[This interview originally appeared in the
September 1990 issue of The Opera Journal, a quarterly publication
of the National Opera Association.
For this website presentation, it has been slightly re-edited, and the photos
and links have been added.]
Chorus Master David Stivender
By Bruce Duffie
While operas usually glorify death, in real life we try not to do that
too often. Last time in these pages [June, 1990], we paid tribute
to a career cut short [composer Lee Goldstein].
This issue says, “Thank
you” to a man who spent over thirty years raising
the standards of choral singing in opera, and died in harness this past
David Stivender was born in Milwaukee in 1933, and after studying at
Northwestern University, he joined the Opera Arts Workshop in Atlanta.
In 1960, he returned to Chicago as assistant to the Chorus Master at Lyric
Opera. He played the piano for the rehearsals, trained the Extra
Chorus, and credits his senior colleague, Michael Leppore, for a superb
education in the choral art. After five seasons in the Windy City,
Stivender was lured to New York and became assistant to Kurt Adler, the
long-time Chorus Master of the Metropolitan Opera. After Adler’s retirement
in 1973, Stivender took over the position, and also assumed some full-conducting
chores starting in 1978.
In April of 1989, David Stivender returned to his alma mater for some
masterclasses, and to receive some recognition which was certainly due.
During the visit, I had the opportunity to speak to him about many ideas
related to the opera. His words reflected his practiced art, and by
sharing them in this journal, we can hope that what he discovered will continue
to live in performances all over the world.
Here is much of that very insightful discussion . . . . .
Bruce Duffie: Besides the obvious, what else is involved
in training the chorus to sing the right notes for the conductor?
David Stivender: Singing the right notes is the easy
part. It’s getting them in the proper time. I’ve learned to
try not to make something of it if I can help it. We learn just what’s
on the page, because when the conductor comes in, he’s gotten ‘The Word’
directly from Donizetti, or Bizet, or Verdi, and theirs is the only way!
[Both laugh] But it’s always different. Every conductor has his
or her own marks, but when the next one comes in, you just erase the blackboard.
One would like to be somewhat creative, and composers like Donizetti expected
certain things, but you learn after a while to eschew those things.
I do it just the way it is written, and they say it’s boring, and yet to
get people to sing strictly in tempo is something you can work very hard
to achieve. The notes and the words, and all the indicated markings
can be drilled in, taking nothing but time to accomplish... and you don’t
always have enough time. We have only a few rehearsals during the season,
and four weeks before the opening night.
BD: Is there a chance that the chorus is working too
many hours per week, with staging rehearsals, and performances?
Stivender: No. The season 1988-1989 was a fairly
easy one, with the Ring, which uses only men in the last opera, and
Salome. Also, last season wasn’t too bad, but next year we’ll
be back to more work, with the new Faust, which has a zillion words
in it, and all those funny sounds. I’d rather teach them Russian, which
is strictly nonsense syllables. Every singer has a terrible time
with French, and they just don’t want to do it.
BD: Why do they have so much trouble with it?
Stivender: There are all those alien sounds.
It was once the International Language, and I don’t think it’s particularly
difficult, but I studied it at Northwestern.
BD: Is it your job to get the right pronunciation
and inflection, or do you bring in a French coach?
Stivender: I do it. I won’t have language coaches.
I make sure I know it very well, and I go over it with coaches myself.
One very famous French coach told me that if you put four French coaches
in a room, you’ll get four different interpretations. It’s all a
matter of taste. There aren’t rules for those things.
BD: Does it, perhaps, have to do with the area of
the country, like a southern drawl which we have in America? If so,
do you go with Parisian taste rather than, say, Marseilles?
Stivender: No, it’s all in the ear, and if you used
Parisian taste, there’d be all those guttural Rs. That’s very bad,
and you shouldn’t sing those. Even French singers don’t use it because
it’s bad style. Only a foreigner would do it. When you go to
Italy, and hear all those dialects, what good is a dialect to a foreigner?
If you live there, or marry a person from that region, and stay there for
the rest of your life, fine. A singer who studies in Rome doesn’t
come away with the dialect you hear in Fellini films. It’s enough
to learn nice, classic Italian. The other is merely an affectation.
