Roundtable Discussion with three Legends:
Martha Moedl, Birgit Nilsson and Astrid Varnay talk about their careers for Bavarian TV.
Conductor of the program is Klaus Schultz.
There is a longish table. Astrid Varnay is sitting at the front on the left side, Martha Moedl is sitting across from her on the right side,with Schultz sitting to her left. Nilsson is in the middle at the end of the table.
The program opens with a sound clip of the third act of "Walkuere" with Varnay as Bruennhilde, Moedl as Sieglinde and Nilsson as Ortlinde.
From here on KS= Klaus Schulz, MM= Martha Moedl, BN= Birgit Nilsson, AV= Astrid Varnay
KS- Astrid Varnay, Birgit Nilsson and Martha Moedl only ever stood on a stage together once, 1954 in Bayreuth in the third act of "Die Walkuere." Afterwards they were the Isoldes and Bruennhildes in all the great opera houses of the world. I experienced them often, and worked with them professionally. In Munich they came together again to tape this program for Bavarian Television. I had the honor to be their host, and to give them their cues for this discussion. Frau Moedl, the road that led to your career was very unusual, one might say unique.
MM- I wanted to sing. Nature gave me a big voice, and I used it at any opportunity, in the bathtub, at work... I wanted to develop it, but it remained just a wish until the war came. And it came, and took away all the last chances for study, the conservatories, the music schools. I did go to the conservatory for three months, and then it too was destroyed. I had no training at all, I knew nothing, I didn't know what an orchestra does, how you are supposed to sing, I just could, naturally. Then I got a message from a colleague who was in Remscheid that they were looking for a mezzo and I should apply. I travelled from Nuremburg to Remscheid, in the terrible war conditions. I auditioned, they hired me, and my career had begun.
KS- What was your first role?
MM- Haensel. In "Haensel und Gretel."
KS- After the war, the career had to continue. What happened after Remscheid?
MM- I had a contract for Dusseldorf.
KS- As first dramatic mezzo.
MM- Yes. My first role there was Carmen, I sang a lot there... Macbeth, Eboli, the "Wozzeck" Marie, all sorts of things. From there I went to Hamburg and from Hamburg to Bayreuth. It took four years until I went to Bayreuth, and I used them to learn. There was already my colleague Varnay, I got records and wanted to copy them, but then I realized that everyone has their own voice, and you can't copy. But I've learned so much from others, because I always wanted to learn. Then suddenly Wieland Wagner came to Hamburg, he said he was looking for a Kundry and he wanted to hear me. I was totally hoarse that day, so I drank lemon, and that took away the bit of voice I had left, but somehow he heard what was there, and I was engaged. I was in heaven. I could hardly believe I was going to be at Bayreuth.
At this point a German Newsreel about the opening of the first post-war Bayreuth season is shown, including a shot of Varnay, and another of Wieland Wagner and Moedl together.)
MM- That was a handsome couple, wasn't it, Moedl and Wieland?
BN- Like yesterday, isn't it.
AV- (joking) You weren't there yet.
BN- (likewise) I wasn't born yet!
MM- You both came later. I was the first that Wieland worked with in 1951. And he was a beginner too, that is, not actually a beginner, he had worked other places, but he was a beginner at Bayreuth. And so we worked together, and it was the fact that we thought alike... unconsciously, I did just what he wanted. I accepted everything he said and did it, because I thought that way too. And from the work we did on "Parsifal" we developed new insights that hadn't been there before.
(An audio clip of Moedl as Kundry in 1951 is played.)
MM- Knappersbusch tempo.
AV- Slow he said, but not dragging, slow but not dragging... you couldn't drag, it was already so slow!
MM- I was 25 meters from him in that scene, and I couldn't see him because he was sitting down, then suddenly he stood up, and I could see him...he was like a god, he stretched one arm out, and then the other, and waves of intensity came from the orchestra pit...
AV- But he never covered the voices.
(A video clip of Knappersbusch conducting the transformation music from "Parsifal.")
MM- I always found it incredible when he stood up.
AV- Yes. And the orchestra went right with him...
MM- And the crescendos...
AV- Yes, the crescendos. He started sitting down, then he spread his arms out, and you thought, that's it, but then he stood up, and woe to you if you didn't have enough breath!
MM- Sometimes I breathed three times in one phrase in "Parsifal."
