Sir  Peter  Ustinov
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


It is hard to know where to begin
or where to endwhen trying to describe Sir Peter Ustinov.  He was an award-winning actor in film and on stage, author, director, goodwill ambassador, raconteur, etc., etc., etc.  No mere list can do justice to this unique individual who brought so much to so many.  The box at the bottom of this page recounts more of his accomplishments.

This interview was held in Chicago in May of 1992, and focusses on the creative area he devoted to music.  Besides being knowledgeable and enthusiastic about this art, he directed works of Mozart and was involved in recordings of Prokofiev, Kodály and others. 

It was a rare privilege to speak with him, a true gentleman in every sense of the word.  Here is that conversation . . . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:    You have traveled all over the world, so you're probably the best person to ask this question
is music truly the universal language?

Sir Peter Ustinov:    I think the true universal language is babies... and dogs, up to a point because they seem to be able to understand each other without translators.  But I think music is, of course, a kind of universal language.  I remember those shots
I think they were in LIFE magazineof a native of the Amazon listening to Mozart for the first time, with an expression of almost unbearable sweetness on his face.  It was so eloquent that obviously Mozart had been understood in the land of the piranha very, very, very quickly, and with enormous impact.  They'd never heard sounds like that before.  So I think music has to be the universal language, after the language of babies, and that of animals.

Duffie:    Is there any way to get music into the ears and minds of babies and animals?

Ustinov:    Oh, yes.  I think babies have the same effect, and people who are reduced to babyhood.  I remember when my mother was dying, she was in a coma.  I put some Mozart on the little portable radio by her bed and she suddenly smiled and mouthed the word "Mozart."  So it penetrated where nothing else would penetrate any more.  I thought that was terribly significant.

Duffie:    You've directed operas by Mozart.  Is there a secret to getting Mozart played properly?

ustinov Ustinov:    I think it is not to treat it as a comedy and not to treat it, certainly, as a tragedy.  For some reason, Don Giovanni is treated, now, as a tragedy, with the terrible scene when he's drawn to Hell.  I don't think that it is tragic for a person to have slept with 300 women in one town.  It may be athletic, but it's certainly not a tragic occurrence.  It's called a dramma giocoso.  There is the little morality at the end, which people like Klemperer always took out in order to end on a "strong," and I think that's absolutely and utterly against the intentions of Mozart.

Duffie:    It begins in D minor and should end in D minor without into the last little G major section?

Ustinov:    That's what they think, but I think it should end with the little morality of people now not knowing where to begin again after the end of the opera.  That's a very essential point, and I did something which I was criticized by some in the press.  At the end there, when Don Ottavio appears
too late, as usualwith (it says so in the text) con due ufficiale, two officers from Madrid with a warrantat last, which took years in comingfor the arrest of Don Giovanni.  Now there's nothing for them to do, so while the cast is singing the last bit, I had the two officers, who were dressed rather like Guardi de Civil of the period, measuring the hole down which Don Giovanni disappeared, notating it in a small book for the archives.

Duffie:    Very bureaucratic!

Ustinov:    Very bureaucratic, and I think it's absolutely justified; I think it is a very, very interesting slice of life.  Mozart was a genius and Da Ponte was a genius for just striking a ground which is both pathetic and comic at the same time.  Figaro, which I did recently in the Mozarteum in Salzburg, is exactly that kind of thing, which is terribly touching.  The Count is a very vulnerable character, after all, and at the end he's humiliated by having to apologize.  I think this is wonderfully human.  People have put a French Revolutionary context on it, and I think that's all perfectly justified, but it should never interfere with the actual human reactions of the people themselves.

Duffie:    The characters in Figaro are very human; are the characters in Giovanni as human?  Is Giovanni really a human being?

Ustinov:    Giovanni is a monstrous human being, but he's a human being.  He's like many people today who get their satisfaction where they can.  I think he's a prototype of a certain kind of "macho man" in a society which is frightfully hidebound, and frightfully [under his breath] sort of Spanish.  [Both chuckle]  It does actually happen in Seville, and Spain has always had a fascination for people who are not Spanish.  They love that kind of use of instep and heel, and banging, and the rhythm which suddenly stops violently and is tender, and then goes back into something.  It's a very, very pungent kind of folklore, and it must've had the effect, then, because everybody wrote about it, even if it doesn't sound Spanish.  The Barber of Seville doesn't really sound Spanish at all.

Duffie:    Not the way Rossini set it, no.

Ustinov:    Exactly.  But it is very Spanish the way that Beaumarchais handled it in the play!