BD: Is it hard to learn nice classic English?
Stivender: [Laughs] What is classic English?
We don’t use it! Thomas Allen, who’s from England, has sung Billy Budd
at the Met, and his pronunciation doesn’t jar with ours. Because he’s
such a superb musician, he probably adjusts his words automatically.
I’ve not thought about it until this moment, but it’s never been jarring.
* * *
BD: How did you get involved in opera?
Stivender: I was an unhappy child, and didn’t even
start taking piano lessons until I was twelve years old. They announced
free piano lessons for fifteen minutes a week in Milwaukee, where I grew
up, and my parents rented a piano for me. Finally, I’d found where
I belonged. I loathed physical education classes because I was always
picked last, and found myself way out in the farthest place away from the
game. Nobody told me what to do, and everybody else had been playing
the games for years. Everybody knew, but I didn’t, and I felt like
a pariah. But music wasn’t an escape. Rather, it was an alternative
way of life that was much more interesting. The Milwaukee public library
was sensational in terms of music, so I’d spend my Saturdays there, and I
discovered opera. I’d loved plays, but these operas were sung! They
were not just three-dimensional, but four-dimensional. After this
discovery, I’d go to a play and wonder why they weren’t singing! It
was the same for the ballet — why was
there no singing??? I’d miss it. Even now I miss it! To
me, opera is the ideal expression, and anything else is not very satisfying.
BD: So opera for you is communication?
Stivender: I suppose... It’s communication amongst
people who know what you’re talking about. I suppose it’s a secret
language. When someone denigrates a Callas or a Scotto for vocal shortcomings,
I’ll point to the volcano of sound, and the spectrum of colors, and array
of shapes and character.
BD: You can take almost any performer and look for
Stivender: [Laughs] Of course! What else
is there? It’s easy to hear the squawky high note, but you’ve got to
know what they’re bringing to it. Everybody brings something, or they
wouldn’t be there. If somebody brings you a piece of gossip, like,
“Everybody says she’s terrible,” ask that person who said it. They
won’t be able to nail it down and tell you. It’s always a vague kind
of thing. I don’t know everybody, and I do know you, so who did you
hear it from, and where did that person get it? Track it down!
But to look for the positive aspects of anything pre-supposes a certain knowledge.
BD: Then what should the audiences that come to the
opera know to look and listen for?
Stivender: The more you know about anything, the more
you get into it, and the more you get into it, the more pleasure you get
from it. If you just want to be knocked over by something, go to a
rock concert. We’re raising a generation of deaf kids. You know
how much noise a subway makes, well, I see the kids get on with their earphones,
and I’m at the other end of the car and can still hear their music pounding
away. How loud must that be??? I don’t mean to sound like an
old curmudgeon, but I don’t know that the answer is. [Returning to
the main topic] You must know something about the concerts you’re attending.
I know nothing about rock music, but if I was going to one, I’d find out
about it... and I would have someone convince me why this was something I
should spend time doing! [Both laugh]
BD: OK, then, why should people go to opera?
Stivender: It’s a way of life... at least it has been
for me, and it is for many people, whether they’re in the business of it
or not. It presupposes a certain curiosity. I admit you’re asking
a lot of a tired businessman who works from 8 AM to 6 PM, and then has to
get to the opera after that long day. Where does he have the time to
learn it? Also, is an opera something you get the same enjoyment out
of as you would a Bette Midler concert?
BD: Should opera be for everyone?
Stivender: Everything is for everyone, but you have
to bring something to it. It’s an instinctive thing.
* * *
BD: When preparing the chorus, is it easier to do
an opera they haven’t done in a while, so there are no bad habits to erase?
Stivender: [Laughs] Of course! I’d rather
teach a new anything than restudy Il Trovatore! That opera is
a nightmare for the men. The women are only in one scene, but for the
men the words never stop. The hardest opera of all is La Sonnambula.
That’s the nightmare. Lohengrin is long, and there’s
more for the men of the chorus to sing than for the title character himself.
But to do an opera in any season, you just try to learn it as cleanly as possible.
