Soprano  Lella  Cuberli

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie



Lella Cuberli (born September 29, 1945) is an American soprano, particularly associated with the Belcanto repertory.

Born Lela Alice Terrell in Austin, Texas, she studied in Dallas and later in Milan. She made her professional debut in Siena, in 1973, and for some years pursued her career mainly in Italy, making her mark in Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini operas.

She sang at Martina Franca from 1976 to 1982, as Amenaide, Adalgisa, and in Paisiello operas. She appeared at La Scala from 1978 to 1985, as Aminta, Ginevra, Rodelinda, Giunia, Contessa di Folleville. Other roles at the major opera houses of Italy have included Donna Anna, Fiordiligi, Rossini's Elisabetta and Desdemona, etc. She also appeared at the Paris Opéra, the Aix-en-Provence Festival, the Vienna State Opera and the Salzburg Festival.

Returning to the United States, she made her debut at the Lyric Opera of Chicago in 1989, as Amenaide, and at the Metropolitan Opera in 1990, as Semiramide. In 1990, she also made her debut at Covent Garden in London, as Mathilde.

She can be heard on disc in works by Mozart, notably in Daniel Barenboim's recording cycle of the Lorenzo Da Ponte's operas, Le nozze di Figaro, Don Giovanni, Cosi fan tutte. She also recorded Giunia in Mozart's Lucio Silla and the Great Mass in C minor under James Levine, the soprano part in Herbert von Karajan's recording of the Beethoven's Missa Solemnis and the 9th Symphony, Rossini's Il viaggio a Reims and Tancredi, and Donizetti's Pia de' Tolomei. She has also recorded two solo recitals of works by Donizetti, Bellini, Rossini, Pergolesi and Mozart.

Her teaching career includes the University of North Texas during the Spring Semester of 2008, master classes in Milan (shown below), and the Lyric Opera Intensive of Rome in August/September of 2016.


In January of 1989, Lella Cuberli was in Chicago for her debut with Lyric Opera in Rossini
s Tancredi, part of a stellar cast which included Marilyn Horne in the title role, also Chris Merritt, Kenneth Cox, Robynne Redmon, and Sharon Graham.  Bruno Bartoletti conduted the production which was designed by John Conklin and directed by John Copley, with lighting by Duane Schuler.  Cuberli would return to Chicago exactly three years later for two of the Da Ponte operas of Mozart in semi-staged performances with the Chicago Symphony, led by Daniel Barenboim.  Cuberli had recorded leading roles with him in all three, but only sang in Marriage of Figaro, and Così fan tutte in the Windy City.

It was after the second of eight performances of Tancredi that we got together for a conversation . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:   You’re an American, yet you’ve made almost your entire career in Europe.  Is this a good thing, or a bad thing, and do you like coming home?

Lella Cuberli:   It’s a long story.  [Makes reference to the hand-written biography (shown at the bottom of this webpage), which she drafted specifically for this meeting.]  Is it a good thing?  I don’t know how things are in the United States anymore now, but at that time it was very difficult for an American to start a career in the States.  I was in Dallas, and it happened by meeting Larry Kelly.  [Kelly, along with Nicola Rescigno, founded the Dallas Civic Opera in 1957, after they had previously been two of the three who founded Lyric Opera of Chicago in 1954, along with Carol Fox, who remained at the helm until 1980, when Ardis Krainik took over.]  I participated in some things when I was still in the university, and with his encouragement, I won a big scholarship from the National Opera Institute.  He encouraged me to go to Italy to learn the language, to absorb the culture, and to learn repertoire.


WASHINGTON, July 20—The National Opera Institute, with a two‐year budget of nearly $1‐million, was formally established today by some of the country's leading promoters of the arts.  [Note: It would later be called the National Institute for Music Theater.]

Roger L. Stevens, the institute's president and chairman of the board of trustees of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing, Arts. said the institute would “encourage the growth and development of opera in the United States.” Julius Rudel, the conductor and general director of the New York. City Opera Company, will serve as chairman.

The institute, which is a private corporation, has been given a $500,000 donation by Mrs. DeWitt Wallace, co‐chairman of Reader's Digest, and a matching Federal grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.

The annual budget of $475, 000 for the first two years will, according to the institute announcement, be used as follows:

¶$150,000 to “supplement production costs of new or hitherto unproduced operas,” particularly by university opera groups and other small companies.

¶$75,000 for composers and librettists as a commission for new operas.

¶$125,000 to assist promising young singers by financing training, coaching and living expenses.

¶$75,000 to send introductory opera programs and workshops into sections of the country where opera is rarely seen. “There are many areas, such as in the Plains States and the Prairies, that are too far away from cities to support a theater,” an institute official said.

Although the institute's formation was officially announced today, members of the 18‐member board of trustees, who are unpaid, have been conferring for several months on how to organize the institute's programs.

Grant to City Opera

More than $90,000 in specific grants have already been approved, according to the institute spokesman. Among them is a $25,000 award to the New York. City Opera Company to study methods and costs in volved in developing opera films for television.

“This,” the institute announcement said, “will introduce young people to the world of opera in such a way as to develop badly needed new, audiences.” The films, which could he shown on television in schools, would consist of two parts: The first offering complete background on the opera, the composer, the performers and the technicians, and the second offering the opera itself, especially prepared for television.

A $25,000 award was also made to the Santa Fe Opera Company of New Mexico to finance production costs of a new opera by Luciano Berio, a composer with the Juilliard School and an institute trustee. Asked whether there was a conflict of interest involved in the institute's approving funds for activities associated with Mr. Rudel and Mr. Berio, an institute spokesman said: “Our legal counsel has advised us that there is no conflict. We have the leading composers and companies in the opera world represented on our board. It would be nearly impossible to reward outstanding opera that is not in some way connected with them.”

