You sang for almost three decades at the same opera house. How did your career developed along the years and what were its major milestones during this period? Was it common in those days to serve so many years at the same place? Was it for you a conscious decision? Who were the other major singers of the company during this period?
The Deutsche Oper Berlin became the center of my musical life, I sang over 1800 performances there, including 54 premieres. My greatest love, however, remained Lied and Oratorium, although the repertoire of the latter was rather limited. Most Händel works require a real bass and I don´t like to hear a baritone sing the parts and for that reason never accepted invitations, although I sang a lot of the "counter-tenor (or mezzo) parts" in his operas, sung an octave lower. This included "Julius Caesar" in Amsterdam – a stage production. This is no longer the custom today, of course.
I was engaged in Karlsruhe for 3 years, singing 15 premieres and thus sang the most important roles in my repertoire. The invitation to audition in Berlin came unexpectedly. Egon Seefehlner, the second in command of the Deutsche Oper, came to Karlsruhe to hear a collegue, since they needed a young bass in Berlin. Egon had been engaged by Gustav Rudolf Sellner, the Intendant, since he knew little about singing and wanted the best. And Egon was!.He knew his business, since he had run a concert agency in Vienna, which specialized in singers. He collected voices for the opera like others collect stamps or antiques. His selections were all young, however. He traveled around Europe to hear the singers on the stage, not in audition. This is seldom done today.
The performance on that evening in Karlsruhe was "Nozze de Figaro". The bass, Manfred Röhrl, sang Figaro. I sang the Count, so he had to listen to me, too. The next morning, which was a Sunday, he called me at home and asked if I would come by the hotel, he would like to talk to me. He also called Manfred, a friend then and a very close friend to this day!.He invited us to come to Berlin to audition. This was in October 1961, 2 months after the Wall had been built.
Manfred and I flew to Berlin, auditoned and were both offered 3-year contracts with – in our opinion – wonderful financial conditions. We came from the "province" and this is the traditional way singers had prepared themselves for the big houses in the past. One has, in smaller houses, the opportunity to try out different parts and sing them often. These houses brought out – and many still do - a number of premieres in the season, maybe 7 or 8. These were performed at least 20 times, then at the end of the season they were taken from the program. Only a few would be repeated in the new season: those that came out towards the end of the preceding one or were special successes.
The reason for this was simple. The smaller houses couldn´t afford to engage enough singers to perform a repertoire of 30 or more operas, as was the case in Berlin. Here repertoire performances are brought out with perhaps a week of rehearsals, if the opera has not been performed for a year or more. Afterwards there is only a day´s rehearsal before each peformance, at the most. I had a repertoire of around 20 sung roles, when I came to Berlin. These could be prepared in a short time and I could jump into repertoire performances. Since I had already sung most of the roles I was scheduled to sing, even if in other productions, I was at least musically secure and could concentrate on the stage production.
There is another possibility, too. This I experienced in Cosi fan tutte. I had sung the part many times in two productions but in German. In Berlin it was sung in the original Italian and this was new and difficult for me. (I never felt at home singing Italian, for some reason.) The production was old and I was the only new one in the cast. There were practically no rehearsals and I saw the tenor, Ernst Häfliger, the evening of the performance. We had never done the recitatives together, which are always the hardest. I pulled it off somehow and sang the role over 100 times in my career.
Today many young singers think they can skip this process of getting experience and want to start at the top, in a big house. It worked with Fritz Wunderlich, since he was such a marvellous, exceptional singer, – Germany has not had one like him since - although at the time of his untimely death he was having some sort of vocal problems, at least this what collegues very close to him told me. He had sung so much so quickly and the voice rebeled. I am sure he would have been able to get it back on track but he was very nervous when I sang with him for the last time – Tamino-Papageno in Zauberflöte in Berlin. I had known him since our performances of “Barbiere” in Stuttgart and we studied with the same teacher, Margarethe von Winterfeld. She had discovered him in Freiburg, where she taught at the time in the conservatory there. Later, when she retired, she moved to Berlin. I had begun to work with her while I was engaged in Karlsruhe and then could continue here. She was blind and a truly excellent teacher.
