Conductor  Ferdinand  Leitner

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


Ferdinand Leitner (Conductor)

Born: March 4, 1912 - Berlin, Germany
Died: June 1996 - Forch (Zürich), Switzerland

The noted German conductor, Ferdinand Leitner, studied at the Music School in his home city under Fritz Schreker and Julius Prüwer from 1926 to 1931, as well as receiving instruction from Artur Schnabel and Karl Muck.

After completing his studies, Ferdinand Leitner began appearing as a pianist, particularly as accompanist to Georg Kulenkampff and Ludwig Hoelscher. He made his debut in Berlin as conductor during this period. In 1935, Fritz Busch engaged him as assistant at Glyndebourne. From 1943 to 1945, he was director of music at the Theatre on the Nollendorfplatz in Berlin, and from 1945 to 1946 in Hannover, from 1946 to 1947 in Munich, from 1947 in Stuttgart, always in the same function. He became chief musical director in Stuttgart in 1949 and served there until 1969. From 1947 to 1951, he was senior musical director of the Bach Weeks in Ansbach.

Ferdinand Leitner conducted the rehearsals for the first performance of Igor Igor Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress in Venice in 1951, the performance itself being conducted by the composer personally. Composer and conductor then alternated. He succeeded Erich Kleiber as conductor of the German operas at the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires in 1956. From 1969 to 1984, he was senior musical director of the Zürich Opera and from 1976 to 1980 principal conductor of the Residence Orchestra in The Hague at the same time. From 1988, he was principal guest conductor of the RAI Symphony Orchestra in Turin.

Ferdinand Leitner became known mainly as an opera conductor. He promoted 20th-century German opera, especially the works of Carl Orff and Karl Amadeus Hartmann. He also promoted the works of Ferruccio Busoni. His premieres include the operas Oedipus the King by Carl Orff (1959), Don Juan und Faust (1950) as well as Hamlet (1980), both by Hermannn Reutter.

To say that many of my interview guests are important in the world of music is probably correct.  To say that a few are among the greatest of their time is also probably correct.  However, to my knowledge I have only met one who
has a bridge in a major city named for him!  Obviously, the politicians and the general public of Stuttgart felt this was an appropriate gesture, and the photos at the bottom of this page show the Ferdinand Leitner Footpath over Schiller Street.

At Lyric Opera of Chicago, we were fortunate to have the artistry of Ferdinand Leitner for ten operas over nine seasons.  There were seven operas by Wagner, including a one-per-season Ring from 1971-74 with (among many others) Birgit Nilsson and Jean Cox.  He also led Tristan with Janis Martin and Jon Vickers, Die Meistersinger in 1977 with Karl Ridderbusch, and Tannhäuser in 1988 with Richard Cassilly and Marilyn Zschau in the Peter Sellars production, which also included Ben Heppner very early in his career as Walther (!).  There were also two operas of Mozart
Don Giovanni in 1969 with Tito Gobbi who staged it and sang the title role, and Die Entführung aus dem Serail in 1984 with Ruth Welting and Kurt Moll — and Der Rosenkavalier also in 1973 with Christa Ludwig and Helga Dernesch alternating as the Marschallin, and Hans Sotin as Ochs.  Vis-à-vis his later comments about scheduling other works during a Ring, even though he was just doing the one opera, the Rosenkavalier began after the last performance of Siegfried.  [Note: The links in this paragraph refer to my interviews with those artists elsewhere on this website.]

Between performances of Tristan in September of 1982, Leitner graciously took time to speak with me at his hotel. 
He spoke softly and matter-of-factly, and was like a kindly old grandfather giving advice and telling stories from his illustrious life.  When we had finished, he apologized for his English.  It was, naturally, sometimes a bit convoluted, but I was able to understand what he was trying to say, and I have edited it here so that it is clear and readable. 

Part of this interview appeared in Wagner News in January, 1983, but here is the entire conversation . . . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:    Where is opera going today?

Ferdinand Leitner:    This is a difficult thing because in Europe it’s another situation than in the States, and new things, slowly, slowly in Japan, too.  They would like to have a Staatsoper in Japan.  We’ll see in the next five years, maybe.  Each year there I give fourteen concerts with NHK, and they asked me what they must do, and this can be very much.

BD:    Why do the Japanese like western music so much?  Is it new and exciting for them?

FL:    They love it, and if you ask them, “Is it for you?” they say, “That’s our music.”  There’s a reason, which they told me.  For maybe 250 years or so, outside music was forbidden by their Kaiser.  If you say, “Please show me your older music,” then it is very old music, attributed Japanese music.  After this time, when the country was opened in the mid 1800s, then came the outside music very, very fast to them.  So the younger generation and the older, too, say, “It’s our music.”  It’s absolutely normal for them.  When I’m conducting, it is always in a hall with five thousand seats, and each program is done two or three times and all are sold out.  If I am doing the Ninth Symphony by Beethoven, five evenings are sold out!  [Both laugh]  So they are interested. 
If I say I will do one concert with only Schoenberg, then maybe not, but it’s possible, too, because they are interested.  Unlike here and in Europe, in Japan they buy each ticket and they come from their work directly to the concert.  That’s the reason that their concerts start at six forty-five in the afternoon.  Then they have so long ways home, mostly one and a half or two hours.  So the concert must be ending at nine o’clock so it’s possible for them to go home.

