Conductor  Sir  Charles  Mackerras
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


Few conductors of international stature have had as versatile a career with such an enormous repertoire as Sir Charles Mackerras.  Revered for both symphonic concerts and operas, he has championed the music of Leoš
Janáček like no one else, with performances and recordings that set the standard and gave wide presentation.

Many of the details of his life are recounted in the obituary which appeared in The Telegraph reproduced at the bottom of this page.

The fall of 1986 was a busy few weeks for the Maestro.  He was in Chicago to conduct the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, as well as Orlando and Lucia di Lammermoor at Lyric Opera.  In the midst of it all, he agreed to see me at his hotel for a chat.

While setting up the machine to record our conversation, the conductor was most anxious to inquire about a couple of words — yuppie and funk.  He wanted to know both the meaning and derivation, and I tried to help him as best I could.  Yuppie was easy since it is an acronym like scuba or snafu.  Funk, however, was somewhat more tricky, and he thought the term might have originated in a specific performers name . . . . .

Charles Mackerras:    It doesn’t come from the name Garfunkel, does it?   He was a sort of a pop artist who, however, appealed to intellectuals rather than the real pop culture. 

Bruce Duffie:    In Time Magazine, Simon and Garfunkel were called “modern madrigalists.”

CM:    Yes.  They were pop singers who appealed to the classical music lovers, in a way.  Isn’t that so?

BD:    Yes, and there still are.  There are quite a number of what we call “crossovers.”  There are some pop singers who are appealing more to classical, and there are some classical people who are spilling down into the pop area...  [correcting the word] spilling over, rather than down.  [Both laugh]

CM:    Yes, a Freudian slip. [Both continue to laugh]

BD:    Exactly!  Let me ask, since y
ou’re a major conductor all over the world, should the concert music management try to entice the popular music audience into the concerts?

CM:    I think they should, but I don’t think they should do it by degrading themselves, which some managements are apt to do a little bit too much.  I also don’t think that the way to the man in the street’s heart, to make him come to concerts, is to put a rock accompaniment to Mozart’s G-minor Symphony, or something of that sort.  But I admit that something must be done in order to try and make a bigger audience, and a more popular audience, for symphony concerts.  It’s quite a problem at the moment, whether the orchestra’s being subsidized by the state, as it is partially in England and Australia and other English-speaking places, or like in the American scene where it’s entirely subsidized by corporations and sponsors and donors and so on.  I agree with you that we need to search for a wider audience, but the question is how you do it while keeping the image of seriousness.

BD:    Has the avalanche of recordings influenced the way the public perceives the classical music world?

CM:    I think it certainly has, yes.

BD:    In a good way or bad?

CM:    Well, a bit of both, isn’t it?  In some ways it’s led to a much wider audience, having so many classical records available.  Also, the fact that famous singers, like Pavarotti and Domingo and Kiri Te Kanawa tend to start singing pop music and, in a way, to play down to a public in order to, well, I don’t know what their reason is.  It’s pop, and in a way it’s popularizing their art, but in a way it’s debasing it at the same time, it seems to me.

BD:    It’s a double-edged sword.

CM:    Yes, it has advantages and disadvantages in both ways.

BD:    At the moment, are the advantages balancing the disadvantages?

CM:    I think so, yes.  I hope so, anyhow.  [Both laugh]

BD:    Since we’re talking about recordings, you’ve made quite a number of them.  Do you conduct differently in the recording studio than you do in the live concert or the opera house?

mackerrasCM:    I try not to, but at the same time you must, to a certain extent, particularly when time is so important.  People are watching the clock a lot in the studio in the western world.  In recordings you know that you can stop and cure things, put things right that are not quite perfect, but it’s a terrible decision with the small amount of time available for making recordings.  Often, a very difficult decision is to whether to retake something, and thus lose a certain amount of time, or to hope that it’s going to be okay without listening.  The moment a conductor or singer has to listen to playbacks, then that wastes a lot of time that could be spent doing recordings.

BD:    Are records too perfect?

CM:    Sometimes.  Well, I don’t think that they’re too perfect, no.  They sometimes have a mechanical feeling, but I think that’s because of the conditions under which they’re done.  Not enough time is given to recording because it’s now so terribly expensive.  There is a very welcome difference when you work behind the Iron Curtain, where they don’t have unions, where they don’t have set hours, and where the musicians get paid by the recording rather than by the minute or by the minute of recording.  The hours are not restricted and the whole system of working is very much preferable to this extremely tight and inflexible way which happens in this country and also in England.

BD:    But that doesn’t exploit the musicians in Eastern Europe?

CM:    No.  I’ve conducted recordings quite a lot in Prague, which is of course a favorite city of mine, and although I wouldn’t say that I prefer their political system by any means, I do prefer the method of working with recording.  It’s not that the musicians don’t get paid so well.  They don’t probably get paid as well as the ones here, but they’re a great deal more flexible with working.  We have a break when the musicians want a break, not when they have to have a break by the union, and we go on recording until the thing is right.  It’s in their interests as well as the company’s.

BD:    How do you know when it is finished?

CM:    We do know; between us we do know.  I must say that I’ve mainly worked with the very best Czechoslovak orchestras, both the Prague Chamber Orchestra and the Czech Philharmonic.  I have had recently some extremely pleasant experiences working with the Prague Chamber Orchestra, doing Mozart symphonies.  These recordings will be out in the states within a few weeks, actually
the two famous symphonies, the G Minor and the Jupiter.  I remember that the making of those records was extremely pleasant — very un-fraught, very un-nerve-wracking, which meant that all of us could play similarly to playing in a concert.

BD:    How do the people in Czechoslovakia feel about hiring an Australian to come and teach them their music?

