Harold Prince discusses his direction of Madame Butterfly for the Lyric Opera, Chicago
BROADCAST: Sep. 24, 1985 | DURATION: 00:39:43
Harold Prince discusses his direction of Madame Butterfly while also discussing operas, musicals, and theater in general.
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Studs Terkel Two beginnings you might say, the overture to "Candide" and then the entrance scene of "Butterfly" - that's a 1920s recording of Edith Mason. I thought with these two passages we have pretty much - might be the musical credo of one of the most remarkable of American producers and directors, Harold Prince. We think of Harold Prince, of course, and the musical theater that he's offered us, from "Sweeney Todd" to "Candide" to "Follies" to "Down the Line" to - in fact, precedent-shattering musicals, a wide variety of them, including "Fiorello", of course, and others. Into directing opera, as we know it, traditional opera, and he's directing "Butterfly." It's a second time around for his unique interpretation of "Madame Butterfly", which the Lyric's second production of the season. And, in a way, I'm thinking - do you say you span two worlds, but you don't think it's two worlds, do you?
Harold Prince I don't think it's so much two worlds, no. I think it was - if you go back to the genesis of popular musical theater, you'll find that there what Puccini was writing, were the hit songs of that time. Now that wasn't always true. Certainly Wagner wasn't writing the hit songs of that time. But they were presenting contemporary musical theater they were- the way they wanted to see it. And this sort of museum thing that built up, I think, was a kind of inverted snobbery. Very dangerous because, for one thing, it discouraged some of our best composers from ever writing operas. And, you know, we just just now recognizing that "Porgy and Bess"--
Studs Terkel Yeah.
Harold Prince Is acceptable on an opera stage. That "Candide", which no one would touch, "Candide" has the funniest history in the world. It opened on Broadway in '56, closed very quickly. You were just playing the overture--
Studs Terkel Yeah.
Harold Prince You were playing an overture with 13 instruments. That was a tiny, sort of semi-improvised, very informal production I did in Brooklyn. Then, having succeeded with that, we turned around and put it back in an opera stage. And now it's it's played the Houston Grand Opera. Beverly Sills gave its its debut. I I wish Ardis would do it; she keeps saying she will. The thing is that it's back to an enormous orchestra and a full chorus and the whole thing. But it took all these permutations to find its place on a on an opera stage again.
Studs Terkel Well, as you're talking I'm thinking, the line, you know, of course, you've experimented, you and your colleague in a number of them, Stephen Sondheim in "Sweeney Todd", for example. Some would say that is in a sense operatic.
Harold Prince He resists that definition terribly but--
Studs Terkel Yeah.
Harold Prince He's stuck, mired in these strange definitions.
Harold Prince He he doesn't know enough about opera. He knows a hell of a lot about music. He doesn't know enough op- about opera to to know, for example, that they never stop talking in "Der Freischutz", and that, you know, the original "Carmen", I suspect he knows that that's filled with as much dialogue as any Broadway musical. That there are, those definitions don't hold--
Studs Terkel That's what Peter Brook did, he was emphasizing that.
Harold Prince He was emphasizing that, but as you know, they occasionally restore all that dialogue and people get angry about that too.
Studs Terkel Yeah.
Harold Prince But that's the way the original authors wanted it to to to be performed.
Studs Terkel So when you approach, it's not as as you approach a museum piece precis- as something very vibrant and contemporary?
Harold Prince Well it's theater for me--
Studs Terkel Yeah, it's theater.
Harold Prince And there are an awful lot of very successful opera productions that that I would not respond to. I mean, I don't know. What the hell? Here we go. I I was looking at my newspaper this morning and I I think it's last night that the Met opened with Caballe and Pavarotti doing "Tosca." I'm sure it sounded glorious. It's a lot of trouble for Hal Prince because, for one thing I don't think visually--
Studs Terkel Yeah.
Harold Prince It works theatrically. And I know that Madame Caballe, with all respect for this great voice, can't jump off--
Studs Terkel No [unintelligible]--
Harold Prince The Castel Sant'Angelo, she has to run run into the wings, and that is not the intention of the authors, and that's anti-theater for me--
Studs Terkel For the for the moment, how would you do "To-" We'll come to "Butterfly" in a moment. And other Puccini operas you did, "Girl of the Golden West"--
Harold Prince Right.
Studs Terkel And "Turandot" too. Interesting, Puccini, I'll ask you about that. But "Tosca", just for the moment, the challenge. How would you do his "Tosca?" A certain moment in history of Rome, tensions, I call it the House on Un-Italian Activities Committee. [laughter] Scarpia [unintelligible]--
Harold Prince Exactly.
