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Interview with the Baritone Barry McDaniel

 By Aryeh Oron (April-June 2002)

Continue from Part 3

Part 4 - Various matters

Do you listen to your own recordings?

I love to listen to my recordings, which must admit, are mostly very good. Most singers do this, if they are honest, since it reminds them that they actually could do this at one time in their lives. An old singer is not good for much. We exist looking backwards at what we once were able to do. A friend said it is as if our main artery has been cut. Enough of that. I can only add that I miss nothing now, except being on the stage with collegues, who are friends, and making music and acting together. Applause, public, money? I am grateful to have had enough of all three. I miss the gift which people on the stage have been given: being able to step out of their lives and be and live in another figure for a while. Now I am with "me" all day and this can be boring. I was on the stage so long and so often that I had little time to get to know this other half of me. The singer had always the "say" in my life. Now he is gone and I am gradually getting to know the other half. Sometimes I like him, sometimes he gets on my nerves, but there is no getting away from him!

What other areas of classical music you like? What are your favourite works in those genres?

I am in no way exotic in my choice of classical music. Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Schubert and a few others, that is enough for me. I have found Haydn to be more interesting that I had thought. I had no idea how much he had written. I donīt listen to many CDs.

Modern Music

I sang a great deal of so-called modern music, in fact the music lexica say it was a specialty of mine. I guess it was. I could never take the majority of these pieces as seriously as Bach or Schubert, however. This doesnīt mean that I didnīt prepare them consciensciously. I worked very hard on them, first to master the rhythm, which in some cases was so difficult that one could only come close. Then I added the text, speaking it to the rhythm. Finally I completed the work with the tones. I donīt have complete perfect pitch, only perhaps 30%. In the higher range I knew how the notes “felt” in my throat and that helped. This took quite a bit of time but I started early when preparing such works. I had several coachs who had remarkable perfect pitch and they controlled me, as much as possible.

When I went to the rehearsals and subsequent concerts I knew the pieces practically by memory. From here on I concentrated on the interpretation of the text, since without that, all this chaos would mean nothing. I sang as many right notes as possible but didnīt worry about the ones I missed. Nobody could tell, generally not even the composers, unless they were following the performance with the score and, more important, had perfect pitch. But even then it is not always possible. One of my coaches, who had the best perfect pitch I have ever experienced, told me that after 10 minutes of truly 12-tone music, he gets lost. Only when there is a pause can he get back on track and often there are no pauses in the music. No, I sang the text as smoothly and belcanto as possible and as understandable as possible and didnīt worry about the rest.

I wonder how Schubert or Bach would sound if one sang it this way? That is the reason I say I didnīt take it as seriously. An instrumentalist can press a button or a key and the right tone comes out. A singer must find it in his head and in the relationship to the other notes. Seldom is there help from the orchestra or piano – and when there is, it is a blessing! When you are standing in the middle of an orchestra trying to pick out your tone from a flute somewhere in the background it can become very nerve-wracking. I refused to do this, for the most part. I got as close as I could and gave the work all the intensity that I was capable of and only one conductor or composer ever complained – the guy I told you about earlier in this interview.

One of the strangest things was that this music always brought in the highest fees, much more than would be paid for Bach or Händel, or a “Winterreise”.

I am against giving such difficult modern music to very young singers. It takes a long time to learn to deal with it and accept the fact that one canīt perform it perfectly. One of the greatest singers of this music – I sang with her hundreds of times – could put her whole part down a step or more if she was not feeling well and noboby, but nobody, ever could notice. She was a genius in this but it took her years to learn to do it. A young singer thinks it must be perfect at all costs and often strains his voice. When one thinks one is going to sing a certain tone and instead ends up a step or more higher, the whole technical apparatus in the body has to react in a split second and this can tire the voice considerably.

Near the end of one big pieces I sang, there was a high G with a sign that it should be a quarter step higher. I told the composer I would sing the note as high as possible when I got there, considering how my voice felt. I always got the G, I think, but I couldnīt swear that it was sharp. I was glad to get anywhere near it after almost 45 minutes.


You asked about my favorite roles and the most important ones. Papageno in "Die Zauberflöte" is certainly my most important operatic role, since it was the one, which was nearer to me and my own life and mentality. I could identify with this role as with no other.

