Soprano Isobel Buchanan
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie
|Since entering the Royal
Scottish Academy of Music and Drama in 1971 Isobel Buchanan has become
one of the leading sopranos of her generation. In 1975 she auditioned
Bonynge and Joan Sutherland and was offered a three year contract
with the Australian Opera. Her professional debut was in January 1976,
singing the role of Pamina in Mozart's The Magic Flute, one she was to
repeat many times throughout the world.
She made her British debut at Glyndebourne in 1978, again singing
Pamina, in the Cox/Hockney production and in 1981 she sang the Countess
in Peter Hall's
production of The Marriage of Figaro,
a role repeated for the 50th Anniversary of the company in 1984 with
1978 saw her as Micaëla at the Vienna State Opera in the legendary
production by Franco Zefirelli, with Domingo, Obratsova and Mazurok.
Conducted by Carlos Kleiber, the performance was broadcast live
throughout Europe and has been released on CD and DVD. [See photo below.]
Isobel's Covent Garden debut was in Parsifal,
conducted by Solti.
Among other roles, she went on to sing Sophie in Werther, with Alfredo Kraus and Teresa Berganza,
later recording the opera with Jose Carreras and Frederica von Stade,
Sir Colin Davis conducting. She has appeared in opera houses in
Cologne, Paris, Munich, Santa Fe, Brussels, Hamburg,Sydney, Wellington,
Chicago (with Pavarotti and Bergonzi), and
Monte Carlo (with Raimondi).
She has also appeared with all the major British orchestras and has
collaborated with many of the world's leading conductors, including
Solti, Haitink, Andrew Davis, Colin Davis, Celibidache, Pritchard,
Mariner, Kleiber and Menuhin.
Isobel has made numerous recordings and in 1981 the BBC made a
documentary, La Belle Isobel,
of her career up to that time. She has had her own television series
and has also appeared on such programmes as Face the Music and The Michael Parkinson Show.
After bringing up her two daughters, Isobel has resumed her career
singing recitals with Eugene Asti and Malcolm Martineau at St John's,
Smith Square, as well as performing Sheherezade
with the South Bank Sinfonia and Haydn with the Orchestra of the Age of
Enlightenment and Walton’s Façade
with Jason Thornton and the Bath Phil at Longleat.
She also teaches voice privately, is a regular tutor for the Samling
Foundation, gives master classes and workshops throughout the UK and
teaches at the Guildhall School as a visiting professor.
-- Biography from the
Guildhall School website
-- Names which are links throughout this webpage refer to my
interviews elsewhere on this website. BD
The years 1980 and 1981 found Isobel Buchanan singing with both the
Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Lyric Opera of Chicago. First, in
April and May came the Symphony #2
of Mahler conducted by Solti, (three performances in Chicago and two on
tour at Carnegie Hall with Christa Ludwig, plus the recording with Mira
Zakai), and then three performances of A Sea Symphony by Vaughan Williams
with John Shirley-Quirk
conducted by Raymond
The CSO Chorus was prepared, as always, by Margaret Hillis.
Buchanan returned in November and December for Zerlina in the Ponnelle
production of Don Giovanni
Tomowa-Sintow, Carol Neblett, Stafford Dean, Hermann Winkler, John
Paul Bogart, and John
Macurdy, conducted by John Pritchard. She
also donated her artistry to the Italian
Earthquake Relief Benefit Concert which featured many of these
same singers and also Kathleen Battle, Anne Howells, Leo
Nucci, Luciano Pavarotti, Patricia Payne, Renata Scotto, and
The following September and October, Buchanan
was back at Lyric for eight performances of L’Elisir D’Amore with Bergonzi replacing the
scheduled Pavarotti for the first three performances, and Dalmacio
González on the final evening. Mario Sereni and Dale
Duesing shared the role of Belcore, and Paolo Montarsolo
was the quack Dr. Dulcamara. Bruno Bartoletti conducted. It
was at the very end of this complicated run that Ms. Buchanan sat down
with me for a lively and laugh-filled conversation. Even though
the performances had varying casts, she mentioned that she liked all of
her colleagues very much. I usually don’t
ask about negative things, but in this case I was curious . . . . . . .
Duffie: What happens when you work with
someone that you don’t like?
It’s very, very hard, and only has happened with a conductor. It
was this year actually, and I was very distressed. When this man
came to the very first rehearsal, several people immediately disliked
him. We disliked his manner, disliked the way he worked, disliked
his Mozartian style — or
his lack of it. I and the Susanna gave him the benefit of the
doubt, and we were very nice to him. I mean that we were just
normal with him. But when it came to the performances, he went
off on another planet. I don’t quite think he was even conducting
the same opera. He had a fabulous cast up there on stage, and he
wrecked it. My ‘Dove Sono’
was a disaster every night. Eventually I went up to him in the
last performance and said, “If you do not
conduct this aria at my tempo tonight, I’ll walk off the stage in the
middle of it. I promise you!” [She
then imitates a foreign, temperamental conductor with broken English] “Why
are you telling me this superfluous things?” and
I replied, “They are not superfluous. I
promise, I’ll do it!” So that’s my only
ever experience with somebody that I really just couldn’t deal
with. And it was simply a musical thing because he quite a nice
BD: Now if
you get a contract to sing another opera, and you see that man’s
conducting, will you not sign the contract?
Definitely, not. I promised I would never sing with him
again. It was the worst experience I’ve ever had.
BD: What else
goes into the decision to accept an engagement or not?