Studs Terkel And how would you?
Harold Prince Well, it has of course been done gloriously. I mean I saw the Callas - I I didn't see it on the stage, but I've seen the the tape recording and she was magnificent, very persuasive and and a true actress.
Studs Terkel I think it was the staging I meant.
Harold Prince Well, I don't know. I tell you what. There there are there - I don't want to take any pot shots at anybody. I get an awful lot of categorizing as a sort of flamboyant director. I don't think, in fact, that's particularly true. In other words, if I did "Boheme" or "Tosca", I wouldn't do these enormous visual treats that that Zeffirelli does so brilliantly. I I I my favorite "Boheme" is something that Giancarlo Menotti did that I saw in Paris, which perhaps you've seen, it's played a lot of places. It's quite small and and intimate and "Boheme" is a very small opera really, second act not withstanding.
Studs Terkel You would do it as chamber.
Harold Prince I would do - yeah I like that. I prefer that. So so I I think back to the people and and not so much emphasis on the large chorus wandering around the stage.
Studs Terkel Yeah. I think now "Butterfly." Of course, your your "Butterfly" was done three years ago here.
Harold Prince Three years ago.
Studs Terkel And it's [wholly?] this one moved. See, often we think of traditional operas, the, you know, the traditional one, almost the caricatured one, is the guy steps forward. She steps forward.
Harold Prince That's why I did "Butterfly," Studs. Because I'd never seen a good one.
Studs Terkel So, what did you--
Harold Prince That sounds arrogant, too--
Studs Terkel No no. You use what you call the Kabuki approach.
Harold Prince It seemed indigenous. It seemed interesting to me. After all, it's it's a Western opera, an Italian opera. It's an eastern theme. It's about, certainly about some kind of collision of of cultures, rather the same subject as "Pacific Overtures", a show I'd done some years earlier with Sondheim. So I thought the Kabuki would work very well to clarify things in it. I thought it would be very good for the artists to have that, not so much imposed on them, but involved in their interpretations. I think it is. I think they enjoy it and it it moves. Your word. I I - this - the productions I've seen have always been so static. The rooms have been these these rectangles and they - and nothing happens. It turns out to be a very easy job once you get a good designer like Clark Dunham to do it with you, to make it full of energy.
Studs Terkel And so as the scenes scenes are shifting there's a turntable.
Harold Prince Yeah.
Harold Prince Our image, our image was one of those bonsai, Japanese bonsai gardens, you know, dwarf trees. If you if you go -- yesterday, just for fun, I went all the way up to the last row in the Lyric to see what it looked like. And it looks exactly like one of those those bonsai gardens under a glass bell. It's very lovely to look at that way.
Studs Terkel And so it's a combina-, so you're thinking of what's happening as far as Japanese art.
Harold Prince Yes.
Studs Terkel And flowers and arrangements, and so you--
Harold Prince That's a crutch for me, I think. I always try, when I'm going to direct something, to find a painting, a piece of sculpture, a photograph. When we did "Follies", the whole production was influenced by a photograph of Gloria Swanson standing in the rubble of the Roxy Theatre. Remember that photograph?
Studs Terkel Yeah.
Harold Prince They put her in an evening gown and they'd just torn down the Roxy on 50th Street. They put her in a black evening gown and she stood majestically in the rubble of it, and I thought that's what this show is about. And from there we design- Boris Aronson designed the set to to accommodate that.
Studs Terkel So, there's a photograph and in that photo you see something once was a glory of a past and an aging -- someone older who was once the glamour woman of that moment--
Harold Prince She had opened that theater.
Studs Terkel And so [finger snap] all of the sudden the the "Follies."
Studs Terkel Ziegfeld [days?] and all.
Harold Prince It all comes from that.
Studs Terkel And so it may be one image that does it.
Harold Prince It generally is.
Studs Terkel Yeah.
Harold Prince It generally is one image. The the the Kabuki stuff is all that line-drawing stuff that when Commodore Perry came to Japan, they -- there are a lot of brilliant line drawings. So that the costumes, for example, the Navy uniform costumes in this production, are all as designed by a Japanese person so that the epaulets just perk up at the ends and the trousers are made like traditional Japanese trousers, not Western trousers, and so on. Everything's a little pointed and more beautiful, in fact.
Studs Terkel Funny but also in doing "Butterfly", you've also done "The Girl of Golden West," another Puccini, and then, both those were plays produced by the most--
Studs Terkel Flamboyant of all American producers, David Belasco.
