Baritone  Donnie  Ray  Albert

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


Donnie Ray Albert (born January 10, 1950) is an American operatic baritone who has had an active international career since 1976.

Born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Albert graduated from McKinley Senior High School in 1968. He earned a Bachelor of Music degree from Louisiana State University in 1972. He went on to earn a Master of Music degree from Southern Methodist University where he studied with Thomas Hayward.

Albert made his professional opera debut in May 1975 at the Houston Grand Opera in Scott Joplin's Treemonisha. The following year he returned to that house to sing the role of Jake Wallace in Giacomo Puccini's La Fanciulla del West and portray Porgy to the Bess of Clamma Dale in a highly lauded production of George Gershwin's Porgy and Bess. The production was transported to Broadway in New York City where it ran for a total of 122 performances from September 25, 1976 to January 9, 1977. The production's recording won a Grammy Award for Best Opera Recording. In 1978 he made his debuts at the New York City Opera and the Washington National Opera, and in 1979 he gave his first performance at the Lyric Opera of Chicago.

During the 1980s, Albert was highly active with regional opera companies in the United States; with his performance credits including appearances with the Baltimore Opera, Cincinnati Opera, Dallas Opera, Fort Worth Opera, New Orleans Opera, Portland Opera, and Tulsa Opera among others. From 1981-1983 he made several appearances at the Vancouver Opera. In 1982 he made his debut at the Opera Company of Boston and sang at the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City. In 1984 he sang for the first time at the San Francisco Opera, and that same year sang Porgy for his debut at the Teatro Comunale Florence. He performed for the first time with the Canadian Opera Company in 1986. In 1987 he made his debut at the Michigan Opera Theatre and in 1989 he made his first appearance at the Florentine Opera; both in the role of Porgy. In 1988 he embarked on a major tour of Porgy and Bess in Europe.

Thirteen years of Mr. Albert’s career were as a Bass-Baritone.  In 1988, the switch to Baritone repertoire proved to be a welcome fit which led to engagements by most of the major opera companies and orchestras in North America and Europe.  Highlights  include TOSCA (Scarpia) in Portland, New York City Opera, Atlanta & Giessen; AIDA (Amonasro) in Washington, DC, Köln, Boston, Montreal, and Stade de France; NABACCO in Vancouver, Florentine Opera, La Scala; RIGOLETTO in Miami, New York City, Arizona, Mannheim, and Vancouver; OTELLO (Iago) in Sacramento, Kentucky Opera, Hamburg; UN BALLO IN MASCHERA (Renato) in Utah, Chicago Lyric and Los Angeles; THE FLYING DUTCHMAN in Austin, Köln, Arizona; MACBETH in Columbus, Ohio & Köln; LA TRAVIATA (Germont) Metropolitan Opera in the Parks; DIE WALKÜRE (Wotan) in Austin and Tokyo, Japan; SIEGFRIED (Wanderer) in Tokyo, Japan; TALES OF HOFFMANN (Villains) Houston, Köln, Prague National Theater, and Covent Garden.

In 1996, Albert sang the title role in Richard Wagner's The Flying Dutchman at the Cologne Opera. At La Scala, he has performed the roles of as Amonasro Giuseppe Verdi's Aida, Hidraot in Christoph Willibald Gluck's Armide, and the title role in Verdi's Macbeth. Other roles he has performed on stage include Varlaam in Boris Godunov, Basilio in Rossini's The Barber of Seville, Count Monterone in Verdi's Rigoletto, Don Carlo in Verdi's Ernani, Don Fernando in Beethoven's Fidelio, Escamillo in Georges Bizet's Carmen, Ferrando in Verdi's Il trovatore, Iago in Verdi's Otello, Jack Rance in Giacomo Puccini's La fanciulla del West, Jochanaan in Richard Strauss' Salome, Nourabad in Bizet's Les pêcheurs de perles, Timur in Puccini's Turandot, Valentin in Charles Gounod's Faust, and the title role in Verdi's Nabucco, and the title role in Louis Gruenberg's The Emperor Jones.

Albert has also had an active career as a concert singer. He has sung in concerts with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Minnesota Orchestra, the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, and the New York Philharmonic among others.

==  Biographical material from different sources  

Albert was back in Chicago in May of 1990 for a performance of Kindertotenlieder with the Civic Orchestra, conducted by Michael Morgan.  Also on the program was the Symphony #6 of Beethoven.  This was not long after his switch from Bass-Baritone to Baritone, which necessitated learning many new roles.

Later that day, Albert was most gracious to stop by the radio station for an interview.  It was a rainy evening, and his final destination was the airport for a flight to his next engagement . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:   I hope your flight gets off on time.  [With a wink]  Of course, maybe we could strand you here for a while, and then you would just have to sing for us more!

Donnie Ray Albert:   [Laughs]  Oh, please...  I need to take a break.  I am coming off a couple of recitals, and I didn’t have enough time to really work on this piece like I wanted to.  I am very grateful it went well.  That orchestra played extremely well, and I think that the audience really appreciated it.

BD:   How do you divide your career between operatic appearances and concerts and recitals?

albert Albert:   I don’t get as many concert engagements as I would like.  I just finished three in a row.  One was Elijah at Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Fort Lauderdale.  Dr. D. James Kennedy is the minister there, and I didn’t realize what a big church that was.  This was part of the concert series that operates out of the church itself.  I sang in church the following Sunday, which was Palm Sunday, and then I wound up doing Messiah as a benefit concert in the Meyerson Center in Dallas, which was fabulous.  It was one of the most exciting experiences I’ve ever had in a theater, because there are such good acoustics.  The performance itself was also great.  Then, two days later, I did a recital, and that’s something I hadn’t done in almost two years.