AV- That didn't bother him.
BN- But in the rehearsal he didn't have those tempi, just in the performance, and sometimes, of course, you were very surprised! Especially if you were a beginner.
MM- I did the dress rehearsal of the "Ring" with him in Naples. I had a recording of you (indicating Varnay) and I learned it from that, and he didn't do any rehearsals, I kept studying your record, and then he showed up for the dress rehearsal, and the theater there is full of cats, and they leave puddles all over the place, and he took my hand and led me to one of the puddles and said "That was Bruennhilde."
MM- And that was all my rehearsal for the entire "Ring"!
AV- (laughs) Would you believe it!
BN- I was to do "Salome" with him in Munich. He didn't like "Salome" very much, and we were all in a bad mood, and the Jochanaan, I don't remember who it was, it wasn't Metternich, it was a guest, and he was very insecure, and made one mistake after another, and Knappersbusch yelled at him from the pit, and I thought "Oh my God! if that happened to me, I don't know what I'd do." So then, of course, I mad a mistake, at "Ach, du wolltest mir deinen Mund nicht kuessen lassen" I came in a quarter too early, and he stood up and said a bad word that started with "A" and ended with "Hole." And my tears poured down and I cried, the whole final scene that takes about 18 minutes, I cried and sang, and Knappersbusch didn't look up once. He could have helped me. I'll never forget it. No conductor would dare tdo that today, the singers would walk out. But it used to be like that. You can live or die with a conductor like that. It is so different when you get a singer's conductor, like Jimmy Levine. Wonderful.
AV- Who breathes with the singer.
BN- Who breathes with the singer. Who enjoys it, and inspires you. Who has the music in his head, and not his head in the music. Like Mitropolos, he knew every rehearsal number.
AV- Mitropolos was a great influence on me. He wanted me for "Elektra", and I said "Elektra with 30 or 33 is a bit early!" But he wanted me, he said "It is a concert." I stood beside him, and felt I was being carried on air. It was wonderful. I had a voice that was young for the role, and he held the orchestra back when necessary, but then let it go in between, it was a magnificent encounter. Then I worked with many great men... I never worked with a female conductor, I don't know if someone else....
MM- (laughs) Sorry for my reaction. I stand on stage and there is a woman in the pit, and I feel deserted, not defended or protected. I'm sorry, but that's how I feel.
BN- I'm nervous when a conductor conducts by memory. In a concert it's different. The players have the music in front of them. But you can have a blackout, it happened to me with Karajan, and he had no idea where he was. The prompter was so sure that I knew my role... it was Isolde... that he wasn't paying attention, and he peered through the hole in the prompter's box to see what Karajan was doing, but Karajan acted like it had nothing to do with him, and was paying a lot of attention to the concert master, until after a page I found out where I was. It was awful!!! And then in Bayreuth in Tristan, 1957 or 58, it was the premiere with Sawallisch, the duet in the second act with Windgassen, and Windgassen was always so reliable, I just listened to him and took over his words... "Ewig! Ewig! Isolde mein! Tristan mein!" and so on, and suddenly he got lost, and I didn't know where I was, I relied totally on Wolfie. So I looked at Sawallisch, because I knew there was a high B coming up, or maybe a Bb, I don't remember now, on "Ewig!" and Sawallisch threw me the cue and saved me. But he had the score! But if someone is conducting by memory, they can't do that.
AV- Knappersbusch was asked why he didn't conduct without a score, and he said "I can read music!"
BN- He had a sharp wit.
AV- The sharpest of anyone. But it plays a great role who is down there. He is like a father, who can help. We don't have a score with us, we have to have it by memory, we have to control our voice and our emotions, things can happen, but if there is someone there you trust, things don't happen. It is what they radiate. And then if you suddenly feel you want to expand a phrase, he understands and lets you do it.
BN- And he realizes you are in good voice and lets you use it, it's lovely, and inspiring.
MM- What I felt with Furtwaengler... that was very strange. Sometimes I think I didn't appreciate it at the time. I did "Parsifal" with him at La Scala, that was before Bayreuth, and I thought, "Oh yes, that's fine I'll sing and get along with him somehow. It was only later that I realized how I had taken it for granted, and I don't know why, but that's how it was. Working with him was the greatest musical experience of my career. I can say that with a clear conscience without insulting anyone else. He was the mentor that reached the deepest recesses of my heart. I can't even say why now. Furtwaengler was Furtwaengler, and there was no one like him. That doesn't mean the others are less, but there just isn't another Furtwaengler. I just felt a support from him down there. I just understood what he wanted.