IB: I don’t like
doing one-night stands because a lot of the enjoyment I get out of
opera itself is actually the rehearsal period. And that’s
sometimes difficult because a lot of people don’t like to
rehearse. It can be hard because I think that the only way you
can get a drama together is to get to know each other and to work
through rehearsals. It’s quite hard and requires a lot of
work. I don’t mean at great length of time. It’s possible
to put together a piece of drama that would work very well in two and a
half or three weeks. But that’s quite an average rehearsal period for
places would give you two or three weeks to work on it?
on who the singers are. It also depends on whether it’s a new
production. If it’s a new production, some of them want four and
half or five weeks, which is quite long, again depending on the opera
and depending on the particular role. Last year I did Zerlina
here with four and half solid weeks of rehearsal with Ponnelle. I
don’t know how that man exists. He works non-stop, and then he
has a three-hour lunch break in the middle of it. I don’t know
what he does during that, but he comes back full of fire while you are
exhausted! He works and works and works. We worked every
day until the première. We were so tired, BUT it got a
fantastic result in the end. I thought the team work in Don Giovanni last year was
BD: It looked
IB: That for
me is very important. Of course it’s fine to step in and if
somebody is sick and help a company out, and we always get by somehow,
but I just don’t think that’s the way to do opera. Even here in
Chicago, I was quite dismayed when I first came because there were only
two weeks rehearsal. That quite worried me because it’s my first
Adina. Then I was told that the rest of the cast didn’t come
until the following week, so I rehearsed alone for a week, which was
very bizarre, and quite unlike Chicago.
BD: Do you
find yourself talking to lampshades and pillow cases?
Yes! [Both laugh] It’s just ridiculous. I was
rehearsing with covers, and they were very sweet. They were very
anxious to do it and work hard, and that was great. But of course
then the real people came and said, “I couldn’t
possibly do that. No, I don’t do that.”
So I said, “I’m sorry, I’ve been rehearsing here
for a week. You haven’t and I’m doing it! You can do what
you like!” [Huge laugh] And of course
Pavarotti cancelled the first three, so Bergonzi arrived at the last
minute — that not being his fault. He
turned out to be very co-operative; absolutely marvelous.
BD: Let me
ask you an indelicate question. What’s the difference between
working with Bergonzi and Pavarotti?
IB: Well, of
course they’re two completely different characters to begin with.
I was fascinated to meet Bergonzi because I have never seen or heard
him in the flesh. He is amazing, he really is. And I was
very delighted with his sheer professionalism, the way he approached me
as his leading lady, the way he approached the opera, the way he
approached the fact that he was standing in for Pavarotti, which must
have been fairly nerve-wracking considering the pull that Pavarotti has
here. I don’t know what the differences are apart from the
personality-thing. I get the feeling that Pavarotti doesn’t like
to rehearse very much especially when he’s done the role often.
[Much laughter] In a way people can’t be blamed. If you’re
constantly being told you are the best thing since sliced bread, and
you can really do anything you like, and you can walk all over us and
we’ll still love you, he’s going to do it! [Note: In 1989, Ardis Krainik, the
General Director of Lyric Opera announced that Luciano Pavarotti would no
longer be engaged there after he had cancelled two-thirds of his
mainstage performances (39 out of 60) that decade, including all dates
for the last two operas he had been booked to sing. Her decision
was met with nearly universal support.]
BD: Does he
have too much power, not just in Chicago?
IB: I don’t
like the idea of a singer — any singer, not just
Luciano — being able to dictate how much
rehearsal they will do. Obviously you will have to say you just
cannot do three weeks rehearsal on something that you’ve done umpteen
times, but I don’t think you can say you’re only going to come in for a
few days and damn the rest of the cast. It doesn’t matter whether
they have done it once, a hundred times or not at all. I don’t
like the fact that audiences are so gullible. This is not a
reference to Luciano’s singing or anybody’s singing in fact, but that
they would just love people because they have this aura, and they have
been told that this person is somebody special. It worries me, it
really does. When you have been praised and put on a certain
pedestal and everybody says that you’re the best, it’s very hard to
then go into a rehearsal and start at zero with your colleagues.
I have been in that position watching Luciano come in, and everybody
else is quite nervous.
BD: Even the
IB: Even the
old hands. It’s very interesting to watch them. Not nervous
in the sense that they’re really worried, just a bit kind of anxious to
please, and interested to see what he’s going to do, and making sure
that they say the right things. That does put you on a different
level. That means you don’t start off at the right working
situation. They like a name, and in a way you can’t blame
them. Everybody loves a star, but I just find it rather
the role you’ve sung the most?
we’re talking about rehearsal, and you want long periods of rehearsal,
would you consent now to go some place where there would be four or
five weeks of rehearsal for a Pamina?
IB: Yes, if
it were a new production. The thing that I find is despite the
fact that I’ve done four or five different productions, each time I’ve
done it I’ve learned something else about the character. I find
something else that’s very interesting to play, and of course the
people that you’re working with are different. Even if
they’re not, the production is different.
BD: Have you
come back to the same production with the same cast and the same
IB: I’ve done
that. I’ve repeated it but not all together with the same
people. I come back often to the Australian Opera one where I’ve
done Pamina. I’ve done it about three or four times.
BD: I’d love
to see that house up close with its marvelous shapes and everything.
BD: Is it
nice to sing in?
quite nice to sing in, but the opera theater itself is a little bit of
a disaster. They had to enlarge the pit last year, and it’s made
a bit of a difference, but not tremendously. The concert hall is
fabulous to sing in because the acoustic is marvelous there, and it’s a
nice, big open space.
BD: Are they
both in the same building?
IB: Yes, in
the same building they have the concert hall, the opera theater, the
drama theater, a little music room which is THE most ridiculous music
room I’ve ever seen. It’s full of carpets and curtains, and the
sound is like singing through cotton wool. [Both laugh] But
first of all they were delighted with the visual thing from the
outside, the exterior thing, and nobody thought how it was going to
work on the inside. So that was left to the last minute, and just
had to be done.
BD: Are there
concerts and operas going on the same evening?
they’re playing something loud in the opera house and there’s a soft
passage in the play theater, do the walls rattle?
Well, not that I know of! [Laughs]
BD: It would
take some very cunning design work on the part of the architect to keep
them separated enough that there won’t be any leakage.
quite separate and they’re quite a bit away from each other, and walls
are sort of very thick and insulated.
BD: Let’s get
back to Mozart. You seem to enjoy singing his music a lot.
IB: Yes, I
do. It is medicine, I think. Many singers are of the notion
that if you can sing Mozart, you can sing anything — if
you can sing it well! He wrote really well for the voice.