Duffie:    Coming back to Figaro for a moment, is there anything forward-looking in the opera, knowing that there is a third Beaumarchais drama still to come?

Ustinov:    I don't really know; I haven't studied it to that extent.

Duffie:    Should there be a little more interplay between the Countess and Cherubino?

Ustinov:    I think it's wrong to anticipate what's going to happen afterwards.  It's rather like your television series in which they really have to be entities on their own.  You must be given a taste of what's to come, but it can't interfere with the matter at hand.  No, but I know what you mean!  Cherubino grows up, and his education is a very interesting feature of the first opera.  I did it in Salzburg, at the Mozarteum with the Prague Chamber Orchestra.  They were marvelous sports because when Cherubino jumps out of the window, I had him jumping into the orchestra pit and disappearing, and all the instruments near the place where he disappeared stood up and looked down.  [Both laugh]  It had an electric effect, and they did it so well.

Duffie:    As long as he doesn't crash through a double bass, it's all right!

Ustinov:    Exactly.  Exactly.  Yes.

ustinov Duffie:    When you're directing an opera of Mozart or others, do you take most of your ideas for direction from the text, or from the music to which the text has been set?

Ustinov:    I'm trained in the theater, of course, and I tend to take most from my ideas from the text because I feel safer with a text.  Sometimes you're very depressed because the standards in opera aren't quite the same as they are in the theater.  You can't get the same results; perhaps you shouldn't, but there are several different groups who are active in the opera.  There are aging singers who don't sing terribly well any more but have learned to act frightfully well.  One is very grateful for those at the early stages of rehearsal, because they give you a very clear indication of what they're going to do.  Then there are some people with wonderful voices who can't act very well.  That's much more difficult for somebody like me to cope with.  Then there are brilliant young people, many of them from countries like the United States or Canada or New Zealand or Australia, who are excellent singers and wonderful actors.  They absolutely bewilder you by their prowess, and sometimes are so modern.  One of them might suggest to you during rehearsal that she should play her part topless.  You're not yet quite as evolved as that and you haven't ever thought of it, and you're slightly at a loss as to know what to suggest.

Duffie:    [With a sly nudge]  Are you not grateful for that suggestion?

Ustinov:    Not necessarily because it may be quite wrong.  [Much laughter]

Duffie:    It wouldn't help to sell tickets?

Ustinov:    [Dismissively]  No.  And then there are, especially on the continent of Europe, elderly performers that can't sing or act, and are kept in place by some sort of pension scheme.  They are now professors at other academies, so they have acquired a kind of arrogance whereby you say to one of them, [politely] "Could you move slightly to the left?" and they respond [snaps back immediately, in bad-tempered, curt fashion, in a comically exaggerated German accent] "Why?"

Duffie:    [Chuckles]

Ustinov:    And that's awfully difficult to cope with.  He feels he's being victimized some way.  [Again in the German accent, angrily]  "Just because I've been here long time, you want me to move to the left?  No!!!  This doesn't please me."  And so it goes on.  As a director, you get fairly depressed in about two or three days when you've been doing the opera with a piano.  Suddenly the orchestra arrives, and Mozart, or whoever it is, gallops to the rescue like the U.S. cavalry.  You're home!  You realize what's important at last, and some of your finer points, which would've told if it had been a play, are lost in the melee but very often corrected by the singers' instinct once they hear the music as it should be.

Duffie:    So if you've put something in which corresponds to the music, then that music will prod them each night?

Ustinov:    Yes, absolutely.  They'll know what to do automatically because, after all, directing anything is a mutual adventure.  It's not a dictatorship; I can't bear dictators.  I can't bear them myself when I'm an actor and I'm told what to do.  I feel just like that elderly gentleman who barked at me [again in the defensive German accent] "Why?"  [Both chuckle]

Duffie:    So you have to be motivated to do something from the text?

Ustinov:    Yes!  And I believe that it should be a mutual adventure; it has to be there in the context.  Mozart is a tender bloom; I think you can do all sorts of things with him.  I saw, recently, a performance of Don Giovanni in the reconstituted Estates Theatre in Prague in which it was first performed.  There I discovered a distant ancestor of mine was the first Don Ottavio, under Mozart's baton, a man called Baglioni.  That was fascinating because they did some very outspoken things and very curious things.  Don Giovanni was eating an apple at one point, and he was really played like a psychopath.  He was a frightfully dangerous, terribly good-looking, and a terribly spidery man, with choreographic movements.  The singer was a Ukrainian, and the choreographic movements were slightly sinister the whole time, and he was enjoying himself in a terrifying way.

