IV Discovering Opera: 1968

[Interview 4: January l, 1997] ##

Opera Beginnings: Bastien and Bastienne and other one-acters; Thoughts about Translation; The Handel Treasury; Introducing Narration: Admeto; Fashioning Narrations and Casting; Verdi's King for a Day, a Problem Tenor, and an Aborted Visit from The New York Times; Don Pasquale and Orchestrating; Taking Liberties with L'Ajo nell'Imbarazzo (Tutor in a Tangle)


Let's start with the realization that you could do opera. Eureka!


The realization--well, it happened one bright day which I date back to January of '68. We had already done several precursors of opera--Handel's Acis and Galatea, and Purcell's Dido and Aeneas, which of course is a genuine opera and an extraordinarily prophetic one at that. In the course of a Medieval concert, we had even done a twelfth-century work called Le Jeu de Robin et Marion, said to be the first opera extant--brief and charming. But the new idea was to do a one-act opera as a way of giving variety and added interest to a program of chamber music. And because of the intimate nature of the surroundings, it was imperative that we do the opera in English. The opera that I hit upon, not unnaturally, was Mozart's Bastien and Bastienne.

Though he was only thirteen when he wrote the opera (his third!), it's an extraordinarily mature work, both musically and dramatically. And it is an especially difficult piece to translate, although I didn't know it at the time. Difficult because it should sound perfectly simple. The story is about two naive teenagers in love, who are having a spat. Their language should sound natural, sincere, spontaneous, unaffected --all of this in rhymed verse.


I had no great ambition to be a translator, but I did want to communicate. If I had found existing translations to my liking, I would not have ventured on my own. But those that I did find seemed hopelessly clumsy and archaic.


Want to say whose?


No, the fact is, I don't know whose they were. But I'm afraid they were typical of the translations then available. Up until Ruth and Thomas Martin came into the scene, translations tended to be arcane, elaborate, old-fashioned and virtually incomprehensible to the ear. They did attempt to be literally faithful to the original, but I think this is a misguided primary goal.

The Martins were a vast improvement over what had gone before. They cut through the undergrowth of verbiage, and for the most part succeeded in making sense. But in aiming for clarity and simplicity, they lapsed into banality. I find their translations unsatisfactory because they went to the opposite extreme, and because they show little concern for the music in words.

My own early translations were not all that great either. Years later, after much experience, I went back and gave this, my first translation, a complete overhaul. In fact, this was necessary for all of the translations that I did for at least ten years. After you've just written something, it's easy to deceive yourself into thinking it's much better than it is. The test comes a few years later when you go back and read it in cold blood. This can be a painful enlightenment. And so it was when I reread all of my early translations.


When did you first perform Bastien and Bastienne?


We opened the season of '68 with an all-Mozart program that featured Bastien and Bastienne with a string quartet, two oboes, two horns and three singers. Also included in the program, for purely selfish reasons, was a Mozart piano concerto.

Many of the Mozart piano concerti are in fact written in a way that makes them playable with string quartet accompaniment. This is even sometimes specified--at least in four cases that I know of. No doubt with the Old Spaghetti Factory in mind. The Concerto in E flat, K. 271, was the one chosen for this program --an extraordinary work, written in his teens but more like the music of at least ten years later. It has one of the great,

great tragic slow movements of all time, meditative and passionate.

Alas, the season opened in most unfortunate circumstances: San Francisco was in the middle of a newspaper strike. Having no other means of publicity apart from a few hundred fliers, we were absolutely dependent on the free calendar listings that the newspapers gave us. Singers and players all agreed to perform for a split of the door. A good thing for me, because we had a tiny audience of about thirty-five people. Times were bleak.


This was not staged and costumed.


To put it mildly! At that point in the many periods of metamorphosis of the F. W. Kuh Memorial Auditorium (as the room was legally though laughingly named) the stage consisted of a platform about the size of a large dining room table, perched on two-by-fours. The singers could hardly move around even if they had wanted to. The focus was to be on music and words, with characterization that could be conveyed with minimum motion. A lot can.

We added one major innovation. In the original, the musical numbers are separated by spoken dialogue. I decided to replace the dialogue with narration.


Was this the first time you had tried that?


Not entirely. I'd tested my feet in the water a few times, but this was a further step in that direction. However, the story of Bastien and Bastienne is extremely simple, so the narration could consist of just one or two sentences between each number. This made it possible to move the story at a brisk pace, and it offered an opportunity to give a focused point of view. A lot can be contained or implied in the briefest summation.


You've said that your narration was "bold and possibly indefensible."


Oh, really! [laughter] Well, I'm not sure that I would go for either adjective at this point. Maybe for some of the later, more elaborate narrations. It was bold for me, however, like any unaccustomed role. It was an adventure.

And the venture took off. The thirty-five people present were most enthusiastic, and bitten by the bug, I was dying to go further. I started looking around for other one-act operas that could be done with similar modest resources.


The next selection was a comic piece by Telemann called Pimpinone, also tailor-made for the Old Spaghetti Factory. For only two singers with string quartet. It was originally intended to be performed as three intermezzi sandwiched between the instrumental numbers of a concert. Exactly what I was looking for!

For me, Pimpinone was quite a stride over Bastien and Bastienne. More in the buffa style, rather than the naturalistic, it offers more opportunity to play with words, which after all are my favorite playthings. Its story is highly conventional, but realistically, tartly observed about a shrewd, scheming servant. A pretty girl inveigles her way through charm and flattery into the household of a rich old man by becoming his maid. That's intermezzo one. Intermezzo two: still on her best behavior, she pursues her ambitions and becomes his wife. Intermezzo three: the chips are down. Don Pasquale, anyone? She reveals her true colors. There is a shouting match from which she emerges triumphant, and he comes out sadder and wiser. But alas, still married!

Each intermezzo consists of three arias followed by a duet. Each of the four numbers is separated by a vast amount of recitative. I cut the recitatives entirely and, as with the Mozart, replaced them with a brief narration. That may have been what I called bold and indefensible, because in this case I was cutting not mere spoken dialogue but actual music that Telemann wrote.

However, these recitatives in all candor were stuff that any hack composer could have dashed off. There was no intrinsic musical loss, and their inclusion would have made the piece considerably longer and probably tedious. As we did it, each intermezzo lasted about twenty minutes. And it was a great success. In this new form it was hailed by a critic as an unexpected masterpiece. Critics are so astute when they praise you! [laughter]

The next choice, very much in the same genre, was Pergolesi's La Serva Padrona. A similar story, except that here the girl is already the maid of the household, but scheming to become the mistress by the simple and effective device of pretending to be so already. She blithely goes her way ordering the master around, proving at every step that she is the stronger of the two. Finally he has no choice but to capitulate. She triumphs. In an age when women had few triumphs to boast of, this must have gone over big.

La Serva Padrona is a hard title to translate, because there's no English equivalent for padrona. I finally settled on The Maid Promoted, which at least appeases my appetite for alliteration. Oh. Lord, I've done it again!

Like Pimpinone, La Serva Padrona was also designed as intermezzi, but in this case intermezzi that were to be performed between the acts of an opera. Now for some arcane classical reason, no doubt traceable to Aristotle, comedy was not considered admissible in a lofty Baroque opera seria. But no rules had been designed for the intermissions! Audiences seemed to have hungered for something closer to reality, a respite from the conventional heroics. And comic intermezzi tended to provide just that--true-to-life situations with recognizably real people. Out of hundreds of intermezzi, La Serva Padrona is without question the most famous.

