Soprano Wilhelmenia Fernandez
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie
Wilhelmenia Fernandez was born in Philadelphia on January
1, 1949. Her early training was at the Philadelphia Academy of Vocal
Arts, followed by a scholarship at the Juilliard School of Music in New
York City. Her operatic debut was as Bess in Porgy and Bess, for
Houston Grand Opera, in a production which toured both the U.S. and Europe. She
appeared in the 1981 film Diva by French director Jean-Jacques Beineix.
She made her début in Paris as Musetta in La bohème
(with Plácido Domingo and Dame Kiri Te Kanawa), and
at the New York City Opera in the same role in 1982. Since then she
has sung in operas and recitals in cities all over the world.
Her more notable roles have been the title roles in Carmen,
Carmen Jones (for which she received the Laurence Olivier
Theatre Award in 1992 as Best Actress in a Musical), and Aïda
(a role she has performed in Luxor and at the Egyptian pyramids). She
has also made recordings of George Gershwin songs and of Negro spirituals.
Besides Diva, she performed on the soundtrack of Someone
to Watch Over Me.
== Names which are links on this page refer
to my interviews elsewhere on my website. BD
Wilhelmenia Fernandez was in Chicago in October of 1987 to
perform with the Chicago Sinfonietta, led by Paul Freeman. She
sang Ah Perfido, Op. 65 of Beethoven, and an aria from La Wally,
which she had sung in the movie Diva. The orchestra had
recently been formed, and she commented on their unity of sound. “It
sounds like they’ve been playing together for years, and years, and
years, and that’s good because I have worked with orchestras who have
been around for years, and years, and years, and they sound like they’re
sight-reading. So it was very refreshing.”
On a day between rehearsals, she graciously agreed to meet with
me in a quiet restaurant for an interview . . . . .
Bruce Duffie: Thank you very much for taking
time from a very busy schedule.
Wilhelmenia Fernandez: This is my relaxation
day. If I weren’t doing this, I’d be in the store shopping,
so this is safer for everybody! [Laughter]
BD: Do you like being a wandering minstrel?
Fernandez: Yes! Yes, I do!
It’s pleasurable, and I’m one of those few that gets to do what they
like with the career, and with the life-time, so it’s nice.
BD: Has the career been developing the
way you wanted?
Fernandez: Exactly, almost to the letter.
You have goals for yourself that you want to be here, and doing
this sort of thing by the year 2000! I’ve had to move some of
my dates because I made those calls, but they’re happy. It just
wasn’t time yet, but it’ll happen.
BD: You’re an opera singer and a concert
singer. How do you divide your career between those two phases?
Fernandez: The different performances come
in to my management. Mostly what’s happening this rest of this
year, the latter part of 1987,
is being completed with concerts and recitals. Starting
last January up until the end of July, I had only opera to do, so it’s
worked out very well this year. But during the year, I’m able
to mix concerts with the opera, depending on what opera I’m having to
sing. Certainly, I’m not going to do Aïda one week, or for
three weeks, and then jump into something Wagnerian
— which I don’t even sing anyway
— because that would be disastrous.
But having a mixture of the two, and certainly being able to have a
rest with a recital or a concert, is quite helpful and healthy for me.
BD: Healthy for the voice?
BD: Do you ever feel that you’re a slave
to the voice?
Fernandez: No, not really, because since
age seven I’ve only ever wanted to sing. I began singing then, and
at thirteen I saw my first opera. Then that’s all I’ve ever wanted
to do was be an opera singer, or a concert soloist, and I just went about
in creating that. I never thought I was really a slave to the voice.
I know I speak of it sometimes as a separate entity
— myself and then the voice
— but we are one.
BD: Your voice dictates which roles you
will sing. Do you like the characters that the voice imposes
Fernandez: Yes, and it only dictates for
a while, certainly until you get into a vocal maturity to move on to
something else. You can make the voice lighter for a particular
role, and you can make it heavier and darker for a particular role.
But it’s quite chancy, because in doing that, you are stretching the
vocal cords one way or the other, and that you don’t want to do.
You just want to mature gradually and evenly, so you don’t force at any
rate to do one or the other, to go deeper, or to go higher, or to go lighter,
but it can be done.
BD: How do you decide which roles you will
accept, and which roles you will either postpone or decline completely?
Fernandez: I go by ear, first of all.
I listen to different recordings of the role, and with the score I’m
able to determine vocally whether or not I’m ready to do it. In
doing just an aria, you don’t get a full picture of what you can do with
it. You have to listen to it, and you have to read through the score
with a coach to really determine whether or not you have the stamina and
the maturity to go through it. That’s how I decide it. Wagnerian
roles are still too heavy for me to do, so I won’t even attempt those.
I am now moving into Verdi repertoire. I attempted to do some Puccini,
but for me he is still heavier than singing Verdi. So I’m taking
more time to develop into that kind of a more dramatic soprano. In
singing Verdi, I can still keep my lyrical control and my legato line
going, more so than I can with Puccini. But it’s a different progression,
and it’s nice watching it grow and develop. You have to take your
time. I only do one Puccini role a year, and the rest are Verdi or
Mozart. Mozart is probably the healthiest to sing.
BD: Tell me the secret of singing Mozart.
Fernandez: Oh, there is no secret.
If there is a secret, I don’t know it yet! [Both laugh] He
needs a lot of discipline, but it’s a totally different discipline than
doing Verdi or any other composer.
BD: How so?
Fernandez: He’s a lighter composer.