In the more than 300 performances of this opera that I took part in – as Papageno, Sprecher and 1st Priest – over a period of almost 40 years, it was not only the part I sang the most but also the one that still today is often in my thoughts. I think Mozart felt closer to Papageno than to any of the others in "Die Zauberflöte", although Pamina is the center of the opera, in my opinion. Tamino seeks to achieve wisdom and happiness by undergoing trials and tests. Papageno wants only to have a home, enough to eat and, most important of all!, not to be alone. He doesnīt seek knowledge, he just wants to live surrounded by nature - but all this doesnīt count if he is alone. When he finally gets his Papagena he is completely happy with the world. In the last scene he is willing to even give up his life if he must remain alone. This is his "trial". (There is a parallel to Pamina here.) When he finally states this, he is given his prize. Whether or not Papageno would really have hung himself is perhaps not so very important, although I truly believe he would have. I played the last scene seriously and sadly, which is not the traditional interpretation in Vienna. There is always a joke or two thrown in. This is unfortunate, in my opinion, since it takes away the lonliness – which is the central theme of Papageno and makes him just another comedian.

No, he is a simple person in his simple world and at this point I think he is really fed up with it. Then, when Papagena finally appears, there can be this tremendous outbreak of joy. Coming from sadness it is much greater than if it comes at the end of a scene, where there is a aspect of comedy or "tongue in cheek". The silence after the last "3" of his counting is the highpoint of the role. The silence in the audience and on the stage is awesome, there was never even a breath to be heard. Now and then a listener even had a tear in his or herīs eyes. This is what I always strived for. Then the joy can explode and the two are happy forever.

Pamina is the central figure, however. She, in my opinion, combines the intelligence and strength of Tamino and the warmth and human feelings of Papageno. The better the Pamina, the better I could do my role. Tamino is rather boring, since he was always trying to be perfect and not break any rules. The role is very difficult to sing and one seldom hears are really good one.

It is practically impossible not to be successful as Papageno but it is very hard to be a good one, which means making the figure human and moving, instead of just being a funny little man making jokes all evening. The audiencan identify with this figure as with no other. Everyone, from 5 to 100 years of age, can be captured by Papageno. I know of no other that could compare in the entire opera repertoire. For me it was the greatest gift the opera world gave me.


In the last 8 years I have begun to work in ceramics. Some of my best friends, one of which has become one of the most important in my whole life, are intermationally famous in this field. I have assembled quite a large collection and through this I have been able to meet so many interesting and inspiring people. They kept telling me I should try my luck with ceramics, so I did. I have had no training, of course, and know very little but it is a great joy for me. I donīt use a turntable, I build my objects. Over the years I have found the subject that interests me most – the theater. I build theaters with lighting and with strong perspectives. The subject of many of them is Papageno. I have made over 20 dealing with him. I guess I see myself as him. I try to imagine what happened after the opera, how their lives developed going even to his death - a snowcovered little clearing surrounded by great trees, also white with snow. The grave is green, however, with flowers. Sounds a little corney and I guess it is, but I like it that way. I spend a lot of my time doing this in the winter. There has even been an article about them in one of the ceramic magazines here in Germany. In the Summer I am too involved with my big garden.

I built a house here in Berlin in the late 1960s. There is also a pretty large garden. Over the years it has developed and now the lot is almost full. I collect many plants and right now the rhododendrons are in full blossom and it is just a dream. Over the last 30 years I have done all the work myself. Now I canīt do as much of the heavy work as in the past but luckily the husband of my youngest daughter is a gardener and can send a couple of his men over to help.


Did I tell you about my family? I have 3 children, all have doctor degrees. My oldest daughter, Claudia, studied art history but now is working for the city, where she lives, hear Cologne. She is head of the department for culture, sport and city-planning. She and her husband have one daughter, Sarah.

My son, Alexander, is a lung specialist here in Berlin. He and his wife, who is also a doctor, dealing with pain therapy, have a boy, Leon, and live not far from me. We just had lunch together this noon.

My youngest, Constance, also lives not far from here. She is a verteranarien and works for the city, although she would prefer to have her own practice. Maybe some day. She and her “gardener!” husband have 2 boys, Alexander and Julius.

I have a very close relationship with my children and this is a great joy for me, since at the time of the divorce in 1971 this was not the case. They have all found their way back to me, however, and I have tried to stand by them as best I can. They are marvelous children and I am very proud of them. I guess one could say that I have had luck on both sides, perhaps more than I deserve.

Regarding acting: How do you consider that part of your perfomances? How did you learn to act?

