A conversation with Bruce Duffie


During my career in radio, I've had the great pleasure of speaking with many of the world's leading opera singers and then putting some of their comments on the air along with recordings and announcements of upcoming performances.  Often, these conversations come near the beginning of a stellar career, or when a singer has made a name in Europe and is just embarking on conquest of the US.  One such case was June Anderson.  When I met her in 1986, her European engagements had placed her in the front-rank of young singers, but her American performances were fewer and had gained somewhat less notice.  She had made some recordings and was certainly successful, but her star was still rising and she was anticipating much more, which, fortunately for all of us, she certainly achieved.

Based in London, she was in Chicago for a production of Handel's Orlando when we got together for our chat.  The production featured Marilyn Horne in the title role, as well as Gianna Rolandi, Jeffrey Gall, Roderick Kennedy and conducted by Sir Charles Mackerras with staging by John Copley.  She had previously appeared in another Handel work, Samson, with Jon Vickers, Ellen Shade, David Gordon, Paul Plishka, conducted by Julius Rudel and staged by Elijah Moshinsky with ballet directed by Maria Tallchief.  [Names which are links refer to my interviews elsewhere on this website.]

She was happy and bubbly and laughed easily about many things that were going on in the world of international opera.  Though some of her thoughts were quite serious, she never lost that infectious smile and radiant warmth.  After airing portions of this chat several times on WNIB, I'm now pleased to be able to post this on my website.  It's nearly twenty years later [2005], and the opera world knows what June Anderson can do, and has done, and continues to achieve through her artistry.  [Note: After a decade on the internet, this page has been slightly re-edited, and the photos and links have been added.]

Here is much of that frolicking conversation . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:  Tell me the secret of singing bel canto.

June Anderson:  Loving it, I suppose.

BD:  How do you decide which roles you’ll accept and which roles you’ll say no?

JA:  I have to love them.

BD:  For the music, for the drama, for what?

JA.  Both.

BD:  When you pick up a role, how long does it take to get it really into the voice?

andersonJA:  I like to start working on things a couple of years in advance, and just work on them, put them away, take them out and work on them again, put them away.  Over a period of time, your own feelings change about things, my ability to sing things changes.  My voice has changed tremendously over the last few years, and it’ll go on changing.  It’s just growing up.  I’m growing up.  It’s maturing; its bigger, fuller, the colors are changing.  I have more colors at my disposal, and low notes are a lot easier than they used to be.

BD:  Is that good or bad?

JA:  Oh it’s great!

BD:  I would think for a soprano the high notes would be the things to consider.

JA:  But I never had trouble with high notes.   I work on the problems, and I’ve worked very carefully on the low notes because I didn’t want to lose the high notes.  Singing the kind of roles that I sing, if you’ve got high notes, people want them.  But in order to move on in the bel canto repertoire you’ve got to have the fullness in your voice, which is what’s been coming in the last couple of years.

BD:  You also need flexibility.

JA:  Flexibility is something I’ve always had, too.

BD:  Do these women that you portray speak to women in the 1980s?

JA:  I don’t know if they speak to all women, but they certainly speak to me.  I feel, most times, that I’ve been almost born in the wrong century.  I feel very much part of the nineteenth century.  But somebody has to sing those ladies today, so I guess it may as well be me!  A lot of the tragedies are just timeless characters:  Juliet and Lucia, Capuletti (another version of Romeo and Juliet), Traviata.  While the reasons for their tragedies maybe would be different today, they still could be around now.  I’m sure there are lots of tragic heroines today.  Just the reasons for their tragedies are different.

BD:  Do you feel that many of these characters are really Everywoman?

JA:  Could be.  Yes.  Any woman can be a tragic heroine!

BD:  Is your life a tragedy?

JA:  Oh, sometimes it is!

BD:  How do you continue after a tragic spell?

JA:  I’d always wanted to die young, so I could become a tragic heroine.

BD:  And deprive the world of your voice???

JA:  My teacher, who doesn’t take me seriously all the time, said to me a couple of years ago when I turned thirty, “Well, looks like you’re not going to die young!”

BD:  My mother used to tell me that the only way to avoid growing old is to die young.  But you’re still young.

JA:  Relatively.

BD:  Are you at the point in your career where you want to be right now?

JA:  Well, it’s exciting.  While I enjoy doing some Handel works, I'm not that enthusiastic about Orlando.  But when I’m finished here, I have nothing to do but things I want to do.  I only go to cities that I want to sing in, and do operas that are either being done specially for me, or that I really want to do, and that’s pretty exciting.

BD:  Does that include the Lucia that you’ll be back for in Chicago?

JA:  Yes, of course.  Lucia’s something that I do regularly, and I like singing her.  It’s been frustrating not to be able to do my calling-card roles in America.  I’m kind of a big star in Europe, and I come here and it’s just pfft!  That’s difficult, I must say.

BD:  Is it comforting to know that three years from Tuesday,  you’ll be at a certain theater doing a certain role?

JA:  Yeah.  That’s the only kind of security in a profession where there IS no security.

BD:  You don’t feel that puts you in a strait-jacket at all?

JA:  No.  It’s just that I’ve got to know I want to do that role in three years, and I weigh that over very carefully.  There are certain roles that I would do today, and do I really want to do that role in three years?  Sometimes the answer is yes and sometimes the answer is no.

BD:  How do you decide when it’s yes and when it’s no?

JA:  If it’s a role that’s in my repertoire it’s easier.  If it’s a role that’s not already part of the operas that I do regularly, or that I will have done prior to that date, I think how often I would like to do that role.

BD:  You’re still at the point where you’re always adding new roles?

JA:  Oh yes, but I can only add two or three operas a year, three maximum.

BD:  These are roles you’re adding for performances that are contracted?

JA:  Yes, in addition to all the others that I know.

BD:  Do you learn roles just because you think you should know them?

JA:  No, there’s nothing I should do.  I did everything that people thought I should do.

BD:  What have they asked you to do that you think is silly?

