[Note: This conversation took place in May of 1982 and was
published in Nit & Wit
Magazine in January of 1986]
LUXON TALKS ABOUT BRITTEN
By Bruce Duffie
is a fine English baritone who will be in Chicago in mid-February
 for performances with the Chicago Symphony of the War Requiem by Benjamin Britten.
His repertoire encompasses many roles – including that of Eugene
Onegin, which he has sung at Covent Garden, the Metropolitan Opera, the
Boston Symphony, and at Ravinia in 1980. He has also appeared as
Mozart’s Don Giovanni, and in operas by composers as diverse as
Monteverdi, Janacek, and Peter Maxwell Davies. He has given
concerts of Schubert and Wolf, and is closely identified with the music
of Benjamin Britten.
Mr. Luxon is represented on recordings not only
in operas of Britten, but also music by other English composers
including Bush, Delius, Elgar, Handel, Vaughan Williams, and Walton,
plus two delightful discs of Victorians duets with tenor Robert
Tear. He is soloist in music of Schutz, Bach, Haydn, Mozart, and
Beethoven, and has recorded songs of Modest Mussorgsky.
The New Grove says of Benjamin Luxon, “He uses
his warm, sympathetic baritone with commendable artistry to evoke
character; and on the concert platform his histrionic powers are
sensibly modified by an extra care for line and words.” No small
praise from the foremost English-language musical encyclopedia.
Chicago has seen several of the major works of
Britten – Lyric Opera has given Peter
Grimes in two seasons, and their school has produced both The Turn of the Screw, and The Rape of Lucretia. The
Chicago Opera Theater has presented Albert
Herring, and now the Chicago Symphony will give the War Requiem. Recently, it was
my good fortune to have the opportunity to chat with Mr. Luxon.
We had only a limited amount of time, so our conversation centered
around the music of Britten. Here is much of what we discussed…..
Bruce Duffie: Let me start out
by asking you about Benjamin Britten. You’ve done quite a bit of
work with his operas, so how are they different from operas by other
Benjamin Luxon: That’s an
opening question isn’t it! First off, he wrote more operas than
most other contemporary composers, and there was the interesting thing
that he was always interested in small forces. He was interested
in exploiting and getting maximum results from very small forces, so
you have all the chamber operas.
BD: Was this because he
thought he’d get more performances from smaller groups, or did he just
feel happier in the smaller media?
BL: I don’t think he was
happier in the smaller media; I think it interested him more – or let’s
say it was of great interest to him. And of course most of these
things were written when he was based in Aldeburgh and they had no big
concert halls there, and no facilities to house large bodies of people.
BD: So he wrote for what
BL: In a way, yes.
Also bear in mind that what he had to work with were the top players in
the country at the time. These works – Turn of the Screw, Albert Herring, Rape of Lucretia – all have very
different orchestral parts because they were written for the players
who made up the old English Chamber Orchestra. All the harp
parts, for example, were written for Ossian Ellis.
BD: Is it special to know
that some of the vocal parts were written around your voice?
BL: Yes, of course.
He did the same thing for the singers that he did with the
instrumentalists. When I joined the company, we had a nucleus of
about eight solo singers, and he began to write for those singers.
BD: Are you happy with
what he wrote for you?
BL: Oh yes, most
BD: I just wondered –
occasionally a piece is written for someone, and the performer later
wishes it had been done slightly (or largely) differently.
BL: Well, Ben Britten had
a better feeling for the voice than most contemporary composers.
He really did have a very good knowledge of what the voice-types would
do. So many contemporary composers that I’ve found really don’t
know. I’ve been asked on several occasions, “What is the range of
a tenor?” or, “How low will a bass sing?”
BD: Oh dear!
BL: I’m serious, and I’m
not criticizing people’s creative ability. I’m just saying that
times have changed.
BD: Those composers
haven’t spent time studying the voice?
BL: No, they just go
straight on into composing. Nowadays, as you well know,
everything has to be quick and fast. Everyone seems to be on the
lookout for new talent, and very often talent is dragged out and
doesn’t have time to develop. It’s the same with conductors and
even with singers. There was a much more steady all-round
development, and now it’s not there any more. Composers and
conductors are thrown in the deep end- particularly if they’re very
BD: Is that the advice you’d
give, then, to an aspiring composer – to learn about the voice?
