Mezzo - Soprano / Soprano  Kay  Griffel

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


Kay Griffel (born December 26, 1940, in Eldora, Iowa) is an American operatic spinto soprano.

After earning a Bachelor of Music from Northwestern University, she pursued further studies with Lotte Lehmann at the Music Academy of the West in Santa Barbara. She received a Fulbright Scholarship and a Rockefeller Foundation Grant. In 1962 she won the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions. She also won a competition sponsored by the National Association of Teachers of Singing. In the mid 1960s she pursued graduate studies at the Musikhochschule Berlin. She also received further instruction from Nadia Boulanger at the Fontainebleau School, and Pierre Bernac in Paris.

On November 4, 1960, Griffel made her stage debut at the Lyric Opera of Chicago as Mercédès in Bizet's Carmen with Jean Madeira in the title role, Renata Scotto as Micaëla, Giuseppe di Stefano as Don José, Robert Merrill as Escamillo, and Lovro von Matačić conducting. She also appeared there that season as the Shepherd Boy in Puccini's Tosca, Siegrune in Wagner's Die Walküre, the Little Savoyard in Giordano's Fedora, and Kate Pinkerton in Puccini's Madama Butterfly.

In 1963 Griffel then moved to Berlin and was soon given several assignments in the mezzo-soprano repertoire at the Deutsche Oper Berlin. She then became a member of the Bremen Opera and the Mainz Opera. At the later opera house she began to branch out into leading soprano roles. She continued to perform on a regular basis at the opera houses in both Karlsruhe and Bremen until 1973, when she became a resident member of the Staedtische Buehnen in Cologne.


See my interviews with Kari Lövaas, Anna Tomowa-Sintow, and Peter Schreier

On August 20, 1973, Griffel made her debut at the Salzburg Festival as Sybille in the world premiere performance of Orff's De temporum fine comedia [recording shown above]. She was soon after engaged in leading roles at the Bavarian State Opera, the Deutsche Oper am Rhein, the Hamburg State Opera, the Liceu, and the Staatsoper Stuttgart. In 1976 she made her debut at the Glyndebourne Festival as Alice Ford in Verdi's Falstaff. In 1977 she toured with the Berlin State Opera to Japan, performing the roles of the Marschallin in Strauss' Der Rosenkavalier, Donna Elvira in Mozart's Don Giovanni, and the Countess Almaviva in Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro. In 1978 she portrayed Eva in Wagner's Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg at the Teatro Nacional de São Carlos.

On November 16, 1982, Griffel made her debut at the Metropolitan Opera as Elettra in Mozart's Idomeneo with Herman Malamood in the title role, Claudia Catania as Idamante, Ileana Cotrubas as Ilia, John Alexander as Arbace, and Jeffrey Tate conducting. She returned to the Met regularly over the next 7 years, portraying Countess Almaviva, Rosalinde in Die Fledermaus, Tatiana in Eugene Onegin, and the title role in Strauss' Arabella. Her final performance with the company was as Mozart's Elettra on March 3, 1989.

During her career, Griffel also sang leading roles with the Frankfurt Opera, the Grand Théâtre de Bordeaux, the Houston Grand Opera, the Los Angeles Opera, La Monnaie, Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, the Opera Company of Boston, Opera Ireland, the Royal Opera, London, the Staatsoper Hannover, the Teatro Comunale di Bologna, the Teatro dell'Opera di Roma, Theater Bonn, the Théâtre du Capitole, and the Welsh National Opera among others. Some of the other roles she performed on stage were Chrysothemis in Strauss' Elektra, Cleopatra in Handel's Giulio Cesare, Desdemona in Verdi's Otello, Elisabetta in Verdi's Don Carlos, Euridice in Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice, Fiordiligi in Mozart's Così fan tutte, Marguerite in Gounod's Faust, Micaëla in Bizet's Carmen, Mimì in Puccini's La bohème, Romilda in Handel's Serse, and the title roles in Strauss' Ariadne auf Naxos and Puccini's Manon Lescaut.

Griffel is a former professor of voice at the University of Michigan, and has taught masterclasses at several universities and conservatories in the United States.

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


In mid-March of 1987, Kay Griffel was back in Chicago, and agreed to sit down for a conversation.  While setting up to record, our chit-chat included her thoughts about singers having to scream...

Bruce Duffie:   Why do singers scream?