Berlin was a dream in those years, in spite of the Wall. The Deutsche Oper Berlin was famous all over the world and was supported very generously by the German government, and I mean “very generously”. We were Germany´s operatic showpiece and travelled all over the world. The musical and theatrical quality of our house was equalled by only few in the world. Practically all premieres had two complete casts, coming mostly from the house itself. Today there is hardly ever a performance anywhere without guests. We loved the house, we loved to sing there and felt something very special about being in and from Berlin.
When I came to Berlin the major singers were Elisabeth Grümmer, Fischer-Dieskau, Josef Greindl – the greatest of them all! – Hans Beirer, Ernst Häfliger, Lisa Otto. Jessye Norman started her opera career here. All the great singers of the time sang here as guests, from Nilsson to Siepi. It was a glorious time. The opera had more money that it could use, the singers were paid well, the house was new, the audience was fabulous. Could one ask for more.
I could! I needed my concerts and in Berlin I had almost more than I could deal with. I sang 93 concerts in the Philharmonie alone, which were among the almost 200 I sang in the city during the many years.
But I´m getting ahead of myself.
I was engaged in Berlin to take the place of a senior member of the company, who retired to take a professorship at the Conservatory of Music in Berlin. I sang all his roles and all the new ones that came along in my “Fach”. This word is also interesting in Germany.
Here a singer is not engaged as just a soprano, mezzo, alto, tenor, baritone or bass. There is always a qualifying word attached, which designates his or her voice-type – his or her “Fach”. For baritones, for example, they are “spiel baritone, lyric baritone, cavalier baritone or dramatic baritone”, each requiring a stronger voice. I can think of no translation for “Spiel-Baritone” He sings the lighter baritone roles. He must be elegant, able to move, sing colloraturas, etc. Rossini roles are examples, although Figaro can be sung by heavier baritones, if they can halfway get through the fast parts. Just being able to sing the top tones doesn´t help. At the height of my career I sang these roles in Berlin, Munich, Frankfurt, Hamburg and Vienna. I think one could call me a "spiel-lyric" baritone..
The various opera roles are, in turn, all designated as to what kind of baritone are needed to sing them. It wouldn´t be possible to force a “lyric” or “Spiel-Baritone” to sing the heavy dramatic Verdi, Puccini or Wagner parts. This gives the singer a certain amout of protection but all too often the singer himself thinks he can sing a given role, even if it is much too heavy for him or her.
There are cert exceptions: Parts, which can be sung by several types of voices. For example: Wolfram in Tannhäuser can be sung by almost all baritones, if they have the technical and vocal possibilities. This means the voice must be big enough to carry over the orchestra, at least in the 5 arias. If a lighter voice sings the part the final trio is a problem. The role of Tannhäuser and Venus can only be sung by dramatic voices and they can be very overwhelming!
I sang Wolfram very often and it was one of my most successful roles. I sang it in Bayreuth in 1964, when I was 33. I jumped in for a sick collegue. Wieland Wagner had done the production and it was a dream. He said I was just what he had always wanted for the role, although some of the others, Karl Böhm, for example, thought I was still too young. Wagner insisted and it worked out very well. Another singer had already been engaged for the following season, so I couldn´t return but at least I sang this wonderful role in that marvellous house. I was successful, I think, and this opened other doors for me. It was certainly one of the highlights of my career.
In my first year in Berlin I sang Pelléas for the first time. I was sure I would never be able to sing it, but Seefehlner said for me to get a score and learn it, it would work. He was right and to this day I don´t know how he could have known this. It was my first really big success. I sang the role at the Met in New York in January 1972, another high point.
I did 4 premieres in the Staatsoper in Vienna. The first was Orestes in "Iphigenia auf Tauris", a role I hadn´t sung before. I have a recording from the stage, which is really very good. Sellner did the stage production. It was a gorgeous production with sets and costumes by Fillipo Sanjust. He told me that my costume was the most expensive one I would ever wear.
I sang in the Munich Festival for 11 years, singing everything from "Cosi" to "Les Mammelles de Terésias" of Poulenc.
I also sang often in the opera houses in Frankfurt, Hamburg, Geneva, and Amsterdam.
I say "operahouses", since I sang concerts in all these cities, too. I have mentioned some of them already. I sang generally 60 opera performances and 40 concerts in a season, later concerts became more and the opera less – as my fee increased.
