Bass-Baritone Norman Bailey
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie
|Following studies at Rhodes University
in South Africa, Norman Bailey continued his musical training at the Vienna
Music Academy, working there with such distinguished pedagogues as Julius
Patzak, Adolf Vogel, and Joseph Witt. In 1959, he made his debut with the
Vienna Chamber Opera in Rossini's one-act La cambiale di matrimonio, singing the
bass role of Tobias Mill. The next year, he began an engagement at Linz.
In 1963, he moved to Wuppertal and, from 1964 to 1967, sang at Düsseldorf.
In 1967, Bailey began an association with Sadler's Wells Opera (later the
English National Opera) that led him to international recognition. While
his debut at the "second" London company was as Count Almaviva in Mozart's
Le nozze di Figaro, it was
his Hans Sachs that brought acclaim. Under the tutelage and baton of Reginald Goodall (largely
overlooked by English opera companies until then), Bailey fashioned a sympathetic
character, handsomely and untiringly sung. Not long after, introduced with
a rather patronizing acknowledgement by Sir David Webster, Bailey stepped
in to save a Meistersinger at the
Royal Opera House, leaving critics wondering why he hadn't been engaged there
in the first place.
The 1970s brought Bailey's Wotan in the ENO's famous English-language Ring at the Coliseum, subsequently recorded
and made available once more in the new millennium. [The translation was
by Andrew Porter.] His
Hans Sachs was heard in such other venues as Brussels, Hamburg, Munich, and
New York. In the latter city, Bailey sang the role at the New York City Opera
in 1975 and the next year, performed it again for his Metropolitan debut.
Bayreuth, meanwhile, had also heard his Amfortas and Gunther.
As his fame spread, Bailey returned to some of the Italian roles he had sung
upon his move into the baritone range in the 1950s and early '60s. For the
English National Opera, he essayed Count di Luna and a few other such true
baritone parts before returning to a mix of registers, singing Pizzaro and
the Forester in Cunning Little Vixen
(bass baritone) and Prince Gremin and Marshall Kutuzov (both bass roles).
Bailey's artistic eclecticism led to his being selected to play Dallapiccola's
Job for his La Scala debut
in 1967 and to his singing Johann Matthys in the 1985 premiere of Alexander
Goehr's Behold the Sun at Duisburg.
In the 1990s, Bailey sang bass roles for Opera North (the Landgraf and Oroveso).
His Glyndebourne Festival debut came in 1996 with an unforgettably seedy
portrayal of Schigolch. In 1977 he waa awarded the CBE.
Bailey recorded many of his best roles all under major conductors. With
Solti, he committed
his Hans Sachs and Dutchman to disc. His "English" Wotan under Goodall remains
commanding, as does his title role performance in Tippett's King Priam.
-- Biography excerpted from an article
by Erik Eriksson
-- Names which are links (both in this box and below) refer to my interviews
elsewhere on this website. BD
Meeting interesting musical artists has always been a pleasure
for me, and their fame or notoriety was not a factor in piquing my interest.
It was what they did and/or how they did it which prompted me to ask for
This is not to say that I turned down opportunities to meet the well-known
figures. While not, perhaps, being a hugely popular individual, Norman
Bailey was certainly a major one in the circles of my interests. He
was a Wagner singer of the first rank and also pushed the opera-in-English
tide forward during much of his career.
Besides what is listed in the biography above, he sang in Chicago on four
occasions – twice with
the Chicago Symphony led by Sir Georg Solti, and twice at Lyric Opera.
The symphonic appearances were (of course) operas, and both were heard in
Chicago and at Carnegie Hall in New York. In 1974 he was Jokanaan in
Salome along with Birgit Nilsson, Ruth
Hesse, Ragnar Ulfung
and George Shirley,
and two years later he was the title character in The Flying Dutchman along with Janis Martin, Martti Talvela, Rene
Kollo and Werner Krenn. Margaret Hillis prepared
the chorus. The Wagner was recorded for Decca/London. [Photos of the concert and recording sessions
appear farther down on this webpage.] Bailey would also sing
Hans Sachs in the first recording Solti made (with the Vienna Philharmonic)
of Die Meistersinger.
Across town, Bailey repeated his Salome
character at Lyric in 1978 in the Wieland Wagner production with Grace Bumbry, Mignon Dunn, Ulfung again
and Frank Little. Berislav Klobučar conducted. Finally, in 1993-94,
he returned as the Doctor in Wozzeck
with Franz Grundheber, Graham
Clark, Kathryn Harries,
Donald Kaasch, and Richard Buckley
conducting. It was during this last visit that I had the pleasure of
spending an hour with this versatile interpreter. He was kind an generous
with his ideas, and we often laughed together over something that was said.
It was especially pleasing to see him contemplate his thoughts before making
Here is that encounter . . . . . . .
Bruce Duffie: I
appreciate your getting time from your schedule to speak with me.
Not at all!
BD: You’ve had
a very versatile career with a wide variety of roles, and you’re also one
of the few who made a success at singing both English and original language
opera. So I’d like to start by asking you how you decided which contracts
to accept and which contracts to turn down?
NB: Now that’s
a tricky question. I’ve never thought of it in those terms. I
suspect that I have taken the contracts really as they come up. Quite
obviously, if something’s in the original language then I’d prefer that to
singing in English, although I’ve always said that if one has a comedy, people
have got to understand what’s going on. Nowadays, of course, we’re
in the age of surtitles where the audience can, in actual fact, see what
BD: Do you think
that the use of the supertitles is going to mean that the death of opera-in-English?
