Soprano Barbara Bonney
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie
Barbara Bonney is considered as one of the world's most
lyric sopranos. She now leads the field in her chosen repertory
roles by Mozart and Richard Strauss, and is increasingly recognised as
one of the finest Lieder and concert performers of her
generation. An American by birth, she received training in Canada
and with Walter Raninger at the Salzburg Mozarteum.
In 1979 Barbara Bonney became a member of the Darmstadt Opera, where
she made her first appearance as Anna in Die lustigen Weiber von
Windsor. Among her subsequent roles were Blondchen, Adina,
Cherubino, Gilda, Massenet’s Manon, and Natalie in Henze’s Der
Prinz von Homburg.
In 1983-1984 she appeared with the Frankfurt am Main Opera, the Hamburg
State Opera, and the Bavarian State Opera in Munich. In 1984 she
her first appearance at Covent Garden as Sophie, and the following year
made her debut at La Scala as Pamina. She made her Metropolitan
Opera debut in March 1988 in Ariadne auf Naxos, where she
returned to sing Adele and Sophie.
In December of 1989, she first came to Lyric Opera of
Chicago for a production of Die
Fledermaus, and we arranged to meet early in the New Year.
It is especially fascinating to see how her ideas have stood the test
of time over more than twenty years between that meeting and this
publishing and posting.
Naturally, she has continued her major career, and her discography has
grown to a substantial size. As with all my guests, I tend not to
inquire about her private life, and in this chat she briefly brings up
her then-current status and partner. Anyone interested in more of
those details can find them elsewhere.
As we were settling in for our chat, Bonney remarked about being most
alert at ten o'clock in the morning . . . . .
Would you really rather have all performances begin
at ten in the morning?
Absolutely! From 10:00 a.m. on, it just
goes downhill, all the way! [Both laugh]
BD: Since you
are so geared to a life
that must be late at night, and some of your greatest singing has to be
at ten or eleven o’clock in the evening, what do you do to psych
yourself up or actually get yourself physically ready to perform?
BB: My mother
was very clever. When I was
a young baby she used to put me down for naps every afternoon, so I’m a
nap person, thank goodness, which means that I can sleep easily from
until five, or even 5:30. Sometimes even at six o’clock I sort of
out of bed and run over to the theater. Then my voice is at
that same peak again.
BD: Do you do
any special warm-up exercises, either
physically or vocally?
BB: I try to
work out every day for about an hour.
I do these fun things in America called Stairmasters. I’m
hooked. I’ve got to find one to take with me to Europe; they’re
wonderful! And I do some weight lifting and stretching
and all that sort of stuff. It’s important for me.
I know that for my voice, I cannot perform to my best capacity if I
have some sort of good, fit physical condition.
BD: Are you
singing not athletic?
BB: Yes, it
is, but I don’t feel that I’m an
athlete. If we were to do it every day for a whole bunch of
hours, yes, but we tend not to work quite that hard.
BD: What do
you work hard at?
question! It’s so
different. Life is such a variation for opera singers.
We’re either traveling or learning new pieces or learning a new
language or trying to relax. I work hard at languages, and as I
say, I try and work hard at maintaining a
certain degree of health. I try to eat relatively healthy.
[Pauses a moment] I work hard at my garden...
BD: Do you
have enough time for your garden?
BB: I make
enough time for my garden. The first week of May is off
don’t care who asks me or where they want me to sing, I am
planting my garden the first week of May.
BD: Do you
like the life of a wandering minstrel?
BB: No, I
don’t. But I do it.
BD: Do you
feel you’re a slave to the voice?
BB: Not a
slave to the voice, but our
career demands that we are moveable, that we can transfer ourselves
from one time zone to the next and implant a new language in our
brain and get around in new monetary systems. It’s kind of
taxing. Plus you have to organize for months at a time, ahead of
time! You have to have a secretary to handle all of your
paperwork, and let your agents know where you’re going to be.
It’s quite a complicated life. But it’s the same for all of us.
BD: You get
many offers for lots of
roles. How do you decide which ones you’ll accept and which ones
you will decline?
BB: I try and
limit my operatic activity to two new
productions a year, or let’s say two productions where I’m involved in
a series of eight performances. These actually tend to be in
America right now. I have this one here in Chicago, and then
at the Met I do a Rosenkavalier.
just don’t want to be bound up in one place for too long a time.
BD: Unless it
would be a theater near home?
impossible, unfortunately, because I live out in the middle of the
country, in the middle of
the boondocks, not near Stockholm. I have about
six roles that I want to sing at this point in time, and I don’t want
to do other things. I don’t want to expand my repertoire into
another Fach, so I’m very
happy right where I am.
this small range includes Mozart, tell me the secret of singing old
[Laughs] You have to love the guy, and I do; I blatantly
do! You have to
be convinced. Many of my colleagues think that Mozart is not such
a good composer, that he’s a difficult composer to sing, that his music
is pedantic and predictable. I find Mozart extremely
exciting. I find him incredibly genius, and every time it sends
chills up my spine to sing any of the numbers in The Marriage of
Figaro, or any of those pieces. I adore The Magic Flute.
resonates with you?
