Soprano Norma Burrowes
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie
|Born in Bangor, County Down,
Northern Ireland on April 24, 1944, Norma Burrowes studied at The
Queen's University of Belfast and then at Royal Academy of Music with
Flora Nielsen and Rupert Bruce-Lockhart. She made her professional
debut with the Glyndebourne Touring Opera Company as Zerlina, in 1970.
The same year she made her debut at the Royal Opera House in London as
Fiakermilli, and at the Glyndebourne Festival as Papagena. She also
sang in various productions with the English Opera Group, including
Henry Purcell's The Fairy-Queen,
King Arthur, and Dido and Aeneas.
Burrowes joined the English National Opera in 1971, and quickly began
to appear on the international scene, notably at the Salzburg Festival,
the Paris Opéra, and the Aix-en-Provence Festival. She made her
Metropolitan Opera debut in 1979 as Blondchen.
She began her career singing mostly soubrette roles including Susanna
and Despina, and she gradually expanded to light coloratura parts such
as Adina, Norina, Marie, Oscar, Nanetta and Zerbinetta, later adding
more lyrical roles such as Pamina, Juliette and Manon. She also
excelled in operas by Purcell, Handel, and Haydn, in which she can be
heard on several recordings.
From 1969 to 1980 she was married to the conductor Steuart Bedford,
with whom she recorded the role of Alison in Holst's The Wandering Scholar.
A singer with a pure and silvery voice, secure coloratura technique and
delightful stage presence, Burrowes retired from the stage in 1982. She
married former tenor Émile Belcourt, and in 1992 joined him at
University of Saskatoon as a vocal coach. In 1994 they resettled with
their family in Toronto, where Burrowes is currently a member of the
vocal faculty at York University. [See my Interview with
In the summer of 1986, Burrowes traveled to Seattle where her husband,
Émile Belcourt, was singing Loge in their production of The Ring. She graciously
permitted me to call her on the telephone, and we had a lovely
conversation. Here is what was said at that time . . . . . . . . .
You’re now being mostly wife and
mother. Was it a hard decision to put aside the career for that
It was a decision that just came about, really. I started to have
a family but with the first baby I had a miscarriage and
lost unfortunately. Then I got pregnant very shortly after
that, and so never really got back. Then I thought, oh, heck,
I’ll take some time off and have the baby, and was quite enjoying that
and then got pregnant again. So I really
didn’t decide I was going to stop and have babies. It just sort
BD: I assume
though that you are looking forward to
going back to the career at some point?
NB: I hope
so, yes. The next baby’s due in December and we’ll see what
BD: Will you
resume the career and take the baby with
NB: I would
hope to, yes.
BD: I just
wondered if it’s at all like being one
of these famous Vaudeville kids growing up in a steamer trunk.
NB: Lots of
people manage it. Lots of singers have babies, and they have
nannies and things
BD: Are you
keeping up the vocal exercises everyday?
BD: [With a
gentle nudge] Occasionally??? That’s
what one hears from students who are giving excuses!
NB: A baby is
a bit of a handful, and yes,
I do the vocal exercises. Singing is my life, but for how many
years? I started in 1970, so you know it’s a long time.
BD: I wish
you lots of success with this baby,
and hope that you will then return to singing when you feel up to it.
NB: I hope I
BD: I would
like to talk a bit about some
of your roles and some of the other things you have done. You’ve
sung several Mozart roles, so tell me the secret of singing Mozart!
[Laughs] Well gosh, I don’t think I
could answer that! Mozart is very good for the
voice. You have to sing Mozart well, and
it’s a sort of vocal hygiene as it has to be so transparent and
pure. I’m thinking now of a role like Pamina, which
is just absolute perfection. When I started to learn that
role, I was almost afraid to sing it because it was so perfect. I
didn’t want to spoil it.
Mozart intimidating for you?
NB: No, not
intimidating because I absolutely love
Mozart. It is always enjoyable to work on, always a challenge,
you never felt quite that you had got everything right. I don’t
think it should matter, but the roles I do, such as Despina and
Susanna, are not the
most taxing Mozart roles like the Countess and Fiordiligi.
