Note: This conversation was recorded
in Chicago in October of 1981, and was published in Opera Scene the following fall.
A Conversation with Josephine Barstow
By Bruce Duffie
It usually takes one by surprise to see a performer appearing in both
halves of a double bill, almost as though it required a super-human
effort to do two nights’ work in one evening. But it does happen
– perhaps more often than is expected. In the early days of
Lyric, Tito Gobbi sang Gianni Schicchi and Tonio in Pagliacci on the same evening [See
my Interview with Tito
Gobbi]; Placido Domingo has essayed both Turiddu and Canio a few
times; Renata Scotto has performed all three heroines in Puccini’s Trittico [See my Interview with Renata
Scotto]; and this fall, Norman Mittelmann gave us four villains in The Tales of Hoffman. My own
favorite in this vein was a night at the Met when Hermann Uhde sang
both Amfortas and Klingsor in Parsifal,
thus portraying his own worst enemy in the center act!
There must be many more examples, but the reason it’s brought up at
this time is that Josephine Barstow is returning to Lyric Opera at the
beginning of this month as both the Woman in La Voix Humaine by Poulenc, and
Nedda in Pagliacci. The
Poulenc is, of course, completely Barstow for the drama presents a
solitary character as we listen to her end of a telephone
conversation. And Nedda is another of the operatic sopranos who
happens to be chased by several of the males in her life. But
doing both of these roles should pose no more problems than she
superbly negotiated last season as Lady Macbeth.
Josephine Barstow is a rare find – superb singer, dramatically
effective actress, svelte figure, and sharp intelligence. Married
to stage-director Ande Anderson (who, along with Sir Geraint Evans,
staged both Billy Budd and Peter Grimes for Lyric), her home
base is London where she appears regularly in a wide variety of roles
at both Covent Garden and the English National Opera. She also
sings in major homes in Europe, as well as the Met and San Francisco.
While in Chicago for her debut last season, I was most fortunate to
meet with Miss Barstow for a conversation. As often happens, the
discussion ranged far and wide, and included much about her work in
contemporary operas, as well as thoughts about her “standard”
roles. While setting up the recorder, she mentioned her lovely
new home and her desire to spend more time there, so that is where we
pick up the conversation . . . . . . .
Bruce Duffie: How
difficult is it for you as a singer to say “no” to certain parts in
order to give yourself some free time?
Up to last year (1980) I found it very difficult to say no. But
we moved into the farm in the summer and I’ve had two months off –
nearly three months really just doing odd bits and pieces – and
it was so wonderful that I’ve determined that I’m going to do that
every year. I’ll have a big lump of time off each summer.
I’ve already turned down work in order to do that, so it isn’t
difficult at all now.
BD: Have you worked with
(your husband) Ande Anderson?
JB: We’ve done one
or two things together – Don Carlo,
and a Bohème, and
he’ll be directing my first Santuzza at Covent Garden soon.
BD: Is it very
difficult working with someone you’re that close to?
JB: No, it works
out quite well, really – except that he’s very hard on me, much more
than on anyone else in the cast, which is nice in a way because then
everybody else sort of feels sorry for me and comes round and backs me
BD: Never want to
put poison in his morning coffee for something he did at rehearsal?
JB: Well, we’re
both reasonably experienced and reasonably sensible, and I discuss
things the way I would with any other director.
BD: Has he helped
you in productions where he’s not directly involved?
JB: He’s helped me
a great deal, but rarely specifically. We don’t sit down and
discuss whatever role I’m working on at the moment, but the fact that
he’s always around and will answer any question that I ask has had a
big influence on me.
BD: Seems sort of
ideal – he’s there to answer questions but won’t butt in when he’s not
JB: Yes, he lets
me get on with it, but obviously there is a lot of discussion about the
theater in the home. It’s been going on for a long time, so you
can’t really assess what the influence is, but I’m sure it’s very big.
BD: I’d like to
chat a bit about Twentieth Century opera. You’ve been involved in
quite a number of very special productions and done several world
premieres. Is there any one new opera that sticks to your mind as
being head-and-shoulders above the rest?
JB: I enjoyed
doing The Bassarids by Hans
Werner Henze and thought it was a very fine work, but it wasn’t a
premiere when I did it. We did it in English at the English
National Opera. That’s in my mind the greatest modern work that
I’ve been involved in – discounting Britten of course. Another
one that sticks in my mind was The
Knot Garden by Sir Michael Tippett. It’s a wonderful work
– considerably more difficult work than The Bassarids – more difficult to
BD: More difficult
musically or dramatically or both?
The libretto is complicated. Psychologically it’s a complicated
BD: There was a
production given a few years ago by Northwestern University – it’s a
fascinating work, but very difficult to get into.
JB: Yes it
is. I’ve never sung in his Midsummer
Marriage, but I don’t think The
Knot Garden is quite as good. I’ve seen The Midsummer Marriage on several
occasions and think it’s a wonderful work.
BD: It’s more
BD: At what point
does music become too hard on the voice?
JB: It’s difficult
to say at what point. I’ve always tried very much to sing
Twentieth Century opera the way I sing Verdi or Puccini. I’ve
always approached the problem of singing the notes as if they were
joined together in a more Italianate line. Obviously there are
works where the extremes the voice is put to are such that it becomes
impossible, and I would say that point is where there vocal
difficulties are too great really. Tippett wouldn’t come into
that, nor would Henze, but there are others.
BD: Are there some
who have written music you find too difficult or too annoying to
JB: No, because if
I thought that was going to be the case, I wouldn’t have done the
work. I’ve been lucky that I’ve been able to pick and choose a
bit, and I wouldn’t put myself to that kind of a problem.
