Soprano  Brenda  Roberts

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie



Brenda Roberts received both Bachelors and Masters degrees from Northwestern University, where she studied with Prof. Hermanus Baer and participated in master classes with Lotte Lehman and Gerald Moore. In addition to her years of studies in the United States, Miss Roberts spent a further year honing her craft at the Vienna Hochschule für Musik, as well as privately studying with Josef Metternich. She made her European debut in Saarbrücken as Sieglinde in “Walküre” and has since then performed at almost all of the international opera houses in major roles.

The dramatic soprano roles of Richard Strauss and Richard Wagner are central to her repertoire and international success. She was the youngest-ever Brünnhilde at the Bayreuth Festival; she has sung the Dyer’s Wife at the New York Metropolitan Opera, and Elektra at the Chicago Lyric Opera; Ortrud at La Scala Milan and Paris Opera; Elektra, Senta, Ortrud and Venus at the Dresden Semper Opera; Elektra and Senta at the Stuttgart State Opera; Elektra, Senta, Ortrud and Dyer’s Wife at the Hamburg State Opera; Elektra at the Bavarian State Opera Munich; Salome at the Vienna State Opera; as well as Venus at the Maggio Musicale, Florence.

Other key roles include Turandot (Bern, Essen and Warsaw); Tosca (Berlin, La Coruna and Nürnberg); Georgetta (Berlin and San Francisco); Erwartung (Teatro Massimo in Palermo); Fidelio (Warsaw, Franfurt and Antwerp); as well as Verdi’s Elisabeth, Aïda, Desdemona, Leonora, and Lady Macbeth. Miss Roberts has shared the stage with notable singers, such as Placido Domingo, Birgit Nilsson, Christa Ludwig, Hermann Prey, Martha Mödl, Theo Adam and René Kollo, and has worked with renowned conductors, such as Abbado, Leinsdorf, von Dohnanyi, Thielemann, Welser-Möst, Eschenbach, Horst Stein, Klobucar, Navarro, Russell Davies, Anton Reck, Fricke, Janowski and Jun Märkl.

Roberts made her debut at the Boston Symphony Hall in the world premiere of Gregorian’s “Divine Liturgy” with soloists of the New York Metropolitan Opera and members of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Her concert repertoire encompasses Britten’s “War Requiem” (Speyer Cathedral / televised live on Südwestfunk); Agave in Wellesz’s “Bacchantinnen” (Vienna Konzerthaus / broadcast live on Austrian radio); Hindemith’s “Drei Gesänge für Sopran und Orchester” Op.9 (Frankfurt); the 1st soprano role in Mahler’s “Symphony No. 8” (Salzburg Festival and Ludwigshafen), as well as Haydn’s “Creation”, Händel’s “Messiah” and Dvořák’s “Stabat Mater” (Cathedrale Notre Dame in Chartres). She also works extensively in the field of Lieder, performing and recording works by Wagner, Mahler, Strauss, Schreker, Poulenc and Wolf.

For several years Brenda Roberts has been a faculty member and chair of the voice department at the Peter Cornelius Conservatory of Music in Mainz, Germany, and faculty member at the University of Mainz, School of Music. She taught voice to undergraduate and graduate students towards degrees in performance and music education, as well as courses in performance practices designed for opera and recital singers. She has also taught diction courses in German (which she speaks fluently), Italian and French. As chair of the department, her duties include extensive participation in the academic affairs of the Voice Department, juries, examinations, auditions, student advising, etc. She also arranged auditions with agents, theatres and schools in order to place students in their vocational fields of work. Her teaching duties included a course “Podiumstraining” for preliminary work in opera workshops, directing opera workshops and musical theatre productions, and teaching diction. She teaches voice to students of all vocal types and genders: Soprano, Alto, Tenor, Baritone, and Bass.

Ms. Roberts is a member of the National Association of Teachers of Singing (NATS), the German Voice Teachers Association (Bundesverband Deutscher Gesangspädagogen) and the College Music Society. Over the years she has taught many seminars and workshops in vocal technique and opera production in Europe and the United States.

--  Biography and photos are from the singer’s website  
--  Names which are links in this box (and below) refer to my interviews elsewhere on my website.  BD  

I first experienced the artistry of Brenda Roberts when she sang the title role of Elektra at Lyric Opera of Chicago in the fall of 1975.  Also in the cast were Carol Neblett, Ursula Boese, Thomas Stewart, and Frank Little, under the baton of Berislav Klobučar.  I was impressed then, and nearly thirty years later I had the pleasure of having her as my guest for an interview.

We met in August of 2003 at her Alma Mater (and mine), Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois.  Her son had been taking my Introduction to Music class, and arranged for our meeting.  It pleased the soprano very much that after all those years, my explanations and guidance had given him the understanding of what her career was all about, and how it fit in with the other singers and instrumentalists.  Needless to say, I felt honored to be a catalyst for their becoming closer as a musical family.

brendaroberts When we sat down to chat, our mutual enthusiasm took over, and we dove right in . . . . . . . . .
Bruce Duffie:   We were talking about making records, so let us start right there.  Without being specific, is it too difficult on a performer to be expected to make a recording and have it be perfect every time?

