Tenor  Ragnar  Ulfung
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


Ragnar Ulfung was born in Oslo in 1927 and made his stage debut there in 1952 in Menotti’s The Consul. After a sojourn in Bergen he came to Gothenburg where he stayed until 1958. From then on he was a member of the Royal Opera in Stockholm, where he became one of the most important singers in an ensemble built around a number of great names. From the 1950s and through their remarkable longevity they eventually came to be known as “The Iron Gang”. Ragnar Ulfung’s career lasted longer than most. In the autumn of 2003 at the premiere of The Bartered Bride, in the character role of Circus Master he sang and acted with undiminished gusto and expressiveness. Expressive is indeed the keyword for Ragnar Ulfung: the acting is at least as important as the singing, which doesn’t automatically mean that singing is secondary. All through his career he was a character tenor with a voice. The recordings from the early part of his career and reveal a mainly lyrical voice, well equalized, with a smooth legato and a seamless changeover from chest voice to head voice. His timbre is very characteristic and even though the voice at this stage isn’t as brilliant as some of his colleagues, it is strong enough to carry through an orchestral tutti at forte and match even as glorious a voice as Birgit Nilsson’s. Later his voice grew considerably and in 1983 he even took on Otello in a production where he was also the stage director.
Much later than that, when he was well past seventy, he sang in concert a thrilling "Vesti la giubba" from Pagliacci with heft, ring and steadiness that tenors half his age would have envied. Besides his activities in Stockholm he had an important international career, in later years primarily as a character singer, visiting Vienna, Paris, La Scala Milan, Covent Garden and NY Met among other great houses, and also as director. He was sadly under-recorded but to an international public he will probably be best remembered for his chillingly oily Monostatos in Ingmar Bergman’s famous film version of Die Zauberflöte.

--  From a review of the Bluebell CD (shown below) of some of his earlier broadcast recordings. 
--  Names which are links (throughout this page) refer to my interviews elsewhere on my website.  BD 


When we spoke by phone in September of 1985, Ulfung was in San Francisco for performances of Lear by Aribert Reimann.  He had made his debut there in 1967 in The Visitation by Gunther Schuller, and would return in several seasons for a variety of roles.  We spoke of both standard repertoire and newer operas . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:    You are Norwegian?

Ragnar Ulfung:    I’m Norwegian, born in Oslo.  I wanted to be a singer already when I was eight or nine years old, and that time we didn’t have any opera house in Norway.  I wanted to be a tenor, so I studied in Italy and had to go to Sweden.  I have lived in Sweden for thirty years now.  That opera house, the Royal Opera House in Stockholm, is over two hundred years old.

BD:    Your early successes were there?

RU:    Yes, with The Masked Ball.  That was the famous production Gören Gentele.  He later became the Intendant of the Metropolitan Opera

BD:    And he was very tragically killed before he actually got started.

RU:    That’s right.  Then later, in the early 60s, I did The Rake’s Progress, the famous production with Ingmar Bergman.  I think I never worked with any stage director better than Mr. Bergman.  When Stravinsky himself came over to Stockholm and heard that production, he said that he didn’t know that his opera was so good!


BD:    That was a very high compliment!

RU:    That was a high compliment, and after that I was invited to sing with him in Rake’s Progress in Los Angeles.

BD:    Did you ever sing with Stravinsky conducting?

RU:    He conducted one act only in Phoenix, but he was then fragile and he left the second act to Robert Craft.

BD:    I just wondered if the composer is ever the ideal interpreter of his own works?

RU:    No.  To be a conductor you have to be a conductor, and not a composer.

BD:    So they really are two separate things?

ulfung RU:    Yes, I think so, very much.  I have done some world premieres, as you might know.  I did Die Reise of Lars Johan Werle in Hamburg in the
60s, and in 72, the world première of  Maxwell DaviesTaverner, but neither of them conducted it.

BD:    When you’re working with a composer, do they take into consideration ideas that the singers have?

RU:    Yes, sure.  When they have finished their work and we start rehearsing it, we can come up with ideas  and suggestions, and sometimes they change it!

