Director  Harold  Prince
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie

Being firmly in the Classical Music side of the entertainment world, it is not often that I get to meet with well-known figures in the more popular arenas.  Sometimes, however, they cross into the other portion, though he would (and did) vehemently deny any barriers.  Harold Prince is certainly one who has given us countless evenings of theatrical enjoyment, and has won his share of accolades in the process.  Many of his accomplishments are recounted in the biography from the Kennedy Center which is reproduced at the end of this interview.

In the fall of 1982, he was in Chicago to stage Madama Butterfly at Lyric Opera.  We met between rehearsals in a dressing room backstage, and though he was only able to give me a few minutes, he was bubbling over with excitement and enthusiasm about his work in general and this production in particular.

Looking just as his photo suggests, with his glasses swept up to the top of his heard, he enthused about this particular corner of his career while sipping some wine that his assistants had brought to the gathering . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:  I appreciate your taking the time to see me.

prince Harold Prince:   A pleasure.  

BD:  Let me start out by asking you a real simple question.  Where is opera going today?

HP:  Oh, I wouldn’t have the arrogance to tell you because I don’t know how many people want it to go there.  I just know where I wish it were going.

BD:  All right.  Where do you wish it were going?

HP:  I wish that it tended more to its theatrical obligations; in other words, the libretto, the story.  That isn’t denying the music by any stretch, but I just think they ought to be better shows.  When I’ve seen those productions which grab you as theater, that in no way has compromised them vocally.   There’s so many things come to mind, like Peter Grimes...

BD:  When you’re starting to think about doing an opera, how do you decide which operatic traditions you will keep and which you will discard?

HP:  Maybe it’s a good thing I don’t know so much about operatic traditions.  I know the score and I study the score for a great long period of time.  For example, I’ve been working on Butterfly for two and a half years.  I studied libretto and so on, but I don’t know what traditions you’re talking about. As a matter of fact, in this particular production we’ve introduced the tradition of kind of kabuki stagecraft.  That’s a whole other tradition.  I’m not pretending to be sophisticated about it; I’m just being bold about it, kind of borrowing techniques that I’ve seen.

BD:  So then you approach everything theatrically?

HP:  Well, yes, I better!

BD:  Because there is constant music, is there ever enough time for the theatrical affects?

HP:  I’ve never had a problem with a conductor or a singer in that area.  On the other hand, I’ve not directed Caballé, and I think if I did we’d have a problem.  I think her voice is glorious, but we might have a problem.  The other aspect to the reply is that I’ve never chosen to do operas which don’t have strong libretti.  In other words, I’m interested that it will be strong.  This will be my second Puccini; I’m doing Turandot in Vienna in the spring.  The point is Puccini cared so much about the story and the characters that I find when I’m directing a scene, if I want a pause because an actor should pause there, I usually discover that Puccini wanted it too and so there’s a pause in the music.  I don’t feel double-crossed at all.  One place in this Butterfly I’m trying to deal with right now...  When The Bonze appears and Pinkerton and the family accuse Butterfly of changing religions and Pinkerton chases them away from the wedding ceremony, I’m bothered because Pinkerton is so upset.  He’s so angry, and yet what the family is doing is so mild.  I would have liked some crescendo, so I’m physically trying to give it a crescendo but I don’t hear it.

BD:  Is that something where you’ll talk it over with the conductor and maybe get him to bring up the orchestra?

HP: I don’t think I can bring up the orchestra.  They’re all going, “Oh, Cio-cio san, oh, Cio-cio san.”  No, I don’t think that’s going to happen.  I think I have to find another solution because obviously that is not the way the composer heard it.  Maybe I’m seeing it wrong.

BD:  Maybe you can approach it from a different direction?

HP: Yeah, maybe.  That’s the only thing I’m going to try to deal with in the remaining rehearsals is that moment.

BD:  How do you deal with the intermissions? Are you going to eliminate one?

HP:  We’ve eliminated one, yeah. There are two in the score, but we will have just one.  