Apparently audiences found these intermezzi marvelously refreshing. In fact, from what I read about the habits of theatregoing in those days, audiences tended to drift around during the performance of an opera, to use it as an occasion for coffee and conversation. But they would flock back to their seats for the intermissions! [laughter]


La Serva Padrona consists of two intermezzi, and as in Pimpinone, each of them contains three arias followed by a duet, all of them separated by recitative. However in this case I did translate the recitatives and we did perform them, because here the recitatives offered lively interplay between the characters that narration could not do justice to. I confined myself to a brief introductory speech and let the opera speak for itself.

Other one-acters followed. The Marriage Broker by Mussorgsky was of special interest. He left it unorchestrated, for just piano solo. This was a relief--we had the rare privilege of utter authenticity! Whether he intended to expand it I don't know, but as it stands, in four scenes, it tells a complete story. Based on a Gogol story, the hero is straight out of Russian fiction--ridiculously passive, phlegmatic, suspicious. The other three people in the cast are knocking themselves out to move the immovable object and goad him into marriage.

The second scene introduces an enthusiastic marriage broker who's out of Moliere, valiantly trying to arouse his interest in a devastatingly beautiful girl of impeccable virtue that she has picked out for him. The slow fire is poked from the other side by an energetic, high-strung friend who has his own

reasons for wanting our hero to get married. He remains unstirred, calmly raising one objection after another. I forget what finally stirs him into action. I found the character contrasts very funny, and when we first done it-- when we first did it--[laughter]


You're lapsing into the Russian syntax, no doubt.


No, I'm lapsing into early North Carolinian. [laughter] When we first did it, we had a perfect cast: John Duykers as the slow-moving, self-absorbed hero; Orva Hoskinson as his hyperactive friend; Margery Tede as the loquacious marriage broker. Because they caught the feeling so well, it came off as I had hoped. We tried it again a few years later with a different cast who simply didn't get it. And since the humor depends entirely on characterization--the highest type of humor--it fell utterly flat. I've never taken it up again. Theatre can be so fragile!

In this opera, Mussorgsky was making a bold experiment: all recitative, no separate numbers, no verse. Entirely in the prose rhythm of natural speech. And I learned a valuable lesson. Orva Hoskinson, who has been such a powerful asset to the Lamplighters, and who took the role of the friend in the first performance, evidently did not care for my translation. He rewrote his own part almost entirely, and greatly improved it in the process.


Good of you to say so.


It was unavoidable, though I didn't enjoy admitting it. In my translation, the speech sounded too literary. The characters sounded as if they had stepped out of a nineteenth-century novel. Orva's was more direct, more vigorous, more pointed. I think he set me on the right path.

Soon afterwards, though, there came a major discovery, a revelation that took me in an altogether different direction. I was somewhat familiar with the Handel operas, having combed through them in search of arias to excerpt for concert performances. They offered lavish riches. The greatest of the arias were accompanied by string quartet, but many of them could be performed with solo violin and basso continuo, or solo flute, or solo oboe. All of them were ideally suited for inclusion in a chamber music program for voice and various instrumental combinations. The Bach cantatas offer a similar treasure, as do the even less familiar cantatas of Telemann.


But to go from this to an entire opera was a bold step indeed. Yet the Handel operas--about forty, all told--were precisely what I had been looking for: a treasury of indisputably great music that had been largely neglected. A new crusade! The lightweight, one-act operas that we had done up to this point were fine, but here was meatier stuff on hand.

These are long, rich, large-scale works, yet they can be performed with surprisingly modest resources. The casts are small, from four to seven singers who become the chorus at various points, and invariably at the end, which they did in Handel's day as well. The choruses tend to be brief and serve mainly to conclude each opera on an upbeat positive note. The Handelian orchestra is also modest, consisting basically of four strings and two oboes.

Of course, in an orchestra each string part would be multiplied. But nonetheless a string quartet can handle it quite nicely--with harpsichord providing a continuo. A bassoon is often helpful, and when an occasional obligato aria calls for bassoon, it is essential. Other instruments--flute, trumpet, French horn--are used sparingly if at all.


A minimum use of horns, you say?


Usually none whatever. Quite unlike the later classical style where the horn was constantly used as a sustaining instrument to enrich the texture. Handel used the horn, or a pair of horns, as an obligato instrument, with its own melody line. For example, there's a famous hunting aria in Giulio Cesare with horn and strings.


No vast choruses.


You're probably thinking of the oratorios, where he did use larger choruses. But there is a huge difference between the styles of the operas and the oratorios that came later. The oratorios are far more massive, more choral. I've eyed them longingly, but still from a distance! The operas are essentially intimate, consisting mostly of a succession of solo arias, usually between thirty and thirty-five, and here and there a duet or trio. The arias are usually not dramatic, usually not addressed to anyone, but simply the singer expressing his or her emotion at the moment--hope, jealousy, grief, anger, et cetera. The dramatic action takes place in the recitatives that separate each of the arias.



In short, they lend themselves to performance on our scale. Yet for all of their richness and beauty, these operas are quite different from what one usually expects of an opera nowadays. As I said, they are essentially intimate, essentially solo. The stories are often highly artificial, convoluted, and extremely choppy, due to an inviolable convention: after singing an aria, the singer leaves the stage, presumably to a hearty round of applause. Now whether this rule emanated from the singers or not I don't know, but it was rigidly observed. One pities the poor librettist!

Well, there were a couple of exceptions. A singer was allowed to fall asleep on stage after an aria. The singer could also stay on after an arietta, a miniature aria accompanied just by cello and harpsichord, which did not rise to the grandeur of an exit. But ordinarily if the hero was pleading with the lady to respond to his love, he could not stick around to see whether she did or not. He would leave the stage, whereupon she would express to the audience her reaction, whether of rapture or revulsion. And then she would leave and the story would bounce on to something else. One should stress, though, that though the situations were often artificial, the emotions they aroused were always real and profound.

Very cinematic in a way. Short scenes one after another, each seeming to start from a different point. Well, here we get into the bold and indefensible. I decided to omit the recitatives altogether and substitute narration. For one thing, this made the stories easier to follow. That, in fact, is the narrator's primary task. And for another, it made the operas considerably shorter.

Now at the Old Spaghetti Factory this was a vital matter. Bear in mind that this was a room that presumably held two hundred people, a limit that was often exceeded. And it was essential that every door be tightly closed to block out noise from the kitchen on one side and from the street on the other side. This meant that the temperature of the room, especially on summer nights, would rapidly rise to a stratospheric level. It was seldom that we got through an opera without someone in the audience passing out. It seemed to me that forty-five minutes should be the utmost length of an act. At intermission we could open doors and introduce a fresh supply of air and thus enable the audience to come out alive.

Though I had complete confidence in the power of the music, there was good reason for apprehension. It was no use pretending that this type of production was what Handel had in

mind. Quite the contrary. The operas were usually planned for the most elaborate stage effects and for the most spectacular scenery. Would narration be an adequate substitute? One could but wait and see. The first opera chosen was Admeto.


Why did you choose it?


It was chosen almost blindly, long before I was able to figure out what the story was about. However, I was familiar with several of the arias, which were on a high level musically. In those days I had just begun to study Italian, so making sense of the libretto was a struggle. I should add--I think even somebody far more adept in Italian than I was would have trouble with this libretto. The language is typically arcane, convoluted, much embedded in classical conventions and high- flown metaphors. But that is the very reason for turning it into narration.


Did you have help with these, or was your Italian sufficient?


Let's say it was improving. I usually managed to make out a plot that made sense, but not without a bit of guesswork.


You had mastered French by that time?


It was a few notches ahead of my Italian.


Can you tell the French-learning story here?


Okay. [laughter] Well, after I became interested in translation, after the bug had bitten me, I thought: if I'm going to be a translator, I'd better learn some languages. Clearly Italian would be the language to study, but I was more drawn to French.

