Marek Janowski made his debut at the Lyric Opera with Lohengrin during the 1980 season. Once, at a reading rehearsal, Janowski took a good half hour to dress down the English Horn player in front of the whole orchestra. I took that time to compose the response that I would make if he were to subject me to that sort of treatment: “Maestro, this is the best I can do, but it’s not the worst I can do.” I was able to use that statement four years later, when Janowski returned to conduct Frau ohne Schatten. He walked away from me after I said it, but he complimented me during the dress rehearsal. I told him that I hoped that my solo went as well on opening night, to which he responded, “Why wouldn’t it?” I told him that I could get nervous, and he asked me why I would get nervous. I suppose that since conductors don’t have to worry about playing in tune or playing difficult passages, they wouldn’t have any reason to get nervous.
There’s a cello solo in Ariadne auf Naxos that involves a large shift to a very high note on the A string, which I played will all due panache. Maestro Janowski asked me if I could play it without portamento, to which I responded, “Maestro, have you ever heard anyone play this solo without portamento and get the high G?” He told me that in Germany there are one or two who can do it. Then I ceremoniously played the solo without any kind of a slide, banging out the high G from six inches above the fingerboard, and said, “Now there are three cellists who can do it.” I never took a shine to him, but Maestro Janowski seemed to take a real liking to me, and he congratulated me after many performances.
Jean Fournet (1913-2008) was a French flutist who had studied conducting with Philippe Gaubert. He began his conducting career in 1936, and became director of the Paris Opéra Comique and a professor of conducting at the École Normal de Musique in Paris in 1944. By the time he came to conduct at the Lyric Opera in 1965, the French style of interpreting opera had been pretty much a lost art. He revived it with his interpretations of works like Massenet’s Werther and Manon, Debussy’s Palleas and Melisande. Maestro Fornet was very severe and never smiled, which inspired some people in the orchestra to refer to him as “Stoneface” and “Mt. Rushmore.”
There is an interlude between the fourth and fifth acts of Massenet’s Don Quichotte that is for solo cello—a lesser-known parallel to the famous Meditation from Thais for solo violin. I had a great deal of respect for Fournet, so I played the solo in the Gaelic style, the way I imagined he would like it to be played (not the way I would usually play it). Fournet, who didn’t speak English, came up to me at the end of the run and gave me a big hug and a kiss on both cheeks. Years later one of my colleagues approached Maestro Fournet when he conducted the Metropolitan Opera and told him that she was a friend of mine. His response was, “He is my friend.”
I met Kenneth Schermerhorn on my very first American Ballet Theater tour, and I worked with him on and off until he left ABT in 1972. I was very glad when he returned in 1982 to conduct Swan Lake, because the demoralized, desensitized, and disinterested orchestra had not been sounding good for weeks. As soon as Maestro Schermerhorn started the overture, the members of the orchestra witnessed a dramatic change.
Maestro Schermerhorn delayed and elongated the second and fourth beats of the first several bars of the Swan Lake overture in a way that allowed the principal oboist enough time to fill the Metropolitan Opera House with his sound, and he supported the oboe solo with a heavier and more portentous accompaniment than we were accustomed to playing. By the time the overture ended we sounded like a first rate symphony orchestra.
Kenny’s favorite quote was “If you can make a piece of garbage sound like great music, you are a real artist.” He took great delight in finding the ultimate ways of phrasing tawdry music, and making it sound elegant. I shared his enthusiasm for using musical elasticity to figuratively make gold out of brass-colored tin.
Kenny left the American Ballet Theatre in 1968 to serve as the music director in Milwaukee, and came back to the ABT in 1982 in order, as he put it, “to put his girls through college.” He moved on to become the Music Director of the Nashville Symphony, and stayed there for 20 years. He told me a few years before he died that he was happier there than he had ever been with his career and with his life. The feeling was obviously mutual since the Nashville Symphony named their hall in his honor.
In the early days of my time at the Lyric Opera, there was a lot of interaction between singers and instrumentalists, and certainly between singers and me. Geraint Evans was always happy to talk about his roles, particularly in Wozzeck and Billy Budd. Piero Cappuccilli and Martina Arroyo were very happy to go over the cello solos that acted as duets between the cello and singer in Rigoletto and Masked Ball, and would go through these duets as often as I needed to feel really comfortable with their rubatos.
Joan Sutherland came to the Lyric to sing the title role of Lucia in 1975. Her rendition of the famous “Mad Scene,” was astonishing and compelling. I simply couldn’t imagine how anybody could perform at that level, night after night. Since I had worked with Sutherland and her husband Richard Bonynge for several years I didn’t consider it inappropriate to ask Bonynge if he would arrange for me to ask his wife a few questions in private. They invited me to come to their apartment at the Executive House on Wacker Drive before a performance of Elektra.
I decided to broach the subject of performing at such a high level night after night by complaining about my lazy cello section and how I had to do all the work. Joan Sutherland told me that when she started out at Covent Garden, she was probably a fifth-string Desdemona. Still, she was ready to walk out on the stage and deliver the role every night. She complained about how tired she was, and wondered whether she had five more years left in her (as it happened, she came back ten years later).
