Soprano Martina Arroyo
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie
|American soprano Martina Arroyo
has received numerous awards and accolades for her long-standing
pre-eminence at the world’s foremost opera houses and concert halls,
including a 2013 Kennedy Center Honors and a 2010 Opera Honors Award
from the National Endowment for the Arts. She continues to make an
invaluable contribution to the art form through her teaching and her
commitment to young artist development through the Martina Arroyo
Born in 1937 and raised in Harlem, Arroyo went on to conquer the opera
world, from the Metropolitan Opera to the Vienna State Opera, Teatro
Colón in Buenos Aires to La Scala in Milan, Paris Opera to the
Royal Opera House at Covent Garden, and the great concert halls from
Salzburg and Berlin to her hometown of New York. She has had the honor
of three opening night performances at the Met, two of them in
consecutive seasons. Few in her generation have been so fearless or so
successful across the repertory, from Mozart, Verdi, Puccini and
Strauss to Barber, Bolcom, Schoenberg, and Stockhausen. The New York
Times once heralded her voice as “among the most glorious in the
world.” Her extensive recorded legacy reflects her inspired
collaborations with conductors Leonard Bernstein, Karl Böhm,
Rafael Kubelík, Zubin
Mehta, Thomas Schippers, Colin Davis, and James Levine.
Arroyo studied to be a teacher, and graduated from Hunter College at
the age of 19. In 1958, she auditioned for and won the Metropolitan
Opera’s Auditions of the Air, which gave her a chance to study both
music and acting at the Met’s Kathryn Long School. She made her
Carnegie Hall debut in 1958 in the American premiere of Ildebrando
Pizzetti’s Murder in the Cathedral,
and in 1965 stepped in as a last-minute replacement for an ailing
Birgit Nilsson in Aïda
at the Met, a career-changing moment. Over the years and in nearly 200
performances at the Met, Arroyo performed all the major Verdi roles
that would be the core of her repertory, in addition to Mozart’s Donna
Anna, Puccini’s Cio-Cio-San and Liù, Mascagni’s Santuzza,
Ponchielli’s Gioconda, and Wagner’s Elsa. Her 1968 London debut came in
a concert version of Meyerbeer’s epic Les
Huguenots, followed the same year by her Covent Garden debut in Aïda. Her debuts at Paris
Opera, La Scala and the Teatro Colón followed in close
In 2003, Arroyo established her own non-profit cultural organization
which provides new generations of emerging young artists with the tools
to pursue careers in opera, by means of two intensive programs of
study, coaching, and performance that focus on immersive preparation of
complete operatic roles.
-- From the official site
of Martina Arroyo.
--Note: Names which are links in this box and in the interview below
refer to my interviews elsewhere on this website. BD
Arroyo sang quite a number of times in
Chicago at various venues. She was heard at Orchestra Hall as
well as the Ravinia Festival with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and
at Grant Park, the Auditorium and at a few smaller locations.
With Lyric Opera she sang Un Ballo
in Maschera in 1972 with Franco Tagliavini, Sherrill Milnes,
Urszula Koszut, conducted by Christoph von
Dohnányi and directed by Tito Gobbi; and she
opened the 1974 season in Simon
Boccanegra with Piero Cappuccilli, Carlo Cossutta, Ruggero
Raimondi, conducted by Bruno Bartoletti.
In September of 1988, she returned for Knoxville: Summer of 1915 by Samuel
Barber, and Pace, Pace Mio Dio
from Forza del Destino of
Verdi with the Chicago Sinfonietta conducted by Paul Freeman. It
was during this visit that she graciously permitted me to speak with
her during one of her scarce free moments.
As it happened, my interview with Jon Vickers had
recently been published in Wagner
News, and in it he mentions being particularly fond of Ms.
Arroyo. So I gave her a copy of the magazine for her library,
which is where we pick up the conversation . . . . . . .
Oh, thank you! I happen to adore Jon
Vickers and heard that he likes me too, which is
wonderful because it’s so mutual. When you’re working with
him, he has the qualities of Jimmy McCracken.
They are real men; they are human beings; they are great artists.
They give everything to the profession. There is this humanity
there. They love their
wives and their children. You couldn’t talk to Jimmy or to
Jon without hearing about their families. It was
so healthy. This meant a great deal to me.
I was in
New York several months ago and had a nice interview with McCracken,
just before he died. I had arranged it so that I did the
him and then an interview with Sandra.
boy. Well, you’re talking to a great McCracken fan as
BD: I have
always been taken
with his voice and the projection of his artistry.
MA: Yes, but
I think it comes from that one thing
that’s so important — that human being who’s
always there. The artistry is not on the left and their private
lives on the
right, but it’s all enveloped in these wonderful people. It’s
not always the case.