BD: I was
always under the impression that Susanna was
is the longest, yes, but it isn’t vocally
so difficult as the Countess. When she (Countess) has to start
Two with Porgi Amor, nothing
can be more difficult than that.
has a little bit easier time?
wouldn’t say an easier
time. It is a very long role physically and
stamina-wise. It’s very, very difficult, especially when they run
Acts One and Two together, because it means you’re never off the
stage. But then of course at the end, you have the aria Deh Vieni which is not difficult,
but it’s got
to be beautifully poised, and you’re utterly exhausted by then!
So it’s taxing in a different way from the others.
rather than vocally?
NB: Susanna sort
of sings itself, I find. You just get on and do it, and it just
takes you along and you don’t have time to think.
BD: Do you
feel that Mozart wrote it for exactly your
sort of voice?
NB: I really
mentioned running Acts One and Two
together. Is this a really good idea?
NB: I think
it is, yes. From an audience point of view, when you go to
opera and you have three intervals, it’s very, very difficult to keep
your concentration. You go out, you have a drink, you
talk to people, and then you go back in again for another act,
and then you come out and do the same thing — drink,
talk to people, go back in again for another act, and then you
come out once more and do the same thing. It’s just too long, I
think. It’s better with one interval.
BD: I’m glad
to hear you say that. The
Marriage of Figaro
really should be divided just the same as Così or Don Giovanni into
two long acts. There are really only two finales.
NB: Yes, that
BD: Tell me a
little bit about the character of
Susanna. What kind of a woman is she?
NB: She’s a
good woman, down to
earth, full of fun, no nonsense, romantic, pleasant, a nice person,
honest, caring, and just adorable, really.
BD: Was she
an exceptionally strong figure for the
NB: You mean
for when Mozart wrote it?
Yes. Do we have more
sympathy for her or more understanding of her today because women now
tend to be a little stronger than they were a couple of hundred
NB: Oh, I
never thought of that! Yes, I suppose you could say that. I
really don’t know if
she was stronger in Mozart’s time. Figaro and Susanna were quite
revolutionary characters to be standing up to the Count and
the aristocracy like they did.
BD: They ran
the risk of getting tossed out on their
exactly. So I suppose they were strong.
Let me put that question in a general
sense. How much effort do you have to make to bring a character
that is a hundred or two hundred years old to speak to audience of the
NB: I suppose
you look for their human qualities
and put yourself in the situation. You try very hard to
imagine what it would be like to be in that situation and just
do it honestly. Look at the words and study the text, and find
what it is really saying, and then just do it. It’ll speak in any
century if you get to the truth of what
directors getting too wrong-headed at times with the stage action, and
modernizations, and irrelevancies that bring to their productions?
NB: I really
couldn’t generalize about
that. Updatings are very hard. When people update to the
time which the librettist and
the composer were writing, then it can work very well because the ideas
that are being written are
very relevant to that time. For example, if you update
Rigoletto to Verdi’s time, you
gain something, and
you understand what he was thinking of when he wrote it.
running it beyond that time to the present?
Miller updated his
Rigoletto to sort of ‘20s
Chicago Mafia-type. I didn’t actually
see it myself, but I believe it worked tremendously well. I was
involved in a Rigoletto which
was brought to Verdi’s time, and I think that worked quite well.
The only thing is you don’t get Court Jesters, so you’ve got to think
of something else for them to do. A Court Jester is
very much of his time, and I don’t quite know what they did
with him in the Mafia version.
BD: Make him
a vaudeville-type comedian! [Miller
actually had him be a bartender, and Sparafucile ran a sleazy diner.]
NB: Oh yes,
that would be all right, and everything
else would work very well with the Duke. A lot of directors have
a lot of political ideas and they want to showcase their
ideas. Sometimes they rework things for political points, and
sometimes that is a shame because it always takes away from what
we are trying to say.
BD: So where
should the balance be between drama
NB: There is
so much drama in the music,
especially in Mozart. A lot of it really sticks to itself.
shouldn’t opera be more than
just a vocal recital?
sure! But it should all come
from the words and the music.