He’s more fluid. You have to have a lot of agility and flexibility
to the voice, and, in having that, you must also be light. You
can’t take a lot of weight or heavy tones into the upper register in
singing. You’ll never finish the opera. You’ll never get through
it, so it’s just a matter of re-thinking how to stay light. It’s
very soothing on the voice because the voice is constantly moving. You
just stay healthier for some reason, and you don’t feel as tired at
the end of evening... at least I don’t. [Both laugh] So, maybe
I’m still doing it correctly.
BD: Hopefully you’ll always do it correctly!
BD: Do you change your technique at all from
a small house to a big house, or from a concert hall to the opera house?
Fernandez: I try not to change technique,
because technique is something you should be able to fall back on in
any kind of circumstance. The technique remains rather steady
and steadfast. You can’t change acoustics in either a concert
hall or an opera house. There is no way you can do it, so you
have to adjust. If there’s wood, you try to use the wood if there’s
a lot of wood around. That’s very helpful because the voice can
resonate on that. If there’s carpeting and velvet you have problems,
because that absorbs a lot. You just hope for the best, and try to
find the live spot on stage, and go for it. [Both laugh]
BD: And work with your projection?
Fernandez: And work with projection, exactly.
* * *
BD: Which is the role you’ve sung perhaps
Fernandez: In opera, it’s a toss-up between
Aïda and Musetta, which are two opposites, but I’ve had a great
deal of success in both.
BD: Let’s talk about each of them in turn.
Tell me about the Ethiopian Princess. What kind of woman
Fernandez: She’s a very complex woman.
She’s a princess. I don’t play her as a slave. I play
her character not quite not the same as Amneris, because Amneris is
a higher-being in this case. But Aïda does have a personality
that she has to bring out, that of being a princess in her own right.
She is being torn between two loves
— her love of country, and her love of a man who is
BD: Does she feel that she is a victim being
torn this way?
Fernandez: She is a victim. Her own
country makes her a victim, and she is used and manipulated by her own
father. In order to win the war, her father has to use her, and
so she is a victim of that. She is a victim of the time, too.
She’s also a victim of Radamès, who is also trying to use her.
He loves her, but at the same time, he does a little bit of manipulating
at the beginning — at
least up until the third act, when he really does succumb to his love
for her. He does forsake everything for her, and I don’t think
for a minute he really expected ever to get caught. He would go
off if there was a different fourth act, or a fifth act in this opera.
But all of that has to be portrayed. Musetta, on the other hand,
has fun. She’s carefree, and a very loving person. She
is also very caring.
BD: Then why is she so combative with her
Fernandez: Oh, that’s just the flirtation
she has to go through. That’s the game she plays. That’s
what she feeds on! But when it really comes down to it, Musetta’s
the one who takes charge of the situation about helping Mimì
by selling jewelry in order to get medicine. She even helps Rodolfo
and Marcello see what kind of woman Mimì is. Musetta is
a genuine person that can care and can feel, and it certainly comes
out in the last act, in the prayer that she sings right before the medicine
is being prepared. That is very, very touching if you really stop
to think about what’s going there. This woman has stopped a moment,
and she’s praying! It’s really quite a moving moment.
BD: What happens to Musetta in the ‘fifth
Fernandez: [Laughs] In the ‘fifth
act’ she’s lives happily ever after with Marcello,
because she makes that a promise to Mimì. Mimì makes
Marcello and Musetta promise that they would be happy.
BD: Are they really happy after that?
Fernandez: There’s a little turbulence
every once in a while! [Both laugh] I like this turbulence.
BD: So you enjoy playing these roles?
Fernandez: Yes, I do. I enjoy the different
characters. I don’t like being type-cast into one particular
character. After a while, you can only bring so much to the role,
but I like being able to create a different characterization, and build
each one because I’m always learning how to do that. I can’t play
Musetta as I play Aïda, or as I play Leonora in Il Trovatore.
They are separate women, and are all heroines in their own right.
BD: These are all strong women.
BD: Do you like playing strong women?
Fernandez: Yes, yes, yes! I am preparing
Tosca now, which is probably the strongest role that I’ll undertake...
no, I shouldn’t say ever undertake, because there are still a few that
I haven’t done yet that I will do. This will be my third production
of Tosca, which will be taking place in Prague in the spring.
In preparing her for this particular time, I’m finding different
things than I did the last two times. So it’s nice being able to
watch the learning process, and watch the growth that I’m making.
It’s very interesting because the first time I sang it, that’s what I
did — I simply sang
the role of Tosca.
BD: That was all?
Fernandez: That was all. I didn’t
really go into depth about the strength that Tosca can have, and does
have, and has to pull off. She has to be a very strong woman, and
a very manipulative woman.
BD: She has to out-manipulate Scarpia.
Fernandez: Yes she does, and that comes
out musically and vocally. I don’t do it so much dramatically,
or by using a lot of body language, because it can be done, and should
be done, vocally, just with nuances and being able to lighten the voice,
and make it as strong as possible when she needs to be strong.
BD: In any opera, where is the balance between
the music and the drama?
Fernandez: [Laughs] When does one take
over from the other? When in doubt, be dramatic! [Both
laugh] There’s a lot of music out there that one can get very, very
involved in. You can forget vocally what you’re doing, and the
dramatic will take over. At that point you’ve already crossed
the line, and it can be a little dangerous. I remember during
my first production of Tosca... Luckily it was in a rehearsal
situation, where during the stabbing of Scarpia I was so dramatic.