As I told you before, what really lit the match was hearing that John Kennedy in the last year of his life was working on French for an hour a day to enable him to converse with DeGaulle. And I thought, if the President of the United States can find an hour each day to study French, so can I. Well, I must say that I spent much more than an hour a day. I soon became hooked.


Did you read novels?


Fairly soon, at first with an English translation close by. This method I suppose would be frowned on by most teachers, but I see it differently. It was like having a teacher at hand to clarify, to explain. At any rate, it enabled me to read a lot

and gradually to become independent. I enjoyed the reading very much, but eventually I felt the time had come to switch reluctantly to Italian. It was like leaving home to move to a new city where you don't know a soul.


Could you speak French by then?


Not then, or ever since. I did go to the Alliance Française here in San Francisco, which was a happy experience. And in '69 I graduated, so to speak, to the Alliance Française in Paris, which was even better. There it was a matter of five days a week, several hours a day. But I never became good at speaking.


Did your Italian come up to the level of your French?


Well, I read a good many Italian novels, too, using the same method. Great novelists that I had barely heard of before. I found it equally enjoyable. The Italian used in opera, however, is almost a language of its own. Not as remote and convoluted as Baroque Italian, but still, even in Verdi, the language is a far cry from the speech that is spoken or written today.

A friend of mine went to Germany equipped with German derived from nineteenth-century opera, to the vast amusement of the people that he spoke to. My own Italian would have been best suited to a graveyard at midnight, a besieged castle, or a palatial ballroom. Not so good for getting around Rome.

At any rate, I learned enough Italian to stumble through a Handel libretto, but the jungle was thick with underbrush and it was often difficult to see where the path was heading. I'd like to go through Admeto with you as an example. I have notes here of more or less the way I presented it way back then in the summer of '72.

First of all, I wanted to prepare the audience for the fact that Admeto is told in extremely artificial terms. Frankly, it was not the happiest choice for a beginning venture, because Admeto is rather more artificial than most of the operas.

But the story underneath the artifice is basically simple. Rather, it consists of four basically simple stories. It's the story of Admeto, the king, who is torn between his love for two women: for Alceste, his noble and beautiful wife, who makes the supreme sacrifice for her husband and then is human enough to wonder if he appreciates it sufficiently, and then rises to even greater heights by mastering her own jealousy; and for the

third character, Antigona, who loves Admeto unwaveringly but is uncertain of his feelings towards her; and finally it is the story of Trasimede, the king's brother, who loves Antigona, knowing full well that his love is unrequited.

Well, these are four perfectly recognizable situations, four aspects of love. Love and jealousy, of course, have been the fuel of drama throughout the ages, both in and out of the theatre. And this is the point I wanted to emphasize: Handel's music is faithful to the universal emotion, letting it speak profoundly and truly. But the Baroque age was one in which people did not go to the theatre to pay for what they could get at home for free. They wanted it dressed up with art, invention, fancy, extravaganza, and in this opera they got it to such a degree that it is tempting to soft-pedal some aspects of the story.

The opera opens with a truly serious scene in which there's no artifice whatsoever. Admeto, the king, is on his deathbed, but he's surrounded--well, I take it back; it does get a bit Baroque. He's surrounded by fierce specters that dance menacingly around him, flourishing daggers that drip with blood. Admeto, tormented, frightened, pleads with the shadows to leave him and says, "Since I must die, let me at least die in peace."

The king inquires about his brother Trasimede and is told that his brother--now here we get into the bizarre--his brother is acting very odd, that he spends all of his time staring at the portrait of an unknown woman that he holds in his hand and allows no one else to see.

After this seemingly inconsequential bit of information, the god Hercules, a current houseguest, comes to bid farewell to Admeto. Hercules is impatient to go off to fame and glory, little knowing that by staying right where he is, he is about to bring off his most spectacular accomplishment. His aria expresses his impatience to be off and his hunger for glory.

A message is received from the oracle, saying that Admeto can be restored to health, but only if someone near and dear to him will volunteer to take his place by going to death in his stead. Alceste, his wife, resolves to be that person. While Admeto sleeps, she bids him a loving farewell and expresses her hope that they will meet again among the blessed souls in Elysium. Again, a sublime expression of deep feeling.

The scene changes to a forest. Antigona, a Trojan princess --no relationship to Sophocles--enters disguised as a

shepherdess. Back to Baroque. The reasons for her disguise are obscure, but it seems that she's arrived upon these shores at Admeto's invitation in the expectation of becoming his bride. We are on murky ground. Admeto, who is happily married, has invited Antigona to come and marry him and this is never explained, never touched on.

Antigona is perplexed on finding that he already has a wife. Her outrage at his infidelity--at his infidelity to her, not his infidelity to his wife--is not lessened by the fact that they have never met. After all, she has sent him her portrait. The conventional meaning is clear: "Reject my portrait, reject me."

Now, if you'll think back a moment, you'll recall something about a portrait of an unknown woman in the hands of the king's brother. Underhanded doings are dimly implied. But for the moment, Antigona is simply a bewildered stranger helplessly cast upon a foreign shore. But there is hope that after traveling through troubled waters, the vessel of her destiny will finally reach a safe haven. As you may suppose, this is the gist of her aria.

Back in the palace, Alceste bids farewell to her family and, bidding them not to weep, draws tears from every eye. At the end of an aria of sublime simplicity, Alceste expires. Admeto springs to his feet, miraculously recovered, and his aria expresses joy at his new-found vigor.

Back in the forest, after Admeto's obligatory exit, a young man enters followed by a band of hunters. We infer that he is Trasimede, the king's brother, from the fact that he is carrying a picture on which his eyes are riveted. Looking up from the picture for a moment, he sees Antigona and is struck by a curious resemblance. She fervently denies any connection, insisting that she is the lowly shepherdess Roselia. He declares that were she carrying a bow, he would swear she was the goddess Diana. So the aria is about the goddess Diana. [laughter]

Trasimede takes off, as convention demanded, and Antigona, alone, compares herself not to the goddess Diana, but rather to the homeless swooping hawk that flies from shore to shore seeking its prey, thus ending the first act with a graphic metaphor.

The second act opens in the jaws of hell--quite literally, as the inferno is depicted as the gaping mouth of a giant monster. In the depths of the mouth we see the throne of

Pluto. Alceste is chained to a rock nearby. Not exactly the Elysian fields that she was hoping for. She is being tormented by two furies, while the sound of a horrid symphony pervades the region--the book's characterization, not mine.

Hercules appears at the entrance, descends into the mouth, fights off the furies that are torturing Alceste, smashes her chains, releases her, and carries her out of the underworld. The mouth of the monster closes. Now all of this happens during the course of a short piece for orchestra.

Released from the underworld, Alceste's first thought is of Admeto and how happy he will be to see her again, so she has an aria expressing her joy. Now you will notice that every aria is followed not only by an exit, but usually by a change of scene--something that Pocket Opera does quite well.

So we are now in the palace garden, where Antigona has been hired as a gardeness. Trasimede, the brother, enters, as ever steadfastly gazing at the picture in his hands. He notices the new gardeness, looks back at the picture, then again at Antigona. In a burst of impetuosity, he flings the picture to the ground and declares his love to the gardeness, whoever she may be.

After the aria, one would expect him to wait to see how his sudden declaration is received, but instead, he obeys the higher law--he makes an exit. It's just as well, for she answers, "Through mountains, through flames, through valleys, among brutes, among beasts, I shall remain ever faithful to Admeto." Bear in mind, they still have not met.