BD:    So then the composers are willing to change their score?

RU:    Sure they are if you have a better answer for it and they agree to it.  I did that with Maxwell Davies.

BD:    I’m always fascinated with this because it seems today we are slavishly adhering to every note that a composers wrote, and yet the composers who are still living are perfectly willing to make alterations.

RU:    [Laughs]  It’s a hard question, but I will say that if you have the authority and you’re an artist who really can convince the composer that this is much better, then of course he will do it.  But the problem with modern composers is that they don’t have major artists doing their work for the first time.  Birgit Nilsson or Pavarotti or Domingo don’t do world premieres.  [Note: There will be more about this topic later in the interview.]

BD:    Is that the fault of the artist or the fault of the composer?

RU:    I think it’s the fault of the artist because they think they will ruin their voices singing that music.  They think it’s not good for the voice, but I discovered that those parts I have done haven’t ruined my voice.  On the contrary, you have to have even better technique than singing the run of the mill work such as Puccini.

BD:    It seems, though, that the contemporary composers have gotten away from writing melodies for the voice, and even melodies in the orchestra.

RU:    Yes, but what is a melody?   Melody from the Romantic period or melody of today, because we are not adventurous enough.

BD:    But this whole business of not liking contemporary opera is a very recent thing, so how do we get the public to be more adventurous?

RU:    That’s my question to you!  [Both laugh]  In literature and paintings, they are much more ahead of us.  Its’ a problem, but then on the other hand we are doing here in San Francisco King Lear of Reimann, and there are not what you call melodies in it.  It is challenging for the voice and for the acting, and even more challenging for the people are coming to it.  Of course it’s King Lear of Shakespeare, first of all, and then you big names like Helga Dernesch and Anja Silja and Thomas Stewart, so the performing of this piece is in the right hands.  [See the review below which appeared in the Los Angeles Times.]  I have only a small part in it but it’s very, very demanding.

BD:    So the cast is very sympathetic to it?

RU:    We are because it’s a masterpiece.  I’m not just talking about the music, but the production is so tremendous and very well done.

San Francisco Opera: Revival Of Reimann's 'Lear'

September 14, 1985, Los Angeles Times, by MARTIN BERNHEIMER
, Times Music Critic

[Chart of Ulfung's repertoire added for this website presentation]

SAN FRANCISCO — "Lear" is not a hot ticket these days at the War Memorial Opera House.

Aribert Reimann's stark, provocative, uncompromising adaptation of the Shakespeare play does not offer local fans an opportunity to encounter a beloved diva bathing in verismo gush. For that the devout must go to "Adriana Lecouvreur" with Mirella Freni, which opened the season last week.

Nor does the modern Germanic tragedy offer canary fanciers a chance to adulate a gurgling diva in an ornate vocal circus. For that the laryngeal fetishists must go to "Orlando" with Marilyn Horne, which opens tonight.

Anyone interested in the prospect of opera as modern musical theater, however, must not miss "Lear." It is a gripping, ambitious, appropriately perplexing work, and San Francisco performs it brilliantly.

ulfung The opera isn't exactly new. Munich introduced it in 1978, with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau in the title role and Jean-Pierre Ponnelle in charge of the staging. Kurt Herbert Adler brought the same inventive production, with Thomas Stewart as Lear, to San Francisco in 1981. It was one of the beleaguered impresario's last hurrahs, and one of his finest hours.

Now, "Lear" has returned. Familiarity is breeding fascination, and admiration.

Reimann, who has rushed in where both Verdi and Britten feared to tread, still grates and shocks. The listener is still overwhelmed by sonic booms, still assaulted by a multifaceted barrage of tone clusters, still unnerved by clashing layers of percussive rumble, still alarmed by screeching dissonances, rhythmic contradictions and contrapuntal disorder.

But the dramatic method behind the musical madness becomes more lucid and more logical with each exposure. The poignance of the lyric contrasts becomes more compelling.