At that point, I had already crossed the line, and I could not drop the knife.
I was kneeling over the body, and I was just shaking. It took
five minutes for the director to come over and calm me down, and calm my
hand. I was just that intense into what I was doing.
BD: [Quietly moving the chair slightly farther
away from my guest] I should warn all baritones that they’re in
mortal danger! [Both laugh]
Fernandez: I thanked God this was a rehearsal.
I can’t imagine what I would have done had that been a performance
situation. I was happy it came out there, because then I knew it
was time to pull back and do something differently. I learned that
I was able to take it to the most extreme, and then I could bring it back,
and re-channel that new-found energy.
* * *
BD: Do you sing any of your roles in translation?
Fernandez: No, I’ve not had to do that.
BD: Is it a good idea to translate opera?
Fernandez: I don’t like translating them,
I really don’t. I feel that it does lose something in the translation.
It was written in Italian, and it’s so lyrical, so why do you want to
mess with it? [Both laugh] Why change it? I’ve tried
it in French and it didn’t work. I really didn’t like it.
BD: You don’t like to have an extra step
closer to the audience for these characters?
Fernandez: No, it’s their turn to do their
homework. They can read. It’s okay to have the libretto,
and they should do their homework before coming to the opera. When
a translation is used, I think you’re asking the performers to not bring
everything that they can bring to it. They want us to bring it down
to their level instead of coming up to our level, and I don’t think it’s
BD: Have you seen this new gimmick with
the supertitles in the theater? [Remember, this conversation
took place in 1987, when supertitles were just starting to be used in
a lot of theaters.]
Fernandez: Yes, and I find it quite interesting.
I was one of those people who was very optimistic about how it was going
to work, and so I purposely went to a performance that had the supertitles.
I was waiting to be convinced, and I was thoroughly convinced about
BD: Oh, good!
Fernandez: I was happy about that, because
by sitting in the audience and watching the supertitles, I was much
more in touch with what was happening on stage and with the singers.
I also found that people around me were more interested in what was happening
throughout the entire evening. During the intermission they were
discussing what just happened, and what they just saw, and they were looking
forward to act two and act three, and not where they were going to have
dinner or drinks after the performance. I said to one of them,
“That’s great, because we’re up there trying to
create a story, and we can’t really do our job thoroughly unless you
are with us.” So it worked out well, and
I was convinced. On the other hand, it gets a little hair-raising
sometimes when the English does not translate word for word what you’re
singing about. In Trovatore we were singing about the sword
and the daggers, and the men on stage had guns. [Laughs]
BD: Whose fault was that? Is it the
one who has done the translation for the titles, or is is it the director
for putting in the guns instead of swords?
Fernandez: I’m going to blame the director
in this case, because it was an updated version of Trovatore.
It was not the traditional setting. It was updated to the Spanish
Civil War period, and when the titles arrived, the opera company was
not licensed to tamper with the translation. So it had to remain.
Basically, ninety-nine per cent of it was correct, but that other
one per cent was a little shaky.
BD: Let’s talk a little bit about the directors.
Do you like the ideas that modern producers have come up with in the
last twenty or thirty years?
Fernandez: It could be very dangerous for me
to answer that! [Both laugh]
BD: Without mentioning any specific names...
Fernandez: [Thinks a moment] Some of
them work, but some of them are a bit too avant-garde. If you
have people who are attending opera for the first time, they’re missing
something if they’re not able to see a traditional performance, because
in seeing an updated production and a new idea, they have nothing to compare
it with. They’re not really getting the beauty of the work, because
the music was written in that period, and its poetic language is trying
to be translated to the audience. When you update it, some of that
is lost. Actually, a great deal of that can be lost, and you find
yourself having to change the text, and you are not being true to the composer.
It’s a thin line that you walk when you try and do that.
BD: But some of them are very successful?
Fernandez: Some of them are very successful,
yes. Last year I did a performance of Aïda in Nice,
which was updated to a timeless period of the year 3000. It was
taking place on a planet somewhere in the galaxy, and the costumes were
all black leather and chains. It was a little strange, and the whole
mental attitude of the singers had to change, because here we were talking
about an Ethiopian slave and an Egyptian princess, who are supposed to
be young girls who are fifteen or sixteen years old, and now we have to
re-think this whole situation of the year 3000! How does one think
in the year 3000 with leather and very exotic animals? [Laughs]
BD: How did the director handle the
Fernandez: We suffocated under plastic bags
which we put on our heads. It’s a little bizarre, but you’re
also asking your audience to wipe out everything they’ve seen before,
and look at this new concept.
BD: Are you optimistic about the future
Fernandez: A bit. I would like to see
it remain as it is, meaning very traditional. I’m one who is from
the Old School. I like the old ways of learning, of teaching, and
of theater. The traditional ways of opera have been so beautiful.
I know it continues to be very expensive to do opera that way because
costumes are phenomenal now, and orchestra fees are expensive. Artists’
fees are also growing, so it is a lot to consider, but there’s still a place
for it, certainly. I don’t think it ever will completely die out.
BD: What is the place of opera in society?
Fernandez: How do you mean?
BD: In the philosophical sense, what is
the purpose of music or opera in society today?
Fernandez: It has a language of past, present
and future, and it’s a way of keeping our tradition going. It’s
a European tradition, and I know Americans are trying to get closer to
the European style of living. It’s comforting, it’s enjoyable,
it’s entertainment, and it’s fulfilling.