Duffie:    It was his only opportunity to really be this macho man that you were talking about.

Ustinov:    That's right!  He left the apple on the stage at one point, and one's eye was drawn to this apple the whole time, which was getting older and older the way apples do, and discoloring slightly.  Then right at the end, he came in.  When everybody else was singing their bit, he came back dressed in a boy in a tracksuit; completely modern.  He seemed to be looking for something, found the apple, had another bite, and walked off munching his apple into the wings because there were more women in the wings.  He'd never stopped.  [Both laugh]  It was a revolutionary concept, but it was very, very funny, and very right for the concept of a dramma giocoso.

Duffie:    He just keeps going?

Ustinov:    He keeps going.  He's now fed up with this. 
He didn't even bother about the audience; it was clear what was he was up to.  They're applauding this one, but he's played his part, so "Where's that girl that was on the curtain just now?" 

*     *     *     *     *

Duffie:    The way you describe singers, it sounds as they're either a little too young or a little too old or a little too this or a little too that, like their prime is maybe about twenty minutes in the middle of August sometime!

Ustinov:    Oh, no, no I don't mean that.  You divide them into arbitrary to types, but of course nearly everybody transcends the frontiers that I've imposed in some way or other.  There are some frightfully good singers and frightfully nice singers, and the atmosphere is usually absolutely charming.  But there are some, even great singers like Geraint Evans, for instance, whom I had in my Don Giovanni.  He seemed to resist many things I suggested because he'd done them before in another way.  Then I saw him in the production in the Paris Opera House
which was completely different, very psychologically introvertedand the only thing that was similar was that he was exactly the same as he was in my production.  [Laughter]  When he was active he was a great singer, and I don't really blame him, except he's difficult to deal with especially for a younger director who's not very experienced in opera.  I must say, at the Mozarteum I had the time of my life because I was dealing with the most promising young singers from a variety of conservatories – who are now nearly all famous, already.

Duffie:    Is it was easier, then, to work with singers you can still mold a bit?

Ustinov:    Oh, yes.  Oh, certainly.

ustinov Duffie:    Were you ever conscious of trying to mold them in such a way that the next director
– or the third and fourth director after thatwould still be able to have some malleability on their part?

Ustinov:    No, I try to make them think for themselves.  It was Rolf Liebermann's idea that we have a series of master classes which culminated in a performance.  It was Elisabeth Schwarzkopf who was dealing with the singing side, and there was Gary Bertini who was dealing with the orchestral side and the relation between singers and an orchestra, and I was dealing with the dramatic side.  We each had our turn, and we sometimes clashed between us.  Some of Schwarzkopf's ideas I didn't care for very much, but I had great respect for her knowledge of what she was doing, and I never interfered there.  It's when she wandered onto my territory that I tended to growl and bark a bit, but that was quite normal.  It was frightfully interesting to see how malleable they were.  We had two different casts, two different teams, and one tried to prevent it being an A team and a B team.  We gave performances of each cast, and the press
the enlightened press, like The Guardian in Englandcame twice, to see both sides.

Duffie:    Should it then be completely interchangeable, that you could pick one from column A and one from column B, and integrate it almost in any permutation?

Ustinov:    Not really.  I don't think that's possible because their characters are different.  It became different because in the first one, the Count was extremely good-looking.  He was a Swede, and he's now made a mark.  He was very good; he was a little bit stiff, but it gave him some sort of strange quality of intractability.  The other Count was very small and came from Northern Ireland.  One realized that for a Count to be small, to that extent within the terms of the drama, probably gave him a complex.  The fact was that he was behaving as a big man while being very small.  It also looked terribly moving at times.  His relationship with the Countess was enormous
somehow very pathetic.  It was like Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, in a sense.  So each cast was independent and they were used to each other.  I don't think they could've been interchangeable very easily.

Duffie:    So you had to work within each one's limitations.

Ustinov:    Yes.  Yes, absolutely.

Duffie:    So they really were two different performances, then.

Ustinov:    Absolutely.  The Countess, for instance, I suddenly found her portrait on the cover of Gramophone magazine in England, which is quite a large-selling magazine of that kind.  She was already singing huge parts in other opera houses.  She's done frightfully well for herself, and she was very good!

Duffie:    Is that encouraging to you, that some of your students go on to big things?

Ustinov:    Oh yes, but they're not really my students.  I only had them, after all, for one production!  But I'm very gratified in having something to do with their further march into their profession.

Duffie:    Let me ask the Capriccio question
in opera, where is the balance between the music and the drama?