BD: Have you
sung all of the Mozart that you
want to, or are there still more roles that you’d like to add?
BB: There are
still more roles that I have not sung
on stage. For instance, I’ve recorded Zerlina twice, but I’ve
never sung it on stage. I do it the wrong way!
[Laughs] I go through the back door; that’s not actually the way
should be done. I’ve never sung Despina on stage, and I’ve only
done Ilia in German. So I’m looking forward to expanding in that
direction, as far as those roles are concerned.
BD: Are there
some roles you’ve done the
proper way — on stage first and then on a
BB: The Magic Flute I did on stage
first. My first
Susanna I did on recording. That was pretty scary!
she’s the whole opera, essentially.
Yeah. It was pretty frightening, but it was
a wonderful experience! That was with Arnold Östman in
Drottningholm in Sweden. That was fantastic! I loved it.
BD: Tell me
about Susanna. Is she a 1990’s woman?
BB: I think she
goes through all the centuries.
She’s the lady who serves the one who has it all, but is missing the
love from her husband. She’s the one who’s learned to be
bauernschlau. She has
that innate cunningness which most youthful females have. We all
have to do that; we have to
learn to wrap men around our fingers. Whether that’s acceptable
nowadays, when everything is so emancipated, I don’t know, but I think
it still it. I’m afraid it still is.
BD: Is it
something you revel in, in
your personal life?
Not anymore. [Laughs]
BD: Are you a
bit Susanna yourself?
BB: I think I
BD: Are all
women a bit Susanna?
BB: No, not
all women. It depends
upon what stage in life you are. When one is growing
up, the seventeen’s to the twenty-five’s, one has those
tendencies — to be a little sly, to be as
attractive as possible,
to get to the ends that she wants.
BD: What is
it that she really wants out of life?
BB: I think
she just wants to find happiness
with Figaro. I think she truly wants to help the Countess; she
wants to give it back to the Count for being such an
ass, which he really is! He’s a wonderful figure, and has the
most beautiful music, but he really goes way over the top. I
don’t think she looks so long in the future. I don’t think she’s
much further than
establishing her marriage, establishing herself as the servant that she
is, and having the power by being that servant. Very often,
people in power don’t have it. They give it away; they delegate
it, and then it slips through their fingers. So it’s usually the
working people underneath them that essentially have control
BD: Would she
be a better mistress than servant?
BB: I doubt
it. I don’t think it would be as much fun!
BD: She can
get away with more?
Yeah. [Both laugh]
BD: Does she
go after Figaro, or does Figaro go after
Well! [Laughs] I have to think back to my
partners! It was probably mutual. It was probably
the most natural thing. The two people weren’t
quite the same age, as far as the play goes. Chances are it
just was that he was around with the Count and she was around with the
Countess, and that seemed to fall in together.
BD: Are they
happy after they get together, by the
end of the opera?
seems to think that nothing works
out at all in that piece, but at least at the end of the opera, it
feels pretty tight, pretty good. I never feel a cloud of
doubt. When I am onstage, I don’t feel a cloud of doubt at the
end that something funny is going to happen in the future; I feel it’s
happily ever after. Obviously that has been proven to be wrong,
but nonetheless... I don’t
think anyone turns out to be very happy in that whole scene.
looking forward to the
third drama, where the Countess has the child by Cherubino.
Exactly. Probably the only one that’s happy is Antonio the
gardener, who’s oblivious to it all and is off in the corner, drinking
out of his paper bag. [Both laugh] He’s probably the
everyone, being untouched by it all!
BD: Do you
regard anything that Susanna
does as a great philosophy of life?
BB: I must say that
when I’m in the middle of the role,
I don’t ever think of things in those terms. I think very basic
and very natural; in other words, I try not to over-moralize,
over-philosophize when I’m doing a role. I try and feel for the
character, feel what’s in the music for the character, and see that it
comes straight from the gut out to the gut of the audience — through
the eyes is probably the better way to explain that. It is much
communication thing than trying to portray a role or a character.
I think one has to be that particular person in order to make it
believable so that the audience can relax, rather than have the
audience fidgeting, “What does she mean by that?” or “What does that
mean?” They can just sit back and feel vicariously all of
those emotions that are being played out on the stage.
BD: So you
really become the
character — you’re not just portraying the role?
