Interview with the Baritone Barry McDaniel
By Aryeh Oron (April-June 2002)
Part 1 - Beginnings, early stages
Part 2 - Bach
Part 3 - Musical career
Part 4 - Various matters
Feedback to the Interview
In the last couple of months I was given the honour and the opportunity to make an interview with the baritone Barry McDaniel. Barry is an American-born, who spent most of his musical career in Germany, being a member of several important opera companies. His longest and last engagement was with the Deutsche Oper in Berlin (1962-1999). During the 1960s and 1970s he sang and also recorded a lot of Bach, specialising in the role of Christ in the Matthäus-Passion.
I have never met Barry personally and the interview actually took place by exchanging e-mails. I found him a very warm and sincere person, with sense of humour, who knows how to tell a story. For me the interview was a fascinating experience through which I was able to learn many behind the screen revelations. I have also learnt to understand more deeply the view of a performer on the subjects that are being discussed in the various Classical music mailing lists of which I am a member. Naturally, a major part of the interview was dedicated to Bach: how did Barry approach his parts, his acquaintance with renowned Bach singers and conductors, his view of HIP, etc. Due to its length the interview is divided into four parts [see in the Contents above]:
I hope you will find the interview as fascinating as it was for me.
Aryeh Oron (July 6, 2002)
Part 1 - Beginnings, early stages
Tell me about your childhood, and your musical background. Do you come from a musical family? When did you decide to become a musicician? How did you found out about your gift for singing? Who were your first influences?
I can remember no moment in my life when I didnīt sing. The first program, which I still have, is from May 1935, the graduation ceremony from Grade School in Lyndon Kansas. I sang "On the Good Ship Lollipop" and was 4. My mother accompanied me.
She had been a piano major at Baker University in Baldwin Kansas. She then taught music until she married Dad. He loved to sing and had a kind of funny, tinny tenor and was in Vaudeville before my birth. This was not full-time, since he worked in his fatherīs hardware store in Michigan Valley, Kansas, a town of 90, where he was born and raised.
He and his friend did a 2-part sketch, in which they called themselves "Hug and Mug, the Comedy Twins." Maag, Dadīs friend, was almost a foot taller than Dad. They did one part with red wigs and yellow checkered suits, then a "black-face" act. This was very popular at the time, (see Amos and Andy) although it makes me shiver today. They told jokes and sang songs, accompanying themselves on banjos. They were not "Bigtime", by any stretch of the imagination, but were successful in the region.
Dad had a wonderful charisma, a purer man I have never known. I donīt think he ever read a book but he had something that people couldnīt resist. He was a hardworking, generous and kind man. I know nobody, who didnīt like, not to say love, him. He was unbending in his morals and in his church work. He conducted the church choir for around 40 years with Mom at the piano.
His sister, my aunt Wilma, told me not long before her death, that Musik in that region meant The McDaniels. Two sisters sang and played the piano and Dadīs brother sang, too, almost up to his death at 100! In the early 20s they would sing and play at all the funerals. My aunt said that they always asked her because she could sing loud and didnīt cry! They would often go to the little churches in the middle of nowhere out in the country with the horse and buggy. She was a character and there are endless stories about her. She died at 94.
Shortly before my birth Dad bought a hardware store in Lyndon - 12 miles away - and he and my mother moved there. I donīt know how he paid for it but Mom saw to it that it was taken care of as quickly as possible. She never interfered in his store but when he needed help she was always there behind him.
She was the strength in the family. She had a lot of strong English blood. She was disciplined and dedicated to everything she did, whether it was her clubs or the church. Nobody - except me - ever crossed her (without achieving much!). She never raised her voice but there was a power in her that could not be denied. She came from a farm not far from Michigan Valley and Lyndon and went to college against the wishes of her father. She earned every cent herself.