Harold Prince Yeah. They're wonderful plays, you know. It's interesting. Pucc- Puccini, by the way, really loved theater. So as a neophyte opera director, one of the things that happens is, I I did not direct from from the score for a long long time, because I didn't know how to read music. Now I sort of semi-direct from a score and semi just from the script, but then it was only the script. And I would come to a place in the staging and and think, "I need a pause here. Oh, wouldn't it be wonderful if there were a pause?" And then guess what? There was always a pause. The composer put a pause there. Or "Wouldn't it be wonderful if this character could run over there to that side of the stage?" And by God there was running music. He alway- he never lets you down.
Studs Terkel He was a theatrical man then.
Harold Prince Yes absolutely.
Studs Terkel Yeah, I see. But therefore you, and you as a theatrical man, it happens to be musical theater but that's what -- again we come back to opera. I remember once an old, old singer, Maria Caniglia, you know, and she was, she and her son were talking about how something has changed in Italy among the young, old things, operas lost. But yet it seems, in the town of Parma, you know, that's the town where opera is like football.
Harold Prince Yeah.
Studs Terkel And it becomes it! It's a sporting event.
Harold Prince Yeah.
Studs Terkel You ever see that documentary called "In Bocca del Lupo?" [sic] In in the mouth of the wolf?
Harold Prince No, no. I haven't
Studs Terkel It's funny, in which the towns' people come to see the event, and of course their singers are trembling, you know--
Harold Prince Right. As though it were a soccer match.
Studs Terkel And so the guy, there's a guy up at the gallery [God?]. He's a butcher, he's henpecked by his wife, but that night he's king. When he turns thumbs down, that poor tenor or whoever is getting it times. So Cornell MacNeil once decided to tell off the audience and he hollered, as they were booing, and he hollered, "Cretini!" And they stormed his dressing room, and the mayor comes in and says, "You owe the town an apology." He says, "Why? They insulted me." He says, "No, that's not an insult. That's par for the course! This is our life!" [laughter] [We just?] assume that. So it's still alive and--
Harold Prince I know, it's wonderful.
Studs Terkel What do you think? There's a-
Harold Prince It's very healthy.
Studs Terkel I gotta ask a big question now. When you think of operas, this always comes up. It's something for the elite, you know, a great many won't dig it or don't go for it. Don't you think there are ways of doing it which it can be?
Studs Terkel Without profaning it.
Harold Prince Look at it. Look at it. Absolutely. No, I I hate a sort of that kind of mindless, you know, distortion of the original intention and so on. But as far as I'm concerned the only operas that interest me are theater. There are a lot of operas that interest other people that are not so much theater. So I'm not -- I I'm just saying I would not participate in directing one because I wouldn't be good at it, you know. I have a very low attention threshold, so things have to happen. But essentially, sure you can make it popular and there's a there's a very damning fact about certain opera houses of which, I must tell you, the Lyric is not one. There are opera houses that have incredible subscriptions and nobody goes to the theater. You go in there and you say, "Wait a minute. I thought you had a 97 percent subscr- attendance record." "Well, we do but only 60 percent of our audience ever shows up." They they exist in this country and it's a shameful business. It's no good at all.
Studs Terkel When you did "Sweeney Todd", how would you describe "Sweeney Todd"?
Harold Prince Well, it was difficult. It really was difficult.
Studs Terkel Yeah.
Harold Prince For one thing, it's a very, very serious subject. The hero, Sweeney Todd, is a man bent on revenge. It's very juicy, very bloody, very exciting, and at the same time, I found intrinsically the material depressing. I tend to relate to material.
Studs Terkel Yeah.
Harold Prince So getting up in the morning was really hard, because I knew I had to go in and deal with this blood and and mayhem that was was in store. And and there's a kind of vicious core that just motivates the whole piece. On the other hand, it's enormous. And Steve's score's as large as the subject. So oddly enough it's one of the rare experiences of my life where I staged the whole show and then invited my wife, whom I have enormous respect for, and obviously Steve and and Hugh Wheeler, to come in and see it all put together for the first time. And on that day I had no idea. I had no idea whether it was any good at all. So it was really nice when it ended to go over and find my wife sobbing. I was really pleased about that.
Studs Terkel It's funny, because funny, here's this grim thing with the same -- I know it was a music hall ballad too, in a music hall.