BL: If you’re going to
write for the voice, yes. However, things have changed a lot in
everything in the last 20 or 30 years. In my early days of
singing, I did a lot of contemporary things and I worked with Elisabeth
Lutyens, one of the great old ladies of music – one of the only old
ladies of music! Lutyens was writing music in the 1930’s, music that
was totally baffling and already much in advance (really in a different
direction) of people like Britten. She told me that when she was
first composing, she couldn’t find anyone to sing the pieces.
They were too difficult. When I was working with her she said, “I
used to be able to find the odd person who could sing it, and now there
are 40 or 50.”
BD: Are they easy to
sing, or are they things you just have to learn how to do?
BL: It depends entirely
on whether you have perfect pitch. If you do, you can just sing
whatever is put in front of you. Or, if you’re a very, very good
sight-reader, you can pretty well sing whatever is put in front of you.
BD: But these sound like
techniques rather than the ability to sing, say, a Schubert song.
BL: Yes, these are
techniques absolutely. And there are many more singers than
there used to be whose training is far superior to what it was. I
sound like a Grand-Dad here, but people, at least in England in my
generation or the generation before, just wandered into singing from
just about every profession you could name. Hardly anyone
“trained” to be a singer. It just didn’t happen. Most of my
contemporaries were truck drivers or miners or engineers, architects,
bank clerks, school teachers…
BD: And you sort of fell
into a singing career?
BL: Yes, without any real
training. And if training did come, it was rather late in life
and little bit sketchy. The generation before me had even less
training, but with the young singers now, they set out to be singers
and they go and have a very good and comprehensive musical education.
BD: Is that one reason
for the general lack of great English composers, too?
BL: I don’t know about
that. I’m happy being a singer - I wouldn’t want to be a
composer. It’s very hard. So much has been said and it’s
all been tried – effects like shouting into the piano or stamping and
kicking things, and electronics.
BD: Is any of that kind
of music really worth it, or is it just experimental?
BL: I hesitate to
say. Obviously, it’s like so many periods in art or politics or
industry. There are times when nobody knows quite the hell where
to go. This happened and is happening, and people just have to
grit their teeth. It’s the easiest thing in the world for
critics, or even people like myself, to say of a new piece, “Oh well,
yes, there’s Richard Strauss and there’s Alban Berg,” and immediately
say that the new piece is a combination, and you reel off a list of the
composers. The new composers must be terrified of that.
BD: Are there any
composers writing today whom you would put in the same league with
BL: Well, I think he had
the best feeling for the stage. Stravinsky is a contemporary of
Britten, but he didn’t go into opera nearly as much. It seems
that so many composers lately have been writing what I call "incidental
music to a play." It makes very good theater, but I don’t know if
I would call a lot of it "opera." Arguably, one could say that
Ben Britten’s music is not always the greatest. I personally
think that Wozzeck is a much
more “modern” piece than anything that Britten wrote, but it is a
different style of writing. The whole conception is immensely
BD: Do you get a good
feeling out of performing the role of Wozzeck?
BL: Oh yes. It’s a
truly great piece, but it is very dangerous for the singer.
BD: I would think that a
lot of contemporary operas could be very dangerous.
BL: Yes, because there’s
less and less regard for treating the voice as a voice and more
interest in exploiting it.
BD: How do you guard
against being exploited, or do you simply go along with it to a certain
BL: It depends on the sort of
singer you are. It depends on how easy you find it, and those
whom I call “voice singers” are not going to be interested in modern
opera. For instance, for myself, modern opera was a sort of
gateway – as it is for many singers like me – of starting off careers
in big opera houses. Let’s face it, they wouldn’t have signed me
on for Onegin or Don Giovanni at the very beginning. If they’re
going to go for the big repertoire operas, they’ll go for the big
repertoire singers. Since my association with Britten, I haven’t
done a great deal of modern opera, and I’ve only come back to it
BD: What exactly made you
stop doing new works? Was it just that you were moving into the
BL: I felt there was a
tremendous amount of work for a limited return. That is being
hideously practical, but I don’t have perfect pitch and I’m not a
brilliant reader, so learning modern operas meant I had to slog my guts
out and work and work and work.
BD: You felt you could
use a role like Eugene Onegin more often?
BL: That’s right.