Most illuminating, perhaps, is the growing awareness of Reimann's old-fashioned operatic instincts. In the final analysis, this "Lear" may sing and speak and shriek and croon in obvious modern accents. The basic language of the opera, however, remains stubbornly, accessibly conservative.

The text--Desmond Clayton's English translation of Claus H. Henneberg's simplified German translation of the original English--is still the thing. The vocal lines convey vibrant emotion, define character and project the action forward. The climactic stress and psychological revelations emanate from the singers.

For all its flamboyance, the massive orchestra still sets the scenes, punctuates the climaxes, reinforces the moods and adds subtle narrative comments. The separation of power between stage and pit endures.

Ponnelle's daring production--a fusion of Brechtian alienation, Noh-play ritual, epic formality and bloody realism--defines the inherent tones perfectly. A platform on the open stage, adorned with a few weeds and rocks, represents a timeless, mythic "blasted heath." As the crises of the drama unfold, the platform splits, rises and falls in various abstract configurations.

The shear theatricality of the concept is heightened marvelously by Pet Halmen's brash, symbol-laden costumes and by Thomas J. Munn's sometimes subtle, sometimes glaring lighting effects.

The current cast, only slightly different from that of 1981, performs with awesome intensity. Stewart may not command Fischer-Dieskau's scale of vocal color, but he dominates the proceedings in his own masterful way. He traces the decline of the noble King with heroic pathos and meets all vocal challenges with unflagging skill and vigor.

The fundamental distinctions of the three daughters are illuminated by Helga Dernesch as the flamboyantly erotic Goneril, Anja Silja as the hysterically cackling Regan and Sheri Greenawald as the serene, almost ethereal Cordelia.

David Knutson, incredibly vulnerable and boyish as Edgar, manages the countertenor flights of Poor Tom with otherworldly sweetness. Jacque Trussel provides the perfect counterforce as an Edmund consumed to the breaking point with strident passions.

Robert Langdon-Lloyd projects the knowing dementia and the pointed Sprechgesang of the Fool with muted precision. Ragnar Ulfung offers a sympathetic Kent, Chester Ludgin a stalwart Gloucester, Timothy Noble and John Duykers a blustery pair of duped Dukes (Albany and Cornwall).

Friedemann Layer, the young Viennese maestro who has inherited the baton from the injured Gerd Albrecht, conducts with an ideal combination of dedication, indulgence and control.

The house wasn't full Thursday night. Nevertheless, the ovation at the end bordered on the cataclysmic. There may be hope.

BD:    Is this perhaps another problem
that we expect every new opera to be a masterpiece?

RU:    Yes.  If you’re putting it on it should be a masterpiece, but that’s a problem for me when we are talking of masterpieces.  I haven’t seen one since Stravinsky and Benjamin Britten.  We haven’t had any masterpieces from my point of view.  It’s sad because to give the opportunities for composers to get their work accepted, it’s hard.  In the ‘60s I worked in Hamburg with Rolf Liebermann, and we had a world premiere every year.  And in Stockholm we have an opportunity to make an experiment, but at the same time I don’t see that we have discovered any Stravinsky or Britten for the moment.

BD:    It seems that Europe and Scandinavia have much more of a tradition of doing new works all the time, more so than America.

RU:    They are, but in America you are coming ahead of us now, I think.

BD:    Oh now we’re moving ahead?

RU:    Oh yes
with all those new companies coming up, and especially with Santa Fe world which does a world premiere or an American premiere every year.  That’s fantastic.  I hope that you keep it up and do the same because we have to go forward.  It’s important.  I always say that we should let people have Puccini every day until they are screaming for some new tunes.

BD:    [Laughs]  Sure, then we get tired of the old and want something new!

RU:    Of course.  And even the artists are getting tired of it.   I prefer to sing a new part than Cavaradossi.

BD:    If it’s a better character?

RU:    Yes, when it’s more challenging for me as an artist.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    One of the famous operas you were in was Aniara by Blomdahl. 

RU:    I was a deaf mute in that opera.  I didn’t sing a note!