Acting! Either you can or you canīt. Itīs as simple as that. One can intensify oneīs ability but "you canīt make a silk purse out of pigīs ear", as we say in Kansas! We had, for example, no acting classes at Juilliard. We had opera and movement classes but that was as close as we got. Many people make lots of money teaching acting but I doubt if they have ever succeeded in creating something that isnīt there in the first place. It must be freed, this is true, since as a young person, one is often afraid to "let oneīs self go". "What will the others think?" or "Am I making a fool out of myself?". For this reason such classes are probably good but I had no time. I was on the opera stage when I was 23.

The seed of talent for the stage must be there. You either feel completely at home on the stage with hundreds or thousands of people looking at you – or you donīt. You must be able to free yourself of inhibitions and fears. I always felt at home on the stage, perhaps more than any other place in the world. Here I was doing what I could do best and I was doing it well – most of the time. Many wonderful singers have given up the profession for the simple reason that they couldnīt bear the nervous stress and the fear that is always there and which increases the longer one is active as a singer. Perhaps actors are different, I donīt know. One must find a way to overcome this fear, again and again. This is all that counts! I donīt know how it is done, it just happens or it doesnīt. I think there are parallels with other professions here. When you are on the stage, however, you have your pants down, so to speak, and the public is looking at you. You canīt say, "Not today, I donīt feel like it!" or "Let me repeat that last phrase, I can do it better!" You only have one chance while singing and only one chance to form a figure that the audience can believe.

There is a lot of good singing with bad acting in the business. Many great singers were not blessed with a stage talent. If one is good enough, then this is accepted, as it should be. The perfect combination doesnīt happen very often. Such artists as Martha Mödl or Astrid Varney or Domingo are few and far between, unfortunately. One can only do the best possible to reach this goul.

One learns over the years to accentuate the moments of a role, which one does best and try to get past the weaker moments as quickly as possible. Every singer has his problems and his limits. I wouldnīt want to hear a "Winterreise" von Domingo, to give an exaggerated example. The trick is to recognize what is good for you and what isnīt. This instinct is one of the most important gifts, which a singer must have – perhaps it is in reality the deciding factor. It is not a question of what one wants to sing, it is what one can sing best. Many voices and many careers of singers have been ruined because the singer didnīt know the difference and was not willing to accept the limits of his talent.

What were your relationships with the stage directors? Whom do you see as the most influential?

Gustav Rudolf Sellner and Günther Rennert were the most influencial directors in my career. I worked with both often. Sellner came from the theater and knew little about opera. His directing style was, in my opinion, revolutionary at that time. There was no great movement on the stage. He would say, "If there is a question as to whether you should move or not, then donīt. "Donīt do something, stand there!" "Stand still and feel the movement inside yourself!" Everything comes from within, not from action.

Rennert was somewhat of the opposite. In the lighter operas, such a "Barbiere" or "Schweigsame Frau" of Strauß, he would not allow me to stand still a moment. He would yell "Daniel, donīt just stand there, do something!!" He had a marvellous feeling for the stage, however, and I always thought his comedies were the best. So few can do these. It is easy to be dramatic (again, if you can act!) but to be funny! – that is something completely different, see Charlie Chaplin - and he didnīt have to sing at the same time. To do this well requires a lot of condition and vocal stability. It also requires sincerity and inner truth. The audience – often unconsciously - can tell if an actor or a singer is “trying to be funny" or really "is". In the Wagner operas the roles are vocally louder and more dramatic but generally the singers only have to stand there and sing. In Rossini this is not the case.

Another important man in my career was Philipo Sanjust, the famous Italian stage designer. He was one of the most charming, generous and witty people I have ever known. He spoke 5 languages perfectly. I was always surprised when he would speak Italian, I couldnīt believe it was his mother tongue. Later in his life he did stage direction, too. He was never perhaps as great in the latter, but his knowledge of opera and music as a whole was astounding and his costumes were the beautiful in the business. His cartoons, especially those dealing with Birgit Nilsson are part of the stage history of our time. I wonder if a book has been written about him, if not, there should be!

The audience is more likely to accept a dramatic singer, who canīt fulfill a role on the stage but sings it well. In comedy this is not the case.

Reagrding teaching: Have you found the time to teach (even privately) during your performing career. If yes, have you enjoyed that? Was there any student of you with whom you are proud? If not, why so? Do you believe that a performing career and a teaching career cannot be succesfully combined?

I have never taught. I hate the thought! I have been offered a number of professorships in various excellent music conservatories in Germany, but they came at a time when I was so involved in my own career that there just wasnīt time. In order to get such a job, at least at that time, one had to give 18 hours of instruction each week and this didnīt include the student concerts, conferences and the like. Some singers worked professionally for 2 weeks, then spent 2 weeks at the school. This required, however, that one must give 36 hours in those weeks. This is unbelievably tiring and certainly not good for oneīs own voice. Some have been able to do this, I never could have and never wanted to.