Ustinov:    I don't know; obviously you come out whistling the tune, you don't come out whistling the drama.  [Chuckles]  So I suppose it is the music; it has to be the music.  I think that despite Da Ponte's talent, Mozart is the one who is remembered.  I think people would recognize his name, whereas they wouldn't all know Da Ponte, and certainly they wouldn't all know Schikaneder.  There's another case in point where people like the famous Otto Klemperer tried to take out all the recitatives, believing that Schikaneder was not up to Mozart.  I think if Mozart thought that Schikaneder was up to Mozart, then he was up to Mozart.  It's a pantomime, it's an absurd story, it's a lovely story, it's an amusing story, it's a wayward story, and it's full of the theatrical tricks of its period.  To my mind, Schikaneder and the recitatives are absolutely endemic to the work.  It doesn't make any sense to do The Magic Flute without those recitatives.

Duffie:    Otherwise it just becomes number, number, number.

Ustinov:    Number, number, number!  Which, of course, is what Klemperer understood.  Recitatives, in the German theater, especially, are difficult, because tenors have a kind of choked way of talking.  [Declaims in an exaggeratedly high, forced, loud, and pinched singsong tone of voice] "Was ist das, dein die Braut dein König?"  That sort of voice is what you hear the whole time, which is not as attractive as when they're singing.  [Both chuckle]  But that is something to do with the language.

Duffie:    Can you, as a theater director, help them overcome the vocal mannerisms to get them to speak properly on the stage?

Ustinov:    Yeah, but the trouble is they project in a singing way.  They just take the music away and you get that rather strangled [lapses into the same "German tenor" voice] "Sid sie nicht den Baumeister"!  It sounds like that to me, which, on the stage, I find my hackles going up.  It's like somebody with a nail file.

Duffie:    I've often asked singers about going back and forth between singing and spoken dialogue, and they universally find it difficult.

Ustinov:    Yes.  Absolutely.  Specially tenors.  [Coughs]  I don't know why...  I'm coughing thinking of it!

Duffie:    It constricts the throat!

Ustinov:    That's right!

*     *     *     *     *

Duffie:    Since we are talking about several different Mozart operas, you've performed the Impresario!

Ustinov:    Ah yeah, but that was for television.  In fact, because it has not much of a libretto, I rewrote it in terms of a festival taking place a long time ago.  The village was thinking, "Everybody else has got festivals; what can we have festival of?"  So they had a festival of music in order to draw people to the village, in spite of a terrible smell of sulfur which pervaded the village from its health-giving spa.  [Both chuckle.]

Duffie:    Are there good operas being written today?

ustinov Ustinov:    I think the desire to hear opera has enormously increased, especially by virtue of the fact we all have discs and tapes and goodness knows what.  Even obscure operas are now on record in some way or other.  I think the general desire for opera, and the spread of opera houses in towns which before never had them, is very, very striking!  But whether it is absolutely possible...  I mean the way music has gone, it's drifted very, very far away.  To my mind, there's a huge gap between modern serious music and modern popular music.  The 12-tone system and all sorts of ideas have been tried, but now we're drifting back again.  You can see the parallel thing in architecture, when everybody was building these huge boxes which were very fashionable at one point.  Now we have a kind of austerity, the "back-to-Bach" architecture.  Bits of Romanticism are creeping back in; Gaudí has had his effect, and you're getting that again, but with modern serious music, I can't imagine anybody whistling Stockhausen in the bath unless they're extremely unmusical and are doing it by mistake!  There's no reflection on Stockhausen, whom I find fascinating as a composer, but it's something else now.  All the Boulez things and all those others, my ear isn't fine enough to distinguish between them anymore.  I can't say that is typical of this composer and that is typical of that one.  [See my interviews with Pierre Boulez.]

Duffie:    If you were asked to direct one of the "Days of the Week" that Stockhausen is working on currently, would you accept that or just decline it?

Ustinov:    No, I would decline it simply because I would love to go to the first night of it, but not with the amount of nerves that I would have if I've directed it.  Also, I don't really know what Stockhausen has in mind.  I was absolutely amazed when Stockhausen asked for my autograph for his children.  It suddenly humanized him to an extraordinary degree after the music which I'd heard in La Scala.  It radiated into the square outside the opera house when you'd already gone out of the theater and left Stockhausen behind, but he pursued you into the street like the Furies.  It was very interesting.  I really have made tremendous efforts to feel for it, but I can't yet do so.  I think tonality is not yet exhausted.  This viewpoint was shared by Schoenberg, who said there's still a lot to say within the tonal system.  You don't have to go into 12-tone system.  I remember seeing an opera by an English composer
whose name has now escaped me because I mention him – but he wrote an opera called Hamlet... 

