CONVERSATION PIECE :
Soprano SHERI GREENAWALD
By Bruce Duffie
[Originally published in The Opera
Journal in December, 1992.
Photos, bio and links were added for this website presentation.]
Greenawald was in Chicago in February of 1992 for appearances with the
Chicago Symphony and their presentation of the three Da Ponte operas of
Mozart led by the then-new Music Director Daniel Barenboim. [See
my Interviews with
Daniel Barenboim.] With
mostly the cast which appears on the recordings, Greenawald stepped
into the role of Donna Anna in Don
Giovanni. The semi-staged performances were a triumph for
all concerned, and Greenawald would later return to Chicago for roles
at Lyric Opera.
She agreed to meet with me during the CSO engagement, and we chatted a
bit about the need to set and re-set internal clocks, and the necessity
of relying on time . . . . . . .
How much time does it take you each day
to prepare for the theater and be ready when you're going to perform?
I try to eat at least two to
two-and-a-half hours before curtain time. I'm one of the few
singers who eats before rather than after. I won't go out
afterwards anymore because it's so bad for your stomach and for your
weight and so on. Even if I don't go onstage right away, I still
allow that amount of time before the opera begins to build up that
energy. When I go on right at the beginning, I have to allow
enough time to pace and work up some adrenaline.
BD: At what
time do you become the character — when you step
onstage, or while the makeup is going on?
SG: I must belong
to the Laurence Olivier school. I
can be talking to the stagehands two seconds before I go on, and when I
walk on the stage I'm there. Particularly if you've had a good
period, you're so ready for that character that I can just immediately
do it when I'm out there.
BD: You walk
on and switch on.
how I do it.
BD: Do you
walk off and switch off?
much so, but you can't switch off the
adrenaline immediately. There's an enormous amount rushing
your body even at the end, so you don't just automatically relax.
But I don't carry the character home with me. I don't get funky
if I'm doing a depressing role. I know how to act and I just go
and do it. The famous story is from the filming of Marathon
Man with Dustin Hoffman and Laurnece Olivier. Hoffman
two nights in a row to look really tired for the dental scene, and
Olivier said to him, "Why don't just act my boy?"
BD: Does the
music which is always around you in
an opera help you to get into each little acting bit?
particularly in Mozart. He's such a
genius that he gives it to you. You hardly have to think about
character because it's so written into the music. Each character
in each Mozart opera is set up, particularly in the recitatives.
The way he sets the words gives you the whole acting message right
there. All you have to do is physicalize it, really. That's
how I feel about Mozart, and Verdi is very much that same way as
well. If you read correctly what most composers say
tempi and musical indications,
the crescendos and diminuendos — they
really give you such an accurate character that you just need to
physicalize it. A good director will set up the framework for
BD: What can
you do when you get a director that
sees it differently, or tries to impose something else upon the music?
SG: That can
get very frustrating and it's not easy
to deal with.
BD: Let me
turn it around. Are there many
ways of physicalizing a role correctly?
SG: Oh yes, I
think there are. They can be
physicalized in many ways. Emotionally, if someone is angry, one
will slam a fist on the table, others may kick over the
wastebasket. What I mean is that the emotional
drama is there in the music, and it does leave you a palette so you can
different directions with it.
updatings and strange stagings can work
within those frameworks?
SG: I am all
in favor of that to a great degree,
yes. With David Alden (who directed the three Mozart operas here
with the Chicago Symphony), I did a very updated version of The Rake's
Progress by Stravinsky for the Netherlands Opera. People
how we could do this to an eighteenth-century story, but the composer
and librettist were working in 1950, and were affected by the events
to that date including the dropping of the atomic bomb. You can't
really dismiss those things from your subconsciousness or even your
consciousness. So you can't say the music has nothing to do with
the story. I find it fun and enjoy seeing something taken out of
the old cliché settings. I like to have my imagination
new ideas. I may not agree with absolutely everything, but I like
those kinds of productions. I can certainly do traditional
productions and work within a traditional framework, but I do feel
stronger when I do something in modern dress because I feel that I
don't have to worry about movement and action. I don't have to
ask if this is really an eighteenth-century gesture. It's much
more "me" then. I am more free to be me, a 1990s woman.
this one step further, if Stravinsky
was conscious of the dawning of the nuclear age, how can you relate the
Mozart/DaPonte/Beaumarchais Countess to today's audiences who
know all of this history which has happened since that age? Does
she still speak to us today?
