Soprano / Mezzo - Soprano  Felicity  Palmer

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie



Dame Felicity Palmer has had a career spanning some four decades, firstly as a concert soprano and, during the 1980s, as an operatic mezzo-soprano. Her early work included a wide variety of repertoire, from baroque music with Sir Roger Norrington, Sir John Eliot Gardiner and concerts and recordings with Nikolaus Harnoncourt, to contemporary works with the London Sinfonietta and David Atherton and work with Pierre Boulez, with whom she recorded and toured Messiaen’s Poèmes pour Mi with the BBC Symphony Orchestra. She met the composer when she later performed the same work with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Zubin Mehta.

During her soprano years she made a tour of Australia for the ABC and worked, among others, with Sir Simon Rattle, Sir Colin Davis, Rozhdestvensky (Shostakovich Symphony No.14, and The Trojans at the BBC Proms), Raymond Leppard (recording of Messiah), Sir Charles Mackerras (recording of Judas Maccabaeus for DGG, concert performances and the BBC Proms) as well as concerts with all the major London orchestras, the New York Philharmonic and the LA Philharmonic.

Recital work formed a key part of those years: with Geoffrey Parsons, Graham Johnson and the Songmaker’s Almanac, Roger Vignoles, Malcolm Martineau, Julius Drake and a great deal with John Constable, who, after a Queen Elizabeth Hall concert early on, played for three French song records for Argo Records and two Victorian ballads.

Becoming a mezzo-soprano led to operatic engagements, which soon included regular appearances at Glyndebourne, the Royal Opera House (including Sweeney Todd and Elektra), her debut at the Metropolitan Opera, New York, in Wagner’s Ring Cycle with James Levine and many subsequent appearances; Das Rheingold and Die Walküre in Munich with Mehta, Dialogues des Carmélites with Riccardo Muti at La Scala and with Michel Plasson in Zurich and Toulouse, as well as work in Amsterdam, Chicago [details in the box below], San Francisco, Paris and English National Opera in London.

Dame Felicity has recorded Klytemnestra in Elektra with the WDR Symphony Orchestra Cologne and Semyon Bychkov, and recently, two concerts of the same opera were recorded for the London Symphony Orchestra label with Valery Gergiev at the helm. [She is shown in the photo below in a performance with the BBC Symphony Orchestra at the Proms in 2014, with Christine Goerke as Elektra, led by Bychkov.]  There is also a recording of Dialogues des Carmélites with ENO and Paul Daniel.


Dame Felicity’s recent engagements include Klytemnestra in Elektra with Bychkov at the BBC Proms, Geneviève in Pelléas et Mélisande with the Philharmonia Orchestra and Esa-Pekka Salonen, a return to English National Opera for The Countess in The Queen of Spades, Mrs. Sedley in Peter Grimes for Zurich Opera, English National Opera and with the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia conducted by Antonio Pappano, Dialogues des Carmélites at the Metropolitan Opera and at the Bayerische Staatsoper, and Mrs. Peachum in The Threepenny Opera with the London Philharmonic Orchestra under the baton of Vladimir Jurowski. 

She was made a CBE in 1993 and a Dame of the British Empire in 2011.

==  Names which are links in this box and below refer to my interviews elsewhere on my website.  BD  


See my interviews with Yvonne Minton, and John Tomlinson

Having played some of her recordings on WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago, the name Felicity Palmer was known to me.  So, when she first came to Lyric Opera of Chicago in the fall of 1986 for Katya Kabanova (sung in English), I requested an interview, to which she graciously consented.  We met during the rehearsal period, before the first performance.  The full details of this, and her subsequent engagements at Lyric, are in a box farther down on this webpage.

Our encounter was wide-ranging in its content, and filled with both serious discussion and raucous laughter.  Palmer was firm in her convictions, yet open to new ideas.  This is one of the marks of a true artist.  Incidentally, it would be exactly one year later (to the very day) that I would interview another fine British singer named Felicity, who would also be made a Dame, Felicity Lott.

When a meeting is at the apartment of my guest, I am often offered some kind of refreshment, either a light snack or some  kind of drink.  Despite my re-assurances in this case, Miss Palmer was just a bit embarrassed. . . .

palmer Felicity Palmer:   I can’t even offer you a biscuit, what you call a cookie.  I’m sorry.  I’m trying to avoid the temptation of having biscuits or anything, so I have nothing here except cottage cheese to offer you.

Bruce Duffie:   It’s quite all right.  [Patting his paunch]  Falstaff here is prone to gluttony, I’m afraid.

FP:   Ditto, ditto.  [Both laugh]  I don’t know how anybody’s slim in America!   I’ve seen Mrs. Field’s Cookies on every corner, so it’s disaster.

BD:   We used to have our studio just off of Rush Street [a very trendy-area on the Near-North side of Chicago, just west of the Magnificent Mile of Michigan Avenue], and when the Mrs. Field’s opened up about two blocks away, we could smell the cookies in the studio, and we were all going out of our minds.

FP:   They’re wonderful.

BD:   There was a pizza place there, too, and it was close enough order the pizza, then pick my time carefully, and duck out to grab the pizza and bring it back to the studio.  I’m afraid I enlarged.  [Much laughter]

FP:   Fair enough!

BD:   [Coming around to the subject at hand]  Tell me the secret of singing baroque music.

FP:   Oh, well, I don’t know about the secret of singing it.  I used to be a baroque specialist, but I’ve done really very little of late.

BD:   By choice?

FP:   Yes, I’d had enough of it.  I was involved in the baroque explosion, as it were, in the
60s and ’70 when I first started, and the answer to your question is that there were then people like John Eliot Gardiner and Roger Norrington in London.  Anything I do know about that style I learned from them, and I don’t think one could have had better teachers.  I enjoyed it enormously.  I parted company with the baroque system, as it were, when my voice dictated that I probably should, and also when the so-called ‘authentic’ sound came in.  I can understand the reasons for it, but I find the sound a little emaciated and bit a frustrating to listen to, except in the hands of people like John Eliot Gardiner or Nikolaus Harnoncourt, say.  I’ve done quite a lot with him, and that’s marvelous because the instruments are, in the main, original instruments, or they’re very well-made reproductions.  But this business of playing on modern instruments with baroque bows, and vice-versa, is doubtful, and I’m not at all sure that the kind of laser beam sound that singers are therefore expected to make is all that healthy.  I certainly don’t go along with that.  So, I do get asked to do some baroque music in terms of Handel and that kind of thing, but on the whole I do almost no baroque music out of choice now.

BD:   Do you miss it at all?

FP:   Yes, I do.  The style is still there, and I did the Monteverdi Vespers for a record with Harnoncourt in Austria.  It was really rather smashing to get back to that, and he doesn’t insist on this Christopher Hogwood sort of very straight non-vibrato sound.  He’s quite into using singers who sing, and there are arguments for and against that, of course.  But I loved it, and I would hate not to hear
Handel, and what we call in England ‘Stone-Age music’, with crumhorns and the sort of David Munrow stuff.  But I did very little of that, and I left that behind a long time ago.

BD:   So you don’t like the old instruments?

FP:   They can sound marvelous in the hands of Trevor Pinnock, for instance.  I was persuaded to do a Promenade concert with him.  I’d not worked with him before, and he is very open-minded, and isn’t dogmatic about making this terribly straight boyish sound if you’re female.  I found that very stimulating, but I find it lacking in passion, which I’m sure those men weren’t.  Bach straightened it out.  Though it’s instrumental, it
s very passionate, and could be treated as such.  But it often comes out as rather clinical and cold in sound, and I find that frustrating.  I describe it as a laser beam, this relentless sound, and it’s either that, or it goes a bit like a toothpaste tube, which I also find irritating because of the bows, and the fact that the sound was rather swaying up and down, in and out.  I find that ghastly when we’ve spent our lives trying to get a line.  I find it lacks line, or it’s a line that’s broken up, which is frustrating.

BD:   So, we’ve gone too far in looking for authenticity?

FP:   In a way that
s my argument.  It may sound sour grapes, though I don’t think it is.  If only these men were alive today, and could see the halls in which we are performing things now.  On one hand, the instruments had got as far as they were able to get at that stage.  One has no idea actually what the singers did.  I can’t believe that they necessarily straightened out their voices.  They were, after all, designed to be performed in fairly small halls and often drawing rooms.  Now if you put a Handel or a Bach performance into, say, the Albert Hall that seats 7,000, or any of your major halls, I can’t believe that Bach or Handel or any of the other ones would, with the possibilities of modern instruments and the size of the halls, not be rather grateful for a luscious sort of performance.

palmer BD:   Do you think they would have jumped at the chance of amplification?

FP:   [Laughs]  I don’t know about that.  I’m not at all convinced about that, but that’s another subject all together.