JA:  Everyone wants me to sing Mozart, but I don’t find it rewarding.  Most of it just does not fit well in my voice.  I physically could not sing most of it.  There are only two or three roles that I could sing, and there are a lot of other women who can sing those roles.  I think I’m better off doing the roles that not so many people can sing, just as sort of a business sense.  I’m actually a very good businesswoman, and my whole career has been planned out very carefully in my mind.

BD:  Is opera a business?’

JA:  A career is a business.  Singing is not a business, but a career is a business.

BD:  Should they trade career futures on the stock exchange?

JA:  The stock exchange is already in enough trouble without having singers’ careers!  You know, some last for three years and then disappear, never to be heard from again.

BD:  How are you insuring that your career will not be over in three years?

JA:  I’m being very careful about the roles I do by taking vacations and making sure my performances are spaced.  I have it in all my contracts that I have to have two days rest with nothing to do between performances.  I insist on having some time off in between each engagement.  I take my month or six weeks here and there with no performances at all.  But I’m a compulsive singer – I can’t stop singing.  At the most I can stop singing maybe for a week.

BD:  I was going to ask is there ever a day that you don’t even open your mouth?

JA:  Oh yes!  Every now and then.  When I’m in a performance series, I usually won’t sing at all the next day, and then the day after I’ll sing a bit, because I probably have a performance the following day.

BD:  When you get to the theater how much time do you spend warming up?

JA:  Some days it takes longer than others.  It’s hard to say because I stop and start and stop and start.  I find that’s better - to warm up part of the voice and then let it settle and then warm up another part.

BD:  At what point do you start putting on the character - when you start putting on the makeup or earlier or later?

andersonJA:  Interesting question!  It depends on the character, it really does.  This year I did Rossini’s Desdemona for the first time.  That character never left!  She was always around.  And she’s such a poor, morbid thing!  I went around crying most of the time.  I was in a state for about a month and a half!  She really got under my skin.  That’s somebody I couldn’t get rid of.

BD:  Then are you purposely not going to sing her very often?

JA:  Oh no!  It was wonderful.  In a very strange sense, it was wonderful.  It frightened a lot of people because singing her just wiped me out, but I think also it was one of the best things I’ve ever done, I really do.  From a vocal standpoint, from a dramatic standpoint, I’m mad for Rossini!  I’m a big Rossini addict.

BD:  Are you going to champion a lot of these operas that have been sitting on library shelves for over a hundred years?

JA:  Absolutely, that’s what I’m doing.  Besides doing Otello, and I’m doing Rossini’s Armida at Aix-en-Provence.

BDCristina Deutekom did that and had a big success with it.

JA:  Did she?  I hadn’t heard about her doing it.  The only one that I know is the one that Callas did ages and ages ago.

BD:  As I remember it was cut up completely differently.

JA:  Well, that’s the way people handled things in the fifties.

BD:  Do you think it’s better now?

JA:  It’s different.  It’s different.  I won’t say it’s better, but it was interesting.  In Callas’ version of the aria near the end she just stopped and did a cadenza, and that’s something that pretty much wouldn’t be permitted today especially by Rossini purists.

BD:  Let’s get into this a little bit, now.  How much of a purist are you?

JA:  I’m pretty much of a purist   I’m very interested in the historical aspects of performances, performance practices at the time of the composer’s life and other times.  But everything has to be also filtered through twentieth-century bifocals, and I disagree very much with certain conductors who don’t believe that there should be no interpolated high notes.  Composers didn’t usually feel that way, and there’s written evidence to that effect.  Doing performances of Trovatore and not letting the tenor hit high Cs in Di quella pira, the audience hates it!  The tenor hates it, unless he doesn’t have a high C, in which case he shouldn’t be singing in the first place.  I feel that people who do Bellini and want it absolutely as written, have got it wrong.  It wasn’t composed with that in mind, and for me that’s dead music.  It’s not pure.  It’s dead because in order for it always to be exciting it has to be living, and that depends on interpreters.

BD:  Opera for you then is living theater?

JA:  Absolutely.

BD:  Is it a living museum?

JA:  Maybe, yes.  In a sense it has to be a museum because there’s no new opera that’s being written.

BD:  Really???

JA:  Well, if you ask me!

BD:  Suppose someone came to you and said “I’d like to write an opera for you.”  What would you say?

andersonJA:  If someone could write music I would be delighted.  You don’t know how much I want to be Giulia Grisi and Isabella Colbran and all these early nineteenth-century divas that had operas written for them, but there’s nobody writing music today.  People write noise.  They don’t write music.  There are some people who can write for instruments, Michael Tippett, for example.  I was asked to do The Midsummer Marriage because Joan Sutherland did the first performance of it.  So I had a look and thought “UGH!  This is awful!”  So I listened to a recording of it, and some of the orchestral things are actually interesting, but the vocal lines were horrendous!  Awful!  The setting of words to music I thought was horrendous.  I wouldn’t sing it.

BD:  What about someone like Argento or Menotti or Pasatieri?

JA:  Just what I’ve heard of it I don’t really like.  They’re certainly better than most; there’s a certain melodic line.  In those, the libretti are not very good.  When  a composer writes his own libretto, usually it’s not the best, except in the case of Wagner.  That’s a little different.

BD:  But that’s the complaint that they lodge against Rossini - that his librettos were terrible.

JA:  He very often took from some very well-known plays, stories like Semiramide, The Lady of the Lake (La Donna del Lago), Otello.  A lot of people argue that there’s not a lot of Shakespeare to be found there, but it's the basic story.  The voice is meant to be used in a certain way, and I can only speak for myself as to what I would do and wouldn’t do.  If there’s modern music, somebody’s got to sing it, but it doesn’t have to be me!  I remember someone told me, “How dare you call yourself a singer if you don’t sing music that’s being written today?”  Well how dare I sing something unless I love it!  Basically, I couldn’t possibly do justice to something if I really didn’t believe in it.  I’m just not the right person to be an exponent of modern opera.

BD:  It’s a very wise decision to stick with what you can do well.

JA:  Yes.  Absolutely. There are lots of things I could sing that I’m not singing.  There is a much wider repertoire than I’m doing.  There are a lot of other people singing those other things, and I believe in specialization.