BD:   Where was that?

Albert:   That was at Texas Southern University.  I did a master class, and then a recital followed a day afterwards.  It all went very well.  It was the first time I had ever done a recital of all American or English music.  I usually go with a standard classical-type recital that you learn in undergraduate school.  You start with the earlier composers, and work up through the Twentieth Century, but this one stuck with Nineteenth and Twentieth Century composers, most of whom where African-American.  There was a cycle by Robert Owens (1925-2017) entitled Border Line [a set of sixteen songs, Op. 24 (1970), to texts by Langston Hughes], and that was a lot of fun to do.  The other music from American composers was some art songs, as well as folk songs and spirituals.  A lot of it was new to me, and it was a fun recital.

BD:   Even on a mixed concert, where you do the early group and the Italian group and the French group, do you try to include music by African-American composers?

Albert:   Most recently I have done that primarily because of my work with Columbia College
s Center for Black Music Research.  It’s enabled me to find more material to do a set group, and not just stick with a basic recital.  A lot of people will recognize Schubert or Schumann songs, and you try to get away from those because just about every college music program teaches a lot of those songs.  I enjoy singing that music, but they become too familiar to a lot of people.  A lot of the audiences want to hear not just the old things, but some things that are challenging, and that are new.

BD:   Challenging for you to sing, or challenging for them to hear?

Albert:   A little bit of both.  From a poetic standpoint, it makes them think, and from a musical style
from the melodic and harmonic standpointtheir ears might tend to listen a bit more.  Whereas, they might sit back and just esthetically listen to a Schubert song because they’ve heard it ten thousand times.

BD:   They’re listening more to their memory than to you?

Albert:   Right.  So, it gives a new and different approach to a recital.  It’s not necessarily new, but it’s also challenging for me to introduce something new to the audience which they’re not going to hear in every recital that they go to.

BD:   Do you think we will ever come to the point where white singers should include music of African-Americans on their programs?  [My interview with William Warfield also addresses this question.]

Albert:   Most assuredly, especially these songs that are within the same genre as Schubert and Copland, and all the composers which we consider, from our European training, to be great.  A lot of my Anglo brothers don’t consider those things because they feel they should only be done by African-American people.  I wonder why they should limit themselves to that extent?  I’m classically trained, and I did not start singing these songs, nor was I even made aware of these songs when I was going to school.  I placed the pressure upon myself, and did the homework myself.  Dr. Floyd was instrumental in guiding me in all this.

BD:   Tell me a bit about Dr. Floyd.

Albert:   Samuel Floyd is the Director of the Center for Black Music Research at Columbia College.  We met when I was an affiliate artist, and had a residency at Fisk University.  That’s where the center was once.  It was called something else at the time, and was housed at Fisk University in Nashville.  He made me aware of a lot of things.  He’s a very astute and knowledgeable man in this field as a musicologist.  I began to meet all of these other musicologists through him, including Eileen Southern (1920-2002), Geneva Southall (1925- 2004), and Dominique-René de Lerma (1928-2015).  [Southern was the first African-American to receive a PhD from an American institution (New York University) in 1961.]  Just to meet these people, and to have conversations with them, and to go to some of their seminars opened new doors that I had never seen before.  Fortunately, when I was in graduate school, I did have the chance.  Southern’s book (The Music of Black Americans: A History) came out during that time, and it opened not only my eyes, but a lot of the eyes of musicologists
in most universities to another section of music that we are overlooking.  This music is very esthetically beautiful.  It speaks to a different culture, and it speaks about a different culture, yet it stays within the same vein of all the other great composers from Brahms to Sibelius and Mahler.  It’s understandable how people like Roland Hayes and Paul Robeson could identify spirituals within the same genre as the things that they were doing of Handel, Bach, and Mozart, as well as all these other composers.  They were just intertwining the spirituals, and that’s where Black American composers belong, as well because they were all brought up through the same system.

albert BD:   Do you encourage all of this by performing some of them?

Albert:   Of course.  It’s been a great challenge for me, and it’s been very pleasing for me to do.

BD:   Are you encouraging more to be written?

Albert:   It is being written even as we speak.  In fact, the center is doing an Olly Wilson (1937-2018) piece that we will premiere in Alice Tully Hall this September.  We premiered Hymn to Freedom by Leslie Adams (1932-  ) in our last residency here in Chicago, which had a very profound effect on the audience.  The poetry was by Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906).  So, we are making great strides to introduce more of this music to the masses as we go out from city to city.  Our invitation to perform at Alice Tully Hall will give us a larger exposure.

BD:   I hope that you keep working on this, and bringing out whatever you can.

Albert:   Definitely.  But I enjoy doing things like the Kindertotenlieder.  This was my first performance of the Mahler here in Chicago.

BD:   From the vast array of art songs and orchestral songs and operatic roles, how do you decide which things you will sing, and which you will learn, because it takes time to learn each piece?

Albert:   When you’re doing a lot of material, especially the operatic roles, you want to dedicate as much time as possible to really thinking out not only your role, but how it interacts with everyone else’s roles.  So, I spend more time with my operatic things because I want to know what’s going on with everybody else.  You place a little more emphasis on that.  By the same token, you spend a great deal of your time when you’re doing solo recital work researching and trying to come up with things, and sets that match them.  That’s the hard part for me.  At times, I try to go back and place them in the right group, especially when you find single songs that you like and they’re not by the same composer.  Then, you might find things by the same composer that don’t necessarily fit into a group that you started with, so you start all over again.  I’ve had all types of problems doing things like that, which led me to doing the all-American program the last time.

