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Video Published: 24 Aug 2022

An Oral History with Bruce Donnell

On March 9th, 2022, stage director Bruce Donnell sat down with OPERA America's President/CEO Marc A. Scorca for a conversation about opera and their life.

This interview was originally recorded on March 9th, 2022. 
The Oral History Project is supported by the Arthur F. and Alice E. Adams Charitable Foundation. 

Bruce Donnell, stage director

A stage director at the Metropolitan Opera since 1975, Bruce Donnell studied at Friedelind Wagner’s Master Classes in Bayreuth in 1965 before joining the staff of the San Francisco Opera’s Merola Program. His work at the Metropolitan includes Die Frau ohne Schatten with Birgit Nilsson, La Gioconda, Die Meistersinger, Parsifal, Arabella, Don Giovanni, La Fille du Regiment, and Fidelio, among many others. Winner of two Emmy Awards, his television credits from the Metropolitan include Lucia di Lammermoor with Joan Sutherland and Alfredo Kraus, Der Rosenkavalier with Kiri Te Kanawa and Tatiana Troyanos, Billy Budd and the Aida that marked Leontyne Price’s farewell to opera. Mr. Donnell has worked in opera houses across the country and internationally.

Oral History Project

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Marc A. Scorca: Who brought you to your first opera?

Bruce Donnell: Well, my parents. My mother was on the board. My sister and brother-in-law still occupy the same seats at the San Francisco Opera that my parents did in the 1940's.

Marc A. Scorca: So San Francisco is where you were born?

Bruce Donnell: Yeah, I'm fifth generation Californian on my mother's side. And I was an opera brat around the San Francisco Opera House from about age 14/15 on. So it would've been my parents bringing me (to) my first opera. The first opera that I remember vaguely was Pagliacci; the first opera that really hit me was in 1960 when I was 14, and in the days before security and all of that, my mother had a meeting upstairs and it was before I went away to school. There was a Wozzeck dress rehearsal during the day in English with Marilyn Horne, Geraint Evans, Russ Christopher, Janis Martin, Thomas Tipton, Leopold Ludwig conducting, Philip Eisenberg at the honky-tonk piano. I remember almost everything about that. It was in English and I thought, "Well, if this is what opera's all about, then this is for me." I still think Wozzeck's a great first opera for people. Each scene's only five minutes long. You can't be bored; you can't go to sleep and I'm getting goose pimples now, as I remember those chords at the end that just get louder and louder and it can't get louder and then it does, and you're back in your seat, and it just made a tremendous impression on me, especially Jackie's (Marilyn Horne's) Bible reading scene. You know, it was in English and I'm 14. And I met her afterward. She was all of 26 at the time, so she looked like a kid too. And that started a friendship which remains to this day. And that's sort of what kicked it off. I interned for a couple summers after that at the San Francisco Opera and met a lot of singers, so I say I was an opera brat around that theater from age 15 and 16 on.

Marc A. Scorca: I want to delve into some of those memories of singers who really established opera in America because after World War II, as companies were being formed around the country, there were still some artists who completely owned the space and made it a compelling art form for audiences. Before I get there, you went from the San Francisco Opera as a youngster into stage direction. And what led you? Did you think maybe you wanted to be a singer? Or a conductor? What led you to stage direction?