BD: You say
that these two famous tenors
are so manly on stage. When you’re on stage, do you try to be
MA: I don’t
think that you try to be.
Perhaps it seems that you are because you’re reacting to them.
They give so much. All you can do is give back, and if
it means I am more womanly or more of the character — more
desperate, more savvy — you’re not
just putting on more personality and trying to be your partner as
well as the role you’re playing. These people you are
reacting to are very strong vibrations, and both Jon Vickers and Jimmy
McCracken always gave and always give when they’re on
stage. So does Sandra (Warfield), Jimmy’s wife,
by the way. She’s another who gives to a point of almost
hurting her voice. To her, the word is so important that she’ll
tear a line to pieces as Azucena, for example. We’ve
done it that many times in twenty years, and my gosh, Sandra always
gives it her last.
BD: Do you
always give your last?
MA: I hope
so. I sure as heck try, which makes it difficult. Sometimes
you’ve got to say
something in desperation, but you’re singing a Verdi line and you’ve
rise up to a high C. You’ve got to be technically ready for
it, and sometimes there is the conflict. In ‘Pace, Pace’ [in Forza del Destino], you want to say
it one way, and someone says, “Would
you mind just touching that note and making us feel the desperation in
those words?” After twenty
years I’ve been allowed to say it from my heart, but in the
beginning you adjust it for conductors or for stage
directors. Maybe everyone else does it like that, but that
doesn’t necessarily make it complete for you as you
portray the character.
BD: Are you
portraying the character, or do you
actually become that character on the stage?
MA: I hope
that I become that character. I
certainly try and identify with everything that makes her what she is,
and bring everything that I can into my own being to make that
character as alive
as possible. That’s
gotten better over the years. I have worked
very hard to make the characters more believable. You have to
them and live with them, and that’s also living with them in
BD: Are there
any characters that are, perhaps, a
little too close to the real Martina Arroyo?
MA: Ah, yes, but
I’m not going to tell you which!
[Both laugh] There are a few who are close in some
never been in a situation, for example, like Amelia [in Ballo in Maschera] with the
with her husband and the King (or the governor, depending on the
production), but it is the vulnerability
of this problem, the situation that I can relate to immediately.
love Amelia. I don’t think you should sing a character
unless you do love her, or him, because you do it with truth. If
you don’t love that person, or at least if you can’t identify
closely to it because of a real truth for you, the audience
I don’t think you can say you’re going to behave this way
or be this character and comment about it at the same
time. You’re in the role or you’re not in the role, and if
you’re in the role then you’ve got to do her honestly. And if
you don’t believe it, if you don’t care about her, if you don’t care
closely with real heart, it shows. You know the people on stage
that are just indicating their character, and those who are trying to
characters — Amelia, Leonora and others
— do they still speak to women and men
in the late 1980s?
MA: Oh yes,
because you’re dealing playing the real truth. The emotions are
emotions, and even if your situation and your place and your costume
might change, we still deal with love, hate, jealousy, various degrees
of any kind of emotion that happen in one person’s
life within the same period. For example,
when I am Amelia with Sherrill Milnes, who behaves in a certain way as
the reaction is different from another baritone who is just as fine a
singer but who behaves as Renato
differently. You react very differently, so there’s a different
degree of the character’s emotion, depending on what you get, what you
give back and what’s going on between you.
BD: So you
adjust to your colleagues?
MA: I think
you adjust naturally. But of course
you’re going to ask what happens when you’re getting nothing from a
colleague? That’s the most painful situation of all because
then, as Bette Davis says, you have to make love to
yourself! [Both laugh] You have to make more of what you’re
receiving. You get
that earlier on in the rehearsal — if your
colleague is giving very
little, that you have to do more. However, even that
shows. When it’s a real natural reaction and when you are giving
more, then you can see what she’s getting from the other
BD: Can you
give too much?
MA: I don’t
think you can ever give too much. I hope that you don’t give to
the point of hurting the voice,
meaning that you can’t do what you have to do vocally. You can do
certain things with the voice in Puccini, and people will still be with
you. You certainly sing better for Verdi than for
Puccini, but you should try to sing as beautifully for
Puccini as for Verdi as for Mozart. But if there’s a little sob
in my voice in a Puccini role I might be forgiven, where you wouldn’t
forgiven if you’re doing a Verdi line and you miss that line.
BD: Is there
a secret to singing Verdi?
MA: Sing as
well as you can and study as hard as you can. A good deal of
praying is involved! [Laughs] There’s no secret about good
hard work. That’s what it requires. It requires
continuous study. I still take lessons after so many years.
called my teacher last night to tell her about the concert here, and
thing she wanted to know was if I was able to float those notes.