With a modern opera you’d do a series of 8 or 10 performances, and that
was it. I know it sounds very mercenary, but when you’re doing so
much music – and remember I’m not just an opera singer, in fact I do
almost more of everything else – I found I just didn’t have the energy
to put in the immense amount of learning these pieces required when I
knew I would only do them a very few times. I just couldn’t cope
with it, and the pieces didn’t warrant it. Very few of them lived
enough for me. Once I’d done a few performances, I’d begin to
think that’s about it. There’s not enough food in it to go on
BD: Well, all things
being equal, would you rather do Eugene Onegin or Don Giovanni rather
than Wozzeck or Billy Budd?
BL: You happen to have
mentioned four great roles. Personally I wouldn’t differentiate
between any of them. I would do any of those wherever I
could. In actual facts, it’s who you’re playing, and these four
are all immensely interesting, and that’s the interest for me in opera.
BD: Is opera, for you
then, more drama than music?
BL: Yes! In a word,
yes. However, that’s the way I approach it, and the drama is all
laid out for you by the music. Very often, it’s not two separate
things. For instance, thinking of Eugene Onegin, Tchaikovsky’s
Onegin is very different from Pushkin’s. If you try to play
Pushkin’s Onegin to Tchaikovsky’s music, quite honestly, it doesn’t
work. One has absolutely no sympathy for the man.
Tchaikovsky has softened him and romanticized him.
BD: Is that anything like
what Britten did to Peter Grimes?
BL: Yes, absolutely
right! The Grimes of the Crabbe poem is absolutely despicable and
not a creature for any sympathy at all.
BD: Do you hope to come
back to some of these parts later in your career?
BL: Oh yes, I would think
so, but I’m getting a bit old for a lot of them. My only real
regret is that I never got to do Billy Budd. It’s not done so
often and I wasn’t in the right place at the right time.
Producers tend to cast whomever seems to be doing it all over at that
time, and I never was.
BD: Perhaps other
baritones feel the same way about parts you did – such as Owen Wingrave.
BL: Well, Owen Wingrave wasn’t done much, and
I would say that the opera was not a tremendously successful
piece. The shape of it was wrong, and one most remember that it
was conceived for television.
BD: Did that help it or
BL: It depends on how you
look at it. It was conceived as a television piece. If he’d
wanted to write a stage opera, I don’t think he would have chosen
that. We did do it on the stage and it worked very well.
BD: Better than on the TV?
BL: I wouldn’t say
better, just different. And I think it could have worked better
on the television if the musical side of television had been as well
advanced as it is now. Producers are much more adept with opera
now. Owen Wingrave was
produced in 1971 and opera’s come into a lot more prominent position as
far as television is concerned. It’s made tremendous strides in
these last 15 years.
BD: Do recordings do justice to
BL: Yes, they can.
It’s interesting you should ask that. I think that recordings do
have validity in that you can listen and make your mental eye adapt to
what the music is saying. Very often we’re being denied that in
the theater. I’ve been working in Germany a bit, particularly in
Frankfurt where every production is so “modernistic.” Often it’s
strange or even upsetting and I find that I can’t reconcile my ear and
my eye. When the music cries out for wooded dells or mountain
peaks, and all I see is a geometric structure made out of stainless
steel tubing, I find it difficult. I’m a little old fashioned and
I like to see things.
BD: One last question –
are you optimistic about the future of opera?
BL: Oh yes. I think in
the generation of top performers that is around now, there’s a sort of
coming together. And the younger generation is much more
versatile and there’s a much healthier feeling for the theater.
BD: You don’t think the
experiments are killing it off?
BL: No, not at all.
What comes shining out of all this is that there are so many fine
singers, and not so many acting/singers today. And there are also
very interesting producers moving into the opera scene. Sometimes
it’s disaster, but there’s an awareness of the stage and acting as well
as the singing which will evolve more and more interest.
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© 1982 Bruce Duffie
This conversation was recorded on the telephone on May 23,
and portions were broadcast (along with some of his recordings) on WNIB
in 1987 and 1997. A copy of the unedited audio was placed in the
of Contemporary Music at Northwestern University. This
was made in 1985 and published in Nit
& Wit Magazine in January of 1986. It was posted on
this website in 2008. [Note: Nit & Wit was
a bi-monthly literary arts magazine published in Chicago in the
Bruce Duffie was a regular contributor from 1984-87 and Music Editor in
broadcaster Bruce Duffie was an announcer/producer with WNIB,
Classical 97 in Chicago
from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of
2001. His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and
journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM,
as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.
You are invited to visit his website
for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of
other interviews, plus a full list of his guests. He would also
to call your attention to the photos and information about his
grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a
century ago. You may also send him E-Mail
with comments, questions and suggestions.