You have the distinction of having worked with just about every great singer of the past half-century. How did that happen?
It was an incredibly lucky accident of timing that the array of singers I heard at an impressionable age was particularly incredible—people like Varnay, Hotter, Tebaldi, Tucker, Peerce, Vinay, Steber, Tourel, Merrill, Kirsten. And then Corelli, Gedda, Bergonzi, MacNeil, Leontyne Price, Jerome Hines, Siepi, Barbieri, Peters, Regina Resnik, Leonie Rysanek, Birgit Nilsson, Elisabeth Söderström, and Pilar Lorengar. And all the people I just named are artists I heard as a kid and then worked with in the early years of my career. And then there came Marilyn Horne, Montserrat Caballé, Flicka von Stade, Mirella Freni, Sherrill Milnes, Jimmy Morris, Luciano and Plácido, Beverly Sills, Tatiana Troyanos, Bumbry, Verrett, Gwyneth Jones, Christa Ludwig, Battle, Te Kanawa, Vickers, McCracken, Philip Langridge, van Dam, Ghiaurov, Prey, Vaness, Tom Allen, Jessye Norman, Teresa Stratas, Renata Scotto, Hildegard Behrens, Fleming, Heppner, Mattila, Furlanetto, Salminen, Moll, and Pape. The length of this list astonishes even me, and the list of names there isn’t room to include is even longer. I guess that’s the result of 40 years of collaboration. And currently I’m in productions with Netrebko, Terfel, Voigt, Polenzani, and Stephanie Blythe into infinity.
Is there anyone you didn’t work with?
I can count on the fingers of one hand the great singers with whom I never worked and have a couple of fingers left over. What’s interesting is that I had a constructive relationship with virtually everyone I did work with. Of course, there were a certain number of artists with whom the artistic rapport—and therefore the artistic results—were particularly inspired.
Did you have that kind of connection with Teresa Stratas?
Oh, yes. She is a unique artist in my life, with complete mastery of every aspect of every role she sang. Whether it’s Bohème or Liù or Mélisande or Nedda or Lulu or Jenny or Mařenka, she’s in a class by herself. She’s extremely brilliant musically, and inspired about stagecraft. Some artists have a kind of vocal-dramatic totality, and Stratas, Rysanek, Scotto, and Behrens are of that type, whereas others have a technical and expressive vocal gift that produced a different kind of experience (Caballé, Tebaldi, Nilsson). This is convenient for conversation, but all great singers are unique.
Why were you able to establish such strong relationships with so many singers?
Great singing always moved and excited me. I found the human voice singing these great pieces so artistically intense that I always wanted to bring singers’ qualities to the foreground. And many singers have said to me that they feel my great love and respect for what they do. I don’t find any pleasure in imposing my will and getting back an unconvincing result. My work has to do with getting artists to feel empowered to do what they do within the conception of the piece. Great singers have great ideas and great artistic perception.
What about some of the directors you’ve worked with over the years?
Again, a very extraordinary group, of which I think Jean-Pierre Ponnelle, John Dexter, Franco Zeffirelli, and Otto Schenk, as well as the designers Jocelyn Herbert, David Hockney, Jürgen Rose, Josef Svoboda, and Günther Schneider- Siemssen were the most extraordinary. From them we got a tremendous array of high-quality work in many different styles, a number of which achieved classic status.
Tell me about collaborating with Ponnelle.
Ponnelle was one of the greatest artists I had the good fortune to work with. He did a kind of work that developed in a way that hasn’t been seen before or since—a unique feeling for stylistic details, both dramatic and musical. And with Schenk and Zeffirelli there were many remarkable experiences. The other director with whom I had a very close relationship was John Dexter. He was a very brilliant man, though difficult to work with. His actors always said the same thing: terrific result, but very difficult process. But I had a wonderful relationship with him. We talked about everything. We used to free-associate about things we’d like to do that would be glorious but were not in the cards for the Met. We wanted to do an occasional Offenbach piece, but there was never time in the schedule to do all the necessary operatic repertoire. But it was fun to plan pieces like Pirates of Penzance—and to eventually present Mahagonny.
There are so many collaborators in opera—we’ll have to save your work with the orchestra for another interview!
Yes, but let me mention here people like Joe Clark, who was the brilliant technical director for almost the whole time I’ve been here. He did his work with a degree of technical skill and artistic sensitivity that is unique in this world. Then there are the chorus masters—David Stivender, Norbert Balatsch, Raymond Hughes, and now Donald Palumbo. In 40 years, I have interacted with so many stage staff, music staff, orchestral instrumentalists, comprimario singers, leading singers, directors, and indispensable artistic administrators. And it is just astonishing how all these artists have contributed at such a high standard over a lifetime of commitment. —Matt Dobkin
This interview was first published online and in the Met’s Playbill in December 2010.