Interview with Mr Ralph Wells (1/7/2001)

 
Mr Ralph Wells is professional operatic baritone, is also an artist,
composer, and singing teacher, and formerly
a film history and English teacher. He lives in Van Nuys, California .

 

Q.Mr. Wells, when did you first hear the music of Erich Wolfgang Korngold?
A. Well, like a lot of film buffs, I was fascinated by movies
when I was a kid, just like the little boy in Cinema Paradiso.
I was born in 1959 in Portland, Oregon, and our family had an old
black-and-white television in our basement, which is where I saw many of
the classic films for the first time. I can still remember the huge
impression pictures like The Adventures of Robin Hood and
The Sea Hawk made upon me. I didn't know yet who Korngold was,
but I was already beginning to feel the effects of the scores on my
musical sensibilities. I started taking piano lessons about the time I
started first grade, about age five, and I was instantly drawn to
classical music. It was a natural step to find myself interested in the
great film composers of the past, Korngold foremost among them.
Probably the most pivotal moment was in the early 1970s, however, when
Charles Gerhardt started coming out with his film score series on RCA
records. The first one I remember purchasing was the Classic Film
Scores for Humphrey Bogart, and I was hooked. While there wasn't
any Korngold on that particular album, I was soon to purchase all the
others in the series as soon as I could get my hands on them. There
were two volumes on Korngold, as well as a salute to Errol Flynn and
another to Bette Davis, so a lot of EWK was to be had. Not all that
long afterwards, Gerhardt recorded the complete score to Kings
Row, which I suppose remains my favorite amongst his scores to this
day, although picking a favorite is kind of silly, as each one impresses
me in its own unique way. My favorite tends to be the one I'm hearing
at the moment! Back around the same time that I got the first Gerhardt
album, I bought a three-record Warner Brothers anthology of old mono
recordings directly from the soundtracks, and several Korngold things
were on it. By the time I got into high school, I was hanging out at
the movie revival houses in Portland. I got the opportunity to see many
great films that way, often in restored versions, sometimes even in
three-strip Technicolor prints, as was the case with Robin
Hood. My father was a film buff, too, as well as a devoted fan of
opera singing and vocal music. He loved the great singers of the past,
and he definitely passed on a love of singing to me. He used to sing to
me when it was time for bed, something I'll never forget. My mother was
a semi-professional musician, playing the piano, violin and viola, plus
singing, so it was a musical household. They took me to the symphony
regularly, pops concerts, as well as the opera. It wasn't long before I
wanted to know more about the operas of my favorite film composers, and
though there weren't many to choose from on records in the 1970s
(Bernard Herrmann's Wuthering Heights being an exception)
Korngold's Die tote Stadt and later Violanta were out
there to be purchased. Die tote Stadt, in particular, made a
huge impression upon me, and I played it frequently. Added to this was
the stunning RCA recording of the Symphony in F-Sharp, plus
several mono reissues with Korngold himself conducting works such as the
Much Ado About Nothing suite, as well as playing the piano.
Really, it was EWK's orchestral music that first attracted me, but as I
grew more and more fond of vocal music, I naturally gravitated to that
as well. I began as a pianist--though I was never a great one, by any
means--and only started singing myself when I was about twenty. When I
studied music at Portland State University, I ended up becoming a voice
major. Singing some Korngold was a natural. One of the first things I
learned was Tanzlied des Pierrots from Die tote Stadt,
so I've lived with that piece for many years.