Kay Griffel:   It’s problematic of the recording industry, and the fact that we are all used to hearing voices so present.  Then when we get into the big opera houses, the orchestras are also overblown in sound.  For example, they’re using tremendously big groups of strings in the Mozart works.  Recordings have more stereophonic sound, a richer sound, a fuller sound, and people are more concerned about that than about what’s going on, on the stage.  There’s a problem with the integration of voice and orchestra in the theaters.

BD:   So the proliferation of the phonograph record has done damage not only to the performer, but also to the audience?

Griffel:   It’s what everybody thinks is normal, because they have the voice so cleanly and clearly in their ear that they just want to hear it more than they can in an actual room with a big orchestra, and a set, and costumes, and everything.  Therefore, they look for larger voices.  The people with better, larger instruments given by nature and God are lucky.  But most of us have normal instruments.  We then have the battle of singing the wrong Fach [category] as the Germans call it.  They they try to give too much, and the minute you push too much, the voice gets dry and just doesn’t have the same amount of sound and color.  It’s such a discipline.  I would assume it’s like going the way of Zen [a state of calm attentiveness in which one
s actions are guided by intuition rather than by conscious effort], because you really always want to give more than you have.  You want to give everything you can to the music, and that always takes you to the edge, and it’s so easy just to tilt over.

BD:   How do you keep from tilting over?

Griffel:   One of the ways to do it is to scale the roles, so you only have certain spots where you allow yourself to just let go and not worry.  Then you come back, pull the voice in, shape it up again, firm it up, sing piano or mezzo forte, and then go back and do your forte.  There are just a few of those roles where you let go and try not to worry about anything.  In particular, it’s in the bigger roles of Puccini and Verdi where you can do that.

BD:   Do you sing some of those roles?  [Vis-à-vis the DVD shown at right, see my interviews with Donald Gramm, Benjamin Luxon, and Sir John Pritchard.]

Griffel:   I sang Madam Butterfly and La Bohème, and certainly as Butterfly I had to let go.  It never was quite enough, but it was the most moving experience of my life.

BD:   How do you decide which roles you will sing and which roles you will decline?

Griffel:   The history of the roles tells us a lot about what is and isn
t good for a lyric voice.  We don’t hear lyric singing in the big Verdi unless they’re enormous voices like Renata Tebaldi.  But she went into the edge.  She was a spinto.  She went into the heavier roles, and had that Italian quality which is very different from the more German quality, or Mozart quality, or Strauss quality.  If you follow those principles, and have a teacher and a coach, and your own instincts, and your own intellect, you can sort it out.  We sometimes try things that aren’t right.  We’re allowed to make mistakes, and if we make a mistake, we have to get out of it.  You can’t know all the answers all the time!  [Both laugh]

BD:   [With a gentle nudge]  Oh, why not???

Griffel:   [Smiles]  Then you haven’t got anything to learn, and that’s what we’re here to do

BD:   Does the audience expect the performer to have all the answers when she’s on stage?

Griffel:   I don’t know.  That I can’t answer.

BD:   Let me turn the question around.  What do you expect of the audience that comes to see you perform?

Griffel:   I’ve never thought about it.  Isn’t that funny?  I performed in Germany for years, so I know that the audiences there are somewhat educated.  In America in the
60s, there was a program starting called the Affiliate Artists.  I was one of the first, if not the first one.  Mary Beth Peil and I vie for who was first, but there was a group of us who were working with Ed Warner, who started the program.  His intention and idea was that the young artist, the performing artist, would go out and talk to people about music and its relationship to everyday life.  We were teaching them as well as performing, and I like that idea.

BD:   You don’t see music as instruction, do you???

Griffel:   No, I don’t mean teaching in the sense of instructing.  I mean teaching in the sense of allowing people to be where they are, and helping them.  For example, I was in Iowa, where I grew up, and in that area, people often say that opera is too sophisticated for them, or classical music isn’t something they understand.  This is because they haven’t had the everyday experience of classical music, and our whole project was to help them see that it isn’t that different than the message of a lot of pop songs.  It’s a love story, or it’s a death story.  It’s sadness, it’s conflict, it’s politics.  It’s all the things that are in our everyday life, and our idea was for people to understand and relate to it, even though they haven’t got the historical background of listening to a lot of operas, or hearing a lot of classical music.  I was amazed at how kids in the fifth and sixth grades would respond.  They were able to listen to Mimì’s aria, and they heard some art songs, and they didn’t think they were quite so bad!  The minute that you could explain a little bit to them, and give them the feeling of it, they were okay.

BD:   Is that the time to grab them, in fifth and sixth grade?

Griffel:   We need to grab them at every age.  We took our performances to the Rotary Club, and the Kiwanis Club, and Church groups, and whatever.  I don’t know why a lot of us think that classical music, or any kind of music, is something which is not available just because we were raised where we haven’t heard it.