BD: Which world
premieres have you done?
JB: The Knot Garden, and The Icebreak by Tippett and Henze’s
latest work, We Come to the River.
That was a very difficult work because it’s written almost in
triplicate. It’s got three orchestras and three acting areas and
three different sets of action going on at the same time.
BD: One conductor?
It’s very difficult for the audience and for the people involved,
BD: Does the
producer expect the audience to concentrate on one or another at any
JB: This is the
problem. Hans did it himself and I’m not sure that he totally
solved the problem he posed for himself. But obviously it is a
directorial problem to direct that audience’s attention to each
particular acting area when you so desire that they should be
concentrating on it.
BD: Could it
possibly be solved better by the cinema?
JB: Yes, but then
you’d be in danger of losing the other two. The fascinating thing
about seeing it in the theater is that you are aware all the time that
three things are going on. I suppose in a way, it’s up to the
audience to choose where they should be paying most attention at any
given moment, but they have to be helped and that’s where I thought
that the greatest difficult in the work lay. But it is a
wonderful work – very interesting.
BD: Is it the kind
of thing people should come to several times to get into?
JB: Yes, but
audiences should go many times to most of these modern works. The
same thing would apply to The Knot
Garden and many others.
BD: How do you get
the audience to come to a Twentieth Century work, and how do you get
them to accept it more?
JB: I think just
by encouragement, really, and making sure that when they go they get
something from it so it’s not a sterile experience. When they go
and they wish they hadn’t gone, then you’ve failed. You have to
provide something and that’s all our problem – the composer, the
director, and everybody else. But to get them into the theater in
the first place is a particularly difficult problem because most people
are geared to going to operas which they know. Opera being a very
expensive medium now, and those problems are getting worse all the
time. If one has a certain amount of money to spend on opera, it
will be spent on performances you know you’re going to enjoy – unless
one is particularly interested in a certain work or twentieth century
opera in general.
I’ve often found it a bit difficult to get students of contemporary
pieces to go to Traviata or Orfeo.
JB: Yes. I
suppose it works the other way around, but there are more people who
want to go to Traviata in
this world! [Laughs]
BD: What’s it like
working with the composer – is it special?
JB: Yes it
is. I got to know Hans very well, and also Michael. Michael
is an absolutely fascinating person – well, they both are – but of
anybody I’ve ever met, Michael is the person with the greatest range of
reference. In conversation he can call upon almost any area of
civilization and refer to it with knowledge and facts. He could
refer to Chinese literature or Indian music or African graphic art or
whatever. He knows and has absorbed more of the culture of the
world than anybody I know. He thinks about it all the time and
BD: It is a
conscious effort on his part to assimilate all these fields?
JB: No, he’s just
that kind of person. He’s incredibly intelligent – really a
genius, and one doesn’t throw that term around very freely.
BD: It sounds like
he’s more of an all-round genius.
BD: Was Britten a
JB: In a different
way, yes. He wrote for the theater and I think you could say that
Peter Grimes is a work of
genius. But he was not at all the same kind of man as
BD: Is Tippett
writing another opera?
JB: I don’t
know. He’s working on orchestral music, but of late he’s been
suffering with his eyes and not been in the greatest health.
Actually, I haven’t seen him since we did The Icebreak which is a while back
BD: If he had a
new work and asked you to be in it, would you jump at the chance?
JB: Well… The part
in The Icebreak which he
wrote for me wasn’t very wonderful, so I’d ask for a better part
BD: Have you been
involved in King Priam?
JB: No, I’ve not
done King Priam although I’ve
seen it a lot.
BD: Do you like it
JB: Yes, I
do. I think that’s also a wonderful work.
BD: Are you good
JB: Yes, I think
I’m a very good audience. I’m a better audience for those kinds
of works than I am for the Traviatas
BD: Are you a
different kind of audience for an opera where you sing a role as
opposed to a work you have never been involved in?
JB: I don’t know
really. Obviously even if you haven’t sung in an opera you know
which role you would sing.
BD: You should go
to Billy Budd!
JB: Oh, I love Billy Budd. But it seems to
me if you go to the theater, you go to get something out of it, whether
you’re involved with a role in a piece or not.
BD: Do you enjoy
Twentieth Century music, then, as opposed to just performing it?
JB: When you say “Twentieth
Century music”, that encompasses a very great
deal. I can’t say that I enjoy a lot of what is going on. I
enjoy the works that we’ve been talking about, but I can’t really
understand rightly what’s going on in the electronic side of music
making. And I haven’t really gotten into some of the more
BD: [With a sly
nudge] You haven’t been experimented-on?
BD: If a composer
came to you and said he was writing a piece for electronic gear and
Josephine Barstow, what kind of suggestions would you give him?
JB: I’d be wary.
BD: You don’t want
to be turned into a transistor?
JB: No, I don’t.
BD: Have you every
JB: Yes, I
have. I found that one of the most difficult pieces I’ve ever
BD: Why? To
JB: To learn in
the first place. But I enjoyed it once I’d grasped it. That
took me a very long time, but once I had, I enjoyed it. I’ve not
done it on stage, just in concert. It poses enough problems to
sing it as a concert piece. To do it on stage it would have to be
in a pretty intimate kind of atmosphere because it’s a pretty intimate
kind of work.
BD: Have you done
any other Schoenberg?
JB: No, but I’ve
done some Berg songs. I was going to do Wozzeck, but it was cancelled.
have a theory that the older works – Monteverdi, Cavalli, etc.