BD:   Just to get all the material you wanted to sing?

Albert:   Yes.  That’s what I did.  I enjoy operatic work to the degree that I
m doing it.  Now that I’m a baritone, I get a chance to sing a whole lot more.

BD:   [Surprised]  Now that you’re a baritone???  Where did you start?

Albert:   I started as a bass-baritone, and I’ve lost about forty roles.  I sang with the Lyric Opera of Chicago during their Twenty-Fifth Anniversary Season.  I did Monterone in Rigoletto with Pavarotti, Blegen, and Manuguerra.  [Photo from this production is shown farther down on this webpage.]  I had about forty-some bass roles under my belt, and I was doing quite well with the bass repertoire.  I went off to Europe and sang as a serioso bass in Heidelberg, and had a chance to appear as a guest in a few houses.  Now that I’m a baritone, for past three years I’ve been working very hard on making sure that my technique was down pat.

BD:   Are the high Es and Fs causing any terrors?

Albert:   No, not yet, but they did when I first started.

BD:   When you moved the voice up, did you retain the bottom to the voice?

Albert:   So far it has stayed.  To sing this Kindertotenlieder today was really something.  You use a lot of head voice, and to use the head voice, you also want to keep your bottom range going.  In this, you have the range of bottom G to high G-Flat.

BD:   So, it’s just about two octaves?

Albert:   Yes, and it worked out very well.  I’m very glad that my technique is getting to the point where I don’t have to sweat the bottom, and I
m not really sweating the top.  So, I’m comfortable with those things now.

BD:   What do you continue to sweat?

albert Albert:   [Laughs]  I don’t know...  I haven’t had to sweat in awhile.  At one time, Porgy was the hardest role that I had ever done, maybe physically because I was on my knees for three hours.  The range was just enormous, and it gets higher.  It doesn’t get lower as you go along.  It’s just one of those extensive roles the way it’s written.

BD:   I would think as you warmed up that the voice would naturally go up a little bit.

Albert:   Yes, but it still has the leaps of more than an octave from time to time in a lot of those songs.  You try to work for the consistency, and the connections in your tessitura within the range that you’re working.

BD:   Are they songs or are they arias?

Albert:   In Porgy, you have basically arias.  His arias are with chorus.  The only person in Porgy and Bess that has true arias is Sportin’ Life, because it’s without chorus.  Bess doesn’t have an aria.  She has a bunch of duets, but no aria to speak of.

BD:   Clara
s got Summertime, but that’s with chorus.

Albert:   Yes.  Serena has My Man’s Gone Now, and Clara has Summertime.  That’s a lot of singing, a lot of arias in one three-hour piece.  I just finished doing John the Baptist in Salome and I feel extremely comfortable with things like that.

BD:   [With a gentle nudge]  You don’t mind losing your head?

Albert:   [Laughs]  No.  In fact, I have it at home now.  Calgary Opera mailed it to me, so I have my head to take around wherever I go and do John the Baptist now.

BD:   Is it good likeness of you?

Albert:   It’s a wonderful likeness of me.  I showed it to my boys, and they jumped.  [Both laugh]

BD:   You can hand it to the prop department.

Albert:   That’s right, exactly.  It works out very well.  It
s not that I’ve geared myself specifically to the German repertoire, but I want to sing those roles.  As an American singer, we usually have to gear ourselves to anything.  We are very adaptable, more so than a lot of other cultures are.

BD:   Are you patterning yourself after Simon Estes, who has done bass parts and is now doing baritone roles?

Albert:   No, not at all.  He’s paid his dues in many areas, and he’s still a bass-baritone.  Everything that he sings has been a hit so far.  But I’m in a different category.  Our voice types are totally different.  I’m a basso cantabile.

BD:   A
singing bass’.

Albert:   Yes.  The Italianate quality is there in my voice because I studied primarily with Thomas Hayward, who came from the Italian school.  We worked a lot at perfecting the Italian sound and the Italian technique.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   When you get offered a role, how do you decide if you’ll accept it or turn it down?

Albert:   If it’s within my range, I’ll accept it.  If it’s not me, I don’t take it.

BD:   How does a role become you?

Albert:   It has to be vocally in the right place for me.  I have to be able to negotiate it without stripping my gears.  As an actor, I should be able to adapt in most situations.  I have been able to adapt in a lot of situations, so I will take most challenges.  I don’t think I’ve turned down too many things just for fear.  I’m not afraid to tackle too many things.  I’m not very good at avant-garde, or some of the music that is really Twentieth Century-ish, that goes out on a limb and takes you into a different area.

BD:   [With a wink]  No Stockhausen for you?

Albert:   [Laughs]  Not yet, nor Wozzeck or those things.  I have not jumped into that period.  People have asked me to do various Wagnerian things, and at the time I just didn’t consider it to be the right thing for me.

BD:   Is that something you’re talking about for maybe ten or fifteen years down the road?

Albert:   If I’m still living, yes.  [Laughs]  If I haven’t burned myself out with the Verdi repertoire, I could probably do it.  [He would later successfully take on some of the major Wagner roles.]

BD:   Are you being very careful not to burn yourself out?

Albert:   I think I am.  I try to spend a certain amount of time at home with my family.  That’s also study time for me, and a time to reflect on what I’d like to do, the directions I’d like to take, and the material I’d like to do.  Now, everything is a challenge because everything is new.  It’s like starting over again as far as operatic repertoire is concerned.  It’s just career-change shock.