BN- An ideal pair. You both had so much heart. "Tristan" with Boehm in Bayreuth, that was like that. So much heart and warmth. The opera meant so much to him. Sometimes his tears flowed when he was conducting. It was wonderful.
MM- He sang along.
AV- Yes, he did. Fortunately not as loudly as Toscanini!
(Video clip of Boehm conducting a "Tristan" rehearsal)
MM- He was the only one I was afraid of.
AV- You didn't dare take your eyes off him.
MM- I was only afraid of him because he could be so cutting in such a terrible Austrian way. He didn't mean it, he meant well, but he had this wounding way about him.
AV- He could be very nasty.
BN- It wasn't a good atmosphere on the stage, it was very irritating.
AV- But actually you didn't have to be afraid of him Martha, because he usually picked out a scapegoat among the singers of the smaller roles. It was because he himself was nervous, and had to let it out somehow. And there were a couple of ways he could be handled. I remember a dear chap who sang David in "Meistersinger." Wohlfahrt was his name. Boehm kept yelling at him "What are you doing up there!! Look at me!!! Always the damn stage direction! Look at me! Look at me!" I was in my hotel and Wohlfahrt came to me and said "Astrid, I'm going to go back to being a barber." I said "No, you won't be a barber. There is only one thing you can do, I've known it to work before. I knew someone who went to him and said "Herr Professor, what do you want me to do?" and then he found someone else to pick on. I remember a "Tristan" with him, he picked on the Brangaene. It was only a way for him to calm his own nervousness, but people who didn't know that were very hurt.
MM- Somehow everyone loved him anyway, even if they were afraid of him.
AV- But he was an excellent conductor, no doubt about that. Very controlled, with very small movements, which is dangerous for anyone with the slightest problem. Even if you were moving on stage, you always had to watch him, because if you didn't, he would change the tempo so that you did. That was what was so difficult.
BN- He didn't mind following though, if you led. He loved voices.
AV- Oh yes.
BN- He followed wonderfully in Bayreuth. It is hard for a conductor there, because they can hardly hear the singers. A lot of conductors have problems there.
AV- I had a problem with Karajan that started in Bayreuth. It was "Tristan" and the tenor and I were a long way away from him in the second act. And particularly then he was going through his esoteric period, and he was tracing clouds in the air, and you didn't know which was the first and which was the third beat.
MM- And if he got lost, he made circles.
AV- Yes. This was his means of expression. But I suffered! It was terrible for my nerves! Two colleagues, who I won't name, went to Wieland Wagner and said "We can't work with Herr von Karajan like this." I was in America, talked it over with my husband, and wrote that I admired Herr von Karajan very much, but under these circumstances, I didn't say I wouldn't, but I said I'd prefer not to work with him. Then someone showed him my letter, and he put me on ice for ten years.
BN- Yes, and that is how I came to Vienna for Bruennhilde.
AV- Yes, I know.
BN- So do I. It was 57 or 58 and I was astonished, because everyone thought you were going to do it. It was because of that. He never forgot a slight.
AV- About ten years later I got a call that Herr von Karajan wanted me for "Elektra" in Salzburg, but only under the condition that we didn't mention the past. I said "Who wants to dig up the past?" and that is how I came to Salzburg for those Elektras.
MM- You just can't...
AV- But the best is still to come.
MM- Oh yes?
AV- I never read letters or telegrams the day of a performance, or even a dress rehearsal. I want my peace. If it's bad news, I don't want to hear it, and if it's good news, it can wait. At the dress rehearsal there was a beautiful bouquet of red roses on the dressing room table, with an envelope. I put the envelope to one side and said I'd have the flowers picked up because I had too much to carry, and my dresser said "You can read that, Frau Varnay." I said, no, I never do, and she said "THAT you can read." And it was the contract for the next season for the repeat of "Elektra." I thought, "Now, that is class." And from then on we could work together again.