SG: I think
so. The Marriage of Figaro
much more set in its time because you're talking about the "droit de
seigneur" [the "right of the (feudal) lord" (to have sexual
relations with subordinate women)], and that sets the opera a bit more
in its place than, say, Don Giovanni
which is very universal. For me, Giovanni
never feels like it's stuck in the 18th century at all. Even Così is about men and women,
and God knows we still have the fights
and arguments going on today!
BD: So some
operas are easier to bring forward into
today than others?
SG: I think
so. I don't mind Figaro
into the 20th century. It never bothers me, and in fact I'm doing
Cappriccio next, and the
production will be the first time for me in
the 18th century. I'm so used to doing it in the 1920s that it
will be a little bit tricky to figure out how I'm going to play it with
doesn't pick either suitor at the end, but whom does she favor?
SG: That's a
point I don't ever want to argue with a
director because he may want to argue in another direction. For
me, it has a lot to do with how I feel about the two men playing the
roles. That influences me, but I do think that Flammond's
relationship with her is so much more tender and introspective, whereas
Olivier's is this passionate, constantly crashing-against-walls kind of
relationship. I always have the feeling she chooses the music in
the end, but that's just my personal sentiment. Certainly Strauss
gave no indication per se, except I think he does musically. When
she says goodbye to Flammond, she holds onto the notes as she
sings them, whereas she has sort of dismissed Olivier. The
special tenderness with which she speaks to Flammond rather than to
Olivier touches me.
BD: So you
have to make sure that Flammond is not a
crashing bore . . .
BD: In the rest of
the operas in the world,
where is the balance between the music and the drama?
SG: With the
great composers, it's a real
wedding. With Mozart, it shows particularly in the
recitatives. Mozart recitatives are some of my favorite things in
the entire world. They're incredibly ingenious, and with so many
operas it's balanced. For instance in The Rake's Progress you
have W.H. Auden doing the words, and that kind of poetry is fun to have
and to sing. But I never worry about that balance. If
they're good enough, they've taken care of it for me.
BD: Of your
many roles, is there one that might be
perilously close to the real Sheri Greenawald?
SG: Are there
any crazy enough? [Laughs] When I sing the Countess in Cappriccio, I
must confess I feel very at home with her. I like her
humor. I think I'm a somewhat diplomatic human being, and I try
to ruffle too many peoples' feathers. She's very good at
keeping people in their place and calming them down. I like her
a lot. I can't say that I'm really her, but I feel very
comfortable with her. When I did Natasha in War and Peace, I
understood that character's passion. When I was young, I was
very much like Natasha. I was ready to elope and jump out windows
and take poison and all of that. I felt a deep compassion for
that character as well, and the way Natasha evolves in the book
— becoming a nursing mother as I have been. We all
would like to be
Natasha in a way. She's one of the great heroines of all time.
BD: Now you
bring up the fact that you have a family. How do you balance the
career with the demands of being wife and
it's sort of unbalanced at the
moment in that my daughter travels with me. She starts school
next year so then I'm going to have to figure out how to balance
it. To date it's sort of built-in.
BD: Does she
like flitting all over the globe with you?
SG: She's had
a good time seeing zoos in every part
of the world.
BD: Do you
like flitting all over the world?
getting less and less fun, I must say.
The glamor wears off very quickly, and if I never saw a suitcase again
it would be too soon. But, it's part of my job, and you're lucky
if you get to go places often. I hope I can come back to Chicago
again. I've spent there and a half months here, and I really like
Chicago. It's a great city. I'm a Midwesterner myself, and
I feel very at home here.