BD: You used a word I want to pounce on,
Where’s the balance between the entertainment value and the artistic achievement?
Fernandez: [Thinks a moment] You have
the artistic beauty with the vocal beauty, and with the dramatic beauty
you are entertaining. You are portraying a story. The
difference between opera and seeing a play is that the opera is set
to music, so it’s dramatic that way. A play or musical comedy
is also entertainment. It does have music, and it may have a
happier medium to it, but Mozart operas are funny too. The Marriage
of Figaro is hilarious.
BD: In that opera, which role do you
sing — the Countess
Fernandez: Oh, the Countess! I’m not
quite dainty enough to do Susanna! [Both laugh]
BD: Tell me about the Countess. Is
she still happy with the Count at all?
Fernandez: [Laughs] I don’t know.
With all these strong characters I’m singing I think not, but she would
whip him into shape. [Both laugh] But yes, they have an
understanding. It’s almost what you would have today... it’s
okay, and as long as it’s not in front of me perhaps I could tolerate
BD: Does she really forgive him in the
Fernandez: Yes, I do. I always forgive
BD: It’s interesting because this is one
of the very few characters in opera where I don’t have to ask you what
happens in the ‘fifth act’.
We know what happens. She goes off and has a child with Cherubino.
[Beaumarchais wrote a trilogy: The Barber of Seville (which
is known through the opera by Rossini), The Marriage of Figaro,
and La Mère Coupable (The Guilty Mother), which was made into
an opera in 1966 by Milhaud, but is virtually unknown.] Because
we know that, should there be any special interplay in between the Countess
and Cherubino that would hint at what is coming in the next play?
Fernandez: No, no. I like the space, and
the mystery and the wondering.
BD: What other Mozart do you sing? Donna
Anna in Don Giovanni?
Fernandez: No! I do Donna Elvira because
she is much, much stronger than Anna would ever be. I don’t want
to say Anna is a wimp, but she’s not a strong character at all.
She’s indecisive. She doesn’t know what she wants. She is
dependent a lot, and in life I am not dependent.
BD: Is Donna Anna still a virgin, because
Donna Elvira is certainly not.
Fernandez: No, Elvira is not, but actually
neither is Anna. In all of her rage, I think deep down Anna is
waiting Giovanni for to come back to her. She seeks him out,
and she did have that one fling with him at the beginning of the opera.
She keeps putting Ottavio off because her real passion is with Giovanni.
She’s waiting for somebody, if not Giovanni, then someone to come
along like him, and Ottavio is certainly not it! [Both laugh]
That’s why she keeps putting him off.
BD: So Ottavio a real wimp?
Fernandez: Yes, he is, because if he had
any real guts he’d say, “This is how it’s going
to be, and we are going to be married. I will take care of you,
even if I’m killed in the process. Enough of this!”
BD: Let’s talk about Elvira. She’s madly
in love with Giovanni?
Fernandez: Yes, she is, and she prays to the
gods that all of the vengeance be cast on her and not him. In the
aria Mi Tradì, she’s cursing him again, saying, “Why
did you leave me? You’re a traitor, and you’re an infidel, but
it doesn’t have to be this way. Let me love you. I love you
so much. Let all of the gods’ wrath be turned on me so you’ll be
spared for me.” It’s all in her mind because
she is a crazy lady! [Much laughter] But she does love him.
BD: Obviously that’s not the real you. That
is Donna Elvira, but you’ve got to portray all that on the stage.
Fernandez: [With a broad smile] Yes,
BD: Is there any character that is perhaps
slightly too close to the real Wilhelmenia Fernandez?
Fernandez: [Thinks again] I don’t know.
The more I’m learning, Tosca is getting closer and closer and closer
to what I think I am about. I say that because of the aria Vissi
d’Arte. I know that my life is geared to art, and without
that I would just be floundering. I don’t know what I’d be doing.
Maybe I’d be happily married and raising children, but I live for art,
and art lives for me. It’s there for me to have a niche in life,
and I’m out there making my footprints in the sand.
BD: It’s a complete life for you?
Fernandez: Yes, yes. It’s an interesting
balance between my artistic life and family life, because I do have a
fourteen-year-old daughter. It’s quite something having a career,
and watching that, and letting that be almost ninety per cent of my life,
and it’s bad to say it this way, but then you squeeze in ten per cent for
a daughter. [Laughs] It’s not really that way at all.
It’s not even fifty-fifty because I receive everything. I’m most happy
performing, but I am as happy with my daughter, and raising her, and creating
a home and life for her. Without any hesitation, if anything should
happen where I couldn’t sing, or if it started getting in the way of her
life, I would close the score in a second. There would be no second
thoughts about it.
BD: You would table the career and come
back to it later?
Fernandez: Or not come back to it later.
BD: [Very surprised] Really???
Fernandez: I have been fulfilled this far, so
I would never have to say, “Well, I could have
done such-and-such, and if I had continued with it, I might have been
this far in my career.” If something happened
vocally right this minute, I could honestly and truthfully say that
I was blessed for a moment of time to have been able to witness such
a career, and such a gift of God. I have nothing to be envious
of anyone else being able to continue on the career. I did have
BD: I do hope it goes on for many, many
Fernandez: So do I! [Both laugh]
* * *
BD: Have you made some recordings?
Fernandez: Yes. The first recording is
Negro Spirituals [shown above-left], and the second recording is
of Gershwin songs. Of course, there’s the recording of the sound
track of my Diva, and I’ve sung one song on a jazz album.
