In the exciting 1982 Lyric Opera of Chicago season, with many fine performances and several surprises, the final two productions — Madama Butterfly and Luisa Miller — were conducted by Miguel A. Gómez-Martínez, and this webpage presents a conversation I had at that time with the Spanish maestro. Though his name is seen in various forms on recordings and in printed programs, the use depicted here corresponds to the way it is presented on his personal webpage.
Early in that season, the Artistic Director of Lyric Opera, Bruno Bartoletti, had a heart attack and was forced to cancel his appearances for the remainder of the fall. Gómez-Martínez, who was already engaged for the Butterfly production, agreed to stay longer and also handle Luisa Miller. Subsequently, a fine Italian tenor, Giuliano Ciannella, was making his debut in the new production of Butterfly directed by Hal Prince, and indeed made an impressive showing as Pinkerton in the first four performances. [Others in the cast included Elena Mauti-Nunziata, Sesto Bruscantini, Elena Zilio, Florindo Andreolli, Terry Cook, John Del Carlo, and Michelle Harman-Gulick.] At this same time, Luciano Pavarotti, who had been contracted to sing in Luisa Miller, withdrew suddenly leaving Lyric without a tenor for the relatively unknown Verdi opera. However, Signor Ciannella is one of the very few tenors in the world to have sung the role. Indeed, he had previously had successes in Europe opposite both Katia Ricciarelli and Renata Scotto, so he graciously stepped into the rehearsals and performances, thus allowing Lyric a fine tenor for its last opera of the season, and causing the much simpler problem of finding a new Pinkerton — which is a role in the repertoire of most tenors. [This would be Vasile Moldoveanu.] Ciannella looked splendid and sounded wonderful, and the Chicago audiences responded with cheers at the close of each performance. [Others in the Luisa Miller cast included Ellen Shade, Wolfgang Brendel, Dimitri Kavrakos, Paolo Washington, and Diane Curry, with the production directed by Nathaniel Merrill.] As usual, names which are links on this webpage refer to my interviews elsewhere on my website.
Most of my interviews have been occasions of both serious inquiry and relaxed conversation, and usually have been sprinkled with laughter from both parties. This one, however, seemed to have more smiles and humor than most. But during the course of our hour together, my guest did impart much solid information and genuine opinion, and the discussion ranged over many topics of interest.
His English was quite good, and, as expected, it was sprinkled with odd words and mannerisms peculiar to the language of his birth. I have straightened out many of these, but have also left in quite a number of them when the meaning is still clear and the way he spoke was simply too charming to correct.
Naturally, we began with the circumstances as related above . . . . . . . . .
Bruce Duffie: We were very lucky that we had a tenor in the house who knew the one part, and then you could hire another tenor for the more common part.
Miguel A. Gómez-Martínez: Yes, that was fortune, a real fortune.
BD: Is this your American debut?
MAG-M: No, I was in Houston already twice.
BD: I read in your biography that you made your conducting debut at age seven.
BD: Is age seven too young to be a conductor?
MAG-M: Sure! [Both have a huge laugh] I think so! But at that time I had already studied music. I began to study music for four years, and that was because I wanted to. My parents didn’t want me to become a musician because both of them are musicians and they know that it is a very hard job, and it’s not easy to get along.
BD: What did they want you to do — anything but music?
MAG-M: Anything but music! They thought I had very good conditions in mathematics and such things, and they thought about architecture. I liked that very much...
BD: Design an opera house, then! [They laugh]
MAG-M: That would be good, yes! [More laughter] I tried to do also architecture at the same time as music, but it’s not possible. You have to be in one of the places. By doing both together, f you don’t do well with one then also the other will not go well. In the beginning I wanted to study music and so I cried very much to make my mother teach me. She did it, thinking that sometime I will be tired about learning, but I am not tired yet! So when I was seven years old I could read already a full score because the first thing we study in Spain is solfeggio, and with solfeggio you have all the keys. That means you can sing the transposing instruments very well because you don’t have the problem of calculating the distances involved in transposition. You just put them in another key and read it without problems. So that way I could read a score very well. My father was a trumpet player in the orchestra in Granada, and often at the end of the rehearsals we went together to a rehearsal room to work. It was very quiet during the breaks and I was never shy, so when the conductor came in I said very loudly, “Good afternoon!” The conductor looked at me and said, “Ah, good afternoon! Do you want to conduct something?” I said, “Yes!” and so I came there and I conducted a short Spanish piece. He liked it and he asked if I wanted to do it in the concert and I said, “Of course, I’d like it!” So he told me to look for a program I liked and I could conduct the concert!
BD: So it was really sort of haphazard that it came about?
MAG-M: It was really something very spontaneous, and it was a great success. It was in the International Festival in Granada, and at this time there are people from everywhere in the world. There were many managers who wanted me to conduct the same program all over the world.
BD: Just sort of parading you around?
MAG-M: Exactly, and my parents said it was not good. If I had to be a conductor I had to be a real conductor, and that was very good.
BD: So they didn’t let you become a freak!
MAG-M: No, no, no, and that was good.
BD: In this first concert did you find that the musicians respected you, or were they more amused that this was a seven-year old squirt on the podium?
MAG-M: No, because about ten minutes after the beginning of the first rehearsal I discovered a mistake in the score! They thought that I was really prepared to think as I wanted, and they thought that my corrections were logical. It was instinct, but they were logical things. When I corrected this thing in the score, the resident conductor was red in the face and said, “Yes! We had discovered this but we didn’t correct it because it would show us in a bad light.” But it was a real respect that I earned from the musicians.
BD: So when you were seven or eight years old, did you want to conduct orchestral music or operas?
MAG-M: I wanted just to conduct everything. It’s like now — I like to conduct everything.
BD: Then how do you balance your career between operas and concerts?
MAG-M: At the beginning wasn’t so difficult because I began in Germany, and in Germany there are more opportunities with opera than with concerts. So I started my career conducting principally opera and not so much concerts. But now I have corrected it and I have a real balance between one thing and the other. It helps me also that the Symphony Orchestra of Radio and Television in Madrid has made me their principal guest conductor, so I have to conduct with it. [Much laughter] But it is not only there. I am making concerts with all the orchestras all over the world. I came to Chicago from the Staatskapelle in Dresden, which, as you know, is one of the best orchestras in the world. Next I will go to conduct the London Philharmonia. I have conducted both orchestras in Madrid, as well as the Radio Symphony in Berlin, the Radio Symphony in Munich, Bavaria...
