Conductor Jeffrey Tate
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie
As I prepare this interview for my website (at the end of July, 2017),
it has been less than two months since conductor Jeffrey Tate passed
away. Tributes have poured in from around the globe, and the full
measure of our loss is being felt in opera houses and concert halls.
The conversation presented here was held at an early juncture of his
career, in July of 1982, exactly thirty-five years previously.
Moving from coach to conductor, his firm grasp of the music was
apparent even then, and the promise he demonstrated was certainly
fulfilled over the next three and a half decades.
He was affable and thoughtful throughout our encounter, and several
times he paused to consider his response. Having contributed
interviews to Wagner News for
many years, when Tate mentioned his involvement with the Ring at Bayreuth, I seized the
opportunity to inquire about it, and much of our time was spent
discussing that immense subject.
With bittersweet feelings of both triumph and loss, here is that chat
from long ago . . . . . . . . .
Bruce Duffie: Are
you primarily a pianist or an opera
Jeffrey Tate: I’m
primarily an opera coach now, and partly a
conductor. Conducting is now taking over from
coaching. I’m in that strange transition phase
where coaching is not exactly a thing of the past, but it’s a thing I
do much more rarely than I used to.
BD: Do you find any
physical limitations a problem for conducting? Do you conduct
JT: I conduct
sitting down the whole time. Once you get used to sitting down,
it’s never a problem whatsoever. I’ll be taking on Parsifal for first
time in Nice with a very remarkable cast. I made
my Nice debut — actually my
French debut — last April conducting
Salome with Gwyneth Jones,
Astrid Varnay and Fritz Uhl. Also Wolfgang Probst was a very
I must say.
BD: How’s Varnay
doing these days?
JT: She’s in an
She was on very good form, lamenting rather that she wasn’t going to
come back to the Met. I hope she will, actually, to do Begbick in
Mahagonny. She was in
phenomenal form, making
ferocious noises and acting as well as ever.
BD: She seems to
be one of the few that have taken it
gracefully to go into smaller, more character-like roles.
JT: She and Martha Mödl, and
like Uhl because he did have a short amount of time as a fairly major
BD: The other one
that comes to mind is Paul Schoeffler. He used to do a lot of
small parts toward the end of his career.
JT: Yes! But
actually so many of them did that. Max Lorenz ended up by doing
important small parts in Italy.
BD: Is this a good
way to pass on what the older singers
have learned to the younger singers?
not really. You can’t tell from them now what they were like
then. You just get ragged glimpses. Janine Reiss worked
with Callas more often than I
did, but I did a month of coaching with Callas in Paris just a
year before she died, when she was contemplating doing a concert in
London with Prêtre, but it never came to
anything. Occasionally you got glimpse of the glory through the
BD: Well, not so
much the voice or the vocal estate, but the
experience behind it?
JT: I would have
thought so, but that’s also
extremely difficult. Yes,
occasionally you can so, but unfortunately it’s a funny
business. You’ve got to do it yourself. It’s all very well
talking about handing down experience, and they can pass on little
valuable tips — which may be valuable to that
person but not for another
person, because each person is individual. By working
with them and seeing
their control and their discipline one’s
got to learn, but I’m not sure actually there’s a
heritage of passing on little small ideas and knick-knacks. No, I
personally don’t believe in
that. It may well do so, but I’ve not seen it in action.
BD: Does the same
hold for the standard coach,
such as yourself, who will help someone in a role? Is it
hard to hand down things to other singers, or are we talking
about apples and oranges?
JT: They are
apples and oranges. When you coach, when you look at any singer
are two vectors. There’s the actual music itself and
what it’s trying to say, and then there’s the individual singer that
you’re dealing with. You’ve got to align the two of them.
I’m a pragmatic
person, and I don’t believe in necessarily making someone
conform. I may
have an idealistic vision of what the music is trying to say, but
if the singer with whom I’m working is actually capable of something
I will mold and adapt. Music is actually
more flexible than I can think of.
BD: [With mock
horror] Really??? You don’t stick exactly to the printed
JT: No! I’m
not a Toscanini-ite in
that sense. The printed page is one thing, but living music
is a totally different thing. The gap between the
printed page and the living sound is enormous.
BD: So then for
you the printed page becomes a
starting point rather than an ending?
Absolutely. Any decent composer would accept that as a
given. If you’ve lived in the
eighteenth century, composers would have completely understood what I
was saying. It’s only the advent
of the twentieth century that has appeared to change that. Even
in the nineteenth century I don’t think it would have been unknown.
BD: Are you in
favor of translations?
