Conductor  Maurice  Abravanel

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


What is contained on this webpage is much of my interview from 1985 with conductor Maurice Abravanel.

The conversation centered mostly on two composers -- Massenet and Wagner.  The French material was originally published in July of 1986 by the American Branch of the Massenet Society in their semi-annual newsletter.  Then, in January of 1988, to celebrate the conductor's 85th birthday, the Wagner Society of America presented the other portion of the conversation in their monthly publication.

Both of those segments are on this webpage.  They have been slightly re-edited and now appear with the addition of photos and links to my interviews elsewhere on my website.  As noted in the following introduction, I have changed the format from my usual practice.  It should also be noted that the Wagner section originally began with the same introduction, which has not been repeated here... as the conductor, himself, suggests when speaking of repeats in musical scores!

The  Esteemed  Conductor
Maurice  Abravanel

By Bruce Duffie

These days, when one thinks of Maurice Abravanel, his long association with the Utah Symphony comes to mind.  Indeed, he was there from 1947-79 building a fine orchestra and making numerous recordings.  As the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians notes, this is "notable sociologically.  Utah is one of the poorest states, with no tradition of philanthropy toward the arts, yet under Abravanel's leadership, has become the state with the highest concert attendance."  But his career began much earlier, and included a great deal of opera.

abravanelHe was born in January of 1903 of Spanish-Portugese-Sephardic stock.  An ancestor is reputed to have been chancellor to Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain.  Maurice was brought up in Lausanne, and studied medicine.  Then on Busoni's recommendation, he went to Berlin in 1922 to study composition with Kurt Weill.  After working in several German theaters, in 1933 he moved to Paris, where he conducted ballet, and in 1934-35 toured Australia as conductor of the British National Opera.  He told me that doing performances of Wagner in English was where he learned to speak the language!

On the recommendation of Bruno Walter, Abravanel came to New York and conducted opera at the Met.  Later, he turned to leading Broadway musicals of Kurt Weill.  He also did operas in Chicago for a season, and eventually wound up in Utah.  Except when he was in the hospital for heart surgery, he never missed a performance in 55 years of conducting.

What follows is a conversation I was privileged to have with the maestro a year or so ago.  In most of my interviews the format is "Q & A", but this time, Abravanel told so many wonderful stories that I hardly had to ask him anything.  One memory led to another, and with little prodding from me, he expounded on two subjects:  Wagner, and Massenet.

So, in place of the usual style for these interviews, I have let the maestro just talk to you very much like he talked with me -- in large chunks of interesting memories.  I'll write a few words between each large segment, but I now turn the typewriter over to Maurice Abravanel . . . . . . . . .

     I love to talk about Massenet.  In New York, I was once asked by a singer named Maximova to talk during her lecture/recital.  That would have been around 1938.  I said something about Massenet to the effect that he was a very great composer.  In those days, this was shocking because he was totally "out"; he was no good.  Most of the audience thought I was kidding, but Emilio De Gogorza was in the audience and thought I was condescending about it.  He grumbled audibly because he knew that Massenet was a great composer.  (He was probably the only one in the entire audience who felt that way.)  If you read Debussy's articles penned as "M. Croche", you'll see he felt Massenet was good.  I have always had a great love of Massenet, and a great respect and admiration for his works.  Take Manon, which is of course a masterpiece.  He expressed beautifully those things he wanted to express.  When he wrote an aria in the ABA form, after the short middle (B) section, the repeated A section is shorter because he has condensed it.  In the five acts of Manon, he has an amount of music -- if you call melody music -- which any sane musician should not hesitate to do.  Milhaud said that the essence of music is melody.  No one can quite define melody -- it's like jazz:  you know it when you hear it!

I asked him if we were losing "melody" in modern compositions.

     We have lost it!  It is considered a dispensable attribute of modern music.  Beauty, quality, tenderness, all of these are needed for melody, but Massenet has those elements in spades.  There are never very many works in the consciousness of the public, and this was especially true before the advent of recordings.  So, the enormous success of Manon meant that there was no room for anything else.  You barely heard Werther.  I know that many works were done with Mary Garden -- especially there in Chicago -- but how successful were they?  Mary Garden personally was successful, but when I conducted there in 1940, the only one was Manon.  You could do Thaïs, but only if you had a particularly beautiful soprano.  [See my article Massenet, Mary Garden, and the Chicago Opera, 1910-1932.]

