Bass Martti Talvela
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie
Martti Talvela, 54, Imposing Bass Regarded
as Peerless in 'Godunov'
By ALLAN KOZINN
Published: July 24, 1989, in The New
Martti Talvela, a Finnish bass who appeared regularly at the
Metropolitan Opera and was the director-designate of the Finnish
National Opera, died on Saturday after suffering a heart attack at his
daughter's wedding on his farm in Juva, Finland. He was 54 years old.
Mr. Talvela was most highly regarded in the Russian operatic repertory,
and was considered a peerless interpreter of the title role in Modest
Mussorgsky's ''Boris Godunov,'' which he sang many times at the
Metropolitan Opera. He also enjoyed considerable success as Dosifei in
the Met's production of Mussorgsky's ''Khovanshchina'' in recent
seasons. But his repertory also encompassed the Wagner operas - he was
noted for his portrayals of King Marke in ''Tristan und Isolde,''
Gurnemanz in ''Parsifal'' and Daland in ''The Flying Dutchman'' -as
well as several Verdi and Mozart roles.
His physical stature made him a natural for the mythical roles that
were his specialty. He stood 6 feet 7 inches tall, and weighed close to
The singer was born in Hiitola, Finland, on Feb. 4, 1935, the eighth of
10 children in a family of farmers and amateur singers. He earned his
first singing fee at the age of 5, and became interested in opera after
hearing a performance by the Russian bass Ivan Petrov, as Boris.
In 1958, after completing his college studies in Savonlinna, and
working for a few years as a schoolmaster, he entered the Lahti Academy
of Music to pursue formal voice studies. In January 1960, he won first
prize in a lieder competition in Helsinki, and went to Stockholm to
continue his studies with Carl Martin Ohmann. The following year he
made his debut, as Sparafucile in Verdi's ''Rigoletto,'' at the Swedish
Wieland Wagner, the composer's grandson and a noted stage director,
heard one of Mr. Talvela's early performances and invited him to appear
at Bayreuth in 1962. In 1963, he made his debut with the Deutsche Oper,
in Berlin, and toured Japan with that company as Seneca in Monteverdi's
''Incoronazione di Poppea.'' By 1965, he had made debuts at La Scala,
in Milan, and at the Vienna State Opera, and was performing regularly
at Bayreuth and Salzburg.
Mr. Talvela made his American debut with a recital at Hunter College in
1968, and with performances at the Metropolitan Opera that same year.
From 1972 to 1980, he was the director of the Savonlinna Festival,
where he worked steadfastly to promote the cause of opera in Finland,
both by performing standard repertory works in Finnish, and by
encouraging Finnish composers to write for him and for the festival. He
was to become the director of the Finnish National Opera in 1992.
I had seen Martti Talvela onstage at Lyric Opera of Chicago in the fall
of 1969 as Daland in The Flying
Dutchman, but being a character in costume on the stage did not
prepare me for seeing him at Orchestra Hall in April of 1971, when Sir Georg Solti
presented Das Rheingold with
the Chicago Symphony for the first time. [Note: Names which are links throughout
this page refer to my interviews elsewhere on this website.]
Being a work without intermission, the entire cast of
singers came onstage at the very beginning. It was an impressive
line of artists, but what struck me then
— and remains with me to this day — was watching the
procession come through the door. From the back and to the side
of the stage, each walked nobly through the violins to their seats at
the front. To get beyond the stage door, they had to pass under a
small structural overhang where the chorus was seated behind the
orchestra. Soloists and conductors came from this space all the
time for their performances, and as these particular singers entered,
they were in an appropriate order to be with the others with whom they
would interact in Wagner’s music drama. In the midst
of the group were the two giants, Fafner and Fasolt, played by Hans Sotin and Martti
Talvela. Sotin was a large man himself, and as he walked through
and Talvela followed, each appeared to be about the same height.