BD:   I do want to talk a bit about baroque music, but of course I want to talk about contemporary music too.  I don’t want you to think that I’m getting stuck on baroque.

FP:   No, no, no, it’s very valid because I’ve done a lot.  I agree.

BD:   Are you pleased with the recordings that you have made of the baroque repertoire?

FP:   Some, yes.  I’ve very pleased with the Harnoncourt ones.  Oddly enough, one has some reservations about all that, but it’s very difficult to talk about one’s own recordings anyway.  On the whole, once they’re made the dye is cast, and beyond playing them to see what the final thing sounds like, there’s this terrible business of what state you’re in the day you record.  Then, if you’re lucky, listening to the master-tape may be a pleasant surprise, and then, not unknown in compact discs, something drastic happens between the master tape and the pressing.  Very often the pressing bears no relation to what you heard on the master tape in my experience.  You’re sent the record, or you buy the record, and you play it, and you think,
Oh, no!  Then you never play it again, unless it happens to be staggeringly good, or you suddenly want to remind yourself of how something went.  There are quite a lot of things I have to admit I haven’t heard.

BD:   Are you surprised, then, when the public comes to you and says,
Oh, I loved your recording of this and that?

FP:   Oh, yes!  You actually find yourself saying,
Well, I haven’t ever played the record!  [Both laugh]  I don’t think I’m alone in that.  Or, you play a few bars and you dislike it so much that you never play it again.

BD:   Do you like the business of recording?

FP:   Yes, oddly enough.  It’s a hideous lesson in what you have not improved on, or achieved, but what the public never understands
and what it takes one some years of recording to getis that unless you’re in the Domingo-Pavarotti league you’re at the mercy of the state you’re in on the day you record.  Therefore, it is only a record of that day, unless you have clout and can say put a few B flats in the bag when you are in fantastic voice.  That’s giving some of the game away, but the fact is that for most of us, if it’s a golden day and we’re in wonderful voice and everything going terrifically and you’ve rehearsed, then it’s marvelous.  But if you’re miked up on a day when things are really very hard work, and technical things go wrong, and the orchestra’s a bit bolshie, then...  [Sighs]

BD:   Yet you have the advantage of being able to cut and piece things together.

FP:   Yes, but in itself there’s a danger in that.  I know you can do that, and of course that’s wonderful.  For instance, when you have a Handel run that ideally should musically be in one breath, you can, of course, piece that together.  But then you are fooling the public, and they’re a bit surprised if you then do a performance and you don’t do the run in one breath.  Also, you tend sometimes to lose the performance thing of doing it.  Without technical expertise it should be as good as you can make it, and therefore I’m all for popping in certain things if that’s going to help.  But sometimes it’s extremely misleading to the public.  You can patch to such an extent that it ceases to be a performance of the music, or an honest performance of what that particular artist can do.

BD:   It’s a kind of fraud?

FP:   Yes, in certain cases, because one knows how they can track in certain things.  If you’re well-in with the particular recording company, there is this business of coming in on another day and just popping in a certain note
as we know has happenedor if one has not been able to do a certain thing, somebody else been brought in to record one note that will complete the recording.  That also has happened, and that is a fraud.

BD:   Do you feel that you’re competing against your recordings when you perform the work live in the theater?

FP:   No, I don’t think so, because on the whole I like to get a feeling of performance in the recording.  There have been exceptions, but one wants to make it a performance.  Most of us would always prefer the live chance of getting audience reaction, and having that wonderful contact with the public that you’ll never get on a recording.  That’s my personal feeling! 

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   I want to ask you specifically about a couple of the recordings.  You made the Lully Alceste.  Are you pleased with that one?

palmer FP:   I’ve never played it, but it’s wonderful music.

BD:   Is there a major difference between the French style, and the English style, and the German style of the same period?

FP:   Yes, there probably is.  That’s difficult to say, but the French language dictates an awful lot of it.  That’s a difficult question, though.  When you talk about Rameau, for instance, there are certain musical things that have to be observed which are peculiar to him, as opposed to Lully or anybody else.  When you come against the bar of 2/2, the speed is doubled automatically, so that’s something that has been already done.  But the French language dictates a certain legato style in any period of its music
which people don’t always realizeand it’s a difficult language to sing.  In the Germanic style of Schütz and Telemann is rather four-squared, and Purcell and earlier are more akin to that than the French stuff.  But yes, without question, there are differences, but it’s a very infinitesimal thing in certain instances.  One would approach each of them slightly differently.

BD:   So, that causes your approach to be different so that the whole thing then becomes specifically colored?

FP:   Yes.  I’m a great believer that languages do, without question, dictate certain things, whether it’s Baroque or Nineteenth Century, or Contemporary.  They affect very much the way you sing things, and there’s a definite national style about all of them.

BD:   Do you work very hard at your diction?

FP:   I try to because I respect the languages.  Each one presents its own problems and has its own wonderful colors.  The problems come when you’re singing in a language which you really don’t speak, and which could be sort of mumbo-jumbo.  Then it’s very difficult.  In most of the European languages one has enough of an inkling of them to know how to color certain words.  When you’re dealing with something like Russian
which I adore singing in, and which I’m beginning to understand a bitI don’t speak it, and therefore you have no idea how a native would color a certain word, except to go to a native and find out.  But I find that a curious underwater feeling to be singing in a language where I’m not in control of what I color, as it were.  It’s really difficult.  [Laughs]

BD:   You’ve sung at English National Opera where everything is done in translation.  Do you believe in opera in translation?

FP:   Yes, in many respects.  I remember talking to a throat doctor who’d done great research which was very interesting, in how much the public gleaned of words, whether it was in translation or not.  It came out against doing things in translation.

BD:   Oh, dear!

FP:   That’s in my own experience as a layman of going to, say, Wagner
which is a massive thing to go to unless you’re a Wagner expert, and know the operas intimately, which I didn’t at the time.  I found that when they did the Ring in English at English National Opera, it was inestimable.  It was very clear, of great value, and I gleaned a lot more than I would have donethough I understand German, but I’m not that I would have understood as much.  Without question, of course, you lose the color of the language, and it’s not just singers wanting always to sing in Italian because they feel more comfortable doing that.  In the terms of Italian and Russian you could probably say that, but there is no question that the language gives the color to whatever you’re singing, and that you lose something of what the opera might be if you take that away.  On the other hand, if we are to get people who’ve never seen opera or been interested in opera...  [Pauses a moment]  I’ve just met somebody today in Chicago who said to me that he likes opera, but he finds it so difficult to sit through something when he doesn’t understand a word of it.  One’s heard that over and over again, and that’s one of the things that stops an awful lot of people trying opera.  We need to persuade people everywhereparticularly in England, certainly, and I guess in America as wellthat the average person who thinks it’s an elitist thing and doesn’t understand it, why they should they go and listen to all these people singing round the stage.  We must approach it so that they come away having understood something.  You have to argue that you’re going to hear those tunes and great arias in an obvious kind of story.  Even if it’s in English, how much do you get?

BD:   Should the opera professionals be trying to get the people from the rock concerts, or the people who go to the World Cup, into the opera house?  How much should we try to expand the art form?

FP:   Quite a lot.  I’ve talked to a lot of people who are very anti-opera, who have tried it, and it’s going to be a very slow process.  But we certainly should keep trying.  I’m not at all sure that televised opera helps us as much as we like to think it does.

BD:   [Surprised]  Why?

FP:   Because close-ups of singers are not a very pretty sight!  I was very impressed at seeing Orlando here because of your business of subtitles over the stage, which I thought worked wonderfully.  [Remember, this interview took place in the fall of 1986, just when supertitles in the theater were starting to catch on.]  I was most impressed because I didn’t know the story of Orlando particularly.  I read a bit in the program, but it’s the old thing that you read the story after the opera is over, and you think,
Oh, that’s what was happening in the middle of the second act.  [Orlando, which was also running during the time, had Marilyn Horne, June Anderson, Jeffrey Gall, and Gianna Rolandi, with Charles Mackerras conducting, and was staged by John Copley.]  I found the subtitles not at all distracting and of inestimable value.  It was something that really ought to catch on.

BD:   So this is a good compromise, then?

FP:   I think so.  We’ve got a lot more opera on television, which, though I
m not totally convinced, is probably bringing it to a much wider public.  There it is subtitled, too, so they can’t complain that they don’t know what it’s about.

palmer BD:   Do you think that this has bridged the gap, having the subtitles on the television has allowed even the purists to let it happen in the theater?