BD:  Are there any roles though that you kind of wish you had the voice or had the temperament or had the desire to sing?

JA:  I don’t know.  Before I finish I’ll probably sing everything I basically want to sing.

BD:  No latent desires to do a Brünnhilde here and there?

JA:  No!

BD:  I take it then that you would never agree to do an opera that you aren’t completely sure of yourself and sure of the circumstances?

JA:  I always wait.  There are a lot of things I’m adding slowly, certain things that I want to do to develop myself and develop my voice.  When I think I’m ready vocally, emotionally, dramatically, then I schedule it for about two years in the future.  I’ve got to take care of my voice.

BD:   Have you ever gotten there and been disappointed and thought you really shouldn’t have done this, and then drop it?

JA:  I have sometimes felt that in the rehearsal period, and then I get over it.  There’s always a moment of  “Oh my God, am I doing the right thing, I never should have gotten myself into this!”  Then it turns out to be a huge success, and you think “Well!  I was right all along!”

BD:  How much does the dramatic impact affect the way you produce the vocal sound?

JA:  It shouldn’t affect the vocal sound at all.  But the thing is that the dramatic intention in the head should color the vocal sound.  It’s got to be sort of like rubbing your stomach and patting your head at the same time.  All the drama should come out without there being a negative effect on the vocalism.  Great dramatic tension should be able to be conveyed without all that tension going into the throat and therefore hurting it.  Sometimes it’s very different to pull away from that.  That’s one thing I’ve had to learn, because I have a very delicate throat, and I tend to get over-involved.

BD:  I was going to ask if you get too involved in any of these characters.

JA:  One can.  It’s sort of a pulling away, and I’m trying to balance because I’m starting now to do more and more dramatic characters, and the drama has to come across, but if I hurt myself, then . . .     But I think that it’s the right time to be adding some of those characters.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:  You work a lot in Europe where they have a tendency sometimes to have these far-out productions.  Have you been involved in any of those?

JA:  No.  I try to keep my finger on what's happening.

BD:  You don’t want to be involved in a Lucia that’s set in a whorehouse, or something like that?

JA:  No.  I was in a Traviata where they had promised me a new production and it ended up not being a new production. Violetta was supposed to die in a hospital, and I had a little bit to say about that.  So she did not die in a hospital, and it got a lot of publicity in Italy!  If it’s good enough for Dumas fils and it’s good enough for Verdi, it’s good enough for me.  I’m going to do it the way it was written to be done.

andersonBD:  You don’t feel though that they would want to update it and keep it alive?

JA:  I didn’t feel that it added anything. Updating is one thing, but changing, having her die in a hospital very much changes the whole story.  She’s got to be in her own little house which had been stripped of all the luxury and is down to nothing.  Not in a hospital, not with a nurse.  Why is Annina sitting there with her, if she’s got a nurse there?

BD:  Have you seen the film?  Do you think that’s a good idea, to have the whole thing as a flashback?

JA:  In the film, I suppose so.  I think Zeffirelli’s done that several times.  He’s had her start in bed on the stage during the prelude.  Violetta was in bed and then to get up and went through all the motions and had to go back to bed to die.  It makes sense and I wouldn’t argue about that.  It’s not changing the story, really, it’s just staging a prelude!

BD:  Do you believe in staging preludes?

JA:  A lot of it is being done.  I did a very silly production of The Daughter of the Regiment in Paris, which was recorded, by the way.  The record will be coming out this fall around Christmas time, I think.

BD:  Who’s the tenor, Alfredo Kraus?

JA:  Yes!

BD:  I’m glad that you’re getting to sing with him.

JA:  Oh yes, a lot.  My first European thing after I finish with Chicago is a string of Lucias at Covent Garden with Alfredo.

BD:  Let’s talk a little about the Daughter of the Regiment.  Tell me a little bit about the character of Marie.

JA:  Marie is another character that I’ve buried.  I did it for the last time in Paris.

BD:  What made you decide to abandon her?

JA:  I decided to abandon Marie during the entr’acte of the very first performance I did of her.  That was about two years ago.  I said, “I’m never doing this again, never, never, never! I hate it!”  Then Alfredo asked me if I would do it with  him at the Paris Opera.  This was in Padua in Italy.  In fact Alfredo and I were the first people to sing the The Daughter of the Regiment in the original French in Italy. That was in 1984, believe it or not!  The first time it was ever done in French.

BD:  It was always La Figlia del Regimento.

JA:  Yes.  But Alfredo asked me to do it in Paris, so I thought about it and I said, “Oh well, I’ve already learned it and I had a big success with it in Italy, so maybe I should do it in Paris and then I’ll just get rid of it.”  Meanwhile he said, “I’m doing it in Madrid, are you available to do it there?”  I said, “Okay, maybe if I do it in Madrid I might like it better.”  Did it, didn’t like it any better.  I have lived through seven performances in Paris but it was a huge success, for both of us.  It was televised and recorded, so it’s totally documented.  There’s no reason I ever have to do Marie again.  I’ve done it with the greatest tenor in the world and it’s been totally filmed and recorded, so that’s it.

BD:  Even if the public clamors for it?

JA:  Nope.  They can hear other things.  My problem with Marie is the character.  The music is not quite French and not quite Italian.  It's a mixture, but it’s the character more than anything.  I don’t feel really comfortable being a tomboy.  I’m the only one who feels that way.  Everyone thought that I was very good at it, but I’m embarrassed!  I would be mortified every night!  It was very hard to convince people that I hated what I was doing.  I’m a perfectionist, so even if I hate what I’m doing I’m going to go out and try to do my best.  But it’s much better not to hate what you’re doing.

andersonBD:  You would rather play more feminine parts?

JA:  Yes.  It’s much more natural to me.  A lot of people think I don’t like doing comedy, and that’s not true.  Although I don’t have any comedies coming up, I actually do like comedy.  I’ve done a lot of Rosinas, but I don’t do it much now.

BD:  Even though you’re stealing the role from the mezzo?

JA:  I sing all the mezzo keys, but with some embellishments.  There are a few comic parts that I wouldn’t mind doing.  Originally I was scheduled to do Don Pasquale at Covent Garden, and it was changed to Lucia.  I was very, very pleased about that, but I think Norina would have been fun too.