At this point, we chatted about the general lack of rehearsal time given
to both new and old productions at the Met and elsewhere.

     Now in 1940, it was bad enough at the Met where there was very little rehearsal time, but in Chicago we had only one orchestral rehearsal for most of the operas.  That was also the year the chorus got organized, so instead of having them there for hours and hours without getting paid, we had to pay them by the hour.  They also fired the whole chorus and hired a new one, but they did not know one single opera.  So when we did Manon we had one rehearsal, and it did not even go in sequence.  We did the chorus scenes first, so that the chorus could be dismissed because they had new AGMA contracts.  But after they were done, they all went and sat in the auditorium because not one of them had ever seen the opera.  The first cast had Grace Moore as Manon, and a few days later, when Helen Jepson came into the cast, she didn't even get that single rehearsal.  She had never sung Manon before, so I asked Richard Crooks (who was a very sweet guy with a lovely voice and no acting ability whatsoever -- but that was not required in those days) to come and do just the duets with Jepson.  So we sat there in a small room and did the duets with piano.  That girl had to take on Manon without ever having heard the orchestra from the stage.  I remember my relatives, who had come from Paris, commented on how lovely Jepson was.  Some mentioned a lacking of acting in this or that scene, and I could only think that it was a miracle that she could get through the part without any proper rehearsal!  She had a lovely voice and was a beautiful woman, and she did very well.  But that is something American.  Nobody in Europe would dare to try it, or could get away with it.

I mentioned that I'd had a chat with Bidu Sayão, and noted that
he had led the performance when she made her Met debut.

abravanel     That was her American debut.  It was a Saturday matinee, and I remember Rene Maison caught a cold.  When I arrived at the stage door, there was a message that the tenor would by Sydney Rayner.  He was an excellent tenor, really, except he could not sing softly very well.  So here was Rayner with a heavy voice, and Sayão with a very small voice.  It was exquisite, but not as good as it would be later.  She would close her eyes to express emotion.  Now onstage, you don't close your eyes because it doesn't communicate.  The performance was not very good because without a rehearsal there was no way of finding any reasonable balance between Sayão and Rayner.  And she was very tiny, and he was quite robust.  The scene in St. Sulpice is always very dangerous if the singers are not about the same size.  When she grabs him and takes him to the footlights, it must be believable.  Here was timid Miss Sayão and enormous Sydney Rayner who was singing like a heldentenor.  But when I got home and read the review in the Sunday Times, Olin Downes wrote a glowing review of her -- and of me, too.  I threw my arms up in the air!  It had been what I thought was my worst performance at the Metropolitan Opera.  Later I enjoyed working with Sayão immensely, but that first performance was not good at all.  At the end of the second act, which is so tricky, she was all over the place.  She did not as yet have the know-how to sing that, to appear very agitated and yet be solid as a rock technically.  I remember meeting Rayner for the first time.  He was an American, but nobody at the Met spoke English at the time.  So he greeted me with, "Bon jour, maître."  He said it with a horrible accent.  I didn't respond.  He knew I'd been at the Berlin Opera, so he said, "Guten Tag, Kapellmeister."  Again, I didn't respond.  So he said, "Bon giorno, maestro."  I finally looked up and said, "Why don't you try English?"

During the course of our conversation, Maestro Abravanel told me about
the circumstances surrounding his own debut at the Met.

