Bass - Baritone  José van Dam
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie

van dam

World-renowned in concert, opera and recital, José van Dam is one of today's most honored interpreters of the bass-baritone repertoire.  He has been heard in the music capitals of Europe, the Americas and Japan, singing at opera houses and concert halls under the world's premier conductors.
In recent seasons, Mr. van Dam has sung celebratory performances of Don Quichotte at La Monnaie in Brussels as well as recitals and concerts in Paris and Brussels. He sang the title role in Simon Boccanegra with James Levine and the Boston Symphony, as well as a recital and La Damnation de Faust with the Boston Symphony and James Levine at Tanglewood, in Boston, at Carnegie Hall, and a tour with performances in Lucerne, Essen, Paris and London; the Berlioz Romeo et Juliette with Lorin Maazel at Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia in Rome; the Verdi Requiem with Daniele Gatti in Liège; Fra Melitone in La forza del destino in Brussels; Germont in La Traviata, the Father in Charpenter’s Louise, Prokofiev’s The Love For Three Oranges, and the Speaker in Die Zauberflöte, all at the Paris Opera; the title role in staged performances of Elijah at the Teatro Communale di Firenze and at the Saito Kinen Festival with Seiji Ozawa; the title role of Boris Godunov and Germont in La Traviata at La Monnaie in Brussels; Janacek’s From The House of the Dead at the Teatro Real in Madrid; Claudius in Hamlet at the Grand Theatre de Geneve; recitals in Bucharest, Frankfurt, Madrid, Peralada, and Vienna and concert appearances at the Concertgebouw, the Verbier Festival and elsewhere.
Born in Brussels, José van Dam entered the Brussels Conservatory at age 17, graduating a year later with first prizes in voice and opera performance. Within a few years he had won four prizes in competitions, including the Bel Canto Competition in Liège; Concours "Ecole des Vedettes" in Paris; Concours de la Chanson in Toulouse; and the International Music Competition in Geneva.  He made his operatic debut in Liège as Don Basilio in Rossini's The Barber of Seville and subsequently performed the role of Escamillo in Bizet's Carmen at La Scala, Paris Opera, and Covent Garden.  Conductor Lorin Maazel asked Mr. van Dam to record Ravel's L'Heure Espagnole for Deutsche Grammophon, subsequently inviting him to join the Deutsche Oper in Berlin where he sang his first leading roles.
The art of José van Dam can be heard on an extensive discography.  Among his award-winning recordings are Gounod's Faust, Enescu's Oedipe, Massenet's Don Quichotte, and Pelléas et Mélisande with Claudio Abbado for Deutsche Grammophon.  He can be heard as Figaro in The Marriage of Figaro, in Carmen and Die Meistersinger conducted by Sir Georg Solti, Berlioz' Romeo et Juliette with the Boston Symphony led by Seiji Ozawa, and Simon Boccanegra with Claudio Abbado and the Orchestra of La Scala.  Other releases include Mozart's Così fan tutte and Strauss' Salome with the Vienna Philharmonic, and many recordings with Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic including Beethoven's Fidelio and Ninth Symphony, the Brahms German Requiem, Bruckner's Te Deum, Mozart's Requiem and Coronation Mass, Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande, and Wagner's Parsifal.  He is a two-time Grammy Award winner, in 1985 for his recording of Ravel songs with Pierre Boulez conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra, and in 1992, Best Opera Recording for Richard Strauss' Die Frau ohne Schatten.
Mr. van Dam has been honored in many countries around the world.  His Majesty Albert II of Belgium named him a Baron, and the city of Berlin awarded him the title of "Kammersänger."  For his many extraordinary interpretations in recordings and on stage, he has received the German Music Critics' Prize, Gold Medal of the Belgian Press, Grand Prix de l'Académie Française du Disque, the Orphée d'Or of the Académie Lyrique Française in 1980 and 1994, the European Critics' Prize for St. Francois d'Assise, and France's Diapason d'Or and Prix de la Nouvelle Académie du Disque.  He was featured in the motion pictures The Music Teacher and Don Giovanni, conducted by Maazel, and his video recording of Schubert's Winterreise has been released by Disques Forlane.

--  Biography from Colbert Artists Management 
--  Names which are links throughout this webpage refer to BD's interviews elsewhere on this website. 

van dam

In April of 1981, José van Dam returned to Chicago for La damnation de Faust by Berlioz.  There were performances in Chicago and New York [see review below] as well as a recording of the work.  He had been here previously for the Verdi Requiem and would return a few years later for Hans Sachs in Die Meistersinger, both with Solti, and both also recorded. 

Published: May 4, 1981 in The New York Times

The Chicago Symphony has traditionally brought blockbuster programs to New York for its annual Carnegie Hall visits, and this last week was no exception. After first weighing in with the Mahler Ninth and Bruckner Fourth symphonies, the Chicagoans and their conductor, Georg Solti, offered a spectacular grand finale Friday and Saturday nights, Berlioz's Romantic choral masterpiece ''The Damnation of Faust.'' The Chicago orchestra has just recorded the score for Decca/London and with a superior quartet of soloists: Frederica von Stade, Kenneth Riegel, Jose van Dam and Malcolm King. Margaret Hillis's superbly trained Chicago Symphony Chorus predictably added an impressive choral luster to the proceedings.   (...)