Harold Prince Well, I tell you it was always, you know, it really was meat pies. You know you know what it's about. It's about about this Mrs. Lovett and this fellow Sweeney chopping up people and making meat pies out of them. Well, in the spirit of English music hall, they would even serve meat pies at intermission, everybody'd laugh, have a fine time. You know, wolf down a meat pie, drink some beer--
Studs Terkel Yeah.
Harold Prince And go back in for the second act. When we first approached the material, I said, "Steve, is that what you have in mind? Because if you do, you got the wrong director." And he said, "No, God no." We even, it needed, that subject needed some larger context. I'm not - I I need a larger context. I've been blamed a lot for that. Some sociological point. I can't just just do the revenge thing. And and it wasn't just that there was a class issue involved. So we decided to put the whole thing in a in a factory, and without making any any statement about it, it it became a piece about the the industrial age, and what the coming of the industrial age--
Studs Terkel Yeah.
Harold Prince Had done to the spirit of people, to their freedom, to their harmony with nature, and so on.
Studs Terkel So you find you're looking for that hook.
Studs Terkel It's that hook. And so in "Candide." Now in the original production that you named, the talent that was [on it?]: Tyrone Guthrie and Lillian Hellman's script and everything--
Studs Terkel It didn't work for some reason.
Studs Terkel What did you do to "Candide"?
Harold Prince Well, for one thing, Lillian wanted -- had somewhere in her mind something to do with the McCarthy committee. I mean that that piece to her represented an opportunity to say something about all of that. I have to tell you, I, having worked on it now, three different permutations, I don't know where in hell that message was or why it was applicable. So that was dangerous. Lenny wrote, and John Latouche and a whole bunch, wrote one score. Lillian wrote a book. They don't go together. I truly don't believe they do. That was the first problem. Then it was designed in a very heavy way, magnificently, not irreverently, not informally, to go with her book but not with the spirit of the music. And then it was staged that way. So they were really pulling at each other. We got rid of the book. Hugh Wheeler wrote something that just bubbled, that was, you know, there is a story and we'll never know whether it's accurate or not, but I suspect it is, that Voltaire did not put his name on it. And when someone said, "Is this," you know, "is this yours?" And initially he said, "No, this is some school boy's prank." I take that, I take that to heart. It seems to me that it was written in exactly that spirit, hot and fast. And that's the way the show has to be.
Studs Terkel The way you did it, it worked in that way. I was thinking, since you mentioned Hellman, were you ever thinking, would the challenge of "Regina" attract you?
Harold Prince I'd -- listen, anything that Marc Blitzstein put his hand to attracts me. A very interesting thing happened. There was an evening last spring at Avery Fisher honoring Marc. I went to it. They did bits from everything. The "Regina" sextet, I think it was, was as good as anything on the bill, and an eye opener and everybody said, "Hey, wait a minute, isn't this lovely?" The answer is, I think it's really worth considering.
Studs Terkel Yeah, boy, that could be--
Harold Prince It doesn't get done much does it?
Studs Terkel No hardly. "Cradle Will Rock" on occasion.
Harold Prince "Cradle Will Rock" quite a lot. They're doing it in London now, as we speak.
Studs Terkel Yeah. But boy, this "Regina." You know I thought of you, frankly, because of what you seek out - something that, something that hits, that is of another time and yet so contemporary, which you do all the time.
Harold Prince I want to do "Pique Dame". No one's made me the offer yet, but I want to do "Pique Dame". I think that's a terrific opera.
Studs Terkel Yeah.
Harold Prince I had a most amazing experience. I went to see it at the Bolshoi and we sat in those little gold chairs in this beautiful opera house in Moscow. And everybody was so drab. I'm talking 1957.
Studs Terkel Well, since you mention that, I knew I was going to bring it up and you reminded me. A number of -- Harrison Salisbury led a number of writers, others, exchange in the Soviet Union, American writers and I found myself there with him.
Harold Prince He was there when I was there, of course.
Studs Terkel He's there all the time.
Harold Prince Sure.
Studs Terkel And then this was one time I went to Moscow and saw -- and your name came up -- and saw the Voznesensky's, a ballad he wrote about a sea captain.
Harold Prince You got it. And the and the--
Studs Terkel And it was done by--
Harold Prince California.
Studs Terkel This young group in Moscow, had pretty stunning and there was talk of you.
Studs Terkel The poet was in the lobby. And your name came up.
Harold Prince He came to London with a tape of it.
Harold Prince Did you like it?
Studs Terkel Well I was exci- I thought it was exciting.
Harold Prince Good. I didn't like it.
Studs Terkel I thought it was exciting.
Harold Prince I just didn't like it.
