Tristan is two Otellos in one evening !
James King in conversation with Bruce Duffie
What is your heritage?
Irish and German. My mother was German and my father Irish. It’s a good combination, I think. My father was really the poet of the two, and my mother was the strict disciplinarian, orderly. Both were effective in my upbringing. My father was very conscientious about doing the right things, being well-mannered and living properly and right, although he had great problems himself in his own personal life. But he was a wonderful person. I don’t think I’ve ever met a nicer person in this world than my father was.
Little by little, you were moving heavier and heavier?
Mm-hm. I didn’t sing any Wagner until I was thirty-eight years old. The following year, in ‘63, I sang my first Lohengrin, and then at age 40 I sang my first Walküre. That was my second Wagner. I was 42 for my first Parsifal and that year, too, I sang my first Flying Dutchman. I was about forty-five years of age when I sang my first Walther von Stolzing. I just sang it again last April and May in Hamburg. It still goes well, too!
Do you attribute the longevity of your voice to this kind of pacing?
Yes, I think that’s it. I never sang Tristan. My coach advised me not to sing it. He said, “Jimmy, you have the voice for it, but I don’t think you probably have the endurance. You’re too much of a go-getter; you give too much when you get out on the stage. I don’t believe that you’ll do Tristan without shortening your career appreciably.” So I never did it, although I wanted to. I accepted it a few times and then cancelled it. But I had these six short roles — Canio, Bacchus, the Kaiser, Florestan, Erich and Max. I was on stage about a half hour at most with these parts, and I sang them over a thousand times. They’re very difficult, but it’s not like being on stage with Tristan. Tristan is probably the most difficult role ever written for a tenor. It’s two Otellos in one evening. It’s really almost harder than Siegfried, even though Siegfried is perhaps a bit longer. But Siegfried is written so well for the voice. Tristan is written also very good for my voice, but you sit on those long-held high notes, especially in the second act. When you’ve sung the second act, you’ve sung more than you have in the whole of Otello.
Was Wagner nuts to write a part like that?
[Laughs] He was accosted by one of his associates at one time, and he said, “You can’t write this, maestro. No singer will be able to endure what you’ve demanded of him.” He replied, “I know, it’s true, but I have to do it.” I just sang the second act in concert in Bloomington in September. It went very well. I never did much more than that of Tristan, although I know the role quite well.
Which role did you sing the most?
Bacchus, close to four hundred and fifty times.
Did you like that character?
Well, it isn’t all that interesting, really. I like it, but I’d much rather do something with a little more meat to it.
Did Strauss write well for the tenor voice? He’s always lambasted about that.
They said he didn’t like tenors, but I see distinctly that he didn’t really understand tenors. That’s my attitude about it, and I think I’m not wrong. He didn’t seem to understand a lot of things about voices. What he asks of the sopranos in Frau ohne Schatten is ridiculous almost, and the Amme in Frau ohne Schatten is, without any doubt, one of the most difficult roles musically that was ever conceived. I don’t think Schoenberg is as hard to sing as the Amme in Frau ohne Schatten, and probably as Herodes is in Salome. Musically, Herodes is the worst thing I’ve ever tackled! I cannot get through it without making a mistake somewhere, and I’ve sung it now close to twenty times.
Let’s turn it around. Are there some recordings that you’re very pleased with?
I think my Lohengrin is pretty good.
[With a gentle nudge] Just pretty good?
I know I sang well, but on recordings I never felt as good about myself as I did when I heard simple takes from live performances. It seems like the commercial industry does something, especially to the heavier voice. You don’t get the natural sound.
So you’re a singer we should really experience in the theater?
Yes. When I sang with Anna Moffo, I know she has a light voice, yet she sounded almost bigger than I did on the recording.
Does that make recording a fraud?
I wouldn’t want to say “fraud” because I love the recordings. I’ve gained immeasurably from them, and they’ve done a great deal for me personally. In the world, I’ve become known through my recordings, but there’s nothing that replaces a live performance! People ought to get out of their houses and go to the opera to hear the real thing with the real sound without amplification. Amplification presents the voice in a different way than it really is! In that way, it is kind of a fraud. That’s an ugly word, fraud, but I have to say that you don’t hear the natural voice if you hear it over an electronic system. You have to get into the opera house or the concert theater, and hear that voice purely naked on the stage as it really is. Then you know what it is.