Being asked to remain a member of an opera house for such a long time depends, first of all, on the success you have had and how popular you are with the audience. It is also depends on how you want to build your career. Only very exceptional singers, who sing exceptional roles, can take the chance of free-lancing, unless they have no other choice. At one time in my career I considered doing this. Seefehlner – he was always there for the first 15 years to keep me on track – told me that in order to do this, a singer must be able to earn all the money he needs for his old age by the time he is 40. All the rest is extra "topping for the cake". This can only happen if the voice is singular and in a singular "Fach" - mostly tenors or singers of the big Wagnerian roles. There are always only a few of these in the world, see Domingo or Pavarotti, etc. A lighter baritone voice, no matter how qualified or beautiful, can hardly ever achieve this. Every house has one and even if he isn´t the best, the houses need the money to hire the dramatic voices. Today they are too rare and expensive to be kept by a single house. In the 60s we had these voices engaged on full-time contracts but times have changed completely. The exceptions were always free-lance, however.
The careers of singers who have tried to achieve this, in spite of the fact that they are not completely qualified, have often ended very sadly. When a singer is over 40, no house would engage him or her on a full-time basis. Guest-contracts are dangerous, since they can be changed from year to year.
Seefehlner told me I would be a fool to do this and he was right. I had my contract here in Berlin, which paid a lot of money and could do my concerts along with it. The house – at that time – was very eager to have it´s singers sing in other places, asking only that Deutsche Oper Berlin was noted in the program. In all my years not a penny was deducted from my monthly fee for my long absences, - up to 4 months! - although I didn´t have this in my contract until much, much later. They were generous and we were proud to be members of the company. This has all changed today. Today singers are merchandise which can be bought, sold or thrown away at will. Not a happy time and I am glad I don´t have to face the problems young singers do today.
After a singer has been in a company for 15 years he cannot be fired. His fee can be reduced, perhaps, but the company must keep him or her until retirement. Today most of the young singers are given notice at 14 years, so that the house will not have any further responsibility. A singer, who comes to the Berlin Opera is generally between 25 and 35. I was 31. Add 14 to this and you see what is waiting for a singer, who is suddenly standing on the street looking for a job. I don´t know how they will deal with this in the future.
Who were the main conductors of the Deutsche Oper in Berlin during your long engagement there? What were your relationships with them?
The list of conductors is long and illustrious. I have mentioned a few of the most renowned before but here is a quick rundown of the "first team", and I am sure I am forgetting some of them:
Karl Böhm, Heinrich Hollreiser, Eugen Jochum, Ernst Bour, Hans Kanppersbursch, Guiseppe Patané, Lorin Maazel, Bruno Maderna, Alberto Erede, Ferdinand Leitner, Horst Stein, Moshe Atzmon, Wolfgang Sawallisch (Munich), Sir Colin Davis (Met in New Yorks), Christopher Keene, Charles Mackerras, Daniel Barenboim, Michael Gielen, Giuseppe Sinopoli, Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos, Marcello Viotti, Christian Tielemann.
My concerts included: Jean Morel, Helmuth Rilling, Pierre Boulez, Karl Münchinger, Raphael Kubelik, Pablo Casals!, Hans Werner Henze, Wolfgang Fortner, Antal Doráti, Karl Ristenpart, Günther Wand, Igor Markevitch, Hans Schmidt-Isserstedt, Sir John Eliot Gardiner, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Seiji Ozawa
Have you changed your interpretation of a certain work according to the conductors with whom you have worked, or that your interepretation had its own route of development according the experience you have gained?
There is generally little personal contact with the conductors. There is, however, intensive rehearsing – although too often, especially in the later years, there is hardly any at all! This is one of the main problems which opera as an art form faces today. In Germany if an artist, singer or conductor, who comes to Berlin for a guest appearance, is present for more than one day of rehearsal, he is taxed as a German, without allowing a single deduction (travel costs, hotel, agent, etc.), which means over 50%, whereas it is only around 20% (as far as I know now) if they are only present for one day. When one adds the agent´s 20%, - at least – the singer doesn´t earn as much as most people think and so they refuse to come – take it or leave it. you are famous enough, you can get away with this.
