A Conversation with Bruce Duffie
Pablo Elvira, 62, Baritone Known To New York
By Anthony Tommasini, published in The
New York Times, February 11, 2000 [Correction Appended]
[Text only - photo added for this webpage]
Pablo Elvira, a Puerto Rican-born baritone who became a regular member of
the New York City Opera in the 1970's and 80's and sang frequently with the
Metropolitan Opera, died on Saturday at his home in Bozeman, Mont. He was
62. A coroner's report said that he died of natural causes.
Born on Sept. 24, 1937, in San Juan, Mr. Elvira was the son of a dance orchestra
leader and began his musical life playing trumpet in his father's group.
Later he formed his own jazz band.
A meeting with the Puerto Rican cellist and conductor Pablo Casals led to
his pursuing a career as an opera singer. In 1960 Casals finished work on
a biblical oratorio, ''El Pessebre,'' one of the cellist's small body of
compositions. Needing five soloists for a recording and tour of the work,
Casals heard Mr. Elvira audition and asked him to sing the baritone part.
One of Mr. Elvira's most memorable performances of ''El Pessebre'' came in
1969, when Casals, by then 92, conducted it in Jerusalem before an audience
In 1966, while participating in the Metropolitan Opera Auditions in New York,
Mr. Elvira was heard by the dean of the Indiana University School of Music
in Bloomington, who asked the young baritone to join the voice faculty. Mr.
Elivra remained there for eight years teaching and performing. In 1972 he
sang the title role in the world premiere of John Eaton's opera ''Heracles,''
which inaugurated the university's 1,460-seat Musical Arts Center.
He left Bloomington in 1974, toured and performed in Europe and then moved
to New York, where he made his debut that year with City Opera as Germont
in Verdi's ''Traviata.'' He performed often with the company, notably as
Enrico in Donizetti's ''Lucia di Lammermoor'' in a production that starred
Beverly Sills. He won praise for his robust though not large voice, focused
tone, solid technique and generally lively acting.
His Met debut came in 1979 as Tonio. There he was heard as Lescaut in Puccini's
''Manon Lescaut'' with Renata Scotto and Placido Domingo in 1980 and as Rossini's
Figaro opposite Marilyn Horne in 1982, among other roles. His final Met performance
was as Figaro in 1990. His last appearance at City Opera was in 1989 as the
title character in Verdi's ''Rigoletto.'' Mr. Elvira is survived by his wife,
Signe; a son, Pablo; and two brothers.
Correction: February 16, 2000, Wednesday An obituary of the baritone Pablo
Elvira on Friday misstated the nationality of the cellist and conductor Pablo
Casals, who invited him to sing an early Casals composition. Although Casals
lived for many years in Puerto Rico, he was Spanish.
Aside from two performances as Rigoletto in 1979 (with Judith Blegen, Luciano
Pavarotti, Richard T. Gill, Kathleen Kuhlmann, Donnie
Rae Albert, Sharon
conducted by Riccardo Chailly),
Elvira only appeared at Lyric Opera of Chicago in the fall of 1985 in Traviata with Catherine Malfitano, Francisco Araiza, Gualtiero Negrini and
Donald Kaasch among
the cast, conducted by Bruno Bartoletti. Both these operas were designed
by Pier Luigi Pizzi and lit by Duane Schuler.
It was between performances of Traviata
that I had the pleasure of spending about seventy-five minutes with him.
He was lively and full of tremendous energy, and he was very pleased to speak
of the topics I brought up, especially El
Pessebre, the Christmas Oratorio by Pablo Casals.
Here is what was said that afternoon . . . . . . . . .
Pablo Elvira: I’ve been
flying in and out singing the performances here, plus singing at the birthday
party of the Lyric. So, the last seven days, I’ve been almost singing
Bruce Duffie: My goodness.
That’s perhaps too much?
PE: Yes, it’s a little
too much. I’m a little hoarse today, but I’ll be fine in a couple of
days, and I don’t have a performance until Tuesday next week. So I
have three days.
BD: Go home and sleep.
BD: You’ve been singing for all these relief benefits.
Is this the best way an artist can help out in disasters?
PE: Yes, especially if
you find out that everybody else was donating their time and their services.
When I went to Washington, the Kennedy Center donated the room; a limousine
service provided limousines for all the artists; the Vista Intercontinental
Hotel provided all the room for the artists. In other words, we all
did it for free so all the money went directly to Puerto Rico. It was
the same for the one I did here in Chicago for the Mexican Relief Fund.
Everybody was donating their time, and the hall was donated. There
are other cases in which promoters make money out of us, out of our generosity,
by putting together a relief fund where everybody donates their time, but
the producers don’t, nor do the orchestral musicians, nor the stage crew.
Everybody gets paid but the artists. That’s an exploitation of our
kindness, and I don’t like to cooperate if there’s a small group benefiting
from what we’re doing for a noble purpose
— like helping victims of an earthquake or other disaster.
BD: Is this a new racket
— giving concerts for the benefit of disaster victims and keeping
most of the money?
PE: Oh, yes. Some
promoter got the idea with the rock concert for Ethiopia. Many people
are millionaires because of it. That is one example in which all the
television and all the publicity was paid. There were a lot of people
involved that got a lot of money out of it. I think that was a disgrace
to the art, and a disgrace to the American people that donated money.
The relief fund is probably getting about 30 cents out of every dollar that
was put in.
BD: My goodness!
PE: This is very disquieting
and very disturbing to me, to find out that the promoters, the producers,
the musicians, the technicians, everybody got paid except the artists.
It should have been a joint venture into trying to nobly and honestly try
to help these people in Ethiopia. Many artists probably do not realize
that they’re the only one donating their time, that the rest are getting
paid for it. We should also inquire who is going to distribute the money.
This money for Ethiopia is tied up by the Marxist government, so many people
are starving because they are against the government. There is no freedom.
We should have been a little more choosey about it, and perhaps drive the
goods into the territory that is struggling for the liberation.
BD: Like the Berlin airlift!
PE: Exactly! Whatever
it is, the benefit must go to the people that need it, the people that are
starving to death, and not the government that puts it in a warehouse and
lets it rot, and feeds their friends while letting the people that are struggling
for freedom starve to death. It’s very sad, but this happens all the
BD: But you will now
only do ones where all the money will go to the people.
PE: Oh yes. I have
been approached already for the Columbian disaster, and I will do it if I
think it will be also as noble as the Puerto Rican and the Mexican relief
efforts that I have seen here in Chicago, because the people that are involved
in raising the money are nationals of that country. There is a difference.
When we did the one for Ethiopia, it was a kid in England with a great, noble
idea, and a bunch of promoters and producers getting together and taking
a piece of the cake.