BD:    [Surprised]  It was all an acting part???

ulfung RU:    All acting part, yes.  It’s the only space opera written, I think.  It’s about the spaceship ‘Aniara’.  It’s a marvelous book of Harry Martinson, who is Swedish.  He got the Nobel Prize some years back.  The opera is about the spaceship which has to leave the earth because of pollution.  It’s on the way to Mars and gets lost, and they can’t return to earth.  They’re sitting up there looking down to the earth, and see the earth explode.  They can’t return, so they are in the space with no hope for surviving.

BD:    So they’re there for eternity then?

RU:    Eternity, yes.  It’s a marvelous opera in that sense of it.  The libretto is fantastic it was revived a year ago in Stockholm in the same way we and Gören Gentle had done it, but I think it has to be done completely in another way today.  It was old-fashioned.

BD:    So you need a new kind of staging with new ideas?  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at right, see my interview with James Levine.]

RU:    Yes, and I’m not quite sure that the music will survive.  I doubt that.

BD:    I know there is a commercial recording.  Does that bring across enough of the opera, or does too much of it get lost because there is no stage action to watch?

RU:    If you follow the libretto, you should listen to it very carefully and listen to the message of it.  The music is a little too artificial for me, but if you find the right stage director for it and the right artists, it has a message.  But it’s very, very hard to find the singers for it.

BD:    Should we maybe be training a few of our singers in new techniques instead of all them being trained to sing Traviata and Wagner?

RU:    No, like the dancers, you have to go through the classical study first.  That’s my own opinion.  You have to have that training, and it’s the base.  You should be able to do Monteverdi and Maxwell Davies.  It’s a good vocalise to go into ‘Verdi Prati’ [an aria from Alcina of Handel].

BD:    Do the operas of Monteverdi and Cavalli and Handel speak to us today?

RU:    Yes, I think so.  It depends which of them, of course.  Not every one.  If you are putting on an opera, it should always have a message, not be just a vocalise for a great voice.

BD:    [With a gentle nudge]  Opera should not be a concert?

RU:    Then you make it in concert!

BD:    No, I mean a stage opera should not just be a concert?

RU:    No, no, no, not at all for my taste.  Opera is music theater for me, and therefore Wagner is the height of what music for me today.

BD:    Sometimes it seems today that producers and stage directors and designers are taking away the starring role from the opera singers.   It’s almost as though their production is more important than anything that is being sung, and I wonder if some producers are taking too much power to themselves?

RU:    Sure, there are a lot of ego trips among the stage directors today.  I’m sorry!  I’m sorry but as long as they find they can cast it right, then it’s a message.  It’s okay for me if the production talks to you, and to the public.  That’s all we are talking about in the theater, that you need a message all the time.  Otherwise you go and put on a record and listen to voices.

BD:    So you don’t view the opera house as a museum.

RU:    No, they are not museums.  And even if they should be a museum for an evening, that’s okay because we need to keep those works alive too, because they are very important for the young singers.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Let us move over to Wagner.  You say Wagner for you is the pinnacle of music-drama?

RU:    I think so.  I can’t say why Wagner says so much to the youth today, but there’s something there that really talks to us all.   Take the Ring.  It’s for me how it is today, and the more you get into it the more you find that you understand why they’re going crazy for it.

BD:    Is Bayreuth the ideal place for Wagner?

RU:    Of course, it’s easier for the singers because in Bayreuth you are heard.  If you do the Ring at the Metropolitan or San Francisco or Chicago or on really big stages, a lot of things are lost because the problem is to find the singers.  It’s very hard to find a Siegfried or a Wotan today that can project over that huge orchestra sound that we have at the Met and Chicago.

BD:    Should the opera houses maybe dig the pit a little bit deeper and put a cover of some kind over the pit for the Wagner performances?

RU:    No, we need the right singers.  [Both laugh]  You had no problems with this before, when you had Kirsten Flagstad and Hotter and Melchior.  But today that’s the problem; we don’t have those Wagner singers.  That’s the biggest problem for me.

BD:    Why don’t we have the heroic voices?

RU:    I can’t answer that, but I have an idea that we are not going for the voices any more at our studios.  We must give voices time, and we don’t have time today.  That’s the big problem.