BN- Making music with him was marvelous. But doing theater with him wasn't so marvelous. He was a lighting technician. We walked around like blind pilgrims looking for some light, with our faces tilted up to catch some if we found it. If you liked his lighting everything was fine! Everyone was so reverent about him. I didn't see why you had to be more reverent about Karajan than about anyone else. I said what I thought. Once he said, "Frau Nilsson, do that again, but this time with heart. You know your heart, it is there where your wallet is." "Then we have at least one thing in common, Herr von Karajan" I replied. But I think he thought it was funny. There were a lot of things like that. He'd call us for a musical rehearsal of the "Ring" at 10 or I0.30, and we'd wait half an hour, three quarters of an hour, and even more, and then his secretary would come and say "*Herr von Karajan doesn't have any time, come this evening at 7" and he'd still be three quarters of an hour late. I felt he was just trying to show his power. For "Goetterdaemmerung" he had 82 lighting rehearsals and one orchestra rehearsal! The balance is off. But it was wonderful making music with him when he was there. But he had so much to do with his telephones and his spotlights, that I felt he wasn't 100% there. Maybe 50% or even less, and that isn't enough. He was only human, and couldn't think of everything. But he couldn't accept that. He wanted to control everything. Too bad. He was a great artist, but a small human being. What can you do?
MM- I met him, let me see, it was 51, no, 52, "Fidelio" at La Scala. And when I tell you he was the opposite of what you describe... there were a lot of years in between.
MM- You can believe me...
BN- I do.
MM- He was a nice, friendly person, ready to help you. I remember once Windgassen was hoarse, and he said "If you don't have the high note, turn your back, and I'll cover you with the orchestra."
BN- Of course he would have lost his fee for the evening if Windgassen hadn't sung.
MM- He was a real "Kumpel" (pal, companion) and I know you don't believe me, but it is true. He went out for lunch with us in Milan, (wondering noises from Nilsson!) he rehearsed with us, he played the piano from the conductor's score... he played "Tristan" from the score!....for 4 years he was a totally normal person, in German we say a "Kumpel." Not like in your time. I know, you are perfectly right. But earlier he wasn't like that. When he stage directed, the lighting... he let someone else do that. And his staging was so musical, every movement came out of the music, that was wonderful for us. But of course, for Wieland it was too much!
(Audio clip of Varnay singing the end of the Liebestod)
MM- That was the best thing Wieland ever did... that she didn't fall to the floor as she usually does, she raised her arms up, and slowly disappeared from the feet upwards.
BN- It is Isolde's Transfiguration, not her death.
MM- Yes, but usually she really sinks to the floor and dies. It was her disappearing into nothingness that was so different. I learned something from him. He couldn't demonstrate, it was terrible when he did, but he showed me something that I had always felt instinctively. Like Furtwaengler.
AV- He often stood with his fists clenched... that was his standard position at the time, because he hadn't made contact with his own body yet. But what his face and words expressed... he spoke the words, or marked the music a bit... but you could see behind his face the expression he wanted. And movements, he didn't want you thrashing your arms around, although he never used the word, but he didn't want movements that didn't mean anything. He'd say "That's too much" or "That's not enough." He always got to the core of the role, or the work, and he could explain it so that it was clear to us, and he could get it out of us, but each in our own way. He said to me "Moedl is all emotion and heart. You are more intellectual." I was trained that way at home, never to lose control. Martha sometimes just let go, let her emotions carry her away, and I thought "Will she able to get through it?" But for Martha, that fire was the right thing. If I had done it, it would just have been a copy.
BN- We were three different Isoldes, and he saw what each of us needed. He did with me, I felt like a great actress! It is like wearing a custom-make dress, not a ready-made one, like with a different director. He explained to us so wonderfully... although he was sceptical when I started it with him. He knew I'd already sung the role 100 times and thought "I won't get anywhere with her." I said "Herr Wagner, I've sung Isolde so many times..." "Yes, I know" he said, and I said "Let me finish. I want to forget all that and start afresh." And he laughed, rasing his shoulders like he always did. But after a couple of hours he realized that I meant it, and it was a fantastic time. He formed the role exactly for me. "He swore a thousand oaths..." I wasn't dramatic enough, and he said "Think of a broken contract...he swore a thousand dollars!" I said, "Herr Wagner, I can't get upset over a thousand dollars!" And Wolfgang Windgassen was so wonderful, so secure and reliable, and he was... I think we sang it together 90 times, when I sang it with someone else, it was like committing adultery! We were so used to each other, you could depend on him, he never overdid things, he was so tasteful. But at that time only the best singers sang at Bayreuth, no one else was allowed to. Now of course it is a workshop, and you can do anything. So many beginners show up, sing there once or twice and never sing anywhere else again. But not then.
