[This conversation was held in May of 1985 and published in Wagner News the following
It has been slightly re-edited, and photos and links have been added
for this website presentation.]
Soprano / Mezzo - Soprano Rose
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie
In an era boasting some of the greatest names in the history of Wagner
singing, Rose Bampton belongs among those celebrated artists. She
was born in Ohio in 1907, and by 1932 was singing principal parts at
the Met. She started out as a contralto, and eventually wound up
singing both mezzo-soprano and soprano roles in a wide range of
styles. She appeared all over the world including Chicago and
Ravinia, Buenos Aires, and San Francisco. Toscanini chose her on
several occasions, and she is the Leonora on his recording of
For 45 years, she was married to the distinguished conductor Wilfrid
Pelletier, and as you will see, she has many fond memories of her
career. She is still quite active, doing a bit of teaching and
also judging contests. Last year I wrote to her and asked for an
interview, and she replied that she
“would be delighted to speak with (me) about those fascinating Wagner
ladies.” [Her hand-written note
is reproduced below.] As she told me in the letter, we had
to delay our chat until
she returned from yet another trip to her beloved Buenos Aires, but
eventually we did find a convenient time, and she was gracious and
charming during our conversation.
Here is what was said that afternoon . . .
Tell me about singing in Chicago. How is it different from the
Met or other houses around the world?
Well, there is a big difference. First of all, it’s an enormous
house, and one has a sense of tremendous size because of the way it was
built. Those were wonderful years when I sang there, with fine
performances and wonderful casts. I sang Don Giovanni there, Otello with Martinelli, Andrea Chenier with Gigli, and also
Trovatore. Then I sang Die Walküre, which was the
first German role that I did. It was with Melchior and Flagstad,
and after that, when they returned to New York, they spoke to Edward
Johnson [then General Manager of the Met]. They told him that I
had a good feel for the German operas, and I should go into that
field. Until then I’d always done Italian and French roles.
BD: One can’t get
much better than being recommended by the top performers themselves.
RB: They were
very dear with me and became very close friends.
BD: How would
you describe Flagstad’s voice?
no way to describe it. We just have no voice like it. It
was such a gleaming, blooming sound, and there was such an ease in the
production that one felt so at ease in everything she did. She
was very expressive, her voice was very expressive, and I felt very
warm. But I don’t think you can compare voices to one
is another voice; very great, but different.
BD: Tell me
about the role of Sieglinde [shown in
photo at left].
RB: It’s a
very sympathetic role and I enjoyed doing it. I had such a
wonderful experience because all my German roles were prepared with
Lotte Lehmann. I went out to Santa Barbara for about five summers
and prepared all my German roles there. I went to Buenos Aires
and did a great many German roles there
— Parsifal, Lohengrin, Tannhäuser, Meistersinger, and Gutrune in Göotterdämmerrung.
They were first done with Helen Traubel, then Flagstad came and I did
all of them with her. I also did Armide of Gluck there, and I did Alceste at the Met.
BD: Are the
acoustics in Buenos Aries all that they are reputed to be?
RB: Oh, it’s
a great house. I think I had five of the happiest years of my
singing career there. It’s not only a beautiful house, but the
people were so wonderful, and the way it was run you felt so loved and
respected. Everybody was so eager to do everything for you.
They made the most magnificent costumes. Everything was just
perfection. Their season is just the reverse of ours —
it begins at the end of May and goes through the end of
September. The house, in a sense, is like our old Met, which we
loved so dearly. Anywhere you sit, the acoustics are just
BD: Did that
help Wagner especially, or did it hinder the big voices and large
no. The orchestra was wonderful and we had great
conductors. Panizza was there and Kleiber and Busch.
BD: Was there
enough rehearsal time?
[Laughing] Oh, I should say! We had many, many rehearsals
on the stage, which is something that you very seldom get, and dress
rehearsals in costumes.
BD: I’ve been
told that there were not a lot of rehearsals at the Met unless it was a
BD: How could
they get away with that?