You mentioned that you were perhaps too conservative. Are there some roles that you wish you had sung?
Yes. I wish I had done Tannhäuser, and I wish I had done Forza del Destino and Andrea Chénier. I would like to have studied Russian, but I never got into it, and I would like to have done Pique Dame. I think that would have been a great part for me. Those four parts I’m sorry I didn’t get to do.
You’re known for several Wagner parts. From your point of view, did he write well for the voice?
It’s wrong to say that Wagner will hurt the voice. If you have the voice for Wagner, the German tenors and sopranos seem to last longer than the Italians do! The Verdi tessitura is a killer today, with the high pitch that we have. We have four hundred and forty-five A in Vienna now.
That high??? Wow.
Yes. They’re talking now about trying to get it back down. In Schubert’s time I believe it was four twenty-eight, and in Bach’s time I don’t know what it was, but they think it must have been lower still.
They’ll never get the fiddle players and the wind players to agree to lower the pitch.
That’s why they raised it in Vienna, because it made the strings sound so much better, more brilliant.
Tell me a little about Walther. What kind of a fellow is he?
Walther is really not such an interesting role to play. He stands mostly and listens to people all evening. Although you have an enormous amount of singing to do, usually you stand in one spot and just sing. Only in the second act, where he comes in raving to Eva about what they’ve done to him — when she’s standing out in front of Sach’s house — does he really let go and express himself violently against these rules and regulations of these masters in the singing school they have there. The rest of the time he’s standing and singing so much. Of course, they do sit on a bench and reply and comment on what’s going on around them with Beckmesser and Sachs, when Beckmesser comes in to serenade Eva. Meistersinger is so incredibly designed and developed! The part of Hans Sachs is one of the great parts in all drama, I would say.
Was Wagner writing himself in Hans Sachs?
Didn’t he say that Cosima is Hans Sachs and Walther is Wagner? Wagner was the reformer, the one that was changing things, and Cosima was the one who was steadying him, keeping him on the right track, keeping him on the ball and not letting him get too wild or too radical. I get terribly touched when I see the death mask of Wagner. Have you ever seen that?
I’ve seen a photo of it.
I’ve just seen photographs, too, but when I look at it, he looks like a person who had thought that everything he’d done had been in vain, and that nothing had ever really made any sense at all. The look on his face is a man of total concern and disillusionment with life and the world. He had such instincts for what was good, though he must have been a real rascal, from all that we know about him. He couldn’t keep his mouth shut. Everything he ever thought he either wrote down or said, and he had such bad inclinations and instincts sometimes. But I think there must have been a great, great understanding of the good, too. I really feel this way. I was told that once he went out on a street in Bayreuth and sat down, and cried. He called out to God and said, “Oh, God. What is it all about? What are we doing here? What does it all mean?” He said he couldn’t make head or tail out of the whole situation of life and living. I’ve been often to his house in Wahnfried and Bayreuth. I even visited Winifred, the wife of his son, Siegfried. She was very nice to me and took me in a lot, but she was kind of a weird one, too. She herself had entertained Hitler. I didn’t accost her about the matter, but I was in a conversation once with a conductor who asked her what he was like, and she said, “Oh, he was so nice! He was so good to the children and he loved to poke around in the fire.” I thought, “Boy, oh boy!” I wanted to say, “If my own children had done that kind of evil, I would have said, ‘I’m sorry, you’ll have to turn yourself over to the authorities and receive your proper punishment, because it’s what you deserve... although I will still love you.’” It’s a very delicate thing, that whole situation with her. I could never understand it. But I had such great times in Bayreuth! I feel that Bayreuth has slipped, though, and I don’t understand why it has to be that way. They’ve got some singers there that I know are inferior. They could do better, and I don’t know why they don’t. I won’t mention any names but I’m very upset about what I see there.