Among the soloists Mr. van Dam as Mephistopheles stood out for the silken texture of his bass-baritone, his suave legato phrasing and his imaginative coloring of words - an elegant and immensely satisfying singer. Miss von Stade's lovely mezzo-soprano is also ideally suited to Marguerite, and both of her arias were spun out in a bewitching fashion. Mr. Riegel has the proper basic tenor metal for Faust, and if his voice is apt to turn coarse and unsteady on occasion, at least he sang with ardent conviction.

Between the Chicago performances, he graciously took time to meet with me for a conversation.  Even without knowing it from live appearances and recordings, it was immediately apparent that this was not just a fine singer, but also a deep and insightful thinker.  Though he sang roles throughout the repertoire and brought a special nuance to the French repertoire, on this occasion we spoke mainly about Wagner and Mozart.  At times I would help him with the English by suggesting a word or two or three, and he would brighten and pounce on the one he was looking for. 

Here is that wonderful conversation, beginning with a bit of our chit-chat while adjusting the machinery . . . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:    When I was talking to John Pritchard, he was sitting where you are, and after about half an hour, all of a sudden, plop, plop, and a cat came down and landed on this table.  He said it reminded him of home.

vandam José van Dam:    Oh yes, I have three cats at home and I have three dogs.

BD:    So you’re an animal lover?

JvD:    Yes, I was born in the country and I live in the country, so it’s normal to have animals.  But it’s not every time possible.

BD:    Now you’ll be singing this Damnation in Carnegie Hall also?

JvD:    Yes, two concerts, and then we come back here for the recording.

BD:    Let me ask you first about singing Wagner.  You sing Mozart, you sing Debussy, you sing Alban Berg, and you sing Wagner and Strauss.  Do you approach Wagner differently from the other composers?

JvD:    No.  It’s my idea to sing three big roles in the Wagner repertoire.  First, the Flying Dutchman which I sang for the first time two years ago at the Metropolitan.  Next, Amfortas in Parsifal, and the third is Hans Sachs.  I will sing my first Hans Sachs in 1983 in Paris.  These three roles I will sing.  Other roles perhaps I would do on a good occasion, except for Wotan.  Wotan is not so good for me.  The three roles I sing are the three lyrical roles that Wagner wrote.

BD:    They’re more introspective?

JvD:    Perhaps, yes, and very interesting.  Wotan is interesting too, but I have no contact with roles like Wotan or Telramund.

BD:    They are more heroic?

JvD:    Yes, perhaps more heroic.  For the roles I’m singing in Wagner, the approach is the same as Strauss or a Mozart opera, but not Verdi.  He’s something else.

BD:    Why?

JvD:    It’s lighter.  When you sing a Verdi part it’s more in the bel canto style of ‘beautiful singing’.  And the words are not so important.  It is more about the vocal line.  In every opera the words are important, and I do my best when I sing in Italian or German or French so that the people understand what I sing.  But in the Verdi music, the words are not so much.  When you say ten times, ‘Io t’amo, io t’amo’, it’s not so important.  In Mozart and Wagner and Strauss, the words are more important.

BD:    Do you sing Bellini and Donizetti?

JvD:    I sing some roles like Alfonso in Lucrezia Borgia, but for me his music is not so interesting.  It’s beautiful but a little superficial.  One curious thing about the Dutchman is that it’s a very heavy role, and when I try to say why, it’s difficult to say why.  The Dutchman is a very dramatic role, and Amfortas is too, but it is short.  It’s not a long role like Sachs.  Sachs is more lyrical and not such a dramatic part.

BD:    Do you make Sachs into a real poet?

JvD:    Yes.  For me, Sachs is a poet and a philosopher.  The part is longer, but you can sing it more with tranquility.  This is not so with Holländer and Amfortas.

van dam BD:    Is the orchestra a bit quieter underneath Hans Sachs, as opposed to the Holländer?

JvD:    I think so.  The musical line is more quiet, and then the orchestration is automatically lower in volume than for Amfortas.  The Holländer is with trumpets and all the brass.

BD:    But in those other operas, you have to sing over the blasting orchestra.

JvD:    When I’m on stage, it’s not my problem to go over the orchestra.  It’s the problem of the conductor.  When I am on the stage, I am on the stage to sing and not to scream.  I’m a singer not a screamer, and it’s the conductor who must adjust.

BD:    Do you feel that the conductors give you support with the orchestra without over-powering you?

JvD:    Oh sure, it’s a big support.  It’s very important when you sing parts like Wagner to have a good conductor.  He must know how weak he can make his orchestra.  When I am on the stage I am one man and one voice, so I can make nothing with a hundred people playing forte.  Nobody would hear me.  I speak with the conductor and I can say it’s too loud, but then he must try to make it more piano.

BD:    Do you find the producer or the director can help with this?  For instance, if you have a director who sends you way upstage...

JvD:    Yes, it’s his problem.  In Paris in December I was singing Flying Dutchman in the production of Geneva in Switzerland.  At the end, Erik he was very, very far away from me, and it was a problem.  The Holländer was ten meters away, and for the balance of the three of them it was not good.  When he tells Senta,
I am the Holländer and I need a wife!, it’s hard when you are so far away.  It’s not so easy.

BD:    You found yourself screaming a bit?

JvD:    Yes!  You must pay attention or you can rapidly go the wrong way vocally, and the stage director can help you, and conductor certainly.

BD:    What about the love duet?  Is this difficult to play because it’s not a conventional love duet?  It’s not a love duet like Tristan and Isolde.

JvD:    No, it is not conventional.  I have a little feeling that the duet is a falsche duet, not a true duet.  It’s two people singing for this themselves.

BD:    Senta is singing for Senta?

