Conductor  Lawrence  Rapchak
== and ==
Director  Marc  Verzatt

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie

Lawarence Rapchak served as Music Director of Chicago Opera Theater for five seasons, conducting the Chicago premieres of Berlioz’s Beatrice and Benedict, Ullmann’s Kaiser of Atlantis and Hagen’s Shining Brow.

rapchak He also led the company’s acclaimed recording of Menotti’s The Medium, of which the British Opera - The Rough Guide said “this performance is so rivetingly theatrical, and much of the praise should go to Lawrence Rapchak for his powerfully atmospheric direction,” while Le Monde De La Musique wrote “Lawrence Rapchak conducts this compact drama perfectly”.

In his eighteen seasons as Music Director of the Northbrook Symphony Orchestra (IL), Mr. Rapchak conducted the Chicago-area premieres of Shostakovich's Symphony No. 2 and Michelangelo Suite, Richard Strauss' Panathenaenzug, Franz Schmidt's Symphony No. 1, the Hans Rott Symphony in E Major and the North American Premiere of the Symphony No. 4 in C minor by Josef Bohuslav Forster. He appeared with The Chicago Symphony and Maestro Christoph von Dohnanyi as auxiliary conductor in Ives Unanswered Question, and served as Director of Educational Projects for The Chicago Philharmonic in conjunction with the Ravinia Festival.

Mr. Rapchak has also conducted for Ravinia’s Kraft Saturday Morning Series, The Civic Orchestra of Chicago's community outreach programs, as well as guest appearances with the Rochester (NY) Philharmonic, Marion and Muncie (IN) Orchestras. He also served as Principal Guest Conductor of the Northwest Indiana Symphony, Music Director of Chamber Opera Chicago for eight seasons, and has guest conducted the Czech Radio Orchestra and the Louisville Orchestra in concerts and recordings of his own works.

His orchestral work Saetas was commissioned and premiered by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under Neeme Järvi in 1997, and was hailed by the Chicago Sun Times as "the most welcome kind of new work." Saetas was subsequently performed by the Helsinki Philharmonic and the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. His works have also been performed by the Detroit Symphony, the Omaha Symphony and the National Orchestral Association in Carnegie Hall. Mr. Rapchak's Orloj and the chamber opera The Lifework of Juan Diaz, based on a story by Ray Bradbury, are also commercially available on CD, both with Mr. Rapchak conducting. He is listed in the authoritative Baker’s Biographical Dictionary of Musicians, edited by Nicholas Slonimsky, and has spent many seasons as pre-concert speaker for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

Mr. Rapchak was born in 1951 in Hammond, Indiana, and studied composition at the Cleveland Institute of Music with Donald Erb, Marcel Dick, and Leonardo Balada. He also studied conducting with James Levine.  He now resides in Whiting, Indiana with his wife, Celeste, and their three whippets, Penny Pasta, Otis, and Katie O'Toole. He is the son of Chicago radio personality Mike Rapchak.

[This is my third interview with Rapchak. To read the first two, from 1989 and 1991, click HERE. To read the fourth, from 1996, click HERE.]

In April of 1994, the Chicago Opera Theater presented the Chicago premiere of Beatrice and Benedict by Hector Berlioz (1803-1869).  To promote the five performances, I had a conversation with the conductor and the director during the rehearsal period.  Portions were aired on WNIB, Classical 97, and now, nearly three decades later, I am pleased to present the entire chat.