BD: Everything! You’re on your way, as they say. How do you select which operas you will conduct, or which repertoire you will conduct in the concert hall?
MAG-M: That is in common agreement with management of the opera house or of the concert hall. I like very much when I am outside of Spain to bring Spanish music at the concerts because I know pieces which are not only de Falla. That is the only one everybody knows from Spain, but there are also other composers such as Joaquin Turina (1882-1949) and Jésus Guridi (1886-1961) who are really worth the trouble to know. I try always to bring some of these pieces.
BD: What about Federico Moreno Torroba (1891-1982)?
MAG-M: [Pleased that BD knew of this composer] Yes! I am doing now in Madrid a new thing from him. He died a few weeks ago and we are doing a first performance.
BD: Another one I always enjoy is Joaquín Rodrigo (1901-99)!
MAG-M: Rodrigo, yes! And also there is one with not a very Spanish name, Halffter. Cristóbal Halffter (1930 - ), Ernesto Halffter (1905-89) and Rodolfo Halffter (1900-87). Halffter is a very German name, and they are all Spanish. It is a family. Cristóbal is the nephew of Ernesto and Rodolfo.
BD: I only know Ernesto Halffter.
MAG-M: I like him very much his way to compose, yes.
* * * * *
BD: You’re a Spaniard, so let me ask about the Zarzuela. Is that the Spanish opera, or the Spanish operetta, or the Spanish musical comedy? What exactly is it?
MAG-M: It is something between everything, and you know there are also Spanish operas. The Zarzuela is more between a musical and operetta with very much things of opera because the quality of the music sometimes can be compared to Verdi. It is often very good, but not every one. There are also very bad ones, but many of them are very, very good. I’m thinking, for example, of Guridi. Guridi is one of the composers I named before, and he has wonderful Zarzuela named El Caserio. It is about Basquian motives because he was born in the Basque land. This is very, very interesting music, very folkloristic but really made well with very good technical work and not very many speaking places. That means it is, in a way, like Zauberflöte or Fidelio, because it is also opera with spoken text.
BD: Why have Zarzuelas not traveled the world like the operettas of Lehár and Johann Strauss Jr.?
MAG-M: Yes. The contents of the Zarzuelas are very difficult to understand if you don’t know first the character of the Spaniards. Second, if you don’t know exactly the language, there are so many words with diverse sense, and one word can signify the one thing and also another thing. You have to be very, very strong in the Spanish language to understand many of the things.
BD: Do they not translate?
MAG-M: To translate it, it would get lost. That is the thing, and that is why it did not have the great success of the operetta. In the operetta, even if you don’t hear the exact meaning of the word you can take the sense of the thing because the human voice is used another way. The Spanish character is completely different from the Austrian one, and the thing is that we understand each other very well. I work very well with the Austrians and their humor, but in another way.
BD: [Pursing this just a bit further] So you’re saying you have to understand the character of Spanish people. Don’t you have to understand the character of Spanish people to do Trovatore or La Forza del Destino, or The Barber of Seville?
MAG-M: Not so much. That is more the work of the producer than of the public. When the public hears the opera, they don’t think that it’s playing in Spain because they are hearing the music and the beautiful voices. The Zarzuela needs also the contents. It’s not only a good singers and music, it’s all together.
BD: It’s more dramatic?
MAG-M: Yes, I find it so. There are solutions in the Zarzuela where in every normal opera you would have had a great finale, for example a great concertate for the end. They don’t do it in the Zarzuela. They do it spoken because they want everybody to understand very well what is happening.
BD: Every word???
MAG-M: Every word, exactly. It is very good for the Spaniards but not for the rest of the world because the rest of the world would be much more helped [in the other forms] with the music.
BD: Do you believe in any opera in translation?
MAG-M: It is like a sword with two sides. Of course, if the public don’t understand exactly what is happening on the stage, they will not like the opera so much as understanding exactly everything. But musically I have to distinguish between these two things. Musically the only way to do the opera correctly is in the original language because the composer chooses his melody for these words and exactly these words with this movement and with these accents, and if you change it, it doesn’t work.
BD: You lose something.
MAG-M: Yes, sure, musically.
BD: You lose more than you gain by having everyone understand every word?
MAG-M: That is what I don’t know. Sometimes in several operas — especially in languages like Russian or Czech or something like these — I would prefer the translation because only in Russia or in Czechoslovakia would it be possible to understand it. But many people can speak German. I would not translateZauberflöte into Italian because they are very near together. The Italians can learn German and also vice versa. I would not translate Trovatore or Nozze di Figarointo German, though I have heard it in German.
BD: But they do those all the time in the smaller houses in Germany and Austria.
MAG-M: Yes, also the great houses in East Germany. They do everything in German, and in Hungary they play every opera in Hungarian. It has to be terrible! [Both have a huge laugh]
BD: So if you’re invited to Budapest, you would not conduct an opera there?
MAG-M: Well, I can conduct any opera by Bartók already! But I would not like to conduct Tosca in Hungarian.
BD: Would that make you nervous at all to conduct Bartók or Kodály in Budapest?
MAG-M: Surely not. I believe that music is rhythm, and if you read the score exactly with care and really all that is written there, you can play every kind of music.
BD: [With a gentle nudge] You don’t feel you are too much of an upstart to go into Hungary to tell them something new about their national composer?
MAG-M: [Laughs] I don’t think so. There are many people who go to Spain playing Spanish music.
BD: [Genuinely surprised] Really???
MAG-M: Yes, and of course, they have it very difficult, sure.
BD: Does it work?
MAG-M: [Hesitates] Sometimes yes. That depends on the artistic quality of the person, very often. But it is another thing, also. I am not afraid to make Hungarian music because when I was a student I studied conducting in Vienna, and I was playing in a restaurant at the same time to finance my studies. I was playing contrabass, my mother was playing piano, and we had another colleague who was a Hungarian gypsy violinist. I have learned so much about Hungarian character that we could say it is my second musical country. I have used this knowledge very much because at the start of my career I conducted operettas of Emmerich Kálmán (1882-1953), who was Hungarian. There were many Hungarian songs in these things, and Bartók is really Hungarian folk music, and I have conducted Bartók quite often. People say it is really one of my specialties. I say all this because it’s difficult. Bartók is difficult, really.