– are more clearly aligned with the newer works than with those in the
JB: I know what
you mean and it’s interesting. Before I came away, we had a
production of Monteverdi’s Orfeo
at the ENOC. I wasn’t in it, but I saw the result. It was
experiment – during the rehearsal period, the cast spent most of the
time improvising on the situation of the piece. The final
result was sort of a knitting together of the various bits of
improvisation that they’d done. The individual members of the
went to wardrobe and picked out what they felt they’d like to wear.
BD: Was this
somebody’s theory that this was how it was done in 1607?
JB: No, it was
just the way this man, David Freeman, works to get at
truth in dramatic presentation of opera. To a certain extent it
worked, but I was very aware that it would be very much more difficult
to approach a work like Traviata
in that kind of a way. The Monteverdi work lent itself to that
approach in the same way a twentieth century piece might have done.
BD: Did the audience
JB: The audience
reaction was varied. Mostly people either liked it
or hated it. Some people walked out, and others stayed and
BD: What kind of
orchestra was used?
JB: Musically, it
was done in the period – small orchestras with as many “authentic”
instruments as they could get.
BD: Have you done
any early works?
JB: No. I’d
like to sing something like that, but I usually get asked for heavier
BD: Are there some
things you’d dearly love to sing but haven’t been asked for yet?
JB: I’ve been
wanting to sing Sieglinde, and I’m about to do that at
the ENOC. It’s not for a couple years yet, though. Mostly
the roles that I’ve wanted to do. Mostly it’s a question of
do some of the roles I’ve done again and getting them right.
BD: Do they still
do everything in English at the ENOC?
BD: Do you enjoy
singing works in English?
JB: It very much
depends on the work. I would have enjoyed singing Wozzeck in English, but I sang Aïda in English and hated it
because I just felt very strongly that the music needed the Italian
language. I felt very frustrated all the time.
BD: Is Aïda, then, more of a singer’s
opera than Wozzeck?
JB: Yes if you
think of yourself as a person that’s involved in two aspects of
presentation – the dramatic actor and the singer. Sometimes the
scale is weighted more heavily on one side or the other. For me, Aïda is weighted on the vocal
side, and that is why I found it frustrating not to be able to somehow
get the right ambiance musically for it.
BD: Is there any
compensation for that such as projecting a line and knowing that
everyone in the audience understands exactly what you’ve said?
yes. It was interesting that people said they’d seen Aïda many times before and
never really understood what was actually happening in the duet between
Aïda and Amneris.
BD: That’s a
masterful little scene.
JB: It is a
masterful little scene, but I can’t believe that someone would attend Aïda a few times and not have
grasped what was going on in that duet. The psychological content
of Aïda is not the same
as the psychological content of Wozzeck
or event of Fidelio.
BD: Do you work
harder at the diction when it’s in English?
JB: I try to work
hard at it whatever I’m singing in whatever language it is.
Sometimes one achieves greater success than others, but when talking
about Aïda, the language
is part of the construction of the vocal line.
BD: Have you sung Aïda in Italian?
JB: No, I’ve only
done that one production, and now I don’t think I’d ever sing it.
BD: How do you
decide which roles you will keep in your repertoire and which you’ll
discard or put aside for awhile?
JB: You have to
try all the time to assess what you are capable of doing; assess your
assets and your lack of assets for any role at any given time.
Much as I would love to sing it, I feel my assets for an Italian Aïda are not as great as they
should be. The kind of sound I have in my ear for that role is
Leontyne Price, and I’m afraid I don’t have that sound.
BD: So if the
general manager of a big house asks you to sing that role…
JB: I’d say I’d
love to come and do something else.
BD: What if they
said you could have something else if you also do the Aïda?
JB: If you say no
for artistic reasons, they might try a little bit of persuasion, but I
don’t think they would insist.
BD: I was just
wondering how much politicking goes on behind the scenes.
goes on all the time everywhere! [Both laugh] One does try
to avoid it. I’ve been very lucky myself and have managed to
steer clear most of the time from that kind of thing.
BD: You’ve sung
roles in the original and in English but have you done any in another
JB: Yes, I sang Jenůfa in German this last spring.
BD: Did you enjoy
learning it in a wrong translation?
JB: I didn’t
really consider it strange. Everybody was singing in German, and
it was considerably easier for me to learn it in German than to learn
it in Czech. I shall be singing Onegin
in Russian very shortly and that’s posing a much bigger problem for
me. I can speak German a bit, but how one copes with Russian I
don’t know. I’ve always said I would never sing in a language I
didn’t understand, but it’s the same director who did it with me in
Wales in English. I enjoyed working with him so much that when I
got the opportunity to do it with him again, I said yes even though it
was in Russian. So it’s his fault!
BD: How much
influence on you is the conductor?
JB: It very much
varies from conductor to conductor. Some insist very much on
their own way and some give you a lot of leeway.
BD: What kind will
be more lenient with you?
JB: It’s either a
very inexperienced conductor who just accompanies and lets you go along
you own way, or one with incredible experience who makes you think
you’re doing it your way, but in reality he’s in complete
control. They’re the wonderful conductors to work with because
they don’t put you in a straight-jacket. You feel that you’re
being free and being creative but you’re in the hands of a master and
that is wonderful. It doesn’t happen very often, but it’s
absolutely wonderful when it does.
BD: Same question
for the stage director.
directors vary even more than conductors in their approach to the
people with whom they work. Recently I’ve worked with several
German directors who insist entirely on their own view of the work
which is secure in their mind before they see – never
mind meet – the cast. It often is an idea
that can be said to be imposed on the work anyway – like a politically
motivated idea. In a couple of cases it was very interesting and
very enjoyable because one could empathize with what they were trying
to do and you could work and make it your own. On the other hand,
once or twice-once in particular I very much didn’t appreciate what was
going on, and I felt it was wrong and a violation of the work
itself. That was a very difficult thing to do because one had to
more or less discard one’s own sense of values and do something as a
kind of puppet. I found that very disturbing and didn’t enjoy it
BD: If you were
asked to work someplace with this director again, would you turn it
JB: I think so,
BD: Is the
producer getting too much power?