BD:    Do they like Wagner over there, too?

FL:    Oh yes.  They like all our music.  One very clever musician said to me, “We like all of this, but we have it a little bit of difficulty with Schumann.”  With Schubert, not, but Schumann they were puzzled.  Bruckner and Brahms and Strauss and all this is normal for them.

leitner BD:    I wonder what their problem is with Schumann?

FL:    I don’t know.  I don’t understand, and it must be a special thing.  I can do from Bach to the modern things.  In the last year I have done the Sixth Symphony by Karl Amadeus Hartmann.  Nobody knows who it is, but this is one of the greatest composers from our century.   He has now been gone for almost twenty years, and was only fifty-six when he died.  He’s from München, like a great many others including Reger.  He has eight symphonies.  Last year I conducted five symphonies from the eight.

BD:    Are they tonal?

FL:    They are between Reger and Stravinsky, but on the Bavarian side.  The Sixth Symphony was the first one I did in Japan.  It takes a very big orchestra with twelve percussion, but it is a fantastic thing.  At first they said to me, [sadly] “This is a half-program, at twenty-five minutes.  Is it not too much?
  Then it was such a success that they asked to do the finale again.  I was very happy because his widow was there at this concert and so she saw the success.   It was the same in Romeand Italians don’t like modern music!  It was the same in Paris and other places where I am doing this.  I am going now on tour with a German broadcast orchestra from Baden Baden.  We start in Vienna, Salzburg and so on, and the program is the Sixth Symphony by Hartmann and the Sixth by Bruckner.

BD:    An interesting program!

FL:    Yes, yes.  One is twenty-five minutes and the other is sixty minutes, so it’s possible.  The two Sixths I’m doing eight times. 

BD:    Do you conduct any opera in Japan?

FL:    Never...  Yes, one time on tour seven or eight years ago with the Staatsoper München, together with Sawallisch.  He had two operas and I had two operas. I was conducting Die Walküre, which is very, very difficult to understand... at least I had that feeling, but they understood each word because they are reading.  They are so interested!  I said, “How was the second act
not too long?  Wotan is alone for twenty-five minutes.”  They said, “No, no, no.”  This work brought them pleasure.

BD:    Were these performances in concert or staged?

FL:    Concert.  I’m going now for the seventh time and I’m doing the Domestic Symphony and Alpine Symphony of Strauss.  This is the first time for these two things.

BD:    They are discovering all these new things that they’ve never heard before.

FL:    Yes, but they like it very much if you bring good works.  I have done an opera by Bernd Alois Zimmermann, Die Soldaten.  This was a good composer, a very good one.  I have spoken to the audience before I start because there is a section of eight minutes where it’s one tone.  But it is so that you’re not feeling this one note because the instrumentation is very interesting.  I showed them the instruments.  There are many which are not normal instruments from an orchestra.  It was enormously successful!  You just need to tell them beforehand what to expect because they are interested.  It was the same in Holland, too.  It’s good if you are speaking before the performance.

[From an article on Die Soldaten]

Even today a stage performance of Die Soldaten places very great demands on any opera company. In addition to the sixteen singing and ten speaking roles, it requires a one hundred-piece orchestra involving many unusual instruments and pieces of percussion. With its open action, a large amount of scenes which at times overlap one another or run simultaneously (the second scene of act 2, for example, or all of act 4), its multimedia structure incorporating film screens, projectors, tape recordings and loudspeakers, in addition to the sound effects of marching, engines and screams, Die Soldaten –an opera composed using the strict rules of twelve-tone music and presenting a high degree of complexity despite its careful design for the stage– is a uniquely complicated opera, both to stage and to watch.

There are numerous unorthodox roles in this opera, but the most noticeable is the mass usage of banging chairs and tables on the stage floor as percussion instruments. This is carried out by many of the actors with non-singing roles. The composer also calls for 3 cinema screens, 3 film projectors & groups of loudspeakers on the stage and in the auditorium.

The orchestra is composed of: 4 flutes (all 4 doubling on piccolos, flute 3 also doubling on alto flute in G), 3 oboes (doubling also on oboe d'amore, oboe 3 also doubling on cor anglais), 4 clarinets in B-flat (1, 3 & 4 also in A, clarinet 3 also bass clarinet, clarinet 4 also on E-flat clarinet), alto saxophone in E-flat, 3 bassoons (2 & 3 also contrabassoon), 5 horns in F (all 5 also tenor tuba in B-flat, Horn 5 also bass tuba in F), 4 trumpets in C (1 & 2 also trumpets in B-flat & F; 3 & 4 also in B-flat & A and bass trumpet in E-flat), 4 trombones (Trombone 4 contrabass trombone), bass tuba (also contrabass tuba), timpani (also small timpani), percussion (8-9 players), 3 crotales (E-flat, F & G), 3 crotals (high, medium & low), gegenschlagblock (counterstroke block), 3 cymbals, 4 gongs, 4 tamtams, tambourine, 3 bongos, 5 tomtoms, tumba, military drum, 4 small drums, friction drum, 2 large drums (one of them horizontal), 5 triangle (instrument), cow bells, steel sticks, 2 sets of tubular bells, 3 free-running railway rails, whip (instrument), castanets, rumbaholz, 2 wood covers, 3 wood drums, güiro, maracas, vibration pipe, xylophone, marimba, vibraphone, guitar, 2 harps, glockenspiel, celesta, harpsichord, piano, organ (2 players) & strings.