In the 60s and 70s things were (again!) completely different. The conductor was present for most of the rehearsal period for a premiere, which was generally 6 weeks. When Lorin Maazel was music director of the Deutsche Oper Berlin, the operas were, for the most part, musically prepared before the staging began. This is a situation, which is completely unknown today. The guest conductors generally arrive 2 weeks at the most before the premiere, when the stage direction has been completed. There are few piano rehearsals with the cast, which is the foundation for good performances. It just isn´t possible, since there are orchestra rehearsals in the morning and the singers can´t work intensively in the afternoon when they have another one on the stage the next morning. (The music director of the house at the present time, Christian Tielemann, is an exception to this and tries to carry on the traditions of the past. Since he lives in Berlin it is easier, of course.).
I took part in a magnificent production of “Matrimonio Segreto” of Cimarosa in the 60s with Lorin Maazel. First the soloists worked individually with him on their roles and these rehearsals are among the most exciting I can remember. Every phrase was tried again and again, trying to find the most interesting interpretation. Then the ensemble rehearsals began and every phrase was again worked on. This all took place before the stage rehearsals began. We must have worked over 2 months preparing the premiere.
These musical rehearsals were almost always the most enjoyable hours of the various performances, concert or opera. There was intensity and laughter, discussion and compromise. Seldom was there tension or aggression, I only experienced it twice with second rate conductors. I walked out of a rehearsal once because the man was so rude to his orchestra, not to me. Then later, after the first performance, he tried to be the same with me – on the stage during the applause – saying I had sung some wrong notes in a 12-tone piece in a very abusing and insulting tone. This was undoubtedly true, since it was a terribly hard piece. A quiet correction later would have been welcomed, while such a rude manner while one is still "up" from the performance brings about just the opposite.
I canceled the rest of the tour on the spot and only agreed to continue when the producers promised he would say nothing else – and he didn´t. He was as docile as a lamb. I never accepted another concert with him, although all of these were great successes for me! This is the only time such a thing has happened and in over 3300 performances that is not a bad average, it seems to me.
Conductors are generally hard to deal with and I guess they must be. I have never had any desire to have a closer contact, except for a very few. It takes a great inner force to tame an orchestra and you can´t always convince them with nice words and pleas. The orchestra – and perhaps the singers, too - must fear what could happen, if he blows his top, then they are quiet and listen. Their charisma must be strong and dominating and this carries over into their private life, too. Many are not very nice people. The ones who are are generally not taken seriously by the orchestra.
Böhm was a marvelous conductor. He used hardly any movement at all. The orchestra reacted to his body language more than to his arms, it seemed to me. He always sat during the performances. When he raised his fanny a few inches from the chair and leaned forward, the forte was there! Once, during the second or third verse of Papageno´s "Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen", he suddenly laid down his baton and just leaned back to listen. I was so shocked it just about got me off track but I took it as a wonderful compliment. He wrote in my score, "For my american Papageno with Viennese charm!". I told him I didn´t think this could possibly be true, to which he answered, "If I say it is, it is!"
He could be a very cruel man, too. Off stage and during rehearsals he was feared for his biting wit, which could hit anyone at any minute and preferably young singers, who didn´t dare talk back, although the famous ones were not always spared, either. When the curtain went up for the performance, however, everything was different. It was a real dream.
One of the things he couldn´t bear, was if the horns missed their final cadenza at the end of the Leonora aria in "Fidelio". This phrase is one of the most feared, I guess. If they were perfect, he would look at them and wave with his left hand, in the same manner as Queen Mum did!. If they missed, he would turn his back to them after giving them a terrible look. I could always observe this, because my first premiere in Berlin – not performance - was as the First Prisoner in "Fidelio", a role of only one line but of great significance and depth. Christa Ludwig was singing Leonora and Böhm conducted many of the performances, although not the premiere. Since the entrance of the prisoners directly follows this aria, we could listen and watch on the monitor from backstage.
After the premiere I received as long a review in the papers as James King, who sang Florestan. One said that a house that could afford to have a singer like me sing this small part was "blessed indeed"!. Jimmy never "forgave" me for this, saying I had only sung a dozen or so words and he had worked like a dog. These performances are unforgotten in my heart. We performed "Fidelio" 2 days after the assassination of Kennedy in Berlin and during this men´s chorus we on the stage and the audience, too, were weeping. It was hard to even complete the sentence, which says approximately, "Let us put our trust in God´s help. The future whispers softly to us, "We will be free, we will find peace!"" That was a hard but unforgettable minute.
