Mezzo - Contralto Geraldine
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie
|Geraldine Decker (March 11,
1931, New York City — June 14, 2013, Oxnard, California) was an
American mezzo-contralto and voice teacher who had active singing
career in operas and concerts from 1971 through 2010. She was
particularly active with the Metropolitan Opera and the Seattle Opera,
and is best remembered for her annual performances in Seattle of
Richard Wagner's Ring cycle
from 1974-1987. She taught on the voice faculty of Pepperdine
Born Geraldine Helen Rice in the Bronx, Decker moved with
her family to California in her youth. She attended Corvallis High
School in Studio City, California from 1945 to 1949. She soon after
married her husband of 55 years, Howard Decker, with whom she had two
sons, Wayne and Dirk Decker. While raising her children she pursued
studies in voice with Dr. Nandor Domokos in Los Angeles. She later
studied with Luisa Franceschi and her husband, baritone Ellae Verna, in
New York City.
After her sons were grown and had moved out of the family home, Decker
began pursuing a career in opera, devoting the next two decades of her
life to it. She first drew critical notice in 1974 at the Seattle Opera
where she appeared as Erda in both Das
Rheingold and Siegfried,
Schwertleite in Die Walküre,
and the First Norn Götterdämmerung.
She portrayed those roles again in Seattle every summer through 1987,
as well as many other roles at the Seattle Opera, including Albine in
Azucena in Verdi's Il trovatore,
Filippyevna in Tchaikovsky's Eugene
Onegin, Grandmother Burja in Janáček's Jenůfa, Herodias in Strauss' Salome, Klytämnestra in
Strauss' Elektra, Mama
McCourt in Moore's The Ballad of
Baby Doe, Marthe Schwerlein in Gounod's Faust, Mistress Quickly in Verdi's Falstaff, Mother Jeanne in
Poulenc's Dialogues of the Carmelites,
and the Nurse/Innkeeper in Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov.
Decker made her debut at the Lyric Opera of Chicago in 1978 as Mamma
Lucia in Mascagni's Cavalleria
rusticana. On December 17, 1980 she sang the same role for her
debut at the Metropolitan Opera with Grace Bumbry as Santuzza and David
Stivender conducting. She was a regular presence on the Met stage for
six seasons, portraying such roles as Gertrud in Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretel, Gertrude in
Gounod's Roméo et Juliette
(with Placido Domingo conducting), Grandmother Burja in Jenůfa, and Schwertleite in Die Walküre among others. In
1981 she portrayed the Large Woman in the Met premiere of Les Mamelles de Tirésias,
and was also seen that year as Annina in the premiere of the Colin
Graham staging of Verdi's La traviata;
a production which was broadcast nationally on Live from the Met. Her
last performance at the Met was as the Nurse in Boris Godunov on March 23, 1987
with Paul Plishka in the title role and James Conlon conducting.
In 1982 Decker created the role of Nelly Dean in the world premiere of
Bernard Herrmann's Wuthering Heights
at the Portland Opera. That same year she appeared in Franco
Zeffirelli's film version of La
Traviata. Other companies she performed roles with during her
career included Cabrillo Music Theatre, Hawaii Opera Theater, the Long
Beach Opera, the Los Angeles Civic Light Opera, and Opera San
José. In 1990 she portrayed Mrs. Beemer in the Disney film Polly: Comin' Home! . She also
appeared as a maid in the 1976 film Harry
and Walter Go to New York.
Decker lived in Oxnard, California for over 50 years. She died there in
2013 at the age 82 from complications of diabetes.
[Much of the following introduction
is as it appeared in Wagner News in the Summer of 1981.]
Geraldine Decker is the Seattle Erda, having sung that role
since the beginning of the Wagner Festival in 1975. In addition
Earth-Mother, she also sings the First Norn, and the lowest of the
Valkyrie maidens, and thus has the distinction of being the only vocal
performer to have appeared in every performance of every Ring in
Her youthful appearance and bounding enthusiasm belie
the fact that she is a wife and mother. Now that her sons are
she has embarked on a most interesting career as an opera singer.
