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 the 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 Émile Belcourt.]

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 . . . . . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:    You’re now being mostly wife and mother.  Was it a hard decision to put aside the career for that new task?

Norma Burrowes:    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 of happened. 

burrowes 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 happens after that.

BD:    Will you resume the career and take the baby with you?

NB:    I would hope to, yes.  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at left, also see my interview with Siegmund Nimsgern.]

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 like that.

BD:    Are you keeping up the vocal exercises everyday?

NB:    Occasionally, yes.

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 will, yes. 

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!

NB:    [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.

BD:    Was Mozart intimidating for you?

NB:    No, not intimidating because I absolutely love Mozart.  It is always enjoyable to work on, always a challenge, and 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 the longest.

NB:    Susanna is the longest, yes, but it isn’t vocally so difficult as the Countess.  When she (Countess) has to start Act Two with Porgi Amor, nothing can be more difficult than that. 

BD:    Susanna has a little bit easier time?

NB:    I 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.

burrowes BD:    Physically 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 don’t know. 

BD:    You 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 the 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
s right, yes.

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 time?

NB:    You mean for when Mozart wrote it?

BD:    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 years ago?

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 ears!

NB:    Yes, exactly.  So I suppose they were strong.

BD:    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 1980s?

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 out what it is really saying, and then just do it.  It’ll speak in any century if you get to the truth of what you’re saying.

BD:    Are directors getting too wrong-headed at times with the stage action, and updating 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.

BD:    But running it beyond that time to the present?

NB:    Jonathan 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.

burrowes BD:    So where should the balance be between drama and voice.

NB:    There is so much drama in the music, especially in Mozart.  A lot of it really sticks to itself.

BD:    But shouldn
’t opera be more than just a vocal recital?

NB:    Oh, sure!  But it should all come from the words and the music.

BD:    This is what you strive for when you are performing?

NB:    I would certainly try to, yes. 

BD:    You’ve sung quite a bit at the English National Opera where everything is done in English.  Is it satisfying to perform Italian opera in English?

NB:    It’s always more 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 translations...

NB:    Oh, 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 translation.

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 help enormously.  They don’t intrude at all, and for something like comedy, they’re very difficult because they actually have to be synchronized so that you don’t spoil the jokes before they happen!

BD:    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 there. 
[Remember, 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.  

BD:    Isn’t 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, yes. 

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Let’s 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?

burrowes 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?

NB:    Absolutely, yes!  He adores her!

BD:    Would they have been happy if they had wound up together?

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 Pedrillo?

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 never really thought about these things, and you’re asking all these questions!

BD:    These are things that you react to because you’ve sung the role many times and you have an idea about how it should go.  I assume the experience of doing the role on stage many times will give you insights.

NB:    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!

NB:    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 difficult.

BD:    Does the size of the house have any influence on that?

NB:    On the speaking?

BD:    Speaking or the singing.

NB:    If you speak or sing correctly, it shouldn’t make any difference.

BD:    You’ve 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?

burrowes 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 perfect.

BD:    And you don’t have all the characters to hide behind.

NB:    Exactly, and all the dresses and things.

BD:    Do you enjoy giving recitals?

NB:    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 it 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 liked!

BD:    You have a lot more control then?

NB:    Yes. 

BD:    How did you decide which operatic roles you will accept and which ones you will decline?

NB:    Well, 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 alone?

NB:    Yes, yes!  It was sort of early-ish on, anyway, but you have your instincts about 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 get 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’.  It’s absolutely stereotyped, and voices are all different.

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?

NB:    [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.

burrowes BD:    So then I assume you’ve told your agent no more Zerbinettas!

NB:    [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 Émile sung together in opera?

NB:    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 de Tirésias

BD:    Oh, the Poulenc, yes.

NB:    The Poulenc, yes, which was great fun.  He  sings a lot of operetta including 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.

BD:    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 should each arrange for six months on and the rest off, and then you’ll never sing together again!

NB:    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 was talking about the reactions of her children to the various roles she sang.

NB:    Yes.  Of course, they’re much older.

BD:    When mommy got killed on stage, the little boy was screaming and the father had to take him out.

NB:    Yes!  [Laughs]  I can imagine that would be very traumatic for a little child.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Going from Mozart backwards, you’ve sung quite a bit of a earlier music such as Handel, Monteverdi and Purcell.  Does 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?


NB:    No!  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.

BD:    You’ve 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?

NB:    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 nineteenth century?

NB:    I have sung Gilda, and I’ve sung Donizetti and some Rossini.  I’ve sung The Daughter of the Regiment, L’Elisir d’amore, and others.

BD:    Which language was The Daughter of the Regiment?

burrowes NB:    In 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, I came onto the stage and said it in an English accent [demonstrates], and they just fell about laughing!

BD:    Sounds like Eliza Doolittle!  [Both laugh]

NB:    I had to have special coaching in the American accent!

BD:    So American really is different than English?

NB:    Oh, yes, absolutely.  It was an American translation, and I had to say things like,
The Hell you say!”, and when it came out in my kind of Blondchen posh accent, they just laughed!  It was all a bit ridiculous, really.

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 people are 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 your performances?

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? 

NB:    You’re 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 own 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 and have 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?

NB:    Oh, 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 warm!  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.

burrowes 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.

BD:    Why?

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 to.

BD:    You were singing there in the Colón?

NB:    Yes.

BD:    Everyone 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, vast, Coliseum-like place with boxes all around.  But it is lovely to sing in.

BD:    The acoustics there are special?

NB:    The acoustics are lovely, yes.

BD:    Is the concert audience different from the opera audience.

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 Vaughan Williams.  Is there a connection with Purcell because they’re all English?

burrowes 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.  You’ve made a recording of that.  [See record jacket in the box at the bottom of this page.]

NB:    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. 

BD:    What makes a good student work?

NB:    Probably 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 often do.

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 these 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 time.

BD:    Are 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.

BD:    Are 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.

BD:    Ah, yes!  That’s 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. 

BD:    It 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 people who 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 television.

burrowes BD:    Was it satisfying at all to performing in it on television?

NB:    No!  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.

NB:    Absolutely, yes. 

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.

NB:    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 rather self-conscious.

BD:    Sure.  The eye never blinks!

NB:    [Laughs]  No! 

BD:    Should 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 studio, televising 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 premieres?

NB:    Not of any opera.  I have done a few songs, but not an opera.

BD:    That’s not like creating the role?

NB:    No.  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 the piano.

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.

A few more of the recordings made over the years by
Norma Burrowes and some of my other guests.


To read my Interview with Margaret Price, click HERE.

To read my Interview with Benjamin Luxon, click HERE.



To read my Interview with Brigitte Fassbaender, click HERE.

To read my Interview with Walter Berry, click HERE.



To read my Interview with Robin Leggate, click HERE.









© 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 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.