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The Voice of Authority

For years, in his weekly column for The New Yorker, Andrew Porter set the standard for informed, incisive, smart music criticism. In a conversation with WILLIAM R. BRAUN, Porter looks back at some memorable moments in his career.

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Portrait: James Bradshaw
© James Bradshaw 2011
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Fedora Barbieri as Eboli at Covent Garden, 1958
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Hans Hotter as Wotan Hanns
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Scholar, librettist, musicologist and author of more than three dozen English singing translations of operas, Andrew Porter is known best in the U.S. for the twenty-odd years he spent as classical-music critic for The New Yorker magazine. The seemingly boundless breadth of his enthusiasms was encapsulated on the day he sat for an interview last September in his London home. He had just been to what was likely the first performance in modern times of an obscure Baroque rarity, Leonardo Vinci's Il Medo, and he was about to leave for Monte Carlo to review the world premiere of Tod Machover's Death and the Powers. Every flat surface in his parlor was covered with books, scores or journals. Porter, who turns eighty-three this month, had been up until 6 A.M. doing some writing, he volunteered, as he cleared two small places to sit. Never the stereotypical Englishman, he made coffee rather than tea. Leaning back on his sofa, he lit the first of a half-dozen cigarettes and asked, "You'll turn this into decent English, won't you?" — a request that turned out to be entirely unnecessary.

OPERA NEWS: When you were at The New Yorker, what was your relationship with the editor, William Shawn?

ANDREW PORTER: You're talking about someone who gives me this awe in my voice, my admiration for him is so enormous. My twenty years at The New Yorker have made it impossible to be a happy critic in England now, because there you had an editor. I think the first thing I said to him was, "Is there something special about style or content in writing for The New Yorker?" and he said, "I chose you because I liked your writing, which I've been reading in The Financial Times. I like what you've done in the past, just go on doing it." At The New Yorker the editors are there to serve the writer. The hierarchy was like that. At newspapers now, someone called an arts editor decides it's up to him or her what is to be reviewed and at what length, and the critic is assigned to it. Whereas at The New Yorker and indeed at The Financial Times, when I was there with a whole team of critics working, we decided what needed reviewing and which was important and how to assign space. It doesn't happen anymore.

ON: You wrote the libretto for John Eaton's opera of Shakespeare's Tempest. People will be curious to know what you think of the libretto Meredith Oakes wrote for the Thomas Adès opera of The Tempest. 

AP: It isn't a comparison, really. If you're going to change something like "Full fathom five" — there isn't any Shakespeare in hers. It was meant to be written in poetry, I suppose, but it was written in doggerel. When Miranda's line is "O brave new world," what Meredith Oakes provided is "How good they are, how bright, how grand/ And I am loved by Ferdinand." It is [he giggles] slightly unworthy.

ON: You've written appreciatively of many of Adès's pieces. Are you keeping up with the new ones?

AP: Yes I am. I admire him enormously. I like the new work — it's a fascinating mind. I have reservations about Powder Her Face.

ON: Musically or dramatically?

AP: Dramatically. The music is very good. But he's gone along with the libretto, and it seems to be slightly sort of cheap and nasty about that poor Duchess. Tempest is beautiful music.

ON: With your long history, many decades, of reviewing opera, do you feel that the big companies are in trouble now?

AP: Yes I do. I think opera has changed from what it was. When Covent Garden was founded — the present company, after the war, with people like Edward Dent on the board — it was basically to form an English company performing largely in English. But when you produce Tristan und Isolde with Kirsten Flagstad, and she'd have to re-learn it in English, you do that in German. It was a kind of mixed company in that way, but now it's turned into — well, now there's no standing company. No young Amy Shuard who starts by singing small roles, or Joan Sutherland, who started by singing Clotilde to Callas in Norma and became a Norma herself in time. I don't think there is a company. To jump to English National Opera, when they did the Ring [which was often sung in Porter's English translation], going back thirty years, they could double-cast the principal roles within the company, or even triple-cast them. If Rita Hunter was feeling ill, then there was someone to sing it. There was Norman Bailey for Wotan, but there was also Raimund Herincx, and there were one or two other people in the company who could sing it if necessary. That sort of company no longer exists anywhere now. The Bayreuth Festival is an example of something I just don't want to go to when I look at the casts. There are fancy productions. But Bayreuth was such an important part of my life in Wieland Wagner's day, and now there's no Hans Hotter, no Astrid Varnay.

ON: But when Bayreuth hits the nail on the head there are fantastic productions. Christoph Schling­ensief's Parsifal was astonishing. Claus Guth's Fliegende Holländer was one of the most tremendously sustained productions of any opera I've seen. Isn't Bayreuth at least a good model for a festival — that you keep these operas alive through the productions rather than the singing?

AP: Not if it means rewriting the work, misrepresenting it. The last Parsifal I saw at Bayreuth was Götz Friedrich's, which I admired enormously. But it really wasn't as good as Wieland's, which was faithful to the piece, and he didn't try to impose any kind of new idea on it.

ON: You've written in musicological terms about the work you did in the library of the Paris Opera in the 1970s, prying back lines of music that had been pasted over or sewn over in the orchestral parts from the premiere of Don Carlos until you had pieced together the entire opening scene that had been cut after the dress rehearsal and never performed in public. But what was it like personally? What were your emotions when you uncovered so much music by a composer you revere?