     In the season of 1936-37, Grace Moore was supposed to be in the first Manon, and the opera Lakmé was being done exclusively for Lily Pons.  When I arrived sometime in November, I went to the Hotel Astor and was told to go to see the General Manager, Edward Johnson, as soon as possible.  When I got to his office, he showed me two telegrams each a foot long.  One was from Grace Moore saying that she could not sing that performance of Manon because they had to shoot some additional scene in Hollywood.  The other was from Lily Pons saying that she could not sing her performance on December 26th because that was the night the movie studio had decided to have a big party for the opening of her movie.  So Johnson was furious, and asked me if I knew Vina Bovy.  I said I knew her very well; she had sung with me.  He said, "How is she as Manon?"  I replied, "Magnificent."  Then he asked, "How is she as Lakmé?"  I said, "Wonderful."  She had a beautiful voice and was rather statuesque, but not too much so.  She was blonde, and had the jewels of the Emperess Eugenie, the wife of Napoleon III.  Her husband was a very rich Italian who never let her out of his sight.  He would come to a piano rehearsal, and Vina would look at me with a nice smile because he would fall asleep -- but not enough asleep to take any liberties, pity.  So anyway, Johnson decided to keep the dates and go ahead without the two ladies from Hollywood.  When the performance of Lakmé came, Bovy sang wonderfully and very precisely.  She also looked beautiful, except that she was clothed as the daughter of the high priest.  That was the tradition at the Paris Opera-Comique where she had sung it.  In other words, she wore a dress from her chin to below the feet.  She was totally covered, and I could feel that the audience was not with us.  So I was the culprit because I had said she was so very good.  Later, when Pons came back, the performances were called "the navel parade."  She was exquisite, but when you look like that, you don't have to sing at all.  But this was what the audience knew as Lakmé, and what they came for.  But coming back to Massenet, when Grace Moore did come, we had only a run-through of the duets on that stage on top of the stage at the old Met.  The tenor was René Maison.  Wilfred Pelletier was at the piano.  I was 33 at the time and Grace Moore was a big movie star, so what could I expect to tell her?

I asked the maestro if he was afraid that here the conductor
would have to adapt to the whims of the singer.

     Of course.  So, I sat there rather gloomy, and all of a sudden she stopped singing and came over and said, "You didn't like what I did there."  I stammered, and she repeated her statement and demanded to know what she did wrong.  So, I tried to explain about singing the little syncopated part at the beginning.  It doesn't begin on the beat, but after the beat.  Syncopations in those days were rare, but it means that Manon was not on Earth, but was floating in the air.  She doesn't know what is happening.  She is a young girl alone for the first time.  But if you sing the first note on the downbeat, I think you lose something.  So Grace stormed back to get her score and a big blue pencil, and said in a not-too-graceful tone, "Now you tell me everything that I am doing wrong."  So I worked with her on it, and at the next performance, the staff were there and commented, "What's the matter with Grace Moore?  She's together with the orchestra!"  She was absolutely marvelous.  We had worked together, and her voice was a little bit too heavy for Manon, but she was anxious to learn.  When she was in good voice -- which was not always -- she had a quality which was absolutely fabulous... on top of being a very beautiful woman!  She would starve herself to be slim for the shooting in Hollywood, but then she would eat like a horse to feel more confident when she had to sing onstage.  Of course they pre-recorded all the operatic scenes in Hollywood, but the audience didn't know that the technique was possible.  We all wondered how she could sing like bird while skiing or practically standing on her head.  All that was new.

I asked the maestro if that destroyed the illusion -- knowing how it was done?

     No, because it was done so well you're not aware of it.  Today, the directors are so very stupid.  A singer will be heard very loud, but will be acting in a subtle way, and you can tell it was dubbed in.  You know that something is wrong.  But back then, Hollywood had a great respect for Culture, and opera was Culture.  I remember Grace later asked me to coach a young singer who would be one of the three girls in Manon in Chicago.  That young singer was Dorothy Kirsten.  But I loved Grace.  She was one of those phenomenons of nature.  On the day of a performance, she did not open her mouth.  She stayed in bed to save the voice.  But when she was through, you could not get her home!  She would stay out until 6 AM, and then go home and cook an omelet in which she would put everything but the kitchen sink.  Whatever she did, she did with enormous gusto.  And she had that star-quality.

We talked a bit about musical decisions that have to be made when
conducting any opera, and eventually we came back to Manon.