JT: Yes, I’m
didactically in favor of
translations, but I don’t
like them myself. I try and resist having to do
them. I run into problems when it comes to Janáček and the
Slavic repertory because I don’t actually speak or understand those
well enough to coach them. So I’m hoist on my
own petard in that sense. But even so, I would much rather
aesthetically listen to Onegin
in Russian than I would in
English, although I was brought up at Covent Garden to do it in
English. Perversely we did Onegin
in English and
Boris in Russian, whereas I
can see a good didactic reason for doing the
reverse. Onegin is a
fairly easy story to grasp as a member of the audience, whereas Boris and
ever more so complicated. Even the politics in both of them
you’ve got to
understand. My first happy experience with the
Ring — not
my first exposure, but my first really happy experience — was
the Andrew Porter
translation with Goodall
at the English National Opera. Although I didn’t understand every
understood enough to sense the drama going on properly. My German
was already good enough to cope
with the Ring, but the
performances at that stage at Covent Garden were
not enjoyable. In
fact, unquestionably the Goodall Ring,
for all that it is now, I can’t
listen to it. I find it very
BD: Too slow?
unquestionably. If you sang
the German to it, it disintegrates in a million pieces. But it
revealed lots of things that other performances skate over. It is
an essential view of the piece, but not
the last word, by any means, as a lot of English people would have you
believe. Reggie’s a very, very important
figure, and I owe a great deal to him in terms of my own career.
He was on
the staff of Covent Garden when I was there, and I must have gone to
his Meistersinger fifty times.
BD: Have you conducted much Wagner,
besides going to it?
JT: That’s my
bread and butter. You may not want to talk to me
because I am the infamous assistant for Pierre Boulez for
BD: Oh, no, that
means let’s talk for three hours
instead of only two! [Both laugh]
JT: Wagner is the
last resort where I shall end
up as a conductor. That’s the way I see my
life moving. l was asked last week when I
was in London what my greatest ambition was, and my ambition is to
conduct something at Bayreuth. If I have a little goal to achieve
in my life, that’s the goal.
BD: Are you on the
right track, then, to do it as the second or third production after Solti?
JT: This is a very
complicated story. I was
asked by Solti to be his assistant [for
the Bayreuth production to begin in 1983], which would have
meant a lot of
BD: The rehearsals
with singers and the orchestra?
JT: Some of
the bread and butter rehearsals. His orchestral readings are in a
realm of his own.
But he had a sensible habit — always has done,
and will go on doing — of letting his assistant,
or making his
assistant, conduct for about ten minutes or quarter of an hour at the
of any rehearsal. This is just certain key passages in order to
balance it from
the stalls. This is particularly relevant
for someone conducting in Bayreuth — although I
doubt it’s ever been done
before — simply because as a conductor you have
no chance of ever
knowing what the balance is outside. You can guess at it
in a normal orchestral pit, but in Bayreuth, as you well know, there is
BD: When you’re
standing there and the whole
sound is coming up at you, can you hear the voices at all?
JT: You can hear
the voices, but sometimes it’s very
difficult. Pierre used to say that in very loud
moments in Götterdämmerung
he had to lip-read! [Both
laugh] I can well believe that to be true. I conducted
many a piano rehearsal in Bayreuth, and I know problems. If
you’re not in the directional line of the singer, you
sometimes don’t even hear with the piano quite as you would want to
hear them, simply because they’re going straight out. It’s
quite clear, quite obvious what’s happening. In performances you
hear a barrage of orchestral sound, which
is also not fair because that’s not what the audience hears because the
sound is directed at them.
It’s a very complicated procedure conducting and balancing.
BD: Johanna Meier
mentioned this when we spoke. She said that the sound comes up at
you in a
wave, and you have to remember not to destroy your vocal production
because the sound goes
JT: That’s why
Bayreuth is a very important thing. That’s why I feel
rather sad that I’m not going to be assisting Solti. I’m not
that because I’ve been asked by the Paris Opera to conduct a
new production of Ariadne at
the time when they’re rehearsing.
BD: Ah, but that
is a wonderful piece.
JT: I adore
Strauss, and Wagner are my ‘Holy Trinity’. That’s what I
really specialize in already.
BD: So if they wanted
you to make your debut at the Met doing Forza del Destino, you’d tell them
JT: I would say go
and jump in the Hudson
River!!! There are just three
Verdi operas I would want to conduct. One is Ballo in Maschera, which I’m
doing, the others are Don Carlos
BD: When you do Don Carlos, will it be in French?
Although my name wouldn’t have
appeared, I assisted John Matheson when he
conducted the first complete performance which was done by the BBC
in 1973 in French
of every single note of music. That was the famous production
when Andrew (Porter) had just
discovered all those things. We did the whole of the original
version, including the original version of the fourth act with the
original quartet, and we also did the original Rodrigo/Philip duet, and
all the extra music, every single note. It
took hours, but it was wonderful. Once you’ve heard it in French,
don’t see how can humanly want to hear it in Italian ever again... but
then I’m prejudiced. [Vis-à-vis
the recording shown at right, see my Interviews with Robert Lloyd, Gillian Knight, and
BD: Is it the same
Absolutely. They also happen to be written for French voices.
BD: What is the
difference between a French voice and an
JT: It is
particularly true of
baritone. Both the baritone roles in those two operas are high,
French-sounding baritone roles. They’re not that dark, thicker,
heavier sound that you would want from Luna or Rigoletto. They
are a different
sound. Rodrigo can be sung by a much lighter
voice. He maybe could be a
Mozart singer. That’s the way it works. Verdi wrote it
specifically with that French sound. The man who sings Rodrigo
also sings Valentin in Faust.
That’s why it must be in
French. It seems obvious to me.
BD: If you were
the Ring, would you do it in
of course I
would do it. I would force myself enough because I would want
to conduct it enough to do it in English. There are other ways
than Reggie’s way, but nonetheless, I would accept it.