Bruce Duffie:   I’m speaking today with Lawrence Rapchak, the conductor, and Marc Verzatt, the director of the upcoming performances of Beatrice and Benedict by the Chicago Opera Theater.  It
s a wonderful opera, but how did you happen to select it?
Lawrence Rapchak:   It is an exquisite opera.  It maybe the world’s most exquisite opera.  I think I speak accurately in representing Marc and myself by saying that we’re nearly possessed by this opera.  I was at Santa Fe this summer mainly to hear singers in the Apprentice Program, and catch a couple of the other productions.  They did about twenty minutes of scenes from Beatrice and Benedict, in particular the Nocturne Duo.  It’s a duet between two women, Héro, the young lady who is about to be married the next day, and her handmaid.  They’re sitting in the garden at night, singing about love and the beauties of the night and nature.  It was just two ladies on stage, with no scenery, in generic period costume dresses sitting on plain old chairs.  There was a piano, and they sang this duet.  The house was full, and there wasn’t a sound.  People were leaning forward as they could not believe the exquisite perfection of this music.  Immediately afterwards I talked to some of the singers, and asked them to tell me about this opera!  When I got back to Chicago, I started looking at the score, and that is where it all started.

BD:   Now that you’ve gotten immersed in it, are you pleased that you made this selection?

Rapchak:   Yes!  I can’t imagine anything that I’d rather be doing now with this company.  It
s my debut with the company, and I go home at night and just want to come back every day and rehearse it again and again.  I can’t wait for the opening!

BD:   It’s a French opera, but you’re singing it in English.  Are you still retaining much of the French flavor?

Rapchak:   I think so.  The English translation that we’re using is basically a very good one, and it retains a lot of the rhymes.  It works quite well on a lot of the essence of the text.

BD:   Of course it works well musically.  Does it work well dramatically?
Marc Verzatt:   Yes, it does.  The opera for me is a great gift because it tells me what to do all the way down the line.  I have no difficulty.  Getting the opportunity to do Beatrice and Benedict is one of those rare chances that you get as a stage director.  Most of the time in my career, I’ve been offered an opportunity to direct a particular piece that a company is doing, and if it fits into my schedule, I’ll take it.  Very rarely something comes along that I want to do more than anything, and when I heard that COT was doing Beatrice and Benedict, I went after it like a pit bull after the mailman.  I was going to direct this.  Like Larry, I’m totally obsessed by the piece, and to answer your question more directly, it tells me so well what to do.  It shows me so well what to do.  There’s no head-scratching or wondering what I’m going to do with these people.  It just flows out of me as if I were channeling from another place.

BD:   Is this mostly the work of the librettist, or also the work of the composer?

Verzatt:   Well, I’m the librettist actually!  [All laugh]  Since we’re doing it in English, I had the French libretto that Berlioz wrote.  French is a highly refined and specific language, and it was written at a particular time.  In my egotistical way I thought we should go back and do the original Shakespeare, until I realized we’re dealing with trained singers, and not trained Shakespearean actors.  You want to give the singers and the audience the best possible means of transmitting the story.  So, working with Larry, working with the Berlioz French translated into English, and the Shakespeare, I put together very succinct but very workable English dialogue to go with the English version of the music.

Rapchak:   We should back-up just a minute, and mention three things.  First, Beatrice and Benedict is based on Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, and second, Berlioz was both the composer and the librettist, and third, what Marc is referring to as far as the singers and their dialogue is that this is a dialogue opera.

BD:   It has musical numbers interspersed with spoken dialogue?

Rapchak:   Yes.

Verzatt:   Absolutely!

BD:   Was there ever any thought to making the dialogue into sung recitative?

Verzatt:   Not as far as I’m concerned.

Rapchak:   No.  Somebody mentioned it to me as a joke in passing, and I laughed at that idea.

Verzatt:   I’ve only ever done that once in my life.  I did Bastien and Bastienne of Mozart which is a Singspiel.  It was composed-music and spoken dialogue.  This was when I was in Germany, and they wanted to produce it using a recitative version, and it doesn’t work!  It wasn’t Mozart.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   As the director, are you able to get good acting out of singers?