On the stage (6 players):

I. 3 triangles (high register), 3 crotals (high), 2 basins (high), gong (small), tamtam (small), small drum, military drum, 2 bongos, agitating drum, large drum (with cymbals), 3 bass drums, cow bell (high), 2 tube bells, maracas & temple block (high).

II. 3 triangles (middle register), 3 crotals (middle), 2 basins (middle), 2 gongs (medium & large), small drum, 2 Tomtoms, agitating drum, 3 bass drums, cow bell, 6 tube bells, maracas & temple block (middle).

III. 3 triangles (deep register), crotal (deep), 2 basins (deep), gong (large), 2 tamtams (small & large), small drum, tomtom (deep), snare drum, 3 bass drums, cow bell (deep), 4 tube bells, maracas, 3 temple blocks (deep); jazz band: clarinet in B-flat, trumpet in B-flat & double bass (electrically amplified).

BD:    Let’s talk about life in the opera house.  You were the Music Director in Zurich?

FL:    Yes, until last year.  I am finished then, and I am guest conductor in Zurich for the next five years, but I stopped being Director.  I’ve now done forty years as Director of a great institute, and it’s enough, I think.  [Both laugh]  Now I’m free for all my other things.

BD:    When you’re running an opera house, how much do the financial and day-to-day responsibilities dictate the artistic decisions that you have to make?

leitner FL:    In Stuttgart, where I was over twenty years, it was very much to do all the things with money and with engagements and so on.  Not so in Zurich.  When I was coming there, I said, “I don’t like to sit from morning to evening in an office.”  There they ask me to do more, but they do many more things.  I don’t know how much a singer might get for a performance, but if I am interested they might say, “No, it’s not possible because they are too expensive.”  Now I do not have to deal with that.  But you first asked about the future of opera.  When I was a boy of fourteen, they asked me what I would like to do, and I said, “I would like to be director of opera house.”  They said to me, “My boy, this is the end.  Opera is finished now.  You are at an age where it is too late.”

BD:    [Surprised]  Opera was declared dead then???

FL:    But you see, it’s not finished.  After the war it was going up more and more and more.   Now, in the moment it is a little bit going down, but this is always the same with the arts.  It’s going down and up and down and up.  It was this way from the beginning.  From 1810, the time of Meyerbeer, it was a great thing.  Then it was going down.  Then came Wagner.  It was a scandal at first, but then was the great era of Mahler.  So was it always and so is it now.   Naturally it is a question of money.  It must be that the state gives half and the private gives half.  Then you can work five or six months and give more works.  We have in Zurich and in all the opera houses in Germany, three hundred twenty performances each year.  Each day and Sunday very often two times.  You see opera is a really popular thing.

BD:    Here in Chicago, Ardis Krainik said that she could sell another twenty weeks of opera, but then the deficit would be so high that she couldn’t work with it.

FL:    Yes.  This is it.  The answer is a question of money all the time in opera.  Not the other theater, but in opera.  They must have the orchestra, of course, and ballet and then all the other things.  So in all time, it’s a question of money.  When the times are better, then opera was higher, and when it was going down the opera also goes down.

BD:    So it fluctuates with the tenor of the times?

FL:    Yes, very much.  I see how it is, how normal it is to play opera each night.  It’s always sold out.   In Zurich or in German opera houses, always sold out.  And it’s expensive now with millions going into deficit.  This is the situation of the opera, I think.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Let’s talk a bit about Wagner.  Have you conducted all ten major works?

FL:    All the ten, yes, but not the eleventh, not Rienzi.  I don’t like it.  I remember I have done all the Wagner things with Wieland Wagner as stage master, and then came one time Rienzi, and I said, “Hm-mm, not with me.”  I don’t like Meyerbeer either, and Rienzi is very much this typical great opera style.

BD:    Sure.  It’s a wonderful Meyerbeer opera!  [Both laugh]

FL:    Yes.  Very good.  But the other ten are enough.  I have done seventy times the Ring.

leitner BD:    Seventy full Rings?

FL:    Yes, full Rings and separate Walküres and Götterdämmerungs, naturally.

BD:    When you did the Ring here in Chicago, it was over four years.  Is that a cycle, or is that really just separate pieces?

FL:    This is more separate pieces.  I have done the Ring in Buenos Aires maybe fifteen or sixteen years ago, and in two months I was working and did it six times.  It was one of the biggest successes in my life.  I think it is better to see the four works together.

BD:    What is the ideal spacing?  Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday?