It’s continuous work. What you want to do is get yourself
into such technical shape that you can bring the character to it and
the technique works. Then you don’t have to turn the
character off to turn the technique on. You sing
well technically all through your development of character.
BD: Do you
sing differently when you’re on stage in
costume as opposed to in a concert performance of the work, or just
doing a recital?
MA: Well, now
you’re talking to an older woman. I’m not saying much older
[laughs], but fifteen or twenty years have passed that I’ve been able
on stage and do these roles. Let’s say closer to twenty-eight
years, to be more honest, so that with the time you’ve learned to bring
more of the character onto the concert stage from the performance
stage, you can
come into that moment in that person’s life and try and bring as much
of the portrayal as you can. That’s hard to do when you’re very,
very young but with the years you lose
something vocally but you gain something dramatically.
protesting] I don’t think you’ve lost anything vocally!
MA: I don’t
know... I hope not, but I know that’s the
cycle of life, and I’m not afraid of that. You always try to stay
at high a
level technically and dramatically as possible. That will vary
within your week, or with how your health
is going and how your relationships are going, as well as your love and
BD: So everything
affects your voice?
MA: Oh yes,
much more so than people think.
I remember a colleague of mine was told just shortly before she went on
stage that her husband had been killed. That was such a terrible
time. It was such a stupid thing to do to tell someone something
that. She got through the performance and then keeled
over. Some other person may not have been able to sing a
note just from the shock alone. You can have a cold. I’ve
sung performances here in Chicago at Grant
Park. We were outside and everything started well, then the wind
and the weather changed, and by the end of the
performance we were all [demonstrates being voiceless]. But the
next night we were out there again! So certainly the
elements affect you; everything affects you. That’s why I can
always go back to someone like a Vickers or a McCracken, and see that
the mental health of these people played
such an important part in their vocal health. And that does
BD: Does the
whole idea of playing
roles affect which offers you will accept and
which roles you will decline?
certainly. I think that’s another gift
you get with the years as they go by. When you’re very much
younger, you’re so glad to get a job. You accept many
things that maybe twenty years down the road you say, “No,
particularly interested in doing that anymore. I’d rather do something
else.” And if you’re lucky — and
I have been lucky — I can do that now... but not
BD: I assume
that if there’s a part that fits
your voice but you don’t like the character, then you’re in a real
wouldn’t do it! I believe that if I had the
role and I didn’t like the character, that would
show. If it didn’t fit my voice, you can be sure that would
show. One of the problems today is the
mistakes made by so many of the younger people. They are offered
certain roles and they say they’ll do it just this
you get caught in a trap. You’ll try it just that once, and you
do enough damage that it takes a long time
before you get back to what you should be vocally. But I can
understand if you get the right offer from the right person,
it’s human to want to try it. And sometimes you even think
that a role is good for you, and you do like it. But when you go
there and you put the drama behind it
with rehearsals etc., you find out later that it might have been better
to wait another two years. It takes a very big person to
say, “No, I’m not ready for that,”
and thank them and step down and give it somebody else! As far as
goes, it makes a big difference. You accept the wrong things too
often, and you
might find yourself with a lot of spare time on your hands! It’s
delicate balance. You have got to know how to handle these
things, and heed the right type of advice whether it is from your
from your manager, and whether you were thinking in terms of a
career or a two-year career. Not everybody wants a thirty-year
[Genuinely surprised] Really???
MA: I imagine
so. Not everybody
wants to pack suitcases and travel all around for thirty years
of their lives. Some people say they’ll do it for a while
and then have children, or perhaps sing in one small
area or sing small roles. Not everybody has to be Aïda
at the Met. You can still have a happy life and
a very, very professional career. I have friends in
various houses in Germany that are very happy people singing everything
with their families in one place.
BD: They take
the bus or the street car to work every day?
Maybe. Maybe they take their chauffeur, I
don’t know! [Both laugh] They’re not willing to pack that
bag every week, or every few days.
BD: Are there
some that are perhaps just singing themselves out for five years,
figuring they’ll have
the great career briefly and then pack it in?
Sometimes. I’m sure there are some that started
out and have gone home when things petered out for them, and we haven’t
of them since. There are others who had a more quiet type of
career, and then all of a sudden burst on the scene. You think it
new singer, but that singer’s been singing for twenty years in
Gelsenkirchen! This is perhaps one of the
most interesting things about this profession. There’s no one
rule, and there are no two people that have had the same type of
career. The success of a singer, and of a voice, has so much to
do with being at the right place at the right time and
being presented properly. Who are the famous singers in your
voice range at
that moment? Are you needed? Are you not needed? It’s
too personal, it’s too individual, it’s too
unique. There’s no formula. There’s no formula
for a good technique for everybody and there’s no formula for a
career for everybody.