Each year we try to get it a little cleaner. Open vowels should be
EH, and closed should be EE, and so on. When I work with the chorus
to train them, we spend time and speak the words to get clean diction.
Even in a work that we know, we just go back and get rid of the excesses
that creep in, because little things do creep in. Sets that have steps
are difficult because you can’t go up steps while you are singing.
So your action is spread out on levels, but it’s horizontal rather than up
and down. That puts the choristers far away from one another.
BD: Is that a mistake on the part of the designer?
Stivender: You have to deal with it the way it is.
I’m not saying it’s good or bad.
BD: I assume you have no choice in repertoire.
Stivender: None whatsoever. I have to take what
I’m given, and I have to take the schedule. You don’t allow yourself
to regret the decisions of the managers and directors. I like some
operas better than others, but there is always pleasure in bringing order
out of confusion. I try to keep that thought in everything I do...
even filling out my taxes! [Laughs] [This conversation was
recorded on April 15, 1989, hence the tax reference!]
BD: Should the voices in your chorus be trained as
soloists, or trained as choristers, and what kind of voices do you look for?
Stivender: Everybody in the Met chorus wanted and sought
a solo career, but I will not take any soloists in the chorus. I want
all those frustrations out before they appear on the Met stage. They
come and learn the work habits. The regular chorus sings twenty-two
operas a year, but they make a very good salary. They don’t need to
take other jobs, and there is no time for anything else. Some try to
keep a church job, but invariably they leave it within a year. If
a singer of a small role comes out, and a chorister feels he or she can do
it better than that soloist, I don’t want them in the chorus. That’s
negative energy, and you get nothing out of that. I know I sound business-like,
but it’s necessary.
BD: [Re-assuringly] You have to be business-like
in order to get the foundation firmly set, so that artistry can be put upon
Stivender: Exactly. I once said that I look for
‘bland’ voices, and couple of the choristers took offense at that.
But what I mean is I want a voice that will blend with others. The
great solo voices are those that are unique. They have a color that
is all theirs. In the greatest ones, it changes and takes on shapes.
There is a different energy for Lady Macbeth than there is for Mimì.
A chorister needs an operatic sound with high notes from the chest, but still
has the intelligence to listen to those around him or her. For my
money, chorus work is much more difficult than solo work. Soloists
can be cavalier about entrances and cut-offs, but if a chorister holds over,
you notice it, and if the entire chorus comes in late, it’s ruined.
BD: Different operas require different numbers of
choristers. Are you the one who decides how many will be on the stage
at any one time?
Stivender: I usually work it with the director.
For instance, in Don Giovanni we have twelve men and twelve women
for peasants — if some of the men can
also be lackeys. There’s enough time to change costumes, but some directors
don’t want the same people to be peasants and lackeys, so then I need eight
more. I don’t feel that anyone notices faces in the chorus, but some
directors just want different ones. The press never mentions the chorus...
BD: Should they?
Stivender: I lived in Italy and there they are mentioned,
good or bad. Even my friends who know I’m the Chorus Master will tell
me they liked Soprano X or Baritone Y, and never mention the chorus.
BD: [With a gentle nudge] But if the chorus
messes up, the critics will be quick to say how bad they were.
Stivender: I’ve found that if the chorus is bad, they
mention it. If it’s OK — just the
status quo — they don’t. We’re like
a file... you keep filing it down, and working away, and getting it better
and better. One critic said that Aïda comes around with
‘mind-numbing regularity’. We do twenty performances
a season, and don’t feel it’s mind-numbing at all.
BD: How do you make sure that the fifteenth and the
seventeenth performance is as fresh and sparkling as the first couple?
Stivender: Musicals run eight performances each week
for years. Twenty Aïdas in a season isn’t so bad when you
think of it that way. You just keep at it. There are certain nights,
however... For instance, Thanksgiving night is tough, because everyone
has had a big meal. So, those nights are very professional.
BD: More professional than artistic?
Stivender: I like to think there is no difference.
