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 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.

tateBD:    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 debutlast 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 these days?

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 roles.

JT:    She and Martha Mödl, and also someone like Uhl because he did have a short amount of time as a fairly major singer.

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?


JT:    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 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 experiencewas 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.

ringBD:    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 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 doingof 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 Bayreuthalthough I doubt it’s ever been done beforesimply 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 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 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.

tateBD:    So if they wanted you to make your debut at the Met doing Forza del Destino, you’d tell them no?

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 Robert Lloyd, Gillian Knight, and Émile Belcourt.]

BD:    Is it the same for Vêpres?

JT:    Absolutely.  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 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 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 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?

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.

tateBD:    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 Josef Krips.

BD:    What’s it like to play Rosenkavalier on the piano?

JT:    Wonderful!  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 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 [1981].  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 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 correctly.

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 that?

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; Siegmund 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 ParsifalMichael Langdon also appeared in the BBC Rienzi.

wagner operas box set

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 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 onesare 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 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 year.


See my Interviews with Mignon Dunn, Martti Talvela, and Michelle Harman-Gulick

:    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 languagewere less successful.  The harmonic rubatowhich is something that he doesn’t really do, and you don’t notice in his Mahlerwasn’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 tendparticularly in those first two operasto 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 open hearts?

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 television …

ringJT:    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 work?

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 the Siegfried?

JT:    Goldberg.  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 difficult.

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 was suitable.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Let
’s 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.

tateJT:    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 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 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 tastewent 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?

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 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 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 theater?

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.

tateBD:    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 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.

tateBD:    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 Seattle?

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 spears

JT:    I loathe that!

BD:    [Surprised]  Why???

tateJT:    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]  Really???

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 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 theater.

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. 

[At this point, Tate’s agent arrived to take him to his next appointment.]

BD:    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 presentation.

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

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

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.