JB: I wouldn’t say
that. Perhaps some of these Germanic types are, but on the other
hand they’re not the only kind of people working in opera today.
There are directors who are such wonderful human beings and have
wonderful things to say about the work and are able to incorporate the
talents of the different casts that they get. You can’t really
generalize about them.
BD: It just seems
like we’re living in the age of the director where it becomes Producer
X’s opera rather than the Composer’s opera.
JB: That does
happen, but it doesn’t always happen. If you happen to be working
with a brilliant conductor, it becomes Conductor’s opera.
BD: Is that just
as potentially harmful?
JB: My opinion is
that it is Composer’s opera as worked out together by a team of people
which includes everybody involved with it.
BD: Right down to
the wig maker and prop handler?
JB: If you are
talking about real democracy, yes. But everybody that’s involved
in it – particularly the cast – put
something of their own into it, and I think that’s terribly
important. That’s my own attitude toward working in the musical
theater. Unless one is allowed to make one’s own contribution and
not just be a voice inside a body that is moved around according to
somebody’s instructions, then there isn’t much point to being a singer
and being involved in the business.
BD: Do you do
concerts as well as operas?
not very many. I would like to do more concerts than I do.
JB: Because I enjoy very
much the different types of discipline, and it’s a great relief
sometimes to be able to forget all about the dramatic side and just
BD: What about
operas in concert? Do they work?
JB: It depends on
the opera that you’re doing. Some operas work rather better in
concert than they would on the stage, but mostly I’m in favor of opera
BD: Have you done
JB: Only The Knot Garden and a recital
BD: When you’re
doing a role, do you feel that you’re not only composing against all
those who have sung it in the theater but also against various
JB: Yes, to a
certain extent I do. Unfortunately, the recording business tends
to center in on just a few singers, so as far as recordings are
concerned almost everyone else is considered second rate. That
doesn’t do the business or the image of individuals or anybody else any
good. But there’s nothing one can do about it. We have to
assume that the people who come to the theater are prepared to see and
hear what you are doing with a role.
BD: How much
preparation do you expect from an audience?
JB: I always feel
as much as possible is the best. People who just come and read
the program note in a hurried scuffle before the curtain goes up don’t
get as much out of it as they could, and I think that’s a pity
especially as opera performances are becoming so much more expensive
and so much more difficult.
BD: So you think
they should get their money’s worth through more preparation.
JB: Not just their
money’s worth, but they should get as much out of the experience as
they could, and if they only get a fraction of the kind of experience
they could have got, that seems to me a great shame.
BD: What about
television – you were involved in Macbeth
JB: I did that,
gosh, that’s ten years ago. Dreadful thought because it’s still
going round today. When I arrived in Chicago, Maestro Bartoletti
said he saw it in Italy last summer. The performance that was
televised was my very first Lady Macbeth and that was the only
performance that I did in that season. I hope that I know a bit
more about the role than I did then and can approach it in a rather
different way, but one is still being shown to the world in that
BD: Would like
them to put a little disclaimer at the beginning saying the year it was
recorded and that it was your first crack at the part?
JB: Well, it would
BD: Other than
this specific complaint, do you feel television helps bring the public
closer to the opera?
JB: I think it can
only be a good thing. Obviously it isn’t going to be the same as
opera in the theater and people aren’t going to get the same kind of
experience, but if it gets opera to a wider audience and gets people
interested so that they then come to the theater, it can only be
good. But quite clearly, opera is not an event that is going to
be at its best on a small screen in a living room.
BD: Is it a
JB: Yes. The
operatic experience is really a sort of biggish theater with a big
orchestra and all that.
BD: Everything is
big in opera?
JB: It’s bound to
be bigger than the straight theater because of the scale of the works
and the number of people involved in it.
BD: Have you ever
done any chamber opera?
JB: Years ago I
did a Rameau opera which was very interesting and very rewarding.
When talking about “big,” I meant places like Chicago or London.
We did this Rameau piece in a small institute in London that is
absolutely superbly decorated in 18th century style. We were up
at the one end of this lovely room and we enjoyed it very much.
BD: Where is opera
JB: I don’t
know. Sometimes I detect despair in where it’s going, but I hope
that the kind of work that is trying to find something to say about
living in the 1980’s is being done. I would have hoped that there
was some way that we could find a direction like that in which to
go. Sometimes it doesn’t appear that’s what we’re doing.
Sometimes it appears that we’re merely reproducing what was done 50 or
100 years ago.
BD: Does Traviata really speak to us today?
JB: Yes. Traviata speaks to us more than
most works because it’s about real people. It’s about a woman who
suffers. If she suffers because of moral values that no longer
apply today, that’s not relevant. The fact that she suffers
because she makes a sacrifice for another human being is what’s
relevant, and is what should – and does
– get through to the audience. Come over to London –
I’m doing a production of it as soon as I get back there.
BD: Is that an
opera that works better in English?
JB: It’s a work
that works in any language. For me, it’s one of the very most
precious works, and I love that lady. I just love playing her
because she’s such a wonderful woman.
BD: What if you
were involved in a production with this hated director?
JB: I would hope
that I would know about it ahead of time and then I wouldn’t agree to
do it. But the director must first convince me of what he is
trying to do and the reason behind that idea. It’s not so much
the direction as the reason behind the direction, and if he can
convince me that his view is valid, then it’s alright.