Trasimede's fascination with the picture has aroused curiosity, so when one of the king's spies sees it on the ground where Trasimede has thrown it he takes it to the king. One glance and Admeto is galvanized like his brother. Upon being told that this is the princess Antigona, recently killed in the Trojan war, he realizes that his brother has tricked him. Not only has he kept the portrait for himself, but he's compounded the misdeed by sending Admeto a picture of a different woman, claiming her to be Antigona.

Even though this revelation is unconsummated by an aria, the scene changes, to a highway where Alceste is making her way back to the palace disguised as a soldier. She has by now gotten over some of her initial exuberance at being restored from the underworld and has begun to wonder whether Admeto will be so eager to see her after all.


She decides to test him by sending Hercules in advance to inform Admeto that his mission has been a failure and that he has had to return from the inferno empty-handed. He can then judge from Admeto's reaction the kind of reception she is likely to get. Hercules gone, she gives vent to her jealousy, which is indeed another hell. Again, a convoluted situation brings forth a passionate aria expressing a universal and timeless emotion, followed by an exit.

In turn, it is followed by an aria wherein Admeto, alone, broods on the problem of being simultaneously in love with two women, both of whom he believes to be dead, one of whom he has never met. [laughter] Again, a sublime aria--I keep using the word because I can't think of an adequate substitute--treats a bizarre situation like the most universal thing in the world.

Trasimede realizes that he has acted rashly in throwing Antigona's picture to the ground, and sends a page to retrieve it. The page returns with a picture, but through some unexplained error, it is not the picture of Antigona but of Admeto. Trasimede looks at it in disgust and laments in a lovely aria that for one born to misfortune even a painted happiness is denied.

He sends the page off with the picture of Admeto, which the page carelessly drops by the wayside at the very moment, as luck would have it, when Antigona happens by.

She finds the picture and raises it to her lips just in time to be seen by Alceste who has arrived almost simultaneously, still in warlike garb. Alceste indignantly demands to know the identity of this unknown woman who is passionately kissing the picture of her husband. Antigona replies that she is a plaything of fate whose destiny flickers like a trembling star--an irresistible metaphor for a coloratura aria, which of course follows.

Alceste tries to reassure herself. After all, the sight of an unknown woman raising her husband's picture to her lips is not conclusive proof that her husband has been unfaithful. The picture might well have been stolen, but whatever the case, the second act must be concluded, which she does in a state of eager expectancy to find out the truth, and a glorious affirmation that whatever the truth may be, her own love will not alter.

And so it continues. I simply wanted to give you a taste of its strange blend of the ridiculous and the sublime.


I'd hoped for that.


Looking back, I think that Admeto was an unfortunate choice to begin the series, because many people surely thought I was making fun of Handel's operas. As Anna Russell protested, "I'm not making this up!" In fact, I was compared to both Anna Russell and Victor Borge--comparisons that I hope and trust are misleading.


It wasn't your intent.


Well, I can't claim to be entirely innocent. I do believe that a frank, good-natured approach to the absurdities of the plot does no damage to the grandeur of the music, which ultimately prevails. To pretend that elements of this particular plot are not absurd is to disregard the elephant in the living room.

Reviews were mostly unfavorable. They praised both the narration and the performance, but dismissed the opera itself as a curio. If one paid attention only to the story, I'm sure that would be a legitimate conclusion, but clearly I had failed in my intention.

I must admit that I was shocked and dismayed a few weeks later when we presented Teseo, our second Handel opera, to an audience less than half the size of what it had been for Admeto.


Why so small?


Wouldn't we all like to know? The audience had seemed to respond enthusiastically and positively to Admeto, but maybe people were offended by my supposed irreverence. On the other hand, it might have been the weather.


Didn't they think it was funny?


They certainly laughed appropriately at the narration, and seemed to do so in a friendly spirit. But humor is often mistaken for derision; it's often taken as a put-down. Not at all the impression that I wanted to convey.

The Admeto experience convinced me of the importance of a good libretto. Now a prevalent opinion would seem to have it that there is no such thing. All opera libretti are bad. Personally, I tend to be impressed by how good the good ones are. And in the case of Handel, there is an abundance of good libretti to choose from. Of course, one reason why one has the

luxury of concentrating on the quality of the libretto is that the quality of the music is so consistently high.


What makes a good libretto?


Handel's libretti are quite unlike those of the later, better- known period when the form underwent several huge sea changes. What do I like in Handel's stories? A quality of buoyancy, big, bold colors, larger than life personalities painted by a broad brush, driven by outsized emotions--love, lust, ambition, jealousy, hatred, et cetera. They are almost always about people in high places, people in power, people who can afford to live out their passions, people who have no need to be careful or cautious. People that can shake the foundations of the world around them.

I like libretti that are bold and frankly theatrical. Boundless cruelty and ruthlessness pitted against total innocence and purity. The storyteller's delight! And I like a libretto that has a strong comic element, as the best ones usually do. Though let me add that there is a world of difference between genuine comedy and comedy unintended, which I'm afraid was the case with Admeto. And--oh yes! Long before Hollywood, here we meet the obligatory happy ending.

These qualities are amply demonstrated in Teseo, which is at least as fantastical, as extravagant, as far removed from ordinary reality as Admeto, but it is driven by gigantic passions, rather than lifeless artifices such as the interchange of pictures.

Its central character is not Teseo, the young hero, but Medea, the famed sorceress, now in middle age, ten years after the terrible day that made her famous, the day in which she murdered her two small children, set fire to the fiancée of her unfaithful lover, and poisoned the girl's aged father. All in an effort to get even! Has time mellowed Medea? We are soon to find out. The signs are ominous. She broods, she pines, she languishes, she burns--she is in love again!


Medea's unreciprocated passion for handsome Teseo drives her to ever greater extremes of cruelty and deception. Bear in mind that she has an infinite arsenal of magical resources to call upon. But she is ultimately defeated and exposed. She concludes the opera by riding off into the night in a flaming carriage drawn by winged dragons, hurling curses at the awestruck spectators left behind.

Medea has much in common with Alcina, heroine of a later opera. Like Medea, Alcina is invested with extraordinary magic powers which she uses unscrupulously. Supernaturally beautiful as well as powerful, she takes delight in turning lovers into wild beasts, stones, even waves of the sea after she grows tired of them. And she is extremely fickle. But her fate is far more poignant than Medea's. For she falls in love genuinely, and thus finds herself bereft of her magic powers.

When her love is unrequited and she is rendered helpless, weak, like ordinary mortals, her only wish is to be turned into a sea wave herself, as she has nothing left but tears. Typically, this final aria, one of the most moving of them all, is a dance rhythm, in 12/8 time, a Sicilienne. Baroque never ceases to be buoyant.

The theme of obsessive, passionate and unrequited love is pursued again in Orlando, which came next. Orlando, the warrior hero, vanquisher of monsters, ferocious in battle, bred on the flesh and marrow of lions, is himself vanquished by the delicate Princess Angelica and goes mad when she spurns his love.

This all-too-recognizable story is told on a vast scale. The great gold curtain rises to reveal a mountain on top of which Atlas stands, bearing on his shoulders the universe, which revolves slowly. At the foot of the mountain, Zoroastro, the philosopher-magician, is seated on a stone, singing to the stars while contemplating their mystery. The stage is thus set.

Orlando's heart is in turmoil. We can see why when we meet the Princess Angelica, for of all women of all time, Angelica is beyond question the most beautiful, and unfortunately in love with someone else--with Medoro, whose eyes are like the velvet of night, his hair like the halo of an angel.

Orlando's pain and jealousy turn to madness and destruction. He pulls down a building and buries his rival alive. He then pursues Angelica herself and throws her off a cliff, convinced that he has now rid the world of evil.