* * * * *
BD: Do you enjoy modern music, contemporary music?
MAG-M: In every kind of music there is good music and bad music. I am not principally against contemporary music, but I try to choose very well the scores I conduct in these kinds. Sometimes I cannot choose it. I have to conduct something that I don’t like because there are some compromises that you have to do. But normally I am careful about making the selection.
BD: Would a compromise like that be more of twelve minutes on a concert program rather than a full opera evening?
MAG-M: Sure, sure! If I don’t like a full evening in an opera, or a full concert with this kind of music, then I don’t think I would do it.
BD: What if they asked you to do a premiere — whether it’s good or not — on a program that is otherwise acceptable?
MAG-M: Yes, it depends on the rest of the program. But principally I’m not against anything because, like I say, it is only the history who will tell who was the genius or not. I am sure at the time of Beethoven and the other composers who are now very well known, there were sure thousands of other composers who are not played now.
BD: At the time of Mozart, Salieri (1750-1825) was a much bigger name.
MAG-M: Exactly, and many others. Verdi has remained in the opera house, and how many other people have composed opera at his time?
BD: Sure. Is there a reason now to do operas by Mercadante (1795-1870) and Salieri and some of these others?
BD: Or is it better to leave them on the library shelf?
MAG-M: I would say they have a moment, a scientific interest because you see how these people can have composed. You see the difference with the great genius and the not so great genius. But to make it as repertory operas, I don’t think this is very practical because the public is not so interested that in scientist’s work. They want to hear real good music, and so good music is better. And the better the music is, the better they will like it.
BD: Should we always do masterpieces?
MAG-M: Principally masterpieces. Of course, sometimes we have to show the others so that they can also make the difference.
BD: Will the audiences appreciate the masterpieces more?
MAG-M: Sure, sure! I have found it always so. When I conduct any concert, a good piece beside a not so good piece, the good piece has much more success, and I don’t think it is just because it was a very well-known name. For example, about one year ago I did in Madrid something by Menotti. Menotti’s not very well known in Madrid. It was only the second work by him they played in Madrid — The Death of the Bishop of Brindisi. Do you know it?
BD: Yes, it’s a cantata.
MAG-M: It’s an operatic work, though its under-title is Cantata in some scores, yet in others it is an opera for a mezzo-soprano, baritone, children and chorus and great orchestra. It is very beautiful and I like it very, very much. So I did it, and it was a great, great, great success. They didn’t know Menotti, but it doesn’t matter. They like good music.
BD: Would that kind of a work do well here at Lyric Opera of Chicago?
MAG-M: I think so, but it’s just a little unpractical because it’s only thirty-five minutes, and you have to put another piece with this, sure. It is very big. You need a very great children’s chorus. The chorus here is wonderful and the orchestra’s wonderful. That is no problem. It is just the children’s chorus that I don’t know. But I have seen in the program the list of the names, and there are not as many as you need because you have to have a very large children’s chorus. If not, you will not hear them because the children are singing to you in the storm, and in the storm is the orchestra very, very loud. All the orchestra is playing with very great percussion. So if there are not about 100 children, you will not hear them.
BD: Have you done concert operas — operas in the concert hall?
MAG-M: I have done pieces of operas in concert halls, and I agree with this.
BD: Would complete operas work as concerts?
MAG-M: It works, especially if it is an opera in places where you don’t have the possibilities to make it real with the scenery, because opera is theater and you need the stage. But if you don’t have the possibilities on stage — because maybe the stage is very small and can only put the people inside so that they can stand and sing — it is better than nothing. That is what I mean. In this sense, I would do operas concertante. Also in the sense you see a really interesting piece that you don’t have the opportunity to put on the stage, like this Menotti for example. That is really worth to make it just in concert.
* * * * *
BD: When you study scores, do you ever listen to recordings?
MAG-M: No! After, yes, but not during. The first thing I try to do when I study a score — even if it is a very well-known work — is to forget all of what I heard about this work. I just read the score and I do what is in the score.
BD: Do you read the score at sight, or do you play it at the piano?
MAG-M: No, at sight. The first thing I think is that the composers are really genius. I am not a genius; I am a reproducing artist. If I was a genius as great as Beethoven or Brahms, then I could compose such wonderful works like they did. I cannot.
BD: Have you composed any at all?
MAG-M: Yes, I am a composer but I don’t think I am a genius. [Has a huge laugh] Maybe I am a good composer, but not a genius, surely not. And because I don’t believe that I am like Beethoven or Brahms, I don’t believe that I have to correct them. They tell very well what they wanted, and I am not the person who has to correct these things they wrote. I have to do what they wrote because they are much more intelligent than me and every other person who is there sitting, playing or conducting, or listening. The very intelligent person was the composer, so we have to respect him.
BD: You say you don’t correct Beethoven or Brahms. Do you correct Verdi or Puccini?
MAG-M: Also not because I don’t correct any composer. If he is a real genius he doesn’t need my help, and if he’s not a real genius he’s not worthy of my help. [Both have a huge laugh] That is the point of view I learned at the Vienna High School. Hans Swarowsky was my conducting teacher, and it is not from me that I say this. He said it already for me. There was a concerto for piano and orchestra (I forget by who) and it was very bad piece. We had to conduct a passage from it, and a colleague of mine conducted it a little faster. Swarowsky said, “No, no, no, don’t conduct it faster! You have to make the people notice how bad this piece is!” [Another huge laugh]
BD: Are there some pieces that are generally regarded as being poor pieces that you feel are much better than their reputations?
MAG-M: I have to think about that... Sometimes, yes. Not many but several, especially in the mind of people who are not professional. That works also with the quality of artists and everything. You’ll not always agree with the things you heard about people, and I think it is good because you have to build your own opinion. The art is so subjective that you can have thousands of different opinions, and all can be right.