Her other roles include Quickly in Verdi’s Falstaff, the Witch in
Hansel and Gretel, Ulrica in The Masked Ball, and Herodias in Salome by
In the fall of 1979, she appeared in Chicago as
Martha in Faust, [with
Mirella Freni, Alfredo
Kraus, Nicolai Ghiaurov, Richard Stilwell,
and Katherine Ciesinski, conducted by Georges Prêtre] which was
later televised both in the United States
and in Europe. She had previously appeared with the Lyric Opera
as Mamma Lucia in Cavalleria
Rusticana, a role which she later took to
the Metropolitan Opera in New York. [The Chicago cast included
Olivia Stapp, Giorgio Merighi, Matteo Manuguerra, conducted by Riccardo Chailly.
She would later return as Katisha in The
Mikado, in a cast which included Gualtiero Negrini.]
[Names which are links refer to my
interviews elsewhere on this website.] She has since done
roles at the Met, and continues her work with the various companies on
the west coast.
I had been to Seattle for the Ring
in 1979, and opted for the English language cycle to hear the
translation by Andrew
Porter. It was a wonderful experience, and when Decker came
to Chicago that fall to appear in Faust,
graciously took time to come to the studios of WNIB, Classical 97 for
an interview. We spoke quite a bit about her Wagner roles, and
those remarks were soon published in Wagner
News. Now I am pleased to present the complete
conversation . . . . .
Tell me a bit about the various roles you sing in
To read my Interview with Roger Roloff, click HERE
To read my Interview with John Del Carlo, click HERE
To read my Interview with Émile Belcourt, click HERE
The two Erdas are very different. In
the first opera, she appears to Wotan and tries to persuade him to
return the gold to the Rhein. But when she is summoned by him in
the third act of Siegfried,
look at all that has happened! The
balance of nature has been upset because of his actions, and she has
born him nine daughters! So this confrontation is between two
individuals who were lovers! There has to be that spirit conveyed
to the audience even though I cannot really move around on the
stage. It’s a very important part in the drama, as are the
Norns. You have to understand, the three voices singing the Norns
must be solid. The First Norn must be capable of also singing
Erda; the Second Norn must be able to sing Waltraute; and the Third
Norn has to be a Gutrune type. The Norn roles are a natural
progression to the other roles. Also, the Valkyries have some of
heaviest singing in the entire Ring!
BD: I was
very glad to see everyone moving so much
in the “Ride.”
GD: Yes, we
all try to move, but it’s very difficult
because the music itself is tricky. The harmonies are very
difficult. At one point all of us are singing totally different
that really almost have no relation to each other, but in the end they
all feed into one another. This year the whole cycle was
completely uncut, but the year before Henry had opened all the Valkyrie
cuts, which we loved because that one section is the most glorious
mélange of interwoven voices that there is anywhere. But
it’s very difficult, and there are some places in it where it’s
impossible to move a lot and sing. You just have to plant
yourself so that you can sing with the requisite amount of power.
seemed to come through very well.
GD: All of
those girls have big voices. I think
there’s only one who’s voice is relatively light in the scheme of the
ensemble. It’s one of the most exciting combinations of
sound anywhere in the world today. I truly believe that. I
have listened to the recordings of the various Valkyrie sounds and I
have listened to the recordings of our sound out there, and I don’t
think that we are put in the shade by any of them. That’s
why I don’t mind doing a Valkyrie maiden because the others are all of
a very fine quality. Besides, Henry needs the weight of my
voice on the bottom line. Usually that bottom line gets lost, and
the lower part of my voice is so heavy and so full that I can balance
the other voices.
BD: I was amazed
at how many of the words I
understood in the theater. I assume that everyone works very hard
definitely. We articulate as cleanly
as we possibly can. We over-articulate
— explode the
consonants and ride on the vowels and really work at it. Women’s
voices are always going to be more difficult to understand than men’s
voices as we get into the upper-middle and upper ranges. The ear
simply cannot pick it up as well. When a soprano sings in the top
of her range, you will get some of the words, but you will not get all
of them, ever.