NB: [Ponders, then speaks deliberately] No,
I don’t think so. What I said, with humorous works one gains a great
deal from having immediacy of the joke, but it’s a little disconcerting for
the people on stage if the joke is actually on the surtitles before the people
actually said the words, or vice-versa. In actual fact they finish
the joke and then the audience laughs a couple of seconds afterwards because
there’s a delayed reaction! Now I don’t think that [the death of opera-in-English]
will come about, although I think it’s going to widen the audiences.
I think the audiences are going to feel they have great contact with opera.
I think some people are purists. They always enjoy hearing an opera in the
original language because it’s a matter of sound. There’s a certain
flavor of a language; there’s a certain atmosphere one creates with the language,
but with more and more the presentation of surtitles, people are going to
find that they have a far greater contact with that. Though there’s
an argument to be made that even if something is being done in the vernacular,
say it’s being done in English for an Italian or German opera, that some
of the text in actual fact gets lost. So even surtitles there are not
going to beat a miss!
BD: That’s right,
the New York City Opera uses the English surtitles even when the opera’s
NB: Yes, that’s
BD: When you were
at Sadler’s Wells and later the English National Opera, did you work harder
at your diction because you knew that the audience could possibly understand
NB: I spent about
ten years in Germany before I’d ever sung with Sadler’s Wells and English
National Opera, and I found it quite a challenge, quite a strain having to
sing in English. I had to learn how to sing in English. I make
this point over and over again that when people are studying, very often
they will learn a foreign language and learn how to sing a foreign language,
but they don’t learn to sing their own language. In many ways one has
to learn to sing one’s own language as a foreign language, simply because
one knows how it should be spoken, and one starts to sing as it should be
spoken but the vowels are completely different. They tend to be very
clipped, very closed vowels, whereas with the sung vowels one hopes to have
them much more open, more pleasing resonance that one may use in spoken language.
BD: But eventually
you had no trouble coming back into English?
NB: No. Ultimately
I adjusted there, but take for example the word ‘blood’. When you sing
that on a high note, the result is unless you’re really watching what you’re
doing, then you really start to sing it like a pop singer would, completely
open and certainly not the type of sound that one would want for opera.
‘Blood’ winds up as an ‘ah’ [demonstrates a wide open ‘ah’] type of sound
in the top of the voice. Having to work out how I was going to tackle
that one helped me a tremendous amount in tackling singing in English in
BD: So it feels
completely different in the throat?
NB: Oh, yes, absolutely.
It is a completely different sensation.
BD: You’ve just
got to get used to how it feels no matter what it sounds likes to you?
NB: That’s right.
One almost has to go through a process of translating into singing vowels.
If one’s not aware of what one’s doing, just simply singing one’s own language,
one tends then to sing the wrong vowels.
BD: Have you also
sung in French?
NB: Yes, I have.
BD: That seems
to be the language which is picked on the most as far as diction and actual
sound from singers.
NB: That’s right.
Again, in sung French you have differences from spoken French, and so one
really needs to have coaching on how one actually sings French as opposed
to speaking French.
BD: So you can’t
just go in and sing Parisian French? [Both laugh]
NB: Unless the
piece asks for it! [Laughs]
BD: Have you sung
some roles that require spoken dialogue?
I was recently doing an operetta in fact, Baron Zita in The Merry Widow.
BD: Does that require
special changing from singing to speaking?
NB: It’s very,
very exhausting as you’re changing from singing to speaking, and there’s
a tremendous amount of spoken dialogue. In Vienna they very often cast
that role with an actor, and ‘the devil take the hindmost’ as regards the
BD: So you’d bring
something special by actually being a singer?
NB: I would hope
so, but certainly one would fill out if colleagues are used to having an
actor there, trying to make some attempt at the singing. They’re very
happy to have somebody who singing next to them. [Chuckles]
BD: When you’re
doing any role, how much is music and how much is drama?
NB: I like to approach
opera really from the drama. I would say that’s the idea. I wouldn’t
say one is always very successful with that, and one has to be very careful
about the pieces one is choosing. In some operas it’s more important
that they are sung than acted. Take the present piece I’m doing here
in Chicago with the Lyric Opera, Wozzeck.
The Doctor has certainly got to be an acting role. The singing’s important.
The singing’s very difficult because it’s exceptionally a difficult role
musically. But in the end what is important is the actual character
comes across, and the audience then has that impression, rather than, say,
beautiful singing has resulted with. This was very much in Berg’s mind
when he composed the particular role.
BD: When you get
onto the stage, are you portraying the character or do you actually become
It’s a difficult question, isn’t it? It’s a very searching question
because certainly during the period when you’re doing a role – and that also
means the rehearsal period – one has to lose oneself
to a certain extent in the character. I don’t think one can completely
do that as regards the Doctor because there’s a man who’s essentially doing
human experimentation on a human being. It’s a process which is very,
very difficult to describe. One finds oneself on stage instinctively
doing things that the Doctor would do. Now if one analyzes it and says,
“Right, the Doctor does this and then he does the other,”
that’s one way of tackling it. When you’re in full flight doing a role,
you are possessed by somebody else in one respect. I don’t think one
takes on the bad qualities of that person, the mean qualities or the cruel
BD: Even when you’re
doing an evil role?
NB: Even when you’re
doing an evil role, yes, though you’d be completely neurotic by the time
you’d finish. [Both laugh] Though I must say it’s quite a neurotic
experience doing this particular opera.