BD:    You mean, we’re pushing singers into things too soon?

RU:    We are pushing singers into things too soon, yes.

BD:    How much does the jet plane have to do with this?

RU:    I think it has a lot to do with it. 

BD:    Singers are singing too much and too often?

RU:    I think so.  That’s the biggest problem because in Germany and Scandanavia, if you have a company with fifty artists, out of those you might have one or two that will make it.  And as soon as they make it, they leave and they are part of the jet company instead of staying in one place.  I can say that when Stockholm was well known, it was because of the company and the productions they did there.  We did that Masked Ball, and when the ring was done it was with Set Svanholm and Birgit Nilsson and Sigurd Björling.  That was a company!

BD:    But within that company you had the world-class singers!

RU:    Yes, but now they are not staying there forever.  They don’t have the time to rehearse and do other operas during the year.  To be a singer you’re at school forever, and you should stay with the company.  I can say that now because I’m a pensioner from the Royal Opera in Stockholm.  I had to leave because it is a rule that when you are past 53 that you leave your chair to an upcoming person.  I can go there as a guest, and I’ve been back as a guest, but they push you out and give you a pension.  That’s good!  [Laughs]  I think that’s beautiful because we have a great opera school, and each year there are twelve new singers coming out and you must find places for them.  This is part of the three opera houses we have in Sweden
— you leave when you are 53, or you can go up to 56 but then you have to leave.  Elisabeth Söderström, Kerstin Meyer and myself, we are pensioners now!


BD:    I’m glad you’re still singing and still performing all over the world!

RU:    A singer is always a singer!

BD:    Tell me about your role in the Ring. What kind of a character is Mime?

RU:    It’s hard to say in a few words.  For me, Mime is very much a human being struggling with his own works.  He’s a human being; that’s my main answer to it.  If you have questions why he’s doing that and that, it’s because he’s human.

BD:    Do you feel that the gods in the Ring are also human?

RU:    Sure, very much so. 

BD:    So then the whole Ring is a human tragedy?

ulfung RU:    Isn’t humanity a tragedy sometimes?  It’s the way it is.  I think so, and you hear it in the music.  But there are hopes, very much so, and then we have to go back again and start all over, like in Rheingold.

BD:    Is the end of the Ring optimistic?

RU:    Yes, I think so... very much so because the ending of it is like the beginning.  There’s hope, there are hopes.  I’m sure about that.  Wagner wanted it to be interpreted that way, don’t you think? 

BD:    I hope so, but then I tend to be an optimistic myself in my own personal life.

RU:    Wotan can’t be a god.  Each time you go to it, and you see a new interpretation and you say, why not!  But it might be a good idea to go back and read it again, and have a romantic view, a back-view on this, and make it an old-fashioned Ring.  I’d very much like to be in an old-fashioned Ring again.

BD:    With spears and helmets and horses?

RU:    Why not!

BD:    How much does the physical production of any opera affect your idea of the character that you’re playing?

RU:    It depends on the surroundings of course.   In this new production of the Ring I feel that Loge is very much a lawyer.   He can’t resolve anything, but he’s there to say the facts!

BD:    And to wiggle out of bargains!

RU:    Yes, that’s right!  But they are all facts.  He can’t help it.  Like a lawyer, he can’t help it.  [Both laugh] 

BD:    Is that a sad commentary on the legal profession?

RU:    Hmmm... my son-in-law is a lawyer, so I shouldn’t say so!  [Both laugh again]

BD:    How much can the character of Mime be revealed in Rheingold, or does it all have to wait until Siegfried?

RU:    It starts there.  The emptiness starts there.  He says that he was a happy being, happy with what he did, but he discovered to late the power in what he worked with
the helmet and the ring.

BD:    So if he had realized the power that was in the metal he was working with, he would have used it against Alberich?

RU:    Who knows?   That is the question!  But from there his development is very human.

BD:    Do you feel that he would have traded places with Alberich if he could have?