BD: When you pick up a score that you know is not a first-rate masterpiece — maybe it’s just a little below the first-rate masterpiece — do you work a little harder to show it off to its best light?
MAG-M: Sure. I try always to keep the light on to be advantageous.
BD: If you’re conducting a Beethoven symphony, there’s not too much you can do to really destroy it.
MAG-M: Oh, yes. To destroy it is impossible because the piece is already known. It sells so well that nobody can destroy it. But I have heard very often — even from famous conductors — versions of Beethoven and Brahms which have nothing to do with that what the composer wanted. There was, for example, a very, very famous conductor — whose name I don’t want to say now — who conducted fourth movement of Seventh Symphony by Beethoven faster than the third movement. He was a qualified conductor, and he had not seen that Beethoven wrote his metronomes. The metronome in the third movement is 132, and in the fourth movement it’s 144. You can discuss if this metronome by Beethoven was faster or slower than any other metronome, but in any metronome 132 will be slower than 144! He made a mistake.
BD: Do you ever make mistakes?
MAG-M: [Laughs] Sure! I am sure I make them. I am learning always. Many people say I am young and will get very great experience. It is true that I have the great experience already. I am twelve years a conductor already, but I have the experience of a normal conductor of forty-five years. I became very soon okay, but I don’t think I have enough experience, and I don’t think I will have enough experience when I am seventy because you are always learning, always, all the time!
* * * * *
BD: Do you ever come into conflict with the stage designer and the stage director?
MAG-M: Not here in the U.S., and not in England, but sometimes in Germany and Switzerland, yes.
BD: Who has the final say — you or the stage director?
MAG-M: Until now I had it always. I don’t like to discuss and I don’t like to fight, but if I must I have to, and normally I get to convince the people about the things I cannot settle for. Of course, there are many things you have to accept because if you come to a new production and you find a set that you don’t like, you cannot say, “This set has to be broken and we must make a new one.” You cannot say it. You can say, “I won’t conduct this production,” but you cannot leave the people there when you arrive one month before the first night. You cannot say, “I won’t do this so now I go away,” because the theater would have problems to get another conductor to be there all this time. So you have to accept this.
BD: Do you change more when you are working on new productions rather than established productions?
MAG-M: Sure, because you can give ideas and experiment. The greater the producer is as an artist, the more ideas he accepts from singers and from the conductor. I have seen it every time. Really, the greatest producer accepts more ideas than the one who thinks he is very great.
BD: Do you approve when a producer tries to update things? For instance, there was recently a Rigoletto that put the opera into 1950s in the Little Italy section of New York and made it a ‘mafia’ thing. Does this work? Is this good for opera?
MAG-M: I don’t think so. If you make a copy of Mona Lisa, you have to depict Mona Lisa. You cannot put on a mustache. It would not be correct.
BD: [Gently protesting] But the Mona Lisa you see is a static thing. It is there and that’s all, whereas opera, as you indicated, is a reproducing medium.
MAG-M: Yes, but you can also engage someone like Penderecki and say, “Make an opera with the theme of Rigoletto.” Then Penderecki will do modern music on that theme, but it will be very much modern in this time in all these things, etc., etc. Okay, wonderful! But with Rigoletto by Verdi, composed in the nineteenth century, and with a context in this time, that has to be in this time because if it is not, you change the character of the opera, even if the music unchanged. Even if the music doesn’t change, and the public gets another impression. This is completely different from what you expect from the Duke of Mantua. You cannot change the name of the Duke to the Count if Mantua, and you should not see the Duke of Mantua with the jeans, or Aïda like they did now in Frankfurt where she is a Putzfrau [charwoman or cleaning lady].
BD: Suppose they call you up and want you to conduct this production of Aïda in Frankfurt. Will you come?
MAG-M: No, no.
BD: You’d just turn it down?
MAG-M: That is correct. If they engage me to conduct this Aïda, I will not. I did La Forza del Destino in Orancia, which was set in the year 1935. This is also wrong, but I didn’t know it until I was there. When I was there I couldn’t say what I just told you now, and I couldn’t leave because the time was very short. It was just two weeks before the performance.
BD: This is a question I like to ask singers, but it would be interesting to get a conductor’s reaction. How difficult is it for you to say ‘no’?
MAG-M: Difficult! I like to work. I like very much to work and that is why at the beginning I was doing so much opera. I began to get my name in opera, and everybody wanted to have me. I wanted to do everything, and I went to every place, and so when offers for concerts came I was already occupied. So now I am taking it a little more deliberately, and now I begin to say no even if I would like not to.
* * * * *
BD: Are you good audience?
MAG-M: Yes, well... I don’t know. [Much laughter]
BD: Do you ever go to the theater when you’re not performing?
MAG-M: I go. I don’t go very often because when I am not performing I am normally preparing other things. But when I go to other performances, then I suffer sometimes because I am feeling with the problems which are happening there. In every performance there are mistakes, and being a conductor there are things that you have to correct. If I am conducting, I don’t care because I know I will correct it anyway. I don’t know how, but I will; but I don’t know if he will. I am sure he will, but this feeling is difficult to explain.
BD: So there is tension for you?
MAG-M: Yes, sure, and I am hoping that it doesn’t happen, and that he can make it as good as possible.
BD: Have you ever been to a concert where you’ve found another conductor has done something and it’s a revelation?
MAG-M: No! I found sometimes performances where I learned many things about how to get results. About interpretation it is difficult because I am missing some times many things that are written, or I am hearing things which are not written, and that I don’t like. You can ask me if everybody would be like me there would be never a difference between two performances, but it is not true because allegro is allegro. It is fast, but not so fast because even if you have the metronome number, metronomes have differences between among them. 100 can be a little faster or a little slower.
BD: If you’re a little more agitated the afternoon before the performance, is your allegro a little faster?
MAG-M: Maybe. I personally am not very influenced because in Vienna they have control of the duration of the representation of the performances of each opera, and I could control easily the differences between the length of the acts. When I was conducting an opera, there were never more than two minutes difference, and this is a very short difference for a piece of about one hour. And it can be because of applause or because of other extraordinary circumstances. But it is, of course, possible that you can be a little faster or a little slower. That is change also.
BD: In the course of a run of performances your difference is only a minute or two. But what about the timing of a piece in 1982 as opposed to the timing of the same piece in 1974 or 1996?
