A Conversation with Bruce Duffie
"Her execution of florid music and ability to color words and phrases
make her the ideal Rossini singer." Thus spake Harold Rosenthal
in the New Grove Dictionary
about mezzo-soprano Teresa Berganza. And she is, indeed, a
wonderful artist whose youthful sound, looks and zest for life belie
the fact that she recently celebrated her 50th birthday. She
remarked that many people think she is much older because of the fact
that she sang in Cherubini's Medea
with Maria Callas. That was in Dallas in 1958, where she also
sang Isabella in Rossini's L'Italiana
in Algeri. The previous year she made her debut in
Aix-en-Provence as Dorabella in Mozart's Così Fan Tutte. That
first season, she also sang at La Scala in another Rossini work, Le Comte Ory, and before venturing
to the Lone Star State, she appeared in Glyndebourne as Cherubino in Le Nozze di Figaro of Mozart, the
role which also introduced her to Chicago in 1962 and the Met in
1967. But it is as Rosina, Cenerentola and Carmen that she is
most known these days, having sung these characters all over the world,
as well as making fine recordings of them.
Teresa Berganza, who was born in Madrid, studied piano first and then
voice with a pupil of Elisabeth Schumann. She won a singing prize
at the Madrid Conservatory in 1954, and the rest, as they say, is
history. In addition to the roles already mentioned, Berganza has
portrayed Monteverdi's Octavia, Purcell's Dido and Massenet's
Charlotte. Her recordings include Mozart's Zerlina (in the Losey
Film) and Sesto, plus music of Pergolesi, Stravinski and Manuel de
Falla. She also finds time for recitals and a solid home
life. [Note: For more information and current schedules, visit
her official website .]
Last fall , Lyric Opera of Chicago presented the Ponnelle
production of Bizet's Carmen,
and during that time it was my great pleasure to arrange for a
conversation with this famous singer. We met in the charming
salon of her hotel and the five of us (myself, my guest, her daughter,
my wife and the translator) had tea and talked about not only opera,
but many things which affect both the life of an artist and the world
in general. Here is much of that wonderful conversation . . . . .
Bruce Duffie: You are a
Castilian artist and you've sung, among many others, Carmen and
Rosina. What is it about Spanish ladies that attracts composers
from all over the world?
Teresa Berganza: It is
not so much the women as it is Spain itself which attracts the
BD: Is it special
for you to play a Spanish lady whether the composer is Spanish or not?
TB: Yes, because I am
able to bring to the roles the knowledge and the awareness and
personality and understanding of the characters.
BD: Have Rossini and
Bizet captured the Spanish spirit?
TB: I think both Bizet
and Rossini have succeeded very well – Bizet particularly because he
was captivated by the novel of Mérimée. However,
all the composers – including Rossini and Bizet – were able to work
through the text which had already grasped what these characters are.
BD: The text more than
TB: The texts, of course,
are not the whole thing, but the texts are very important. It is
important when you’re coming to interpret the role. There are no
great operas without great texts, so when you come to interpret them,
that is when the text comes into play and makes it possible. If
it were not for the importance of the texts, the composers would have
simply written la-la-la, and the audience would have to guess what was
happening! The importance of the text cannot be
over-emphasized. Other composers have written about Spain
– including Verdi – but for Rossini
and Bizet, the texts are very important and they have preserved the
form and character which comes across because opera is a form of
theater and without a text you don’t have theater, so the words have to
BD: But Rossini is often
accused of using poor texts. Are his really great?
TB: We should probably
have started this discussion with The
Marriage of Figaro of Mozart. It is true that the texts
have to be good and some of the texts are less good [the translator
used the word “indifferent” with which she agreed], but the texts are
never really poor. L'Italiana
in Algeri has a good theatrical text, and Cenerentola also. It’s a
BD: Cenerentola, though,
is not Spanish...
TB: We were talking about
poor texts and that one is not poor.
BD: Being so aware of the
texts, do you sing any of your roles in translation, and if so, do you
feel translations work in opera?
TB: I never sing them in
translation. It seems like an absolute betrayal of the composer.