BD: Then what
advice do you have for young singers
been asked that question
over the years, and the only real answer that has remained with me has
been the security of having had
another profession. I have gone back now to the
University of Louisiana to teach. My original first
choice was to be a teacher of comparative literature and romance
languages, and I’ve always known that tomorrow, if I lost my
voice, I could still be happy teaching in a school and teaching young
people because that’s what I like to do as
much as singing. There’s something about the security of it that
allows you to say, “Maybe I won’t sing this role
Maybe I’ll work at something else until I feel that I’m ready to sing
this particular repertoire.” My advice
would be not ignore your private life, and not to ignore those things
that have real meaning. Success professionally is
wonderful. I’m not knocking it. But
come back to the four walls of the hotel room, you really
find out what you’re made of! The applause and the
monetary benefits all have their place, but you must know what your
about, where you’re going, and at the
end of the world you look back and know it is
worthwhile. That’s another story, and it’s very hard to explain
that to a twenty-two year old, because there is no such thing as
another world when you’re twenty-two! [Both laugh]
BD: You go to
the theater and you become a character. How long does it take
before you are back to being Martina Arroyo?
MA: Well, you’ve
never really left her
altogether! I can’t tell you what it is like for my colleagues,
but for me it depends on the type of role. A role like
Butterfly or Tosca takes much more time for me to come down because you
get so wound up in these characters. Donna Anna takes less
time, for even though you’re involved, somehow the verismo roles touch
that nerve of the body that
makes the whole body need more time. That’s all I can say.
Amelia in Un Ballo in Maschera
takes more time for me to let go than
Aïda. That’s just personal.
BD: So it
varies then from role to role?
MA: From role
to role, from place to place, from
colleague to colleague. When you sing a particular duet with
a colleague that’s giving much more, you get all wound up in it.
So when you do the opera and the whole evening with people
like that are giving, it takes longer to pull out of the part.
BD: Do you
adjust your vocal technique at all for
MA: I don’t
think I do. I don’t consciously
go out and say I’ll do it. Singing with a properly-placed voice
and coloring the tone and giving a full, well-produced tone is
the same in any house. But psychologically, if I see
an enormous place like the Met, the body feels
distance, whereas if I’m in this room and I know that I have to produce
the tone properly, the wall is a little bit
closer. Psychologically there must be some
kind of adjustment, but I don’t go out to sing differently, no.
On the contrary, that’s a mistake if singers think they have
different voices. It’s the same voice. A properly produced
tone is a properly produced tone... not that I think there is any one
method for singers. You cannot just get a book and if you read
you’ll all come out sounding like Monserrat Caballé! Only
Monserrat sounds like Monserrat! [Both laugh]
BD: Is there
any kind of competition amongst sopranos?
MA: I’m a
great friend of
Monserrat. We love to go out and stuff ourselves with
pasta! When I say ‘great friend’,
I don’t see her very
often, but I’m glad to see her, and I think she’s glad to see
me. When I’m around colleagues, we don’t talk about
Crespin and I never talk about music.
We’re great pals and we go out together, and the last thing we talk
about is music. We might ask what each other is singing and we
might talk about it, but we’re far more interested in the last date we
had or something
like that! [Laughs] Wouldn’t you be?
BD: I think
so! You’ve sung all over the
world. Are the audiences different from city to city, or even
country to country?
depends on what you’re
singing and who’s with you. If Pavarotti’s on the team, you can
that the applause will be louder with a bigger crowd. I don’t
think you can generalize
and say that this is what we’re going to have tonight. It depends
on what you give to them. There are some
cities where it’s customary for the audience to applaud after
every aria, and so they do. But it doesn’t mean that in the
cities where this is not done you are appreciated less. Often at
the end of the act
they show their appreciation. I don’t think that’s even a
yardstick of the audience. You know when they don’t like you,
for sure! When they do like you, you know that, too, and it’s
very gratifying. I don’t have a timer to know if it’s one minute
more or one minute less in one country compared to another.
You’re just glad that you’ve had something together.
you’re taking the applause,
you’re conscious of the audience. Are
you conscious of the audience when you’re portraying the character?
not. That can be a
distraction. There are those who teach acting who say you
try and think of that fourth wall being there, but at the moment you
pull out of character and start thinking of the
pretty dress the lady in the fifth row has on, then you’re really into
being distracted. You’re really out of character then. I’d
be very unhappy to know that distraction has taken away from the
importance of what’s going on between Butterfly and Pinkerton.
