with Wagner because of the power of the music.  Very often, too many people take it purely as a musical work, and surely you’re missing half of its power.  But it’s easier to just sit and listen and be enthralled and captivated.

BD:    Do we have a greater comprehension by listening to recordings and learning, and then going to the theater?

TS:    Yes.  If you don’t speak German, read the libretto.  It’s like reading a play.  A libretto is a play, and they’re good and they’re bad.  I happen to think Wagner’s librettos are good.  They’re not perfect by any means, but they’re good, and that’s the only thing you need to do.  There’s value to it by listening to it because of the inherent theatrical quality in Wagner’s music with all of his leitmotivs, and it’s even better the more time you can devote in preparation.  But that is true in anything.  If you go see a Tennessee Williams play, to go into it cold when you’re unfamiliar with the style, if you want to do justice to your own enjoyment and comprehension of the piece you should read a few of his plays.  Or if you’re going to a showing of Picasso, then buy a book and look through it to become acquainted with Picasso, or maybe read a short biography of him.

BD:    Become informed?

TS:    Yes, become informed.  But I’m sorry to say that audiences are lazy.  It’s a product of our times and a product of television.  Television, unfortunately, is to entertain people, and those people don’t make any contribution whatsoever.

BD:    It’s a passive medium?

TS:    It’s completely passive and they play upon it.

BD:    Does opera work well on television?

TS:    Oh, it can, very definitely.

BD:    Do you think this Met series with the running translation is a good idea?  [Remember, this interview was held in 1981, several years before supertitles were used in the theater.]

TS:    I think it’s a wonderful idea, better than anything that’s gone before.  The techniques need to be improved, and would improve if you could make a television film of an opera the same as you do a great book or a great screenplay.  But it’s better than we’ve had before.  And because television is the all-pervading medium today in the world
certainly in this countrythe more we can get operas on to television the better off we are.  In the learning process, it has to take place to be more widely accepted.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Let’s talk a little bit about Wotan.  Is he an interesting character?

TS:    Oh, yeah!  He’s a fantastic character.

BD:    Is he at all evil?

TS:    Evil?  Sure.  He has evil in him.  We can get into semantics about what is evil, but he suffers all the evil aspects of any human personality.  This is the wonder of the work.  Wagner has presented here a character who is a god. 

BD:    He’s not human?

stewartTS:    He’s not human by name, but he’s human in every other aspect of his actions.  He suffers all the human frailties, all the human weaknesses, all the human virtues.  He has them all, and that is the greatness of the work.   One of the things that is too often completely ignored is the fact that is it human, and just as a side comment on that, I realize that Chéreau in Bayreuth wanted to try to bring this out.  That’s what he tried to do,  and because I like to think positively about things, he wanted to show the human aspects of all of these characters in the Ring.  They are human; God-like they are not in reality.  They are only god-like in that man at times has a tendency to set himself up as a god.

BD:    It’s an interesting way of looking at it.

TS:    After twenty-odd years in Wagner, for me it’s the only way to look at it!

BD:    Are Wotan and Alberich two sides of the coin?

TS:    They’re two aspects of man and what can happen to man if certain external influences are exerted upon him, or if he chooses to live by certain creeds.  It’s a picture of man and what he’s capable of being and doing.  One man is born beautiful, big, brilliant, ambitious, and the other is brought into the world mis-shapen, ugly, but also ambitious and greedy.  One uses his gifts to achieve his ends, the other uses his or must resort to evil or more unpleasant ends to achieve his goals.  They’re two sides of man, but of the same man?  From Wagner’s standpoint he called one the light and the other the dark, just so the public would not miss the point because the public didn’t then (as it doesn’t now) really contribute its own thoughts when it attends performances.  Wagner uses that idea to kind of jog the public’s awareness.  I think the relationship between Wotan and Alberich is simply a relationship showing how one man who has been shaped by forces (the environment in which he lives) will react, and how the other man will react and develop.  I use the term
man and not god and mortal, but let’s just use the general term man; one man in the form of Wotan, another man in the form of Alberich.  The operas show how certain forces form them, and how they react on one another when they confront by one another.  Because it is that story, it is a confrontation between Alberich and the world, and the confrontation between Wotan and the world. 

BD:    It seems that Wotan has a confrontation with many different characters
one with Fricka, one with Siegfried...

TS:    Sure!  Isn’t life one confrontation after another?  But Alberich has his own confrontations
he has a confrontation with Wotan, one with Mime, one with the Rheinmaidens, one with a Gibichung (Hagen’s mother), and in the end one with his son Hagen.

BD:    What is the confrontation like between Wotan and Fricka?  What is their relationship?

TS:    Like many marriages you find today.

BD:    Is there any real love between Wotan and Fricka?

TS:    Give me a definition for love and then I will answer your question.  [Both laugh]  Seriously, I’m not being flippant.  What is love?

BD:    I am probably naïve, but for me love is a warm, close relationship; a giving relationship.

TS:    Yes, there’s love between them.  She cares for him in that she can improve her status as his wife.

BD:    Isn’t she then just using him as a stepping-stone?

TS:    But she cares.  She cares because she’s interested in him improving himself.

BD:    Are they happy together?

TS:    When they both feel they have used the other one to achieve what they want to achieve, then they’re happy.  He is happy with her because she gives him legitimacy, she gives him a woman to run his home well and efficiently and do all the right things, invite all the right people to the parties and help him climb up the ladder of success.

BD:    Would there be more love between Wotan and Siegfried than between Wotan and Fricka?

TS:    It would be on a different level.  Wotan essentially uses Siegfried to further his own ends.  There is a love.  There is an attachment because he has created Siegfried, and he’s a very integral part of Wotan’s life and overall plan.

BD:    But given the idea that Wotan is immortal, Wotan seems to set it up so that Siegfried will achieve but only at the expense of Wotan.

TS:    That’s when Wotan makes the decision that he has no other way out.  He’s burning his bridges behind him.  He must protect what he has.  He wants to be sure the gold gets back where it belongs because as long as it’s out, then he’s in danger.

BD:    So Wotan would not be happy if Siegfried and Brünnhilde get together and Brünnhilde keeps the ring?

TS:    Not particularly because there is an inherent danger in anybody who has that ring, because the gold has the power that Wotan fears.  That’s why the whole thing starts.  He fears Alberich when he gets the gold because he suddenly is confronted with the power of it when he sees what Alberich can do with it with all the Nibelungen.

BD:    Then why doesn’t Wotan give back the ring when he has the opportunity in Rheingold?

TS:    Because he’s put in a position where he has to get rid of it in order to keep the gods from falling completely apart.  He doesn’t want to, but he has to get Freia back.

BD:    He’s not willing to sacrifice Freia?

TS:    Oh, he can’t!  As Loge says, she maintains the garden of the gods.  Without the golden fruit, they die.  She is the essence of life for the gods.  Then Erda comes along and makes this incredible entrance, and makes an incredible impact on Wotan.  That’s why he’s fascinated with the woman.  She says to leave it alone, forget it, throw it away, forget about the ring.  That causes him to have misgivings about what he’s done, and here this incredible woman, mother Erda, a force equal to his own.  She says he should forget about it, and at the same time the only way I can get Freia back is to give it to the Giants.  So he’s got two points on one side and none on the other side, so he’d better give it away.  But the moment he gives it up he’s got to start planning how to get it back and give it back to the Rheinmaidens because it could be trouble for him in the hands of an unscrupulous man like Alberich.  If Alberich ever gets it back he’s had it, so he’s frightened.

BD:    As long as Fafner has it tucked away in the cave, it’s OK?

TS:    It’s temporarily OK, but even then he still is uneasy about it because he knows that Alberich is trying also to get it back.  Everything revolves around this symbolic chunk of gold, and this is a commentary of Wagner on gold and material things in the world then and the world today.  But that’s what Wotan fears is the power in the piece of gold.

BD:    So he knows the power is in the gold and not in himself?

TS:    He thinks there’s power in himself.  He believes in himself, but suddenly he’s been confronted with what he perceives is a power that possibly might even be greater than his, and that is the power of this gold.  He’s suddenly in mortal combat against the power of this gold, and the power of the gold goes with whoever has it.  Whoever has the ring has the power.  Suddenly he is in this mortal battle, and that is the story of the Ring.

BD:    In a complete Ring, is it jarring for you to sing the three Wotans and then perform Gunther?


TS:    No, not really.  As a professional that’s simply a technical thing.  I am a professional and I sing a lot of divergent roles.  If Wotan played an active part in Götterdämmerung, then there might be a problem and I would be frustrated.

BD:    Do you ever wish that Wagner had written a part for Wotan in
Götterdämmerungperhaps cutting down the world ash tree, or sitting at the council table waiting for the end?

TS:    No, not really.  I think Wotan disappears from the scene very well.  If he were to appear again, you would have to have a direct confrontation between Wotan and Hagen, or Wotan and Alberich again.  The fact that Wotan doesn’t have the same scene with Siegfried that Alberich has with Hagen is very intentional on Wagner’s part.  You see, Wotan can’t do what Alberich does.  You go back to Walküre and he says he must find someone who does what Wotan wants but thinks he is doing it on his own.

BD:    A free agent.