Q.What impressed you specifically about Korngold's music?
A. Many things! Korngold was one of the great melodists of the
20th century, and melody is one thing which is much maligned today, as
most composers, in my opinion, aren't interested in giving us memorable
tunes which we can hum as we leave the concert hall. Verdi, Puccini,
Lehár, for that matter, Mozart, all knew a good tune when they wrote
it. They knew what would cut straight to the heart of the listener.
Korngold had this gift. He would be viciously criticized for it,
especially late in his career--all that baloney about "corn" and no
"gold." So, melody is the first thing which impresses me about
Korngold. His vocal music, especially his operetta scores and the opera
Die Kathrin, are full of melodies which are as memorable as
anything his idols Johann Strauss Jr. or Puccini ever created. Next,
one has to look at the extraordinary range of musical textures which
Korngold had at his command. He was a brilliant orchestrator, and his
style is almost immediately recognizable. You won't mistake Korngold
for Richard Strauss or Mahler, despite certain similarities. He had his
own voice. The only thing I might regret with Korngold is that he could
get so elaborate sometimes with his orchestrations that not enough light
is let through. Both Strauss and Mahler were guilty of this, as well,
and certainly Bruckner and Wagner. However, Korngold was following in a
long tradition of giants, and the Germanic style of orchestral writing
was elaborate and went with the territory. I am often overwhelmed by
the big Korngold things, as with those other composers, but for my own
pleasure, I more often turn to the lighter works, which tend to not
drown you in so much sound all the time. Korngold was also one of the
most versatile classical composers in history, in my opinion. His
abilities to cross over from towering operas and symphonic works to
chamber music to dense song cycles to light operettas to film scores was
unprecedented. Not even Prokofiev or Shostakovich could duplicate
Korngold's versatility. Korngold could do anything, although I suppose
we'll never know if he could have incorporated jazz into his work, the
way , say, Herrmann or Franz Waxman were able to do with some of their
later works. Korngold had an extraordinary dramatic sensibility, and
while he may not have always had the greatest libretti for his operas or
scripts for his films, he could find a way to make the music fit the
drama, transcend it and make it memorable. Look at some of his
pictures, for example, such as Devotion, about the Brontë
sisters, or Escape Me Never. Those were not great films, by
any stretch of the imagination. But like Herrmann, Korngold could take
an ordinary film and give it an extraordinary score, literally lifting
it onto an entirely higher plane. The music does this alone, and what
an amazing thing that is! Korngold's scores make me want to see the
films over and over again, irrespective of the quality of the cinema in
other regards.