BD: But when it’s someone
working for their homeland, that’s something else.
PE: Exactly, and this
one is the Colombians that are doing it. I’m sure that the theater
will be donated, the musicians will be donated — like
the Chicago Symphony sent some musicians to this big Mexican relief concert.
The Chicago Lyric sent some of their young singers, and we donated our time
— myself and Francisco Araiza. It’s a different thing when
the people that are actually hurt are the ones that are putting the concert
BD: This is a way you
can help people. Does the world situation and politics enter into general
music performance, or just these special kinds of things?
PE: I would like to know
how much Russian aid has gone to Mexico. I would like very much to
find out how much the Communist society has contributed to relief in Mexico,
and then I will give you an answer. They let them starve to death because
they are enemies, and that’s very sad. So, until I see the other side
cooperate in the way that we cooperate, I will not cooperate with the other
side in any way. Yes, politics are a great, great influence in me.
BD: So you must be very
careful about everything in your career?
Right now, in order to sing in certain theaters you have to become a member
of the Communist union. I don’t want to mention exactly the theaters
because I will get into personal conflict with that, but this happens.
* * *
Let’s move to something more pleasant, and talk about your art, about music,
and Pablo Casals. You sang El Pessebre
PE: Yes. That was
my first professional engagement in my career, in 1963. It just happened
that the first time that I was in touch with any kind of music, singing,
was when I was very young and I went to a movie theater in which there were
three cowboy movies for ten cents. This was at the Teatro Delicias
in Puerto Rico, and the movie in the middle was Showboat. I remember when I saw
the black bass, William
Warfield singing, Old Man River,
my hair stood on the back of my head. I never forgot that. Of
course, after that the shoot-em-up started again and then we forgot the whole
thing. Later on in my life I came in touch with opera, but the first
time I had my first engagement as a professional singer was at the Ravinia
Festival, and William Warfield was the bass soloist! So it was quite
a coincidence. What a thrill for me to be playing trumpet two weeks
before in San Juan, and all of a sudden singing with the Chicago Symphony,
the Chicago Chorale, Maureen
Forrester, Pablo Casals and William Warfield. That was destiny.
BD: Tell me about the
work, El Pessebre.
PE: Don Pablo Casals
was a very humble man in the sense that he never pretended to be a great
composer. When his oratorio was criticized, he usually said, “I didn’t
write this to be a great masterpiece. I wrote it in the style of the
composers I admire.” So, there’s a little bit of Brahms, a little bit
of Beethoven, a little bit of Mendelssohn, Dvorak, Ravel, even some Strauss
in the type of lines, especially in one of my big arias, the aria of the
Ox. In that aspect, this is a work of love, and there are magnificent
moments in it. There’s a chorale that I think is exceptional, and there
are two of my arias that I consider exceptional, and the mezzo has an exceptional
aria, too. There is a magnificent trio of the three pages who are disgusted
with their camels. It is really very cute and very exciting and very
well written. The orchestration is excellent. Casals never intended
it to be a masterpiece, even though it is. He also said, “I wrote this
as a work of love, for the peace of the world.” He was taking it as
a crusade for peace, and that’s how I got into it and became part of his
crusade for peace. The work has absolutely beautiful moments.
BD: Is it more than just
a Christmas piece?
PE: Yes, it’s a plea
for peace. The poetry in Catalan is very beautiful, of course.
It’s a language that only the people in Catalonia know, because it’s a mixture
of almost Latin and French. But the poetry is really beautiful.
In my big aria, the Ox singing to the darkness of the sky, and then the sky
opens and all the stars are in the sky. I’m singing as the Ox, and
it’s like children from heaven. It has many touching things that are
very typical of the Spanish of the Catalonia.
BD: So it was very special
for you to participate with Casals.
PE: Oh, God, yes.
When I sang it at Ravinia, I was the baritone. The oratorio is written
for bass and four soloists. The bass is the principal soloist, and
you have a tenor, a baritone, a soprano and a mezzo. The baritone part
is the smallest part of the oratorio. But after I sang it two or three
times, he liked me so much and wanted me to sing the bass part, the lead
part. I said, “Maestro, I can sing it but I cannot
sing some of those low E-flats because I don’t have them. So he said
he would change it! He rearranged it, and interpolated a couple of
extra high notes and took out some of the low notes, and I became the soloists
from there on. I sang it all over the world, including the recording
on Columbia records.
BD: How is the recording
different from performances, if at all?
PE: Recording usually
lacks the electricity of a live performance. Even though he conducted
almost half of it, because it was late in his life Alexander Schneider did
conduct part of it on the recording. The electricity and the magnetism
that would happen when you performed with him in a live performance doesn’t
happen as much when you’re recording because you have to stop and repeat
things. It’s very hard for you to get up the same excitement ten times
for the same aria. It wears off. In the performance, that excitement
comes naturally because of the spirituality of the man and the relation we
all felt for him and his giantness. He was a giant, so that would start
immediately from the first little drum playing and the little flute playing.
From there on it would just be like a dream. We all knew what we were
singing about, and to hear the maestro hum with you... All those things
create a higher art because there is the excitement of the moment, the spirituality
of the moment. It is very difficult to convey that into a recording
unless it is a recording of a live performance.
BD: Might it be better
if they had issued a tape of one of the live concerts?
PE: Yes, but you like
to get away from the coughing of the audience and the sneezes. [Margaret Hillis, who
prepared the chorus at Ravinia, speaks directly about this problem in my
interview with her.] The recording turned out fairly well, but
the Voice of America has a magnificent recording of the performance that
was done the same week. When we were recording it, the Casals Festival
ended with this oratorio. We finished the recording on Monday, and
this concert was Saturday, and that performance was probably the most electric
BD: It’s a Christmas
PE: Oh, yes. It’s
a story of Christ and the three kings, and the gifts and the animals in the
BD: Has anyone ever tried
to stage it as an opera?
PE: That’s a very good
idea. I never gave it a thought, but that’s a very, very good idea.
I am going to try to put it to the Casals Festival. After the maestro
died, honestly the festival has gone down tremendously.
BD: It needed his spark?
PE: It needed that, yes. The artists would go there
not really for the money, even though they get very well paid. It was
mostly because they wanted to make music with maestro Casals, and the moment
he died, we got into a little bit of regional conflicts with the musicians
and the patriotism. When you get too nationalistic — which
has happened also in Mexico and in many other countries — and
you start just giving opportunity only to the local people, and refuse to
bring the great artists from the outside — thinking
that yours are as good as any others — what happens
is that you immediately turn into mediocrity because not even La Scala or
the Met can survive on only American or Italian singers. It is proven
fact that in order for the arts to succeed, we have to have an international,
open casting and performing. So the Casals Festival became a little
too provincial, a little too Puerto Rican. I am sorry to say that,
but I am a Puerto Rican and I’m a very proud one, but the moment the maestro
died the festival lost its glitter because they couldn’t bring too many of
the artists that Casals would have loved to bring. The repertoire changed
and so did the administration. His widow left and married Eugene Istomin.