Zoroastro has observed the awesome spectacle with philosophical detachment. He cannot act until Orlando falls asleep from exhaustion. Whereupon he gestures, and an eagle flies down bearing a golden chalice in its beak. He pours its contents, a celestial balm, over Orlando's face, who now awakens cured, but so overcome by remorse that he is determined to kill himself. Angelica miraculously reappears, stays his

hand and bids him live. And so the opera ends with Orlando off to new battles, off to vanquish new monsters, having overcome the deadliest of them all--his own passion.

I must confess that I ended the narration with a joke. "Gallantly he rides off, cheered on by all, waving a banner that no doubt bears the words 'Make war, not love.'" Oh, yes, I forgot that Medoro and Angelica are both revived in time for the obligatory happy ending.

But I have a strange story to tell about Orlando--make of it what you will. While I was preparing it, I was reminded of a friend whom I'd not seen in more than ten years. His name-- eerily appropriate--was Chance. I thought of him because his story was strangely similar to Orlando's. He was just out of the army; he was a poet, he fell in love with a girl who rejected him. He became violent and destructive; he tried to burn down the house where she was staying.

He was taken to a mental hospital and was given shock treatment and various experimental drugs, from which he emerged a ghost of his former self. The last I'd heard, he was wandering aimlessly in confusion--like Orlando.

We were starting the first rehearsal. Someone stumbled into the room and quietly took a seat in the back, where he stayed throughout the entire three hours. It was Chance, whom I had not seen for so many years and whom I never saw again.


Maybe he knew the story?


Perhaps. But how did he know we were doing it? Or that the rehearsal was scheduled for that afternoon? But there he was, silently watching his own story unfold, like the ghost of Orlando himself.

Our Handel repertoire continued to expand throughout the seventies, and eventually included Xerxes, Giulio Cesare, Rinaldo, Agrippina, Imeneo. Ariodante and Atalanta. Just a few brief notes about some of them.

Even the textbooks concede that Xerxes is a comedy, but for the wrong reason. They point to the tiny role of a comic servant. But the comedy is pervasive. Xerxes, the mighty king of Persia, a tyrant whose slightest whim is law, is foiled time and again in his relentless pursuit of Romilda, who is faithfully in love with his brother. Threats, plots and schemes go awry, but finally Romilda gets to marry the man that she wants through a colossal blunder on the part of Xerxes.

It's one of Handel's liveliest scores, but with plenty of moments of high passion.

Giulio Cesare is perhaps the best known of all of Handel's operas, made so largely by a famous production by the New York City Opera in the sixties--a production that to my mind was a travesty, a desecration. But there is so much in each of these operas that they remain impressive even when mutilated, vandalized and distorted.


Why a desecration?


Two main reasons. For one thing, several key arias were moved around, including the most famous of them all, "Piangero," a song of sorrowful resignation sung by Cleopatra at her lowest ebb, facing defeat and humiliation, near the end of the opera. The New York production moved it up to the beginning, when she first meets Caesar and is trying to win him over by coquettishly appealing to his manly sympathy. A ploy! There were several such rearrangements that trivialized the meaning of the music. I believe that nearly half of the arias were omitted entirely.

The second reason is even more serious. The role of Caesar was sung by a bass-baritone, at a pitch one octave lower than written. Granted, casting male roles in Handel is problematical because they were originally written for castrati. Of course, we no longer have castrati, thank goodness.

But castrati were not all that abundant in Handel's day either. It was hardly a tradition handed down from generation to generation. And on the frequent nights that castrati were unavailable, it was his practice to substitute the rich, ample voice of a mezzo-soprano. He would never transpose the vocal line down an octave, which plays havoc with the texture and turns coloratura into a muddy rumble.

Some companies use countertenors for such roles. They at least have the advantage of looking the part. But the countertenor voice as I understand it is quite unlike the castrato voice. I would compare a countertenor to a recorder, whereas the castrato would be a trumpet. They were famous for their power, for their extraordinary virtuosity, and their vast dynamic range.


So the mezzo would really be much closer?


Especially when you have truly wonderful mezzi like Stephanie Friedman. Who could ask for greater virtuosity, or a richer, more expressive tone? Not to mention the profound musicality.


I was thinking of Stephanie, yes. Wonderful!


But Stephanie was not alone. Vicky Van Dewark, Wendy Hillhouse, Andrea Baker, Miriam Abramowitsch, and more recently Margaret Lisi, Elspeth Franks and Lisa Van der Ploeg--all of them were remarkable. And so much is demanded of a Baroque singer! Aside from the incredible technical demands, they have to be so creative. After all, they are expected not only to sing the notes but to extemporize and elaborate on the written text as well.


What were some of the other operas that you performed?


For me, perhaps the most touching of them all is Imeneo. The story is slender, for once easy to summarize: the heroine must choose between the man that she loves and the man to whom she owes an enormous debt of gratitude. A more down-to-earth conflict than usual. She agonizes, she vacillates, she even goes mad, though it's not quite clear how much is real, how much pretended. But in the end she yields to duty, to her father's wishes, to the weight of public opinion. She follows her conscience rather than her heart, and so the lightest of Handel's operas winds up being the saddest, the only one I know that ends with a chorus sung in sorrow.


Hardly a comedy?


No, though it certainly has comic touches, and there are times where you feel it can go one way or another. But we are approaching two of my favorite comedies, two that could hardly be more contrasting.

Agrippina is set in the Imperial Palace of Ancient Rome, and is all about skullduggery in high places. The question: who is to become the next emperor? Pity the poor contestant pitted against Agrippina, the present empress and an ambitious mother who sees a golden opportunity for her docile son, young Nero. Nor is she above murder to achieve her goal.

The contest, however, winds up less melodramatically as a seduction scene in Poppea's bedroom where three men are present --two of them hastily secreted behind screens. The cast also includes the present emperor, Agrippina's henpecked husband, who has to remind himself that he is after all ruler of the entire civilized world.


This opera, incidentally, was Handel's first to be performed in London, where it was so fabulously successful that he remained in London for the rest of his life.

Arcadia, the scene of Atalanta, is about as far away from imperial Rome as you can get. A land where the woods are greener, the skies bluer, the waters more transparent than anywhere else in the known universe. A place where springtime is eternal and there is inexhaustible leisure for love, and where a shepherd is more than apt to be a king in disguise. The rustic life, or at any rate the sort of rusticity so admired by Marie Antoinette. The opera was specially commissioned to celebrate a royal wedding, so of course it had to contain nothing that would dampen or disturb the festive mood.


What a variety of subject matter!


That's only the beginning. After all, he wrote about forty operas. We've done fifteen of them.


What was involved in doing the orchestral reductions?


What we played was not a reduction. I went straight to the Handel Gesellshaft edition, xeroxing the score, then cutting and pasting parts. It's a lot of labor, but much the biggest labor was that of shaping the narrations--paring and pruning, working for clarity and succinctness.


How did you deal with the libretti? Did you read them many times?


Exposure and repetition, those are the passwords. The stylized language is not easy to grasp, and the stories often need to be simplified for the sake of coherence. They tend to go all over the place and at times become a virtual labyrinth.


Why do you think people are drawn to Handel? Does it relate to a need for form and order?


Handel's operas can be wild! I think people are drawn to their manifest beauty and greatness. My own desire was simply to make them live by performing them as best I could with the means at my disposal. What good is a buried treasure if it remains buried?

I am sure that some staunch Handelians object to the way I did them, to the way I continue to do them, and I don't claim to have reached the ideal. But I think one should be wary of

approaching such a vital art with a Bible Belt mentality. That is to say, becoming attached to the letter at the expense of the spirit. Authenticity is an admirable goal, but I'm skeptical as to how close we can get to it. Laurence Olivier described his film of Hamlet as a "take" on Hamlet. So be it. Hamlet survives.