It wasn’t until a few paces after they had cleared the
overhang that Talvela stood fully erect and quite literally towered
over the other giant — as well as everyone
else! The audience was applauding the entire cast, but I did
notice an audible gasp as Talvela straightened himself.
Solti worked with Talvela on several occasions both in Chicago and in
Europe. Performances and recordings attest to their relationship,
and in the interview that follows, the bass remarks on their
Though leaving this world much too early, Talvela made his mark and
gave us impressive performances both on the stage and in recital.
His recordings will live on as a testament to an unflagging artistry
and superb musicianship.
Knowing that he was not coming back to Chicago very soon, I made
contact with him early in 1986, and he agreed to let me call him on the
telephone between performances at the Met in New York City. His
English was quite good, but I have straightened out awkward phrases,
and have eliminated the hesitancies where he would search for a word
and often ask me if it was correct. His thoughts came through
very well, and that is what has been rendered here . . . . . . . . .
Right now you’re involved with Parsifal
at the Met, so let us start there. You’ve made quite a name for
yourself as a Wagner
singer. Is that special to you singing the various Wagner roles?
I don’t think so anymore. There was a time when
I was working with Wieland Wagner in Bayreuth, and there I have
been marked as a Wagner singer, but I do sing the whole bass repertory,
except Strauss. I have
very few houses in which I sing — Deutsche Oper
little bit in Hamburg and Munich — and I do
really sing the whole group of heavy roles, like Boris, Dosifey, and
Parsifal and Tristan and Flying Dutchman. I have done
all the Wagner roles but, at the moment, I
am more interested to do those very big roles.
BD: How do
you decide which roles you will sing and which
roles you will not sing?
MT: Since I
have done just about the whole
bass repertory, I now need to have a role where I have a big
message to bring. This is the main point. Do you
understand me? Sometimes I make a joke — like
in Bartered Bride, or
something like that — but otherwise I
like to do those roles like Philip, Boris, Gurnemanz and King Marke
because they have the largest artistic message for a bass at the opera.
BD: You don’t
ever have any wishes that you were a
tenor so that you could sing more different roles?
[Laughs] I can sing in my repertory — Sarastro,
Osmin, Simon Boccanegra or Forza del
Destino, but I would prefer to sing those very big roles.
write well for the bass voice?
Absolutely. There’s no problem except that a bass always would
like to sing Wotan
BD: Why is
phrasing is beautiful, but the role is about a third
too high! At home I sometimes sing Wotan’s Abschied, but all
those real bass roles are written fantastically.
BD: What is
it about the writing that sets it aside from some of the other
Gurnemanz, especially in the third act, and for
King Marke, the writing is so difficult. That makes it
interesting. Daland is so easy and the line is
so easy to sing. Parsifal
is so, so long. The
part’s about one hour forty minutes of singing, but it is written
easy. The most difficult role is King Marke, to make the pitch
and everything. But it is so interesting to make the
instance, with Gurnemanz, in the first act, Wagner says he is a valiant
but older man. He’s a
man about fifty, and then for the third act Wagner says
many years have passed.
BD: So you
have to make him a very old man!
Sometimes people don’t understand. They
think that this singer is tired, but it is the role which is
tired. It’s easy to sing it loud, but it is the deepest
depression that I ever learned in my life. There’s no hope in
BD: You have
to convey that on the stage?
what I try to do, and it can be misunderstood. The audience is
thinking now he’s
lost his voice or something. It has nothing to do with
this. It’s written so fantastically for the voice, one can only
be better through the evening. But the character of Gurnemanz has
made carefully with thinking and knowing. This is, in my
opinion, the only way to do it, to make it a really big, big depression
no hope left. He’s out of hope for everything. There’s
nothing left for them anymore in this world, and then he
notices that Parsifal really is the new king. Then he comes back
Yes. So this is how
we speak about Gurnemanz.