     In the scene at the Hôtel de Transylvanie, on the last note before the downbeat you will see a fermata.  In those days, the publishers agreed to re-engrave the pages whenever the composer made a change.  As Massenet was the most successful composer of that time, there are many editions of his scores.  The changes with Massenet were invariably done because he was in love with a prima donna.  Fermatas or ritards to enhance her role would be duly noted in the next edition.  I went back to the original even though in those days the way to do things was by tradition.  The first thing they asked me when I came to the Met was about the traditions.  Being European, they expected me to tell them about the traditions.  Anyway, I did it at the Met without the big fermata.  A broadening is in order, but not the big fermata.  After the rehearsal, Mme. Savage came to me.  She was in the chorus, but she was a celebrity, and she congratulated me for being the only one to do that phrase correctly in over 30 years!  So I had a big hit with her.

I then asked Maestro Abravanel if he had ever done Thaïs.

     I was in Mexico City in 1947, and we were supposed to do Thaïs with Raoul Jobin, Roger Bourdin, and Géori Boué, an exquisite soprano.  Those were the three French artists I had for that season for the Theatre des Belles Artes.  I knew the opera very well, though I had never conducted it.  So I asked for the score, and they said it will arrive any day.  Then I asked again and again and again, and always there was another excuse.  Finally, I said that if it was not there by the following Monday I would not do it.  It was not a repertoire opera in those days.  Finally they said the score could not be gotten, and they would do Faust instead.  But of course, all along they knew that Thaïs would not sell out, but they wanted to pretend that it was beyond their control.  The Faust, by the way, wound up being sung in three languages at once.  The chorus knew it only in Spanish, the bass knew it only in Italian, and we had the three French singers I just mentioned.

As we neared the end of our conversation, I asked one of my favorite
questions -- if he was optimistic about the future of opera.

     Of course!  Opera is the craziest, most un-logical thing.  Opera reminds me of women -- they are totally un-logical, they are silly much of the time, but they are absolutely indispensable and marvelous.  Opera is the silliest thing when you try to explain it, or when you try to defend it to somebody who doesn't get the idea.  But opera is absolutely fascinating.  Where else do you get the human voice (which is the model for every instrument), the human body (like in dance), acting (like in theater), an orchestra (like in the symphony), a chorus, sets, visual arts, lighting?  Everything on Earth is there.  That is why opera has been going on in spite of every silly thing done to it by singers, conductors, and especially directors.  It's been going on for nearly 400 years.  By comparison, the symphony is a new thing.

= = = = = = = = = = = = = = =

[Note: This bit of commentary at the end of the article refers to the interview with Helen Jepson, which also appeared in the same issue of the Massenet Newsletter.]  You might have noticed a discrepancy while reading the two accounts of the Manon in Chicago.  The soprano talks about singing with Schipa, while the Maestro speaks of Richard Crooks as the tenor.  A look to the annals proves them both to be right.  In 1940, there were three performances of Manon.  Two had Jepson and Abravanel (and Rothier).  The first one had Crooks, and the second had Schipa.  The Poussette was Kirsten.  Jepson also did two performances each of Traviata and Martha during that period, as well as singing Nedda in Pagliacci.  Schipa also appeared in Traviata (with Novotná), and Don Giovanni (with Pinza).  Grace Moore finally did arrive and sang Montemezzi's L'Amore dei Tre Re (conducted by the composer), and Manon on the last day of the season.

I hope that readers of the Massenet Newsletter enjoy these conversations which I have been able to arrange.  Your comments on them would be most appreciated.  In the next issue, two more figures from the older generation:  Soprano Dorothy Kirsten, and conductor Manuel Rosenthal.  Kirsten is still quite active and involved with many projects, and Rosenthal continues to conduct in many places including the Met.  He has also recently agreed to undertake for the first time in his career the complete Ring by Wagner.  That will be in Seattle this summer, and he'll be replacing Armin Jordan, who has had severe problems with his back.  Rosenthal commented to the press that Wagner himself said his music was hated by the French, but they conducted it better than anyone else.  The maître hopes to live up to that billing.

That will make three issues in which I have devoted my allotted space to distinguished members of the older generation.  In the following issue, I'll share with you two conversations with up-and-coming singers:  Mezzo-soprano Kathleen Kuhlmann (who says her favorite role is Charlotte), and tenor Barry McCauley.

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[Note: We continue now with the second part of the interview which appeared in Wagner News in January of 1988.]

Conductor  Maurice  Abravanel  at  85

By Bruce Duffie


[Note: I used the same few introductory paragraphs as in the "Massenet" presentation above.  What follows is the "Wagner" portion, starting with more of his recollections...]