JvD:    Yes, and Holländer for Holländer.  Only at the end of the duet does it become a duet.  Then they come together but it’s a big part.

BD:    I’ve often wondered about the moment when they first meet.  All of a sudden the orchestra stops, and the Holländer is there.  How does she to react to seeing his picture come to life?  Also, since Daland standing there, does he understand this first meeting?

JvD:    No.  Daland is a normal man, but the Holländer really does not exist.  He’s a phantom, a vision, especially a vision to Senta.

BD:    Is Senta a normal person?

JvD:    I’m not sure that Senta is a normal person.  It’s a little like Giovanni and the Commendatore in Don Giovanni.  For me, Giovanni and Commendatore are two symbols.  Every person treats Giovanni as a big and tall seducer.  Every person has a vision of Giovanni, and the Commendatore, too.  They are two big symbols and it’s the war of two symbols.  The Commendatore is the good, the justice, and Giovanni is the contrary.

BD:    He’s deception?

JvD:    I can’t say
deception, but it’s a contrary view to the Commendatore.

BD:    Is Giovanni evil?

JvD:    No, no, no, he’s not evil, but Giovanni is not a man like other men.  He’s an exception, and in the normal world when you are an exception, you are out of the normal world.  The problem of Giovanni is that he likes to live life, but his idea of life, and his idea of life is not the same as the rest of the world, as the normal people.

van dam BD:    He’s a very complex character, Don Giovanni.

JvD:    It’s very complex.  You can sing Giovanni for fifty years on the stage and you just don’t understand him at all.

BD:    Do you find that also with Holländer?

JvD:    Holländer is for me a little so too.  He comes after seven years to the coast and tries to find a girl to redeem him, but he tried before and he doesn’t think it’s going to work this time.  He sings the duet with Senta, and when he sees her with Erik at the end, for him it’s finished.  He no longer has trust in her.  The whole time his trust in Senta isn’t enough.  It’s not big enough.

BD:    Does he ever realize that she is pushing Erik away, or is that only after they’re both dead, in the orchestral coda?

JvD:    I think he realizes it only in death.  But are we dying or not?  It’s a problem.  People say after death we have another life, and I think it’s the idea of Wagner to have a new life for Holländer with Senta.

BD:    Do you think Wagner found in Cosima what he was looking for?

JvD:    I’m not so sure.

BD:    She certainly was faithful to him, and so many of Wagner’s operas talk about redemption.

JvD:    Yes, and he asks in his musical score to see Holländer and Senta going together.  It’s a redemption scene he should like to have in his opera, and I think the Holländer is saved after his death.

BD:    Are they happy together afterwards?

JvD:    Yes, I think so, but perhaps it is because I’m not singing so much Holländer.  It was at the Metropolitan and then in Paris and then in Marseille, but this is my idea.  Perhaps I’m wrong.

BD:    Do you prefer doing this opera in one piece without an interval, or in three separate acts?

JvD:    In one piece.  It’s more for the dramatic effect, it’s better to have it that way.

BD:    Even though the audience must sit for two and a half hours?

JvD:    We must stay for two and a half hours!  Sure, for the audience it’s more difficult, but years ago at the Metropolitan we did Wozzeck in one piece, and I find it better even though it’s more difficult for us.

BD:    There’s no rest?

JvD:    Yes, but I think it’s a good way to do it.

BD:    In the Dutchman, during the beginning of the third act when the chorus singing and you’re offstage, do you continue to concentrate on the drama, or do you relax a little bit?

JvD:    I try to relax a little bit, but it’s not possible every time.  In Marseille, for example, when you have the choral singing, the stage director asked that Holländer be on the stage.  I was not so happy with this idea but you have a ‘fest’ with the mariners.  The idea of the stage director was that this ‘fest’ was for Senta and Holländer, for their engagement.  At the table you have Daland, Holländer and Senta all drinking together.  I was not so happy.

BD:    How did the stage director account for the Holländer’s crew interrupting with these very quiet lines?

JvD:    This festival is on Daland
’s boat.  Then with lighting and so on, you have a big door open and the crew of Holländer coming to take the other seamen onto the boat of Holländer, and the Holländer pushing his crew away.

BD:    He tries to keep them apart?

JvD:    Yes, and so with the crew going to Holländer
’s boat, the door is closed and for the duet of Erik and Senta both are alone.

BD:    Who are the crew of the Holländer
’s ship?  Are these men condemned in the same way that the Holländer is?

JvD:    Yes, but I think the Holländer doesn’t need a crew.  It’s my idea.  You can have a boat without a crew, a dead boat.  Years ago we found a big Japanese boat and all the crew were dead.  It’s a ghost boat.  It’s a real thing.  There was more than one...

After 1635, however, when the Shogunate imposed its policy of national isolation, all existing sea going ships were destroyed and it became illegal to build any more such capable vessels. From about 1639, Japan was restricted to small, fragile coastal boats that were deliberately designed to be practically impossible to sail across great oceans. These vessels generally had no proper navigation gear, only one mast, and were designed with square sterns (which caught the wind and made them difficult to steer) and large square stern-rudders that frequently snapped in heavy seas, features that combined to make them especially vulnerable to rough weather. Dismasted, they were quickly rendered helpless, and would drift slowly eastwards until they encountered land.