I donīt know where she had in intuition that music was to be my life but she did. She had grown up with music. Her father gave her a grand piano when she was 12! - imagine a grand piano in a little Kansas farmhouse around 1910! They had little money and he died with a lot of debts but perhaps there was intuition there, too. Where I come from - and at that time especially - such things are so completely out of sight that it amazes me even today.
I would stand on the piano bench, beside Mom, and sing at church, at school, for her clubs, whereever we were asked. Mom felt, even then, that this was a God-given talent and thus was meant to be shared with others. This she believed with all her heart. She never forced me to sing, it just came out. She also never would take a cent or even a gift. A marvelous woman. I bless her and Dad every day, perhaps now even more than when I was younger.
I started taking piano lessons when I was 6. Then, since I sang constantly around the house, Mom decided that if I was going to sing, then I should have some instruction. When I was 9 she found a wonderful teacher for me, Evaline Hartley, a lady from Kansas City, who came to Topeka every Saturday to give lessons. This was pure luck and I admit I have had this very often in my life. Decisions were made for me, I made few myself. I was lucky enough to take the right street at many crossroads and most of the signs were put up by wonderful people who loved me and who were sure of what the future would hold. I was not sure at all but I never gave it a thought. I had no idea where I was going or what I would do when I got there.
On these Saturdays - mostly during the war - I would take a voice lesson, piano lesson and drum lesson! That was a lot for a 12 or 13 year old. I donīt know where Mom got the idea with the drums but it was good and was an unbelievable help later when I was drafted into the army.
I can truly say I was a wonderful boysoprano. I have records to prove it. I hated excercises, so Miss Hartley gradually gave me arias to sing, the hardest in the book. It ended with the "Bell-Song" from Lakmé, which I actually sang in a concert in Kansas City. I have a recording of Arditiīs "Il Bacio". I donīt know where the musicality came from, but I wouldnīt change the way I formed the phrases even today. I think I can say this today, since it was 60 years ago!
I sang constantly until in 1944 my voice changed. I shut up for a year and then began slowly to work with Miss Hartley again. I had to learn to deal with this new darker instrument but I guess I did pretty well, since I won all the school contests in Kansas.
I went to The University of Kansas in 1948, where I studied pre-med and then voice with Josef Wilkens and Reinhold Schmidt. I would have liked to be a doctor but music was too strong. I had to do it and when I made this decision - one of the few - my parents were behind me completely, although it meant a lot of extra cost and an early parting. It must have been hard for them but they never complained. One doesnīt in Kansas, at least in the 40s.
I heard Mack Harrell sing in Kansas City in 1948, as I remember, and it was my goal to study with him. He was the leading singer of German Lieder in the United States, as welas a prominent opera singer, and I can truly say, he opened the door and showed me the way to this marvellous repertoire. He turned out to be the most important Lighthouse in my career, as an artist and as a person. Miss Hartley knew him and (again the street sign was there) brought us together. When I sang for him for the first time in Kansas City, he told me I was still too young and should go back to the university and continue my instruction there.
I attended the first 4 years of the Aspen Institute Festival, where Mack taught. They were wonderful Summers. At the end of the 2nd Summer he called in my parents, who had come to pick me up - Kansas is not far. He told them, it was time for me to go with him to New York to attend Juillliard School of Music, the best music school in the country, where he was a member of the faculty. My parents agreed and so my life away from home began. They trusted me and Mr. Harrell. I know now how hard it must have been, since I have 3 children of my own.
I was in Juilliard 3 years. I developed slowly, as was the case with me my whole life. At the Commencement excercises I was asked to sing with the orchestra, the first time in the history of the school that a singer had been given this honor.
Mack decided I should apply for a Fulbright scholarship to study in Germany. I wanted to go to Italy, of course, since a singer "must go there", I thought. Mack said, "Not on your life!" He knew already that the German repertoire, Lied und Oratorium, would be my field and how right he was.