Among the institute's trustees, in addition to Mr. Berio, are: Prentis Cobb Hale, president of the San Francisco Opera Association; Irving Kolodin, music critic of The Saturday Review; George London, artistic director of the Kennedy center; George S. Moore, president of the Metropolitan Opera Association, and John Walker, former director of the National Gallery of Art.

Other grants made were to the Seattle Opera Association ($17,500), to help with putting on “Dos Madres,” a new opera, and to the Afro‐American Singing Theater of New York ($5,000), to enable it to use larger instrumental ensembles.

BD:   Did he encourage you to go to any place in Italy, or to a specific teacher?

Cuberli:   No, as a matter of fact, probably the reason he did that is because he knew my husband is Italian, and the operas that would have been suited to me would have been the Italian repertoire.  It just worked out all together very well to do it that way.  Now, why do you go to Italy, or why do you go to Europe?  It’s important for someone who is going to be singing Italian repertoire to learn the language, to understand the culture from which it came, and to study with the Italians and have that whole tradition get inside of you.  That’s very important for me as a singer.  It was good in my case because I almost immediately started singing, and never had a day’s rest because, at that point in time in Italy, things were changing.  We were having the bel canto revival especially in Italy, and it was headed by people like Philip Gossett.  Marilyn Horne and Joan Sutherland were also solitary beacons in this.  There weren’t a lot of singers ready or prepared or able to sing this repertoire, so since I was ready and willing, I started immediately on that road with that kind of repertoire.

BD:   When you’re choosing this repertoire, is it completely based on what your voice can and cannot do?

Cuberli:   Of course.  I feel very fortunate to have been rather guided by destiny immediately.  I didn’t waste any time hunting for the right repertoire for me.  It found me, and it turned out to be the right choice because it’s perfect for my type of character and for my musical nature, which come from an instrumental background.  I had studied piano since I was seven, and I was interested in composition.  Then, if it had been feasible, I would have loved to have been a conductor.

BD:   Maybe you can have a great career, and then taper off the singing a little bit, and take up conducting.

Cuberli:   No, I don’t think I’d do that anymore.

BD:   Why not?  
[Vis-à-vis the recording shown at left, see my interviews with Lucia Velentini Terrani, Cecilia Gasdia, Francisco Araiza, Ruggero Raimondi, Bernadette Manca di Nissa, and Claudio Abbado.]

Cuberli:   People change, and their desires change.  In fact, that wouldn’t appeal to me now.  Bel canto agreed with my musical nature and my personal nature, as well as my character, which is sort of neo-classical.  I was very fortunate to have been led or guided onto that path immediately.  One thing that young singers have to be very careful of is their choice of repertoire.  So many choose the wrong repertoire, or waste a lot of time just trying to decide, and you really need to specialize.

BD:   They find roles that are outwardly exciting, and miss the roles that are best for their voices?

Cuberli:   Exactly, or roles which may be glamorous at the moment.  Everybody wants to sing Aïda, for example, and things like that, but I never could do those parts.  If I had had the voice I’d certainly have been tempted, but I don’t have that voice, so there’s no sense in wasting time.

BD:   How do you know you don’t have the voice?  Obviously, the notes are there, so what is it about your voice that tailors it specifically towards the bel canto rather than the heavy dramatic?

Cuberli:   If we’re talking specifically about the voice, it’s just the quantity.

BD:   The amount of sound?

Cuberli:   Exactly.  You need a big lyric or dramatic voice to sing Aïda.

BD:   Don
t you need a big voice to sing Rossini in a house the size of the one here in Chicago?

Cuberli:   Yes, but they are different demands.  This is more an instrumental-type of singing.  Although there are some rather dramatic recitatives with orchestral accompaniment, it’s more instrumental.  Verdi is more dramatic in his accent, especially the farther on you go with his works.  Some of the first Verdi operas are voice killers.  For example, if you take La Traviata, that’s more of a bel canto line with a lot more dramatic accent.  In Italian, it
s l’accento dramatico, which means the way of saying things, or the way of pronouncing them through the music.  I try to do that as much as possible.  The quality is different, but it’s also just a matter of quantity.  You’ve got to have a big voice.  Sometimes there’s never enough voice in some Verdi roles, like Un Ballo in Maschera.

BD:   I would think even Traviata
which you have sungrequires a tremendous amount of sound, especially at the end of the first act.

Cuberli:   Yes, but it also requires agility and coloratura.  It’s a very bel canto aria when you think about it, and you always have to have something in reserve to use.  If I sang Aïda, there would not be enough, and I would be singing with everything I had all the time, and that you want to avoid.

BD:   You’d have a wonderful career for a couple of weeks!  [Both laugh]

Cuberli:   Yes, exactly.  There are some roles you have to sing differently, and a lot of Verdi is that way.

BD:   Did Verdi not know how to write for the voice, or is it just different types of voices?

Cuberli:   It is just different types of voices.  Everyone has to know their voice, and know what you can and you can’t do, and also what you do best.

BD:   Is it right to expect the singer himself or herself to understand the voice, or must it be other ears listening and guiding?

Cuberli:   It’s very important to have people who will tell you what they hear, and be very truthful about it... which is very difficult to find, strangely enough.

cuberli BD:   People you can trust?

Cuberli:   Yes, but I would immediately get the message if I started singing Aïda.  I would realize immediately that it was way over my head.

BD:   And yet you don’t sing the soubrette roles.

Cuberli:   No, I just couldn’t see myself singing soubrette roles.

BD:   [With a sly grin]  Oh, why not?

Cuberli:   [Smiles]  There we go back to my nature, and my character, which is neo-classical.  It doesn’t go with soubrettes.  [Both laugh]  Also, it has to do with my size.  I’m very tall and stately, so it rules out soubrettes.  It’s just not my style.

BD:   Do you have trouble finding tenors that are taller than you?