You enjoy doing the Ring?
GD: I love
it! It is so satisfying. It
satisfies my soul as well as my artistic sense of good music.
It’s just marvelous.
BD: Are there
any other roles in it that you would like to
sing — what about Waltraute?
Eventually I’d love to do Waltratue. I
can sing it. It’s in
my repertoire and it’s prepared, but I know that Maestro Holt wants to
keep me in the roles of Erda as long as possible because there are not
that many contraltos around.
BD: Your low
G came out very well!
[Extremely pleased] Good! I don’t know whether you realize
or not, but
Maestro Holt always
allows me a split second of preparation for that. I’m sinking an
octave down into that low G, and you just have to have a split second
of time to prepare the back of the throat to accept that low
understands this completely, and always broadens that phrase out just
enough so that I can adjust the muscles of my throat from the position
that they’ve been in for the octave above.
BD: Does he
do that in both cycles?
GD: Oh yes,
BD: How does
he change from the German cycle to the
English cycle this year (1979) was broadened
completely. It takes him just a bit longer, and the operas in
ran longer in time. As Henry
explained to us, we are dealing with opera in the language of this
country, and he wants to make those words come across to the audience
as much as he possibly can.
doesn’t mean any less emphasis on the German
diction does it?
GD: Oh, no,
no, no! But the German words fit
the music more easily than the English words do.
BD: Even in
this Porter translation?
GD: This is
the best translation of any. Andrew
Porter deserves a gold medal and a star in his crown in Heaven. I
truly believe that, but still the music was composed for the German
words, or the words were composed for the music. You know, Wagner
made up words that did not exist in German in order to get a certain
vocal coloration that he particularly wanted. A certain
combination of sound was what he wanted, and so that in itself changes
the sound of the music slightly. Now when that goes into English,
there is naturally going to be a slight difference, and we have to work
a little harder in the English than we do in the German.
BD: Are there
any bad compromises for you in the
GD: I had to
change a couple of words in the first
year which were difficult for me to sing on certain low notes.
Singing a low G is as hard as singing a high C for a
soprano. You have to make adjustments in sound in order to get
the quality of tone, to get the fullness and richness.
throat has to be completely open?
Completely, and if you have a closed vowel sound,
you are going to have an edge on that tone. The line in the
translation read, "My waking leaves me confused." The ooo
sound in the word ‘confused’
is difficult to sing a low G, so I changed the line — with
the blessing of the directors — to, "My waking
distraught." There, the aww sound in ‘distraught’
can be rounded out
so it sounds full and rich. But that was all. I think
Porter is a genius, and it’s the same in his other translations.
I’ve sung Mistress Quickly in his English Falstaff, and that is a sheer
joy to sing.
BD: Will you
be back in Seattle for the next Ring?
GD: I was
talking with Mr. Ross here in Chicago
after the Faust, and a man
next to us asked me that, and Glynn leaned
over and said, “Yes, and for the next hundred
years if I have my
way!” Now there’s another genius
— Glynn Ross.
this festival out of absolutely nothing. It’s breathtaking!
There’s just so much dedication and love and work that has gone into
this. No one believed it could be done, least of all we the
singers. I remember after the closing night of the first cycle in
1975, we stood around at a party with our drinks in our hands, and we
were so amazed that it had come off. The backstage crew were
totally new to the idea of bringing four complete operas to life in
less than a week’s time.
BD: Does everyone
get that involved with the
experience of Wagner — even the guys who pound
GD: Oh yes,
very definitely. We’re all part of
the festival family and we love it!
I remember being very impressed with the dragon –
it moved very convincingly.
GD: Oh, I
love the dragon, I think he’s wonderful.
BD: It must
take several people to operate it.