BD:   Is rock, music?

Griffel:   Which?  Soft rock I like, but I don’t really dwell on it very much, so I don’t know a lot about it.

BD:   In opera, where’s the balance between art and entertainment?

Griffel:   [Laughs]  That’s a question I don’t even understand!

BD:   Well, is there a difference between art and entertainment?

Griffel:   [Thinks a moment]  It’s very strange but I never even thought about that.  I often call opera ‘the show’.  In Ariadne auf Naxos, the wonderful opera I was so fortunate to have done with Jean-Pierre Ponnelle in Cologne, there’s a big discussion with Harlequin and the other less-serious characters, and the more serious ones.  Strauss devoted a lot of time to it.  Ariadne is on a rock, and all the Harlequins come in between doing all this
show.  It’s a wonderful contrast.  Music can give people pleasure and joy, and transport them to some moment of another time, another space, another feeling.  So, if that’s entertainment to them, that’s fine.  It’s a mind-expanding thing.  It’s just a little shape and a little different light into something.  That’s what I try to explain to the kids in Iowa.  In the Fall, sometimes you walk along a boarder of a corn field, and you see a duck fly off.  The sunlight will slant across the corn stalks, and you’ll have a certain atmosphere and a certain light.  You’ll have something inside your heart, and you don’t know quite how to express it.  Maybe a song expresses that just as a poem can.  It might be a soft rock sound, as in a musical.  As long as there’s something inside of ourselves that is recognized by someone else, or performed by someone else, that is the world of communication, and that is what it’s all about.  Whether you want to call it entertainment, or art, I’m going to leave that to the philosophers.  [Both laugh]  Let them discuss that!

BD:   Then let me ask the other
Strauss idea, the Capriccio question.  In opera, where’s the balance between the drama and the music.

Griffel:   They’re different.  I’m a person who has been more prone to music than to word.  I was recently asked by a friend who went to school with me at Northwestern if I still forget words like I did in college.  [Both laugh]  I don
’t know how she could remember that so clearly, but I have spent more time with words, and gotten more from them as I’ve learned more about them.  However, it was musicthe sound, the melody, the harmoniesthat drew me into it first.  It’s so hard to know, because if we’re talking about a string quartet or piano music, we’re fine, but in opera, both things are so important.  In my study of a character, I start with the text first, and then I begin to see.  I think about what I feel about her, and then I see what the composer puts underneath it harmonically.  In the Strauss pieces, if you get inside the orchestral score, you really can hear the emotional intention of what is wanted.  The feelings that are underneath give you so many ideas.  He gives you so many different shades and qualities, and if you’re hearing that sound of the orchestra, then you’re alive.  You’re living with the piece.  So, I humbly must say that they’re both so important.  As an actress, as a performer, as a singer, you have to have both elements.  That’s why it’s opera, and not something else.  We need both, otherwise we don’t need opera.

BD:   Does mankind really need opera?

Griffel:   I don’t know.  Mankind needs air, and food, and love.  Music is a form of love.  Opera is a form of love.  Friends and family are all parts of a full life.  It’s been proven that when babies are left alone, they will die.  They need this love, this kind of attention.  Caring is built into all of the art forms, and so I believe that we do need it.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   You also sing song recitals.  How do you balance the song literature with the opera repertoire?
Griffel:   It’s not always easy.  Ever since I was very young, and got started in music with Lotte Lehmann at Northwestern, I wanted to be a recital singer.  She said that first I must be an opera singer, and then later when I’m mature, I can be a recital singer, and that’s actually what happened.  For years I only sang opera, with just a few recitals every now and then.  Since I’ve been married to a pianist for about eleven years, we’re tried to do a lot more.  Hes a wonderful accompanist, and if I have a chance to do some recitals, I do them.  It is difficult because it takes a lighter kind of singing than opera.  So, if you’re in the middle of singing a gutsy opera and then come to a recital, you have to be very careful of the balance.  In recital you have to do much finer work, but it’s so good for the voice.  The most important thing that I’ve learned in singing is the flexibility.  I need to constantly go into my forte and back and into my piano.  Always the flexibility must be inside the voice.  The more one can become flexible, the easier we can get out of a problem in the middle of a phrase.  We all get caught sometimes being a little off balance.  It’s like a bad tennis shot.  Every now and again you do shots that don’t quite work, and there are phrases that don’t quite work.  The point is how you get out of them, how you make it work best, and get around it to make it be better.