BD: If someone
says, “Is there a doctor in the house,”
you’d raise your hand?
NB: That’s right,
yes. [Both laugh loudly] In fact, people often come to me during
the show and say, “Ah, Doctor, I have this little pain.”
I told them, “You’d better keep it! You’re better
off not coming to me... I have a little more experimentation to
do!” [More laughter]
BD: Does all of this, then, enter into your decision
as to whether to accept or turn down a role?
First of all one has to look as regards to the musical compass of the role.
That’s number one process. Secondly, I don’t think I’d ever turn down
a role because the character was not what I envisaged. I’ve heard of
people who would turn down roles because they felt they couldn’t associate
with that type of character, but, to be honest, the world is made up of types
of people. I don’t think one can say, “I’m only
going to be the good character.” There’ve got
to be people there to take on the bad characters. Nowadays I really
look and see whether the role is an interesting one to portray. I have
gone through the process of singing all the big Wagnerian roles where you’re
on stage for hours and hours and hours, where vocal stamina is really the
key word there. I recently did a concert version of just the third
act of Meistersinger where I was
doing Hans Sachs, and there’s no doubt about it, there’s tremendous vocal
stamina and physical stamina required. As the years go by, then you
say, “It’s nice to do these roles but it’s about time
to let somebody else do the hard work!”
BD: [With a gentle
nudge] You mean it’s nice to have done those roles ...
NB: Yes, that’s
right. [Both laugh] I really am looking forward to roles which
still require one to be able to do a sound, vocal performance. That
is very important, but I really enjoy doing roles where the actual acting
side of it is very much more in balance. Although I must say that throughout
all of my career I really strived to achieve this balance. But there
are certain roles which, by their very nature, by the length of them, by
the amount of singing you have to do, are really a gift. These are
very, very, thankful roles, whereas other roles you have to make something
of them. It’s interesting if one does the role and people say, “I
saw this opera a couple of years ago, and I didn’t realize that role had
such importance.” That I find very satisfying.
BD: So you’ve brought
much more to it then?
NB: Yes, I would
like to think in that way, yes.
BD: Have you brought
more to it, or have you found more in it?
NB: I think a combination,
very much a combination.
BD: Is there any
role that you’ve sung, or any role that you know about, that is perhaps a
little bit too close to the real Norman Bailey?
You’re asking difficult questions!
I can ask what you had for breakfast, but it wouldn’t make a very interesting
interview. [Both laugh]
NB: [Ponders a
bit] Well, there are two roles which, over the years, I was most closely
associated with. One was Hans Sachs [shown on magazine cover at left], and
I suppose that if I look back, I’m not quite certain whether I imposed my
attitudes, my philosophy of life on the role of Hans Sachs or whether Hans
Sachs began to have its effect on me. It’s a role where somebody essentially
sacrifices his own ego in the end, where he prepares the way forward for
somebody else’s success, somebody else's victory, and within that context
is his own victory, his own success.
BD: I assume he
knows that he could have entered the Song Contest and walked away with the
NB: That bit, of
course, is a theoretical argument, yes. Certainly if one is discussing
it during production rehearsals, that thought is certainly included.
Would Hans Sachs have been able then to have won Eva? There are actually
indications in the text itself, but yes, I would say that. I have been
affected partly by roles that I have sung for a long period of time, but
I had to be able to relate to those roles, and I suppose there is a certain
amount of myself that does come in those roles essentially because I have
the philosophy that if someone has nine bad qualities and one good quality,
one should concentrate on the good quality. So even in the villains
that I’ve performed, I do, to a certain extent, try to bring out the acceptability
of that person. I don’t think there’s anybody who’s one hundred per
cent a villain.
BD: How can you
make Iago acceptable?
NB: I’ve never
sung Iago onstage! I’ve only done it in concert.
BD: Then you’ve
probed into the character in order to be able to present it, even though
it was a concert version.
NB: That’s right,
yes. One could go into an analysis of Iago, but ...
BD: Everyone says
he is the most evil of them all, that he becomes closest to having no redeeming
NB: That’s right.
Could I take, rather, the example of someone like Pizarro in Fidelio? Certainly he’s an evil
character, but there is a point in the opera where he recognizes the tremendous
character of Fidelio and within this opposition this battle of wills is going
on. He’s able to recognize the good qualities in others, and that in
itself is a good quality.
BD: If Leonora
had not come to rescue Florestan, would Pizarro have been able to live with
himself after having killed off Florestan?
NB: Yes, I think
he would have been able to. I don’t know if anybody thinks of themselves
evil. They can be the most evil person, the most disgusting person,
and yet they don’t think of themselves in those terms. If one is going
to possess that character, one must also try to bring out a certain amount
of that within the character. Possibly my problem throughout the years
was that I’ve never really been able to portray villains such as Scarpia,
for example. I once did a performance of Scarpia and got a review that
said, ‘He was a very good Hans Sachs!’ [Both laugh]
BD: Most of these
guys who are evil are more power-mad.
NB: Yes, that’s
BD: So they try
to use the evil and justify it in some way?
NB: Yes, coming
onto a very philosophical point that anything that is completely evil in
the sense that somebody does not gain some good from it. But then you’re
onto a very, very abstract area of thought.
BD: You’re hitting
a very sympathetic nerve with me. I always try to find the good in
whatever is possible.
NB: That’s wonderful!
This is an attitude of mind, isn’t it?
BD: Hmm, hmm.