It’s not a complete album of myself, but it is performed by Jamaaladeen
Tacuma with a bass guitarist. He wrote a lovely song called The
Bird of Paradise, which is no more than a vocalise, and it is beautiful.
[Album is shown above-right.] He contacted me and asked
me if I would perform it, so I listened to it and it’s just lovely!
That’s the only input I have on jazz. I’m not a crossover artist
BD: Are you pleased with these recordings
that are out?
Fernandez: I think they could be better, and
again I’m saying that just through listening and reading different critiques
about them, where vocally they were letter perfect. The critics even
mentioned that but, for instance, the Spirituals. They were too
perfect! They didn’t really have a spiritual sound to them. I
don’t want to say ‘Gospel sound’
because it’s not Gospel singing, but I was very conscious of diction,
and one shouldn’t be that cautious with diction in spirituals. They
can lend themselves to being a little more dialectic. The Gershwin,
again, was very polished singing, and most of the critics that I was reading
were saying that they would have liked to hear a more pop-sounding
voice. But I don’t have a pop voice, and I wasn’t going to go to
that extreme to make the record more popular, because it is very popular
in Europe. It’s been released for a couple of years now, but
distribution has been quite bizarre. It was more polished, and
perhaps not sultry enough for some listeners, but it was sultry enough
for me. That’s all I can say about that one.
BD: By being in the film, does that attract
more audience to opera because of your presence in it?
Fernandez: Oh yes, certainly! That was
one of the main reasons why I did the film. I didn’t know it then,
but I thought that I would be able use it as a vehicle of introducing
classical music and opera, even some drama
— not that I’m acting much in the film
— to a completely different audience
who are probably not accustomed to going to the opera or hearing classical
music. More and more, I find in doing recitals and concerts that
the audience is younger and younger, and it’s because they have seen the
film. They come backstage afterward and they say they’re only here
because of me. They saw the film, and it was wonderful, and it really
intrigued them enough to want to come and see a live performance or a recital
or a concert. Not only are they coming to see me, but they say they’re
going to see some other people, and that’s great! So, I’ve tapped
on a few people.
BD: Are there any other films coming
Fernandez: Yes, I’ve just completed work on Gluck’s
Orfeo ed Euridice in Stuttgart.
BD: You are singing Euridice [shown below]?
Fernandez: Yes, and Orfeo is a young lady by the name
of Graciella Araya, who is South American, but I don’t know which
country. It’s not coming to the theater. It’s just going to
be released on video cassette.
BD: Do you feel that opera works well on a small screen,
or the large screen?
Fernandez: Yes, I do. It’s moving
in that direction where you’re going to be seeing more and more opera
on television and up on screen. I enjoy the work of Zeffirelli
in Traviata, and also Carmen, and Otello. It’s
time for that kind of exposure to opera. I don’t think it’s hurt
in any way being on the screen. Nothing is going to ever replace the
die-hards who want to see a live performance, and the performers are still
there to do live performances. I don’t think it’s all going to end
up on 35mm film, or something like that.
BD: Do you sing differently for the
Fernandez: No, I would sing the same way in the
playback, though it’s a little different. It has to be different.
You’re hearing yourself, and then you have to lip-sync to that, and
the synchronization is certainly much different because you have a just
a slight delay, and you tend to exaggerate the mouth movement so it doesn’t
appear that you just speaking the words instead of actually singing
the words. But then again, you’re not really singing. You’re
just lip-synching. It’s interesting.
BD: Do you sing any contemporary opera at all?
Fernandez: [Laughs] No.
BD: Would you?
Fernandez: [Laughs again] Probably
not. The most contemporary piece I’ve ever done
was called Dreamcaller by Joseph Schwantner.
It would have been a few years ago. It was contemporary, but it
wasn’t so atonal that you couldn’t understand it, and you couldn’t
follow it. It was still very lyrical and very nice, and I enjoyed
doing that. At one point when I was in school and studying, I thought
maybe one day I’d be singing The Medium [by Gian Carlo Menotti] some
place, but I don’t really lean towards that so much. I like the
standbys which are tried and true.
BD: You mentioned Wagner a couple of times.
Do you long to sing anything of his?
Fernandez: No, never! I’ve sat through
the Ring cycle several times, and still wonder what’s just happened.
This music is so repetitive. It just goes on and on and on!
It never stops! I don’t think I want to get into that kind of turnstile!
BD: I take it you won’t sing any minimalist
Fernandez: No. I was going to try
and go to the performance tonight [Satyagraha by Philip Glass at Lyric Opera],
and then I was informed that the tickets were $80, and I don’t think
I want to see it quite that badly! But it all depends. I might
change my mind in the next hour or so. [Both laugh] I really
would like to see it. I’ve heard a few people say it’s really
BD: Thank you for being a singer!
Fernandez: [Laughs] Thank you!
Without people such as yourself to sit there and encourage, and applaud,
we could not do it. Even the critics can be very important in helping
guide a singer as to what’s right and what’s wrong, what’s good and what’s
going to be bad. I look at them both ways, and the ones I can’t
use, I just toss away.
BD: I assume that most of your reviews have
been good and favorable.
Fernandez: [Laughs] Most of them have,
but I’ve had my share of not-so-good ones. Being brutally honest
with myself, I had to read them, and I often had to say he was right.
BD: Then you learn from it?
Fernandez: You do! You learn from that, and
you don’t do that again. Or you get back with the coach, and you
fix whatever you thought was going wrong at that particular time.