BD:  So there’ll be just one.  The vigil goes right into the sailor’s return.  The second act is all one act.  I like it that way, and this set very much accommodates the vigil.  The vigil is no longer something the audience just closes its eyes and listens to, and is no longer something in which Butterfly just sits there and waits the 11 or 12 minutes that it goes on.  We have something happening all through it.  

*     *     *     *     *

BD:  Are you one of these directors that utilize preludes and interludes?

HP:  I certainly am.  There are instances when the composer resents it some.  I think it depends.  I don’t want to impose anything; I really don’t ever think of it that way.   The story is frequently served by something happening during the overture.  I would never do anything for the overture of The Marriage of Figaro.

prince BD:  Why?  

HP:  Because I don’t see any action, and I was studying The Marriage of Figaro very carefully.  I don’t see any action that is required during that.

BD:  But there other overtures that you do see the action in your mind?

HP:  Sure, this one.  It’s a very short prelude.  It’s not really an out-and-out overture but I’m doing something with it because I want to establish the kabuki aspect of the opera.  

BD:  Is all of this designed to try and get the audience to participate and get involved more?

HP:  Sure.  I think audiences want a good show.  And by the way, I have never accepted a job directing an opera that I had seen produced and directed so well that I wouldn’t go near it.  I have no desire to top something that I was in awe of, so you’d never catch me doing a Bohème
much as I adore the operabecause I’ve seen a few productions that I was crazy about.  On the other hand, I’ve never seen a Butterfly that totally satisfied me.  They always had longueurs, I thought.

BD:  When you go to something, are you always looking for something more to do?

HP:  No, no.  I am just deciding... well, I’d never seen a Butterfly that totally knocked me out, that’s all.

BD:  Do you ever have fights with the designer?  The two of you have to work very closely…

HP:  I work very closely with designers, always.  I go to the designer first; the minute I decide I’m going to do something, be it a musical theatre piece or an opera.

BD:  Do you tell him then what you have in mind?

HP:  I tell him what I think I have in mind, and there are usually so many holes in what I have in mind that he feels the invitation to collaborate and create something.

BD:  Then the two of you fuse something together?

HP:  Yeah.  I didn’t think of putting Butterfly on a turntable; I thought of putting it in the kabuki style, and the designer came back with the turntable which solved everything.  A turntable is, of course, indigenous to most kabuki productions if not all of them.

BD:  Are there some operas that you will not do?

HP:  Sure.

BD:  Why?

HP:  Because they’re too static.

BD:  Couldn’t you bring something special to them?

HP:  I don’t think I could bring anything to Pelléas et Mélisande.  That doesn’t mean the music isn’t ravishing; I don’t think I could bring a thing to it.  I’m intimidated by it.  I was asked by Covent Garden to do a new production of The Magic Flute, but I was intimidated by it.  I didn’t feel I understood it well enough to do.

BD:  But is that something you’re keeping in the back of your mind for the future maybe?

HP:  No, not particularly.  I’m just thinking I’ll do Turnadot this summer.  Götz Friedrich sent me Die Soldaten to listen to...  

BD:  Oh, the Zimmermann opera!

HP:  …and I can’t do that because I was booked.  But I was interested enough in the material to think that’s an interesting one.  There are a whole bunch of things I think I’d like to do, but there are a whole bunch of things I wouldn’t go near because I don’t think they’re right for me.

BD:  Would seeing a production maybe change your mind?  Perhaps if you went to a Pelléas that almost fit your concept, could you see how to improve on it?

HP:  Yes, I suppose so, but I doubt it would happen.  My assistant mentioned Elektra and I’m crazy about Strauss, but I listened to it when they asked me to do it in Santa Fe a couple of seasons ago, and I just thought, “I don’t know what to do here.”

*     *     *     *     *

BD:  Are you a good audience?  

HP:  When I’m having a good time; I’m a terrible audience if I’m bored.  My threshold is very low; I’m not patient.  On the other hand, I am extremely patient at Wagnerian operas.