BD: You’d take it
at a little faster clip?
JT: Yes, I’m
probably more savage. I would see more violence in the score than
Reggie does, but I think he was essential. You must see him in
context. In England we had a decade of Solti’s
Ring. I’m sure
it’s changed a lot by now. I talked to him about it, and he has
expressed a great urge to rethink many passages. He listens to
his own recording of it, and I understand
that. I’m in that awkward
position of really regretting the fact that I will not be assisting
him. My own conducting career is taking off at a time
when I would be quite interested to hear what he was doing, but I am
now far enough into the Ring
to not really want to hear somebody else’s. Much as I admire
enormously and respect him as a Wagnerian,
I’m in the process of finding out what I want from the piece now.
BD: What’s the
ideal way of setting up the Ring
— Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday?
JT: I think
so. It is
a piece which has to be seen in concentrated form. It’s stupid
any more than that. It’s perfectly feasible.
BD: Is it possible
to do it any tighter?
JT: No, I would
have thought not with the voices we
have around today. I know of no one who could do it now.
BD: Should the
parts be doubled — should the
Siegmund also sing Siegfried?
JT: No, no, no,
no. That makes dramatic nonsense for me, absolutely. It is
also the wrong tessitura.
Siegmund is a classic low baritonal heldentenor, whereas the young
Siegfried is very high. Also the Götterdämmerung Siegfried
high. It’s a different sound, and you must make that clear when
you do it.
BD: Should you
then have different singers from the young Siegfried to
the old Siegfried.
JT: No, that was
just unfortunately one of the problems we had. The reason we did
it in the first year, in ’76, was
because Kollo wasn’t prepared to learn both roles and
sing both roles at once, and by the time he
was on the verge of saying he would, he decided he didn’t want to be
involved with the Ring
anymore, which was very sad. Jess Thomas pulled out after the
first year. He was already beginning to feel that he didn’t want
to sing it anymore, and so we got Manfred Jung. Then
when Kollo dropped out, we got Manfred to do both parts, but we did
really want René to do both.
BD: Is Manfred the
answer that we’re looking for?
JT: That’s a
leading question. I’m not sure I
ought to answer it.
BD: Are there any
young heroic tenors on the operatic
scene now who really can cope with the demands of the two Siegfrieds?
JT: That’s also an
question to answer.
BD: I pine for
Melchior every day.
JT: I pine for Max
Lorenz, also. I have heard tapes of him in his prime, and I can
say without prejudice that he was remarkable. He doesn’t always
have the most beautiful
singing but, my God, it’s powerful, and it has what Melchior didn’t
have. It has a sort of
intellectual control. Melchior was a great, wonderful
singer, but he wasn’t an intellectual. Lorenz
will give you that as well. No, we don’t have voices like that
these days. The casting of the Ring next year is tricky.
Goldberg is an interesting and perfectly useable singer, but no, I
don’t think Goldberg is the
answer to your Lorenz-Melchior syndrome. But in terms of what we
offer, he will be a very
good young Siegfried. He’s a very intelligent
singer even though it’s not perhaps a Helden baritonal tenor in the
that we know from the old records.
BD: He’s due here
in a couple of years for Die Frau
Ohne Schatten, so I’m looking
forward to that. [Just as with
the Ring production we had
been talking of, this Frau in
Chicago had some casting changes before it was presented in 1984.
In the end, William
Johns sang the Emperor.]
JT: That’s a
different kettle of fish. You can sing Frau Ohne Schatten with a lighter
voice than most people tend to think. You can
also sing Bacchus with a much lighter voice.
BD: Bacchus and
the Emperor seem to be owned these days by James King. [King studied with Max Lorenz, and with Martial Singher.]
JT: Yes, and it’s
very sad. Much as I
admire Jimmy King, and I admire him enormously, Ariadne is not grand opera.
It’s a chamber opera,
and you could have a tenor who could sing that.
BD: You are in
Chicago this week to coach young singers. Will you focus on
Wagner at all?
I would coach almost anything that’s put in
front of me. Obviously as a professional one has to...
BD: Would you
coach an opera you hated, or one that you
thought was simply bad?
JT: Not now
because I could choose, but obviously
when you begin, and if you work in an opera house with a large
repertory, you have to
under certain circumstances. When I joined it, Covent Garden had
the great fortune of having a remarkable good head of
music staff, Ivor James Gibson. He was a man who helped me and
guided me enormously. He knew where my tastes lay, and allowed me
the possibly of doing
what I wanted to do. He now has retired and works for the
the Environment in fact. Like me, he was not a musician.
I’m a doctor by training, and he was an engineer by training.
We’re both sort of English
amateur school. He got into
music by amateur performances in Cambridge. He did some
conducting at Covent Garden in the
50s, but basically he wasn’t a conductor and didn’t ever want to.
He was a very
good coach, a very good musician, a good pianist, and he was for most
the time that Solti was at Covent Garden, head of music staff.
Together with Solti they kept a wary eye on the sort of people they
took on, and they made sure that the staff was compatible in terms of
musicality. They wanted a high standard, and they also wanted
to get on with each other, and who could also get on with
singers. That is very important. You are not just a musical
you’re also a human object. You’ve got to be rather like a doctor
that is very capable of coping with human beings.