Brenda Roberts:   That’s a good question.  It’s really difficult because you need a lot of concentration to bring it every time the same way.  I’ve noticed more of a difficulty usually with an accompanist.  Sometimes an excerpt is just wonderful and beautiful, but then he does something wrong and we have to repeat it.  This is the trouble that a singer gets into
to find that same nouveau [newness] a second time, or a third time.  It is difficult.  It’s very difficult.  [The CD shown at left contains Lieder of Wagner, Strauss, and Franz Schrecker.  The pianist is Christian Schmitt-Engelstadt, and it was recorded in performance on September 14, 2001.]

BD:   Is it a completely different mindset in a performance, where you give your all and then it’s gone?

Roberts:   Oh, yes, because a singer knows this recording is going to be forever and ever and ever.  When you are on stage, it’s all so very much the dramatics, the acting, the expression.  On a recording, you’re very well aware that people are listening to you, especially musically and for intonation, for phrasing, this kind of thing.

BD:   More analytically?

Roberts:   More analytically, yes.  What a singer has to try to do is forget the analytical part as much as she can.  The hard thing to do is to get the expression into the voice, and that’s what a singer has to concentrate on.  You want the intonation to be exactly on.  That’s the perfect thing, and singers are unfortunately not perfect.

BD:   [Jokingly]  Oh, why not???

Roberts:   [Laughs]  If we could be computers, and you could turn us on, and that would be great, but you can’t.

BD:   Would you want to have a mechanical box in your throat, rather than the living, breathing organism that’s there?

Roberts:   No!  Singers who are going to be performers must sing beautifully.  Beautiful tones are important.  It has to be a beautiful voice.  It has to be a voice that will sell, but that should be not the goal of singing.

BD:   Then, what is the goal?

Roberts:   The goal of singing is the expression.  The goal of singing is finding the truth in what you’re doing, and then the musicality of it.  What does a composer want you to do with these phrases?  What are the dynamics?  In my Fach, I won’t name any names, but I hear a lot of singers getting very thick with their voices, and trying to sing dramatically.  They go through piano phrases as if they were forte phrases.  I try to see the truth on the musical part of it, and also the truth in the expression.  What am I trying to portray?  What am I trying to say?  Sometimes the text does not really give you the exact idea of what you want to sing.  Sometimes it is in the subtext, as Stanislavsky techniques, or Strasbourg acting principles of singing.  That’s what you’ve got to look at in anything you’re doing.  I call it The Truth.

BD:   Is it the composer’s Truth, or the librettist’s Truth, or the performer’s Truth?

Roberts:   It is a combination.  For the musical part of it, you have to see really what the composer wants.  Why does he write Salome in the beginning piano?  I see so many singers coming out, and they just blast, like they’ve got to show their voice!  She’s a young girl, and she’s more or less a virginal.  We’re not quite sure, but she comes off as being virginal.  She’s young
fourteen or thirteenso Strauss doesn’t want her screaming at the beginning.  He wants the development to the raging psychopath at the end.  In the beginning is so transparent.  You can see through it.  That’s part of the musical part of it.  Then, you look at the person you are portraying.  What is this person going through?  What is this person thinking?  What is the historical background?

BD:   Do you make sure that every character you portray is someone you can be sympathetic with, or believe in before you start working on the part?

Roberts:   That would be very idealistic.  Remember, we’re in the business to make money [laughs].  But the most successful roles I’ve done are the roles I really love to portray.  Doing Lady Billows in Albert Herring, for example, this old lady who is always interfering is very difficult for me to throw myself into.  But I see throwing myself into outsider roles, like Elektra or Medea.  I find them fascinating and interesting.

BD:   Are you an outsider?

Roberts:   Yes.

brendaroberts BD:   Is there any role that you sing that is too close to the real Brenda?

Roberts:   [Thinks a moment]  I would say Elektra is very close to me.  I’m not ranting and raging in Agamemnon’s Court against his Aegisthus, but I am a person who can really understand the portrayal of injustice; the betrayal of having to do it yourself; of seeing everything that’s wrong, and trying to put a right to it, and giving her life for it.  You probably think how melodramatic that is, but...

BD:   But you’re a melodramatic performer!

Roberts:   Yes, I am.  I was thrown into international singing very early in my life.  I did my first Elektra at the age of twenty-three, and I’ve been doing them ever since.  At Bayreuth, I was the youngest Brünnhilde they’ve ever had [shown at right in Siegfried with Jean Cox].  I was thrown in with this international group, and did not having a strong management behind me.  Over the years I’ve had some sort of protection, but I’ve always been mis-managed.  I’ve never really had a good management, and this fact has made me something like an outsider.  I’m known as a lone fighter!  [Laughs]  That’s good, isn’t it?