The same is true of Bach and Handel, though Bach forgot to leave some
breathing spaces. [Both laugh] I just did a Bach cantata at
the Edinburgh Festival this year. Oh, God, it was long and very
high. It was the Wedding
Cantata, and that was very interesting.
BD: How you do you
decide which cantatas you will learn or which roles you will
learn? Do you wait to be asked to do certain things, or do you
learn them and hope you’ll be asked?
IB: It’s a
mixture of both really. Sometimes my agent will say that we have
to think of what my next role is going to be, what’s good for me
vocally, what’s coming up next. Then he goes ahead and tries to
book that role for me somewhere. And sometimes an opera company
will if I had considered singing something, or do I already sing a
particular role. That’s how it works really.
BD: Is there
ever a case where they ask for something and no matter what it is you
say yes and you run out and buy a score?
no!! [Laughs in horror] I’ve been very careful never to say
that because it gets you into hot water. I did it once with
Desdemona, and I don’t think it was altogether my fault. I was
led to believe that this was a fabulous role for me. Well, it
might be in another six years from now, but this was at the age of
twenty-four. I was supposed to do it in Houston with Jon Vickers.
I looked at the score and thought yes, this looks really quite
interesting. So I learned the ‘Ave
Maria’ and the ‘Salce’
and of course I could sing those! But I was forgetting you still
have another three acts before that with a lot of heavy singing.
Anyway, about nine months before it was due to happen, I had learned
the role and memorized it, and was still all ready to do it, and I
thought, “Wait a minute! Houston, Jon
Vickers, me; I don’t think I can do this!”
I think it was the most sensible decision I ever made is far as I was
concerned, because I just would never have done it. I did
us all a favor by cancelling. I don’t think Houston was very
pleased but I tried to make it as clear to them as I could that it was
for their benefit, too, not just for mine. I didn’t want to be
of a rubbishy Desdemona!
you’ll come back to the part maybe ten years from now?
maybe sooner than that. I don’t know because my voice is doing
something at the moment.
BD: Is it a
crisis time for you? I was talking to James Levine about a
production he was going to do, and when I asked if he was looking
forward to it, he mentioned something about it being a crisis time for
so many of the singers that he was worried about it.
IB: I’m sure
singers go through little crises all the time. I had one at the
beginning of this year when I just suddenly decided that I didn’t know
how to sing at all. I thought, God, this is really
crazy. If somebody presents me with a piece of music, I have to
rush off to a teacher and ask how do I do it. That just means you
don’t have a proper fundamental technique. So after lots of tears
and wrangling about whether I should change teachers and offend one
teacher and go to somebody else, in the end you have to say to
yourself, “It’s my career and I have to change
teachers.” So I did, and I ended up going
back to my first singing teacher in Glasgow. She is marvelous,
and since then I have just gained back some of the confidence that I’d
lost. It is very sad because once you start losing confidence,
it’s a very frightening job to do, to get up and not be sure of
yourself. Anyway, I went back to this teacher and she has given
me a technique where I know now that I can just pick up a piece of
music, and I don’t mean it’s going to be perfect, but I know how to
approach it vocally immediately without ringing her up and going to her
to ask how would I sing this bit.
BD: So she
teaches you technique, but you go to other people for coaching the
Sometimes. It depends. She was a singer herself. In
fact she sang a lot more lieder than opera, so for operatic roles, yes,
I do go and coach with somebody else. But for lieder and
concerts, she is marvelous. I don’t have to go and coach with
BD: How do
you balance your career with opera, lieder, concerts, etc.?
easily. I do mostly opera! [Laughs] I’m a bit nervous
at concerts. I do them, and it’s something that I’m
introducing more and more into my repertoire.
BD: Do you
IB: I love
them. I’ve very scared of them, and recitals are even
worse. I haven’t actually done a full professional recital
yet. I did one when I was a student, and that was enough to kill
me. But I’m slowly gaining confidence in that area, and I’m
building it up so that eventually I will try to do a lot more concert
and recital work. There seems to be a lot of demand in Britain
for it. They like their concerts and recitals over there as well
as opera, but so far I’ve really stuck mostly to opera. I have
done quite a lot of concerts, but not nearly as much as I should.
BD: ‘As much
as you should’ ... Is this for the voice or the ego or for the
IB: This is
really for my career because I do adore some of the concert pieces, but
it’s just such a nerve-wracking business. I know singers who are
the exact opposite, who think that concert work is dead easy and opera
is frightening. For me, I’m somebody else when I’m on the stage
so it doesn’t matter.
completely immerse yourself then in the role and become Pamina or Adina
or somebody else?
do. At least I try to.
BD: Do you
sing any characters you don’t like? For instance, the vocal line
might be good for your voice but the character might be something you
are not pleased with?
IB: [Thinks a
moment] I am trying to think if there are characters I’ve done
already like that... Yes, there are some sweetie-sweetie
characters give me the pip a bit. I did quite a lot of things
like Zerline in Fra Diavolo
in Australia, and it was one of those pieces we were all
dreading. My character was the innkeeper’s daughter, a lead part,
and it was all so very smiley sort of cheery soul. O God, it used
to drive me nuts always trying to be so cheery. That just drives
BD: Do you
ever wish you were doing a 9-to-5 job where you could come home every
night to your husband and just relax in front of the TV?
I think it would be heavenly to finish at 5 o’clock on a Friday and
have all weekend free... but no I don’t think I do! [Both
BD: Do you
like the travel?
IB: I like it
mostly if my husband, Jonathan, can come [both shown in photo at right], and
when people are around that I know. Otherwise it’s quite lonely.
BD: Do you
schedule a certain few weeks that you stay home, and then travel for a
while, and then stay home again?
IB: I try
very hard to do that because we have been separated quite often for
about three months at a time, and then you come back and you’re living
with a stranger. It is just terrible. So what I try to do
is make my maximum stay away from home six weeks. It’s basically
one production, or eight weeks if it is a new production. Then I
must have about the same amount of time at home, and it works out quite
well. It’s amazing because I can do my learning period at home,
and some concerts and also some productions. Then I come away and
do some other work.
BD: It’s nice
that you’re far long enough in your career that you can do this kind of
IB: I needed
to make some decisions because at first I wasn’t able to do that.