BD: So you have to get on with the
singers rather than
the singers having to get on with you?
JT: I think that’s
true. It’s a bad coach who doesn’t care whether the singers care
him or not. I care for who I work for, and it’s
very important. I learned that from Ivor, and he pushed me go in
the direction of Mozart, Strauss and Wagner,
and as a result I had my broad
experiences. The first time I ever played Rosenkavalier for rehearsal was
with Josef Krips.
BD: What’s it like
to play Rosenkavalier on the
Wonderful! It is a most exhilarating experience.
BD: I would think
that a third hand would be necessary very
You’ve got to be very clever. You’ve got to
be able to cheat. You’ve got to know what the score says, and
is important and what isn’t important. You’ve also got to know
score to play. You don’t play the easy score because you can’t
leave bits out. You should
take the difficult one. There’s a singer version which not
currently available, which has lots of little
details, but I am a funny sort of person because I stopped having
piano lessons when I was six. I’m totally self-taught, and I
taught myself by playing operatic scores. So I learned as a
teenager to do
unconsciously what good
pianists have to unlearn, or learn themselves. They play all the
notes. I don’t play the notes. I play the
music as it seems to me on the page, which is probably why I’ve learned
to be skeptical about what’s written on the page.
BD: Is Wagner easy
to play on the piano?
JT: Oh, it’s
wonderful. ‘Easy’ is
the wrong word. It’s a great pleasure to play it on the piano
fits very nicely, more so than Strauss. Because
of his extraordinary love of details, Strauss scores are a mess.
He’ll scribble like a mediaevalist inside his scores. That’s the
modernist in Strauss in a
way, this intricate web of little things going on the whole
time, which begins to remind you of Berg. Strauss hasn’t got
quite the intellectual construction of a Berg score,
but it’s getting in that sort of way.
BD: Is Berg the
outgrowth of Strauss?
JT: No, I’m not
saying that. But
nonetheless you can see they lived in the same tradition very
happily. I better be careful not to underestimate him, and you
certainly know I adore Strauss.
BD: We had a
wonderful Ariadne here this
past season . Janowski
conducted, and it was marvelous. He really got it to be
chamber music. [There are two
interviews with Janowski on the linked-webpage. One is primarily
about Wagner, the other is mostly about Strauss.]
JT: That’s what
the piece is about. In
fact, most of Strauss is chamber music. It is the art of
Strauss. He says so himself. He noted that it should be
economically and as lightly as possible. All the great
Strauss conductors have had that quality. I remember
Klemperer. That’s another example of my being moved in the right
direction. The first time I worked on Elektra was playing it for
Klemperer. Before the third performance he had a meeting with the
orchestra, and he said to them, “Gentlemen, you
loud.” That’s all he said, and the
performance was actually
wonderful, but he meant exactly what he said. There is a danger
of playing all scores far too loudly. No
one ever takes the dynamics seriously. Most of the markings in
Strauss lie below mezzo forte and mezzo piano. They’re all piano
pianissimo. Krips said that also.
BD: Should there
be cuts in Rosenkavalier?
JT: Yes, unless
you were playing to a
German-speaking audience, and even then there is a question of whether
they could cope with
it. [Thinks a moment] In the first act, it is the bit
that’s cut which is the
most unsatisfactory. The cuts are rather lethal when they
happen, but towards the end of that little section
you get very tired. The music suddenly loses its
momentum as far as I’m concerned. It’s very
difficult to cut it eloquently and correctly.
BD: Do you believe
in any cuts in Wagner?
There are no places to do so. It’s completely the reverse side of
the coin. In Strauss,
where he is constructing these little microcosms, often you can take
little bits out of it and you don’t notice it they’ve gone.
Wagner constructed in one-and-a-half-hour
spasms, and if you take any piece of that out, you suddenly
notice. I will never, ever forgive Wieland Wagner
for taking out the Gutrune scene in his production of Götterdämmerung.
It seems a willful misunderstanding of the piece by
someone who should know better. Then to take away one of
the most magical moments
in the whole piece, one which is essential, even to contemplate
it... How can you humanly do that?
BD: That was his
JT: Yes, it was a
very bad mistake and a strange
wouldn’t contemplate a cut even in the early operas. They’re not
that. They’re conceived in these great broad sweeps.
BD: What about the
three really early ones — Die Feen, Das Liebesverbot, and Rienzi?
JT: I have worked
on all three of them, again with
the BBC. [The broadcast dates of these three operas were May 2,
May 23, and June 27, 1976.] I was an assistant
for those three, so they are pieces that I know, of which I find the
most charming and delightful is Feen.
It is a very underestimated,
wonderful piece that could well be done. Again, it’s a
pity to cut it. You ask yourself where. You’ve got to cut,
I suppose, but it’s very difficult to know
how. Liebesverbot is
the least successful because it’s obviously
where he’s striving for a new style. That’s why Feen is
interesting. Feen is,
in a way, very complete and very
mature. Early though it is, it’s Marschner and Weber beautifully
uncomfortable marriage between the Italianate school and the German
school. It doesn’t really fit.