NB: Isn’t it part
of our education, that our education tends to be critical analysis rather
than trying to define the good qualities? Very often people are trying
to find the bad qualities, and enjoying finding somebody’s lack of success.
It’s failure rather than their success.
BD: You’ve hit
on the central point. There’s the enjoyment in finding this bad quality
then amplifying it as much as possible. That’s what I reject completely.
NB: Yes, hmm, hmm.
* * *
BD: Let’s move
on to perhaps your largest role, Wotan. He’s not evil and yet he is
power-mad. How can you balance all of this, and where do you come from
to get to how you portray the Wotan?
NB: Wotan is a
very much a prisoner. He’s a prisoner of his own circumstances.
He is a prisoner of fate.
BD: He self-imposed this fate?
NB: Yes, by the
contracts that he’d signed and agreed with. There’s a certain scheme of things
and he, like anybody else, must bow down to those laws. But this in
one sense is the tragedy of The Valkyrie.
BD: Before we meet
Wotan, was there ever a time when he was happy with himself, and happy with
the world and happy with Fricka?
NB: Yes, I’m sure
there was. He represents in one sense somebody who becomes a
victim of circumstances, a victim of life. As he strives and searches
after his power, he can only gain that power by making alliances, making
agreement with others. And by those alliances and agreements with others,
even though he would break them if he could, he is actually bound.
These of course pre-date the Rhinegold.
BD: Can we find
a time when he did go wrong, or is it just an evolutionary process that he’s
NB: I think it’s
an evolutionary process, yes. I can’t really think of anything
in the Ring, in the text, that immediately
points to that, but he is presented with a fait accomplis in one sense.
BD: Is he a likeable
character at all?
NB: Oh, yes!
I think Wotan is a likeable character. There’s nothing more moving
– and I am almost tempted to say the word ‘human’ –
than Wotan at the end of Valkyrie
when he’s putting Brünnhilde to sleep and surrounding her with fire.
BD: Is he a god
or is he human
NB: He has one
foot in both worlds. He has the vulnerability of humans, and yet he
has the power of a god; the vulnerability of a human and the love of a human.
BD: Is this why
he would be successful with Erda and also with the mother of Siegmund and
NB: Yes... [Somewhat
pensively] You’re looking about the fact that he had quite, as the
Germans say, ein bewegtes leben
– a lot of movement in his life!
NB: He was very
active! Essentially he’s a man with a very big heart.
BD: I was assuming
that this was important – at least in Wagner’s philosophy
– because there was no child between Hunding and Sieglinde.
There was a union but a not real emotional union, and yet the one time that
Siegmund and Sieglinde were together, they produce the offspring.
BD: I’m trying
to extrapolate that in Wotan being able to have offspring with the various
unions, rather than having a loveless union.
NB: Yes, he really
comes into this area of ‘demi-god’, doesn’t he? He’s not an all-powerful
BD: Then immediately
the question that springs to mind is why was there no offspring of Wotan
and Fricka? Ever thought about that before?
NB: No. Shall
we put the tape machine on pause and have a talk about that? [Both
roar with laughter at the prospect!]
BD: Well, how much
can and how much should we over-analyze and probe into these kinds of details
in Wagner or in any opera?
NB: It’s a process
which is very interesting outside of the framework of the opera being performed.
One can analyze and say, “Oh, he did this, he did that,
he these thoughts and the other.” When one is
on stage, essentially one is a living being in any case, but living all the
emotions that one brings with oneself. Therefore there must be a humanity
in Wotan. I repeat the word, again vulnerability; vulnerability in
BD: So you do all
your thinking about this and then present to the audience your finished product,
or at least finished to that point?
NB: That’s right.
A lot of analysis is very, very good for program notes, but I don’t think
the process of analysis actually then goes on stage. One is portraying
Wotan – or any character – with
all the strengths and all weaknesses that human beings have. This is
part of the magic which enables people to relate to opera. There was
a very interesting analysis made, and this touches on productions where you
have the symbolism that Wagner used with the Niebelungen, the giants, the
gods. He actually purposely chose these symbols and this world.
Unfortunately a lot of productions nowadays take us away from this symbolism
and try to translate it again into the very terms that Wagner moved away
BD: They are imposing
their own symbolism on something that Wagner has rejected?
NB: That’s right!
In other words, stripping the piece of its symbolism. This would be
like taking Beauty and the Beast
and saying in actual fact he was really a human being! It takes away
the magic of the whole fairy tale that was there.
BD: Then how much
stretching or changing of the ideas would you allow when you’re doing a production?
NB: It worries
me when one goes away too much from the symbols that have been chosen.
There are some operas which are very clearly telling a story, and one feels
that is the story with human characters. But there are other operas
where one takes certain characters really to express human qualities.
Take a piece like The Cunning Little Vixen,
for example, which is presenting human qualities within the animal kingdom.
Now does one take it out of the animal kingdom and push it back again onto
the human plain? Then we lose the magic of it and I don’t think one
should really do that
BD: Believing in
the animal kingdom, it is nice to have it once step removed to be able to
view it a little more objectively.
NB: That’s right,
exactly. It’s the whole point of creating it in the animal kingdom
in the first place.
BD: There’ll probably
be some great lengthy doctoral dissertation on the co-ordination between
Cunning Little Vixen and the musical
Cats, with a reference to the animals
that show up in The Magic Flute.
[Both laugh heartily]
* * *
after much raucous laughter] You’ve done the three Wotans. What are
the major differences, for instance, among those three Wotans – or it is
all just the same and you’re seeing different side of him as he grows?