BD:  She’s a strong woman

JA:  Yes.  She runs the whole show.  It’s quite an interesting character.

BD:  So you would rather be a strong woman than a tomboy?

JA:  Yes.  I don’t know why.  It’s very, very strange.  I just would always feel very silly because Rosina and Norina are in comic operas but they’re not the comic characters.  They’re sort of the straight men, whereas Marie is supposed to be funny, and do funny things, and be silly, and I can’t do that.  It was very very hard for me to be tomboyish and not very graceful, and to try to do silly shtick to make people laugh.

BD:  But you get the tenor!

JA:  True!  Yes!

BD:  I take it then you don’t mind dying on stage?

JA:  Oh!  It’s my favorite thing in life, dying!  I’m always disappointed when I don’t get to die in the end.  In fact, if some crazy director some day decides that they want some of my other characters to die at the end I think I’d probably go along with it!  Sing the high note and die.

BD:  Would you rather die or be killed?

JA:  So long as I don’t die immediately when I’m killed, if I get to do a nice gasping death scene, like Gilda, it’s such a beautiful death.

BD:  You’re not looking forward to your own death, are you?

JA:  Oh no!  But it’s fun to do it on stage.

BD:  When you’re on stage, do you become the character, or do you portray the character?

JA:  Someone’s characterization of any role has to be personal.  There’s always a bit of that person in it.  That’s why I’m so much more comfortable with characters like Lucia and Violetta, because there’s a lot of me in those characters - vulnerability, sensitivity, things like that.  But that’s only part of one’s characterization, drawing on one’s own self.  I'm also deciding on physical movements that are part of that character as opposed to part of June.

BD:  Is there any character that’s perilously close to June?

JA:  Unfortunately, probably Lucia!  Forever the romantic, waiting for her white knight to come charging in.  I’m much stronger than Lucia, but I suppose of everybody I do she’s the closest.

BD:  Your own personal strength doesn’t color the way you do her?

JA:  No, because I think for Lucia there’s only one moment in the opera where she really does try and fight back, and that’s in the duet with the brother and just a tiny bit in the duet with the bass.  But Lucia’s a victim, which is something I’m not.  I’m a survivor, very much a survivor.  Just little personality traits are what I probably share most with Lucia.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:  Let’s talk a little more about recordings. Do you sing differently in the studio than you do in performance?

JA:  Yes!  Not that I sing differently, actually.  I haven’t yet heard the Daughter of the Regiment, so I don’t know how it comes across on the recording.  The only recordings of mine that I’ve listened to are the ones made in the studio, and I hate them!

BD:  Why?

andersonJA:  Unfortunately all the recordings I’ve ever made are things that I’ve never sung on stage, and for that reason there’s a great lack of drama.  Always in recordings there’s a lack of continuity, because you record pages 33 to 37, and then the next day you do 87 to 93, and then you go back and do 1 through 12.  That’s just the way a recording is made.

BD:  But isn’t that the way you put together an opera during rehearsals?

JA:  Not necessarily.  The problem is that recordings, which you’re making for posterity, are rehearsed much less than an opera that’s going to go on the stage for two performances.  You arrive, and ten days after you arrive you finish recording something.  I’m looking forward to recording things that I actually know.  Once you know something really well and you’ve done performances of it, when you're recording page 37 to 43 and then 1 through 12 and 89 through 97, you can draw on the feelings that you’ve had in each of those scenes on stage.

BD:  You can pick up the thread.

JA:  Yes, exactly.  I still don’t think it’s ideal, and I would love someday to do a through-recording that maybe wasn’t on the stage, because obviously recording onstage isn’t the ideal.  There are lots of stage noises and pauses that are all right in the theater that don’t work when you’re sitting there with nothing to look at.

BD:  So you’d like to record one scene straight through?

JA:  No, a whole opera!  I don’t ask for much!

BD:  Just the impossible!

JA:  I think that the ideal thing for a recording would be to get together, do a concert performance, and then record it because at least then it would have had all the rehearsals.  Things change so much when you rehearse them, at least they do for me.  I work on my own for months and months and months before I show up for rehearsals, and then it’s amazing how things can change.  Everything that I thought I had right in my head and I knew exactly how I wanted to do becomes different when I hear the way someone else is doing it.  If you’re doing a duet or a trio, the other personalities can change your way of thinking about a theme, the character, the whole opera.  So when there are no rehearsals and you just sort of read through something and immediately tape it, it doesn’t have time to grow.  What you’re seeing is not a developed product, it’s just the beginning.  It’s just scratching the surface.  As much as you work on it by yourself, there’s no way that you can scratch  more than the surface, because a lot of those things come from rehearsals.

BD:  So you feed off the other people around you.

JA:  Yes.

BD:  Do your performances then grow even after opening night?

JA:  Oh gosh yes!  When things like Traviata and Lucia stop changing, then I’ll stop doing them.  I keep doing them, waiting to get them right, and when it’s perfect, then I’ll stop doing it.  Frankly, I think I’ll be singing Lucia and Traviata for a while!  They’re wonderful roles because there’s so much in them, and every time you do them you can find something new, whether it be vocal or dramatic.  I think Lucia, of all the bel canto heroines, is one of the most well-developed characters.  There’s so much to her, so much in every scene.  That’s why I always hate it when they cut the duet with the bass in the second act, because even though Lucia doesn’t sing very much, it’s terribly important for her character development.

BD:  Should they do the first scene of the third act, the "wolf's crag" scene?

JA:  For me, I love it when they do it because I have a little more rest!  I’m always delighted to hear that in the dressing room, because it’s the only rest that Lucia really has.  Once she enters, she sings all night.

BD:  Is that too much?

JA:  It’s a long part.  I just found out that in Vienna they only do it with one intermission, and I was not pleased to hear that.

BD:  Do you demand that intermissions be a certain length, and that they’re always the right number?

JA:  I always prefer to have the right number of intermissions.  I think it’s hard for an audience; they need to get up and stretch their legs.  I get itchy if I’m sitting for more than an hour and a half someplace.