BD: Even when the
composer wanted to have his texts understood, and often endorsed
TB: No one would dream of
tampering with or touching up a painting of Goya or El Greco.
Therefore the creations of geniuses of music – like Monteverdi, Mozart,
Rossini, you can name them all – likewise should be performed as the
composer intended and should not be touched. It is not necessary
to alter them to communicate to an audience because the composers have
already done that.
BD: Is there, then, any
closer communication when you’re singing Rossini in Italy as opposed to
TB: I have sung Rossini
in both places, and the reactions I got in Chicago were very
good. When I sing an Italian opera in Italy, of course, the
audience can understand the fine points and little nuances of meaning,
and they laugh a bit more perhaps. But the audience does have to
do its homework. I’ve been to some very famous operas (as a
member of the audience) and people are asking who is that singing and
wondering what was happening. They had no idea of what they were
coming to see. They had no preparation for their evening at the
opera. [Note: The translator said she used the word “deformed.”]
BD: Is the audience, in
general, more informed than it was 25 years ago?
TB: No, I think they are
BD: Have you a theory
TB: Today, there is a
tendency to give opera in huge stadiums – 6000 or 7000 people – and
this has inspired a new kind of opera-goer: someone who goes to
opera merely for spectacle, the way they would go to a circus or a
football game, or to a rock concert. Before we started having
this mass-appeal, the audiences tended to love the opera – not that
they studied it, but there was a love of it. They went
often. You don’t learn to love it from one year to the next, but
if you continue to go, and if you love it, then your reactions to it
will be of a different aesthetic character from those who are just
going to for the spectacle. Now, I’m talking primarily about
Europe rather than the U.S., where I have much less knowledge of what
is happening. But in Europe, I feel the change in the attitude of
the audiences toward opera, and the origins of this change lie in the
education of children in schools. Classical music is not taught,
so children have no access to it. On TV and in the popular media,
they are exposed to rock music from their very earliest years, and just
watching it you can see that their reaction is different. There
is not a reaction of intellect. When you watch a small child of 4
or 5 listening to rock music, they are not just sitting there listening
intellectually, they are jiggling and agitating around, which would
indicate that there is something strange going on, and it is
unfortunate that parents who observe this behavior in their children
are not concerned enough to send them off to hear some music of a more
serious nature. The lack is in both primary and high school
levels. There is a lack in the basis of culture, and we can’t
just lay the blame at the schools. It is in the society and the
people of the nation. People will take their children to the
football game and explain to them what the plays and rules are, or they
will explain while they watch it on TV, but they won’t do that for
music – not only opera, but for all serious music. This needs to
happen when they are young. If you take someone to
the opera for the first time when they
are 30 or 35, this is perhaps too late to establish the kind of love
for opera that would have been possible if they had started as children.
BD: Do the parents know
enough about music to be able to explain it to the kids?
TB: It is late – I cannot
change the world.
BD: Is rock music?
TB: Yes, there is even
good rock music, but I make a distinction between rock music and noise.
BD: Where do you make
TB: I am not an expert in
rock, but there is rock music which has rhythm, melody and text, and
that I would call good rock music. There are other rock
performances, however, where the singers do not really sing. They
talk and they shout and make noises, and they twist themselves into
contortions which produces a kind of hysteria in the audience –
especially in young people – and this is a result of this lack of
cultural appreciation. The rock concerts would not be so
successful if the audiences were more sophisticated.
BD: Is opera “art” or
TB: It is art.
BD: There is no
entertainment value at all?
TB: There is
entertainment value in painting and sculpture. If I were looking
at a painting, for instance the
Assassination of Maximillion II, there would be things in it
which would fascinate me, but it would not amuse me. It would not
entertain me. Likewise, when I go to the theater, if I see a
comedy of Mozart or Rossini, then I am entertained. But if I go
to see a tragedy or drama of any of the great composers, then I am not
entertained, but I am absorbed and interested. I can follow it
and appreciate it.
BD: Are you enlightened?
