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 for Richard 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 Bernard Haitink conducting.

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 Leppard.  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 with Richard Stilwell, Anna 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 Arnold Voketaitis.  The following September and October, Buchanan was back at Lyric for eight performances of L
Elisir DAmore 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 . . . . . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:    What happens when you work with someone that you don’t like?

Isobel Buchanan:    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 man off-stage.

BD:    Now if you get a contract to sing another opera, and you see that man’s conducting, will you not sign the contract?

IB:    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?

buchanan 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 an opera.

BD:    More places would give you two or three weeks to work on it?

IB:    Depends 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 fantastic.

BD:    It looked very good.

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? 

IB:    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 minutethat 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 a
nnounced 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 Lucianobeing 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 old hands?

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 off-putting.

BD:    What’s the role you’ve sung the most?

IB:    Pamina.

BD:    Since 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 conductor?

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.

IB:    It’s amazing. 

BD:    Is it nice to sing in?

IB:    It’s 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?

IB:    Yes, quite often.

BD:    If they’re playing something loud in the opera house and there’s a soft passage in the play theater, do the walls rattle?

IB:    No!  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.

IB:    They’re 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.

buchanan 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?

IB:    Oh 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 sort of a rubbishy Desdemona! 

BD:    But you’ll come back to the part maybe ten years from now?

IB:    Yes, 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 roles?

IB:    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 anybody else.

BD:    How do you balance your career with opera, lieder, concerts, etc.?

IB:    Very 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 like concerts?

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 complete artist?

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.

BD:    You completely immerse yourself then in the role and become Pamina or Adina or somebody else?

IB:    I 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 me crazy. 

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?

IB:    Sometimes 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 laugh] 

BD:    Do you like the travel?

buchanan 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 planning.

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.

BD:    That’s 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 indulgenceespecially towards a premièreis a lot to juggle.

BD:    So you come home for your eight weeks and he’s about to go out on the road?

IB:    No, 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]

BD:    Maybe sometime you should insist on taking the steam ship instead of an airplane.

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 healthy!

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 tenthen 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?

IB:    When 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 decisive?

IB:    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! 

IB:    Or Papageno!  Sometimes a Papageno’s really sweet!

BD:    Do you ever wish you could go off with him?

IB:    Often, 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 laugh]

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.

IB:    That’s 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 offered it?

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...

BD:    ...and Stella and Niklausse and Hoffman and Dapertutto!  [Both have a huge laugh]

IB:    Then the next role is Susanna at La Scala, which I haven’t done before.

BD:    You’ve 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.


BD:    When 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 strong attraction.

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?

IB:    No.  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?

IB:    Zerlina 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 you do. 

BD:    Maybe you should go off with Don Giovanni and take your place in Leporello
’s catalogue of conquests?

IB:    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!

buchanan BD:    Have you sung Constanza?

IB:    No.  It’s a bit high for me.  I was asked to do it
this is another Richard Bonynge’s wonderful ideas for mebut 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 interesting enough.

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.

BD:    Thirty years from now, I’ll be sure and ask how you like working with the tenors thirty years younger than you!

IB:    [Huge 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 publicitywhich 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 work.

*     *     *     *     *

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.

BD:    Why?  What makes it tough?

buchanan 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!

BD:    [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?

IB:    It’s 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?

IB:    That 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!

IB:    Yes!  You know, that could be fun!

BD:    What 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 with it.

BD:    Do you find recording work satisfying.

IB:    [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.  

BD:    Some 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 microphone.

IB:    That’s 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?

IB:    Yes. 

BD:    Do you like singing in translation?

IB:    No!  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.

buchanan 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 understood?

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 dictionarywell, 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?

IB:    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.

BD:    When 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?

IB:    Yes, 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 there?

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. 

BD:    [Quite stunned]  Really???

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?

buchanan 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?

IB:    Yes, 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 relaxed.”

*     *     *     *     *

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?

IB:    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.  

BD:    Your friends will be freaked out if the two of you wind up portraying lovers in some opera! 

IB:    Oh!  I think we would as well considering how much we fought with each other when we were younger!!  [Huge laughter]  Oh dear!

BD:    What 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 concert?

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.

scott 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 to music.

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 brief biographies 

:    Speaking of Duparc, despite being turned off by the French audience, would you still sing French roles?

IB:    Oh, 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 lot. 

BD:    That’s 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. 

IB:    My 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!

IB:    Wouldn’t it! 

BD:    You’ve been very gracious.  Thank you so very much.

IB:    Not at all. 

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 website at that time.  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.