For instance, here in the
Fledermaus I find myself
becoming Adele and saying the stupidest
things to Orlovsky! He just looks at me, shocked, totally
shocked! It’s like, “What are you talking about?” I’m
saying the dumbest things because I’m in
character. I don’t want to let go of a second of that feeling of
being concentrated on what I’m doing, what I’m playing or
what I’m singing.
not ad libbing some of the dialogue, are
Sometimes I get an inspiration and may change
the timing a little bit, or change a few words, but not ad
libbing. I’m not very good at that. When
we’re on stage dancing and talking and things of that nature, I tend
to stay in the role that I’m doing if at all possible.
course, in the dialogue you have much
more freedom because there’s no music; there’s no conductor telling
you exactly when to sing each note.
BB: Yes, but
there’s a sense of timing that we
rehearse and rehearse and rehearse, and your colleague depends upon
that. If you can’t deliver approximately what they’re
expecting, it can cause fluster and then it can cause breakdown.
So I think it’s very important to try and keep the mode and then expand
upon it, but to keep that basic mode before going
overboard. I don’t think that works very well.
BD: Can a
piece get over-rehearsed?
probably feels that way right before the
general rehearsal. We all feel hysterically over-rehearsed,
tired, aggravated and angry with everything. Everyone
swears, “This is the last opera I will ever do!” It’s always the
same thing. I think that the general four to six week period is
more than adequate. Three weeks would do pretty well if
we could all get our beans together. In Germany, when I was
starting out in Darmstadt, I did a new piece every month! I
rehearsed for three weeks, there was the
opening and that was it. Then we were on the next piece. I
would do eight to ten roles every season with no break. I would
rehearse the day of performances; it was just constant, constant,
constant. So therefore I feel that one can really get a good show
together if one’s all there as an ensemble, with none of this star
and out stuff. I understand it all! I have done it
myself, but I don’t think it lends itself to really good theater.
prefer to have a unified production, then?
BB: Yes, and
therefore three weeks, three and a half
weeks, is a good time to put something together — unless
incredibly difficult, modern opera that’s being performed for the first
time that needs more work. It depends upon the
piece, of course, but generally speaking, three or four weeks is pretty
BD: In a
world premiere, you don’t know how it’s
going to come out.
BD: But in a
piece that you’ve
done several times, how do you keep it fresh from production to
production to production?
BB: I think
that happens by manner of the
fact that you have a totally new director, you have a new opera house
generally a new set of colleagues; sometimes you end up with the same
ones, but very often it’s like playing dice — you
dice and out comes a whole new roll every time. So I don’t
think there’s much danger, unless you do a piece in five productions
each year. I think that’s milking it a little
bit, but generally singers don’t take on work like that.
BD: You said
earlier that you’re limiting
your repertoire to just a few roles. Do you make sure you scatter
these roles throughout each season if you can?
enough, it just tends to happen that
way. Once in a while you get bogged down with singing a lot
of Pamina’s, and after a while you think, “Oh, I don’t know if I can do
you’re in a new city, do you try to take in the other productions that
are going on in the opera house in which you are not singing?
BB: Well, one
should do that, generally
speaking, but the funny thing is I’m not really an
opera fan. I never have been.
BD: [With a
gentle nudge] Then how can you expect us to come and see you,
if you won’t go to see other people?
the problem! I can’t understand
how everyone manages, after work, to get on these beautiful clothes and
pay lots of money and go out and watch opera! I
don’t understand it.
BD: I’m sure
you’re glad that some people do...
BB: I’m very
happy that people do. Otherwise, I
would not make my living the way I do. But nonetheless,
I am a little ashamed of myself that I haven’t invested a lot more time
in going to operas. I have to drag myself to it. I guess
it’s because I’m in the theater all day long. I’ve always been in
the theater all day long. In Darmstadt I was inundated
with it. In fact, the first year I got
four days off — four days in the entire
season! I was
so overwhelmed by the whole thing. I was in every opera
anyway, so I never got to see any. Ever since that first four
of just solid singing and being in the opera house every night, I must
say I’ve never kept the interest alive. I may develop it in a few
years, when I finally come to maturity; who knows?
BD: If you
didn’t start out liking opera as an
entertainment force, how did you get into it?
BB: I studied
lieder singing — song
singing — at the
Mozarteum, and just by chance an agent called me and said, “There’s an
audition in Darmstadt. Can you go?” I arrived at 5:30
in the morning, went to a shower and got my hair washed, went out
and sang the only opera aria I knew, which was Susanna’s aria in
German. That was the only thing I knew, and
they took me. They needed someone immediately because the
other girl had hurt her voice, and they needed someone to take over her
BD: Is that
scary, knowing that if this one hurt her voice, are you not
going into the same thing?