BD: So he must
convince you, and then you in turn must convince the audience?
right. You can only really convince the audience if it’s coming
from inside you because you’ve been convinced yourself. If you’re
not really convinced yourself, it doesn’t really work.
BD: Are there
other roles that are as special for you as Traviata?
JB: She’s the most
special lady. There are other roles that I like for different
reasons. I think every role that you do you enjoy in a slightly
different way. I enjoy doing Salome although it’s very hard
work. I enjoy it because I sympathize with her. I enjoy
Elisabeth in Don Carlos in
the same kind of way I enjoy Traviata.
BD: She’s another
one that is manipulated.
JB: Yes, but she’s
a wonderful woman. I very much enjoy the Janáček roles –
BD: Let’s talk a little
about Elisabeth de Valois. How troubled is she after the
Fontainebleau scene when she realized that she has to go to Philip
instead of Carlo? How much does this destroy her?
JB: I think it
destroys her enormously. In terms of the opera, she’s only seen
Carlo for a few minutes and it makes it a bit difficult. But if
you can believe the situation, she has realized that this man is her
other half and that she has to say goodbye to him.
BD: Would they
have been happy together if they had been able to marry?
JB: You’ve got to
believe that when you play her, and you have to discard all the ideas
of whether he was an epileptic or not because the character that you
are playing is as conceived by Verdi, and you believe that Carlo and
Elisabeth were made for each other.
BD: Does she
derive any happiness from Philip at all?
JB: I think she
respects him in the beginning. She loses that respect, but she
doesn’t have the same kind of response to him at all.
BD: Does she try
to make him happy, to do her duty?
JB: I think so,
yes, because she’s a woman who is very aware of her duty.
BD: Too aware?
JB: In that world
in which she belongs, no, because it’s the only awareness she can
have. The morals of that world force her into that
situation. Obviously it wouldn’t be the same situation now, nor
would Violetta’s situation be the same now. But you’re not
playing what would happen if those people were living now, you’re
playing what happened when they were living then. So you have to
get into the skin of the person as she’s portrayed in the piece.
BD: Do you prefer Don Carlos in the five-act version?
JB: Yes, because
it’s most difficult to explain Elisabeth’s situation if you haven’t
seen the Fontainebleau scene.
BD: Would you do
it in French?
JB: I’d be
interested in doing it in French.
BD: That’s my own
little hobby-horse – I want Don
Carlos in French, also Les
Vȇpres siciliennes and La
Favorite, etc… Let’s talk about another role
– Salome. How old is she?
JB: She’s about 15
BD: Is she a
JB: Obviously it
varies from production to production, but the way I play her is that
she has been more or less an autistic child in this court. She
doesn’t relate to it because it has nothing for her. She dislikes
her mother; she dislikes even more her step-father; she finds the
morality of the court totally alien and distasteful, so she’s been shut
in upon herself. No one has gotten through to her and she’s not
gotten through to anybody else. She’s expressed herself somewhat
by dancing – for which she has a talent
– and she suddenly comes across John the Baptist, who is
someone from a totally different world. He is someone with a
totally different set of values which she thinks she should be able to
BD: Is that what
JB: Yes. Her
tragedy is because she’s always belonged to this other world, although
she hasn’t related to it. When she’s faced with a crisis in her
life, she’s ill equipped to cope with it, so she responds to it in
terms of the world that she’s known. In other words, she responds
in sensual terms, which are the terms of the relationship of the
court. She fails totally to appreciate the spiritual meaning of
what John the Baptist stands for. When she can’t get what she
asks for, she destroys herself and it. But her tragedy as I see
it is her inability to respond in any way of her own.
BD: Do you enjoy
doing the dance?
JB: No, I hate
doing it. I’ve done it in very many different ways, and it’s
always a trial and I’m always very relieved when it’s over.
BD: What if the
producer asks you to strip completely?
JB: Well, I have
done more or less most of the time that I’ve done it. It’s more
or less necessary, so one just gets on with it. It’s less
difficult to do than you think beforehand because you get involved in
the whole ambiance of the performance. I find those kinds of
things incredibly hard to do at rehearsal, but come performance, it
becomes part of the thing and you get on with it.
BD: Is the final
scene, then, easier to sing because the dance is over?
Salome is sort of punctuated when one is singing it by the various
events. You’re afraid when you go on. You’ve got your hands
really full until John the Baptist goes down into the cistern
again. Then you think, “Oh thank Heavens, now I can rest a
bit.” So you rest a bit and then you’ve the dance, and as soon as
that’s over you realize that very shortly you’re going to do the last
scene. I remember the first time I sang Salome, I didn’t know
whether I was going to be able to do it. No amount of rehearsal
can, in the end, prepare you for the duress of performance
circumstances. I got through the dance and the little bit after,
and Herod said to bring the head. I was lying there on the ground
and I didn’t know if I’d be able to make it through, but I realized I
had to try. I already felt pretty tired, but I did get through it
and I’ve gotten through it ever since. But it’s a role that
demands the last bit of everything from you.
BD: Have you ever done
JB: No, I’ve never
done Elektra. It’s the same kind of problem, I think, but
considerably worse. At the moment I haven’t got any great urge to
sing it. When you asked about roles, I suppose that is one that
is in the back of my mind to do one day, but I’m not in a hurry at all.
BD: It would it
have to be the right circumstances?
JB: Very much so.
BD: How much do
the various circumstances – such as a new production – make you more or
less comfortable with roles, and especially new roles?
JB: Oh very
much. They have an enormous effect. If you’re working in a
sympathetic ambiance with people you get on with, it makes an
incredible difference to your success and how things come out.