Bruce Donnell: I can read music. I play the piano badly, and I played the clarinet badly. I don't think my gift to music lay in those directions. I actually was a French major at Columbia. I went to a boarding school in Southern California and then the only place I wanted to go to college was New York, and Columbia was the only place I applied to and was accepted. Leontyne (Price) is actually involved in that. We looked at colleges and since I'd met her in San Francisco, at 16, we hear a Tosca on my college tour. And so we call backstage to be put on the list and there was a note from the Barclay Hotel operator: Ms. Price would like to see you after the performance. And if Ms. Price would like to see me after the performance, that clenched that Columbia was where I was gonna go to school. Who knew? I didn't know I was gonna work in opera or anything. I ended up directing her farewell. Who knew at age 16? But how I got into it was: I was a French major at Columbia in the '60's. Vietnam intervened. That would not have worked; guns and I are not friends. I was a conscientious objector, and I did two years of work in the press office at United Nations as alternate service, instead of stressing a gun in my hand, which would've not worked for anybody or anything. And after my two years, I'd done everything for my PhD in French, except the dissertation, which thank God I never started. It could still be hanging over me. And I took a two week ski trip to Europe, which ended up stretching out five months. And I didn't really know I was looking for a job. This is 1972, long before cell phones. But I had a lot of singer friends, people like Arlene Saunders, Reri Grist, Claire Watson and David Thaw, Lorenzo Alvary. Lorenzo had arranged this interview in Vienna. "You must meet my friend, Gamsjäger." Well, Gamsjäger kept putting it off, so I'd stay longer. And then Friedelind (Wagner) would say, "Oh, (Elisabeth) Grümmer's doing the Wesendonck Lieder up in Berlin. You gotta come up for that." So it kept getting later and later. And, a lot of people like Reri introduced me to Dr. Rennert, so did Claire Watson. I love dance too. I was on my way to Paris to see (Fernando) Alonso dance and Hamburg was on the way. And I wanted to see a John Dexter production of House of the Dead. And again, I didn't know I was looking for a job, but these people knew me better than I did and arranged interviews. And Arlene, after her Rosenkavalier said I was surprised we're going out for dinner. And of course she was very close with the Professor (Rolf) Lieberman. And he said, "Why don't you come back for Billy Budd rehearsals?" And I'd just told everybody, I'm going back to New York next week. That meant staying an extra six weeks and not tied down to anything. I said, "Sure." Money was running short, but we made it happen. And that's how I met John Dexter, which eventually led to The Met. In the meantime, Lotfi Mansouri had set up a meeting with Herbert Graf. And so I was to be his assistant in the summer in Verona and Salzburg. Assistant means getting coffee, but it gets you in the door. People say, "How do you become a stage director?" I say, "You learn how everybody takes their coffee and the quickest way to the canteen." And, that's what it was. And it went well with Dr. Graf and I could go on for days about that too, but that led to an offer to a full-time job in Geneva. He was head of the Grand Théâtre in Geneva at the time. So I got a full contract as an assistant director in Geneva, so it was a two week ski trip where I didn't know I was looking for work.

Marc A. Scorca: It turned into a career.

Bruce Donnell: Very happily so, and thanks mostly to singers.

Marc A. Scorca: Let me pause there for a second, because Herbert Graf's name comes up a lot. I hear a lot of people refer to him, and I'm curious to know who he was and why he seems to be referenced so frequently among people whose feet got wet in opera in Europe some decades ago.

Bruce Donnell: He was Freud's first patient too: baby Hans. Dr. Graf's father was a famous music critic in Vienna: Max Graf. So baby Hans is actually Herbert Graf. He had a good career over there. He was Jewish. He was assistant to Max Reinhardt, which has Rosenkavalier implications for me. And anyway, he immigrated to the States in the '30's and became really the house director for The Met from the late 1930's into the early 1960's. And up til that point, lots of times you didn't even see the stage director mentioned. It was just the stage manager who sort of did both. And it was in contracts up to the 1950's (that) singers would bring their own costumes and productions were pretty much the same anywhere. And so the stage manager would just show where the entrances and exit were, if they were any different, and it went on. Not to say it was bad. There were some wonderful, wonderful singers. I would've loved to have been there to see it. So I think he was the first to - I hate to use the word 'concept' these days - that's not me, but he was the first to take more control as a stage director and put a particular look, in a particular staging, in a particular production, instead of it just being... Even when I started going to opera, a Tosca was pretty much the same anywhere. Not to say that that's bad. If you have wonderful artists in it, I'll buy a ticket. He had a great influence. He also was way more imaginative than people remember. He loved the United States. He did a Walkuere at Red Rocks outdoor arena, south of Denver. The Salzburg thing we did together was a pre-opera. It was a Lenten play, Il rappresentazione di anima e di corpo. It was in a baroque church and it was just magic. It was a revival. There were singers and orchestras hidden all over the place. Suzanne Sarroca, Bob Kerns, Joanna Simon, José van Dam; a wonderful cast. I'm getting goose pimples again. It was the most magical use of space and wonderful designers. If you didn't know the church before, you weren't aware there even was a stage set in there. I know Austrian television did a video recording. I've never seen it. Orfeo: you can get the sound recording. So he did lots and lots of really adventurous (things). He staged the St. Matthew Passion before anybody else did. So he really was an innovator. He's not really remembered for that, but he should be.