MAG-M: That doesn’t change very much — at least until now because I work with a system that makes me not be able to change the tempos very much because I work with the relationship between with the tempos.
BD: You don’t feel constricted though because of this?
MAG-M: No, in the opposite way. It is real, and you don’t have to think how fast I have to take this special passage. No, you take one tempo and then you are not concerned about any other things. Of course, there are some times... Puccini doesn’t work because Puccini is all rubato. But there are other ways to control these things.
BD: Beethoven has allegro and Puccini says rubato?
MAG-M: Puccini says allegro, and two beats later says poco ritardando, and three beats later he will say accelerando ancora! [Lots of laughter] That is the thing. On very, very rare times, Beethoven writes ritardando or something like this, and he’s very precise. Beethoven is very, very precise!
BD: When you’re in the pit, how much do you watch the singers and let them breathe a little extra?
MAG-M: All the time. You have to take care of them. You have to take care of the very people who are making music. You’re not making music, you are just conducting. That is another thing — you don’t sound. The conductor doesn’t sound. Every other person is sounding, and they need your help. That is all. That is what I see.
BD: Are you more flexible in the opera than in the concert hall?
MAG-M: Sure. In the rehearsal work of the opera or the concert, you have to make sure that the singers, the soloists and the musicians will do what you want. Then comes the performance, and it can happen so many accidents. There you have to be flexible because they will do what you want — the singers, the musicians, they will do what the conductor wants.
BD: As much as they can?
MAG-M: Exactly! There are also accidents. Something can happen and they can make mistakes. We are all human, and if they a mistake you have to help them. If they have an accident you have to help them, and you have to be flexible.
BD: Is this the problem with the recording — that it’s not human?
MAG-M: I think so, but not because of the flexibility. It is just because of so many repetitions. You take a piece of music — about two minutes — and you repeat it for about one hour so that it is perfect. Of course that cannot have life. That is dead music, but it necessary.
BD: Are recordings, then, going to be the death of music?
MAG-M: No, sure not. There is another thing... it is just that the people, the audience, the public have now a different idea of what music really is because when they are hearing the soloist on the record, they will hear the soloist very well because of the microphone for soloist. If he’s covered by the orchestra...
BD: ...the engineers turn the knob!
MAG-M: Right! They turn the button and it sounds more. It is exactly the same is the opera. The orchestra will be fortissimo and the singer will be heard very well. In the theater it’s not possible because when an orchestra of eighty plays only forte, they cover already the singers. You have to take a very great care of this always. It’s very difficult.
BD: Do you ever find yourself covering singers?
MAG-M: Yes, sure — not very much in performances, but in rehearsals very often. I’m always asking the orchestra to play less! It is really difficult to get this balance, very, very difficult. You cannot hear a real forte when only one singer is singing.
BD: Might there be a time when a singer is having vocal trouble so maybe you would let the orchestra cover them a little bit more?
MAG-M: Sometimes, yes, and not only this. Sometimes it is very difficult for the singers to hear the orchestra from this distance. Now they put a loudspeaker on stage and they hear it better, but sometimes when we make really pianissimo they don’t hear anything, and it can cause a change of the pitch. They can make a mistake and be too sharp or too flat, and then in this moment you have to let somebody play stronger so the singers can hear it.
BD: How closely can you signal the singer?
MAG-M: Quite close, but I don’t like to do so. I don’t like that kind of signaling to everybody.
BD: Is that more the job of the prompter?
MAG-M: I always work as if it would be no prompter. I am singing with the singers. I am giving them the text when they make a mistake. When they don’t know what to sing and they look to the prompter, I am prompting also.
BD: Does it bother you if they’re looking to the side or into the prompt box rather than to you?
MAG-M: Oh, they are. Even if I am looking there [glances away], I am seeing you very well! They don’t lose us from their eyes, even if they are looking away.
BD: Yes, their peripheral vision. Have you ever worked in a production where they’ve used a scrim?
MAG-M: Yes, often. That doesn’t disturb if you have good singers. That shouldn’t be a circumstance for me to say, “I don’t like this.”
BD: Can you see them clearly, and can they see you?
MAG-M: Normally yes, if the lights are good. The first thing when I see one of these scrims is to ask how the lights are, and when the lights come the first thing is to ask if the singers see me. Usually it is OK, but if not, then I ask to change the lights! That is really something very important. We also have the monitors. Today the theater has many advantages of technique. If they don’t see me directly, they have the monitors and they will see me on television.
BD: Is the television monitor better than an assistant conductor?
MAG-M: They have an assistant conductor also.
BD: It used to be that the assistant conductor would stand in the wings and would watch the conductor.
MAG-M: Yes, that was once. Now that doesn’t exist anymore because of the television. The assistant conductor will be there. He will look at the television and will conduct because if the singers look directly to the television, they will be too late because they are too far away. The assistant conductor has to conduct a little before me. I know it because I did it also when I started my career.
BD: It’s sort of like playing double bass. Doesn’t the double bass have to anticipate the beat just a little so that it can sound at the right time?
MAG-M: Sometimes, yes, especially because they are also very far away always, even here because it is a very unusual seating of the orchestra. At the opera is normally that you have the woodwind left, and on the right the brass. But the horns are with the woodwind, and this is the normal way. Here it is also for the wind, but not for the strings. [Points here and there to indicate where the various instruments are placed in the pit] The beginning of the rehearsal was terrible because every cue for the violins were for the cellos! [Huge laugh]
BD: You’re always pointing the wrong direction.
MAG-M: Yes, I was always changing the direction in the last moment.
BD: Did you not want to reseat the orchestra?
MAG-M: No, I don’t like this because there are little differences in every orchestra, and they are used to where they are seated, and they take their cues from the instruments that are sitting near them. So if you change the seating order they don’t feel comfortable. If I don’t feel very comfortable, I have to get used to it very quickly, and it is easier for me to do that. The first time I conducted in Vienna, it was for me a really big surprise because their seating arrangement is also different from the one I was used to [Indicates that the second violins are on the right, rather than the cellos].
BD: Real stereo! [Both have a big laugh] You’re a double bass player?
MAG-M: No, I am a pianist.