Duffie:    That's Humphrey Searle!

Ustinov:    That's Humphrey Searle, exactly.  It was a very, very serial opera on Hamlet, and there came one moment when I laughed out loud, I regret to say, as much respect as I have for Humphrey Searle.  There was a moment when Ophelia suddenly appeared mad, and sang an extremely beautiful, and as far as I could ascertain, tonal aria.  At the end, Claudius got up and said, [sings in operatic tenor style, with wide, dissonant leaps between the high and low register between nearly every syllable] "She has gone out of her mind."  I'm afraid I laughed and everybody around me said, "Shh!!"  We were back to normality then.  [Hearty laughter].

Duffie:    So to be grotesque on a grotesque stage, you must be more normal!

Ustinov:    That's it!  You've got it.  I wish you'd been with me; I would've understood much quicker.  [More laughter]

Duffie:    Did this Hamlet become a little bit more melancholy, or too melancholy, because he was working in this atonality?

Ustinov:    No, I just don't see any point of setting Hamlet to music, because it was a very respectful text, as it was in that other opera of King Lear by... [again searching for the composer's name]

Duffie:    Oh, Reimann!  [See my Interview with Aribert Reimann.]

Ustinov:    ...yes, by Reimann, Aribert Reimann.  I don't see any point of setting it if you're just going to set the play to music because there are still niceties in the play which are open to a wider interpretation than they can possibly be if it's sung.  It's an extremely subtle play and I think it's a very interesting opera, but not terribly subtle in the same sense.  Now I speak as somebody that's played it twice, and recognizes by now that King Lear is mad as a hatter at the beginning, dividing his country up, and [begins to lapse into the reedy voice of the doddering old King Lear] and giving little favors to his prettiest daughter, and then suddenly turning surly.  "What do you mean??  Nothing will come of...nothing?  Yeah, give her a second chance; speak again;..." [returning to his normal speaking voice] really mad as a hatter.  Senile.  And then, through a series of absolutely ghastly events, including the moor scene in which he's suddenly, really, practically a naked man, coming face to face with reality.  Gradually, under that kind of pressure, his sanity returns, and he understands suddenly, with terrible and painful clairvoyance, all the horrible things that have happened to him.  Then, when he is rejoined to civilization as a prisoner, he is absolutely sane.  But for a man of that age, it's less trouble to pretend you're mad because you don't have to use [begins to lapse again into the voice of a weary, enfeebled King Lear] energy in trying to decide on things.  "All right, I'm mad!  [Wheezes]  Oh, leave me alone!!!  Ha ha ha!"  [In a normal voice again]  Inside he's clear as a bell when he dies; that's the real tragedy.  Now how you're going to express that in music, I'm not sure.  I don't think it can be done.  Especially, when you play King Lear, half your text is taken up by footnotes of distinguished professors.  You respect these enormously when you begin to work.  After two weeks of rehearsal you begin to doubt one or two of them, and then the doubt becomes fairly general.  When you're actually playing it, you feel you're rowing out to sea in the company of Shakespeare, and the professors are like bungalows on the seashore; they are getting lost in the mist, and eventually they disappear altogether.  Suddenly you realize something, which is that the professors unravel as much as they can without actually having played the parts, and that when you play them, something quite different becomes clear, because you're forced into contact with people that have to understand them... and not just in an intellectual way!  In our cast in Stratford in Canada, we made great jokes of these professors simply because there were lots of notes by professors, and then suddenly it said, "Kirschbaum, however, disagrees with this."  [Note: Leo Kirschbaum is an actual Shakespeare scholar, who has written about King Lear.]  [Both chuckle]  We were all looking for Kirschbaum all the time, trying to find someone else to disagree with what the professors said.  But the musician is isolated just as the professors are.  Anybody who sets this to music is not actually playing the part, but is inventing a musical background for it, and this is quite a different process.  I think for a great play like that, it's frightfully, almost impossible to set it to music and preserve the most intimate values of the work.  [Note: It is interesting to realize that Verdi wrestled with King Lear for much of his life, and left it in his drawer, unset, when he died.]

Duffie:    Have there been no great plays which have been made into operas?

Ustinov:    Well, Othello, but Othello is a sillier story, in a way.  I mean, I've never really taken Othello seriously because Othello seems to be such an idiot to fall for this rubbish of the handkerchief.

