Soprano Régine Crespin
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie
When thoughts turn to French music and singers of that style, one of
the quintessential names that would appear on every list is
Régine Crespin. Having mastered her native literature, she
went on to receive accolades for other styles and languages. She
sang all over the world in a career that spanned forty years on the
stage and further seasons as a teacher.
Her roles included many of the best-known as well as some more rare,
and early on she portrayed a couple of huge characters in settings by “other”
composers — Salome in Hérodiade
of Massenet, and Brunehild in Sigurd
of Reyer! Her late stage assumptions included the title roles in La Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein
by Offenbach and The Medium
by Menotti, as well as the Countess in The Queen of Spades. Her
American operatic debut was in Chicago, after which she returned in a
few seasons and was honored as a Jubilarian
during the 50th Anniversary Season of the company.
We met in March of 1996, quite late in her career. Her voice,
while still strong and vibrant, was decidedly lower than
expected. Listening to her speak, one would have thought she had
always been a deep contralto rather than a soprano!
Her English was delightful — very French and
very witty. Several times she used a word and asked if I
understood, and always it was either a word we normally use, or one
that made complete sense in her context. I have left many of her
charming mannerisms in the text, and have only corrected a few
instances to make the tenses agree from the beginning to the end of
Here is what was discussed that afternoon . . . . .
After a wonderful
career as a singer, you’re now embarking on a new chapter as a
teacher, and are currently here at Lyric Opera coaching some
of the students in their School [the Ryan Opera Center]. Without
mentioning any names, are you
pleased with the sounds you hear coming
out of the throats of the young people today?
Absolutely! There are a bunch
of people here who are really good singers with good
voices — not only good voices, but a good
qualities. Really, they are very interesting and I am
very pleased, because they are open to any suggestion, any
advice, and even more than that, they are asking for
it. They are begging to work, to get some advice, which means
they are flexible, open, and that’s nice. No
names, as you said, but there are at least seven or eight young
singers that might be going to have a
career. I’m almost sure. Pray God! [Laughs]
just the vocal equipment, what does
it take to make a career?
RC: Oh, my
goodness! That’s a big, large
question! [Both laugh] It takes patience, work and work and
and work again. It takes a great amount of courage, and a great
amount of humility to ask yourself every morning, “What did I do
yesterday? Was it good enough? What was good?
What was not good?”
BD: Is it ever good
Exactly! That is a big question. And
what can I do better tomorrow? But I repeat — patience
and work, and again work and work and work and work.
And repeat and repeat and repeat. We call that in
France une longue patience, a
long patience. And also it’s a lot
of imagination and curiosity to look around to see what’s going on
with singing. Is this bad or good, or very good? What can I
get from this one? Can I be inspired by that soprano or that
tenor — whoever it is. One needs to be curious, not to live in a
secret tower and not get any connection with
the world. They should read a lot, go to movies or to musical
BD: To keep
the connection with the real world?
there is a danger. You want to become an artiste — not only a singer, but an
is a little different. If you become a diva
or a divo, there is a little danger to be easily separated from the
rest of the world because the fans, the public, put
you there. They put you on a kind of pedestal where you are above
everybody, and it’s very easy
to take that too seriously. So we should be careful of
mock horror] You mean to say the opera is not the real
world??? [Both laugh]
RC: No, it is
not! But it is not only that; there are many things which are
important when we’re
singing. It’s our life, it’s our job, but
yet we shouldn’t lose the contact with other people,
with real life, with the world because it invades you. This job
takes all the
strength you have, all your possibilities, your liberties. It
is difficult to resist that because you know you have to work.
You have to vocalize, you have to learn the part, you have to go
to rehearsals in the theater or with a pianist if it is a
you are kept busy all the time. It’s difficult not to become cut
off from the rest of the
world. We are condemned, in a certain way, to become
selfish. We have to be selfish to protect
ourselves, but we should be aware that we need
the other people. We give a lot to the public, and we
are people who will receive, also, a lot of love, a lot of applause, a
lot of communication. We bring them some joy, some marvelous
moments, but we receive also. What I mean is not to lose
BD: When you
or the students are onstage,
how much is the art and how much is entertainment?
RC: What do
you mean, exactly?
BD: How much
is the serious art, and how much
is diversion? Is there a balance between the two in a performance?
RC: What I
tell them very often, is exactly the
answer to your question. I tell them, okay, enjoy singing.