BD:   Yes, when you are victorious.

Roberts:   That sounds terribly dramatic.  It’s not all that bad, but nowadays it’s so important for every young singer who wants to start out.

BD:   How can you be sure that you find good management?

Roberts:   That’s a good question.  It’s difficult...

BD:   ...especially for a young singer.

Roberts:   Yes.  I don’t exactly know what the American singers do.  You try to get an engagement first, and then get an agent who’s interested in you.  In the days when I started out, there were only five licensed agents in Germany, and they were not allowed to take anyone on the list as a management for that person.  Nowadays it’s completely different.  There are scads of German agents.  Everybody can get a license nowadays, and the New York agents, especially Columbia Artists, have a big say-so in Europe.  So I suppose for young singers starting out, they should try to get themselves a New York agent.  I started out in German opera houses.  I had an agent, but when I was singing in Bayreuth, my agent went on vacation.  He didn’t even come to Bayreuth to hear me.  This would not happen nowadays, would it?  This is unheard of.  Nobody was there to represent me, and there I was with all these international opera stars with their million-dollar contracts.  That was a big fight for me.  Wolfgang Wagner’s the one who brought me there himself.  He’d heard me singing in Nuremberg.  This is not to say that I haven’t had an excellent career, but you do need protection.

BD:   You’ve made most of your career in Europe.  Is it satisfying, as an American, to be over there so much of the time?

Roberts:   The truth of the matter is I would like to sing a lot more in the States.  Not having a New York agent makes it very difficult for me to get engagements here.  I would like to sing a lot more in the States than I do.  As American singer, I feel I should be over here doing a lot more work than I do.

BD:   Is there more opportunity over here than there was thirty years ago?

Roberts:   Oh, yes, absolutely.  In those days in New York you had to be a waitress or a secretary, and try to get a job on the side.  It’s impossible to go in the front door of the Met.  There was San Francisco and there was Chicago, but the young singers were really starving and trying to scratch their way.  If they got into the New York City Opera, they were very fortunate.  I didn’t even contemplate it.  I didn’t want to go to New York and be a waitress, so I went to Europe and auditioned there.  It was tough.  Even in those days, it was tough.  I remember when I went over there, I had a Euro-Rail pass for one month.  It was just so much money.  I went to some agents, and they liked me very well.  They kept sending me around to these houses, but they said,
“You’re only twenty-two years old, so you can’t sing Salome.  I said, But that’s my best thing!  If I’m going to audition, I have to do my very best.  I did that here for my final concert at Northwestern...  You know I got my bachelor’s and my master’s degrees here...

BD:   Sure.

Roberts:   ...but they said I was way too young.  So I went on these auditions and I’d sing Fiordiligi, which is also quite a nice aria, but...

BD:   But it wasn’t you.

Roberts:   But it wasn’t me!  I had no more time on my Euro-Rail pass.  I had only one more day left.  This is really a true story!  With one day left, I only had enough money to pay for a very, very cheap hotel at the railroad station, and you got a continental breakfast of coffee and a couple of rolls.  That’s all I had, and went into this audition at one o’clock.  I thought I’ve got to have some energy, so I went into this cafe and got a tea and put lots of sugar in it!  Then I went into this audition at Saarbrücken, and when they asked what I wanted to sing, I said Salome.  They said I really should sing something else, but I said to myself that if I don’t do what I thought was right, and I go back to the States not having an engagement, I would hate myself for the rest of my life.  But if I sang what I am and didn’t get the job, okay, it was my fault.

BD:   You would stand or fall on that opera.

brendaroberts Roberts:   Yes.  So I went out on stage and sang it, and they engaged me right away.  I didn’t have to sing the rest of it for them.  They took me and gave me the contract.  This is funny... they said for me to go out and have lunch, and after I’d eaten lunch, come back and the contract would be ready.  I didn’t have any money to eat lunch!  I just went out and walked around the whole city for two hours.  So, I guess maybe that’s a word for young people who are trying to audition.  Of course, you always go with a list of three to five arias, but make sure that what you’re doing is what your teacher says is good, and what you really, really want to sing.  It has to do with what we were talking about before, and also expression, and getting into the role.  You should be doing what you feel is you.  Salome is also an outsider, and that’s a role that I enjoy doing.  [The photo at left shows Roberts as Elektra.  Photos of Roberts in two productions of Salome are shown below.]

BD:   Are there still some roles that you look forward to doing, or have you conquered most of the ones you would like to do in your career?

Roberts:   No, not at all.  I have a very long list of repertoire, but although I’ve sung 
Brünnhilde in Siegfried and Die Walküre, I’ve never done her in Götterdämmerung.

BD:   [Surprised]  No complete Ring?