That’s what we’re striving for. It would be foolish to say that every
Met performance is absolutely perfect. In Billy Budd, Britten
conceived the ship from the side so all the exits were easy. The chorus
could go down the length of the ship looking out at the conductor. Our
production shows it from the front and it’s dazzling because the decks go
up. But the chorus has to deal with the narrowness, and the men are
several-deep, so the ones in the back can’t see anything. Some get
off too soon, and some don’t see, and you only hear the ones in the front,
so the blend goes. We usually get it right, but occasionally it’s not
exact, so you just have to keep filing away.
* * *
BD: You prepare the chorus in rehearsals. Do
you find yourself on stage giving cues, or doing other tasks?
Stivender: I have an assistant who spells me in performance,
just as choristers don’t do all seven shows per week. By contract
they only do four per week, and everything else is more money. We
try to get it to four, but sometimes it’s six.
BD: Are there no shows when all the chorus
is on stage?
Stivender: Oh, yes! This is why some seasons,
like last year and the previous, were easier because there were some operas
without chorus — like the Ring,
and Salome. But we try to work out the logistics so that the
smaller choruses don’t overlap. Those few in Don Giovanni usually
are not also in Lucia. Butterfly and Figaro are
small operas for the chorus, and after a few seasons, everyone has done them,
so that helps in setting up the nights off. Next year, though,
has big chorus operas night after night. The women usually have far
less work than the men, but Suor Angelica uses them all.
BD: If someone comes up to you and says they’d like
to spend their life being a choral singer, what advice do you give?
Stivender: Be healthy, and you mustn’t have any technical
vocal problems. Not all operas are written vocally. The choristers
have no trouble with the Verdi operas, nor the Mascagni works. They
were the fathers of the Italian choruses. They understood voices.
On the other hand, Pagliacci comes around, and the tenors just scream.
It’s a nightmare because it’s so wretchedly written.
BD: A soloist will sing only every third or fourth
day, but a chorister may have to sing four or five days in a row every week.
Stivender: If you can sing well, this should help
you, but you’ve got to sing well. That’s why I look for healthy voices,
biggish, healthy voices. I don’t care if they’re expressive or anything
else. That doesn’t matter. I need intelligence because there’s
a lot to learn. Someone who hasn’t done it before goes nuts learning
Trovatore. When we get a new production, there’s rehearsal time,
but revivals get practically none.
BD: Do you get much turnover in your personnel?
Stivender: This season nobody is leaving. They’re
all family people. They have kids to put through school, and mortgages.
There’s hardly any turnover at all. When we need new members, I
like to take them from the Extra Chorus, but it doesn’t always work that
way. Sometimes, someone from outside will be very special, and I’ll
want that voice. There were open auditions last year. I heard
174 singers for no openings. It’s a courtesy we do for the singers’
union, the American Guild of Musical Artists (AGMA). Of that 174,
there were probably 170 decent voices. Of that 170, about seven
really sang well. I’m not a voice teacher, but I’ve worked with voices
all my life.
BD: Have you ever had to fire people?
Stivender: Yes. The usual reason is vocal deterioration.
That is not my responsibility. They are given a certain amount of
money for voice lessons. The stipend at the beginning of every season
is there to keep your voice up. The shape of the tool you work with
must be your responsibility. It cannot be anyone else’s. If
you come into the chorus and we’re doing Trovatore without much rehearsal,
I will warn you that it’s tough, and you’d better learn it on your own.
I don’t want any excuses. You have to learn it and do it. I’m
not vicious, but I will let you know that you need to get some extra help
with the music. Being Chorus Master can be a very difficult task.
I often feel that I’d rather be a chorister than a leader.
BD: Do you ever get out there and sing a performance
Stivender: No. Those days are gone. Verdi
said in letters that he expected the Chorus Master to put on a costume and
help them on stage, but those are gone. I used to stand in the wings
and snap my fingers, and help with cues, but I don’t do that anymore.
In the old days, when I was an assistant, the chorus would still carry
books on stage for the first rehearsals. That was the first thing
I got rid of. I will make sure that as a chorus, there is enough rehearsal
time. I will teach it to them. I will learn it first, and then
bat it into them, but they must come to the rehearsals with open minds and
listen. I start on the dot, and we work fifty minutes, then we stop
right on the clock. If you expect me to teach, you have to respond.