BB: I should
have listened to what they were saying
to me! [Laughs] So within three weeks I had become a
opera singer without ever really thinking about it. In fact, the
only reason I studied music was because I was in Europe
studying German. I was in Salzburg studying German and they
happened to have a conservatory. I thought, “Well, this
should be fun. I was a music major back in the States. Why
don’t I just see what I can do?” In fact, I was a cello
major. I didn’t have my cello with me, so
I walked in and they took me. I don’t understand it,
[Laughs] So that’s the story.
looking back on it, are you glad that it
happened the way it did?
BB: I’m very
glad that it happened. As I say,
I’m very often fifty percent torn between what I do and what I would
like to devote myself more to, which is a more personal,
sheltered, normal way of life. I miss that terribly!
BD: Would you
rather have a nine to five job?
BB: I would
rather have a family and settle
down. In fact, I will manage to do that eventually. I know
colleagues who do it,
so I’m sure it’s possible, but it’s not easy. It’s not easy for
any working woman, and particularly with the travel involved.
it really difficult.
BD: [Note: During the course of doing these
interviews over the years, I would usually ask my guests to give their
birthdates, which I would keep as reference. Amazingly, I only
remember a couple of times when they refused, or simply gave the date
and declined to mention the year. In this case, we continued to
refer to it, so I have included that segment in this presentation.]
May I ask your birth date?
BB: I was
born on the 14th of April, 1956, the day that Lincoln was shot — not
the same year,
but the same day.
rather think of ’56 as being the Mozart Year. Does that give you
little more affinity to Mozart?
BB: I was thinking
about it. Maybe I should
go to a fortune teller and find out if one of my past incarnations
happened to be back then. I may have known him
back then, and that’s why I’ve never fallen out of love with him.
I don’t know. Also it may explain the reason why languages like
German have come so easily to me. Who knows? I’m open for
BD: Maybe that’s
why you landed in Salzburg instead of
someplace else. Now you’re spending practically all of your time
BB: I moved
to Europe, officially, thirteen
years ago. Since I’m a freelance artist, I’ve been a
non-resident American, meaning I travel approximately eleven months a
year. That’s a lot. It’s too much!
surprised you didn’t find someone in one of
the big cities like Vienna or Salzburg and stay there and
then have your career.
BB: No, I’m a
real country girl. Even though I
was born in New Jersey, I was raised in Maine, and that fresh air and
snowy landscapes have always appealed to me. I must say I’m
very happy to be back to Sweden. I’m very happy spending my
free moments visiting my husband in Sweden. “Visiting,”
what it is. It’s basically going there to visit him.
He’s also a singer, Håkan Hagegård.
BD: I met him
for an interview last year! Very nice man. Being a
world-traveler himself, he will understand your problems and joys
and sorrows, hopefully.
BB: Yes, yes,
BD: Is it
when you sing together, as opposed to singing in separate productions?
wonderful and it’s difficult. You
have two egos, two performers saying, “Look at me! Aren’t I
something special?” and dealing with each other also on a personal
basis. I’m sure every singer who’s married to another singer
knows that it’s magnificent and wonderful and a great support, but
it’s also very hard.
BD: Too hard?
We’ve tried it now for five years and
it seems to have worked out pretty
BD: I hope it
lasts a long
BB: So do
I. I intend to. [Note: At
this point, the phone rings and Bonney spends a few minutes speaking
with her husband.]
[Resuming after the phone call, concerned about his condition.]
Is his foot better now?
BB: Yes, he
has the cast off it, but now he had a
terrible cold. Anyway, that’s life. I was infected here the
last couple performances. We all had what we delightfully called
the “creeping crud.”
We were all a mess! It was horrible. Anyway, we got through
BD: Do you
have to sing no matter what? Is there “the
show must go on” mentality?
BB: No, we
don’t have to, but you have to know when
you have to cancel. No one wants to cancel, for
the very obvious reasons.
BD: So how do
you decide how
far you can push yourself, even with pains and aches?
BB: You know,
after a certain number of years
of experiences, what sort of illness is going to hurt you. If
it’s on the cords, forget it. If it’s around or
underneath, you know how you can work your way through.
And very often, sick performances are some of your best because you
sing carefully and concentrate, and don’t risk things. I’m one
of those singers that risks a lot during performances, and sometimes
it gets me into trouble!
BD: I would
think when it works, though, the rewards would be great!
Yes! Yes, it can be like that. For my kind of
voice, it doesn’t necessarily work so well in big houses, because I
have to risk everything to even be heard. I
rather like to risk in small houses.
How far ahead are
you booked, and do you like knowing that on a certain Thursday three
years from now, you’ll be singing a certain role in a certain place?
basically booked through ’92. I have a
little bit of time left which I want to actually hold on to. I’d
rather not do too much more. I’ve tried each year to reduce my
work load by a couple of weeks or so.
your agent screaming at you about that?
BB: I think
they understand that there’s just
so much you can take, that you have to be a person once in a
BD: [With a
gentle nudge] Oh, why can’t you be a robot?