Opera for me is music, and music is food for the soul. When I
hear the music, it nourishes and enriches. Life consists of both
kinds of experiences. There are moments of tragedy and moments of
laughter, and when you go to the theater you can enjoy both kinds of
performances because they reflect both kinds of life experiences.
BD: Is Carmen at all a
TB: Yes, she’s a
delightful lady – enchanting. The problem with audiences going to
see Carmen is that they don’t understand who she is. She has so
often been presented as a bad prostitute, and she is not a good or a
bad prostitute. She is a gypsy woman. Audiences don’t often
understand that. If she were a prostitute, she wouldn’t be
working in a cigar factory. She would have accepted Don
José and then given him horns [deceived him] with 5 or 6 men at
the same time. If she were a prostitute, she would have a rich
lover and be covered with jewels. And, if she were a prostitute,
she wouldn’t have stood up to José and let him kill her.
She would have fled. But she is not that. She is a free
spirit, a special woman. . . a liberated woman.
BD: Do these kinds of
women still exist?
TB: Of course. It
is important to understand the gypsy people, because they are free
BD: Does Carmen plan a
few steps ahead or does she just let things happen around her?
TB: Carmen believes in
destiny. She believes in the cards, so as to preparation, she
doesn’t believe that it would make any difference. The destiny is
there. She has read it in the cards and she goes forward to meet
this destiny at the end. This is the story that
Mérimée wrote in his nouvelle
and this is the story that Halévey and Meilhac wrote in their
libretto and what Bizet put into the music.
BD: So she goes to meet
it rather than fight it?
TB: She does not
fight. She accepts.
BD: Let me ask about the
character of Charlotte in Werther.
TB: She is exactly the
opposite of Carmen.
BD: Is it a different
woman, or two sides of the same coin?
TB: Charlotte is a
completely different woman than Carmen. She is a woman who has
been raised and trained in a society. She is the victim of the
society. She knows that certain things she can do are OK and
other things are wrong. She is in love with Werther, but she does
not dare to leave her husband. She would not consider leaving her
BD: Is she in love with
her husband, Albert?
TB: She is a
victim. Her relationship with Albert is imposed upon her by her
family. Her dying mother put it into words on her deathbed,
making all the more potent a force to turn her into a victim. To
understand Werther, you have to read Goethe.
BD: Is Carmen a victim of
destiny as Charlotte is a victim of society?
TB: Charlotte is the
victim. Carmen is not a victim, she is a liberated woman.
BD: Because she is a
victim, is it right that Charlotte be a mezzo rather than a soprano?
TB: Really, the tessitura
is that of a soprano. Mezzos sing it, but it really is a soprano
BD: Why do mezzos sing it?
TB: Sopranos are used to
singing the heroine, and Charlotte is not the heroine. On the
other hand, many sopranos have wanted to sing Carmen and have done so,
and probably for the reason that Carmen is clearly the
protagonist. Sopranos and tenors have a different
mentality. [Laughter] To give you an amusing example, I was
singing Carmen recently at Covent Garden, and it was interesting to
watch the arrival of the singers. The tenor arrived in a
magnificent gray and silver Rolls limo, and I arrived on the Metro.
BD: Are mezzos victims?
TB: No! They are more
BD: Do you like being a
TB: I believe that mezzos
and baritones are the real voices. Of all of the instruments, the
one that I love the best is the ‘cello. It is the most touching
and most moving. I would not want to be any other voice.
BD: No desires to move up
TB: At the very beginning
of my career, I could have gone that way and become a soprano, but
there was no attraction for me to sing that repertoire. I wanted
to be a mezzo and I’m very happy with it, and would not consider
BD: Why do you feel that
so many others try to change to soprano?
TB: You will have to ask
them that question, and if you find out the answer I would like to
know! Perhaps it is the desire to always be the protagonist, the
leading lady, and that is the difference in mentality which pushes them
in that direction. But I have no desire to change myself, so I
really haven’t thought about it too much.
BD: How much of a pixie
is Rosina? [Note: The translator had a problem rendering my word
TB: She is a girl with
both feet on the ground, according to her era.
BD: Is she a strong woman?
TB: Yes, quite strong.