What were you favourite works as a singer in the areas of: opera, oratorio and Lieder?
My favorite works? There are 4 principle ones: Papageno in "Die Zauberflöte", Pelléas in "Pelléas et Melisande", Schubert´s "Die Winterreise" and the Christ in the "Matthäus-Passion. I was blessed to be able to sing these parts. I sang Papageno 209 times, the last one being on the eve of my 60th birthday. I couldn´t imagine a 60-year-old Papageno. At the end of the performance the chorus and the cast brought flowers to me on the stage and the audience stood up and applauded. There was hugging and kissing and I had trouble keeping the tears back. It was almost like a farewell performance and it was in one sense. It was one of the last big parts I sang on the stage and it was a farewell to my favorite. The last was Ping in "Turandot", which I sang till I was 66.
I was not a singer for "old roles". My voice sounded up to the last moment young, although the problems of age were there, as with every other singer. The sound stayed the same, add a wobble or two. It just didn´t sound like an older man and the voice was not as dramatic as most of these parts require. I grew out of my repertoire, so to speak, and there was nothing I could do about it. I hate seeing and hearing! old singers sing young parts and I swore from the beginning that this would not happen to me, and it didn´t, although I sang several roles a few performances too long, but only a few.
I had always thought that concert singing would last longer than the opera. This was not true, at least in my case, and many wonderful singers have had the same experience. This was partly because of what I just said. I became aware that I couldn´t sing Lieder and Oratorio as well as 10 years before. I could interpret better, had experienced a lot of pain and trouble in my life and could bring this into my music but that doesn´t replace the voice, in my opinion.
I wasn´t satisfied with my work, so I stopped. I gave my last Lieder recital when I was 61, to a small chosen audience in Berlin. I had stopped giving larger ones several years beforehand. The leading lady of the Berlin music press came to the recital and wrote a long review with even a picture. It was a wonderful Thank You for my years of singing in the Berlin concert li.
The center of my Lied repertoire was always Schubert, as it must be for any serious Liedersänger. He "created" this art of musical expression and did so with such perfection that it was never completely equaled again, although I wouldn´t want to have missed the songs of Schumann, Wolf and Brahms. Lieder without Schubert would be like oratorio without Bach or opera without Mozart. What gifts they gave us and what an honor it was to try to sing them.
I sang "Die schöne Müllerin" often, starting early in my career, whereas I waited with "Die Winterreise" until I was 39. My teacher, Mack Harrell, told me while I was in Juilliard that I should wait until an inner voice told me it was time to sing this work, which is greatest of all. We had worked on each song and they were all memorized and from that day they slept somewhere in the back of my mind. Then in 1969, when my life was in such a terrible turmoil, I suddenly realized that it was time. I could welcome them as old friends, since they had been in my heart all my musical life. At this stage, however, I could understand Schubert´s music and Müller´s text better, although one is never finished with the search for the "right" interpretation. At the moment one sings "Die Winterreise", however, the singer must be completely sure his is "right" for him. This "right" can change and did many times. This is, of course, true of all music, but I found it especially clear in this monumental work.
I sang "Die Winterreise" for the first time in Brauschweig in the middle of a very serious blizzard, the audience plodding through the snow to get there. I felt this was a sign! I sang the cycle around 40 times and recorded it twice, although the first one, which RCA recorded in 1973, was never released.
I always felt that Schubert was somehow a "friend". I had the feeling, he had, in some strange way, written his songs for me, which I admit is pretty “far out”, I admit. A critic in Berlin actually said this in a review and it was not good for me, since many thought that I was putting myself on the same level. He wrote, "McDaniel sings Schubert as if he knew him personally." My agent even put this quote on a poster of a recital here in Berlin in 1964. I was deeply shocked and could have killed the woman. She certainly didn´t ask my permission. I knew it would have a negative effect on my reviews and it did. This is another of the moments that I have never been able to truly express myself in a way that is understandable. Secretly I thought, "See there, the man noticed it.". I have seldom spoken of these thoughts – and never publically. I doubt if it could be used in a publication, since, as with Bach, some could think I am egomanical.