She’s now in Washington in charge of the Kennedy Center. So, they keep
the Casals name, but it is not the same at all.
BD: Is there any chance
it could get back to what it was if they had a driving force?
PE: Yes. What you
need for cases like this is a dictator from the outside to take over.
You need a brutal person, like Bing at the Met or someone like that.
Somebody that everybody will hate and everybody will respect. But the
moment you put it in the hands of Puerto Ricans, then if they hire somebody,
someone of the other part of Puerto Rico will say that it’s because it’s
his friend and not because it’s good. Why didn’t they give the opportunity
to this other person that is as talented? All those conflicts happen
that do nothing but erode the principle we’re trying to establish of creating
good art. Even though a lot came out of the Casals Festival and a lot
still comes out of the Casals Festival, it’s a pity that it lost the quality
and the level of excellence. [Remember,
this interview took place in November of 1985. Subsequently, the festival
has re-gained much of its stature. The artistic direction of the festival
at various times has been under Jorge Mester, Odón
Alonso, Mstislav Rostropovich,
Elías López Sobá, Justino Diaz and Maximiano Valdés,
and a few others who have participated are Yehudi Menuhin, Leonard
Bernstein, Zubin Mehta,
Eugene Ormandy, and Sir John Barbirolli. The festival, which is now
held at the Luis A. Ferre Performing Arts Center in San Juan, celebrated
its 50th anniversary in 2006 with a performance of the Philadelphia Orchestra
under the musical direction of Christoph Eschenbach.]
BD: The whole world loved
PE: Exactly, he was an
international man. We cease to be citizens of one country when we reach
a certain point in artistry. We belong to the world.
* * *
BD: Do you enjoy traveling
all over the world, spending a few weeks here and a few weeks there?
PE: Oh yes. It’s magnificent! Don’t forget,
when I go to Paris or Chile or Argentina or anyplace, I go there with the
merchandise that they have already bought. I don’t go there to sell
something. The moment I reach the airport I am met by people that love
what I do. I get to know people of all levels, from the president or
prime minister to the shoe shine boy. Anybody that is in touch with
me is somebody that loves what I do, and admires me for what I am.
It makes the life of an artist so much more pleasant. As a matter of
fact, that’s one of the reasons I’m not singing at the Met for the next two
years. I was beginning to feel like a number at the Met. I consider
myself an artist, and when I come to Chicago or San Francisco or any of these
other opera houses, I am treated as such. At this moment in my career,
I have done everything that anybody can ask at the Met. I did two new
productions, including Barber of Seville
with Marilyn Horne.
I was in the first televised production to the world via satellite, Manon Lescaut with Domingo and Scotto. I was in
the first televised broadcast of the centennial, Lucia Lammermoor with Kraus and Sutherland
[caricature shown at left, and DVD cover
shown farther down on this webpage]. I am in the first video
release of this they put out of that performance.
BD: More at the Met would
just be more of the same?
PE: No, I just wanted
to get away from it all for a few years. Also I want to give myself
some opportunity to sing in Italy. They have requested me so many times.
I have lost all of the opportunities in Florence, Trieste and La Scala because
I was signed at the Met or somewhere else. They plan operas one or
two years in advance, very seldom more than two years, and I was sometimes
booked for six and seven years in advance.
BD: That’s too much,
PE: It makes you feel
very good because it proves that people have faith in what you’re doing,
that you’re headed in the right direction. But when you sign a contract,
and five years after that you go to the country and end up by getting half
of the fee you expected because the devaluation of the dollar or devaluation
of the mark, then you find yourself in situations that you’d rather not.
Also, when you’re signed to do a production of an old war horse, like Traviata at the Met, and you get an opportunity
to do a new production of Lucia in
San Francisco, then you must be able to have the flexibility to wait to the
last moment to take the best choice. My friend Placido was the one
who taught me that lesson. He told me you don’t have to be signed more
than a year or two in advance. You don't have to worry what you’re
going to be doing in two years.
BD: You’ll be wanted?
PE: Exactly. He
said there are just four or five baritones in the world and I am one of them.
So, I have absolutely nothing to worry about not being booked in advance.
This way you get to choose what you want to do.
BD: Then how do you choose
which roles you will sing?
PE: Unfortunately, I
am already booked a year and a half already in advance, instead of one year.
But there are roles that you drop after a certain time. First of all,
the fee goes up. We make a lot of money, and we deserve it. If
Muhammad Ali can make six or ten million dollars in one fight, why can’t
Pavarotti make a hundred thousand dollars in an evening? They are both
unique individuals. We get paid very well because we have a quality
of life that we have to maintain in order to take care of our instrument,
and that costs a lot of money. If my fee is too big for a Marcello
in Bohème, or for the consul,
Sharpless in Butterfly, or for Lescaut
in Manon Lescaut, if they want me
and if they’re willing to pay my fee, I do it because it’s easy money.
But usually with the fee they’re going to pay me, they can get three guys
to sing the part very well, because the part does not require any special
talent. It doesn’t require too many high notes, doesn’t require too
many arias. Sharpless has no aria and Marcello has no aria. So
instead of paying a basic fee of $8,000, you can get a baritone for $2,000
that will do the same job... not as well, and not with the artistry that
I would do it, but they can sing it.
BD: It would be acceptable
in that production.
PE: Acceptable, right.
Then the one thing they have to really get that is indispensable is a good
Rodolfo who can sing the aria very well, and a good Mimì. They
can do with a mediocre Musetta. But if you’re doing Butterfly, you can do with a mediocre
Pinkerton and a mediocre Sharpless, but you need a good Butterfly.
So, the priorities are shifted. Now, when they call me, it is for Traviata, Rigoletto, Barber of Seville. These are roles
that they cannot get a $2,000 baritone to do as well as I can. I am
doing some Bohèmes this coming
year as a special favor to my friend Anton Guadagno in Palm Beach.
He wants my name on the roster this year because he’s taking over the company
and he wants to have some big names in it. But the year after I’m doing
Barber of Seville. So of course
I’ll do it, but basically that’s the only small or middle role that I’m doing
next year. I’m doing Rigoletto
in Bridgeport, Connecticut, and I’m doing a big gala in Puerto Rico with
Domingo and Teresa Zylis-Gara. We’re doing the first act of Bohème, the second act of Otello, and the third act of Aïda all staged for a big gala!
