Soprano  Barbara  Ann  Martin

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


Barbara Ann Martin graduated from the Juilliard School in New York after completing both her Bachelor's and Master's Degrees in Voice and Opera Theater. Some of her mentors were also individuals that she studied with, including Florence Page Kimball, Alice Howland, Antonia Lavanne, Cornelius Reid, James Carson, and Susan Charles.

Martin has a passion and natural talent for voice, but specializes in classical and music theater voice training.

Her achievements stem far and wide, as she has performed all throughout the United States, Europe and Asia, and made appearances at various music festivals such as Aspen, Boulder, Ravinia, Caramoor, Huddersfield, Adelaide, and Salzburg. In addition to this, she was an apprentice at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, and the Central City opera Company in Colorado.

She has sung composer George Crumb's master-work, "Ancient Voices of Children" with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Berlin and New York Philharmonics, the Vienna Symphony Orchestra, the Maggio Musicale, the Montreal Symphony, and the Israel Philharmonic to critical acclaim (as well as the recording shown below).


She has had several opera appearances, which include the Metropolitan, Chicago, Central City, New Jersey State, and Minnesota Operas. Several of Martin's recordings feature works by Dominick Argento, Milton Babbitt, Crumb, Alan Hovhanness, Karel Husa, George Rochberg, Augusta Read Thomas, Virgil Thomson, Louise Talma, and Chinary Ung. She is also the featured soloist with James Freeman and Orchestra 2001 on the 2010 Grammy-Nominated CD, "A Journey Beyond Time and The Winds of Destiny" [shown below].


Martin has also been a guest professor and Artist-in-Residence at the International Summer Academy Mozarteum in Salzburg and the Royal Danish and Odense Conservatories in Denmark. She has served on the faculties of Bennington College, CUNY at Brooklyn and is currently Voice Department Chair at the Music Institute of Chicago. As an audio book narrator, her work is featured on, and She is also a member of NARAS (Grammys), and is an active member of SAG/AFTRA, serving on the Singers and Audio Book Committees in Chicago.

==  Names which are links in this box and below refer to my interviews elsewhere on my website.  BD  

At the end of February of 1998, Barbara Ann Martin was performing Ancient Voices of Children with the Chicago Symphony led by Zubin Mehta.  She graciously took time from a busy schedule for a conversation.

Here is what was said at that time . . . . . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:   Tell me the joys and sorrows of singing contemporary music.

Barbara Ann Martin:   [Laughs]  For one thing, it’s always a puzzle when people ask what I do.  When I say, “I’m an opera singer,” they ask, “What operas do you sing?”  I do sing opera, but when I’m confronted with a lay person, I continue, “I don’t exactly sing opera.  You know the music that when it comes on a radio, you turn it off?  That’s the music that I sing.”  [Both laugh]

BD:   How do you defend the fact that you spend your life doing music that people turn off?  Obviously, you don’t turn it off.

martin Martin:   No, I don’t.

BD:   Is it part of your responsibility to make sure that other people don’t turn it off?

Martin:   That’s exactly right.  In a sense, I feel that I’m an adventurist, a pioneer.  I’m going into new territory, and I’m very committed to American music, and to the music of my time.  So, that means that I have to sell a lot of things without being able to evaluate whether they’re good or bad.  I’ve had to sell a number of pieces that are not of the highest quality, but that’s for history to judge.  My job is to take whatever score
by a student composer or a recognized composer, anyone who’s created somethingand devote as much of myself and my talents to making it as a success as I can, and sell the product.

BD:   There obviously must be a choice that you can either accept or decline the request to sing these pieces of music.  How do you make that choice?

Martin:   That’s a very good question.  In the beginning, when you’re first starting out, you take everything everybody wants you to sing.  In my case, I was at Juilliard, and that’s where I got started in the Twentieth Century music, because the eminent composer, Jacob Druckman, was my theory teacher.  I had theory with him in my first year at Juilliard, and one afternoon he asked me to do an improvisation for him at the Columbia Laboratories.  I’d never done anything like that.  At home I heard Schubert, and Strauss Waltzes, and Italian opera, and there I was at Juilliard going through the traditional ways of doing things.