Do you like non-classical music, such as Jazz, Pop, etc.?
Even though I no longer sang many major roles, I wasn´t through with singing in Berlin, not by a long shot. I found another direction, which gave me more joy than I would have thought possible and which fit, to a certain extent, my vocal possibilities.
In 1989 I got the idea of singing the wonderful pop songs of the 30s and 40s from Hollywood and Broadway. I asked the opera if they would be interested in such an evening and they were, very much so. I prepared a program with a combo of 3, including a marvelous jazz pianist, Kai Rautenberg, one of the best in Germany. We did 3 performances of it in the foyer of the opera. I translated each song into German before singing it. The audience loved this and could get much nearer to the songs. I sang songs that had accompanied me through my whole life, including "On The Good Ship Lollipop", which I had sung in 1935 in Lyndon and also songs Dad had sung.
Over the next 10 years I did 3 more such programs. The second was about the life of Frank Sinatra, the 3rd one was with songs from 1900 till 1935 and the 4th was a "Century Of Song", with songs from each decade. With this final program I gave my farewell performance in June 1999. My last encore was "On The Good Ship Lollipop", which was the first song I sang when I had started down this long road 64 years before. At the end the director, Götz Friedrich, came onto the stage, along with 10 or 12 supers, who were wearing my old costumes, bearing flowers and candles in the form of garden-dwarfs. The audience was a dream in all 4 but, of course, especially in the last one. It was very strenuous for me and some things didn´t go off as well as I would have liked, but I was almost 69 and nobody really cared – except me. My whole family was in the front row, along with Patrica Johnson, the mezzo, with whom I had sung all the years in Berlin. She had retired a year before and came from England for the evening as a surprise. All my other friends and quite a few collegues – which is not always the case - were there. Strangely enough I didn´t have any trouble with tears at the end and could give a pretty good reply to Friedrich´s words.
6 Months later Friedrich was dead and I realized how hard it must have been for him to be there that night. We were the same age – as are Jelsin and Helmut Kohl..
I don´t know why it had never occured to me before what a treasure of wonderful music exists in the USA. You have to filter out a lot of bad music, of course, but there remains a distilled number of great beauty and expression, which need not fear comparison with Schubert or Schumann. They are from another country, another background but have the same genuineness of expression. How I love them. I don´t know why I had to get so old before noticing. Earlier in my career – in the 60s and 70s – it would have been almost impossible to sing them, however, because "serious singers" in Germany just didn´t do this. This really didn´t bother me, even then, since I was in many television shows singing lighter German songs and also american pop. The arrangements were very German and funny to hear today. The voice was wonderful, however. I didn´t even dream of doing such songs in the opera house or indeed doing whole programs.
The combos grew each year until at the end there was piano, trumpet, gitarre, banjo, bass and percussion. The trumpet player, Till Bronner, was just starting when he played with us for the first time in 1992. Kai said we must have him and how right he was. Now Till is the leading jazz trumpeter in Germany and is famous all over Europe. What a joy those evenings were. We performed over 80 songs. I miss them terribly. I could still sing them pretty well, since it is another way of singing. German Lieder had been put away for good.
Regarding the last part of your career: What were the first indications that your singing career enters its final stage? Were your decisions at that stage dictated by your own choice, or that you got some 'hints' that you can no longer get the major roles you had always used to sing?
As I wrote before, I felt the beginning of the decline around 1980 and tried very hard to give up certain roles before I was asked to do so. This never happened. I never received a review that stated this, unless one would count the ones, where I sang small roles. Here they praised me, saying that I was now singing smaller roles which fit my voice and age. This was a strange praise and one that hurt a little, but I knew I was doing the right thing. If I wanted to stay on the stage I knew I would have to accept these smaller roles and I had no desire to retire. So, I accepted them and put as much of "me" in them as I could to try to make them "special". I was never refused a role because I was too old. I didn´t ask for them if I knew I wouldn´t get them – and this is a great mistake that older singer make again and again. I was pretty much aware of my vocal possiblities and tried to act accordingly. I was also earning a lot of money for the smaller roles, more than they were perhaps worth. I had no bad conscious about this, since I had sung big roles in the Deutsche Oper Berlin for over 30 years.