It’s going to be a lot of fun! Then I’m doing a bunch of Lucias in San Francisco, Aïda in Denver, more Traviatas, some Trovatores in Argentina, Forza del Destino in Chile, so I’m doing
the roles that I like to sing. I’m also doing the new revised edition
of Zazà, the opera by Leoncavallo,
with the New York City Opera. They did it two years ago for the first
time in Cincinnati, when they did research and re-checked the score, and
did all kinds of improvements in the orchestration. Last year I just
did the revised Rigoletto.
BD: You’ve done the old version, and the new version published
by the University of Chicago and the House of Ricordi. Tell me about
the differences. [See my Interview
with Philip Gossett,
who edited the new Verdi Edition.]
PE: Vocally, there’s
not much change. It’s mostly orchestration. Vocally it stayed
almost traditional. Then there are high notes, and even though they
are not written, they were done on the opening night, and I did them too.
Early Verdi was very much a continuation of Bellini and Donizetti.
BD: So, you think the
voice should shine?
PE: Yes, and not only
that, but you can add the cadenzas. You can add certain high notes.
It was accepted and expected.
BD: So it’s a mistake
then to stay right with the score?
PE: Exactly. It’s
a big mistake. It’s absolutely ridiculous. Claudio Abbado admitted
it for the first time after he recorded the Barber of Seville. He did the two
verses of the Rosina aria, and the second verse was the same as the first
one without any adornments added. After that he admitted that it was
a mistake, but you can’t do that with later Verdi. When you are talking
about Aïda, Don Carlo, Falstaff, then all the notes were written.
Verdi was a mature writer, a mature composer. He knew what he wanted.
You don’t add anything. You don't have to.
BD: Even Rigoletto?
PE: No, Rigoletto you have to add. Don’t
forget, La donna è mobile
wasn’t even rehearsed until right before the performance. The cadenza
was added on the opening night, and Verdi approved. He never wrote
it. So who is a conductor like Muti to tell me that I cannot sing the
high note? If you don’t sing the high note, that’s the most ungrateful
tenor role in the world. If you take all the high notes away from the
Duke, it’s the most thankless role in the world. [Both laugh]
But there are some like Muti who prefer to do it that way. Fine, that’s
BD: But then, you don’t
sing with him.
PE: I don’t do that.
I would refuse to do it. I would rather do something else. We
all have a particular, special talent, otherwise we wouldn’t be where we
are. In my case, I have an innate musical talent. I was an instrumentalist
before I was a singer. I played trumpet all my life, so I’m more prepared
musically than the basic singer. I know what is good taste in phrasing,
and I know when a high note is in good taste and when it is just a provincial
outburst, like barking on the stage. Many great singers do that today,
they bark and bark and bark and think that’s singing. I refuse to do
that, and that’s why my career has always been ascendant. I know, for
example, the G in the Cortigiani
aria in Rigoletto shouldn’t be a
long G because it stops the motion of the orchestra. I do it, but I
do it like a stentato [labored, sluggish],
so it doesn’t stop everything.
BD: Do you take the A-flat
at the end of Si vendetta?
PE: Oh yes, until the
harmony changes which is after the fifth bar. I can hold it until the
curtain comes on top of my head, but it would be musically very distasteful
and awful. So I cut it, even though other baritones sustain it now.
BD: Even though the audience
is going applaud and shout bravo?
PE: As a matter of fact,
the audience starts applauding before I cut the note! So, what’s the
point in sustaining it? [Laughs] It is the difference between
a person that knows music, and a person that has been taught music.
I have never coached with anybody. I have never studied with anybody
except my first teacher in Puerto Rico. I believe that this way I can
put my own personality into the portrayal of what I’m doing artistically
BD: You are here in Chicago
for Traviata. Do you ever
sing the cabaletta after Di Provenza?
PE: No, I think it’s
awful. It’s an anticlimax.
I’m a minority of one. Everybody else seems to hate it, but I enjoy
PE: The cabaletta is
not ugly because Verdi never wrote anything ugly. That would be an
insult to the integrity of him as a human being. There was nothing
ugly in Verdi’s music, but what happens with the cabaletta is that it’s an
anticlimax. It goes only to an F natural at the top, and that note
is repeated about six times. So by the end, when you sing the last
phrase, you have sung that note so many times, that unless you sing the first
one pianissimo and build it up until the last one, you let down the audience
after you have given them a magnificent Di Provenza.
BD: So, if they ask you
to sing it, you simply won’t sing it?
PE: No, I don’t sing
it. I’d rather not do it. After the aria, what else do you want?
BD: Doesn’t that spoil
the balance? The soprano gets an aria and cabaletta, the tenor gets
an aria and caballeta, then baritone gets just an aria.
PE: So, it’s an uplifting
cabaletta, but this [sings] ta-reeee-ta-reeee-ta-tee-ta-tee-ta-tee, it’s
just a little too quiet, and, as I said, it centers on that F and you repeat
that F so you’re not building any kind of climax. You’re just prolonging
something that you’re going to be hearing five or six times, and you cannot
sing it pianissimo because the cabaletta doesn’t ask for it. The words
don’t ask for it. It’s a pleading. It’s not like in Di Provenza when you say, “God
guided me, and you must come home with me.” Of
all Verdi’s cabalettas, it’s probably the only one that is not as popular,
because all the other cabalettas in all the other operas are magnificent.
* * *
BD: Do you like being
a Verdi baritone?
PE: I like being a baritone
BD: Did Verdi write especially
well for your voice?
PE: I consider myself a little more of a bel canto singer rather than verismo, even though I adore Andrea Chenier. That is one of
my favorite roles. In Verdi, I would say one of the roles that really
fits me the best is Renato in Ballo in
Maschera and Count Di Luna in Trovatore
because of the arias being such show pieces for bel canto singing. Amonasro in
Aïda is nothing, but I’m requested
to do it because I look good on stage with it. I did a very successful
performance in San Antonio with Nat Merrill, who is staging
the Meistersinger here in Chicago.
He requested me, and they paid my fees, so I did it. If they pay my
fee I’ll sing almost anything, but if I have a choice I would rather do the
Count di Luna.
BD: Let’s talk about
some of the roles you’ve recorded.
PE: El Pessebre was the first recording.
The second recording was L’Amore dei Tre
Re by Montemezzi, with Placido Domingo, Anna Moffo and Cesare Siepi,
and Nello Santi conducting the London Symphony. That’s on RCA.
There is also a pirate recording (which is magnificent) of La Favorita that I did in Carnegie Hall
with Alfredo Kraus, Shirley Verrett, and James Morris. It was the operatic
event of the year, and I am very pleased that somebody taped it because it
would have been a pity to miss that. Only two or three thousand people
got the privilege to hear it. It was an electric night.