RB: Most of
the artists had done the performances, so they were not doing them for
the first time. My debut was in Gioconda,
and as I was in the first one I had rehearsals. But for Don Giovanni and Aïda I never had rehearsals
because the performances had already been done before. I had a
couple of coaching sessions and that was it. We always went to
see the performances beforehand, so you knew what was going on.
Even today, if you come in after the first performance you don’t get a
rehearsal on the stage or with the orchestra. You have coaching,
BD: Do you
rely on prompter a lot?
RB: I don’t
think that you do. You are very grateful that they are there
because once in a while you forget a word or you might make a slip, but
I think that most singers don’t depend on the prompter. They’re
there in case of need, but you don’t go in feeling that you are relying
BD: In the
midst of performance, how much do you rely on the conductor
— or do you just know he’s there?
RB: Oh no,
you know he’s there and you have an eye on him. Just the corner
of your eye is enough, but you are very sure he’s there.
conductors are stronger than others.
there always have been.
worked with perhaps the strongest — Toscanini.
certainly did and it was my great good fortune. He became a very
close and dear friend to us. He was like a father to my husband
and myself. We were very grateful for those years of togetherness.
BD: I know
you did Fidelio with
him. Did you also do some Wagner?
RB: Yes, the
first act of Walküre.
That was with Svanholm.
BD: That act
seems to lend itself to concert-presentation.
RB: Oh yes it
does. It’s very exciting, and it ends with great glory.
almost like that is a full evening. You might feel you don’t have
to go on with the rest of the opera.
RB: Oh yes
you do. [Laughs] You really wonder what can equal that
first act, but there is much that comes after which is glorious.
BD: Let us move on
to another Wagner role — Kundry [shown in photo at right].
RB: I loved
that role. It’s such a part that you grow in constantly because
there is always something new about that character that you grow
into. She’s a very difficult and provoking character.
BD: Is it
easy to shift from the madness of act one to the serenity and
seductiveness of act two?
it’s not all serene. I don’t say it’s easy, but you understand
the character of the woman and realize how you have to make her
grow. Then the third act is the complete transformation.
There are only a couple of lines, but it’s great for acting.
There were many times when Melchior would give the blessing and I would
be absolutely in tears. There was something so spiritual about
his whole attitude in that. One doesn’t really think of him as
being a very spiritual man, yet I found that I was always in tears at
that point when he sang. I felt a sense of peace with other
tenors, but with him it was a very special moment.
BD: Is Parsifal too long?
[Laughs] Not for me it isn’t. I just heard a performance
with Rysanek, Vickers and Moll, and it was so
beautiful. It was one of the great performances that I’ve heard.
that be comparable to the ones with you and Melchior?
RB: I don’t
know if I was comparable or not, but Vickers was very beautiful.
He was great in his portrayal of that role and his feeling for the
words, and Rysanek was in great voice and was wonderful as an
actress. And, of course, the Gurnemanz of this man Moll; he has
such a fantastic voice. He is a marvelous artist, and Simon Estes was very
good as Amfortas.
BD: This is
one of the reasons I ask for comparisons — to
see if the tradition of performance practice is continuing today with
the singers who are now working.
were all mature singers, and it was different from the Parsifal I heard a couple of years
ago at the Met. The staging of the whole thing was different.
BD: How much
effect does the staging have on the musical performance?
RB: I don’t
know. I suppose you grow into doing things a certain way.
For instance, when I heard the Tristan
with Behrens, it was a very different staging, and yet it was very
BD: It just
seems that many stage directors are taking too many liberties with the
some of them are very strange.
BD: Is it
good to experiment with these scores?
RB: Not too
much; as long as they experiment in an intelligent way, but not if
they’re doing something just for the sake of being different.
There is a great difference in that.
BD: Let me
ask about Elsa. The role seems so sustained.
RB: It is.
