Conductor  Ted  Taylor
== and ==
Administrator / Director  Carl  Ratner

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie

As with many
‘promotional’ interviews, the original purpose was to present artists who were involved in an upcoming production, and induce (or remind) people to attend the performances.  While my conversations certainly did that, I also took advantage of the artists presence in the studio to gather related (but not date-specific) ideas.  Portions were aired on WNIB, Classical 97 at the time, which in this instance was May of 1994, and now, in mid-2023, I am pleased to present the entire encounter on this website.

It was a time of transition for the Chicago Opera Theater, and we did discuss this a bit.  Alan Stone, who had founded the company twenty years previously, was forced by illness to reduce his involvement, so Lawrence Rapchak and Carl Ratner were taking the reins.  This was the second of three times Ratner would participate in a conversation.  The first can be seen HERE, and the third can be seen HERE.  Names which are links refer to my interviews elsewhere on my website.

Bruce Duffie:   I’m speaking today with Ted Taylor, the conductor, and Carl Ratner, the stage director, of the upcoming production of The Ballad of Baby Doe by Douglas Moore, about to be given by the Chicago Opera Theater.  This is your second production of this current season?

Carl Ratner:   That’s right.

BD:   Are you able to carry over a lot of the good feelings that you had from the first opera, Beatrice and Benedict of Berlioz?
ted taylor
Ratner:   I certainly think so.  We had just a delightful opening with Beatrice, and a good number of the personnel in the chorus and the orchestra will be returning.  So we are hoping that the Doe opening will be just as exciting.
BD:   How did you happen to select the The Ballad of Baby Doe?

Ratner:   Actually, it’s a piece that I’ve loved for years.  I first heard it about fifteen years ago in a production at the Des Moines Opera.  It’s a great work, with soaring arias and a bigger-than-life feeling.  It is an American epic of a piece, and it’s a very exciting audience-pleaser with wonderful music.

BD:   [To the director, though the conductor jumps in first with a response]  Now you’re essentially running the Chicago Opera Theater, and you’re also stage directing this particular work.  Do you have enough time to accomplish all that you have to do in each day?

Ted Taylor:   You never have enough time to do either one of those jobs!

Ratner:   [Laughs]  That’s right.  It’s really true.  It has been an incredibly busy time.  When we were rehearsing Beatrice, I was working fifty or more hours a week.  I suddenly asked myself how could I add directing Baby Doe to this?  Fortunately, we have some very supportive people working at Chicago Opera Theater who have helped me through.  It is very difficult and challenging, but it’s also very exciting.

BD:   [To the conductor]  Tell me about the music.  How does this relate to music in America these days?

Taylor:   It’s a distinctly American piece.  The opera begins almost with a feeling of a hoe-down, or a Wild West Shoot-em-up.  The audience might think they’re in an
opry-house instead of an opera house!  It has a very Wild-West, rambunctious feel, almost like a saloon.  Then it progresses from that extreme to a very great height, with its traditional operatic writing.  There’s a lot of Prokofiev influence.  There’s also a heavy French influence, because Douglas Moore studied with both Nadia Boulanger and Vincent d’Indy in Paris.  So you get a lot of things that sound like Fauré.

BD:   Yet it’s going to look like a John Wayne Western?

Taylor:   Right, and then we found a little bit of Strauss in there.  A couple of places are straight out of the Recognition Scene of Elektra, and there’s a theme that comes from Kikobad in Die Frau Ohne Schatten.  These musical references keep piling up, but the amalgam is distinctly American.  It’s a piece that I’ve been preparing for all my life because you don’t have to go someplace else to study the style.  You can be right here and study it.

BD:   Yet it really is an opera, not a Western stage play?  [Vis-à-vis the biography shown at right, see my interviews with Libby Larsen, Regine Crespin, and Carlo Bergonzi.]

Taylor:   No, it’s definitely an opera in the same sense that Porgy and Bess is an opera.  In fact, that’s the work which has the most kinship with Baby Doe.  I’ve conducted Porgy, and a lot of people only know it from the hit tunes.  Then when they come to the theater and experience the reality of three-and-a-half hours of serious non-stop music drama
or maybe three hours if we do some judicious trimmingit’s a bit of a shock for them.  But it’s the same kind of piece that has heavy American flavor, yet there is a dramatic through-thread that holds it all together as one big unit.

BD:   Are there hit tunes in Baby Doe that people are going out of the theater humming?

Taylor:   There are hit arias.

Ratner:   Most definitely, yes!  Depending on what you count, the title character [sung by Carol Gale] has six identifiable or excerpt-able arias that you could sing to your friends and family.  Then Horace Tabor [Chris Owens] has a couple, and Augusta Tabor [Mignon Dunn] has a couple.  There are definitely some wonderful tunes, and they come back in different forms, or are adapted.

Taylor:   A lot of the music has a great deal of charm.  Some of it is demanding
not prodigious, but weightyand then a lot of it is just charming and fun.

BD:   I keep mentioning that it’s like a Western, but it’s not a bang-bang shoot-em-up.  It’s set in a mining town called Leadville.