 
Q.You have wrote a marvelous musical project about Korngold.
What inspired you to create it ?Was it a difficult task to complete it?
 How have people reacted to the show? What were their comments?
A. Well, the show isn't complete yet, since there's not been a full
production of it. That's still in the works. Basically, the show is
conceived of in the following way: It tells Korngold's life story
through the eyes of the man himself, using his vocal music as the
primary vehicle to illustrate his genius. The character of Korngold
appears in his early sixties, just before his final illness and death.
He is looking back on his life, musing on the ups and downs of one of
the most remarkable careers of his era. As he tells the audience of his
journey through life, the singers (seven in all--three sopranos, a
mezzo-soprano, two tenors, and a baritone) become characters in his
works, both on stage and in films, plus people in his life who played an
important role. These would include his wife, Luzi, and people like the
great tenor, Richard Tauber, and the impresario Max Reinhardt. I've
revised the script several times now, and I'm still trying to perfect
it. It was originally thought of in terms of piano accompaniment, but
as the word has gotten out amongst people whose opinions I respect,
everyone seems to feel that the show cries out to be with an orchestra,
which in theatrical terms would be a pit orchestra of approximately
twenty-five players or so. I'm also debating whether to add a chorus
for some of the big numbers, especially when Korngold himself wanted
that. I've also had to do some work on the vocal lines, as well.
Korngold actually wrote very few ensembles, in the classic sense, of
duets, trios and quartets. Nothing is more boring to an audience than
to have one solo followed by another. I've had to think of this show in
terms of a musical, and so I've taken the liberty of adapting certain
pieces, mainly in the operetta genre, for more than one singer. This
has added to the versatility of the work, to be sure. I don't feel bad
about it, or that it's sacrilege to adapt a few pieces here and there.
And I'll tell you why--Korngold himself was one of the great arrangers
of his own time, completely rewriting in some cases Offenbach, Strauss,
and Leo Fall, plus arranging and editing music by Mendelssohn and
Wagner, to name two. Now, of course, I don't possess even a fraction of
Korngold's musical genius, so I don't pretend to compare myself to him.
But I am a composer and arranger in my own right, as well as a singer
and pianist, and I feel comfortable with certain things when it comes to
rearranging music to best fit the arc of the show. My own instincts as
an opera and concert singer are pretty good, I think, and I've thought
of the show in terms of the overall picture of presenting Korngold to
the public, rather than just do his pieces in a purely academic way.
Getting back to your question about the performance history of the show,
there have been a couple of things. We made a demo for the show over
three years ago, with some really talented colleagues of mine, namely
sopranos Nancy Emmerich and Barbara Custer, tenor Michael Licciardello,
pianist Rodney Menn, and actor William O'Neill. Bill was always my
ideal for the role of Korngold. I wrote the script from the beginning
with Bill in mind for the part, and I was so thrilled when he said he
would be delighted to play it. Bill is fluent in German and has a
brilliant array of German-language accents to draw from, so he is the
perfect choice to handle Korngold's inflections, since Korngold has to
speak in English but still sound of Austrian descent. Incidentally,
Korngold never did learn how to speak English well, but I can't have
Korngold on stage all evening sounding like a caricature of a person
rather than the brilliant intellect he was in reality when speaking in
his native German. So, I've taken the liberty to have Korngold speak in
fluent, albeit not perfect, English, though with a fairly hefty accent
to suggest his ethnicity. Anyway, the demo CD has generated a lot of
interest, although we had to record it under a tremendous time deadline
and not under ideal recording circumstances. Still, it's done the job
it set out to do, which was to get some people to pay attention. Not
long afterwards, Jeannie Pool, the head of the International Film Music
Society, invited us to do a "live" half-hour mini-version of the
show--which was titled at that time Korngold--He Haunts My Heart: A
Tale of Vienna and Hollywood for the 1998 conference in Culver
City. I flew in the same cast of performers, although I had to use a
different pianist, Steven Argila, who's also a fine film composer
himself. The presentation was a huge hit, I must say, and it was
gratifying to see such an audience of experts, many of whom know a
tremendous amount about Korngold and his works, react with so much
enthusiasm. They were cheering at the end, moved emotionally by both
the music and the acting. Interestingly enough, the biggest musical
hits were the two quartets I had made out of a couple of the operetta
numbers. Well, the response convinced me and those of us involved with
it that the show could be a winner. The Austrian Consul General in Los
Angeles, Herr Werner Brandstetter, was there, and he was particularly
excited about it. Since that time, mainly through the website for the
show, www.korngold.com, people have written me from all around the
world. The enthusiasm for the show has been heartening .