You hear yourself, but you don’t really listen to yourself. Because
I do the singing and thinking, I feel that I’m sounding wonderful.
Someone else can listen and they really hear what you’re doing.
You don’t really hear yourself or listen to yourself. You’re pleasing
yourself because you’re putting out, and you’re producing a sound that
you think you want to hear, and what you think you should be sounding
like, and it doesn’t come across to the listener
quite that way all the time.
BD: You need another set of ears to listen?
Fernandez: You do. Every once in a
while you need that set which says to watch out. That thing’s not
quite right. It’s not major, but you can help yourself a little
by doing this with that.
BD: Do you still go to the coach all
Fernandez: Yes. It’s the one way of getting
a good start on a particular role, or even on an art song. You
have to get to a coach to discuss it. You discuss the period that
you’re singing in, and the character if there’s a character to be had.
You also try to find out what motivated that particular composer to write
the way he wrote, and to see what liberties you can or cannot take with
it. Going to a coach and working with a coach is multi-faceted.
A good coach can be very, very valuable because there’s so much information
they can pass on to you. It’s strange and it’s wonderful how much
more he can still give me about the particular role. We worked on
Tosca last year. Now we’re getting it ready again, and I’m still
finding a flood of information that this character is able to give me.
It’s more than just how to sing on the principal and not on the interest.
It’s wonderful now. I can sit back and realize I’m not totally
expended at the end of the second act. I still have somewhere to
go with the character. It’s how to use nuances,
but even more to create the character and to create that kind of mysteriously
strong woman that we’re trying to do without it being so vocal. There
can be a lot of drama in a whisper, as well as a very significant explosion
on a note. It can be really thrilling! Sometimes it all depends
on how you do it. We’ve tried it various ways, and you find the one
that’s going to work for you.
* * *
BD: What’s the next new role that you’ll
be singing for the first time?
Fernandez: I don’t have a new role
I’m working on this year. This year I do Aïda, Tosca, and Faust.
BD: Do you sing any other French repertoire?
Fernandez: No. Faust is about it, and
this is really going to be quite a feat for myself because I sing it
in French and had a wonderful success with it in France. Now I
will be singing it in Belgium in French. The general manager of the
house is really taking a wonderful chance. I like working with him,
and he likes working with me. He likes my work, and this is my third
year back there.
BD: This is in Brussels?
Fernandez: No, in Liège. I
love Liège. It’s a way of them really accepting me that
I can sing their French now! Belgian French is a little different
from Parisian French. Not that much, just a little, and the
dialect is a little deeper. [Pauses a moment to remember her last
visit to the Windy City] The last time I was here in Chicago, I did
a voice-over on a Cheer commercial. In fact, that was just a
couple of months ago.
BD: [Somewhat amazed] Cheer, the laundry
BD: Do you like doing commercials? [Note
that very early in his career, Sherrill Milnes did commercials
for Marlboro cigarettes, and a few other products.]
Fernandez: It was my first, and I’m not
BD: It’s just a voice-over?
Fernandez: Yes. You just hear the
voice, and it was very nice. It didn’t take any time at all.
I’m doing the last eight measures of the aria from the film Diva.
BD: [With a gentle nudge] You’re not
singing the Cheer jingle???
Fernandez: [Laughs] No, I’m singing behind
the action. It’s called ‘The Ice Cream Commercial’
because the gentleman walks on with a handkerchief, puts ice cream
on the handkerchief, and pours the Cheer in. He washes it the
whole time I’m singing, and at the climax of the aria he whips it out
and it’s totally clean. He puts it in his pocket and walks off with
the ice cream! [Both laugh]
BD: Should opera be used to sell laundry
Fernandez: Do you really think it’s being used to
sell it? It’s a voice-over, and classical music has been invaded
so much. Now it’s in everything you pick up, or you even listen
to. It’s in a number of films. I hate to say this at this late
date, but I was introduced to the Four Last Songs of Strauss
just from watching a film! [Laughs] Really! I heard
the music and it was so gorgeous.
BD: Have you begun to sing them?
Fernandez: I’m preparing them. I’m starting
on them. That’s another whole realm of discipline in singing, because
you have to have support and breath control of life, as they say.
You really do because they’re only beautiful when you can sustain a
note like that, and keep the legato line. It’s a beautiful challenge
to get oneself to be able to do that the way it should be done. I’ve
heard a number of ladies sing them on recording, and I’m not that pleased
with any of them. [Both laugh] They come close, so it’s time
for me to do it correctly! [More laughter]
BD: Is this is the way every singer should
think — that everyone
else does it very well, but I can do it just a little better?
Fernandez: You should have that kind of motivation,
certainly. It’s difficult enough when you’re sitting in an opera,
and you know the role that’s being sung by another soprano. You
wonder why she is doing it that way, because you always feel that you
can do it better, or at least you would do it differently. The majority
of the time you can do it better, but you can’t do it all. You
can’t sing it all. You have to let someone else do some of them.
BD: [Trying to be helpful] You
should go to operas in which you have no part!
Fernandez: That’s not as interesting, because even
though you want to do that, you’re also very interested in the competition.
You’re interested in colleagues, and want to know how they’re doing.
I don’t tend to get envious of colleagues and peers because I am strong
enough in my own will that I know what I can do. I can only sing
and use the voice of Wilhelmenia Fernandez. I’ll never be able
to sing like Leontyne Price or Jessye Norman, or someone like that
— which was the first lesson that
BD: I hope that the Four Last Songs opens
up a whole new area for you as you progress going into some of the Strauss
heroines. Being selfish, I would like to hear you do them.