So Handel will survive?


I suspect that he will long outlive Pippin. [laughter]

But we were coming to the end of the seventies; it was time for me to be moving on. My new interest in translation and especially in doing full-length operas in English had begun to take first place.


Do you want to save that for our next session?


It's certainly another chapter.

[Interview 5: February 5, 1997] ##

I thought the casting for Abduction from the Seraglio last Sunday was ideal.


Wasn't our Constanza wonderful? Elin Carlson is a real find. She lives in Los Angeles, but auditioned for me here at my house a year ago. The audition came late, though, and the roles she was suited for had already been cast. I asked her to come back in the fall when we hold general auditions in a larger space, and where with someone else at the piano I can sit back and listen better, along with several other carefully selected judges, most of whom also sing for Pocket Opera.


So your own singers are judging the new singers?


Yes, and let me add that singers are the most maligned people in the world. Far from being spiteful, petty and capricious, most of them are generous, considerate and dedicated to the art. And all of them go into raptures at the sound of a glorious voice, even when the glorious voice comes from the throat of another.

When Elin sang, the judges were bowled over. I asked her on the spot to do the role--an excruciatingly difficult one, incidentally--if she was free and if she was willing to make the many necessary drives up from L.A. for the meager amount of money that we were able to pay. She replied that she did have

another commitment about that time, with Columbia, as a matter of fact, but might be able to rearrange some dates.

She called me up the very next day and said that if we were serious about asking her, she would be happy to accept. I could hardly believe our good luck. And something else even more surprising: Sunday afternoon was her first performance in a soprano role.


Is that right? I saw that she'd been in Germany quite a bit, but I didn't notice the roles she's been doing.


Cats. [laughter] Until recently, she was a mezzo, which is more surprising yet, because the role of Constanza is painfully high, even for most sopranos.


Has her voice brightened?


She said that she had recently discovered the high notes. Where does one go looking, I wonder? With any luck at all, she should have an international career. We talked about this briefly on Sunday. I said, "I'm afraid we're not going to keep you for very long." She replied, "I'll always have time to return to work with people I like to work with." We'll see!


She sounds very sensible.


She also said that she's had the time of her life these past three weeks. However, one can say things like this in all sincerity, but life takes its own course. Faced with the choice of Pocket Opera or the Vienna State Opera, I'm not 100 percent sure that Pocket Opera would prevail. [laughter]


When we talk more about translation, I'd like to go into that particular translation. There were some lines that you appeared to be lip-synching. Were you overhauling the libretto in your mind?


I'm afraid I do this unconsciously. I don't intend to, and I'm not aware of doing it.


Well, shall we move on from Handel to Verdi, and go through the repertoire more fully? I think your first translation was King for a Day.


The first full-length. I had begun to do Handel in the early seventies, which was the same time that I was concentrating on both French and Italian. Though my main object in both languages was simply to read and understand the written

language, one is bound to be drawn to the sheer sound, especially when the language is linked with music.

So in order to hear the spoken language I listened to a lot of lively recordings of plays by Molière, Racine, Beaumarchais, et cetera, made by the Comedie Française. With Italian, there is no such theatrical tradition on record that I'm aware of, so I turned to opera instead. Almost every night for several months I would listen to an Italian opera with libretto in hand, following the words very closely.

Oh, yes, I bought a shortwave radio, thinking how nice it would be to turn the dial and hear programs from Paris and Rome. What I learned was that contacting such distant places was like exploring for extraterrestrial intelligence. My supreme achievement was reaching Modesto.

Up to that time I was rather ignorant of opera. My interests have always tended to be intense and sharply focused, which is both an asset and a liability. Concentration is necessary and productive, but it means leaving things out. The result is a narrow, limited range of vision, but it seems to be the way I have to work.

As a musician, for a long time I was primarily interested in music for piano solo. Later, it was chamber music. During the Old Spaghetti Factory days, it was anything that could be incorporated into the Sunday Night Concerts--by no means a narrow territory. But for several decades, there was no room for opera--or so I thought.

So, although I attended the opera occasionally and had listened to opera on the radio when I was very young, it had not become a major interest until I started to listen to these recordings in the early seventies. I became acquainted, then enamored with the operas of Verdi, Donizetti, Rossini, Bellini and Puccini--the five great Italian giants. I had translated a few one-act operas. Why not take the plunge and try a full-length?

I thought it best to start with an opera that was little known. An opera that one was not likely to encounter elsewhere. One of the operas that I had listened to and found completely captivating was Verdi's King for a Day.


Did you have a recording of it?


A marvelous recording made for Italian radio with a stellar cast that caught the spirit perfectly.


Who was in it?


The excellent conductor was Alfredo Simonetto and the cast included well-known stars like Renato Capecchi, Sesto Bruscantini and Lina Pagliughi. The result was a total delight.

Oddly enough, when King for a Day was first performed--it was the second opera in Verdi's career, incidentally--it was a fiasco, greeted by boos, hisses, contempt and scathing reviews. So total was the disaster that it almost ended his career. His disgust and discouragement silenced him for a couple of years. The story goes that he was then inveigled, lured into doing Nabucco, which evidently stirred the smoldering ashes.


Why was it so badly received?


God only knows. Perhaps the audience didn't like the prima donna. Maybe the theatre was too hot or too cold. Hostile cliques rife with jealousy seem to have been rampant in the world of opera--cliques that were adept at stirring up a storm. A good many of our most beloved operas have met with a chilly response at their first performance, though I would guess that few have provoked such raging hostility as King for a Day. And as a result, of course, people were scared away from it for over a hundred years. [laughter] Subsequent performances were immediately canceled. Certainly Verdi never witnessed a second performance.

But lo and behold, it's a thoroughly charming, delightful opera, full of bubbling, energetic, Verdiesque melodies from beginning to end, and with comic characters and situations that are really funny. The plot is clear-cut though rather compressed.

Indeed, the need for compression is a frequent problem with opera libretti, which I think are so often unfairly criticized and ridiculed. Usually I marvel at the skillful way they are put together. By now I've translated forty-seven full-length operas, and with only one exception I have emerged from the process in a state of almost reverent admiration.


What was the one exception?


Wagner's Das Liebesverbot, which I called No Love Allowed. Wagner wrote the libretto himself. [laughter]


You have said that part of that respect is based on what they achieved with so little room for explanation.


Yes, a libretto, at least in the good old days, had to be precisely formed with no excess luggage, with almost rigid requirements for the spacing of ensembles, solos, duets, finales, et cetera, each of which must highlight a dramatic point. No explaining allowed! [laughter] After all, who goes to opera to hear explanations being sung? That is the reason why the plots sometimes seem absurd. The librettist is not allowed the five hundred pages with which a novelist can clarify, justify, amplify.

Well, it may be that the plot compression in King for a Day made it a bit hard for that first audience to follow. When we did it, I tried to help out with a short speech that introduced the characters, laid out the basic situation, and got the audience somewhat acclimated to what was going to happen. This is a practice that I've continued over the years, but only when it seemed helpful or necessary--that is to say, most of the time. I've always made a point of sticking close to the purpose--no extraneous history, no digression, no rambling.

Three duets for two bass-baritones mark pivotal points in the action. A crusty, hot-tempered old baron is trying to marry off his niece, Giulietta, to an obsequious, self-satisfied old treasurer who has used his position to obvious advantage.