TS:    Yes.  Wotan cannot actively whisper in his ear.  He can’t lead him or push him.  Siegfried has to do it on his own and to be free, he has to reject Wotan.

BD:    Does Wotan believe in the beginning that Siegmund will be that free agent, or does he know it will  have to go another generation?


See my Interviews with Régine Crespin and Jon Vickers

TS:    He’s  hoping.  I don’t think he knows; he’s just trying, he’s determined.  When Siegmund doesn’t come through, he has to destroy Siegmund for other reasons, again to maintain his position.  He’s forced to kill Siegmund because if he doesn’t, his dear beloved wife is going to blow the whistle on him.

BD:    What could she do?

TS:    Destroy the façade Wotan has built up around himself and the gods.  She threatens to expose the seamy, dirty, petty, evil things that go on behind the great beautiful façade of Valhalla.  Wotan is the great god who can do no wrong, who makes the right decisions and loves everyone.

BD:    Valhalla is not imaginary, though.

TS:    No, but it’s a façade.  It’s something that Wotan wants to create to show that he is the greatest thing that’s ever happened, to show how great he is.  She threatens to expose all the dirty dealings, the blood he’s willing to let to achieve what he wants, and the betrayals that he knows he makes but admits only to Brünnhilde.  He exposes himself to her in the second act of Walküre and says yes, he has done it.  He has made lousy contracts with people and made them knowing he would break them.  He’s condemned them to death.  He’s going to have to condemn his own son to death in order to cover his tracks.  Otherwise, Fricka will expose him for what he is, which is a ruthless, bloodthirsty, power-hungry creature, and not a god who’s benevolent, who only has good for people in mind.  All the good that he has been doing is only to enhance his own image.

BD:    [Disappointedly]  I, myself, have been taken in by Wotan.  I want him to be more god-like.

TS:    That’s Wagner’s point.  That is Wagner’s point right there.  For me, that is the essence of the character of Wotan.  Don’t be taken in by someone who sets himself up as being THE authority, THE word, the ONLY figure.  Be careful.  There is inherent danger in that right there.  That’s his point.  It’s fascinating.

BD:    Do you find this kind of depth in other composers?

TS:    That’s Wagner as a librettist, as a great mind.  The only other mind that comes close is Shakespeare, and the only other composer who came close in a sense was Verdi, but just in the operas he took from Shakespeare, so I can’t really say that Verdi was that deep.  There’s a beautiful German word – Stoff – which means the basic elements from which one draws, and the Stoff was not Verdi’s or even Boito’s, but Shakespeare’s.  Verdi’s genius was that he embellished the basic Stoff that was there.

stewartBD:    So Verdi was a part, but he needed the Shakespeare, while Wagner was a total entity?

TS:    Truly you can see this.  Wagner went back to the old Nordic saga from which the legend comes.  That was his Stoff, but he refined it.  These were all divergent and they never really went together.  Wagner pulled it all together.  I think he really created it all himself.

BD:    One last question on the Ring.  How weak is Gunther?

TS:    Even when I played Gunther [photo from Bayreuth at right] I felt he’s not weak.  He’s paranoid, he’s warped.  His weakness is in his own ability to reduce himself to any level to achieve what he wants to achieve or to get his fame and his power.

BD:    Isn’t this what Wotan does?

TS:    Yes, basically, but Gunther never set himself up as something he wasn’t.  He just accomplished it.  He was a great king, but he never set himself up as a god in the eyes of his fellow men.  He was what he was, and he made no bones about it.  He had what he wanted.  He was petty and jealous, and I think he had essentially more complexes than Wotan had.  He was more frightened.  He was intimidated by Hagen because Hagen was the idea man.  He was the power behind the throne, but Gunther was perfectly willing to do whatever Hagen told him to do because that gave him what he wanted.  He simply went along with it.  He was using Hagen when in reality Hagen was using him to give him legitimacy because he was the bastard son.  He was the strange one who nobody really knew where he came from.  He was suddenly there, but Gunther was sly enough and sharp enough to realize the brain that was there.  So he used that, and Hagen had someone to be a front man.  They used each other.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Let’s get away from the Ring for a bit.  Is it special for you to have sung the leading baritone role in all ten of the major Wagner operas?

TS:    Yes, it’s important to me because I have a great affinity for Wagner.  Wagner was an incredible genius.  I cannot equate any of the other great composers... no, again this is a trap that I put myself into!  He was a great theatrical genius.  I refuse to call him a great composer and I refuse to call him a great librettist or a great playwright.  He is a theatrical genius in that not only did he write librettos for lyric theatrical productions, but as an innovator in simply the theater itself.  He understood mundane things that most people don’t know about.  He built his own theater which is still, for lyric theater, the greatest in the world.  There’s no opera house in the world where you can do justice to all segments of the art form.

BD:    Would Aïda or Fidelio work there?

TS:    Absolutely; better than anywhere else, but you would also see the failings, the weak spots of the piece.  You would see the failings in the libretto.

BD:    Do you see the failings in Wagner’s librettos?

TS:    Yes, oh sure.  Everything he wrote wasn’t perfect.  There are terribly weak spots in Tannhäuser and Holländer and Lohengrin... well in all works.  There’s no
perfect work.  A lot of people like to say that Tristan is a perfect work but, I’m sorry, I greatly disagree.  But I think the weaknesses in the works of other composers would be more glaring because in that theater all elements get equal weightthe theatrical values, the musical values, and the inherent dramatic values.

BD:    Just as a side note, is there anything being written today that has the strong combination of strengths?

TS:    I can’t honestly say.  I am not familiar with all of the modern works being performed.  Of the ones that I have touched either directly, or have heard, or have heard about from people whose opinion means something to me, I don’t think so as a whole, that it is.  I would have to say that the work I just finished doing in SF, Lear [by Aribert Reimann (b. 1936)], is a powerful work.  It has weaknesses and it’s not all great, but it is very powerful.  Maybe I’m not being quite objective enough because I’ve waited for so many years to be able to perform Lear in my medium that I’m not objective enough to see its weaknesses and its fallacies.

BD:    Could Verdi have written Lear if he had wanted to?

TS:    Yes, I wish he had.

BD:    But later
between Otello and Falstaff, not earlier.

TS:    Yes, it would have had to have been his last work or the next to last work.  But he could have done justice to it.  I wish he had had courage enough to do it.

BD:    Could there have been any other Wagner operas after Parsifal?

TS:    I’ve come to the conclusion that the man was capable of doing almost anything.  He ran the theatrical gamut.  Take what you will
comedy, drama, satire, melodramahe wrote them all.  I don’t know what else is left to write in the way of theatrical works.  So, with a mind like that, with the genius of that man that we already have before us, he was capable of doing anything.  What are the limits?  Certainly with what we have today, there’s no telling what he could have done.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Let’s talk a bit about Amfortas.

stewartTS:    Again, it is Wagner’s picture of a man who is being torn, not because of his own greed for power and money, but because of the hell that he’s been trapped in because of his misgivings about himself, his own fear of the supernatural, his own sense of duty to a cause.  It is Wagner’s commentary on Religion and what a trap it can be for man, a pitiful, horrible trap that he can get himself into.  Amfortas is caught and he’s in a dilemma and doesn’t know how to get out.  Wotan says that all he wants is to have it end to let it be over, just let him out of it.  Amfortas says “Let me die!  Go away, leave me alone, let me die, let me out.”  What is man?  Man puts himself in traps!  He gets himself entrapped in situations either through his greed or as in the case of man’s entry into the world and his confronting the world until the day he dies and is relieved through death.

BD:    Is death a release for man?

TS:    For man and his conception of life?  Absolutely.

BD:    Not just for Wotan, or Amfortas, or the Dutchman, but is Wagner saying that death is a release for mankind?

TS:    Man perceives it as a release.  Now we could get into theology as to whether it is or not, but man perceives it as such because we are creatures of our environment.  If you have been formed in a religious millieux, then you perceive it as a wonderful release.  If you have been obeying all the rules and thinking all the right thoughts, then it is a wonderful beautiful release.  You’re rewarded.  But if you’ve been naughty, then you are living your hell and it is a release from that hell.

BD:    Is there any more connection between Amfortas and the Dutchman other than they’ve been going through the same kind of torment?

TS:    No.  Again it was another commentary of Wagner’s on man and how some men are caught in one trap and some are caught in another trap, and how men confront their life.

BD:    Let’s get out of this trap and talk a little about Hans Sachs.

TS:    That’s something else.  He’s a man who confronts his life with an incredible philosophy.  He’s confronting a situation and we see how he copes with it.  The opera is a beautiful, beautiful commentary and satire.  Shaw is a great satirist and is fantastic, but I think Wagner, in his own way, was just as good.  Taking the time-sphere in which Wagner was functioning, the romantic era, it’s a fabulous satire, a wonderful commentary on human frailties.

BD:    Is Sachs happy?

TS:    I don’t want to be repetitive, but depends on your perception of happiness.  Every human being has his own perception of everything, and he makes every judgment, every value judgment and every comment in this framework.  If he is only parroting someone else’s conception, then it has no value because his perception is distorted.  It’s not his own.

BD:    When you are on the stage, is it your first responsibility to show your conception of love or happiness, and then show it throughout the character?