Though the BBC broadcasts of the three very early Wagner operas
circulated on non-commercial discs for many years, DG licensed the
first two for their 43-CD box set (back
shown at right), issued in 2013 for the bi-centenary of the
From the casts shown of these operas, see my interviews with John
Sinopoli, Kurt Moll,
Besides those listed, my other interview guests include Don Garrard as the
Feenkönig in Die Feen; Barbara Bonney as
the Young Shepherd in Tannhäuser;
Nimsgern as Telramund in Lohengrin
(a very questionable omission from the back of the box!); and Anne Howells and Kiri te Kanawa as
Flower Maidens in Parsifal.
also appeared in the BBC Rienzi.
BD: What is Rienzi?
JT: It’s a very
noble try. It’s a failure,
but it’s noble try. It’s a very heroic piece, but far too long.
BD: Could any of
these three be done
JT: No. I
don’t think they’d stand up to that theater. They’re open-pit for
a start, and that’s why Holländer
satisfactory at Bayreuth. It’s an open-pit piece, really.
In fact, Wolfgang half tacitly admitted it by suggesting to Dennis Russell Davies
that they do
the original scoring, which is much heavier and much thicker. [Davies conducted the production at
Bayreuth from 1978-80, with Simon Estes, Lisbeth
Balslev, Matti Salminen, Robert Schunk, Francisco Araiza,
and Anny Schlemm.]
BD: Should Holländer
ever be done in three pieces, or always in one?
JT: I would
happily do it in three
pieces. The gains by doing it in one are not so enormous.
It’s nice occasionally to hear it done in one.
BD: Do the two
intervals help the audience?
JT: I think they
do. It is a bit too long in that respect. Mind you, on
paper it looks
awful. You see the breaks and you think how stupid they are, when
in fact they work perfectly well.
BD: Is there ever
a case to break Rheingold?
JT: No, never,
never, never. That’s one wonderful work. It is a
palindrome. It’s a piece perfectly constructed. It’s a
perfect opera that’s got almost the best opera
libretto in existence. The three big opera libretti —
excluding the Mozart ones — are Rosenkavalier, Falstaff and Rheingold, without any questions as
far as I’m
concerned. Rheingold is
the one piece which seems to me to
indicate that. It’s much funnier than
Meistersinger. It’s a
great comic opera.
BD: I never
thought of it as a comic opera, though there are touches of irony in it
all over the place.
JT: It’s a world
of total irony. It’s the ironic
key to the Ring as far as I’m
concerned. What then follows you must always see in the ironic
Rheingold. That’s the
rare side that
chaffs through the work. There’s a lot of irony in the rest of
the Ring, too,
but that’s also ignored by most producers and most singers.
BD: Is that why we
do not understood the rest of
the Ring, because Rheingold is the least understood?
JT: I think it may
well be. Rheingold is
the one that is really very misunderstood and very underrated.
Interestingly enough, Solti loves the piece, and quite rightly. [See cast lists of his two Chicago Symphony
presentations in the box below.] It’s a piece
he does often because he has a great feeling for it, and it’s the key
work on which everything else
stems. It was the work, in the first year, that I
thought Boulez did the best. It was a wonderful reading of it in
the first year.
BD: How did Boulez change over three or four
years? How did he grow and develop?
JT: The first year
you could say that Rheingold
and moments in
Walküre were really
already very remarkable achievements. Siegfried and Götterdämmerung —
whose world is much more
akin to the later language than the early language — were
less successful. The harmonic rubato — which
is something that he doesn’t really
do, and you don’t notice in his Mahler — wasn’t
there, and those great pieces need that. They need that sense of
placing of chords. It’s part of the later language, and he came
to that gradually. He learned a tradition, if you like. He
refused the tradition
and then discovered aspects that were necessary to him, and
that’s really how he should. The ear remains the
same, and he became more and more aware of the
real nature of the vocal parts and what they needed. In
the first year he did tend — particularly in
those first two operas — to see them as
part of the contrapuntal fabric.
BD: Would he have
been more accepted if it had been a
JT: No! My
categorical answer is no. It would
have still disturbed people because it wasn’t what they wanted to hear.
BD: Why do people
want to hear only what they want to
hear instead of coming to the theater with open hearts?
JT: Don’t ask
wish I knew.
BD: I suppose
that’s the eternal question.
JT: That’s the
eternal question. There’s
no answer to that. The staging is now … if seen in fact in the
light of a lot of other stagings, is not … is not in any sense
controversial. It just happens to be actually infinitely more
detailed and subtle than any other Ring
probably since the
War, but people didn’t see that.
BD: Will it work
on television …
JT: Yes, it should. I’ve seen
it all. I helped
choose the musical selections for it. It was made in
such a way that we recorded whole acts twice, and then did a few
corrections. Pierre did the selecting for the
records. He really was a very busy man, and I had a
rather more time than he did. So I went to do it with
Chéreau. We sat down with Brian Large. First of all
I listened to the two takes...
BD: So the
records, then, are not the television version?
JT: They are,
basically, but there are some discrepancies. To find
the discrepancies I’m describing, you’d have to go through with a fine
tooth comb. They are slightly different because one is
Pierre. I knew what Pierre wanted,
basically, but the other is mine.
BD: What’s the
justification for not just
simply using the film as the basis for the records?