BD:   Singing motets, etc.?

Martin:   Singing motets, Liebeslieder Waltzes, and things like that... although, I did sing Rosina.  That was as adventurist as I was going to get.  So, I went to the Columbia Labs, and I don’t know what I did.  I’m still trying to track down the original tape, which I know Jacob’s widow has.  But he told me he wanted me to touch certain instruments and come out with instrumental sounds, and certain electronic sounds that come of it.  For some reason, I guess because I was a novice at this, I just let it rip.  Three hours later he was so excited about the results that he composed a piece called Animus II for mezzo or soprano, electronic tape and two percussionists.  I don’t know how long it took him to write it, but when it was completed, he came to me to premiere it.  I was terrified, and I know that Tito Capabianco, who was then the head of the American Opera Center at Juilliard, wouldn’t let me get out of the Barber of Seville that we were doing.  So, as it should have been, he gave the premiere to Jan DeGaetani, who was a friend of his.  But I’m still on the soundtrack of the tape that’s played with every performance that goes out there.

BD:   And the commercial recording?

Martin:   Yes, I am on the recording, but I don’t think I’m credited with it.  I’m the voice on the tape.  Some years later, a good friend of mine at Juilliard, Gordon Gottlieb, a fabulous percussionist was doing his senior recital, and he asked me to do it.  I said, “Sure, I’ll do this piece,” and committed myself to doing it.  Then I got the score.  I had three weeks to do this piece that had no bar lines, no texts, only syllables, no time signatures, and no conducting.  It had a diagram showing the symbols of what was playing on the electronic tape.  Everything was counted off in seconds.  I panicked for one week, and I learned it in two.  [Both laugh]  That was the beginning of something extraordinary, because when I originally looked at the score it had no form that I was accustomed to.  It had me whoop and give other strange sounds, with some real singing, too.  It was the theatrical vehicle which was right up my alley, and it also allowed me to get into some inner connection with a true sense of expression, because I didn’t have words to slow me down.  I had to go within, in a way I’ve never done before as an artist, and it changed everything I did from that point on.

BD:   Do you like being used as an instrument?

Martin:   Yes.  I think we all are, whether we admit or not.  Mozart uses you as an instrument, too.

BD:   But there you have a specific text.  Here, you’re being used almost like a clarinet, or a piccolo.

Martin:   I see what you mean.  To be perfectly honest, in the beginning I enjoyed it, because there I was, a young singer with a lot to say.  I was a Tosca personality in a Cherubino voice, and I wasn’t ready to do anything.  So, there I was finding pieces that defied definition of you as a soprano or a mezzo, where you can do this and not that.  It opened me up to a large variety of things I could do.  As I grew vocally, as my voice began to really sing better, I enjoyed really singing in addition to just being used as an instrument.  I like doing both.  For example, in Boulez
s Marteau sans maître, there are sections in the last movement where you’re supposed to put your music stand down, sit and hum, being one of the instruments.  Whereas, there are several movements prior to that where you’re really singing, too.  So, that’s fun to combine both.

BD:   Is there anything that your voice cannot do?

Martin:   Oh, a lot of things, but I’m not supposed to tell you.  [Both laugh]

BD:   What happens when you encounter one of those things on the page?

Martin:   Like anything else, you have to be able to get a piece of music into your body, into your breathing, into your vocal cords.  It’s interesting, because one of my teachers
actually my most recent one, Jim Carson in New York, who is my maestro even nowtold me that in some respects my good musicianship is a disadvantage, because I can get it into my mind much faster than I can get it into my voice and body.  So, I have to purposely slow things down, watch the muscle movements so I don’t get tension that’s built up in the instrument, which always compounds to more tension.  Then, little by little, I let the voice and body catch up to where the brain already is.  That process is the same for any singer, whether you sing Verdi, or Brahms, or Crumb.

BD:   [Incredulously]  So, these people who are writing these almost indecipherable notations on the page really do understand the voice???

Martin:   Oh, I wish I could say they do.  Some do.  Unfortunately, the voice is probably the most mysterious of all instruments.