GD: Yes, and
one of them is a girl! She comes
up and shares my dressing room on dragon nights. I think she’s
left-front paw! We also had a new snake this year, built buy a
man who has a master’s degree and left a Midwestern
university to go into stagecraft. There are so many wonderful
people involved in this. Oh, you get crazy after
awhile in Wagner, but I
love the craziness and I love working there, and I’m extremely fond of
the people involved.
You’ve done other operas there, such as Falstaff. How does that
differ from a cycle of the Ring?
a totally different psychological atmosphere, a totally different
feeling. It’s very difficult to explain. I think
it all has to do with the Wagner music. The music itself and the
concepts are so Earth-shattering.
BD: Does it
cast a spell over everything?
GD: Yes, it
does. The first year they billed it as ‘The
Wagner Orgy’, and many people complained about
that because they immediately equated that phrase with a sexual orgy,
not realizing that one can have an orgy of sound and feeling, and a
spirituality. This is what happens. You just get totally
involved physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually. It very
definitely is an emotional climax. I find that I can’t
work on other things. I can’t study many other operas
during that time. I can study Strauss, but not many others.
BD: Could you
study another Wagner such as Brangäne?
GD: Yes, but
Brangäne lies too high for me as a total role. I have no
desire to kill myself! I want to sing for another ten or fifteen
years, so I see no reason why I should go outside of my own fach.
other Wagner roles are there for you?
GD: I love
the little role of Mary in the Flying
Dutchman, and perhaps I might do Magdalene in Meistersinger.
Seattle does Parsifal, would
there be the same kind of camaraderie that there is with the Valkyries?
GD: One would
hope so. It depends on the personalities involved and the degree
of maturity involved.
though it’s a completely different atmosphere?
GD: It would
work just the same if we had the same women as we do in the Ring. Most of us have worked
with each other for three or four or even five years, and we have a
great deal of admiration and respect and just plain love for each
other. On the opening night of Faust
here in Chicago, I ran into Simon Estes. He
and I had done the Ring two
years ago when he did Hagen, and we just fell into each other’s
arms even though we hadn’t seen each other since that
time. It engenders that kind of a feeling, which is kind of
BD: Tell me a
little about working with Henry Holt.
GD: How does
one talk about the maestro that one
reveres above all else? We have the closest working relationship
with him that anyone could possibly have. If he told me to sing
Erda standing on my ear in a corner upside down, I’d say, “OK,
boss!” I have that kind of trust in the
man, and so do we
all. He’s one of the great conductors that we have today,
and I think he’s vastly under-rated by the music world. He never
lets us down. He sings every word with us. We don’t have a
prompter, and Henry not only conducts the orchestra and cues
the singers, but speaks every single word that we’re singing right
along with us. He’s never gotten so carried away with the
orchestral sound that he forgets the primary purpose of the music,
which is to accompany the singers. Only when the orchestra is
playing by itself — like the Rhein Journey or the Funeral March — does
bring the orchestral sound up to its full level. He always
supports us and never covers us.
BD: A lot of the
orchestra is back, under the stage
and that helps the balance.
GD: Yes, and
the players are not too thrilled about
that because it is rather cramped. Wagner calls for about 110 and
I think we have had about 96. [The
pit in Seattle has
now been expanded to accommodate the full Wagnerian complement of
musicians!] I remember doing a production of Siegfried down in
San Diego with Kenneth Schermerhorn conducting, and he only had about
82 because that’s all the pit could handle. That was very
difficult for him.
BD: How is
the opera house in San Diego? Is it easy to sing in?
GD: Oh it’s
lovely; very easy to sing in. It’s well-constructed
and acoustically very good. It’s relatively new.
Our Ring in Seattle is
well-established now. We have people coming from all over the
world. I met some people from New Zealand and Hong Kong, and I
was told there was somebody from Tahiti who had just come for the Ring.
BD: Have you
GD: Yes, but
not to sing; just to watch. I went there after my first Ring cycle in 1975.
BD: Were you
impressed with the Bayreuth sound?