I just had to keep taking the work that came along, not really just
financially but also because if you want to establish a career you just
cannot always say no. So it meant that poor Jonathan and I
suffered a fair bit. But it’s getting better.
good, that’s good. I often wonder about ... the big careers of
families and then how you’re going to have children if you want them
... so it’s going to be very difficult?
IB: It’s very
hard with two careers going on. It’s not like Jonathan has a sort
of ‘normal sort of job’,
but the fact that he is also in the theater and there are two egos in
the one house craving for indulgence — especially
towards a première — is a lot to juggle.
BD: So you
come home for your eight weeks and he’s about to go out on the road?
fortunately he’s with the Royal Shakespeare Company and he’s always in
one place. So that is one consolation.
BD: When you
are away, I assume you ring back and forth a lot?
IB: Yes, too
much. I think we spend more money on phone calls than I make
singing! [Both laugh] But it’s the only way to keep
sane. It really is worth it.
BD: And then
there is the time difference from America to Europe or Australia to
Europe. Do you sing in Japan also?
IB: No, I
haven’t sung in Japan yet. Australia is the worst because it’s
such a long journey, and when you get there and you’re literally upside
down. You just don’t know where you are. The journey has
taken twenty-six hours straight by plane. That’s very hard, and
in order to sing there I usually like a few weeks. I take about a
week to get settled before I do anything. That’s the problem with
the age of airplane and the opera singer. You’re sort of shunted
along from job to job, whereas before when they went by boat it was all
very relaxed and really rather nice. [Gives a romantic sigh]
sometime you should insist on taking the steam ship instead of an
IB: Yes, I’ve
thought of that, especially on the trips to Australia. It would
be rather nice to take a cruise on the way and arrive ultra-fit and
BD: You must
be something of an athlete to sing, because you must be healthy and
strong all the time for your performances!
IB: Yes, it
takes quite a lot of willpower in that respect. You have to
really be about 100% every night you go on. It’s not always that
you are but that’s what you aim for. I find it very important to
get some form of exercise. I’m fairly lazy about it, and I have
to keep reminding myself and be cajoled into it. But I try to do
something every day if I can. It takes a tremendous amount of
strength, and there is the discipline about getting enough sleep for a
performance. I’m very good at it now. I just absolutely
will not do anything the night before a performance, and I go to bed
early. Whether I sleep or not it doesn’t matter, just as long as
I’m horizontal. I eventually do sleep, but if you’re excited
about something it takes a bit of time. Then the next day I get
up at a reasonable hour — reasonable being about
half past ten — then go for a walk or something
and have something to eat. Then I go back to bed and then spend
the rest of the day in bed. There’s a wonderful thing in
Elisabeth Söderström’s book In
My Own Key, and she says, “People just don’t seem to understand
that part of the work is resting! When people come to my house
and I’m in bed the day before a performance and the day of the
performance, they say, ‘What are you doing in
bed?’ and I say, ‘Working.
Get out!’” [Both have a huge laugh]
BD: Let’s go
back to Mozart a little bit. Tell me a bit about Pamina.
What kind of a character is she really?
anyone asks me about Pamina or Michaëla or any of these roles, I
always say that I just don’t think she’s wet [spineless or
ineffective]. A lot of people think these characters are sort of
droopy-drawers. I just don’t see it, I’m sorry. I think
that Pamina is full of spirit.
BD: Is she
Yes. Absolutely. I think she’s a bit confused as to why
Tamino was suddenly leading her up the garden path and then not talking
to her. But, no, I think she’s very decisive about that, really.
BD: I just
wonder maybe a twentieth century reaction would be that she’d slap
Tamino and go off with Sarastro!
Papageno! Sometimes a Papageno’s really sweet!
BD: Do you
ever wish you could go off with him?
yes, especially if you have a sort of fifty-five year old middle-aged
German tenor singing Tamino, and Papageno is some sort of cute thirty
year old! That’s very mean to say, but sometimes... [Both
BD: This is
what I was getting at before when I asked if are there characters that
you like but can’t sing because of the vocal demands.
often true. A lot of time the really spirited roles like Eboli
and Azucena are given to the mezzos because they seem to have more
vocal beef down there. Sometimes I’d really love to do a fiery
role like that, but there are a lot of soprano roles like that of
course. I feel I’m not really quite ready yet for things like
Jenůfa, which I think is the most wonderful character. A lot of
the actresses-roles demand quite a lot of vocal strength.
BD: Is that
something you’ll learn now and then maybe in ten years you’ll be
IB: No, not
really because at the moment I have so much work that I am going to do
that I’m having a tough enough time keeping up with that!
BD: What are
your next couple of new roles?
IB: The next
one is Antonia in Hoffman. That will be in Hamburg and I only get
five days rehearsal!
BD: Then of
course you’ll be asked to learn Giulietta and Olympia...
IB: Oh well,
maybe, I don’t know...
Stella and Niklausse and Hoffman and Dapertutto! [Both have a
IB: Then the
next role is Susanna at La Scala, which I haven’t done before.
done the Countess, but not Susanna?
IB: I did it
the other way round from the usual.
BD: Yes, most
people move from Susanna to the Countess. How are you going to
keep it all straight?
IB: I don’t
know! Susanna has about 500 miles of recitative, which is quite
daunting when you’re going to sing it in Italian at La Scala for the
first time ever. You’ve got their clacks and all that jazz,
however I shall just have to be very, very brave and strong about
it. It’s a funny transition. The reason I did the Countess
first was in Australia, when I was twenty-two. When I think of
it, my God! Richard Bonynge rang me up one morning and said,
[rushing about] “Isobel, Isobel, somebody has
cancelled singing the Countess. Can you learn it in two weeks?”
I said yes and he said, “Right, good,
smashing. Bye!” So I immediately got
started on this and I did it! It wasn’t a new production.
We did it again after that a year later, and I was much better because
I was more mature in every sense. Then I did it at
Glyndebourne. Having gained my vocal and physical maturity, Peter
Hall then tells me, “Of course she’s a very young Countess, and that I
think that’s marvelous because you’re very young, and we’re going to
play her that way!” So it was very interesting. It was
great fun actually.
you’re doing the Countess, do you ever think about the third drama of
Beaumarchais where she winds up having a child with Cherubino?
