From the Minnesota Opera website http://www.mnopera.org
Stephanie Wendt, a pianist and afternoon radio host for Classical 89.3, talks to Maestro Fischer-Dieskau about life as a conductor. (September 2003)
Q. Have you conducted the Merry Widow before?
A. A long time ago, I conducted it in Naples, in the Teatro San Carlo, which is a very important theater in Italy. I have also done it a couple of times in German cities where I was Kapellmeister at the Stadt Theater.
Q. What brings you back to The Merry Widow time and again?
A. It is the only innocent work, so to speak, of the successful Lehár. At that point – 1905 – he very good at what he did. What came after that in the form of operettas was a bit more questionable. The music for The Merry Widow is without doubt really very good, even though it became one of Hitler's favorite pieces.
Q. I didn't know that!
A. Isn't that terrible!
Q. What attracted Hitler to it?
A. That's a good question. Hitler was Austrian and so was Lehár. Poor Lehár thought it was good for him to write during the Nazi period in Germany to try to be on good terms with his Führer, which is not such a lovely aspect of his character. He had been good friends with Jewish singers. For instance, Richard Tauber was the great tenor of the time for all of the Lehár operas, but Lehár really wouldn't do much to help him. At the time of The Merry Widow, this had all not yet happened. The music is just fantastic.
Q. How so?
A. Lehár had a new idea. There had been the operetta of songs. This is the operetta of dance. It has all the popular dances of the time. There are some Polish dances - the mazurka and others – in the same musical number as a Viennese waltz. There's a cakewalk, and what the grisettes in Paris used to dance – the cancan. He stole that from Offenbach. Also, the libretto brings rather new ideas into the game – for instance, the right to divorce. Hungary was the first country to liberalize divorce laws. Every other phrase you can hear it. Married people are having affairs with other married people and all that liberal stuff. Nowadays, we don't realize anymore how interesting that must have been for listeners of the early 20th century.
Q. Is The Merry Widow interesting to conduct?
A. It's always said that it is very difficult for conductors. The tempo is changing constantly. There's a lot of rubato; it's just not straightforward. If one would interpret this music in a straightforward manner, one would make a big mistake. It's a challenge to bring everybody together. Yet I don't see a way to communicate this style to the instrumentalists and singers by meticulously beating every eighth note. I rather thought it would be a good idea to make them feel the same way I do, and then just try to listen to them. Hopefully this is successful.
Q. Tell me about your recent conducting engagements, prior to The Merry Widow.
A. I've just started my first season as music director of a Canadian orchestra in Kitchener-Waterloo; it's near Toronto. It is a wonderful orchestra, fairly young. I have just done Beethoven's 9th with them. I was also in Italy doing Don Giovanni in Teatro Turino.
Q. What was good and what was hard about growing up in a professional musical family? People do not always know that my mother was a cellist; she was a good musician, so if I am musical at all, I have inherited that from my father and my mother. People always have this famous father [baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau] in mind, but there is a huge influence from my mother, and earlier generations of her family as well. In terms of becoming a musical person, and getting to love music, that couldn't have been easier and better than to grow up in this family. But in terms of a professional career, it was certainly a hindrance.
Q. Did people not trust that you had talent of your own?
A. Exactly. I had to go through 25 years of that. Always the same question. But you get used to that, too. I mean, it is enough if there is one great Fischer-Dieskau . But I am very happy in what I am doing, and I hope to do as well.
Q. Did you ever consider doing anything else, or was there too much music in your blood for that?
A. I am still studying other things. If I have time, I go to the university and study Italian literature. I could have done other things, I guess. I had the normal education everyone gets, but there were people who convinced me that I should do what I am doing now. I think they were right.
Q. So many conductors and singers tell me that the life of a touring musician is hard on their marriages and their children and their friendships. All of those things you must have known as a child.
A. Yes, exactly.
Q. And yet you went into it with your eyes wide open.
A. In my case, there wasn't much of a family, and still there was. I haven't seen much of my parents. My mother died forty years ago, almost. My father was barely there, and still there is a very strong relationship. Every psychoanalyst can tell us why that is. There doesn't need to be the physical presence necessary to form that. There is enough of my father in me. I have two brothers who have the same sort of life; my brothers and I do not tend to have children ourselves because of what we went through as kids. And that of course is also interesting. I have lived in a happy marriage for a long time. I very much enjoy traveling and being other places. I just think that's fabulous. As long as one has one home somewhere to look forward to, even if it is for a short while.
Q. What dreams do you still have?
A. One doesn't have to look so far. I would actually very much like to come back here; they are doing beautiful German-language operas. To tell you the truth, I would just like to stay in the business. There are so many conductors nowadays. There are so many of everything. Many conductors run out of work all of a sudden. One shouldn't be talking about that; we all know that. But I do, because it's a fact. I would be very happy if I could just continue what I do. I think it is a privilege. So this is my dream and my wish. If it comes true, I will be very happy.
Q. What do you listen to when you don't have to prepare for a particular musical event?
A. Nothing. I don't listen to music. If I don't have to do it, then I prefer to read.
Q. Does that help to clear your mind?
A. I think so. If one has to deal with music eight hours a day, that's enough. I usually conduct from memory. It's so much work; I have to be diligent every day.
Q. Why do you conduct from memory?
A. Because it gives you more freedom. It allows a more objective sound picture. You can listen to what you do much more carefully. You are not bound to a piece of paper in front of you. It's more honest in a way.
Q. And not more frightening?
A. Ah, no, but a hundred times more preparatory work.
Q. I imagine that in the process of memorizing, a tremendous amount of studying takes place.
A. Yes, that is true. I am not trying to criticize my colleagues here, but many conductors take on so much work. One is tempted to accept far too many offers, and then all of a sudden there is no time for preparation. You wake up and you stand there and you wave your arms and it has nothing to do with the piece. There is no identification with the music, no knowledge behind it. This makes for so much trouble between orchestras and conductors worldwide. I think most conductors who are busy want to stay busy; they are spending their time on the telephone instead of over their scores. That's very terrible.
Q. It's understandable, when as you say, they may be worried about their next possibility for work.
A. Yes, but the musical products are just not good, and there's nobody to judge. Who can judge that? Who can really say? Very, very few people know enough about music to say, that's a good conductor and that's not. You never know how much the orchestra does on its own, and so on. But that's a very delicate thing to talk about. I don't know why I talk about that!
Q. When do you feel as though you've done a job well?
A. When I feel understood by the musicians. I also think the psychic climate is very important. I can observe that from where I stand, whether it's the singers on stage or whether it's the orchestra. I do not work; I just stand there and listen, and so I am pleased if everybody finds his or her place in life during those two hours when the music is being performed, and is happy with what he or she does. Then I feel I have done my job well.
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