NB: You’re definitely
seeing three different sides of him, and interestingly enough three different
vocal sides of the role. It’s very easy, for example, for many basses
to do the Rhinegold Wotan, so they
feel they can do the others, too. Then of course they move on to the
Valkyrie, which requires a different
type of stamina. It requires moving into a high tessitura. In
fact the opera itself is very low tessitura in the second act and then it
begins to climb up as it gets towards the end of the third act.
BD: I would think
that would be a textbook case for singing – to warm
up a little lower and then, as the evening progresses, to be able to have
the higher range and expose that.
NB: Yes, but I have a bit of reservation because
that comes into the area of what one should do in warming up the voice.
You then have the part of the Wanderer – another name for Wotan, essentially
– in Siegfried [shown in photo at left]. There
the role is relatively high, and the orchestra is very, very loud.
So the evolution is the progression from Rhinegold Wotan, which is relatively
easy to sing but difficult to portray because one must dominate without the
music to actually present him. You’ve got Loge and you’re got Alberich
who have been given infinitely more music than Wotan, yet Wotan must establish
there that he’s in command – or at any rate that he thinks he’s in command.
BD: Would it have
been better to establish Wotan, perhaps even in another previous opera so
that he does dominate the stage from a mental trick that you remember from
Well, I think Wagner stretched it enough, didn’t he really? There are
already four operas! [Both laugh]
BD: It’s not really
a tetralogy; it’s a trilogy with prologue. All the major Wagner operas
are in three acts.
NB: Yes, that’s
true; that’s a fine point. The singer has to be out for a certain number
of evenings in any case, and if he then progresses to singing Gunther as
well, as can sometimes happen....
BD: Is it right
to have the same singer do three Wotans, or even two Wotans, and then sing
a different kind of part in the fourth opera?
NB: The interesting
thing is that I’ve always felt Gunther is a presentation on the human plain
that Wotan was on the plain of the gods. Both of them think they dominate;
both of them think they’re in command.
BD: It seems like
Wotan has done a better job...
NB: Yes, but he’s
left there sitting in Valhalla with the flames and the Rhine rising up.
BD: That’s true,
but in Götterdämmerung, Hagen’s soul over-dominates Gunther.
NB: I see what
you mean. In other words circumstances dominate Wotan in the
end. It comes back to his being prisoner of the circumstances, prisoner
of the laws of the universe.
BD: Prisoner of
his own laws?
NB: Yes that’s
true, but whereas as binding as anything else can be, in actual fact he thinks
he is freer there but he realizes he is not freer, and Gunther has to go
through the same process. He thinks he’s in charge. He’s the
king, and he’s telling Hagen what to do, whereas in actual fact Hagen is
dominating Gunther as well as the circumstances.
BD: Gunther is
not a puppet, is he?
NB: No, but he
doesn’t have the freedom that he thinks he has. This is why I say there
is the sort of parallel there between Wotan and Gunther. I don’t see
it necessarily as a tremendous clash; it’s the circumstances. If a
singer is doing the three Wotans and then does Gunther, very often it can
be economic factor as well.
BD: You’re already
there so you might as well sing another show?
NB: That is putting
it down to a very mundane level, but I’ve always felt a very, very strong
relationship between Gunther and Wotan because of those qualities.
Therefore it is not completely unacceptable that Gunther is sung by the same
BD: We’ve got another
great doctoral thesis topic... Perhaps Wotan has met Gunther, or maybe
one of Gunther’s mistresses is the mother of Siegmund and Sieglinde!
[Both laugh] Coming back to the actual plot as Wagner set it, in Siegfried, does Wotan know that Siegfried
is going to defeat him in the third act? Is he looking for that?
NB: He’s looking
for that, yes, yes. He knows he has to present himself as a barrier
between Siegfried and the flames. He must be the ultimate test, but
in actual fact this is the bitterness, the bitter sweetness of Wotan.
He always has to experience that. He has to go one way and face the
ones he loves that have to go the other way.
BD: A god’s gotta
do what a god’s gotta do! [Both laugh] Backing up one more opera,
does Wotan think Siegmund will be the guy to get the ring back, or does he
know that it has to proceed one more generation?
NB: [Big pause]
Yes. When he creates the circumstances for Siegmund to find the sword,
he, Wotan, is looking for the one who’s going to save the gods. It’s
only because Fricka then imposes ... well, she doesn’t impose her will on
him; she makes him aware of the laws again that he is bound by. He
then has to destroy Siegmund, and it’s only later when he’s talking with
Brünnhilde at the end of the Walküre
that he realizes, in actual fact unbeknown to himself, that there is a continuation
of the race though Sieglinde, and that Siegfried will be there. But
in the first instance, Wotan hopes and believes that he has found a solution
to his problems in Siegmund.
BD: What would
Wotan have done if Siegmund had not fathered Siegfried? Would he have
gone back to the drawing board and started all over to try and find some
NB: [Another big
pause] I don’t answer hypothetical questions! [Gales of laughter
* * *
BD: You’ve given
us so much to listen to and enjoy in Wotan, we’ll leave him at that portrayal.
You’ve also done Flying Dutchman.
Do you prefer doing that opera in one piece or three?
NB: I prefer doing
it in three, to be perfectly honest. I always found it an exceptionally
difficult role to do because of the keys it was actually written in.
BD: Was it the
NB: That’s right.