BD: This is
what you strive for when you are
NB: I would
certainly try to, yes.
sung quite a bit at the English National
Opera where everything is done in English. Is it satisfying to
perform Italian opera in
satisfying to perform in a language in which the composer wrote because
the words have come first. He has built up his melodies
to fit the words, especially in something with a lot of recitative
where they try to get the speech rhythm. I’m thinking now
of Janáček where he used to listen to
people talking in the street and wrote down the rise and fall of their
speech. You can imagine Czech would be quite different from
English, so it’s going to be very
difficult to translate that and to make it sound good because you have
to perform the words on the wrong notes.
BD: And yet
you had to be involved though in these
yes. I just mean it
is more satisfying from a vocal point of view to sing in
the original language. If you take something like Italian, it is
so mellifluous and such a lovely language to sing in. But you
gain a lot by
singing in the language of the audience because they may understand,
provided of course they can hear what you say in
the first place. They understand much more
when you sing in their language, and there
are a lot of good translations of Mozart. Mozart is not
such a problem, and the audiences seem to love it. It’s high
opera, especially Verdi that is the problem. There it’s very
difficult to get a good
BD: Do you
work harder at your diction then when you
know the audience will catch most of the words?
NB: You have
to sing especially well in your language, otherwise it’s
ridiculous. If they’re
demanding supertitles when you’re singing in your own language, then
it’s not very good.
BD: Do you
like this idea of using the supertitles?
NB: I do
actually, yes. I’ve just been
watching the Rheingold here
in Seattle, and this year for the first
time they have supertitles, and I like it. It just keeps it
all flowing along, especially with the long monologues.
People are singing and without the titles you don’t know what’s going
on. You can’t get
every word if you don’t speak the language, and I think that the titles
enormously. They don’t intrude at all, and for something
like comedy, they’re very difficult because they actually have to be
so that you don’t spoil the jokes before they happen!
Right. I wonder how it would work for a
Rossini opera where there is just so much going on.
NB: I think
that would be impossible. How could you put all the scenarios
which make up the
finale? You couldn’t possibly put all those things up
this interview took place in 1986, just when supertitles were getting
started in many theaters.] Even if you sing
that in English, you can’t get
all the words.
that the beauty though of the music, that
several people can be singing different things at once and it all comes
across at the same moment?
NB: Oh, yes,
talk about a couple of other Mozart
roles. Blondchen is a role you’ve recorded, so tell me about
her. What kind of a
woman is she?
NB: She’s a
real woman who knows exactly what
she’s doing; very attractive; a hair-raiser! [Both
laugh] She has got great
capacity for love, but she’s the boss.
BD: She wraps
Osmin around her little finger?
Absolutely, yes! He adores her!
they have been happy if they had wound up
NB: Oh, I
doubt it very much! He is
much too stupid for her.
BD: So what
kind of a man is she looking for? Is she looking for more than a
NB: I don’t
think she’d quite want anybody who
would boss her about. She wants somebody that she adores
and likes a lot, but that she knows that she can be boss. I have
really thought about these things, and you’re asking all these
BD: These are
things that you react to because
you’ve sung the role many times and you have an idea about how it
go. I assume the experience of doing the role on stage many times
will give you insights.
Yes. She’s a very conventional type of
person, really. Everything must be just right. She wants to
settle down and have a man, and
I think she’s quite happy with Pedrillo. She
loves him, and she’ll be true to him.
BD: As long
as she can get her own way!
Yes! Absolutely. Why
not? [Much laughter]
BD: In a work
like that or The
Magic Flute, is it especially difficult to switch from
singing to speaking?
NB: Yes, I
find it very difficult to
speak and sing. A singer knows how to
project. It comes naturally during a career. You know what
to do to sing, but actually to
speak is quite a different thing. I used to find I’d get higher
and faster, particularly in a role like Blonde when she is bossy all
the time to
people. It’s tiring to speak, and who knows if you’re getting
the right level. We don’t really know, though actors know.
They can judge theaters, and they know how to project their speaking
voice. But it is quite a different thing from
singing. When you hear actors singing they sound rather
rough. They do project their voices in a different sort
of way. But I think if we singers do that too much, it makes a
rough edge develop on the singing voice. So I do find it
BD: Does the
size of the house have any influence on
NB: On the
or the singing.