BD:   But it’s not really career changes, it’s fach change.

albert Albert:   Yes, right.  The fach change shocks a lot of people.  Compared to a bass-baritone, a baritone has many more notes to sing, and more words to sing.

BD:   If you’d known that when you started, might you have stayed a bass?

Albert:   I might have stayed a bass, but nature wouldn’t have me that way.

BD:   [Laughs]  I don’t know too many men who change fach.  Women are doing it all the time
mezzos move up to soprano, and some sopranos decide to go into the mezzo realm, but men tend to be in one or another and stay there.

Albert:   Yes.  I’ve been told that many times.  I was once told by George London that he thought I was a baritone.  At the time I considered myself a true bass-baritone, and I would not listen to anyone other than my voice teacher.  A couple of times my voice teacher said, “You do have the possibility,” so I went to a doctor and he told me, “You have some highs in your voice.”  I didn’t listen to any of those people at the time, and recently a voice teacher told me, “You probably did the best thing for yourself at the time, because you didn’t jump off into the high stuff too soon.  That way you didn’t do any damage to yourself.”  So, I’m thankful for that.  I’m extremely lucky.  I’ve been blessed in a lot of ways.

BD:   Let’s talk about some of the roles you sing.  Obviously, you’re no longer going to sing Porgy...

Albert:   ...only if the price is right, and it is the right situation.  I sort of put it on the back burner.  I enjoyed doing Porgy.  It’s something that I can move out of and into very easily, because it’s one of those transitional roles that a person could easily do.

BD:   Is the right situation a great big house, or a smaller house, or a festival?

Albert:   The right situation would be a good production that would show something new and different in some areas, and to get a different conductor.  Houston’s treatment of it was probably the most influential thing that ever happened to the work itself, because they treated it as an opera.  They didn’t listen to old time critics or new time critics.  They treated it as an opera, as a theatrical musical grand operatic piece.

BD:   Is that what it is?

Albert:   It’s musical theater, a grand operatic piece.  If you get on your knees and try to sing it, or if you stand up and try to sing it, no matter.  Any way you cut it, it’s a grand operatic piece.  I’m sure everyone who was in that 1976 production could attest to that because we took the country pretty much by storm at the time.  It was a great group of actors and singers on that stage, and we were all totally dedicated to the piece.

BD:   You also made the recording.

Albert:   Yes, the recording of the voices.

BD:   Are you pleased with that recording?

Albert:   Every time I listen to it now, any time I hear it, I’m always amazed.  I sound so young, because I was quite young at the time.

BD:   It’s pushing fifteen years ago.

Albert:   Yes, it was over 15 years ago that we recorded it.

BD:   How long had you been in opera at that time?

Albert:   Two years.

BD:   You were a fresh recruit.

Albert:   Yes.  Two years out of graduate school, and right into the fire.  It was a great boost to my career, but it was hard for me to break that mold, because once people heard me do it, they only heard a certain thing and they didn’t think that I could do other things.  It was very difficult to get work in Chicago and any other house, even though I was trying to pursue my music seriously.

BD:   You’re Porgy, not John the Baptist.

Albert:   Right.  Those were the attitudes that I got from a lot of impresarios.

BD:   Could you could use that as a bargaining chip
tell them you’ll do Porgy if they’ll give you a role that you’ve been looking for?

Albert:   We tried that avenue, but a lot of people think that’s bribery, and they don’t like to deal with people on that level.  We managed to get some things.  Some people heard other things in my voice and were generous enough, or had the foresight to say, “You can do other things, and these are the things we’d like to hear you do.”  For instance, I was given Tosca in Portland, and Aïda in Washington DC.  I was also given the John the Baptist in Calgary because those people heard me do Porgy, and they said that if I could do this, I could do Salome as well.  There are people out there who understand what the voice is all about.  They understand the similarities and differences between Porgy and Bess and other operatic works.

BD:   Is Porgy now finally being dropped into a fach, and the other roles that are being offered are of similar nature?

Albert:   Yes.  I had an impresario tell me, “You should be able to do any Wagnerian work that you want to do after you finished doing Porgy.”  He didn’t understand why I wasn’t singing some of the Wagnerian repertoire right then.

BD:   Are you looking at Wotan now?

Albert:   No, I’ll let Mr. Morris and Mr. Estes continue, and Robert Hale is also out there.  We have a whole group of American singers who are doing this repertoire, and they are doing a hell of a job.

BD:   Do you aim to do a hell of a job in the roles you sing?

Albert:   I try to.  I’m trying to get into that A classification or category of singers that hopefully will help me go far in my career.  I just like to work.  I enjoy the work.  I enjoy the challenges that this profession gives me.  I don’t always enjoy the business end of it, because that gets to be a bit messy and nasty from time to time.  But we deal with it, and we go on.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Let’s talk more a bit more about artistic matters.  When you go to a new house, do you adjust the way you sing whether the house is small or large?


Albert:   You feel out the acoustics.  For instance, singing in Orchestra Hall here in Chicago, I could feel the differences in the acoustics compared to Symphony Hall in Boston.  It’s totally different acoustics.  I think this hall is much nicer here in Chicago.  There are certain things that I can do here that I can’t do elsewhere.  I may have to adjust and give a little bit more sound there, but in this hall, I didn’t have to give as much sound.

BD:   You weren’t cheating the public, though, by not giving as much?

Albert:   No, because the sound carries it.  It’s acoustically perfect, and you know you don’t have to over-blow yourself, or blow their brains out and make all types of ugly sounds to adjust to the acoustics.