GD: With the
sound, yes, but not always with the
singing. The sound in the theater is tremendous. But they
lock the doors behind you, and you sit on wooden benches with your
knees up under your chin if you have long legs! That really
bothered me to know that once I was in there I was really locked
in. I asked why this was, and was looked at as if I was an
idiot-child, and told that it was so that the performance is not
BD: What did
you see there?
GD: I saw the
Ring — the
old one, not the Chereau
which I have no desire to see — and Tristan, and the wonderful Wolfgang
Wagner production of Meistersinger
which I loved. It was
Was it difficult for you to watch another person
singing “your” parts?
remember during the Götterdämmerung
performances, the singer doing “my” role was late on two cues. I
was on the edge of my seat trying to sing the thing for
her, and was enraged that she was late and not with the
But those things happen...
If you were asked to sing there, would you?
course! No matter what I think about the
individual performances, that is still the ultimate goal of any
BD: Do you
think the whole Seattle Ring
could simply be transported and performed at Bayreuth?
a whole nationalistic pride there which would prevent that from
happening. I could be wrong, but that’s the feeling I
have inside. It’s very difficult to move; the physical
production is very heavy. It’s neo-realistic, and we’re
scheduled to get a new production in a couple of years.
BD: Going the
other way, could the Bayreuth Ring
ever be brought to Seattle?
GD: I don’t
think Glynn Ross ever closes his eyes to anything that is of
BD: Tell me
about some of your non-Wagner parts.
GD: I am
doing Martha in Faust here,
and I also did it in Seattle. I did my first Herodias in Hawaii
and will repeat it in Tulsa in 81 or 82. I also do Azucena in Trovatore, and Daughter of the Regiment.
BD: How do you find
shifting from Herodias to Azucena?
GD: I don’t
find it difficult at all because I’m primarily a
singing-actress. I come at it from the drama, and the music then
falls into place. I’m an internalized performer.
I start out with everything slowly building inside, and then gradually
it comes out.
BD: How did
the audience in Hawaii react to Salome?
GD: It was
very interesting. They had no idea of what they were going to get
[laughs] and there was a great deal of shock involved. When the
head of John the Baptist was brought up out of the cistern, there was a
concerted gasp. There were individuals who thought it was vulgar
in that it dealt with unbridled passion, but on the whole it was
BD: How has
the advent of radio, television, and recordings impacted the
a two-fold impact. First, it has engendered great interest, more
so than had ever been displayed. When stations like yours play
beautiful recordings of full operas regularly, interest is definitely
piqued. On the other hand, people are so used to hearing the
perfection of a recording — where an aria might
have been recorded six times and cut and spliced to produce
that perfection — they then come into the theater expecting to hear
that same kind of sound. Many of the recordings are enhanced
electronically. The man in the control room is the one who is in
charge. He can make a small voice sound huge. He can add
the bass sound to a voice that doesn’t really have that
sound, so it appears totally different. Then when that listener
comes to hear that work in an opera house — maybe
even with some of the same cast — he will be
BD: They are
two different things.
Exactly. You’re dealing with human beings in a human
situation night after night onstage, when God only knows what could
have gone wrong backstage... Just last night, when my make-up
person was brushing the powder off my face, she flicked my left eye and
my contact lens flew out. I can’t see the conductor
without my contact lenses and I went into a state of panic for a few
minutes. They sent someone off to my hotel to get my spare
pair. In the meantime, I told the woman to go ahead with the
make-up while my dresser was on her hands and knees with a
flashlight! She did find the lens, but it took me a number of
minutes of just being alone to pull my emotions and my nerves together
before I went onstage. Those are the things that happen in a real
life situation that don’t appear on a finished
recording. They can let you take an hour off to cool down while
they record someone else’s sections, and get back to you
later. You can’t do that in the theater.
course, if the recording is working against the clock and against the
budget, you HAVE to get it done NOW, and get it PERFECT.
also true. Sometimes those recording sessions can be terribly
demanding on the singers. Now these are things I have heard about
from colleagues. I’ve only been doing opera since
1975. Before that I was raising my family. Then I did two
years of musical comedy in 1972 and ’73, then
took a year off to expand the voice in 1974, and started in opera in
February of 1975.