BD: We’ve had Favorita here two or three times, all
with Kraus, and it’s just been magnificent.
PE: I hope I can sing
it if they bring it back again. That’s the problem when you sign yourself
so far in advance. You lose an opportunity. I was called by the
Chicago many times, and I could never do it. The only time I had a
chance to come here was an emergency to do two Rigolettos with Pavarotti [in 1979].
This contract [for Traviata] been
signed for five years!
BD: Are you under contract
now to come back again?
PE: We haven’t sat down
to talk about it but they want me back. There’s no question, and I’m
very pleased about it.
BD: You like singing
in this house even though it’s so big?
PE: Yes, yes.
BD: Is it too big?
PE: No, no, it’s wonderful.
It’s a wonderful feeling to sing here. This house, Carnegie Hall, and
some smaller places, are great. There is a magnificent opera house
in Columbus, Ohio, one of those old art deco places which is magnificent.
The symphony orchestra is using it now. I just sang two performances
of Barber of Seville in Columbus
a few months ago. And there’s another old theater, the Palace Theater,
which is very good with great acoustics.
BD: What make them so
good? Is it just the acoustics?
PE: It is because they
were built with wood. They were built the right way. I wish most
of these sound engineers would be musicians. In many cases they’re
not, and they make a hall in which the right part of the stage (off the orchestra
pit) is as live as the left, and it can’t be because the brass is going to
be on the right and the strings are going to be on the left, and you’re going
to have some percussion, as well. If you know that, then you balance
it in a way that you don’t get the bounce-off from the brass, which happens
at the Met. On the right-hand side of the Met, the orchestra sound
from the brass comes to you about two seconds after because it is playing
toward the left. It hits the side, goes around the theater and it comes
back to you from behind. Then you sing at the Chicago Lyric, which
was built long before the (new) Met, and you could hear a pin fall on the
floor. San Francisco also has very good acoustics.
BD: Have you sung in
the Colón at Buenos Aires? Everybody says that house has the
best acoustics in the world.
PE: No, not yet.
That’s the one I’m really looking forward to. I had to cancel last
year because the Met requested that I sing Manon Lescaut in the park, and it was
in my contract that I would be available for the tour. So I had to
cancel, to my sorrow, because I was looking forward to that.
BD: Tell me about your
role in L’Amore dei Tre Re.
Why do we not know that opera so much?
PE: It’s a magnificent
piece! The problem is that it requires four super singers.
BD: Avito’s the tenor...
PE: Yes, Avito’s the
tenor, Manfredo is my role, Fiora is the woman, and Archibaldo is the blind
bass. So it’s unlike Butterfly
where you can get away with a good Butterfly and a mediocre cast. In
L’Amore dei Tre Re, you can’t.
You need a magnificent bass because it’s high, it’s low, and it needs magnificent
acting. He’s a blind man, a blind king. Siepi did a magnificent
job in the recording except for the extreme top. His age was beginning
to take its toll, but the rest was magnificent. One of the very few
basses today that could do it, and has done it, is Jerome Hines because even
though he is very old, he still has a magnificent top. For
this opera you need a bass that has a good, low E flat, and very few have
them have that. It would be better if you have a very tall, imposing
figure and Jerome Hines is tall. After I recorded it, there
were four productions, and they all called me. But I couldn’t do it
because I was signed somewhere else. Providence, Rhode Island did it
with Anna Moffo; City Opera did it; Washington Opera did it, and Miami Opera
did it. They all called me and I couldn’t do any of them. All
of those productions, though, were failures except the one in Washington.
In Providence, Anna Moffo cancelled at the last moment. In City Opera,
the tenor, Jacque Trussell,
had a brain tumor just before the performance and they had to get another
tenor at the last moment that didn’t do a good job. The soprano was
also having vocal troubles. Then Washington did it with Hines, and
I hear it went very well. In Miami, I don’t know what problem they
had but it was also a disaster. But I would love to sing the role because
it’s a very difficult role. It’s a very high role.
BD: That holds no terrors
PE: No, of course not.
That’s why I like it because it lies in a place that my voice shines its
very best. I also interpolate it. I took the liberty of putting
an A flat at the end of the opera that is not written because it feels like
the composer would have written it if he would have felt that the singer
had it. Nello Santi agreed, so he allowed me to do it. It has
beautiful legato singing, heroic singing, but it’s always on the Gs and the
Fs and the F sharps. It’s a wonderful role, and it’s the only sympathetic
character in the opera. He’s so sweet. He’s so dumb in a way,
but it’s a role that I would love to play on the stage and I hope someday
to do it.
BD: We had it here in
the ‘30s with Mary Garden.
PE: I’m going to talk
to the Freemans. [Lee Freeman was
a Board Member of Lyric Opera of Chicago, and he and his wife Brena were
major contributors, including sponsorship of the Composer-in-Residence.]
They are very good friends of mine, and want to do something for me.
They have been asking me if I wanted something special here, and that would
be a good thing for Chicago because it’s an opera that people love when they
hear it. But until they know that it exists, the recording is not enough.
If you can get a good cast it would be magnificent because it’s an exciting
opera. It’s very well written. It dramatically works. It’s
just one of those works that nobody does. It was successful
in the ’20s and ’30s. When
the Met did it, it was a great piece for Ezio Pinza, so I don’t see any reason
why it shouldn’t come back, now.
BD: Are there some other
works that should be revived?
PE: I think L’Amico Fritz should be done more often.
I did the Rabbi in it, and I’m going to do Zazà, which has a wonderful baritone
BD: He’s got that big
aria which several of the old-timers recorded.
PE: Oh yes, and I hear
there are two other arias which are even bigger and more beautiful.
It’s like the tenor in Rigoletto.
He sings La donna è mobile,
and that’s the only one people seem to remember, but there are a couple more,
including Questa o quella and Ella mi fu rapita, but people know La donna è mobile and that became
the top ten hit.
What can the audience expect when they come to the opera house?
PE: When it
comes to singers, there’s a difference between a good artist and a great
artist. That’s why Kraus will survive two thousand years.
BD: We hope so!
PE: He knows what he’s
doing and he does it well. He doesn’t have any mannerisms. He’s
very, very secure of his technique. He doesn’t blink before a high
note, or getting panicky, or turn around and blow his nose. [Laughs]
It’s done like that! I’ve sung with all kinds of singers who do that,
and it’s unnecessary. I did Manon
Lescaut with Domingo and Scotto, and it was such a joy. Scotto
asked me if it was OK if she slapped me. In a duet with her brother,
she goes like this [light slap on his cheek]
and I said, of course it was OK. We were very good friends and did
things for each other in the production.
BD: [With a sly grin]
She didn’t haul off and slug you?
