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
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 coach?
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 of your physical limitations
a problem for conducting? Do you conduct sitting down?
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 satisfactory
tenor, I must say.
BD: How’s Varnay doing
JT: She’s in an amazing
lady. 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
JT: She and Martha Mödl, and also
someone 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?
JT: No, 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 tatters...
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 there 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 else, 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 page?
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?
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
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
languages 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 Khovanshchina are 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 word, I 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 self-indulgent.
BD: Too slow?
JT: Yes, 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
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 the centenary in Bayreuth.
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 conducting.
BD: The rehearsals with
singers and the orchestra?
JT: Some of them.
Not 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 beginning 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 no chance.
BD: When you’re standing
there and the whole sound is coming up at you, can you hear the voices at
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
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 out.
JT: That’s why experience
in 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 doing 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 it.
Mozart, 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
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 and Falstaff.
BD: When you do Don Carlos, will it be in French?
JT: Yes. 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, I 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 Richard Van Allan, Robert Lloyd, Gillian Knight, and Émile Belcourt.]
BD: Is it the same for
They also happen to be written for French voices.
BD: What is the difference
between a French voice and an Italian voice?
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 offered
the Ring, would you do it in English?
JT: [Hesitantly] 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
expanding it 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 is
fiendishly 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 extremely
difficult question to answer.
BD: I pine for Melchior
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 have to 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 sense 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
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?
JT: Basically 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 Ministry of 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 of 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 people to get on with each other, and who could also get on with singers.
That is very important. You are not just a musical object, 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 for 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
BD: What’s it like to
play Rosenkavalier on the piano?
It is a most exhilarating experience.
BD: I would think that
a third hand would be necessary very often.
JT: [Laughs] 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 what is important and what isn’t important.
You’ve also got to know which 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 because it 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
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 .
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
JT: That’s what the
piece is about. In fact, most of Strauss is chamber music. It
is the art of conducting Strauss. He says so himself. He noted
that it should be done 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 were too 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 or 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
BD: Do you believe in
any cuts in Wagner?
JT: No! 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
BD: That was his mistake.
JT: Yes, it was a very
bad mistake and a strange mistake. I wouldn’t contemplate a cut even
in the early operas. They’re not conceived like 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
realized. Liebesverbot is
this 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 composer.
From the casts shown of these operas, see my interviews with John Mitchinson, Lorna Haywood, Janis Martin, Peter Schreier, Hans Sotin, Giuseppe Sinopoli,
Kurt Moll, and Brigitte Fassbaender.
Besides those listed, my other interview guests include Don Garrard as the Feenkönig
in Die Feen; Barbara Bonney as the
Young Shepherd in Tannhäuser;
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.
Michael Langdon 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 at Bayreuth?
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 isn’t
very 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
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
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
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 light of 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
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 traditional staging?
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
JT: Don’t ask me!
I 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
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 camera
JT: Yes. It was
a very long and painful procedure, but I have now seen most of it.
I haven’t seen Götterdämmerung,
which I suspect is the least successful because it was the first one we did,
and we 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?
JT: Yes, 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?
JT: Yes. 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 achievement.
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 previous production.
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
In general it’s a good choice, given what’s available today.
BD: Who’s the Wotan?
JT: Siegmund Nimsgern,
which is a more controversial choice, but the casting of Wotan is also extremely
BD: If you had the whole
world to use, who would you pick?
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
* * *
jump to Meistersinger. Do
you prefer the Wotan-type voice or the Hagen-type voice for Hans Sachs?
JT: The Wotan-type voice.
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 important.
BD: Pogner should be
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 then 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
BD: What’s Frick doing
JT: Hunting. 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 Vienna 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.
BD: Have recordings
helped or hindered the operatic scene in general, and the Wagner scene in
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 them going.
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
JT: No, they listen
to records, but they also go to the theater. There is that side of
it, but most opera-goers are also 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 the performances.
BD: Shouldn’t they be
recorded in long chunks?
JT: It’s 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
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 the operatic
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 are,
and they’re fanatical.
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 do 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 place is 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 the few people who can do that. There are other
singers who can...
BD: ...but do they?
JT: Yes. 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,
nonetheless he sings it most beautifully, and it is a lot more acceptable
than some people who go around singing the Kaiser. And he can also
sing Mozart, and 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 exhausting himself.
BD: He’s now to be doing
a little more jetting back and forth.
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 bane of 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 a lot of sense, and in London you could have
that because you have Covent Garden and the English National Opera.
BD: Have you been to
JT: No, I haven’t actually.
I would like to do that at some stage.
BD: Theirs is a very
traditional Ring with helmets and
JT: I loathe that!
JT: You could do a traditional staging until quite recently,
but now it needs such sophistication. I’d 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 world that you’re not going to hire her?
JT: Then 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 horns and the spear
necessarily. Or you do it in such a way that you can 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 Chéreau
Ring. 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 the most difficult,
whereas the virtues of the Ring were
there from the very word go. No one ever saw this because they 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 rather unsatisfactory.
I don’t find it particularly well-constructed.
BD: [Genuinely shocked]
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
BD: Is that because
he wrote the text last-to-first and then did the music first-to-last?
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 Götterdämmerung. 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 seem.
this point, Tate’s agent arrived to take him to his next appointment.]
Thank you for speaking with me today.
JT: My pleasure.
BD: I hope I’ve talking
to a major Wagner conductor.
JT: [Laughs] 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 website 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.
winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago
from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.
His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since
1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM.
You are invited to visit his website
for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other
interviews, plus a full list of his guests. He would also like to call
your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather,
who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.
You may also send him E-Mail with
comments, questions and suggestions.