It’s a wonderful role. In the third act she has to ride to
certain heights. I had a wonderful experience in this opera in
Buenos Aires. I had a wonderful director who had worked in the
straight theater, and he had been a fine actor and was a great stage
director. He also prepared our Daphne
there which was marvelous. His ideas of Lohengrin were marvelous and he
worked with me. When he got through, I told him I didn’t think I
could do all that he had shown me. It was all a mind-boggling
idea, but he told me that if I did one third of what he had told me it
would be a fine performance. He gave me so much to think about,
and made her into a real person. I think there is a danger
because she is so pure in every way. You have to be strong as
Elsa to compete with the character of Ortrud.
left shows Bampton as Elisabeth in Tannhäuser.]
operatic characters real?
RB: We try to
make them real. We try to put ourselves into those mental
conditions that we feel we are real people, reacting to the way they
BD: When you
performed, did you become the character, or were you Rose Bampton
portraying the character?
RB: It was
very hard for me to learn that I wasn’t Rose Bampton any more. It
was Lehmann who helped me with that. She caught me a few times
and I made some answer that what I did in my private life was my
business. She said that was a great mistake. Every
experience you have in life you put into the character that you’re
portraying. You’re not any longer Rose Bampton, but you’re Elsa
or Sieglinde, or whoever the character was. That is what she
taught me, and it was very helpful.
about Eva. How mischievous is she?
RB: Oh that
is a wonderful part. It’s one of the rare parts where you have
the opportunity to be young and girlish. Most of the parts we do
— or at least the ones I did — were
more mature parts, and Eva is a fun part.
BD: I would
think that Eva and Sieglinde were nearly the same age.
except they are whole different characters. Eva is, in a sense,
younger and fresher, whereas Sieglinde is already a more mature
person. She may be that young, but she’s already married, and Eva
is a young girl who is impatient.
BD: Do you
think that Eva would have married Hans Sachs if Walther had not come
along at that moment?
RB: I don’t
know... For me, I would have liked to have married Hans Sachs
because I admired him so, and I think Eva was close to thinking that,
too. He was such a wise man, and knew that he was older and she
must find a young person for herself.
Walther the right person?
RB: I think
BD: Do you
think they’re happy in the ‘fourth act’?
[Laughs] I think they are, yes.
BD: You also sang Rosenkavalier [shown in photo at right]?
Yes. The Marschallin is a great role, one of my favorites.
I had the good fortune to have worked it with Lehmann, and to have seen
her in it. The first time I saw her was in Salzburg. That
was in Fidelio, but I also
saw her in Rosenkavalier.
That was a rare treat. There was something very special about her
in that opera.
BD: What was
it about her performance that made it so special?
RB: I suppose
it was her womanliness, and her understanding of life. There was
that feeling for the words, but she had that in everything she did.
BD: You’re stressing the
importance of the words, and that leads me to one of my favorite
questions. Does opera work in translation?
RB: I haven’t
heard very many operas in translation. I did a Trovatore once in English with just
a week’s notice. Someone was taken ill and I was asked to do
it. I tried to memorize it and I thought I had, and I got through
the first act in English, and then went back and sang the rest of it in
BD: With the
effort you put on the text and the emphasis you learned from Lehmann,
doesn’t it hinder an audience who can’t understand it?
RB: I don’t
think so. Not really. You can be very convincing in a
language that the audience doesn’t understand. One of the great
performances I’ve seen at the Met was Dialogues
des Carmelites. Everyone in the audience was so moved even
though it was done in French.
BD: Was that
because of the drama or because of the music?
RB: It was
the drama of it as well as the music. The music was part of it,
but it was also the drama of it, and the acting was fantastic.
BD: Is opera ‘art’
or is opera ‘entertainment’?
RB: I think
it’s great art, and we hope it’s entertainment, too. It’s drama
and music, and those two together. When you hear an opera
performance with a great conductor and great singers and it’s well
done, it’s great art for me.