Verzatt:   I certainly am.  I’ve run into this question before.  First of all, having trained in drama myself, I have absolutely no difficulty whatsoever with the spoken word, and conveying it to singers who are not necessarily trained actors.  To me it’s the same as directing a sung aria.  I don’t believe that opera is a rarefied form of theater that is out there on some kind of planet, and doesn’t have anything to do with real life.  I’m also extremely fortunate that somehow the Chicago Opera Theater cast all of my friends in this show.  [Laughs]  We have to somewhat simmer down in rehearsal because we’re all so tuned into each other.  We work very, very closely and seriously without it being lugubrious or ponderous.  So, I don’t have any trouble directing the dialogue whatsoever.  I teach acting to singers by having them know what’s being said, and why somebody is saying that, and what it means.  In the end, it is very, very easy for me.  I don’t have any difficulty, and in fact, I enjoy it.

BD:   It comes across from the stage to the audience?

Verzatt:   Well, I guess the audience will have to judge that for me!  I can’t really say. [Laughter]

Rapchak:   Yet!  [More laughter]

BD:   What kinds of operas do you generally direct, or do you utilize the full range from baroque through to modern?

Verzatt:   I would love to have an opportunity to direct more baroque opera.  I tend to do pretty much what is made available to me.  Because I was a dancer, many people think that my specialty is in musical comedy, or Gilbert & Sullivan in particular.  I’ve done an awful lot of it all over the country, as well as a lot of musicals.  I’m doing The Student Prince later this year in Chicago.  But from the experience I’ve had at Lyric Opera, I’ve done everything from The Barber of Seville to all the big Mozart operas, with the exception of Don Giovanni.  At this point of my life that’s good, because I don’t want to do Don Giovanni yet.  But I pretty much can handle everything that comes to me.  I never take something if I don’t have an affinity for it.

BD:   In music, it would be silly to say a conductor is a conductor is a conductor because they have to work in all the different styles.  But is a director a director a director no matter what style they’re in?

Verzatt:   No, I don’t think so.  No matter what it is that they
re doing, everybody has in their life a certain area of expertise, and certain things that they do very well.  Then that’s inevitably the things they like to do most.  At my age, and at my stage of development, I dont think that I could have the hubris to say I could do The Ring [Wagner] just as easily as I could do Ruddigore [Gilbert & Sullivan].  I get the pieces to direct, and I’ve always found my way to learning what each piece is about, and how to make it theatrical, and entertaining, and somehow moving in one way or another to an audience by either touching their hearts or making them laugh.  Just like anybody else, you do best the things that really mean something to you.  I don’t think that I could just direct anything that came down the pipe.  For example, I was offered an Offenbach piece this summer, and I said yes to it.  Then I went and looked at it, and I hadn’t the remotest idea what to do with the thing.

BD:   So, you backed out of it?

Verzatt:   Actually, it backed out on me!  [Laughter]  The deal didn’t go through, I’m happy to say, because I don’t know what I would have done with it.

BD:   Now, you say you make it theatrical.  Are you making it theatrical for the audiences of the 1990s, or are you making it theatrical in terms of the way the play or the opera is, with the dramatic idea of when it was written?

Verzatt:   ‘Is’ is the operative word.  Theatrical for me is what is the composer and the librettist are saying.  What are they doing together, and why should it appeal to an audience now?  I don’t believe in conceptions.  I don’t believe in applying an outfit on a piece and saying this is what we’re going to make it look like, as if it was a set of paper dolls.  I go into what the piece is saying, and what the music is saying to me, and bring that out as clearly as possible.  Communication is the most important thing for a stage director, and I bring that to the audience, never expecting that they are going to sit there and accept anything that they don’t understand.  People wouldn’t rent videos of films for $2.50 that didn’t make any sense to them, so there’s no point in asking people to come to the theater, and give up any kind of need to be entertained, or be touched.  Whether they’re laughing or they’re really listening with their hearts, I cannot trick up an opera with a concept at all.  My responsibility, which is my big word, is to find out what’s going on in this piece, and then give that over to the audience.  Let them see that!  Make it clear to them!  I drive singers crazy!  I’m constantly in their faces telling them something’s not clear what they’re doing!  I know what you’re feeling, but it’s not coming across!  You’ve got to make these people feel as if they spent the money and the time well.  They need to get something from it.  One of the biggest influences in my life, as far as this kind of thing is concerned, was Wolfgang Hildesheimer’s book on Mozart.  His point of view throughout the book was that Mozart would write the moment.  If it was Leporello teasing Don Elvira, or when Don Giovanni was going to hell, it is what it is.  It’s either funny, or it’s touching, or it’s horrifying, or it’s vivid, or it’s serious, or it’s light-hearted.  From Cherubino, to the Count, to Donna Anna, to Zerlina, you’ll find that it is what it is, and my job is finding out what it is, and bringing that over.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Is it right that you should be completely behind the scenes, and never heard of, and never seen except by the cast?