JT: It’s very
complicated. There were
certain passages that we wanted to use for the video, for instance,
where it was very easy to cut in little bits for the
record. What you then couldn’t do then was cut into the video.
BD: So it’s the
JT: Yes. It
was a very long
and painful procedure, but I have now seen most of
it. I haven’t seen Götterdämmerung,
suspect is the least successful because it was the first one we did,
learned a lot by doing it. But there were very good reasons for
doing it first, rather than regarding it as a test case. It was
the most difficult, and was the hurdle that had to be got over.
BD: No point in
doing the rest if you
couldn’t do this piece?
exactly. In that sense,
really, we stand and fall. We were
quite pleased with the result, but in comparison with the other three...
BD: You’d like to
go back and retouch it?
It’s rather like Solti listening to
his Ring recording and
saying, “I’d like to do it again.”
Of course we’d like to go back and
retouch it, but that can’t be. But, as I say, you’ll see
it as the least successful, but certainly Rheingold and Walküre and
Siegfried are absolutely
masterly in terms of the quality of the acting and
the equality of the expression. That’s a bit of
self-praise because it was my responsibility. It’s result of five
years’ very hard work,
and in so far as there aren’t the great
voices of the ’30s and the ’20s,
nonetheless it’s a very, very remarkable
BD: Is it the best
that can be gotten from those singers?
JT: Yes, I’m sure
it is. Bayreuth has it quite hard putting together a Ring with
completely new singers next year, avoiding those that we used in the
BD: Are they
deliberately avoiding those singers?
JT: They’ve had to
do that. They
wanted to do that, and it’s quite fair, but it
will present them with certain problems. There’s also some very
good casts around.
BD: Who’s going to
be the Siegfried?
Goldberg. In general it’s a good
choice, given what’s available today.
BD: Who’s the
Nimsgern, which is a
more controversial choice, but the casting of Wotan is also
BD: If you had the
whole world to use, who would you
JT: That’s the
whole point. One did! I pondered this point with Solti
himself last year, when I was
probably going to be involved in it, and he was going to pick my brains
as much as anybody else because it’s a particular interest of mine, and
we both found it very
difficult to come up with an answer that was
jump to Meistersinger.
prefer the Wotan-type voice or the Hagen-type voice for
JT: The Wotan-type
BD: The few times
I heard a real bass
do it, I liked the extra weight.
JT: Yes, but I miss something of the
gentleness there. One is so
conditioned by what one’s heard. One that’s pleased me recently
was Leif Roar on the television film that came
from Stockholm. [Berislav
Klobučar conducted, and Gösta
Winbergh, who would sing Walther later in his career, was David!]
Roar was a youngish Sachs, perfectly capable of
being a widower, but nonetheless capable of being a
suitor for Eva. His light voice somehow fit entirely
with that kind of vision. The contrast with Pogner is also very
BD: Pogner should
be much older.
JT: Yes, Pogner
should be older, and have a darker and
deeper voice. There’s a register
voices in which Pogner is the deepest with the Hagen-type voice, and
you get a Hans Sachs...
BD: It seems right
now that basses sing Pogner for
fifteen years and then move into Hans Sachs.
JT: Yes. I
heard that Bernd Weikl did Sachs last
year and wasn’t very happy with it, but I gather he’s just done it in
Munich, and a very good friend of mine — who is
a Wagnerian with very good taste — went to hear
him and said he’s matured
enormously. This is a light Sachs, but very
convincing. Theo Adam, after all, is a very
respected Sachs, and he’s a
light Wotan in that sense, but it works very well. Norman Bailey is
wonderful and bears that sound. Bailey’s a Gunther
voice, I really do genuinely believe that.
BD: What’s Frick
doing these days?
He’s a hunter. He
said he came from a family of thirteen hunters, and they all had
better voices than him, but all the rest of them
preferred hunting. I worked with him for two solid weeks in
1971 when we were recording Parsifal
with Solti, correcting all those
little faults that had crept in every day. I was very young
in the business, so it was very embarrassing in a way, me, a little
Englishman telling this very experienced German gentleman all the
little things that
he wasn’t actually doing. But we got on enormously
well. It was my first exposure to the international scene, and
it cemented my relationship with Solti very much, actually.
That’s where we really found each other.
recordings helped or hindered the operatic
scene in general, and the Wagner scene in particular?
JT: Oh, they’ve
helped enormously. In a way, obviously, you can see where they
hinder. They give
you false impressions of what you might hear in an opera house.
What they have unquestionably done, even in this country, is to
rouse the interest in the art form in such a way that, surprisingly
enough in the time of
appalling recession, opera is still growing. It’s
an amazing feature of personal musical life
that in lands where opera had appeared to be dying away, it now
suddenly begins to really blossom. I’m sure that’s due to
records, and therefore also the radio as the means of
transmitting them. So I’m all for it. It’s very stupid
to be against it. I’m all for opera on television because
it does generate interest, and people then do go to the theater.
It doesn’t stop
BD: That was
always the big question when they
could hear it on a record. You say you don’t find that
people stay home listening to records, but they’re going to the theater?
