Baritone  Pablo  Elvira

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


Pablo Elvira, 62, Baritone Known To New York Opera Audiences

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.

elvira 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 of 3,000.

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 Graham/Wendy White, 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 every day.

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.

PE:   Absolutely!

elvira 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 time.

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 timemyself and Francisco Araiza.  It’s a different thing when the people that are actually hurt are the ones that are putting the concert together.

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?

PE:   Absolutely.  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.

*     *     *     *     *

elvira BD:   Let’s move to something more pleasant, and talk about your art, about music, and Pablo Casals.  You sang El Pessebre at Ravinia?

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 of all.

BD:   It’s a Christmas story?

PE:   Oh, yes.  It’s a story of Christ and the three kings, and the gifts and the animals in the stable.


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?

elvira 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 countriesand you start just giving opportunity only to the local people, and refuse to bring the great artists from the outsidethinking that yours are as good as any otherswhat 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, Krzysztof Penderecki, 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 Casals.

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?

elvira 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 (and Plishka) [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, isn’t it?

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.

elvira 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 his privilege.

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 and musically.

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. 

BD:   [Disappointedly]  I’m a minority of one.  Everybody else seems to hate it, but I enjoy it!

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 very much. 

BD:   Did Verdi write especially well for your voice?

elvira 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.


Also, see my interview with Anna Moffo

BD:   That holds no terrors for you?

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 part.

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. 

elvira BD:   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!  [Both laugh]

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 on television?

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 trumpet someplace?

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 one production.

BD:   Do you sing in the production?

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 came.

BD:   Did they appreciate it?

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...

elvira 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 experience.

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 him again.

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 coming?

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 in person.

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 the wings?

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 in translation?

PE:   No.

BD:   Never???

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.]

elvira 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 GermanDi 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 singing about.

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 the critic?

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 much power?

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 of ears?

PE:   Absolutely.  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 so well?

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 amongst baritones?

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 your recordings?

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.

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© 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.

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.