That would have to be
some hell of a dress! [Both laugh]
BD: Is there
anything you can do when the audience is not with
MA: It helps if
you’re working onto your maximum, as much
as you can. But even your maximum is not always the
same. If everything is working for you and is
going well, everything is going on with the others. Sometimes you
very much to your colleagues, or something is not going
along with your colleagues. You can react with each other’s
nerves. You give all the time — or at
least I certainly do — but
you don’t give on the basis of whether or not they’re applauding a
great deal. You give on the basis of what you have to say and how
it’s being said. Is the person reacting to you? It’s a give
and take, but if it’s happening, the audience is with you. I’ve
been in a performance when something was happening on stage and the
audience didn’t like it. So one way or the other, I don’t even
imagine that situation. I have been in performances when not a
lot was happening on stage and the audience was giving out like
crazy. I am not talking about
giving or about applauding, I’m talking about there being something in
air. There’s something, and you feel you’re there to enjoy.
Therefore there’s reason together to entertain you. You’re
there to be entertained, to enjoy the evening. A few weeks ago I
went to see Mefistofele at
the State Theatre in New York. I had
not seen Mefistofele before,
and I was
excited, I can tell you. I went in ready for a good performance,
and they didn’t let me down. They were wonderful, the whole
cast. It was
a good performance and I left there on cloud nine, and so were my
friends and our crowd. The
people on stage must have known that we were happy to be in the
audience. We knew that they had made us happy, and so
it’s there. I wouldn’t want to measure it!
brought up a word I want to ask about — entertainment.
Where is the balance between the
entertainment value and the artistic achievement?
depends on who you’re talking about and
what you’re talking about to a certain extent. If you
are talking about me personally, I feel that I work at my
highest artistic level, and then I’m
entertaining you as well as I can! I don’t think the word
‘entertainment’ has been used for popular and artistic achievement the
same as it has been for
classical music. I know people like to make that
sort of differentiation. When I say, for example, that I’m
in Show Business, they go, “Ugh! You’re
Show Business, you’re an Opera Singer!” But
I say, “Yeah, but
that’s Show Business! We ought to get out there in
can-can dresses. I’d love to see Montserrat, Jessye and I
in can-can dresses! Couldn’t you imagine that?
[Musing] Three Little Maids from School are we...
[Laughs] Three *little* maids... that’s already funny!
We’re there to bring joy and happiness
into the lives of the people that have come to see it. It’s Show
Business. That’s not a derogatory phrase, in my
BD: Are we
conductors today who understand the tradition of the theater and how to
get inside the roles as much as we used to?
MA: Oh yes, I
think so. You
have people like Riccardo Muti who, especially in the recording of Ballo wanted the theater.
Colin Davis wanted the theater in the Mozart. He said he would
rather sacrifice a tone here or there. I was doing Donna Anna in
that recording, but he wanted to feel what was going on between the
characters in the recording. So certainly conductors are
there. I don’t think that the conductor who said for me to sing
that top tone
piano meant that he didn’t
want character. He perhaps knew
the tradition of it being sung piano
and wanted to continue the
tradition. It is for us, after he says that, to put the
intensity into the part the same way the conductors are asking for
other things without
losing the character. You adjust to how you feel about those
or how you can say them. As you know, in life you can say,
that’s a very nice dress you are wearing.”
Or, [snidely] “It’s a very nice
dress you are wearing!” Or, [loudly]
“MY, that’s a very nice dress you
are wearing!” You’re still saying that’s a
very nice dress but
you’re saying it differently. You’re taking about the intensity
of the situation, the dynamic. It’s wonderful when we have the
opportunity to have two or three weeks of rehearsals. I mean that
sincerely because so often we are on stage
with just a three-hour run-through. These days, the
conductors and the stage directors go into
each other’s rehearsals. They have for many, many years.
This is important not only to know what you’re being asked to do,
but if you can do it at this tempo. There
has to be a collaboration. There must be a very, very close
collaboration between the director and the conductor. If a
director has an
idea that a part may be portrayed a particular way, and you get a
character or a personality that can’t do it, you make adjustments, and
the stage director will make them. The conductor does it all the
time. One singer can sing those two lines in one breath,
and another can’t. That doesn’t make one better or the other less.
BD: It’s just
MA: It’s just
different, and that’s very good.
That’s what makes you not mind seeing your fiftieth performance of Un
Ballo in Maschera.
BD: Is this
what separates the great operas from the less great operas —
that they can stand being
on the stage night after night, week after week, year after year?
MA: I think
it’s what separates the great singers from
just the singers, I tell you that! But certainly it is all of
it together. There’s no one factor. We can sit here and
talk for the
next five years and never reach the end... or even say anything that’s
definitive or conclusive. Bring another singer in, and we
could start all over again. That’s what I like.
BD: Let me
look at it the other way. Can a
piece get over-rehearsed?