Roberts:   No complete Ring, although I’ve learned it, and I’ve sung the beginning and the final scene in concert, I’ve never done the complete role.  I would also like to do more Italian repertoire.  When I started out, I did Aïda, and Leonora in Trovatore.  I also did Elisabeth in Don Carlos and a whole bunch of things.  I even did Traviata.  I did Constanze twenty-six times until I said,
I’m not doing this anymore.  I’m a Dramatic soprano!  [Both laugh]  But there are things I want to do, like Gioconda.  I’d love to do something like that, or Marie in Wozzeck, which I’ve never done.  The season before last, I was in Palermo and I did Schoenberg’s Erwartung, which I thought was absolutely magnificent.

BD:   That is twenty-five minutes of just you.

Roberts:   Just me, and it was staged, not a concert.

BD:   Is it a good sing?

Roberts:   What do you mean by that?

BD:   It’s very satisfying in the theater to listen to it and to watch it, but is it something that is satisfying to present vocally and dramatically?

Roberts:   Oh, yes.  You’re on stage all the time, just as Elektra, but you have no monologue, and no duet with Orestes, and those other beautiful parts.  There’s a lot of Sprechgesang in the Schoenberg, where you’re speaking a lot, but there are some fantastic moments.  It’s not as rewarding as Elektra, or Brünnhilde, of course.  When I do a role, there is the thing about liking what you’re doing when you’re doing it, and knowing whether you really feel you’re cast correctly.  Elektra is one of my very big roles, and when I sing her I often get a resonance before they hear me.  [Whispering]
Oh, she thinks she wants to sing Elektra, because I’m not a real big heavy soprano.  I’m very athletic, so I think that’s the reason.  The stamina is absolutely necessary, but I’m not really type-cast as what you think of as a Wagnerian soprano.

BD:   On stage you are more youthful, and more Valkyrie-like, and more Salome-like?

Roberts:   Yes.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Is it helpful to know who the character is when she has been drawn from the literature?

Roberts:   You’re right.  That’s very important for stage directors.

brendaroberts BD:   Here in America, we get the feeling that European stage directors are always going off the deep end about this or that part.  Have you been happy with some of the direction that you have got over the years in the various roles?

Roberts:   Oh, yes.  There are two parallel directions right now.  First, the good directors, the really good ones, like Harry Kupfer, or Ruth Berghaus.  I’ve sung in their productions a number of times.

BD:   What makes them good?

Roberts:   In a very modern production, there’s still logic in it.  It’s a concept that doesn’t go off the deep end just because somebody wants to go off the deep end.  That separates a lot of what has been done.  In, let’s say, Germany, or Europe in general, the trend is toward cheap modern stage directions that just want to be noted.  They’re trying to make a name for themselves just by doing anything.  But a really good stage director has a concept, and it can be logical.  The thing that remains in a good modern stage director’s production is the interaction between the people on stage.  You look into each other’s eyes.  You respond to each other.  Even if they don’t want a certain reaction, you can always look at a different reaction.  But you always are interacting with other singers.  Remember, you’re asking my opinion.

BD:   Of course.

Roberts:   This is really one of the important things.  Then you have the cheap things where they dress up as kids with a bow-tie, and there’s just no interacting.  There’s no concept.  You ask yourself what he is trying to say, and you come up with zero.

BD:   Without mentioning names, are there ever times when you see in a contract that so-and-so is going to direct, and you don’t like what that person has done, and so you turn down that contract?

Roberts:   No, I couldn’t do that.  Maybe Pavarotti or Domingo can do that, but I can’t do that.  Brenda Roberts can’t do that.  If I’m being taken for a production, and I see there’s somebody there, I try to remain as open as I can, and be as professional as I can.  We singers have to work with these people.  These are the people that are out there, the stage directors and conductors.  Let’s take conductors...  For example, in Elektra, sometimes I have a measure where Horst Stein wants to conduct it like this, and Abbado conducts it like this, and Navarro, who I sang with in Stuttgart, wants it like this.  They want it either two to a measure, or four to a measure.  Do they want it fast?  Do they want me to come in, or do they want to bring me in themselves?  Every conductor does something different.  You’ll find every conductor and every stage director wants to do something different.

BD:   So you have to be very pliable all the time, both vocally and dramatically?

Roberts:   Oh, yes.  Vocally the technique has to be so sure that you don’t even have to think about technique anymore.  It has to just come so that you can concentrate on the character and on what’s asked of you.  I did a Salome where they brought me out on a camel.  Yes, a great big camel came out on the stage.  I had to walk up some stairs to get up on top of him, and I came out.  Later, a street car came and picked me up and took me off stage while I was polishing my fingernails.  It was really, really modern, and yet it’s also one of the very good ones where you can keep almost the same expression in interacting with other people.

BD:   I would think if a director can keep your interest, then you will be able to keep the audience’s interest.