BD: Too strong?
TB: No. Strong
enough for an 18 year old girl. It’s interesting that the
characters of both Rosina and Carmen are clearly put forth in their
opening musical numbers. Rosina’s first number is Una voce poco fa, and she tells you
exactly who she is. She sings that she is docile and obedient,
but if you touch me on my weak spot then I become a serpent.
Carmen is asked by the men when she will love them, and she says
perhaps tomorrow, perhaps never, but not today. She is very
up-front with who she is, what she is.
BD: So does Rosina try to
become a master of her destiny?
TB: You can’t say that
she dominates her destiny. She lives as best she can. She
is under a great deal of influence and pressure from Dr. Bartolo who
controls her. If she is to slip away and give a kiss to Almaviva,
she has to steal away to do that. She is not free like Carmen who
would just do it.
BD: Would Rosina be
happier as a Carmen-type character?
TB: You’d have to ask
her! [Much laughter]
BD: When you’re on stage,
are you portraying a character, or do you become the character?
TB: When I’m doing a role
– not just when I’m on-stage, but during the preparation, too – I
sometimes lose track a little bit of who I am. Whether I am
Teresa Berganza or Carmen, I really become the character a great
deal. Right now, I feel a little bit like Carmen, but don’t push
me too far! I’ve put on my Carmen face.
BD: What happens when you
do two roles during the same period?
TB: I never do two at a
BD: Earlier in your
career, how did you decide which roles you’d sing and which you’d turn
TB: At the beginning, I
was attracted to those which my voice dictated I’d sing. I would
only sing roles that I could adapt my voice to, or were adaptable to my
voice. But it was the basis of my instrument, my musical
background, my musical foundation and my personality that led to the
roles that I performed and that eliminated other roles which I put off
BD: Did you feel these
roles were imposed on you?
TB: No, my voice imposed
BD: Are you happy with
TB: I am happy, content
with the roles which are now in my repertoire. Whatever I wanted
to do, it was my ambition to do it 100%. I was not striving to
have a certain number of roles, but the roles that suited me that I did
well, that I was able to deliver this 100%. Those are the roles
which I wanted to do, that I have done, and I’ve very happy with my
career, and have been at all stages of its development.
BD: Do you enjoy making
TB: It seems very
BD: Then what is the
point of them?
TB: I would rather stay
at home than sing with a bad conductor, and it’s the same with the
recordings. You make them if they are going to be decent, but
otherwise avoid them. It is part of a career that you have to do
these things, and that doesn’t mean I don’t like them.
BD: Is it wrong for the
public to be so enamored of discs?
TB: The more they love
them the better. If they love me as a result of the recordings
then I like that. It’s not bad for the public to listen to the
records, but it would be if they did that exclusively. They
should eventually come and hear the artist in person. Otherwise,
you develop a deformation of the ear. I am very proud of the
records that I have made. I have participated in sessions where I
am sure that there are no engineering tricks being exerted. I
have seen many cases of people with very small voices who, by means of
engineering and recording, have turned out to have gigantic, dramatic
voices. I have seen people who were two tones short of a high
note, all of a sudden producing the high note on the record. In
those cases, a recording is a kind of fraud, a kind of counterfeit, a
kind of deception. I have been very careful with my recordings,
and I have been very pleased with them because I have been present
while they have been being made and I have listened to the final result
to make sure that it is what I wanted to be on the record.
BD: When you’re singing a
role in the opera house that you’ve recorded, are you competing with
TB: Yes, it is a form of
competition. I always want to sing better than I did on the
record. I am never satisfied with the records. There is
something spontaneous missing always on the records. A microphone
in front of me when I am singing doesn’t allow me to be free.
BD: Then are broadcasts
different from performances when there are no mikes around?
TB: They are weird
animals and I don’t like them. I like to have them placed where
they cannot be seen. There are always many problems.
BD: Does the size of the
TB: What is important is
not the dimension, but the acoustics. You can sing in a small
house with 1300 seats with miserable acoustics, and you can sing in a
house with 5000 seats where the acoustics are wonderful.
