A Conversation with Faith Esham

By Bruce Duffie

This past season, Lyric Opera of Chicago presented Debussy's masterpiece Pelléas et Mélisande.  Jerry Hadley and Teresa Stratas were the title characters and Victor Braun was Golaud.  Dmitri Kavrakos was Arkel and Yvonne Minton was Geneviève, with James Conlon conducting the Frank Galati production.  When Ms. Stratas was unable to sing the first few performances, Chicago was fortunate to engage Faith Esham for the role.

Esham studied at Juilliard, was an apprentice at Santa Fe, and joined the New York City Opera in 1977 as a mezzo.  Soon, though, her rightful range was discovered, and now she sings roles in several languages in the higher repertoire.  Her European debut was in Nancy.  Indeed, the New Grove Dictionary of Opera says, "Her full, lyrical voice and vivid sympathetic acting have made her particularly successful in French opera."

Besides singing operas and concerts, her recordings include Susanna in Mozart's Marriage of Figaro (EMI), Micaéla in Carmen (Erato), and music of the American composer Richard Danielpour (Delos).

After Ms. Stratas returned to the production, Faith Esham remained in Chicago just in case she was needed later in the run.  During that time, I was able to arrange a conversation, so we met backstage between performances in one of the dressing rooms.  Here is much of that conversation.

Bruce Duffie: Tell me the secret of singing Mozart.

Faith Esham: The most fundamental thing of singing good Mozart is singing good legato, and that is also the most difficult thing, of course.  Mozart is always difficult, and I've done a lot of him, and a lot of French, some Italian, some German . . . . .

BD: Well, with all of those to choose from, how do you decide whether to accept or decline roles that are offered?

FE: That gets into knowing what sounds best in your voice.  For instance, I've done both Cherubino and Susanna a lot, so selecting or deciding depends on the taste of the conductor and the color of sound they're looking for in the parts.  I did Dorabella when I was in school.

BD: We think of her as being a much lower part.

FE: But Mozart called for two sopranos.  I haven't done her since Juilliard days, but it has to do with knowing where the roles lie.  I would never do the Queen of the Night even though I have the high F in my range.  I'm not the right timbre, but this is getting pretty technical.

BD: But your decisions about being a singer and handling the career are based on these necessities.

FE: Right, but I like to respond to the music itself.  Aside from the text, ‘does the music itself move me' is on my list of whether I want to do a role or not.  I've done Zerlina a lot, but I identify with Donna Elvira and want to do her eventually.  This is not the text, but I identify with her music.  It brings out a fire and passion that I love to perform.  Then, I do ask myself how I respond to the character and the dramatic demands.  Elvira is a good case in point because it demands a lot of fire and compassion.  She's certainly the most interesting woman in Don Giovanni.  But those are the two increments of decision - the musical and then the dramatic.

BD Are there lots of offers to which you say you will wait a few years before tackling the part?

FE: Oh sure.  I was offered Butterfly twice, and it's a role that has always appealed to me both dramatically and musically.  But when the two offers came in, I was restudying and rethinking my vocal technique, so it was a very bad time to take on a role as vocally demanding as Butterfly.  She has so much emotion, that unless the vocal technique is absolutely rock solid, you can do terrific damage to yourself.  I hope to perform her someday, but it wasn't appropriate two years ago.  You have to look at where you are as a musical being.  A role I'd like to try right now is Traviata.  I've never done her and I think it would be very healthy for me vocally.  It demands a rangy voice which I have.  I have a low and a good strong middle, and a high extension, so I think it would suit me well.

BD: So do you let your agent know so he can work toward that?

FE: I've got him on a hunt.

BD: So if one comes up, do you automatically accept, or do you look at the other circumstances?

FE: I'd look at the whole picture.  I had one offered but it was small pay and a short rehearsal period.  I knew that a week and a half of rehearsal was not enough for my first Traviata.  But I finally said no because it was to be done in English rather than Italian.  It's harder to work it into the voice in English, and I didn't want to take the time.

BD: If you had been doing the role for awhile, might you have accepted it?

FE: Probably not.  The English bothers me.  To set it in your voice in English is very difficult.

BD: You don't feel the closer communication with the audience makes up for the extra work?

FE: That is very important to me.  I want the audience to experience what I'm experiencing in the moment, but I think it can be done with the supertitles.  I needed to think of what I needed vocally, and the Italian suited my voice so much better.  That's what made the decision for me.

BD: Your Italian is excellent, as is your French in this Pelléas.