[Laughs] Sometimes I feel like it, when you pick
up your third suitcase and lug it to the Domestic Terminal. It’s
pretty taxing. Also, Sweden in
the summer is pretty attractive, I must say! All that light and
climate. I really want to spend most of my summers in
come back to some of the
Mozart parts. You said you have sung a lot of performances of
Pamina. Tell me about her.
BB: Pamina should
I’m probably one of these crazy people who don’t fit in with the rest
of anybody else’s ideas of what she should be. I love singing
one of these lightweight, featherweight Pamina’s. In Germany they
like to have the ladies with the big voices that can just honk out
those high notes, and I don’t think that’s what she’s
about. I think she’s a young girl; I think she’s an up and coming
leader, a ruler who’s learning the ropes in her youth. She’s not
a matron who has already finished. She is her training period, so
I believe she must be a young person. I like to think of myself
as still in my up and coming years, a
young singer, so I love singing Pamina.
certainly don’t look at all your age.
that’s nice that you say that. Thank
BD: Is Pamina
happy with Tamino at the end?
BB: I don’t
think they know each other very
well. I think she would much rather run off with Papageno, which
I have done! In fact, when I met Håkan the first time
was when we sang Magic Flute
at La Scala. That was my debut in the role at La Scala, and it
was also his debut there as Papageno. But Pamina and Tamino find
happiness through the ideals that they represent.
It’s not necessarily that they appeal to one another as human beings,
as creatures. It’s much
more the fact that they have come together in a bond representing a
certain philosophy. And no, I’ve never felt an inclination to run
off with the Tamino at the end of a performance! [Both
laugh] I guess that’s just the way
that opera is built because she doesn’t spend much time with
Tamino; it’s just the very end.
just sort of thrown together, really.
told, “Here’s a picture of the girl. Go rescue
her,” and she’s there, waiting for him, to be rescued.
they seem to be eluding each other most of
the time, and he never seems to react in the way that I
want. That’s why she instigates the G minor aria, and then the
suicide thing. He causes me a lot of pain, actually! He’s
not a lot of fun. So I always feel Papageno is much more my
that piece no matter where I do it.
ahead to the nonexistent third act, do they wind up having children and
building a new
order, or just putting up with each other?
BB: I’m sure
that they go on in the Freemason
style. I don’t see them necessarily having children right
off, but I see them leading in a philosophical way. I
don’t see them as two humans; they’re above that, somehow. They
seem to be two gods. I think Papageno and Papagena are the human
BD: Are they
human, or just almost human?
BB: Oh, I
think they’re very human! In fact, I
think they’re the most wonderful side of human nature, being honest
themselves and not pretending to be something that they’re
you’ll find a stage director
sometime that will do a Bob and
Carol and Ted and Alice idea at the very end!
sounds like great fun! I think I’ll
suggest it next time Håkan and I do it together! [Both
BD: Do you
like some of the really far out,
wild, crazy ideas that stage directors are coming up with these days?
BB: I love
them! In fact, that’s how I was raised during my time
in Darmstadt because that was what was seen in Germany.
When I started in
1979, Darmstadt was a very advanced theater. They did lots of
modern things and lots of modern productions. The Intendant
at that time, Kurt Horres — who went on to
Hamburg and Dusseldorf — staged what I wouldn’t say were far out
but rather were extremely intellectual, beautifully put together and
through storytelling productions. Those are my favorites of
all I’ve ever done. All of his things that I was
involved in I simply adored.
BD: Is there
any way to take productions too far?
sure! I’m sure that very often
directors go over the top while being very intent upon their ideas, and
overlook that they’re working with human beings. I remember some
things in Frankfurt where people were constantly crawling on the
ground. That’s wonderful, but not in every single
piece, and not abstract sets in every single piece. Lines of
different opera houses can go too far in one
direction; they’re either extremely traditional and never risk
breaking away and doing something a little far off, or they tend to go
in the direction of only thinking of the dramatic side of it, and not
seeing the piece as a whole and how they’re trying to reach an
audience. Very often they’re caught up with themselves and not
thinking of the audience they’re performing for. I think the
number one thing in our whole business is thinking of those people who
are sitting there watching us, and not thinking of the critics writing
about us, not thinking about the people telling us what we should do on
stage. I think it’s the artist getting a message across to the
the help of sets and good orchestral playing and conducting.
BD: As you
perform, are you aware of the
[Nodding] Mm-hm, mm-hm.
BD: Do you
feed off of them?
and I focus my attention on them as much
as I possibly can.
than on your partners and colleagues???
BB: No, no, I
don’t mean that. The interaction between colleagues is the
function. But when you look out to the audience, you’re focusing
on the group as a whole or on individual faces by looking
into their eyes. This is something that I find particularly
important in recital
singing; you have to simply reach into people through their eyes and
be close to them. Look at them! Risk bearing your soul,
showing all of your feelings. Risk being scared and letting
them see that! Risk being happy, risk being sexual, all
of these options. If one just stands there and delivers a nice
Schubert song without all of those emotions, without the face getting
flushed, then it’s not an interesting evening.