I experienced this problem myself was when I studied with Mr. Harrell in New York. He was at the height of his career and was gone a great deal of the time. During these periods I had no instruction, of course, and one of the most important things for young singers needs is steady work, not with week-long periods of waiting for the teacher to return. I feel it is bad for young singers, although it worked with me, probably because I was able to work privately with several other teachers – not vocally, of course – during the periods of absence. For example, with my German and French pronuniation teachers at Juilliard. I learned repertoire so that I could work with Mr. Harrell when he returned. It is not the best way of training, however, and I never wanted to do this to young singers, for which I would have the responsibility.

I do love to coach, however, and do so with one good baritone now, who has become the leading baritone in Leipzig. He comes to Berlin as often as possible and we work on his roles and his concert repertoire. I have never taken a penny from him or from any other singer, although he could afford to pay me now. I have never liked the idea of taking money from young singers, most of whom have very little anyway.

It is strange that many young singers today just donīt want to work intensely with older, experienced singers. I have invited over the years a number to come to my home and work on Lieder or roles privately. They say they are very interested but I never hear another word from them. Perhaps it is because they think they would be influenced. They go to master-classes, however.

They write afterwards that they "studied" with this singer. "Studying" is something completely different. A teacher must take responsibility, be a constant receiving ear and listener for moments of fear, worry and frustration. Being a singer is such a mental strain. We work all our lives with two little chords that we canīt see, tune or feel, except when we are hoarse. We canīt exchange them, as is the case with instrumentalists. All these things make this profession a fight with nerves from the beginning to the end. A teacher must always be there to try to help, especially in the beginning years – but not only then! This takes time and often is an extra burden, when one is himself fighting against the same problems. The great singers of the past had their "maestros" as long as they sang professionally. I always felt it was like giving the voice a sauna, since if the person you are working with has good ears, he or she can notice little bad habits that creap in over the years. It is important to have such an unbiased control and not have to rely on newpaper reviews. I was blessed with good teachers from the beginning to the end, the last one being Loren Driscoll, a well-known tenor from the Deutsche Oper Berlin, who was a truly marvelous help to me in the later years of my career. Bless him!

The singer and the listener

A singer is like a radio station. The listener is the receiver. The listener must be reached by the artist, not only with his voice but also with his charisma, or there can be no communication and the performance – for this listener - is generally boring and disappointing. The listener must feel what the artist is trying to tell him. This is the hardest part of artistic work, since in reality it canīt be learned. It is taken for granted that the singer has a good, well schooled voice. This is, however, only the tool or medium, which allows him to converse with the listeners. The charisma of the singer somehow "forces" the audience to concentrate. The only real similarity is perhaps that we are both involved with the same piece.

Whom of the younger generation of baritone or bass-baritone singers do you like and why? Is there anybody whom you see as the carrier of your torch?

The question about the younger generation is difficult to answer. The singers today have a different mentality for the simple reason that the world has changed so much and this includes the music world, too. It has become big business and without internet, websites and agents a career just isnīt possible. I feel strangely old and from another planet when I hear them tell of what is necessary to build a career today and I am sure they feel the same way about me. In my time one just had to be good – and have a little luck - to be successful. Today I am not sure this is true, although it helps, of course.

Agnes Baltza told me years ago that the music field is getting to be more and more like a soccor field, where everyone is fighting for himself. It has gotten steadily harder, it seems to me. I am very grateful that I didnīt have to cope with such situations.

I had agents for certain concerts and opera engagements but the great majority were without. An opera house would call and ask if I would like to sing such and such a role at such and such a time. They would say what they could pay and we would argue a little but would always find a fee that was satisfying to both sides. I would check with the opera to see if I could be released for that period. That was all there was to it. Today everything is done through agents, often between continents.

In all the 37 years in which I was under contract with the Deutsche Oper, not a Mark was deducted from my paycheck for these long absences, although such free periods were not in my contracts during the first 10 years or so. They were generous beyond words and I will always be deeply grateful. That has all changed today. Even half-days are deducted from the wage.

The director of the artistic buro of the Deutsche Oper gave an interesting comparison. He said that in the years when I came to the house, an artistīs first question about the following season was “What roles can I sing?”. Now it is “How much leave-of-absense can I have”. He was certainly an expert in this. The young singers donīt feel the close affiliation to their home houses as we did. We were very proud to be members of the Deutsche Oper Berlin. The opera houses today also donīt lead and advise their young singers anymore. When they are no longer needed or have hurt their voices by singing too much too soon, they are fired, seemingly without any feelings of bad conscious or responsibility. I have talked about this a lot already. It is not an easy time for singers!