AP: Oh, it was absolutely extraordinary to open the first violin part and find those pages. And it was nearly an hour of music — it wasn't just the opening scene. There it was, all constructible. I had to put it together, line by line. I rushed out, bought a lot of music paper, and copied from the first violin part, then the second violin part, et cetera. And the vocal parts were there too, all the roles. Very interesting.

ON: Did you know immediately what you had, or did it take some time to realize the extent of the discovery?

AP: I knew that there had originally been another opening scene, because I had done some work on the draft librettos at [the Verdi archive at] Sant'Agata, and one saw that there had been a scene there, so I knew exactly what it was.

ON: But what did you do? Did you do a little dance? Did you click your heels?

AP: I called Ursula Günther. So the moment I left Paris, having made my thing, she rushed out and published it all for Ricordi. 

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Kirsten Flagstad as Isolde
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ON: The opening scene was first done at the Met with the new John Dexter production, but now that the Met has brought in the Nicholas Hytner production from Covent Garden, it's been dropped again. Presumably you think it must always be included now. 

AP: Not necessarily. Verdi went on record as saying that he thought his last version [which does not have the scene] was more concise, and maybe even better, and in Italy it was usable by smaller companies. If you're a big company, if you're the Paris Opera and you've got five hours to spend and the money to put it on, you do it the way Verdi first mounted it. So it all depends on what your budget is, what your cast is, what your company is, what the time available to you is. 

ON: Many recordings of historic live performances are coming out on house-label CDs and satellite radio. Do you ever listen to something you originally reviewed years ago and think, well, I didn't get that one quite right?

AP: When the 1958 Covent Garden Don Carlo came out on record, it was a confirmation of what I'd felt when I first heard it. There are lots of things one criticizes now — because it was done in Italian translation, it was a shortened version — but no, I think one perceived it correctly at the time. 

ON: When you made an English singing translation of an opera, did you invite singers over so that you could work with people, or did you sing it yourself, or did you wait until the rehearsal period to really work things out?

AP: All three. The translation I enjoyed most, I think, was The Magic Flute, which I'd been invited to do for St. Louis. Colin Graham invited me from the first rehearsal, to go to it all and see how it worked. The tenor had rather an ugly sound on the vowel "eh," as in "led," and I wrote it out of his part, just about, and gave him vowels he sounded beautiful on. They're all pretty collaborative propositions when they're done properly. My Hamlet was first done in San Diego, so I only went for the last week of rehearsals, I think. I had to do it just imagining it myself. But we made lots of changes while I was there, once you hear it being sung.

ON:  Hamlet finally came back to the Met. Do you like the opera?

AP: Nadia Boulanger used to urge it on her students as being a particularly well-written opera. And I think it's that, but — I don't know. I like Ophelia's mad scene, I like a lot of Hamlet's role. Sherrill Milnes was very, very good in it. I've got a score somewhere down there [pointing in the vague direction of the floor]. My translation is about to be put in the new Bärenreiter edition.

ON: Should there be more performances of opera in the vernacular?

AP: I think the spread of the foreign-language fad has been the death of schools of singing. It's just a misconception of opera as not being a drama that people go to and take in as a musical drama. I'm not a hard-and-fast person about this at all. It depends entirely on what the opera is, what the audience is going to be, what the size of the theater is, and whether there is a good translation available. But the silliest thing of all is colleges performing in languages that the students don't understand and the audience doesn't understand. The Barber of Seville in Italian is one thing, because everyone knows it, and it doesn't matter, but when they do these not-very-well-known operas in the original language it seems to me very silly. Opera involves communication.

ON: To me, having read your reviews for thirty-five years, it seems as if you have no blind spots, that you are enthusiastic about everything.

AP: I'm curious about everything that turns up. There are things I don't care whether I hear them again. An opera by Marcos Portugal, an eighteenth-century opera, badly sung, that's a blind spot for me — that sort of churned-out ordinariness. But there's nothing by Donizetti I wouldn't want to hear again. The Vinci opera that I've just seen lasted six hours. And I began to understand why we needed Gluck to come along and reform opera, because it had become a degenerate art form. But that was only about after the fifth hour that one began to think that.

ON: Do you ever just let your hair down and listen to jazz or pop?

AP: A simple no.

ON: With all of the hundreds of people you've reviewed, has anyone ever taken great umbrage? Has anyone ever come after you?

AP: I gave offense to Colin Graham once by saying there were cheap touches in his Coronation of Poppea, which he did at the ENO. It was just a disagreement, really, that's all. But there's someone who looks rather like me who was attacked in the lobby of La Scala, thrown to the floor and kicked. I was thought to have been unappreciative of the prima donna Leyla Gencer. People were yelling, "How could you say what you said about our Leyla Gencer!" And the poor man was crying, "I'm not Andrew Porter! I'm not Andrew Porter!"

ON: You've been reviewing performances on a very heavy schedule since the 1950s. Is it even possible to single out anything you heard where you were just glad to be alive, where you felt lucky to attend the things you heard?

AP: A very obvious one is, I'm so glad that I heard Flagstad, year after year, as Brünnhilde, as Isolde, once as Sieglinde. I mean I feel very lucky on that. It's the greatest voice I ever heard, and she sang the words, and she was a very great artist, and she was so moving. I still remember the Liebestod — it comes alive as a memory.

ON: And which conductor brought out the best in her?

AP: The conducting was never good! Karl Rankl wasn't the world's greatest, and the production was ... well, there was never a production. I mean, everything was in its proper place. Hans Hotter was always there, Brünnhilde was there, and all was well. spacer 

WILLIAM R. BRAUN is a pianist and writer based in Connecticut. 

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