BD: When you’re
onstage are you bothered by all the extraneous things such as noises?
when one is concentrating especially hard. A lot of what happens
you don’t notice because you’re concentrating on what you’re doing.
BD: I was
wondering how much you blot out.
JB: I think you
blot out a lot, but there are occasions when you might be concentrating
on quiet and stillness and silence, and some idiot coughs very
loudly. That’s very disturbing and very annoying. I always
think to myself, “Gosh, I’m up here struggling and doing my best to
sing this thing and all they’ve got to do is sit there.” [Ironically, at this point the telephone
rang and we interrupted the conversation for a few minutes so she could
take the call.] [Returning, saying that the call was from
her family back home] That’s why, when I come away I
like to get something like this, an apartment so at least you can make
a little nest. It’s also difficult because I’m very
much a believer in opera as being a team thing. You’re constantly
changing your team. I’m sure that the ideal way is to stick for a
longer period with the same team.
BD: Would you
prefer staying at one house and doing repertoire all year?
JB: I do that to a
certain extent. I usually do two or three productions with the
English National Opera each year and that’s my sort of “home base”
where I would do any experimental work or try something new. I’m
very lucky to feel that I’ve got a sort of “home company” where I’m
part of the furniture as it were. That’s very good, but for all
sorts of reasons, one does need to stretch out and try ones self in
Is this your first trip to America?
JB: No, no, I’ve
been to the States a lot. It’s my first time in Chicago.
BD: How is the
public different here from London?
JB: Of course in
London they know me, and I think that because things are done in
English at the ENOC, the response is a more immediate one. You
feel you can make contact immediately there also because they come very
regularly to opera. So you have a nucleus of people who know the
company and the style and have been watching us for many years, so
they’ve been able to see me, for instance, develop. The audience
reaction is different wherever one goes. Among the most warm
audiences in the world are the German audiences. We get the
warmest response from them and that’s possibly because they have more
access to opera than anybody else in the world.
BD: I am told they
wait for the curtain to be completely down before applauding.
JB: Yes. You
see, opera is part of “the German way of life.” They talk about
it in the same an English group would talk about a football match or an
American group would talk about a baseball game. It’s part of the
fabric of life, therefore the response is different. It’s
difficult to explain.
BD: It is an
in-bred kind of thing rather than a superficial kind of thing.
It’s not considered something very special. To an American
audience, the opera performance is something different and something
very special. To a German audience that’s not the case, so
they’re looking for significances and subtleties more. They’re
not so prepared to be entertained.
BD: Is opera
JB: Yes, it should
be obviously, and it should be a lot more as well.
BD: Is opera “art?”
JB: I would hope
BD: How does one
reconcile the two?
JB: All art should
be entertainment as well. Suppose you had a beautiful painting
but it wasn’t enjoyable to look at. Isn’t that what entertainment
is – being made to enjoy yourself?
BD: It’s a
philosophical kind of question that one ruminates about for a long time.
Maybe next year I’ll find a better answer to it.
BD: Let’s talk a
bit about Fidelio. Do you like him/her?
Yes, I admire her. It’s a wonderful opera to play. I’ve
never gotten to the end of the piece without feeling that my own soul
was flying through the roof of the theater.
BD: Is that
something that has to be done in translation because of the dialogue?
JB: Actually the first
time I did it was in German in Scotland. It works in German or in
English. The most enjoyable production for me was the one at
Glyndebourne which I just did this past summer. Bernard Haitink
conducted and he was absolutely marvelous. He’s the kind of man
who works through love. He loves everybody that he’s working
with, and he gives you that love all the way through the rehearsals and
in the performances. It’s like performing on a mattress of
affection – it’s just extraordinary, and it gives you so much
confidence and also so much responsibility. [See my Interview with Bernard
BD: It raises the
whole level of performing?
JB: Yes, and for a
work like Fidelio, which is
about spirituality, it was wonderful. It was a sympathetic
production by Peter Hall. [Starting to giggle] Peter has
this idea to emphasize the domestic side of Rocco’s life, as opposed to
the prison governor’s side. He had a little garden in which Rocco
grew his cabbages and other vegetables, and he also had some real live
hens wandering around. These hens had a cue when they were
supposed to come on, and they also had a cue when they were supposed to
go off. What they did was to starve the hens a few hours before
the performance, then they had a trail of food so they pecked their way
on stage and then off again. It all went very well until the last
night when one of them, I think she was broody, decided she didn’t want
to go. She found a nice little spot in the middle of Rocco’s
garden which had been filled with potting compost. It’s very
dusty when it’s dry and she settled herself down in the middle of this
little plot and proceeded to have a dust bath! [Both start and
continue laughing] She started about half way through the
Jacquino/Marzelline duet and was well away by the time I came on.
She was flapping around and there was dust all over all the way through
the quartet and all the way through the trio. By the end of the
trio I was absolutely mesmerized by the whole thing, and I decided that
it was my job to get the hen off the stage. Why I should have
thought it was up to me I don’t know, but I was so upset by it, and as
soon as I went over to pick it up, it ran away. It ran down to
the front of the set and I went after it and it went up to the
back. This was all during the bit before Pizzaro comes on, and I
made myself a total fool running after this chicken. Finally it
went into the jail and I stood like an idiot in front of the door to
the jail making sure it wasn’t going to come back. Somebody
grabbed it from the wings and it was alright, but…
from the laughter] I would think the stage manager would have
dressed up a chorister as an assistant turn-key and sent him on to grab
JB: Well, that’s
what should have happened, but after that it was alright.
BD: Did Pizarro
react to it when he arrived?