PE: [Laughs] No,
I said it’s just a wonderful idea! I saw what she was looking for,
and it is in the video.
BD: Does opera belong
PE: Oh, yes, because
we can reach people who would never be able to see us on stage.
BD: It’s not restricting
being on a little screen?
PE: It is, but it’s one
way of reaching more people, and anything we can do to reach more people
will be beneficial to the arts. If I wouldn’t have seen Showboat, if I wouldn’t have seen The Great Caruso, perhaps I wouldn’t
be here today.
BD: You’d be playing
PE: Yes, I would be playing
trumpet because there was no opera in those days in Puerto Rico. Those
films were the only way I could in get in touch with opera, and that’s what
triggered my curiosity. We have had opera every year in Puerto Rico
since the mid-’50s, and I was in the chorus, as was
bass Justino Diaz. We both came out of that. So perhaps if I
would have not been exposed before by those films, by the time the opera
came to Puerto Rico I would have already been a little too old and too burdened
with perhaps five kids and a couple of mortgages, and perhaps I would not
be here today! So I think that television is bringing opera to so many
corners of the world in which they will not ever have the opportunity to
come and see me at the Met or Carnegie Hall or any of the places I perform.
This way I can reach them and perhaps light the candle inside of them.
As a matter of fact, I have an opera company in Bozeman, Montana. I
live in Bozeman, up in the Rocky Mountains. My wife is from there,
and as soon as I moved there I decided to have an opera company there.
They have a symphony orchestra and they have a music school, and now we have
a very successful opera company. Each year we do two performances of
BD: Do you sing in the
PE: Yes. I take
about eight weeks every year that I do not sing, so during those eight weeks
I take about ten days for the opera, and it was incredible. We perform
in a little auditorium that seats only a thousand in the high school where
the famous actor Gary Cooper went to school. The first opera I did
there as a matter of fact, was Traviata,
and cowboys, farmers, doctors, lawyers, all kinds of people who live there
BD: Did they appreciate
PE: Oh, God, they did!
At the end of my aria, instead of bravos I hear a lot of, “Yahoo!”
[Laughs] It was wonderful, and for the last seven years we have been
performing to full houses. We are one of the very few companies in
the world in the black. Because what we have there is limited, whenever
I need a tenor or a soprano that we cannot supply there, I bring one of my
friends from New York. They come and stay as guests at my house, and
they sing for very little money. So, we’ve been able to keep money
in the bank. We give scholarships to the school, and sponsor some summer
programs for kids. We give back to the community.
* * *
BD: Another opera that
you recorded is Cavalleria Rusticana,
again with Domingo and Scotto...
PE: ...and maestro Levine. That was very difficult
because in this place where we record in England, the conductor is about
a mile away from us. We are on the stage, and the orchestra is where
the audience would be, and at the back of the audience, at the entrance of
the theater, is where the conductor is. So, you’re singing on the stage,
there is the London Symphony Orchestra between you and the conductor, and
it was very hard to sing on time. We recorded several times my aria,
Il cavallo scalpita, because for
some unexplainable reason, Mascagni wrote it in oddest tempo [sings to demonstrate]. So imagine
Levine way over there, and also the sound that you’re getting is late.
You see the beat going down, but the music is not getting to you. We
had to record about two or three times, but finally, we got it.
BD: Did you have a television
monitor to watch him?
PE: No, no. We’re
watching him across the whole place, but it’s easy to see. It’s just
at a distance, so it creates a tremendous burden. Also the orchestra
is projecting towards the doors, not projecting towards the stage.
All the musicians are facing away from us, so the sound we are getting is
being produced in front of us but it’s being bounced back from the back of
the hall to the stage after. So it was very difficult.
BD: It would be very
hard to coordinate.
PE: Exactly, especially
when you have loud passages because you just cannot feel the inner beat.
You stay within it, and with maestro Levine it’s a magnificent thing to sing.
He’s a wonderful conductor. Whenever a singer is having trouble, you
look at him and he’s smiling back at you. It’s just the most rewarding
BD: He’s a singers’ conductor!
PE: He’s a magnificent
man! I just love him very dearly and I can hardly wait to sing with
BD: Are there some conductors
that just ignore the singers?
PE: There are some conductors
that will kill you with their looks because you did a 16th note instead of
a 32nd note, or something like that. In my case that never happened
because I’m a very, very good musician and I stay with it to the point that
I have had conductors encourage me to take a little more liberty. Julius Rudel, in Puritani, told me to do rubato wherever I feel it. He said
he’ll follow me! Then I let my own artistry grow and it was wonderful.
I did that with Beverly Sills at the New York City Opera. There was
a radio broadcast...
BD: Are there more recordings
PE: There were three
more supposedly coming immediately after I recorded L’Amore dei Tre Re, but that was when
the recording industry went into a big slump. They had over-recorded
so much, and everything was cancelled. Now they’re only recording one
or two operas every year. I would like very much to record because
I think it’s the best way for me to reach many people that I will not reach
BD: You don’t find it
too sterile when they cut and piece everything?
PE: No, no. I think
it’s necessary. It has to be done. I prefer for them to tape
live performances like the Lucia
I did with Sutherland and Kraus which is on video disc. It’s magnificent
in both the sound and the color, and that was electric. That was unique.
BD: What would have happened
if that performance had fallen apart completely?
PE: They took two performances,
and if anything would have happened they would have used some of the other.
It is just like here when we did the radio broadcast of Traviata. They taped two.
The first one was broadcast live here to Chicago, and they taped another
one for the syndication just in case there’s some improvement from one to
the other. I felt better on the opening night than on the second one.
I was a little tired, so I expect my act, the second act, to be from the
opening performance. But perhaps Miss Malfitano would prefer the second
performance. The people at the radio station are intelligent enough
to hear any differences.
BD: Who makes those decisions
as to what goes into the version that is aired?
PE: The singers have
something to say, because, after all, we don’t do this for money. This
is for free, so we want the best part of our face to be shown and not the
bad part. Of course, there is also the technical aspect. If there
was a big hum or something like that, then, of course, it had to be gone,
but if they’re both good, then we get to choose what we want.
BD: Do you ever get rattled
on stage if a piece of scenery falls down or a stage hand is clomping in
PE: Things like that
happen and it’s very disturbing. I was doing The Barber of Seville with the Met on
tour in Cleveland, and there was a bat flying on the stage all night!
We thought it was a pigeon or a little bird or something, but when he flew
low and I saw those little horns, I knew it was a bat! The mezzo almost
just jumped off the stage and started running, but we had some fun with it.
The poor thing was just disoriented with so many people and so much sound.
I love animals. I don’t kill anything...
BD: Probably thought
the performance was Fledermaus.
PE: [Laughs] Yes!