BD:  Would you ever do a Wagnerian opera?

prince HP:  Yeah, you bet I would.  I’d like to.  

BD:  What about Wagner fascinates you?    

HP:  Part of me is very German; my antecedents were all German and I have a very German taste.  One whole side of my character is very German.

BD:  Would you bring back rams and chariots and spears and helmets?

HP:  If I were doing The Ring, you mean?  I was very impressed with the Patrice Chéreau Ring.  Curiously enough that’s the sort of thing I do, but not with The Ring.  I like it a lot and I was excited, but with The Ring I think I would really do mad Ludwig’s nightmare.  I love all that kitsch German stuff.

BD:  Do you think opera works in translation?    

HP:  I think some opera does, but a lot of things you shouldn’t translate.  Beverly Sills asked me to do Merry Widow and I said, “Better do it in German, dear.”  I know it gets done in English all the time; embarrassed the hell out of me!  So I think it needs a new libretto.  But Candide, I did that in English.  

BD:  Would you do Candide in German?

HP:  I think it would be very difficult in German because it’s so funny; humor is the hardest to translate between one country and another.

BD:  I would think that would be at the heart of the translation
to get the jokes across.  

HP:  It’s the hardest part.  That’s why it doesn’t work.  A Little Night Music was translated into German and I directed it in Vienna.  I kept thinking, “Something is really wrong here,” and it was the absence of the subtlety of the humor.  There are all sorts of operas can be done in English and I think that’s wonderful if they can be.  It’s a matter of getting the lyrics right.

BD:  Do you think opera works on television?

HP:  I know opera works on television.  

BD:  So you are happy with the things you see on the tube?

HP:  Well, I’m happy with the things of mine that have been translated to television, and I’m very happy with what I’ve seen.  I thought that Schlesinger’s production of Tales of Hoffmann came off very well on television.  I think Willie Stark, which I did in Texas, came off well on television.  Sweeney Todd came off well on television; I consider that an opera.  It will be in opera houses all over the place so I guess that will make it an opera.

BD:  How do you see the fusion of musical comedy and opera
the blurring of the lines?  

HP:  I think the lines have been blurred.

BD:  Forever?
HP:  Unless some damn fool comes in and sets up a wall again to separate the two into different disciplines
— which I think would be damn foolishness.  I think opera suffers from it; it has lost an audience of young people.  Of course there are a lot of young people who love opera but there are a lot of young people who don’t because it doesn’t speak to them.  It would, if they went and saw Sweeney Todd along with the rest of the repertoire.  They might find out why Butterfly is so good or why Bohème is so good but they get turned off by something and then they don’t go back to taste the water.

BD:  Does Butterfly really speak to us today?

HP:  Well, it speaks to me.  We’ll see how this production works.  As I said, I have very strong feelings about what this is about.

BD:  How far are you willing to go out on a limb to try and experiment?

HP:  Oh, I get into terrible trouble all the time!  I don’t like experimentation for the arbitrary sake of it.  I don’t like people just yanking a piece 400 years ahead just to prove that it’s contemporary.  In fact, I think it’s much more interesting if you leave it where it was because it proves that nothing changes, that people are always the same.  We’ve put Butterfly back 25 years instead of forward.  It’s 1875 or 1880 now instead of 1900, and I think that’s fine.  On the other hand, what it’s about
the American’s attitude and the spoiled young man and the seemingly second class citizen who is the woman and yet certainly the stronger character as a human being — all that stuff’s very contemporary.  So why bother putting into contemporary costume?  It resonates just as easily over a hundred years as it would as if it were made today.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:  How much influence on you are the prose writings and the letters of the composers and librettists?

prince HP:  A lot.  Oh I love it.  That’s what makes directing fun as far as I’m concerned, the material in context with the life of the author, with the period he’s writing about, with political currents.  I’m very politically oriented so I’m very interested in the politics beneath a piece of work, and so much opera has politics informing it.

BD:  So then will you try to do things the composer wanted but couldn’t do because of exigencies of that time?