Duffie:    And of course Boito recrafted the play, so it's not a straight setting of the Shakespeare.

ustinov Ustinov:    That's true, it isn't a straight setting.  You regret it less because you feel, "Oh, God, it takes place in Venice with a Moor; that's really Italian territory so let them have a shot."  But King Lear is ancient Britain, and Hamlet is Denmark.  Carl Nielsen might have a crack.  [Laughter]

Duffie:    Have you never heard the Thomas setting of Hamlet?

Ustinov:    Yes, of course I have, yes.

Duffie:    You don't think that works?

Ustinov:    I think it works as something else!  But I think the trouble with Reimann and with Searle, is that they stuck very closely to the original text.  They didn't have the kind of brutality to wield it into an opera, which is valid in a completely different sense.

Duffie:    Then let me ask
what's the purpose of opera?

Ustinov:    The purpose of opera was drama at the beginning, which was bursting at the seams.  The early Monteverdi things are wonderful.  I think they're absolutely great music!  Monteverdi had something in common with Mussorgsky, already, that it's a form of mosaic which consistently takes you by surprise.  When you think it's going to be soft it's loud, and it is most ingenious!  Gesualdo, too.  All those early madrigals of those people are absolutely fascinating music.  They make you listen to every note, which is already a very compelling thing to do, because with Romantic music, on the whole you listen to the sweep; you don't just listen to the notes.  But there is a kind of tradition where you're forced to listen to the note.  Janaček's another one where the progression of notes is always very astonishing.  Very surprising and never really what you expect.

Duffie:    But it's always right!

Ustinov:    It's absolutely right.  Yes, that's correct.

Duffie:    Would you be completely horrified if one of your plays was set to music as an opera?

Ustinov:    No, I wouldn't; I would enjoy that, I think.  I would enjoy that just to see what happens because it doesn't destroy the play; the play remains there, intrinsically the same.  But if some composer wants to have a crack at what I'm doing, I wouldn't say no.  It would be very interesting.  I was writing an opera with Hindemith when he died, actually.  That was a very interesting experience.  I never got very far with it.  I had the idea of four Protestant padres who got on the wrong train during a strike in France, and ended up in Lourdes.  That had the sort of fugal sense that Hindemith favored very much, and it looked quite promising.  Hindemith was a charming character, a marvelous man.  Just for the record, he had one of the most refined forms of cattiness that I've ever come across.  I saw him in New York once, and he said, [in German accent] "Do you know of any good doctor?"  I said, "You don't feel well?"  He said, "I feel fine.  But I must find something out before it's too late.  Was Dr. Schweitzer a really good doctor?  Oh, I hope so.  Because he was such an awful organist."

*     *     *     *     *

Duffie:    You're a man of the theater and we've been talking about opera, but what about music which has no text?  In the Mozart symphonies or the Bach suites, do they have the same kind of meaning for you when there's no text to latch on to?

Ustinov:    Oh yes, absolutely!  It enables you to think in an abstract way.  In the old days, they always used to illustrate books.  Dickens always, when he first appeared, was always illustrated.  There are very few of those things that work.  Alice in Wonderland is by now inseparable from the drawings, but I don't know many other works that are; perhaps Schweik because you see the man with a button nose, and that's all right.  But immediately you're helped in your imagination.  I hate that, and I have a personal experience 'cause my works are now printed in Russia.  A novel of mine was printed exactly as they did in the Victorian era, in four parts.  "Watch this space for next week's thrilling..." and with drawings which really have nothing to do with the text, which are much more heroic, much more serious, much more conventional than I had ever imagined!  I think that the best things in life are left to your imagination.  I was doing my one-man show, for instance, in a place you probably never heard of
Invercargill.  This is the closest inhabited place to the South Pole.  It is on the south tip of the South Island of New Zealand.  I performed there in a theater which smelled of a furniture depository, and made it very clear it wasn't very often used.  Suddenly, in the middle of my performance, all the lights went outincluding the exit signs and everything.

Duffie:    A complete power failure?

Ustinov:    Complete power failure, and I thought, "Oh, my God, I must avoid a panic now."  So in the dark I said, "From here on my show is on radio.  You're having a sleepless night, so you switch on and by some mischance, I'm on."  In the dark I went on performing my show, compensating for the lack of being seen by expressing things in a more descriptive way.  I got more laughs in the dark than I would've got if I had been seen!  At the end of twenty minutes the lights suddenly went on again, and it was a terrible anticlimax!  [Both laugh]  After that, I was dying for them to fail again!  That's an example of what the public imagination is asked to do.  With Bach suites or Beethoven symphonies, I think you have to use your imagination and you create your own world, which necessitates a little effort, but it's enormously worth it!  I went to a rehearsal by a famous German conductor
who shall be namelesswho was conducting Beethoven's 6th Symphony, the "Pastoral," which is not one of my favorites.  He shouted at the orchestra during the rehearsal [bellows overexcitedly in German accent] "Here women in crinolines are coming with hampers!  It will be a picnic!"  [Hums melody from the third movement]  Tsahh, dum, da-dahhh, dum...  I really had completely different visions at that moment, and I really hated seeing this rehearsal with the imposition of crinolined women with hampers!

