[Note:  This conversation took place in May of 1982 and was published in Nit & Wit Magazine in January of 1986]



By Bruce Duffie


    Benjamin Luxon is a fine English baritone who will be in Chicago in mid-February [1986] 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…..

BrittenBruce 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 contemporary composers?

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 he had.

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 certainly.

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 gifted.

lutyensBD:  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 Britten?

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 modern.

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 degree?

LuxonBL:  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 recently.

BD:  What exactly made you stop doing new works?  Was it just that you were moving into the "repertoire" operas?

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 with it.

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 hinder it?

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.

Luxon CDBD:  Do recordings do justice to theater pieces?

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, 1982, 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 Archive of Contemporary Music at Northwestern University.  This transcription 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 1980s.  Bruce Duffie was a regular contributor from 1984-87 and Music Editor in 1986.]

Award - winning 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 like 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.