IB: No, not
really! I play it for what it is at that particular moment, which
is really nothing more than an attraction. No, I don’t really
think of that because in the second play it’s just really still just a
BD: Let me
ask about the other direction then. Do you think about the first
drama when she was being courted by the Count?
IB: Yes, yes,
I do. That does come into it quite a lot, and also that affects
very much the relationship with Figaro on stage as well.
BD: Have you
sung The Barber of Seville?
I’d love to sing it and I’ve been asked to sing it but haven’t been
free for the particular time. I would love to sing it, but in a
way I feel it’s a bit of a cheat because the mezzos don’t often get a
chance at singing really nice feminine roles like that. I often
feel we should just leave it to them. It’s a shame; we’ve got
plenty of them. But on the other hand it is such wonderful
music. I love Rossini so much.
BD: Last year
here in Chicago you were Zerlina. How peckish is she?
is a hard role to play, and it really depends very much on the
production and what you’re asked to do, and also your Masetto and Don
Giovanni. It depends very much on them because if you get
somebody who’s playing Masetto as a real bumpkin, who’s really acting
stupid, you just want to be bitchy to him. That’s very nasty, but
BD: Maybe you
should go off with Don Giovanni and take your place in Leporello’s
catalogue of conquests?
Absolutely! [Both laugh] My favorite way of playing her is
that she’s very much in love with Masetto. I’m quite convinced
that is true, actually.
BD: Is she
stronger than Masetto?
IB: I think
so. He is a really genuine, sincere peasant, and so is she.
She’s just a little more clever than he is, that’s all. It’s not
that he’s a dummy. She’s just got a little
more savvy. She is very flattered by the attentions of Don
Giovanni, and then gets a bit carried away with herself, especially
when he invites her to his house. She sort of plays him along a
bit when he says, “Yes, I want to marry you!” and she says,
“You?!!” Then she realizes she’s getting into hot water.
The interesting thing is that she doesn’t actually address Don Giovanni
in the duet until she says, “Andiam!”
She’s saying all this stuff like, “I’d really like to, but I better
not, better not. What about Masetto! Oh, think about
him. I would really like to ...” Then suddenly she says,
“Let’s go!” and that’s the first time she actually turned round and
says it to Giovanni.
BD: That’s an
interesting way of playing it.
IB: If she’s
trying to rationalize it to him, it just doesn’t work. At least
for me it doesn’t, just personally. But she just gets into hot
water when she gets carried away and then realizes that he’s not going
to marry her at all. He wants his evil way after all!
BD: Have you sung
It’s a bit high for me. I was asked to do it — this
is another Richard Bonynge’s wonderful ideas for me — but
I said, “Oh, no, I don’t think so!” He may have been right at the
time because I was less concerned about the top of my voice way out in
Australia. When I was singing there I was very young and I just
didn’t have any worries. I wasn’t over-confident or anything like
that; it was just that I didn’t concern myself so much with the quality
of my high notes as I do now. I would probably have probably sung
it all right, although it’s a bit of a voice-ripper. But now I
just wouldn’t dare, because I’m more concerned with the quality of the
sound up there. It’s a little bit uncomfortable.
BD: Would you
do a Blonde?
IB: No, I
don’t like the role. [Laughs] I’m sorry! It’s quite a
sweet character and all of the rest of it, but for me it’s not
BD: Have you
done some other Mozart roles?
IB: I’ve done
Fiordiligi. [More laughter] It was a very interesting stay
in Australia. That was also when I was twenty-two. [Photo at right]
BD: I can’t
imagine doing Fiordiligi professionally when you’re twenty-two.
IB: It is
ridiculous really, but it came off quite well.
BD: Were all
the other singers that same age group though?
IB: No, the
lady who was singing Dorabella was about twelve years older than me or
possibly a bit more. Some of them were much older than
that. It was interesting that Bergonzi was thirty years older
than me here the other week. I love that! [She laughs]
BD: But you
still fell for him anyway!
IB: Oh, of
course. He was very sweet. Yes, it was very funny to sing
Fiordiligi, I must say.
years from now, I’ll be sure and ask how you like working with the
tenors thirty years younger than you!
laugh] Yes, I’ll probably be all jittery and paranoid about it
all! You never know!
BD: Do you
like the way your career is going so far?
IB: Yes, I’m
quite pleased about it — especially since I’ve
got over my little vocal crisis. I’m feeling much more confident
in that respect because a lot of times you have been given a lot of
publicity — which I was when I went back to
England after Australia. It was very flattering, but
it puts you in quite a difficult position as far as your work goes
because then the critics sharpen their pencils, and they come out in
force. And if you’re singing major roles, you really are under
quite a lot of pressure to make them fairly good. I just didn’t
think I had enough vocal know-how.
BD: But you
do now because you seem very confident.
IB: I hope I’m
getting there. I’m working hard at it. It’s still not
absolutely right, but it’s really on its way and I’m delighted with the
BD: Are you
going to be doing more Donizetti now?
IB: I don’t
know! There’s nothing in the near future for Donizetti. I
find it quite enjoyable music, very enjoyable music to sing. It’s
quite tough music to sing really.
Why? What makes it tough?
IB: Maybe it’s my
kind of voice because at the moment it is getting a little bit heavier,
and maybe it’s because I have to really make a special effort to keep
it in the right focus. Somebody with a much more coloratura-type
voice could do it a lot easier. I just find it a little bit extra
work than I do, for example, in Mozart or even Strauss, which I’m just
beginning to sing. I would love to do Octavian!
[Genuinely surprised] Why Octavian? I would think that you
would rather do either of the other roles.
IB: I don’t
know; it’s funny, isn’t it? It’s just one of my quirks because
I’ve never had to be a boy before, and I would like to try it for
fun. That’s basically it. I also like the music very much.