BD: Is the
part too long?
really, but I have to
prepare myself very well for this, doing nothing in the evening
before. It’s a long evening. We have only one
role bigger than Gurnemanz for a bass, and it’s Ivan Susanin in A Life for a Tsar.
you’re on stage, are you portraying a
character or do you become the character.
MT: This is
something that one cannot give a simple answer, but I will try.
When I’m on stage with those roles, I don’t
have anything to do with outside life or the private ideas. I
have to make it absolutely clear and as simple as possible
in a short time. There are so many points to take into
Basically, I’m an actor who tries to get into roles, and if he is not
happy, if it doesn’t happen, I will not continue to sing this
role. For example, I have sung Boris about two or three
hundred times in my life. After a big series of performances
with Boris, for about two years or something I used to
joke that I have to send him back to his rest ship because I don’t
like him anymore! [Both laugh]
BD: You have
to get away from it.
Yes! Then, maybe one year later I begin to think
where is he? Is he coming? I can see it in my
calendar that he’s coming back!
BD: When you
get back to
the dressing room after the performance, how long does it take before
you shake off
the character and are again Martti Talvela?
[Laughs] Well, not so long because my
friends or my family members are coming in my dressing room. But
so, after those big roles like Gurnemanz and Boris and Philip, I’m very
tired many, many hours after the performances, so I
sleep or watch TV or read something. That’s the kind of tiredness.
BD: It’s a
MT: I think
so. And I have a good glass of wine!
BD: Tell me
about King Marke.
had a new production with Götz Friedrich in Berlin at the Deutsche
Oper just a couple of years ago. It went very
successfully, and at the first rehearsal we sat down together beginning
to think about the situation between Tristan and
King Marke. We found out that the most tragic point in this
relationship was that they could sit down on the river, telling
nothing, just being quiet, making ripples with the stones in the
water. They were thinking, not saying anything but
understandingly everything. This was the point
later when King Marke says to Melot, “Tatest du's wirklich? Wähnst du
das? Sieh ihn dort,
den treuesten aller Treuen.” [Have
you indeed? Is that what you
think? Look at him there, the most faithful of the loyal.]
King Marke is already dead at that point because he lost everything.
BD: It’s the
spirit within him that is dead?
Yes! His spirit is dead. He cannot
go on. He is only remembering, looking back in his big monologue
— which he
sings without any bitterness. It’s the very, very big,
huge question. “Why can I not understand
you? Why can I not
understand anything in this world anymore?”
This makes him a very,
very unusual character, very deep.
you’re preparing these roles, do you go back to the letters and other
documents of the composer, or do you work only with the score.
MT: This is
the basic work, always. Then by all those routes you see what
and after learning that you go ahead with learning. For example,
I had done King Philip maybe fifty or sixty
times already before I had the possibility to visit
Escorial. [The Escorial is a
vast building complex located in San Lorenzo de El Escorial, near
Madrid, in central Spain. The building is the most important
architectural monument of the Spanish Renaissance. Construction began
in 1563 and ended in 1584. The project was conceived by King Philip
II, who wanted a building to serve the multiple purposes of a burial
place for his father, Holy Roman emperor Charles V; a Hieronymite
monastery; and a palace.] Then I saw Escorial
alone with the guide for five
hours. It’s really a short time, but I used the time to learn
about Philip’s private life, or what it could have
been. One week later I had a performance in the
Vienna State Opera as Philip, and I think it was something
different than before, though I don’t know what. The whole life
learning process, you see.
To read my Interview with Carlo Bergonzi, click HERE.
To read my Interview with Grace Bumbry, click HERE.
BD: So then
you’re always developing these roles?
those main roles with
the big message.
King Marke have possibly been happy with his Isolde if she
had not had the liaison with Tristan?
MT: I don’t
It’s a marriage at a royal level. He was preparing Tristan to be
the next king after himself. For reasons
of State he had to do this marriage, because of his
government but not for himself. He denies this totally in his
big monologue, but I think so.
perhaps then he would be perfectly willing for
Tristan to marry the widow, Isolde?