Fernandez: You realize that if I can conquer
just one of them, then I can start taking steps into moving into something
else that is going to be equally as challenging the Strauss repertoire.
It’s beautiful. To be able to do a Marschallin would be a dream
because it is quite a piece. But I haven’t had too many problems or
set-backs with colleagues being envious. There is room for everybody
BD: There’s enough work to go around?
Fernandez: There is enough work, and there
is not enough time to keep looking over one’s shoulder, trying to find
out who’s coming up behind me. Life is going on in front of you,
and I am sure about what I can do. If you’re going to worry about
it, that’s going to be your problem. I don’t have time to worry
about things like that.
BD: What other advice do you have for young
singers coming along?
Fernandez: You have to pay your dues in this
business, and you have to wait your turn. One should use each vehicle
as it’s given to you, and find something positive in it. It’s competitive,
but you can be competitive without being vicious and vindictive about getting
or not getting a particular role. You can be envious, but at the
same time you can do a little more homework about studying a role.
You might not be able to sing it for another ten years, but you have
got to jump on it, study it, do the research on it, learn it musically
instead of vocally first. It is very important to learn music musically.
It’s hard to say you have to wait your turn. That’s the hardest.
The most difficult thing to do is to wait, because you do want to have
a career, and you do want to be singing. Offers will come in.
They may not always be the best, and you have to have wisdom about what’s
going to be good, or what’s going to be harmful. You have to decide
what you want from a career — whether
or not you want a short career or longevity. If you start singing
Wagner at twenty-three, it’s probably going to be a very short career! [Both
laugh] But for longevity, you build slowly as you mature vocally,
and as you mature age-wise. You take your knocks, and roll with the
punches. That’s the only advice I can give. Be yourself.
Be as natural as you can be, because then you don’t have to retrace steps.
BD: That is all good sound advice!
Fernandez: Yes. It’s advice that you
can take to the bank, and you can always lean on. When I was younger,
one of the first concerts that I heard of Leontyne Price was in Philadelphia.
I came home and I was crying. My mother asked why, and I said
that I didn’t ever want to sing again. If I cannot sing like Leontyne
Price, I didn’t ever want to sing again. So my mother handed me
a piece of paper, and a typewriter, and some pencils, and she said I
had better learn how to type because I would never ever sing like Leontyne
Price. She said that if I did want to be a singer, and wanted to
have a career, I must learn what Wilhelmenia can do. That’s all you
do — just be yourself,
because you will never be like anyone else on this Earth. You have
to be yourself first, and be true to yourself, and be honest with yourself.
One person you cannot lie to is yourself. You can do a lot of pretending,
and you can fool a lot of the people, but you can’t fool yourself.
BD: Very wise advice from your mother!
Fernandez: Very, and I’m still thanking
her for it.
BD: Is she proud of you and the way your
career has gone?
Fernandez: Yes, and she’s able to sit back and enjoy
it, just like I’m enjoying it. I bring her to Europe on occasions
when I go, and I can joke and say that she’s really not fond of opera.
But she sees what happiness I get from it, and how I have been
able to bring to it to an audience.
BD: Would she have preferred you to have
been a Gospel singer?
Fernandez: No, no, not at all. She always knew
I was going to be an opera singer. She always encouraged me
to follow that dream, and follow that goal which I had set for myself.
That’s all she ever wanted for me. She does enjoy it when
I sing, and when I go home I still attend the same family church. I’m
asked to get up and sing, and I still do it, and she sits there like a
little peacock spreading her tail! She’s not very boastful about
her daughter the opera singer, or her daughter the film star. It’s
not that at all. As far as I’m concerned, and as far as she is concerned,
I am still her daughter. I’m still Wilhelmenia, and I’ll always be
that. It’s the same for the congregation at the church. It’s
also that way for my daughter and her friends. I’ve met them, and they’ve
come over to the house when I’ve been rehearsing. My daughter is very
conscious about the practice time that I need, and when she does have friends
over she says, “Mom’s rehearsing, so we’ve got to be
real quiet.” Or I’ll just stop and say, “You
guys go ahead, do whatever you want to do. I can pick this up some
other time,” and then I’ll jump in with them. They
don’t always like it, but I do. [Both laugh]
BD: Are you encouraging your daughter to
go into music, or are you discouraging her, and trying to keep her away
Fernandez: I’m probably doing a little more discouraging
than encouraging about singing. She’s fourteen now, and she’s
working on some studies to get a law degree. She wants to be a real
estate attorney. Music-wise, she’s had a year of violin, and
when the newness and the fantasy of playing a violin wore off, and it became
work, and she really had to get down to some serious practicing, it didn’t
quite figure into her game-plan. She’s had three years of tap dancing,
which was the first thing that she ever wanted to do. Those legs
are still kind of kicking, so I might have a dancer in the family.
We’re going to have the first tap dancing real estate attorney in the family...
BD: ...who also plays the violin at weddings!
Fernandez: Right. It’s my job though
to at least introduce her to opera and classical music
— to all music in fact
— and let her pick what she would most
enjoy. Right now, naturally, she enjoys rock ’n roll, and pop music.
BD: Is rock, music?