Q.What inspired you to create this show ?
A. Oh, gosh, that's a wonderful, albeit rather sad, story. Let me begin by
telling you a little anecdote. As I mentioned, I grew up in Portland. My
parents and I loved movies, and we ended up building a little theater in
our basement for our 16mm film collection. The walls are all lined with
movie memorabilia and there are hundreds of film books, too.
Anyway, back around 1990 or so, I had been traveling and my mom,
Kathryn,told me that my parents had some new neighbors. She said
that the young woman, who was married with two young children ,told
my folks that she was the granddaughter of Erich Korngold. Apparently
my mom had given her a tour of the basement, and she spotted some
posters of films which EWK has scored, probably The Sea Wolf or Kings Row.
She said her name was Katy Korngold Hubbard. I didn't believe it at first, as
it was too much of a coincidence to have someone directly related to Korngold move
next door to a house where a boy who had idolized her grandfather had grown
up. When I returned back to Portland and went over to visit my parents, I got
out of the car and there was this new neighbor. I saw her across the lawn and,
sure enough ,before I had introduced myself, I could tell she was a Korngold.
She had Erich's distinctive features, and there was no mistaking her claim.
Well, Katy and I became great friends directly. We're about the same age, and
we've a lot in common. She's a terrific violinist, and her husband John, a first-rate
cellist. Katy had grown up in the southern California town of Toluca Lake, which in near
Burbank, home of Warner Brothers. They ended up leaving the Los Angeles area and
coming to Portland, and by a wonderful coincidence moved next door to my folks.
About a year later, Katy's parents Ernst and Helen, moved up to Portland. (Ernst was
Erich's oldest son). One thing led to another and both of our respective families became
friendly with one another. It was through Ernst and Helen that I had the good fortune
of meeting Tony Thomas. Tony was one of the great film historians and an extraordinary
man, indeed. He was of my parents generation, and his taste in things was almost identical to my dad's .
My Dad has passed away by that time, so he never got the
opportunity to meet Tony. Still,Tony got to come over to my mom's house and
see my dad's and my collection of old memorabilia, plus my dad's old 78 record collection,
which Tony was greatly interested in. Tony and I corresponded and
talked a couple of times on the phone. This would have been around 1996 or so.
One day he mentioned to me that he had long wanted to produce a Korngold
musical revue. Despite the fact that he was a really productive, individual, writing
dozens of books and producing many commercial recordings and documentaries,
this project had eluded him. Tony respected my work as a singer, and he suggested
doing a concert with three singers singing various Korngold numbers, with the
singers narrating along the way with comments about Korngold. One day a draft
of a script appeared in the mail and that really was the beginning. Or what I
would say was the "first" beginning. Because the whole thing would take a tragic
turn. Tony and I had wanted to collaborate on a script together,especially after
I had reworked his initial draft. We talked of trying to tour such a show. Later I
flew down to visit him in Burbank and discuss the future of the project. Tony was
not feeling well, though I had no idea that he was as sick as we was. He told me
something odd, which really struck me at the time as being out of character for of him,
and that was--I'm paraphrasing now-- that if I wanted to see the Korngold show happen,
I would have to take it over myself and make it my own. This made a huge impression upon
me. I didn't feel qualified to do it, and I was expecting and looking forward to working with
Tony, this man I respected immensely. I flew back to Portland and maybe a month later, I
think it was, I got a phone call telling me that Tony had suddenly died of a stroke to the brain.
Boom, just like that, he was gone! I was very saddened by this news, as this was a newfound
friendship I had really wanted to nurture and cultivate. Naturally, I assumed the Korngold
show would simply die away with him. I offered to sing at a memorial tribute to Tony which
was taking place just a few days later, and so I flew back down to LA. Several long-time friends
and colleagues of his were there, including well-known musicians, actors and film historians.
I sang a Korngold song that was a particular favorite of Tony's You Haunt My Heart , which
was supposedly based on a Johann Strauss melody (which Tony could never locate, leaving
us to assume Korngold wrote it entirely on his own) and used in the musical, Das Lied der Liebe .
Tony had loved the old James Melton recording of this song, and indeed, we had played it on
my dad's 78 turntable. At the gathering of friends and family afterwards, people were a bit
curious about my connection to Tony. When I mentioned to them that I had wanted to write
a Korngold show with Tony, one person after another told me that I should do it on my own,
that Tony would have wanted me to continue on with it. In a strange way, Tony's death was
almost a liberating experience of me, in this regard. Out of the sadness of his death, I was
inspired to go back to the show with a fresh respective. I ended up throwing out the
previous drafts of the script entirely and began rewriting the show from scratch . My first
thought was to let Korngold speak for himself, rather than have a bunch of singers quote him.
Korngold was so witty and clever with words that, it seemed that the dramatic and
humorous possibilities were far greater this way. So, that was how it started. I made the
show my own,followed my vision and have given it every ounce of creative energy I could
muster. The show is dedicated to the memory of Tony Thomas, for without his
inspiration and spirit, the show would never come to fruition.