Verzatt:   Yes, absolutely, and that was my choice.  I told you I was a ballet dancer, and I was the middle of the Met stage doing a production of Don Giovanni at about the age of twenty-five, and I knew I just didn’t want to do one role any more, I wanted to do everybody’s role, and the only way I could do everybody’s role is to be the director.  Many people don’t know that there is one person who is ultimately the control freak, and who is in charge of the whole thing, but that’s okay.  It’s like a lot of things.  What’s holding something up, or what’s putting it together is not necessarily the most interesting thing about the whole structure itself.

BD:   Your business is to keep everything rolling?

Verzatt:   Keeping everything rolling, but guiding.  More and more, my task is a matter of directing energy like a conduit, and not telling people what to do, but knowing what the piece is about, and what we want to do with it for the audience’s sake.  They are the people who are paying to look at it.  I am working with the people who are actually performing the roles, and making that happen.  I do not slap something on and then say to do it this way, because I might as well be a marionette operator that way.  I am always trying to bring ideas out of people.  That is what I like to do, and I’ve got a great collection of people to do that with me.

BD:   In this particular case, Berlioz is both the composer and the librettist.  Is there special homogeneity to it because they are the same person?

Verzatt:   Undoubtedly so.


Rapchak:   Even though Marc has done a dialogue version of his own for this production, he’s really streamlined it incredibly.  This show is going to zip by.  It moves very quickly because it’s not a long opera.

BD:   Has any music been cut?

Rapchak:   [Emphatically]  No!  Marc’s adaptation of the libretto is very similar in tone to what Berlioz did.  He is a joy to read.  We have to keep in mind that Berlioz himself was an excellent writer.  His Memoires and his witty criticisms, and his Evenings in the Orchestra make fascinating reading.  He said he hated writing, and according to him he only did it to make ends meet.  But he did it so well, and you can see the transformation of Shakespeare’s original play.  Berlioz’s libretto version is very, very delightful.  It’s very witty, just like the music.  Here is Berlioz writing what was essentially the last work in his life.  It’s very much like Verdi in the autumnal years, turning to a Shakespearean comedy.  People know Much Ado About Nothing from the recent Kenneth Branagh film.  That film had a joyous youthful atmosphere to it, and that’s what this opera is about.  Berlioz’s music is incredibly youthful and bubbly, very pure even for a guy who was almost sixty.  Despite the occasional forays into mad, extravagant works, like the Requiem [the Grande Messe des Mortes] and the Symphonie Fantastique, Berlioz regarded himself as a very pure classical composer.  His idle was Gluck, and that’s the way he really wanted to write.  It’s in this music.  It’s youthful, and it’s bubbly, and it’s just joyous.

BD:   The two of you seem to work pretty well together as a team.  Do you find that it’s a good collaborative effort?

Rapchak:   What’s interesting is that I’m mildly possessed by this opera.  When I heard it and examined the score, and I knew the Chicago Opera Theater could do it, even with their small orchestra pit.  [The Athenaeum Theater is shown below-right.]  There’s very little that has to be reduced in any way.  I knew we must do this opera!   It’s the right time, and it’s the right combination.  Then Marc was actually coaching some of the singers at the Lyric who were coming to audition for us.  If I’m correct, that’s how he first came in contact with the opera.

Verzatt:   Absolutely!

