By Bruce Duffie


Despite the fact that OPERA SCENE is involved exclusively with operatic subjects and ideas, we have a fine singer returning to Chicago this month who is primarily a concert artist.  She does some opera, but as you will find out, her main concentration is with concerts and recitals.  So in our final edition we present Claudine Carlson, a charming woman who was born in France and now makes her home in Los Angeles.  She was first interested in ballet, but soon the voice was discovered and trained at the Manhattan School of Music.

Her operatic debut was at the New York City Opera as Cornelia in Giulio Cesare by Handel.  Menotti chose her for performances and the recording of Mrs. Nolen in The Medium, and she has appeared in two French operas at the Met.  [See my Interviews with Gian Carlo Menotti.]  She has appeared with many symphony orchestras under the batons of some of the greatest conductors.  Recently she sang the World Premiere of the Symphony #2 by Alberto Ginastera.  Specifically in Chicago, Claudine Carlson has appeared at Grant Park, Ravinia, and with the Chicago Symphony, where she returns this month for Quatre Chansons Françaises of Benjamin Britten.

When we met [in Chicago in August of 1982], it was a particularly busy day for me, so we dove right in to the conversation . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:    Since I’m in a frenzied state momentarily, how do you like the frenzied state of being a singer dashing around from place to place?

Claudine Carlson:    I love it.  It goes together with a career, and if you want to sing that is what you must be willing to do.  I would feel very sorry for anybody who would like to sing but not travel because it’s almost impossible to have a career just singing around town so to speak.

BD:    Do you enjoy the variety and the change, too?

CC:    Oh very much. You start making friends in different cities, and you look forward to seeing them every year or every few months.  It’s marvelous.

BD:    Where do you make your home?

CC:    Los Angeles.

BD:    You have a career that is opera and concerts and recitals?

CC:    Mostly concerts and recitals, not as much opera.

BD:    Is that by choice?

CC:    Yes.  I love concerts. 

BD:    Do you find concerts as satisfying as opera?

CC:    Much more because I don’t have to put costumes on and I don’t have to act.  I don’t have to be somebody else!  I can be with my voice and not have to be with every other part of my body.

carlsonBD:    So you enjoy interpreting just through the music?

CC:    Yes, exactly.  I don’t have a split personality which for opera you often have to.

BD:    But you do sing some opera so let’s delve into that for a moment.

CC:    I have been at the Met in Pelléas and also in L’enfant et les sortileges.

BD:    What characters were you in L’enfant?

CC:    I was the Chinese Tea-cup, the Shepherd, and something else – everybody has to sing several roles each because they are all so short.  In Pelléas I sang Geneviève – another short role.

BD:    How much can be done with the part of Geneviève?

CC:    You cannot do too much because she is supposed to be in her 60s, and at that time it was quite elderly.  So I wouldn’t think she would be running all over the stage doing all kinds of things.  It is a very static role.  One thing that was interesting was when they were trying to make me up they never felt that I was old enough.  So at every performance they added more wrinkles, but I was still too young.  I told my husband not to come backstage before the opera, but wait until intermission because the stage is so large and the house itself is so large that the make-up works.  You cannot see what they’ve done to you, so my husband thought I looked elderly but fine onstage.  But when he came backstage and I opened the door of the dressing room, I thought he was going to have a heart-seizure.  He said “My God, what have they done to you?”  I said that this is the way I’ll look when I’m 60 and he’d better get ready for it!

BD:    Does all of the make-up have to be exaggerated in a large theater?

CC:    Terribly exaggerated, yes, because it won’t show otherwise.

BD:    Do you take into account that it will look different in Row A and Row XX?

CC:    I suppose they do when they make you up, but you have the lights which fade things.  I suppose the overall effect will be accentuated for the people in the front row.  I have pictures of it and I showed them when I went to see my family in France, and they all gasped and were amazed.

BD:    You don’t particularly care for the make-up and the trappings?

CC:    No.

BD:    Do you miss the prompter in concerts where there is none?