BD: Would you
do a Cherubino if you were offered that role?
funny because when Muti asked me to do this Susanna, he heard me sing
because he’s very fussy about who he takes. All these conductors
are so sure of themselves, pardon me for saying so! [Huge
laugh] Nobody else has asked me sing for them. When they’ve
asked me for a role, they’ve never said, “Would you sing for me
first? Let’s see if I like you or not!” But he did, and at
first I thought, “How dare he!” Then I thought, “Who
cares!” It doesn’t make any difference whether I go and sing ‘Deh, vieni non tardar’ or
not. So I went and did it and he said, “Oh, it’s wonderful,
wonderful! Tell me something... Have you ever been a
mezzo?” I said, “Yes, when I first started training years ago, I
was a mezzo!” I thought I was, and I definitely had that kind of
quality. “I can hear it,” he said. “I don’t think you are a
mezzo but you still have that quality, and you would make a fantastic
Cherubino. However, you will make an even better Susanna!”
So that was one person who considered me for Cherubino.
BD: Could you
ever see making a recording of where you sing all three roles?
would be interesting, wouldn’t it?! I’d love to do that! It
may be a bit awkward to sing the duets, but I suppose you can do it
with headphones! They’d get a bit bored with the one sound all
the time, though!
BD: You could
get Herman Prey to
sing both Figaro and the Count!
Yes! You know, that could be fun!
opera recordings have you made so far?
IB: I did Suor Angelica with Sutherland and
Bonynge, and Sonnambula with
the same team and Pavarotti, and Werther
with Frederica von Stade, Carreras, and Colin Davis. I was the
biggest fifteen year old in the world! [Both laugh] I’ve
also done a Beethoven Ninth Symphony
with the Hallé Orchestra, and a Mahler Second with Solti here.
BD: How do
you like working with Solti?
IB: He’s a
fairly nice man, he is really is. I just found him a bit
intense. I was a bit nervous with him. I also
performed the Beethoven Ninth
in London with him at the Festival Hall. He was being terribly
nice and very accommodating and all those things that you would hope
somebody would be, but he in himself is so intense when he conducts,
and I just got nervous because I’m not very good at concerts, as I told
you. I’m getting slightly better since then, and I’m going to
work with him again next year in concerts, so we’ll see. But that
Mahler Second was a peculiar
experience. I can’t just say I was nervous because of
Solti. It wasn’t that. When you sit there for fifty minutes
while the orchestra is playing, and you’ve got Christa Ludwig as your
colleague and you haven’t been heard of in Chicago, then you have to
stand up and sing this angelic piece at the end... it really requires
quite a lot of self-control, and I didn’t have any! I was
quaking. I was so terrified, I’ll never forget it. In
Orchestral Hall, the audience is so close, and when I looked down I
really could see where a woman had smudged her mascara. So I
thought she can see about me up here absolutely shaking in my
shoes. That made me very nervous. The recording was better
of course because we didn’t have those other pressures, and we got on
BD: Do you
find recording work satisfying.
[Hesitantly] Yes, but for its own reasons. I don’t think
it’s a satisfying as doing a live performance, which is the tops.
In opera, when you go on stage and everything is just happening, it’s
even more exciting when you make a mistake! [Both laugh]
But yes, I enjoy recording because I quite enjoy the techniques, and I
quite enjoy the situation.
people hate it, especially doing things over and over again, and doing
a little bit and dropping it in.
IB: I like
the fun of it. It doesn’t really worry me to think I’m going to
do this section again. Maybe by the time I’ve done a hundred
recordings I’ll be hating it, but I really am fascinated by the way
they do it. It’s quite a nice situation. It’s quite relaxed
and you don’t have to worry about the public being there. You
just do it, and it’s all very private and really quite fun. I
like it. You get plenty of chance to perfect what you’re doing
— hopefully! — because you can do it
so often and you do it in little sections. I’m sure that’s why
many people record roles they would never sing on stage because it’s
not so strenuous. You’ve got weeks to do it and get it right.
BD: And you
don’t have to scream over the orchestra. You can sing your own forte into the mike, and even if
the orchestra’s playing its forte,
you don’t have to carry across; you just have to carry to the
right, and with a few knobs they can adjust and make you sound like
Brünnhilde. It’s wonderful!
BD: Have you
sung roles in translation?
BD: Do you
like singing in translation?
I really don’t, I have to admit. To be honest, most of the
translations I’ve done have been into English, and I just don’t think
they’re very good. The things I’ve done have been Mozart
mainly. Figaro I’ve
done in English in Australia, and Magic
Flute I’ve done in English as well as German. But some of
the translations, especially The
Magic Flute, are terrible.
BD: I would
think especially for The Magic Flute,
with all the dialogue, that being in English would be better.
IB: Yes, you would
think so because the audience would appreciate it more. Even in Figaro there are lots of jokes
going on, and the audience often misses them if you don’t speak the
language. That can be great, but some of it is so vile. I
also did Così Fan Tutte
in English, and the translation for ‘Come
Scoglio’ is hard and rock-like, which is very obscene. I
remember I just couldn’t do it without laughing. They had to
change things and it was terrible. The Magic Flute I had sent to me
was just awful with a terrible translation. I don’t even know
whose it was, so I can’t tell you. But I prefer singing in the
original language because usually the vowel sounds are made to fit
whatever notes you’re singing. So if you’re singing high, you’re
not singing some ghastly vowel that’s very hard to sing. And
often that’s lost in the translation. If you are singing
something very high on an EE vowel, you’re screeching your head off
trying to do it well and you’re just totally unintelligible.
BD: Even if
you’re singing Italian in Chicago, do you strive to make the words
IB: Yes I do
because I don’t actually speak Italian. I speak very, very bad
French and I don’t speak any German. So because of that I try
even harder. I make an extra special effort and I know exactly
what I’m singing about, and I try to get it across to the audience as
well without being ‘hammy’ about it — rolling my eyes
and things like that. I don’t do any of that. But I do try
to get across the general idea.
BD: Do you
feel unhappy then when a joke gets dropped or lost?
IB: No, not
really because it’s understandable that people will miss things.