FE: It's a tricky language.  Making the nasal sounds dampens the soft palette, which is one of the things we try to keep up in order to have height in the sound.  Speaking a language well doesn't guarantee that you'll sing it well.  You often carry with it the adversities of the language, and because of that there are very few really good French singers.  The language itself makes it difficult to sing beautifully when you speak it natively.  I think it's better to study it extensively and make it your own, but not grow up with it first.  Régine Crespin is one of the few native French who make it sound wonderful.

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BD: You've mentioned doing a number of Mozart roles.  Is it difficult doing different parts in the same opera?

FE: (laughing) Only when you have a duet together!

BD: Do you find yourself slipping into the other musical line?

FE: That's exactly what I did with Susanna and Cherubino in their second act duet.  You have to be very careful.

BD: The music is close, but do you have trouble with the texts?

FE: Not really because you are thinking that character and her text.  The trick at any moment is to keep your concentration.  The problem is the music because you hear both even when you are singing.  In Pelléas, for example, I know the other parts very well, and when a line comes up, I have to think whether it's for Pelléas or for Mélisande.  Who sings it?  But if you're concentrating on the text, there is no confusion.  Any problems, though, usually come up in rehearsals and not in the performances.

BD: Some of this involved characterization.  How long does it take you, after arriving at the theater, to become the character of the evening?  When the makeup goes on, or the costume, or when you walk on the stage, or are you the character during the whole period of rehearsals and performances?

FE: That's an interesting question.  It can vary with the role and your identification with it.  I remember when I did Carlisle Floyd's Susannah at the New York City Opera, it was an opera that had a lot of deep meaning to me.  It is set in the hills of Eastern Tennessee and I'm from Northern Kentucky, so I understand the milieu of what that society is like and their values.  So that opera felt like coming home for me in many ways.  But the point is that I carried that role with me when I came to the theater.  It was with me when I was coaching it with my voice teacher.  I was there.  It wasn't something I had to put on and take off.  When I was first learning Manon of Massenet, I really didn't like her.  I chose to distance myself from her choices both morally and ethically.  I thought she was such a cad of a person, yet it turned out to be one of my best roles because I had this inner battle with her and had to keep trying to find out what it was about her that I could empathize with, if anything!

BD: Did you, then, make Manon yours, or did Manon make you hers?

FE: Both, I think.  What I found in her that I really liked was her survival, her need to survive, which in the 17th or 18th century was the only thing she could depend on.  She had to survive some way.  I was looking at the surface and wondering why she sacrificed love and everything that I value.  It was because she wanted to survive, and the only way she could to that was to get a better position all the time.  But in the end, she loses her life and her soul as a result of chasing this ethic.

BD: You say she wants to survive, but on a certain level.  She could have survived on a much lower level without sacrificing so much, could she not?

FE: Coupled with her need to survive was her enormous and overriding fear of poverty.  She could not stand the thought of going back to the poverty she experienced as a child.  So getting back to your question about becoming the character, when I've done a role a lot, I don't have to think about it as much.  It becomes part of my being.  If you've done a number of productions, for instance, you have so much more to draw on - different points of view, different people you've played off of - so that when you walk on that stage, you can think in the moment, "Here I am in this place," wherever it happens to be.  I've walked offstage from a very intense moment and done something totally silly with the person standing there, and then walk back on and I'm back into that intense scene.  If you've had a long rehearsal period, there can be an on/off switch that you can use and be right back into the character.

BD: So are you portraying the character, or do you really become her?

FE: (pondering a moment) Again, that is another interesting question.  In opera, we don't have the luxury of time that an actor in a straight theatrical production has.  We always have the beat, the ever-present rhythm going on, so we cannot take eight or ten seconds if it's written to be two beats.  There may be a quarter-note or half-note rest, but that's it.  We always have that parameter and we have to watch the conductor, plus be aware of our colleagues onstage and the props and our own costumes.  All kinds of mistakes and foul-ups can happen and you still have to sing in the correct pitch and rhythm, and you ask if I become the character!  There are always six or seven things I'm thinking about and watching for.  I was doing Bohème and the tenor got his jacket caught on the chair.  He didn't notice and he was pulling the chair and that pulled something off the table, so it's very complicated.  I try very hard because I want to become that character and not put it on from the outside.

BD: So wouldn't your character help the tenor-character by moving the jacket away from the danger?

FE: That would depend on the moment.  Some characters would not do that and others would.

BD: Mimì would and Manon would not?