CC:    I hate the prompter.  In fact, in L’enfant we couldn’t have prompters because of where we were situated on either side.  That was fine with me, but for Pelléas I asked the lady who was the prompter not to prompt me because she was driving me insane.  So I’m very happy not to have it in a concert.

BD:    What other operatic roles have you sung?

CC:    Not many.  I sang Suzuki in Madama Butterfly in Portland and my knees haven’t been the same since.

BD:    Was that in English or Italian?

CC:    Italian.

BD:    Do you enjoy translations or approve or them?

CC:    No I don’t because an opera was written with a certain language in mind.  I do not like translations because however good they might be, they are still different from the original which was thought of for the music.  I absolutely disapprove and I feel that furthermore, when you sing, it is very seldom that you will understand anyway, so what difference does it make?  I think the people should be familiar with the history of the opera before they come to hear it and then just enjoy the mixing of the language and the singing.

BD:    You don’t think that being in translation brings the audience any closer?

CC:    No I don’t.

BD:    Have you done opera in concert?

CC:    Yes.

BD:    Is that satisfying?

CC:    To me, yes.  Absolutely.  Last year in New York I sang Sesto in La Clemenza di Tito by Mozart and I loved it.  And I was in Les Troyens at Ravinia and that was a marvelous experience.

BD:    Can you bring as much characterization on the concert platform as you do on the operatic stage?

CC:    I think so because I don’t have the trappings to worry about.  I did Cornelia in Giulio Cesare at the New York City Opera a few years ago, and the way the dagger had to be held and the way we had to walk was highly stylized.  It drove me crazy the point where I couldn’t think of the aria.  For me it is a distraction.  I’m one of those people with a one-track mind and the track is music, almost to the exclusion of everything else.  I’ll tell you, though, it has been a detriment to my career.  If I did more opera, my name would be more well-known to the regular audiences than it is.

BD:    When you do concerts, it’s three nights in a row.  Is that difficult?

CC:    It’s nicer when you have one night off – first and second concert, then a night off and then the third concert.  That gives you time to recoup.  When I come back to Chicago in May, it will be for a Britten song-cycle which will be an American premiere.  It’s very early Britten, Quatre Chansons Françaises, which he wrote when he was about 17, obviously on French poetry – two by Victor Hugo, two by Verlaine.  It’s very, very interesting.

BD:    Do you find drama in poetry?

CC:    Oh yes, absolutely.  That’s what I like, you see.  You have everything right there – the music, the drama, the very fine poetry.

BD:    Are there any opera librettos that are fine poetry?

CC:    You would know better because you know more about opera than I do.  Sometimes you must admit that it gets pretty idiotic… There is something being written now by Ginastera and that will be a world premiere.  It’s with going to be a symphony with mezzo solos and it should be quite exciting.

BD:    Do you enjoy doing world-premieres?

CC:    I’ve never done one before, but it is a great honor.

BD:    Did he select you?

CC:    The St. Louis Symphony selected me.  I’ve sung there a great deal with Leonard Slatkin.  [See my Interviews with Leonard Slatkin.]  I guess they had me in mind and commissioned him to do it. 

BD:    Is he writing it around your voice?

CC:    Yes he is, and I hope he finishes it.  I got a letter from him and he promised it would be ready in a few weeks.  I hope it is because he is not an easy composer, and I would like the music about three months ahead of time.  I don’t know what to expect – it’s supposed to be a rather extended part and I would like to have time to learn it. 

BD:    That will be in Spanish.  Will you be conscious of the people following the text in their programs?

CC:    No, I can’t be conscious of it.  I speak Spanish and have sung a lot in Spanish.  I gave a recital at Ravinia and the translations were all in the program.  I thought that was nice, but I did notice the pages all turning at once.  It’s nice that they were all involved with listening and following.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Let’s talk about different styles in music.  You’re doing this world premiere.  Do you enjoy contemporary music?

CC:    Some of it I do.

BD:    Is there some that you won’t sing?

CC:    If it’s not right for my voice, I won’t.  There are always things that you shouldn’t be singing.

BD:    They stretch the voice all out of shape?

CC:    That’s right.