Usually a good director will do something to point the joke, and
audience will get it anyway. They’ll get it somehow or
other. It’s quite interesting really. For example, this
Donizetti was completely alien to me because usually I can pick up a
Mozart libretto and translate it — not that I
always do that or like to do that — but I always
get a literal translation of everything. I picked up this
Donizetti and I couldn’t make head nor tail of it. None of the
words were in the dictionary — well, not very
many of them. As it turns out, it’s sort of archaic Italian, very
old stuff and they weren’t in the dictionary. So I had to have
help with that. Bartoletti was marvellous in that respect.
He said a lot of it was double-meaning, but he also was very good at
pointing out the key words in sentences for me, and just making sure
that I got all that right.
BD: Are you
going to make an extra effort with Figaro
at La Scala?
Yes. That’s quite worried me because of the recitatives
mainly. There is so much of it that it just must be like
patter. You must just be able to knock it off like conversation.
you’re singing on stage, do you think about the last row of the gallery?
IB: Yes, and
further! My focus is mainly outside the walls of the
theater. By that I mean I don’t concentrate on the
audience. I feel the further you focus, the more the audience gets
BD: Do you
find it more difficult, then, to sing then in a smaller house?
IB: [Thinks a
moment] No. It’s quite fun actually. It’s quite
intimate and cozy — Glyndebourne, of course,
being the best example because it’s so small, 800 people or something I
think it is. That is quite tiny, but it’s quite easy to adjust
your levels and get them set. Obviously you don’t do anything as
big as you do for a house like Chicago. Everything is much less
exaggerated, shall we say. The difference is almost the same as
between working on stage and working on camera.
BD: Have you
done some television?
quite a lot in Australia, and I did Carmen
for Vienna, which was broadcast live.
BD: Do you
enjoy the television? Do you worry about the little red light out
IB: No, I
never see it. You really cannot worry about that. It’s the
same when an opera’s being recorded. You just can’t stop to think
about it because if you do, then you’ve lost your concentration and
you’re onto some other dimension. Actually we did Don Giovanni in Aix-en-Provence
this year. It was not my most wonderful experience. The
French, O God! I have cancelled Paris Opera because I thought the
French were the worst audience ever.
IB: I just
wouldn’t sing for them there — plebes! And
I wasn’t booed. They liked me, but they booed people I thought
they shouldn’t have booed, and I just took umbrage at
that. So I will not sing there, I’m sorry. It’s a
circus. Nobody gets to open their mouth and they’re booing
already because they’re not French. Maybe because of the old
Scotch-French alliance they didn’t boo me! I escaped, and the man
who was singing Leporello also escaped. Everybody else they
hated, and they were not below quality, I’m sorry. Anyway, that
was the French, and the last performance they televised. For once
I was really thrown because it was so bright. It’s usually quite
bright when they’re filming something for TV, but because it was
open-air as well, it was very, very bright. And this audience,
would you believe, were lighting cigarettes, and taking flash pictures
during the show. I was singing Elvira, and I couldn’t remember
whether I’d sung the first verse or the second verse! [Both
laugh] I suddenly made this dreadfully stupid noise, and John
Pritchard, who was conducting, looked up at me and I got a fit of the
giggles. It was really terrible. We continued on and I
still wasn’t booed for some reason or other. But usually if you
just make one mistake, they’re out to get you.
BD: How much
do you rely on the prompter?
IB: Not at
all. I hasten to say that when somebody is there you can’t help
but hear what they’re saying, obviously, but I don’t like
prompts. I just can’t understand it, because if something is so
rhythmical as music is, and somebody says your line before you’re about
to sing it in rhythm, it is jarring. The first time I was ever
prompted was in Australia, and they had never had a prompter
there. But Joan Sutherland was doing her first Lakmé, and because it was in
French she wanted a bit more confidence. That is fair enough, and
it’s a long role, so they had a prompt. Somebody prompted me and
I said: “Who’s that?” [Both laugh] This poor girl down
there was saying my line and it really put me off. She didn’t
prompt me after that, but here they prompt you willy-nilly whether you
like it or not. Sometimes they’re not always clear. If
somebody is saying your line and they don’t quite say it clearly
enough, that can be off-putting. You wonder if she is right or if
I am right. So really for me it’s best if there’s not a prompt
because I think it’s part of my job to really know my role well, apart
from anything else. In Glyndebourne this year, we had the dress
rehearsal of Figaro and Peter
Hall said, “What we have to think about is that the critics are going
to come and they’re going to hate it anyway because critics are
critics. We also have to say that half the public are going to be
out there on the first night wondering what the hell they’re doing
there, and the other half are going to be there for the social
event. So we’re all going to go out and enjoy ourselves.
Now show me some of that in the dress rehearsal.” There was an
audience because they have public dress rehearsals. So we went
out to do the dress rehearsal and while I was sitting there on the
couch immersed in my role, Cherubino and Susanna were singing away to
each other, and I suddenly thought I know I’ve got something next, and
for the life of me I couldn’t think what it was. We were very
tired and we’d worked a lot, and no one’s infallible. I just
couldn’t think of the line in the recitative. So I turned round
and I said to Martin Isepp, who was playing the harpsichord in the pit,
“Excuse me, what do I say there?” and he shouted the line up. So
I continued and some thought it was rather funny. Peter Hall came
back to me afterwards and said, “That is the coolest ‘fuck you’ to the
audience I have heard in all my life!” [Huge laughter] It
wasn’t really meant to be cool, it was just that there was no point in
getting panicky. I knew that Martin would shout it up!
BD: Do you
ever want to do that in performance?
IB: Sometimes it
does relax everybody in rehearsal, so it really would be interesting in
performance. Sometimes the audience is a bit hyped-up and it
would be really nice if something stupid happened. I’ve had
disasters of course. My favorite one is the time I was singing
Fiordiligi. I had just done the second aria, and at that time of
the show I was tired because I was so young. I had got through
the aria and it was the best I’d done that particular night, and I was
quite pleased with myself. My exit was to go upstage center and
in a flurry of excitement rush off stage with a huge crinoline
on. Well I did that, and just as I got to center stage, I fell
flat on my face, right in the middle of the stage. I
thought, “Oh God, I’m falling!” and I couldn’t do anything to save
myself. When I leaned on the dress at the front, the crinoline
went up at the back, and the audience thought it was just so funny,
they really did! They applauded for quite a long while. I
thought I’d keep it in the next time! [Both laugh] But so
many things happen on that stage that ...