JT: No, they
listen to records, but they also
go to the theater. There is that side of it, but most opera-goers
becoming increasingly more intelligent, and they know about the
distinction between what they hear on a record and what happens in the
theater. They also know
full well that quite a lot of records are very unsatisfactory by
the way they are made. Some conductors insist on more natural
conditions, but the bits-and-pieces system does create a lethargy in
BD: Shouldn’t they
be recorded in long chunks?
very difficult to do. Karajan vows to do that, and
now he really does record in huge long strips. Boulez does as
well, and you hear that in some of their best opera
recordings. There is a magnetism about a
particular take that goes straight through, but
basically most people don’t do that. The
Karajan Falstaff, for
instance, was made very much with huge takes. It’s a very
difficult opera, and there were some little moments where it needed
fixing, but he’s a cunning old fox. He knows full well what you
can do. Falstaff needs
momentum enormously, and that is happening more and more now in other
operas as well.
BD: How do we get kids that
are going to rock
concerts to go to opera?
JT: Do you want
to? [Both have a huge laugh]
BD: That was next
question — if we do, should we?
JT: I don’t
particularly like to. If they don’t
want come to opera, I don’t see why they should.
BD: Then will
opera die in the next few years?
JT: No, no, but
there are enough other people who
don’t go to rock concerts. There are people who go to
both, obviously, but one is far too
pessimistic. There are lots of people on the
earth, so why shouldn’t some of them continue to enjoy opera?
BD: Just the sheer
numbers are going to keep enough audience?
JT: One sees it as
an operation, as
it is in America. Look at the number of opera companies that
spring up all over the place.
BD: I just have a
nagging feeling that this is the last
great gasp before it falls apart.
JT: That seems to
be very unlikely. Take France as an example. The whole of
scene is verging more and more on provincial opera. I have no
fear. I think I shall still be in business!
BD: Are there
enough young people coming along?
JT: Yes, there
BD: I hope they
continue to be enthusiastic about it.
JT: Well, that’s
up to us. That’s
very much up to what we do to make sure it’s worth their while going to
listen to it as we keep up the tradition. The only thing I say
against the tradition
is the way we’re running around and
doing some things far too quickly and far too soon. You’ve heard
that from everybody I’m sure, because it is actually
true. Singers are forced to do things at too hectic a pace once
they become successful.
BD: Are any of
them recognizing that and slowing down?
JT: Some of them
are trying to do so, and some of
them do it instinctively by their nature. There are singers who
have paced their careers and will
go on singing and singing. But there are others
that we know who have come up quickly, and then fly away and
disappear. Obviously that will always be the case where there are
brief comets like that, but the time span has decreased an awful
lot in the last thirty years or so because of the jet plane and jet
lag and all these things. Even twenty years ago, singers didn’t
leave town for three
months or four months. Now they’re back and forth because you can
it. While you can say it doesn’t
matter, it does actually
matter. It’s not just
physical, it’s also mental. Concentration on one thing or on one
a good idea. Look at a Met program of 1920 and see what certain
singers were singing
one night, and then the next night and the next night. People did
an awful lot of things, but they
were there for the whole time. They did a Met season, and that’s
what they did.
I must say that produces the best results, and is the
healthiest both physically and mentally for a singer.
Unquestionably the old ensemble system had a lot going
for it in terms of letting a singer develop. They need to
vary. I don’t say that singers shouldn’t do lots of
different things. The great singers will always
vary, and they could do lots of things.
BD: How do you get
your Brünnhilde one week to sing
Gutrune, or even a Norn, the next week?
JT: That’s a state
of mind, and that’s
what’s probably missing lately. What’s more
impressive is a singer who sings Brünnhilde one week and the
Countess the next. That’s what they should do, and that’s what
probably doesn’t happen. That can only happen by
long and slow development. Johanna Meier is an example of one of
people who can do that. There are other singers who can...
BD: ...but do they?
There’s a very remarkable tenor
called Herman Winkler.
He can sing Tamino, and he can also sing
Parsifal, and the Kaiser.
BD: He was here in
Chicago a couple of years ago to do Ottavio.
JT: He’s a very
eloquent singer, and he can sing all
those things because he has a beautiful technique, although
the voice is not enormously large. He’s not a classical Kaiser,
he sings it most beautifully, and it is a lot more acceptable than some
who go around singing the Kaiser. And he can also sing Mozart,
coloratura that’s absolutely right, and he’s someone who
hasn’t been noticed. He’s been singing in German houses for
endless years, but singing well. He sings a lot, but never
foolishly, never dashing around and
BD: He’s now to be
doing a little more jetting back
JT: That’s the
unfortunate thing because there are very few people that can do what he
can do with that degree of experience and fitness. That’s the
our age. Once someone becomes good enough to do that, then they
are thrust around, and it really takes its toll on what you can do.
BD: How do we get
more young people into Wagner when maybe they’ve
heard the Ride of the Valkyries
on a concert or even in a TV commercial?
JT: [Thinks a
moment] There begs your first question about translations.
I’m sure Wagner in
English, or in a vernacular, makes a lot of sense. It adds to the
possibility of hearing Wagner.
BD: The Ring more than Tristan?
JT: Yes, the Ring more than Tristan, obviously, but
even Tristan actually would
help because there’s long passages of conversation in the first act
particularly. For the dramatic input you’ve got to understand the
dialogue between Tristan and Isolde for the music to make sense.