     I conducted Wagner first in Germany.  I was born in Lausanne, Switzerland, but went to Germany in 1922 to continue my studies.  The next year I got a job in small provincial theaters -- some pretty good like Kassel where Gustav Mahler had been, and Altenbourg which has a good small opera house -- and also in Berlin as a guest.  At the age of 25 I was Music Director in Altenbourg, and my first opera there as Music Director was Meistersinger.  I did also Tannhäuser.  I didn't do too much Wagner there, but was announced as a guest for Meistersinger at the Berlin State Opera.  In those days it was a leading, world-class opera, but my name was taken off the roster because I was a foreigner.  That was 1932.  I conducted a lot of Wagner in Australia.  I went there as Music Director of what they called the "British National Opera Company" which was the British Wing of Covent Garden.  There were wonderful singers including Florence Austral, who could sing Isolde on Saturday and Aïda on Tuesday!  She was really a remarkable, wonderful singer.  There was a bass named Norman Allen, who was well-known in England, and the tenors Walter Widdop and Browning Mummery.  Anyway, it was a first-rate company, and my first experience with British singers.  We sang everything in English, which meant a catastrophe when we arrived in Melbourne.  It was a 42-day trip from London to Melbourne (45 to Sydney).  There were no planes as this was 1934.  I had been conducting at the Paris Opera at the time, and also the big Balanchine Company.

What did you do for those 42 days at sea?

     The first few days we were idle, then I started rehearsing.  I was one of three foreigners.  There was a coach from the Berlin Opera, whom I had recommended, who had been an assistant to Leo Blech, and there was a tenor who had been at the Met [and Chicago!], a Belgian named Octave Dua.  The British singers told me I'd have an interesting experience in Australia because every company that went there brought its own orchestra either from London or from Milan.  They had taken companies with the likes of Toti Dal Monte and Apollo Granforte.  But opera had never been done in Australia with a local orchestra.  So we arrived there and I had my first rehearsals which I felt were dismal, but was told they were the best musicians they had.  The man who ran the company was Sir Benjamin Fuller, who had made a lot of money in vaudeville.  His wife suggested that since he had made so much money, why not bring Grand Opera instead of vaudeville.  He agreed, and that was why we were brought there with a 13-week contract with an extension of another 13 weeks.  The man who was supposed to have conducted the company was Sir John Barbirolli, but before signing to go he was advised that something might turn up in America.  So he didn't want to be so very far away.  Then they asked Albert Coates, but his mother was Russian, and so he wanted in his contract that he could do all kinds of Russian operas that were then (and are still) rather unknown.  He also wanted an enormous orchestra.  There were no opera houses, so we played in theaters that could accommodate 45 or 50 players at most.  At that time, I had made quite a splash in Paris preparing Don Giovanni with French singers for Bruno Walter.  I had conducted at the Berlin Opera, so I was not an unknown quantity.  So the manager of the company engaged me as the Music Director.

abravanel     The first rehearsal was so dismal that I told Sir Benjamin Fuller that I had to have two three-hour rehearsals every day in order to make it go.  I got that, and we opened with Aïda.  The day we arrived in Melbourne, Octave Dua, who had travelled a great deal in his career, knew exactly the Italian restaurant which was very good.  In those days, most restaurants in Australia were pretty awful.  So we went to this Italian restaurant, and the owner came to say hello, and lamented that we had a British company.  How could opera by sung by British?  It's out of the question, especially when you're doing operas only in English.  It was ridiculous.  That's when I learned that an Italian company had performed everything -- including Lohengrin -- there.  So the small Italian colony decided to sabotage the English company.  We started, and there were five different operas in the first five days, and I conducted them all.  They were all Italian operas because I'd been told that this is what the companies play in Australia.  It was what people wanted, and what would fill the house.  There were also a few French operas -- Faust, Carmen, and I insisted on Pecheurs de Perles because I had done the premiere of a new version and it had been a big success in Berlin.  Furtwäangler also had conducted it.