Roberts:   Oh, yes, sure.  The important thing when working with someone like this, even if you’re not quite sure that’s the direction for you, is trying to throw yourself into the work so that you can do it well, because you have to project that to the people out in the public.  They have to understand that, and this has always been what I do.  The public has always been actually quite good to me.  It’s been very rare where they haven’t been, and then it’s usually for other reasons.  [Laughs]  But you, as a singer, get a feeling for the public, if they’re with you or not, and that’s very important.  That’s where Truth comes into it, through the real meaning behind that which you’re doing.  That’s what you’re saying and feeling.  The public, even one which is perhaps not so educated as in New York or Chicago or Munich or Vienna or La Scala usually knows if you’re telling the truth, if you’re singing the truth, acting the truth, or not.  They usually have a good feeling for that.

BD:   Is the music that you sing, for everyone?

brendaroberts Roberts:   No, unfortunately.

BD:   Should it be?

Roberts:   Sure.

BD:   [With mock horror]  Six billion???

Roberts:   [Laughs]  Well, let’s go back to Elektra again.  Elektra is a piece that often does not draw big crowds unless you’re in a big city, and they know what they’re going into.  They’re doing more Elektras nowadays than they used to, but the public usually gets into Salome a little bit better.

BD:   [With a gentle nudge]  Well, they know that seven veils are going to come off at some point...  [Roberts
performance in Giessen is shown at right.]

Roberts:   [Much laughter]  Right, right!  They hope.  [More laughter]  But Elektra is a little more difficult to understand, especially the motivations behind it.  When I was working that role, I read every play there was on Electra, from the Greek tragedies to the modern times, trying to really get an insight into the role.

BD:   Do you understand it now, or you are still learning?

Roberts:   You always learn.  Learning is not a process that stops for the mind or for the voice.  I’ve been in this business now for a long time, and I’ve seen singers come and go.  It interests me what my colleagues do, I often ask them if they have time to work on roles.  More often I have gotten the answer,
‘Oh, my gosh, I have to go here today, and there tomorrow, so I don’t have time to work.  I sing my performances, and I warm up before each one, but there is no time to really work.  Despite that, work is one thing that I’ve always done.  I believe discipline in doing vocal exercises is very important, and I think that is why my voice has stayed young.  I can still sing piano, I can still sing coloratura, and I don’t want to do anybody an injustice... it’s a hard business.  But there are, I suppose, very few Hoch Dramatischer sopranos that would do coloratura work.

BD:   It’s very hard on the voice, and if you sing that repertoire a lot, it will take its toll.

Roberts:   If you’re doing this repertoire, this is the Big Trap as I call it.  I studied with Hermanus Baer [who was head of the voice department at Northwestern for many years, and also taught Sherrill Milnes.]  A couple of years after getting into the business, I noticed that my voice was starting to get heavy.  It was big.  I was a Dramatic Soprano!  I never had any vocal problems.  I never had anything on my voice at all, but I thought it sounded a little heavy.  I noticed the brilliancy.  I always came back to Mr. Baer for check-ups, and he heard me, and he said,
Don’t forget the lightness in the voice.  You’re a dramatic soprano, but you don’t have to try to sing like a dramatic soprano.  Sing like you are.  Your voice is big enough.  It’s a carrying voice.  You have everything you need.  You are a Dramatic, but you don’t have to try to sing like a Dramatic.  Those words I’ve never forgotten.

BD:   That was the key to open it up for you?

Roberts:   That was the key.  Some good singers I know always say to me that if they can sing Mozart the day after doing a heavy role, then they know they’ve sung correctly, and I can understand this.  This is correct.  If I can do my light exercises the next day, fine.  If I have trouble exercising, or getting the voice into a very small sound to start, then maybe I’ve been doing something wrong.  That’s why really working the voice is my discipline.  Maybe the young people have it nowadays, I don’t know.  I do some teaching in Germany, and I see that they’re less disciplined than I’m accustomed to.  Even now I work my voice on a daily basis.

BD:   Do you limit the number of nights that you will sing, so that you will have days off to rest, and to vocalize, and to work, or do you just take whatever comes?

Roberts:   No, no.  As a lone fighter, I’ve never had to do 200 performances a year.  I’ve never really been overly worked.  Maybe that’s another reason that my voice is still so fresh.  I do my roles, and they’re well-placed.  You go into a production, and they usually give you two days between each Elektra.  Sometimes they don’t... I’ve done two Elektras on two days, and I’ve done a Desdemona on the day after doing an Elektra!

BD:   [Genuinely shocked]  That’s nuts.

Roberts:   It’s nuts, but it’s trying to get ahead in the business.

BD:   But I trust you don’t do that all the time.

Roberts:   [Smiles]  No, no.  That’s an exception.  You don’t do that every day, and, if you do that, then you usually say to yourself that I must take a day off.

BD:   Is it comforting to know that you can do that if you have to?

Roberts:   Oh, sure it is.  I’ve made a lot of money singing for sick singers.  It’s mostly because my education at Northwestern has given me an excellent musical background.

BD:   But you don’t want to be the world’s number one stand-in?

Roberts:   No...  I have my own productions, too.  But the thing is that I get a lot of those calls when they know it is something that’s important.  For example, Munich can count on me because I rarely make a mistake.

brendaroberts BD:   So then you’re known as Brenda Dependable?