TS:    Yes.  I have to have it, and I try at all times to arrive at my own.  I work very hard to not take input from other sources, but digest it and distill it down to my own, because I, like everybody else, am a product of my environment.  But everyone should try to be truthful with yourself so that when you come up with a perception of life or love or happiness or whatever it is, it is a distillation of all of these inputs and all of your experiences.  For me, once I arrive at it and I’m convinced of it, it is possible that no one will agree with me, but it has to be my own and I have to try to present it.  I must present my argument as a performer presenting my argument to the world as my perception of this character or this situation and how this character acts in it or reacts in it.  I have a public forum for mine and you have a public forum for yours, but everyday man has it in his relationships with other people, with his family, and with business associates.  We must reflect ourselves as best we can, but realizing always that we are doing it and try to avoid reflecting what someone else, who is very persuasive, has talked us into.  Man is competing for man’s mind. 

BD:    Is there a little bit of Hans Sachs in all of us?

TS:    Sure!  Psychologists and psychoanalysts are trying to plumb the absolute depths of man and what he is capable of being.

BD:    Is there any one of the Wagner characters that is a little closer to Thomas Stewart than all the rest?

TS:    Sachs.  I like to think that because Sachs’ attitude toward life is basically along the tracks I’d like to go.  That’s my own, personal feeling about it.  I love to portray the others, but the one closest to me in my heart is Hans Sachs.

BD:    Have you done any of the other roles in Meistersinger?

TS:    No, just Sachs.

BD:    Have you done any of these roles in translation?

TS:    Yes.  Sachs, which I translated myself.

BD:    Does it work in English?

TS:    It can.  It requires an incredible amount of work, but it can be done.  I was surprised with the success that came about.  I was not satisfied with the final product but...

BD:    Do you feel a little more closeness with the audience knowing that they understood each line?

TS:    Absolutely.  Certainly with an English-speaking audience, and this was in Houston.  I had said for many, many years that I didn’t really think Wagner was translatable.  The first person to cause me to stop and have second thoughts about that was Andrew Porter, because I think he did exceedingly well with the Ring.

BD:    Would you sing Wotan in his translation?

TS:    [Reluctantly]  No.  I would not, and this is not a petty thing but a human one on my part.  I think that the play on words (that’s such a trite term, but I can’t think of any other phrase to use) that Wagner uses in the Ring is such that I can’t conceive of it being possible in English... at least not right now, and not even by Andrew.  He doesn’t get the double entendre.  Meistersinger is a rather open, personal give and take.  It’s more straightforward and not as convoluted as the RingMeistersinger deals with reality, real human characters conversing with one another without all of the twists and psychological things.  Although there are a lot of them in Meistersinger, it is not to such a degree as in the Ring, and they’re more easily understood and more easily presented in translation because the libretto is on a more day-to-day conversational level.  You get into the long monologues in the Ring and they get terribly esoteric.

BD:    Are the long monologues for Gurnemanz in Parsifal the same kind of thing?

TS:    Yes, oh yes.

BD:    What about the Dutchman’s monologue?

TS:    Maybe a little bit, but I find Dutchman in essence a simple piece.  Wagner hadn’t really matured as yet.


BD:    Could that work in English?

TS:    I think you could translate that, yes.  It’s a simple work of Wagner’s.

BD:    Simple to understand?

TS:    Yes, simple to understand.  It’s a simple presentation.  Wagner had not reached his peak in his mind with Dutchman and Tannhäuser.  He began to creep into it with Lohengrin, and this is strange because it doesn’t go chronologically.  He got terribly convoluted and terribly involved in Tristan, and of course he was writing pieces of all of these operas at all stages of his life, as if he himself would go in and out of this incredible productive streak.  He would become simple on one hand with one work and then he would turn around and work on the second act of Tristan where he became incredibly involved and convoluted.

BD:    Does this show a good self-knowledge on Wagner’s part to know that he couldn’t continue in one piece so he’d work on something he could do?

TS:    Maybe so.  He might say to himself, “I’m up against a brick wall here, so I gotta get away from it,” and he’d come back to it, which is logical.  I do it and you do it every day.  You’re confronting a problem and you come to an impasse, and the intelligent thing is to leave it alone, put it aside, forget it and come back to it.  Maybe that’s what he did
— he distracted himself knowing he would come back to it with a fresh outlook).  Essentially every creative artist, in that sense, has to rely on his own fertilities, his own imagination, his own creativity.  But he also has to have the intellect to realize that it comes and goes.  It varies.

BD:    Do you find that as a performer, too?

TS:    Sure.  Of course, and a lot of people can put it down to days of the month, your biorhythms or whatever it is, but it comes and goes.  We are not constant by any means.

BD:    But you are booked so far ahead.  You know that on a certain date three years from now you will be singing a certain role in a certain house.  How do you know you will be psychologically and physically prepared to do it at that time in that place?


TS:    I don’t, but I have confidence in my abilities as a professional.

BD:    Then are some performances more successful because they happen to hit you at the right time?

TS:    Yes, and I would be stupid to deny that.

BD:    Do you work at getting a balance singing Wagner and non-Wagner?

TS:    I try.  It has been difficult, but I think it’s good for me as a performer.  It’s good for me as a performer of Wagner to do Verdi or to do Debussy from time to time, and this is for the very same reason
to get away from it.  You can become so involved with it you are unknowingly unaware of anything else, and that’s bad.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    You mention Debussy.  Tell me a little bit about Goloud.

TS:    [Musing]  One of my three favorite roles.

BD:    [With a huge smile]  OK, what are the other two?  [Both laugh]

TS:    I set that up very nicely!  Sachs, Falstaff, and Goloud.

BD:    Ford or Falstaff?

TS:    Falstaff.

BD:    I was unaware you had sung that role.

TS:    It was much too late.  I wish I had had courage enough to do Falstaff much earlier, but I did my first one about six years ago now, not too long after I did Ford here in Chicago [in 1974].

As can be seen in this chart, before going to Europe, Stewart sang three supporting roles in the very first
season of the re-born Lyric Opera of Chicago, and then returned for major roles in later seasons.

1954 - Taming of the Shrew (Giannini) [Baptista] with Jordan, Lind, Thompson, Foldi, Gramm; Rescigno, Harrower, Ritholz
            Lucia [Raimondo] with Callas, Di Stefano, Guelfi; Rescigno, Wymetal
            Tosca [Angelotti] with Steber, Di Stefano, Gobbi, Badioli, Assandri, Mason (Shepard Boy); Rescigno, Wymetal

1969 - Flying Dutchman [Dutchman] with Silja, Cox, Talvela; Dohnányi, Ebermann, Wolf Siegfried Wagner

1974 - Falstaff [Ford] with Evans, Ligabue, Zilio, Chookasian, Alva, Andreolli, Roni; Maag, Zeffirelli/Anderson/Evans

1975 - Elektra [Orest] with Roberts, Neblett, Boese, Little; Klobučar, Heinrich
            Marriage of Figaro [Count] with M. Price, Malfitano, Dean, Ewing, Voketaitis, Begg; Pritchard, Ponnelle

1985-86 - Meistersinger [Hans Sachs] with Johnson/Wells/Griffel, Johns, Kavrakos, Patrick, Del Carlo, Kuebler; Janowski, Merrill, O’Hearn

1986-87 - Magic Flute [Speaker] with Blegen, Araiza, Nolen, Serra, Salminen; Slatkin, Everding, Zimmermann

1990-91 - Magic Flute [Speaker] with Mattila, Hadley, Nolen, Jo, Lloyd; Kuhn, Everding, Zimmermann

BD:    Did you steal any ideas from Sir Geraint?

TS:    Oh, I steal ideas from everybody, and chew them up and digest them and distill them and try to come out with what I think are my own.  Again, we are all products of input.

BD:    Let’s go back to Goloud.

TS:    He’s a man coping with a situation and not really knowing how to cope with it, and having to cope with it on his own terms that in many ways don’t fit.  He’s out of sync.

BD:    In the first scene I always ask myself why he gets involved with this strange woman.

TS:    She fascinates him.  He’s never seen anything like her.  It’s a new experience for him, and I think he does it out of curiosity.  He’s intrigued by it and wants to look a little deeper, and suddenly he’s trapped and doesn’t know how to get out.  He can’t handle it.  Suddenly the world is turned upside down and all his values suddenly don’t have any value.  He’s coping with that.

BD:    Do you like playing that kind of role?

TS:    Yes, I like it because it has meat.  It is clichéd on one hand, but a cliché in itself is a great thing because a cliché can only become a cliché because it is common.  People say he’s doing a cliché of a character, but that’s what it is.  There’s a reason why it is a cliché.  If it’s a one-time thing, then it’s not a cliché.

BD:    Do you ever get tired of portraying all these tormented characters?

TS:    No, not at all.

BD:    Does that make less torment in your personal life to be able to release it on stage?

TS:    It makes me understand my personal life a little better.  I’m firmly convinced of that.  It gives me insight into my own confrontation, my own torment, because being in the world we live in today, any man who doesn’t have torment is not very perceptive.  He’s not aware.  He’s not getting any input from the world we live in.  We’re all coping.  If you get in a situation where you’re not coping with the world, then you’re anesthetizing yourself.  That may come through religion, through dogma, from any source either political or religious or whatever it may be.  You shut it out and you build walls around yourself.  Any man who has got no walls has got to confront everything.  He is tormented because he’s confronting.  It’s a confrontation with life.