(video clip with Nilsson, Thomas Stewart and Josef Greindl in "Goetterdaemmerung")
All three- Greindl!
BN- Greindl was magnificent.
AV- His heavy movements, how he brought out that Hagen isn't totally normal, only half human. His movements were incredible, it was a wonderful time. It was a joy to be there, it didn't matter if you were on stage or in the auditorium.
BN- The greatest thing is that the ensemble was there for months, every day. Now they do a rehearsal, then go off somewhere in the world to do a performance, then come back for a day or two, you couldn't do that then.
AV- You lived, ate, and slept Wagner!
MM- And then there were the landladies! There was the Frau Moekl, she was so proud when Isolde or Bruennhilde lived at her place! The apartment was so small... Hotter once used the same bathtub that the Begum had bathed in, he was so proud!
BN- But you could only bathe on friday, otherwise there was no hot water. So you had to wash off all the stage dirt from the whole week, and wait until next friday to do it again! And then you often ate at the "Adler", you could eat well there. And Astrid was such a big star, and the menu never changed, but one day I came, and there was "Omelette alla Varnay" on the menu. I asked "What is Omelette alla Varnay"? "It was with wild raspberries" So I said, I have to have that! So they brought it and I couldn't believe my eyes, it was moving! The raspberries were wild, so they were full of worms! Of course I made a bittersweet comment, and the next day there was "Rump steak alla Nilsson!" (they all laugh)
KS- Were you ever mistaken for each other?
BN- Once I was at the Wagner Verein on a free day, there were various tables, and 8 or 10 people at each, and there was a man across from me at another table, and he said "Oh Frau Varnay, you are magnificent! Your Bruennhilde, your Isolde, just fantastic... and this young Nilsson, what does she want, she's nothing! I can't understand what people see in her" and I gave him a smile, a bit forced, but none-the-less, and he kept on complimenting me, and finally a lady from another table came by and said "Oh Frau Nilsson, thank you for your Isolde, you were wonderful!"
AV- Oh God!
BN- And I think the man almost died. He turned red, and white, and I had no sympathy with him whatsoever! I enjoyed every minute of
AV- I believe it. It's a wonder we are still speaking to each other! You could have held that against me.
BN- I didn't dare then. I had such respect for you both, I worshiped you.
AV- I had so much respect for the generation before me. I think of Kirsten Flagstad, she was my idol, and still is. She was a friend of the family. When I was still a small child and couldn't talk yet, my mother sang in Norway and Sweden. in "Masked Ball" Flagstad was Amelia, and my mother was Oscar. She couldn't find a babysitter, she didn't know what to do, so she wrapped me up and thought that the dressing room table had drawers, and she could put me the lowest one and I wouldn't fall out. But it was still too high, so she went to Flagstad's dressing room, and there it was just the right height, so she put me in that. And that was my first contact with Kirsten Flagstad! And I like to think that I inhaled some of that dramatic sound while she was singing. Incredible.
BN- I came to Bayreuth, and there were two such great Bruennhildes and Isoldes. The first thing I heard was Isolde with Astrid. You have no idea what a complex I had in Bayreuth with you two!
MM- My mother was on the fourth floor and she heard someone singing Wagner, she told me, but I don't remember what, and she came down to me and said "I just heard a voice, she is going to give you all a run for your money!" And that was you.
BN- Mothers say things like that to spur their children on.
MM- She really said it.
KS- You all experienced, and sang in, the Ring in the early fifties in New York, a production as different from Bayreuth as could be. Even with a real horse.
BN- Ah, Grane!
AV- Das Ross!
MM- Mine would only move for sugar. He knew exactly that I had sugar. He didn't like high notes, his ears would twitch, and he'd paw with his hooves. They put felt slippers on them so he wouldn't make so much noise! At "Grane, mein Ross!" I embraced him and he twitched his ears, but then I kept singing and he was nice, and I had the sugar in my hand behind my back, and he nuzzled forward to it, and munched away! In the score it says "She swings herself onto the horse and gallops into the fire" but two of us couldn't get him to move. His trainer and I pushed and shoved, and we never did get him off stage. All the 6 times I sang it.