BD:   What they understand, then, is the sound, and it’s your responsibility just to make that sound?

Martin:   They have an inner sense of what it is they’re trying to express, and how they’re supposed to express it.  But, as a singing artist, I have to find a way to give the composer what he wants without damaging my instrument.

BD:   Is that a very fine distinction?

Martin:   Absolutely.  But, as I tell to so many people in Master Classes, it can ruin a voice, but so can singing a Fauré song in the wrong key.  You have to know your voice.  The first time I auditioned for Zubin Mehta was in 1980.  I first did Ancient Voices of Children with him at the New York Philharmonic in 1981.  George Crumb himself recommended me, because he had heard me do a performance, and thought it was my time to do the piece.  I went and auditioned for Zubin, and he hired me on the spot, because by then I had already done the piece between ten and twenty times.

martin BD:   That’s a lot for a new piece.

Martin:   I know. Zubin said, “I’m glad you’re doing the piece, but I’m kind of guilty about having you do it.”  I was in awe that this great man is talking to me and hiring me.  He continued, “Because I found a lot of people who do contemporary music lose their ability to sing a legato line.”

BD:   Is it then a tribute to you that nearly twenty years later, he is asking for you again?

Martin:   I hope so.  It’s a great thrill.

BD:   Have you consciously then been very careful of the voice to make sure that you still have the legato and the flexibility in all the notes?

Martin:   Absolutely.  Like anything else, there has to be a balance.  Periodically, with Ancient Voices, I have had to rework the voice as my technique has grown and as my instrument has changed.  My voice is bigger than it was when I first started to sing the piece.  There are more colors to it, it’s more powerful.

BD:   Has your voice gone up also?  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at right, see my interview with Arthur Weisberg.]

Martin:   Yes, it has, but this is a case in point, why I was even drawn to this piece in addition to the fact that it absolutely mesmerized me the first time I heard it.  The score says that it’s for a soprano.  Jan DeGaetani did it, and she said she was a mezzo.  In the piece, there are at least five high Cs, one high D, which I take but Jan didn’t.  But, there’s a lot of middle voice, and a lot of low voice singing, with a lot of sprechstimme inside it.  A lot of flexibility is needed, so what are you?

BD:   You’re a singer.

Martin:   Right.  You’re a singer.  You’re a singing artist.  In fact, I’ve done this piece all over the place.  We went to Vienna, and once with Zubin I did it with the Berlin Philharmonic.  I remember specifically in Berlin we had this enormous response, including seven curtain calls, and reviews you wouldn’t believe.  They wanted to hire me back, but they asked what I was.  They couldn’t really make the bridge between Ancient Voices and anything traditional such as Bohème or the Composer in Ariadne.  Where do you go from there?  It’s one of a kind magical experience, but it’s a little difficult to figure out where to go from there.

BD:   Are you a one-of-a-kind magical singer?

Martin:   [Smiles]  Well, some people have thought I am, and I think I’ve had my moments.

BD:   I assume that you try to sing more things than just one particular style.

Martin:   Absolutely, but this is where it can be a little problematical.  I had a professor very, very early on, and she was very formative in my life.  Her name was Alice Howland, and she was a singer who performed and recorded Pierrot Lunaire here in this country.  She saw that I was already starting to go in this direction and she said, “Don’t get too good at this.”

BD:   Once you start doing these things, every composer is going to put demands on you, and request your time and your efforts.

Martin:   Ideally yes, and it hasn’t hurt a number of singers who are doing that now.  So many people are writing for Dawn Upshaw, and rightfully so.  You can’t get any better than that.  But the problem is once you have a reputation as being a new music person, very often people don’t think you can do anything else, and that’s an error.

BD:   Do you still get the opportunity to do Bohème and Rosina?

Martin:   I’ve kind of gone past Rosina at the moment, and am going more towards the Countess, and Traviata.

BD:   Typical operatic roles?

Martin:   That’s right, but I am getting more of an opportunity to do things like Mahler, which I love.  I do lots of Mahler with orchestras.

BD:   Songs or the symphonies?