[Laughs] I think you are going too far
with this. Perhaps we should open a marriage
office or something! [Both have a huge laugh] With all this
talk of Wagner it too difficult to have to make it real.
BD: Well, are
the characters that you sing, real people?
feelings are much deeper than real people have... or then maybe I
misunderstand real people a
little bit. As a normal man, I can’t think the way King
Marke thinks. Maybe he’s the only one person who has this
mystical thinking after what happened in the scene in the first
act. After that he will be the only one who cannot get
out of his mystical background and his deep human thinking because
Tristan has this potion. He is not normal anymore after
that. He’s not acting normally until the last
BD: You sing
in a number of different
houses. Does the size of each different house cause you to change
anything vocally or histrionically?
shouldn’t. It would be wrong. What is
happening is on stage. Here at the Met we have about 4,000
people, and you generally have 2,000. You have always to
remember the percentage on stage, not in the hall. Some halls are
really better acoustically but you shouldn’t change. You use the
technique, and the same thought of what you sing of the role should be
BD: Do you sing any
of your roles anymore in
MT: Well, let
me think! Perhaps the
Bartered Bride. I do
really sing Boris in three
languages — Russian, German and Finnish.
BD: Do you
work any harder at your diction when you
know the audience is going to understand every word?
MT: I was
very happy reading a critic in Moscow
after singing at the Bolshoi, that my Russian was excellent! Very
few times I’ve been very happy about
critics. It was nice because this is really a hard work to
learn in nearly perfect Russian without being Russian. As you are
learning languages and learning roles and everything needs more
work. I just spoke today with my wife and wondered why we don’t
use two hours every day to learn English better! When you
do roles like Boris, you have
to rest after the role as well as before.
BD: Do you
feel then that opera works in
translation, or should it always be in the original?
depends absolutely what the situation is, you
see. In a country like Finland,
about ten years ago, when we began to do grand opera at the Festival of
Savonlinna, we did it in translations. Then we experimented by
doing Don Carlos the same
two languages — Italian and Finnish. The
that, we were absolutely sure it is better to do it only in Italian,
and we did it with great
success. But practically always I do sing
in such big houses that they always used to the original language for
opera. Only at home I used to sing in translation, and maybe very
operas should use translations in the beginning.
BD: Do you
feel that opera works well on television?
MT: I think
it worked for Elektra with
Böhm. It worked very well because it was
made well, and presented well. The Metropolitan is working
on Boris Godunov for next
season. I hope it comes because you can maybe reach many millions
of people who never had seen opera.
[Talvela sang several performances of
Boris at the Met during that 1986-87 season (including the radio
broadcast), but there was no televised performance.] But
of course the best thing is to go the opera, sit down and listen
and enjoy the whole richness of the art in the theater.
Sure. It has to be the melding of all
the spectacle onstage.
Godunov is a role you enjoy
singing, yet you said you put it aside for a while and were
glad to be away from it.
MT: You have
to do it with all those
roles. You do it with Parsifal
automatically. When Boris
comes, it is a series of six or ten performances.
Parsifal always comes with
five for a small series. But I like
Boris Godunov very much indeed. I joked that Mussorgsky
with Boris has paid for my
house! [Laughs] Even so, his music for me is something
absolutely in the
top. I was very happy to tell months ago on the Soviet Union News. The reason
was twenty-five years of cultural agreement
between the Soviet Union and Finland. For me, Mussorgsky is
the greatest. His musical
language is absolutely mine. I don’t know how I came to be
touched by his music, but I have done his song-cycle Songs and Dances
of Death maybe in sixty recitals. I have recorded it, and
make a very, very great thing — I let them make
a new orchestration for Songs and
Dances of Death. It is by a Finnish composer, Kalevi Aho,
and is based on the original version of Mussorgsky in the Paul Lamm
edition. Now it is here and I’ve
recorded it! I just came back from Berlin where I made it for
Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra. Two years ago I
did it with Neville Marriner and the Minneapolis Symphony. I
think this one works fantastically.