BN- I had a Grane in Stockholm. I fed him sugar at all the rehearsals, but at the premiere I was so nervous and forgot to bring the sugar. I came on stage, and he wanted his sugar, and he bit me! I had to keep leading him around the stage to keep him occupied. The veterinarian was in the front row. He was white as a sheet, he was afraid we'd land up in the orchestra pit! He was so nasty, that horse! The only thing I could do was keep walking and walking and singing. At the end there was an ovation, and one man stood up and clapped and blew kisses. When I'd removed my makeup and left the theater, he was still there, and he said "Oh, Frau Nilsson, you were magnificent!" "I'm glad you liked my Bruennhilde," I said. "Oh, yes, Bruennhilde, "he said, "That was fine, but I've never seen a woman handle a horse the way you can!"
MM- The things you go through as a singer!
BN- How true.
MM- It all looks so lovely.
AV- No one knows how much we have to invest, every time you go on stage, you are afraid.
MM- Lotte Lehmann said, you are only in really good shape to sing three times a year, and then you don't have a performance!
BN- That's true.
AV- None-the-less, I don't think any of us would ever had wanted to give up the stage. We accepted that that was a part of it.
KS- Did any of you ever have a crisis, difficulties..
AV- Of course.
KS- Technical or artistic, or...
AV- Go ahead and say it, vocal. I don't think anyone who has had a success hasn't go through a crisis, even if just one. And if they didn't, it is a small miracle, or they're not telling the truth. When I started I was very young, 23, and after three years I had trouble. My body and muscles hadn't developed to the same extent that my voice had. The voice wanted to break out, like out of an eggshell. Everybody goes through something like that. Or when you've sung when you're sick, and something goes wrong, and you develop a complex about it, it takes a long time to get over it.
BN- Everybody in a different way.
MM- You say it was at the beginning. For me it was always, my whole career. (to Nilsson) How about you?
BN- 1954 in Bayreuth I was singing Elsa and Ortlinde in "Walkuere." It was very cold, and it rained, and I caught a cold. Astrid had one too, but she was very famous, and she could go around with a sign hung around her neck "I can't talk!" But I was there for the first time, I didn't dare do that! So I sang and sang and sang, and three days before the premiere I woke up, and my voice cracked, the middle register didn't function at all. Totally gone, like yodeling. I didn't have the nerve to tell Wieland Wagner, he wouldn't have let me sing, so I thought "I'll go into the dress rehearsal with a cool head, and sing as long as I can." But shortly before I'd found my technique, I was singing in Brussels, and had a cold there too. So I locked myself in and vocalized using the combination of breath and very high placement, forward in the mask, and went to the dress rehearsal and by the time it was over I'd sung myself back to health. I still remember how terrible that was when absolutely no tone came. I thought, shall I sing from the top down, or from the bottom up, but whatever I did, there was still this hole in the middle. But with a cool, collected head, I sang my voice back to normal, and before the premiere there were a couple of days, and it went well.
(Audio clip of Nilsson and Varnay in "Lohengrin.")
AV- Why did you never sing Ortrud?
BN- I can give you a simple answer, that was your fault. When I sang Elsa, and you were Ortrud, I never dared touch it. She was incredible, so fantastic. Wieland asked me, and I said, no, I don't want to. Later I did look at it, but realized it wasn't right for me. The tessitura was too low, I started the second act and suddenly my high register wasn't so good anymore. Although everyone said I was a mezzo when I started, because my voice was dark, but then it got higher. The voice isn't an elastic band that you can just pull where you want it.
AV- That's right.
MM- That's why Wagner was so good for you. You had the high and the low notes, almost like a mezzo. Both of you. You both had the right vocal range, not that you just got the high notes out somehow, you really got them, some people get them, but it isn't the real thing. The same thing with lows notes. Both of you, unique in my experience had the high and the low register. That is right for Wagner.
BN- A lot of Bruennhildes come from the mezzo Fach.
MM- Yes, of course. And they manage it. Look at me. I started as a mezzo. In my good period I sang every high C that was written, but it wasn't a high C like yours.
BN- It was a high C from Martha Moedl, and that was quite enough!