There’s a very nasty tessitura. I did it at the Vienna State Opera,
and the pitch of the Vienna State Opera is slightly higher than in other
parts of the world, and I thought it was going to be difficult. But
in actual fact, I didn’t find it as difficult as I was going to because the
voice is in a slightly different position there, and to do The Flying Dutchman slightly lower or
slightly higher is alright. But as it is today, it’s very much written
in the cracks of the voice. There’s a big argument to be put about
the rising of pitch since Wagner wrote it.
BD: Is it in the
cracks of any voice, or just the cracks in your voice?
in my voice. It’s a difficult role in any case, but it’s a role I did
for twenty-five years, so I did three and a half terms... he comes back every
seven years, you see! [Both laugh] So after three and half terms
I felt, well, I’ve done my duty now! But it is an exceptionally difficult
role to do, and if one then does it in one act, it adds to the problems there.
It requires unbelievable stamina to do it. But the interesting thing
about any role is that you’ve got certain voices that they’re almost created
for those roles. You get someone who finds one role difficult but another
role easy, and you’ll find that another singer for whom it’s
the opposite way round.
BD: It defies the
whole idea of Fach?
I get the feeling the concept of Fach,
or the very, very strong borders that are built around it, is weakening as
times goes on. I don’t think it’s really observed so much in the United
States as it would, say, in Germany, and certainly not in the UK. I
also think one’s getting a weakening in Germany itself.
BD: Is it a good
thing or a bad thing, or just a thing?
NB: I think it’s
a good thing. It’s a very good thing. It was created of course
so that you wouldn’t have problems with two singers and one saying this is
my role and the other singer saying no, it’s my role! They could go
to the contract and see the types of roles and which singer has the preference
in doing that role. But very often contracts are written in the way
of preference. It’s weakening, but it’s still quite strong in Germany.
In other parts of the world it doesn’t really apply as strong as it used
BD: Coming back
to the Dutchman, does he know he’s going to be redeemed at the end, or is
it just a happenstance?
NB: No, he doesn’t
know he’s going to be redeemed. In fact in one sense he’s pessimistic
right from the start. He has these flashes of hope, but he’s essentially
pessimistic. I don’t think he’s at all confident that something’s going
to happen in that particular time. This is why he reacts so strongly
when he sees Erik and Senta together. It’s his own lack of confidence
which creates this outburst there, which leaves him going off into the storm
and getting back on his boat again!
BD: He’s done it
NB: That’s right,
yes, yes. Weariness, tremendous weariness encompasses him. It’s
like a cloak. He was surrounded by darkness.
BD: Is there any
kind of similarity between the world-weariness of the Dutchman and the world-weariness
NB: No, I would
say that Wotan’s essentially optimistic!
BD: [Gently protesting]
Yes, but Wotan calls for Das Ende.
He’s waiting for that!
NB: Yes, that’s
right. They both have their flashes of optimism, but I think on balance
the Dutchman is pessimistic. He has his flashes of hope and thinks
maybe it’ll work out. But Wotan is essentially confident that it’s
going to work, and then the moments gradually take away his optimism.
I must say I’ve never really projected the thoughts of what actually happens
to Wotan when he’s sitting there in Valhalla.
BD: Have you done
all of the Wagner roles – a role in each of the ten
standard Wagner operas?
NB: Yes, pretty
well. One role I never did was Telramund, but I did do the Herrufer,
the Herald. I’d always felt that one’s either a Hans Sachs or a Telramund.
I don’t think they come as the same vocal or personality area. There
are people who would argue with me on that one, but that’s what I always
felt, and if you’re going to a Telramund, it’s got to be so right for you.
There are no problems whatsoever vocally. The problem with Sachs is
that you have to have unbelievable stamina.
when Goodall was conducting with the very large tempos, yes?
NB: That’s right!
[Laughs] But I was always so strong at the end of Meistersinger, and I used to say, “Let’s
get in the Guinness book of records and do it again this evening. Just
have a matinee, and then an hour’s break and then start the whole thing over
again with different casts with myself doing Hans Sachs again the second
time!” [Both laugh]
BD: You were thinking
of yourself as a Siegfried type? [Both laugh]
NB: It is a stupid
idea, but when I was really in the prime I was so strong at the end, and
I had the feeling that I could do it all over again. And I think that’s
right! I don’t think it’s fun to finish a role like that and say
“Oh thank heavens that’s over!” You’ve
got to have so much in reserve without having saved yourself throughout the
* * *
BD: Did you change
your vocal technique at all for the size of the house?
NB: No, the role
makes its own demands. That’s what I always felt, that the voice instinctively
made its requirements known and the body then responded. I don’t think
it was necessarily a mental process. It’s very much like putting out
a car in automatic – when it gets to that particular
point, it automatically changes to the next gear. With singing is very
much a case in point. One instinctively adjusts, and then one thinks
after that it was done. It’s not necessarily always a conscious process,
but sometimes it has to be a conscious process.
BD: So the technique is something that you’ve built,
and then you rely on it and let it run itself?
BD: So what are
you concentrating on when you’re walking around on the stage –
NB: Oh, the character,
yes! Very definitely. It’s possible to go in and do a performance
without having seen anybody in the production, just with somebody indicating
that you go from Point A to Point B to Point C. If you’ve got somebody
that is experienced in a role, they won’t have the feeling they only got
part of a performance because the characterisation is there.