brings up the whole business of the versions
of Boris Godunov.
right. I have done all those. I used to joke that I did on
Monday in Leningrad the original version, and
Friday at the Bolshoi Rimsky Korsakov! [Both laugh] I
believe in those words of
Rimsky-Korsakov. He said, “I’m not going
to paint those pictures
of Mussorgsky, of Boris Godunov,
for all time, but only for my
time to bring the work out.” I think the
time is now to use
Mussorgsky’s original version. In my opinion he is the modern
for our time! There’s no reason to use the Rimsky any more.
In Berlin we have the Shostakovich version, but this is very
close to Mussorgsky’s original. Rimsky is very different.
BD: It’s more
but it depends what we think
BD: I have
liked the richness of the colors in the Rimsky version.
MT: Yes, but
the richness can be empty, also. Of course, Rimsky Korsakov
was a great
musician and composer, but we should believe his own words in
expected his version to be used and
MT: Yes, to
bring the work out!
made quite a number of recordings,
including Boris Godunov.
Are you pleased with
your voice on records?
MT: It will
be a very seldom day when I am listening
to me on recordings! [Both laugh] I just finished with
Solti and the Vienna Philharmonic The
Abduction from the Serail and I said to George, “I
think you understand
my voice better than me!” So whether it’s
good or not I really do not know...
BD: Did he
seem pleased with it?
MT: He was
very pleased with the whole thing. He
worked so hard. He’s a fanatical worker and we had a very
fruitful time. I can be
very happy because I am fifty-one years old and can still
learn. I learned a lot from him. Before this recording was
a new production which Karl Böhm conducted in
Munich maybe five years ago.
BD: Is there
a special secret about singing Mozart?
MT: If I
should have a higher
voice, a bass-baritone, then I would like to do the work
like Ezio Pinza and sing Figaro and so on. But now, what shall I
Mozart except Concert Arias and The
Magic Flute? I have done
Sarastro maybe two hundred times or more. But then what
else? There is only Osmin and
Commendatore! He has really only those three
bass roles, so I have done them very often.
To read my Interview with C(h)ristina Deutekom, click HERE.
To read my Interview with Hermann Prey, click HERE.
To read my Interview with Ileana Cotrubas, click HERE.
To read my Interview with Jose Van Dam, click HERE.
To read my Interview with Martina Arroyo, click HERE.
not sorry that you have done them two
hundred times, are you?
MT: No, not
at all! I do them still. This past year
was my last year at the Salzburg Festival. It had been seven
It’s the largest success in the history of the
Salzburg Festival, this Magic Flute
with Jimmy Levine and Jean-Pierre Ponnelle. But I thought after
seven years I told Jimmy and
Jean-Pierre I would like to be at home in the summer time!
Salzburg is really beautiful, but my home country is fantastic at that
time. So seven years is enough. Maybe I’m coming back some
day, but I am very happy to know that this summer I can be at
home three months.
seven years, we call it a
MT: Yes, yes,
that’s right! [Both laugh]
BD: Do you
purposely build times into
your schedule when you do not accept engagements, so that you can be at
home with your wife and family?
MT: Yes, I try to
do that, but always we have some important things coming up so I can’t
no. I feel it’s so important... For instance, I’m going
summer, in July when I do usually not sing anything, to Israel for
Babi Yar six times with Zubin Mehta.
This is a fantastic work, as you know, and it’s very difficult. I
learned it for
Montreal about six years ago, but I was ill at that time and had to
cancel a couple of months of my traveling. Now finally I can do
BD: Are there
some roles that you look forward still
to learning and doing?