(Audio clip of Moedl in the Immolation scene)
MM- I sang the big Wagner roles in Bayreuth from 1951 until 1964 and then I gave them up, because if you can't do them justice, you should leave them alone. Easily said, but what do you do then? I did the Amme, and the Kostelnicka, but not for long either, and then Klytemnestra, I did that longer, of course, that is because of the role.
AV- When I couldn't sing Bruennhilde's "Hoyotoho" consistently anymore, that is, I sang it, but not to my satisfaction, I decided I wanted to go into the character repertoire. I already sang Herodias, but a soprano or a mezzo can sing that, and my low register developed, so I found my way, maybe Ortrud was the seed that they grew from. They were usually weird, or evil characters, not necessarily evil... people who took advantage of and used other people. So I slid into this second career. The Kostelnicka in Jenufa is sort of between soprano and mezzo, and I felt very comfortable in it. It was filmed and Kubelik conducted.
(Video clip of Varnay in "Jenufa.") I was happy, I was on stage with classical music. The so-called modern music, hyper-modern music, it didn't do anything for me. I couldn't remember the notes. (to Moedl) I always admired you because you could.
MM- I sang all sorts of wrong notes. The composers would come after the premiere and say "How you manage to hit all the right notes." Even the composers didn't know! I sang one modern opera, two, three.. until I finally realized that, in what we call modern music, the text fits the music exactly. It was an eye-opener for me. I won't say that I love modern music, love has nothing to do with it, my love belonged to Wagner, who always remained the center for me, then I found my way back to older music again, the old Countess in "Pique Dame" became a foundation of my existence, I did it for the last time 1992 at the Vienna State Opera with Ozawa, Atlantov, Freni, an incredible cast, and I stopped it there, because I thought "I'll never get it so good again, not at any theater."
(Video clip of Moedl in Pique Dame, 1992)
BN- When Windgassen left Bayreuth in 1970, I thought "It's time for you to say goodbye here too." Better a couple of years too early than too late. He had an official farewell performance in "Tristan", but I didn't tell anyone that it was my last one too. I couldn't have faced an official farewell performance. I saw the final performance of an older colleague as Bruennhilde in Stockholm. I was in the audience and cried the whole evening, it was like a funeral. That is why I canceled my last "Frau ohne Schatten" in Vienna in 1981. There were two performances with 10 days in between, and everyone knew the second performance was my last. And everyone knows how over-sentimental the Viennese are, and I thought "I can't do it, I can't!" I did the first one, with Horst Stein, it went extremely well, then I did an Elektra in Frankfurt, and I said afterwards "That was my last performance." They said, "But you're singing in Vienna." and I said "I'm going to cancel." I wrote a very long letter saying I'd had a long love affair with the Vienna State Opera, and I didn't want to say "Leb wohl", I wanted to say "Auf Wiedersehen." That was my way to stop. Some people didn't understand me, but I was content. That's how I stopped.
MM- But now you are teaching.
BN- Since 1983. At first I didn't want to, I thought "I can't do that, I can't!" The responsibility! I know what it is like to have a bad teacher, from my own experience. And I thought, "I won't do it." But then the school gave me an honorary doctorate, and I thought I somehow owed them at least a master class. I gave one every year for 10 years, and they went well, at least, the first one was terrible, I was more nervous than at my Met debut! I really shook. I think it is important to explain the technical side first. How one should sing, and how it works. I always say, I bake the cake before I decorate it with interpretation and expression and so forth, that is just as important, but first you have to have the instrument you can play. I thought about it a lot, and forced myself to think that way, how you spare the vocal chords, and how you make a sound without ruining the instrument. For me there were two important things, the support, the air that carries the tone, and the resonance that we have here in the front of our head. That is our violin, our grand piano, and then to free and relax the vocal chords as much as possible, that is the most important thing for me, and as deep a support as possible. But you have to know how it works, that helps so much, you feel freer, and then it is easier to interpret, you don't think "Oh my God, how am I going to do it?" when you are in trouble. I went through that too, that is why I think about it. And as long as I had problems with my voice, I couldn't free myself as an actress, because I was still worried about my voice.
MM- I'm not interested. I'd rather sing, even just small roles, until I die. I can't teach. I know, it is my mistake, but I didn't know how I sang. That's why I had troubles. So how could I teach it to a student?
AV- If you could teach a student expression... you could do that,couldn't you?