BD: Where is
SG: Home is
in France in a small village southwest of
Paris. I go to Seattle often and spend a lot of time in Santa Fe
at the festival there. So it's nice when you go back to familiar
places. You don't feel so away-from-home always.
talk of some French roles. Tell me
tend to downgrade him, but if you examine
his scores there's as much detail as in Puccini. I've
sung Manon and Cendrillon, and they're really
interesting scores to
learn. I've really enjoyed them. He's a wonderful
composer, very colorful, and the orchestrations are exciting.
He's much neglected, actually. He's in and out of fashion,
and he is not being done at the moment.
BD: Is it
especially difficult to do him in France?
SG: I did Manon in Nice and also in San
which is where I did Cendrillon.
They say the French like music
except for French music, but it's interesting because you have the
immediate contact via the language without using the
surtitle-bridge. I only did one performance in Nice. Neil
Rosenshein was the Des Grieux, and we had a huge success that
night. [See my Interview with Neil
Rosenshein.] I enjoyed it a lot, and the audience really got
it. But that's the south of France, so it's like being in Italy
in a sense. In Europe I work in European-size houses, which are
a lot smaller than the ones in the U.S., so the relationship to the
audience is more palpable. You can really feel the audience in a
much stronger way. It's not that you don't feel them here in the
bigger houses, but it's something that you're more aware of. The
acting that I do is sometimes very subtle, and it's easier for me to do
my preferred kind of work in a smaller house where people are going to
see a much smaller gesture or an eye-movement. When you're in a
big house, you really have to adjust your acting style a bit.
Small movements aren't going to carry, and they can't really read an
expression in your eyes.
BD: So you
adjust your stage-deportment. Do you
also adjust your vocal technique?
SG: You can
sing much softer in a smaller
house. You can't afford to in a big one. You can also sing
off into the wings in small house, but in a big one you need to sing
downstage half the time. The requisites are different.
BD: Are the
audiences different from country to
country or city to city?
[Laughs] Oh yes. I immediately
think of the Parisians who can be just vicious. I have heard them
boo people within an inch of their life, and it's frightening.
American audiences are quite polite. They may not be real warm to
you if you've sung badly, but they won't usually boo. I have been
very lucky, knock on wood. I've never had the experience
personally of being booed in France. I had to step in at the
last minute to do Gluck's Armide
in Paris at the Chatelet. They
were expecting Montserrat Caballé, so let me tell you, I was
that night. But it went very well, thank you Gods of Music.
BD: Were they
rooting for you, or putting you on
SG: They were
judgmental in the first act, but they
can be intensely warm after they've embraced you, and that is what
happened to me.
BD: Are they
as critical about pronunciation of the
French as we've been told?
SG: I live in
France now and I speak it fairly
decently, so I don't know. I've not had that experience.
Perhaps if the singer was really mangling the words...
BD: Is it
better to sing in the original languages
rather than translate?
easier to sing because the composers have
set those particular words on those particular notes. I complain
about the surtitles especially in comedy because the laughs will come
at the wrong times, often before we've played out the joke.
singers have told me they hear one laugh for the surtitle, and another
when the action happens.
if it's a visual joke, but not if it's a
word-joke. So that can be frustrating. But I understand how
much the surtitles bring to the audience, letting them be
simultaneously involved rather than just in a general way. I see
both sides of the coin, but I am always grateful when I can sing in the
BD: One last
bit of Massenet. You've sung
Cendrillon, so how is that
different because people are perhaps more
used to seeing Rossini's Cenerentola?
SG: It's set
so differently, and the music so far
afield. The Massenet is more like the fairy-tale in a strange
way, and it's more romantic because the music was written so much
later. When I did it, we had a beautiful carriage and the whole
bit, so that helps.
BD: Do you
particularly enjoy singing
rather do that than not. Which singer
BD: Have you
sung any evil characters?
SG: I'd be
real good at them!
Really? [With a smile while moving away just a bit] Why?
they're fun to act. I would love to do
the title role in Blitzstein's Regina,
but that's for a more dramatic
and mezzo-ish voice than mine. Maybe when I'm an old lady I'll
try to do it. And the Governess in Britten's Turn of the Screw
(which I've done) wreaks havoc on the evening and brings everything to
the fore. She's fun to play and I enjoy doing her a lot, but
mostly I get to play heroines.