Marc A. Scorca: You know, I'm gonna follow my question slightly chronologically, but you've raised a couple of points that I really do wanna explore in a minute. Suddenly you had masterclasses or a stint in Bayreuth, and there you were studying with, observing Friedelind Wagner and, given your youth, the freshness of the Bayreuth Festival after things had reopened: what did you do there and what was it like there in those years?

Bruce Donnell: Okay. I first went in '63, just in the audience, thanks to Friedelind. First thing I ever heard there was a Parsifal with: somebody named Hans Knappertsbusch conducting; somebody named Hans Hotter singing Gurnemanz; Wolfgang Windgassen, Irene Dalis, George London, Martti Talvela offstage as Titurel and Wieland (Wagner's) production. I have no desire to go back to Bayreuth right now. It was just the sound: Parsifal like Rheingold starts with a really low note, which you feel before you actually hear it. And the theater's all hollow wood; it's like sitting inside a violin and this sound would just surround you and the proscenium's black and the pit's covered. And then this glowing vision looked like a redwood forest: just the most beautiful stage image you ever saw, and this incredible music. First act of Parsifal is just shy of two hours long went by in an instant; it was just so engrosing. Never to be forgotten. Then a night or two later, my very first Tristan with Mr. (Karl) Böhm and Ms. (Birgit) Nilsson and Mr. Windgassen and Kerstin Meyer. And I was sitting in the family box next to Winifred Wagner. So I'm sort of spoiled for Tristan. Anyway, then we saw Wolfgang (Wagner's) Ring too, which had some good cast members and the best Valkyrie. You probably don't remember Jutta Meyfarth. She was the Sieglinde. A short career, but when the Hunding, Gottlob Frick is the best thing in the Walkuere you know - but Astrid Varnay as the Siegfried and Götterdämmerung Brünnhildes: again, never to be forgotten. So I saw everything that summer and then Friedelind invited me to come back to be a member of the masterclasses in '65. We took the acting lessons. We observed as well we could what was going on in the Festspielhaus. Wieland was very nice to us; Wolfgang was not. Friedelind being the black sheep of the family, having left Germany at age 20, and she and Wolfgang never got along. We were tolerated by Wolfgang. So he was doing a new Ring. Very many of the wonderful singers from the '50's were still there. Nilsson, Windgassen, Josef Greindl, Gustav Neidlinger: it was really a great time for Wagner singing, and I loved the simplicity of it too. Regina Resnik sort of jokingly once referred to Wieland and his eternal pancake, but he put these things on this disc and they were covered with [indecipherable]. We helped make the scenery, which was a lot of fun. We made the Dutchman sail and we made the groundcloths and we made the Gebichung axes, one of which had a bust of Richard Wagner on it. We always wondered if the chorister who picked it up, noticed that it had a bust of Wagner on it. But again, it was just magic because of the beauty. Böhm was conducting and just the musical standards were so high; the singers absolutely up to it. Again, it was just magic and Friedelind was a wonderful teacher. She took us a lot to East Germany, and that was very influential. You did get followed around. You look for the microphones in the hotel rooms and yes, there they were. And in Leipzig, the ruins of the old Gewandhaus were still there and there'd recently been a fire, so it smellt like burnt wood. And the plinth where a bust of Mendelssohn had been that (Thomas) Beecham famously put the wreath on in '38 was still there. That made you think. And then we went to Dresden, where most of the (Richard) Strauss premieres had happened: in '65, it looked like the war was yesterday. Streets full of rubble. The Zwinger Museum, the only thing which had been restored. Of the opera house, just the shell of the auditorium, nothing of backstage. And that affected me. I'd never seen war close up like that. Now I can see it every day on television, thanks to Ukraine. Anyway, it had a big influence on my being a conscientious objector, and Friedelind also was very supportive of that. Talking about how, when she left Germany, went to London in time to be bombed, she said, "You know, being held captive by the people you fled to and be bombed by your former compatriot, ('cause she was there for the blitz), gives you a certain perspective on life." And then (Arturo) Toscanini eventually got her an exit visa out, and she took a very slow coastal hugging ship down to Buenos Aires, where he was. Then they went to New York and she became an American citizen. So it was more than just the music there; it was really amazing. Not everything she promised could happen, 'cause that is just the way life was. But she would just show you something without comment. Or I remember Dresden too. I came back. I stayed with Ed Downes. We both stayed with [indecipherable: Frau Louis?] on Tannhäuserstraße, and I was really shaken when I came back from Dresden, and [indecipherable: Frau Louis?] had never said anything. And I said, "You'll never believe what I just saw." And I described it. Only then did she say "Well, yes, I would believe it. I was there for the bombing." And since then I've learned that Dresden was right; there are areas of gray in this world, but it affected me greatly. And Friedelind was a huge influence on my life, artistically as well as who I am as a person.