BD:   Are there places that you feel you have to over-blow?

Albert:   Some places are very large and when you’re giving a little bit more, you’re trying to sing out a little bit more.  For Lyric Opera of Chicago, the house is not acoustically the best place to sing in.  It’s not gracious to a lot of voices.  I’m sure there are a lot of singers who could attest to that.  The music hall in Dallas, Texas, is not the best hall for opera to be done in.  However, a lot of opera houses have good spots on the stage for you to sing.

BD:   It would be obvious from everybody trying to stand there.  [Laughs]

albert Albert:   Yes.  Every singer that comes into a situation will always test the acoustics to see what he has to give, and what he shouldn’t give.  It becomes a game between you and the acoustics.  It’s you against the house, not you against the orchestra.  It becomes a play on the acoustics, and the esthetics that the environment projects.

BD:   Do you usually win that game?

Albert:   I don’t know.  In Chicago’s Opera House I probably wouldn’t, because I don’t think my voice is that big that it’s going to be so booming, yet I think that the resonance carries over the orchestra pretty well.  But I haven’t sung there as a baritone, so I don’t know.  As a bass, I know that I don’t think it carried very well.

BD:   [Gently protesting]  I remember the Rigoletto, and nothing stands out that you faded into the crowd.  You were right there, and your part was done well.  There was nothing to worry about at all.  It was fine.  [Vis-à-vis the photo shown at right, Albert is Monterone, and Pavarotti (at right) is the Duke.  The man-in-armor at the extreme left is Ken Recu, who was Captain of the Supers for Lyric Opera of Chicago.]

Albert:   With all those bass singers around me, I had to come up to their expectations.

BD:   Exactly, and this is what I’m saying.  The part fit in with everybody else who was there, so it was just right.  That, for me, is a satisfying performance.

Albert:   That’s good.  I’m glad you appreciated it.

BD:   I did.  I look at a lot of the roles that are not on stage very long.  They are called smaller roles, but it’s just they’re shorter, they’re not really smaller.

Albert:   Yes.  Someone said there are no small roles, just small actors.  [Both laugh]

BD:   When you think about opera, where do you balance the music and the drama?

Albert:   Someone said, “Prima la musica,” so music always comes first and the drama comes next.  It depends on what you’re doing.  With great singers, music is always first, and from the music and the words you bring the drama.  You make those words come to life in your actions and your portrayal of the character.  I’ve always approached it that way.  I read the words or the texts very thoroughly, and then go back to apply the music, and see how that all correlates and fits in.

BD:   Do you want to be known as a concert singer, an opera singer, or just a great singer?

Albert:   [Laughs]  I’m a good singer.  I don’t know about being a great singer, but I sing well.  I enjoy working, and when I work I try to give my best to the public.  I try to make them feel as I feel about that particular role, or that particular song that I’m singing.  I try to convey it in some way.  Sometimes it is very difficult for me to come off a part.  For example, after doing John the Baptist, I cannot immediately go back into being Donnie Ray Albert because of what he represented during the time.  A lot of us sometimes put ourselves into those parts, and it becomes physically and mentally draining on us.  Then we have to pull ourselves out of it, and go out and face the world.

BD:    So, it takes you little while to throw off that character?

albert Albert:   Yes, it takes me a while to throw it off.

BD:   How long does it take you to put it on?

Albert:   I’m usually at a theater at least two hours before curtain to get into the mood, and to really think about what I have to do.  I try to make it a little bit better each time.

BD:   Is it now becoming a little more important with the baritone roles, or did you need the same preparation for the bass roles?

Albert:   [Laughs]  Because I have more words to do, I always think about those words... and the music.  There’s more music to do.  There’s so much good singing, and it
s so dramatic, a lot of it is just thrilling to do.  It’s fun to do, and it’s thrilling.  You get a boost out of it from time to time.  Yet, if we sing vendetta in sad ways so many times, there’s only so much you can have in one evening, so you try to get rid of that stuff right away.

BD:   The baritone usually is the guy who’s out for vengeance.

Albert:   Right.

BD:   Would you rather kill or be killed on stage?

Albert:   Oh, my gosh, I don’t know.  Whatever the opera calls for, I guess.  I’ll have to abide within the poetic license of what’s going on in that production at that time.

BD:   [With a gentle nudge]  Do you wish the baritone got the girl more often?

Albert:   Sometimes...  [Laughs]  I’m sure there are operas out there where I will be getting the girl from time to time, but we’re always vying for the attention of the same woman as the tenor, but the tenor always wins out in the end.  So, in answer to your question, usually the baritone winds up dying anyway, or is forsaken, or forlorn, or expires from exhaustion.

BD:   [Wistfully]  Maybe you should commission an opera where the baritone gets the girl!

Albert:   I’m sure there will be a few that I will have the pleasure of doing.

BD:   How far ahead are your booked?

Albert:   Through 1991 [about a year and a half from the time of this interview].

BD:   Is that a good feeling to know that on a Thursday next July you’ll be singing a certain role in a certain place?

Albert:   That’s not always definite because orchestras go on strike.  [Laughs]  I’ve had a couple of productions go under because of orchestral and managerial problems.  [As this is being readied for the website, we are in the midst of the COVID pandemic, and we all know what chaos that has injected into the arts...]

BD:   Well, assuming that there are no unforeseen circumstances, is it comforting to know that soon you will be singing a certain role in a certain place?