FE: Probably so.  (Laughter)

BD: Is there a point at which it all becomes too complicated?

FE: It never becomes too complicated.  It's always a fascinating journey to explore.  There is so much in music that feeds me and I hope feeds the audience.  There is so much in the drama that is endlessly fascinating.  You can look at a line and read it four or five different ways at least.  Depending on the role or the play or the book, there may be even more choices than that.  There are so many layers.  We have explored that in doing Pelléas et Mélisande.  There is an endless variety of ways to explore what Maeterlinck meant, and then a variety in the way Debussy set each line.  But that's also true of Mimì or Manon or Traviata.  I've done Marriage of Figaro well over one hundred times and have never found it to be a dull experience.  There's always something new.  It might be a new director or a different conductor.  They bring a new music thought to explore or a new dramatic moment to find.  Then the new colleagues bring a whole different panoply of experiences.  I cannot imagine coming in, as some singers do, and saying, "This is the way I do this role.  This is my version, so fit me into your production."  I want to be open to new ideas.  I have given my thought to how a character reacts in a situation and what the music demands of me, but I like to explore.

BD: Are there times when a stage director crosses the line and goes too far?

FE: Oh we all do, and I think that's part of the wonderful journey of trying to find the truth of the moment or the scene.  We need to be open and try new ideas to see which ones succeed and which don't.  No director wants to use ideas that aren't good, but why not try and see how to make the moment work.

BD: In this Pelléas, for instance, many people violently objected to Mélisande being raped.

FE: That was not the intention.  She is beaten and abused, but not raped.  He is mocking her, but it's not an actual rape.  He is mocking what has been in their marriage and what it has now become.  For me, that's one of the most heartbreaking moments in the opera because Golaud, who has adored and treasured this woman, finally has come to this point in himself.  From her point of view, it's heartrending.  Here is a man she loves and cares about, but is also terribly distanced from by many things.

BD: Why could she never open up to Golaud in any way, much less the way she opens up to Pelléas?

FE: Golaud is someone who wants life as he wants it, or as he would say, "As it is."  That is as it is for him.  I think with Pelléas, she finds another personality with whom she can just explore or not explore as the moment demands.  Golaud is trying to constantly put her in a framework and narrow the parameters.  She is not always looking for answers.  She doesn't always give them.  I think she cares for Golaud very much, particularly in this production.  Victor Braun plays Golaud with such sympathy and such warmth, yet at the same time strength and harshness and brutalness.  There are many wonderful aspects to his characterization, and when you see another artist bringing so much to this part, you ask yourself what it means to be Mélisande.  I find myself reacting to this artist in such a warm way.  Certainly my Mélisande must react to this man, yet what is it that keeps me from him?  He's always telling her to grow up and not be a child.  In other words, get with the program and don't go off on your tangent.  Just because you like having a good time by a fountain, or like to explore other facets of life, you have to stay where we are and accept your responsibilities and be dutiful and do these things all in the scheme of time.

BD: Could she not figure out how to do what he wants and still be her own woman?

FE: Obviously she didn't.  One of our goals in this production was to find modern day associations, and I think there are many people, if they are honest with themselves, who can admit to loving two people at the same time.  It's a very difficult position, and where do you choose?  How do you go with that?  Do you choose your responsibilities?  Do you choose the one that seems to be the more honest or natural soul-mate?  Pelléas and Mélisande try to put off the decision as long as possible.  When she first meets Pelléas, she's not pregnant.  At the end of the opera, she's given birth to a child, so it takes that amount of time.

BD: Who's child is it?

FE: That's for you to decide.  I don't' think it's been answered. My own feeling is that it definitely is Golaud's child.  I think there is a deep love for Pelléas, but it doesn't matter if, in fact, they have consummated their relationship.  I don't believe that they have.

BD: If he had not been murdered, and she had not died, might they have in the sixth or seventh act?

FE: So many things lead us to the inevitable, that I don't know if we can even speculate because Maeterlinck takes us to the point of no return.  There is no future for them.

BD: OK, let's look at the other end of the play.  Where has Mélisande been when Golaud finds her at the beginning?

FE: We know she's been abused.  Wherever she's come from she certainly does not want to return.

BD: Does she want to go forward?