RU:    It’s a bargain.  It’s hard for me to tell, but I think not.  Deep in Mime is such a beautiful, wonderful heart, like there is in every human being.  

BD:    [With skepticism]  Every human being has this goodness???

RU:    I think so.  You say you like to be optimist.  I am certainly one.

BD:    Even Hagen?  There’s a ray of niceness in Hagen???

RU:    Why not!  Why not have that idea?

BD:    But he’s such a black character!

RU:    Yes he is, that’s right.  But there must be a root to some humanity in him, too.  The tragedy is more if he’s only evil.  If he doesn’t have any shadows, then it’s boring.  You should show the jealousy that is there, and jealousy has a root in some goodness, I think.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    How does Mime bring up Siegfried?  What does Mime really want Siegfried to become?

RU:    The problem with Mime is that he is only human.  Mime looks for something else when what is closest to you, you don’t see.  That is the whole problem with Mime.  He had Siegfried with him all the time and the pieces of Nothung, and he didn’t let Siegfried re-make the sword from the very beginning. 

ulfung BD:    Was it a mistake or a conscious decision?

RU:    No, it was a mistake, surely a mistake.

BD:    When Mime is bringing up Siegfried, before Siegfried even becomes a young man, what does Mime want for Siegfried?  Does Mime want Siegfried to have a nice life, or does he want Siegfried only to go out and slay Fafner?

RU:    He says that he did everything for him.  He gave him good food and played with him, and was mother and father to him, and I think he did love him. 

BD:    Would Mime be content to remain that way for the rest of his life?

RU:    No, no.  He must to kill Fafner to get the ring and the helmet back. 

BD:    What would Mime do with the ring and helmet?

RU:    Do you think it should be the same way again?  Humanity has to go back from the very beginning.  You must give back to nature and start it all over again.  It doesn’t matter who has got the ring.  It should have been the same development, I think.

BD:    But if Siegfried had gotten the ring and the helmet and given them to Mime, what would Mime have done with them?   Would he have given it all back to the Rhine Maidens?

RU:    No, he had made the same stupid things with it as we are doing with our fortune!

BD:    He would have made the same mistakes as Alberich?

RU:    Sure, I think so.  We are doing that in the world today, making the same mistakes.  It’s a great lesson that Wagner has given us.

BD:    Do you think that humanity will ever learn the lesson?

RU:    Well, we can hope!  What Wagner has given us is a treasure that we should learn from, a lesson we should listen to more often.

BD:    Let me ask a technical question.  Is the part of Mime constructed well for the voice?

RU:    Yes, I think so.  The problem for me is that I usually have a stronger voice other Mimes.  And because I have the stronger voice, the Siegfrieds don’t like to sing with me [laughs] because sometimes it makes a competition that should not be so.

BD:    [With a gentle nudge] Perhaps you should be the Siegfried!

RU:    [Laughs]  No, I prefer to do Mime.

BD:    But audiences might think that the Mime has the stronger voice.

RU:    Sometimes that’s a problem.  I know that it’s even been said in the paper, but that’s my problem, nor my opinion.

BD:    You say that Mime is written well for the voice.  Is Siegfried also written well for the voice?

RU:    It’s written very well for a real heldentenor.

BD:    So he wrote it for a voice that doesn’t exist???

RU:    Today, maybe.  That’s what I said earlier, that the problem is we don’t have a Siegfried or Brünnhilde or Wotan.  It is a big problem.

BD:    Maybe the voices will come along?

RU:    [Reassuringly]  Oh, there will be new Siegfrieds and new Brünnhildes because Wagner’s Ring will not die.  [Note: This sentiment was also expressed by Jon Vickers.]

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Should opera be done in translation?

ulfung RU:    No.

BD:    [Surprised]  Never???

RU:    I wouldn’t say never.  The comedies should be done in the language of where you are singing.

BD:    You would never sing Wagner in translation then?

RU:    I have never done it, but we tried in Stockholm two years ago with Rheingold but they didn’t go forward with it.   They stopped there.

BD:    Have you been involved in productions with supertitles?

RU:    No, not yet, but I’ve seen it.