BD:    Is that what Falstaff is confronting

TS:    Absolutely.  He’s trying to bring back the good life.  That is what he wishes for.

BD:    How old is Falstaff?

TS:    He can be any age because there are people who come to the end of the good life at 25.  Some people have reached the end of what they perceive as the good life by then.  Suddenly, their world falls apart.  Some youngsters, I feel, think that their world has fallen apart at 20.

BD:    Ben Franklin said,
Some people die at 25 and aren’t buried until 75.

TS:    Yes, and there are some people who feel that life is still great at 70.  It’s all your own perception of what you’ve done with yourself.  So Falstaff can be any age, but it’s easier as a performer to make him out that he’s lived and experienced a lot.  Experience takes time, generally speaking.

BD:    [Quoting another old adage] 
“It’s hard to put an old head on young shoulders.

TS:    Yes.  The passage of time is still something that has to happen.  Some people can cram more into a day than others, but that’s human nature.  It’s the genes that make us who we are.

stewartBD:    What about Telramund?  How much is he manipulated?

TS:    He’s manipulated a great deal.  He thinks he’s doing the manipulating, but that’s an old cliché, too.

BD:    Is he basically a good person who’s being manipulated, or is he evil too?

TS:    He’s twisted.  He’s only evil in that he is vindictive.  His perception is one of getting even with a world in which he doesn’t really fit.  It doesn’t really conform to his ideas of what he wants, and then he suddenly perceives and tries to use Ortrud, and winds up that Ortrud has used him.

BD:    If there any real love-bond between Ortrud and Telramund?

TS:    Again, what is love?  A very viable and true aspect of love is two people utilizing one another for their own good.  That is a very necessary part of love.

BD:    It’s a kind of love?

TS:    It has to be when you choose a mate, and whether you admit it or not is another thing.  But you admit that the mate fits into a certain scheme of things that you have, otherwise it’s a common ground on which you join, but it’s reciprocal.  Both people should feel that way.

BD:    Are all these characters kidding themselves to a certain degree?

TS:    Don’t we all?  We perceive, we want something.  We strive toward something.  You kid yourself the moment you dream.  A dream is one big joke.  I’m being crass, but it’s a hallucination.  If I convince myself that the world is going to blow up tomorrow, it’s a hallucination, it’s a dream.

BD:    But what if you convince yourself that the world is not going to blow up tomorrow?

TS:    It’s the same thing because it could.  This is true for anything that’s not happening right now or has happened.  What has happened is not a hallucination, it’s fact.  But anything past the moment you are living is a hallucination, because you do not know what’s going to happen.

BD:    But eventually it becomes reality.

TS:    Yes.  Every second becomes reality the moment it happens.  But before it happens, it’s hallucination.

BD:    It’s an interesting way of looking at it.

TS:    I don’t know how else really to look at it.  [Looking at the table between us]  Until I pick up that cup, I haven’t picked it up, so it’s a hallucination.  I dream that I’m going to.  The moment it begins to happen, reality starts.  When I have the mental impulse to pick it up, maybe that’s the beginning of reality.  But it’s not reality until it happens.

BD:    Is the operatic stage reality?  Are you presenting these characters as reality?

TS:    It’s real for me.  Of course, I’m actually doing it.  But as far as the character I portray, there are characters that are wholly hypothetical.  Those are figments of someone’s imagination, and most characters are.  To make them be more perceptible by the public you have to deal with elements that you can perceive and the audience can perceive.  Otherwise there’s no communication of an idea.  If man evolves to the point where he gets stimulus without seeing or tasting or whatever, if he gets purely mental stimulus, then fine.  That’s all well and good because when you look at something or hear something you get a stimulus.  You stimulate the brain by looking, smelling, tasting, feeling, whatever.

BD:    That’s how I’ve always felt about Tannhäuser.  The whole Venusberg is just in his mind.

TS:    Maybe.  Could be.

BD:    Is Wolfram’s main goal to pull Tannhäuser out of this dream?

TS:    In essence, Wolfram wants to bring Tannhäuser back to reality, to let him get down to brass tacks.  You’ve got a problem, you want this, fine, then do something about it.  Do what you have to do in order to achieve it.

BD:    Does Wolfram have a truly pure heart?

TS:    Yes, because that’s the Hell that he has built himself into
to rescue.  He has to love everybody.  I don’t know why Wolfram has to love everybody, but he does.  He’s there to love Elizabeth, Tannhäuser, the world, and to see that everything is all right.

BD:    He’s not a Billy Budd type, is he?

TS:    No.  Billy Budd is a more modern manifestation of that.  For the time, when Tannhäuser was composed and conceived by Wagner, that was the picture of a 19th century Billy Budd, as far as conception is concerned.

BD:    Is it a great release for you as Wolfram when Tannhäuser is redeemed?

TS:    Yes.  The character of Wolfram is relieved because he feels that all he wanted for Tannhäuser was to get redeemed and to find peace.  He’s pleased the same as he’s pleased that Elizabeth is also released from her torment because that’s all he wants for those that he loves.

BD:    Is the character of Tannhäuser anything like the character of the Dutchman?  They both seem to be in this torment and need to get the release.

TS:    Yes, therein is the parallel, just what you said.  It’s different pictures painted by Wagner of the same essential torment that man has.  There have been books written saying that was Wagner’s commentary because he himself was tormented all his life.  He felt himself being hemmed in, having these walls built around him, depriving him of his freedom.  He couldn’t live the way he wanted, he had to bow to conventionality time and time again.

BD:    Thank you so very much for all your insights into yourself and these characters.

TS:    It was a pleasure speaking with you today.

Just over nine years later we met again and continued our discussion . . . . . . .

BD:    Is there a secret to singing Mozart?

TS:    Absolutely not!  I don’t think so, not for me anyway.  You sing Mozart like you sing anything else, really.  I don’t know that there’s a popular conception that there’s a Mozart style, whatever it is.  Musicologists or musicians or conductors are trying to find something out, and I don’t know why they can’t take Mozart for what Mozart is.  They’re trying to make it into something else.  Are they bored with it the way he wrote it?  I don’t know what they’re trying to do.

BD:    Okay then.  What is Mozart?

TS:    Mozart is music, just like anyone else.   It’s like Wagner.  It’s like Haydn.

BD:    Is there any connection between Mozart and Wagner?  It seems like a lot of Mozart singers sing Wagner and vice versa.

TS:    No more than music is music.  There’s all the kinds of styles of composition, but as a performer I try to simply use the same mechanism that I have to perform Wagner as well as Mozart.  The musical values are musical values.  What is there to be done?  The performance of a role or the characterization in an opera has nothing to do with the music or the man who wrote the composition.  As composers, I don’t see any difference between one kind of music and another kind of music so far as this superimposed style.  It’s been superimposed on popular music by singers, conductors, or musicologists, and I’m not a great believer in it.  It becomes too cluttered up.  And who’s going to say who’s right?  Is it a contest?  Are we in a contest now to see who’s got Mozart ears, or who’s spiritualist has been able to make contact with him from the other world or the other side?  Has this person or that person gotten The Word about how to perform it as it was?  [Pauses a moment]  Wasn’t there someone who would go into trances or something?

BD:    That was Rosemary Brown.

TS:    Is that who it was?  It was weird.  She was getting messages from someone, but then she would wind up composing things.  Supposedly she was acting as a medium from the other side.

BD:    She said she was taking dictation from these long-dead composers.

Rosemary Isabel Brown (27 July 1916 – 16 November 2001) was an English composer, pianist and spirit medium who claimed that dead composers dictated new musical works to her. She created a small media sensation in the 1970s by presenting works purportedly dictated to her by Claude Debussy, Edvard Grieg, Franz Liszt, Franz Schubert, Frédéric Chopin, Igor Stravinsky, Johann Sebastian Bach, Johannes Brahms, Ludwig van Beethoven, Robert Schumann and Sergei Rachmaninoff.

Brown claimed that each composer had his own way of dictating to her: Liszt controlled her hands for a few bars at a time, and then she wrote down the notes; Chopin told her the notes and pushed her hands on to the right keys; Schubert tried to sing his compositions; and Beethoven and Bach simply dictated the notes. She claimed the composers spoke to her in English.

After studying the compositions, psychologists came to the conclusion they were the work of Brown's own subconscious. Leonard Zusne and Warren H. Jones in their book Anomalistic Psychology: A Study of Magical Thinking (1989) noted that "Brown wrote hundreds of pieces of music dictated by the various composers. They were passable works, entirely in the style of these composers, but appeared to be simply reworkings of existing pieces."

BD:    We were talking about musical values.  Are the musical values higher or lower from composer to composer, or are they just different?

TS:    Just different.  How can you say the values of Puccini are higher than the values of Verdi or Wagner?  Could one say that?  Would one or could be so audacious to say that?   You have preferences.  Everybody has preferences.  It all comes down to personal taste.  As far as I’m concerned, it is one’s own personal perception of the music, how to perform it, how to enjoy it.  The composer wrote his own personal taste.  He may have experimented with the music of his fellow composers and those that went before him, but essentially only to arrive at his own particular tastes when he started composing himself.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Throughout your career you’ve sung roles that have been dictated by your voice type and style.

