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?

Josephine Barstow:    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.

barstowBD:    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 up.

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 wanted.  

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 comprehend.

BD:    More difficult musically or dramatically or both?

JB:    Both.  The libretto is complicated.  Psychologically it’s a complicated work.

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 lyrical.

JB:    Yes.

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 perform?

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?

JB:    Yes.  It’s very difficult for the audience and for the people involved, obviously.

BD:    Does the producer expect the audience to concentrate on one or another at any given moment?

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. 

BD:    Conversely, 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]

barstowBD:    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 knows it. 

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.

JB:    Yes.

BD:    Was Britten a genius?

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 Tippett. 

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 now…

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 next…  [Laughs]

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 as theater?

JB:    Yes, I do.  I think that’s also a wonderful work.

BD:    Are you good audience?

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 and Bohèmes. 

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 experimental music.

BD:    [With a sly nudge]  You haven’t been experimented-on?

JB:    [Laughing]  No.

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 sung Erwartung?

JB:    Yes, I have.  I found that one of the most difficult pieces I’ve ever done.

BD:    Why?  To sustain?

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.

BD:    I have a theory that the older works – Monteverdi, Cavalli, etc. – are more clearly aligned with the newer works than with those in the middle. 

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 an experiment – during the rehearsal period, the cast spent most of the time improvising on the situation of the piece.  The final dramatic result was sort of a knitting together of the various bits of improvisation that they’d done.  The individual members of the cast 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 kind of approach in the same way a twentieth century piece might have done.

barstowBD:    Did the audience like it?

JB:    The audience reaction was varied.  Mostly people either liked it or hated it.  Some people walked out, and others stayed and clapped and cheered.

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 things.

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 I’ve done the roles that I’ve wanted to do.  Mostly it’s a question of wanting to do some of the roles I’ve done again and getting them right.

BD:    Do they still do everything in English at the ENOC?

JB:    Yes.

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?

JB:    Well, 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.

JB:    Politicking 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 translation?

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. 

JB:    Stage 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 meetthe 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 at all.

BD:    If you were asked to work someplace with this director again, would you turn it down?

JB:    I think so, yes.

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 castput 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?

JB:    Occasionally, not very many.  I would like to do more concerts than I do.

BD:    Why?

barstowJB:    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 sing.

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 staged.

BD:    Have you done some recordings?

JB:    Only The Knot Garden and a recital disc.  

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 recordings?

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 on TV.

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 version.

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 help…  [Laughter]

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 compromise?

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 going today?

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 doesget 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?

JB:    That’s 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 – Katya, Jenůfa.

barstowBD:    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 roleSalome.  How old is she?

JB:    She’s about 15 or 16.

BD:    Is she a virgin?

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 talentand 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 appreciate.

BD:    Is that what fascinates her?

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?

JB:    Yes.  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.

barstowBD:    Have you ever done Elektra?

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?

JB:    Occasionally 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 different fields.

BD:    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.

JB:    Yes.  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 “entertainment?”

JB:    Yes, it should be obviously, and it should be a lot more as well.

BD:    Is opera “art?”

JB:     Yes.

BD:    Entertainment and art?

JB:    I would hope so. 

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.

JB:    Yes.  Maybe next year I’ll find a better answer to it.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Let’s talk a bit about Fidelio.  Do you like him/her?

JB:    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?

barstowJB:    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 Haitink.] 

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…

BD:    [Recovering 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 the chicken.

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.

BD:    Which Janáček operas have you done?

JB:    Jenůfa, Katya, and Makropoulous.

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.

BD:    Why?

JB:    Because 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 it.

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.

JB:    Yes.  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 house?

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.

barstowBD:    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 play?

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 season.

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 wonderful work.

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 wonderful sets.

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.]

JB:    Yes.

BD:    They’re all melodists.  Are those kinds of works more successful than atonal works?

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 it?

JB:    Yes, many times.

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 that.

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 singing.

JB:    Oh, I love singing.

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.

barstowShe 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 of the 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 MascheraGlorianaAlbert HerringKiss me KateOliverStreet SceneWozzeckJenůfa 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.

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.