Marc A. Scorca: Fast forward a little bit. So mid 1970's, you go to The Metropolitan Opera and you've directed so many productions there. (There's) a kind of pivot moment between an old-fashioned kind of opera, where a singer traveled with costumes. And if you hung a wrinkled pyramid, it was Aida, and if you hung a wrinkled teahouse, it was Butterfly, and not to say that there couldn't be fabulous performances in all of that. But then, you have this stint in Europe and then come with John Dexter over to The Metropolitan Opera where there was an effort (to) turn this ship around. So what was that pivot like? When was that pivot, would you say? And I'm sure it was over a period of time.

Bruce Donnell: Don't forget that Mr. Bing tried to do that (before my time there), but he brought in Tyrone Guthrie, [indecipherable: Emma Luntz?] and Garson Kanin. Mr. Bing, in the early '50's - some of his new productions: some worked; some didn't, but he made a big effort in that direction too.

Marc A. Scorca: I remember when Joan Sutherland though would still sing on the Eugene Berman Don Giovanni, having come with her own costumes for it.

Bruce Donnell: Yes. And you can tell from the radio broadcast, she's wearing her own costume, 'cause she sings her own variations too. I inherited that production for tour. I'd never worked on it. It came to me and I directed it for a couple years.

Marc A. Scorca: To this pivot...

Bruce Donnell: Opera's still about music and singing. You can't lose that. John (Dexter) brought me over and so Jim Levine, Anthony Bliss and John were running the company, they sort of over-pivoted at one point: they didn't put the singer's names on the big three sheets outside. They were just the name of the opera; that didn't last very long. But there was an effort (by John especially) to simplify things like his Vespri production, and put more focus on theatrical values. He missed a few shots, but his best productions, his Billy Budd; his Carmelites (which cost all of $75,000 'cause it was cannibalized from other shows).

Marc A. Scorca: Phenomenal production

Bruce Donnell: Best ever. He tried to change that, but he also respected singers. He worked a lot in Hamburg. A lot of Hamburg singers came over. When he did his new Don Carlo, they wanted it to be in French then, but nobody would learn it. So it didn't happen. I would say it's John Dexter who tried to shift things to get away from that kind of scenery, but still a more simple look to the stage. In my view, these days there's way too much scenery and you lose your focus. But John is the one who was in a position to aim for a simpler production style and more focus on drama without neglecting the singers or the singing.

Marc A. Scorca: So there we are say, 1975, you arrive at The Met, you had had this extraordinary European experience. You've clearly known a lot of people. Was there a role model at that point in your career as someone whose work you thought or someone whose outlook, you thought: that's what I'd like?

Bruce Donnell: Well, the people who were really generous to me. Lotfi Mansouri, 'cause I knew him when I was 13 years old. (He) believed in me from early on and I found a lot to respect in what he did. John Dexter shaped me a lot. I was lucky enough to assist Jean-Pierre Ponnelle on several productions, and I so admired his work and his musicality. I remember the Dutchman opening. I worked on it in San Francisco and then it opened at The Met and there were boos and it was quite a thing. I mean these days it would be nothing, but he was always musical. I remember Jean-Pierre saying, "Well, maybe the production is shit, but at least the singers are downstage and they're singing out." So I loved him. And then, Nat Merrill: he could be stodgy sometimes, but he was very, very generous with his teaching, also a disciple of Dr. Graf, along with Lotfi, and Mr. (August) Everding and Otto Schenk were directors I assisted early on, whom I greatly, greatly admired and then I found my own way.

Marc A. Scorca: So, we could look at just the incredible singers you worked with, and you've already named some of them. I see references to Leonie Rysanek, Jon Vickers. I would go to any performance anywhere I could to see Leonie Rysanek or Jon Vickers, but at the same time, you begin to open a relationship with Santa Fe Opera, which is filled of course with wonderful established singers, but (also) all of the young artists. How did that open for you? And how did that balance the work with the greatest artists to work with some of the youngest artists?

