[This conversation was held in May of 1985 and published in Wagner News the following April. 
It has been slightly re-edited, and photos and links have been added for this website presentation.]

Soprano / Mezzo - Soprano  Rose  Bampton

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 Beethoven’s Fidelio.

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 . . .

Bruce Duffie:    Tell me about singing in Chicago.  How is it different from the Met or other houses around the world?

Rose Bampton:    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.

bamptonBD:    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?

RB:    There’s 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 another.  Nilsson 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 perfection.

BD:    Did that help Wagner especially, or did it hinder the big voices and large orchestras?

RB:    Oh no.  The orchestra was wonderful and we had great conductors.  Panizza was there and Kleiber and Busch.

BD:    Was there enough rehearsal time?

RB:    [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 new production.

RB:    That’s right.

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, though.


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 on them.

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.

BD:    Some conductors are stronger than others.

RB:    Yes, there always have been.

BD:    You worked with perhaps the strongest

RB:    I 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.

BD:    It’s 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.

*     *     *     *     *

bamptonBD:    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?

RB:    Actually 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?

RB:    [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.

BD:    Would 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.

RB:    These 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 uplifting.

BD:    It just seems that many stage directors are taking too many liberties with the works.

RB:    Well, 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.

bamptonRB:    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. 

     [Photo at left shows Bampton as Elisabeth in Tannhäuser.]

BD:    Are 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 would.

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.

BD:    Tell 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 didwere more mature parts, and Eva is a fun part.

BD:    I would think that Eva and Sieglinde were nearly the same age.

RB:    Yes, 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.

BD:    Was Walther the right person?

RB:    I think so.

BD:    Do you think they’re happy in the
fourth act?

RB:    [Laughs]  I think they are, yes.

*     *     *     *     *

bamptonBD:    You also sang Rosenkavalier [shown in photo at right]?

RB:    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 Italian.

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 good audience?

RB:    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 help.

*     *     *     *     *

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 right recordings.

BD:    OK, but who decides which are the
right recordings?

RB:    [Laughing 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.

RB:    Yes, 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.

BD:    Does 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?

RB:    Yes, 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?

RB:    That’s right.

BD:    Do you enjoy teaching?

bamptonRB:    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 forat least that’s what I hope for.  I’m not sure we always accomplish it, but that’s our aim.

BD:    Let me ask about one last name
Wilfrid Pelletier [shown together in photo at right].

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 for calling.

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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 99

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 Metropolitan Opera.

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 repertory.

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 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.