BD:    Where is music going these days?

CC:    I think it’s going back to a more melodic style.  The things that have more sounds than notes are going out of style.

BD:    Are you glad it’s going that direction?

CC:    I think so, in a way.  I like more melodic music.  I’m not saying it should be all Brahms and Schubert, but I think it’s gotten to the point where it’s not music any more.  It’s all abrasive sounds and percussive sounds which has not much to do with the voice.

BD:    You don’t approve of the voice being used as an obbligato insert?

CC:    It’s not for me. 
I’m straight-laced.

BD:    Do you enjoy listening to contemporary music?

CC:    Sometimes I have very much.  I did a cycle by Colgrass called New People which is absolutely wonderful.  It’s for voice, piano and viola.  In that cycle, there are times where I have to make funny popping sounds with my lips, but it’s fun and it’s not all of it.  Some of it is very melodic, and it’s very funny.  It’s a wonderful cycle – talks about the CIA and other things like that.

BD:    Is music political?

CC:    I think so, yes.  It makes all kinds of statements.  Think of Shostakovich.  There are all kinds of messages in music that are not just romantic love.  There are lots of political things.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    You’re a mezzo.  Do you prefer the higher mezzo roles or the lower mezzo roles?

CC:    I try not to categorize.  I do all kinds of things.  Sometimes I fall flat on my face, other times it comes out very well.  But one has to extend oneself just a little bit.

carlsonBD:    You’re not a latent soprano waiting to break out?

CC:    I started as a soprano, but I wasn’t comfortable with the music and I wasn’t really happy with the repertoire.  It didn’t appeal to me.

BD:    Is there any role that you are really looking forward to?

CC:    I would like to try to see if I could do the Dialogues of the Carmelites.

BD:    Which role?

CC:    I really don’t know yet, but I would like to do something in that opera.  I was also told I’d be a perfect Charlotte in Werther, so those two operas I would like to try.

BD:    Have you looked at Charlotte?

CC:    Yes, I know the role.

BD:    Tell me about her – how wishy-washy is she?

CC:    I was going to say she gives me sugar diabetes!  She is certainly one of those that swoons and moons and all those things.

BD:    Could she ever have been happy with Werther?

CC:    I think she would have made the best of it as women of that time did.  She probably would have been happy in her own way – a way that only a disgustingly sweet person can be. 

BD:    How do you balance your career and marriage?

CC:    Ahhhhh!  You slip things in – I was told you’re a very good interviewer!  I’m lucky in two ways.  I don’t have children, and I have a husband who, from the very start, knew that my career took off and I would be travelling.  He was willing to put up with it, so I am very lucky.  He’s also a musician, but he’s based in Los Angeles being an instrumentalist and also a contractor for 20th Century Fox.  So he is more or less stationary.  Frankly, if I had children I don’t know how I would have a career or how I split myself.

BD:    So the career comes first, but if there were children they would come first?

CC:    How does one know until one is there?  It’s difficult enough for me to leave my poodle, so I don’t know what I would do if I had children.

BD:    You don’t bring the poodle with you?

CC:    No, but I understand she moans when I’m away and doesn’t eat and sits by the window and waits for me to come home.  I feel just great when I hear about this!  I think my husband also moans in his own way, but at least he eats…

BD:    Do you try to organize your schedule not to have too many long separations in a row?

CC:    This is one of the reasons why I don’t do much opera.  Opera requires really at least six weeks.  I was in New York for two and a half months for L’enfant.  I love New York and that’s not a hardship for me, but it still means I’m not home, and no matter how understanding a husband might be, two and a half months is a long time.  I really don’t understand marriages where one is a singer is gone maybe eight months out of the year.  I don’t understand how the marriage survives.

BD:    Have lovers in every port, perhaps.

CC:    I suppose… that’s one solution.

BD:    [Cringing slightly]  I’m going to get hit when I get home tonight for saying that!

CC:    [With a big smile]  That’s alright!

BD:    Is it easier for a man to bring his whole entourage with him than for a woman to try to bring her whole entourage?