MA: [Thinks a
moment] I’ve never run into that situation,
to be perfectly honest. I imagine when you’ve sung something many
times... like when
the people on Broadway in the long-running parts. Singing Jean
Valjean in Les Miserables
every single night, eight shows a week, is so intense. That’s
like over-rehearsal, isn’t it, and yet we don’t
feel that in the audience. I didn’t have any indication that
these characters were any less alive than they must have been the first
night, and this was after some months.
BD: I was
thinking about a Felsenstein
production where they would rehearse for a year.
MA: Oh, I
would have given anything to work with
Felsenstein for one year on a part. You
never get tired of some parts. There are too many factors.
How you give, how you take, you just don’t get tired of finding the
other ways it can be said.
BD: Do you
sing differently at all for the microphone than
you do in the opera house?
Psychologically, yes. You say that you’re
not, but having a microphone in front of your nose blows my
mind! I just don’t like the idea. Remember we were talking
about knowing the fourth wall is there? Well, it’s worse when
you have something shoved right in your face. When there are no
in front of the nose, I’m just singing and relating to
people personally. That person might be there [points close to
might be way over there [points far across the room], but it’s a human
being that’s responding.
everything is all done, are you
basically pleased with the records that have been issued of your voice?
MA: I don’t
know... I’ve never really heard me. There’s always the first
shock of hearing yourself. Just two weeks ago we were recording
some songs for
Centaur Records, and I kept saying, “That’s not
me, that’s not me!” Then I kept asking, “Is
that me? Is that me?” A thousand
years ago when I first heard my own speaking voice at a rehearsal of Macbeth, the singing voice sounded
what I think I sound like, but
all of a sudden I heard this speaking voice and I thought, “My
someone has changed the speed on this tape.”
I didn’t realize I have such a
high speaking voice, and hearing it like that blew my mind. I
went to my teacher and asked for help with the speaking quality.
He showed me how to speak more deeply, which works for the stage when I
need it, but it is not how I normally speak.
BD: Most of
you’ve sung have been victims, or in tragedies of some kind.
Do you do some comic operas too?
MA: I’d love
to do a comedy! As a matter of
fact, I turn some of the most tragic victims into the funniest
ladies! First of all, it’s not
easy to make people laugh, and secondly there is that fine line between
tragedy and comedy. All you have
to do is exaggerate drama just enough and you can turn it into
something hilarious, which I enjoy doing. Sometimes when I’m
rehearsing it’s getting heavy, and when you’re
feeling the weight and the intensity of a rehearsal you find yourself
doing something so stupid just to break
the tension. You might say something so dumb that you sometimes
ashamed of yourself later, but you just can’t help yourself at that
moment. You need to get it out, and then
everything’s all right.
BD: And your
colleagues understand this?
doing it too! [Both laugh] That’s the nice thing about
sung many roles. Are there still a few that you would like to
sing that would be good
for you psychologically and vocally but no one’s asked you for them
for one reason or another?
have been a couple of roles that I haven’t sung
because the circumstances for them weren’t right. I
was a little bit young, but I wanted very much to sing Norma
— but only
with a lot of rehearsals and a really good stage director who
would take me at a good pace. I’ve learned a lot about acting in
the last twenty years, but twenty-five years ago nobody ever called
me Madame Bernhardt, you can believe that. And Norma,
as beautiful as the music is, can be the biggest bore on the face
of the earth if all she’s doing is going through the exercises of
the music. Not only do you have to have
good singing, you really have got to make this woman live. I
passed the opportunity to sing the part because, at that time, it
just didn’t all come together. Next year I’ll be
singing my first Dutchman,
and I’m looking forward to that.
BD: Tell me
MA: I’ve had
lots of feelings about her.
I haven’t had the time yet, and I’ll begin now, as a
matter of fact. I browsed through the
part with one of the musical directors of the Grand Rapids Opera.
I need to begin to feel through this part
because as you’re learning it you want to know a little bit about who
you are and why you are and what makes you say what you do.
obviously there must be something that tells
you you want to do that role.
yes. I went through it vocally. I’ve
been interested in the part for several years, just
the times that I’ve wanted to do it were a little too early. Now
I think it’ll be right. It might have been a few years ago
that was right as well, but I wasn’t asked a few years ago. Now
it’s come together.
BD: You will
head down the Wagner path for Elsa and Elisabeth...