Studs Terkel It reminded me a lot of "Hair," frankly.
Harold Prince See my problem is when those people appropriate the American rock musical, it always seems so corny and clumsy to me.
Studs Terkel Ah, yeah. Then yo- you don't go with imitation.
Harold Prince Also there's something, you you know, is that that, that sometimes I get awfully excited in foreign countries, on their soil, about their material when it doesn't travel. In this case, I felt this was kind of naive and and nice. But I but I didn't care for it.
Studs Terkel I will admit there was an imitation of an early American technique, there was.
Harold Prince You bet. You bet.
Studs Terkel With the movements and everything.
Harold Prince Also you notice how quickly that particular style has has dated. When "Hair" was done, I was among certainly its applauders, if that's a word. I thought the score was fun and I thought it had great energy. I thought it was a real lift. On the other hand, th- what everyone was saying was, "This is the wave of the future." And I thought, "No, this is its own wave."
Studs Terkel Yeah.
Harold Prince It's a wavelet, but I don't think--
Harold Prince In any way it influenced the future in a real way.
Studs Terkel It came and went.
Studs Terkel It came and went.
Studs Terkel So where where are the challenges? Do you - Well, let's go back to - since we're talking about the Lyric and "Butterfly," there's a marvelous tenor and a soprano whom you like this. The tenor was Lensky in--
Harold Prince He's wonderful.
Studs Terkel In Onegin and he's doing Pinkerton.
Harold Prince Yeah.
Studs Terkel Dvorsky.
Harold Prince He's wonderful. Peter Dvorsky is ter- very young. I think he looks even younger pro- possibly than he is. He's a good actor, incredible voice, and he's got one of those futures. He's really - I I would love it if he would hurry up and learn the Calaf so we could do "Turandot" because I think he's first rate.
Studs Terkel What have you in mind? All these challenges that, yo- your name is associated with so many of the hits. I mean really hits and precedent-shattering musical theater pieces that that what comes to your mind?
Harold Prince There's a lot of challenges now. I think Broadway is in a whole lot of trouble.
Harold Prince And I, yeah, I I haven't been able to do exactly what I wanted to do for 4 or 5 years now. The last time I I had a real hit was "Evita." And, but I have done some work I liked a lot. And at the moment, at 50 bucks a ticket or close to it, we've lost we've lost our audience and we certainly are losing our artists. We've got to get the theater back to the artists and its appropriate audience and the only way you can do that is to lower the price. I don't - it's a big -- you know everyone says, "Well, how do you do that?" And it seems to me enough to be able to to say, "This is all that's wrong, folks." The audience is out there; you can see that. You go out to Wisdom Bridge, which I did the night before last. You got to Steppenwolf. There's audience, there's audience all over New York. What there isn't is an audience in the Broadway theater that in any way represents, you know, an encouraging state for the art. The truth is that if we can get those tickets cut almost in half, we would get our audience back. And until we do that and I don't know, I don't know how we do that. Back to the unions. Back to everybody. Get Lee Iacocca in there. Somebody's got to just say, "This is the problem," and stop denying it and stop saying, "Well, you know, 'Cats' is doing fabulously." One one show do not make an art form.
Studs Terkel This is an irreverent or an impertinent question. Suppose, say Broadway has ended. Suppose they -- since you speak of tributary theaters throughout, the growth of tributary theaters.
Harold Prince It could happen. I don't want it to happen. And I think after all since I've had 32 very good years there, I would - I I certainly don't want it to happen. On the other hand, I can't work the way it's working now. Why does it need to exist? All right--
Studs Terkel Yeah.
Harold Prince It is a window to the world of of that particular art form. That's one. Two: there is collected, within New York City, a larger group of experienced artists. Musicals require more people, qualified people, to do them than straight plays. Institutions across the country, there will be new ones. There will be musical institutions now, just as there have been for a number of years, non-musical theatrical institutions. But the truth is, and this is something a lot of people don't want to hear, the very best of theater has been historically created right in New York City in the marketplace. I have seen 25 "Streetcar Name Desires". I have never seen one quite up to Kazan's original production with Brando and and Jessica Tandy and so on. I have not -- I I thought, by the way, that the other night I watched "Salesmen" on television. I thought it was first rate, really good. Until the other night, on television, I had not seen a "Salesman" that I thought was up to the original. That that applies all over the place. I see no reason why we just turn our back on that and say, you know, "Okay, the regional theater will take care of everything." Certainly in musical terms, it's a very difficult assignment.