NB: If you
speak or sing correctly, it shouldn’t make any
gone from Glyndebourne, which is
one of the tiniest theaters, to the Met, which is one of the largest.
NB: Yes, but
I found the Met very easy to
sing in. I found the acoustic very helpful. I don’t know if
that’s the same for the audience, but it felt very good to me.
BD: Is this
what the singer must do, trust her
instinct and the feeling?
NB: Yes, and of
course you have people outside to tell
you. But above all you must never force. Sometimes when you
are in big places you are tempted to force, and you feel you just can’t
possibly sing it there. But then, of
course, if you do that, it is even more difficult to come to a small
house because people can hear so much more
clearly. Recitals are always much more demanding than
being on the operatic stage because it’s just you and the piano, and
you don’t have the orchestra to try to ride over. Also
every little nuance just has to be just
BD: And you
don’t have all the characters to hide
and all the dresses and things.
BD: Do you
enjoy giving recitals?
I used to it and I used to get terribly
nervous for them. It’s just you, and the whole attention
from the audience is on you for the whole evening, unlike in
opera. There’s a wonderful wealth of music to sing in
recitals. I used to do quite a lot of recitals, and I did enjoy
very much indeed.
BD: How did
you select which songs you’d sing?
NB: I just
thought of what sort of an
audience I was going to sing to, and what would be suitable for the
occasion. Then I would just try to sing all the things that I
BD: You have
a lot more control then?
BD: How did
you decide which operatic roles you will accept and which ones you will
they’re obvious... Someone once
rang me up to sing Aïda, and there was no
decision. I just knew with something as ridiculous
as that you don’t accept. But you think of
it first vocally, and sometimes you can make mistakes.
People asked me for ages to sing Zerbinetta because they thought it was
just absolutely my cup of tea. But I was very reluctant
about it for a long time. It is too high, really,
and I was quite reluctant. Finally I decided I’d do it because
I thought I must find out, and it wasn’t the right thing
for me to do.
BD: It turned
out that you were right in leaving it
yes! It was sort of early-ish on, anyway, but you have your
things. When you don’t know anything about it you feel you
ought to do what people say. But in the end your
instincts are probably the best. In the beginning you don’t have
the experience, but everything should be considered so that you just
it in you. Also you know what sort of people and what other
voices have done, and you more or less sort it out for yourself.
I don’t like this idea of ‘fach’.
stereotyped, and voices are all
BD: [With a
gentle nudge] You don’t want to be known as just a coloratura
soprano, [with mock authoritarian stern-ness] and so, by God, you’re
going to sing coloratura repertoire?
[Chuckles] No, because it doesn’t really always work out like
that. If you look at my sort of voice and my sort of
career, you would think Zerbinetta, but it wasn’t right, you
see. There is that gray area where
some people just have those few little extra things to bring with them
for the character.
BD: So then I
assume you’ve told your agent no more
[Laughs] When he come to
the first night, he realized!
BD: Are there
some roles that you are looking forward to now?
NB: I’ve not
really thought about it. I’d
love to do Pamina again, and I hope I will, and Mélisande
is a role I’ve always wanted to do. I love that
opera, and I feel I have a great affinity
with the music, with the opera and with the character, everything.
BD: Have you
and Emile sung together in opera?
Yes! Not many because we’re not really the
same sort of type, but we first met in Orpheus in
the Underworld of Offenbach. He sang Pluto and I sang
Eurydice, and we’ve done that a couple of times. We’ve
both sung together in Les Mamelles
BD: Oh, the
Poulenc, yes, which was great fun. He sings a lot of
Eisenstein. I thought Adele would be my role, but
I’ve never actually sung Adele. I’ve been offered
it quite a few times but it’s never actually worked
out. I’ve never been free to take up the offers, but it is a role
that I would obviously do.
Especially now with the family and everything, I
would think that you would try, as much as you can, to arrange so you
both sing in the same place so that the whole family could come?
NB: Yes, that
would be nice. On the other
hand, it’s nice to have one of us working and the other one stay at
home to look after the babies!