Rapchak:   We heard about his reaction to it, and he became equally possessed by it.  I was at the Lyric Opera to hear some auditions, and we had a chance meeting.  Marc asked if we had engaged a director yet, and the spark that I felt there from the way he reacted to it just locked in so well to the way I was feeling about it, and then it progressed from there.  Once we had really decided to do the opera, and when I started actively thinking about casting, I remembered a mezzo whose name was Kristine Jepson.  I knew her because she sang Rosina in The Barber of Seville about five or six years ago at Chamber Opera Chicago.  She is now on the roster at the Met, and this woman was born to sing this role.  It is a difficult role, and she has a big aria in Act 2, which is a real showpiece.  It is a major, major piece in the French romantic repertoire, and it’s not known.


Kristine Kay Jepson
(July 28, 1962 – April 21, 2017) was an American mezzo-soprano.

Jepson was one of four children born to Magnus Jepson and Dorothy Jepson, and the only daughter among the siblings. She grew up in Onawa, Iowa, and graduated from West Monona High School. She took her university degree in music at Morningside College, where her teachers included Harlan Buss. Jepson later studied music at Indiana University, with a focus on opera, and earned a Master of Arts degree.

Jepson made her debut at New York City Opera in September 1998. At the Metropolitan Opera, she sang the role of Ascanio in the company's premiere production of Berlioz's Benvenuto Cellini with Marcello Giordani as the title character, conducted by James Levine (later issued by the Met on CD). She sang in the first performance of Franz Liszt's oratorio St. Stanislaus in May 2003, at the Cincinnati May Festival, with Donnie Ray Albert, conducted by James Conlon (later issued on Telarc CD).

Jepson premiered the role of Kitty Oppenheimer in the first performances of John Adams's Doctor Atomic at the San Francisco Opera in October 2005. Her other work in contemporary opera included performances in Jake Heggie's Dead Man Walking, as Sister Helen Prejean, at San Francisco Opera and at the Theater an der Wien.

Tragically, Jepson passed away from cancer at age 54.

Verzatt:   I actually came to the opera that way about twenty years ago or so.  Frederica von Stade put out a recording [in 1976] with John Pritchard, and that aria is on it.  [The aria runs ten-and-a-half minutes!]  I own that particular LP, and it
s the one that has the most scratches and clicks on it because I just played it, and played it, and played it  I didn’t know the rest of the opera had such richness in it.

Rapchak:   In fact, every musical number has something incredibly special about it, not only this great aria that Beatrice sings when she’s sensing her awakening love for Benedict.  Could she possibly love this guy that she’s just made a habit of razzing every time she sees him?  Suddenly, is she falling in love with him?  It’s a great scena for the mezzo, but the beautiful Nocturne Duet that I mentioned hearing at Santa Fe is also a transcendental number.  When I went back stage and talked to the singers after that, the woman who had sung the part of Beatrice in that recital, said that there was also a trio for three women in Act 2 which is just as beautiful if not more.  I knew right then that I had to find this score.  There’s a wedding chorus that takes place with the chorus off stage, with just two guitars strumming in the background.  It is sublime.  Then the very next number is a wedding procession where we see Berlioz’s connection with Gluck, and his homage to the older composer.  Every number has something incredibly wonderful in it.

Verzatt:   To answer your question, yes, we get along very well because we both believe in the piece a lot, and we like each other.  We make each other laugh, and we yell at each other a lot.  [Pauses a moment]  Well, he yells at me more than I yell at him!  You can ask the cast!

Rapchak:   [Laughs]  Yes, yes!

Verzatt:   It works out very well because we both are very, very enthusiastic about whatever it is that we’re doing at a particular time, and we both are really in love with this opera.

Rapchak:   It’s been one-hundred-thirty-two years this piece was written [1862], and it’s never been played in Chicago.  So, here’s this additional thrill of being able to present it for the first time in this city.

BD:   If it’s as really as good as you say, why is it not a standard repertoire piece?