Cuberli:   Oh, definitely.  Always!  Well, not so much anymore because the newer generations are tall.

BD:   [With a tinge of sadness]  But tenors usually look like me
short and dumpy.  [Both laugh]

Cuberli:   You said it, I didn’t!  [More laughter]  But that is definitely a problem.

BD:   What can you do?  Might you scrunch down a little bit, or work with boxes?

Cuberli:   That’s precisely the stage director’s problem.  I try to accommodate in whatever way I can, because I believe that the visual part of opera, though not as important, is almost as important as the music.

BD:   So, you balance it out on the musical side?

Cuberli:   Oh, yes!  I’m considered a singing-actress because I adore that dramatic part of it.  I love to work with demanding and fine stage directors.  It’s very challenging, and I like to use everything I can when I’m doing these roles, but opera is about music and singers.

BD:   Are you receptive to most of the new ideas that are coming along, or are there times when you just say no, you can’t do that?

Cuberli:   I always try to understand what it is that he’s trying to get across with what he’s doing.  If I can, and if I can relate to it, then I’ll do it in my way, but I’ll do it.  If I can’t, I just say I can’t.

BD:   What if they say you must?

Cuberli:   I’ve never had that.  An excellent stage director would never say that you must, because you can’t go anywhere with that.  What can you do?  If someone says you must do something, and you can’t do it in a proper way, that’s just silly.

BD:   Perhaps they don’t get involved in your repertoire quite so much.  They get involved in more of the dramatic and contemporary works.

Cuberli:   Could be.  I’ve worked with some wonderful stage directors, and never has one of them said I must do a certain movement.

BD:   You’re very lucky.

Cuberli:   Yes, I am.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   When you get on the stage, are you portraying the character, or do you cross that line and become the character?

Cuberli:   I portray her, but I come close sometimes.  When I’m doing Semiramide, that’s a role I’m very jealous of.  I adore the personaggio [character], and I think it’s a fantastic opera, very dramatic as well.

BD:   You are the beneficiary of the big revival with Sutherland and Caballé doing roles and presenting them to the public.

cuberli Cuberli:   Thank you very much!  [Laughs]  I have very good company.

BD:   But you are not launching or re-launching them onto the world.  [The autographed photo shown at left, and poster shown below-right, are for sale by a company, hence their watermark.]

Cuberli:   No, no, no.  I do it in my own way.  Everyone, when they do something, has their own personality.  That’s obvious, but it’s always a portrayal.  Just recently I heard someone on the television talking about actors and actresses who have their problems, who really become their characters.  It’s very dangerous for the psyche to become so identified with one character.  That’s probably a problem for an opera singer, too.  We have so much to think about.

BD:   Too much?

Cuberli:   We’ve really got to have a computer in our head.  When you get out there, you’ve got to think about staying with the conductor, and having a musical rapport.  Sometimes you’ve got to think about certain vocal difficulties, and you have to concentrate on them.  You have to be sure you’re in the lights.  You have to be sure you’re not tripping over your train, because the costumes sometimes are very complicated.

BD:   Is the scenery also complicated?

Cuberli:   Sometimes.  There’s so much to think about, it’s pretty difficult to go over the line and become a character.  It’s different for an actor or an actress.

BD:   Do you rely on a prompter at all?

Cuberli:   Very rarely, and just for words.  I’m one who forgets words, especially in a Rossini opera with the repeated sequences which are perhaps changed slightly.  Then you sing them again, but I never forget the music.

BD:   You always have the tune in your head.

Cuberli:   Oh yes, the music is there.

BD:   When you come to a new city and you rehearse the production, do you always get enough rehearsal time, or do you wish there were another two or three days to work on it?

Cuberli:   I always wish there was more, yes, because I always want it to be better.  It would always be that way.  When we arrive at the dress rehearsal, I say that if we just had a couple of more days... but I’m sure it’s just me.

BD:   Do you feel that the third or fourth performance is even better than the first one?

Cuberli:   Oh, definitely.

BD:   What about the eighth or ninth performance?

Cuberli:   The eighth or ninth performance have other difficulties, because by that time it is probably too many, and you have trouble getting up for it again, and making something new out of it every time.

BD:   How do you keep it fresh?

Cuberli:   With great concentration, and trying to do something different.  If you feel something spontaneous come on, do it, and that’s the different kind of difficulty.  I think five or six performances are ideal in number, but I understand that’s not very practical from the theater
s point of view, because they need to use their production that they have paid for.

cuberli BD:   Sure, get some mileage out of it.

Cuberli:   Yes, so that’s opera!  [Both laugh]

*     *     *     *     *
BD:   You mentioned that while you’re here, you’re studying new roles and restudying old roles.  There’s always a lot of work.  Is there too much work involved in being a singer?

‘Too much is very relative to whom you’re speaking.  There is an enormous amount of work for a serious singer who always wants to be the best possible.  I believe that if you really want to have a career at a high level, you must dedicate yourself wholly to that career, sacrificing everything else.  That’s what my life is about.

BD:   Sacrificing home and family and everything?

Cuberli:   Yes.  There was a lady talking to me the other day, and I said that I’m at home all together maybe a month in one year.  So, you can imagine what a disaster that would be if I had children, and that’s why my husband and I decided not to have children, because that’s not fair in our opinion.  A lot of my colleagues who do have children work it out the best way they can, but in my opinion it’s not right.

BD:   It’s not good for your situation, but it might be for another situation.

Cuberli:   Yes, that
s true.

BD:   Tell me about La Scala.  Is it all that the fabled house is supposed to be?

Cuberli:   It still is.  La Scala is always its color, yes.  There’s something about the atmosphere there that is very special and unique to itself.  I’ve lived in Milan now for seventeen years, so I feel like that’s my second home, and maybe that’s one of the reasons I feel so special about that theater.

BD:   You’ve spoken about the difficulty of travel.  Is it special to sing a performance, and go home rather than to a hotel?