BD: Are you
Yes. I love to listen and I love to go to the opera. I love
to go to concerts and I love to do auditions. I get a thrill out
of these big competitions because I love to hear young people and watch
their growth. I was in Chile in November for their big voice
competition and it’s difficult to concentrate for four hours on each
one singing, but I’m fascinated by it and I love it. I’m going to
Montreal for their international voice competition. We have
wonderful judges for that — Birgit Nilsson,
Eileen Farrell and Gino Bechi
BD: Is this
the way for a young singer to get into the business — through
competitions like these?
RB: It offers
many opportunities because most of these competitions give them a
chance to sing with orchestras, and occasionally they get a chance to
sing in an opera as a result. It certainly gives them financial
BD: What is
the role of commercial recordings in today’s opera world? Are
they a help or a hindrance?
RB: For the
public they’re a great help, and also for many artists. I don’t
think it’s wise to try to copy exactly because one can’t. Each
voice is individual. But with the great recordings we have with
the great conductors, one can learn a great deal if you listen to the
BD: OK, but
who decides which are the ‘right’
again] Well, that’s an individual matter depending on their taste.
BD: I was
just wondering if the public gets to expect a perfect performance when
they’re at home listening, and then they come to the theater where
there are minor flaws here and there.
that’s true. Very often that happens because the public forgets
that those recordings are made in pieces and put together. They
do expect perfection.
BD: Then are
the best recordings from the live performances?
RB: I don’t
know how many live performances are recorded. Most of our
recordings nowadays are done in the studio. On the television we
get more or less ‘live’
performances. There they take it from a couple of performances.
opera belong on television? Does it work on television?
RB: Oh yes, I
think so, and it’s done a great deal to interest the general public in
opera. There are those from Chicago and from the Met and from
Europe. It’s a great help.
BD: Are you
optimistic, then, about the future of opera?
providing we keep up a high standard. It has grown in our
country, and we have more small opera companies now all over which are
giving opportunities to young singers. The young singers must
have the opportunity to do performances somewhere other than at the Met
— that is before they come to the Met.
BD: They need
a place to learn and grow?
BD: Do you
RB: Yes, I
do. I enjoy working with young people and watching their
growth. They’re interesting. I like to see the changes in
them as they mature, and observe how music changes them. As a
teacher you’re not only teaching them music, but you are hoping that
they will get something also as people to enrich their lives and to
raise their ambitions and their ideals in life. You’re not just
dealing with a voice. You have to deal with each one as a person,
hoping that they will grow mentally to understand all forms of
art. You try to help them become fine human beings. That’s
what we all hope for — at least that’s what I
hope for. I’m not sure we always accomplish it, but that’s our
BD: Let me
ask about one last name — Wilfrid
Pelletier [shown together in photo at
RB: He was a
great part of my life and was very responsible for my career.
BD: Did you
get to sing with him often?
RB: Not often
enough, but often. I did some opera with him and I prepared all
my roles with him musically, and I did many broadcasts with him.
In the summers we had many wonderful programs of lighter music which I
sang with him, and we did many orchestral concerts. He was a
great influence in my life. He was a warm, very dear man.
He loved music and he loved young people. He loved opera.
That was the big thing in his life from the time he was a young
man. Later he established a conservatory of music in Montreal,
and started the Montreal Symphony. The idea was that through the
conservatory he would be able to put young people into the Symphony so
that they wouldn’t have to go out of the country to make a
livelihood. It’s a fine conservatory. He was also eager to
establish an opera company in Montreal, and he did conduct opera
there. Everybody loved him. He originated the Auditions of
the Air with the Met in New York. They went on for twelve years
and produced many wonderful singers. Leonard Warren, Eleanor
Steber, and Risë
Stevens were all wonderful artists who grew up through those
auditions. He gave something to everybody he came in contact
with. It’s lonesome without him after all these years.
BD: Thank you
for all of your artistry.
RB: Thank you
---- ---- ----
---- ---- ----
It was a pleasure chatting with Rose Bampton, and she seemed quite
pleased that there was still interest in her career as well as her
thoughts on the various roles she sang. Next time in these pages
[of Wagner News], a
conversation with conductor Sir John Pritchard,
who was recently named Music Director of the San Francisco Opera.