BD:  Would the one intermission be a little longer then than standard?

JA:  I don’t know.  Maybe, but where I really need the intermission is after the first act.

BD:  So they put the one intermission after the second act then?

JA:  Yes.  Then all Lucia has is the Mad Scene!  The first act is very high, and then the rest of the opera is a bit lower.  I like a rest after the first act.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:  Are you conscious of the audience when you sing?

andersonJA:  Yes!  Very much so!  If an audience is bored, I’ll probably give a boring performance!  I’m very sensitive to – I hate the word, but I’ll use it anyway – the "vibrations" that come from an audience.  That’s why often opening nights are some of the best performances that you’ll see, because there’s so much tension and electricity in the air that people will be buoyed up by all that energy.

BD:  There’s this idea that you don’t know if it’s going to go well?

JA:  That too!  I’m always a basket case on opening night, especially something I’ve never done before.

BD:  But you always get through them well, don't you?

JA:  Yes.  [Knocks on the table]  Knock on plastic... does that count?  Do you think it’s real wood?  Maybe it’s got a few grains in it.  In Italy they say "tocchiamo ferro," touch iron.

BD:  Are you very superstitious?

JA:  I have my own superstitions.  In Italy the color purple is a no-no in Italian opera houses, because purple represents death, so it’s really bad.  I love the color purple and I wear it a lot.  The first time I went to Italy I left all my purple clothes at home, then I noticed that only in certain theaters is it really taken seriously.  I have my own superstitions.  I have all my little animals that I bring to the dressing room.  I have a collection of little cats that people have given me, and I touch all of them before I go on stage.  And the night before a performance I have to have a little ice cream.  Mostly that’s sort of a silly superstition that developed out of all the “No, no. no, no, you can’t go to parties, you can’t drink, you can’t do this, you can’t do that."  You’re full of “you-can’t-do” things before a performance, so I decided this is terrible.  I’m going to make a “you-have-to-do” something that you like.  I love ice cream so I decided that I’m going to have to have an ice cream the night before a performance, and it has just turned into a ridiculous superstition.  Now I go out of my way if I can’t find an ice cream, even going off looking for an ice cream at midnight because I forgot about it.  I couldn’t possibly sing unless I had an ice cream.

BD:  You’re keeping your girlish figure, though.  Not like me.  I’m afraid I’m a victim of gluttony.

JA:  I always gain weight when I come to America.

BD:  Why?  Is the food better?

JA:  No!  It’s worse!  The food’s much, much better in Europe.  It has much fewer chemicals and additives.  Also they don’t have the terrible junk food.  America’s best food is junk food, and it tastes great, but it’s so bad for you!  You come here and fill up on Doritos.  Nothing but chemicals.  I can’t sing for three days after I eat them.

BD:  When you’re taking one of your vacations in between runs of performances, do you do all the things that are bad for you, or do you try to keep a little bit of training?

JA:  I don’t do much of anything.  The only thing I do when I’m not actually performing is have some wine.  I like wine but I basically don’t drink when I’m working.  I’m allergic to certain alcohols, so I just basically steer clear.  It’s not a discipline, but I don’t feel that I’ve made any sacrifices.  I’m just doing what I have to do.  It’s not very hard for me to say “No, I don’t want any wine,” or “No, I can’t go to a party tonight because I have a performance tomorrow.”  It’s just the way my life is.  My friends accept that.  People know you don’t ask June to do anything the night before a performance.

BD:  Do you feel that you’re an athlete?

JA:  Well, yes.  Singers are athletes in the sense that they have to keep at it all the time.  Athletes work on their bodies all the time, and a singer has to work on the voice all the time.  You have to keep the whole body in reasonably good health because the voice is going to suffer otherwise, unfortunately.  I’d love to be a violinist and have an instrument that I could put in a case and put in the closet, but unfortunately I can’t!  Violinists can eat Doritos and they can play the next day, assuming they wash their hands!  I eat a bag of Doritos, and forget it!

BD:  Is an opera an athletic contest?

JA:  I used to think so, sort of me in a war against the audience, but there’s becoming less and less combat.  It’s taken me a long time, but I’m starting to come to terms with my career, and I actually enjoy what I’m doing sometimes.  I call it the Red Shoes Syndrome.  Do you know the ballet The Red Shoes, where the girl wanted the red shoes so badly, and when she finally got them she put them on and couldn’t stop dancing?  I felt that for the longest time that I was singing because I had to, and I really didn’t have any choice in the matter, but I do.

BD:  So you have no latent desires to settle down and be a housewife and raise ten kids?

JA:  No.  I’ll just stick with my robot cats. I would like to have a real cat, but I guess I’m going to have to wait until I retire to get one.

BD:  Some singers have traveled with poodles...

JA:  But I live in England.  My European base is there and they have quarantine laws.  You can’t bring animals in and out of the country, so I couldn’t even have a little something to travel with.  Traveling gets to be a bit of a bore some of the time.

BD:  Do you like being a wandering minstrel?

JA:  I’m a bit of a gypsy.  I don’t like to stay put for very long, although, now that I finally have a place that’s mine, I like being home.  I bought an apartment and I love it!  I never want to leave it!  So I’m delighted whenever I can work at Covent Garden because I’m working at home.  I just get on the subway and go to work!  It’s great!

BD:  Get on the subway rather than taking a cab?

JA:  It’s quicker for rehearsals.  The traffic’s bad.  I take cabs to the performances.  There were times in Rome that I just couldn’t find a cab so I would arrive to sing Traviata or Semiramide in the Metro!  Big fancy diva here!

*     *     *     *     *

BD:  You’ve recorded Maometto  II.  Was that good for the voice to sing?

andersonJA:  Oh, yes.  I want to do that.  That’s one that I will do on stage.  I love it.  It’s a fabulous part.  I only wish I could have done it on stage before recording it, because I would have been able to bring so much more to it.

BD:  That version rather than The Siege of Corinth?