BD: But it’s always
NB: The characterization
is going to grow with each production, but it’s very, very much built into
the psyche when you go out on stage. You don’t really have to think
about all the different elements. You can go on stage and it really
doesn’t make any difference whether you’re sitting at a desk on the left
standing by a tree on the right. That’s not really important because
you have so possessed the role.
BD: Then do you
leave the role completely as soon as you walk off stage?
NB: I don’t think
so, no; not in the intervals, for example. I know there are some colleagues
who would go to the interval – not necessarily in a
large role because so you’ve got so much to do, but
say they’ve got a smaller role in the evening – and
they would start to study another opera while they were waiting. I
tried that on a couple of occasions, and I then came out on stage and was
completely confused because I had broken the thread, which must run through
the whole evening. So even though I’m not on stage, I never completely
let go of the fact that I have to go out on stage again.
BD: Is there a
certain completion, a closure with the end of the opera and the applause?
NB: Yes, that’s
right, yes. The other thing left is the adrenaline, which keeps going
for about an hour afterwards until it does a nose-dive!
BD: Do you like
being a ‘wandering minstrel’?
NB: [Pause for
a moment] I’ve been doing it too long, too much of it.
BD: Oh, weariness!
NB: One has to
take it as it comes. There is a certain romance attached to being an
opera singer, but there’s a lot of routine, a lot of sacrifice. Many
young singers don’t appreciate really what they’re letting themselves in
BD: They think
of the glamour and not all the hard work?
NB: That’s right,
BD: What advice
do you have for young singers coming along?
NB: [Yet another
big pause] The vital important thing for a young singer is that you’ve
got to have complete confidence in yourself, even though it may be misplaced.
That part of the process of success is this believing in yourself, even though
others may not believe in you at the time, knowing that you are going to
ultimately have the success you feel is going to be yours. It’s difficult
because you may be deluding yourself, but if one puts negative thoughts into
one’s mind, one never can achieve it. There must be absolute dedication.
One must be so dedicated to the idea of being an opera singer that nothing
else will do.
BD: To the exclusion
of wife and family and anything else?
NB: That sets another
chapter, as it were. One has then to combine that into one’s life,
but really before one has possibly the situation where one is married or
has children. One must be so obsessed with the idea that one knows
that this is the only thing. This was, shall we say, in the training
process because unless you have that, you’ve got to be very, very lucky,
and there are not too many people who are lucky enough to have it fallen
onto their laps. Young singers have got to be aware of the complications
that are there, and if they’re aware of that and still want to be singers,
then fine, go ahead. It worries me, though, that one can spend an awful
lot of time chasing after a ‘Will-o-the-Wisp’ and wind up in one’s mid-thirties
with not having trained for anything else. That’s the thing that worries
me. If somebody’s trained for something else or has planned their ways
knowing what they’re going to do to develop their second string, then they’re
in a better situation if it doesn’t work out.
BD: But haven’t they
then deluded their focus?
NB: No. The
focus goes on all the time, because I think there’s going to be a period
when one says: ‘Okay, fine, then I’m developing the other side’, and keeping
the singing going as a hobby, for example. And then a hobby becomes
more and more of a part of yourself until you come to the decision.
And part of that decision is where you say, “Okay now,
I’m earning so much from my singing and I’m earning so much with my other
job that there is very much a conflict.” One
can go in and say they’re only going for the singing, but one has got to
work out what they are going to do if it doesn’t function. Then one
then knows if it doesn’t function, then I will be able to do such
and such and I’d be happy doing such and such. There’s nothing more
frustrating than dedicating ten or fifteen years of your life, and then find
it’s not working and having to turn round and say, “Where
do I start now? I start from ‘square one’ again.”
BD: I assume, though,
that somewhere in the third or fifth or eighth year of concentrating on singing,
you would know if it’s going to work or not.
NB: One would hope
* * *
BD: You also sing
concerts. How do you divide your career between opera and concerts?
NB: I don’t do as many concerts as I used to.
At one time I used to do a lot of recitals, but I had to be very, very specific
with the time period to do a concert tour. I would then do a series
of about ten concerts, but as the years went by I found it very difficult
then to change vocally from doing opera – particularly
demanding Wagnerian roles – and then shifting over
to do lieder or English songs.
In arts songs generally the control and the presentation is completely different.
So if you’ve just got one concert, then it’s very, very difficult to leave
off a series of heavier operatic roles and spend two weeks preparing for
the one concert and doing the one concert.
BD: Better to prepare
for ten concerts and then do them?
NB: It’s very much
easier, yes. But I really don’t know whether the concert world can
support that nowadays – apart from very few people.
BD: You’ve made
some recordings. Are you pleased with the recordings that were made
of your voice over the years?
NB: I’m always
shattered when I hear a recording of myself when I’ve done it. One
tries for certain effects, and one listens back and says, “Oh
no, I didn’t get that effect,” and then is completely
upset, very unhappy with the results. One would like to say, “Let’s
do that again. I can do it better the next time.”
But if you listen to a recording, say, four or five years after you’ve made
it, you forget the specific effect you were trying to achieve, and you say,
“Oh, I wasn’t bad after all!”
BD: So the overall
impact is good?
NB: That’s right,
yes. I can listen to my own recordings and I can hear certain things
and think that if I were doing that nowadays, I would do it in a different
way. But I suppose, yes, on balance I’m happy with the recordings.
But it’s quite a difficult process, and some people just can’t listen to
BD: Some of your
recordings, of course, were made during performances and others were made
in the studio. Did you sing differently in the studio?