Rapchak:   Darn good question!  I don’t know!  Perhaps it has the feeling of being a connoisseur’s opera somehow.
Verzatt:   I remember when I first heard the opera itself, I was clueless about it.  I didn’t really understand how it worked, and it wasn’t what I was used to hearing at that point in my development.  I must have been about thirty years old when the Colin Davis recording came out [in 1962 with Josephine Veasey, John Mitchinson, and John Shirley-Quirk], and it seemed to be all over the place.  The duets and the trios, made it was almost like a baroque opera, in that there are set pieces but they did different things.  As an opera composer, Berlioz isn’t particularly regarded, unless you’ve got millions of dollars and can put on The Trojans.  People just don’t know Beatrice, and anything that is unknown is a big gamble.

Rapchak:   It’s also on the light-ish side.  It has somewhat of a divertissement flavor on the surface.  It’s quite a short opera, and there’s this light very romantic dreamy mood to it almost all of the way through.  Chicago seems to prefer things with blood and guts, so this work wouldn’t particularly fit into that mold, even though people love to hear the Symphonie Fantastique again, and again, and again.  That work is such an extravagant extreme, and may even be a bombastic work.  That is the other side of Berlioz.  This is a gentler side.

BD:   Does this make you want to go and do The Trojans, or perhaps Benvenuto Cellini?

Verzatt:   [Enthusiastically]  Yes, and how!

Rapchak:   [Laughs]  Not at the Chicago Opera Theater!  We would need a bigger stage and a bigger pit!  [The Athenaeum Theater (with its small pit clearly shown) is seen at right.]

Verzatt:   I’ve always been a Berlioz freak anyway.

Rapchak:   Funnily enough, I haven’t been!  I have the greatest respect for him, and when I speak on music to audiences, I hold Berlioz’s music in a special sort of awe because Berlioz is the one major composer in history whose antecedents are hard to find.  It is hard to see where he picked up ideas from other music that he knew, and then started developing them.  He was born in a tiny little village where there wasn’t even a piano.  He somehow just had it in him to set these ideas.

BD:   [Making an awful pun]  That’s his name... he Ber
lioz [he barely owes]!

Verzatt:   Oh, dear!  [Much laughter]  I can’t keep up with this.

Rapchak:   But the point is I’ve never really been drawn to it.  I’m fascinated by his music, but I don’t know if I’m pulled and drawn by it in a certain way that I’d like to be.

BD:   [Making a second awful pun, knowing that the broadcast tape could be edited]  As long as you’re not drawn and quartered...

Rapchak:   [Groans]  Yes!  But now Beatrice and Benedict has opened my eyes.  It really has.  
I feel so passionately committed to this piece that I must go and learn more and more.

Verzatt:   I am pulled and drawn to it!

BD:   I’m very glad that the Chicago Opera Theater has decided again to do a work that they can do with their size and resources.  They can do it well, and bring something that is interesting and should be seen, and will probably continue to be ignored by the big companies.

Verzatt:   Definitely.  It’s not by any means a chamber opera or an opera-comique, but it certainly does belong in the kind of houses that you’re talking about.  Boston had a great success with it, as did St. Louis...

Rapchak:   ...and Glimmerglass also.  It’s been very successful.

Verzatt:   It works well in the right house with the right people.

Rapchak:   It’s a perfect choice for us.

BD:   I’m glad you two guys are involved with the Chicago Opera Theater, and are helping it make a come-back.  [To read some of the history of the company, including the near-fatal events it faced at this time, see my interviews with the founder, Alan Stone.]

Verzatt:   So are we!

BD:   I wish you lots of continued success.

Verzatt:   Thank you.

Rapchak:   Thank you, Bruce.

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© 1994 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in Chicago on March 26, 1994.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB a few days later.  This transcription was made in 2023, and posted on this website at that time.  My thanks to British soprano Una Barry for her help in preparing this website presentation.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.  To read my thoughts on editing these interviews for print, as well as a few other interesting observations, click here.

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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.