CM:    In a way I’ve got a rather special position in that I have propagated Janáček’s music a very great deal, and I am frequently invited to conduct
Janáček particularly, but also Martinů and other Czech composers in Czechoslovakia.  I’m sort of accepted there almost as one of them and I’m very well known there.  The other thing is that in recordings, although it’s done by Supraphon, they’re frequently engaged by other companies to record there.  For instance, these recordings of Mozart that I’ve just done are for the Telarc company, which is in Cleveland, Ohio.  It is run by two extremely clever young men who actually do all the engineering and the sound and the artistic side of it themselves.  There are Supraphon people on hand, but the Telarc people are the ones who are actually in charge of it, and with whom I work.

BD:    So it’s a cooperation?

CM:    It really is a co-production entirely.  They’ll work, of course, for anybody, and Telarc is one of the best companies in the world from the technical point of view.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Let’s talk a little bit about
Janáček.  What about his music grabbed you in the first place?

CM:    I’m often asked that question, and it’s quite difficult to remember.  I’m now so familiar with almost every note of
Janáček’s output that it’s hard to put myself back in the position that I was when I first came as a student, hardly ever hearing Janáček.

BD:    Then let me change the question a little bit.  How has your perception of
Janáček changed over 25 or 30 or 40 years?

CM:    It hasn’t changed at all from the excitement of hearing this marvelous music for the first time.  I’m still as bowled over by it as I was in 1947 when that first happened.  But I have got to realize that what used to be thought of by many musicians
even in Janáček’s lifetimeas Janáček’s sort of incompetence in orchestration, or his inexperience or his primitiveness in orchestration and in general writing down of the music, was not in fact that, but was in fact originality.  When I first heard Janáček’s operas, they were always performed in versions that were rearranged by somebody.

BD:    Someone had touched them up?

mackerrasCM:    Somebody had touched them up.  Probably not so much as Rimsky-Korsakov’s version of Boris, but still rather touched up
particularly Jenůfa and to some extent Kát’a Kabanová.  I used to go along with that because I’d say to myself, “Well, Janáček was a composer of genius who, however, was not a very well trained musician, and therefore he needed well trained people to help him.”  But I don’t think that anymore.  I think that his music, that his orchestration and the way he wrote, the funny, peculiar way he wrote things down is really part of the genius of the man.  What passed for a certain amount of gaucheness before, gaucherie is now, in my opinion, genius and originality.

BD:    Have you conducted all the music of

CM:    I haven’t conducted every note of his conductible music, but I have conducted most of his operas.  I haven’t conducted Osud yet, nor have I conducted Šárka, which is an early opera of his.  I’m looking forward to doing Osud fairly soon, as a matter of fact, but I have conducted all the other operas of

BD:    When you do an opera of
Janáček in the West, do you prefer it be sung in Czech or in English translation?

CM:    If you have surtitles — supertitles, as they’re called in this country — then it’s very good to do it in Czech.  It seems to me that the supertitle idea is the savior of modern opera.  We can now look forward to absolutely a new era in music because of the supertitles.  If there are supertitles, I think it should be done in Czech, because all music, and especially
Janáček, the composers arrange it to work with the language.

BD:    Even with lots of consonants?

CM:    Yes, there are a lot of consonants, but there are equally lots of long syllables which so many people don’t notice.  Although you get words that don’t have any vowels, you equally get words which have long vowels, such as “
Janáček”.  You accent it on the first syllable and you lengthen the second syllable.  “Jenůfa.”  What a beautiful name!  If you have supertitles, then you must do it in Czech because that’s the right way that it sounds, but if you don’t have supertitles, I think then that you must do it in English.  Even then, though, it’s often quite difficult to understand; it’s quite difficult to make that music fit into the English language.  One of the reasons is Slavonic languages don’t have any articles.  Also, the Czech language is always accented on the first syllable, even if the second syllable is lengthened.  That means Janáček’s whole musical language consists of melodies beginning on the downbeat, on the strong beat, so there’s never an upbeat to his melodies.  They all start on one.  That means that when you go into English or German or Italian or French, you’ve got to put in upbeats into the melodic line which Janáček didn’t write.  Certainly all nouns have articles, and the articles are unaccented.

BD:    He would have put in pickups if he had needed them, would he not?

CM:    Yes, exactly.  He would have put in pickups if he’d wanted them, but as the language doesn’t have pickups, therefore their natural way of thinking in melodies — the melodic thought of all Czechs — consists of music that begins on the strong beat.  It’s also the same with other composers.  Hungarians are the same; they have that same thing that they begin on a strong beat, and the Finnish, too.  Sibelius’ music, if you look at it, never begins on an upbeat even when it’s not being sung.  It’s just in their subconscious that their natural way of thinking is on downbeats and not on upbeats, the way the Germans, the Italians — particularly the Italians — and to some extent the English think.

BD:    For some years you were the Director of the English National Opera where everything is done in English.  Is the idea of supertitles going to mean the death of opera in English?

CM:    I don’t think so, necessarily.  The trouble is that so often you can’t hear the English pronunciation.  You can’t hear the words even when it’s in English, and this is a terrible indictment of opera in English.

BD:    Whose fault is this?

CM:    This is the fault, partly, of the singers and partly of the singing teachers.

BD:    [With a slight nudge]  Not of the conductor?

CM:    [Smiling]  It could be the fault of the conductor for not making the orchestra play softly enough, but then that equally is so in other kinds of opera — Donizetti, for instance.  I’ve been grappling with Donizetti’s rather over-thick orchestration for Lucia di Lammermoor.  It’s not in English, and yet I had great trouble in keeping the orchestra down, to making it sound beautiful and light the way the music is, despite the fact that the orchestration is rather thick and heavy.  In order to make the singers heard — whether the audience understands every word or not
you still want to have the singers being heard.  Janáček is particularly difficult because you need to understand every word, especially a thing like The House of the Dead or The Makropoulos Case, in which the meaning of the text is crucial to enjoyment of the work.

BD:    Do you have the singers work harder at the diction when you’re doing
Janáček in Prague?

CM:    In Prague?  No, I’m not sure that they work particularly hard, but possibly the Czech singers take an extra amount of trouble to project the text.  I remember they worked very hard when we were doing our recordings in Vienna.