Cuberli:   Sure!  You find all your little things when you get there.  But really, after a few years of this crazy life, you get to be gypsy-like, and if I’m at home and not working for more than a week, I start getting restless because I’m so accustomed to be constantly on the move that it feels like I should be leaving.  So it’s sort of strange.  You lose your roots after a while
at least I haveand nothing seems really like home anymore because you’re never there.  You don’t have time to get attached to much.  I love our house.  We have a beautiful apartment, but it’s very strange...  

BD:   [Somewhat concerned]  Do you make sure that you have enough time to get some rest and get some study amongst all of the performances that you’re doing?

Cuberli:   I try my best.  Of course, the thing I don’t get is the rest.  That’s what usually happens, and I always feel like I should have studied more.  I always feel guilty.

BD:   Can a role get over-rehearsed?

Cuberli:   Yes, definitely.  It can get so rehearsed that it’s tired, and that’s one of the worst things.  That’s even worse than not having enough rehearsals.

BD:   Maybe it’s good to always want another rehearsal or two, to keep you on your toes.

Cuberli:   Probably, and as I said, that’s just the way I am.  I don’t think everyone is that way.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   You do both operas and concerts.  How do you divide your career between those?

Cuberli:   It’s mostly opera because they take big hunks of time.  We’re here in Chicago for more than a month, and sometimes it’s a month and a half or two months.  So, the major part of my time is in opera, but I do concerts and recitals every year.  That goes back to what I was saying before about being raised as an instrumentalist.  That is a one-to-one relationship with the music, just music and your pianist and you.  It’s very intimate and dedicated wholly to the music.

cuberli BD:   Do you feel you’re more in control?

Cuberli:   No, no, no, no!  That has nothing to do with control.  It has to do with the satisfaction of just singing music without worrying about tripping over your train, and all that.  It is just a very intimate relationship with the music.  It’s a very special relationship.  Maybe one of the things that makes it so special is because I do it so little.  I don’t have time.  It takes a great amount of time to prepare a recitalto find the music, to put it together, to study it, etc.  You have to study and study and study, and let it sink in.

BD:   Before you start working on it, do you make sure that everything you sing is something you can live with because you will be spending so much time with it?  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at left, see my interviews with Vinson Cole, and José van Dam.]

Cuberli:   Yes, absolutely.  If I don’t like it, I don’t do it.  For example, I have found a couple of songs that I have chosen on a recital program, and after I’ve done them I realized that I’m not crazy about them, so I change.  Maybe they will be within a group, and I’ll just change one or two.

BD:   With this huge repertoire of songs in your style that you can do, how do you decide which ones you will select, and which ones you will discard?

Cuberli:   That, as I said before, is very difficult, and it takes a lot of time and research.  You have to start thinking about which composers you’re going to do, and there’s just so many choices.  It’s wonderful, but it’s terrible because it’s so time consuming, which I don’t have.

BD:   [With a gentle nudge]  You have no desire to explore the whole repertoire???

Cuberli:   Why not?  [Laughs]  That’s impossible, but I try to do some very unusual things, not the usual recital repertoire.

BD:   Why? 

Cuberli:   It’s for my sake, and also for the public.  I would much rather go to a recital where there’s something I’ve never heard that attracts me, than hear something I’ve heard maybe fifty times.  The same Schubert songs are always beautiful, but why not some others?

BD:   The public seems to be always clamoring for what they know.

Cuberli:   Sure, and you have to do that, too, on a recital.  You do something that they’re going to love, and you know that they’re going to love, and they know they’re going to love.  But it’s right to also do something that is new for everybody.  Doesn’t everybody like that?  I know I would.

BD:   I do, but it seems that the public now, especially in the opera house, finds they don’t want to go to new pieces.  They want to go to ones that they know.

Cuberli:   That’s normal.  That’s human.  You’re talking about opera now, and that’s a different audience, a different public, at least in Europe.  I don’t know about the feelings here in the States.

BD:   There’s some overlap, but it really is a different public.

Cuberli:   It’s a different public, and that’s normal and human if they want to hear the things that they love.  But I don’t know the tastes in America.  I’ve been gone so long that I really don’t do any, and it’s a completely different musical scene.  There’s not a lot of rapport between the two... at least it seems that way to me from reading a lot of news from the operatic scene which gets over to Europe, and vice-versa.  There are magazines, but you have to look for it if you want to know about it.  So I don’t know what it’s like in America, but in Europe the public likes opera, and they go to see opera even if it’s not necessarily something they know and love.  Of course, if it is something they know and love, then it’s more popular.

*     *     *     *     *
BD:   Let me ask the big philosophical question.  What’s the purpose of opera in society?

cuberli Cuberli:   As with every other art form, it enriches our lives and makes us richer people.  It widens our horizons.  Why do you read a book?  Why do you look at a painting?  Why do you do anything that’s concerned artistically?  It is because you want to be more interesting, because you want to have something that’s lasting, that nobody can take from you.  You become a different person.

BD:   Is this part of the communicative process from the stage to the audience?

Cuberli:   Absolutely.

BD:   Does that circle become complete, and return from the audience back to the stage?

Cuberli:   Oh, yes!  Yes, you can feel it when they do.

BD:   Is the public different from city to city?

Cuberli:   Yes, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a certain city, because it can be different from night to night.  Some theaters have their reputation in Italy.  For example, La Scala audiences, especially the first evening audience is known to be very difficult.

BD:   Is that a contest, you versus them?

Cuberli:   No... well some of them are what I would call
fanatics, and they go because they want to make a scene, or be heard, or do something because they hate somebody, or they love them.

BD:   Are they just waiting for you to fall over?

Cuberli:   Some of them.  I guess every audience has those, but the major part of the audience is not really like that.  Even the ones that are there every night just love it.  That’s what they live for.  That’s their hobby.  That’s their pastime, and their first love, sometimes more than their job or anything else.