Bruce Donnell: Well, it's a little more complicated than that. Actually, Santa Fe predated my Met work. I was on the stage crew here in '67, the year of the fire. Remember I was a French major and a family friend, 'cause I would've loved to have gone back to Bayreuth, but Wieland died and everything changed. And this friend said, "Why doesn't Bruce be an apprentice in Santa Fe?" So I was on the stage crew for a summer. Being the only non theater major - believe me one week into it, I was fully caught up, because we did everything. We bought the lumber at the Big Joe Lumber Company, which is now the Eldorado hotel. We built the scenery; we painted the scenery; we moved the scenery; we set up the rehearsals; we were the supers; we took it to the dump at the end of the year, and we moved into a high school gymnasium when the theater burned down. So that believe me, that was a full, crash course education. I wouldn't do it again, but I wouldn't trade it and I'd recommend it to anybody. You can't learn backstage better. How to operate from front of house to the back of house and doing it yourself. That was a great experience. So I already liked Santa Fe and I guess in '76 maybe, they did hire me as an assistant to Colin Graham on Fedora and Falstaff to put second cast in. And John (Crosby) seems always to have liked me and offered me wonderful Strauss operas, 'cause we shared that (and) I had the opportunity to direct. First of all, when you talk about the great singers like that, they're not... I mean, to me the word 'diva' is really overused now. A diva is somebody like Leontyne (Price) or Joan or Elizabeth Söderström and Leonie. I don't think anybody ever had a problem with them. They show up early to rehearsal. You're early to rehearsal. They're already there. Leontyne's always early. Joan's there doing her needlepoint. "Anytime you need me, I'm here." You know, they come prepared. (Renata) Scotto was the same way: early to rehearsal, totally prepared. So they were not difficult to work with. The second level ones who were insecure, difficult... And the way you deal with them is to try to take away their insecurities; make them feel secure. So I don't have a different approach. If somebody's learning a role brand new, then I try to teach them a correct version, because they're gonna have to fall back on it. Richard Buckley, who's a conductor friend talked about one time he conducted Nina Stemme in a Tosca and it was not such a crazy production, and the director said, "Okay, at the end of act two, just do what you normally do." Well, she'd only been in a crazy production, so she had no idea what Tosca does at the end of act two. So I treat everybody with the same respect. I also find I learn from everybody. I learned so much from the artists you've talked about, but sometimes a young singer will ask me a question about an opera I've directed for 30 years - something I've never thought about. And it makes me think about, and I learn. So if it's a brand new part, then yes, then I'm teaching them the part, and I try to give them a correct one that they'll fall back on when they're not getting anything. I remember a Falstaff here where Bardolfo and Pistola were peeling potatoes at the beginning. That tells me the director didn't give them anything to do. You have to be able to fall back. But I really treated everybody with the same kind of respect. And, as long as they come prepared. John always said, "Do your homework and do it on your own time." I was working with an apprentice one time, we were doing a scene from Meistersinger, the Eva/Sachs duet and it wasn't really happening and I said, "What are you saying here?" And she said, "Well, it's something about shoes." And I said, "Sweetheart, I can't help you express if you don't know what it is you're expressing. You go home and learn it, and when you've learned what you're saying, then we'll work." But as long as somebody comes on time and prepared, I treat them with absolutely the same respect. I don't know if that answers your question. With kids too. Kids are a lot smarter and talented. I've worked with a lot of kids in Billy Budd and treat them with the same respect. They're smart.

Marc A. Scorca: Now you have worked at so many different companies, but before I get to that question, a few words about John Crosby. If there is someone who put the concept of summer festival on the map of American opera, it's John Crosby; a vision for what could happen in terms of repertoire mix; new works; young artists, the incredible apprentice program. I knew John: not an easy person. What did you gain from John Crosby?