BD:    Do you feel that it works?

RU:    I think that’s very good for the audience because they will get new understanding of it.  After awhile, if they go over, the more they see it, the more they don’t need to look up.  Educationally it’s fantastic, really.  I love it.

BD:    So then you think that’s the ideal compromise between opera in the original and opera in translation?

RU:    Yes, sure, very much.  [Laughs]  It’s hard to hear what the singers are singing anyhow.  That’s a big problem too.

BD:    I understand you’ve only done one other Wagner part on stage, and that is Erik.  

RU:    Erik, yes, and that was way back.  I did it with Silja and Wieland Wagner staged it in Hamburg.

BD:    Was it special working with Wieland Wagner?

RU:    Oh, it was very much so.  You came down to the earth immediately.  It was a special treatment.

BD:    What kind of a character is Erik?

RU:    It’s hard to say.  Erik is a marvelous warm-hearted young boy that’s in love.  It’s a marvelous character.

BD:    Does he have any comprehension at all of what’s going on?

RU:    I think he’s blinded by love, but he feels it, of course.  He has to face it, but he thinks that this is only dreams for her.

BD:    He thinks that the Dutchman will go away and leave her?

RU:    Yes, because who is in love believes that his love will conquer the whole world.  So that Flying Dutchman will fly away!  Erik’s a beautiful character with good singing.  It was a very good part for me and I loved to do it.  But then I went into all the big characters parts like Herod, and all those new, modern operas, so then they didn’t ask me to do Erik anymore!


To read my Interview with Sir Georg Solti, click HERE.

To read my Interview with Norman Bailey, click HERE.

To read my Interview with George Shirley, click HERE.

To read my Interview with Thomas Willis, click HERE.

[This production would also be taken to Carnegie Hall, New York the following Wednesday.]

BD:    Is that a mistake, then, on the part of opera management not to get you for Erik?

RU:    No, not now.  I’m not an Erik anymore.  I’m more an Otello today!  I did my first Otello two years ago.  I even staged it in Stockholm!

BD:    Do you enjoy staging operas in which you’re singing?

RU:    No, I shouldn’t do that, but it was a must because the stage director got ill so I took over it.  We had no other stage director to do it.  They wouldn’t take over that special production because we updated it to 1850s.  That was a big mistake.  We televised it so it’s documented, but I don’t think they will repeat it.

BD:    Does it ever work to bring opera forward in time?

RU:    No, operas should stay where they are.  I have done Tosca which was updated it to the Nazi time, and no, it didn’t work.  We don’t need to do that.  You have trust in the audience.

BD:    Why do producers insist on continually do that, then?

ulfung RU:    They are ego trips to make new things.  It’s ridiculous.  For me, a stage director is a man who works and gets out of what you have in your gut and in your heart.  Get behind your singers to get more out of them, and not just to make a new idea as a shock for the audience!

BD:    Do you feel the same thing for the Ring?  It has been brought forward several times.  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at left, see my interview with Nadine Secunde.]

RU:    You could do a lot, but for me it’s more important to get a Wotan on stage, a Siegfried on stage and a Gunther and a Hagen, to get inside those characters.  For that you need a great stage director, not a great designer.

BD:    I understand you staged the Ring in Seattle.

RU:    That was one of the old productions.  What I did, especially with the new singers who never had done their parts before, was more or less to give them an injection to create, to get inside, to get under the skin of the characters.  That is my forte when I work with people.

BD:    Should the Ring only be done as a cycle?

RU:    You can do each opera by itself.  You don’t need a full cycle.  Because it’s such a great undertaking, it can ruin so many opera houses.  They should just do a piece if that is all they can afford to do.  But a great opera house should always have a Ring on their schedule, but otherwise get started with Rheingold, or start with Walküre.  Start with anything!  Just do Wagner!

BD:    What other operas should opera houses always have in their repertoire?

RU:    Marriage of FigaroOtello, and of course they should always try to do a new work.  You must have room for those, otherwise we go backwards.  You have to find an open door for new composers.  It’s a must.  If you don’t do that, it will make a museum of opera.