BD: [Surprised] But you said earlier that you played double bass in that restaurant.
MAG-M: Yes, I played also the double bass and I studied violin. I was never a good violinist.
BD: I thought you were like Zubin Mehta who was actually a double bass player.
MAG-M: No, that not, but I arrived to play very good, quite good double bass. I have also a funny story about this. We were rehearsing Le Nozze di Figaro with the Vienna Philharmonic, after a break a couple of the string players were playing others’ instruments! When the first violin saw that, he went to the double bass and took that one. So almost everyone changed their place!
BD: String players can do that, but you can’t easily change the winds.
MAG-M: No, no, but they did it in the strings, and it sounded exactly as if nothing would have happened. It was very good, and I continued my rehearsal. It was for singers, not for the orchestra. As we continued the rehearsal, the concert master — who was then playing the double bass — said to me, “Maestro, don’t you play any orchestral instrument? If so, I would like to conduct!” I said, “Please come here and give me your double bass.” So he came to conduct and I played the double bass with the Vienna Philharmonic! I have been a member of the Vienna Philharmonic! [Gales of laughter]
BD: I would think that especially with an opera like Figaro, which they play so often, this would be something that would revitalize them and make it more interesting.
MAG-M: Yes, and it was easy for me to change many things because many of my colleagues were doing things which are not written. I just had to take away all the traditions, and it was a change.
BD: Did they like that?
MAG-M: Oh yes, they did it without any resistance, and they congratulated me for having made the things like they were written. I was very happy about this because the Vienna Philharmonic is a very good orchestra.
* * * * *
BD: When you’re preparing yourself for Le Nozze di Figaro, do you go back and read Da Ponte and Beaumarchais, and the letters between Mozart and his father? Does these all have an impression on you?
MAG-M: Sure, sure. It is always interesting. It is a part of conducting also to be inside of the life of the composer when he was composing this piece, and to know generally about the time which surrounded the composer. It is also very interesting to know how they played this kind of music because, as I said before, I just had to take all the things are not written and take these traditions away. I need the best traditions because the good traditions you have to know. You that in afermata by Mozart was also a cadenza, and there was something that the singers had to do. You have to keep these traditions, and that is a good tradition which nobody does now. Almost no singer wants to make a cadenza there, but they have to!
BD: Are the singers afraid of it?
MAG-M: I don’t think so. I think it is more their comfort. Mozart didn’t write it, but they have to do it. I don’t know, really. I didn’t make a study of these things, but it would be interesting to know why they don’t do it, because there in Mozart they have opportunity to do it. Of course it must not be such a lengthy cadenza, but a small cadenza they have to do, yes!
BD: Do you do any earlier works such as Handel or even Monteverdi?
MAG-M: I try not to do it because they are real chamber music works. I would do these works when I sit at the cembalo and conduct from the cembalo, but I find it a little ridiculous to put the conductor for eight or nine people in this kind of music because if they are good musicians, they don’t need somebody who is beating time. At this time period, there was not the figure of the conductor.
BD: Going the other direction, have you done some Wagner?
MAG-M: I have done Wagner in concerts, but not on the stage. I have done parts from Meistersinger, Tannhäuser...
MAG-M: No, no, also arias and concertato pieces, but only in concert, not on stage.
BD: Will you do some on stage?
MAG-M: Oh, yes, I would like to.
BD: You like the music of Wagner?
MAG-M: Yes. I like it and I feel good hearing and doing it. I feel also very good with Richard Strauss.
BD: Is there a relationship between Wagner and Strauss?
MAG-M: No, I don’t think so. The relationship is the language, of course, and they are both German mentalities.
BD: Let me change the question. Is there a development from Wagner to Strauss — a direct line, or a lineage?
MAG-M: I don’t think so. Strauss is another kind of musician, completely different. Wagner is more, we could say, the lyrical one, and Strauss is the dramatic one. I would compare Wagner to Verdi, and Strauss to Puccini. In Verdi very often you are seeing on stage a very dramatic situation, and you are hearing waltz music. I don’t want to make a sacrilege, but something like this sometimes happens in early works of Wagner. That will never happen in Strauss because in Strauss is like in Puccini — you hear in the music what is happening there on stage.
BD: Is it a mistake of Verdi that you don’t hear from the pit what you see on the stage?
MAG-M: I would not say it is a mistake; it is the way in his time to compose. You can see very well in Verdi that this is the way of the time because in the early Verdi works this happens very often. In the middle Verdi it happens not so often, and in the late Verdi it doesn’t happen.
BD: [Pretending to be shocked] So Verdi was growing???
MAG-M: [Laughs] Sure, and it was also the time changing. Think of the situation in the last act of Trovatore, when it’s a very dramatic situation and you’re hearing a waltz! The others are singing also, and they are singing a terzetto. It is not very dramatic. We would say it is very dramatic because it is the intention there, and it depends, of course, how it is sung, but I think it is a very funny thing. If you have good singers, it will always be dramatic, but it is not the real relationship. On the other hand, in Puccini, if you take away the text, you know the context of the piece. You can make out precisely in which part of the work you are hearing this kind of music. That you cannot do with Verdi because if you take the text out of Verdi and you hear [demonstrates a typical rhythm], you can be in Traviata, in Rigoletto, or in Trovatore. That is what I mean. It’s not that it is better or less or worse, it is just that it is different, and it is the difference which I find also between Wagner and Strauss. Not so crass, not so intense as between Verdi and Puccini, but a little bit the same.
BD: Are there any great operas that you have not done that you are looking forward to doing?
MAG-M: Great operas? I would like very much to do Manon Lescaut. I would like very much to do Rosenkavalier, but I never did until now. The Ring...
BD: [Surprised] You want to do the Ring?
MAG-M: Yes, with time, little by little, all four!
BD: Should the Ring be done one opera per year, or should it only be done in a week?
MAG-M: I would prefer to see it in a week because you can get a context of the whole thing. But it is very difficult because it is very hard for the orchestra and for the singers and for the conductor.
BD: Many of your responses show that you think like an administrator. Are you Music Director anywhere?
BD: Would you ever accept that kind of post?