 
Q. Tell me about the two rare songs from the only Paramount
movie Korngold wrote? The film was Give Us This Night. Was it
difficult to find the scores? As far as I know, even Paramount does not
know if the film really exists .
A. Actually, Give Us This Night was not the only thing
Korngold did for Paramount. He also penned a couple of numbers for
another picture around the same time, Rose of the Rancho.
Gladys Swarthout starred in both films. My show will include something
from Rancho, too, but especially a longer set from Give Us
This Night, which has some of EWK's most ravishing melodies, in my
opinion. The film starred Jan Kiepura, and he just couldn't make the
transition to the American cinema with anywhere near the success he had
previously had in Europe, where he was a very big screen singing star.
He was certainly a major opera singer of the time, and he had created
the tenor lead of the Stranger in Korngold's monumental Das Wunder
der Heliane, premiered in the late 1920s. As for Give Us This
Night, the published sheet music exists, as well as the reduced
versions at the studio. Paramount's music library, and Mr. Ridge
Walker, have been ever so kind enough to get me copies of the songs from
this picture. They're amazingly beautiful. I know that Korngold didn't
think much of the picture, and it's not very good, but the music is
glorious! I have seen the film, as there are pirated copies of it out
there. Speaking of musical libraries, I also want to mention Danny
Gould, who is at Warner Brothers. He's an absolute jewel of a man, and
he's helped me every step of the way, particularly in helping me locate
various excerpts from the Warners classics which Korngold scored
throughout the 1930s and on into the 1940s. So, both Paramount and
Warners have been wonderful to me. I appreciate it very much.

 

Q. Are the vocal requirements difficult for amateur singers?
A. Yes, I'm afraid that they would be. Korngold was a virtuosic
composer, and his music-- with few exceptions--demands first-class
musicians to pull it off. His instrumental writing is very difficult,
as you know, and his vocal music is equally so. The operas require big
Germanic voices, although with the ability to sing Italian vocal line.
The operettas, too, are tough going. Actually, most operettas by
composers such as Lehár, Sigmund Romberg, or Korngold demand operatic
caliber singers. The fact that the music is "lighter" usually means
that the melodies are more accessible but not necessarily easier for the
singer to technically produce. A big high note is a big high note,
irrespective of the genre. Also, the show needs singers who are skilled
enough to adapt several different personas in the course of an evening,
plus they need to be able to handle the acting scenes. It's a tough
assignment. I've got commitments from some terrific singers who want to
collaborate with me on the show, so I feel confident about casting it
someday.

 

Q: Have you orchestrated the show yet for a bigger ensemble?
A: As I mentioned, the show was not originally conceived of with an
orchestra in mind. However, taking the orchestra away from Korngold was
a stupid thought from the get go, as his orchestrations are at least
half of what makes Korngold sound like Korngold! Everyone had been
worried about cost, as it's expensive to get an orchestra. Nowadays,
many major touring productions use synthesizers instead of live players,
which is utterly ridiculous. When the time comes for orchestrating
Farewell, Vienna!, I intend to get some of the best people I
can possibly find. Much of it will be fairly straightforward, such as
reducing the orchestrations down a notch with things like Die tote
Stadt. However, the film reconstructions and the operetta scores
will be harder to manage. I wouldn't want to try to orchestrate these
works myself, but instead I will want to collaborate with someone much
more skilled at that than I am. We'll try to find a sound approximating
what we'd imagine Korngold himself would have done. Many of the
operetta scores have probably fallen by the wayside after all these
decades. I'm not positive about that, as I am hoping to get help from
Korngold's European publishers, Schott in Mainz, Germany, for example,
let alone Weinberger, which published him in Vienna. It'll be a big job
to get the whole show written for a pit orchestra, but I know that it
can be done.