BD: Maybe you
each arrange for six months on and the rest off, and then you’ll never
sing together again!
Yes! [Both laugh]
BD: What are
you going to tell the kids about mommy
and daddy’s career? Are you going to say you’re opera singers?
NB: I don’t
know yet! He’s only fourteen months!
BD: Let me
ask you that again then in five or
ten years. I had a wonderful chat with Valerie Masterson, and she
talking about the reactions of her children to the various roles she
Yes. Of course, they’re much
mommy got killed on
stage, the little boy was screaming and the father had to take him out.
Yes! [Laughs] I can imagine
that would be very traumatic for a little child.
from Mozart backwards, you’ve sung quite
a bit of a earlier music such as Handel, Monteverdi and Purcell.
that kind of thing help the Mozart voice, or does singing
Mozart help the earlier music?
NB: I think
Handel is wonderful for the
voice. It’s got everything, really, lots and lots of florid
music, lots of lovely legato, and also lots of different languages
you can sing it in. I just feel I’m happy singing
Handel. I love it! I think it suits my voice.
BD: Do you
want to become a Handel specialist?
But I have
sung a lot of Handel, and I’ve enjoyed it very much.
Purcell is very difficult. I don’t know anybody that writes such
fantastic painting of words as Purcell. It is just absolutely
wonderful. It’s more difficult, much more difficult to sing than
Handel. Handel just seems to flow right along. It flows so
lovely and smooth, but Purcell is much more difficult in a way like
Schubert is difficult.
equated the two, that’s interesting.
NB: I hadn’t
thought of it until this moment, but I was
just thinking how wonderful
Schubert is, but how difficult it is to make it beautiful.
BD: Do they
wind up on a recital program together?
Yes. Often I would start with Purcell and
then have some Schubert in the second half.
BD: You do
early music and you’ve done some
twentieth century. What about the
NB: I have
Gilda, and I’ve sung Donizetti and some Rossini. I’ve sung The Daughter of
the Regiment, L’Elisir d’amore,
language was The Daughter of the
English... well, in American
actually, which is very difficult! I did it in Toronto, and
there is a lot of speaking in it, but everybody else
that was cast was American. I remember the first thing I had
to do was to come on and say, [in an American accent] “Damn,
damn, damn, damn!” At the first rehearsal,
onto the stage and said it in an English accent [demonstrates], and
they just fell about laughing!
like Eliza Doolittle! [Both
NB: I had to
have special coaching in the
American really is different than
NB: Oh, yes,
was an American translation, and I had to say things like, “The
you say!”, and when it came out in my kind of
Blondchen posh accent, they just laughed! It was all a bit
BD: Is that
the right thing to do in
opera, to Americanize it?
NB: If you’re
singing it in
the English language to an American audience, you have
to because otherwise it doesn’t really work. And if American
singing it and speaking it, they can’t put on a false English
accent. I haven’t heard any
American companies do Shakespeare, for example, but I’m sure they do it
with American accents.
BD: What do
you expect of the audience that comes to
NB: I hope
that they’re going to like
it. I expect they’re going to come
because it’s something that they enjoy, that they want to hear, and I
expect that they’d probably heard it before quite a bit, and will have
some expectation of us on the stage.
BD: Do you
feel you’re competing with all the
performances and all the recordings that exist of that work?
bound to be competing because people are going to compare you with
other people. When you actually go out to do it, that it is your
interpretation, how you do it, and you have to do it in your own way in
order for you to touch the audience. You’ve got to be yourself
your own unique whatever-it-is.
BD: Are the
audiences different in different parts of
the world? Is the Paris audience different from Glyndebourne,
different from Toronto, different from every place else?
yes! Latin audiences
are much more spontaneous and are warmer, more passionate. Some
of the best audiences I have sung to have been
in Spain, for example. I haven’t done operas there, just
concerts, but they’re so enthusiastic. They just love it, and
they make you feel that you’ve done something marvelous
that they’ve enjoyed, and it’s lovely. I found the Met
audience was like that as well, actually. They were tremendously
Glyndebourne is a
wonderful place to sing in. The standard of music and performance
is very high. Everyone works very hard and it’s superb, but
Glyndebourne is very much a social event as well as being a fine
musical standard. The whole idea of going to
Glyndebourne is having a picnic, dressing up and all that kind of
thing. I must be careful what I say, but a lot of people in
the audience don’t
think that the actual musical thing is the main
reason for their going. There are serious people in the audience
but tickets are terribly expensive.