JB: He came in on
a horse, so he had his own problems to deal with.
BD: Was all that
too much for the first scene of Beethoven’s opera?
JB: When it causes
that much of a disturbance then obviously it’s not working, but it
didn’t happen until the last performance. But there was always
the danger that it would.
BD: If it had
happened in the first performance, would you have cut them?
JB: Oh yes.
Actually, one was fired after the dress-rehearsal! It joined in
and was cackling, so that one was fired.
Janáček operas have you done?
JB: Jenůfa, Katya,
BD: You’ve done
Emilia Marty, so what’s it like being 342 years old?
JB: I enjoy doing
that, but I enjoy the other two more.
they’re real people and you can get into their situations. You
can’t really believe Emilia Marty is the same way at all. Katya
is my favorite. I’ve done Jenůfa more, but Katya is a really
wonderful work. Musically it’s marvelous, and I just enjoy doing
BD: Does the
public enjoy Janáček?
JB: It’s very
interesting. In the last ten years the public’s response to
Janáček has altered enormously. It used to be very
difficult to fill the house for Janáček. Now, it’s not the
easiest – it’s not like putting on Aïda
– but the public are going more and more and more. The more often
that it is done, the more people that you get.
BD: And people
come away happy, so they come again.
When we did Jenůfa in
Scotland it was done in a very small theater in Glasgow, and half an
hour after the performance people were still sitting there in a sort of
stunned silence, staring at the empty stage. It made that kind of
an impact. It was amazing.
BD: What’s the
difference for you as a singer to sing in a small house or a large
JB: I suppose
really I prefer singing in a small house because of the possibility of
having that kind of an impact, but it’s also very exciting singing in
the bigger houses. I enjoy singing at the Lyric here because it
seems to be a good house acoustically. It’s not such a
frightening theater as the Met, largely because of the shape.
There the audience goes away from you. Here, they go a long way
back, but they’re not absolutely sort of disappearing from sight.
I’ve been spoiled by singing at Covent Garden and the smaller theaters
in England. Covent Garden is an absolutely wonderful house
because you feel that the audience are coming to you. You feel
that you can take them into your arms and into your confidence and
embrace them. It’s exactly the opposite at the Met.
BD: Like you’re
singing through a picture-window?
JB: Yes. I
found that quite disturbing.
BD: Tell me about Denise
in The Knot Garden. How
mixed up is she?
JB: She’s a victim
of her situation.
BD: Is she fun to
JB: The great
thing about Denise is the music. He’s given me the part on a
plate. All the other characters prepare for her entrance, and he
gives a wonderful orchestral introduction to the character. Then
she comes on and sings the most fantastic aria – the best aria of the
piece. So it’s a very rewarding part to play. She’s an
interesting person, and quite sympathetic, I think.
BD: Did the public
respond to The Knot Garden?
JB: Yes, they
did. It was a very clever production, again by Peter Hall, and
brilliant designs by Timothy O’Brien. The response to it was
quite warm. It’s a pity it’s not been done again. It was
revived once after the world premiere and it’s not been done since,
which is a pity because those works should be seen regularly to build
up a response in an audience for them. But you have to balance
the budget and balance the number of works you can put on in any one
BD: From the
managerial point of view, which would be better – another revival of The Knot Garden, or a Meyerbeer
which hasn’t been seen in 50 or 100 years?
JB: If you say
Meyerbeer, I’d say The Knot Garden,
but that’s my preference.
BD: OK, say an
unknown Verdi piece.
JB: It’s a
difficult decision. I often feel that those works have not been
done for a long time for a reason.
BD: But once in a
while they take one off the shelf, dust it off and find it’s a
JB: Yes, but in an
ideal world one would be doing all those things. You shouldn’t
have to make the choice.
BD: What if the
choice is a revival of The Knot
Garden or a world premiere?
JB: I suppose you
should give the world premiere. If we don’t keep performing them
we’ll end up in a barren situation, but they’re not all going to be as
interesting as The Knot Garden.
My own personal experience has taught me that. I’ve been in a
couple of things that were done once and never again, but I’ve also
done things like The Devils
by Penderecki which is not very fun musically, but wonderful
theater. [See my Interview with
Krzysztof Penderecki.] We did a very fine production by John
Dexter just before he went to the Met. That’s never been done
since, and the sets were destroyed about two years after we did
it. It was just too expensive to store them, and they were
BD: Did you see or
hear Paradise Lost?
JB: No. I
would have liked to.
BD: I think you
would do well as Eve.
JB: I enjoy all
those challenges of various kinds.
BD: Have you done
any American works?
JB: Before I met
my husband, when I was a student at the London Opera Center, I did
Magda Sorell in The Consul.
He came to direct it and that’s how we met. But I haven’t done
anything since then.
BD: Would you
accept another role by Menotti or one by Rorem or Floyd? [See my Interviews with Gian
Carlo Menotti, and my Interview with Ned Rorem.]
BD: They’re all
melodists. Are those kinds of works more successful than atonal
JB: Depends on the
quality of the music. I don’t think you can compare because
the success will be different. The success you have with The Consul will be different than
the success you have with Lulu.
BD: Would you like
to do Lulu?
JB: No. I’ve
been asked to do Lulu many times, but I’ve escaped so far. I just
don’t think I can do it.
BD: Have you seen
JB: Yes, many
BD: Does it work
in the theater?
JB: I’ve seen it
work and I’ve seen it not work. For the soprano, I think it’s one
of the most difficult roles that’s ever been conceived because it’s got
such big problems dramatically and enormous problems vocally. I
was tempted to do the two-act version, but I never did. Now the
third act is so difficult for Lulu that I think I couldn’t do it.