MA: Oh, I’ve
sung Elsa some years ago at the Met in the Wielend
Wagner production. That was fun, and I always enjoyed singing
Wagner. My agent is going to kill me for saying that. [Both
laugh] I’ve always wanted to do Strauss. I love the
part of the Marschallin. Fifteen years ago I wouldn’t have
attacked her because of the character. I didn’t have the time and
means to really learn the Marschallin, and to work at it properly to
really bring the role the way I’d want to. It’s not enough for
others to like you. You have to please yourself as
well. There’s a Mahler song I’ve
never sung because I can’t get through it the way I want to
hear it. And since I can’t do it, there no need to make anybody
else suffer. I can’t do it for me, to please me
the way I think it should. I’ve heard others do it. Christa
Ludwig still sings it and it brings tears to your eyes.
I’ve had students of mine sing it beautifully, but I haven’t
done it yet the way I want to sing it. So I just leave it alone
BD: And it will
MA: Yes, of
course I think it will.
BD: Are there
other roles that are going to happen?
MA: We are
playing with some new ideas that are interesting,
very interesting indeed. I’m glad to be singing Turandot, for
example. Twenty years ago that would have been a
no-no, a big no-no.
BD: You did
MA: I did
Liù at the Met, but now I’m doing the
Princess herself — and my way. You
don’t get the steel or the larger sound of a
Dimitrova, but you get me singing my way, with my voice and my
characterization of the Princess.
BD: Are you
going to be a better Turandot
because you were a Liù before, and understand that aspect of the
MA: I think
so. I was very fortunate. I had Lotfi Mansouri as
for the first times, and he molded that character with me, with my
voice and how I felt about her, and his feelings about the role.
never a one-sided thing. You collaborate, you talk
about it, you work on it, you see what you can do. You see what
needs are the strongest and what is saying something. Keeping
that in mind, he really worked with me in such a way
that it was a personal Turandot and it was a warmer Turandot. She
breaks down sooner than some of the
trumpet-sounding voices need to because they just stand there and belt
it all out. I can’t do that. In fact, Puccini says that
Turandot feels saved. “From the moment I
saw you, I knew there was something for me.”
This was a man that she feared, so Turandot doesn’t just break down at
the end in the last
duet. She is beginning to be gnawed at and chipped at. She
starts to crumble and says from the
moment she sees him that she knew that he was different from the
others. We used that to begin to mold the phrases a little bit to
suit my voice!
sounds like the way that Eva Turner did
MA: I’d like
to think so, because you have now mentioned
another one of those magic ladies. Eva Turner is
still alive, and she’s still one of the most beautiful colleagues and
friends you can have. I call her whenever I’m in London. I
ran into Gwyneth Jones a few weeks ago, and the
first person we talked about was Eva Turner. She’d seen her a
couple of weeks before that, and she was alive and kicking. Eva
had helped Gwyneth with her Turandot, and I’d called and talked to Eva
about the role. But you can do that. You can call up
and tell her what you’re doing and ask what she suggests. She
doesn’t go, [in a haughty British accent] “Tut,
tut, now darling. Maybe you shouldn’t be
doing this!” She
helped me from the opening night of Trovatore
at Covent Garden.
She sat down and she sang Trovatore with me at the reception. She
went through the part and
we talked about it. I love her very, very much. This is
the type of healthy lady I’d like to be at 95.
BD: I did a
95th birthday program for her [on WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago].
She allowed me
to call her in London for an interview, and we talked for about twenty
[Enthusiastically] Isn’t that great!
she’s wonderful. She didn’t know
just what I was going to ask, and she
started talking about Chicago. She was remembering dates and
places, and I double-checked them afterwards...
they were all there, weren’t they?
BD: On the
nose, every one of them!
MA: Every one
of them! This past June was the first time I sang in London that
she wasn’t in the
audience. I don’t think you know it,
but you feel the absence
of a good friend. She’s incredible!
yes! And she rrrrrrrrolled her rs in the most marvelous way!
indeed she does! I love her, I just love
her. She told me, “Oh, you’re taking too
many breaths in that
Trovatore. You need to
make those phrases longer,” and then proceeded to
sing through the arias! She never stopped loving. That’s
the things that I like so much about her — she
never stopped loving. She’s loved and she loves us.
The day when we step down, we have to turn around and give that love to
the ones coming along. That’s the way it’s supposed to
be. The cycle goes on.
BD: Tell me a
bit about the other Leonora, the lady of La Forza del Destino. Is she
a sympathetic lady
to portray? Is she easy to portray or fulfilling to
MA: She’s not an
easy lady to portray. If you
play her superficially — just whatever happens
to her happens and she lets fate take her where it has to go
— it’s almost easier
than if you really try to work with her. This girl loves her
father and loves her home, and it terrible to do something against
someone that you know is
going to hurt them. In the end she does sacrifice her own
for him, and he, too. You’re not
talking about a clear good person or a clear bad person. You’re
talking about very wonderful people themselves that are hurting each
other. They are causing pain but not wanting to. They are
causing unhappiness they don’t want to cause. They are
forced to commit acts that they ordinarily would not commit.