BD:    Let me make it a more general question.  Do the singers work harder when they are singing in the language of the audience?

CM:    I’m not sure that they do, but they should.  They certainly should.  There are some singers whose diction is superb, and there are some excellent singers whose diction is bad in any language.  The difficulty is that when they are singing in their own language or in the language of the audience, sometimes they get found out.  I will never forget several singers, who shall be nameless, when we were in Hamburg doing an opera in English, The Rake’s Progress of Stravinsky.  There were certain singers — American singers these were — who suddenly were singing in English for the first time, and who had possibly never sung in English before.  Some of them were excellent in diction and some of them were terrible, even though they sang it and acted these roles well.  I came to the conclusion that some singers seem to have a natural talent for projecting their language or projecting the text in any language, and some just don’t.  With the ones that don’t, that doesn’t mean that they’re bad singers; they’re often wonderful singers, but they are wonderful in a different kind of way.  I, of course, find that it’s partly the fault of the fact that the theaters are so huge these days.  It’s almost impossible to project both voice and diction at the same time — that is to project the sound of the singing the opposite way from bel canto, which is the projection of diction, of the text.  That can possibly be blamed on these huge theaters that are particularly the fashion in the United States.  Maybe they were right in the 19th century in Paris.  The Grand Opéra, which was this huge opera house, never allowed the spoken word.  Every time an opera was done there, it had to be sung throughout.  When it was at the Opéra Comique, it was allowed to be spoken.  Indeed, operas like Carmen and Manon and other quite famous French operas, were done for the first time in the Opéra Comique.  So maybe the French had a point when they determined that the spoken word was reserved for a smaller theater, and this is so even in the case of the sung recitative — the Italian recitative, which as you know, is the Italian version of French or English dialogue.  I’ve noticed that when singing in big theaters, singers tend to sing [deepens voice] the recitatives very broadly, with long notes and slow delivery — which is not the way Handel or Mozart intended their recitatives to be sung at all.  It should be more patter, or it should be more at speech speed.  It should imitate speech more, and the notes should not be resonated upon.  I found that it’s much easier to get a singer to sing or speak Italian recitatives that way in smaller theaters.  For instance, when we did Orlando in Venice, there were two of the same singers as here in Chicago
Marilyn Horne and Jeffrey Gall.  [See my Interview with Marilyn Horne, and my Interview with Jeffrey Gall.]  They did the recitatives in a slightly different way, flatter way than they did here in this huge theater in Chicago, or even in the rather larger theater in San Francisco.

BD:    Was that your decision or their decision to change?

CM:    It was my request, to a certain extent, to keep the recitative sounding like spoken dialogue rather than like sung arias.  Mind you, those who started off singing here in Chicago tended to sing the recitatives a lot anyhow, because when they stand on that stage and see that vast theater with millions of people there in front of them, they think, “How on earth am I going to project out to those people?”  In point of fact, they don’t need to.

BD:    The acoustics are good here?

CM:    The acoustics are very good, but I do think that the huge theaters are responsible for making young opera singers, or not-so-young ones, belt too much, to force their voices too much, to make their voices larger than they naturally are.  The result is that so many of these singers, who are very promising and who rush around the world in aeroplanes, have a much shorter career than really they should have with their talent.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Let me ask the
Capriccio questionin opera, which is more important, the music or the drama?

CM:    I think that they’re equally important, but the desires of the composer are paramount, if it comes to a dichotomy of interests.  If it comes to a quarrel or a battle, I believe not necessarily that the music is more important, but that the composer’s conception is more important.  That is why I personally disapprove so much of operas in which not so much that the period has been changed, but in which the meaning of the composer has been changed.

BD:    Are the directors getting too much power?

CM:    The directors are certainly getting too much power, and I think that it has reached just ludicrous proportions.  In Europe — in Germany and France, particularly — it reached quite impossible proportions more than a decade ago.

BD:    Is this something you look to when you’re signing contracts — who the producer will be?

CM:    Yes.  I never sign a contract with a theater unless I know how the producer
you call it “stage director”is going and what they propose to do.  Of course, the directors are often very coy so far in advance about what they’re going to do...

BD:    At what point in a new production do you collaborate with the producer?

mackerrasCM:    This varies between producer and producer.  It depends on their schedule, on whether we can get together.  I usually try and get together with directors and discuss the whole thing with them.  If I am in a position to, as it were, dictate to them at all, then I really go into it in depth.  If I have been engaged as a guest somewhere else, let’s say with a theater where the director and I are both guests, neither of us being permanently employed as directors with the company, I then take a great deal of trouble to find out what the director’s concept is going to be, because a terrible lot of them go on with this word “concept.”  They say, “This is my concept of it,” and my reply to that is, “It may be your concept, but is it the composer’s concept, and does it fit in with the music the composer has written?”  In certain cases, a concept such as putting an opera into another milieu or another period need not necessarily fight the composer’s concept.  I will give you two examples, both of Faust.  Gounod’s Faust, placed in the period of Gounod is a perfectly logical concept because it fits the music.  It fits the music better than the original concept of being medieval.  The whole concept of the Faust legend is timeless, and therefore can fit into any age, so why not put into the age of Gounod and have Mephistopheles with a top hat on?  The libretto does say that he has a feather in his cap, but that can be easily changed, as Jean-Louis Barrault found out many years ago.  La plume au chapeau becomes Le plus aux chapeaux, which sounds more or less the same.  [Both laugh]  Another thing where the time can be changed very well is in Busoni’s Doctor Faust, which he himself said it would be good if you can set it in modern dress.  What I don’t like is setting it in such a different milieu that it doesn’t fit in with the music, or that it makes nonsense of some of the action.  A recent example of that is Tosca which was produced by Jonathan Miller in Florence, and then repeated in London.  The police chief, Scarpia, was changed into a fascist character.  Apart from that, nothing particular was changed except that it became fascist.  It meant, of course, that a lot of the text didn’t make sense and a lot of the little incidents of local color didn’t make sense.

BD:    So you want it be consistent throughout!