FL:    Normally in the old time it was Saturday, Sunday, Wednesday and Saturday.  This was normal.  Before the Götterdämmerung a little bit of time, and before Siegfried, too.  Only Rheingold and Walküre were back-to-back on Saturday and Sunday.  A conductor has to stand there for eighteen hours.

BD:    When someone is going to see the Ring on Saturday, Sunday, Wednesday, Saturday, should they go to see other things in between?

FL:    Yes, sure.  For a great opera house, a Ring is a normal thing.

BD:    But I mean for the public.  If I’m in the midst of the Ring, should I not interrupt it for another opera?

FL:    Better only the Ring.  But there are other people for Bohème and Butterfly.  For a true Wagnerian, it’s a special thing.  Tristan is, too.  I’m sure some of those who like Butterfly don’t like to go to Tristan.   For me, it is not so.  I am going to the Tosca, too, and it is for me perfect.  I can go to the works of another composer.  I can hear them all.

BD:    Would you conduct another work in the middle of a Ring?

FL:    No.  It’s too much, because in the morning you have your rehearsal, and in the evening you have your performance.  That’s too much.  I think there was one time in my life that in the last moment the conductor was sick and I had to do Carmen in between.  But this is more possible with Carmen.  It is a classical thing, so it was not a problem.

BD:    Do you ever approve of cuts in the Wagner operas?

FL:    I hate the cuts in Meistersinger, Tristan, the Ring and Parsifal.  For me, they must be done without cuts.  In this Tristan we are doing just one cut.  It is for the singer of Tristan, otherwise it would be too much.  In the Meistersinger here a few years ago there were none, and with the Ring, too.  The Siegfried was Jean Cox.  I have done it with him in München, too, and it’s hard work for the tenor.  In Stuttgart, in the great time of Stuttgart’s opera house, Wolfgang Windgassen was singing the Loge, the Sigmund and the two Siegfrieds.

BD:    Is that too much to do all four of those in a cycle?

FL:    It is very much.  Yes.  You must know how to sing opera.

BD:    Is it hard on the audience to see the same singer in different roles?

FL:    No, it’s not.  Mostly, it’s different singers for the Loge and for the Siegmund, but I don’t understand that.  Wagner is a special thing.  Wagner was maybe the greatest man for music theater in the last century, and this is like Verdi.  You must not only speak always of Verdi.  It’s not necessary.  Even in the Falstaff, this is a great musical theater.

BD:    It seems that musicians love Falstaff more than the public.

FL:    Yes.  Absolutely, but this is a fantasy.  It is also like a symphony.  The man was eighty years old when he wrote it.   We must be happy that we have all the older times of men who are composers and painters and all the arts.

BD:    Is there any composer at all in the history of music that comes close to being the same level as Wagner for you?

FL:    Yes.  First, number one is Mozart.  It’s that way for life.  If you are young, if you are old, the first man is always Mozart.  I have now conducted The Magic Flute two hundred fifty times, and it is always wonderful like the first!  I have done more than two hundred performances of Figaro, and so on.  It is better and better.  It’s a wonder.  For the music theater, not the symphony, then came Wagner and Strauss on the German side, and on the other side is for me Rossini and Verdi and Puccini.  All three.  It is fantastic that we always have this; it’s a great thing.  I have not conducted all of the Strauss.  Strauss has fifteen operas, and I have done nine from the fifteen.  It’s a pleasure.  It’s not work, it’s a pleasure.

BD:    Is there ever a case where it would be good to do something else on the evening’s program with either Salome or Elektra?

FL:    How do you mean?

BD:    A ballet, intermission, Salome, or another opera, intermission, Salome.

FL:    Alone.  Strauss told me — he was very old and I was very young — in Buenos Aires he conducted in the afternoon Salome and then the evening Elektra.  This was normal for them.

BD:    That sounds like suicide.  [Laughs]

FL:    Yes.  But one hour forty minutes is enough.

BD:    At the Metropolitan in the forties, they used to do Gianni Schicchi, intermission, Salome.

FL:    Yes, yes.  Terrible!  I have done in San Francisco Carmina Burana, interval, and Gianni Schicchi.  It was not so terrible, but I don’t like this.

BD:    Have you ever done all three of the Trittico in the evening?

FL:    No, only two.   Not Suor Angelica.

BD:    So, Il Tabarro, interval, Gianni Schicchi?

FL:    Yes.  It’s too much.  It’s very long with the three, and the Sister Angelica is not the best.  Gianni Schicchi is the highest, better than the Tabarro, I think.

BD:    When you do The Flying Dutchman, do you do it in one piece or three?

FL:    I do The Flying Dutchman in Zurich in one.  Some years I cannot do it because I have no time, and I don’t know if they do it in three or one.  In one it is too long, but in three acts it is also not the best because if you do an interval after the second act the third is too short.  But if you only do it after the first act, then it’s second part too long.  The best is in one.  It’s two hours and twenty-six minutes.  It’s enough. 

BD:    What about Capriccio?  Do you do that in one piece or two?