What made the ships survivable was their cargoes. The tribute paid by Japan’s more distant provinces to the Emperor and the Shogun in Edo was generally remitted in rice, and – Japanese roads being frequently impassable in winter – that rice was generally sent by sea. That meant that the crew of a crippled vessel adrift on the Pacific often had an almost limitless supply of food to sustain them. Yes, scurvy remained a fatal problem, and the crew still required a good measure of luck to catch sufficient rainwater; there are many records of Japanese ships reaching the American coast apparently abandoned, and of boarding parties discovering the crew all dead. But in an equal number of cases at least a handful of sailors survived months of despair and privation, to begin extraordinary adventures.

--  By Mike Dash, from an article "The Shogun's Reluctant Ambassadors" on the website All Kinds of History

BD:    And everyone was gone?

JvD:    Everyone including the captain was gone, and I think of the story of the Holländer.  The story was that he will go over the Cape of Good Hope, and he made a pact with the devil.  I think he doesn’t need a crew.  For me, the character of Holländer is alone on the boat for two hundred years, and every seven years he comes back to land.  This is the tragedy of this man.  For me, this is the big meaning of the Holländer.  He eats all the time alone on his boat, spends years and years alone and has no contact with people.  So when he has contact with Daland and Senta, for him it’s so strange that he cannot open himself to the world and to human people.

BD:    But Senta does redeem him?

JvD:    Yes.  You cannot speak about love between Senta and Holländer.  It’s more than love.  She knows him, and then when she sees him, she knows directly it’s the Holländer.

van dam BD:    Is she frightened?

JvD:    Yes and no.  She’s afraid because she knows his picture, and it’s an imagination thing.  Nobody understands that this is the Flying Dutchman.  Nobody sees this because it’s a legend, and all of a sudden she sees this legend.  It’s a Daland, Senta and Holländer, but when Daland sings his aria, both are alone.

BD:    They are oblivious of him?  They don’t know he’s there; they are looking at each other and are not conscious of him?

JvD:    Yes.  It’s more a meaningful duet between Senta and Holländer.  It’s like people with ESP.  It’s more an ESP thing between Holländer and Senta.  It’s not so much that Senta sees him; it’s all imagination.

BD:    Do you enjoy the role?

JvD:    Yes, very.  I enjoy a role like Giovanni and Holländer   You can sing it 200 or 300 times, yet you have to work every time to understand it.

BD:    You never get bored with it?

JvD:    No.  When I sing a role and I’m bored, it’s not so interesting for me.  You can make all the things and you can make better things musical things every time, but the character of the role when you know it, it’s not so deep.  I like many roles and sometimes it’s a problem.  When I sing Don Giovanni, I sing both roles.  I sing Giovanni, too.

BD:    So you go onstage and each time the drama unfolds anew?

JvD:    Yes, yes, and that’s interesting.  But it makes me nervous a little.  Then I should like to surround the role.  When I sing Giovanni I think Giovanni, and when I sing Leporello I surround it.  Leporello is not complicated.  He’s a normal man and very simple man, and I understand him, but with Giovanni and Holländer I cannot understand them completely.  It makes me a little insecure.  Then I try to understand the parts I can’t understand, and this makes the roles interesting.

BD:    So each time you walk on the stage you learn something new about the character?

JvD:    Yes.  Perhaps after a time I say no, it’s wrong what I do and I must make it another way.  That is interesting, too, to research a personality for Holländer or Giovanni.  But when the research of a role is finished, it’s not so interesting.  Then it’s like a man doing research in a laboratory.  When he asks to find something, then he finds it.  After this he does something else.  But as long he cannot find it he makes the research, and I find this is interesting in our profession.

BD:    I would think that would keep you interested and stimulate you.

JvD:    Yes, yes, but so long as I cannot find it, it makes me insecure.

BD:    So if you understood the Holländer maybe you would not sing it anymore?

JvD:    No.  Sure I love it for the music, too.  For the public, the first thing is the music.  I know for the public my problem is not so important.  For me one of the parts of the roles of Holländer and Giovanni are that they are not sure.  They do not use their eyes.  Holländer much more prudent, more careful.  Holländer is too careful and Giovanni is not careful enough.  Leporello can see, and he tries to hold Giovanni back, but it’s not possible.  Then he must go after Giovanni.  Leporello is like a mediator.  He can’t do anything other than go to find another attraction for Giovanni.

van dam BD:    He’s in orbit around Giovanni, and he must go where Giovanni goes.

JvD:    Yes, and when Giovanni is dead he must find another master.

BD:    Should they do the epilogue of Don Giovanni, or should it stop with the death of Giovanni?

JvD:    It’s more dramatic to end with the death, but Mozart composed it.  In this time of Mozart it was necessary to make it so.  At this time, people are going to the theater to enjoy!  Now you go for the music and for the drama, but in this time, it was necessary to get the people to come!  He had to attract the people, attract an audience.  I can understand a man like Mozart, he was a genius, and he wrote the term ‘drama giocoso’ for Giovanni.  But it’s not a ‘drama giocoso’.

BD:    [Surprised]  No???

JvD:    What is ‘giocoso’?

BD:    It’s an opera that has both the drama and the comedy.

JvD:    Yes, and this last epilogue is a comedy.  It’s a resolution in the comedy.  When you finish with the death of Giovanni it’s a dramatic resolution, and Mozart in his time felt he needed another resolution.

BD:    He’s got to account for the rest of the cast members.

JvD:    Yes.

BD:    Who decides whether you sing Giovanni or Leporello?  Do you decide?

JvD:    People ask me and I say yes or no.

BD:    Would you ever sing Daland?