BD:   They live to go to the opera.  Are those people fun to sing for?

Cuberli:   Yes.  They’re the ones who are so enthusiastic.  That doesn’t mean the others are not enthusiastic, but you get to know them because they’re the ones that want to talk to you, and have some kind of relationship.  Those are the people you get to know from theater to theater.  You meet these groups everywhere you go, and you know quite a lot of people.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Do you sing differently, or is your technique different for the size of the various houses?

Cuberli:   No, the technique isn’t different.  The way of singing has to be.

BD:   How do you change that?

Cuberli:   You sing louder!  [Both laugh]  That’s very crude, so let’s refine it a little bit.  You have to decide where you can and cannot do very subtle things.  In a smaller house, you can do more subtle things, and in a bigger house you can do fewer.  Some things will work and some things won’t.  A pianissimo [marked in the score as pp] in a big house has to have very little orchestra, otherwise it won’t have any effect at all, because you won’t hear it.

BD:   But then you’ve got to rely on the conductor to understand that you’re doing pianissimo, and he must also do pianissimo.

Cuberli:   Exactly, as much as possible.

BD:   Or must he actually be pianiss-iss-issimo [which would be marked pppp]?

Cuberli:   Yes, which isn’t easy.

BD:   [Wistfully]  He should say,
Play with the bow just a little bit off the string.

Cuberli:   Yes.  [Both laugh]

BD:   Do you sing differently for a microphone than you do in the theater?

Cuberli:   No, and it usually drives the record technician up the wall.

BD:   How should you change it, and why don’t you?

Cuberli:   You should be very subtle in everything that you do into a microphone, because it’s right there.  Sometimes I get too enthusiastic...

BD:   [With mock horror]  You don
t throw your arms about, or walk around, do you???

Cuberli:   [Smiles]  No, I don’t mean that, but I mean vocally.  Usually I have been told that I have a very easy voice to tape, because it has a certain number of vibrations which doesn’t let it get out of control.  So, it’s not bad, but you should sing differently.

BD:   Are you working on that skill?

Cuberli:   It’s difficult to learn.  It seems like everything in a career is difficult to learn, but after you get the hang of it, then it’s okay.

BD:   Are you pleased with the recordings you’ve made?

Cuberli:   I’m never pleased with anything I do.

BD:   [Feigning disgust]  You must be hell to live with!

Cuberli:   [Laughing]  You got it!  It’s called being a perfectionist!  [Both laugh]

BD:   Do you ever achieve that perfection you strive for?

Cuberli:   No, of course not.

BD:   Do you ever get really close?

Cuberli:   Yes, but my idea of perfection might not be what somebody else’s idea of perfection is.  I’ve gotten close sometimes... maybe not a whole opera, but in one piece where I feel that was almost it.  The most important thing for me is the musical structure of the piece, and the communication, to really get across what I’d like.

BD:   You seem to be a thinking singer!

Cuberli:   Definitely.  Maybe it’s my repertoire.  The people that do my repertoire usually are thinking singers.

BD:   Let me ask another balance question.  When you sing, where is the balance between the artistic achievement and an entertainment value?

Cuberli:   I never think about that.  The entertainment comes from the artistic achievement, and that’s why people like opera.  That’s why people like the silence of concerts, because the entertainment comes from the artistic achievement.  They are entertained if it’s the way it should be.

BD:   Are you sure that every time you get up there, you’re doing it the way it should be?

Cuberli:   No, unfortunately.  [Both laugh]

BD:   Ohhhh, but you must come pretty close most of the time!

Cuberli:   Oh, gosh!  Of course I try.  Everybody tries, but as I said, there are very few times when I’ve really felt that’s almost it.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Let’s talk a little bit about the opera you’re doing here in Chicago, Tancredi.  Tell me about your character, Amenaide.

Cuberli:   The story, as everyone has commented again and again, is pretty silly.

BD:   Isn
t it just an excuse to present beautiful singing?


See my interviews with Fiorenza Cossotto, and Nicola Zaccaria

Cuberli:   Exactly, and I’m sure that’s what Rossini had in mind.  I don’t think Rossini cared too much about the drama.  His operas rarely made sense as far as the dramatic point of view.  What he was interested in was portraying emotions.  That is the typical characteristic of the bel canto period.  Amenaide is an interesting character because she’s very young.  At the same time she’s very passionate, and a very sweet person, and the music brings this out.  Every aria has a different character.  In the first one there’s a lot of agility, which pertains to her happiness, which is shattered almost immediately after the aria.  But the agility is full of joy, and is used for this, not vice-versa.  It could be just a showy piece, but it should be used to portray this happiness.  As all of the bel canto composers did, Rossini used this ornamentation and agility and ‘fireworks’ in a dramatic sense.  It is there to portray these emotions, and it should never be done just to sound and be referred to as singing.  So that’s one character of the first aria.  In the second aria, you find Amenaide in prison, because she has been accused of betraying her country.  This is really a masterpiece of an aria, and it has one of these typical Rossini orchestra recitatives, which is one of the things I adore about Rossini.  This is where the drama comes
always in the recitatives, not in the aria.  She is wishing to die, and she says she’s dying for Tancredi.  So, it’s a very dramatic recitative.  The aria, which comes afterwards, is very ethereal and very light, and shows her on the way up to heaven.  She feels she is already on the other side, and so that’s another character.  There’s a feeling of desperation.  The last aria is a combination of both.  The slow part of the aria is a prayer, because she has been saved by Tancredi.  He has fought for her, and she has been saved, and she thinks that everything is going to work out fine.  She prays that Tancredi will come back alive, and during the aria he does, in fact, kill Orbazzano.  So, we have another explosion of joy, which means another explosion of agility.  So, you have three completely different moods to portray.  Then, there are two duets with Tancredi.  It’s an interesting character because of the music.  We have to remember that in Tancredi, Rossini was closer to the Classical period of Mozart than to his own later operas which are looking ahead, and from which all the great later Italian composers took their music.  You can hear that in this opera Rossini is more Classical than Romantic.  It is typical of when he was creating this personaggio by the music and her emotions, more than trying to make dramatic sense out of the story.