Then I lucked out again! I happened to be sent to the Stuttgart Conservatory, where I studied with Alfred Paulus and Hermann Reutter. Hermann was one of the best accompanists in Germany and I think he knew at once what the future could hold for me. We worked together endlessly. He played for many recitals for almost nothing, just so that I could get the experience.
He had a good friend in Mainz, Karl Maria Zwissler, director of the opera there. He told him about me and they asked me to audition - I didnīt ask. I went there, not knowing what to expect and low and behold, they engaged me. Nobody was more surprised than I! I can truly say, I had no idea what I was going to do when I finished my schooling. I had a good year there with a Beginnerīs Contract and sang over 90 performances.
Then I was drafted into the US Army and had to return to the States for training. This was a hard blow but looking back I think it was good, since it slowed things down a little. I was still very young and the voice had a long way to go. Thanks to an unbelievable coincidence, I was sent back to Germany and stationed in Göppingen, which is close to Stuttgart, where I played the drum in the marching band. This made my further study possible. Later I was moved to the 7th Army Symphony, which was stationed in Stuttgart. They wanted me as a singer but there was no "slot" for a singer in the orchestra. Again the drum-training paid off. I sang in many concerts with the orchestra and even sang Silvio in "I Paglacci" at the Stuttgart Opera, (they invited me) while still in the army, something that is no longer possible today, I am told. Hermann was the second "Lighthouse". Paulus was a wonderful man, too, being very modern in his approach to German Lieder. He didnīt hurt my voice and that is saying a lot for any teacher.
At the end of my military years I was given a contract by the Stuttgart Opera. This was too early and proved to be a wrong turn but thank God I could get back on track.
I understand that your 'real' career started at the Stuttgart Opera. You said that, 'This was too early and proved to be a wrong turn'. Why so?
I left the army in August 1957. I had already sung around 20 recitals in Germany and 12 guest appearances at the Stuttgart Opera. My concert work with orchestra hadnīt really started yet - I was 26. I was freshly married and living in Stuttgart. I married a German girl in 1956. The Stuttgart Opera offered me a yearīs contract - 1957-58, which I accepted, although I had had only one yearīs experience on the opera stage..
In Mainz I had sung the Count in "Figaro", Sharpless, Ottokar in "Freischütz", the Count in "Wildschütz" (Lortzing) and some smaller roles, over 90 performances, as I wrote before. I also did a couple of Zars in "Zar und Zimmerman" (Lortzing). I jumped in for a collegue, who wanted a leave-of-absence on that day. The opera told him he could go, if he either hired a substitute or trained me to do it himself. He chose the latter. I learned the part quickly and then in his apartment he taught me the stage business, using his own furniture to make the sets. In my whole career I never heard of such a "deal" again. When we had accomplished this, there were probably a couple of quick music rehearsals and then we did the show, not in Mainz but in one of the little cities in the vicinity, where the opera played now and then. I had no rehearsal with the orchestra and did it on a stage I had never seen before. It went off alright, I guess. The music critic didnīt even notice that someone new was singing, only that the singer that he had expected seemed strangely insecure now and then. No wonder! I was 24. The part was too heavy for me then and remained that way all through my career.
When the new season in Stuttgart began I continued to sing Silvio but hardly anything else. They had nothing in the repertoire, which fitted my young, unexperienced - but already quite beautiful - voice. Then, for lack of anything else, they gave me the "Zar", of all roles. I could sing the last aria really very nicely but my voice was not large enough for the big house and for the dramatic scenes - a boring role, since about all he does is yell. It was not a success for me.
The director of the opera was a kind man and knew his business, although when I think about it today, I wonder why he thought I could possibly succeed in such a large house at that time. In November he called me into his office to tell me that my contract for the following season would not be renewed. The house, at this stage of my career, was too large and I should go to a smaller one to get experience. He was right but for the first time in my life a musical problem had arisen and the shock was very intense! I have never been a secure person for reasons I will speak of later, so this, along with the fact that I had a wife to support, scared me to death.