It’s a joy to sing, first of all; it’s a physical joy.
Enjoy to produce a beautiful sound. Make them laugh or cry,
but don’t laugh or cry too much yourself, especially with the
voice. Pretend. Louis Jouvet was a very great
actor in France before the war and after the war, and he always
said, “You don’t cry; they cry.” It’s very true. It’s a
very thin line between the real thing and the false
thing. We have to admit that we play, we act, we pretend to be
a queen or a beggar or whatever it is. We kill or we are killed
we kill ourself, but that is not actually true. So what we sell
in a certain way, and we have to know that, of course! [Both
you’re onstage with a character, how
much is the composer and the librettist, and how much is the artist
himself or herself?
RC: Oh, you
have to put all yourself in the
part! Absolutely, you have to give and be completely merged
in the part, in the music, in the sound, in the vocal business.
But when you get off of the stage, it’s ended. Sometimes it takes
you a long time to become again yourself. It’s not
so easy when you finish a performance or a recital. For me, it
least three or four hours; that’s why I didn’t want to go to bed
immediately. I wanted to go to a restaurant, to drink a beer or
some wine in order to quiet me down and be able to reintegrate the
body of Crespin. It’s a little tricky. It might be
BD: Was it
the same after a song
recital as it was after the opera?
Absolutely, yeah; maybe a little less after a
song recital, because you are not just one personage. But if you
sing an operatic role, you are that personage for three
hours. It amazes you, really; it gets
in you. I remember some of my friends, even my husband, said, “My
God, I am on the stage with you. I talk with you, and suddenly
you’ve past the line, being in front of the public. You are no
more there. It’s you, I know it’s you, but it’s not my
wife.” It was amazing. I didn’t feel that. But he
said it’s something really amazing, how suddenly I disappear. I
am still there, but it’s not him.
BD: Could he
see the line coming back, and it was you
RC: Yeah, of
course, I hope so! [Both laugh]
BD: In a song
recital, are these lots
of little different operas?
Absolutely. It’s a lot of different
acts, a lot of little stories which are two or three
minutes by a certain composer. If you sing some song by
Schumann, by Fauré, by Debussy, you jump to a genre which is
light and funny or heavy or dramatic
or sad. So it’s a kind of like being a clown in the circus.
When they laugh, they jump and they do
everything they are to do. We are a little bit like this in
recitals. We have to jump from two minutes of a sad
story, and then the next one is going to be a light one, a funny
one. The Fauré one is going to be French, and then we do
German or Spanish and even English. So it is a kind of a
gymnastic, which is fun to do. I might say it is
a challenge, a fantastic challenge. But still, you are alone in a
certain way, with the music and the
accompanist, but really alone to create a little story, one after
another. If you sing Tosca, for instance, you are
Tosca all the way through, changing according to what’s
happening, but it is still this woman. In recital, it
is completely different. But for me, a recital which is
well performed, well done, is much more interesting than the
opera! For me it was a
fascinating world of imagination or creation. You are really
alone with the pianist and the music. On the stage in an opera,
you have a colleague, orchestra, costume, a wig, make up and so
on. You don’t show your real self. In
a recital, you have to be more open, more exposed.
BD: You are
RC: I say
that all the time — we are naked in front of
a piano, absolutely. But it’s a challenge.
program-building for the song recital something that every singer must
RC: That is a
big thing! You have to know how
to build it, to do a program. I saw a recital not
so long ago — no names and no place —
but this was the most
boring recital I saw in my life! All the songs were beautiful,
but they were all in the same mood; all the recital
was in the same mood. The artist who was singing was a good one,
but it was all the same mood all the time! You have to
build. The beginning of the recital must be a high point.
Then if you sing, for instance, a
cycle with seven or eight songs by Schumann or Schubert or
Mahler, you have to make some contrast in the choice
of the cycle you are going to sing. Then you have to think about
the end. The
beginning of the second part, since the public have had an intermission
and left the hall, you have to take them back and catch
them again. And the end of the recital has to be really the
highest point. So it’s a little playful to build the recital, to
put that here in the second part or in the middle of the second
part, to consider that is light and something else is not light.
It’s a little like a puzzle.
BD: And all
the time you have to be careful of the
Yeah. We spend a lot of
time when we make the choice of the program, because you have to try
this or that cycle. I think I would like to sing that, but
it’s not really for me. So to build a recital, it takes you
sometimes six months because sometimes you have to learn
the cycle. If you want to try to sing that cycle, you have to
learn it and sing it, and then finally you say, “No, I’m
sorry. It’s not for me.”