Roberts:   Yes... well, I hope I’m better-known as more than that.  [Laughs]

BD:   But when they really need something, you are someone they can depend on.

Roberts:   Oh, yes.  If they really need somebody, they know I am ready.  In Munich, for example, a few seasons ago I didn’t even get a rehearsal.

BD:   You just walked on stage?

Roberts:   Yes, because a lot of singers cancel on the very same day.  I don’t know how it is in America, but in Germany you can cancel until twelve o’clock of the day of your performance.  Now you try to find an Elektra at twelve o’clock when it’s going to be put on eight hours later.  It’s difficult.

BD:   Do they not have a system of covers, so there’s always someone in the house?

Roberts:   No, not always.  Maybe they do that here in the States, but you try to find two Elektras who are willing to be there.  This was just a jump-in.  I wasn’t covering.  To find good Elektra covers, you must consider that there are only a few really good Elektras, and most of them are busy.  Try to find two Elektras who are willing to take their time, and want to be just on call as a cover.  It’s difficult.

BD:   [Trying to be helpful]  Maybe the answer is to give each of them half the performances.  In a run of eight, give each soprano four.

Roberts:   When I sang at the Met, it was the last year that Birgit Nilsson sang the Dyer's Wife in Die Frau Ohne Schatten.  I was to cover there, but I said I was not going to do that without singing my own performances, because I have a name myself.  I’m not any little kid from kindergarten.  So, they gave me my own performances, and I got to work personally with Erich Leinsdorf.  He was just absolutely amazing.  He worked with me one on one, doing coaching, too, and he was wonderful.  Birgit Nilsson has always been my idol, but in those days she wanted everything really, really, really fast.  She has even stopped her orchestra rehearsal and wanted it even faster.  Now for me, Erich Leinsdorf was fast enough.  That was the most amazing thing, because very often the other conductors want you to expand high phrases, and sing high notes, and that was what I was used to.  Leinsdorf said he wanted this phrase sung from the beginning to the end with no breathing.  It was absolutely amazing.  I never heard a Frau Ohne Schatten like that before in my life.  So he was rather fast, and he wouldn’t take great ritardandos.  As a matter of fact, I’m one to actually be slower than anybody else.

BD:   That’s unusual for a singer?

Roberts:   Yes, it is.  But he wanted it to be even faster.  I adored the man.  I really loved working with him.  I loved working with Horst Stein, too... not only in Bayreuth, where he was fantastic, but in my years at the Hamburg State Opera.  I was there for nine years.  I did my first Ortrud with him, and I did Senta with him, and Elektra.  He worked with me, personally coaching.  He was absolutely fantastic.  [A photo of Roberts as Ortrud is shown below-right.  A recording of a live performance of Lohengrin has been issued, and is shown below-left.  See my interviews with Kurt Moll, and Siegmund Nimsgern, who were also in that performance.  The same company also issued a 1975 performance of Elektra with Roberts, again conducted by Stein, with Arleen Saunders, Martha Mödl, Richard Cassilly, and Tom Krause .]

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   You do mostly opera.  How do you divide your career between operas and concerts and song recitals?

Roberts:   It takes planning.  Most of my recitals are planned a year in advance.

BD:   Operas are planned two, three, four, or five years in advance.

Roberts:   Yes, that’s true, but through my mis-management, I don’t have that problem right now.  Usually your manager, or your agent, will co-ordinate things like that.  If you’re doing anything extra on the side, then you have to usually talk to your agent to be able to put that in.  Usually you have your whole schedule in front of you, so that’s not a problem.

BD:   When you schedule a song recital a year in advance, do you look forward to that as it comes up?

Roberts:   Oh, yes.  I’m going to do Les Nuits d’Été of Berlioz next year.  I’ve never done it before, and I’m really excited about doing that.

BD:   With piano or with orchestra?

Roberts:   With orchestra.  I’m really excited about that.  I used to sit here at the Northwestern library and listen to that all the time.

BD:   Now are you going to try and come up to that, or will you make it your own?

Roberts:   I always make it my own.  As a student, I went a lot to the opera.  In Vienna I used to get standing places, and I would be there in the opera four or five times in a week.  You could go there just for a couple of pennies in my day, so I know opera very well.  But when I’m studying a role, I never listen to it first.  A lot of singers will get a recording, and they’ll learn it with the recording.  Or they’ll listen to the recording first, and decide how they should do things.  I refuse to do that.  That’s why I’m talking about The Truth again.  I look at the music, and the music tells me almost everything I want to know.

brendaroberts BD:   Then can the producer flesh it out for you?

Roberts:   Yes.  You always have to do what he asks.  When a producer or conductor says something, you have to what they say.  Mostly they are very nice.  They usually ask how would you like to do it, but not always.  [Laughs]

BD:   So it’s a meeting of musical minds?