We should have sung something from that operetta, but we just sang our parts,
and whenever the bat would cross we would stop. Then the bat would
just come back again, and in one case I put my cape and went, “Olé!”
as the bat just flew by. It was really a lot of fun because the opera
was a comedy and it was OK. But when I did Rigoletto in New Jersey, all of a sudden,
in the middle of the scene when I’m blindfolded and I’m supposed not to see
anything, boom! A big bright light comes on the stage, like they turned
on 500 watts of power. I’m supposed to say, “It’s
so dark here I can’t see,” and this bright
light was on the stage. I just let it go for a few seconds and after
that I just screamed, “Turn that damn light off!”
The guy backstage didn’t realize it. He was just pressing buttons.
Somebody had to notice that the whole stage was illuminated and it was supposed
to be dark! They came to me to apologize after, so I didn’t make a
fuss because I like to have friends and not enemies. But that was a
disturbing moment because you’re acting and have all this concentration.
They were taking my daughter in the darkness, and I had to do this under
a bright light.
BD: When you are on the
stage, do you become the character or are you portraying a character?
PE: I become the character.
Oh, yes, you have to. You have to believe it yourself in order for
the others to believe it. Otherwise, you’re a taught singer, a scholar,
an educated actor. I never studied acting in my entire life.
BD: So your motivation
doesn’t come from the mind it comes from the heart?
PE: It comes from the
heart. As a matter of fact, when I do Rigoletto, most of the time the
sopranos tell me to please move a little farther down at the end because
I cry so much the tears fall in their eyes and they burn. At the end
I get very emotionally carried away. I’m losing my daughter, and if
I’m on top of her, tears start dropping with make-up, and they burn.
It takes a great emotional toll.
BD: After the performance,
how long does it take to get back to being Pablo?
PE: Oh, at least three
to four hours. That’s why we don’t go to bed immediately. It’s
impossible. The amount of adrenaline that the body generates takes
hours to assimilate, especially if you’re successful as I have been.
So we go out, have a couple of drinks, have something to eat, and then by
3 o’clock we’re ready to go to sleep. Many times I tried to go to bed
because I had to leave the next day, and I didn’t sleep at all. So
I decided that if I have to travel, I’d rather leave immediately after the
performance or very late in the afternoon the next day, but not early in
the morning because I will not get any sleep at all.
BD: That’s something
you learn just by doing it.
PE: Exactly. But
other people are different. I think Scotto is one that finishes and
can go to sleep. I know Sutherland doesn’t. She goes home but
she doesn’t go to sleep. Even maestro Bartoletti goes home because
he has the heart condition, but he just drinks a little beer or eats something,
and he sits and reads a book but he doesn’t go to bed immediately.
He can’t do it. Some of us party, and some of us go home, but it’s
very difficult to go to bed immediately after a successful performance.
[Laughs] It would be easier if you were a failure.
BD: Then you’d be beating
yourself that it should have been better?
PE: Exactly. I
hope I never learn that.
* * *
BD: Should opera be done
PE: Never. The
comedies yes. Comedy should be in English because it loses a lot of
the funniness if you do it in the original language and the people do not
understand it. Subtitles are helping tremendously. [Remember, this conversation was held in 1985,
when supertitles in the theater were just getting started.]
BD: Have you been involved
with them when they’ve been in the theater?
PE: Yes! San Francisco
and now Columbus, Ohio for the Barber.
BD: We get them here
for Rondine later this year, and
then if they work they’ll be done more. [They were such a success that they are now used
for every production.]
PE: I think they do work. They just have to be done
tactfully, so there’s a phrase and you see the phrase, and then you can take
your eyes from it. In Columbus they did too much, had too much detail,
and sometimes you could be looking at the subtitles and forgetting about
the performance. I told them they don’t need to repeat the phrase.
You do it once, and then if the aria repeats the same phrase, don’t repeat
it again. Take it off so that people can watch the stage and enjoy
the music. Otherwise it’s the same phrase again and again. The
technique is still in its infancy, but it is a solution. Of course,
when you go to see La Traviata or
Rigoletto, you should at least read
the synopsis so that you know what you’re going to watch. But it helps
to know what they’re singing about, so the subtitles are fine. But
translating serious opera into any other language is just like translating
Shakespeare into Spanish or into any other language. The great master
is still there, but the beauty of the music of the words is lost. [Illustrates by speaking the text of Di
Provenza in Italian and then German]
Di Provenza il mar, il suol, chi dal cor
ti cancelo? becomes Sie die Sehnsucht
dich nicht mehr, keinen Reiz für deinen Sinn?
Come on! It loses all the beauty.
BD: Have you done some
opera in translation?
PE: Yes, I’ve done Traviata in German, and Don Pasquale in German. That was
really difficult when getting to the duet at the finale. These are
the things that you lose in English, which is probably the worst language
to sing because of the lack of purity in the vowels. You have so many
different colors. That makes it very difficult to sing. Besides,
when you sing it in English, half of the people don’t understand what you’re
BD: Is that your fault
or our fault?
PE: No, I think it’s
the fault of the singers. See, I have very good diction …extremely
good diction. I know that because people understand my mistakes.
I was in Indiana University for eight years teaching voice, and I performed
in the operas there. When I would mispronounce a word, they would say
so. That means I have good diction. Diction has to be measured
by the amount that the people can understand you, even when you make a mistake.
BD: What’s the role of
PE: Oh boy, that’s a
very difficult question to ask. A critic should be called a reporter
of the arts and not a critic, because who gave him the right to criticize
my artistry if he doesn’t know how to sing himself? How am I going
to criticize a writer if I don’t know how to write myself?
BD: Do they have too
PE: Yes. Fortunately,
once you reach a certain level of artistry and acknowledgement around the
world, it doesn’t matter what they say. It’s not important to me anymore,
but for a young artist it can be devastating. Instead of being constructive,
sometimes they get in the destructive side because they enjoy it more, or
it’s perhaps a little more sensational. They allow their personal feeling
to get in the way. If they don’t like the particular personality of
the individual, they won’t like his singing, and they should be objective.
They’re there to report to the audience that are not there what happened
that night, not to say it was a disaster when the people were standing on
their feet screaming bravo! Here in Chicago it is wonderful because
your two critics are sometimes completely opposite!
BD: Exactly! We
used to have four daily newspapers, and often I was wondering if they sat
in the same theater that same night!
PE: I have been fortunate
because some critics have noticed that particular extra that I have.
I have gotten wonderful reviews from Harold Schonberg in The New York Times, from Paul Hume in
the Washington Post, and from Martin
Bernheimer in the Los Angeles Times.