I think it’s too high for me.
BD: What’s the
role of the critic?
JB: I would hope
that the role of the critic is to be constructive. It is possible
to criticize constructively, and it’s often done. It’s also
possible to do the other thing, to destroy, and that is sometimes
done. I would think that the first is what should be aimed at, to
help the reader who hasn’t been to the show decide about it. It
should also be a positive force in the professional world regarding the
people involved in doing the work. It’s always difficult to ask a
performer what they think about a critic. I’ve been helped in the
past by reading what somebody has said in an unbiased view of what one
has done. You often realize that they’re right, but I’ve also
read things that when you next go onstage inhibit you so totally that
you can’t perform the role for two or three performances. I don’t
think that critics realize often enough that they’re capable of doing
BD: Maybe you
should read them all after the final performance.
JB: I must say I
read less now. I used to rush out and buy all the papers the next
day, but now I read them if they come to hand and I don’t bother
otherwise. What happens is that you never remember the good
ones. You breathe a sigh a relief if they’re good, but you do
remember the bad ones for a long time, and they can affect you for a
long time. So it is difficult.
BD: You seem to
have come away basically, unscathed...
JB: Well, one
tries. That’s why you need some other aspect of your life that
has nothing to do with the theater to which you just escape, and I’m
very lucky that I’ve got that.
BD: But you enjoy
JB: Oh, I love
BD: Thank you for
coming to Chicago. We see your Macbeth
on Friday the 13th.
JB: I don’t know
whether you know it or not, but it’s one of the biggest superstitions
in the English theater. You don’t even refer to the name “Macbeth”
in any theater in England. It’s always “The Scottish Play,” and
you must never quote from the play. Backstage here, somebody
recited the whole speech – “Is that a dagger I see before my eyes” – in
a dressing room, and I couldn’t believe my ears. You’d be howled
down by everybody if you did that in an English theater. Funny
how superstitions differ from country to country. Here it’s Forza which is very unlucky. Macbeth on Friday the 13th – I
don’t think that would even be scheduled in England.
|Dame Josephine Barstow is
recognised as one of the world’s leading singing actresses. During a
long career she has performed in most of the world’s major opera houses
and with many of the great conductors singing a varied repertoire of
Verdi‚ Richard Strauss‚ Puccini and Janáček among others.
She began her career touring with Opera for All and
studied at the London Opera Centre. She sang Euridice and Violetta for
the Sadlers Wells Opera Company‚ and at Welsh National Company her
roles included The Countess in Figaro‚
Fiordiligi‚ Violetta‚ Mimì‚ Amelia Boccanegra and Elisabeth in Don Carlos. At English National
Opera she has appeared as Violetta in La
Traviata‚ Natasha in War and
Peace‚ Salome‚ Elisabeth in Don
Carlos‚ Leonora in The Force
of Destiny‚ Leonore in Fidelio‚
Jeanne in The Devils of Loudon‚
Katarina in Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk‚
Tosca‚ Sieglinde‚ Senta‚ Emilia Marty in The Makropoulos Case‚ The
Marschallin and Arabella. Her association with the Royal Opera Covent
Garden began early with the Second Niece in Peter Grimes and then as Denise in
the world premiere of The Knot Garden
by Sir Michael Tippett‚ the young woman in Henze’s We come to the River‚ Salome‚ Ellen
Orford‚ Helena in A Midsummer
Night’s Dream‚ Santuzza‚ Leonore‚ Alice‚ Lady Macbeth and the
Countess in The Queen of Spades.
At Opera North roles have included Tosca‚ Marie Wozzeck‚ Aida‚ Medea‚
Lady Billows and perhaps most notably Gloriana‚ which was also
filmed. Later appearances include Countess in Queen of Spades and Lady Billows in
Albert Herring with
Opera North‚ Mother Marie in Dialogue
Carmelites with ENO‚ Kostelnička in Jenůfa in Oviedo and with Vlaamse
Opera in Luxembourg and Mama Lucia in Cavalleria
Rusticana at the Tearto
del Liceu in Barcelona.
Dame Josephine has performed in Paris‚ Munich‚ Vienna‚ Bayreuth‚
Berlin‚ New York‚ Chicago‚ San Francisco‚ Houston‚ Buenos Aires‚ Hong
Kong‚ South Africa‚ Japan and Australia. In 1986 she made an historic
trip to the Soviet Union singing Tosca and Lady Macbeth. In the same
year she appeared in the world premiere of Die Schwarze Maske by Penderecki in
Salzburg. Herbert von Karajan invited her to sing the title role in
Tosca with Pavarotti‚ and Amelia in Ballo
in Maschera with Placido Domingo. Karajan’s death meant the
performances of Ballo fell to
the baton of Georg Solti‚ although the recording had already been
completed‚ as planned. [See
Bruce Duffie’s Interviews with Sir Georg Solti.]
In 1985 Josephine Barstow was awarded a C.B.E. and the International
Directors’ Fidelio Award. In 1995 she was made a D.B.E. Recordings
include: Ballo in
Maschera‚ Gloriana‚ Albert Herring‚ Kiss me Kate‚ Oliver‚ Street Scene‚ Wozzeck‚ Jenůfa and The Carmelites. Films include Gloriana and Owen Wingrave.
© 1981 Bruce Duffie
This interview was recorded at her hotel on October 30,
1981. Segments were used (with recordings)
on WNIB in 1990, 1995, and 2000. It was transcribed and
published in Opera Scene in
November, 1982. The
transcription was re-edited, bio, photos and links were added, and it
was posted on this
website in 2013.
To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been
transcribed and posted on this website, click here.
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
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.