Roberts:   Yes.  It has to be that.  It has to be a working together and looking at the music, and understanding what he thinks.  Good conductors look at The Truth in the music, also.  I’ve worked with Christoph Eschenbach, and I find him absolutely fantastic.  We did Zemlinsky’s Lyric Symphony together.  He was absolutely fantastic looking at how this music is really supposed to be done.  It is a working together.  It’s looking at what is written, and how you think the phrases should be sung.  After I’ve learned it, and learned it well, then I might go to a recording, and see what someone else did, and find anything in it that I really particularly like.

BD:   If you see or hear a performance and find something you really don’t like, do you make sure that you don’t duplicate that yourself?

Roberts:   Yes.  You have to co-ordinate with the conductor if it’s a traditional idea.  Then you have to make sure that the traditional problem is not there.  There are the traditions one should know in case they’re asked of you.  Then you have to forfeit your own opinion.  But, of course, if you work with a conductor who’s really, really a good conductor, then you can discuss things like that. 

BD:   But these are just details.  These aren’t conceptions of the entire role.

Roberts:   No, not conceptions.  Every singer must work the music himself first, and then be open to other ideas.  How else are you going to know a role?  Just by listening to other singers and piece-mealing it together does not work.

BD:   Are you pleased when other singers listen to you and take your ideas?

Roberts:   [Thinks a moment]  I would be if I knew they were doing that.  [Much laughter]  I don’t know...  I suppose they do that.  A very, very well-known Elektra right now was my Chrysothemis for many years.  I would imagine if she likes something about it that I did, she might have taken it from me.  I don’t know, maybe not, but it would be very flattering.

BD:   Can you still sing Chrysothemis?

Roberts:   Oh, I could sing it but I wouldn’t do that.

BD:   [With a gentle nudge]  Just as a lark, perhaps?

Roberts:   It’s a lark, but I don’t think I would do that.  If James Levine would like me at the Metropolitan, and they have their Elektra, and would like me to do Chrysothemis, I probably would say yes.

BD:   But you’d never do Klytemnestra?

Roberts:   No, no, I don’t want to change repertoire.  The interesting thing about my voice is that after all these years, people still find it young.  Some people would think this is an insult, but I took it as a compliment, because it was meant as a compliment... for the recording that I just did a few weeks ago, the conductor said I sounded as if I was only half my age!

BD:   But of course that’s a compliment!

Roberts:   It is a compliment, and that’s why I say discipline is very important in working the voice.  I never fell into the vocal trap of trying to be something I’m not.  I have a very, very big voice.  Conductors say I have the biggest voice in Europe.  I don’t know how that compares with any voices in America, but I do have a big voice, and I don’t have to force.  I’ve never had to force, and that’s a big plus to my voice.  I’ve never had to be thick.  I’ve never had to try to scream.  No, I never had to do that.

brendaroberts BD:   Do you take into account the size of the house
if you’re singing in a smaller house, or a great big barn of a house?

Roberts:   No, because it’s very deceptive.  Singing at the Met I could sing my high pianissimo, and everybody heard it out in the house.

BD:   That’s the acoustics of the place.

Roberts:   Yes, but that’s a big theater.  You can go into a smaller theater in Germany sometimes, and you’re not heard half that well.  The acoustics are poor, so you can’t adjust.

BD:   Then do you take into account the acoustics
if it’s a dead house or a live house, or a sympathetic house, or an unsympathetic house?

Roberts:   No, you can’t do that because you’d be changing your technique all the time, and changing your voice.  You can’t do that and be true to yourself.

BD:   Yet, I assume there are other adjustments to be made all the time?

Roberts:   I suppose, if the acoustics are very difficult, like cotton, or very dead.  Then you might try to increase the brilliancy a bit.  Maybe in some places you would want to add a little bit more tone in the bottom, or the middle range.  When I talk about Truth, piano is piano.  But if we’re talking about mezzo-forte, you could add a little more sound.  You might try to do something like that, but really no because you don’t want to change your technique.  If you try to change too much in your throat, or in your soft palate, you could get tension.  So, no.  There is one more thing, and that is to have enough support.  You must be sure you are using that body correctly if the acoustics are difficult.  Let’s look at churches, for example.  Those are usually very resonant.  There you might want to hold back on the high notes, or at least give them enough time until the echo vanishes.  That kind of thing is more or less just adjusting a bit acoustically, but you should never adjust vocally.

BD:   When you talk about The Truth, is The Truth as you sing it, or is it as the public hears it?

Roberts:   No, The Truth has to be in you.  Then, you just have to hope that they lock into that Truth you’re doing, because otherwise it would be superficial.

BD:   Are you conscious of the audience that’s there each night?

Roberts:   No.

BD:   [Surprised]  Not at all???

Roberts:   No.

BD:   You are aware of just your colleagues?