I donīt really think “a fire can be passed”, although I would like to believe it. Each time has itīs own rules and they are constantly changing. The only thing that is important is that the artist remains true to his own inner self and not allow him- or herself to be misused by agents and stage directors. Our voices are all we have. They set us apart from others, since they are singular golden gifts, which all the money in the world canīt buy. This – or silver or perhaps even copper – which we have in our throats must not be spent too quickly, too irrationally or too cheaply. We only have one chance.

Another interesting thing just occurred to me, which perhaps has something to do with this subject. When I came to Germany in 1953 my teachers already complained that the number of song-recitals were decreasing. (This tendency has continued until the present.) The interest in the German Lieder-repertoire was not as great as it was in earlier years. The recitals were no longer well attended and thus became financial risks for the organizers. The exception was Fischer-Dieskau, of course, who was almost a legend already, although he was not yet 30 years old. His recitals were always full. Indeed, they took on an almost ritual character, many listeners considering his interpretations to be the only possible ones. This made it difficult for other singers, especially baritones, and, as I have also written before, I consider it a miracle that so many came to hear an American singing the most German of all vocal repertoire. My gratitude is neverending!

There is not a single recital offered today in the various commercial concert-series in Berlin. The opera houses, especially the Staatsoper and the Komische Oper, still offer a number of interesting programs given by their members but that is all. I find this very sad, since the young generation of singers seem to have lost contact with this wonderful repertoire and I wonder if the following generations will find a way back. I can only hope this happens.

Have you ever been in Israel and especially, have you sung here?

I have been in Israel twice. The first time was in 1983, near the end of my concert career. I sang Schubert songs with the Jerusalem Symphony under Yoav Talm. It was such a moving experience that I can hardly remember any of the details. It was certainly not the best singing of my life, since I have never been able to combine my work with cultural aspects - vacation and profession is perhaps a better way of putting it. I was positively overwhelmed by everything. The members of the orchestra were very kind to me. One gentleman had tears in his eyes, so I went over and spoke to him. He hadnīt heard these wonderful songs in decades. I could feel my throat closing up and I had tears, too.

It met Ephriam Wagner, who you perhaps know. He is a wellknown music lover in Jerusalem. He took a lot of time to show me around, driving to Bethlehem and through the rough, stoney countryside. I thought constantly about who had trod this ground, who had seen what I was seeing. I was moved to tears again and again. What wonderful days we had. Even Schubert couldnīt compete with the Holy Land, where all our cultures seem to have originated. Ephriam and I have stayed in contact since then.

I stopped giving recitals around that time, since I wasnīt satisfied with what I was able to do and if there is anything I hate, it is singers who can only interpret. Many have no problem with this and the audiences are generally moved at the end but at the beginning they often fear that the artist wouldnīt be able to make it through the program. I sense such things instantly and it would take away the little voice or security that is left. I have always felt that it is better to lose 20 concerts than to sing one too many.

The second visit was with the Deutsche Oper in 1997, where I sang a priest in “Die Zauberflöte”. We were in Tel Aviv, which reminded us often of Paris until we saw the place where Rabin was murdered. We were very quiet after that and perhaps a little afraid. The audience was fabulous and the new opera house was very impressive. No place can compare with Jerusalem, however.

Regarding retirement: Do you feel emptiness? How do spend your days? What are your main focuses of interest nowadays?

Yes, I feel an emptiness in my life and this will probably always be the case. Singing, as I wrote before, is not a profession, it is a all enclosing, all consuming life-philosophy. It allows no gods beside it. Family, friends and the person, him- or herself, all must live in the shadow of the “Voice”. A strange life, I guess, but it is the only way. Life must go on, however, even when the singing stops. I have written about of my hobbies. Although they give me great joy, they can never replace that, which is gone forever - but the memories remain.

Last word

I am very grateful to the German audience. They have understood my work in a way that never would have been possible in the United States. I have been here almost 50 years now. I can hardly believe it. In spite of this, I still miss the smell of the wheat fields and the treacherous thunder, rain and wind of the storms in Kansas. My parents, grandparents and greatgrandparents are buried there, protected from the burning Summer sun and the snow and ice in Winter. It is a wonderful place to be but my home is here now. Here are those I love. I need them and perhaps they need me, too. Bless them all.


Barry McDaniel: Short Biography | Interview: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4


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