Martin:   Songs primarily, such as Des Knaben Wunderhorn, and Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen.  Someone asked me to do Kindertotenlieder, and I said, “Maybe I’m going to wait a little bit on that.”

BD:   Now, when you attack one of these new pieces... and perhaps attack is the wrong word....

Martin:   [Laughs]  No, no, it can be the right one.

BD: do you know when you have gotten it right, or is the composer waiting for you to make it right?

Martin:   This is what is so much fun working with a live composer.  I love creating a piece and having feedback from the person who envisioned this magical moment.  I love working with George Crumb.  It’s just a remarkable experience to be able to try to get into his head to find out where these sounds came from.  George, however, sometimes has been a little reticent to tell you exactly what he wants.  For example, I just recorded the piece in June with Orchestra 2001 [shown at left], a Philadelphia-based new music group, conducted by Jim Freeman, who is wonderful.  The whole group is wonderful, and during the sessions George was in the control booth for everything, which is extraordinary.  After George had heard me sing this piece for a decade, he was starting to change things right then and there.  “Well, you know, Barbara, could you please do this a little faster?” or “How about getting to the high note this way?”  I said, “George, you know we are in a recording session.  You could have told me this earlier.”

martin BD:   He probably didn’t know, earlier.  Maybe it was spontaneous.

Martin:   It was spontaneous, and I love that.  It’s great.  Very often, you’ll work with a composer who you can negotiate with, which is wonderful.

BD:   Can you be more spontaneous with a new piece than with Bohème?

Martin:   You don’t have thousands of recordings to say it’s done this particular way.  You don’t have to be compared to Callas.  Once I heard her do Addio del passato, I said, “That’s it.  She did it, so I can’t do this anymore,” which is the wrong attitude.  Of course, there is something unique that you’re going to bring to everything you do, but we have more freedom in new music to experiment, and to expand past what we think are our limitations.

BD:   Are there people who are going to listen to your recording of the Crumb piece and say, “That’s it.  Barbara’s done it, so I can’t do it”?  
[Vis-à-vis the recording shown at left, see my interview with Paul Sperry.]

Martin:   I hope not.  I want everybody to experiment, and draw from within themselves to go past what they think they can do.

BD:   Is that what the composer does
draw you out?

Martin:   Absolutely.  The Chicago composer, William Neil, is a friend of mine.  This is how I got to Chicago in some respect.  He wrote a song cycle for me two years ago, that we premiered last year called The Waters are Shaking the Moon, on D.H. Lawrence poems.  [CD insert shown below.]  It’s a magnificent cycle of twelve songs, and we’ve been working on this project for seven years or more, long before I moved out here.  We would go over and over each song as he was writing and then rewriting, and he would find that there are certain pitches which were better for my voice, depending on the mood he was trying to project.  He would hear that this B-flat rings out a whole lot better than an F-sharp, or I would tell him, “This skip isn’t really good.”  So, to be able to create a work in conjunction with the composer is phenomenally exciting. In Ancient Voices, George wrote what his muse told him to write down, that Jan never could take that high D.  She did an ossia.  Composers throughout history have done alternatives, and that’s something every composer has to do.  Although, I’m so fascinated by the compositional process, and by the creative process, that when a composer really, really is set on having something done in a particular way, I can’t argue with that.  I respect their process too much.

BD:   So, it’s your job to just do it?

Martin:   Yes, or tell them they should find someone else who is better suited to their piece.  I’ve had to do that on a number of occasions, simply because I understand that I may not be able to do what the composer wants.

BD:   I would think that would be one of the most important, but least understood ideas
what you can’t do.

Martin:   Yes, that’s true.  In fact, I’ve gotten myself into trouble from time to time, because I always imagine that where the mind can go, the voice can follow.  It’s a way to go, because you have to believe first, and then you execute.

BD:   [Laughs]  If that were true, then we’d be running a three-minute mile, and a two-minute mile.