Duffie:    Now your idea has been colored so that every time you hear that music you're going to think of them, I'm afraid.

Ustinov:    Well, that happens, of course.  They used this call sign during the War, which became notorious for underground movements.  London Radio went [hums several bouncy tones, all on the same pitch, in a low, tone of voice] "Bum-bum-bum, bum."  So the whole Beethoven's 5th Symphony is now spoiled... except that it's slightly different.  It starts with a pause and it goes [hums a similar phrase, this time louder, in a higher tone of voice, and descending a minor third for the fourth note] "Tsi-ta-ta tsumm."  But they got it close enough to worry you.  Every time you hear it now you think, "Oh God, I hope the French Resistance understands what's happening!"  [Both laugh]  Even the European Hymn is the "Ode to Joy" of the 9th Symphony.

ustinov Duffie:    Some of these things have been overworked.  I've been lobbying for a long time to take many of the warhorses completely out of the repertoire for ten years, and then put them back gradually so that we come to them fresh!

Ustinov:    Yes, but I think people would still be outraged 'cause they're not there.  I have no great respect for national anthems; I think they're all terrible.  They're usually very belligerent, and the words are absolutely atrocious.  I did a whole television program in Europe about national anthems. 

Duffie:    And your disdain for them?

Ustinov:    Oh, my disdain for them, absolutely.  The British anthem says about the Queen, "Send her victorious / Happy and glorious."  Well, who in this day and age with nuclear weapons can be victorious and glorious at the same time?  Or happy is absolutely out of the question!  It's such nonsense.  The Mexicans are working on the words of their national anthem, to get away from the "grito de la guerra."  The Germans too; it's no longer "Deutschland über alles"; it's now something quite different, "Through Bavaria's streams and hills," or something of that nature.  [Chuckles]   The words of national anthems are beyond belief ridiculous.

Duffie:    You should find something that would work... or write some new national anthems yourself!

Ustinov:    No, but Western Samoa's was written, like many recent national anthems, by a clergyman who was the greatest authority they could find.  I don't know the words of it, but the end of every verse is, "Well done, Western Samoa / Well done, well done."

Duffie:    I was hoping it would be a hymn to peace, or something like that.

Ustinov:    Yeah.  No, he was probably a cricket-playing padre.  They all have words like that.  The Egyptian, if I remember rightly, has words which are, "Oh, my rifle, where were you when I needed you most?"  [Note: The anthem "Walla Zaman Ya Selahy," used from 1960 to 1979, begins, "It has been a long time oh my weapon! / I long for you in my struggle! / Speak and say I am awake, / Oh war it has been a long time."]  They all have absurd lines, and the very most belligerent of all is Monaco, which is really extremely aggressive towards her neighbors.  [Laughter]  I have no great respect for national anthems.  It seems to me such a travesty we stand for those and sit for Beethoven's string quartets!  Although I must say I'd rather stand more briefly for an anthem than stand all the way through a string quartet...

Duffie:    We should stand mentally for string quartets!

Ustinov:    Yes!  Exactly.  Well, I think we do.  But I think "Va, pensiero" would be a much better national anthem for Italy than the "Inno di Mameli," which they have at the moment!

Duffie:    Thank you for being Sir Peter Ustinov.

Ustinov:    [In comically exaggerated Texas drawl] Why thank you, sir, for allowing me to be whatever you said I was.

Duffie:    [Laughs]  Do you not enjoy being Peter Ustinov?

Ustinov:    I like my Christian name very much, and so I like being called it.  And if that's the price I have to pay for it, I'm willing to.  [Both chuckle]

Duffie:    Lots of continued success to you.

Ustinov:    Thank you very much indeed.

Peter Ustinov
Oscar winner Sir Peter Ustinov dies at 82

Sir Peter Ustinov, a wit and mimic who won two Oscars for an acting career that ranged from the evil emperor Nero in "Quo Vadis'' to the quirky Agatha Christie detective Hercule Poirot, has died. He was 82.

Ustinov, whose talents included writing plays, movies and novels as well as directing operas, also devoted himself to the world's children for more than 30 years as a goodwill ambassador for UNICEF.  He died of heart failure Sunday in a clinic near his home at Bursins overlooking Lake Geneva, said Leon Davico, a friend and former UNICEF spokesman.