On the other hand, in December 1957, only one month later, I gave another recital in Stuttgart, which was such an amazing success that it actually hurt me more than it helped. The leading critic of the city wrote a review with the title, "A Phenonemon", and went on from there. I was too young to fulfill all the expectations that arose from this.
For a year I couldnīt find an engagement, although I auditioned often. The Stuttgart Opera gave me some guest evenings to help and I had quite a few recitals and recording sessions in the radio stations. This kept us financially above water. During this time my wife became pregnant. This was a great joy for us but certainly didnīt reduce our worries about the future.
Then suddenly things began to change and move uphill.
Karlsruhe needed a new baritone for the following season, 1959-60. The first role was to be Wolfram in "Tannhäuser". I had not sung the role but knew all the arias and they were very good for my voice. My agent sent me there to audition. Here one of the best stories of my career happened.
I drove to Karlsruhe for the audition and found myself standing on the stage, looking out into the dark auditorium. I asked the darkness what I should sing. The answer: "Wolfram". I sang two or three arias. Then the voice again: "Thank you, please come to my office so that we can make a contract." My answer, without thinking,; "No, you canīt do that!" "Why not, I thought you wanted an engagement" "Yes, I want one very badly, but you canīt engage me after hearing only these arias. They are not high or low and not very difficult". (Since I had never sung the role, I of course knew all about it!) "Good, Herr McDaniel, then sing what you think we should hear!" I sang the Barber aria and several others. Then the voice again. "Have you sung enough, Herr McDaniel?" "Yes", I answered. "Thank God! Let us make the contract quickly. Iīm already late for a lunch appointment".
I signed a 3-year contract on October 23, 1958 and on November 5th our first daughter, Claudia, was born and on that evening I had a recital in Hanau, near Frankfurt.
The Stuttgart Opera had asked me to cover a premiere of "Barbiere", which was to come out at Christmas 1958. I was to - perhaps - sing the role in the Spring. I was present at all the rehearsals, sitting on the stage or in the auditorium. On one occasion the baritone for some reason was not able to do a rehearsal, so I was put down for it. We did the big Count-Barber duet from the first act. Günther Rennert, one of the leading stage directors in Germany, did the production and I was very nervous, as one might expect. The tenor was Fritz Wunderlich. His career was just starting to explode and he was wonderful, indeed. This was the only part of the opera I had ever rehearsed on a stage, except in Aspen as a student, where we did this scene in the opera class.
Then on New Yearīs Eve 1958 I got a call from the opera at 22:00. We had guests for the evening in our little cosy apartment. It was the opera. The baritone had just canceled the performance for the next night, January 1, 1959, which was the second one of the new production. The house was sold out and they didnīt want to cancel it. The man asked me, "Mr. McDaniel would you trust yourself to sing Figaro tomorrow night?" I said, "Yes". I sent the guests home, took a sleeping pill and went to bed. The next day we had a few quick rehearsals, mostly musical, lasting an hour or so. The music director of the house, Ferdinand Leitner, was conducting and and in the evening a lot of the collegues were in the wings to see what would happen. I had never sung the aria with orchestra and never done the production with the other collegues - except the duet with Fritz. I just went on the stage and did it! It was the beginning of my opera career. I had a contract for the next season in Karlsruhe in my pocket and suddenly the world was bright again and I was back on track. That was quite an evening!
What were your first roles at the opera? At the first stages of your career, did you accept everything that was offered to you, or you had the option of choosing? How did you prepare yourself for a role?