Martin:   Yes, but those records continually fall.  You can ask people to raise their level of belief, and their faith in themselves.  I think that’s very much a part of what we do.  There have been many times when a composer will take me past what I thought was my limit.  I felt I couldn’t get to that high note from there.  Then, I’ll work it out and I’ll be able to do it.  Case in point, Kurtag, the Hungarian remarkable composer is also a remarkable man of insight.  A couple of years ago, I did some things of his in a Salzburg Festival.  I go to Salzburg every August to teach at the Mozarteum, and then I also do a lot of concerts there.

BD:   [Wistfully]  It’s strange to teach new music at the Mozarteum.

Martin:   I know, but I also teach standard repertoire as well.  They want me to do everything.  I even teach Fish gotta swim, and birds gotta fly, which is fine with me.  [Both laugh]  Kurtag had written a phenomenally difficult piece, the Kafka-Fragmente for voice and violin alone.  The entire cycle was 50 minutes, and we didn’t rehearse that much because there was no time for it.  I had a wonderful violinist to work with, Oswald Sallaberger, who’s also a good conductor.  The score looked like it was for two violins.  I thought,
“This is impossible.  I can’t give him what he wants.  He wants every I dotted, every T crossed, every pitch that he’s notated with every dynamic marking as exactly as it is written.  I have never worked with as demanding a composer in my life as I did with Kurtag.  I’d heard that he was difficult, so I was prepared for him in the first rehearsal.  I said to myself, I’m going to listen to everything he wants me to do, and I’ll attempt it.”  Goodness knows it was a struggle, because he was so demanding.  He had enormously low things written in the alto clef, and then going up to high C sharps above the staff.  Well, I listened, and took it all in, and by the time I got to the performance, I gave him just what he wanted, and he was right.  When I let go of my predisposition to not be able to do it, or not like it, and I did what he imagined, it was glorious.

BD:   Were you able to do that without damaging the instrument in your throat?

Martin:   Yes, absolutely.  I just won
t sing Traviata the next day.  [Laughs]  Give me a day or two off first.


See my interviews with Otto Luening, and Vivian Fine

:   We’re kind of dancing around this, so let me ask the easy question.

Martin:   [Laughs]  Uh-oh.

BD:   What’s the purpose of music?

martin Martin:   [Thinks a moment]  There are many things in our world that seek to smother the human spirit, that seek to diminish us.  These include political ideologies, and people who do things in the name of whatever religion they espouse.  People from many walks of life and many economic backgrounds want to diminish what we have to offer as human beings.  Music is one of the highest forces we have to elevate the human spirit.  For me, it is one of the voices of God.  It is something that vibrates through all nature, through everything that lives, and everything that is inanimate.  Everything relates to vibrations of sound, of energy, and it’s my purpose to be as truthful and as honest as I can to give birth to that music as it passes through me.  For me, music is our future as well as our past.  Right now, we really need the joy and the beauty and the laughter and the love that music gives us.

BD:   Does working with living composers, and doing a lot of new music, give you a different insight when you go back to Bohème and Traviata?

Martin:   Absolutely.  Sometimes it’s really nice to sing music people want to hear.  [Both laugh]  But many times, I found insights into greater vocal freedom through contemporary music because I would allow myself to take chances, whereas if I went to Bohème, I would feel daunted by the incredible artistry that it takes, and the people whom God has kissed on their throats far more than perhaps I have been... although lately, I have been changing my attitude towards that, too.  It’s amazing to go back and look at the text.  Very often, contemporary music
at least the music that I choosehas to have a text or a poem that speaks to me.  That’s the theater.  When the composer really knows what he’s doing, that’s where he gets his colors from.  Bill Neil took D.H. Lawrence poems and found phenomenal colors.  George, in Ancient Voices, or A Night of the Four Moons, took Garcia Lorca fragments and magnificently expounded on those colors.  Every good composer has done that.  So, I’ll go back to La Traviata, and I’ll go back to a Schubert song, and I’ll see how these masters have set texts.  In some ways it’s made me more aware of what to do with words, and more aware of accompaniments in a way to see how the masters have set the piano parts so exquisitely, or the orchestral arrangements so exquisitely to match the text.  I go back with greater courage, with greater respect to Puccini, to Verdi, to Wagner, to all of these wonderful composers.