Albert:   Oh, most assuredly, it is.  That’s good to know, because at least I can plan ahead of time.  Sometimes things come in at the last minute, and that’s nerve-wracking.  I would say that 5% of the operas that I learned as a bass were done at the last minute.  I had maybe two weeks notice, so you have to jump in and learn them.  I find that nerve-wracking.  I don’t like to do things like that.  I like to prepare for the long term.

BD:   Do you like singing the same roles over and over and over again?

Albert:   I’m inclined to agree with the Germans, who say that you never really know it unless you’ve done it about a dozen times or more.  In this country, we don’t get a chance to do it that often... unless you’re doing it at the Met, and even there you get new people in the various roles.

BD:   Can I assume now, with the shift in repertoire, that you really don’t want to just spend your life singing a dozen roles all over the world?

Albert:   I wouldn’t mind doing that.  When you get about a dozen roles under your belt, you start doing them all over the place, and that’s fun, but you’re still learning.  There are always new roles to do, and there are a whole bunch of operas out there that have not been done in a long time.  Maybe somebody will decide to take some of them off the shelves and dust some of them off.  Maybe some of them shouldn’t be done, but there are a whole lot of operas that people are dying to hear, I’m sure.

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BD:   Are you optimistic about the future of opera?

Albert:   Of course, because of the simple fact that there are a lot of older operas that have not been produced and those that have been produced have not been produced recently.  We get the mainstream Aïdas, Carmens and such, and people are always treating them in some new fashion to update them for the Twenty-First Century.  But there are operas by William Grant Still (1895-1978), or by [Antônio Carlos] Gomes (1836-1896) that were produced at La Scala and various places like that.  Gomes was a contemporary of Puccini and Verdi, and was working during that same time period, and some of his works went over very well.  It’s surprising that they haven’t dusted some of those works off and brought them out again.

William Grant Still, Jr. (May 11, 1895 – December 3, 1978) was an American composer of nearly 200 works, including five symphonies, four ballets, nine operas, over thirty choral works, plus art songs, chamber music and works for solo instruments.

Often referred to as the "Dean of Afro-American Composers", Still was the first American composer to have an opera produced by the New York City Opera. Still is known primarily for his first symphony, Afro-American Symphony (1930), which was until 1950 the most widely performed symphony composed by an American.

Born in Mississippi, he grew up in Little Rock, Arkansas, attended Wilberforce University and Oberlin Conservatory of Music, and was a student of George Whitefield Chadwick and later Edgard Varèse.

Of note, Still was the first African American to conduct a major American symphony orchestra, the first to have a symphony performed by a leading orchestra, the first to have an opera performed by a major opera company, and the first to have an opera performed on national television.

Due to his close association and collaboration with prominent African-American literary and cultural figures, Still is considered to be part of the Harlem Renaissance movement.

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Antônio Carlos Gomes
(Portuguese pronunciation: [ɐ̃ˈtonju ˈkaɾlus ˈɡomis]; Campinas, July 11, 1836 – Belém, September 16, 1896) was the first New World composer whose work was accepted by Europe. The only non-European who was successful as an opera composer in Italy, during the "golden age of opera", contemporary to Verdi and Puccini and the first composer of non-European lineage to be accepted into the Classic tradition of music.

Younger than Verdi, yet older than Puccini, Carlos Gomes achieved his first major success in a time when the Italian audiences were eager for a new name to celebrate and Puccini had not yet officially started his career. After the successful premiere of Il Guarany, Gomes was considered the most promising new composer. Verdi said his work was an expression of "true musical genius". Liszt said that “it displays dense technical maturity, full of harmonic and orchestral maturity.”

BD:   Some of the operas of Respighi (1879-1936) are occasionally done, but not very often.  [In my interview with George Jellinek, we talk of La Fiamma, and a very enthusiastic review from the Chicago production in 1935 is included on the webpage.]

albert Albert:   Rossini has gotten a lot of treatment, though I don’t think his Otello has been mounted in this country.

BD:   He’s coming up on a 200th anniversary in a couple of years.

Albert:   Absolutely, so we’ll see a lot of his works.

BD:   [Laughs]  Exactly.  Later tonight, I’m doing a program for William Grant Still [marking his ninety-fifth anniversary].  Five years hence, when it’s his hundredth birthday, maybe there will be companies that will do A Bayou Legend, or some of his other operas.

Albert:   Yes.

BD:   A hundredth birthday is a good excuse to re-examine some of these things.  You should put bugs in a few people’s ears about it.

Albert:   I am.  I have not stopped doing that.  We really try to stick with our culture.  As an African-American, I try to stick with the things that we do, as well as the things that I do on a whole as a musician in general, in keeping the public aware of the various things that are happening.  I think that people will be pleased with what they hear from the Center of Black Music Research ensemble, because it’s a good group of performers.

BD:   Where was the recording made?

Albert:   In Sheldon Hall, St. Louis.  There’s a picture of it on the front cover.  I was doing the convention at the College Music Society.  They and the Center for Black Music Research were correlating their conventions at the same time.  They were having their meetings, so we had that culminating concert.  It was recorded live in the hall.  [The LP (shown at right) presents a portion of that concert.  Several of the items on that program were repeated the following September in Alice Tully Hall in New York City.  The review in The New York Times said,
Mr. Albert was heard to good effect in Will Marion Cooks Three Negro Songs (1912), a jazzy set that foreshadows the work Gershwin would do nearly two decades later’.  Also appearing were soprano Hilda Harris, and tenor William Brown.  The conductor for the St. Louis performance (and recording) was Michael Morgan.  The conductor at Tully Hall in New York was Kay George Roberts.]