MAG-M: That would depend. I don’t like to say no to anything because some really important affair might come along. I have already had several important offers, but I think it would tie my hands. You feel yourself tied to this one house, and you have to be in this house because if you are not there, you are not doing well in the job of Music Director. So I prefer to be a little more free, and that means until I am offered a very special position that would be worth it to remain there a long time, I would not accept such a position.
BD: Do you like traveling?
MAG-M: Yes. [Laughs] If not, I couldn’t do this job!
BD: Because you wind up being six weeks here, six weeks there, four weeks there and so forth?
MAG-M: Six weeks is very much because normally three weeks is already enough time.
MAG-M: Yes, because normally here in America you have the staggione system. There are rehearsals and then come the performances, but during the performances are days where you are free. In Europe you have the possibility that when you have made the production, between the performances you can go and conduct in another place. That means three weeks of rehearsals, the first performance, and then you go away and return.
BD: So you’re going back and forth!
BD: Is that not too much? It would have to mesh perfectly in order to work.
MAG-M: Yes, and that is the work of the manager to take exactly all the time we have. I don’t like to conduct very, very closely.
BD: Be in Munich Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Frankfurt Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday!
MAG-M: Yes, that would be terrible! [Hearty laugh] Once, because of difficulties of theaters, they didn’t have conductors. Somebody canceled because he was ill, and the others were not available. I had to conduct in Berlin Don Giovanni, in Munich Trovatore, and the next day and the following day in Hamburg Masked Ball, or something like this. That was really a little record for me, and I don’t like to do this. I really don’t like it.
BD: It’s too much?
BD: A conductor can get away with that kind of thing, but a singer can’t.
MAG-M: Yes. The singers have to use an instrument which is very delicate. The arms are not so delicate!
BD: Do you take that into consideration, perhaps? If you were working in one opera house and knew that a singer is doing another production elsewhere, going back and forth, and back and forth?
MAG-M: We have to take care of these things, yes, that’s true, and we have to help them.
BD: You would not ask them to cancel?
MAG-M: I am not able to do this because I am not Chief Conductor of any house. When I have to conduct an opera, I have to agree with the cast — or not — but I don’t know if he will sing in another place the day before. Maybe it happens, and maybe somebody’s ill and somebody else has to replace. You have to understand it also. But it is very exciting also to have different artists, even in the same piece. I am now thinking about this situation here with another tenor. You have to take the advantage of this new tenor and forget the advantage of the other tenor because they are both very good. The one has things that I would prefer to the other, but nobody is complete.
BD: Do you find that you have to change emphasis here and there, and bring out and maximize the good points?
MAG-M: Exactly, exactly, and that is the thing which makes this work very exciting.
BD: But you wouldn’t want to change it every couple of nights?
MAG-M: No, no, no! When I do a production I prefer that it remains the same cast. It is much more sure for everyone — especially the people who are singing because the other colleagues would have to adapt themselves to the different production.
BD: Is there ever a case when you do too many performances — maybe fifteen or twenty performances with the same cast, and it gets boring after a while?
MAG-M: If they are good artists they will not become boring, and I will not because we will look always for the way to do it better.
BD: If you have a cast that maybe is not paying attention, or is just a little bit down from a previous performance, will you do something to catch their attention?
MAG-M: Sure. First, they will notice that I will be much more attentive to several of the details we have made before. And then I will say, “Be careful today. We are not like we should be!”
BD: [With a mock scream] “Wake up!”
MAG-M: [Huge laugh] Of course I don’t like to scream. I try never to do that. You can get more things if you say everything quietly and with love and good manners than if you [also makes a mock scream].
BD: [With a gentle nudge] You don’t want to be dictator?
MAG-M: No, no, no, absolutely not, no, no. I am very happy when I have a good atmosphere and we can work, because I think work is a group of friends who are making a very great thing — music — and if we are all friends it’s the best way. There is casually a friend who has to determinate how the thing has to be, and that is me, but it’s the only thing.
* * * * *
BD: How does this house here in Chicago compare with other houses acoustically and visually?
MAG-M: Visually it’s wonderful, not like all the old-fashioned theaters of horse-shoe form where many of the people who are sitting on the sides cannot see. Acoustically I don’t know how it is in the audience hall because I was so busy that I couldn’t come to any other performance. I will come to one of the student Butterfly afternoons because I am interested and I want to hear one of them. So I will see how the acoustic is then.
BD: Where will you sit? Will you try to sit in the fifth row, or in the balcony, or in a box?
MAG-M: I like to sit in the middle of the house, more or less, so tenth or eleventh row, but I will take the ticket that they give me. The acoustic here, as in every other theater with the exception of Vienna, is bad for the conductor because we hear very much the orchestra and not very much singers. It was a real problem at the beginning. The entrance of Butterfly was a great problem. I remember the first time I rehearsed it with the orchestra and the chorus and Butterfly, and when I finished the scene I asked the people behind me if they had heard something from the chorus because I didn’t hear anything. They said the chorus is too loud! We fixed it, but still now in the performances I don’t hear the chorus. I just know that they are singing, and I know that they are together with me because I look, and I see how they are singing. That is the only control I have. [Laughs] It is comical, but in this scene it is so. There are several things I can only control by looking because hearing is impossible. Of course, when Butterfly stops singing and the orchestra is very soft, then I hear the chorus. It’s not the full passage, but several places which are difficult because there is rubato and I would need to hear.
BD: What’s the role of the critic?
MAG-M: Ha! That is a good question. For me, the critic is somebody who is making a personal, subjective opinion about the things which are happening in the theater, in the cinema, football, everywhere where they are criticizing. A critic has to tell the public who is not in the theater what he thinks has happened. For this it is very good that this person knows as much music as possible, but really knows. I do not mean knowing because he has seven different versions of Traviata and 200 of the Seventh Symphony of Beethoven, and all four recordings by Karajan, etc. That is not knowing. Knowing is really is being able to read a score, being able to distinguish between qualities of sound and many other things. He should almost be a real conductor, almost be a real singer, and that is difficult, very, very difficult.
BD: [Musing] If they were real conductors, they would be conducting instead of writing about it.
MAG-M: That is the thing. That is why I say ‘almost’.
BD: But you don’t want a frustrated, failed conductor out there writing for the daily press!