FL:    In two.  You see, I halved Strauss.  He has it written in one because it was the high time in the war, and the air raids came mostly in the evening at ten o’clock.  So we start at six o’clock and do it in one piece and have no interval.  The people can go home and get in the cellar.  This was the reason.  After the war, the old master said to the conductor Robert Hager, who was a very good friend of mine, “Please, could you do a small ending and a small new beginning?”  So he did, and he added sixteen bars to end the first part and eight bars to begin the second part.  This is the form and I do it always now.  They did it this way in Munich and later elsewhere.  So I do it in two acts.  It’s better.  It’s too long.  It’s two hours and forty minutes, so in one it’s too much.

BD:    Yet, we can sit through Rheingold which is about the same.

FL:    Yes, but you have many things to see in Rheingold.  In Capriccio, you have only the play and they speak together.  Next June I will do it in concert broadcast from Paris.  Radio Franҫaise asked me to do it, and one week later a concert with works only from Strauss.  There I do it with the interval and a little bit shorter with cuts, but not too much.  Speaking with Strauss, he knows the cuts.  He found it very good.

BD:    Are there cuts in Rosenkavalier?

leitner FL:    No.  He didn’t like cuts there.  He said to me, “One time in my life, I’d like to hear the third act without cuts.”  I never in my life conduct without cuts because the singers don’t know it.

BD:    [With a gentle nudge]  Can’t you insist? 

FL:    [Smiles]  Yes, but you must have a fantastic, great stage master to make sure that you’re not feeling how long it is.  Most people find the third act of Rosenkavalier starts only with the ending, with the three sopranos, and what comes before this is not important.

BD:    [Gently protesting]  Oh, but it’s such fun!

FL:    I do the first and second act without cuts and in the third act I take something out from the beginning.

BD:    Tell me about Arabella.  Is this as strong a work as Rosenkavalier?

FL:    No.  We have a terrible word, it is the Sklerosenkavalier.  It means it is like Rosenkavalier but a little bit less.

BD:    A little weaker?

FL:    Yes.  But I have done Arabella very often in the last two years, and it is hard.  The second act is going down, but the first and the third act are fantastic.  I like it very much.  They are going to do it here in two years.

BD:    Will you conduct?

FL:    No.  I cannot.  I was asked too late.  [Note: The production at Lyric Opera in 1984 would have Kiri Te Kanawa in the title role, and be conducted by Sir John Pritchard.  To read my interview with those two, click here.]  I cannot do the Flying Dutchman next season, but I will see what the next possible work might be.  I hope always for Parsifal

BD:    Someone once said that Der Rosenkavalier stands in relation to Figaro as Die Frau ohne Schatten stands to The Magic Flute.  Do you agree with this?

FL:    No!  Never.  Mozart is so a separate thing.  Rosenkavalier is so fantastic a thing, it is separate.  It stands alone.  If you read or if you hear the words without music, it’s fantastic, too.  I love Frau ohne Schatten very, very much.  Strauss said to me, “This is the best,” and I said, “No, Salome and Elektra.?”  He said to me, “Yes, maybe.  They are such crazy women.”  [Laughs]  But Frau ohne Schatten was his favorite.

BD:    Have you done Daphne?

FL:    Yes.  This is a wonderful opera.  It is so difficult because you must have two first-class tenors.  I remember one in Vienna with Wunderlich and King when they were young.  It is very difficult, also, for the Daphne to sing.  The words are not Hofmannsthal.

BD:    Was Strauss more inspired by the Hofmannsthal?

FL:    Much more!  Or if he wrote the words by himself.

BD:    As in Intermezzo?

FL:    Yes, like Intermezzo or with Clemens Krauss, like Capriccio.  This was a wedding.  The three things he did with Gregor
Daphne, Friedenstag and Liebe der Danaedo not have so much inspiration.

BD:    What about the really early work, Guntram?

FL:    This is the new Wagner.  This is the second Lohengrin.  I have done parts from Guntram two years ago in a concert in Vienna, and I was very unhappy, I must say.  I am happy that Strauss was absolutely another man later.  When Strauss became the real Strauss, this absolutely began with Salome.  Not with Feuersnot, but with Salome.  This is when came the absolute new thing, a new style, and I think it’s fantastic!

BD:    Are Guntram and Feuersnot for Strauss like Die Feen and Liebesverbot for Wagner?

FL:    Yes.  It’s the same.  Absolutely.  These are not Wagner and the others are not Strauss.  It starts with Salome, which was much more of a cause célèbre than Sacre du Printemps at this time.  It was so modern.

BD:    Some people hated it...

FL:    Yes, or they liked it.  He was very, very successful man.  I remember after the war, when the American soldiers were coming in Germany, they were in Garmisch.  When they came to his house, Strauss came out and said to an officer, “I am the composer of Rosenkavalier.”  He was very sympathetic and a great man for me when I was so young.  It was special to listen to him, and to have talked with him.

*     *     *     *      *

BD:    Let’s go back to Wagner just a little bit and talk about a couple of the earlier ones
Lohengrin and Tannhäuser.  Are these weaker works, or are they just not understood as much?