HP:  I haven’t approached it that way.  Obviously you’re talking about something like The Marriage of Figaro...

BD:  Perhaps, or the Masked Ball.

HP:  Yes I suppose so; if you can, why not?  It certainly makes more sense to do the Masked Ball in its own period that elsewhere.

BD:  In Sweden instead of in Boston?

HP:  Yeah, right.  I think it depends on the piece entirely.  

BD:  You enjoy directing opera?

HP:  I enjoy directing.

BD:  So you don’t make any distinction?

HP:  No, I don’t think there is any.  If there is one I haven’t been able to figure it out.  You have to bring your own criteria to the opera house.  You have to make your own demands, and with some of them, you’ll benefit by the cooperation of some people who are not quite used to them.  There’s no question that in certain opera houses, historically operas were directed one way.  Singers traveled all over the place, and they just walked into a company, met people for the first time, and moved to the same spots onstage and did all that stuff.  That’s not interesting.  

BD:  Do you work with the individual singers bringing out what they can bring?

HP:  In a very limited amount of time, sure you do.  It depends on how much time you get.  If you get five weeks with Candide, you get five weeks’ worth of time to work with the individual singer.  If you get two and a half weeks with Butterfly, it’s a little more limited.   On the other hand I haven’t felt very frustrated with this production at all.  I’m crazy about the Butterfly.

BD:  Can an opera get over-rehearsed?

HP:  I think anything can get that way, but you’re talking to the wrong fellow.  Felsenstein rehearsed for seven or eight months, but I couldn’t.  I wouldn’t know what to do with the last four.  

BD:  So you’d want more time than you have but less time than he got?     

HP:  Only depending on the piece.  Really it all depends on the piece.

BD:  [Hearing the call-to-the-stage on the squawk box]  Thank you so very much for your insights and for all of the productions.  

HP:  Pleasure, pleasure.  We’ll go down to do the second act.  Sure you don’t want any of this wine?

BD:  No, no, I’ve got to be at the radio station tonight...

Director and producer Harold Prince has won 20 Tony awards and received the National Medal of Arts in 2000 from President Clinton for a career spanning more than 40 years, in which "he changed the nature of the American musical." Prince attended the University of Pennsylvania and graduated in 1948. He first emerged as a producer in New York in 1954 at the age of 24 with a production of The Pajama Game at the St. James Theater on Broadway. He produced Damn Yankees the following year and won Tony awards for both productions. Among others, Prince also produced West Side Story, Fiddler on the Roof, Fiorello! and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. As a director, he has worked on the premiere productions of She Loves Me, Cabaret, Company, Follies, Candide, Pacific Overtures, A Little Night Music, Sweeney Todd, Evita, The Phantom of the Opera, Parade and Bounce. Among the plays he has directed are Hollywood Arms, The Visit, The Great God Brown, End of the World, Play Memory and his own play, Grandchild of Kings. His opera productions have been staged at The Chicago Lyric, The Metropolitan Opera, San Francisco Opera, Houston Grand Opera, Dallas Opera, Vienna Staatsoper and the Theater Colon in Buenos Aires. Currently, Prince is working on a new national tour of Evita, as well as an updated version of The Phantom of the Opera set to open in 2006 at the Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas. His film credits include movie adaptations of The Pajama Game, Damn Yankees and A Little Night Music, starring Elizabeth Taylor. He also directed the original screenplay Something for Everyone made for National General. Prince has also directed several notable television productions, including Candide as a part of "Live from Lincoln Center" and a RKO-Nederlander production of Sweeney Todd. In addition to his work in the theater, Prince has served as a trustee for the New York Public Library and on the National Council of the Arts of the NEA. He was a 1994 Kennedy Center Honoree.

[Biography from the Kennedy Center]  

© 1982 Bruce Duffie

This interview was recorded in Chicago on November 11, 1982.  Portions (along with recordings) were used on WNIB in 1990.  This transcription was made and posted on this website early in 2010.  

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.