JvD:    No.  I’m not interested in singing Daland.  When we speak from Wagner and we speak from Mozart, and we speak about Holländer and Giovanni, there is a similarity for me.  It’s the same similarity between Giovanni and Mefisto.  When I sing Giovanni, I need a little of the diabolic of Mefisto, and Mefisto needs the suavity of Giovanni.  But you cannot make a similarity between Mefisto and Holländer.  There is not a similarity between them.  They are three are symbols.  Mefisto and Giovanni and Holländer are symbolic figures.  They’re not a real person.

BD:    You sing Mephistopheles in both Gounod and Berlioz?

JvD:    Yes.

BD:    Do you like them both?

JvD:    I prefer Berlioz.  Perhaps the music of Gounod is a little, I can say, not modern, and I find the music of Berlioz is very modern music.  When you hear the Gounod, it’s a little old-fashioned, and I don’t feel like this with the music of Berlioz.  Years ago in Salzburg I sang Rappresentatione di Anima et di Corpo.

BD:    Oh yes, by Emilio deCavalieri (c. 1550 - 1602).  [Note: Since Rappresentatione is fully staged, in three acts with a spoken prologue, it can be considered to be the first surviving opera as such. It was presented twice in February 1600.  On November 10, 1600, Cavalieri wrote a letter arguing that he, not Jacopo Peri (1561 - 1633), was the true reviver of Greek style acting with singing, i.e. opera.  Peri later deferred to him in the preface to the published version of Euridice in 1601.  However, Peri wrote Dafne around 1597, and though the score is lost, that is often cited as the first opera.]

JvD:    Cavalieri, yes, and it’s fantastic.  I should like to say it is modern music.  You don’t feel it’s very old.  It’s so good and so dramatic that... [pauses a moment]

BD:    It speaks to us today?

JvD:    Yes, that’s it.  Yes, that’s what I mean.  I like the Gounod.  It’s good music, but it’s not for my taste.  For me it’s not so interesting like Berlioz or this Cavalieri, or Mozart.  You can hear Mozart day after day and you are not bored.  I don’t think you can hear Gounod’s Faust day in day out. 

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Let me ask you about Amfortas.  When we meet Amfortas, he’s already been wounded.  How strong is he?  Is he a very weak character, or is he really a strong man who made a mistake?

JvD:    [Ponders a moment]  I think he’s not so strong.  He’s a strong man, but not strong enough for his position.  Then you have Parsifal.  It’s very human, and perhaps it’s not a thing of strength, it’s a thing of purity.  Parsifal is very pure, and this purity gives him the strength.  Amfortas is too human for his position.

van dam BD:    Is Parsifal human?

JvD:    Parsifal is not so human-like.  It’s a symbol, too.  I think Parsifal is more a symbol of belief.

BD:    Parsifal isn’t really a normal human like Daland or Gurnemanz?  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown ta right, also see my interview with Siegmund Nimsgern.]

JvD:    Yes.

BD:    So Parsifal has a deeper faith?

JvD:    Yes.

BD:    And it’s stronger?

JvD:     Yes.  When I’m on the stage singing Amfortas, I don’t feel strong.  For me he’s not a strong man.

BD:    Amfortas seems to belittle himself.  He seems to be punishing himself for his failings. 

JvD:    Yes.

BD:    Has Amfortas made just the one mistake or more than one mistake?

JvD:    I think he made one mistake, and it’s for this that his belief is not strong enough.  The real belief of a man like Amfortas should say,
I made a mistake but God forgives.  But his belief is not strong enough, and it’s for this that he has the wound.  I’m sure when the belief of Amfortas was strong enough, he was not so sick.

BD:    Before he was wounded he was fairly strong, and then he had a moment of weakness to make the mistake?

JvD:    Yes.  This is complex.  I think before he was a strong man, but before the belief was not strong enough.

BD:    Even before the wound, he didn’t have enough faith?

JvD:    No. 

BD:    He’s the son of Titurel.  Did Titurel not teach him enough?

JvD:    [Ponders again]  I do not think it’s the problem of Titurel teaching him enough, it’s the problem like you have in the priesthood.  You can have a good priest and not such a good priest.  Every person can say,
I should like to be a priest.  It’s a vocation thing, and when you really have a vocation, it’s fantastic.  Then you are a strong man.  I’m not a priest but I think it is so.  But if the priest doesn’t really have the vocation, he’s not such a good priest.  Amfortas was not so strong like Titurel and Parsifal. 

BD:    Is the strength similar between Titurel and Parsifal?

JvD:    [Ponders yet again]  Perhaps, but the difference between them is that Titurel is dead and Parsifal is not dead.

BD:    Parsifal is perhaps the next Titurel?

JvD:    I guess, yes.  He’s the next, and perhaps stronger than Titurel.  On the other hand, Titurel is dead, but Parsifal is a man that cannot be dead.  This is my feeling.  He’s a symbol too, and a symbol can die.

BD:    Titurel was not a symbol?

JvD:    No.  I can say Titurel was a priest like Amfortas, who is a priest, but Parsifal is the essence of the spirit.  Between the second and the third act, you know that in the story of Wagner it’s two hundred or three hundred years before he comes back to the Grail.

BD:    Then how do you account for Gurnemanz if he is not immortal?

JvD:    It’s a strange thing in this opera.  He’s not immortal.  Nobody is immortal ...

BD:    ...Except Parsifal?

JvD:    Except Parsifal.

BD:    Then how can Gurnemanz be still be alive in Act Three?

JvD:    It’s that he is waiting.  It’s my impression that people can wait a very long time, and when I say people, I mean generations. 

van dam BD:    So Gurnemanz really might be two or three generations removed?