FL:    I don’t know.  For me, Wagner begins with Tristan, then Meistersinger, Ring and Parsifal, although I have conducted Lohengrin more than hundred times.  It is a fantastic work.  It is the last normal, romantic opera, but the real Wagner is from Tristan to Parsifal.  In the Tannhäuser, if you do the Dresden version, then it is not enough.  If you do the version from Paris, then it’s too much in the beginning and after that it’s too thin.  It’s a problem. 

leitner BD:    So when you do Tannhäuser, which version do you do
or do you put the two together?

FL:    Together.  It’s never good, and Wagner knew it very well.  He said in the last year of his life, “I must work on Tannhäuser again.  It’s not possible.”  So, he knew it very well.  Holländer, Tannhäuser and Lohengrin are the end of the German romantic opera like Weber; then begins the new style, like Strauss began a new style with Salome

BD:    Where does Heinrich Marschner fit in?

FL:    He is a fantastic, good composer.  I have done Hans Heiling very often, and I like Der Vampyr, too.  His third opera, Der Templer und die Jüdin which means The Priest and the Jewish Girl, was very popular in olden times.  I feel that he knows much more about the orchestra than Weber, but Weber was more mellifluous.  I always try to get these two operas
Hans Heiling and Vampyr — into the repertoire of my opera house.

BD:    Would we enjoy them here in America?

FL:    No, I don’t know.  I think it’s the same with Weber
— it is too much German.  In Paris, they are never done.  In England, more, but in France, no.  They are only for one part of the people.  It is like Bellini in Italy.  In Germany with Bellini, if you have a great singer for the title roles, yes, but normally, no.  I feel we must do all sides of the repertoire.  The hard side is French opera in Germany.  They don’t like Pelléas et Mélisande.  I have done this opera.  They don’t like Gounod; they don’t like Saint-Saëns and any typical French music, and so I think it is with Marschner, Weber and many others.  These are typical German music.

BD:    Lortzing, too?

FL:    Yes, Lortzing is only possible to do in Germany with all the dialogue and other things.  If you have dialogue in another language, I think it’s not going to be popular.

BD:    You won’t do them in translations?

FL:    No, not for these.  You can’t.  I heard Lohengrin in Italian at La Scala a long time ago, when I was a young man, and it was very good.  The Italian sound was very good for Lohengrin, but I was in Rome for a Walküre in Italian and this was not satisfactory.

BD:    I wonder why the Lohengrin would work but the Walküre wouldn’t?

FL:    This was the mature style of Wagner, and it’s not possible to translate.

BD:    I would think that the long monologue of Wotan and other scenes like that would work in translation.

FL:    I was very young at the time, and I found it terrible.  Now they always play things in the original in Italy.

BD:    How much have recordings and electronics influenced the operatic public?

FL:    I have never heard my records.

BD:    You never listened to them at all???

FL:    No, maybe one time in my life, but they are there.  I am not looking for old records, and I do not let them influence my work.  I have old records by Fritz Busch, Furtwängler, Weingartner, and so on, and I play them just one time.  More?  No.  Never!  It is for me a bad point.  I have so much music with me to work on, but I like records with great actors.  I have hundreds that I like very much.

BD:    Records of plays?

FL:    Yes!  But music, I have enough music.

BD:    So when you want to relax, you go to a play?

FL:    No.  I do, but not so often.  At the end of the season I say, “So now, five weeks and nothing with music.”

BD:    No music at all???

FL:    No music.  I am learner with my eyes
not with my ears but with eyes.  I can learn my scores without music.

BD:    You just read your scores?

FL:    At first, yes.  Then comes the music after this.  It is very important for us to stop each year a little bit.  I do this in this season.  I was now five weeks on holiday, and I heard nothing, not one note.  I only studied a score for the Domestica.  I go in April again for three or four weeks because I have before and after this so much work, and then came the time of the festivals.  I must have a little bit of down time.  When I was young, I was never done, but later, this is better.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Tell me about your relationship with Carl Orff.

leitner FL:    [Smiles, as he reminisces about many diverse aspects of his friendship]  This is such a special thing.  I have conducted all the stage works that he has written.  I think there are twelve.  The friendship began in ’43 and ended with his death [March 29, 1982].  He was very charming in our last conversation on the telephone a short time before he died.  He was very clever, and what we call ‘wach’ (awake), but toward the end he didn’t remember things so well.  He called me twice many days, mornings and evenings, because he had forgotten that he called me in the morning.  But in the evening he was very normal.  He would ask, “Oh, this morning I telephoned?” and I would say yes because he didn’t know.  But this was one of the greatest men in our century.  First with the Schulwerk... you know there is the Orff Institute in Salzburg, and many, many schools in the world including here in the States learn this.  I found the children are better if they learn of Schulwerk when they make music.  They may not be musicians later, but if they must do things with their hands and with feet, from nursery at three years, they start with this.  I found the enormous advantage to this.  Maybe ten years or twelve years ago, Orff was invited to Tokyo.  When he arrived, he said to his wife, “I’m sure there is a political man on our plane.  Look here at the red carpet,
but this was for him!  He came out and ten thousand children were singing and playing instruments for him when he was coming down from the plane.  He told me, “I never had so exact, so fantastic a performance dozens of different conductors.”  He said it was fantastic.  It was the greatest thing in his life.  I have the original manuscript of his first lied.  He knows that I am a collector of such things.  I have that manuscript and many other manuscripts from him.  Back then he was feeling it’s not possible to be a composer like Strauss and a little bit Wagner.  This was when he was nineteen, twenty, twenty-one years old, so he started with a new style with Der Mond.  This is a fantastic thing.  This may be possible to do in English, like Die Kluge.  These are stories for the world, not only for Bavarians.  They speak in original Bavarian dialogue, but it is possible for others to share the feeling of what he wrote.  This can happen with the three things, Mond, Kluge and Bernauerin.  These are the three Bavarian things, and they are possible to be done in English.