MM- Expression, yes, I could do that. But is that is still required today, with these stage directors, imagine I'm singing "Fidelio" I want to teach someone "Fidelio." Then I say "I see a rainbow" and I make a gesture like this, and the director says "Don't raise up your arm, that's completely wrong!"
BN- Crawl around on the floor!!
MM- Crawl around on the floor. How can I teach that?
AV- You can.
MM- How do you work with young singers who come to you to learn dramatic expression?
AV- I've always said you can tie my hands behind my back, but I can still communicate. I mainly teach them this. They come to me, and are supposed to be in control of their vocal technique. The technique is a case apart, I think you work on technique until the end of your life, you are always on the search for technique. A great colleague once said to me "Now I know how, I'm too old." What I want, is that the singers... out of their own personality, everyone should be different, even when they sing the same things. And it is fascinating to see how everyone interprets the same thing differently. I want to get THEIR interpretation out of them, I don't want to force my interpretation onto them. I try to discover what they have. That means I have to gain their trust slowly, because when I went to someone, I had to trust them, because I didn't want to lose what I'd already learned. So I say "Do it as you've learned it, and then try what I suggest, and see which is easier." And then sometimes he'll say "Can I try it a third way?" And I say "Do it!", and then I know I've reached him. That gives me so much pleasure, because vocally they are prepared. To develop the personality and get rid of inhibitions, that is the great thing. I'd taught for a while and didn't know if I could, but there was this young man, I have to tell this story, it was the greatest success of my life. He sang Lieder, and he was unbelievably inhibited when he sang love songs. He had no idea how to express love. Then I got this ridiculous idea... but God gave it to me, and I said "What do you like to eat more than anything?" And he said "A steak." I said "Rare, well done?" He said, " It doesn't matter, but a good beef steak." And I said, "Then sing this love song, but think of a beef steak, marinated, with herbs, grilled, maybe with french fries." I can tell you, he sang a love song... I wish I'd been that beef steak! (all laugh)
KS- (to BN) Like Frau Varnay, you've written a book?
BN- I did. I typed it on a machine with two fingers. 380 pages. It was work. I wrote between ten pm and two am, when it was quiet, no telephone calls, and then when I went to bed, my heart raced, I thought of my career, it was exciting. I always sang, even before I could walk. But I was on the farm, then when I was six a school teacher discovered my voice. He wanted me to sing at the Christmas Concert, and my mother made me a beautiful costume, taught me a couple of children's songs. I climbed up on a chair, and it was nice and they clapped, but I thought "They could have clapped more than that!" So I changed my repertoire, I learned a couple of less respectable songs from workers on the farm, and then I sang them! And the public laughed and clapped. I thought "Now I know how to reach the public!" But when we got home, my mother said, "That was the first and last time!" My book was on the bestseller list in Sweden for months.
MM- You deserve a prize for humor.
BN- I didn't want to say it, but yes, I think there is a lot of humor in it.
AV- I cursed a lot because they talked me into writing the book. We worked on it for 3 1/2 years. It isn't just a book about my career, but about the history of the world. My debut was Pearl Harbor. History played a big role in my career.
KS- And this debut?
AV- This debut... an unbelievable story, the sixth of December, the day before Pearl Harbor, Lotte Lehmann canceled, she was supposed to sing Sieglinde. Then Mr. Johnson threw me out onto the stage, and I had to sing Sieglinde. I don't know how many million people were listening.
KS- It was broadcast on the radio.
AV- Yes. When you are young, you have the advantage of being a substitute. I knew I could sing it, but I thought "How will I act?" That was my debut at the Met. Then six days later Helen Traubel canceled and I had to go on as Bruennhilde. Those were the sensations. But the real, serious part came afterwards.
BN- You really started so early.
AV- Yes, but I had to pay my dues later.
BN- At that time, I was digging up potatoes in the country.
AV- Yes, but I had to work afterwards. Making a sensation is one thing, but then the voice grew, but the muscles had to develop, and I had to go through different experiences until I felt sure of myself on stage.
KS- The word "luck" has played a major role in this discussion.
BN- Luck plays a big part in this profession, you have to have it.
AV- Yes, but when luck presents itself, you have to be ready. You have to work hard for this career.
MM- When I started there was war, there were no possibilities, and never-the-less, luck threw one opportunity after another in my path.
End of the program.