When I asked her how she did what she did, she told me that she first tried to sing everything perfectly in time and perfectly in tune, so that any liberty she might take was made from strength and not from weakness. She also told me that she spent most of her time relentlessly practicing the things that were really hard, and that she got a lot of help from Bonynge because of the way that he set things up. Bonynge was the only conductor I ever worked with who asked me to play as loud as I possibly could in a bel canto opera. When I mentioned that it was a first for me, he said, “What harm do you think you can do to the voices singing up there?” (and one of them was Pavarotti).
I found him to be a very fine musician, particularly in the bel canto style, and deserved all of his success. I have a lovely autographed picture in my studio of Joan Sutherland thanking me for my most moving playing.
Another singer who was very generous to me was Placido Domingo. When he came to do Lucia, he sang the famous last aria half a tone down, which put us both in the key of D-flat major instead of the original key of D major. I protested and started to play the finale of Don Quixote in D-flat major. He told me that “Don Quixote is better in D major, but Lucia is better in D-flat major.” He was right. The dying scene had much more pathos in D-flat than it did in the bright key of D major. Richard Tucker also sang this passage in D-flat major, but everybody else in my experience sang it in D major. After the first performance, Domingo insisted that I take a bow from the pit. I considered this extremely generous.
During the 1990s, I had the opportunity to work with some truly wonderful conductors at the Lyric Opera. The finest Rosenkavalier I ever played was with Jeri Kout, a Czechoslovakian conductor. He was probably the best conductor ever to step into the pit of the Lyric Opera, but he never achieved the great stardom that he deserved. His control over the orchestra was like Heifetz playing a violin concerto. Everybody vibrated at the same rate of speed. He achieved amazing nuances, particularly in an opera as difficult as Rosenkavalier. Maestro Kout had one encounter with Kathleen Battle who making a huge pain in the ass of herself while singing the role of Sophie. Kout finally called Ardis Krainik to the pit and said, “If the tantrums of a tempermental soprano are more important to you than a conductor who has done this work more than fifty times, you may keep your money and I will go back to Berlin tonight.” Kathy was brought to heel. When Jeri Kout replaced Carlos Kleiber at the Metropolitan Opera for a performance of Rosenkavalier, they thought he was almost as good as Kleiber. Kleiber was considered God at the Met, so no higher compliment could ever be paid.
Another amazing experience was working with Zubin Mehta when he conducted Wagner’s Ring in 1996. He stayed in the opera house practically around the clock, and was open to answering questions from anyone. He rehearsed us relentlessly, but he also showed appreciation for any real talent that he noticed in the orchestra. He brought out the best in us at all times.
At one point in Das Rhinegold there is a cello passage that was simply impossible to play at his tempo. I politely asked Mehta if he could tell me what cellists in other orchestras do with this passage, and he responded by saying, “If you don’t know, who does?” I explained that the passage was simply too fast to be played, and he responded by saying, “That’s no problem. I can gradually slow the tempo down for four bars, do the cello passage in a slower tempo, and then speed it up in another four bars.” That’s exactly what he did.
During another rehearsal when the first and second violins were not quite together, he described it as sort of like a horse race where one horse wins by a nose. After he repeated the passage, our principal violist said, “I think the nose is getting longer.” When I repeated a passage one time too many in Das Rheingold, Mehta asked me “What would Leitner say?” to which I replied, “He would give me a dirty look, and say, ‘Vat are you doing?’”
Occasionally Mehta would do things that I felt were not respectful of the wishes of the composer, like pushing the tempo in the opening of Sigfried (he thought it was boring), but I loved his flexible approach to every other phrase in the Ring, and appreciated his strong connection to the musicians in the orchestra. Whenever I put a nice little slide in a solo, he would raise his eyebrows with pleasure. I will never forget his warm handshake after the first act of Die Walkure in the first Ring cycle, saying, “That was a beautiful solo.”
I played Masked Ball and Don Carlo with Daniele Gatti. Gatti refused to accept my interpretation of the cello solo in the Masked Ball. He told me that it sounded too much like Pagliacci. He explained, “Here you have a situation with a woman whose husband believes she’s committed adultery with his best friend, and in her heart she has. And he says, ‘Now I’m going to kill you.’ She pleads, ‘Before you do, allow me to embrace my young son one more time.’” Gatti said to me, “Is this a cry or a whisper?” I told him, “You’re a young man, but you have an old soul.” When it came to Don Carlo, he explained to me that King Phillip was about 55 years old, and was too tired to try anymore. I explained that I was 55 and understood this man very well.
Christian Theilemann seemed to be on the sunny side of 40 when he conducted Die Meistersinger at the Lyric, and he embraced his German culture to a great degree. He seemed to almost be a reincarnation of Ferdinand Leitner, but with a much more flamboyant style. In the first intermission, he asked me whether I thought I could teach my colleagues to use the bow the way I did. I told him this was not going to happen for two reasons: the first was that my colleagues were not interested in learning anything from me, and the second was that it would take way more time than I had to do the job.
When I learned that my father had died right before the stage and orchestra rehearsals, and Theilemann called me to offer his condolences and told me how terrible it was for him when his father died. Then he asked when I would come back to “help him.” I did make it back for the first performance, and we agreed that every note in the first act of Die Meistersinger was pure genius.