I see no reason why shouldn’t have it in translation. I think
Seattle is very good. Their idea of the bilingual approach makes
lot of sense, and in London you could have that
because you have Covent Garden and the English National Opera.
BD: Have you been
JT: No, I haven’t
actually. I would like
to do that at some stage.
BD: Theirs is a
very traditional Ring with
JT: I loathe that!
JT: You could do a traditional
staging until quite recently, but now it needs such
be interested in what Peter
Hall has in mind [for the
upcoming Solti/Bayreuth production], because I’m sure he’s going
to do it
with helmets and spears, but it’ll be done with a visual
sophistication, which is needed.
There must be visual stimulation. We are too used to it in the
cinema and in the very good straight theater to accept large, fat
ladies in pigtails and hats to take them seriously
enough. That’s the problem! It’s not that that’s wrong, but
a lot of the audience can’t take it seriously. We love the music
and know what it
means, but you expect someone going to the Ring for
the first time to take it seriously. It’s not
Anna Russell, you know. It really is a serious problem.
BD: Then how do
you tell the woman who maybe
weighs 350 pounds but has the most gorgeous contralto voice in the
that you’re not going to hire her?
you look at her in a different way. You clothe her in a different
way. You still use her, but you don’t put her in pigtails and the
and the spear necessarily. Or you do it in such a way that you
accept her like that. There are large ladies and there are thin
ladies in the world, but you’ve
got to apply a much, much more sophisticated visual imagination than
is ever done. That’s one of the strengths of the
Although it apparently goes against all the usual things, it did apply
an unusual, real
sophistication and consistency when you see it as what was being done.
BD: At the time,
though, it seemed that the press highlighted the absurd.
JT: Oh, yes, of
course they did. But the
absurd was what the public wanted to see because they couldn’t
understand the overall concept. They couldn’t
understand what the production was about, and that’s what they found
difficult, whereas the virtues of the Ring
were there from the very word go. No one ever saw this because
were so obsessed with little or big things. The glaring
anachronisms never vanished, but people came to understand what they
meant. It was a poetic vision
of the Ring, but it was not
only the way of looking
at the piece I’m sure.
BD: Could Wagner
have written anything after Parsifal?
JT: [Thinks a
moment] Oh, yes. I’m damned certain he
could. I’m sure he could have written his
Buddhist opera then without any question whatsoever. I’m certain
that wasn’t necessarily the end of the
road. In a curious way, I find Parsifal
unsatisfactory. I don’t find it particularly well-constructed.
JT: No, I’m … the
great pieces for construction are
the middle period pieces, even Götterdämmerung.
BD: Meistersinger should stand there?
JT: Yes. Meistersinger should stand, and
Walküre is a perfect
piece. That was one of the great things of Boulez’s
conducting was to make the second act, which is the most difficult act
in terms of consistency, so consistent. It went like an arrow
from beginning to
end without one hint of sagging. One has had one’s moments of
thinking that the act might sag, and that it
was too episodically constructed, but in his hands it really was
perfect. I now know the second act. It has exactly the same
momentum as the first and third
acts. It’s a very perfect piece. Siegfried, as we
obviously know, is unwieldy, and Götterdämmerung
worries me, because although it’s wonderfully beautiful, it is very
unwieldy in the
way it’s put together. The first act is a hodgepodge, but a
wonderful hodgepodge because the music is so absolutely
staggering. But, dramatically you can
drive cars through some of the holes. Bernard
Shaw’s quite right. Fundamentally it’s a much more
primitive piece, clothed in sophisticated language.
BD: Is that
because he wrote the text last-to-first and then did the music
JT: Yes. The
old obstinate sod wouldn’t change. I know what he was about in a
curious sort of way, but
nonetheless, when you read the text of Rheingold with all its wonderful
brilliance of insights, I really do wish that he had relooked at
In a way he didn’t need to
because he knew that the ‘Tarnhelm’
of the music would actually manage to deceive you into not
noticing what was going on. But it is a
much weaker piece than the others in that sense. It is
unquestionably true that however
beautiful Parsifal is, it’s a
piece of disastrous
BD: Does that one
work better on records?
JT: Yes, it’s a
wonderful piece on
record, but it is a bit
difficult in the theater. Although you
may get rather offended by the pseudo-Catholic ritual that’s going on,
it hangs together and has a wonderful slow-motion-like dramatic logic
about it. The first act is very hard, especially the business
with the swan which you can never bring off in the theater. That
is so ridiculously difficult. He should have known that. I
really do feel angry with the man because he should
have known that nonsense would not work well. That’s
what really annoys me. The obstinacy of the man sometimes really
gets in the way. Given that he had Bayreuth to work in, it would
have been the ideal opera to write, pre-dating of
Philip Glass in a
way. I don’t think Glass could have written a
piece like Satyagraha without
knowing Parsifal quite
well... perverse although it may
this point, Tate’s agent arrived to take him to his next appointment.]
Thank you for speaking with me today.
BD: I hope I’ve
talking to a major Wagner
Well, you never know...
© 1982 Bruce Duffie
This conversation was recorded in Chicago on July 28,
1982. Portions were broadcast on WNIB 1987 and 1998.
This transcription was made in 2017, 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.
You are invited to visit his website
for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of
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