BD: Are most
of your parts victims?
that's the whole thing of opera. We all
have to die, I guess. Opera is about sex and death.
certainly a victim in La
Bohème. I have a director-friend who
wants to stage Traviata with
Violetta tied in a chair for the whole
evening. I can understand that idea because she is a victim of
everything including her health and society and everything.
that make Alfredo or Germont
they are in a strange way.
BD: So is
opera really true to life?
SG: It should
BD: [With a
bit of sadness] That doesn't speak very well for us, then.
face it, the human race is not all sweetness and
light. That's why a really good opera can translate into modern
language because of the kinds of foibles that go on. Figaro is a good
example. A lot of men are not faithful to their wives in this day
age, so the kinds of pranks that went on in the 18th century are going
on in the 20th.
done some world premieres. Are they particularly
rewarding because you can help to shape them?
fun to do, and I've always enjoyed
them. You don't always get to shape them as much as people might
think. I did the world premiere of Bernstein's A Quiet Place, and
I remember Lenny calling me up and saying, "How high do you want to
sing?" I said, "No higher than a D," so he did stick a high D in
once. So I guess it's my fault that the note is in there, but
the amount of shaping or molding I was able to do on that piece.
BD: Does that
give any other soprano license to alter
that note, knowing it was written for you?
SG: That was
the standard practice for years
and years. Singers would always change notes to accommodate
themselves. A long time ago, people changed whole keys for arias,
and that goes on today, though people may not be as aware of it.
Most roles were written with someone in mind. Mozart had a
certain soprano in mind when he wrote Constanze and the Queen of the
Night, and we're cursing him still!
BD: Do you have any
advice for composers who want to
write operas as we hurtle toward the next millennium?
SG: They have
to be able to set conversation to
music, and yet I still like to have something that's lyrical. I
sang Cordelia in Lear by
Aribert Reimann, and for all the atonality of
it, it was very lyrical — my part
particularly. I really enjoy
that, but I don't care if it's atonal or whatever. If you can
maintain a lyrical line for the singer and keep in mind that the voice
functions best in a lyrical manner, that would be the advice I would
give, and I would hope that the composer would respect that.
BD: Do many
respect that these days?
SG: Oh yes, I
think they do. It
would be really difficult to be an opera composer in this day and
age. Which tree are they going to bark up? My friend Thomas
Pasatieri writes in a lyric, late-romantic style, and his works get
killed because the critics say it's nothing new. Others write
very new music and are told it's unlistenable.
BD: So what's
a composer to do?
their hair out, I guess. Just follow
your muse. Do what you feel you have to do. Tom cannot
write anything but the music he writes, so why should he try to be
something he's not? Write from your heart. Whatever speaks
to you, that you must do.
BD: Where is
opera going these days?
SG: I hope
it's not going into a museum. That's
another reason I appreciate directors who take chances and do things
that are a little out of the ordinary. That production of The
Rake's Progress that I spoke of had the usual Netherlands Opera
the first night, but then word got out that this was a special
production. We had everything from motorbikes to cars to dwarfs
doing handstands. Baba the Turk is from the circus, remember, so
here she comes with her entourage. By the end of the run,
I would look out at the audience and see punk clothing and
hairstyles. When I would sing the lullaby to Tom at the end,
he was in a straightjacket and was lying across my lap, and I would see
many in the audience crying. I don't know how many productions of
this work leave people in tears, but this one certainly did. So,
obviously, it really was working, and that is the best. Keep in
mind that people are used to seeing rock videos and situation
comedies. We are inundated with images and information, so the
opera must keep people's imagination, and that's difficult because of
the opera producers try to attract the
audience that usually watches rock videos?
not? Why shouldn't we? We're
entertainers, and the minute you forget that, you're in big
trouble. Mozart was the Andrew Lloyd-Webber of his time.
Why should we put it in formaldehyde like it's going to wither and lose
its color and become something dead?
Mozart the Andrew Lloyd-Webber of his
time or the Madonna or the Michael Jackson of his time?
not too much difference as far as I'm
concerned. They're popular entertainers attracting a wide crowd,
and we're competing with that.