Fernandez: Hmmm... [With a big smile] I’m
not going to answer that! Today, it isn’t, but that’s what they want
to call music. Rapping is not music. I don’t know what it
is. It’s just talking faster than anyone can understand, but it’s
something for them to listen to, and to relate to right now. But
we have a pact, my daughter and I, that for every two hours she gets to
listen to what she calls music, she has to listen to at least a half an
hour to an hour of what I call music. So, it works out.
BD: That’s a good trade-off?
Fernandez: It is, because, like I said, I don’t force
it on her. It’s an agreement that we arrived at, and you’d be surprised
that on Saturday afternoon when the opera comes on the radio, she will
turn to it just to see what’s on. Her favorite opera is Butterfly,
so she’s constantly trying to search and see if it is coming on this week.
She’ll begin listening to it, and if it’s music that she thinks she’ll like,
she will listen to it.
BD: That’s good. My instinct, of course,
is to get the schedule so she knows when it comes on. But it would
be better for her to listen to a little bit of each one, rather than
say she doesn’t need to listen this week at all.
Fernandez: Right. I told her to listen at least
to the first fifteen minutes, or the first half-hour, and if she truly
doesn’t like it, she doesn’t have to listen to it. But those little
pieces of exposure are important.
BD: Once in a while they’ll grab her.
Fernandez: Yes, yes. She’s extremely
critical of myself, and of other singers.
BD: [Imitating a teenager] “Mom,
you were great tonight, [or] Mom you were terrible tonight!”
BD: [Surprised] Just that way?
Fernandez: Just that way, and she can tell
you where you went wrong.
BD: Oh, dear! [Both laugh]
Fernandez: Oh, dear is right! I have a recording
of one of the recitals that I was singing in Orange, France. When
the overture began for the aria from La Wally, all you can hear
is her voice saying, “Oh no, not that again!”
[Both laugh] People were looking at her with scowls, thinking she
doesn’t like that. It’s not that she doesn’t like it, it’s that she’s
heard it so often. She sometimes asks me, “Do
you have to sing that one again, mom?”
BD: But everybody wants it!
Fernandez: That’s what I said to her. Everybody
is here to hear this particular aria. So she accepts it. She
even walks up to Plácido Domingo and calls him by his first name.
She walks up to Kiri the same way, and Jessye Norman, and Simon Estes because she
knows these people because she’s been with me. She’s been exposed
to it all, and she’s very comfortable in an opera house. She knows
what she likes, and she can come to me and say, “Hmmm…
was everybody okay on stage tonight? Was somebody sick?
Were they all warmed up? They sounded flat, [or] they sounded sharp,
[or] they’re really bad, mom!” [Both laugh]
She might come to me and say, “You were tired, weren’t
you?” I tell her, “Well,
yes, maybe I was.” “Yeah,
mom, you were tired because you didn’t sound on top of the note like you
BD: [Being supportive] But then,
when she says you were brilliant tonight, that must be extra special!
Fernandez: That’s extra special, yes,
and it’s special, too, when she invites friends who aren’t that keen
on opera. She invites them to come to performances because it’s
her mother singing. The friends will say, “That’s
your mother???” [Both laugh] I’ve
been invited by her school to come and do a lecture, and to sing, and
explain what I do for a living.
BD: You’re the show-and-tell for that day!
Fernandez: I was the show-and-tell that
day, and the kids go, “You’re not her mother!
You can’t be. Sheena [the daughter] doesn’t sing.”
So, it’s a different kind of reward when it’s from family. She’s
had to grow with me really, and I’ve grown with her. But she’s probably
had to sacrifice and tolerate more than I’ve had to with her, because I
imposed my way of living on her. She’s had to fit into the mold.
BD: But that was your life, and what you
do for a living.
Fernandez: It was my life, certainly.
BD: And still is?
Fernandez: And still is. I can see the benefit
from it now, and it’s nice because she has had the exposure, and she
is protective, and very guarding. She’s happy. She’s pleased
with what I’m doing. She’s happy and sad to see me go, and she’s
even more happy when I come home. Yesterday I had to leave without
seeing her, and I was almost devastated. That was the first time I
had left without seeing her, so when I got here to the hotel I called home
immediately. I asked her why she didn’t wake me up, and she said, “Because
you were up late the night before packing, and I didn’t want to wake you
before I went to school. I said, “But I didn’t
get my hug, and I didn’t get my kiss, and I missed that,”
and she said, “But I’ll have an extra big one for you
when you come home.” I said, “Okay,
that’s a deal!” So, it makes it all worthwhile.
BD: It’s just a week
that you will be away this time.
Fernandez: It’s just a week, and I told
her, “Had it been longer than that, you would
have had to wake me up!” She said, “Okay,
I promise the next time I’ll wake you up.”
BD: Thank you for coming to Chicago.
I do hope that you will come back.
Fernandez: I hope so too!
BD: Thank you very much for
allowing me to chat with you.
Fernandez: Oh, it’s been my pleasure.
---- ---- ----
© 1987 Bruce Duffie
This conversation was recorded in Chicago, on October 9, 1987.
Portions were broadcast on WNIB in 1994 and 1999.
This transcription was made in 2022, and
posted on this website at that time.
My thanks to British soprano
for her help in preparing this website presentation.
To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed
posted on this website, click here. To
read my thoughts on editing these interviews for print,
as well as a few other interesting observations, click here.
* * * *
broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical
97 in Chicago from
1975 until its final moment as a classical
station in February of 2001. His
interviews have also appeared in various magazines
and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast
series on WNUR-FM,
as well as on Contemporary
Classical Internet Radio.
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
who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.
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