JA:  Yes.  It’s a tighter opera and it’s a better part for the soprano.  It’s interesting, because when he did The Siege of Corinth he simplified Maometto II .  There were other changes, too.  That’s a simplification on my part to say that’s the only thing he did because the mezzo part was changed to be a tenor part, and he was changing for the necessities of the Parisian theater.  But Maometto II is fabulous.  I think it’s really wonderful music.

BD:  Then why is it not better known?

JA:  None of the Rossini tragedies are very well known.  The one that’s really sort of entered into a lot of opera houses now is Semiramide which has been done a lot, mostly in concert.  But Rossini's comedies are pretty well known.  Everybody knows The Barber of Seville, certainly, and Cenerentola, and Italiana, but the tragedies are just not so well known, and I’m not sure why.  I suppose because nobody actually decided to resurrect them.  Now Marilyn Horne has done a lot for the ones with big mezzo parts. She has done Semiramide with Caballé and Sutherland, and she calls me her third generation Semiramide!  I would like to do for the Rossini soprano heroines what Marilyn has done for the mezzo-contralto heroines.  But the sopranos are mostly in the tragic operas that he wrote for his wife Isabella Colbran in Naples.  Otello was written for her, and they suit my voice very, very well.  Rossini is incredibly healthy music.  You basically can’t hurt yourself singing Rossini.

BD:  He knew how to write for the voice.

JA:  Yes. Incredible!  He knew how to sing.  There are some vocalises and there are some little hints.  I was out in San Diego about four years ago wandering through a book store, and all of a sudden I found this book that was a translation of a meeting with Rossini that was done by a Belgian musicologist.  It was in English, and it actually had little vocal exercises that Rossini had given to certain people.  At that point I was having trouble in a certain area of my voice, and I started doing these vocalises and it helped!  It was amazing!

BD:  So you’ve had help from the old master!

JA:  Oh absolutely!  He’s my sort of spiritual father, I suppose.  He’s very much the main one, he really is.  I did a Rossini concert in Pesaro this summer, with all Rossini arias.  It’s interesting.  It’s something that I’ve started to do.  I’ve never done a lot of concerts, but having found something that’s really cohesive, I like doing an evening of all Rossini.  He’s one of the few composers that you can do all in one program and it’s so incredibly varied, it’s amazing.  I did arias from Maometto II, Ermione, Armida, Guillaume Tell, Otello, Semiramide, and all of them were very different.  The orchestra also did overtures and things.  I’ve been madly in love with Rossini since I discovered Mosè in Egitto five years ago.  It’s funny, because we were talking about my recordings, and it was my accidental recording of Mosè in Egitto that got me interested in Rossini.  I didn’t know anything more than The Barber of Seville and Cenerentola before I got a telephone call to do it.

BD:  What did you plan to sing, then, for the rest of your life?

JA:  I was interested in bel canto.

BD:  Bellini and Donizetti?

JA:  Yes, but I didn’t know much about Rossini and out of the blue, in the summer of 1981, I got a phone call saying, “Do you think you could come to London yesterday and record?”  I wasn’t doing anything else and I couldn’t get a score, so I asked someone if they knew this opera and he said, “Well, yes, I think you could sing it.”  So I got on the Concorde, went over to London, and they presented me with this music and I just fell in love with it.  It’s beautiful, beautiful music.  I learned it in two days and recorded it.  So of all my recordings, that’s one of my least favorites, but it’s been one of the most important things that ever happened to me.

BD:  That’s another one that exists in several versions.

JA:  Yes, but again I think the Mosè in Egitto is probably the best version.

BD:  How will you decide which version you will do, if there’s a choice?

JA:  I had nothing to do with that choice.

BD:  No, but if they say we’re going to mount it and asked you, which version would you prefer?

JA:  It would depend on what changes were made, why they were made, and if I decided the changes were better than the original product.  In the case of most of those operas, I’d always go back to the original, partly because the original was written for Colbran, so it's usually more interesting, vocally.  Unless the changes would really help the drama a lot, I prefer the Italian versions to the French ones.

BD:  What about Guillaume Tell?

JA:  Well, that was written in French.  It wasn’t a re-hashing.  Also Le Comte Ory, but that was, again, written in French.  I think I would probably always go back to the old versions.

BD:  Do you want to be known, then, as a Rossini soprano?

JA:  Mmm!  I am, in Europe!  I'm very much identified with bel canto, and I do feel that Handel was the precursor of the bel canto, so there are certain Handel roles that I do like singing.  I always enjoyed singing Giulio Cesare.  Cleopatra’s a wonderful part.

BD:  What about the aria "Let the Bright Seraphim"?

JA:  I did that last year.  It was the first major contract in an American house after singing in Europe and being ignored by America.

BD:  Did you get any sense of historical perspective, knowing that Sutherland sang "Let the Bright Seraphim" and then had her big success with Lucia, and that you sang "Let the Bright Seraphim" and then did Lucia?

JA:  I’m very grateful to be compared with Sutherland as opposed to being compared to somebody that I don’t have a lot of respect for, because Sutherland is a great singer.

BD:  But you want to be your own singer!

JA:  I do.  I don’t want to be the new Joan Sutherland, I want to be June Anderson.  And while I look like her and I sing a lot of the same repertoire and we both have large voices, there are many fewer people in that category than the lighter sopranos singing a lot of the bel canto except for the dramatic roles.  I always had a fantasy of going up to Joan and saying, “Mother!”

BD:  Is there any opera with two sopranos, a mother-daughter scene, so you could do that ?

JA:  They’re not mother and daughter, but my little pet project, and I don’t know whether I’ll ever get to do it, but I would love to do Norma with Joan, and I would sing Adalgisa.

BD:  A soprano Adalgisa!

JA:  Yes.  It was written for Grisi.

BD:  Are your voices enough different

JA:  My voice is lower.  I don’t even know if she’s still singing Norma.  I hadn’t come up with this brilliant idea the last time I saw Ricky [Bonynge].  But coming back to what we were saying, she didn’t sing much Rossini.  Her voice wasn’t quite right for it.  My voice, being very different in the middle, is more right for Rossini than her voice was.  But I’m not doing it only to be different!  I’m doing it because I love it, and I think it suits me.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:  Do you like doing French opera?

andersonJA:  I was a French major in college, and yes, it’s a sort of a secondary specialty of mine.  With the French opera, I seem to specialize in only doing operas that people don’t know!  Looking at my discography, Carmina Burana is the only known thing on it!