BD:   Do roles like this, or other roles which are so rooted in the Classical tradition, speak to women in the 1980s and 1990s the way they did in the 1880s and the 1830s when they were written?

Cuberli:   Why not?  They’re always portraying emotions, and even though,
We’ve come a long way, baby, as they used to say, we still have the same emotions, and we still have the same problems.  I don’t think one should come to an operaespecially a Rossini operatrying to relate their lives to a relationship between Tancredi and Amenaide.  Of course, that wouldn’t happen today.  In five minutes she would have said, I didn’t send that message to Solamir, I sent it to you! and it would be all over!

BD:   [Laughs]  A five-minute opera!

Cuberli:   Yes, and that’s why Rossini didn’t do it that way!  [Both have a huge laugh]  But that’s not the point.  You go to an opera mainly to transform, or to hear something that you don’t see in your everyday life.  It’s so abstract that there’s nothing to relate to as a person.  I relate to Amenaide in her situation because it’s not to be believed.  It’s abstract.  As we said before, it’s excuses for writing music.

BD:   Very beautiful music, as it turns out.


Cuberli:   Fantastic music.  I think Tancredi is one of the most beautiful opera serias of Rossini, along with Semiramide, and La Donna del Lago.

BD:   You’ve also sung a lot of Mozart.  Is there a secret to singing Mozart? 

Cuberli:   A secret?  No, there’s no secret.  He’s another composer with whom I have had a love affair, as with Rossini.  For me, Mozart is the greatest composer of all times, in every sense.

cuberli BD:   Why?

Cuberli:   He’s universal.  I just keep singing his music.

BD:   Is the Mozart style closer to the Rossini seria style?

Cuberli:   Yes, it’s close.  It’s not the same, but it’s close.  I never had a problem with the bel canto style.  We keep going back to the same thing because that is just me.  That’s just the way I would play a piece on the piano.  It’s a style, something I’ve never really had to worry about.  I’ve always had a legato line.  It
s just something I was born with I guess, and I suppose it is difficult.

BD:   Is there anything that is easy to sing?

Cuberli:   What’s
easy to sing?  Is there something that is easy to sing?

BD:   Perhaps, but would you want to sing anything that is just easy?

Cuberli:   There is one opera that I have done, which I adore, which is easy to sing.  I really enjoy it because it is a true feast for an actress, and that is Pelléas et Mélisande.

BD:   [With a big smile]  Ahhhh, Debussy!

Cuberli:   Yes.  Now that’s easy to sing, in the vocal sense, because the style.

BD:   It’s almost completely parlando [sung in a style suggestive of speech].  There are no big set-numbers that you can stand and sing.

Cuberli:   Yes, and I really enjoy doing it.

BD:   I assume you sing it in French?

Cuberli:   Oh, yes.

BD:   Can it be sung in another language?

Cuberli:   [Surprised]  I don’t know.  Can it???

BD:   It’s been translated occasionally.  Some singers have told me that Pelléas cannot be translated, and then there are others who say it must be translated.

Cuberli:   I can’t imagine it because it is parlando.  The words are so tied with the music.

BD:   Do you like this gimmick of the supertitles?  [Remember, this interview was held in January of 1989, when the use of supertitles in the theater was just gaining wide acceptance.]

Cuberli:   This is the first time that I have been involved with it, and I certainly don’t like it when people laugh.  I don’t know what’s going on up there, but evidently someone has put things there that don’t have anything to do with what we
’re singing.

BD:   Or maybe a line just strikes them as being funny?

Cuberli:   Perhaps, but in a very dramatic moment, it’s very disconcerting to have the audience laugh.  Otherwise I wouldn’t know they were there.  I have heard that the people here in Chicago find the supertitles very important.

BD:   It does keeps them wrapped up in the drama as much as possible.

Cuberli:   I guess it is a learning method, so they get used to coming to opera.

BD:   Is opera for everyone?

Cuberli:   Of course... for everyone who wants it.

BD:   It’s an acquired taste.

Cuberli:   Yes.  It’s the most difficult acquired taste in music, because it’s so difficult to understand.  There’s nothing logical about it.  For someone who’s never been into an opera, to see someone singing things instead of saying them can appear to be really stupid.  But then you start appreciating the artform.  You have to know something about opera.  You have to know something about the specific work, and possibly something about singing, and the historical point in which it’s composed.  You have to study to like opera.  You have to really try.

BD:   What do you expect of the audience that comes on any given night?

Cuberli:   I expect and I hope that they will be touched in some way.  As I said before, the most important thing to me is the communication.  I want to touch them.  About five years ago I decided that the thing that I did not want the public to do was be indifferent.  I wanted them to love me or hate me, but I don’t want to leave anybody indifferent.  So, I expect and I hope that some of them will be touched.  That’s what it’s all about.


BD:   Is singing fun?

Cuberli:   [Bursts out laughing]  I have to be extremely sincere and say no!

BD:   Then why do you do it?

Cuberli:   It can be fun sometimes, but those times are very rare when you just feel great, and everything works, and everything goes smoothly.  Then it’s fun, but most of the time it’s a real job that needs a lot of experience, and concentration, and sweat.  No, it
’s not fun!

BD:    Are you coming back to Chicago?

Cuberli:   I hope so.  It’s going to be a little bit difficult to find some dates soon, but I certainly hope so.



See my interview with Graham Clark

BD:   Do you like knowing that on a certain Thursday three years from now, you’ll be in a certain place singing a certain role?