TS:    Basically, yes.

BD:    Have they been in sync with your personal musical tastes?

stewartTS:    Well, not completely, no.  I’m a professional opera singer, so maybe I should first clarify in my own mind what you mean by taste.  I have my preferences.   There are certain composers that I prefer and certain operas that I prefer over others.  But as a professional,
if I am asked, and I agree and consent to perform an opera that may not be my favorite, it’s my duty and my professional obligation to give it the best professional try that I can.  Does a dentist only work on people’s teeth that he likes in someone’s mouth?  What if he sees a mouth and goes, “Yuck!  I’m not going to touch this mouth.  I’m sorry, you have to go somewhere else!  No, he doesn’t do that.  That may be a rather trite, stupid thing to say, but it does apply to performing artists.

BD:    Are there perhaps a few characters along the way that you said,
I wish I had the voice to sing that”?

TS:    What might prevent me from singing a role by my own choice would be if I didn’t feel I was vocally equipped to handle the role.  I have my own ideas about what I am qualified to do, and they will depend on whether I feel I can do it to my own satisfaction, primarily.  Really, when it comes down to the last word, I’m the one who’s going to make that decision.  I don’t let anyone make that for me, although a lot of people have tried to do it.  There have been a lot of things that I have declined because I didn’t want to have anything to do with them.  It just was that I knew I wouldn’t get anything from them as an artist.

BD:    Even though the part would have fit your voice?

TS:    Yes.  There are other things that I have declined because the tools I have to work with don’t make it possible, I feel, for me to do this role the way I think it should be done.  Consequently I won’t do.

BD:    Can I assume that most of the roles you’ve sung you’ve been very happy to learn and get into?

TS:    Most of them, yes.  There are some roles that I have done one time, or one series of maybe four, five, six performances, and never did again because I had to actually perform them to really make the final decision as to whether I wanted to do them.  Only then can you really see what the roles are.  There haven’t been too many of those, but there have been some, and you do them because you’re committed.  You’re contracted, you’re professionally obligated to sing, and you do the best you possibly can.

BD:    Then you make sure that you don’t sign anymore contracts for them?

TS:    You just never accept them again.  It is that simple.

BD:    Without getting into exact figures, what are the roles that you’ve sung most throughout your career?  

TS:    I suppose it would be the Wagner operas.  I don’t know which one of the Wagner operas I have sung the most, but it would have to be the Wagner repertoire if we are just taking the opera.  There is an opera in which I sang two roles, and sang both of them quite a lot, and that’s Verdi’s Falstaff.  For fifteen years I sang the part of Mr. Ford, and then I sang the opera another fifteen years singing the part of Falstaff.  In the beginning of my career, before I really got into the Wagner repertoire so heavily, I sang Verdi’s Ballo in Maschera, I don’t know, 200 times possibly.

BD:    In German or in Italian, or both?

TS:    Both actually.

BD:    Does it work in German?

TS:    Yes, I suppose it’ll work in German. The only thing you have to do is sing it with musical taste, with proper attention to the text that you’re singing, and give musical values where they belong
which is to the music.  Now, it will be strange to a lot of people.  A lot of people with whom I’ve sung this Ballo in Maschera in German did not pay a close enough attention to the musical values, and as a consequence they fell back on the text they were singing to try to make themselves feel more comfortable with their interpretation.  In the process, they lost a lot of the musical value of the opera doing it in German because the opera was originally a blending and marriage of Italian with the music.  I would never say, nor do I believe that you cannot perform any opera in any language you want to perform it in.  I prefer it to be done in the original because that’s what the composer wrote.  There are a few operas where the libretto is so trite it doesn’t matter what language you sing it in.  I don’t want to get into specifics, but in the majority of the best loved operas, the more popular operas regardless of who the composer is, we get used to hearing them in one language.  Certainly if we’ve been exposed to it in the original language, then we don’t like to hear it in anything else.  I had a problem when my wife and I went to Europe in singing a lot of these things in German because when we went to Europe, most of the operas given in Germany were sung in German.


BD:    But of course then the audience was completely used to these translations.

TS:    The audiences were beautifully happy because they understood much more what was going on.  Supertitles didn’t exist, so they really could get into the performance much more.  But we sometimes had a problem later on when we were put into a situation when we had to sing many roles in our repertoire in basically two or sometimes three languages.  It is a little difficult to keep your equilibrium when you’re put in that case.

BD:    You have to put the right tape in the mind!

TS:    Basically, yes, you have to program it in one way because that’s the way you have to do it for this series of these performances.

BD:    Then you’re the ideal person to ask this.  Having performed several roles in two different languages, do you look at the character or approach the music at all differently when the words are in Italian with more vowels, or in German with more consonants?

TS:    I always try not to.  In fact, I would sometimes alter the translation if it was so far away from the music where I felt the original language was so wedded to the music.  If I felt that the translation I was singing disturbed that connection, then I would change the translation to a better one that made it easier or more possible for me to give due accent, due value to not only the musical aspect of that particular point in the opera, but also language
the value of the language, or the theatrical aspects of the scene that was going on.  It makes it necessary that you have to know what you’re doing in two languages, basically.

BD:    Opera’s a balance between the music and the drama.

TS:    I think so, yes.

BD:    Where do you come down as far being more music or more drama?  Where does the balance shift from opera to opera?

TS:    I think you said it just right.  That shifts with every opera.  There are some operas where the musical values are the ones to make sure you don’t lose.  There are other operas where the dramatic values are extremely important, and I personally might forgo some of the musical values in order to get every bit of the theatrical value.  That’s a personal thing, and a musicologist would pull his hair when he hears me say that!  [Both laugh]  A lot of conductors would not like that, but it’s a personal opinion on my part, and certainly, as a performer I would have it in mind.  There were many places
maybe not the entire opera but a given scene or a given circumstance within in an operawhere I felt the musical values were more important than the dramatic values.  Then there would be other points where I thought the dramatic values were more important than the musical values, and I would not hesitate to warp them to fit the occasion, or to neglectmaybe that’s a better wordto neglect one for the other.  It goes both ways.

BD:    But I assume it was all to project this character to the audience?

stewartTS:    Yes.  You have to have an overall feeling about a scene or even an opera.  You must know what is important at that point and what you want to stress more.  If you are confronted with a situation where you feel that you cannot give due and equal emphasis to the musical values and to the theatrical valueswhere it’s just not written or put together that wayand if I feel strongly that the theatrical values have to come to the fore, then I will do them and have no compunctions about doing them.  I don’t mean distortion, but it’s just an accent.  It’s just your own personal perception of a given instance in an opera.

BD:    But you never do violence to the music, do you?

TS:    No, no, no, you cannot.  Then you distort the original art form and art work, and that’s not permitted!

BD:    Coming back to the idea of translation, do you feel that when you’re singing in the language of the audience
even if it is the wrong language of the operathat you’re communicating more directly with each person sitting there that night?

TS:    Yes, that is true.  My problems with translations are too often they are bad ones.  If the translation is good, then I’m all for it.  Now let me explain that statement! 
Good encompasses a lot of things.  Is the audience getting the piece as far as understanding and perception at that moment?  Is the original intent of the composer, as best as you can discern as the performer, being gotten across to the audience through a translation?  That’s one item you have to have.  Then, is it possible for the musical values and intent of the composer to be transmitted to the audience through the translation?

BD:    So there are a thousand things that you have to think about!

TS:    Yes, that’s my point.  That’s why I can only go along with a sung translation if all those of items are present.  How often do you find that?  That’s why I basically am against sung translations.

BD:    Do you think this gimmick of the supertitles in the theater is a good compromise, or is it a distraction?  [Remember, this conversation took place in 1991, when the use of projected titles in the theater was still new.]

TS:    As a pragmatic member of my profession, I can understand their value.  If I can make myself as unemotional as possible, then look at it strictly from the standpoint of the audience, if it’s not their language it’s very difficult for them to get a hold of an operatic performance, to get a grip on it in its entirety because it’s not purely a musical art form.  It is musical theater in its true sense.  There are many types of musical theater, and in order for the audience to get the full impact they must get some of the theater by means other than pantomime of the characters or production gimmicks by sets, costumes, lighting, etc., etc.  So if they don’t understand what the characters are saying to one another, they’ve missed a very large part of this art form.  Most audiences can’t be expected to memorize the texts or know exactly what two characters are singing or saying to one another on stage.  You can’t expect that!   So how are you going to solve the problem?  One easy way to do it is to use supertitles, and again but I’ve seen a lot of supertitles where the timing of the text is bad when it’s flashed on the screen, or the translation they flash on the screen is bad.  There are so many pitfalls, but it does make it better for the comprehension because the performers are able to sing that wedded item
music and word in the original fashionyet the audience still has a chance to understand it better by having supertitles.  When that happens, then I’m for the supertitles.  I’m also afraid that if they’re singing a translation, the performer is going to be hamstrung too often in their performance of the art work.