Bruce Donnell: Oh, so much. You're asking about great general directors, John was there. He knew what he was, and he knew what the company was and what it wasn't. He greatly admired Kurt Adler in San Francisco. He said, "I don't wanna do something Kurt Adler in San Francisco is gonna do better than we do." So that's why he wanted more offbeat repertory, since I guess because of his college years, he'd known Hindemith and people like that, he was in a position to invite them here, because of a wonderful woman, Miranda Levy, who was next door neighbor to Stravinsky. She was able to say, "I have this young man who's starting an opera company in New Mexico," and everybody revered Stravinsky, but nobody was performing him. And so that set that in the beginning. He liked the new works and he was in a position to get (others). I remember Penderecki being here for the summer. (For) my summer on the stage crew, Henze was here. And that was just part of his vision. He felt it had to be new. As far as the young singers, they were cheaper, but I will point out the apprentice program. I was on the board of AGMA for more than 25 years. It was an AGMA company from the beginning, even for the apprentice program. So he treated people with courtesy and proper respect (and) paid correctly. I said I think there is too much scenery. The lack of a proscenium was partially a budgetary choice, because he said, "If people see a proscenium, they want full-blown scenery. If it's not full-blown scenery, it engages your imagination too. If everything's not up there, you have to supply what's missing.” And then all of a sudden you are a participant in the performance. John Dexter was very much like that, and he learned from Gordon Craig, and (Adolphe) Appia: people like that who had really, really simple scenery in the teens and '20's. And that's what John wanted too, 'cause it makes the audience a participant in filling in what's not there. You're engaged rather than when everything's up there, you sit back and (it's) "Okay. Show me." But if your imagination has to fill in a few things, all of a sudden you're part of the performance. I also give him tremendous credit for creating a company that's survived him. There's so many foundations and organizations that do not survive the creator and it had its difficulties along the way, but he created something that very much has survived him. It's often the premier opera festival in the United States and what its done for New Mexico and Santa Fe is just amazing. It's a very special place. And he had the vision and he stuck to it. He never got full credit for being as good a conductor as he was. I could play you some things that we did together, a Butterfly, an Egyptian Helen beautifully, beautifully conducted. He knew what he (was doing). For the Strauss things, first day of rehearsal, he always had a photocopy of Clemens Krauss' score, who conducted many of the Strauss premieres. And I put all the markings into my score. He wanted me to have exactly the same markings or little word changes that came from the source, and he was so dedicated to it. He was a way better conductor than lots of people gave him credit for, and he just had to bear that. Yes, he was difficult. For a while, I excused that entirely as being shy, 'cause he was very shy. And if we're being totally honest, it was never directed at me. I did witness him being actually rude to some people and I just have to say, "Okay, that was part of the package." I don't excuse it; it was there, but he also created this wonderful place.

Marc A. Scorca: And not only the wonderful place, but The Santa Fe Opera became such a reference point for Opera Theatre of Saint Louis or Glimmerglass.

Bruce Donnell: Richard (Gaddes) went there (Saint Louis) 'cause he sort of thought it would happen here sooner than it did, so he went off and he created something wonderful in Saint Louis with Colin Graham. That was great. It set a standard.

Marc A. Scorca: You've worked at so many different companies and have observed so many different general directors. What makes a great general director, in your view?

Bruce Donnell: Somebody who has the experience and the real overview. I grew up with Kurt Adler and when I worked there, you could work on a list for two hours to get everything just right. Mr. Adler would look at it right now and instantly find the two mistakes in it. He just had that kind of eye; that kind of authority, and the ability to see the whole picture and do something about it. I would put Mr. Bing into that category. I would put Ardis Krainik and Carol Fox into that category of people I knew. And I would put John up there too. More companies are run by committees these days. And you know, things change. That's just the way things are. But a great general director knows exactly what he wants it to be, and how to get there, and the ways to do (it). Ardis was really good about that too. A designer friend said you'd make a presentation, and instead of just complaining about something, Ardis would go, "Well, it's very interesting, but I don't quite understand this or that. Could you explain...," and she'd say it in such a nice way, you realized she was right, and you went and fixed it because she wasn't autocratic, but you realized she had taste. I should put good taste as one of the qualities of a thing. I put Joe Volpe there too. When I worked at The Met with Joe, Joe knew who every single person in the house was and what they contributed to the company and the greatest compliment Joe could give to anybody was 'You're a team player." You're there for the house, not for yourself. And it was very rewarding to work at that time because you felt appreciated. And what you were doing was appreciated and known.

Marc A. Scorca: Should an aspiring stage director today spend some time in Europe, work in Europe? Was the European experience in your view, invaluable to what you did, and would be today?