BD: And because it’s
such a limited number of people,
then a greater percentage of them will be of the social set?
NB: I would
think so, yes. [Pauses a moment] Paris audiences are very
difficult to please.
NB: I have no
idea! The most booing I’ve ever
come across was working in France. I don’t quite know why that
is. Maybe they demand a great deal more
than other audiences. It’s similar in Italy as well, but they
also cheer. In Buenos Aires that was a wonderfully warm
audience. Again I suppose
you could say they were Latin. They really were fabulous to sing
BD: You were
singing there in the Colón?
tells me that’s the best house to
sing in because it is all wood.
NB: Oh, it’s
beautiful. It’s got a very big arena, sort of Stalls bit.
In Europe we’re used to theaters where they’re terraced. You have
the Stalls and half-way back the Circle
starts, and then half-way back from that is the Upper Circle,
and then ‘the gods’ up above that! Quite often
you find in those sorts of theaters that right up at the top is the
best for sound. But Colón is enormous! It’s a big,
Coliseum-like place with boxes all around. But it is lovely to
acoustics there are special?
acoustics are lovely, yes.
BD: Is the
concert audience different from the opera
NB: Yes, I
think so. They’re not quite
so fanatical as opera audiences. It’s the drama which is not
evident in concerts, so the lights are on all the time!
BD: Let me
ask you about a couple of the twentieth century
composers you’ve done — Gustav Holst and Ralph
Is there a connection with Purcell because they’re all English?
NB: Yes, that would
be the connection — they’re all
English. I haven’t done a
great deal of Holst, but I’ve done quite a lot
of Vaughan Williams.
BD: Tell me
about Riders to the Sea.
a recording of that. [See
record jacket in the box at the bottom of this page.]
Yes. It’s a very dark, stormy kind of
depressing play about the hard rigorous life on the west
coast of Ireland, and this sense of impending doom that the central
character has. All her sons have been lost to the sea. The sea is
almost the biggest character in it
really, because the sea has taken away all her sons.
BD: Have you
done it both on stage and in recording?
NB: I haven’t
done it on stage, no. It isn’t
often done. Students do it quite a lot; it’s quite
good for that.
makes a good student work?
something that’s got a lot of parts in it so that
lots of people can have experience. The Marriage of Figaro actually is
good, and it’s done very often with students quite successfully.
A comedy is always
good, and there are lots of ‘one-acters’ they quite
BD: Do you
enjoy making recordings?
NB: I find it
difficult to recreate
something in a studio. There are some advantages. If
something goes wrong you can do it again, but
that’s not really what it’s all about. Opera, especially, is
really about performing, getting up there and doing it at
the time and creating the drama. You can’t
dissect it or recreate it.
BD: I always
wonder if something that is dramatic, such as
opera, works in a purely aural medium?
NB: I don’t
think it does actually. You can sit at your stereo and hear all
beautiful sounds and beautiful arias, and you can enjoy them, but it’s
not the same as watching it in a theater. Recordings have
made the balance right, but the acoustic is different where
you’re sitting. All these technical things they can do
nowadays are wonderful, but it isn’t the same as when you’re
sitting in a certain part of the theater, and the ordinary
human voice is coming at you at whatever level the singer
feels is right or how the emotion has told them how to do it at that
records too technically perfect?
NB: If you’re
going to be sitting down
and listening where you’re only going to have this aural aspect of it,
then they have to be because that’s all you’ve got. You’re only
listening, you’re not watching, so it’s got to be perfect. Flaws
can’t be acceptable when you’re
listening. But when you’re watching and all your
senses are engaged, you can accept little flaws because we’re all human
and we all make mistakes. A
recording is a false thing and therefore you can’t have mistakes.
recordings, then, not artistic?