 

Q. What are you planning for the future?
A.There's the rub! I'm trying to get this show up somewhere. I
don't want to see it done in an amateurish way. On my watch, it'll
either be done with professionalism or not at all. I've certainly not
lacked for good advice--Jerome Barry, who runs the Embassy Series in
Washington, D.C. has been a great help to me; and Philip
Clayton-Thompson and his wife, Donna Pizzi, both of whom have had
careers in filmmaking and screenwriting, have generously given me their
time and input; and I've gotten some marvelous ideas and professional
insight from Phil Randall, a very fine director and producer in his own
right, who's been at my side almost from the beginning. I've also been
lucky to know the two leading authorities on Korngold's music, the
author Brendan Carroll and the archivist, Bernd Rachold, both of whom
have inspired and informed me immeasurably. Brendan's book is
brilliant, no question of that, and he is really the man of the hour for
having brought Korngold's life out into the open with his first-rate
biography, The Last Prodigy. I also don't know where I'd be if
it were not for the moral support of both my mother, Kathryn, and my
sweetheart, Elin Carlson, who's not only a tremendous soprano but a
brilliant judge of talent with great instincts about the theater. You
know, projects like Farewell, Vienna! are not created in a
vacuum. They're collaborative efforts. And that will go for finding
venues for the show. I've had numerous leads on possible theaters
throughout the country in which to do it. None have panned out yet, but
I'm confident they will. Several have been more than enthusiastic, but
getting a theatrical company of any importance to take a chance on an
unproven work is difficult, to say the least. I'm an unknown
playwright, and this is a compilation of Korngold's works, rather than a
specific show which the master himself had thought of. Getting people
to invest in live theater is a daunting task. I've already gone down a
lot of blind alleys. Still, I believe that the show will find patrons
or foundation money and that we will see it done someday. Right now
there are a couple of promising leads, but I'll have to get back to you
about them. It's bad luck to talk too much about things before they're
settled. This show can be a winner, of that I'm certain. Granted, it's
not in the genre of the mega-musicals such as Phantom or
Miss Saigon, but it can find an audience. That audience needs
to be somewhat more sophisticated, perhaps, but it's still there.
Ideally, I'd like to see the show performed in Los Angeles, since
Korngold was associated with Hollywood for so many years, and in Vienna,
which was the place he loved above all others and the setting for his
greatest triumphs. There are so many important themes to Korngold's
life, that of the child prodigy that everyone compared to Mozart, to the
toast of the continent as a brilliant young opera composer, to the
exiled Jewish composer (and he wasn't even a practicing Jew!) whose
music had been banned from Europe's stages by Hitler, to the reluctant
film composer and winner of two Oscars, to the sad, forgotten old man
who could not recapture his past fame at the end of his life, given that
the musical world in Europe had passed him by during his years of exile
in America. There's so much there to be told. It's a story worth
hearing. The fact that Korngold has enjoyed such a revival is
heartening, but there's still more to be done. This show is my attempt
to get his story out there in a way that will make people love the
music more, that will make them want to get their local opera
company or symphony orchestra to perform his works, that will make
people want to collect Korngold recordings or get musicians to want to
perform his pieces themselves. This is my fundamental goal. His
amazing life story makes his music all the more powerful. I know I
sound idealistic about it, but Korngold can demand nothing else but
passion on the part of those who love his works.
Vienna! (formerly titled Korngold--He Haunts My Heart: A
Tale of Vienna & Hollywood) is a new musical based upon the life of
composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold. The music is by Korngold with lyrics
by various authors. The script, additional musical adaptations and
English lyrics are by Ralph Wells. Wells, a professional operatic
baritone, is also an artist, composer, and singing teacher, and formerly
a film history and English teacher. He lives in Van Nuys, California .

 

With the kind permission of Mr Wells many photos & memorabillia from his collection used on this site .