Are you upset, or just disappointed?
Disappointed and upset, and so is everybody else that knows anything about singing. Of course, I don’t think there are many people today that really know much about singing.
So the art is dying out?
It certainly has to a degree, I believe. For example, in my field I know that there’s not one tenor today who has a heavy tenor voice, who sings the repertoire, who’s between the ages of forty and fifty, let’s say, which I call a young singer. Not a twenty-five year-old — a twenty-five year-old is a fetus — but between forty and fifty is a good young age for a tenor, and there’s not one heavy-voiced tenor that can sing the repertoire that Jon Vickers and I sang at that age, who is really right for it.
Is it just a lack of raw, natural talent, or lack of developing a talent that’s there?
I think the lack of developing the talent that’s there. I’m sure the voices are around. In Melchior’s day there must have been twenty or twenty-five German tenors who could sing Tristan in Germany. In Munich there were three in that house that could sing Tristan!
Speaking of which, you studied with Max Lorenz. Tell me about him.
Oh, he was wonderful, although Martial Singher was the teacher who helped me make the change to tenor. But Max Lorenz I met in 1964, when I was doing my first Walküre in Bayreuth. I went to him to get training and coaching in the role, and we really hit it off. He was wonderful, and I’ve never seen a person act roles any more powerfully than he did. He would demonstrate things to us and to me, and he was incredible, although he didn’t seem to have a voice that was as quite as big as mine, but I don’t have the biggest tenor voice either. I must say, I don’t consider myself a heavy dramatic; I am what the Germans call a more of a lyric dramatic. But Max’s voice was somewhat lighter than mine. It was not a Melchior sound, but he was the poet of heldentenors. They say, too, that his Otello is perhaps the greatest Otello in the twentieth century, although it was a German Otello. He sang it mostly in German. They said it was marvelous the way he handled the Otello, that no tenor ever did a better job because he was like a poet himself. He was brilliant in this way; he was a real born theater man.
Tell me a little bit about Siegmund. What kind of a guy is he?
It’s a great part; it’s a marvelous part! I love it. He’s one of the most beautiful and vital characters in all of Wagner. He’s been put on this earth to be trained in order to get the gold back from one of the giants. He says in the beginning, “Everywhere I go, I meet nothing but adversity. If I want to do good for people, they do evil to me; if I want to do evil to people, they do good to me. Everything I do has no proper reception. I don’t know what to think. I don’t know what to do. My life is a total turbulence; it’s nothing but trouble.” But he is becoming the strong, individual hero which will eventually have the power to do this act for Wotan. Then everything is upset when Fricka comes in and says, “You can’t allow incest between brother and sister.”
Is it a grateful role to sing?
Oh, it’s wonderful! There’s nothing any other composer ever wrote that tops it, I don’t think. It could be a little higher. It lies almost in a baritone range; that’s why some tenors really shouldn’t touch it. These tenors with lyric voices should not sing Sigmund because if they do it enough, it can eventually destroy the high voice. Jon Vickers and I had the natural voices for Siegmund; we had the natural low voice. The dramatic voice comes down big, as well as being strong at the top. I remember Richard Tucker — what a marvelous singer! His top was fantastic, but the lower octave was rather dry; it wasn’t so ringing and opulent. But the dramatic voice comes down strong in every area. That’s one of the natures of it. If you hear a woman who can sing up to high C like nothing, and she comes down to low B-flat with a big, strong sound, that’s probably a dramatic soprano.
So that’s what you’re looking for, rather than just pure strength?
Yes. If the voice gives out on the bottom, then you know that it’s not a dramatic soprano. Even Sieglinde has a lot of low stuff to sing. It’s a role that not every soprano should tackle. It’s got to be a real spinto, or a youthful dramatic who has that natural low voice; otherwise she might do herself harm. Pushing too much in the lower and middle voice is not good for the high voice. The Italians of the old school would say, “Forget about the low voice. Just let it happen, but don’t push it.” Never push the low voice; then you don’t thicken the vocal cords and make it difficult for them to stretch thin to get the high tones.