FP:   Probably yes.  It’s the first time I’ve ever seen it, but it was so subtly done here that I found myself watching the stage but just checking now and then
especially with a da capo aria [ABA], where, by the second time it came round you knew what they were singing about.  For somebody who doesn’t speak Italian terribly fluently, I understand listening to an aria and wondering if she was she talking about death or tears or whatever it happens to be.  I thought it was very, very good, and that’s probably the main objection.  The other isin England certainlya feeling that it is still an elitist, specialist thing for the nobs, the upper classes.  The English National Opera is changing that a lot, but Covent Garden is financially prohibitive, and there is no question that it is still, rather like Glyndebourne, an elitist place.  An awful lot of people who go are not people who actually want to listen to the music.  They’re people who go to be seen, to be at Covent Garden, and that’s a terrible shame because I remember, as a student it was almost beyond us to see anything, and that is ridiculous, whereas in Germany with their wonderful State Supportive System, when I was a student there in Munich, you could go to the opera every single night for one Mark.  I learned more about opera in that year than I’d learned anywhere because in England there wasn’t a lot available at that time, and even in the cheapest seatswhere you couldn’t really see the stageit was beyond what one could afford as a student, which is sad.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   How did you get interested in opera in the first place?

FP:   I was very anti-operas.  I started off very much on the concert side.  It was actually
Sir Charles Mackerraswho is here conducting Orlandowho did a Promenade concert with me, and Lord Harewood, then in charge of English National Opera, both said to me that I really must come and do some opera at English National Opera.  So, I thought let’s give this a whirl, and pretty quickly I was hooked.  [Both laugh]  Interestingly enough, I had to eat my words.  Up till then I had been a musician-singer who sat in the Stalls, wondering why can’t these three people sing together on stage?  What is going on?  A trio all over the shop!

BD:   Once you got hooked on opera, how did
and do youbalance your career between opera and concert?

FP:   It was supposed to be something like seventy-five percent concerts and the rest opera for some time, and then I made this change from being soprano to mezzo about six years ago, which changed all sorts of things.  It’s taken me some time to rebuild the new repertoire.  Now I would say presently, and for the next year or so, it’s heavily weighed on the opera side, which pleases me enormously, and that’s how I’d actually like to go on.  I found myself totally hooked by the theater.  I love concert work, and I wouldn’t want to give that up.  I’d quite like to specialize a little more in opera, and make things I really want to do with good orchestras, and the odd recital.  I enjoy recital work, but finding time for that when you’re doing opera is also a nightmare.

BD:   Thinking about opera, how do you decide which roles you will sing and which roles you will say no?

FP:   I’m still finding out, because having only become a mezzo in the last five or six years, I have all sorts of ideas thrown out at me as things that would be suitable.  To an extent, I’m studying a lot of things that I would like to do, but it is a trial and error thing.  It presents much less of a problem than it did, because as a soprano, I was getting people suggesting things that they thought I might sing, which I knew in my heart of hearts I would never be able to sing, which was terribly sad.  Now, I’m curious enough, and am prepared to live a little more dangerously, because I feel I’m much more certain of what I’m able to do.  I would adore, for instance, to do a bit more Italian opera, but I don’t think an awful lot of people think of me in that way.  So, that’s something which may or may not happen.  But on the whole, the mezzo spectrum gives me much more things that suit me, and things that I want to do than the soprano leads ever did.  Sad as it was to have given those chances up, I’m much more suited to doing the mezzo things than any of the soprano roles.

BD:   Why did you make the shift?  Was it predicated by the voice?

FP:   Yes, it was.  I had always suspected that I was a mezzo, but none of the teachers I’d been to had agreed with me.  It turns out that quite a lot of my colleagues in England agree with me, but didn’t like to say so.  I was never more happy than when I found the teacher I now have in Switzerland
who is an Englishman, curiously enoughwho said he was sure I was a mezzo.  As far as I was concerned, the decision had been made.  The problem then was that I had been firmly set into the box of Concert Soprano in England, and I had to get out of that box, and convince them I wasn’t just playing around.  They’ve now just about accepted it...  [Both laugh]

BD:   It takes a long time.

FP:   It takes a long time, because that label’s been firmly stuck on me, and really, in the last two years, the most skeptical people have turned round and said,
We really didn’t know what you were doing, but we’re bound to admit that you’ve done the right thing, and bully for you, and carry on.

BD:   That must give you a good feeling.

FP:   It’s very nice because I knew I was right, but the first couple of years it was difficult, especially as it was not only a changeover of voice, it was a changeover of technique.  I was feeling my way, and everybody else was unsure, except for a few people who stood by me.  I feel I’ve come through all that, but it wasn’t easy.  I’m very glad I did it.  Without question it changed my life, but I wouldn’t recommend it to anybody to go through unless they felt they’d got to.

palmer BD:   It seems like the opposite direction since so many mezzos have been trying to push themselves up just a little bit, and when they can get the High C easily, they say they’ve become a soprano.

FP:   That’s very true.  The curious thing is that I remember when I did my first Verdi Requiem, the soprano
an English singer I was working withsaid, “I found it very interesting that as we walked on the platform for the first rehearsal, you said ‘Thank God I’m walking behind you!’”  It was never any difficulty.  It was, to me, so exciting to be able to sing the mezzo role in that, whereas if you’d paid me a million, though I think it’s a wonderful role, I would never have tackled the soprano part... though some people thought that’s what I should be doing in the latter days of being a soprano.

BD:   How long did you sing soprano?

FP:   Fifteen years or so.  I have to say that I like some of the early recordings, which I occasionally play out of interest.  There’s a Messiah recording with Raymond Leppard which I’m not ashamed of, and if I listened even now, I have to say it sounded like a soprano.  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at left, see my interviews with Ryland Davies, and John Shirley-Quirk.]  Technically I know what I was up to, and why it was like that, but the voice did get bigger and weightier, and there was always this richness in the lower register which was untapped, which I knew about, and which most singing teachers thought was a wonderful basis for being a soprano, which it might have been.  The great secret is that I simply couldn’t sustain the tessitura of being a soprano.  The notes are still there but I just couldn’t keep it up there.  That’s probably the difference in many respects between being a mezzo and soprano.  It’s very tiny in terms of range, and often mezzos have better top notes.  I’m not at all saying about myself, but it often happens because they don’t have to sit up there for quite so long.

BD:   It must be glorious to know you have the note, and once or twice in an evening you sing it.

FP:   That’s right.  You’re not going to be criticized for it because you have to float around up there all the time.

BD:   Is singing a contest between the performers and the public?

FP:   Oh, no, not really.  I don’t think it should be.

BD:   Does it ever turn into singers-versus-audience?

FP:   [Thinks a moment]  There are degrees of singers, and a lot of us
not just singers, but all performersfeel that careers in music, and especially in opera, sadly, very often have little to do with ability.  They have to do with ability, but they have a great deal of other aspects, especially in a media-orientated society like America.  We’re becoming more like that in England, too.  The publicity machine is behind you, and an awful lot can be done in that direction.  It doesn’t mean to say you haven’t got a good start, but for that reason, the public has somebody built up for them, and they will accept that at face value.  There is the discerning publicthose who have their own opinionand it’s very interesting to sit in an audience and listen to comments.  Some of us find it very hard, and amongst singers there is a sharp division between what I call the voice-merchants and the musician-singers.  We’re after different things.  Each benefits from a bit of the other, and if you could ever weld the twoand occasionally that happens, of coursethey’re the people that are the real stars, and they get there.  But it’s frustrating for those of us who have spent a lifetime looking for something through the pure sound, to find that with the publicity machine behind it, it has taken the public by storm, and the public actually sees no more than that.  It has nothing to do with opera, necessarily, but sometimes for a singer to get to the heart of a Fauré song with a pianist is probably one of the most rewarding things that they’ll ever do.  On the other hand, even in the Wigmore Hall or the Brahms-Saal in Vienna, probably that will cut no ice with anyone but the most subtle musician, because I don’t think Fauré is good for a performing-person necessarily.  He’s a wonderful person to perform, but for the listener he never seems to cut any ice, and that is an eternal sadness to the performer.

BD:   Do you want to shake the public and say,
Look at what I’ve found”?

FP:   You want to say, Listen to this!  It’s a gem! but you can’t teach that.  You have to accept, in the end, that on that level you are preaching to the minority of the minority.  Without any doubt, it’s just for the few of us who like nit-picking with colors, or making a ritardando there, or pulling that out a bit, and making the B flat float, or whatever.  That’s got nothing to do with it.  But then, for that person to sit in the audience and listen to somebody who has maybe the most stunning voice, but actually nothing else at all, to find that that has taken 4,000 people by storm, has its frustrations... though that’s valid in itself, as well.  There is an element of sour-grapes in that because quite a lot of the greatest Lieder singers, or the greatest artists in the opera house, don’t necessarily have the most wonderful voices.  That’s the extraordinary thing about it.

palmer BD:   So its sound versus artistry?