Ratner:   Yes, in Leadville, Colorado, and Denver, and there is one scene in Washington and one scene in California.  So it encompasses the United States.  There are miners, saloon girls, tycoons, and Washington politicians.  President Chester A. Arthur makes an appearance [John Payonk], as does Williams Jennings Bryan [Arnold Voketaitis].  There’s a lot of discussion of the issues of the times.

BD:   When is it set?

Taylor:   1880 through 1898, and a little bit beyond, with sort of a flash forward at the end.  It’s interesting because so many of the issues that they discuss and talk about, even in terms of the American political scene in 1896
with the Bryan and McKinley electionthere are so many things that we still discuss today.  It’s really quite amazing.  The production will be quite traditional, and yet it’s just a perennially modern work.  In a way, it’s a work that speaks to all times.  It’s a universal work.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   [To the conductor]  You have very cramped quarters.  Are you able to get enough space in the pit for the orchestra?  [A photo of the theater which clearly shows the pit is HERE.]

Taylor:   [Smiles]  Well... with a shoe horn and some valve oil!  [Much laughter]  We allow for a little spillage on the sides, but we’ll do all right.  We don’t have to leave anything out.  Fortunately, it’s not scored for a big orchestra.  It’s a medium-sized orchestra.

BD:   In your stage direction, do you make sure that all of these precious words are able to be projected out to the audience?

Ratner:   We’re certainly doing our very best.  Ted has really been on the artists about their diction, and so have I.  Tonight I was rearranging a scene in several places in order to try and help people project out into the house as best they possibly could.  So, that is a definite major consideration because there’s a lot of important words in this opera.  The libretto is very beautifully written, and it’s a wonderful text also.

BD:   Who’s the text by?

Ratner:   John La Touche, who I really don’t know that much about except that he’s a wonderful librettist.  He did other pieces with Douglas Moore, and I’ve been dying to find out if there might be three or four unset librettos in a vault somewhere, because they are really beautiful.

BD:   This is the kind of thing that the Chicago Opera Theater should be doing, and I’m glad to see that you are doing this particular work at this particular time.

Ratner:   Yes, and Beatrice and Benedict also.  Both are pieces that Chicago has not had recently.  Beatrice has never been performed in Chicago, and The Ballad of Baby Doe received a touring performance over thirty years ago.

BD:   Was that with Beverly Sills?

Ratner:   Yes.  Some people may remember that performance, but since it hasn’t received a professional staging in Chicago, it’s definitely over-due, and is a piece that should be seen and heard.  We’re hoping audiences will respond to the opportunity by giving us a call.

BD:   [Seizing on the pun]  Respond to the ‘operatunity’!

Ratner and Taylor:   [Both laugh]

BD:   How many performances are you giving of Baby Doe?

Taylor:   Five, starting on May 20th, and closing on the 29th.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   How are things with the Chicago Opera Theater?  Are you back on solid ground, or are you still waiting to have the second production under your belt before you declare yourself solid again?

Ratner:   Some things are very good.  In terms of this season, we’re on very solid ground.  The question is keeping the momentum going.  There was a lot of excitement as a result of our first production.  We got some really wonderful reviews, and a lot of support.  It’s not that we’re waiting for the second production, but we’re waiting to show people that there’s something really exciting going on, and Beatrice wasn’t a fluke.  It was a trend.

BD:   Have you thought about next year, or are you waiting to do all your thinking about next year until this year is done?

Ratner:   All of us are assembling our short-lists for discussion.  We’re waiting to see what the general reaction is to this season, and to the repertory choices that we’ve made, and see if there is a lot of enthusiasm in terms of critical response, box-office success, donations, and Board support for continuing in the same vein.  I hope there is all of this, because it’s basically the right direction for COT to go.  But we’re waiting until all the pieces are in to really sit down and sort out the repertory.

BD:   Are you hoping for two or three productions next year?

Ratner:   My guess is that we will do two again next year, although we haven’t eliminated the possibility of a three-production season.  But it seemed like a good decision to put all of our resources into two really strong productions this year, and we’ll probably make that same decision next year, with the hopes of going on and doing three the following year for sure.  [This is what did happen.  After doing two operas in 1995, there were three in 1996.]

BD:   On the subject of looking ahead, as the conductor, you’ve got to decide if you’re going to accept an assignment to do each opera or not.  What makes you decide yes or no?
Taylor:   Until you’ve done it and know you don’t like it, I think you should say yes.  I had worked on the arias with a lot of singers.  Though I’ve never been involved with a production before, I’ve been around various people who have.  I was with Beverly Sills at New York City Opera, and with Walter Cassel in Indiana.  I met Frances Bible, who did the role of Augusta Tabor, twenty-five years ago in Texas.  So, knowing that these people were all involved in the opera whetted my appetite to see what the piece is really about, and whenever I got the call, I didn’t have any question that I wanted to do it.  I certainly wanted to get involved in the project, and I’ve enjoyed it very much.  My respect for the piece has grown enormously.  It is a fringe piece, and not many people do it, so you don’t have the opportunity to establish a valid opinion of it until you actually get involved in it.  It’s got wonderful things in it.