I love teaching. I think it’s the neatest thing, but there is
a lot of drill involved. It’s boring work because repetition is tough.
But, as with any teaching, you find ways to make it more attractive.
You make jokes, and find certain mnemonic devices. Cut-offs are tricky,
and conductors, who have gotten ‘the word’ from on high, still often neglect
cut-offs. Sometimes they don’t even look up and give an attack.
I have made it so that the conductors don’t really have to worry about the
BD: Could your chorus be at home in a Beethoven Ninth,
or a Missa Solemnis?
Stivender: I would like to think so. The only
thing we’ve done like that is the Mahler Second Symphony, but James Levine, who conducted,
and I realized that Mahler had an operatic chorus in mind. The premiere
was at the Berlin Opera. An operatic chorus sound is different.
They are real voices that are sometimes a little raw. On recordings,
now, we’re used to a sort of glassy thing that’s all the same. I hate
that. I want there to be inflection and life. The Mahler is
not a character text, but it does have its own character. If you have
real voices going, it’s different than a smooth and perfect sound.
I recently heard an opera performance with a symphony-type chorus, and I
thought I’d go crazy. It was a larger number of people, but the character
was always the same. Nothing changed. It’s a way of doing it,
and I’m not saying there is only one way of doing it, or that my way has
to be the best, but it is a matter of opinion. Many people thought
that our performance of the Mahler was perfectly wonderful.
See my interviews with Judith Blegen, Grace Bumbry, Ileana Cotrubas, Mirella Freni, Catherine Malfitano,
Eva Marton, Birgit Nilsson,
Roberta Peters, Elisabeth Söderström,
Dame Joan Sutherland,
Dame Kiri te Kanawa, Anna Tomowa-Sintow, Marilyn Horne, Giuliano Ciannella,
Alfredo Kraus, James McCracken, Sesto Bruscantini,
Nicolai Ghiaurov, Ruggero Raimondi, Richard Bonynge,
Sir John Pritchard,
and Jeffrey Tate
BD: One last question. Is conducting fun?
Stivender: Conducting in the theater is the most difficult
conducting of all. Anything can happen, and that’s why you find a lot
of conductors don’t want to work in the theater. For a symphonic concert,
the audience is looking at you. In the opera, nobody looks at you
except when you walk in and walk off. If you happen to be a big star,
and that means something to your career, fine. In an orchestra concert,
they’re all right there with music looking at you. In the opera, sure,
the orchestra is there with music looking at you, but you’ve also got a bunch
of singers doing it all from memory. They’re three miles away, and
they can forget this and that. Anything can happen, and usually does.
Something happens in every performance, but the audience is most often never
aware of it. Conducting is fun at the end of the performance when you
put the baton down, and only then! Up to then it’s a nightmare for
me. Would the composer have been pleased with what we did? You
work hard and study, and there’s nothing more exciting than precise knowledge
— not general knowledge, but precise knowledge.
Conducting is compromise. Some conductors demand this or that, and
great big stars don’t sing with those conductors. I find that those
hurdles and obstacles make it interesting, and spur me on.
After contributing to The Opera Journal since 1985, Bruce Duffie
finally had the pleasure of meeting in person the past and present Editors
on their recent trip to Chicago. It was mutually agreed that once
was far more than enough, and a repetition is scheduled immediately following
the formation of glaciers in the back yard of Mephistopheles. (!)
However, despite this amazing turn of events, the next issue will
contain a conversation with director, Frank Corsaro, to celebrate
his sixtieth birthday. The following issue will present Martin Feinstein, the
General Director of the Washington Opera on his seventieth birthday.
== == == == ==
* * *
== == == == ==
© 1989 Bruce Duffie
This conversation was recorded in Chicago on April 15, 1989, hence
the reference to doing his taxes! The original transcript was made
the following year, and published in The Opera Journal in the September
issue. The transcript was slightly edited in 2020, and posted
on this website at that time. Portions were
also broadcast on WNIB in 1993. 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.
winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with
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.
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
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