Studs Terkel There's a certain standard that is set there--
Harold Prince But that standard is diminishing and disappearing very quickly. I feel very lonely in terms of -- I mean when I went into the theater I was in a kind of apprentice to George Abbott. I--
Studs Terkel You worked with George Abbott.
Harold Prince I, forever. We still have an office together. I've been with him since I--
Studs Terkel Is he still with--
Harold Prince Was 19 years old.
Studs Terkel He's still with it?
Harold Prince Oh George is 98. Writing a musical.
Studs Terkel Ninety-eight!
Harold Prince Across the hall from me. And and he handed me a musical, three scenes of a brand new musical the other day when I was in New York. He's just amazing. Thing is that that there were 20 directors, 35 composers and lyricists. There, I mean, there was an enormous community and there were certainly 35 annually active producers in the theater.
Studs Terkel Thirty-five.
Harold Prince As I speak to you, I think there are twelve plays on Broadway, which would be one third of what I was used to at the beginning of any season.
Studs Terkel Even during the Great Depression [and?] the thirties, theater--
Studs Terkel Herman Shumlin spoke of "Grand Hotel". It had, packed in a theater was not so much escape as sanctuary of some sort.
Harold Prince Well yes, I think was it kind of escape. And the thing is you you have to know, in no one can, even in good times, escape anywhere for 50 bucks a shot--
Harold Prince So you know, I th- it has got to be addressed.
Studs Terkel Well, of course, it has to be different as a, since we have television. Obviously it has to be something beyond that.
Harold Prince Well, there's a whole lot of material that no longer will work on the stage. Sitcoms--
Studs Terkel Right.
Harold Prince Forget it. I don't think that there'd be much of a career for Lillian Hellman, for example, on Broadway. She was a swell writer and a very good constructionist. But I don't think that that kind of playwriting -- I don't think Bill Inge. These are people I admire enormously so don't misunderstand me--
Studs Terkel So it has to have another, it has to be a form.
Harold Prince It has to have another dimension. It has to be absurdist or or very rich in language. It it it it's a--
Studs Terkel [You have? Yet?] Chekhov -- I mean speaking of Hellman, and I'm not comparing them. I'm merely saying that the form of Chekhov that would--
Harold Prince You bet. No, I think that you can have naturalistic theater. You bet. But the well-made play.
Studs Terkel Yeah.
Harold Prince I don't think there's a hell of a lot of room for it--
Studs Terkel Of course, TV can do that.
Harold Prince I think TV can do that. TV can do sitcoms. TV doesn't do it a hell of a lot of the time. But, you know, Neil Simon seems to have a great gift for feeding Broadway a kind of material that other people cannot feed it at this point successfully. Maybe maybe there'll be a return to it. I don't know.
Studs Terkel You're talking about a new -- now the challenge, since obviously because of technology, there's a challenge. And you're saying the challenge is yet to be met.
Harold Prince Well, I think the stuff for example that that the Steppenwolf fellows have been doing, or, I went up to see "Rat in the Skull" the other day, that, you go into a theater and you're seeing something that they can't give you on television.
Studs Terkel That's powerful stuff.
Harold Prince You can't you can't get on television and and you won't be able to, I don't think. Musicals are something you cannot do on television successfully.
Studs Terkel Because there, what? Because there is a stage and there is expansiveness.
Harold Prince You got it. It's too, it's -- the screen's too small to do that, so the stage is the stage is is is safe for- forever the theater, as far as I'm concerned. The only thing you have to recognize is if you're going to -- if in the name of of you know, common sense, everything has to be quote "a hit", to pay back their investment, forget it. I'm I'm I'm talking to you and you're mentioning my shows, and and a lot of them did not make money.
Studs Terkel Some were not a commercial [unintelligible]--
Harold Prince "Sweeney Todd"--
Studs Terkel "Follies," for one.
Harold Prince "Sweeney Todd", "Follies" did not pay back their investments. "Company" was, ran 21 months on Broadway and made, paid back its investment, made five percent on its investment. That's not an investment. It didn't matter. My my my invest--
Studs Terkel But what you did with "Company" and those -- you're going to do something new each time, a new form, a new approach.
Harold Prince And my investors, the tab on being involved was very small. You put $1000, $2000 in a show and you were able to go to the opening night and say, "I have a piece of history here." Maybe, maybe. And isn't that exciting? And but but if you're raising $4 million, the guys who give you $4 million are not interested in a piece of history. They're interested in their money back and a profit and there goes the art form.