Concerning my choice of roles: At that time I had several important people in my life, whom I could trust, Reutter and Paulus. Paulus knew the opera repertoire very well and could give me good advice. I followed it. This is not always the case today. The young singers donīt seem to trust the older singers any more, thinking they must "make hay while the sun shines". They are afraid to wait, thinking that the agents will not come back if they turn them down. This has been the ruin of many good voices. The agents are not stupid and will recognize such a situation. If the quality of the voice is not first class they may not come back, but this would happen anyway after the singer sings a role badly. Exceptional talent always finds itīs way. Nobody ever ruined his career by not singing a role - or waiting 5 years - but often enough by singing them too soon.
For singing is not only a vocal problem, it also requires physical and mental maturity. It is not so much a question of singing too much but of singing the wrong things or singing them too early. Since I was a very lyric baritone, which means my voice was not large, I didnīt have as many of these problems as voices that could "possibly" sing the heavier roles. The words "No" or "Not yet" are very important for young singers but they are often disregarded.
I was blessed with the ability to memorize my repertoire quickly and I hardly ever forgot them, even after years. Learning was always the easiest part, even the modern roles. I have a numbers of recordings from the 60s, however, which I have no memory of. It is as if a complete stranger is singing them, although I recognize the voice, of course. I canīt remember one tone of the pieces. I guess I pressed the "Löschen - Delete" button when the recording was finished.
My learning process consisted of working with good coaches and, more important, never listening to recordings of the works I was learning. In my opinion is this one of the worst habits a young singer can have. When a great singer sings a piece wonderfully, one has the feeling that his or her way is the only possible interpretation. This is not true. The only way to find your own way is by trial and error, constantly hunting for new ideas, new meanings. Interpretations will change over the years and they should. A coach told me once, "When you are 25 it is easy to find the young, naive character of the Miller in Schubertīs "Die schöne Müllerin" because you are young yourself. When you are 40 it is an art and you must know how it is done. Otherwise you can make a fool of yourself. I received a very interesting review for this cycle in Edinbough, in which the music critic said,
so it was more than interesting to hear again, at last, Schubert made to sound Austrian and young, and not German and middle-aged
. I was over 40 at the time. Right now, at 71, I have wonderful ideas but am no longer able to carry them out.
I had to deal with a problem, however, which has made my life often very difficult, especially when I was young. I sang some pieces in Mainz and Stuttgart with dialogue and this was always terrifying for me. When I was around 9, about the time I starting taking singing lessons in Kansas, I began to stutter. Why this happened I can only guess but it proved to be a stone around my neck, which made life very difficult for me for over 20 years. It was not a repetitious stuttering, it was a cramp almost like when a computer breaks down and nothing moves. I could hardly ever say exactly what I wanted, I had to find a way to get around the consonents that I couldnīt say. This began slowly to change when I came to Germany. Here I could make mistakes , say the wrong words or verb forms and the Germans thought it was because I just didnīt know the language well enough yet. No, I knew the language better than they thought, I just couldnīt say what I wanted. Slowly over the years it improved, but even today, if I am nervous or stressed it can return. I was able to do the dialogues because I worked on them very hard, changing certain words around. Nobody noticed but it was a constant source of worry, fear and disgust for me. I hated myself for it and found it repulsive. There was no help in those early years. My heart goes out to those who suffer from this. Only we know how it can ruin so many things in life. It didnīt help my selfassurance any, that is for sure. Still I was able to confront it and I guess that is the only important thing.
A friend of mine told me once, "Barry, I donīt know what you are worrying about. You have no complexes, you ARE inferior!" This is one of the best sentences I have ever heard concerning me.
Orchestra concerts began to come now in 1958 and 1959, including Mahlerīs "Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen", Brahmsī "Requiem", Orfīs "Carmina Burana" and even Orpheus in a concert version of Gluckīs Opera.
Then on the 25th and 26th of March 1959 I sang my first Christ in the Matthäus-Passion. It was in Antwerpen in Flemish ! I coached the text with a dutchman in Stuttgart. Loh. de Vogt, the conductor, told me, my diction was very good, although I had a dutch accent. I had written the Flemish text into my score and later sang all my performances in German from this same one, wondering now and then how I ever managed to get that difficult language out! The 70 performances of this work that I had the privilege of being taking part in are among the most important and most cherished moments of my career.