FP:   Absolutely!  That’s a very interesting thing.  You have to sit back and say,
Well that’s life.  One has to admit that when you sit in an opera house and get that wonderful buzz down your back when someone lets rip a D-Flat or a top C, or any one of those stunning top notes, you get a gut reaction and there’s nothing a human being can do about that.  That’s there, and that’s how people react.  It is very interesting, but some of usand I include myselfare working for a little more than that.  It may be because I don’t have the ability to throw people with that, but it’s the luck of the draw.  In any case, I’m interested in a little more than that, but it’s very intriguing to see, particularly in opera, what the public goes for, and what they respond to.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Now that you’re getting more into opera, do you feel that the stage directors have been getting too much power, and maybe this is what is drawing the public, rather than the beautiful sound or the beautiful artistry?  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at right, see my interviews with Norman Bailey, and Benjamin Luxon.]

FP:   Yes, there’s been very much a swing that way, to the extent that the reviews
if anybody bothers to read themare heavily weighted on the staging side, and the singers or the conductor are allowed about two lines very often.  But let’s face it, it’s not so many years ago when the great fat leading lady came on stage, stood stock-still and sang.  People like Callas changed all that, and quite rightly.  There was, therefore, room for singers who could also act and could do something through, and opera would not have survived into the 80s if it had just gone on as it had been.

BD:   [Somewhat shocked]  Really???

FP:   Oh, absolutely!  There would have been an audience for the Pavarottis, the big stars doing that, but I don’t think they’d have taken it for long, actually.  Once someone like Callas came along and changed history by showing what could be achieved as a singing-actress
despite all the criticisms of her voice.  Audiences wanted people who could sing and act, and make some sort of sense, so you couldn’t have a Mimì who was 300 lbs.  That was no longer acceptable, and one could argue that those people one knows who sang until they were seventy, probably sang better because they weren’t flying around the world fitting in an awful lot of things.  They kept within a certain much narrower range.  There’s all that argument as well, but the directors came in and it all became much more theatrical, and has, in many respects, gone a bit overboard.  I don’t think any of us would object to all that if it added something, but a lot of the gimmicks and an awful lot of the money being spent doesn’t necessarily help the public or the singers.  The arguments, therefore, about wastage of money are very valid, indeed, when the public is insulted quite often now by watching things which they don’t understand, which the singers clearly don’t understand but has been made to do, and which the management sits back and accepts.  We have been way behind some places like Germany, which has been doing these way-out things for a long time.  But it seems now, with all our little companies who are desperately short of money, that there’s almost a vying between each company to try and outdo the last one.  It is not because they want to say, We’ve got to have a new approach to this, and make it clearer for our public.  It’s almost, We’ve got to go one better, and get a little more outrageous, and create the scandal that will fill the houses, or empty them!  One has no idea what they’re up to, but that seems suicidal planning in our country where the money side is desperate, and one doesn’t understand why they’re doing it.

BD:   Despite all this, are you optimistic about the future of opera?

FP:   Hmmm...  Well, it has survived without question in our country, and it seems in America you’re doing wonderful things.  We have a larger public for opera in England now than we’ve ever had, and people in the provinces are seeing more opera than they’ve ever done.  So yes, in a way, but there will be an outcry if the sort of productions we’ve been enduring go on, and they will be, as it were, playing straight into Mrs. Thatcher’s court.  She isn’t interested in supporting any of us anyway, and if the public then says,
Why are the taxes are going towards even a halfpenny per person, to put on these things that insult the public, and nobody understands, it will give them absolutely carte-blanche.  Then they’ll give you no grant at all, in which case we’ll be up a gum tree, and having to turn what you been doing for yearswhich is to find private sponsors, which we’re already doing, of course.  So yes, I’m ninety per cent optimistic for my own interests. As long as it lasts till I’ve pegged out, I’ll be all right!  [Much laughter]  I started late, so I want another fifteen years of opera, thank you, or ten, or something.  Then it doesn’t matter what happens!  [More laughter]  [As this interview is being prepared for the website (December, 2018), it is thirty-two years later, and Palmer is still going strong as she approaches her seventy-fifth birthday!]

palmer BD:   [With a gentle nudge]  You don’t want your children or your friends’ children to be able to enjoy opera?

FP:   I do because at its best it is incredible, but it is so sad that this isn’t so often the case.  People like my mother who are not really interested in opera but are interested in the theater are always arguing about why they spend so much on these costumes and this and that.  But at its best, it’s the welding of all arts
or it should be.  It rarely is, but when it does work, there’s nothing like it.  I’m a great theater fan and film fan, and one gets terrible frustrations in the opera house.  But some of the greatest moments can take place when things are working there.  It’s wonderful.  It’s a huge, very expensive art, and that’s the trouble.

BD:   Should we start using some cinematographic techniques in the theater?

FP:   [Pauses a moment]  Why?  No, I don’t see why we need to.  I suppose that since we’ve got them...  What are you driving at?

BD:   Should we try to move the operatic stage forward with the technical advances and abilities that we have?

FP:   It’ll come, I’ve no doubt.  As to whether we should, everything’s got to be tried.  It’s worth trying, I suppose, but one has to say that it’s a dated idea.  There’s a part of me even now that rejects somebody saying they’re about to die, and then suddenly have them singing an aria!  [Both laugh]  They’re sort of saying,
Come on, pull the other leg!  We’ve seen so much naturalistic stuff on the wretched box and in the cinema that you’ve got to get over that.  So, I suppose the more naturalistic one can make it, the better.  But if you look at the films that are being made of opera, that doesn’t seem to work for this business.  How many times do they get the synchronization right?  Why is it we can get people to the moon, yet we can’t we get that right?  That’s the human factor, of course.  We’re not robots.  I cannot understand it.  It seems impossible to get it when you watch it.  You know damn well that the singer has had headphones on, and has been trying to sing to something they recorded six months ago.  Why is it not possible to record in the theater, and have them with orchestra, and get something that approaches a performance?  That’s obviously not what they’re after, but they can’t seem to get it any other way.  Just watch the film of Zeffirelli’s Otello and see the problems they had doing that.  They had a program in England of him making that, and it’s a nonsense.  It looks as if these dummies are mouthing just a split second out of synch with their voices.  They have got to record it in a studio, and get that right with the location.  I can see what the problems are, but that is nonsense now to have to do this business of pre-recording it, and then trying to get it, unless they can get it right.  But they’re up against the human factor.  We’re not computers, and we will never perform something identically two times in row.  Therefore, what Domingo did in the studio in Vienna in April of last year, he won’t necessarily do on location ten months later.  It’s obvious, and that’s the whole problem.  You’ll never substitute film for the live performance, though I know that is what a lot of engineers would like to do.  I know some of the controllers at the BBC who’re going through grave problems.  They would quite like to have Radio 3 simply playing records.

BD:   That gives them more control.

FP:   Absolutely!  And don’t want live studio things, but there is no substitute for that.  That’s a tragedy when we think what Radio 3 has achieved, to resort to that.  There will be no substitute for live performances.  I suppose with Compact Disc you’re just going to get this kind of robot stuff churned out, which is nice if somebody blots something, or sings slightly flat now and then.

BD:   So the recording companies have set up a false expectation on the part of the public?

FP:   Without question.  I’ve had record critics come in to interview me about things, and to my astonishment say,
I suppose all this was done in one take.  [Both have a huge laugh]  If they think that, they are sadly mistaken.  I don’t know what the average public thinks, bless their cotton socks, because at least they’ll buy the record.  I hardly ever buy a record.  I do buy certain things, but when I see people shifting through wads of records, I think, “Bless them.  We rely on them.  But I have no idea how they think it’s done... whether they think we just sort of swan into a studio and sing, because that’s such a false impression.  It is interesting to talk to people like Gwen Catley, who is probably not known over here at all.  I studied with her for a time, and she would have been a very famous singer if it hadn’t been for the War, and if she had been given a chance to get out of England.  There are tapes of her doing the Queen of the Night arias, and things like, which they did in the early days in England when you were taken to a probably freezing cold church.  The mike was put on at 9:30 in the morning, and you taped it, and that was that.  They’re wonderful recordings, and there was a sort a do-or-die feeling about them, but you got a performance, and there’s no substitute for that, really.  Therefore, if you heard Gwen Catley in the concert hall, that might have been some sort of idea what Gwen Catley did.

catley Gwendoline Florence Catley (9 February 1906 – 12 November 1996) was an English coloratura soprano who sang in opera, concert and revues. She often sang on radio and television, and made numerous recordings of songs and arias, mostly in English. She was renowned for the clarity and agility of her voice particularly in florid parts, and her English diction was outstanding.

Catley was born in London, and studied at the Guildhall School of Music, where her chief singing teacher was the tenor Walter Hyde. Her other teachers included Sir Granville Bantock, Jenny Hyman and, privately, Julian Kimbell. The school's principal, Sir Landon Ronald, who had been Dame Nellie Melba's accompanist, said Catley reminded him of Melba. She won the Gold Medal, but was prevented from accepting it by her father. She later won it again. In 1937 she sang with Sadler's Wells Opera, as the Queen of the Night in Mozart's The Magic Flute and Nannetta in Verdi's Falstaff. After a successful and sold-out 1938 debut at the Wigmore Hall, which Landon Roland sponsored, she joined the BBC Chorus. She had a successful career, singing with the leading British orchestras.