CC:    I have very rarely seen male opera singers with their whole entourage.  It doesn’t happen that often for women either.  I know that when I arrive at a hotel, I don’t want a child or other family around.  I want to be alone.  Having family there must present a lot of tension which you don’t need when you’re going to perform.  Even when my husband is along with me it’s difficult. 

BD:    Ever want to shoo him out of the room?

CC:    Sometimes I wish I could.  [Laughs]  Not really, but he gets nervous for me.  I am nervous enough, and to have a second person nervous for you makes you go out of your mind.

BD:    One of the local singers told me when he’s rehearsing at Lyric he stays in a hotel.  After the performances begin it’s OK and he goes home at night, but during the rehearsals he checks into a hotel downtown.

CC:    I always find it harder to sing in Los Angeles because I’m home.   Besides being a “local” mezzo
which is maddeningyou live at home and you’re not insulated from the everyday routine.  That’s why when you asked if I liked to travel, I said yes because at a hotel everybody takes care of me and all I have to think about is my music.  But I’m a very independent person anyway….

BD:    In the few operatic roles that you’ve sung, do you find Claudine Carlson intruding on the characters?

CC:    Very much so, absolutely
– and this is my problem.  I was thinking about this very thing this morning, not only for opera.  I was thinking about some of the things that I have not been good at, and this may be a horrible thing to say, but sometimes I am too intelligent and it gets in the way of my voice and my singing.  That’s a terrible statement to make, but if I were more easygoing and didn’t analyze things it might be better for me.  As I was saying earlier, there are people who are quite willing to have split personalities.  They can suddenly throw themselves into a role and forget about themselves.  This is something that I cannot do.  Someone was saying the other day on the television – talking about actors – that some of the greatest actors are the ones who can completely erase their own personality and take on the personality of the role that they are playing.  They are thought of as great actors, which they are, but they do it by sublimating themselves and I can’t do that.  I’m too much myself and that is a problem.

BD:    So a concert, then, it’s not as hard?

CC:    No, it’s not.  The kind of music that you do in concerts you can meld yourself with what you are singing and put of yourself into the singing and it comes out fine.

BD:    How much difference is there having the orchestra in front rather than behind?

CC:    I like to have the orchestra around me.  It’d kind of nice.

BD:    You like being right there beside the conductor?

CC:    Oh yes, I love it.

BD:    Do you find yourself looking at the conductor more or just feeling him?

CC:    Feeling.  Once in a while, and I won’t name names, I have to ignore the conductor because he had such strange gestures that I would have gotten quite mixed up if I had looked at him.  He was jumping all over the podium!  It was a performance of Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex, which is a piece I just love.  I was singing Jocasta, and all the other singers were watching the conductor and got lost.  I decided not to look at him and I was the only one who didn’t get lost.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    What do you do for relaxation?

CC:    I read and write letters to friends.  I like to take long walks.  I play with my poodle…

BD:    What’s the poodle’s name?

CC:    Mezzo.  We had her since she was a puppy and she loves music.  The license plate on my car is also Mezzo.  My mother used to say the names of fools are found everywhere, so there you are!

carlsonBD:    So you enjoy being a mezzo.

CC:    Very much. 

BD:    Don’t you ever miss being a soprano?

CC:    No, because I can go either way.

BD:    Do you ever sing any real contralto roles?

CC:    Yes, and they weren’t very good.  I’m not a real contralto.

BD:    You enjoy singing, though.

CC:    Yes.  That is my way of expressing myself.  Some of the things that I wouldn’t dare say to somebody face to face I can say in music.

BD:    Do you ever sing to your husband?

CC:    No.  Also, my way of praying
if there is such a thing as prayingis within the context of music.  I get extremely religious in my own way when I do a religious work.  Somebody once told me that when I sing I get catatonic, and it’s trueI don’t know what’s going on around me.  There can be planes going overhead or other noises and I don’t notice them.  I think you get into a trance when you sing anyway.

BD:    Are concert audiences different from opera audiences?

