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 . . . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:    How much time does it take you each day to prepare for the theater and be ready when you're going to perform?

Sheri Greenawald:    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?

greenawald 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 rehearsal 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.

SG:    That's how I do it.

BD:    Do you walk off and switch off?

SG:    Pretty much so, but you can't switch off the adrenaline immediately.  There's an enormous amount rushing through 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 stayed up 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?

SG:    Yes, 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
the tempi and musical indications, the crescendos and diminuendosthey really give you such an accurate character that you just need to physicalize it.  A good director will set up the framework for that action.

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 go in different directions with it.

BD:    So 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 asked 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 piqued by 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.


See my Interviews with Jerry Hadley, Gian Carlo Menotti, Martin Feinstein,
and Richard Stilwell (who was also in the cast, though not in the photo above).

:    Taking 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 is 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 being put 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 that sensibility.

BD:    She 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 . . .

SG:    Hopefully!

greenawald 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 not 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 mother?

SG:    Well, 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?

SG:    It's 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 home now?

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.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Let's talk of some French roles.  Tell me about Massenet.

SG:    People 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?

greenawald SG:    I did Manon in Nice and also in San Francisco, 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 into 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?

SG:    [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 nervous that night.  But it went very well, thank you Gods of Music.

BD:    Were they rooting for you, or putting you on trial?

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?

SG:    It's 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.

BD:    Some singers have told me they hear one laugh for the surtitle, and another when the action happens.

SG:    Perhaps 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 original language.

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 title-characters?

SG:    I'd rather do that than not.  Which singer doesn't?  [Laughs]

BD:    Have you sung any evil characters?

SG:    I'd be real good at them!

BD:    Really?  [With a smile while moving away just a bit]  Why?

SG:    Oh 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?

SG:    Well, that's the whole thing of opera.  We all have to die, I guess.  Opera is about sex and death.  Mimì is 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.

BD:    Would that make Alfredo or Germont sado-masochistic?

SG:    Well, they are in a strange way.

BD:    So is opera really true to life?

SG:    It should be.

BD:    [With a bit of sadness]  That doesn't speak very well for us, then.

SG:    Let's 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 and age, so the kinds of pranks that went on in the 18th century are going on in the 20th.

BD:    You've done some world premieres.  Are they particularly rewarding because you can help to shape them?

SG:    They're 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 that's 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!

greenawals 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.  [See my Interview with Aribert Reimann.]  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?

SG:    Tear 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 crowd 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 this competition.

BD:    Should the opera producers try to attract the audience that usually watches rock videos?

SG:    Why 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?

BD:    Was Mozart the Andrew Lloyd-Webber of his time or the Madonna or the Michael Jackson of his time?

SG:    There's 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 winning?

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?

greenawald 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 can win.

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?

SG:    That's 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 live ones.  TV is canned, and CDs are canned.

BD:    Even some of the "live" rock concerts now are really canned.

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 good?

BD:    But how many people know it was Marni Nixon singing?  [See my Interview with Marni Nixon.]

SG:    I knew, but I was aware of that.

BD:    Do you like being booked two or three years in advance?

SG:    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 gone then.

BD:    Do you take your husband into consideration, also?

SG:    My 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.

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© 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.

Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.