In World War II she sang for a year in Jack Hylton's revue Hi-de-Hi, where she was famed for her performances of Caro nome from Verdi's Rigoletto. She also sang Gilda with the Carl Rosa Opera Company during the war. In 1949 she sang Catherine Glover in a BBC studio broadcast of Bizet's The Fair Maid of Perth, with Richard Lewis as Henry Smith and conducted by Sir Thomas Beecham. She continued singing with the Carl Rosa company till 1957. In 1953 she took part in the first British broadcast of Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress. She often worked with the conductors Stanford Robinson and his brother Eric Robinson, who together account for many of her recordings.

She retired to Italy with her cellist husband Allen Ford, with whom she had a son. She returned to Britain to teach. Her students included Judi Dench preparing for a production of Cabaret.

But on the whole, it depends on the producer you get.  Some producers like the feeling of a performance.  Even if there was something that you didn’t feel was absolutely a hundred per cent your best, but the feeling of the whole thing was so right, that they will let it go.  But I know some of the things that are possible, and there’s a terrifying amount of patching that very often deludes the public, and that’s very sad.  In a way, that is to the detriment of the artists concerned because they all come a cropper when they perform.  I remember Janet Baker saying to me in England that she’d gone to Carnegie Hall, and somebody had actually gone up to her and said,
I hope you’re going to be as good as your recording.  That’s frightening.

BD:   This is why I was asking if you feel you compete against your recordings.

FP:   Well, I suppose you do.  I don’t think we think we do, but I’m sure a lot of the public does.  When you get these record freaks come up with copies of things that you did twenty years ago, you realize they’ve been listening to this and building up a picture of you through those recordings, and that’s frightening.  As I say, one is pleased with some things, but quite a lot of them are a record, literally, of what you did on that day and that year, and they’re valid and very useful.  It’s the most hideous lesson, but it’s the greatest lesson in the world.


BD:   You’ve just done a recording of Phaedra?

FP:   Phaedra of Britten, and Sea Pictures of Elgar should be coming out in January on EMI [shown above], and I did Marcellina in the Figaro recording that Philips has just released this summer.  I’m due to do one of Ugly Sisters
Tisbein Cenerentola, and a small role in The Tales of Hoffmann with them later in the year [all of which are shown in boxes below].  So, there are things rolling now, which is quite nice.  I’m doing the Dream of Gerontius in two years’ time, but for we people in England that’s a big thing to record.  So, I’m quite looking forward to that.  There’s probably another Fauré record due to be recorded at some stage.  I’m very happy to be given the chancesecond time round, as it were.  I’ve been quite lucky with recordings as a soprano, and now to be given the chance, my second career, as it were, it is really quite nice to do other things.

BD:   You get to start all over again.

FP:   It’s very nice, but it’s funny to go on stage and do, say, the B Minor Mass, which one knew so well as a soprano, and then find one’s got to learn the other part.  But it opens things up things, like Bach, which I’d more or less said good-bye to.  Suddenly there’s all the wonderful roles in the Matthew Passion and that sort of thing to do, and Mahler which one didn’t touch.  It’s very interesting to see a new repertoire in one’s life, but it’s sad, in a way, when one thought one could sit back on one
’s haunches with all those pieces under my belt, and suddenly it’s all got to be learned again.  [Both laugh]  It keeps you on your toes.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Is there a favorite role that you have, or one that you’ve done more than any other?

FP:   [Thinks a moment]  There was one that I don’t do anymore because it’s on the edge of being dangerous
Elvira.  She was my great love.  She’s a fascinating woman.  I don’t think I found the favorite as a mezzo.  I’m still feeling my way.  Of what I have done that’s interesting, I find the Slavic repertoire very interesting.  They are usually pretty ghastly women that mezzos play, very rarely sympathetic.  I guess I could fall in love with Charlotte in Werther, but I’m not sure she’s quite right for me.


See my interviews with Francisco Araiza, Ruggero Raimondi, John Del Carlo, José van Dam, and Robert Lloyd

BD:   When you’re on stage, do you become the character or are you portraying the character?

FP:   Usually you are portraying the character, but sometimes
quite often, I thinkyou can find things which help you, certain parallels in the character that blend with an experience you have had, which I hope brings something real to it.  I suppose most women would identify in some respects with Elvira, but I found her not a laughing stock.  She was somebody I could identify with, and I understood a lot of what she was feeling.  I did feel very much that I was her when I really got having done a lot of performances so that I could relax and become her.  But there are dangers in that.  I remember once as a very young school girl doing a rehearsal of Dido and Aeneas of Purcell, and having a very curious feeling.  I had never really done anything like this on stage, and mercifully it has never happened to me again, but for about twenty minutes I thought I was Didoto the point that they had given me a very dangerous real knife.  I didn’t actually pierce myself, but I stabbed myself enough to go through all my clothes and draw blood, which was frightening.  I thought that this is what being on the operatic stage is all about.  I was in school uniform, and I ceased to be me.  But that’s very, very dangerous because you need your wits about you.  It’s a very interesting experience to have had, but it’s probably not something that’s really right.

BD:   Too much Stanislavski!

FP:   Exactly!  [Both have a hearty laugh]  You need that side of you, some part of you that’s aware of all the things that might go wrong, of which there are millions on the operatic stage.  It is fascinating.

stanislavski Konstantin Sergeievich Stanislavski ( Alexeiev; Russian: Константи́н Серге́евич Станисла́вский; 17 January [O.S. 5 January] 1863 – 7 August 1938) was a seminal Russian theater practitioner. He was widely recognised as an outstanding character actor, and the many productions that he directed garnered a reputation as one of the leading theater directors of his generation. His principal fame and influence, however, rests on his 'system' of actor training, preparation, and rehearsal technique.

Stanislavski (his stage name) performed and directed as an amateur until the age of 33, when he co-founded the world-famous Moscow Art Theatre (MAT) company with Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko, following a legendary 18-hour discussion. Its influential tours of Europe (1906) and the US (1923—4) and its landmark productions of The Seagull (1898) and Hamlet (1911—12) established his reputation and opened new possibilities for the art of the theater. By means of the MAT, Stanislavski was instrumental in promoting the new Russian drama of his day — principally the work of Anton Chekhov, Maxim Gorky, and Mikhail Bulgakov — to audiences in Moscow and around the world. He also staged acclaimed productions of a wide range of classical Russian and European plays.

Stanislavski's system is a systematic approach to training actors that he developed in the first half of the 20th century. Stanislavski was the first in the West to propose that actor training should involve something more than merely physical and vocal training. His system cultivates what he calls the "art of experiencing" (with which he contrasts the "art of representation"). It mobilizes the actor's conscious thought and will in order to activate other, less-controllable psychological processes — such as emotional experience and subconscious behavior — sympathetically and indirectly. In rehearsal, the actor searches for inner motives to justify action and the definition of what the character seeks to achieve at any given moment (a "task").

Later, Stanislavski further elaborated the system with a more physically grounded rehearsal process that came to be known as the "Method of Physical Action". Minimizing at-the-table discussions, he encouraged an "active analysis", in which the sequence of dramatic situations are improvised. "The best analysis of a play", Stanislavski argued, "is to take action in the given circumstances."

Thanks to its promotion and development by acting teachers who were former students, and the many translations of Stanislavski's theoretical writings, his system acquired an unprecedented ability to cross cultural boundaries, and developed a reach dominating debates about acting in the West. Stanislavski’s ideas have become accepted as common sense, so that actors may use them without knowing that they do.

Many actors routinely equate his system with the American Method, although the latter's exclusively psychological techniques contrast sharply with the multivariant, holistic and psychophysical approach of the "system", which explores character and action both from the 'inside out' and the 'outside in', and treats the actor's mind and body as parts of a continuum. In response to his characterization work on Argan in Molière's The Imaginary Invalid in 1913, Stanislavski concluded that "a character is sometimes formed psychologically, i.e. from the inner image of the role, but at other times it is discovered through purely external exploration." In fact Stanislavski found that many of his students who were "method acting" were having many mental problems, and instead encouraged his students to shake off the character after rehearsing.

BD:   Is there any one character that you play that’s perhaps a little too close to Felicity Palmer?