Studs Terkel I'm thinking, I'm talking to Harold Prince. You see the ideas are flowing, of course. I'm also thinking about time since you got to go back for a rehearsal of "Butterfly" here, but before that you, known as the director of musical theater doing opera, and people say, "Isn't that a leap?", and the point is it's not a leap for you at all--
Harold Prince No. The technique isn't--
Studs Terkel It's just a continuation.
Harold Prince That's that's another thing, obviously, is there are more and more good actors and actresses in opera than, than I think there used to be. They're very anxious to go deeper into characterization and so on. I have found very little resistance to re-examining. Most of these people have played these operas, sung them before, for other directors on other sets, and so on, that there's no there's no effort on their part to retain those interpretations. Not at all. They're very co-operative and very skillful. They also are simply physically in better shape, able to move more. There's just a greater respect for theater. Another thing just occurred to me, that is, that we're producing a lot of terrific performers, really first rate.
Studs Terkel You mean American singers.
Harold Prince American.
Studs Terkel Right.
Studs Terkel You bet. There are a lot of good opera singers.
Studs Terkel Take Sherrill Milnes right now, Iago. He's from around here.
Harold Prince Yeah, absolutely. And artists. Yes. We had a fundraiser at the opera house and I participated some, and she introduced some of the young people who've come up through their program. One of whom is in "Butterfly", and is excellent.
Studs Terkel Yeah. There are a number of American singers even in Eu-, some have to go to Europe to make it.
Harold Prince Yeah, they do and its--
Studs Terkel But the great number of American singers.
Harold Prince It's not a bad process, by the way. I I don't think that that there's anything wrong with going there and then coming back and traveling. One of the things about opera that I'm loving so much, you see, is is most of these - my life, I've had a kind of, my own theater. Without having the bricks and mortar, I've had my own designers, I've done how many shows with Boris Aronson and how many shows with, you know and so on. That's that's being taken away some by the problems of Broadway right now. The thing of opera is, you travel all over the world and you keep running into the same people. You work with them in different houses. It's it's a very family experience.
Studs Terkel You did "Turandot" at the at the Vienna Staatsoper.
Harold Prince I did. I did Staatsoper. I did "Turandot". I worked in San Francisco with Domingo. You get to, you know, you get to know a lot of people and it's kind of family.
Studs Terkel I know, the other thing we can talk about is American operas. You directed "Willie Stark" [unintelligible].
Harold Prince I did "Willie Stark." Yeah, let's talk about that a minute, okay?
Studs Terkel Sure.
Harold Prince That, I started out saying that one of the--
Harold Prince Yeah, Carlisle Floyd. One of the problems is, Carlisle said to me, "Look, can I do a musical? I'd like to do a musical one of these days." I said, "Absolutely. Sure." The the point is, I think, over the years, a lot of people have been discouraged from writing operas and gone on to write musicals because they had mis-defined what an opera is. A lot of people have written operas who could have worked in the in the more popular musical field. An awful lot of people write operas according to some nineteenth century definition. So a lot of contemporary operas sound like rehashed nineteenth century work and then when they're not popular, everybody says what's that? Then a lot of people have decided that the modern opera means it has to be either minimalist or atonal. That's nonsense. There's room for minimalist and there's room for atonal. There's also, however, room for more popular and conventional musical form. The need is to open it up to everybody and then think of it as theater again. There's an opera opening in Philadelphia called "X", based on Malcolm X. It's a kind of workshop version. It will ultimately have its world premiere at City Opera for Beverly Sills. I know that material. It's wonderful. It's absolutely extraordinary. The composer is a young black fellow. I wish I knew his name. I apologize for not knowing.
Studs Terkel So does it have - I suppose it would have a blues aspect too somewhere.
Harold Prince It has everything.
Studs Terkel Yeah.
Harold Prince It has everything. It's American, it's fresh, it's accessible, it's large, and it's important. And I predict a great future for that piece of work. Well, if that happens think how encouraging that will be.
Studs Terkel Then it'll open up new avenues.
Studs Terkel So stuff, subjects untouched hitherto can [unintelligible], say Malcolm X, the hero of an opera, I see. Just I know there was an attempt to do Sacco and Vanzetti once [unintelligible].
Harold Prince Yes. Yes indeed. I'll tell you something else that that I perhaps, if we if we have another couple minutes.
Studs Terkel Oh, lots of time.