     But the man in the restaurant was right.  The word had been passed by the Italians in Sydney and Melbourne that it was ridiculous.  So we sat down with the producer, Sir Charles Moore, and decided to switch from Italian to Wagner.  During the next six months in Sidney and Melbourne, I conducted twelve performances each of Lohengrin, Tannhäuser, Walküre, and Tristan.  Those British singers knew their parts.  Even in Kassel, even in Berlin, singers needed a prompter, and even so they would make quite a few mistakes.  But those British singers knew their parts and could sing beautifully without any prompter!  It was very satisfying.  They knew their parts inside out and were very good singers.  We filled the house!  It was hard work for me with the orchestra, but I was young so I could do it.  Anyway, when you do Wagner, no matter what you do it sounds good, and the Australians were so tickled that their own musicians could play so beautifully, that the talk was how wonderful the orchestra was and they were proud that they, Australians, could play Wagner.  It's more interesting to play than Verdi, so they think it's more difficult.  The performances were all in English, and that's how I learned the language!  Sub-consciously I was translating from the German, having been eleven years in Germany.  I'm not kidding -- that's a very good way to learn English -- conduct something in English that you have known in your own language!  [Slyly]  That option is not open to everybody . . . .  [Both laugh]

     Then the company went back to London, but I was asked by Sir Keith Murdoch, who, unlike his son Rupert Murdoch, was epitome of good taste, distinction, and refinement.  His wife was even more so, but Rupert is known to be as cheap as they come.  He'll do anything as long as it makes money.  The father on the contrary was a gentleman and a wonderful man, and wanted to try having a couple of symphony concerts.  So he engaged me to come back, and the musicians in Sidney also asked to have me back.  They had no symphony; they had tried one, but it didn't go.  So I did the concerts and they asked to form an Australian National Orchestra.  At that moment, the Australian Broadcasting Commission had a monopoly of symphony concerts.  They brought Sir Thomas Beecham and later Eugene Ormandy and Sir Malcolm Sargent for three concerts in Sidney, then three in Melbourne.  They engaged me to do two operas in concert on the air, and gave me carte blanche as to the choice of operas.  All they wanted to know four weeks in advance was whether I wanted two evenings or three evenings in one week, and how long each night would last.  I put my ordinary watch on the table and read through the score, and the timing I gave them turned out to be accurate within one minute.  I did Rheingold and Parsifal both totally uncut because it was on radio.  In the theater, I did lots of cuts in the works because there were cuts at the Met and even in Berlin in those days.  Sometimes that works to great advantage, as you know.  The new school that says you have to do everything the composer wrote including repeats is the most ridiculous thing because even Brahms himself not only condoned but recommended not to repeat his own sections.  He said that when the works were new, he wanted people to hear the tunes a second time, but later, when audiences knew the works, he didn't think they needed to be repeated.  Toscanini, Furtwängler, Walter, Weingartner would never observe the repeat of the exposition (the first part of the first movement in the symphonic form).  Remember, when they were written these works were new and could stand the extra playing to get them across.  There is no question that in most operas, the composer -- or if not the composer, the producer -- would discover that the opera went much better with cuts.  There is something very profane, very mundane, very dirty called "success."  If they notice that people were excited instead of yawning, the composer would approve.  I have yet to find a composer who is not happy, no matter how you take his work, if the public likes it.  I also did the first performances in Australia of Rosenkavalier, Prince Igor, and Boris Godunov.  I had a free hand, but wanted operas they had not heard.

Do you feel that would work now,
with the easy availability of recordings?

     I feel that the live performance -- even a radio performance -- has a sweep that you rarely ever get in a recording.  The public hears it on one evening without any idea that you can ever stop.  That gives a certain tension to the performance.  But you are right that the material would not be completely unknown.  But in those days there were no recordings, so to 99% of the Australians who listened religiously every week, they were totally new.