BD:   In the end, is it all worth it?

Martin:   Absolutely.  Absolutely.  Every piece that I’ve worked on has made me grow one way or the other, through the Sturm und Drang, or through the joy.

BD:   Is singing fun?

Martin:   It’s interesting you should ask that because I had an experience last week.  I was in New York, doing a piece by Jacob Druckman called Dark Upon the Harp with the New York Philharmonic Ensemble.  These are some of the best brass players that you can find, along with the ones here in Chicago, of course.  The composer
s son, Dan Drukman, was one of the percussionists.  We had an extensive rehearsal period, and the piece is really ferocious.  I’ve done it before, the last time with Jacob conducting it, in fact.  But there was something about this performance.  I walked up on that stage, really happy to have such great people to work with, and I had a ball.  I had fun.  I just felt as if I was on a playground.  That can only come after you’ve put in the countless hours of preparation to get there.  You can’t go on automatic pilot until you really have done all of your homework to get to that point.  So, is music fun?  Is singing fun?  You bet.  If you haven’t worked out all the problems, or you haven’t had enough time to do something, and you’re still wondering how you’re going to master itam I going to get the high C, or what am I going to do with this word herethat blocks you from the enjoyment factor.  So, the more prepared you are, the more fun you’re going to have.

BD:   Is that the advice you have for younger singers?

Martin:   Someone asked a similar question of Montserrat Caballé once
what do you need to do to become a wonderful singerto which she said, “Read poetry.”  [Both laugh]  Great answer.  For me, I would say become the best musician you possibly can.  Fill your mind and your life with beauty in many, many different forms.  Learn a lot about life, if you can, without damaging yourself too much, because if you don’t have anything to express after you’ve learned the music, and you’re out there with a pretty gown, people aren’t going to hire you.  You’ve got to communicate something to them.  You have to give them something.  You have to say something with your music.  So, for me, the best advice is become as technically proficient as you can.  Know your instrument inside and out, especially for new music, and express true emotion.  Give the audiences the gift of yourself.

BD:   Is there ever a chance you give too much of yourself?

Martin:   Absolutely.  I do.


BD:   What advice do you have for composers who want to write for the human voice?

Martin:   Many composers have not the slightest idea of how the human voice functions.

BD:   Should they take a few lessons?

Martin:   Yes, or they should go and listen to lessons.  They should go to explore the differences between a soprano and a mezzo, and a tenor, a baritone, and a bass.  Where the strengths lie in a book is not necessarily the same as going to a lesson, going to rehearsals, studying the human voice a lot.  Study what the masters of the past have written.  There is no question about the fact that Verdi knew how to write for the instrument, and he had some pretty good instruments to write for.

BD:   [Gently protesting]  And yet, in his time, especially early on, he was considered a voice-wrecker.

Martin:   That’s right.

BD:   So, we’ve learned how to deal with him?

Martin:   Have we?  How many singers today really sing Verdi well?  How many singers today really sing well at all?  The problem is the quick success, without being completely prepared.  Know your instrument, because nobody else will protect you.  Then you can have fun.

BD:   Do you like being based in Chicago?

Martin:   I love it.  I love it.  I was a New Yorker my entire life, and then I met this wonderful gentleman by the name of James Ellery Green, who came to New York, and we married.  I’ve been here for the past three and a half years, and I love the city.  It’s as sophisticated as New York is, but the people are friendly and accessible.  There is such a higher quality of life here, although, I must admit, I did have a little trouble giving up the Knicks for the Bulls in the beginning.  But now, I’m dying to go to a Bulls game.  I still haven’t gone to one in person...

BD:   Tickets for the Bulls, like the opera, are all sold out.

Martin:   Oh, no!  [Both laugh]

BD:   Thank you for the conversation, and for all that you’ve given music and musicians.

Martin:   How sweet.  Thank you for what you’ve brought out of us.







See my interviews with Harvey Sollberger, and Bethany Beardslee

© 1998 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in Chicago on February 22, 1998.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB two days later, and again in 2000.  This transcription was made in 2020, and posted on this website at that time.

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.