BD: Do you
ever give a performance that you feel that is less than your best, and
then get applauded and feel that you’ve fooled the audience?
that’s a horrible feeling. It does happen, especially if you’ve
done a long run of something. Often you feel that it’s not your
best, but in actual fact, most people say it was just fine. I’ve
done that and I’ve thought, “Oh, I’m just not good tonight,” and people
will say, “That’s the best you’ve done in that. You were so
BD: Do you
want to do Maria Stuarda? Being Scottish you might have a special
feeling for the role.
IB: It would
be fun, wouldn’t it! I hadn’t actually thought of that, but it’s
a very interesting notion. Yes, possibly!
BD: Does your
family like the fact that you’re singing opera all over the world?
Yes. My parents were amateur singers. They never really had
the opportunity themselves to sing, so they’re just delighted.
And my younger brother, Stuart, is just starting off as a singer.
He’s just started his first professional engagement this year, so
that’s two of us, and my parents are very happy.
friends will be freaked out if the two of you wind up portraying lovers
in some opera!
I think we would as well considering how much we fought with each other
when we were younger!! [Huge laughter] Oh dear!
about Scottish composers. Have you sung any Thea Musgrave?
IB: Yes, I
have. I haven’t done any of her operas, but I’ve done a suite of
songs called Suite O’Bairnsangs.
They’re like children’s songs, and in fact they were dedicated to and
written for my singing teacher, Joan Alexander.
BD: Is that
the kind of thing you purposely include when you’re getting together a
IB: Yes, I
try to include something like that. Apart from the fact that it’s
lovely music to sing, it’s nice to include something that is
Scottish. The audience likes that you’re Scottish and you are
able to sing something Scottish.
BD: Are there
other Scottish composers that you like?
IB: There is
another Scottish composer who wrote mainly art songs. His name is
Francis George Scott, and funnily enough he was also a great friend of
Joan, my singing teacher. She sang a lot of the songs for the
first time ever. It’s interesting to sing his sort of art songs
because she knows so much about them, having worked with the composer
on them. Some of them are beautiful songs, and I made a record of
them. They’re not well-known; in fact even a lot of Scottish
people don’t know that he exists. I don’t know if he ever wrote
anything apart from songs. Perhaps he was like Duparc and burned
them all! [Note: Duparc married
a woman from Scotland!]
|Francis George Scott (25 January
1880 – 6 November 1958) was a Scottish composer.
Born at 6 Oliver Crescent, Hawick, Roxburghshire, he was
the son of a supplier of mill-engineering parts. Educated at Hawick,
and at the universities of Edinburgh and Durham, he studied composition
under Jean Roger-Ducasse. In 1925, he became Lecturer in Music at
Jordanhill Training College for Teachers, Glasgow, a post he held for
more than twenty-five years.
He wrote more than three hundred songs, including many settings of Hugh
MacDiarmid, William Dunbar, William Soutar and Robert Burns's poems.
MacDiarmid stated in an essay that his key long poem A Drunk Man Looks
at the Thistle could not have been completed without Scott's help.
The Anglo-Scottish composer Ronald Stevenson has transcribed several of
Scott's works for piano.
His daughter, Lillias, married the Scottish composer Erik Chisholm.
Francis George Scott was born in Hawick, on 25th January, Burns Day in
1880. That seems fitting for a man that set many of Robert Burns poems
He became one of the main exponents of the movement called the Scottish
Renaissance, a flowering of Scotland’s creative talent in the inter-war
years of the twentieth century, showcasing Scotland on the world stage.
As a young composer his songs were compared favouably to German lieder,
he was hailed as a young Mussorgsky, and he was later enticed to France
where he received instruction from Jean Roger-Ducasse in 1921 but he
declined his subsequent offer to stay in Paris and learn at the Paris
Conservatoire, preferring instead to return to Scotland.
He was a friend, teacher and mentor to Hugh MacDiarmid and helped
MacDiarmid shape his masterpiece poem ‘A drunk man looks at the
thistle’. Like MacDiarmid he was passionate about Scotland and he gave
to the SNP his manuscript of his setting of ‘Scots wha hae’. He also
set many of MacDiarmid’s poems to song.
The friendship with MacDiarmid was to be a double edged sword.
MacDiarmid’s frequent eulogising of Scott as one of the best composers
in the world made Scott reluctant to promote his own work.
-- Edited versions of two
BD: Speaking of Duparc, despite being turned
off by the French audience, would you still sing French roles?
yes. I certainly like to sing French music, absolutely. One
role that has been suggested is Mélisande, which I would love to
do very much.
BD: Sing that
in French, don’t sing that in English!
IB: No, that
would be in French. That’s possibly for Brussels Opera with John
Pritchard who’s a great fan and supporter of mine. He’s also a
great friend and mentor, but he really knows and advises me a
good. Every singer needs a few colleagues, especially in the
pit. Who’ll be the Pelléas, do you know?
IB: I don’t
know. It would be wonderful to have some wonderful singer
like Thomas Allen.
I adore his singing.
BD: That is
role that sometimes the tenor sings and sometimes the baritone, so you
get singers like Richard Stilwell and Nicolai Gedda.
brother could sing it because he’s a high baritone. Maybe I’ll
ask him! [Both have a huge laugh]
BD: Pelléas and Mélisande
in the family! That’d be interesting!
been very gracious. Thank you so very much.
IB: Not at
BD: I do hope
that you will come back to Chicago.
IB: Me too,
I’d love to come back.
© 1981 Bruce Duffie
This conversation was recorded at her apartment in Chicago on
October 14, 1981. Portions were broadcast on WNIB in 1985, 1988,
1994 and 1999.
This transcription was made in 2014, and posted on this
at that time. My thanks to British soprano Una
Barry for her help in preparing this website
To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been
transcribed and posted on this website, click here.
Bruce Duffie was with WNIB:, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975
its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001. His
interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since
and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well
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.