BD:  Do you feel that the public now is ready for more than just the old familiar repertoire?

JA:  I think so.  People are tired of hearing the forty-seventh Bohème.  They want to hear something new, if it’s well done, if it deserves to be done, and there’s a lot of music that’s still out there to be rediscovered.  I’m sad that nobody’s writing good music today, so I go back and look for the other music that suits me.  I’m not looking into old Mascagni that’s buried because that’s not the music that’s for me.  But I’ll try and find some interesting or more interesting Rossini parts.  There’s a lot of Donizetti that hasn’t been done.  A lot of it deserves to stay hidden, you know.  Some things are hidden for good reason.

BD:  What about some Mercadante?

JA:  I’ve been looking into some of that, but probably only for an aria album.  A lot of the operas as total pieces wouldn’t work, but there are some stunning arias that could be excerpted for albums.

BD:  Is there more of a joy doing an opera that is not known than one that is?

JA:  It’s a different kind of joy, because, as I said, I would give anything to have been creating the roles I sing back in the 1800s.

BD:  But some of these you are creating for modern performances.

JA:  I am!  Actually I have done the American premiere of two operas Verdi operas, I’ll have you know!  I thought that was fairly amazing.  In 1982 I sang the American premiere of Il Corsaro in San Diego, and in 1984 I did La Battaglia di Legnano in Pittsburgh.  It’s just amazing to think of, and it’s exciting for the public to discover something that they didn’t know about and that they like.  Unfortunately the American  opera houses – not the public, but the opera houses – are afraid of titles that they don’t know, and I understand why.  It’s very different here, and that’s why I sing more in Europe than I do here.  They’ll mount things like Rossini’s Otello and Armida, and Bellini's Beatrice di Tenda for me, whereas over here the government doesn’t sponsor the opera.  So someone’s got to pay for it, and it’s harder to get a patron to give money for Beatrice di Tenda than to give money for a new Bohème.  They’re always afraid people aren’t going to buy tickets to see Beatrice di Tenda whereas in Europe they’re not afraid, and those things sell out anyway.

BD:  Do you want the public to come to see Beatrice di Tenda, or do you want them to come to see June Anderson?

JA:  Both!  That’s what they’re doing in Europe, and also because I’m much better known in Europe.  It’s got to be both sides, because it’s June Anderson singing it that’ll make the people want to come, but then they won’t just like it because I’m singing it.  They’ll like it because the music is great.

BD:  Will they like it the following season when Sally Smith comes and sings it?

JA:  Well, depending on how good Sally Smith is!  That’s another problem with these things.  Because there are only a handful of people that can sing them, American opera houses just don’t want the expense of mounting a production that they probably won’t use again.

BD:  Are you optimistic about the future of opera?

JA:  Yes.  Right now there’s a bigger public for opera than ever before.  I’m only upset that the standards are lower today.  Career life expectancy is very, very short, and the singers and anyone around them have to sit down and try and figure out what they’re doing wrong.  There’s an awful lot of bad singing going on, and it’s not because there aren’t great voices in 1986.  It’s because people want instant opera - you just add water and it’s there.  It takes a long time to develop a voice, a career, an artist, and it doesn’t happen overnight.  There are no overnight successes, and if there are overnight successes they’re going to be gone!  It’s true!  There have been a lot of flash-in-the-pans, people in my own generation that were racing past me, becoming big stars five and six years ago, and where are they today?  And it’s a shame because a lot of these people were really talented.  I was terribly frustrated at the time, saying “Look!  It’s happening to her and it’s not happening to me!  Why?  Why?”  It’s the tortoise and the hare.

BD:  Whose fault is it - the agent, the management, the singers themselves, the teacher, who?

JA:  You can blame it on a lot of people.  I always blame the singer in the end.  It’s just as easy to say no as it is to say yes.  It’s easier, in fact!  It’s TWO letters!  But it takes a lot of confidence to say no.  It takes more confidence to say no than say yes, because once you say no, you’re opening yourself to the possibility that you won’t be asked again.  But I must say I have never found that saying no made people less interested.  I said no to Covent Garden several times, before they came up with a debut.  If you’re meant to sing in those places you’ll be asked for the right thing if you wait long enough.  You’ve just got to know what’s right and have a strong feeling within yourself what’s right and what’s wrong for you personally.  What’s right for Sally Smith may not be right for June Anderson, and vice versa.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:  Do you sing differently in different size houses?

andersonJA:  No.  That’s something that drives me mad when people say “Oh, well, you could sing Norma in a small house, couldn’t you?  I mean maybe you don’t want to sing at the Met, but if you sang it in a small house. . .”  It’s ridiculous!  Singing Norma takes the same amount out of you if you sing it in a 300-seat house as if you sing it at Lyric Opera.  You have to have the voice to sing the role, not the house!   I sing the same whether I’m singing at Lyric Opera, or at La Fenice or La Scala or Covent Garden.  All these different houses are different sizes, and I don’t change the way I sing.  You can’t!   My voice may sound different in all those theaters because of different acoustics, but you can’t change the way you produce the voice or sing bigger because you’re in a bigger house.  If the voice is produced right, it will fill the house no matter what size it is.

BD:  We’ve had a lot of the Europeans who are used to singing in the small houses over there.  When they come to Lyric and they see the big house they get scared, and then they start to push.

JA:  Yes, and there are a lot of Americans who are used to singing in big houses that do the same thing.  I suppose its partly the fault of conductors who just play loud all the time, and so a lot of singers, especially singing a repertoire that has a heavy orchestration, start thinking “Oh, I’d better sing louder or they won’t hear me.”  What they don’t realize - and this gets into a very technical kind of thing - is that when you push a voice, it loses certain overtones which will make the voice carry.  A voice like Kraus’s is not a big voice, but it’s very pointed and it’s not pushed.  It’ll cut through any orchestra.  Very light sopranos, like Ruth Welting who sings with her tiny, tiny crystalline voice, but you always hear her because the voice is produced with focus.  When you push a voice, then it loses the ringing-ness.  "Ringing-ness," is that a word?