Bruce Donnell: For me, it was, if you can make it happen. It sort of happened my accident for me. It was the right time, and I wasn't tied down to anything. I was totally free. And we had some friends who owned a hotel in Austria that just let me stay there for free for as long as I wanted: that helped. But I think there's no substitute for soaking up the language and the culture and the style. Each language has its own style. And if you can do it, it's not necessary anymore, and lots of people don't. Singers don't have to anymore. But I think it really contributes a lot. One of the skills I offered John Dexter, why he hired me back to assist him, especially over there was, he didn't have any languages other than English and maybe some certain diplomatic skills didn't come easily to him. So we'd work in Paris and he'd (imitates loud angry speaking) and I'd go, knowing French...And I would paraphrase his instructions to the chorus. He'd go, "You're not translating me." I'd go, "John, do you want them to do what you want them to, or do you want them to walk out?" You can't really learn that in a book and you can't learn that in a school. You learn it by doing. (Being on) tour was the other great teacher. I didn't know to ask, and nobody told me that the tour sets were different from the house sets. I'm thinking La gioconda, the bane of my existence. On tour, I come back after lunch and the grand staircase in the third act (which) the chorus walks down is just a painted drop, so you think on your feet. And by the end of the tour, 'cause each theater's a little different, you learn how to improvise. We had some pretty spectacular tour performances, but each theater being a little different, the Aida: sometimes the procession would go from stage left, sometimes from stage right, depending on where you had the space, and we picked up supers in each city and it was great. You really learned how to adapt to changing circumstances and think quickly on your feet. As I say, great performances. '82 is when we took Rosenkavalier with Elisabeth Söderström, Flicka (Frederica von Stade), Kathy (Battle), Aage Haugland, Jim (Levine) conducting on tour. People went to Washington and Boston from New York to see it. That same year, with Tosca, with Magda Olivero, Luciano (Pavarotti) and Cornell MacNeil and Jim conducting. Not bad. Tour was another great teacher. It's not everything where you expected, when you expected and okay - but we get the show on and there's still nothing like experience.

Marc A. Scorca: Someone said to me recently, and it's a comment that's really stuck in my head. She said in Europe, they 'modernize' (I put that in air quotes) opera by doing these updated productions of the inherited repertoire. In the United States, we're updating opera by creating new work. And that there's so much more new work right now in the United States than in Europe. And there are different approaches to updating. It's not an either or: that's artificial, but one way is that you update your inheritance; the other way is you create new. You may agree or disagree with that statement, but how do you feel about this emerging American opera repertoire that we see all around us?

Bruce Donnell: Lots of experience here at Santa Fe. You win some, you lose some, but that's much more for me, 'cause some of the productions in Europe...I have French friends, (who had just seen) Bohème that took place in a spaceship (for) acts one, two and three, and the fourth act was on the moon. And then we saw Damnation de Faust: the third production in as many years - why you need that many new productions of something you're only gonna produce once - and it was about moving the population of Earth to Mars and there was a Stephen Hawking character in a wheelchair organizing all around the stage. I don't know what that contributes to the art form. I would lean more towards the new works. I don't believe in updating just for updating. If it makes sense, fine. Doesn't have to be exactly the same. I directed Rosenkavalier at The Met for almost 30 years. I learned from singers. I learned from everybody. I learned from Nat and Lotfi and they learned from Dr. Graf and he learned from Max Reinhardt, who was the doctor who went into Dresden to fix the first performance when he couldn't cope. It doesn't mean you have to do it that way, but it means that it's authentic and it's the place to start. Change just for the change doesn't make sense to me.

Marc A. Scorca: So American repertoire: it's difficult to generalize about the new works. They tend right now to be quite resonant with the world around us and they are topical. The theater of opera has returned to the theater, because they are very theatrical and sometimes very narrative based, and the balance between music and libretto we've seen shift some as the storytelling and the libretto become more important than they were in some of the works of the past. How do you feel about the direction of American opera these days?

Bruce Donnell: I think it's good. Colin Graham was both the librettist and director of The Postman Always Rings Twice in Saint Louis, and he said at one point, "The director is sometimes at odds with the librettist." I think it's good. The things that have been good here, for example, I loved Steve Jobs and went a bunch of times. I loved Cold Mountain and went a bunch of times. I think that's exciting and good and I had this conversation with Erie Mills at Livermore Valley Opera, a couple weeks ago. And some of her board thinking, "You'll sell more tickets if you just do another Traviata." And she said, "No, the OPERA America research shows people want new things. You'll sell more tickets when you do something people haven't seen before." There is an appetite for that. There's an audience for that. I think that's good. You don't have to spend a fortune on a new production if it may not come back. But that's much more exciting than trashing a classic. Audiences are eager for that, but the new operas in Santa Fe usually sell out right away.

Marc A. Scorca: So for the aspiring stage director who knocks on your door and says, "You've had this incredible career, both sides of the ocean, big company, small company." What advice do you have?