Born in London, the only son of a Russian artist mother and a journalist father, Ustinov claimed also to have Swiss, Ethiopian, Italian and French blood -- everything except English.  Ustinov delighted in national differences and frequently referred to them in his works and public appearances. He was -- as he noted proudly in his autobiography "Dear Me'' -- conceived in Russia, baptized in Germany and reared under a succession of Cameroonian, Irish and German nurses.  His imposing figure, variously described as resembling a teddy bear or a giant panda, began at 12 pounds at birth and stayed with him throughout his career.

Ustinov made some 90 movies and also wrote books and plays. He directed films, plays and operas. His narration of Sergey Prokofiev's "Peter and the Wolf'' won him a Grammy.  Among his film roles were a nomad in the outback who befriends a family in "The Sundowners,'' a one-eyed slave in "The Egyptian,'' Inspector Poirot in "Death on the Nile,'' and Abdi Aga, an illiterate tyrant in "Memed My Hawk.''

Ustinov won best supporting actor Oscars for the role of Batiatus, owner of the gladiator school in "Spartacus'' (1960), and as Arthur Simpson, an English small-time black marketeer in Turkey who gets caught up in a jewel heist in "Topkapi'' (1964).  His Nero -- the Roman emperor who presided over the throwing of Christians to the lions -- won him a Golden Globe for best supporting actor in the 1951 movie "Quo Vadis.''  He also won three Emmys, portraying Samuel Johnson in "Dr. Johnson,'' Socrates in "Barefoot in Athens'' and an aged Jewish delicatessen owner in "A Storm in Summer.''  He directed, wrote the screenplay and starred in the 1962 movie "Billy Budd.''

He was performing by age 3, mimicking politicians of the day when his parents invited Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie for dinner.  His first attempts at acting were in the disguise of a pig in a dramatized nursery rhyme, as Friar Tuck of Robin Hood fame and as one of three nymphs tempting Ulysses. "Ulysses wisely passed us by,'' he recalled.  He was educated at the Westminster School, but hated it and left at age 16.  At age 19, he appeared in his first revue and had his first stage play presented in London. Ustinov turned producer at 21, presenting "Squaring the Circle'' before entering the British army in 1942.

If his plays had a continuing theme, it was a celebration of the little man bucking the system.  One of his most successful was "The Love of Four Colonels'' which ran for two years in London's West End. Davico asked Ustinov to join the U.N. children's agency as a goodwill ambassador after seeing the play.  Davico said Ustinov recently attended a UNICEF event despite needing a wheelchair -- sciatica gave him trouble walking, and diabetes left him with 30 percent vision and foot problems.  Ustinov also set up a foundation dedicated to understanding between people across the globe and between generations.  "I think knowing people is the best way of getting rid of prejudices. When I was young, I was brought up in an atmosphere which was just loaded with prejudices,'' he said in 2001.

Ustinov treated getting older the way he treated everything else in life - as another experience to be added to his repertoire of anecdotes, quips and material for books.  When he turned 60, Ustinov was asked if he was tempted to take things a little easier. "I only feel 59,'' he said.  "But what really surprises me,'' he added, "is that I don't say many different things now than I did when I was 20. The only difference is that having white hair means that people tend to listen now while they never did before.''  It was an attitude that stayed with him as he turned 80.  "Why should one slow down? I don't quite understand it,'' he said in an interview with The Associated Press in 2001.  Ustinov's son Igor said his father viewed his own mortality with humor. Responding to an interviewer who asked what Ustinov would like to see on his tombstone, he reportedly said: "Keep off the grass.''

When he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1990, his main worry was how to reply to the invitation from the palace.  "The invitation said, 'Delete whichever is inapplicable: I can kneel -- I cannot kneel.' But there was nothing for those who can kneel but not get up,'' Ustinov recalled.  He remained active until close to his death, playing himself in the 2003 TV movie "Winter Solstice.'' In other late roles, he was the voice of Babar the Elephant, portrayed a doctor in the film "Lorenzo's Oil,'' and in 1999 appeared as the Walrus in a TV movie version of "Alice in Wonderland.''

Ustinov was married three times, and is survived by four children and his third wife, Helene du Lau d'Allemans.

© 1992 Bruce Duffie

This interview was recorded at his hotel in Chicago on May 22, 1992.  Sections were used (along with recordings) on WNIB the next day, and again in 1996.  The full interview was transcribed and posted on this website in 2012.

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.