JvD:    Yes, but it’s one person and it’s not the son of Gurnemanz.  It’s a symbol that people can wait a long time when it’s necessary to find their faith.  When you think you’re sure something must happen, it can be a long time, and it is necessary to have the patience.  I think this is the conclusion of this opera
that you must wait three hundred years, but in the end it’s the coming of salvation.

BD:    There is a scene in the first act where Amfortas opens the Grail.  Is that the last time he performs the ceremony? 

JvD:    I don’t think so.  It’s an opera in three dimensions.  It is three hundred years later and I think he does it all the time, but not so much.

BD:    How much physical pain is Amfortas in?  Is it an excruciating pain?

JvD:    It’s here [pointing to his head].  It’s more mental than physical.  His belief is not strong enough to relieve him, and he needs the belief of Parsifal to help him.

BD:    So when Parsifal brings the spear and touches it to Amfortas
’ wound, does Amfortas die then?

JvD:    I don’t think so.  It’s like Gurnemanz.  He stays but the new leader is Parsifal.  When Parsifal comes with the spear, it’s little like Holländer with Senta.  It’s redemption.

BD:    So when Amfortas sees Parsifal with the sacred spear, then he knows that he’s redeemed and it works on his mind?

JvD:    Yes.

BD:    Do you regard Parsifal as a sacred drama, or is it just an opera?

JvD:    Ha!  I’m not so convinced it is sacred music.

BD:    Should there be applause after Act One?

JvD:    It’s difficult after this strong scene.  It’s a very strong scene, and it’s a little like a Mass.  When I am in audience I don’t feel the need to applaud.  I’m so under the spell of this music, but after the Second Act, it’s more accepted.  It’s a tradition in Europe not to applaud after this opera, but for me it’s a happy end.

BD:    No applause even after the third act?

JvD:    No, no applause.  It’s after the second but not after the third.  For me I can understand after Act Three.  It is, like you say, a redemption.

BD:    The audience is also redeemed?

JvD:    Yes.  It’s a beautiful thing, the redemption.

BD:    Would you ever sing Klingsor?

JvD:    No, no.

BD:    Whenever I ask about this, I think of Hermann Uhde because there was one performance at the Met many years ago where he sang both Amfortas and Klingsor.  [Matinee performance of April 19, 1957.  Besides Uhde in the two roles were Albert Da Costa as Parsifal, Margaret Harshaw as Kundry, Jerome Hines as Gurnemanz, and Nicola Moscona as Titurel.  James McCracken (who was at that time singing small roles) was a Knight.  Fritz Stiedry conducted.]

JvD:    [Amazed]  Amfortas and Klingsor???

BD:    Yes, thus being his own worst enemy.  [Both laugh]

JvD:    It’s like in Tannhäuser when the lady sings Venus and Elisabeth.

BD:    Is that a good thing to sing both parts?

JvD:    No.

BD:    Will you ever sing Wolfram?

JvD:    No.  It’s not a part for me vocally.

BD:    Might you sing the two big arias perhaps on concert?

JvD:    Yes, because they are beautiful and not so loud.  But the first role I sang in Wagner was Kothner in Meistersinger, and then there was all a little part in Tannhäuser and the Herrufer in Lohengrin.  Later came Amfortas, Holländer, and in 1983 will be Sachs.  That’s all my Wagner.

BD:    Do you see Lohengrin being the physical son of Parsifal, or is he the spiritual descendant?

JvD:    I think more spiritual.  I can’t imagine Parsifal has a woman and has a child with a woman.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Have you learned the part of Hans Sachs yet?

JvD:    No, I hope to begin soon.

vandam BD:    Are you looking forward to that?

JvD:    Oh yes, but it’s not so simple a figure.

BD:    No, he’s very complex.  Is Wagner portraying himself as Hans Sachs, or is Wagner the tenor, Stolzing?  Or does Wagner think of himself as both the wise Sachs and the young hero?

JvD:    You forget Beckmesser!  [Both laugh]  I don’t think Wagner was Sachs.  He was more Stolzing.  Sachs is too tranquil and not nervous.

BD:    Wagner was agitated?  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at left, see my interview with Franz Welser-Möst.]

JvD:    Here, in the head!  Wagner must have been a very complicated man.  He likes to make something extra in his works.  What I read about him is so different. 

BD:    Do you find this kind of reaction for any other composer?

JvD:    A little bit for Beethoven.  Beethoven was a little strange!  He was not just a composer but a little bit of a genius.  Mozart was a very strange person, too.  Read the letters he wrote.  You can’t imagine it was Mozart who wrote these letters and his music, but perhaps I can imagine this genius
like Mozart and Wagnerneeding an outlet.  When I hear music of Mozart or Wagner or Beethoven, I wonder how it is possible that one man has all this music in him.  It’s fantastic.  Like Shakespeare, there’s so much.  Shakespeare, too, is a strange personality.  Nobody knows Shakespeare.  It’s a problem to understand this man.

BD:    You’re originally from Belgium.  Are there some great Belgian composers that are somewhat neglected now that should be brought back?

JvD:    One of the biggest was Grétry (1741-1813) and the other was
César Franck (1822-1890).  The grandfather of Beethoven was from Belgium.  One part of his family came from Belgium, but he was not Belgian. 

BD:    Are there any Belgian composers writing today that are of stature?

JvD:    I don’t think so.  It’s more than twenty years since I’ve been to Belgium for my career, but there’s one who made good music, Jean Absil is his name (1893-1974).  He composed melodies to sing.  He was a good composer, but it’s difficult in all the world for me to find a good composer, actually.