Bruce Donnell: Just speaking for myself, 'cause I was a French major, not a theater major, but I apprenticed myself to really good people: the summer on the stage crew was a really amazing lesson of how backstage works and what's fair to ask people to do, and what's not fair. And be willing to carry coffee for people. That's how you get in. A director, whose work you admire. You learn. You see what things work and you see some other things that don't work so well. I learned from one rehearsal, with a great artist and a great director who was a little intimidated by that singer and then came the big aria, and he hadn't prepared anything. And I'll never forget that silence. And that was my lesson. You gotta come prepared with something; it doesn't matter if they do it or not. I joke with singers and say, "If you have a better idea than I do, it only makes me look good, so that's fine." It's always a partnership. But I'd say there's no replacement for experience. So get out there and apprentice. I think it's a good idea, if you can read music. That doesn't seem to be all that important to everybody these days, but I think it gives you a heads-up because I like to think that opera is music theater, and you are working in the music field: prima la musica, which of course starts with the word, but I think there's no substitute for experience. Find somebody you really admire and be willing to carry coffee for them. I'm old-fashioned enough to think you don't have to get paid as an intern, 'cause what you're getting is the experience. You may even have to pay for the coffee out of your own pocket, but - next time around they pay you and jobs come out of it, and you learn from all sides. When I spent that month in Hamburg with the Billy Budd rehearsals, it was very much a repertory theater. Some wonderful performances; some not so and the stage manager always had to do a little performance report and he would just laugh and go, "Noch eine Scheisvorstellung" - "Another shitty performance" and I'm just so thrilled to be there. I thought, I hope that never happens to me, so that also was a learning experience. Don't let this happen to you. If you're not having fun - I like to work; I have fun working, but if you're not enjoying it, don't do it.

Marc A. Scorca: And Bruce, it occurs to me too, that of course you have been involved in young singers, you're a judge in various competitions and all: let's say it's the young singer asking for advice. We've talked about the young stage director. These days where, if you are a soprano getting into a young artist training program, like Santa Fe, (it) is twice as difficult as getting into Stanford University. The statistics are incredibly challenging. So the singer who might come to you and say, "What advice do you have?" What would you say to singers?

Bruce Donnell: First of all, have a good vocal technique, so you sing on pitch and you're supporting your voice. Sound like yourself and then I'd say, "Be yourself; don't copy anybody else." Always the analogy of Rosenkavalier. I had so many Marschallins and Oktavians and they're doing basically the same blocking, but they're giving individual performances. So each one was different. Each one brought something new to it. So I tell the young singer: number one, the desire for the career is 51% of the equation. We used to joke you couldn't prevent Colette Boky from having a career. I don't think you could have prevented Evelyn Lear from having a career. And stagefright: there's three people that didn't have it; everybody else does. So experience, but be yourself; don't try to copy somebody. Use the words. Learn your words. Learn your music. Project the words. Find a way that you identify with that particular character and present yourself out there. That's what pop singers do. They even write their own material. That's what makes 'em interesting. You'll be interesting, if you really give an honest performance out there, whether it's audition or eventually a performance. That's going to be interesting to people because you're different from anybody else: the person who came before, or the person after. And in auditions, I don't want arrogance, but I do want self-confidence. I want you to go out saying, "There's no place else I'd rather be right now, than right here, singing this for you." And if you make a mistake, just plow ahead and I'll just think that's the Vienna version of it. You have to want it. There's certain things you have to give up. There are family choices and things, and you decide what you'll do when, so the desire for the career to me slightly outweighs in the beginning, to get your foot in the door, and talent of course is top of the list, but then be yourself; don't do special effects. I'm not interested in high notes that only my dogs can hear; I want something that's expressive. I want you to speak to me. I want you to make me listen to you. Draw me in. Be interesting to me. I wanna learn more about you in that character, which is a little bit the way I direct. I try not to impose a performance on somebody. I try to draw it out of the person, but that means you have something to draw on. I don't know if that's helpful.

Marc A. Scorca: Yeah. That phenomenal.

Bruce Donnell: That's what I look for, 'cause there's lots of talent out there. There really is. So you have to show something individual, but show it by being honest, not these are the special effects.

Marc A. Scorca: Well Bruce, I just wanna say thank you for everything you've done for all the artists you've helped, for all of the productions you've brought to life. Thank you. And I will just look forward to seeing you as, as soon as possible.