Yes. I did a concert version of Ivan
Susannin in New York, and I would like to do it on
stage somewhere, but I don’t know if there’s any houses doing it except
in Soviet Union. No one does it in the Western World. I
would like to do it. It’s beautiful music,
and absolutely unknown here.
BD: Do you
enjoy doing recitals with piano?
Absolutely! I’ve done about two
hundred in the whole world.
BD: It’s so
different from being on stage in an opera or concert with an orchestra!
another world. At the same time, it’s
the richness for the lives, and it makes life more difficult. So
far as one is working in music, the life shouldn’t be easy. If
the life gets to become easy, it’s dead. It has to be difficult,
working in the full power in music. I’m also a
farmer in Finland, so ...
BD: So in the
difficulty comes the reward?
that’s right. It is absolutely so.
BD: Tell me
Festival in Finland.
MT: Yes, the
Savonlinna Festival. It has been a beautiful
time because so many new Finnish works also came. Our
composers were enthusiastic about the possibility of two great operas
that we did. I had parts on the recording with several of
those, and after so many years and foreign names in
Germany, Italy, France, and America, to come back to Finland and
build up something unusual was a great time for me. But then
after eight years, I had to quit because if I go
ahead with this festival it’s a
full-day job, and then I will lose my international career. So
that was the thinking. I had a good friend, a
good musician who led it a couple of years, but he died.
The Festival is now very strong and going well. Many of my ideas
from my time are in place, for instance to bring the
best pianists in the world to work with singers in the opera. One
of the most important points for a singer is daily work with a pianist.
BD: But it
must be with a pianist who understands!
MT: Yes, who
understands and who has to have also experiences and competence to do
the work. This is
going on there now, and with good results for the next generation of
singers. The Festival has now a new beautiful concert
hall. One concert hall is built into the rock! One thousand
are sitting in the rock, and there are beautiful acoustics. Then
largest wooden church in the world is used for Symphony concerts, and
castle is about 510 years old today. It’s set up for 2,300 people
the garden of the castle, and has a huge stage. We get big,
international stage directors like August Everding who
have been there. He did our Magic
Flute fourteen years ago, and a sign of the success is that the
tickets for five performances this year were sold out in one
month. [The Magic Flute has been seen there in 24 summers between
1973 and 2012.]
BD: It means
there’s a great interest then!
MT: Yes, and
it began with this Magic Flute.
You remember that Mozart wrote to someone that
after a short time, young boys were singing those melodies on
streets of Vienna. Hundreds of years later
it happened again. It is really a beautiful production
by Everding, and he came back again. The sets and costumes are by
the Swiss designer Tony Businger. It’s lovely. It’s the
scenery with walking golden trees, and nobody
sees why they’re walking. They walk very logically
for the piece. Every one of those trees has a man inside with
a walky-talky, and he gets commands and then the tree walks! It’s
funny and it’s intelligent, and non-sentimental. Just beautiful.
BD: So the flute
only mesmerizes the animals but also the woods?
that’s right. That’s the magic! Another main point of the
Festival is that we did for the first time in the history of the
country of Finland, Don Carlos.
We also did other things like Boris,
Flying Dutchman, and we do
every second year a new Finnish opera,
like The Last Temptations by
Kokkonen. It is his great opera, and that’s one of those
recordings I did.
BD: Is that a
work that should be done, say, at
the Met or in Chicago?