BD:    Are there any writing today that are really worth singing?

JvD:    [Ponders]  One I find interesting is Penderecki.  I find him interesting, but all the others for me... it’s not music.

BD:    We had Penderecki here a couple of years ago for Paradise Lost.   I enjoyed it very much, but there was not much action.  He called it a ‘Sacra Rappresentazione’.

JvD:    Yes, and then you have Mauricio Kagel.

van dam BD:    Do you enjoy Berg because you sing Wozzeck?

JvD:    Yes, I love Wozzeck more than Lulu.

BD:    Even now with the third act?

JvD:    Yes.  I saw that in Paris, but for me, Wozzeck is one of the biggest operas in the repertoire.

BD:    Is Wozzeck a man or a symbol?

JvD:    He’s both.  Wozzeck exists.  It can be you or it can be me, but it’s symbol too.

BD:    He’s a little bit of every man?

JvD:    No, but I think every man can be Wozzeck.  Maybe not every man, but many men can be Wozzeck.  It’s a man beaten down by other people stronger than him.  Being stronger can be a social position.  Wozzeck is one of the very interesting roles of my repertoire, but it is not interesting to see.  It’s not a singing part.  It’s more an acting part.  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at right, see my Interview with Ragnar Ulfung.

BD:    This is a good time to ask you about the role of television, radio, and films of opera today.  Do you think that it’s a good thing or a bad thing?  How does the electronic age affect all of this?

JvD:    I think it’s a good affect.  It’s propaganda for music, however for me it’s boring to see opera that way. I’m sure it’s a big deal for other people and it’s a very good thing, but for me I prefer to go to the opera house to see opera rather than to see it on the TV.

BD:    But would you watch the television to see something that you might not see at the opera house?

JvD:    Ah yes, sure.  A month ago we saw Traviata from the Metropolitan direct with satellite.  That’s interesting, but then you have the live part of the thing coming direct from New York.  But when it’s a film made and then in put into a box, and then you put it on the TV, it’s a little for me like not having fresh grapefruit juice but rather from a can.  It’s different, but I can understand people love to see it.  For people in a big country like America, you have perhaps in the middle of Texas people who can’t go to the opera as it’s too far away, then this is fantastic.

BD:    Do you enjoy making recordings?

JvD:    Yes.  Recording is a very special thing.  When you have sung the roles on the stage and then you are in a studio with a microphone, you must make this intensity.  You must give more intensity in a recording than on the stage.   On the stage you are acting and the people see you acting.  At the recording you can’t act and the people can’t see you, so you must give more with your voice.  You must act more with your voice.

BD:    Is there a danger of having a recording become too perfect, where you cut and paste the best parts?

JvD:    Yes, I’m not so partisan of this.  I’m not such a friend of this technique
three bars here and two here, and then assemble it all.

BD:    You prefer to record a long scene two or three times and then cut from that?

JvD:    Yes.

BD:    What about issuing a live performance from the opera house?

JvD:    This recording is more like an archive, and I’m not so interested in this recording.

van dam BD:    You’re here in Chicago singing La damnation de Faust.  There will be a broadcast and then there will be a recording made.  Which would be better
the broadcast of one performance, or the recording made two weeks from now?

JvD:    I think it’s better to listen to the recording.  It’s the same thing I just spoke of.  When you are on the stage and singing a concert, the people see you.  You are not acting but the people see you.  Then when I make a recording, and I sing on the recording like I sing on the stage, but when I hear it I think it’s not enough and I must give more intensity in this part or that part.  It’s not the same thing, but for interpretation the recording is better than the broadcast.

BD:    So they each have something special?  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at left, see my interview with Sylvain Cambreling.]

JvD:    Yes.  It’s the same with the conductor.  It’s not so rare to see a conductor, after you make three or five concerts with him and then you make a recording he says that this tempo is too slow.  We must make it different.  It’s normal to that when you sing or when you conduct, you hear another way than you hear on the stage.

BD:    So the recording will not be the same as the last performance?

JvD:    No, and I hope it is better. 

At this point I asked if he was going to sing at Lyric Opera of Chicago, and he noted that he had spoken a few years previously with Carol Fox (one of the founders of the company in 1954 and General Manager for 25 years), but the scheduling did not work out.  He was going to be meeting with Ardis Krainik the following day, and he thought it interesting that two women successively ran such a major opera company.  I then filled him in briefly on the history of opera in Chicago, including the famous season of 1921-22 during which Mary Garden was the General Directa (as she called herself).  [See my article, Massenet, Mary Garden and the Chicago Opera 1910-1932.]  We also noted Sarah Caldwell in Boston and Beverly Sills at the New York City Opera.

BD:    Do you like traveling all over the world?

JvD:    No!  I like my home!

BD:    Do you limit yourself then to just a few weeks here and there?

JvD:    Yes, but it’s very difficult.  I try to stay at home two months a year.  Now I am forty years old, and I think I will sing about ten more years and then finish when I’m fifty or fifty-two.  Full stop!  Then I will be teaching.

BD:    Teaching voice?

JvD:    Yes.

BD:    Also acting and characters?

JvD:    No, more the technique.  I would like to do that.  I have a big interest in technique and in teaching.  I don’t do it now while I have no time.  It’s a big thing to teach, and very important for me.  When I see in the world the people who are teaching, it’s an undramatic thing.

BD:    Are most of the teachers not good teachers?

JvD:    No.  Many people do it for money and I should like in ten years to say that I’ve finished singing and I have enough money for me, and I teach as a hobby but not for money.  That’s my dream, and I think I will do it.

