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
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?
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.
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
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
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
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,
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
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
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
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
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
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
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?
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 ears!
NB: Yes, 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 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
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
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
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
I wonder how it would work for a Rossini opera where there is just so much
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?
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?
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
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.
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!
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
BD: Does the size
of the house have any influence on that?
NB: On the speaking?
BD: Speaking or
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
BD: Is this what
the singer must do, trust her instinct and the feeling?
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
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
BD: You have a
lot more control then?
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
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.
So then I assume you’ve told your agent no more Zerbinettas!
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?
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,
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.
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
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.
Of course, they’re much older.
BD: When mommy
got killed on stage, the little boy was screaming and the father had to take
[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?
Often I would start with Purcell and then have some Schubert in the second
BD: You do early
music and you’ve done some twentieth century. What about the nineteenth
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?
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
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.
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
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?
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?
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.]
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
BD: Do you enjoy
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.
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.
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.
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.
The eye never blinks!
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
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
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
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 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.
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,
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