FE: At that moment, she wants to stay in what she knows is safe, and what she knows is safe at that moment.  In fact, Mélisande is pretty much that way throughout the opera.  She stays in her present, like a little animal who only chooses for the moment.  She doesn't think about the future consequences of her behavior.  That's not from childishness.  She is young, but she's not a child because she understands other human beings.  She is a child in that she wants to be in the moment and be safe and secure there.  But as to where she's come from, you probably know that another of Maeterlinck's plays is Ariadne and Bluebeard.  It was written after Pelléas, but one of Bluebeard's wives is named Mélisande.  So, one can speculate that Maeterlinck did, in fact, have this in mind.  He invented the names ‘Mélisande' and ‘Pelléas.'  But she did come from a frightening and abusive relationship and does not want to return to it.  That is what is important to understand.  Unfortunately, she goes from one closed relationship to another, and even though Golaud wants to give her the best, it's a relationship filled with obligations and restrictions.  It's not open and free for her spirit to grow.

BD: Is a woman's freedom and growth even possible in that time period and in that kind of society?  Does Golaud deserve all the blame, or is it largely just the times and their situation?

FE: That's one of the reasons we have set this production in the late 19th or even early 20th century, to give the feeling of the bourgeois values and sense of being confined by the restrictions.  The Victorian look can give some of that staid, confined value-system where expectations were very high.

BD: Do you like Mélisande?

FE: She's a difficult girl, however I have learned to love her a lot.  She has some qualities I don't like.  I don't like the way she runs from her feelings all the time.  She runs from everything.

BD: Is she looking for the easy way out?

FE: She's looking for the connection and she doesn't know what it is.  She's very confused.  She knows it when she feels it, and she feels it with Pelléas.  She's a woman of instinct, not a woman who thinks through everything and understands what is going on.  That's why she just feels comfortable with Pelléas even the first time they meet.  He's happy and brings a calm and relaxation to her.

BD: Would the opera have had a happy ending if she'd been found by Pelléas rather than by Golaud?

FE: It would have ended a lot differently.  Pelléas doesn't seem to make too many definite choices until the end.  Even then, he says he's just going to her to say goodbye and burn her image into his memory because he's going to leave.  He says this at the end of the opera and she knows that they are inevitably together.  That's why I said she's not a child.  She understands very well human relationships, and she understands the one between her and Pelléas much before he does.

BD: When did you first do this role?

FE: I first did her onstage in 1983 in Switzerland, and then a concert version in Canada in 1988.

BD: Are you looking forward to coming back to her?

FE: I would love to do her again as soon as possible.  I'm excited that there are so many productions being done now in the U.S. and around the world.  Seattle, Dallas, Toronto, Covent Garden, and I think the Met are all reviving this work.

BD: There is also a new recording.  Speaking of which, you're in a couple of complete opera sets.  Do you change your technique at all from the stage to the recording studio?

FE: One should not because the engineers will make any accommodations for us.  You can make more intimate uses of words and use the soft sounds differently.  But the strong sounds should be produced the same.  In the Carmen, we did the soundtrack before we made the film, and there were times when we wanted to do things just a shade differently when we got to the set.  But when the microphone is just an inch from your mouth, you can do things in a much more intimate way than you would if you were singing out or declaiming the text.  There can be many more subtleties.

BD: Do you like making records?

FE: It's not easy, so it's not at the top of my list.  It takes so much concentration on every ‘take' and a lot of physical work.  Every ‘take' has to be pretty much perfect.

BD: Coming back to live performances, do you adjust your vocal technique for the size of the house?

FE: There's a danger and one is tempted to do that when you get into a different acoustical situation.  For instance, you rehearse in a small room and you want to rely on the feedback you get there.  This is dangerous because your voice carries.  You have to sing by the feel rather than by what you hear.  When the curtains part and you see the hall and there are 4000 people, you think, "My stars, all those people."  It's very tempting to push.  However, the acoustic can be kind and actually help.  The acoustics at the Met and here in Chicago are great.  I enjoy singing in this hall.  There's a wonderful, immediate feeling.  You don't have to push at all.

BD: I assume there can be small halls that are terrible.

FE: Oh sure.  There are some small ones that you get no feedback at all.  You feel like you're singing into a mud bank.

BD: Do you give recitals, also?

FE: I love to give recitals.

BD: How do you divide your career, then, between operas and concerts?

FE: You make it sound like it's so planned!  If I get an offer to do a recital, I jump at the chance.  I'm known more as an opera singer, but I have loved giving recitals for a long time.  They're different and very difficult to do.  I don't sing arias, but rather I explore the song repertoire.

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©Bruce Duffie
Published in The Massenet Newsletter  in July of 1993, which turned out to be the final issue of the publication.  Photos added for this website posting in March, 2002.

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