FP:   I think it would be Elvira.  Curiously enough, I’ve just come back from doing something I was not desperately looking forward to doing, the new production of The Mikado at English National Opera with Jonathan Miller, which was, believe it or not, based on the Marx Brothers.  It was actually a beautiful set and costumes, but I was playing Katisha, and he saw her as Margaret Dumont in Duck Soup.  She was played very funnily, but there was pathos to her.  I did pull quite a lot of myself, and without going into great detail, there is a great element of our lives that is very lonely.  This funny thing is that Gilbert & Sullivan put this really rather very beautiful, almost Donizetti aria for Katisha, and it is rather like the aria of Elvira.  It was the one time you saw this woman stripped of her funniness, and she was a really lonely old person on the shelf whom I could understand.  I’m unmarried, and I don’t say I’m on the shelf, but people have this wonderful vision of opera singers as leading this fantastic, glamorous life.  There is an enormous amount of loneliness involved for both men and women, married or unmarried, and we can all find some of that.  Any human being who has been through life can probably find an experience of being rejected, or a love affair going wrong, and if you’re particularly vulnerable at a certain time in your life, you can put an enormous amount of yourself in that, and in some ways, release it.  That keeps you sane in a way that the ordinary mortal, or the average person, can’t.  I know my family have often said that you can get rid of passion and anger or sadness and happiness, whatever you’ve got, through singing.

BD:   Does it work?

FP:   It does work, but it’s not actually a substitute for the real thing.  If you can release it in that way, in that respect we’re very lucky.  But it doesn’t actually solve the problem ultimately.


See my interviews with Tatiana Troyanos, Richard Stilwell, Patricia Kern, Susan Graham, and Ian Bostridge

BD:   Do you like being a ‘wondering minstrel’?

FP:   I did, and I still do in a way.  I particularly like it when you’ve got, as I have here, two months in a city so you actually got a chance to settle in.  It’s not a question of a week doing concerts and then home, when you hardly have a chance to get over jet lag.  That’s sort of gypsy life is horrible, and I was already extremely tired of it, which is probably one of the reasons for being hooked on opera.  I had this funny thing in my first house in London of never feeling I belonged anywhere.  I was not happy in any way, and I was always away.  When I got back to London, I felt that nobody knew whether I was in London or not, but when I got away, I wanted to be back home.  There are definite pluses about doing opera, because unless you’re one of the stars you have probably a good month with a group of people, and nearly always you become to an extent a family, which is lovely.  But then you have this horrible thing of breaking up when the production is over, and that can be hard.  It’s very interesting when everybody reverts to the people they were on the first day you met in order to cope with this fact that the group of people will probably never be together again in quite the same formation.  Nevertheless, it’s lovely to live with people and get to know them, and have meals, and talk to them anew.  Singers on the whole, and instrumental musicians, get on very well very quickly, especially in America.  Whenever I’ve been here, I find that they make life very simple, and Chicago’s particularly friendly.  It’s a wonderful house, and that’s lovely.  You also get a little taste of being an American in Chicago.  You can sort of do your own shipping, and find out how things tick, and listen to the television.  All that sort of thing is fascinating, and I enjoy that.  But the concert circuit is death
a week here and a week there, hotels and airports and concert halls that’s all you see.  It’s so awful, unless you’re touring, which I don’t think is much fun, either.  I don’t enjoy that.  I like being at home, and it’s nice to be there.  I’ve had a good long time at home, so I don’t mind being away at the moment.  But you also have to be well enough adjusted to spend a lot of time on your own, because singers, by their very nature, finish a day’s rehearsal and some want to whoop it up.  But on the whole, if you’ve got a 10 o’clock rehearsal the next morning, and an orchestral later...

BD:   You have to whoop it up gently.

FP:   That’s right!  [Both laugh]  I haven’t whooped it up in Chicago at all yet, but it’s a lovely city.

BD:   Are you coming back here, I hope?  [See the chart below for all the details]

Felicity Palmer at Lyric Opera of Chicago

1986-87 - Katya Kabanova (Kabanicha) with E. Shade, Kunde, D.Bailey, Jenkins, Wildermann, Sharon Graham; Bartoletti, Puecher, Schneider-Siemssen, Schuler

1989-90 - Hamlet (Gertrude) with Milnes, Welting, Kunde; Rudel, Melano, Toms, Schuler

1991-92 - Marriage of Figaro (Marcellina) with Ramey, McLaughlin/J. Hall, Lott, Mentzer/von Stade, Shimell, Loup, Benelli; Davis, P. Hall, Bury, Schuler
                 The Gambler [Prokofiev] (Babushka) with Trussel, Greenawald, Orth; Bartoletti, Ciulei, Boruzescu, Schuler

1994-95 - The Rakes Progress (Baba the Turk) with Hadley, Swensen, Ramey; D.R. Davies, Vick, Hudson, Schuler

1998-99 - Mahagonny [Weill] (Leocadia Begbick) with Malfitano, Begley, Devlin, Aceto, Nolen; Cambreling, D. Alden, Steinberg, Schuler

2000-01 - Pique Dame (Countess) with Dalayman, Galouzine, Putilin, Skovhus, Maultsby; Davis, Vick, Tallchief, Hudson, Richardson

2006-07 - Dialogues des Carmélites (Mme. de Croissy) with Bayrakdarian, Racette, Kaiser, Travis; Davis, Carson, Levine, Binder

FP:   I don’t know, but I desperately hope so, as I’m having a wonderful time.  I was told what a friendly house Lyric was, and it’s probably the most friendly and most helpful house I’ve ever encountered.  They couldn’t make life more pleasant for you.  Also, being part of a very, very friendly cast, there’s a wonderful atmosphere of working, and it will be, I’m sure, sad when we actually finally break up.  By the very nature of things, you meet one or two of the people, and it’ll be nice now that you know these people.  It’s a small world, so when you meet them again there’ll be somebody else you know.  It will have been enormous fun, and we’re all getting on great.  We’ve got a birthday celebration tomorrow so we’re all having a little party.  That’s a lovely feeling, and it’s a wonderful opera to be part of, so I’d love to come back, yes, but it’s not in my hands.

*     *     *     *     *

palmer BD:   Tell me about Donna Elvira.  You’ve mentioned her several times...  [Vis-à-vis the DVD shown at right, see my interview with Barry McCauley.]

FP:   She’s the only lady who really is in love with Don Giovanni.  That’s my theory.  The others are just silly, they’re having a jolly good time, and are very flattered that he gives them attention.  She’s like all these people, and I do see parallels.  I had a long talk with Jonathan [Miller] between performances of Katisha.  Of course, the way Mozart has painted her, it is funny to see a woman chasing a man, or constantly appearing to check on him.  But she is desperate because she has spent three nights with him.  She is in love, and she hasn’t really realized what a bastard he’s going to be to her.  It’s the love of her life, and I have been through that, like other people.  I have had one or two serious things where I’ve thought if nothing ever happens to me for the rest of my life, that is an experience one can chalk up as something wonderful.  Better to have lived and loved, or whatever the phrase is.  I feel that passion about her, and I’ve done productions where the comic aspect has been uppermost, and that incenses me because I don’t feel that is the way she is.  Anna’s a cold old fish, and anyone who gets stuck with Ottavio in the first place, whether it’s an arranged marriage or not, gets what she deserves.  [Both laugh]  It’s an interesting character, but I do think Elvira’s the one who the most human of the lot.  I had a great argument with a musicologist about the fact that the aria should or should not been included.  As somebody says, it’s not the greatest aria, but you would lose the visual aspect.  The recitative’s wonderful, and that’s the only time when you can begin to understand that woman.  She stops and says,
That’s it!  There isn’t any point in going on if I’m not going to have him.  Finito!  I find that very interesting to play.  There are lots of parallels in opera, and I’m certain that there are lots of other women who would could be equally fascinating.  Jonathan Miller mentioned a sixteenth century book about a nunwhich he never gave mebut it would have been interesting to read.  I did feel passionately about Don Giovanni, and it’s a fascinating opera.  It’s always a graveyard for producers.  It’s the downfall of so many producers or directors, but singers very much like to go into it.  Whether it actually registers with the public is another story.  In this Katya at Lyric Opera, which is also very interesting, there’s a would-be producer who’s given us a Japanese book called The Doctor’s Wife, which is about mother-in-law and daughter, which has great bearings, of course, on Katya Kabanova.  Going back to your question about stage directing, the public could be let in on some of this, and realize that though we, to a point, have to whatever the conception the stage director has come up with.  Most singers nowadays have thought very carefully, not just about the musical preparation, but the characterizations in some depth.  We’ve had great conversations about whether my son, Tichon, is weak, and what our relationship was before, and why should she be like, and why the mother-in-law should be like she is, and what was the relationship with her husband, and why we never see the husband, and why does Katya go for two weak men, and all this sort of thing.  Sometimes I feel that the public just sits there, and and you long to put the director out there to say this is how thought it should go, or to put the singers out there and say, Ladies and Gentlemen, we are just doing what we’ve told to do for the last six weeks, but this is not how any of us see this piece, and we’re doing the best with what we were given, and we’re bringing whatever individually we can to this!  But enormous amount of thought goes into things.  The interesting thing is that in the final analysis, I wonder if you just went out there and sang the music as it’s written whether that would be any worse, or better.