BD:    [Being eternally hopeful]  Having watched the use of supertitles in the last several years, each season it gets better.  So, like a singer evolves and gets better at his or her craft, and the stage mechanics get better, the titles are getting better.  They’re being more closely aligned with the right sung text.  They’re coming at the right time.  They’re not intrusive.  They’re being better translated, better projected.

TS:    There is one thing, however, I don’t think will ever solve, and that happens to be dear to me because I think it’s very important.  When you’re looking at supertitles, you cannot observe and see what the performer is doing and how the performers very often are relating to one another.  You miss a lot of the dramatic involvement of the characters to one another, and you just simply miss a lot of things that are happening on stage while you’re reading the supertitles.  The only way supertitles really can best be appreciated is on a television screen!

BD:    Where they are actually superimposed!

stewartTS:    Yes, where they are superimposed.  You see the action and your vision reads the text at the same time, but you are not pulled away from what the characters are doing in the play as in the theatrical endeavor.  You’re not distracted from it.  In the theater, while you’re looking and reading the text, what’s happening on the stage?  You’ve missed it!  I don’t care how quick your eyes go back and forth.

BD:    I guess I’m in the ideal position because here in Chicago I sit in the first row of the top balcony, so it’s just a very tiny flick of my eye to go from the stage to the text.  [Met Titles, which are in the seat-backs and were introduced in 1995, seem to provide the same kind of visual presentation.]

TS:    I haven’t sat in various parts of the theater, but I do know if you’re sitting in the orchestra, you’re got to miss things.

BD:    Would you ever allow them to put a scrim in front of you for the text, like on the television?

TS:    [Pauses to think a moment]  Now that you’ve mentioned it, I really do think that the supertitles at stage level could work.  You’re more involved on the stage than you are when it’s up above the proscenium.  

BD:    [Pursuing the idea]  Maybe even not a full scrim, but just a ribbon of text near the floor...  [Years before the use of titles-in-the-theater was invented, I had suggested some kind of stock-ticker gizmo attached to the prompter
s box...]

TS:    A ribbon like they have for news headlines that just runs across... I would not object to that.  I’m sure that the conductor would object strongly to it, but I don’t see how it could be more distracting to the audience.  It would be better because it brings everything closer together, and you would miss nothing on the stage.  But I’ve never seen it and I don’t know if it will ever be done.

BD:    Talking about the future, where’s opera going today?

TS:    I hope that opera is fully aware that with each passing day it is in more and more competition for the wide public entertainment dollar!  There is so much competition available to the public to keep itself entertained, to keep itself stimulated.  All of the art forms are competing for time and money from the public.  The elitist attitude that we used to have in the world of opera is dissipating, and to get back to what we were talking about, one thing that has very much to do with it is the use of supertitles.  It’s been a great help, and they’re wonderful things from that standpoint. 

BD:    Is opera for everyone?

TS:    Oh, I don’t think so!  It’s just as I don’t think going to a gallery of paintings is for everyone!  We all have things that we like and dislike.  We all have things that please us and stimulate us.  We’re all different, and I don’t think that opera should be for everyone.  That would be something wrong.  It becomes unnatural if it’s for everyone.  Does everyone like jazz?  No!  Why should everyone like opera?  But opera still has to compete with jazz.

BD:    Opera tried to expand its audience a little bit, not to be all encompassing but more pervasive.

TS:    It is now.  Opera is trying to do that, and the use of supertitles is the last stage.  As far as productions are concerned, the trappings that go around this theatrical happening have to be in the updated tastes, so to speak, without distorting an art form that may be a hundred years old.  That’s tricky.  If you’re doing a new piece of musical theater that has just been composed last year or over the past five years, it’s a lot easier to present that, and put it into theatrical trappings that fit the tastes of today.  Very often it’s much easier to do that than to take an opera that was composed a hundred years ago, and surround it in theatrical trappings that still don’t distort the original work, but will entice, intrigue, entertain and hold the attention of a modern audience.  That’s tricky business, and I don’t envy the producers of opera today whose job it is to do that.

BD:    Do you feel that some of these characters, which are a hundred or two hundred or even three hundred years old, speak to the audiences that have gone through the World Wars and all of the new ages?

TS:    [Pauses a moment]  I would say probably after about 1860.  I wonder if the stories and librettos of operas before then are topical enough in the operatic form.  If it’s a purely theatrical piece you can still make it topical today, but because of the musical styles and the librettos you had in those operas composed before then it is very difficult.  I’ve seen very few cases of where they can be done.  The modern audience has to have something they can remotely relate to
unless you want to do it strictly for musical values and that’s a whole different story.  If they go into an opera written two hundred years ago just for the musical values, which is possible, I’m not satisfied with that but I’m sure a lot of the opera-going public is.

BD:    Maybe then they should just listen to a record?

TS:    For some it’s not enough, but that would be the ideal case.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    You’ve made a number of records.  Are you pleased with the sound of your voice as it comes back to you from the plastic disc?

TS:    Never.

BD:    Never???

TS:    Never!

BD:    What happens when people come up to you and say that you sound so great on the record?

TS:    It’s wonderful for your ego to hear those things, but I don’t know of many singers who sit and listen to themselves and get their jollies that way!  I can’t do it.  I hear all the things that I think could be better.  I hear things then wonder why I did it that way!  I should have done it this way.  It’s a lot better when I do it that way!

BD:    But I hope you don’t feel that they’re poor records.

TS:    No, no, no, I’m not ashamed to have them out and have the public listen to them.  No, no, I don’t mean that.  I was just speaking from my own personal feelings when I listen to them.  I’m pleased, but gnawing at me is always a case of thinking I could have been a little better!  [Laugh]

BD:    You’re a perfectionist!

stewartTS:    [With a smile]  Well, I suppose I’m a healthy perfectionist.

BD:    Did you sing differently in the recording studio than you did in the opera house?

TS:    A lot of my recordings are performances from a theater, what you call live performances.  There’s a difference between a live performance and a studio performance. 

BD:    How so?

TS:    Spontaneity.  It’s very difficult when you’re surrounded by microphones and technical lights to really get into a character.  There’s no interplay between characters.  Everybody’s got his own microphone that he’s trying to come to grips with.  It’s a horrible, inanimate object staring you in the face.  You’re not relating to any other characters.

BD:    You can’t conjure up previous performances in your mind?

TS:    You do the best you can, but it’s still not like standing across from the person and relating to another human being or another character in the opera.  Operas are not all monologues, you know!  If it’s a monologue, then you don’t have lot of problems, but if it’s a scene where there’s an interplay between two characters, then, I’m sorry, it doesn’t come out the same.  I hear it!   Now whether the general listening public hears it or not, I don’t know, but I can tell the difference.

BD:    When you’re on stage, are you portraying that character or do you actually become that character?

TS:    [Thinks a moment]  I try to become it as much as is possible without losing the cool part of my brain, which always has to keep control over the performer, and oversees you and keeps you in line.

BD:    It reins you in?

TS:    Yes, it reins you in, or gooses you when you need to be goosed, or makes you aware of unemotional facts that every performer has to be aware of when he is performing.  You are a schizophrenic personality when you are performing.  In a sense you have two personalities
— one is the performer, and one that’s standing off and seeing you perform because there is a technique to performing.  During the filming of Marathon Man with Dustin Hoffman and Lawrence Olivier, Hoffman, who was a method actor, asks Olivier how he got into scene, and Olivier says to him, You act, my boy!  Olivier was a fantastic actor, but there are times when you use technique.  You know what you want to do, and yet the cool part of you, as a performer, uses that because you know that’s what is effective as a performer.  You act!

BD:    Is that what Stanislavsky (1863-1938) was talking about?

TS:    Stanislavsky wants you to be the character to an extent.  [Stanislavsky described his approach as spiritual realism.]  You have to be in order to make it genuine, but there are times when you are not the character.  You’re just a cold-blooded professional, acting, doing your technique!  That’s the only way you can get around a given situation at a time.  That is why I say in that you’re a schizophrenic.  It’s an extreme term, and I am joking, but there are two parts of you existing at the same time, and they actually know each other.  Most schizophrenics don’t think their personalities know each other, but sometimes they actually do.

BD:    Never having been one, I don’t know.  [Both burst out laughing] 

TS:    It’s one way of explaining it.

BD:    Should every aspiring opera singer have a few sessions with a therapist to discover things about schizophrenia?

TS:    [Smiles]  I don’t think it’s necessary to go to that far, but I do think every aspiring performer who wants to get up and portray roles has to get into the core of himself or herself.  This goes for opera singers as well as for actors.  If he’s afraid to look at the core of himself, or afraid to become acquainted with his emotions and the essence of himself as a human being, he can never portray a character with any kind of convincing qualities on stage.  You have to be able to experience if you arrive at a picture for yourself as a character in a theatrical production.   You are playing a character.  That’s the key.  You are playing a character; you don’t ever play yourself.  Karajan used say,
Stewart’s Wotan when he eats his breakfast!  He used to tease me about it all the time, but it doesn’t work that way.  You have to form a character in your mind, in your own soul, and in your gut in order to perform him.  You certainly must do that to have him have any strength on the stage, to transfer that character you’re playing so that the people believe it.  If you don’t have the ability to form that character in your mind, in your psyche, in your emotions, in the core of you, you can’t perform it.