MT: Now that
would be something. That would be
something, really. It needs an excellent production. You
can’t do this
work with some kind of gags or jokes. You have to take it
seriously, and then
it is a great, great human drama. But who does it
Who will stage it? It has to be a very, very serious man, very
BD: Would you
ever consider staging it yourself?
heartily] Ha, ha! Don’t ask me! But it is something
unusual. And then we have The
Horseman by Aulus Sallinen. [This opera had its premiere at the 1975
Savonlinna opera festival. It was also performed in place of the first
night of Boris Godunov
on July 24th that season due to a badly inflamed foot injury to Martti
Talvela (who was to play Boris). The cast and technicians, who
were not contactable by phone, were gathered from day trips in the
local countryside, and the conductor was flown by sea-plane from the
Helsinki archipelago for a last-minute replacement evening. The
opera was revived at the 2005 Savonlinna Opera Festival with Juha
Uusitalo as Antti and Johanna Rusanen as Anna, conducted by Ari
Rasilainen in a new production directed by Vilppu Kiljunen. A
live recording of the premiere performance was released on LP by
Finlandia Records in 1979, and later re-issued on CD by the same
label. The opera was performed by the Savonlinna Festival forces
at the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow in 2006.] Another is The Red Line which is also
Sallinen is going to be in Santa Fe this summer?
right, he’ll be there with The King
Goes to France! That opera was ordered by me and
Covent Garden, and now it is also going to Covent Garden next
season. Then another new opera is coming up by Kalevi Aho.
He’s the young composer who orchestrated Songs and Dances of
Death for me. In two years’ time his new opera is
coming out. He has already made one called The Key. It was done in
BD: Now are
these new Finnish operas strong
enough to take their place alongside the great operas of the world?
MT: Some of
those, yes; I
think The King, Red Line and The Last Temptations. Then we
have one more, a very strong modern opera. The composer died
twenty-five years ago, but still it’s a modern opera, and very
beautiful called Juha.
BD: Oh, by
[Surprised] By Merkanto, yes. How do you know it?
BD: We had a
here at Northwestern University [February,
1985]. It was a very interesting work and I enjoyed seeing
very pleased] Really? So you see what
is happening in the modern opera world. I don’t know exactly what
happening because I have my own work to do, and it is mostly of the
classic part of the music spectrum, but from what I know, I should say
those operas could have a future. If somebody comes and says this
is beautiful music drama, it’s there, and maybe there are more in many,
many other operas. But if someone comes from the opposite side
and says no, this
is merely Finnish music, that’s so stupid. Music is international.
BD: Music is
Right. Music is music. Basta!
[Enough is enough!] [Both
laugh] By that token you could say we cannot give
Parsifal here in America
because it’s so German!
BD: I guess
what we’re looking for is someone of your
stature to lend an international quality to these national operas.
MT: Well, the
work with the government is very
difficult in this, which I must openly say. There’s no
way for an artistic person like me to do more than lead an
opera festival or do those recordings. But then when you try to
something to the government, there’s so many people who are jealous
about it. I may be too open, but in my opinion,
the situation’s really done that way. Tell us about the
success. It’s not my success! The success is there where
is! So I would like to do it but it’s not easy.
BD: Let me
turn the subject to trends
in stage direction. We seem to be living in the age of
stage directors. Is this a good idea, or are some of their ideas
too far out?
MT: I was
thinking in the very beginning of my
direction in Savonlinna, we have to change to something, to bring in
more people from the acting side, from the
theaters. I was lucky enough to get three people who had the
musicality to listen to the music for
all those Finnish operas I did, and, of course, for Boris Godunov.
All those stage directors came from the theater. Internationally,
however, I wouldn’t see the situation as being so happy. You
see, the music is the main thing in other operas. Music has
to have the possibility to speak or to sing out those emotions and
situations, and they have a stage director who doesn’t know
anything about music. I feel they even maybe hate or see the
disturbing, because the timing for the staging is already there in the
music. If you don’t know the music and the timing in the
music, you cannot listen to what is specifically possible. But
this happens sometimes, and maybe too
often today in the world. If you can find a situation when the
stage director has an understanding for music
and for theater, then we could be very happy. But it’s not very
BD: It’s a
delicate balance between the music and the
Yes. Wieland Wagner told this so often. He would joke that
it’s so easy to
stage music theater because the timing is already there. He
didn’t mention this is the truth, but he
meant it. The director must fulfill in acceptable time what is
BD: Have you
got some advice for young singers?