BD: How do you overcome a
TB: There is no way to
overcome a poor acoustical place. You do your best, you struggle
with it. When I sing in a house, I have to hear the harmonics of
my voice coming back to me. When they don’t come back, the
interpretation at that moment is less.
BD: Where is opera going
TB: I believe that opera
has always been an art form for minorities and it will never be an art
form for the majority. However, those minorities that enjoy the
opera seem to be increasing.
BD: How do we get more
people to come to the opera?
TB: As I said before, the
way to do that is to start in the schools. It is also necessary
to educate the presidents of Republics and senators and ministers who
direct their attention to many other things rather than to music.
If we had a magic wand and could touch them all, we could do something…
BD: Have you ever had a
piece of scenery fall on your head?
TB: These kinds of things
don’t happen to me because I am light and slender and very active, but
there is one funny story that happened at La Scala. In Rossini
operas there is always rain, and in Ponnelle productions it is always
visible. I was making an entrance doing my recitative, and I ran
faster and faster and began to slip on the wet floor. I fell and
ended the recitative, but these things don’t usually happen to
me. I was amazed that the audience was so involved that when I
started to slip, they all gasped, and when they saw that I had not hurt
myself, there was relief. But they were with me and hung on every
action and movement of the singer during a performance.
BD: Is it better for you when
the audience is “with” you, and how do you get them to be with you?
TB: It is very difficult
to catch them, to get them. Audiences are like lovers.
There are nights when you are singing and at the beginning of the
performance you get this feeling – it is not something you can see, not
visible or palpable, but it is a feeling. As I begin to perform,
if I have that feeling, I know that I’ve got them, they’re mine.
Sometimes that comes at the beginning, sometimes it comes a little
later on, and sometimes it doesn’t come at all. So that’s why
they’re like lovers. I like giving recitals because there is more
light. There is eye-contact between the singer and every member
of the audience, even in a huge house with maybe 3000 people.
I’ve been giving recitals, and I am aware that way in the back there is
one man who is not paying attention, who is not interested in what I am
singing, and I can make him listen. I can look at him and work on
him (or her) until he’s awake. More often, though, it is a
“him.” And, of course, when it is a “him,” it is easier to get
him back. [laughter]
BD: Has operatic stage
direction gone too far?
TB: Some, yes.
BD: Is that good for
BD: From your point of
view, are the musical standards higher today than they were 25 years
TB: I think that the kind
of performances that are being offered to audiences nowadays is worse
than it used to be. I had an extraordinary stroke of luck that my
career happened at the time that it did. I began my career on the
stage working with great conductors like Abbado and Giulini and Solti,
and great stage-directors like Ponnelle and Zeffirelli. This was
a period when all the singers worked to create the very best possible
performance of that music and the greatest possible theatrical
portrayal of the characters, and this was arrived at because the
rehearsal periods were a lot longer than they are now. In the old
days there used to be 25 days worth of rehearsals before the show took
place, and during that time we worked very hard. There were 4 or
5 rehearsals with orchestra plus a pre-dress rehearsal and a dress
rehearsal. So, with that kind of preparation, the performances
came off in a way that is probably no longer possible. Now, in
the places where I go, the rehearsals are a week or 10 days before the
show opens, and there are many singers who don’t even like to give that
much! They’d like to come a couple of days before the show, sing
their performance, pick up their check and go on to the next city where
they do the same thing again. Since this is becoming more and
more wide-spread as a practice, I believe that the performances being
given nowadays are not of a quality that they used to be.
BD: Is this because there
is too much opera going on?
TB: Art has become more
commercial, and artists don’t escape this. In the old days, not
everybody had a car; now everybody has one. Even before I
started, say 40 or 50 years ago, singers could really only sing 4 or 5
times a month because everything was slower-paced in life. In
order to get to the next theater, there would be a long journey.
Now, with the Concorde, one can sing in London one day and New York the
BD: Are you, then, not
optimistic about the future of opera?