BD: You sing
a lot of opera. Do you also
sing a lot of lieder recitals?
BB: I’ve cut
down my opera right now to about sixty percent. My size of
voice can’t handle much more. Especially in big houses, I have
to be very careful when singing in places like
Zurich. Geneva’s not a small house, but nonetheless it has good
acoustics. There are lots of European houses, particularly,
which lend themselves to my kind of voice. Therefore I’m very
happy to have my career based in Europe. I feel I have more
Drottningholm a very small house?
wonderful! I’ve never had the
chance to perform there, but I have sung in the theater during
rehearsals, and it’s magic! The recording was done in another
building called the Nacka Aula near Stockholm with the Drottningholm
BD: I just
assumed that they took the production as
it existed and dropped it into the studio, but they brought in a
couple of other people including yourself?
BB: They took
several of the people from
their productions, but basically the leads they took
internationally. Unfortunately, they have to do that.
BD: Why “unfortunately”?
doesn’t mean, necessarily, that our
singing is any better than theirs! It’s just that that’s the way
that record companies work. I can be very
happy about it; I’ve been blessed to be allowed to work with the major
companies. And yeah, it’s hard to get into that group.
BD: Do you
sing differently for the
microphone than you do on the stage?
Slightly. You don’t need so much volume, obviously.
One has to think much more about clarity, not necessarily about
diction, but using color rather than volume
to get a message across. It’s much more intimate and I adore
recording. If I had my choice, I would only do recordings.
BD: But then
you leave out the audience
that you were talking about before.
BB: Yes, I
understand that. But if I had my
choice, just for me, as far as what my voice likes the most, it would
be under a
set number of days getting up in front of a microphone, doing
something, going back and listening to it, and then having the chance
to come back and hopefully improve upon it immediately. I think
that has probably been the best voice teacher I’ve ever had, just
that constant ability to go back and make it better, make it better,
make it better. That doesn’t always mean that it becomes better,
but at least one can try. Yeah, I love recording.
BD: Is there
ever a chance that because you can go back and make it better and
assemble a perfect
performance, that you set up an impossible standard which you can’t
duplicate in the theater?
BB: I don’t
think so. For instance, when we did
this Marriage of Figaro with
the Drottningholm and Arnold Östman, the
whole second act finale — which lasts
approximately twenty minutes — we
started and went to the finish twice, with no retakes or small
inserts. We went straight
from front to back twice through and that was it! And they did
practically no cutting; they took one of those two takes, and that’s
most of the finished product. And it’s brilliant! The
worked so well was because we had a chance to rehearse a lot and work
out all of these fine points before we went into the studio.
That’s one problem with recording, that very seldom do you have a
chance to rehearse adequately. Very often you walk in and the
light goes on, and one can never feel quite comfortable with that
BD: So the
first two or three
takes are the rehearsal?
BB: Yes, but
interesting things in those takes that you would rather not leave
out. Very often one is inspired by the freshness of it all; your
voice is the most fresh. So it’s hard to balance that.
BD: Let me
ask the big philosophical question.
What’s the point of opera?
BB: Why are
you asking me?
BD: Because you are
one of the greats who bring opera
to everyone else!
taken aback] Oh, gosh!
BD: If you
want to duck the question, it’s all right.
BB: I don’t
want to duck the question, but I don’t
know quite how to answer it and sound intelligent. Opera
is a fantastic art form, obviously. It combines all the best of
everything — music, work, visionary
that the right word, visionary?
BB: Visual, I
meant to say.
BD: Okay, but
a visionary effect is more long range!
sounded even more intelligent, didn’t
it? Dancing, art as far as the scenery is concerned,
costumes; it’s the fusion of all these, which ever appeals the best of
all of those
wonderful high, lofty, cultural art forms that make us human
beings. If we didn’t have these cultural outlets, we’d all be a
lot sicker. The hospitals would be over-filled. You would
need lots more hospital beds, and you couldn’t get Blue Shield/Blue
Cross to pay for all of those poor people. I think it’s an outlet
for our emotions.
BD: Is there
a balance between the lofty
ideals and an entertainment value?
BB: It’s hard
for me to say, in America; I’ve
been away from America too much. Entertainment, in America, is
very different from that what it is in Europe. Europe is much
more steeped in their traditions than we are here because
of our historical background. Also, I notice every time when
I come back to America after a six-month or eight-month break,
this country has changed a hundred and eighty degrees!
BD: For the
better or for the worse?