BD:   Just let the piece speak for itself?

FP:   Yes.  It’s very interesting to know whether all that sort soul-searching actually achieves anything.  It helps us, but I don’t know whether it helps the public.

BD:   Do pieces get over-rehearsed?

FP:   Yes, I think so.  They are being extremely sensible here in not wearing us out, and the piece will be relatively fresh by the time we go on.  Sometimes they have done it death, and the singers are so stale because they’re sick to death of the piece.  They’re not only tired out from being worked till they can’t stand, because the last week or so of rehearsals is when you’ve stopped for orchestral things and technical problems, and you’re in costume and make-up, and you have to get into the theater at half-past eight in the morning to get into everything, and then do a four or five-hour rehearsal.  It’s tiring if they want fresh singers.  We’re lucky as this one is a short opera.  We’ve been working pretty solidly up to now, and it’s in pretty good shape.  With any luck we shall all be pretty fresh on the first night.  It’s a wonderful opera.

BD:   How do you keep it fresh, then, for the third, fifth, and eighth performances?

FP:   I don’t think we’re going to have long enough to get tired of this.  It’s such a difficult piece, musically, that it’s taken a lot of us who are new to it the whole of the rehearsal period to become totally familiar with the opera.  Even those who were familiar with it are seeing new things all the time, and we are so in love with the music.  The music is divine, and I actually have two stints of it in 1988, almost back to back.  So, by the end of that I will be possibly tired of it.

BD:   Where will these be?

FP:   One is in the Netherlands, again with Ellen Shade, and the other at Glyndebourne [DVD shown above-right].  They’re both doing it in Czech, so I shall have to relearn it in Czech.  That might possibly be too much of a good thing, but I’m crazy about the music, as the whole cast is.  I sense a great excitement among the performers, and a lot of the students of the Opera School.  The difficult thing is convincing the public that it’s worth their time, and that it’s an interesting thing to come to.

BD:   Why is this one more difficult than a Lucia, or something like that?

FP:   I don’t know, but it’s interesting... This is partly hearsay, but among the people we’ve sounded out a little who have some experience and are involved with Lyric, there seems to be a wariness of a contemporary opera.  
Tunes we don’t know, and one of these Slavic things with a rather doom-laden story.  I understand that feeling.  For us on paper it’s a very difficult, and it’s difficult to learn, with difficult rhythms, difficult to pitch at a lot of places, but at the end of all that it’s the most luscious thing, and the most heart-rending story.  I can’t believe anybody who makes the effort will not be knocked out of their seatsnot just by our performance, but by the opera itself.  Maestro Bartoletti adores it, too, and with your orchestrawhich from what I’ve heard sitting in the audienceis stunning.  Also, the acoustics in the theater are such that I can’t see that it could fail.  But that’s assuming that the people are prepared to come and try in the first place.

palmer BD:   Bartoletti’s real forte is contemporary music.  He’s done a lot of contemporary operas and they are always first-rate.

FP:   Yes, isn’t that interesting.  What is so lovely is to get this sort of Italian heart into something like Janáček with Slavic music, which is so marvelous.  He is giving us a little bit of room to do things.  He’s a supreme musician, and it’s been a great experience.  The producer also knows the score very well, and he’s doing a fine job.

BD:   How can we get the public not to be afraid of contemporary music?

FP:   [Sighs]  I don’t know, because we’re all a little afraid of it, with reason.

BD:   But, of course, Janáček really isn’t the same thing.  [Vis-à-vis the DVD shown at left, see my interviews with Bernard Haitink, and Richard Van Allan.]

FP:   No.  It is the
20s.  It’s difficult, but it’s still lush in so many places, and very approachable in that way.  I get the impression that there is more wariness of new music in this country than we’ve got in London.  There is certainly a very small audience, but there is an audience that will come fill a hall for it.  I have, for instance, done Shostakovich Fourteenth in Los Angeles, which I think is a wonderful symphony, and there was a mass walk-out which shocked everybody.  It was a very rude walk-out too, with loud closing of seats, and so on.

BD:   Was it a pre-planned demonstration?

FP:   I don’t think it was.  It was,
“We’re not going to listen this.  We’ve come to listen to Beethoven and Brahms, and we don’t want to listen to this stuff in a foreign language.  There is an element in that.  I know that the London orchestras have gotten lots of letters about it recently, and they know that in order to put on a contemporary work nowunless it’s a BBC Symphony thing where it’s broadcast anyway, and they have the money to do itthey have to attract the audience by sandwiching it in between things that they will accept.  We must do these works principally because if they aren’t performed, we’re never going to sift out the stuff that is worth performing from the stuff that isn’t.  But for those of us whose job it is to perform contemporary music, it’s not very easy.  Unless you become a specialist, and unless you have perfect pitchwhich means it’s a little bit easier to learn than it might otherwise bethere is an enormous amount of work to put on something which, very often, doesn’t feel that it’s worth performing.  Of course there is some staggering stuff coming out, but there’s an awful lot of stuff that is the equivalent of picking up your bottle of ink and tipping it on the paper, and calling it Matisse.  In the same way as I, as a layman, will look at a Matisse and wonder how can anyone pay £57m, or £57,000 for that, the music’s a language that nobody understands, and quite often for us nowadays, with the really latest stuff it is a new language.  I talked to a very experienced player in the BBC Symphony Orchestra, where they do a lot of contemporary music, and she said that she had asked the music library to give her a score of a new work they were going to do.  It wasn’t actually Stockhausen, but it was something on those lines, and she said she picked it up and said to him, I’m sorry.  I have spent twenty-five years learning music, and this snakes and ladders!  I can’t read this.  There’s no point in my taking it home.  I simply don’t know how to read it.  For a lot of them there’s a new alphabet, and a lot of it one knows from the inside is charlatism.  There are very often instances of the composer not knowing what notes are on what instruments, or what a singer can do.  A lot of it is for effect.  When they could write a wavy line, they write something almost an indecipherable notation which, when you actually organize it, you could make up.  You could just free-wheel and nobody would be any the wiserincluding the critics and including the composer more often than not.  We performers very often don’t have much respect for them.  Then the public comes along and hears a sort of slap, bang, wallop noise in the middle of the Festival Hall.  It’s a new language, and I don’t believe that a lot of those who profess to be crazy about it necessarily understand it.  It’s a gimmick thing, and is another phase that we have to go throughan experimental phaseand out of it will come something that will live, presumably.  When doing a new Michael Tippett work about a year ago or so, I was talking to an old musical coach of mine.  We’d been working in terms of intervals of sixths and thirdswhich are harmoniousfor year, but I was doing a part where the soprano and I had to sing seconds apart.  In other words, everything we did was a clash of notes, so that we felt, even when we knew we were rightwhich was a great achievement for usthe public would think we were wrong.  But this old coach of mine said to me, Probably in seventy years’ time, this will be accepted as the norm.  Who are we to know?  But if you think it, the public walked out of people like Berlioz and all those other people who were new for their time.  We were saying the other day that Janáček must have been extraordinarily way-out in the 20s because it’s still very difficult music for us now.  Even some Britten is not easy...

BD:   Maybe they’re right, then?

FP:   I have to say that in many respects they are.  They’re not so stupid, and a lot of what they’re listening to is rubbish!  But amongst that rubbish is something worth keeping, and therefore it’s valid to do some of it and see what comes, because there are some things emerging.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Should you encourage the contemporary composer to take half a dozen voice lessons to know what the voice can and cannot do?

palmer FP:   Yes, and it behooves them to find out what range a bassoon has, for instance.  It’s an insult to write stuff for an orchestra and then have the bassoonist say that he doesn’t actually have that note on his instrument.  They’re very good musicians.  We did a modern composer for a Vienna Festival years ago.  None of us had perfect pitch, and we worked like crazy on it.  Finally, we all went up to the composer and said, We’ve done our very best to get it right, but we found it terribly hard, and we worked for weeks.  He replied, Oh, I don’t mind about the notes!  It’s just a general shape I’m after.  That was very frustrating.  We’d been beating our brains out to get these terrible intervals into our voices, and have it be perfect and all rhythmically together, and he doesn’t want that at all!  So, I have mixed feelings, and yet I have to say that even when doing some late Stravinsky, which is fiendish.  I’ve done some of his stuff which is very difficult, and I’ve looked at it and thought I will never get anywhere near this.  There is, for the performer, a huge sense of achievement that you’ve got to grips with whatever it is you’re up against.  Are we doing it for our own satisfaction?  The public comes and hears it once, and some of them are astute enough to come perhaps several times, or to come to rehearsals, and occasionally they’ll say, “It really was worth that.  By the time I heard it three times, I suddenly realized there was something.  They have a point, because I’ve done things where I’ve felt it was just a load of rubbish, and wondering why I am wasting my time doing this.  But then, by the end of five weeks’ worth of it I felt it’s really got something.