BD: When you
moved into opera from musical comedy, were there any big shocks?
GD: No, but
if I’d been twenty years younger there might have
BD: Were you
disillusioned about anything, or excited about it all?
always excited. When you can be on the same stage with Alfredo
Kraus, how can you not be excited? I can’t be
blasé about that.
BD: I wonder
how many women are jealous of you being fondled and chucked under the
chin by Nicolai Ghiaurov!
GD: Oh, many
of them are. He’s an incredible performer. He
and Mirella Freni and Richard Stilwell and Kathy Ciesinski and superb
colleagues, and are wonderful to work with. I like working here
in Chicago. I find people much more friendly and helpful than I
You have a large vocal range, so what do you
GD: I love it
when they call me a singing-actress,
but there’s a very strange classification of voice which is very rare,
called a mezzo-contralto. It’s a mezzo with the top, including
the high C, but with the quality of sound and roundness of sound and
the low notes of the contralto. There has to be the weight in
the bottom of the voice, which I have. People say it’s
not a real classification, but in Robert Rich’s book on the
art of singing, he talks about the mezzo-contralto. I recently
met the manager of the Baltimore Opera and he said he hadn’t
met such a good mezzo-contralto in years, and I thought, “Finally,
somebody who understands me!” [Both
laugh] I’ve been compared to Lily
Chookasian, both vocally and for the fact that she also started her
career later in life after having raised a family. That
comparison gives me great joy because
I’ve admired and respected her for a long time. I don’t
mind being classified as a mezzo or as a contralto because I can do
BD: Is your
family supportive of your career?
yes. My sons think it’s
super-keen! They are grown and out of the house now, and my
husband arranges his vacations to be with me
when he can, but I try not to take back-to-back engagements. So I
home for good chunks of time. When my children were small, I
could not make the compromise that others have to with their
families. I had to be a full-time mother for them, and now that
the children are grown I can be a full-time singer for me. And,
of course, lower voices often take a bit longer to mature. I sang
as a youngster, but then didn’t open my mouth for seventeen
years! It was always in the back of my mind, but my husband was
in the navy for twenty-five years, so the children’s only
security was in me. The navy-kind of life has changed a bit in
the last ten years, but we were used to being apart for long periods,
so that helps now. I am used to being on my own and it doesn’t
bother me to be alone. I have my books and my scores to study,
and my radio and my needlepoint, so I can be happy. I don’t
go to movies...
BD: Do you go to
other people’s performances?
GD: Oh, yes.
If it’s a role I do or will do, I look at it from a critical
standpoint. You can’t help but do that. I also
learn, perhaps, something you can do with the role, something you can
adapt that will make your interpretation a little different. You
also look at it for things you don’t like, that you would
never incorporate in your own interpretation. So it can be very
analytical, which sometimes spoils your enjoyment of the
performance. I love to go to operas where there is no possibility
of my ever singing... for instance, Tosca!
Then I can sit back and just wallow in the sound.
BD: Do you
like the roles that you sing?
do. I really do.
BD: Would you
sing a role that you didn’t particularly like?
if the challenge were great enough. But I find that in my
repertoire, most of the roles are very interesting, very intriguing and
challenging. I haven’t yet found any role that I didn’t
like once I really got into the singing of it. I’m
working right now on Klytämnestra in Elektra. I can’t
say that I love the sounds all the time, but they’re getting
more and more familiar in my head. It is so difficult to learn,
and you can only digest small amounts of it at a time. You pray
that you’ve got it because there seldom is any relationship
of your part to what’s going on in the orchestra.
What else are you working on now?
doing the world premiere of Wuthering
Heights in Portland in 1982, and it’s exciting to get
to create a role. Bernard Herrmann wrote the score after having
done many motion pictures, including Citizen
been recorded, though...
GD: Yes, it
was recorded in England, but it was never performed onstage. I
will be Nelly Dean, the nurse, and there are some marvelous dramatic
moments in it.
