Coda: Listener of Note — John Kander
© Ramin Talaie/Corbis 2013
How old were you when you began to see a direct connection between your fascination with opera and what you were doing as a composer?
I don't think I ever didn't. When I was at Oberlin, I wrote a couple of shows. I had a real facility with piano, a very good ear, which stood me in good stead. And when I came to Columbia University, Douglas Moore and his family became my family. One drunken night, Douglas said, "You know, I think if I had it to do all over again, I would write for Broadway." And that gave me the kick in the ass that I needed.
ON: You were studying with Douglas Moore during the premiere of The Ballad of Baby Doe?
JK: Oh, yes. I had known it from its earlier versions. And this is a terrible thing to say. I knew the piece, and he did it in Central City. Then when they came to do it at New York City Opera, they were going to use Beverly Sills. And I had seen her in that Tchaikovsky opera, and I remember he said that he had heard her, and that she was very highly recommended. And I said, "She's all wrong for Baby Doe," which is one of the dumbest things I ever said in my life, because she was magnificent!
ON: So much was going on at Columbia at that time. This was also during the time you studied with Jack Beeson.
JK: Yes, I studied with Jack, and with Otto Luening, too.
ON: Can you crystallize what you learned from those men in terms of your own composition?
JK: All of it was theatrical. With Jack and Otto and Douglas, the emphasis was always on trying to be theatrically honest. What may sound good in concert or look good on paper may either be too long, the interval between singing may be too long or too short. Puccini was a master at this kind of thing. People tend to look down on that kind of writing, but he knew exactly how long it took somebody to think before they said something. Oddly enough, what people mistakenly think of as much more complicated — Wagner — think of the conversation between Sachs and Eva. It's brilliant! She's saying things to him that are very seductive, and he's trying to figure out if he's being scammed or not. Anybody who wants to write for musical theater, whether it's musical comedy or opera, should look at these works and learn.
ON: Can you talk about some of the performances that have stayed with you over the years?
JK: I love Rosenkavalier and have since I was a kid. I saw one of Lehmann's very last Marschallins, in San Francisco during the war. I was stationed in San Francisco. Years later, I saw Schwarzkopf do it, which was altogether different. And then I saw Renée Fleming, who's a friend of mine, and Susan Graham do it, illuminating those characters with such intimacy, and I heard and saw things that I didn't know about. Renée has a moment in the first act when she says, "Einmal," and then she stops, and Octavian says, "What?" and Renée has a dirty little laugh. Just marvelous. Every great performer teaches you something that you didn't know. I think you keep going in the hope that you will have that kind of experience. But I also think there's a lot of shit thrown up on the stage.
I think every age gets the theater that it wants. Also, there's a terrific nostalgia that people have for singing. "Those were the days."
ON: Always. I often think about my first operagoing in the early 1980s.
JK: Yes, and you write that every once in a while, and I always want to pick up the phone and call you.
ON: It's easy to get pulled into it. I try not to, but I do. But I was wondering — is there anything about Lehmann's performance as the Marschallin that has stayed with you?
JK: Yes, but it was of its time, really. The curtain came up, and the Marschallin and Octavian were both sitting in a chair. Whatever the horns in the prelude say about what they were just doing, they were both sitting in a chair. Lehmann was wonderful, but also kind of motherly. The Marschallin, as I had grown up with it on those discs, was this very warm, wise, older woman. Her relationship with Octavian was sort of "I know what's best." What came with the later performances with the Marschallin was "I know what's best, but oh — let's go back to bed." Which is actually much more to the point.
The thing that Lehmann did that I've never seen anyone do was the entrance in the third act. There was a moment where, just as it happens in the theater, everybody thinks, "Here comes a very great lady, and we don't know her all that well, but whatever she wants to happen is going to happen." I've never seen anyone who quite carried that off in the same way. Did you ever see Rysanek do the Marschallin? Her voice for the Marschallin was not exactly ideal, but she did something I have never seen anybody do, and it was totally against what Hofmannsthal says. She was so in love with Octavian, and wherever Octavian was on the stage, her eyes went there. If she was talking to someone else, there was a certain secret smile as she watched him.
ON: I just don't buy that we now have acting on the opera stage for the very first time.
JK: I don't quite agree. And I said something stupid not long ago. I ran into Marilyn Horne the night that Patricia Racette, Jonas Kaufmann and Bryn Terfel were doing Tosca. Jesus. And I was excited by the fact that we had three people on that stage who could really do it. And I made a stupid remark to Marilyn. I was kneeling at her seat, and I said, "Isn't it wonderful that we have a generation of people who can act," and she took my hand and said, "Yes, but we thought that's what we were doing!" And I thought, you should have slapped my face.
I think one thing that has changed is a kind of training. Even a singer who is not a natural actor — more people are learning now how to deal with their bodies onstage. It's creating the possibility of an atmosphere on the stage that is more exciting.
Send feedback to OPERA NEWS.