At the beginning of the opera the baron and the treasurer are the best of friends. One might almost think that they were the couple getting married. They have a deal going that is to the mutual advantage of both: the treasurer will get the family's fine old name and the baron will get the treasurer's fine new wealth.

Everyone in the castle, where it all takes place, is geared up to celebrate the wedding festivities, with two exceptions: Giulietta, the bride, and Edward, the treasurer's nephew with whom she is in love. Oh, it was a sad day for opera when it was decided that a woman could choose for herself! [laughter]

Oddly, the king of Poland is on hand for the festivities. But we are soon let in on the secret: he is not the king, but a debonair army cavalier impersonating the king. This in fact is based on an historical episode, where the real king of Poland, in order to make an escape, crept out of the country incognito, leaving his proxy or double behind. The cavalier is under oath not to reveal his true identity, but things get complicated when his own sweetheart shows up.


Nonetheless, the cavalier delights in his new role, and decides to use his newly acquired prestige to spread a little happiness--kings could do worse. So he takes on the cause of the young lovers. Accurately sizing up the treasurer, he sees that the way to break off the engagement is to offer the treasurer a better deal, which the treasurer willingly and instantly accepts.

Unfortunately, this requires breaking the news to the hotheaded baron that his niece, Giulietta, is no longer in the running. The result, a second duet that runs the gamut from courtly courtesy to hissing and snarling. While the treasurer is vainly trying to placate the baron with flattery, the baron is raging at a velocity that only Italians can achieve.

Their third duet comes in the second and final act when the conflict comes to a boil. The baron has challenged the treasurer to a duel, but the treasurer is to choose the weapon. He comes up with an ingenious choice: two loaded powder kegs. They are to sit on the powder kegs while the fuses are lighted. The first to go off loses the duel. This puts a quick damper on the baron's enthusiasm for a fight. And so forth and so forth. [laughter]


Finding two bass-baritones must have been difficult.


Ordinarily, yes. But we had acquired a remarkable roster of singers over the years, including a pair of baritones that could not have been better matched: Walter Matthes as the blustery baron and Marvin Klebe as the fawning treasurer. We also had a wonderfully expressive prima donna, a born Violetta, in Sylvia Davis, and a spectacularly dynamic mezzo, Suzanne Lake, as the endangered niece.

It's an opera that works especially well in translation, because the characters are clearly and broadly drawn. Their words should sound natural, of course, but they don't have to sound realistic--after all, not many people go around talking in rhymed verse. You can have fun with it.


What about the orchestration?


Well, that was a problem. I had no idea where to get an orchestral score. Later on I found out a good deal more about locating scores, but at this point I had only a piano/vocal score and the recording, from which I could get some hints. I made my own transcription for a small orchestra consisting of trumpet, clarinet, flute, violin and cello, with piano, of

course. In deference to the Old Spaghetti Factory we named it The New Ravioli Philharmonic.

It worked well as a sextet for winds, strings and piano-- not a sumptuous sound, but well-suited for comedy: light, transparent, colorful, with each instrument getting its fair share of solos.

Our first performance, in August of '75, was a great success, followed by spectacular reviews. But high drama came with the second performance. Three days beforehand, the tenor called to say that he had been in a car accident a week or so earlier. He was okay, but still confined to his bed. Singing was out of the question. I thought it would have been nice if he had called me sooner [laughter] but I wasn't about to criticize him under the circumstances.


He probably hoped that he could perform.


You're absolutely right. In cases like this, sickness or accident, singers never let you know till the last minute because they keep hoping for a miracle. But by Thursday, I suppose he had faced the fact that the miracle was not going to occur.

So I got on the phone right away and started calling up tenors. I phoned every tenor that I knew, including some that I really shuddered for fear they might accept. [laughter] But as I continued to phone, I was becoming less and less fussy.

In those days, replacing a singer was much simpler than it is today because the singers all performed using scores. There was no staging other than what the singers improvised, and we performed on such a small stage there was little opportunity for moving around even if they had so wished. I liked it this way! I wanted the performance to focus on words and music, on characterization and interaction, on sheer intensity of presence and conviction--I suppose like a movie that is filmed entirely in closeups.

Well, getting back to replacing the tenor. [laughter] We had scheduled a brush-up rehearsal on Saturday morning for the performance the next night. Still no tenor. I set out for the rehearsal with nothing but blind faith, and precious little of that.

We had already started the rehearsal when someone came in with a message that a tenor was on the phone--someone I'd never even heard. He said, well, yes, he could do the performance.

I said, "Can you make the rehearsal? We're just starting." So he hopped on a bus, arrived half an hour later, and sight read his way through the part. He taped the rehearsal, took the score home with him, and to end the story, he gave quite a creditable performance. I was grateful that he could give any performance at all, but this was far better than I had any right to expect.


He sang from a score?


As did all the others. And he did it very well. But there was more drama to come. The performance was to start at 8:30. I'd anticipated a big crowd, but nothing like the droves of people that lined up at the door. By 7:30, an hour before we were to start, every seat was taken, and standees filled every available square foot. Miraculously, all the singers were there, too, as was the orchestra. Why wait till 8:30? Let's go! [laughter]

As we were about to do so, I was informed of two gentlemen who had showed up at the door--an hour early, mind you--and identified themselves as New York Times. Well, there was not a square inch of space that they could squeeze into. We meekly suggested that they stand just outside the door, but this is hardly the treatment to which the New York Times is accustomed. [laughter] I don't believe they stayed, and that was the last time the New York Times has attempted to come to a Pocket Opera performance.

At any rate, King for a Day, unlike what it did for Verdi, got us off to a rousing start. And at the age of fifty, I was decisively embarked on a new and totally unexpected career. All afire, I was eager to follow it up with Donizetti's Don Pasquale. Now Don Pasquale was an easier choice than King for a Day. It has made its mark. It is an acknowledged masterpiece, though I think it's an even greater masterpiece than is ordinarily acknowledged. Donizetti at his most inspired. Almost his last opera, as you know.


How many?


Over sixty. But among that long list, there are relatively few comic operas, which is unfortunate, because this is where he truly excels. Aside from Don Pasquale, the main two are The Elixir of Love and The Daughter of the Regiment. Much as I like both of these, I think that Don Pasquale outshines them musically. Donizetti appears to have been an expert craftsman from the start. Nonetheless, his art steadily grew and matured until the end of his career at the ripe old age of forty-six,

followed by five gruesome, nightmarish years of paralysis and silence.



An easier choice, as I said, but one that raises the troublesome question, "Why us? What can we give that couldn't be done better elsewhere?"

So we were put to the test. Whether through sheer singing, through musical and dramatic vitality, through a more intimate contact with the audience, and through the added value of a translation geared to clarity, vigor and musicality--whether we could compensate for the things that we could not offer: a full orchestra, the atmospherics provided by an imaginative setting, lively staging. In short, production values.

I must admit that at the first performance we got off to a bad start. For one thing, our Pasquale, Walter Matthes, who had been so splendid as the baron in King for a Day, had a severe case of laryngitis. This was a most unfortunate tendency of his that happened a number of times, just before a performance. This was the worst of all. He could barely make a sound.


Was laryngitis the result of stage fright?


Certainly the result of anxiety. And after it has happened once, you fear that it can happen again. It becomes a nightmare. It's like an inexplicable memory lapse in playing something on the piano that you know perfectly well. Knowing that it can happen at any time, the more you fear it, the more you can be sure that it really will happen. A truly vicious circle.

A performance is like the difference between walking on a narrow path and walking on the same narrow path with a five hudnred-foot drop below you on either side.