CM:    It needs to be consistent.  In the 18th century, the Castel Sant’Angelo was used as a prison
the way it still was in the 20th century — but it was in the country, more or less.  Therefore it is logical in the third act to have a shepherd boy whistling and singing, and having the sounds of sheep’s bells going.  But it wouldn’t make sense at all to have a shepherd boy singing outside the Castel Sant’Angelo in the 20th century because it was a big city by that time.  It seems to me that in order to make the opera work in a modern setting or a different setting from what the composer intended, you’ve got to change too much.

BD:    Do want the opera to be a living theater, though?

CM:    I do want it to be a living theater, but there’s no reason why it shouldn’t be a living theater set in the time or the place or the milieu that the composer intended.  It seems to me that if you start changing the accent or the moral or the concept of the work that it’s not true to the composer’s music, and therefore why do it?  If you want to do Don Giovanni as a symbolistic, impressionistic performance — as I once, unfortunately, had the displeasure of performing it with a production by Ruth Berghaus, who was a very symbolical kind of modern producer — that would have been fine if the music had been by Henze.  She produced it as a political drama, and it was full of symbols that nobody could understand because they didn’t understand what was being said.  It was in Italian and there were no surtitles.  But the action that was going on onstage appeared to have nothing to do with the story.  You couldn’t follow the plot at all from seeing this production.  Of course if you questioned her, she pointed out why everything was happening because it was symbolical.  For instance, Zerlina had on one peasant clog and another high-heeled, elegant, aristocratic shoe, and had to limp around the stage for more or less the whole of the second act.

BD:    [Suggesting a possibility]  She had one foot in each camp?

CM:    Yes, that is the idea.  Well, that isn’t a very original or deep concept, after all, but that was what was put to Mozart’s music.  If it had been music by a 20th-century composer I’m all for treating the drama that way, but not when it’s Mozart because that doesn’t fit in with Mozart’s music or Mozart’s ideas or his philosophy or his period of thinking or anything.

BD:    Have you done some contemporary music
Henze and the like?

CM:    I’ve conducted two or three pieces of Henze, but only small pieces.  I’ve never conducted a Henze opera.

So where is music going today?

CM:    I don’t know.  I don’t know.  It’s very difficult to predict because everybody who’s tried to predict where music is going tends to have been wrong in the past.  One has to be very wary of making a pronouncement, because the moment one says anything it’s apt to be wrong.  I can make pronouncements forever on music of the past and I may or may not be right, but about music of the future I’m sure to be wrong.

BD:    Then let me hit the middle.  What about the music of the present?

CM:    I am not inspired by very much music of the present, I’ve got to say.  None of the various trends in music seem to be leading anywhere.  I suppose their job is not really to lead anywhere, but to write music that’s going to appeal to people in their own time.

BD:    Is that the genius of someone like Mozart, that it appeals then and now?

mackerrasCM:    Yes, I think that is.  It appealed then... [pauses] or it didn’t even really appeal to all sorts of people then, but I don’t know whether success can be judged by the amount of appeal to the public.  If that were the case, the people who go and see Philip Glass’ operas would run the situation, but that’s not at all an operatic public.  It was very interesting to see, when the English National Opera did Akhnaten at the Coliseum in London, it was packed out.  It was a huge success with the public, but that public was not the normal operatic public.  It was a sort of upper-class pop culture.

BD:    [Coming back to the first discussion]  A funky public?

CM:    [Laughs]  A funky public, as you would say, in this country!

BD:    Should you encourage the regular subscribers to the Coliseum to go to and see Akhnaten or Satyagraha?

CM:    Why not?  Yes.  They probably were encouraged to go.  I wasn’t working for the Coliseum at the time, except that I did notice that the public was not the same public as the normal operatic public.  The funny thing is that that public that goes to see Akhnaten will probably not spill over into wanting to go see Rigoletto, even if it’s produced as New York Mafiosi like they did it in the Coliseum.

BD:    So there’s no real crossover?

CM:    I don’t think so.  At least, there’s not as much crossover as people say.  People often hope, but I think it’s more wishful thinking than real.

BD:    Are you optimistic about the future of opera?

CM:    I wish I could be, but I’m not terribly.  What worries me very much is that so many states, governments, art councils, and things among the states who pay for opera are starting to say, “Well, really it’s so elitist that it’s for such a small proportion of the public, of the people; why are we supporting this thing?”  On the other hand, as it’s done here in the United States where it is quite overtly elitist — and that the rich people and the corporations and so on are appealed to on the grounds that it is elitist — they seem to feel, “You too can show this great city how to support opera, and you too can be part of this wonderful thing if you pay for it.”  That seems to me to be, also, rather a false way of keeping opera alive, but I am very worried by the fact that so many governments seem to prefer pop culture to operatic culture.  However I don’t think that it can be improved, as I’ve said at length just now, by having silly productions or productions which pretend to be “relevant” to the modern age.  If you want to produce an opera which is relevant to today, you have to write one today.  You don’t turn Trovatore or Rigoletto or Don Giovanni into something that is out to be relevant to today.

BD:    If a composer comes to you says, “Maestro Mackerras, I’d like to write an opera for today,” what advice do you have?

CM:    First of all, it’s to not write over your potential audience’s head, but equally not to make it so accessible that people just take it for granted and don’t notice it.  It’s a very difficult dividing line.  Some composers of genius have managed to bridge it, and some, for various reasons, fail either one way or the other.  The example of composers of the recent past who have been successful include Benjamin Britten and Henze, both of whom are extremely different from each other, and Shostakovich.  All of them wrote conventional operas, but they were quite obviously modern and they were quite obviously of this century, or of the period they were written in.  The very abstruse kind of operas, such as are written by Michael Tippet, are a bit inaccessible to the average public.  The Midsummer Marriage, perhaps, is getting near to general accessibility, but it’s never been a great box-office success.

BD:    Is it becoming accessible, or are we accessing ourselves to it?