CC:    Yes, definitely.  In some ways, concert audiences are more subdued.  At the opera, people are much more extroverted.  It’s fascinating to watch the different kinds of audiences.  You can almost stand in front of a theater, and if you don’t know what is being presented that night, you can tell by watching the people going in.  You can certainly tell if it will be a ballet or a concert or a recital or an opera. 

BD:    Are they different people, or the same people with different attitudes?

CC:    I don’t think it’s always the same people.  The ballet crowd is much different – they dress differently, they act differently, they look differently.  A recital crowd is much more austere.  Operatic crowds are there with the latest record of the star, and they are more…

BD:    Hyper?

CC:    Yes, very much so.  It’s the same kind of people who come backstage.  In opera it’s very, very different.

BD:    Do you like having people come backstage?

CC:    Oh I love it.  Don’t let anyone tell you that artists don’t like to have people backstage.  We all love it.

BD:    Do you like signing autographs?

CC:    Yes, I do.  It’s a way of meeting people, and a way for people to know that you’re human.

BD:    You’ve made some recordings – do you enjoy doing that?

CC:    Yes, very much.

BD:    You don’t find the making and re-making of sections distracting?

CC:    It’s not distracting.  My only frustration is that’s it’s not as good as I would like it to be.  Other than that I love it.

BD:    Do you enjoy listening to recordings?

CC:    Yes, but there is a difference from the live performance; the human element is missing.  I don’t think that the recording should be the be-all and end-all of something, but it’s very interesting to listen to different interpretations.  It’s a tool.

BD:    Do you like being booked so far in advance and knowing that on a certain date two years from now you will be singing a certain piece in a certain place?  You don’t find that confining?

CC:    No, I like it very much.  Of course it’s very misleading because you think you have lots of time.

BD:    Do you like coming back to Chicago time after time?

CC:    I love Chicago.

BD:    Without mentioning names, are there any cities you dislike so that you would not sign another contract to sing there?

CC:    There is one city that I’ve been to several times where I find the people un-warm, and that’s most rare for the soloist.  Generally people go out of their way for us, and I cannot pinpoint why they are like that.  But that wouldn’t stop me from signing a contract to sing there, especially because I enjoy working with the conductor who is there.  So I wouldn’t cut off my nose to spite my face.

BD:    We look forward to your return.

CC:    I do, too.

BD:    Thank you for speaking with me today.  You have been most kind.

CC:    So have you.

Claudine Carlson is considered one of the great mezzo sopranos of the 20th century and remains the leading authority of French art song interpretation and French vocal diction. Born in France, Ms Carlson came to the United States at the age of 16. After attending the Manhattan School of Music in New York, she made her professional operatic debut in 1968 with the New York City Opera as Cornelia in Handel's Giulio Cesare, opposite Beverly Sills. Her Metropolitan Opera debut was as Geneviève in Debusy's Pelléas et Mélisande with Theresa Stratas and conducted by James Levine.

Throughout her illustrious career, Ms Carlson has performed in the world's great opera houses and concert halls with the leading orchestras and conductors. Ms Carlson is especially revered for her work with a number of renowned American Composers, conducted by both Leonard Bernstein in his orchestral work, Kaddish, and Aaron Copland in his cantata, In the Beginning. She also appeared in a production of Menotti's The Medium, directed by the celebrated composer.

However, Ms Carlson's greatest artistic accolades continue to stem from her innovative and inspired interpretation of the French art song and operatic repertoire. Learning from such greats as Pierre Bernac and Jennie Tourel, Ms Carlson developed her own unique and engaging style, solidifying her place as a major artistic presence in this genre. Ms Carlson has coached for the LA Opera, conducts professional master classes across the globe and works with some of the world's leading young opera stars.

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© 1982 Bruce Duffie

This interview was recorded in the French Quarter Restaurant of the Palmer House Hotel in Chicago on August 12, 1982.  Portions (along with recordings) were used on WNIB in 1995 and again in 1997.  It was transcribed and published in Opera Scene magazine in May of 1983.  It was re-edited, the photos, links and biography at the end were added, and it was posted on this website in 2012.

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, as well as 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 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.