BD:   I hope a CD can put out of the whole program.

Albert:   It would be wonderful if they could, but the problem with the Center right now is funding.  We don’t get enough backers.  We’ll keep all our fingers crossed, and hope and pray that people will start giving us some funding.  Hopefully, the Center can do some things with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra just to bring a lot of the works to the attention of the public.  We’re not necessarily asking them to do a program of all African-American composers, but it’s like anything else.  There’s a wonderful documentary film that has Paul Robeson talking about how he incorporates spirituals into his programs, and why they are there, and the significance between spirituals and the things that all these composers wrote.

BD:   There was a documentary on Public Television a few weeks ago of Roland Hayes...

Albert:   I know that program, and unfortunately, we don’t get enough of Mr. Hayes’ singing in that brief documentary.  It was just because television stations are afraid.  We don’t get Toscanini conducting the NBC Orchestra anymore, where you get a variety of composers and their works that are very seldom performed.  We get a lot of the things that are always performed, but not things that are seldom performed.  Then, again, you don’t hear a lot of American composers, especially those from various ethnic backgrounds, and how that all ties in with the European classical system of training.  There should be programs like that which inform, educate, and redirect some of our thought processes.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Are you singing regularly with the Dallas Opera, or are you there just because it’s your home?

Albert:   Because it’s my home.  I’m considered a hometown product, so they never hired me to do anything.  When I was in graduate school there, I had the opportunity to sing for Lawrence Kelly, who started the company there.  He wanted me to stay on with the opera chorus, and possibly do some small roles.  Unfortunately, he died shortly after that, and I didn’t stay on with the chorus because I wanted to get my degree out of the way, and do some auditioning at the time.

Kelly, Lawrence Vincent (1928–1974). Lawrence Vincent Kelly, founder and general manager of the Dallas Civic Opera, was born in Chicago, Illinois, on May 30, 1928. He was the son of Patrick James and Thelma (Seabott) Kelly. He was a student at Chicago Music College (1942–45) at the same time that he attended Loyola Academy, from which he graduated. He went to Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., and returned to Chicago in 1950 to assist in the family real estate business; upon his father's death, he became business manager and later secretary-treasurer and director. He attended De Paul University Law School at night (1950–51), became a vice president and director of Dearborn Supply Company (1951–52), and established himself as an insurance broker in 1953.

In 1953, Kelly was a co-founder, with Nicola Rescigno and Carol Fox, of the Lyric Theatre of Chicago, an opera company of which he was secretary-treasurer from 1953 to 1956 and managing director from 1954 to 1956. For two years, under his guidance, Chicago was the scene of "some of the most brilliant nights of opera seen in the United States," according to one writer. In June 1956, however, the founders of the company had a disagreement, and Kelly and Rescigno resigned. Kelly moved to New York City where he stayed a year.

Considering where he might start a new opera company, he chose Dallas as a likely place. Through the efforts of music critic John Rosenfield, Kelly was brought to Dallas, and, in partnership with Nicola Rescigno, chartered the Dallas Civic Opera by March 1957. Kelly served as general manager, with Rescigno serving as artistic director and principal conductor. In November 1957 the company presented soprano Maria Callas in a concert; she had been presented by Kelly in her American debut three years earlier in Chicago. That first season only one opera, Rossini's L'Italiana in Algeri, was mounted; the cast was headed by Giulietta Simionato, and the production was designed and staged by Franco Zeffirelli, who made his American debut in it. This production set a quality standard for the future of the company, and Kelly's subsequent pattern of originality established the Dallas Civic Opera internationally. Over the next seventeen years Dallas opera lovers saw the American debut of such singers as Teresa Berganza, Jon Vickers, and Joan Sutherland. Kelly and Rescigno also introduced a distinguished group of theatrical directors and designers, and the company had its own scenic department, which built productions for other companies as well. Kelly was also a cofounder and director of the Performing Arts Foundation of Kansas City, Missouri.

Early in 1974 Kelly took on the job of acting manager of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, which was in serious financial trouble. Several months later he became gravely ill and had to resign that position. He went to Kansas City, Missouri, for treatment and died there, on September 16, 1974. A requiem Mass was offered for him at Christ the King Catholic Church in Dallas on September 19, the day before he was buried in the family plot in Chicago.

==  Text by Eldon S. Branda, from the Handbook of Texas , published by the Texas State Historical Association  

BD:   Then you did sing for Houston?

Albert:   That’s where I started my career.  I’ve done eight or nine productions with Houston, and this year I will do Cavalleria Rusticana in the fall.

BD:   Playing Alfio?

Albert:   Yes.  Then, I do Judge Bell in Carlisle Floyd’s The Passion of Jonathan Wade.


BD:   You mentioned that you were also doing some master classes?

Albert:   I did this one at Southern Methodist University, trying to get students to realize what this profession is all about.

BD:   What advice do you have for a student who wants to sing opera or oratorio?

Albert:   [Laughs]  Find something else to do. 

BD:   [Shocked]  Really???

Albert:   A lot of universities sell their students short in that they don’t really inform them.  If you’re in an Applied Program of instrument or voice, they will tell you that you may have a stupendous talent, and you will be able to go far, when, in fact, you may be a medium talent, and you might go a little less far.  You may not have the overwhelming talent that your mother and father think you have, because other people are not taking you seriously, and that’s where the guidance of good instructors in a school should tell them.  If they really love this art form, they should stay in it in another way, either as a teacher, or if you can apply yourself in that direction, as an administrator.  We need people who know how to run opera companies, who know how to run symphony orchestras, who know how to get programs off the ground and keep them off the ground and out of the dungeon...