NB: Oh, no, I
wouldn’t say that. I’ve heard
some wonderful recordings. No, I wouldn’t say they were
inartistic, but they are not complete.
the best answer I’ve had to that question! [NB
laughs] Going one step further, does opera work on television?
NB: I don’t
really think it does, no, for the
same reason. Although nowadays they can do
marvelous things, the sound on the television isn’t the same.
Also when you have
close-ups... It isn’t natural
to stand up and sing at great length about things.
requires the suspension of disbelief?
NB: Yes, it
does, and it’s a stylized thing. Television is something that
makes everything very close to it. For situation comedies and
kitchen sink dramas, actors have to act differently on
television from how they do it on stage. You have
to be very natural, but opera is not a natural medium. Therefore
when you have close-ups of people standing in wigs
and make-up and everything, it just doesn’t work. Also they
choose the pictures for you. When you
watch on the stage, you see everything. You look at what you want
to look at, what will have happened at the spur of the moment,
whereas they do it all for you on television. Obviously, for
haven’t got the opportunity of going to the theater and listening to
opera, it’s great for them to be able to have the opportunity to see
and hear it in their own homes. So it’s good from that point of
view, but in the end, no, I don’t think it is good on
BD: Was it
satisfying at all to performing in it on
But it’s very, very difficult
because you have to do it sometimes in the wrong order. I
remember once the orchestra was in a different studio. We had an
assistant conductor who
would relay the beat, and it’s very hot, and you have all
day you rehearse. Then you have to perform at Midnight after
you’ve been working all day because the studio
time is so precious. But really the vocal part of it is the
belief in what we sing, and it shouldn’t be because they’re filming it
and there are so many other things to think about. It’s
difficult. The cameras all have to be right, and they’ve got
usually a very dry studio and you’re not singing
to anybody! You sing to cameras and people
following you about.
BD: And yet,
perhaps more people will see that than can
see you in the theater.
BD: I would
think that would cause a kind of
schizophrenic idea on the part of the performers, doing it for nobody
and yet doing it for thousands.
Absolutely, yes. That is always difficult to look straight into a
camera. It’s a
technique you have to acquire. It’s very hard to look straight
into a camera because it’s nothing, and yet
there are millions of people at the end of it! You just feel
Sure. The eye never blinks!
live performances then be
televised? That’s a completely different technique.
NB: I think
that works best, really. Rather than having an opera done in a
something from behind a proscenium arch is the best way out of it I
would think. You have the audience there so you have some sort of
feeling of performance in the theater. I would go
with that kind of idea because you’d get so many more great
performers. One of
my big regrets is that I never heard Callas live, but hearing her
on television is better than having nothing.
BD: Have you
done any world
NB: Not of
any opera. I have done a few songs, but not an
not like creating the role?
One twentieth century composer that I have sung
quite a lot of is Britten.
BD: Did you
work with him?
NB: Yes, I
did. It was wonderful. I didn’t do a great deal with him,
but he was a wonderful
man and a wonderful conductor, and just the best accompanist you could
ever imagine. I was very lucky to do a couple of recitals jointly
with him and Peter Pears, and it was just absolute joy to have him play
BD: Was he
the ideal interpreter of his music?
NB: I would
certainly say so, yes. There are many different interpretations
for music, but
in a way it’s wonderful to work with the composer on what he has
written, particularly someone like Britten who is not just a composer
but a wonderful performer.
BD: Did that
make him a better accompanist of other
people’s music because he was a composer?
NB: I’m sure
it must have done, yes. He
was a most sensitive accompanist. His playing of Schubert
was just absolutely gorgeous. I remember doing some
Bach with him and
that was really difficult. I
will never forget that. I’m extremely lucky. He was a
lovely man, a human, kind, interesting, a
lovely man to work with.
BD: Thank you
for being a
singer. I wish you lots of luck with the new
baby, and hope that you’ll return to your career and give us lots
more pleasure on stage.
NB: Well, I
hope so. Thank you very much, indeed.
© 1986 Bruce Duffie
This conversation was recorded on the telephone on
August 6, 1986. Portions were broadcast on WNIB in 1994, 1997,
and again in 1999.
This transcription was made in 2015, 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.