MT: I used to
have this kind of advice in my
pocket, but not anymore because particularly we have here in America a
very high level. What is the main thing? Techniques?
Of course it’s very important, but techniques
are only written to do something. Then you have to carry and
project an artistic
message, and if you don’t have this, there’s no need to be a
singer. It’s a very tragic situation when you have a
good voice but you don’t know what to say.
BD: So you
need to develop your heart as much as you
need to develop your head!
Absolutely, if it is possible.
Heart is important, and also your knowledge about everything in a human
BD: This is
Understanding! Then this will burn in
your body and in your soul. Nobody can come and tell you that you
cannot be a singer, because this burning brings you to singing and to
this very difficult life.
BD: How can a
young singer get more understanding?
Basically, a young singer has
to have this beginning of the message already in the very early
in the career, when the learning time is under way. The teacher
give you some help, but the interest to
human beings who live on this earth has to be in his own body. I
hate empty singers. Well, I don’t hate anybody, but I mean empty
singing won’t give you anything! That is just a beautiful
voice and techniques, and then they don’t have
anything! We have to have something. We have to
fight for that, and we have to find it, and learn to give it.
This is the sorrow in our soul when we feel the time passes and we
don’t have very much time anymore, and then soon there will be
Gurnemanz waiting for another king! [Both laugh] That’s
it! I would ask a young singer why he would like to be a singer,
if the answer is, “Having a good job,”
then forget it!
BD: Tell them
to go and be a banker, or
Yes. There are many beautiful places in
this world. This is a profession of pain.
BD: Are we
losing the tradition of the theater?
we’re losing it in this time. This time
changes so fast. We are losing it at the moment, but it should
not mean that we are losing it forever. This is such a kind
of richness, it cannot go forever. The
most dangerous point in today’s singer’s life is this losing of this
tradition. A writer wrote a book about Beniamino
Gigli, and the book’s claim was ‘Un’anima cantava!’, ‘A soul
sang!’ Hear him, or
Jussi Bjorling particularly, or Ezio Pinza or Alexander Kipnis. ‘Un’anima
cantava!’ It was the soul singing, but with all the pain
from this life and all the humanity in this life. I have a
recording at home of Jussi Bjorling in his first concert at Carnegie
Hall in 1936, and I must say I have to cry. It’s so
beautiful. It’s not the same as his technique later, but his soul
was there. [Pauses a moment and then muses] I said I
didn’t have any answer for this question, but now I answer it!
BD: Yes, you
certainly have! You have opened your own soul to some of my
questions, and we do find this ‘anima’
in the artistry of Martti
MT: I cannot
me, life without this would be empty.
BD: Thank you
for being a singer, and thank you for
spending the time with me this afternoon.
at all! It’s been a pleasure. Thank
To read my Interview with Norman Bailey, click HERE.
To read my Interview with Janis Martin, click HERE.
To read my Interview with Anja Silja, click HERE.
To read my Interview with Régine Crespin, click HERE.
To read my Interview with Jon Vickers, click HERE.
To read my Interview with Joan Sutherland, click HERE.
To read my Interview with Marilyn Horne, click HERE.
To read my Interviews with Yvonne Minton, click HERE.
To read my Interview with John Shirley-Quirk, click HERE.
© 1986 Bruce Duffie
This conversation was recorded on the telephone on April 13,
1986. Portions were broadcast on WNIB in 1990,
and again in 1995 and 2000.
This transcription was made in 2015, and posted on this
at that time. My thanks to British soprano Una
Barry for her help in preparing this website
To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been
transcribed and posted on this website, click here.
Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975
its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001. His
interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since
and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well
on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.
You are invited to visit his website
for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of
other interviews, plus a full list of his guests. He would also
to call your attention to the photos and information about his
grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a
century ago. You may also send him E-Mail
with comments, questions and suggestions.