MAG-M: No, sure not. That would be terrible, and sometimes we have it. But reading a score is important and good hearing is very important. He should not just know the recordings because the records have a bad influence. On the records you can manipulate, and all the things have to be perfect. However, it is a way to know a new work that you don’t know if you are not a musician who can perfectly read a score.
BD: Maybe to listen to the record once?
MAG-M: Exactly, but then the critic shouldn’t say, “That was good!” or, “That was bad!” He should say, “I think that was not very good or that was not very bad.”
BD: Do you read the critics?
MAG-M: Yes, sure! Sometimes artists say they don’t read the critics, but that’s not true! Everybody reads the critics.
BD: Do you take to heart what they say?
MAG-M: No! No because we know exactly how we were. There once was a very funny thing... I made a series of four performances of Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci in Berlin. Two were very good and the third one was bad. It was one of these black performances where everything goes wrong, and the singers made many mistakes, and the orchestra had many substitutes who also made many mistakes. Maybe I was also not in form. I was not happy about this performance. Then the fourth one went again very well. So there was a critic at the first and the third performances. In the first performance, which was very good, he said, “I don’t understand how such a great theater like Berlin can engage these singers and this conductor. It was bad, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah! Then how can it change in just five days for the third performance, which I also heard, and which was wonderful?” [Huge laugh] It was exactly the opposite thing! We know it very well. We know when we were good and when we were bad.
BD: Do you want to write to the critic and say, “Hey, you blew it!”?
MAG-M: No, no, no. They have it already very difficult. They have a very difficult job because they have to give an opinion and give an impression about one thing that is very subjective. All that is subjective, as I said earlier. It is possible to have a hundred different opinions and all these opinions can be right. Perhaps we are not good for the critic but we are very good for all other people... or the opposite is also possible. It is only information for the people who are not in theater.
BD: Here in Chicago, we (had at that time) four major daily papers who sent music critics, and after reading them I sometimes wondered if they were in the same hall that night!
MAG-M: [Laughs] That happens, of course.
BD: Should the critics perhaps come to the second or third performance, rather than the first, so you have the opportunity to get the bugs worked out?
MAG-M: I have a very special feeling. I think a critic should be here from the first rehearsal, to see how the work is, to see the circumstances. They just come to one performance — any one, first, second, third, any one. They see a product and they don’t know how this product was worked out.
BD: But should the public be aware of the difficulties you’ve encountered in rehearsals, or the particular problems you face? Are you not giving them a finished product to see?
MAG-M: Sure, of course, but the critic is someone who specializes, and to be a specialist he has to also see at least the principal rehearsals, to see how that works because he’s not public. He’s a critic. He’s somebody who can make influence over the public.
BD: But should he not be part of the public rather than part of the opera house?
MAG-M: No, he should be in the middle, exactly in the middle.
BD: [With somewhat genuine concern] And then he becomes torn apart?
MAG-M: Well, that would be much more difficult for him. [Huge laugh] I want a person who wants to do his best or her best, and not to look just for the more comfortable way. They have to make the way to do it better. If it is more difficult, well, it’s a pity but it’s more difficult. Until now I just know one critic who goes to the rehearsals. He lives in Madrid, and he’s a very hard one. When I read any critic, I know in one moment if this man understands something or not. I know if it is a real understanding, or just because he is used to hearing music and he doesn’t hear very well. We can distinguish this very well, and from this one who is making a constructive criticism I am very thankful. I am much more thankful to him than to one who is making a wonderful criticism but I see that he doesn’t understand anything. I am thankful because he’s very kind, and he made a very good critic. That is the only way. I am very thankful because I can learn something.
BD: So you do learn from the critic occasionally?
MAG-M: That is very rare, but sometimes there are things you can take note of.
BD: Do you read the critic after the first performance, or do you wait until the run is over?
MAG-M: I read them when they come out!
BD: I just wondered if they would influence you for the second and third performances?
MAG-M: Normally it is not an influence what you’ve heard from the critic. A critic can give you an idea for a next production, but not for a next performance because it would be dangerous to change anything then.
BD: One of the singers told me that they get all the critics, but then read them after the last performance.
MAG-M: No, no, no. I read it when they come because the influence will not affect me. When I have learned a score I also hear other performances. I take records. If it is on the radio I will hear it also. Maybe if I have time I can go to another performance, but it doesn’t make any influence. I have my criteria and it is there, and if I see that I’ve made a mistake, I adjust. Normally from the critic I don’t see that I made a mistake. I see it sometimes by myself, or sometimes because the practice teaches one that this is not correct, or less correct than if you do it another way.
BD: You know whether you’ve done a good performance.
MAG-M: Sure, sure, in this sense I don’t need any critic. [Laughs]
BD: It’s almost like being at the university. When you’re an undergraduate, you wait until you get the exam back to see what grade you’ve got. When you are a graduate student doing your Master’s work, you know when you’ve finished the examination what grade you will get. Then when you’re going for your doctorate, you know before you go into the examination room what grade you will get!
MAG-M: Exactly, exactly, so is it! [Roars of laughter]
* * * * *
BD: Is this your first time in Chicago?
BD: Have you seen any of the city, or have we kept you too busy?
MAG-M: I am beginning now to see something from the city because today was the first day I had a morning free. Yesterday I had something in the morning but I couldn’t do any sight-seeing. But I want to visit all possible things because this is normally the first thing I do when I come to a new city.
BD: Do you like Chicago?
MAG-M: So far, yes!
BD: Will you be coming back?
MAG-M: We will see. They didn’t tell me anything yet. Yesterday we were speaking about this, and Ardis Krainik said, “You will come back soon!” But they didn’t tell me anything precise. It is a very good atmosphere here. I am happy and hope to return, but it would have to be for a time I am not booked, and until 1984 or so it is really difficult to get me now. [He would come back in the 1986-87 season for the same production of Butterfly with Anna Tomowa-Sintow, Peter Dvorsky, Richard Stilwell, Sharon Graham, and Mark Doss in the cast.]
BD: How far ahead are you booked?
MAG-M: Oh, I have several contracts until 1986.
BD: Do you like know that on a certain Thursday in July you’re going to be in a certain theater doing a certain opera, or in a certain concert hall?
MAG-M: It’s a good feeling. It is better