BD:    Where there any characters you performed that you were perhaps a little too close to the real Thomas Stewart?

TS:    [Ponders a moment]  Depending upon the Brünnhilde, I used to have a little trouble with the final scene of Walküre.  The music moved me very much, and I sometimes would almost lose my cool.  The cool part of the brain didn’t still control everything, and I would become emotionally too involved in the relationship between Wotan and Brünnhilde in the final scene.  I did experience that a few times over the years, but not too much.  It all had very much to do with quality of the Brünnhilde, and her ability to portray a character, and whether there was a connection between us as actors, as performers
not as singers but as a man and his daughter.

BD:    So this would have been building up from the second act straight through to the ending?

stewartTS:    Yes.  It would be the culmination, for sure.  I was trying to think that it would be maybe Meistersinger, but somehow Sachs didn’t get that intimate really at any point in the opera.  If he did have tenderness or anything else, it was from afar.  He never became as close as Wotan did to Brünnhilde in that scene.

BD:    Could Sachs have been happy with Eva if Walther hadn’t come along?

TS:    No.  The moment he thought it, he knew it himself.  He wished he could have been.  It was a fantasy that he had, but he said himself,
Oh, come on, who are you trying to kid?!  No way would it work.  He was very happy because he was very attached to her.

BD:    So he was happy that she was happy with Walther?

TS:    He was very happy, and he would make damn sure that Walther was equipped to give her what she wanted and make her happy.   He wanted to make sure, and he worked very hard to see that this coupling was right.  He saw the advantages for her, and he worked very hard to make sure that it came about with his shenanigans. 

BD:    Did he see in Walther a young Hans Sachs?

TS:    No, I don’t think so.  He was very pleased but I don’t think he saw himself because I think he realized, as he kept telling Walther all the time,
You have to do it your way!  Just let your emotions do what you want them to do!  But remember, Walther was impetuous in everything.  When finishing the Prize Song, he came in and he didn’t have any control over it.  It just spewed out.  One of the main things Sachs does is introduce Walther to the cool part of Walther’s brain.  He says, “You want to do this, but you don’t want to get everybody stirred up by doing this.  I know you’re carried away but just cool it!

BD:    Was this knowledge from observation, or was it experience?

TS:    Experience!  He was a wise man.

BD:    But had he been wild like Walther?

TS:    Probably.  Otherwise, how would he know, or how could he sympathize with him so much?  He was moved by the man’s impetuosity and his ardor.  I don’t think a man who has never experienced it could then stand up and say,
Okay, now, let’s channel this, and let’s get it to do what we want it to do!  When Wagner wrote it (1845-68), of course he knew of the real Hans Sachs (1494-1576). 

BD:    There was only one mid-summer day when the real Sachs was available for re-marriage.

TS:    Yes, that’s right, and Wagner
’s character knew very well what it meant to have those feelings, and have the juices flowing.

BD:    Is that part too long?

TS:    Too long?  For what?  For me?

BD:    For anybody to sing.

TS:    Not if it’s done well.  It’s such a beautifully put together character; the whole opera is so beautifully put together.  Not everyone can sing it, but everybody can perform it.  It’s a full night’s work.  I teasingly say it’s really three operas because each act is an opera in itself.  The third act is an opera and a half!  [Both laugh]  Take another part.  You could probably count the bars and it might even work out to be the same length.  The entire part of Amfortas is not as much as Sachs really has in the second act.  It is probably not as much as in the first act, but the final scene of the third act is much as Amfortas has the whole night long!  So, it is a lot, but it is very gratifying.

BD:    So it’s worth the extra effort?

TS:    For me it was.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Do you sing differently from a smaller house to a larger house?

TS:    No, I try not to because in the beginning I learned that it wasn’t a good thing to do.  You get in trouble.  Your voice is going to sound too big in a small house, so you could sing a lot of the nice piano passages a little softer and get more tender in them because it’s a small house.  You don’t have to make so much sound to fill the house, but then I realized that in the small houses you basically had the same combination of musical values that you had in the large house.  You had the same orchestra playing the same notes and the same dynamics.  For every forte they didn’t play a mezzo forte in the small house.  They played a forte.  I found out you have to do what you would do in a large house.

BD:    Are some of the large houses, especially here in America, simply too big?

TS:    I think so; they are a little bit.  I don’t know that the acoustics are really good enough.  When you get in a house that’s got three and half or four thousand or maybe five thousand seats in it, you have got to have the acoustics be awfully good for a less than overly-endowed singer to be able to hold his own and keep the audience without straining to hear him... and that’s bad because there are a lot of very good performers who don’t have huge voices, who simply cannot fill the house with the amount of sound necessary unless the acoustics are very good.

BD:    Do you rely on the conductor to make sure there’s a good balance.

TS:    You can’t rely on him.  You can hope that he is sensitive enough to realize it, and hope that he has his assistants sitting out, listening, and telling him.  You have to hope that the assistant has guts enough to go up and say,
Maestro, you’re too loud there!  I think I’ve found one assistant in my forty years of opera world who had courage enough to do that.  It never happens

BD:    Let
’s make clones of him!

TS:    [Laughs]  These assistants are notorious.  They are afraid to look weak.  They’re trying to make a way for themselves, and they’re not going to go up and rock the boat.  And the conductors don’t ask.  Some of them will ask the assistant, and if they’re asked, then the assistant might do it.  But if they’re not asked, I only ran into one of them who would take it upon himself to go down and tell the conductor that he was too loud in a specific place.  If you know that you’re being forced to sing more than you want to in order to get through, and if the conductor’s a reasonable man and you have that kind of relationship with him, then you can ask him if he can help you out in a given place.  Some will and some won’t, and in the heat of performance, a lot of times it doesn’t happen.

BD:    You mention you’ve been in the business almost forty years.

TS:    Yes, almost! 

BD:    Does that surprise you?

TS:    No, not really!


BD:    How is it different getting started in 1990 from what it was in the early 1950s?

TS:    I have said it so many times and I keep saying it... I’m just glad that I’m not starting now.  To me, the competition now is so intense.  There was competition back then, too.  We had competition when we were starting but because the audience for opera has grown so much, there are so many more opportunities.  But going right along with the people who love opera are the potential singers who have courage enough to try to pursue a profession as an opera singer.  I often think back to my college days, and in just my experience at Baylor University in Texas, over a four-year period, there were nine talented singers who could have had a wonderful career as an opera singer but had no intention whatsoever of becoming so.

BD:    They didn’t want it???

TS:    They didn’t want it.  The chances of succeeding were so minimal, and the social pressures put them in different directions.  The women from Texas didn’t become opera singers, and it was not manly, it was not really a way to provide.  You couldn’t be a good provider being an opera singer!  My grandfather used to ask me,
I know you sing, but what do you do for a living?

BD:    How much in a career is dependent upon the pure temperament of the artist?

TS:    There is that, too.  Maybe their temperaments wouldn’t have been able to stand it, but I’m talking about purely from a talent stand point.  When I go to look at myself and ask what’s the difference between trying to make a career today than in those days, those people didn’t compete with me
— not because they didn’t want to, it just never entered their minds that they could compete with me.  Today those nine people would be competing.

BD:    And their grandfathers wouldn’t tell them to go out and get a job?

stewartTS:    Chances are they wouldn’t because there are too many opera singers making a living.  There are too many opera companies.  It’s become too much a part of our social web, of our life!

BD:    Is that a good thing?

TS:    [With mock horror]  Oh, are you kidding?  Of course it is because I love it so!

BD:    What advice do you have for the singer who’s just starting out, or is about to start out?

TS:    Better be prepared to work, and you better judge yourself as harshly as you can.  Make sure that the great being in the sky meant you to be an opera singer.   Better make sure of it because if you don’t, it’s a life of frustration, aggravation, and depression.

BD:    Without mentioning names, are there some singers who make it who shouldn’t?  And conversely are there some singers who should make it and never do?

TS:    I don’t know of any singers who shouldn’t make it who do.  No, not anymore, but that used to be the case.  There were instances where a singer who really wasn’t talented got a position through his manipulations and other devices.  I don’t think that would happen today.  You have to have something to offer.  But I do know that there are a lot of people who should make who don’t because the competition is too stiff and other than artistic and musical gifts, they don’t have the wherewithal to make it because the pressures and emotional battles are just too much for them.  They can’t hold up under it.

BD:    So the artistic talent really is just the beginning?  That’s where it starts?

TS:    It’s only part.  It’s not a beginning, it’s a start.  You have to have that to start with.  That’s why I said that the first thing is make sure that you were intended to be a singer.  That does not mean from desire.  You have to have with the help of friends, teachers, and hope they’re honest with you, who will tell you at the right time whether you have it and should go for it, or that it’s just not there and you should do something else.  Find something else to satisfy yourself, another profession to pursue because God didn’t give you the necessary tools to work with.  Unfortunately, there are not very many people around who are willing to help you do that, and I must say that there are too many voice teachers in the world who are really just simply looking to give themselves a living.  They encourage less than talented singers because the people love to sing.  Singing is a wonderful sensation, and everybody should sing if they love to sing and if it gives them pleasure.  But that doesn’t mean they’re qualified to make it a profession.  However, there are a lot of voice teachers who sustain these people, who live off these people.  It’s horrible, but they just do.  It’s a crime.