BB: I don’t
know! I’m not sure. I’ve
never here long enough to find out. It’s so fast! America
changes so fast — entertainment, tastes,
is new. What was here today is gone
tomorrow. I think that truly applies to this country, and
therefore I don’t know if I can say anything about entertainment here
in this country.
then, about Europe?
Europe, I don’t think that opera is
seen as entertainment. They
would use “entertainment”
for Michael Jackson or for Blauer Bock, which is one of these shows
accordions where people drink beer. It’s a very
different; there’s none of this stand-up comedian stuff that’s
overpowering. I think sports is entertainment worldwide, but
opera? As far as Europe is concerned, I don’t believe it’s in
BD: So the
people who go to the opera view it differently and take it in as a
special part of their life?
BB: I believe
they do. It’s been passed down
through their families for a couple of centuries
now. There’s just much more of a tradition to opera-going
than there is here. Also the subsidizing
situation is so different on the two continents. America has so
little subsidizing, which makes it so very difficult. You have to
go out and sell the opera, whereas in Europe they take it for
granted. There, you go to the opera and pay for your ticket, and
that it’s being ninety percent subsidized. They have lots more to
throw around, and they have many more opera houses. Each town has
their opera house! There’s sixty of them in Germany! So
it’s a whole different system and different ballgame.
the system that you want to spend most
of your life working in?
BB: It’s the
one I feel the most
comfortable with. Things may change. I’ve only worked
now in American opera houses three times. I’ve worked at the Met
twice and here
once, so I don’t know enough to really tell you that much about
BD: I hope
we’ve made you feel at home and comfortable.
Yes! I must say it’s fun to work in a
country where they speak your own language, even though I’ve forgotten
my own language in the mean time. I know English and Swedish and
German. I can understand a little Italian and pretty much French,
but I don’t feel comfortable speaking those two languages. I like
being in America once in a while, but I
don’t think I could ever live here again on a permanent basis.
that you’re experiencing now in
Fledermaus and you also
experience in The Magic Flute
shifting from music to spoken dialogue. Is this particularly hard
on the technique and on the voice?
BB: Right now I’m
not thinking about the
technique too much! I’m trying to be in character, and
that demands — at least Adele does — lots of squealing and screeching
crying. The first couple of performances I felt, “This is
going to knock me over.” In my vocal
technique, I tend to use quite a bit of head-chest mixture anyway,
which is basically my speaking voice. So I just sort of twang up,
or screw up, my speaking voice a little bit, and that works pretty
well. Then going into the singing is not so much of a
problem. I don’t find that I have to use two different
techniques. I don’t find I have to use the Broadway,
really-sock-it-across technique. No, I don’t think that’s
necessary. I hope people here me. I can’t be
the judge of that, but as far as I know, it’s working out pretty
BD: Do you
work a little harder at your
diction, knowing that everyone is going to pick up every word?
BB: This is
the first time
I’ve ever sung in English, and it’s a terrifying experience! All
sudden, all these diphthongs and W-H’s and T-H’s; I’ve never been
confronted with that before! It took a lot of work, and they
were actually amazed that I kept rolling all of my R’s all the
time! No matter what language I sing
in, I try and work very hard at diction. That was one of
the big things in Germany, in Darmstadt — text was always of
the utmost importance. So that’s nothing new for me.
BD: Is there
any backlash because some people have been going
to the opera so long, they know
a lot of the texts?
depends upon what translation is being used. For
instance, if this were done in German with subtitles, they might
be familiar with the original German text. But this is a
translation and I don’t know if it’s the same one that’s been used here
you’re singing a Mozart opera
in Salzburg, don’t they all know those texts?
yes. That’s no problem; in fact,
that’s wonderful. The more they understand by themselves, the
better off you are.
BD: The more
lazy you can be?
BB: Well, not
lazy, but the more you can dedicate
yourself to producing beautiful lines and not chopping them up.
German is not an easy language to sing in. If you want to be
concise and use good diction, you have to work awfully hard!
BD: Too hard?
BB: Too hard,
yes! In my Fach,
particularly, where you have to go up to high notes a lot of the time,
it’s merciless. So you’re happy when people know what you’re
BD: You were
saying before that you are cutting back
just a little bit. Are you looking for the long career?
BB: I don’t
know yet, to be honest with you. Until I’ve had children, I won’t
know how that’s going to work out.
BD: Might you just
decide to become a Hausfrau,
and stay home and give up the whole thing?
BB: I don’t
know if that will ever be possible
for me. I’m sure I will be involved in music in some shape or
form, even if it’s working with music therapy or with remedial
things. I don’t know; we’ll see. I don’t think I want
to become a professor at any college or university. I don’t think
I would be good for that. I also don’t think that I would
like to sing until I’m sixty; I don’t think that my Fach allows for it.
BD: Can you
transition to a slightly different Fach?