BD:   Should it be done more often?  [Vis-à-vis the biography shown at left, see my interviews with Robert Ward, and Gian Carlo Menotti.]

Taylor:   Absolutely, though it’s not easy.  It runs the gamut style-wise from honky-tonk to Puccini.  There are passages which need careful shaping, and are as difficult to conduct as Tosca.  But it doesn’t appear that way on the surface.  If you don’t treat it with that much care and that much thought, it ends up being rather dull, and I will do anything but don’t bore me!  I try to avoid being bored at all costs, and I don’t think the audience will be.

Ratner:   Ted’s doing a brilliant job of shaping the show, both the little details and the big forms, and it’s really going to have the audience on the edge of their seats from the beginning to the end.

Taylor:   There’s a great deal of variety in the piece, but it should be consistently entertaining.

Ratner:    Another real benefit and challenge of the piece is that it has over thirty roles, many of which are being taken by members of our chorus.  These are people who are ideally suited for one or another of these roles, so we are able to present a lot of Chicago’s really big talent.  In some cases, these are people who haven’t gotten a lot of exposure because some local companies have passed them over.  So, when people come to Baby Doe, they’ll be able to see and hear some really wonderful Chicago singers that they may not be familiar with.

Taylor:   One of the great pleasures of working on the piece has been working with these talented individuals whom Carl and Lawrence Rapchak, the music director for the company, have cast so well.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   What is your current position?

Taylor:   I’m music director for the Mobile Opera Company, which is celebrating its fiftieth anniversary season in 1995/96, with productions of Aïda and Die Fledermaus.  Most people don’t even know there’s a company down there, but it’s actually very healthy, and I’ve been there for four years.  You may know my predecessor in that position, Hal France, who conducted some productions for the Chicago Opera Theater.  Then I’ve conducted in Chautauqua, Atlanta, Nashville, and Mississippi.

BD:   Do you conduct exclusively opera?

Taylor:   I’ve done one symphony concert in the last four years.  [Much laughter]  Singers are really my raison d’être, but let’s face it, most of the great symphony conductors of our time and of this century, began as operatic conductors.  So my take on the situation is that once you master controlling the stage, you can control the pit.  [More laughter from all three]

BD:   Coming back to a previous question, you get asked to do various works.  Aside from Baby Doe, how do you decide yes or no?

Taylor:   [Thinks a moment]  I’m the kind of musician who generally can convince himself to enjoy whatever he’s working on.  I’ve always worked on a very wide variety of projects.  One of the portions of my career was three and half years spent in Nashville, Tennessee.  My early classical training was as a pianist and a violinist, and I did a lot of competitions.  But I got side-tracked in my early twenties, and spent a summer in Nashville.  One year ended up being three and a half years of studio and television and show work.  I worked as a commercial arranger, and as a pianist with many, many different kinds of groups, so I’m at home with a lot of different idioms.  Therefore, there’s not any kind of piece that I’m not going to like.  I tend to enjoy a great variety of things, and the more you’ve done, the more fun it is.

BD:   So, you’re in favor of expanding things?

Taylor:   Absolutely... my repertoire and everybody’s taste.  I like a good concert one night and a good tractor pull the next!  [More laughter]  Variety!

Ratner:   On the other hand, I definitely have a list of pieces that I would rather see other people direct, and a list of pieces that I feel are well suited for me.  That is a question I have to face as Artistic Administrator of the Chicago Opera Theater.  I like to think that I have the self-knowledge and courage to give someone else the pieces that they will excel in, and to limit myself to the pieces that I can actually stage, and bring something special to for the company.

BD:   This is your first real experience of being an administrator.  Do you enjoy it?

Ratner:   Yes, very much.  Actually, it’s really been a challenge, because we essentially did not start putting together this season until sometime in October [eight months previous], which is at least a year late, and maybe two or three years late depending on what kind of company it is.  So, for Larry Rapchak and me to put the season together in this short time, and also participate in it the way we have, it has been exhilarating.

Taylor:   But I must say they seem very on top of things.  All the little details, all of the nitty-gritty is ready.  When you ask a question, they know the answer!  It’s been very reassuring for someone coming in who is not a part of the scene.

BD:   [With a gentle nudge]  Is it always the right answer?

Taylor:   Most of the time!  [Much laughter]

Ratner:   We’re willing to admit when we make a mistake and correct it.  That is something Larry and I have definitely done.

BD:   I trust you’re optimistic about the whole future of the COT?

Ratner:   Definitely.  We’re going in a very good direction, and we just want people to come and see the shows.  I’m sure they’ll be thrilled and delighted, and know that we are a company which is presenting something that’s important and worthwhile.

BD:   I wish you lots of success.

Taylor:   Thanks very much.

Ratner:   Thank you.

========                ========                ========
----        ----        ----
========                ========                ========

© 1994 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in Chicago on May 7, 1994.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB two weeks later.  This transcription was made in 2023, 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.  To read my thoughts on editing these interviews for print, as well as a few other interesting observations, 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, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also 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.