BD:    Could all three of them be done on one evening?

FL:    Yes, I think so.

BD:    Might it be better to have just two, perhaps
Der Mond and Die Kluge?

FL:    No.  I think doing them separately is for me the best.  It’s always a problem.  They make it that way very often; Der Mond and Die Kluge is too much.  Der Mond alone is same like Salome, one hour, forty-five minutes, and Die Kluge is one hour, ten.  Last time in Munich I did Die Kluge with his realization of Orfeo by Monteverdi.   He did the three Monteverdi realizations when he was a young man
[1926, 1931 and 1941], and I have done the second version.  I was the first conductor for Oedipus and for Prometheus.

BD:    What about Antigonae?  You made the recording...

FL:    No, not the first performance of Antigonae.

BD:    These are such large works, huge works as opposed to the others.

FL:    Yes.  I will do Antigonae now in Zurich, nine performances.  This is an enormous thing.  Then the last, the Comoedia.  I said to him after this very difficult thing, “So, maestro, now, you must do your Falstaff.  Now is the time.”  He said, “No.  After Comoedia, the last is with the devil.  At the end, who is an angel?  No, I think it’s the end,” and it was end.  I learned from him enormous amounts, not only for music but also for instrumentation.  He was such a man with a... what can you say?  Even when he was speaking old Greek and Latin, and he always speaks Bavarian dialect.  He was one of the highest men in my life, and it was always fine if he was at a performance.  When I was younger, very often he would attend performances, also when I did works by Strauss and Wagner.  Then I would speak with him very, very much.  He would never say to me, “Now, boy, you must do so and so.”  Never.  I asked him many things and he answered.  He had such a humor.  We laughed together very much, and had nice, nice, nice time.  When we were together for the first time, it was a love in the first moment.  He and I were in a very difficult situation in
43.  I was forbidden and he was half-forbidden.  It was the year when he was coming out with Catulli Carmina and they didn’t know what the Latin words meant.  After two performances in Leipzig, then they knew the words, and then it was forbidden.  He came to Berlin and said, “In this moment, it’s a dangerous thing.”  Then at the end of the war and after the war, after 46, then we were always together.  I made my first performances of Die Kluge, Carmina Burana, Catulli Carmina, and Triumph of Aphrodite and Bernauerin in Munich, and then I did all his works.

leitner BD:    You have also recorded many of these works.

FL:    On recording for me I have Antigonae.  This is from a long time ago, maybe twelve years.  And yes, I have recorded the three
Carmina Burana, Catulli Carmina and Trionfo dellAfrodite.

BD:    Should those three be staged, or should they only be done in concert?

FL:    They can be concert, or they can be on stage if you have a great stage master.  I have done it so often on stage in three different productions.  I have done it one time with Rennert.  Then it was fantastic on stage, too.  But normally it is better as a concert.

BD:    Did you ever do all three on one evening, or is that too much?

FL:    It is very much, but I have done it.  This is with two intervals, four hours.  I remember when I did Catulli Carmina in Paris the first time, Marc Chagall and many, many other painters were there.  It was a big, big success.  They loved it very much.
  So Orff is one of the most important composers, I’m sure.  He was not like a normal composer; rather he was a man for the theater and a man for the young people.

BD:    We play a recording of Gassenhauer quite often, and we always get calls about it.  People say it’s such a lovely work.

FL:    Yes.

BD:    Is there anyone coming along today
any contemporary composersthat have that kind of inspiration?

FL:    We have some in Germany and in Switzerland.  One is Wolfgang Rihm (b. 1952), and his operas and symphonies are played very often.  He has his own style.  I cannot say “this is like so and so.”  No, no.  This is separate thing.  The youngest is Detlev Müller-Siemens (b. 1957).  He is an enormous talent, especially, I think, for concert music; not so much for stage.  The third is Volker David Kirchner (b. 1942).  He’s a little bit older, and his operas are very successful.  Those are three, but there are many more of them.  It must be very difficult to compose in our time.  I always feel Stravinsky was the end point.  Strauss said to me, “I am the diminuendo of Wagner.”  So is it with Stravinsky, like a finishing point.  You know,
I conducted the world premiere production of The Rake’s Progress by Stravinsky.  That was the first that I have done of international things.  That was ‘51 in Venice.  [Note: Stravinsky conducted the first performance, but Leitner led the rehearsals and subsequent performances.  Leitner also conducted all the performances a few months later at La Scala, as well as in Stuttgart and Hamburg.]  If you conduct his last piecesI have done one concert with the last five pieces of Stravinsky in the Concertgebouw in Amsterdamthen you feel, “This is the end of music and let it be.”