CM:    I think it’s certainly a bit of both.  On the other hand, the kind of semi-Oriental thing that’s done by the minimalists is, I think, too accessible.  It’s somehow debasing the operatic art.

BD:    What about television?  Does opera work on TV?

CM:    It works on television.  You can make very successful television films, but the trouble is that it’s so difficult to actually put into practice because you can’t put your orchestra in the normal position.  If you’re talking about special productions of operas for television in the film way, using film technique, then the actual technique of doing it is quite difficult.  I assume you’re not talking about simply filming for television a performance in the theater.

BD:    We have both of these practices going now.  We have the film with cinematography, and then we have the transference of the live performance onto the tube.

CM:    Yes.  The live performance can show you what a live performance is like without you having to bother to go to the theater, but in order to appreciate it you will have had to have already experienced a live performance in the theater, so that you know what it’s really like.

BD:    You don’t see that as expanding your audience?

CM:    I think it does.  It will expand the audience because they think this is what an opera is all about.  On the other hand, I would think it’s more likely to expand with the non-specialist.  In trying to attract an expanding audience, it’s much better to have a film, a cinematic, graphical version of an opera.  Some of those films are quite successful, but it’s all a question of the moment it becomes very “televisual.”  Much like cinema, the director takes over so much from the musician that the musician no longer has, really, any control over the thing.

BD:    Do you think that the use of the subtitles on the screen has helped to make the supertitles in the theater acceptable?

CM:    Oh yes, very much so.  That is a way of increasing your audience.  You’re an expert, but a non-expert goes for the first time to an opera and can know what it’s all about.  He hears this marvelous music and sees that wonderful scenery and hears that superb singing — and he can still understand it by reading the supertitles.  Then he is hooked.

BD:    You don’t find looking up and down divides the attention too much?          

CM:    No.  I have been exposed to quite a lot of supertitles.  Over a year ago I was ill for several months, and when I was convalescing I went to quite a few operas.  This was in Sydney, Australia, and they had started to use supertitles.  I remember sitting in all different parts of the theater, and I was utterly won over to the entire concept.  I knew some of the operas that I saw very well and some of them not at all.  Whenever I wanted to see what it was about, or in a well known opera if I wanted to see how they translate that bit, I’d just glance up and I’d glance away.  It’s no more than a split second.  It is not true, as several singers believe, that it is deflecting the attention away from them and onto the supertitle.  That is absolutely untrue, and anybody who thinks that is true can never have really been exposed to it sufficiently.  Otherwise they would not possibly think so.  The experience that I had of conducting Jenůfa in Czech in San Francisco, of which the audience didn’t understand single word — not like Italian where the can get the odd word, but not one single word did they understand — and I’ve never seen an audience so involved and so moved by the tragedy of the Kostelnička.  Those were young American singers all singing Czech; there were only two real Slavs in the whole cast, and they absolutely won me over to it.  I feel almost that I never want to take part in an opera again that has not got supertitles.

BD:    Would you use supertitles in an opera that is being sung in English?

CM:    That’s a terrible question which will eventually have to be decided.  In Australia they did for Kát’a Kabanová.  They were using supertitles even though it was in English.  Now you might say, “Isn’t that a dreadful indictment of the bad diction of most singers?”  That is partly true, but you cannot possibly make certain phrases, particularly
Janáček, absolutely clear.  So I think that even with certain operas being done in English, that it is not such a bad idea to have supertitles.  It would be a silly idea to have the supertitles for Peter Grimes, let’s say, which is so beautifully written in English, or Gilbert and Sullivan.  But there are certain operas that could well be served if supertitles could be used.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Let’s talk a little bit about early opera.  Is there anything special that you have to do to make operas of Handel more relevant to today’s society?

CM:    People have tried to make them entirely relevant.  There was what I consider to be a ridiculous production of Orlando done in England during the Handel year at the same time as I was doing my various Orlandos (Orlandi
?) (sic) with Marilyn Horne in various places, in which Orlando’s madness was treated as if he was in a lunatic asylum, in a psychiatric ward.  Well that is, to me, not the way to make Handel attractive to the audience.  On the other hand, it is true that the opera seria formwhich consists entirely of recitative followed by an aria which comments on the situation, followed by the exit of the character who has sung the aria, followed by a new scene in which the same thing goes on, and that the arias are always (or almost always) in the da capo form of A-B-A with a special embellished form the second timeis extremely difficult to make really work with the public, visually.  But there have been people who have managed to do it extremely well.  I think of John Copley’s production of Julius Caesar, which I thought was utterly splendid, and also the very fine production of Rinaldo done by Pier Luigi Pizzi in Paris, which I conducted.  It was very much in the Baroque style of changing scenery, which was very much how they used to change the scenes.  You could see the actual flats changing before your eyes.  It can be done even though it is so difficult.  I also don’t think that with any opera — not just the baroque — that it’s done by changing the entire concept of the composer.  It’s also not done by sending it up.  Is that expression known?

mackerrasBD:    Yes.  It would be like doing a takeoff.

CM:    Yes, doing a takeoff.  That has sometimes been done.  The people thought, “Oh, this is such a bore.”  The stage directors have thought, “What on earth can we do with this boring piece?  We will send it up.  We do a takeoff and laugh at it and laugh at the conventions instead of trying to live with those conventions.”  I think that this production that we recently did in Chicago and San Francisco hit the happy medium very well.  It had beautiful spectacle.  It had a few jokey things which were not intended by the composer to be jokes, which I personally could have done without, but I’ve got to say the audience did like those bits of humor which were not intended to be humorous by the composer, particularly relating to Zoroastro.  When I noticed the great success of particularly one of the arias which was treated partly as comic, or, shall we say, “cute”, one was not impelled to laugh but to just smile comfortably to oneself. 

BD:    This was the lesson scene?