BD:    I wish you all the success in that venture.  You are one of those singers who seems to have the patience to be very careful about choosing roles.

JvD:    Yes, it’s important.

BD:    How hard is it to say no?  If Karajan asks you to sing Wotan, how hard is it to tell him no?

JvD:    It’s not hard.  A few years ago he asked me to sing Telramund and Pizarro, and I said,
No, it’s not the part for me.  Then this summer we spoke together and he said to me, Five or six years ago I asked you for Telramund and Pizarro, and you said no.  Did you change your mind?  I will make Fidelio and Lohengrin again.  I said, No, Maestro.  Telramund and Pizarro we say are crying parts.  Every time when Telramund sings or Pizarro sings, the orchestra [imitates the orchestra playing] and it’s dangerous.  He told me I was right about that.  I have so many other things to sing than these dangerous parts, and so many other singers can sing them and will sing them.  So I don’t have to sing them.

BD:    You enjoy singing?

JvD:    Yes.  You must enjoy that.  You know singing is a joy.

BD:    Which do you prefer
concerts or opera?

JvD:    Concerts.  It’s a little problem of double personality on one side.  When I’m on the stage and I’m acting, I’m singing Figaro or Giovanni or Amfortas and I’m not José van Dam!  I am Figaro or I am Leporello or Giovanni, and I must make a combination between my personality, the personality of the stage director and the personality of the conductor and the personality of the other singers.  All this mixture of personality makes a good performance, and it’s necessary to break a little your personality to make a good ensemble.  But when I am on the stage in a concert, I am more José van Dam.  When I sing a Creation or...

BD:    ...even Damnation?

JvD:    Even Damnation but Damnation is a little Mefisto on the stage.  But when you sing St. Matthew Passion or the Mélodies, Lieder, a recital with songs, then your personality is more displayed.  It’s me, and I should like to say it’s more than the musician on the stage than the acting personality.  You can make more music in a concert or in a song recital than in opera, and I prefer to make music.  I like acting, too.  I act Wozzeck.  It’s fantastic to do this, but then it’s a change of personality.

van dam BD:    Is Figaro a good acting part?

JvD:    It’s a good acting part.  It’s a difficult acting part.  It’s very long.

BD:    That seems to be one of the parts that you have made your own.

JvD:    Yes.  I’ve sung it more than 250 times.

BD:    [With a gentle nudge]  You’re not tired of it?  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at right, see my interview with Ileana Cotrubas.]

JvD:    No, no!  After the last time I said I would take a little rest from Figaro, but when I said the best opera of Mozart was Giovanni, now I’m not so sure.  Figaro is a fantastic thing, too. 

BD:    Do you like Sarastro?

JvD:    Musically the part of Sarastro is fantastic.  Both the arias have a wonderful vocal line.

BD:    But you would not do it on stage?

JvD:    No, no.   Karajan asked me for this, too, to do it on the stage.  This was five years ago in Salzburg with Giorgio Strehler, and I said no.  I said to him perhaps I would do it when he makes a recording, and then two years ago he said he was making a recording and I said okay!  But I think the two biggest operas of Mozart are Figaro and GiovanniGiovanni is one dramatic line.  It’s very strong music, and Figaro is more than one line. 

BD:    There are more things happening?

JvD:    Yes.  There is a diversity.

BD:    Yet it all comes together?

JvD:    Oh yes.  It’s fantastic in Figaro.

BD:    In Don Giovanni, it’s seems that everything happens towards Giovanni, whereas in Figaro there seems to be several major things before it all comes together.

JvD:    Giovanni leads all the people.  Where Giovanni is going the other people must follow him.  There’s not another possibility.  He’s the principal and the others follow.  It’s not possible to make something of it another way.  In Figaro, you do not have such a leader.  You have a changing of situation.  One time it’s Figaro who is the leader, but then two minutes later it’s Susanna, and then it’s the Count, and then it’s the Countess, and then it’s Cherubino.

BD:    Would you ever want to do any stage directing at all?

JvD:    No.  Not really.  My dream is to conduct, but I’ve not got the capacity to do it.  I would like one time to conduct, but I’m not Domingo!  [Both laugh]

BD:    Maybe someday.

JvD:    Perhaps so.

BD:    [Imitating a side-show barker]  Form the José van Dam Opera Company!  Music Director, José van Dam.  Principal conductor, José van Dam.  Principal Bass, José van Dam.

JvD:    Giovanni, José van Dam.  Leporello, José van Dam.  Masetto, José van Dam.  Conductor, José van Dam. [Gales of laughter from both]  I made my debut in Giovanni as Masetto fifteen years ago.

BD:    If they ever asked you for a recording to do Giovanni and Leporello and Masetto, would you accept?

JvD:    No, I don’t think so.  I would like to make a recording of Giovanni.  I made one of Leporello for the film directed by Losey, but I would like to do one as Giovanni.

BD:    Thank you so very much.  I appreciate your taking the time to talk to me today.

JvD:    It was a pleasure.

Here are just a few of the recordings that van Dam
has made of the French repertoire,
most of which include some of my other guests.


Also see my interview with Nadine Denize

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Also see my interview with Tatiana Troyanos

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Also see my interview with Mignon Dunn

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See my interview with Dawn Upshaw

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© 1981 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in the studios of WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago on April 24, 1981.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB in 1987, 1989, 1990, 1993, 1994, 1995, 1997, and 2000.  This transcription was made in 2014, and posted on this website at the beginning of 2015.  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.

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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.