Cuberli:   Well, it gives one the sense of security, but it’s pretty silly if you think about it.  So many things can happen between now and then to plan that far in advance.  But yes, I like it.

cuberli BD:   How far ahead are you booked?

Cuberli:   1992.

BD:   Lots of new roles, or just revivals of old roles?

Cuberli:   I’ll be learning a new Rossini opera this year, Bianca e Falliero, which we will be doing in Pesaro.  I’m going to be doing a new production and a debut of Anna Bolena in 1991.  Those, plus lots of new recital things and concerts.

BD:   Apart from Pelléas, do you sing any other French roles?

Cuberli:   Yes, Faust, and maybe I would like to sing Roméo et Juliet.  That would be nice, but that’s all I really know about the French repertoire.  Perhaps I should do other things, but no one ever does them... except for Offenbach.

BD:   Do you have many chances to sing Handel?

Cuberli:   I have.  As a matter of fact, I sang Orlando in Venice with Marilyn Horne about four years ago, which I believe she did here [in Chicago in 1986].  I have sung Rodelinda, and I would like to sing Giulio Cesare.  That’s a fantastic opera. 

BD:   If you sing Cleopatra in that, would rather sing it with a female alto or a male baritone as Ceasar?

Cuberli:   I don’t know.  I’ll have to think about that.  [Both laugh]

BD:   Is it difficult playing opposite a woman who’s playing a man?

Cuberli:   No, and we always come back to the same thing
it’s not real!

BD:   But that’s more unreal than some other instances.

Cuberli:   It’s not like you’re playing a lover with a woman.

BD:   It would be if you were Octavian.

Cuberli:   Yes, but he’s got that spirit in it, and that’s very ambiguous, as is Cherubino sometimes.  But in Rossini, no.  In Bellini there are wonderful cabalettas, and you have to have a mezzo because that was meant for a mezzo.  It has to be that color because that’s what’s important
the color and the music.  We always come back to the same point... Bel canto doesn’t have to be realistic.  Opera isn’t realistic!  It doesn’t have anything to do with realism.

BD:   At least until you get into verismo [realism, usually referring to the operas of the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries, which present a more realistic situation on the stage than had been seen earlier].

Cuberli:   Yes.  The later operas of Verdi are not bel canto.  It’s moved into another period, the Romantic.

BD:   Do you sing any contemporary music at all?

Cuberli:   I have sung The Rake’s Progress of Stravinsky.  It was one of the first things I did, but that’s not really contemporary, is it?  It’s modern.

BD:   It’s modern, but not contemporary, that’s right.

Cuberli:   Contemporary doesn’t appeal to me.

BD:   Have you any advice for composers who want to write operas or songs these days?

Cuberli:   I’m not really an authority on contemporary music, and I’m not really equipped to give suggestions.  That would be pretty presumptuous, but maybe some advice, which I’m sure any sensible composer knows, is to take into consideration the vocal apparatus, which some contemporary composers have not done.  Then they write things that are almost impossible to do, and certainly impossible to do with any measure of beautiful quality.

BD:   Are they treating you like an instrument?

Cuberli:   [Hesitantly]  Yes, but what kind of instrument?  The voice is an instrument, of course, but it has its limitations and its virtues, and composers should take those into consideration.  You can’t write for an oboe what’s impossible for an oboe to do, and the voice can do a lot of things that a lot of instruments cannot do.  But I’ve seen voices ruined in no time doing that kind of thing because it’s not good for the vocal apparatus.

BD:   Is there anything that the voice is asked to do in Rossini that’s not good?

Cuberli:   No.

BD:   Nothing at all???

Cuberli:   No!  But you have to know how to sing Rossini.  You have to know how to sing anything, but Rossini will never do anything to harm the voice.  He was a singer.  He taught singing.  He knew the voice very, very well.

BD:   He also married a singer, Isabella Colbran.

Cuberli:   Yes.  Of course that didn’t mean that he understood the voice!  [Both burst out laughing]  But he wrote some wonderful things for her, and he took her into consideration.  For example, as she was getting older, the parts kept getting lower and lower and lower.  I did Elisabetta, Regina d’lnghilterra, but I discovered it was really too low for me, and that’s a Colbran opera, as are La Donna del Lago and Semiramide, but they are different.  He wrote a lot of things for Colbran, though not Tancredi.  It was written another singer [an alto named Adelaide Malanotte].


Isabella Angela Colbran
(2 February 1785 – 7 October 1845) was a Spanish opera singer known in her native country as Isabel Colbrandt.  Many sources note her as a dramatic coloratura soprano but some believe that she was a mezzo-soprano with a high extension, a soprano sfogato.  She collaborated with opera composer Gioachino Rossini in the creation of a number of roles that remain in the repertory to this day.  They were married on 22 March 1822.

All his life Rossini credited Colbran as being the greatest interpreter of his music.  Descriptions of Colbran's voice characterise the timbre as "sweet, mellow" with a rich middle register.  Rossini's music for her suggests perfect mastery of trills, half-trills, staccato, legato, ascending and descending scales, and octave leaps.  Her vocal range extended from F-sharp below the staff to E above, with a high F sometimes available.

BD:   Are there two endings to Tancredi?

Cuberli:   Yes.  As a matter of fact, the first time I did it was before the tragic ending was found.

BD:   Which is the stronger ending?

Cuberli:   The tragic one.  It’s beautiful.  It’s so modern, and so unusual.  He’s such a genius.  You have to realize when it was that he wrote this music, because now we have Donizetti, Bellini, Verdi and Puccini in our ears.  You have to remember Rossini was before them.  It’s incredible that he would end an opera in that way, just sort of dying away.

*     *     *     *     *
BD:   Coming back to Mozart, who should end up with whom at the end of Così?