BD:   ...and are sympathetic to the artists.

Albert:   Yes, who are sympathetic in that respect.  Ardis Krainik
is such a general manager, and it’s good to have a person like that.  [Krainik was originally a mezzo-soprano with Lyric Opera of Chicago in the 1950s, then a secretary and assistant administrator with the company in the 1960s and 70s, and finally General Director 1981-97.]

BD:   She’s done a wonderful job.

Albert:   There are a few people like that, such as the people who run the Washington Opera in Washington D.C., Ed Purrington and Martin Feinstein.  Even though they have to run a business, they still are sympathetic to their artists.

Edward Purrington (December 6, 1929 – April 14, 2012) was an American opera director and artistic administrator. He began his career at the Santa Fe Opera in 1959 working in various positions through 1971, including stage manager, stage director, instructor in the Apprentice Program, business manager, and director of development and public relations. He had the good fortune of getting to work directly with many fine opera composers during his years with the SFO, such as Igor Stravinsky, Paul Hindemith, Gian Carlo Menotti, and Krzysztof Penderecki.

From 1972-1974 Purrington was chairman of the Performing Arts Department at the College of Santa Fe (now Santa Fe University of Art and Design). He left that position to become the General Director of the Tulsa Opera in 1974, a position he held for the next thirteen years. In 1987 he became the Artistic Administrator of the Washington National Opera. He stepped down from that position in 2001 but remained employed as an Artistic Consultant for the company until his death in April 2012.

Purrington was also notably on the panel of judges of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions. In 2002 he was honored by OPERA America for his "Distinguished Service to the Field of Opera."

BD:   When you’re performing, should the audience be sympathetic to the artist?  Do you expect anything from them?

albert Albert:   I think audiences come to be entertained.  A lot of people you get are the oldsters who are very astute opera followers.  They will come to compare, and everyone all of a sudden becomes a critic.  I find myself sometimes criticizing in some areas if I go to a performance, but maybe that’s the reason I don’t go to many performances.  If I’m going to hear a singer sing, I sometimes empathize so much with them, and I perspire just as much as that person who is working, because either I know the material, or I don’t know the material.  But there are various aspects of what an audience is there for.  Some are there to be seen, and they don’t know what the true essence of opera is all about.  Carlisle Floyd once said that when you write an opera
as he doessome people go there in their tuxes and still don’t get the gist of what went on on stage.  They don’t laugh if they go to a tremendous spoof on society, like The Marriage of Figaro.  They don’t laugh with things that are supposed to be laughed at, and they’ve totally missed what the opera is about.

BD:   Then what is the essence of opera?

Albert:   There are various aspects of it.  There are tragic operas, there are comedic operas, there are all types of things that one can get from an opera.  You can probably find a piece of yourself in some of the characters that have been portrayed in history.  Some of these operas have been based on novels, and books have been written with the actual kings and princess and queens that lived during those times.  You undergo a metamorphosis within your own world.  It’s something that takes you from what you’re doing
maybe as an accountant, or a lawyer, or a doctor.  It was amazing to see the number of doctors and lawyers who were involved with the spear-carrying in Washington D.C. when I was doing Aïda.  All of these guys were coming from their busy jobs, or days in court, and they said, “Boy, this show is fun.”

BD:   [Laughs]  You gave them a little taste of opera from the inside.

Albert:   That’s what they seek out, stuff like that.  It’s a release for them.  It’s something that takes them out of their realm, or takes their mind off of the daily grind of what they’re doing.  A lot of people come to the opera just for that purpose.  Some do, some don’t.

BD:   Is there a balance between the entertainment value and the artistry?

Albert:   The artistry is always on stage or in the pit, as well as backstage.  We have so many crews of people that are never seen, that are putting these things together.  The artistry comes from all of those people that are involved.  We have to do our job to make it all rewarding to the public.  Sometimes we think we don’t get paid enough, and sometimes we think the people may feel we get overpaid for the amount of fulfillment and enjoyment.  We don’t get paid half as much as some of the actors and actresses in movies.  I heard an actor say the other night after he finished doing a movie, that he never did think that he’d ever get paid so much for having so much fun.  There is a certain amount of theatrics in a court of law that make lawyers feel the same way.  A judge may even feel the same way.  A doctor has that rewarding feeling when he has successfully done a life-saving operation.  It’s that fulfillment that we all have within ourselves.

BD:   Is singing fulfilling for you?

Albert:   Yes.  Earlier, I just never really thought about it, or maybe I was taking it all for granted.  Then, one day I did one of those noontime luncheon opera programs in Washington D.C.  Afterward, a man was about to get on the elevator, and he stopped the door right quick because he saw me passing by.  He said, “You don’t know how much joy you folks give us when we are sitting out in the house.  It’s wonderful to listen to you sing, and it is very soothing.  It calms us to listen to you sing.  I just thought I’d share that with you,” and he closed the elevator.  I thought, “What a nice thing to say.”  It’s nice to know.

BD:   Thank you for being a singer.

Albert:   Well, you’re welcome.  I thank my mom, I thank my pop, and all those who had something to do with steering me in this direction.  And, I thank God for giving me the talent.

BD:   I hope you’d be around for many years to come sharing this talent.

Albert:   [Smiles]  Keeping our fingers crossed...




See my interviews with Simon Sargon, and Eric Halfvarson

© 1990 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in Chicago on May 12, 1990.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB in 1995 and 2000.  This transcription was made in 2020, and posted on this website at that time.

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.