Then I have also gotten criticized... Stupidity is what makes me very
angry. When a piece is successful and the artist is successful and
the critic is completely negative, it is a disservice to what they are supposed
to be doing. They can say they did not like the interpretation or the
phrasing. That is his opinion, but to say the phrasing was wrong...
There is a difference, and that is what all critics do. They write
from a big pulpit. But there are some good critics. I’m not saying
that they are all bad critics, but the majority are a bunch of quacks.
I like to say that a critic is like a hunter. Even though he can kill
a bird, he will never fly like one. There I leave it, because I do
have respect for the man that has to put himself in that spot of being hated
by some people and loved by others. It’s better not to pay attention
to the critics, to be honest. The best practice for any singer is not
to pay attention. You can read them to see what the perception was
of what you did, but you should be your best judge. You should record
everything you do and listen to it immediately after the performance.
You should see what you felt that was good and how it projected. Perhaps
it didn’t project a certain point, and what you thought wasn’t too good might
have projected well. Make sure you have a wife or a friend in the audience
recording your performance.
BD: To have another set
You can learn so much by just listening to yourself, especially immediately
after the performance when everything is still very vivid. You know
how much you were sweating. You know if your costume was too tight.
You know if you took a bigger breath than usual when that particular phrase
happened. If you wait two or three weeks, you will forget all of that.
BD: Does it surprise
you sometimes that some things worked when you didn’t expect them to work
PE: I am always surprised
when I do not feel well and I have to sing with restriction that what came
to the audience was clean, even though I was having a rumbling in my chest.
On the stage the projection of the voice is a complete miracle. You’re
singing and you have a rough, constricted vocalization, and then you hear
the recording and you hear only the pure note. You don’t hear the rough,
scratchy vocalization because that doesn’t project. That doesn’t even
get to the first row. Then there are certain times when the voice is
not placed right, and it sounds terrible in the audience. Even though
it would sound clear to you on the stage, it’s not sounding clear there because
it’s not focused properly. I have been surprised at what I have been
able to hear from a recording of a performance in which I did not feel as
well. When I really don’t feel well, I cancel. I refuse to go
on the stage and defraud the audience. I’d rather cancel. Get
the cover and give the other kid a chance. But there are moments...
When I sang the four villains in The Tales
of Hoffmann with Placido Domingo in New Jersey, I got terribly sick.
I sang the Thursday rehearsal and Friday for the performance I had no voice.
I had an infection, but if I cancelled, they would have to cancel the performance
and lose a lot of money. So, I went to the doctor. I didn’t get
cortisone. The doctor was a singer in New York, too, and blessed be
his soul. I hope he lives for another hundred years. He knew
my technique and he got me some antibiotics and a couple of injections, but
no cortisone. He said I would be able to survive the performance if
I am careful, but at the end I won’t have any voice left. And that’s
exactly what happened. I sang it, and The New York Times review was excellent.
“It was so wonderful to hear a beautiful voice and
not a growly voice singing.”
BD: What does the cortisone
do? Does it dry you up?
PE: I don’t know
what cortisone does. I never use it. I think it prevents swelling.
When you have an infection, your vocal cords get swollen because they’re
infected, and the cortisone simply brings them back to normal. But
it’s an artificial way of doing that.
* * *
BD: Is there any competition
PE: Milnes and I are
very good friends, but I don’t have any competition because I’m a bel canto singer. Nucci’s not a
bel canto singer. I admire
Cappuccilli. His recording of Trovatore
is magnificent! It is, to me, one of the most wonderful, exquisite
things I’ve heard for many, many years.
BD: Are you happy with
PE: I wish I could do
them again because I’m older now. But yes, I’m happy. The sound
you’ll hear is a beautiful sound. It’s very well placed, all the high
notes came out beautifully, and the expression came out well. So I’m
pleased with them, but of course I wish I could do them again because you
grow every year, and you know that you can do things better.
BD: It’s good that you
continue to grow.
PE: Oh, yes. You
have to. If you are today the same as yesterday, you’re not living.
You have to know more today than yesterday and less than tomorrow.
BD: When you sing, do
you feel that you’re competing with recordings of you or of others?
PE: No, no. I do
everything that I feel on instinct. It would be very hypocritical to
say that I do not listen and learn, because you can learn from the good,
the bad, and the ugly. You can learn from a good singer, and also from
a bad singer. So I do listen a great deal. I read very little.
I’m learn by retention. I have almost a photographic memory, so when
I study something I can learn an opera in eight days or ten days if I have
to. I don’t do that too often, but once I did, and I regretted it because
it was too much. It was the Count in Marriage of Figaro. I thought it
would be a shorter piece, and it was so long! I finally got it learned
about two days before the dress rehearsal, but since then I have not done
that. I did learn L’Amore dei Tre
Re in about two weeks on my own because they called me at the last
moment. I think Milnes was supposed to do that recording and he cancelled
for some reason. Then they called me and that’s how I got the recording.
So I did that on my own for two weeks even though I don’t recommend it.
That’s why I would like to record it again because now that I have grown
more as an artist, and if I sing the role two or three or four times, there
are phrases I can do better. Even though what is there pleases me,
I know I can do better. It’s the search for perfection, and every day
trying to do better. I definitely do want to record more, but in order
to do that, I have to sing more in Europe. That’s one of the reasons
I told the Met no for at least two or three years. When they do a production
in Covent Garden, then they record it, and most of the singers live in Europe.
Domingo can be in Barcelona with his family, then fly in the morning to arrive
in London at 11, record from 2 to 4 in London, fly that same evening to Paris
and sing Otello that night, and
the next day be back to Barcelona for two days with his family because the
distances are so short. Here if I want to go from New York to my home
in Montana, it takes six hours to get there. So it’s important that
you sing in Europe, and I have been requested so many times. I’ve sung
in Paris, Hamburg, and Frankfurt, and they all have asked me back because
I had big success in Paris with Pagliacci,
but I had to say no because I was signed somewhere else. So they called
me two or three times, but after they call you three times they don’t call
again because they figure I’m busy, and I don’t want that to happen.
I want to be able to do more, to have more access to the European market.
BD: I hope you have lots
of success with that, and I hope you will give Chicago more time, too!
PE: I would love to come
back. I love this city. When I was in Indiana University, teaching
voice in Bloomington, this was my weekend place. I used to drive here
just to spend the weekends because I love the city. It’s so beautiful
even though it gets very cold. I’m accustomed to the cold... I live
in Montana! [Both laugh]
BD: Thank you so much
for the conversation.
PE: My pleasure.
--- --- --- --- ---
© 1985 Bruce Duffie
This conversation was recorded in Chicago on November 23, 1985.
Portions were broadcast on WNIB three weeks later, and again the following
year, and in 1987, and again in 1993 and 1998. This transcription was
made in 2017, 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.
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
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.