BD:  It is now!

JA:  It is now, right!  Anderson and Dante, great for inventing words.  But when the breath is relaxed under a note and the note is not pushed up against something and it has room to open up, that’s when it carries and that’s when it sounds larger.  One other problem is that there aren’t a lot of great voice teachers around, either.

BD:  So it's hard to find a good one?

JA:  Yes.

BD:  Do you work hard at your diction in every house in every country?

JA:  I work hard even when they don’t understand.  I work hard even at Lyric Opera, where people don’t understand the Italian.  I speak Italian and French fluently, so they’re languages that I’m very comfortable in.

BD:  Do you like this gimmick with the supertitles?

JA:  I think it’s a very good idea.  They don’t get in the way.  You either look at them or you don’t.  You can probably go through a whole performance and not ever look at supertitles.  I’ve only seen it once, in New York for the Love of Three Oranges at the New York City Opera.  I thought it was good, except it made it very difficult in comic scenes because people would laugh either before or after the line was actually said.  I was listening to the French and also sort of looking up and down.  As a performer, especially in a comic opera, I would find it really unnerving to have the laughs come in the wrong places.  Here in Orlando, I had an instance where something happened onstage, and I was singing the next line and people were laughing at the text that had just flashed on the screen.  That was a bit unnerving for me.

BD:  Do you think opera works well on television?

JA:  It can, but it doesn’t always.  It’s got to be thoughtfully and carefully filmed.  You don’t want a close-up on the soprano when she’s singing a high E-flat, but it’s helped a lot of people to be introduced to opera.  To be able to sit in your own living room and see opera and have the little sub-titles underneath, and actually realize what’s going on and say “Oh! Gosh!  That’s not nearly as boring as I thought it was!”

BD:  Should opera be something for the masses?

JA:  No!  Not necessarily.  I believe in bringing the masses to the opera rather than bringing opera down to the masses.  One of the problems of making opera accessible to the masses is the lowering of standards.  When something is done well, people like it.  There have been people who come to performances of I Puritani, which is not the most well-known opera in the world, and if it’s a good performance people are going to like it.  You don’t have to play down to an audience.  But I don’t think it’s for everybody.  Football isn’t for everyone either!  Opera is a specialized art form.

BD:  Is opera art, or is opera entertainment, and where is the balance?

JA:  It’s both.  You were talking earlier about a living museum.  It’s got to be both.  One should be faithful to the original intention, but because we are in the twentieth century, we interpret it through those eyes and ears.  If particular singers are acrobatic and can do odd things that are entertaining for the public, it doesn’t take away from the art.  But I don’t think that an opera should be a musical comedy, for example... even a comic opera.  I don’t know any comic operas that were written to be slapstick.  There’s always a certain elegance that should be there.  It’s when it sinks to that level that I become annoyed with it.  Opera can be the greatest of all art forms because it’s got everything, and it can also be the worst.  I’m considered very difficult because I get myself involved in everything - the sets, the costumes, the orchestra.  I’m a good coach.

BD:  Do you want to be a coach after your singing career is over?

andersonJA:  I might do some of that, or maybe I’ll be like Placido and start conducting!  I don’t know.  You heard it first, fellows, right here in Chicago!  News flash!  Opera houses, watch out!  You’d better keep her singing!  If not, she may pick up the baton!

[At this point, we stopped for a moment and I asked her to record a Station Break for us.  She was glad to oblige, but I noticed that she spoke it differently than the chatty conversation we'd been having.]

BD:  You do speak differently when you’re thinking about it.  Your conversation is much more relaxed.

JA:  I don’t like talking.  I get very nervous when I have to speak.  When I was doing The Daughter of the Regiment, I think I ended up saying about three words.  I kept cutting the dialogue.  The director kept saying, “But you speak French fluently!  Why are you cutting the lines?”  I don’t want to talk!  I don’t want to talk in English or French or Italian.

BD:  Is that the only opera that you sing which has dialogue in it?

JA:  Yes.  I may do Fledermaus some day.  I like Rosalinda, having nothing to do with my bel canto specialization!  There are a few things outside of the bel canto that interest me.

BD:  What about something like Mélisande?

JA:  I’ve been asked about that, not specifically, but in general.  People are always mentioning something like that because of my French.  I’m not sort of known for vocalism.  I get angry, and part of me would like to do something like Mélisande because there’s nothing flashy about it.  It’s all about being simple and expressive and an artist.  But I’m not sure whether it’s me or what I’m imposing on the fans, that they expect me to do these outrageous parts.  I’ve been thinking about doing something that’s not at all demanding vocally, that’s just an interpretive kind of part.  I was thinking about something like Poppea, but I don’t know.  Sometimes I’d like to just sing Bohème or something that’s easy to sing, and just play with all the words.

BD:  Maybe ten years from now you’ll use that as a vacation.

JA:  Yes!  Every soprano has to sing Mimì once before she dies!

BD:  But not Tosca.

JA:  No.  I think my voice teacher would kill me.  I like Butterfly, though.

BD:  Oh oh, there’s another one which is a long evening.

JA:  A very long evening.  It is one of the most demanding parts.  Norma’s the big one.  That’s my goal.  As Marilyn Horne said to me this year at Covent Garden when we were doing Semiramide, "Semiramide is a part and a half.  I know you’re going to sing Norma some day, and tonight you’ve just sung her little sister!”

BD:  Thank you so much.  It’s been lovely.

JA:  Thank you.  You ask some very interesting questions.  I’m used to people asking boring questions about all the same nonsense, and I don’t actually have to think about anything.

BD:  I’m glad you enjoyed it

JA:  I am tickled that finally I am getting some attention in America.


© 1986 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded at her hotel in Chicago on October 29, 1986.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB in 1988, 1989, 1992, and 1997.  It was transcribed and posted on this website in 2005.  It was published in the Opera Journal in March, 2010.  The transcript was slightly re-edited, and photos and links were added in November, 2015.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.

Award - winning 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 like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.