BD:    Despite all the pitfalls, are you encouraged by the raw talent that you see coming along today in the opera singers?

TS:    Oh, yes.  It’s amazing.  That’s the one of the reasons that prompts me to say I’m sure glad I’m not having to compete with them!

BD:    [Reassuringly]  Oh, you certainly could stand up to them!

TS:    Maybe.  My wife says I just forget how hard I worked in the beginning!  Well, maybe.  She says I worked just as hard, or harder than most of these kids do now.  I say that may be true, and maybe I’ve forgotten how hard I worked to get where we got.  I don’t know, but the thought of having to work hard enough to stay ahead of a lot of the young singers today... oh boy!  But of course I’m a lot older at this point...

BD:    Did you sing many performances with Evelyn?

TS:    No, our repertoires were too different.  We used to sing some Mozart operas together and we did Onegin, and that’s really all.

BD:    Was it special singing with her?

TS:    It’s quite special.  What was more special than anything else was the concerts we gave together.  That was beautiful
concertizing, singing Lieder, songs, and just performing together.  Even though we couldn’t do a lot of opera, we did a lot of concerts.  That was great, yes.


BD:    Do you have any advice for people who would like to write operas these days?

TS:    My practical advice as a performer would be don’t write opera that will not have any connection to the people that you want to listen to it.  If you want to write an opera just for yourself and for your own sense of values, then write it and look at it and play it on the piano.  If you are rich enough to hire a company to sing it for you and for you alone, and have no intention and no desire for anyone else to listen to it, fine!  But I don’t think that an artist does that.  Maybe an artist does do that.  I don’t know.  Does a great painter only paint for himself, never with the idea of anyone else getting to see it?  I wonder.  Maybe he does, but anyone who writes an opera is not going to write it just for himself, I don’t think.  The only thing I could say is whatever you do, if you’re making a point or if you’re trying to show the people your perception of them and their existence, just make sure that you understand the language you’re going to give it in so that they will understand it.  That applies to everything
theatrical values, musical values, personal values, relationships, and everything else.

BD:    If you think about this in terms of living in this century, is opera part of the problem or is opera perhaps part of the solution?

TS:    It is a reflection of the problem in many cases.  Unless it’s created purely for coarse, personal gain, any art form basically reflects the feelings and opinions and perceptions of the artist who creates it
warped as it may be.  And it may not be a true reflection of the world or of his existence, but it’s his perception of it, whether he be a sculptor, a painter, a composer, a writer.  It reflects basically us, ourselves.  Some are gifted and are able to put it into form, give it substance.  We all have perceptions in our minds of where we are, who we are, what we are, and why we are, but not many of us can take that and then put it in such a form as to make other people be able to receive it or recognize it, or at least be aware of it in the form of a painting, or a play, or a book, or a sculpture, or whatever it may be.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    I want to ask you about the early days of Lyric Opera of Chicago.  You were here at its inception...

TS:    Yes, that’s true.

BD:    Are you bitter about the fact that they didn’t offer you the big roles then?

TS:    No, I’m not bitter.  They didn’t offer them to me because even the Lyric Opera in those days was not in a position to offer anyone as young and inexperienced as I was more than they gave me that first time.  That was all I could handle and, to be honest with you, I couldn’t handle that completely.  I did not do a good job with my first engagement here.

BD:    Just your youth and inexperience?

TS:    Yes.  I had no conception of what it meant.  I was thrown into the fire and didn’t know how to handle myself.  I didn’t do terribly well.  That’s one of the reasons why they didn’t ask me back, and I don’t blame them for not asking me back.  I don’t think I would have asked me back either, to be honest.

BD:    Did you feel that way at the time, or is this now the mature artist speaking?

TS:    No, at the time I wasn’t aware of that because I was still such a novice.  I didn’t really know what was expected of me.   I didn’t know what I had to do because I was completely new at it all.  I had only an inkling.  I knew a little about what it meant to be a performer, but I didn’t know really the responsibility I had as a professional.  I wasn’t truly prepared as well as I should have been because, up until then, my talent had carried me over all of the obstacles that I had.  My talent carried over many of the ones I had here that first season, but it didn’t carry me over some when I wasn’t prepared well enough, and I wasn’t asked back.

BD:    If you were coming again now with those experiences and that naivety, would putting you in the Lyric Opera Center for American Artists be just the right thing?

TS:    Yes, perfect.  That’s where I belonged.  I didn’t belong with the Company.  I belonged in the Opera Center because there you learn what’s expected of you.  You learn how to behave as a professional.  That’s what you learn in centers.  Oh, yes.

BD:    Is there something that the public is not aware of that maybe the public should be aware of about knowing how to behave as an opera singer?


TS:    The public has images.  Every member of the public has an image
his own personal image, probablyof what an opera singer is, and they differ!  Possibly there is only one item.  I don’t think the public really understands the amount of preparation and sheer work which is necessary to be able to do what is required of them as opera singers today because so much happens out of sight.  You’re not selling anything.  You’re not performing a service in the perception of the audience.  You’re pleasing them.  Your item is that you’re selling entertainment.  Everyone understands that you have to reach a certain level of proficiency in order to do that, but I don’t know if anyone can truly understand what is necessary to be a performer.  I just don’t mean opera singers.  A lot of what I’m saying does not only apply to opera singers; it applies to anyone who has to get up and perform for the public.  It applies to anyone who must entertain because to do those things you have to have certain things at your fingertips at a given moment.  You have to deliver a given service, a given item at a given moment, and at a certain level of proficiency.

BD:    Is the public’s perception of that a little skewed because they see the teenage pop singer who instantly gets a million seller?

TS:    Yes, it is.  However, let me say
not in defense, but something else they should think about — is that although it was not perceived by him, nor would it be perceived by him, from the time when that teenage pop singer could pick up a guitar, he has lived with it.  That’s been his life.  That’s why, at the age of 18, when he suddenly becomes a rock star, he hasn’t intentionally started at the age of 8, preparing himself.  He just did it because it was fun.  He’s had a decade of becoming proficient at what he does.  He doesn’t perceive it as work or preparation, but it has been that, and the audience who’s listening to him won’t perceive it as that either.  But that has been his all-consuming life.  His energies have gone into preparing himself.  That doesn’t mean he’s going to make it, but if he does make it at 18, that’s why.  It didn’t just come out as a bolt out of the blue and suddenly he’s good, and suddenly he’s got the key, and suddenly he comes out with a hit record or a song that he writes.  When it comes at a right time and the public wants to hear that kind of song, yes, but still there is what’s behind that.  Look behind it!  Now as far as an opera singer is concerned, no.  Nobody’s going to start at the age of 8 saying, I want to be an opera singer when I get to be 23 years old!  No!  A singer, though, knows it, and will sing.  You really will be singing if you’re meant to be a singer.  That’s what I was referring to way back in the beginning of our conversation.  It’s all preparation.  You’re preparing for that down the road.  Sometimes you get off and you never fulfill it.  They were meant to be singers but they never became singers because of other factors.  But today, there are a lot more of those people who don’t get waylaid, who don’t get turned off in other directions because of possibilities, the feasibilities and the practicality of becoming an opera singer.

BD:    In spite of all of this, is singing fun?

TS:    It has to be fun otherwise you don’t do it.  It has to be a pleasurable experience.  A singer who’s meant to be a singer is going to sing because that’s where he gets his jollies for one reason or another
just the sensual pleasure of singing, or the ego-building sense of pleasing or pulling along an audience by listening to you by playing with their emotions, making them happy or making them sad, or just the power that you have over an audience as a performer and knowing you have it.  You feel it.  If you’re a performer you are aware of that, and you know what you’re doing.  You know that you have to this power at your fingertips, and it’s a wonderful feeling.  It’s a high!  Those people who are aware of that, who learn early in their development that they have that power will go on to be what they’re going to be. 

BD:    Would a person who’s not aware of that ever make it? 

TS:    I don’t know.  I have my doubts about it.  If you don’t become aware of what you have at some point, I doubt whether you will really ever make it in the professional world.  I don’t think you will.  You have to be aware of it because you have to tune it and hone it and perfect it once you have become aware of it.  If you’re not aware of it you can’t work on it, and you have to put a hell of a lot of work in on it to be able to compete.

BD:    I’m glad you were meant to be a singer! 

TS:    [Has a huge laugh]  So am I!

BD:    Thank you for seeing me again.  I appreciate it very much.

TS:    My pleasure!

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© 1981 & 1991 Bruce Duffie

These conversations were recorded in Chicago on December 5, 1981 and January 31, 1991.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB the following year, and again in 1993 and 1998.  Much of the first interview was transcribed and published in Wagner News in March, 1982.  Portions of the second interview were broadcast on WNIB in 1993, 1996, and 2000.  A small section was also used on the website of Lyric Opera of Chicago as part of their 50th Anniversary Season which saluted several Jubilarians who were significant in the history of the company.  The transcription of the second interview was made in 2016, and posted on this website at that time, along with the complete transcript of the first interview.  My thanks to British soprano Una Barry for her help in preparing this website presentation.

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

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

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