BD: Is she a
in a way they’re all victims, but very noble victims. They’re not
small; that’s what makes them so difficult to portray. They
must be bigger than ordinary. They make statements. They
are large people encased in nobility. She’s not a crying little
rises above the situation. She is able to finally say that this
choice and she is making it. She is going to end life this
way. On the other hand, you’ve got the other person who says
a lot of baloney! She must get out there and live and fight until
end. The answer is not to live the life of a
recluse or to make that sacrifice. It depends on your point of
view and how
you feel about life and how life has treated you. It is about
know about life.
BD: Do you
learn more about life every time you sing
learn more about life the more you live. The more
differently you treat that role is because you always have to remember
that we’re talking about playing Leonora, and at what point you leave
yourself and pick up Leonora, and how they
interact. We’re getting awfully deep in here, but we can’t afford
to stop analyzing and stop feeling and stop wanting to know more about
long as you get up and sing this role, you’ve got to care
and want to know more and feel more to care more, to live more
with her and about her and for her. The moment you say you’ve
learned her and that there’s no place to go from here, put the role
down. It’s going to become stale; it has become
stale. I don’t want to bore the public with what I live
I want to bring them the final version for that moment. This
is how it is today, and then tomorrow or two months from now something
else has happened and you’ve learned how to treat
a word another way bring it to them that way. Perhaps a
colleague makes you feel that you should put the emphasis on some
place else, and you bring it to them that way. I
don’t think that it’s always right to make the statement before the
person has been allowed to see it and feel it. You have your own
opinion about what you’re doing about
the part. It’s like the young athletes today. They have to
run the race and then they have to apologize for not
having won it. They have to explain why they didn’t win it and
how they feel about the next runner because he’s the winner.
How the heck is he supposed to feel??? He lost!!!
Why should he then be subjected to explaining to
the public what is going on in his mind? It’s not enough that
he’s run the race. I’m particularly saying this right now
because I’m annoyed at the Olympics and the
insensitivity of handling the young athletes and the old ones.
Chrissy Evert had just
walked off the field. She’d lost. She’s a great player, and
then they were asking her how she felt.
you’re singing on stage,
do you feel it’s like the Olympics every night — that
you’re being judged on every
nuance and every phrase?
MA: I can’t
stop and think about that while I’m
singing. I’m worried about Tosca, and Tosca has no time to think
about the Olympics. They did not happen. She was not
with the Olympics. If she’s going from dealing with
Scarpia, Carl Lewis is the last person on her mind! You just
think that way. There have been nights when, at the end of
performance, you think gosh, a lot was given, or a lot was
received. Maybe I got a little bit closer to what I
feel about Tosca, but most of the time you think about what happened
tonight and what I can do with that. Why did that
happen and maybe I can use that. Maybe it’ll happen again this
way so that I can use it and do it
differently. You stay with the
character. As far as being an Olympic sport, I don’t know!
BD: What if
anything do you expect of the audience
that comes to the opera?
MA: I hope
they’ll enjoy it, go home and want to come
back! That is telling me whether I’ve done
BD: Do you
like the idea of the supertitles in the
MA: Yes, I
do. I love
the idea of a person who might not take the chance to spend three hours
in a theater, listening to music in another language that they don’t
understand, being able to come and enjoy it. This is especially
true in the
Mozart operas where there’s so much recitative. If they can read
it and watch it at the same time, maybe they’ll come. It’s
happened in city after city. In Salt Lake City when we
had Butterfly — which
a simple story line — but
you’d be surprised how the
people reacted to the small phrases and the little things.
there’s more communication?
Sometimes, and when there is, if it happens to ten
per cent of the audience or even to one per cent of the
audience, if one child begins to say he’d like to come again, I think
it’s worth it.
BD: Do you
feel opera is for everyone?
certainly do, and if it’s
not, then it’s our fault because in opera
we’re doing as much with life as they are on the
soap-operas. But we get much bloodier! [Both laugh]
that’s true! Most of your parts you
wind up dead. Do you like winding up dead?
MA: No, and I
don’t look forward to the real thing
either! [Both laugh]
[At this point the phone rang and she was off to another
appointment. I thanked her for spending the time, and she said
she was very pleased with the conversation.]
© 1988 Bruce Duffie
This conversation was recorded at her hotel in Chicago on
September 26, 1988. Portions were broadcast on WNIB the following
and again in 1991 and 1996.
This transcription was made in 2014, and posted on this
at that time. My thanks to British soprano Una
Barry for her help in preparing this website
To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been
transcribed and posted on this website, click here.
Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975
its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001. His
interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since
and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well
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.