Cuberli:   That’s a good question, however, I think that Fiordiligi would probably end up with both men, because in the course of the opera, Ferrando has fallen in love with her.

BD:   I would think that Dorabella would get them first, but maybe that’s what you’re saying
Dorabella would get them both first, but then Fiordiligi would end up with both men loving her.

Cuberli:   If you control it carefully, you could see that.  Of course, Guglielmo is certainly not happy in the way the thing has ended.  But to talk about a genius, that’s a masterpiece of text.

BD:   Maybe it’s a precursor to the 1969 film Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, where all four of them end up in bed together.

Cuberli:   It’s really awful what’s happening, when you think about it, but the way Mozart does it is tongue-in-cheek.  And Despina is a despicable person, really.

BD:   She’s in it for the money, whatever she can get!  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at left, see my interviews with Kurt Streit, John Tomlinson, and Antonio Pappano.]

Cuberli:   Yes, without any scruples whatsoever.  So it is with Alfonso.

BD:   You also sing in Figaro.  Are you the Countess or Susanna?

Cuberli:   The Countess.  I couldn’t do Susanna.

BD:   Why not?

Cuberli:   I’d love to do Susanna.  It’s not a soubrette role at all.  None of the Mozart characters are
Despina, Susanna, and Zerlina are not soubrette roles.  But I would love to do Susanna.  She’s a very, very interesting lady.

BD:   When you’re doing the Countess, are you at all conscious of what happens in the third drama between the Countess and Cherubino?  Do you bring that into this second drama?

Cuberli:   Oh yes!  You don’t have to be vulgar about it, or slap somebody in the face with it, but it’s there, yes.

BD:   Just a glance or a touch?

Cuberli:   Yes, sure.  I think that’s necessary.  It makes everything so much more interesting.  [Both laugh]

BD:   Are there any roles that you sing that are perhaps a little too close to the real Lella Cuberli?

Cuberli:   [Thinks a moment]  There’s one I’d like to sing, which I feel would be very close to me, but I don’t know if I ever will
Norma.  It is the maximum of all these characters put together.

BD:   Good and bad?

Cuberli:   Yes.  There are so many facets to that character, and she’s a real character with all the blood and guts, not just portraying emotions.  They are full of romanticism.

BD:   Do you think you’ll ever get the chance to sing it?

Cuberli:   I’ve been asked to sing it.  It’s not a matter of getting a chance, it’s a matter of deciding if I can do it, and if I’ve got the vocal weight to do it.

BD:   [With eager anticipation]  Maybe in a small theater?

Cuberli:   Maybe in a small theater, and maybe in a few years.  We’ll see, but I hope so, because that’s a sublime role and sublime music.  Everybody loves Bellini, don’t they?

BD:   He makes a tremendous impact.

Cuberli:   Yes.

cuberli BD:   Thank you for coming to Chicago.

Cuberli:   I’m so glad to be back home, finally.  It’s been so long.

BD:   Is this going to precipitate more appearances here in the States?

Cuberli:   Yes.  I will be doing my New York debut at the Met in 1990 as Semiramide.

BD:   It has to be a new production, because they don’t have one!  [Both laugh]  Is it easier or better to do new productions than revivals?

Cuberli:   Oh, yes, because it is created for you.  A lot of times, a revival doesn’t have the original stage director.

BD:   Right, it’s just someone working from a book.  Is it special, or especially difficult, to bring an opera to the stage which hasn’t been done in a hundred or a hundred and fifty years?

Cuberli:   Actually, I think it’s more difficult to do an opera that everyone knows, than to do something that no one knows.

BD:   Because of expectations?

Cuberli:   Yes.  If you’re doing a role, for example, that Maria Callas and Renata Tebaldi and all the great singers did, those are hard acts to follow.  They’ve been gone a long time, but people remember.  There are still people around who remember them.  So, talk about Norma, there she is.

BD:   Do you feel you’re in competition with these memories? 

Cuberli:   With the memories, yes, because people know every note of those operas, and they’ve seen them done many times.  They have a chance to compare, but if you’re doing something new, it’s all yours, and you won’t be influenced by what they’re expecting, or what somebody else did.  So, it’s much easier.

BD:   Then, of course, if you have a huge success, when someone else comes along and does the role, they’re compared to you, rather than the other way around.  [Both laugh]

Cuberli:   How nice.  
I’ve gotten used to that, though.  It is not so easy in Europe.

BD:   Is there competition among sopranos?

Cuberli:   Oh, yes!  There are more sopranos around than anything, and not just sopranos, but good sopranos.

BD:   Is there any hope for new ones coming along?

Cuberli:   Sure, there’s hope.  There’s always hope, but they’re going to have to be good, because they’ve got a lot of competition now.

BD:   Are there too many singers?

Cuberli:   There are too many singers in the sense that a lot of people aren’t going to make it.

BD:   So it’s just natural selection?

Cuberli:   Sometimes it’s natural, and sometimes it
s not so natural!  [Both laugh]  It’s a tough world!

BD:   Are you where you want to be at this point in your career?

Cuberli:   Yes, I’m satisfied for the time-being.  I always want to do more, but that’s my character.  [Laughs]  My personality is always to do more quality things.  Actually, I really don’t care about being famous, but it is necessary if you do want to do the high-quality things.  So, that comes with it.

BD:   Thank you for spending time with me today.  I enjoyed it very much.

Cuberli:   I enjoyed it, too, and I’m enjoying Chicago very much.  The theater is wonderful.  The people are so friendly, and so efficient.  It’s a joy to be here.

BD:   I do hope you’ll be back. 

Cuberli:   Thank you, so do I.


© 1989 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in Chicago on January 19, 1989.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB five days later, and again in 1990, 1991, 1995 and 2000.  This transcription was made in 2020, and posted on this website shortly thereafter.  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.  To read my thoughts on editing these interviews for print, as well as a few other interesting observations, click here.

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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.