BD: Is there
a secret to singing French chansons?
[Laughs] No. A secret? No, there is no
secret. No, I don’t think so. You have to learn French, a
little bit, of course, but we all do that; we sing in it. It’s
very common to sing in English and Spanish and in German,
in French, in Italian. You have to sing in three
languages at least, so it’s not so uncommon. With
French, you have to, maybe, have some flair, and listen to the music,
listen to the elegance of the phrases. But it’s the same in
German. If you sing an Italian cycle it’s the same; if you sing
some Spanish songs, you have to get in the — how can I put that?
the earth of Spain or Italy or France. You understand what I
mean? In the roots, which is sometimes not so
easy. But it’s interesting. It’s a fabulous search.
back to opera for a moment, you were
offered all kinds of roles. How did you decide — yes
sing this role, no I will not sing that role, I will put this role off
for many years?
RC: In fact,
first of all, you don’t decide.
It’s your voice who decides. For my part, I would
have loved to sing Dalila in Samson
et Dalila, but I couldn’t because
I didn’t have the voice. I would have loved to sing Lucia, but I
couldn’t. That would have required a high coloratura.
interesting because those who sing Dalila usually say, “I would love to
RC: You have
to follow the voice you have, first of
all. Then in the repertoire you can sing, you might
have a choice. You may decide not to sing this or
that. I did some stupid choices sometimes, made a mistake.
BD: But you
can’t know that, though, until you’ve
For instance, I refused two or three
parts I should have sung — for instance, Don Carlo by Verdi. I
should have sung this part and it was Karajan who offered it to
two years I said, “No, I don’t want to sing it.” He asked why,
and I said, “I don’t think it’s an interesting part.
You have to cross the stage with beautiful wigs and costumes and so on,
and then to wait until the fourth or fifth act to sing a
beautiful aria.” He said, “You’re crazy,
Crespin, you’re crazy,” and he didn’t talk to me for two years.
He was upset, and he was right — I was crazy! But I thought
it was not a part where I can show my qualities, so I felt it was not
me. Another role I should have sung was Isolde.
RC: Yeah, of
course. For four or five years I was in Bayreuth, and every
morning Wieland Wagner, the grandson of Wagner, said, “Guten Tag, Frau Isolde.” I
Guten Tag, Frau Crespin.”
The first time I listened to that opera, it was Kirsten Flagstad
who sang. She had an enormous, beautiful voice, like honey.
And each time I opened that score and began to
learn it, the voice of Flagstad was in my ears, and I said, “No,
BD: Did you
never even sing the Liebestod?
RC: Yeah, I
sang that in concert, but never the entire
part. But I have a good answer to that. Leonie Rysanek
never sang Isolde, and she said, “I prefer that
people say, ‘what a pity she didn’t sing it,’ instead of saying, ‘what
a pity she did sing it.’” So I take that answer for me, too.
BD: But you
did sing several great Wagner parts — Sieglinde
Sieglinde, Elsa, Elizabeth in Tannhäuser,
Wagner write well for the voice?
bad. Not so bad. The orchestras
are too loud, sometimes. But we have to remember, and Karajan was
saying that very often, to sing Wagner like an Italian part.
And in fact when he wrote those characters, what we call now the
Wagnerian style or the Wagnerian voice didn’t exist at that
time. Who was singing Wagner? The ones who were singing bel
canto things! So Karajan was very, very insisting that we should
sing all the Wagner parts almost like an Italian
legato sound. And he is right. Kundry is a little bit
special because she has a little
crazy moment. [Both laugh] But for the rest of the parts,
shouldn’t be too difficult — if you have the voice to do it, of
course! You need
a rather loud voice, but if you have the voice, you shouldn’t
shout, you shouldn’t push. No, I don’t think it is so
BD: Did you change
your technique at all for a small
house or a big house?
never. Why? No, no. The
technique is the same. I
remember when I did my debut here in Chicago — oh, wow! This hall
enormous! But no, I don’t change. I never had the idea to
something if it was a little hall or a big one, if the
acoustic is good. The acoustic is rather
difficult here, if I remember... not difficult, but this hall is
loud, big, and not round.
BD: It goes
straight out, straight back.