The difficulty with doing a live performance is that you have to project
for the audience, and you can’t concentrate one hundred per cent on the actual
microphones. If you concentrate one hundred per cent on the microphones,
then you would not be able to give the performance that you need to give
to the audience. I always feel that live performances fall between
two stools in one sense. I always prefer doing studio recordings because
then if it didn’t work out, you can do it again. Some people actually
prefer listening to live recordings. It’s a matter of taste.
There is the excitement of, “Was he going to make this
note, or is he not going to make this note!” [Both
laugh] Then they notice there was a musical mistake there, which of
course happens all the time during live performances!
BD: Do you feel
that you’re like an athlete competing against all of the other previous high
NB: I suppose to
a certain extent one’s always thinking of the high notes because those make
demands. They make mental demands, psychological demands, as well as
vocal demands. You can get yourself into the state where you’re worried
about the high note of the evening. One evening that can be a G so
you worry about the G. Another evening it can be an F, which is infinitely
lower, so you worry about the F, whereas if it’s the evening you’ve got a
G, you’ve got masses and masses of Fs, and you keep on singing them
and then worry about the G. There’s a lot of psychology involved in
BD: It sounds hopeless!
NB: Nowadays singers
take training how to approach these particular problems. It’s not just
a vocal thing, it’s, getting your mind tuned into doing them properly.
I know in the past I’ve made a slight musical mistake, for example, just
before what I’d considered a vocally difficult passage. For some reason
or other, one’s brain is doing a post mortem on it. “Now
what on earth did I do there? Why did I make that mistake? There
shouldn’t have been a dotted note, but I put a dotted note on the...,”
and then quite suddenly you realize that you simply swept through the difficult
vocal part! [Laughs] Then you’re brought up with a jolt and realize
it’s not vocally difficult, it’s simply all in the mind!
BD: Is it only in the singer’s mind or is it also
in the audience’s mind?
NB: It’s in the
singer’s mind! [Both laugh]
BD: Do you expect
anything of the audience that comes that evening?
NB: [One more big
pause] I’d like to answer that one in the following way. When
one sings, one’s in the business of awakening memories and creating memories.
For example, people come to me would say that they were at such and such
a performance twenty years ago, and it made such an impact on them.
So one has created memories for those people; they’re precious memories.
That’s their memory. They’re like mirrors really, or shall we say the
artist is like the mirror reflecting the audience to themselves so that they
can see themselves and get in touch with their own feelings. The other
part of that is awakening memories that people have, and that’s a bit difficult.
They may have heard a singer doing something – again twenty years ago – and
for them, whether it was a good performance or not is neither here nor there,
because it caught them at a particular point in their life where certain
things may have been coming together, or being unravelling or raveled or
being joined together. They have memories of that, and to a certain
extent one has the responsibility of awakening those memories with loving
BD: You can’t disturb
NB: No, you can’t
disturb them. One has to be very, very careful. Say there’s a
piece of music that one doesn’t like. One has to be careful how one
speaks about that because one may be hurting somebody. This then comes
again to the whole process of what one is talking about when one is using
criticism. Unfortunately we have this sort of critical analysis, and
that disturbs me. We should be looking for the beauty in things, trying
to find the beauty, and that’s what music is about. It’s beauty; it’s
a healing process; it’s a loving process.
BD: It’s a growing
NB: It’s a growing
process, yes, exactly. It’s all these elements together, and in one
sense the singer is a healer. When you think of it, music as such is
one of the most healing forces in the world.
BD: Healing the
NB: Yes, absolutely.
BD: Are you optimistic
about the future of concert music?
NB: To a certain
extent I felt the concert world is slightly artificial, and that music, to
me, has to be bound up in some other form. The idea of people sitting
in rows and listening to the performance happening on the stage doesn’t quite
fit in with my concept of today. But that’s only a personal point of
view. There are those people who love doing that. They prefer
going to a live concert rather than listening to it on a stereo or seeing
it on television. But it’s very, very difficult to know where music
will be going.
BD: One last question.
Is singing fun?
NB: There are times
when it’s tremendous fun, yes. At one time in my life, going out and
doing an exceptionally difficult role was like going out doing a Sunday afternoon
stroll. It was that easy. As time goes on, I find myself worrying
a little bit about whether I am going to be consistent as I used to be.
Is my performance going to be what it was? I’ve very rarely given an
inconsistent performance, but somehow or other one’s just worried that tonight’s
going to be the night when my memory does me a terrible trick, and all the
text falls apart! I believe Lord Laurence Oliver went through that
process at one time, and it’s a very worrying experience. I haven’t
experienced it, not to any large extent. I have had slight slips of
the memory, but maybe one’s creating one’s own ghosts by thinking maybe it’s
tonight. The singer has the nightmare of getting out on stage and doing
a performance of something but he’s never seen the score of. It’s a
professional nightmare. You speak with any singer and they have the
exactly the same nightmare. Maybe sometimes it catches up on
me. I have to be very, very conscientious about working on roles between
performances, and not just saying that my memory will be alright.
BD: And not relying
on the prompter?
NB: That’s right,
yes. I just really have to go through the process continually.
BD: Thank you so
much for speaking with me. I appreciate it. I’ve looked forward
to this for a long time.
NB: It was a very,
very great pleasure; tremendous fun.
© 1994 Bruce Duffie
This conversation was recorded at Bailey’s apartment in
Chicago on February 17, 1994. Portions were broadcast on
WNIB three months later, and again in 1998. This transcription was
made and posted on this website in 2014. 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.
winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with
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
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.