A CONVERSATION WITH
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 . . . . .
Since I’m in a frenzied state momentarily, how do
you like the frenzied state of being a singer dashing around from place
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?
concerts and recitals, not as much opera.
BD: Is that by
CC: Yes. I
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
voice and not have to be with every other part of my body.
BD: So you enjoy
interpreting just through the music?
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
CC: I have been at
the Met in Pelléas and
also in L’enfant
et les sortileges.
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
I was old enough. So at every performance they added more
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
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
BD: Do you miss
the prompter in concerts where there is none?
CC: I hate the
prompter. In fact, in L’enfant
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?
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?
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?
BD: Is that
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
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
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
CC: I’ve never
done one before, but it is a great
BD: Did he select
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
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,
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
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
CC: It’s not for
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
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
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
BD: 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
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?
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.
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.
slightly] I’m going to get hit when I get home tonight for saying
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
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
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
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 maddening – you
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
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
BD: You like being
right there beside the conductor?
CC: Oh yes, I love
BD: Do you find
yourself looking at the conductor more or just
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
CC: I read and
write letters to friends. I like to take
long walks. I play with my poodle…
BD: What’s the
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!
BD: So you enjoy being a
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
BD: You enjoy
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
BD: Do you ever
sing to your husband?
Also, my way of praying – if there is such a
as praying – is 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 true – I
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?
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
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…
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
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
BD: You don’t find
the making and re-making of sections
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.
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
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
|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
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
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,
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.
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
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.