BD: Are we
SG: I don't
know if we're winning, but we have to put
up the good fight.
BD: Are we at
least holding up our end of it?
SG: In many
cases we are. Some of us
are certainly trying. We're out there dancin' and singin' and
tryin' our best.
BD: Are you
optimistic about the future of opera?
SG: I try to be and
I hope to be. I'd like my
profession to go on for a few more years, but the music is so great
that I don't think we have to panic. I can use my daughter as a
gauge, and she watches rock videos sometimes, but she also watches Nick
Jr., and Walt Disney animation. She also watches A&E, and
she loves to watch ballet. There was a new version of Swan Lake,
and she watched it from beginning to end. I don't think she would
have stayed with it if it had been totally traditional. The
images of people in modern dress spoke to her more readily. She
also comes to the operas I'm in, and often starts to sing along, and
she sings to me in the style of the work when we're at home.
So this week, with the three Mozart works at Orchestra Hall, the tunes
she's making up for me are very Mozartean. So, I guess, yes, we
BD: Should we
take a straight Mozart work and make it
in the rock video style?
SG: You mean
a film of an opera? I don't
care for films of operas because I can always tell that people are
lip-synching. That really irritates me. I can't deal with
it because I know it's not real. But if you could make the film
and simultaneously record the sound, I'd go for it. A staged work
in a film atmosphere would be very good. Why not try it and see
what it means, ultimately. If it's meaningful, why not? If
it's not meaningful, it won't be successful. I'm in the business
of recreating. I'm not a creator, so we have to try things.
BD: When you
are recreating, how do you decide which roles
you'll work on and which you'll let go?
fairly easy because the voice has a
certain range and certain possibilities. You automatically fall
into a category, or a fach.
I'm falling into the
Strauss/Mozart fach because
that's what my voice is most suited for,
and that's where I'm most comfortable. But I don't want to limit
myself to those parts. I'm dying to do Ellen Orford in Peter
Grimes because I love that opera. I say I'm going to sing
Strauss, but I won't do Salome
because it's too heavy and demands too
much sound. That's one of the problems of this media-age
— we're getting so used to canned performances, and I like
ones. TV is canned, and CDs are canned.
BD: Even some
of the "live" rock concerts now are
SG: The good
ones are still live. I think that
exposing the problem was one of the greatest things.
It was good to take back
the grammy award from Milli-Vanilli. However, the other side says
here were two guys who looked great paired with two guys who could
sing, and since rock videos are all lip-synched anyway, why not make
the package? I don't think it was scandalous except when the two
lookers were expected to sing. They should have been honest about
what was going on. Audrey Hepburn didn't sing in the movie of My
Fair Lady. Does that mean her performance was any less
BD: But how
many people know it was Marni Nixon
singing? [See my Interview with Marni
SG: I knew,
but I was aware of
BD: Do you
like being booked two or three years in
Sometimes, sometimes not. I have to think
how old my daughter will be when these contracts are dated, and it's
confusing and frustrating sometimes. When I consider a job, I
have to consider her as well. I turned down a lot of offers
during the time she was starting school because I wanted to be
there. It's a big adjustment for her, and I didn't want to be
BD: Do you
take your husband into consideration, also?
husband is an agent, so he understands these
things. It's often his fault that I'm gone, anyway! Thank
goodness he's very considerate and accommodating. I've often
thought how difficult it would be to have someone who didn't understand
all the exigencies of my life.
-- -- -- -- -- -- -- --
© 1987 Bruce Duffie
This conversation was recorded in Chicago in February of
1992. Portions were broadcast on WNIB in 1997.
This transcription was made and published in The Opera Journal in December of
1992. It was slightly revised, the photos, links and the bio were
added and it was posted on this
website in 2015.
To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been
transcribed and posted on this website, click here.
Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975
its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001. His
interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since
and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well
on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.
You are invited to visit his website
for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of
other interviews, plus a full list of his guests. He would also
to call your attention to the photos and information about his
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century ago. You may also send him E-Mail
with comments, questions and suggestions.