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Let me ask you about performers.  Are singers today better or worse than singers of twenty, thirty, forty years ago?

FL:    I think the voices are all the time better, but the technique and the personality on stage is now much more.  It’s absolutely another type of singer.  I remember when I was a boy the great singer Mafalda Salvatini and also many Italian singers.  Among the Wagner singers there was Lauritz Melchior, who was Danish.  This was a type from this time, and is not possible now.  It is another type and I feel it is no more.  Today they have not so much voice, but they can sing more.

leitner BD:    So they can overcome what they lack and still perform the heavy roles?

FL:    Yes.  Back then, all that was going on stage was the normal voice, and this was enough.  That was all.  During that time, the production, the stage master, the conductor was nothing; only the singers.  Now is it teamwork, mostly.

BD:    How much does the production
the scenery and costumesinfluence your work as a conductor?

FL:    Enormously.  I don’t say who it was or what it was, but in one very great town in Germany, after three performances I said, “I am sorry.  I am supposed to conduct ten evenings, but I can’t.  When I look up there I see absolutely something else, and then I cannot do the music.”

BD:    So it was a huge conflict between the stage and the pit?

FL:    Yes, and this is not a question of modern or old.  Absolutely not!  You can give your all to the production side, but it must affect the music.  This was the secret of Wieland Wagner.  I have done with Wieland Wagner thirteen works
not only Wagner, but also Lulu, Orfeo of Gluck, Fidelio and so on.  He made great news, but never was the music disturbed.  You have always the feeling as a conductor, yes, this is fine.  What we are doing is new for me, but it’s fine.  I have done the Ring with him, and in the Walküre, it was Wotan who was going down and Brünnhilde said, “No, no.  Come here now.  You have said what needs to happen and now you must do it with me.”  All of this was in another angle, and it was enough.  I was feeling this when I was conducting.  So it’s not a question of being modern; I must understand why, and it must never be contrary to the music.  I was so happy to work very much these two great menGünther Rennert, and Wieland Wagner.  With Günther Rennert I have done thirty-six operas.  That’s very much, and it was always pleasure.  With Wieland Wagner, too.  We worked a little bit together but in the end it was fantastic!  Now in Chicago we are doing a Tristan, and it may be it is a little bit in the Wieland Wagner style.  Not too much, but not a moment of the music is disturbed.  There are, of course, feelings from the stage master, but they must be with the music.  This is for me an issue.  I found that this is an important thing.  I have done with a new stage master Hans Heiling of Marschner.  It is difficult to do in our time, and it was fantastic.  Frau ohne Schatten, too.  We have now two or three young people who are coming along.  They are modern but normal musicians.  I like to work with young men.

BD:    Who are these, or do you not want to say?

FL:    This one is Nikolaus Lehnhoff.  He was in San Francisco, and this is one of the top men.  There are two, three more.  In our time is the stage master a little bit too important, I think.  But this is better than not being important enough.  It is important, the stage master, but now the European critics write only about them.  There is the stage master first, then come all the singers together, and last is the conductor.  That’s how it is in this moment in our time, but not for much longer, I think.  It’s changing a little bit.  We are looking and not hearing.

BD:    Are you optimistic about the future of opera?

FL:    Yes.  We are now in this time a little bit...  [searches for word]

BD:    In a little valley?

FL:    Yes, but I am sure it goes up, and it’s going up in the next hundred years, too.  Nobody can say why opera is a special thing.  Why can it be such a big success?  It is so.  It’s not a normal thing that the people are singing and not speaking.  It’s very special, and it is inside of us
and it was the same two hundred years ago.  Two hundred years ago was a great time of Mozart.  It’s a long time for an art style, so I think for the next hundred years it’s possible.

BD:    Are the children who study the Orff Schulwerk better prepared to enjoy the opera?

FL:    Yes, I think so.  They develop special
betterears for concerts.  This is enormously important when they are fourteen or fifteen years old.  They know what is with the music and not only that, but they say they know music.  I find this very fine.  Most are not musicians later, but they understand and like it.  This is important.

BD:    My father used to tell me that all the time,
that musicians shouldn’t play for other musicians.  Musicians should play for ordinary people, for everyone.

FL:    Yes.  That is it.  In Tokyo when I am conducting and I see the people just a little bit, they are not seeing me.  They are sitting and concentrating on the music, and this is wonderful!  This is wonderful. 

BD:    Thank you so very, very much for taking the time from your schedule.

FL:    Thank you. 


© 1982 Bruce Duffie

This interview was recorded at his hotel in Chicago on September 24, 1982.  Portions were transcribed and published in Wagner News in January, 1983.  Portions were also used (with recordings) on WNIB in 1987, 1992, 1993, 1995, and 1997.  A fresh transcript was made, and it was posted on this website in 2013.

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

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

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