CM:    Yes, which is not supposed by Handel to be a lesson scene at all, but it did fit in with the whole production, particularly by the fact that Zoroastro is supposed to have a genie with him the whole time.  That particular conception was much more acceptable than one in which it was set in the Space Age, but it was immensely successful.  This is the extraordinary thing, even though I, as an old fogey, strongly disapprove of treating Handel’s music and having it in the Space Age.  To go another extreme, in the Mikado as it’s being done by the Coliseum by the English National Opera at the moment in Jonathan Miller’s production, they’re not Japanese at all but they’re just plain English people.  One wonders why they’re called Ko-Ko and Poo-Bah and so on, yet that is so popular that you can’t get a seat.  I just think that maybe I must be completely out of tune with the tastes of the audiences of today.  Maybe Jonathan Miller and Ruth Berghaus are right and I’m wrong.

BD:    Public fashion changes.  Is the public always right?

CM:    I don’t think it is always right, but the opera productions which have been particularly praised and have been particularly popular with the public in recent years in Europe have, to me, been the most dreadful.  I suppose it must be just a change of zeitgeist, but if opera’s going to go like that, well, I don’t want to have any part of it.  [Laughs]

BD:    As we move forward a little bit from Handel, Gluck wanted to strip away all of the excesses of the high baroque.  Was Gluck right in trying to get rid of this in the theater?

CM:    He certainly succeeded, and he produced some of the most wonderful dramas.  These ancient characters like Agamemnon and Iphigenia certainly become more interesting.  You empathize with their dilemmas a great deal more in Gluck than you do, I would say, in Handel.

BD:    You don’t feel that you’re betraying the progress of Gluck by conducting Handel today?

CM:    Not at all!  They’re just different.  Gluck tried to progress into a different kind of opera, but we only play the best Italian opera seria today.  We don’t play all those terrible ones that don’t have great music.  The reason why we even consider performing Handel’s operas today is because the music is so great.  We do not perform the operas of Vivaldi very much, even though he was, in many ways, a great composer.  We certainly don’t perform the operas of Leo and... [pauses trying to think of other names]

BD:    Hasse?

CM:    Hasse, and all those people!.

BD:    They shouldn’t even be done once in a while as a curiosity?

CM:    Everything’s worth doing as a curiosity.  In fact I’m about to record an opera seria by a Czech composer called Mysliveček.  But that is definitely minority interest.  I’m talking about the broad spectrum of audience and attracting an audience. 

BD:    Should we do that same kind of thing today
only do the great verismo operas and not the lesser verismo operas?

CM:    I think that we shouldn’t bother with the lesser verismo operas, but think of the number lesser verismo operas that have been written which are not performed very much.  Occasionally they’re dug out for some reason.

BD:    Should we only do masterpieces?

CM:    [Laughs]  That’s a very good question.  One might say that as the number of operas you can do in any one season are very limited, is anything but the best acceptable?  Then you think, “Where do you draw the line?”  What is the borderline?  If Massenet’s Manon and Werther are obviously great masterpieces, is Esclarmonde worth doing?  Is Thaïs worth doing?  The answer is probably not worth doing very often.

BD:    Once in everyone’s lifetime?

CM:    Or only in their own country, perhaps.  There’s plenty of music which is not exportable.  I can think of lots of English music which I like and which has great merit, but which has only got recognizable merit in its own country.  When I’ve tried doing certain works abroad — certain Czech works outside of Czechoslovakia or certain British works outside of England — they react very differently on people outside their own country.  Let us take Elgar, a great composer by any standard.  Some of his music is readily comprehensible and admirable by any people, any audience.  On the other hand, some other parts of his music only the English like, and very few non-English people will ever like it.  A great masterpiece, in my view, is Elgar’s Falstaff.  The funny thing is I’ve done Falstaff in America and I’ve done it in Germany, and people don’t like it.  But they do like the “Enigma Variations,” and they do like the First Symphony.  They do not like the Second Symphony.  There is something about the Second Symphony and Falstaff of Elgar which is not exportable.  I’ve not quite worked out what it is, but...

BD:    ...but they always work in England?

CM:    Yes, they always work in England.  They’re just taken for granted as masterpieces there.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Is conducting fun?

CM:    It can be, yes.  It can be frightfully nerve-wracking, too, and it can be the opposite of fun.  I don’t say that I try to make it fun, but I do try and enjoy it as much as possible.  I do try to emanate a joy in music, so that I hope that the performers will also enjoy it.  A lot of performers
especially singersare so worried about their voices and about their physical condition and about the psychical condition that they never really enjoy it.  I suppose one can understand their fears and worries, but I myself, personally, try to enjoy it, and I also try and make the singers enjoy it.  I do my best and I sometimes succeed; sometimes possibly don’t.  I do try to give the singers confidence, and try and make them feel that even if they don’t feel too good, that they are sounding good.


BD:    Will you be back in Chicago?

CM:    Not that I know of for the immediate future.  I am completely booked up until the end of 1989, so it is unlikely that I could. 
One can’t be everywhere, unfortunately, much as one would like to be. 

BD:    Is it a good feeling to know that on a certain Thursday in June of 1988 or 1989 that you’ll be conducting a certain opera in a certain place?

CM:    It is one of the minuses of the modern musical life that things are booked so far in advance.  It’ll have to stop fairly soon because in many cases, young artists who are not experienced and not really versed in the ways of the operatic world are taking on too much.  They are finding that their careers are very short, having nervous breakdowns and all that kind of thing.  If I look at my own diary, I quail and I think, “How can I possibly get through all this?”  Then I think to myself, “Well, I’ve got to try.”  You don’t know how you’re going to feel in 1988.  I don’t know how I’m going to feel.  I had a terrible lesson over a year ago when I suddenly got hepatitis and had to cancel 30 concerts in Sydney.  Because it was my last year as Musical Director of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, I had chosen all my favorite works, and the works which I hoped would round off my very enjoyable period.  I couldn’t do it; I lost the whole thing.  I don’t know whether I’m going to feel like conducting Salome, which I have to do in 1988, or The House of the Dead or Gluck’s Orfeo.  I know the exact dates that they’re supposed to take place.  I mightn’t feel in the mood, but I hope that I’ll try.  On the other hand, I should think that although I mightn’t know whether I can feel in the mood for doing Salome in the beginning of 1988, if I was told that I had to do Salome in three months’ time, I would not know any more whether I was capable or in the right mental and physical state to do such a work.