BB: I don’t
think my voice allows for that,
either. I really don’t foresee much of a change in my
repertoire, so therefore I’m taking it as it comes and
following my inner instincts, and trying not to overwork. I
think that’s the only way to keep a positive approach to this job,
because I just recently went through a period where I thought, “I just
cannot take this traveling any more.” I was
forced to cancel something important and it made me very sad, but I
simply had to have a break! I think that was very good for
me. I came back with a whole new approach, and was glad to be
going back to work. That’s very important to keep in
BB: It can be
a lot of fun; it can be great
fun if you’re on top of the situation. If you’re not
prepared and if you don’t feel well physically and if you’re
emotionally unstable, it can be horrible! It can be
terrifying. That’s not fun.
BD: I assume,
though, it is fun for you most of the
BB: I’d say
eighty percent of the time it’s a lot of fun. That’s not bad.
that’s not bad at all! And the rest of
the time I assume it’s tolerable?
BB: The rest
of the time it’s hard work!
advice do you have for young singers coming
along? You say you’re not going to be a professor someplace, but
you must have advice for students of singing.
BB: Be really
your voice teachers. I know that’s hard to say, and how do you
know? But I’m one of these inner
instinct people. Listen to your inner voice. Don’t try and
sing heavy stuff too early. I was forced to sing Manon
in German when I was twenty-five! That was crazy! I got
through it; I
kind of looked the part. I don’t think I sang it very well, and
I’m sure I did quite a bit of vocal damage to myself that season.
At the same time I was singing Blondchen and Cherubino. That’s
kind of interesting repertoire, isn’t it?
BD: One from
Column A, one from Column B and one
from Column C!
It doesn’t matter. I would suggest for American
singers, if they get a chance, to learn a language very well — either
Italian or German. The French is not necessarily so important,
but you should know either of those other two languages so that you can
it. That’s primary in repertoire; you just have to be
able to speak one of those languages. Perhaps take a year or two
years and see if you can find a job in one of those countries, or at
least go audition in those countries. Travel to get
a flavor for the traditions, for the style, because no matter
what wonderful training you get here in America, it’s not the same as
being on the spot where those operas were conceived. It’s
important to get the flair of it, the flavor of it, and you can only
get that in Europe. I’m sure that’s why so many of my colleagues
and lots of the young singers are doing just that. Of
course it’s getting more difficult; there aren’t that many jobs over
there. There are too many of us, as with the rest of the work
force. There’s just too many people out there! So my first,
my real intense advice would be not to sing heavy
stuff too early... and practice. And try and do most of it
blame anyone else for your failures. Rely on yourself for what
BD: Do you
have any advice for audiences?
BB: As you
said before, not to listen to
recordings and expect us to all sound like that. Obviously it’s
a near perfect reproduction of what we artists or orchestras can do in
a wonderful hall with wonderful acoustics.
Each opera house has its own set of good or bad acoustics, and we all
have to fight against that. Some voices work in one house
and some work in another. There are lots of
different aspects, so come with a fresh mind and come for the
healing process of sharing an evening with us up there on stage.
That’s all I can say.
BD: Are you
coming back to Chicago, I hope?
BB: Not that
I know of. I hope so, because I
have enjoyed this tremendously. The people here are incredibly
friendly! It’s a wonderful house! They really pamper you
and support you, and shower you with love and affection. So I
would very much like to come back. [Note: At this point we discussed a few of
her then-upcoming recording projects, which, of course, have all been
long since released. She then continued speaking about that
aspect of her career.] A bunch of nice, vegetarian
I’ve sort of slipped into the so-called vegetarian group of musicians —
you know, these wonderful up and coming baroque people in
England. I love them all; I agree with them all! I love
working with them; I think that they’re tremendous, they’re
dedicated, brilliant workaholics, and I respect each and
every one of them. I must say, my most memorable experiences,
as far as recording and concert work, come from working with people
from the vegetarian set.
BD: Why is it
it’s meatless music — none
of this romantic stuff. I love it, myself.
BD: Do you
sing any more French
repertoire? You’ve dropped Manon...
French is not my thing. Maybe with a
good coach and a few years in France, I might get some under my skin,
but I don’t feel for it naturally. It’s not
my bag; I’m much more a Germanic
singer. In fact, I do my best with Italian repertoire. But
of course, Mozart Italian repertoire is still
Germanic in its sense, so it’s not so difficult. But I’m very
much a Nordic singer.
BB: No, but I
work on the Swedish repertoire. I did a recording of Peer Gynt in Norwegian, which is
similar to Swedish, with Deutsche Grammophon.
BD: I wish
you lots of
continued success. It’s been fun talking with you!
It was for me, too. Thank you very much.
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© 1990 Bruce Duffie
This interview was recorded in Chicago on January 10,
1990. Portions (along with recordings)
were used on WNIB later that year, and again in 1991, 1996, and
made and published in The Opera
Journal in 2011.
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.