RC: Oui. It’s far, really, but I
don’t think I had any problem to be heard. [Laughs]
BD: Even if
you did not sing differently for big houses
and small houses, did you sing differently for the microphone?
question. First of all, I hated
microphones! I wrote a book about my life and it has
a chapter on microphones. [Laughs] It is a funny one.
me, it was really a nightmare to record because I was lacking the
public. And you know, when you do a recording, you repeat; you do
so many “takes”, and then
you go to listen, you
correct, then you go back, and so on and so on. So it becomes a
little bit too mechanical for my taste and for my reaction. After
a while, I was lacking my spontaneity, my enthusiasm. I was
lacking the reaction of a public. So
finally I invited some friends, and said, “Just sit there and I
will sing for you, and if you are happy, okay.” But if that was
if I was alone, I was imagining that somebody was there, somebody I
loved very much — my husband or a friend
— and I was
singing for him or for her. I need that impression, that I was
singing for somebody! But yet, you know, all the singers are
complaining about pirate recordings. We shouldn’t, because I
have heard many pirate recitals and operas, and I
really saw there how it was spontaneous, more interesting in the
interpretation, more alive than a recording made in the
studio. Absolutely there is a big difference — for
me at least.
BD: In the
recording studio, do they try to get it
Absolutely. And each time you record a
phrase or an act or a scene, you think it is the good one, that it’s
you have to sing. Then when you arrive at the sixth or seventh
take... I have a very good story about
that. In Genève, we made Les
Nuits d’Été and Shéhérazade
with Ansermet conducting, which is one of my
most famous recordings. At the end of Spectre de la Rose, the song
finishes with, “que tous les rois
vont jalouser” — all the kings are
going to be jealous of my place because I’m dying on your heart.
Ansermet said, “Could we do that
again?” “Sure, maestro.” And we did it, and we went to
listen again and again. I did something like eleven or twelve
takes. I was scratching my brain, thinking what does he
want? What shall I change? What did I do wrong? I
didn’t understand. Finally I said, “Maestro, what’s wrong
there? You seem not to be happy with that phrase.” He said,
“When you sing tous les rois vont,
there is a
little breath coming with the voice.” I said, “Oh,
God.” And I explained, “Maestro, the rose is dying, so it is a
last breath.” And he said, “Oh, so we use the first take because
it was the best.” So this is an example! [Laughs] A
funny one, but...
BD: I have
been told that often the first take is the
often! But to go back to your
question, I didn’t like very much to record. I didn’t enjoy it,
completely. For a long time, I didn’t want to listen to my
recordings. When I would listen, I heard only the bad things, and
I was upset — you should not have done that, you should have done it
again! It took me some years to be able to
listen to my recordings. But once in a while, if I listen to one
of my recordings, once in a
while I say, “Well, it’s not so bad, finally.” But it’s
difficult. In a way, it is like if it is not me. I am
judging or feeling some things, almost like it is somebody else.
it’s finally so far removed?
RC: It’s far,
yeah. It’s amazing, yet I
know it’s me, of course! [Laughs]
BD: Of the
various operatic roles you sang, is there
one that is perhaps too close to the real Régine Crespin?
oh! That is a question! Not
really. I’m thinking... No, I wouldn’t say that. I
wouldn’t say I was preferring this one, or I lived this one better than
this one. But close to one, not really. Maybe, maybe,
maybe, maybe, the Marschallin, but no, I think I am completely
BD: I assume,
though, that there is something of you
in each role you sang?
course, yes. That’s certainly
true. In fact, if you ever are able to say that you
were good in a role, it means that really it was showing
you more than another one, that it worked some connection with you and
your own self.
Is singing fun?
absolutely! Sometimes it’s a
nightmare! Sometimes it’s cruel, but it’s fun. Yes,
it’s great fun, a great pleasure. We know that and we should
Let me ask one last easy question.
RC: An easy
BD: What’s the purpose of music?
RC: [With a
thoughtful smile] You think it is an easy one? Oh, my
God! The purpose of music? To charm, to make you dream, to
take you out of your usual life with taxes to pay and taking the bus or
the subway to work. I think the purpose of music is to get people
out of their usual occupation or life,
and to give them a moment of pleasure, of good. It is being in
a dream in a no man’s land, where they can
imagine whatever they want. Even if they are not in the public,
but listening to music of a recording, I think it’s
that. I have a story that maybe will illustrate what I want to
say. My recording of Shéhérazade
and Nuits d’Été
had been out for one or two years. One day my secretary told me,
“There is a
gentleman who is calling very often. He would like to talk to
you.” I said, “Oh, probably he wants a photo. Ask him his
name and I will send him a photo, and then he will stop calling.”