Recording business in the 1950s
The situation in the recording business in the 50s, 60s and even in the 70s cannot be compared to today. The leading singers had contracts with recording companies, often signed when they were just begintheir career. These contracts almost always guaranteed the singer a certain number of recordings a year and the fee was paid if the recordings were made or not. For that reason the companies and the artists were constantly on the lookout for music that could be recorded, whether it would be possible to sell these recordings or not.
Today the market is flooded with recordings by unknown and often second-rate singers, made by unknown firms. They bring the artists hardly any money at all, since they receive only a very small percent of the sales after expenses are deducted! - and I wonder who buys them? I guess this is not important to them.
In those days it was necessary to bring out a whole series of recordings to show the artist in the different dimenions of his work. (I can speak only of singers, of course.) This involved a large investment by the firm and there had to be a calculated chance of selling them. At that time Fischer-Dieskau and Prey completely dominated the "Baritone-Recording-World" in Germany. They were both wonderful singers and Fi.-Di. was already almost a legend and they were both German. When someone bought a baritone recording of German Lieder, they took one of the two, preferably the former. There was little room for others. I was asked to record when they either didnīt have the time or it wasnīt interesting enough. This was an important reason why I was seldom able to record Lieder, although in the radio stations I recorded hundreds. They are resting in the archives of the stations in Germany and the BBC and maybe someday they will be discovered.
Please donīt think I am bitter about this. At the time it was difficult, I admit, but I understand more now. It was a situation I had to learn to live with but I can honestly say, I succeeded except for moments, of course.
Do not forget that I an American had stood up and said, I wanted to live in Germany and make my living singing the most German of all repertoire German Lieder and Oratorium. I know of no other non-german singers, who attempted this, except Helen Donath and Kieth Engen, both marvellous singers!. Gerard Souzay came to Germany now and then for concerts, as did Peter Pears, but they didnīt live here.
To this day it is miracle to me that I was able to stand up to these men and win a wide circle of musiclovers, who remained true to me to the last. At the beginning, many, including the critics, couldnīt understand how I could possibly sing Lieder as I did, without being instructed by a German teacher. Since Hermann Reutter was accompanying me at the time, they wrote that he had taught me how to do it. It took at least 10 years to convince them that it was coming from inside me and not from instruction, although working with Hermann was a great joy and his subtle hand lead me through the years. He let me do it my way, however, and make the mistakes that are necessary to find oneīs own interpretation. My sung German pronunciation was quite good when I came to Germany, thanks to my hours with Edith Braun at Juilliard, and over the years it became almost perfect, although now and then an americanism could creep in. I could build on this, but there were always the unbelievers, who didnīt think it possible for an American to do this without copying.
"Copying"! This is a chapter of itīs own. As I wrote before, I have never owned or listened to a recording of a piece I was learning or which was important for my repertoire, for example: the Schubert cycles or the Passions of Bach. I have no idea how other singers sing them and, strangely enough, it doesnīt interest me. In my opinion one of the greatest mistakes young singers can make is to listen and learn their music from records. Almost all do, however. For example: When a baritone hears a recording of Fischer-Dieskau, he thinks this is the only possible way to interpret the songs and thus tries, often subconsciously, to sing them as he does. The individual genius of such an artist canīt be copied, however, only his idiosyncrasies - his bad habits, so to speak and Fi-Di had some beauties. What makes his interpretations great is completely singular. I have never under any circumstances allowed myself to do this. I have been compared with him hundreds of times, saying that I remind the critic of him. This could be, but it is not because I copied his interpretations. The only common ground I can hear is the seriousness with which we approached these marvelous works. I have never feared comparison, when singing my best repertoire.
Continue to Part 2
Barry McDaniel: Short Biography | Interview: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Feedback