BD:   It really meant something to you in the end.

FP:   I think so.  Also, there is a great argument for the public preparing themselves before they come to an opera.  My parents are not opera-goers, but they’re not unmusical people.  My father is a musician, and my mother’s not musical, but she’s into the theater.  So before they went to Tristan, which they had never seen, I told them,
Read the story!  Listen to the record to get yourself familiar with it.  You can’t come to the opera house and sit there with your box of chocolates, or your ice cream, and expect to be entertained.  It’s an art-form, and it needs investigating!  Around the same time, a great friend of mine said, I find myself so daunted when I went to Covent Garden.  Could I borrow your records and follow it?”  She said later, I got so much from having prepared myself for that, and from having listened to that.  I got who the characters were, I read the libretto, and I sat in theater and knew what was going on.  People consider it an entertainment, and there are operas that are an entertainment...

BD:   Then where is the balance between the art and the entertainment?

FP:   I don’t know.  It’s very interesting, but I can’t think of very many things where you don’t gain something by having prepared yourself in the opera house.  Yet you’re absolutely right, and there are occasions, of course, when you simply want to sit back and enjoy.  The odd thing is that quite a lot of us have to admit that though we scorn ourselves for doing it, at the end of soul-searching day doing Katya, or something else, I have come back here to my apartment and watched Dynasty, which I despise, and which I wouldn’t touch at home.  I think is the pits, but it’s mindless entertainment.

BD:   You need to be involved with something different.

FP:   Right.  You need something different, so you sit and watch it.  It’s sort of glamorous, but it’s rubbish!  [Both laugh]  But everyone needs that.

BD:   [With a wink]  You need a little rubbish in your life.

FP:   [Smiles]  Or a bit of wonderful fun, like a Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers film.  It is heaven.  That’s an art form with its staggering dancing, but it doesn’t involve very much mental activity, and we all need that.

BD:   I love screwball comedies, like those with Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn.

FP:   Oh, I adore them.  They take you right out of yourself, and by the end of them you’ve forgotten all your problems... and you need that.

BD:   But that shouldn’t be opera?

FP:   It can be, yes... maybe operetta.  I expect a little more if I go to the opera.  I expect to be touched.


BD:   Of course, you’re doing this as work.  The opera is your work, but what about the tired businessman who has worked all day, and comes to the opera for diversion?

palmer FP:   You’re absolutely right.  But then he’s probably going to the wrong thing, unless he chooses Gilbert & Sullivan, or Offenbach, or Johann Strauss, or...

BD:   ...or Wagner???

FP:   There are people who do that.  It’s fascinating to me to have realized how much education in opera there is in a country like Germany, where even amongst the young people it is not considered sissy and strange that you should want to go to the opera.  There’s still very much that in England because music, as such, and certainly opera, is treated as a non-examinable subject in schools.  It is just probably half an hour when you can play merry hell with the teacher.  I have no idea what happens in America.  But I remember vividly that at whatever you call your highest grade just before you leave High School, the seventeen-year olds were having as a part of their curriculum two hours of opera.  They just listened to it, and nobody mucked around.  It was all taken very seriously, but they enjoyed it.  Except for those few who wanted to study it very seriously, it is just a sing-song time, or a bit of history of music.  But nobody takes an exam in it as such, and it isn’t taken seriously.  Therefore, there’s no preparation for opera, and there is this blankness for most people of what it is.  The average person, when you say you’re an opera singer, thinks Callas or Pavarotti.  There are these key names which one finds because they’ve have had great exposure on the telly.  I just feel that our education system doesn’t prepare anybody to accept it.  To an extent you’re a freak, if you’re interested.

BD:   So how do we change it?  How do we rectify it?

FP:   I don’t know what your system is in America, but I feel very strongly in England that our education system is far too narrow in many directions.  We specialize after about three years in what we call Grammar School, which means at the age of fourteen the seal is set.  Usually it is the arts versus science.  There’s not much mixing of the two, even now, and if you do that, that means if you veer to the arts side you’re totally ignorant of sciences, and unless you’re obviously very gifted at art or music, that doesn’t figure at all in our system.  It’s better than it used to be, but there is not even an opportunity for children to show their prize if they’re not sports-minded.  We don’t do sports in the way that you do in this country, but in my day, unless you did sports you weren’t given a chance to contribute anything to the school musically or artistically or theatrically.  If you happened to be wonderful at poetry, there was no prize, and it was all dismissed as something a bit weird, and I think that’s a terrible shame.  We’ve got to the computer age, and we’ve got to have Math and Sciences, but a much more balanced education to a much later stage would help all of us prepare for a life which would therefore involve wider interests.  If you weren’t actually brilliant at running or tennis or some other sport, it was a shame that you couldn’t show that there was another side of you that could contribute something.  I’m sure your system is very different...

BD:   ...yes, it is little more general...

FP:   ...which I think is marvelous.

BD:   You have to take some music, some sports, some sciences, some history, some literature...

FP:   I approve of that.  But I didn’t realize that you’re not government sponsored at all for the arts.

BD:   There’s a little bit of support, but not a great deal.  There’s the National Endowment for the Arts, and that helps out a little bit, but it’s certainly not any kind of major subsidy.

FP:   It was explained to me when I asked why there were not more orchestral rehearsals for Katya, which is so difficult.  I was told that in this country, you yourselves have to pay for these expensive orchestral rehearsals.  The amount you raise on your opera is fantastic.  That’s American organization for you, which we are fast going to have to imitate in our country, so all honor to you.  You have the greatest orchestras in the world, and some of the greatest things going on here, but it’s by sheer sponsorship and hard work on the part of a small number of people, which is extraordinary.  Look at the audiences that you’re getting for the prices!  It’s a huge house to fill, and an incredible number of people are going to things.

palmer BD:   We have 3,600 seats, and most of the performances are sold out.  That’s seven or eight performances of each opera.  Danny Newman is responsible for the idea of a subscription audience at Lyric Opera.

FP:   It’s just staggering, actually, and they’re not cheap seats.

At this point, we stopped for a moment, and I asked her to record a Station Break.

FP:   Hello, this is Felicity Palmer, and youre listening to Classical 97, WNIB in Chicago.  [Giggles]  Oh, that’s fun!  I’ve heard it so many times. [Both laugh]  It’s a good program.  I enjoy it, and there is just a little interspersing of adverts now and then, but not too much, which is very good.  I was so surprised to switch it on almost the first day I was here and I thought, Oh, it’s radio, and there’s music!

BD:   There are just the two stations in Chicago that do classical music, plus many other stations with other formats.

FP:   Yes.  Your Channel 11 [the PBS television station] is wonderful.  It’s restored my faith in American television, which I only object to because of breaks for adverts.  I’ve been catching up, actually.  I haven’t watched TV at home for ages because I’ve been busy.  I wrote to my parents and I told them that I finally saw Monty Python, which I’d never seen.

BD:   That program is terrific.  I’m kind of a Python freak...

FP:   Just before I came away, I said, to my shame, that I’d never watched a complete episode of Monty Python.  So what did I see on Channel 11, but Monty Python the first Sunday I was here.  I’m not absolutely hooked, but some of it’s quite funny.

BD:   About a year ago, I finally got a video tape machine from a friend of mine.  I’m always at work on Sunday night, so now I set it up and record Monty Python, and Dave Allen, and The Two Ronnies.

FP:   Oh, The Two Ronnies!  You get those are well?  They’re great, aren’t they?  [She laughs] They are quite funny.  Monty Python is fairly risqué in places, isn’t it?

BD:   It can be, but it’s become quite a cult thing.

FP:   So I gather.  I met a girl in a sports club who said to me,
Oh, you’re from England.  Do you watch Monty Python?  I was able to say yes, having watched it over here in Chicago!  [Much laughter]  But they’ve been quite a big success in America from what I gather.  John Cleese we know.  Have you seen Fawlty Towers?

BD:   [With much enthusiasm]  Oh, yes, that’s another one!

FP:   That’s a wonderful series.  
As I say, I’m well up on what goes on on the BBC now, so I can keep up with my father when I go home, because I never watch television at home.  I always think it’s going down the drainwhich it isbut some of them are quite good...

The conversation then devolved into quoting various gags and punch lines from these series,
and we had a wonderful laugh at it all.  I then thanked my guest for her kindness,
and she said that she had enjoyed our get-together very much.


See my interviews with Thomas Hampson, and George Guest


See my interview with Simon Estes


See my interviews with Thomas Moser, and John Mitchinson


© 1986 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in Chicago on November 19, 1986.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB the following year, and again in 1994 and 1990, and 2000.  This transcription was made in 2018, and posted on this website at the beginning of 2019.  My thanks to British soprano Una Barry for her help in preparing this website presentation.

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.

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.