But she said, “No, he’s insisting.” So one day I was there when
and I spoke to him. He said, “Madame, I just want to tell
you something very quickly. Some months ago I was told I had
cancer. I didn’t want to go on to the end with the
cancer, and I managed to get some pills. When I decided it would
be that night, I stopped on the way
home and bought a bottle of
whiskey. As I was passing by a recording
store, I saw your new recording, so I bought it. I went home
and started to listen to Shéhérazade
and Nuits d’Été,
and Nuits d’Été for
hours, hours, hours. I drank the bottle of
whiskey, but I put the pills in the toilet. I am still here,
and I didn’t have the cancer.” When he had told me this, I was
really emotional and I
said, “I want to see you.” He said, “No, no, no, no, I just want
to say thank you for what you can bring to the public, and the
people.” One day I was coming out of the Opéra in Paris,
and I saw a young
man of thirty or thirty-five, with a rose. I don’t know why, but
said, “You are Mr. So-and-So?” And he said, “Shhh!” He
didn’t want to bother me. It was a fabulous story in my life
was discreet enough not to insist to see me, but he just
wanted to tell me how we can bring joy and happiness and dreams to
the people. In the beginning, I didn’t believe so
much in that idea, but now I feel that it is... [pauses a
moment] not our duty, but we are here to do that.
We are on Earth, and we have a voice or a talent to play a piano or
write or whatever it is, to give that to the others. But in
reward, we receive a lot of love in exchange. It is a
blessing. I tell that to my young students all the time. I
say, “It’s a blessing to do a job that you enjoy! Think about
people who are working to buy a steak or a car, and they don’t like
their jobs! How many are in that situation and have to work like
that?” So if you do something you like and you enjoy, say “thank
you” every morning to whomever you want, but say “thank
Regine Crespin, French Opera Diva Dies at 80
by Tom Huizenga
July 6, 2007 - Regine Crespin, one of France's greatest opera singers
died Wednesday in Paris. She was 80 years old.
Crespin was born in Marseilles and came to singing late, at age 16, a
result of not passing the entrance exams for college. She made her
opera debut in 1948 in Reims in the role of Charlotte in Massenet's
Werther, and began to make a name for herself singing in other regional
opera houses in France.
Crespin's breakthrough came in Bayreuth, the German town which hosts
the annual Wagner festival in the opera house built by the composer.
When she sang for Wagner's grandson Wieland, who ran the festival, she
had to perform Wagner's music in French as she had not learned the
original German. She was hired, quickly got a German vocal coach, and
made her Bayreuth debut in 1958 in the pivotal role of Kundry in
As her international career expanded Crespin began to make records.
Critic John Steane has written eloquently about Crespin, calling her
"one of the great singers on record." But, he points out, not everyone
will be immediately drawn to her voice.
"Her singing is an acquired taste that becomes addictive," he writes.
"The voice itself (strong as it is, and beautiful at a pianissimo) is
unlikely to register as particularly rich or pure or even as original."
Among the records regarded as her best is the 1963 recording of the
song cycle Les Nuits D'ete by Hector Berlioz. Steane focuses on the
song "L'Absence," particularly the opening word "Reviens." Steane
appreciates the care Crespin takes with that single repeated word, like
a call out to a lover.
"We feel the voice going out into the distance," he writes. "The first
'reviens' is shaded down to make the echo; the last syllable grows as a
call sent out into a valley."
Crespin had many triumphs in her career, including singing the role of
the Marschallin in Richard Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier both on
record—with conductor George Solti—and on stage. She also won rave
reviews for her collaborations with soprano Birgit Nilsson, especially
her portrayal of Sieglinde to Nilsson's Brunhilde in Wagner's Die
Walküre at the Metropolitan Opera in New York.
In her later years Crespin was an effective voice teacher, giving
master classes at Mannes College of Music, in New York.
© 1996 Bruce Duffie
This interview was recorded at the Opera House in Chicago on
Portions (along with recordings)
were used on WNIB two days later, and again in 1997. A portion
was also included in the group of Jubilarians
posted on the website of Lyric Opera
of Chicago to celebrate their 50th Anniversary. This
made and posted on this
website in 2010.
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.