BD:    Do you think composers today understand the voice?

RU:    Yes, I think so, but they are abusing the voice too often.  You should use the voice in an interesting manner.  Maxwell Davies for instance, when he writes the word “scorn”, I have to sing the high D, which I don’t have.  So it has to be close to it, but the sound is a “scorn” sound.  But therefore you need a really great technique to do that sound.

BD:    Isn’t that really an effect?

RU:    It’s an effect for sure, and you can hurt yourself!  I hurt myself one evening in Taverner in London.  During the performance I got hoarse, and he put the best music, for my ear, at the end of it.  It was a beautiful tune, and I couldn’t sing it.  So I spoke it.  He was in the audience and he came backstage and said, “Oh, Ragnar, could you talk that instead of singing that every evening?”  He preferred the talking instead of singing that tune, because that same tune was doubled from the orchestra.  But the next time I was okay in my voice, and it didn’t work.  It was better singing again.

BD:    Is Taverner a great opera?

RU:    It’s a very interesting opera.  I learned a lot.  It has a message, but as my personal belief is that we haven’t discovered the major composers since Britten and Stravinsky...  [Ponders a moment]  Henze maybe.

BD:    Have you sung some Henze?

RU:    No, I’ve never sung Henze but I know a lot about his work.   So that’s a problem, but the problem will be solved.  We will find the talent if we give them opportunities.  It’s a must, and I’m so thrilled that here in America you’re really starting giving them opportunities

BD:    More so than in Europe?

RU:    Yes, even more than Europe now, because it seems that you’ve got the money.  It looks like you have the enthusiasm, but we need to let people have other tunes than Puccini all the time.  [Both laugh]  They must get tired of it soon.  You must have the courage.  It’s up to the directors to have courage to do these new works.

BD:    We’ve had some interesting things here in Chicago.  We had Paradise Lost a few years ago.

RU:    Yes, but Penderecki is a very good composer.  I’ve done Penderecki a lot, and his The Devils of Loudun is a great opera, I think.  Pity they’re not doing that more often.  [Note: In 1988, Ulfung would sing Jadidja in the American Premiere of Die schwarze Maske by Penderecki at Santa Fe.]  A composer that they’re doing more and more is Janáček.  What a great composer, and a great dramatist.  Mostly all of his operas are really fascinating.

BD:    Have you sung anything by Luciano Berio?

RU:    Luciano Berio?  Yes! I did one back in the early 70s.  He is a very interesting composer, but it’s so important to have good singers.  To see a production like King Lear with Thomas Stewart and Anja Silja and Helga Dernesch, it’s great because they had all the singers who are good singers and good actors.

BD:    So you’re pushing for new operas with major casts?

RU:    Sure.  It’s a pity that Domingo, Pavarotti and Scotto, and all those will go to the future and never have done a new work.  I pity them!

BD:    [Sharing some good news about this]  Domingo is having one written for him by Menotti, Goya.  [Note: The World Premiere took place in Washington, D.C. in November, 1986.  Domingo had previously sung the U.S. Premiere of Don Rodrigo by Ginastera in 1966 conducted by Julius Rudel, and would later create The First Emperor by Tan Dun at the Met in 2006.  In 2010 he created the title role of poet Pablo Neruda in the opera by Daniel Catán in Los Angeles, based on the film Il Postino.

RU:    I hope he will do it!  I hope it will be a masterpiece too.

BD:    Yes, but even if it’s just a very good opera I think we should be satisfied.

RU:    Yes, sure.  Don’t just make a World Premiere or American Premiere with newcomers.  We are not doing  it right then.

BD:    You’ve been most gracious to spend an hour with me talking about Wagner and about contemporary music. 

RU:    I don’t think I’m an expert, but I love to do them.  It has been nice talking to you.  I’m not a good talker but I hope you got something out of it, and I wish you good luck with your programs.  I’m happy to have been your guest.

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© 1985 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded on the telephone on September 16, 1985.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB the following year.  This transcription was made in 2014, 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, 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.