BD:    Three months or thirty makes no difference?

CM:    No, it doesn’t really.

BD:    Which of the different versions of the Gluck will you choose?

CM:    We have mezzo Marilyn Horne in 1988, and we’re going to do the version which Berlioz arranged for Pauline Viardot.  Because Marilyn is a mezzo with a tremendous range
as Viardot wasand it was in French and it’s going to be in Paris, so we will do a completely, openly 19th-century version of it.  If you do it with a countertenor and a small orchestra of old instruments, then one does the Italian version as Gluck wrote it for Vienna.  I think that one should cut one’s coat according to one’s cloth.  The Mozart version of Messiah is the most gorgeous example of Mozart’s work.  It’s not Handel, but it is Mozart, and I look at the versions of composers in exactly that same way.

BD:    You never get into this idea of old instruments vs. new instruments?

CM:    Oh yes, I conduct old instruments too, and enjoy it.  I am about to do a performance of Don Giovanni for its 200th anniversary.  It’s a concert performance with a marvelous orchestra of old instruments in London in October of 1987, which is the 200th anniversary.  I very much enjoy working with old instruments.  I also enjoy doing the other thing, which is trying to make new instruments sound in the way that the old ones did.  That is with the rhythms and the particular spirit that the old instruments will play, but with slightly better, shall we say, more beautiful-sounding instrumental quality. 

BD:    I wish you lots of luck with that.  [Noting the time]  I appreciate your spending this time with me today.  Thank you so very much.

I hope I’ve given you what you need.

BD:    Yes!  This has been wonderful.  Next time you come back we will talk about Wagner and continue with our discussion.

CM:    [With a big, broad smile]  All right.  That’s a deal.

Sir Charles Mackerras

Sir Charles Mackerras, who died on July 14 aged 84, was a conductor and musicologist, and introduced the passionate and heartfelt music of Leos Janácek, the Czech nationalist composer, to British audiences.

The Telegraph   6:15PM BST 15 Jul 2010

In so doing he enriched immensely many of our leading opera houses, where such melodramatic works as Kátya Kabanová, Jenufa and The Makropulos Affair are now a staple part of the repertory.

He was one of the great polymath conductors of the 20th century, with interests that ranged from the operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan to the high opera of Wagner and Strauss, and was blessed with a rare ability to combine performance and musicology. His rigour and empathy with both music and musicians, as well as his ferocious intellectual curiosity, earned acclaim and respect from across the musical world. Any performance directed by Mackerras – particularly one featuring Janácek (1854-1928) – bore the imprimatur of unsurpassed authority.

In the 1960s he was at the forefront of the period instrument movement, uncovering the original intentions of composers such as Handel, Mozart and Beethoven, and bringing to audiences some of the first "authentic" performances to be heard in Britain. Of particular note was a production of Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro at Sadler's Wells in 1965 in which he controversially – and to some ridicule – reinstated the appoggiaturas and other ornamentation that would have been used in the 18th century.

If career-defining musical directorships were thin on the ground, there was no shortage of guest conductorships – with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and Philharmonia, to name but a few. He was, according to the commentator Norman Lebrecht, outside the cliques and upper echelons of British music and, as a result, was disappointed to be passed over twice for the top job at Covent Garden – in 1971 in favour of Colin Davis and, in 1987, for Bernard Haitink.

Nevertheless, Sadler's Wells, English National Opera and Welsh National Opera came calling, as did the Met in New York and San Francisco Opera. For six decades rarely a year went by without an appearance at the Edinburgh Festival, of which he was appointed honorary president in 2008.

Indeed, so busy was Mackerras that the title of a BBC television documentary in 1966 about his life, Allegro Vivace, could not have been more apt. Detractors, however, dubbed him "Chuck 'em Up Charlie" for his freelancer's willingness to conduct anything, anywhere.

Mackerras, a self-effacing conductor in a world of egotistical maestros, cared little for image and marketing. Asked about the secret of the conductor's art, he replied that it was his role to "inspire the musicians to play in his way, with one style and one accord".

As Rupert Christiansen wrote in The Daily Telegraph at the time of his 80th birthday: "A Mackerras performance invariably has energy, pace, bounce, clarity, shape.

"With his unique gift for getting music moving, he puts singers as well as orchestras on their toes – there's no slacking under his baton, no empty sentimentality or self-indulgence."

Alan Charles MacLaurin Mackerras was born on November 17 1925 in Schenectady, New York, to Australian parents, the eldest of seven children. His father, Alan, was an electrical engineer and a Quaker; his mother, Catherine, a passionate admirer of Wagner and a convert to Catholicism. Among his ancestors was Isaac Nathan, who is credited with introducing Western classical music to Australia.

From the age of three Charlie was brought up in Sydney surrounded by music and boats – although his red hair and freckles left him vulnerable to the sun when at sea. He began taking violin lessons at the age of seven; the following year he was taken to see a performance of Carmen given by a touring Italian company. He also studied flute, but changed instruments after reading in a newspaper of a shortage of oboists.

He was educated at St Aloysius College, taking part in numerous Gilbert and Sullivan operas; Sydney Grammar School, which was 10 minutes' walk from the Conservatorium of Music where, much to his parents' irritation, he spent all his spare time; and finally, in a desperate attempt to get him away from music and into law, The King's School, Parramatta, 16 miles outside Sydney, from where he orchestrated his own expulsion.

Finally his parents relented over his musical ambitions and by the age of 16 he was orchestrating music in the style of Mozart. After four years as oboist with the ABC Sydney Orchestra he sailed for England on February 6 1947 on the RMS Rangitiki. His fellow passengers included the Duchess of Gloucester, returning home at the end of the Duke's term as governor-general. He had been financially well-rewarded in Australia and arrived in London armed with a long list of musical contacts. Before long he was flourishing at Sadler's Wells as an orchestral oboist and cor anglais player.