One of the reasons he left his post in London was to be able to do more
Wagner, which was offered him in Cologne. So, when he was in
Chicago last fall, he was very pleased to be able to chat about his
ideas regarding this repertoire.
Rose Bampton, Versatile Met Singer, Dies at
By ALLAN KOZINN, The New York Times
AUG. 23, 2007 [Text Only; photos from other sources]
Rose Bampton, an American opera singer who switched from mezzo-soprano
to soprano and sang leading roles in both ranges at the Metropolitan
Opera, died on Tuesday in Bryn Mawr, Pa. She was 99.
Her death was announced by Peter Clark, a spokesman for the
When Ms. Bampton made her Metropolitan Opera debut as Laura in “La
Gioconda,” in November 1932, she had been singing professionally for
only three years. But she had a considerable artistic arsenal that
included a strong, finely polished voice and a trim, statuesque figure.
During her years with the company — she retired in 1950 — her sound was
generally regarded as attractive rather than thrilling, but she used it
with an intelligence and interpretive flair that made her one of the
most distinctive singers of her time.
Ms. Bampton was born in Lakewood, Ohio, on Nov. 28, 1907, although
during her career she sometimes gave her year of birth as 1908 or 1909.
She spent her childhood in Buffalo and began her studies at Drake
University, in Des Moines. Originally a soprano, she was pushed toward
the mezzo-soprano repertory by her teachers after a bout with
laryngitis, and when she made her debut at the Chautauqua Opera in 1929
it was in a mezzo-soprano role, Siébel, in Gounod’s “Faust.”
In 1930 Ms. Bampton moved to Philadelphia, where she sang mezzo roles
with the Philadelphia Grand Opera and enrolled at the Curtis Institute.
One of Ms. Bampton’s fellow students at Curtis was the composer Samuel
Barber, who enlisted her to sing in the New York premiere of his vocal
chamber work “Dover Beach” in 1933. In Philadelphia Ms. Bampton also
sang several times with Leopold Stokowski and the Philadelphia
Orchestra. A recording of one of those — the United States premiere of
Schoenberg’s “Gurrelieder,” in which she sang the Wood-Dove — brought
her to the attention of the Met.
Ms. Bampton’s roles during her first season included Amneris in Verdi’s
“Aida” and small roles in “Parsifal,” “Die Walküre,” “Das
Rheingold” and “Hansel und Gretel.” Other roles were added over the
next few seasons. By the time she married Wilfrid Pelletier, a
conductor at the Met, in 1937 (he died in 1982), she was feeling
underemployed at the house, and decided to return to the soprano
Ms. Bampton’s first appearance at the Met as a soprano was as Leonora
in Verdi’s “Trovatore” on May 7, 1937. Her repertory expanded quickly
over the next few years, to include Donna Anna in Mozart’s “Don
Giovanni,” the title role in Gluck’s “Alceste,” and several Wagner
roles: Sieglinde in “Die Walküre,” Elisabeth in “Tannhäuser,”
Elsa in “Lohengrin” and Kundry in “Parsifal.” She also added the title
role of “Aida” to her repertory, and in January 1940 she appeared at
the Met as “Aida” one Saturday and as Amneris a week later.
In addition to singing at the Met, Ms. Bampton sang with companies in
San Francisco and Chicago, as well as in Buenos Aires, where she sang
several Strauss roles that she never performed in North America. She
was also a recitalist and appeared regularly with the New York
Philharmonic and other orchestras. Among her recordings that remain in
print is a broadcast performance of “Fidelio,” in which she sang
Leonore, with Arturo Toscanini conducting the NBC Symphony Orchestra.
There are no immediate survivors.
© 1987 Bruce Duffie
This conversation was recorded on the telephone on May 6,
1985. Portions were broadcast on WNIB in 1993 and 1997.
This transcription was made and published in Wagner News in April of 1986.
It was slightly re-edited in 2016, the obituary and photos links were
added, and it was posted on this
at that time.
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.