Harold Prince I I'm chairman of an organization called the National Institute for Music Theater. Beverly, I replaced Beverly, who had replace Julius Rudel. It was called the National Opera Institute. When they came to me and said, "Will you take over?" What they are about, and by the way, they're all meeting here for their full annual meeting in conjunction with the taping of "Butterfly", and we're going to do some work in Chicago. What they have done is, they have raised considerable sums of money, over how so many years, to fund young singers, conductors, not only in classes but apprenticeship programs. They have an annual contest in Chicago, in San Francisco, in New York and one place in the South. Finally they award the top five singers. They have workshops. They fund new operas which are just very very economically produced so that you can see them and then feed back criticism. When I came into it I said I, "It's a strange thing you should come to me and ask me to take on this job." Well, obviously it was an expression of exactly what we've been talking about this morning. The very first thing I did, tentatively, rather rather nervous that it wouldn't get through, but within the first year of my being there, and by the way Sherrill's on the board, and what's int- Richard Sti- Stillwell was the--
Studs Terkel Stillwell, the American singer.
Harold Prince First grantee of National Opera Institute -- it was change our name to National Institute of Music Theater. Sounds petty, but it was significant.
Studs Terkel Yeah, musical theater.
Harold Prince And there was no difficulty. There would have been, it would have been an impossible task ten years ago to persuade a board to accept something like that.
Studs Terkel So, things are happening in that respect.
Harold Prince Things are happening.
Studs Terkel It's funny how you mentioned it, Broadway in a parlous state and yet in the world of opera things are popping.
Harold Prince Yes.
Studs Terkel There's a shift here. Yeah.
Harold Prince At a point when when people were certainly thinking is this going to, this museum thing going to get worse.
Studs Terkel Yeah, yeah. So here's less museum and and the others just less--
Harold Prince Much less. Great enthusiasm a lot of young people going to operas, a lot. I get letters--
Harold Prince A lot of young people who care.
Studs Terkel You find there is a [certain? resurgent?] interest as far as the audience is concerned?
Harold Prince Yes.
Studs Terkel New audiences.
Harold Prince Yes. I find young people do care.
Studs Terkel We know that ballet, we know that that the world of the dance had a tremendous resurgence.
Harold Prince Enormous resurgence.
Studs Terkel But you think in opera, too?
Harold Prince I think it's happening now. There are more companies, little ones doing new work.
Studs Terkel Who knows, time might come we'll be like a Parma, Chicago will. We'll have guys in the gallery saying, "Thumbs down," and hooting and hissing and booing. Are there still claques? You aware of there still being claques?
Harold Prince Yeah. I'll tell you a hilarious story and on that I will leave and go to work, I guess. When I went to do "Turandot", we had a very happy experience and I think I think we did well. I think it's a good production. On the morning of the opening, my family arrived. I was over at the Opera House.
Studs Terkel This is in Vienna now.
Harold Prince In Vienna. Lorin Maazel said, "Oh, Hal, listen they're going to boo you tonight." [laughter] And I said, "How do you know?" He said, "They are." He said, "They've been booing me for two years now. Tonight's your night. I've been told they're going to be a bunch of kids in standing room and they're after you." I came out of the house and I found my family and we were in the Sacher, across the street from the the opera house, and there was a line around the block for standing room and it was just, it was -- there was great anticipation. The publicity was terrific, and the production I knew worked. We went into the opera house and it was one of the nicest, most exciting evenings I've ever spent in a theater. I mean the audience was just on fire. At the end of every act there was a scream such as I'd heard rarely. At the end of the opera, there was a 55 minute ovation. The opera is only two hours long. 55 minutes of applause for every one. Every time I came out on stage, it turned to booing and every time I went away, they applauded like crazy. I made the journey twice. The third time out I said, "No, I'm not going," and everybody looked at me like, "What's the matter with you?" I said, "No, I'm that much of a lunatic, I'm not."
Studs Terkel They say, "That's par for the course."
Harold Prince It was par for the course.
Studs Terkel On that subject, "Butterfly" now. Opening night of "Butterfly" was a night of boos for Puccini.
Harold Prince You bet. And he took it off -- you know that he closed it that night. The very first public performance of "Butterfly" at La Scala was all there was for six months. And then he opened it again, somewhat changed, in a small opera house in northern Italy and it was a great success.
Studs Terkel But claques [weren't working?], too?
Studs Terkel This is by way of thanking Harold Prince for just in all wandering around and about conversation focused primarily on "Butterfly." It's at the second production of the Lyric and his obviously unique interpretation and direction, original as always, and more where that came from with Harold Prince. And let's close as we opened, in this case it's "Un Bel Di" with Edith Mason, who was quite a character in her day too, as well as an excellent coloratura. And this is Mason and that moment in "Butterfly" and Harold Prince, thank you very much indeed.