A chance conversation with an amateur musician in a coffee shop in South Kensington while poring over a newly-acquired score of Dvorák's D minor Symphony ignited a quest to discover more about Czech music and he soon secured a British Council scholarship to study in Prague with the veteran conductor Václav Talich. It was there that, on October 15 1947, Mackerras and his new English wife went to the Národní Theatre to see for the first time Kátya Kabanová, Janácek's tragic tale of a married woman from a peasant community who falls in love with a younger man.

This introduction to Janácek – a composer then barely known outside Czechoslovakia – was a revelation to Mackerras. He travelled to Brno, the composer's home town, to seek out other works, determined to introduce them to a wider audience.

The Communist putsch in February 1948 hastened his return to London, where he rejoined Sadler's Wells as oboist, repetiteur and occasional conductor. Norman Tucker, director of the Wells, agreed to include Kátya in the 1950-51 season but, despite reasonable reviews, the idiom was a difficult one for audiences to grasp. It was not a box office success and was dropped for eight years.

In the meantime Mackerras's reputation as a purposeful conductor was growing, and he was appointed principal conductor of the BBC Concert Orchestra (1954-56). He was also undertaking more research into authentic performances, which led to a series of radio broadcasts with Fritz Spiegl.

Mackerras was for a time part of Benjamin Britten's entourage, conducting the premiere of Noye's Fludde, the children's opera, at the Aldeburgh Festival in June 1958, but he was later banished from the composer's inner circle after making some injudicious remarks about the notoriously sensitive composer.

His shock at having discovered – while still in Australia – that the commonly played arrangements of works such as Handel's Water Music or the Music for the Royal Fireworks were not as the composer intended, but richly orchestrated by Victorian interpreters such as Sir Hamilton Harty, fired a passion to discover the originals, culminating in his landmark recording on the Pye label of the Fireworks in 1959 with 24 oboes (it had to be made in the middle of the night to secure the availability of enough musicians).

While he made visits to South Africa – an introduction to orchestral conducting with the pianist Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli as soloist – and other countries, it was 1960 before he returned to Australia, where he enjoyed a rapturous reception. He was also continuing his pursuit of Janácek's music, with frequent visits to Prague. In 1961 he became the first non-Czech to conduct a Janácek opera in that country – an experience that he said was like "being asked to conduct Wagner in Bayreuth" – when he conducted Kátya in Brno, including in the performance two long-forgotten intermezzos that he had discovered in the composer's archives.

Most of the 1960s were spent cementing his reputation in Europe in general – including three years as number two at Hamburg Opera – and Britain in particular. He worked with Shostakovich at the Edinburgh Festival in 1962 (whose opera Katerina Izmaylova he conducted for his debut at Covent Garden two years later), directed the young pianist Daniel Barenboim in Oslo in 1963 and conducted the British premiere of Janácek's The Makropulos Case at Sadler's Wells in 1964.

By now the label "Janácek specialist" was firmly affixed to his conductor's tails. But Janácek and urtext Mozart were by no means the complete story. When the copyright expired on Sir Arthur Sullivan's music in 1950, Mackerras published Pineapple Poll, a ballet based on 40 of Sullivan's tunes that became extremely popular at the time. He worked with the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company in the 1970s, conducting The Pirates of Penzance and The Mikado, eventually joining the company's board of directors. This love of lighter music, a legacy of his school days, provided ammunition for his critics, but Mackerras was unrepentant.

When, in 1970, Sadler's Wells Opera moved to the Coliseum on its way to becoming English National Opera, Mackerras was installed as the company's musical director, a position he retained until 1977. He then returned to Australia for three years as chief conductor of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra.

In 1980 he became the first non-British citizen to conduct the Last Night of the Proms; seven years later he became music director of Welsh National Opera, taking his passion for Janácek to the Principality and raising musical standards in the Welsh capital beyond measure. He also leaves a vast catalogue of recordings, ranging from Handel to Strauss, as well as authoritative accounts of Janácek's operas.

Mackerras maintained a full schedule well into his ninth decade. On his 80th birthday he gave a spirited account of Verdi's Un Ballo in Maschera at Covent Garden. Over the coming years he returned there to conduct Don Giovanni, toured with Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment; reprised his Gilbert and Sullivan in a delectable account of Patience at the Proms; and, in August 2009, although in failing health, directed Haydn's oratorio The Creation with a volunteer chorus at the Dartington Summer School; it was a life-enhancing performance that will live long in the memories of those fortunate to take part.

For more than 40 years he kept a holiday villa on the Italian island of Elba, where guests included the Earl and Countess of Harewood. Until a shoulder operation in the mid-1990s he sailed a yacht, the Emilia Marty, named after the tragic heroine of The Makropulos Case who, having discovered the elixir of eternal life, finds that after more than 300 years she finally wishes to die. A biography, Charles Mackerras: a Musicians' Musician, by his cousin Nancy Phelan, was published in 1987.

He was appointed CBE in 1974, knighted in 1989, became a Companion of the Order of Australia in 1997 and a Companion of Honour in 2003. Two years later he was awarded the Royal Philharmonic Society's Gold Medal and became the first recipient of the Queen's Medal for Music. He was also showered with honours by the Czech authorities including, in 1996, the Medal of Merit.

Although based in London for more than 60 years, Mackerras remained an Australian at heart, never losing his "Aussie twang" or his direct, sometimes brusque, no-nonsense manner of speech. Superstitious by nature, he had a great belief in hypnotism, using it to cure his smoking. He believed, he said, that a conductor secured his best results by hypnotising the orchestra.

Sir Charles Mackerras married Judy Wilkins, a clarinettist, in 1947. She and a daughter survive him. Another daughter predeceased him.

© 1986 Bruce Duffie

This interview was recorded at his hotel in Chicago on November 6, 1986.  Sections were used (along with recordings) on WNIB in 1987, 1995 and 2000, and on WNUR in 2004.  It was transcribed and posted on this website in 2012.

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

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

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