     Then, when I went to the Met, I conducted all the performances of Lohengrin and Tannhäuser for two seasons.  That was 1936-38.  Interestingly, one of the reasons I was engaged there was that Bodanzky complained he had too much to do.  So I was asked if, in addition to most of the French repertoire, I would conduct some Wagner.  I also rehearsed the orchestra for Siegfried and Rosenkavalier.  In Siegfried, it so happened that there was a very big mistake which I spotted, and I told the players.  It was during the Schmiederlied that the strings were to crescendo and the winds diminuendo (or the reverse, I forget now), but they all were making a diminuendo and were reluctant to change.  Bodanzky was there following with the score, and when the player's representative said they didn't want to alter what they'd been doing all along, Bodanzky said in a loud voice, "Play it as it's written!  Change it!"  Later, Edward Ziegler, the Assistant Manager, who was very knowledgeable about musical matters and had been a music critic, came to me and said he didn't know the orchestra could play so beautifully.  It was really marvelous, though, to do the Lohengrin and Tannhäuser performances with the "Golden Age" casts.  It was my first experience with Lotte Lehmann, and we later became very close friends when she was out in California teaching.

Are you optimistic about the future of opera?
[Even though this question appeared in the "Massenet" section above,
in the "Wagner" presentation I included not only the paragraph seen there,
but also more of his answer since it included relevant material.

abravanel     Of course.  Opera is the craziest, most un-logical thing.  (...)

     Critics have completely reversed themselves.  Before the First World War, they condemned anything that was different from what they were used to.  Now, they condemn anything new that is at all accessible on first hearing!  That was so in the twenties, but it went full-blast after the Second World War.  So an opera that would be pleasing the first time is dismissed as being not original.  But in spite of that, opera goes on and on.  Take the Ring.  Everybody knew that Wagner had his peculiarities, but everybody knew that the music was tremendous and his operas were marvelous.  Fiorello La Guardia, the mayor of New York City, would leave his office early in order to go to the few uncut performances of the Ring at the Met.  I saw him many times.  I conducted his orchestra, the New York City Orchestra, so I knew him quite well, and I would see him there.  I would say, "Hey, you are the Mayor of a big city, and you spend five hours here!"  He said, "Well, I work harder in the morning!"  He never missed an uncut performance of Wagner.  When Melchior sang Walse Walse, nobody on this planet can approach that kind of timbre.  It never sounded forced or pushed, just loud, but the whole house was vibrating.  It was incredible and very beautiful.  Then Bing came and he didn't like Wagner, and many people were against Wagner.  It was supposed to be poison at the box office, but you have McEwen putting on a Ring in San Francisco, and it was completely sold out months ahead.  I wanted to go, but my wife was very ill at the time and I didn't have the heart to make the trip then.  But I understand it was done without gimmicks and without so-called innovations.  I admit it's very difficult to do it as Wagner asked without being ridiculous.  With Karajan, the dragon was off-stage.  He didn't want to try it in front of the audience, so it was never seen.  Lotte Lehmann remarked to me that it was always difficult to stage the first act of Lohengrin because of the swan which has to be on the water.  To do it at all, the river must be at the back of the stage which meant that the choristers would have to turn their backs in order to see the swan and sing the lines about it.  And turning their backs to the conductor and the audience is not good for the chorus.  Well, Lehmann came back from Bayreuth and told me how the choristers were standing so still during this, and asked me if it was right.  I told her that of course it was not right -- the music was full of agitation and excitement.  So how could they be like statues?  That is unartistic and totally stupid, and totally against the music.  But it was perpetrated by the heirs of Wagner.  Karajan and I were together when he came to America for the first time in the early 50s, and he came to the tabernacle where we played.  He invited me for lunch and kept me for three hours.  He told me about using Lucite material for the scenery so that the chorus could look offstage and still see the assistant conductors, and yet their voices would be reflected back into the auditorium.

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In addition to his work at WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago, Bruce Duffie can now be heard on the in-flight programs of Classical music on United Airlines.  These tapes are also used aboard Air Force One, the President's plane.

Next time in Wagner News, a chat with Giorgio Tozzi, who just celebrated his 65th birthday.  After that, another bass, Kurt Moll on his 50th, and this summer, Christopher Keene, maestro of the Artpark Ring.

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© 1985 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded on the telephone on June 22, 1985.  The Massenet portion was published in the Massenet Newsletter in July, 1986, and the Wagner portion was published in Wagner News in January, 1988.  Portions were used on WNIB (along with recordings) in 1993 and 1998.  The transcription was re-edited in 2014, photos and links were added, and it was posted on this website at that time.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.

Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.