BD: Going the
other way, might there be parts for you in Handel?
yes. The thing about Handel for me is the declamatory
style. It’s almost like singing a concert.
plant your feet and sing?
To read my Interview with Sonja Frisell, click HERE
To read my Interview with Josephine Barstow, click HERE
To read my Interview with Archie Drake, click HERE
Exactly. That’s the style, and that bothers me because
I love moving and projecting myself into the scene. But vocally it’s
very rewarding, with beautiful music to sing, so it’s a
trade-off! But as far as doing concerts, I adore singing
Mahler. It’s some of the most difficult music to sing
because of its utter simplicity. I did my first Kindertotenlieder this past year
and it was a total success. It took me a year and a half to learn
those five songs because it took me a year to stop crying long enough
to sing them objectively. There were too many mental images in my
head of relating them to my own children.
happens to a performer when you are singing these and you know the
audience is simply not getting the full impact?
GD: Then you
have to dismiss them and just go inside your own head.
BD: What if
they are literally crying with each word?
GD: Then it
becomes too much and you still have to go inside your own head.
You always have to stay outside what you’re doing just a
little bit in order to have the tiny degree of objectivity which is
necessary so that the voice doesn’t get choked up. It’s
a fine line to walk.
BD: Are you
conscious of the audience when you are singing?
Sometimes, if there isn’t a scrim between us. I’m
not fond of working behind a scrim. It’s a barrier
between me and the audience. I am a people-person and I want to
reach out and touch people with my voice. I want to get inside
their hearts, and somehow when the scrim is down I don’t
feel the vibrations coming back to me from the audience that I want to
feel. Then you have to play it for your own self, enjoying it for
its own sake and for the others on the stage. There are some
roles which are more fun to play than others. Quickly is just the
most wonderful role in the world.
BD: Have you
done her in Italian or English or both?
done it only in English, but I know it in Italian. When you learn
a role for an English-language production, it’s very wise to
learn it in the original first. Otherwise you don’t
know where the emphasis is on the sound and the words. Most of my
roles I have in both the original language and in English. That
sometimes leads to a problem... I remember the very first Götterdämmerung I did in
Seattle during the season prior to the first full cycle. We had
done three performances in German before we did one in English, and I
got to about the fifth line from the end and my mind totally blanked
out and refused to continue in English. The computer we have
inside our head took over and the next line came out in German.
Maestro Holt looked at me from the pit with an astonished expression as
if to say, “What are you doing up there?”
Then the next line came out in English, and he nodded because he
understood what had happened.
glad to know you enjoy performing.
GD: Oh, I
love it. Some of the roles I sing are known as comprimario roles, and that’s
true, but if you have a weak link in an otherwise strong cast, it
weakens the entire production. Lyric Opera here in Chicago is so
brilliant in that they hire people like me to do the smaller roles so
that the quality level of the performance stays high. I love
doing those kinds of roles. I flew up to Seattle to sing the role
of Albine in Thaïs in
1976 [shown in photo below].
It’s only two and a half pages of music, but they
wanted my sound, my dramatic sense and my physical presence in those
two and half pages of music. It’s a great compliment
to me because they could have cast it with any local mezzo that they
have there. It’s very difficult with a small role
because you don’t have time to build the character. It
has to come out full-blown, totally prepared. As long
can reach out and touch someone with my voice, then all the work is
worthwhile. Perhaps I wouldn’t feel this way if I were twenty
years younger, but I bring all my life experiences as well as my
musicianship to every role and every performance; the heartbreak,
the joy, the difficulty, the desperation — all
of it is
incorporated. What else can I tell you? I love it!
© 1979 Bruce Duffie
This conversation was recorded in her hotel in Chicago in
October, 1979. It was partially transcribed, and the Wagner
portions were published in Wagner
News in the Summer Issue of 1981. The transcript was
completed and re-edited, the bio, photos and links were added and it
was posted on this website early in 2016.
To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been
transcribed and posted on this website, click here.
Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975
its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001. His
interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since
and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well
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.