But we had another problem as well. The young tenor who had come through so valiantly in King for a Day was asked to do the part of Ernesto, the tenor lead in Don Pasquale. For some reason or other--I have no clue--his attitude this time was quite different: detached, disinterested, disdainful. He hardly bothered to learn his part, though he had far more time, needless to say, than with King for a Day. Evidently a troubled young man. I found out more of this later on.


Extremely handsome, he had been idolized at college only a year before. A singer and actor, he was the star of the campus. This can be fatal! I think that he was just beginning to be hit by the contrast between the protected environment where he was automatically given the leading roles and the cold, cruel world outside. He soon afterwards went to New York, where I presume his difficulties increased. I heard that he was into drugs and not long afterwards died of an overdose, or possibly suicide.

So the first performance of Don Pasquale was not a happy event, with two out of a cast of four distinctly below standard. On the other hand, our Norina, Francesca Howe, was good enough to compensate for almost any other deficiencies. We've had many performances of Don Pasquale since then. It has come to feel like a good friend, someone you can always turn to and feel refreshed. In fact, of all the operas in our repertoire, it's probably the one we have done the most. For one thing, a cast of only four makes it ideal for touring.

I should add that the opera also includes a chorus of servants, but the chorus never becomes an integral part of the action, and it is no great loss to dispense with it altogether. So for touring we use four singers and our renamed Pocket Philharmonic, and that's it.




Runouts, for the most part. We've traveled around California, and we've been to Oregon several times--with La Serva Padrona (two singers, be it noted) we got as far as Colorado and New Hampshire. But touring is complicated and requires vast organization--not one of our strong suits.


But don't you have performances all around the Bay Area?


Yes, we're spreading the net and hoping for a wider domain. Contrary to myth, though, the farther away you get from a metropolitan center, the harder it is to draw an audience to opera, especially for an opera that is little known. This year we are making a renewed effort to expand and hoping for the best.

With Pasquale I should mention one major discovery. I started out making an orchestra reduction with just a piano/vocal score, as I had done with the Verdi. But I then came across a real orchestral score and quickly found out that Donizetti's orchestration was far better than mine. [laughter]


I still reduced it to five instruments--violin, cello, flute, oboe and clarinet--but having the full score to consult brought my arrangement much closer to the original.

I was still copying everything by hand. It was not till later that I discovered--I am a slow discoverer--that one could actually rent or buy orchestral parts for at least the better- known operas. Though it still meant modifying them considerably for our purposes, this changed my life enormously!

A couple of operas later, we expanded the orchestra from five to eight, now four strings and four winds--flute, oboe, clarinet and bassoon. This has remained our standard Pocket Philharmonic, subject to occasional variation--an added trumpet, French horn or percussion when they seemed indispensable. Nineteenth-century opera composers had refined orchestration to a fairly standard procedure that included a good deal of doubling. With just those eight instruments, supported by the piano, one can maintain most of the characteristic colors and have a good, solid, substantial basic sound.

I use the string parts almost intact, aside from sometimes giving a French horn melody to the cello. The flute part switches to piccolo on occasion, or fills in a chord when needed. The bassoon goes back and forth between first and second bassoon, but also takes over a trombone or tuba part, when the bass needs reinforcement. The clarinet part I change a lot. The clarinet is an especially flexible instrument and good for blending. So in addition to its own part, it easily becomes second flute, second oboe, sometimes first bassoon (when the bassoon is otherwise engaged), and occasionally second viola.


How long does it take to work out an orchestration?


Two or three weeks. The time is greatly shortened by having the actual parts to work from. But I go through the score very carefully, measure by measure, trying to achieve a balance and to cover all the bases. Part of the Pocket Opera credo is that by reducing things to skeletonics, to the essentials, despite the obvious losses, there are compensating gains as well. For example, a solo violin can never sound like an entire violin section, but in the hands of a first rate player, the solo line can become even more compelling, more nuanced, more interesting.

I have always felt a greater affinity for chamber music than for a full symphony orchestra, and so I love the

transparency of the small group. I also enjoy my contribution from the piano, which for the most part is like the egg white added to a baking recipe--without a distinctive taste of its own, but binding the rest together, filling out the texture. Or like the harpsichord in a Baroque ensemble. The piano is especially good at enhancing the rhythm, with a lively, delicately percussive beat. The other instruments carry the top and the bottom. The piano tends to play in the middle, along with the second violin and viola. But I take over the double bass as well.


What would that instrumentation be in a full orchestration?


All the instruments that I leave out, notably the brass, which are so often used as a kind of sustaining pedal, besides supporting or strengthening the more soloistic instruments. I make copious notes from the score, but in performance I follow my own instincts. For the most part, my role is that of a discreet, unobtrusive servant. But one who is always there when needed!

After Don Pasquale, still enamored of Donizetti and Italian comic opera in general, and convinced that comedy was our natural metier, I turned to one of Donizetti's early, little- known comedies. In the original, it's called L'Ajo nell' Imbarazzo, which I translated The Tutor in a Tangle.

This came eighteen years before Don Pasquale. Donizetti's career was not that lengthy, but it reflected a steady growth. L'Ajo does not have the individuality and distinction that the riper comedies have, but it's delightful on its own level, with its characteristically Italian qualities of lyricism, brio, and sparkle. And it has a strong story, based on a thoroughly artificial situation, which is fine with me. [laughter]

The given terms should be accepted, like those of a Molière play, based on the fanatical obsession of the leading character, be it a misanthrope, a miser or a religious hypocrite like Tartuffe. The obsession of Don Giulio, the domineering father in L'Ajo nell' Imbarazzo, is his hatred of women.

He has two grown sons, which might indicate that this hatred was acquired somewhere along the line. One might guess that the former Mrs. Giulio, who is never mentioned, planted the seeds of bitterness. The opera gives no clue. At any rate, Don Giulio is so set against the female sex that he is determined that his two precious sons are to be spared the

contamination of any contact whatsoever with the gender. He has dedicated his life to protecting them.

Needless to say, his efforts go for naught. The comedy derives from his predestined failure, from the way his two sons, aided by the sympathetic but harassed tutor, manage to thwart the unreasonable fanatic and eventually win him over. The elder son is already secretly married and in fact has become a father himself, and his wife is not the sort that allows herself to be discreetly swept under the rug. On the contrary, a bold, independent Italian heroine, on the order of The Italian Girl in Algiers, she is determined to take on the old man and have a showdown, as the son cringes in terror.

The tutor of the title role is in the helpless position of the go-between, sympathetic to the young couple, but also terrified of the father, his employer, and above all eager to save his own skin. Guess who saves the day!

I like the libretto, and Donizetti liked it also. In later years he wanted to come back to it, feeling no doubt that he could do a better job. But the job that he did do was nothing to sneeze at.

I have to confess to a major liberty. God forgive me! The second act has no duet for the two young lovers, so, being a romantic at heart, I stole a duet from one of Donizetti's later operas. [laughter] The opera that I stole it from is in fact one of his very last operas, and furthermore a tragedy, named Caterina Cornaro, the mood of which is obviously a far cry from that of L'Ajo. But love is love, whether in comedy or tragedy. And the duet seemed to blend in seamlessly. Even the key was right. The perfect crime! But one that I don't believe I have repeated. In fact, it was just what the act needed.


Love is where you find it.


And why suppress it? Well, in a later performance, Allan Ulrich reviewed the opera in the San Francisco Examiner, for the most part unfavorably. He dismissed it as early, immature Donizetti, which is not an unfair assessment. But he added, "There is a romantic duet in the second act, which gives great promise of the Donizetti to come." [laughter] You know, I always wanted to phone Allan and tell him how perspicacious he had been. I never did tell him, but maybe I shall one of these days. I think he would get a quiet satisfaction in knowing that he had accurately picked out this one example of the riper things to come.


That's a grand story.