TB: I am always
BD: I assume you enjoy
TB: Very much. It’s
my life – well, half of my life. Actually, I lead a double life,
and at this point they are equally important to me. I love to
sing and I love to perform and that’s very important to me, but I am
equally intent about my private and personal life, my husband, my
children, my home. At the time when I don’t perform any more, I
will relinquish that part, but at the moment they are both very
necessary and I derive equal satisfaction from each half of this double
BD: Is it harder for a
woman to be a great artist than a man?
TB: Naturally, the
woman’s relationship in the family is different. She has to carry
the child for 9 months but a tenor can engender the child after a hard
day’s work. And she can’t just forget about the children and go
to work; she is responsible for them. She has to care for them
and keep them in mind in a way that is different. The whole
hormonal system is different in a woman and can change after the birth
of a child. Physiologically, a woman is much more complicated.
BD: Are any of your
TB: I have enough of that
in my private life; I don’t have to sing it onstage.
BD: I just wondered if
being a mother onstage was easier after being one in real life.
TB: There’s something peculiar
yet special about the theater. I’ve always felt a little bit
Carmen, a little bit Rosina, even a little bit Cherubino even through
I’ve never been a man! I was quite alarmed when, as Cherubino, I
found myself caressing Susanna or the Countess and forgot myself
completely. [Note: A few minutes later, after
we had finished our formal conversation and
were looking at some photographs, she said, "I am very happy in my
personal life, which reflects, I think, the way that I look. It’s
I’m in a second and special youth. The translator remarked that
seems more coquettish as she goes along," and Ms. Berganza beamed with
BD: How do you like to
have your name pronounced?
Behr-gahn-tha. I love the name pronounced the way it should be
pronounced. It is a very Castilian name; it occurs in Don Quixote. It was the name
of the dog. My husband is very free of all the complexes; he
frequently introduces himself as "Mr. Berganza." This is my
second marriage – the first was to a pianist, and a marriage between
two artists is very difficult. It was Carmen that liberated me
from being the slave of the pianist.
BD: Do you ever feel you
are a slave to your voice?
TB: Yes. A slave
with pleasure, but very, very much enslaved. I think I speak for
those in my profession at large. We all know people who go to bed
at night and feel that tomorrow will take care of itself, but a singer
goes to bed and has to worry what’s going to happen the next day, and
worry what happened today. Did I talk too much? Is there a
hormonal disorder that can throw off my voice? Did I eat the
wrong things that could possibly affect the way I will sound
tomorrow? Even an emotional thing can do it – did I get very
angry or hurt or very tired? All of these things can affect the
way I will sound the next day. So, a person who has a voice is
very much enslaved by it and also, to a very great extent, worried by
it, wondering whether it will be there when I want it. I know I
might be suffering from a reputation of an artist who cancels a great
deal, and I would like to clarify that. I will never permit
myself to sing under bad conditions when my voice is not ready to
sing. I have been made a part of a trio and I’m proud of the
company – the conductor Carlos Kleiber, and the pianist Arturo
Benedetti Michelangeli. We all cancel when we feel we are not
ready to give our best, 100%. I don’t really cancel very often,
but when I do, that is why. I must always have respect for myself
and for my public who is coming not to hear what is left of me, but to
hear Teresa Berganza. It is my life.
BD: Will you
be back in Chicago?
TB: Nothing has been
arranged yet, but one critic was very
complimentary about my Carmen, and he hoped that I would return, so
maybe the critic was right.
BD: Thank you for being a
TB: Thank you.
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© 1984 Bruce Duffie
This conversation was held in Chicago on December 1,
1984. She spoke in Spanish and the translation was provided by
Alfred Glasser, Director of Education at Lyric Opera of Chicago.
Portions of this conversation were broadcast (along with recordings) on
WNIB in 1995,
1997 and 2000. The transcription
was made in 1985 and published in The
Opera Journal in September of that year. This re-edited
version was posted on this website in the summer of 2008.
broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago
from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of
2001. His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and
journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM,
as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.
You are invited to visit his website
for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of
other interviews, plus a full list of his guests. He would also
to call your attention to the photos and information about his
grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a
century ago. You may also send him E-Mail
with comments, questions and suggestions.