Roberts:   At Northwestern, and through my experience of watching a lot of opera, I learned that we should be singing actors, to look into the principals of Stanislavsky
his acting, and where he believed he had to get into the role.  He really had to be the person he was portraying.  Lee Strasberg went one step further, and said you must use your own experiences as far as you can to be able to use your own understanding of how you felt when things were happening.  You were to use your own feelings and thoughts, and project them into the person you are playing, knowing what you think you need out of your own life, and to use it.  I try to do this as much as possible.  Opera singers don’t have the fourth wall.  We have to sing to the public, and because we are singers we going to look like singers.  Although we try not to, we are.  We’re going to have our mouth wide open and we will be working with our bodies a lot, using our voice.  This is something which actors would probably not be thinking of so much.  They learn projection.

BD:   [With a sigh]  The act of singing is not particularly beautiful to watch.

Roberts:   I’m doing a lot of teaching nowadays, and I try to tell my students that we’ll use the visual, which sometimes affects trying to inhale the tone.  We use our hands towards something, but then try to get away from it as soon as possible.  You’re trying to sing a high tone, not to wrinkle your forehead, or laugh, or smile all the time.  It’s important to try not to do too many of these vocal attitudes if you can.  There’s a way to learn not to use them and still have the same feeling of lifting, or openness, or whatever you want.  But we are singers, and I guess we will look like singers.  If you really throw yourself into a role, and have a good stage director who does see it from the front, and wants to know you are getting what you’re trying to say, that is important.  The public understands The Truth.  It’s important, and that’s where a stage director will also help you show to the public that which you’re feeling.  But you must bring that yourself into a production, and get away from operatic gestures.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Are you optimistic about the future of opera?

Roberts:   No.

BD:    [Very surprised]  Why not?

brendaroberts Roberts:   I would hope that opera will go on forever, and ever, and ever, but when I see bad productionsand I’ve seen so many of them, that I say to myself I’m not going back againI wonder if sometimes these stage directors who don’t really know what they’re doing, are not doing a lot of bad, and making their reputation as bad opera.  I also find that the financial situation is getting worse and worse.  In Germany right now, they have just fired the whole Mainz opera orchestra.  They have no money.  They’re bankrupt, and they’re trying to find ways of still doing opera, but they’re cutting down productions and then they’re cutting down on the ones they’re doing, and they’re trying to draw the audience with musicals, or just the light opera.  They want the Ludwigshafen Orchestra to do their own concerts, and play the opera at Mainz at the same time.  I sang with the Ludwigshafen Orchestra in their concert series with Eschenbach.  There are big protests going on right now.  I don’t know if that’s going to get better or not.  Now here in the States you’re sponsored by private people and corporate sponsors.  It seems to be doing pretty well.

BD:   Yes, but it’s going through a rough patch.

Roberts:   There are two factors.  First of all, opera is sometimes degenerate in the way it’s produced.  The other is a financial factor.  Opera must really get the young people interested.  Where they are now interested is in the rock/pop, and computers.  They sit on their computers instead of going to the theater.

BD:   Should operas also be on the computers?

Roberts:   I have nothing against it unless it got to be too amateur, or primitive.  [Laughs]  I don’t know.  I’d have to think about that one.  That’s a new question.  I suppose any means of getting opera to the people is worthy of discussion.

BD:   Do you like opera on video?

Roberts:   Sure, why not?  I like it when I’m on video.  [Much laughter]  That’s also a means of presentation, and also on television.  All of this is possible.  My hesitation is that I find that these special areas are being used by well-known productions of well-known singers, but not, perhaps, the best of theater.  If you’re going to put something on a video, it should be really good, and believe me, everything you see in the opera house
even in the big theatersis not always the best.

BD:   In the end, though, is all worth it for you?

Roberts:   Oh, yes, because I can’t live without singing.  I wanted to sing since I was eight years old.  I had never heard an opera, and my parents had never heard an opera.  I come from Indiana, and the first opera my parents heard was one with me when I was at Saarbrucken.  They’d never heard an opera before that, so I was totally without background.  Still, at eight I stood up in class and said I wanted to be an opera singer.  Everybody laughed, and I wondered why they were laughing.

BD:   I hope you made it clear to them now that they were wrong to laugh at you.

Roberts:   I hope so!  The only thing I ever wanted to do in my whole life was to sing.  The best performance of my life was giving birth to my son, but I always wanted to sing.  That’s all I ever wanted to do, and I only feel really fulfilled when I am singing on stage, and giving of myself.  This is the thing that makes my life worthwhile.  Singing is always worthwhile.  Even the highs and the lows are worthwhile.

BD:   I hope it lasts for a long time more.

Roberts:   I do too.  [Laughs]

BD:   Thank you for chatting with me today.

Roberts:   I was very happy to meet you and talk with you.  It’s been wonderful.  I found your questions very interesting.  They’re a bit mind-boggling, so I have to go home and think about some of them.

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© 2003 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, on August 5, 2003.  Portions were broadcast on WNUR ten months later.  This transcription was made in 2019, and posted on this website at the beginning of 2020.  My thanks to British soprano Una Barry for her help in preparing this website presentation.

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.

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.