BD:   Are there nights when everything comes together just right?

Griffel:   Oh, wouldn’t that be great?  [Both laugh]  Probably there are... there are great stories about people saying they come three times a year.  It depends so much on lots of elements
your conductor, your orchestra, your colleagues, and even the way the lighting works.  Sometimes the lighting won’t work just right and you won’t be as focused.  I remember one night in Cologne the lighting was just slightly off, and it made a difference in the whole performance.  Things like that can be very distracting.  Or you step on your dress and fall flat on your face!  I’ve done once in an opera performance!

BD:   How did you get out of that situation?

Griffel:   I just stayed on the ground and pretended like I was dead!  [Much laughter]  I really just died right there on the spot.  It was the end of the opera, so it worked all right, but it was awful!  I have a tendency to lean forward when I move, and my dress was a little bit too long.  So I took a step, and put my foot on my dress, and just pulled myself down.  It was really very embarrassing.

BD:   Did the stage director tell you to leave that bit in next time?

Griffel:   No, I don’t think so.  [More laughter]  I was partly behind a pillar, so only maybe a fourth of the house could see it.  So I was very fortunate, but those are the things you would rather forget, but never can!

BD:   Let’s talk a little bit about the stage direction today.  You’ve had a lot of experience, especially in Germany where they try so many experiments, and do wild and crazy things.  Are the stage directors on the right track, or are they wrong-headed?

Griffel:   I don’t think you can generalize.  There are so many individual people, and each one is searching for different things, just as singers are.  In Europe, we have a system where people have seen operas over and over again.  There is a long season...

BD:   Too long?

Griffel:   No!  I don’t think it’s too long.  I love it, but operas are known.  Most people have seen the traditional staging of The Marriage of Figaro for years and years and years, and so now they want to see something a little bit different.  So, it gives the directors an opportunity to experiment in a way that we don’t have in America, because the tradition isn’t so well-known.  As a performer, if the director is interested in the interaction of characters, and not just shocking pictures or making a name for himself, then I’m interested in new ideas and thoughts.  It’s very hard to get away from our inhibitions as singers.  We use gestures.  Also, we don’t always know where the voice is.  We haven’t got something that we can take out of a box like a clarinet or a violin.  Even the pianists have a problem, in that they have a very different touch on every instrument they encounter.  [Laughs]  At least they know what it’s going to look like, whereas we have to form our instrument each day.  It comes out of our body and our feelings.  If we have a back-ache, or we’ve turned an ankle, each little pain brings tension into the body, and it affects the voice one way or another.  Oftentimes, we’re very skilled at getting around those kinds of things.  Most professional singers, like professional players of sports, can get around it, but it’s an element that’s involved.  So if you can find a director that understands the need for a singer to be approved of, and supported, and acknowledged as a thinking person, it’s amazing what can happen.  I’ve met very few directors like that, and very few that cared about us.  There are so many elements that go into a production that they didn’t take a lot of time for what we think is important, which is bringing out the experimental willingness of his singer to let go of a lot of customs of the mind.  Especially coming out of America, opera isn’t the norm.  Growing up as I did in Iowa, an opera singer isn’t something that you aspire to be.  You don’t really know that it’s a profession.  I didn’t know about it until I saw the old film The Great Caruso.

The Great Caruso is a 1951 biographical film produced by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and starring Mario Lanza as famous operatic tenor Enrico Caruso. The movie was directed by Richard Thorpe and produced by Joe Pasternak with Jesse L. Lasky as associate producer. The screenplay, by Sonya Levien and William Ludwig, was suggested by the biography Enrico Caruso His Life and Death by Dorothy Caruso, the tenor's widow. The original music was composed and arranged by Johnny Green and the cinematography by Joseph Ruttenberg. Costume design was by Helen Rose and Gile Steele.

The film is a highly fictionalized biography of the life of Caruso.  [Vis-à-vis the movie poster shown below-right, see my interviews with Dorothy Kirsten, Jarmila Novotna, and Blanche Thebom.]

great caruso Although the film follows the basic facts of Caruso's life, several of the characters and incidents portrayed in the movie are fictional. Because of this, members of the Caruso family in Italy successfully sued MGM for monetary damages, and the studio was ordered to withdraw the film from exhibition in Italy. Here are a few of the film's many factual discrepancies:

  • Early in the film, a montage shows the young Caruso rising through the ranks from operatic chorister to supporting singer, including singing the secondary tenor role of Spoletta in Puccini's opera Tosca. Caruso never sang in an opera chorus, nor did he ever appear in a supporting role. When Tosca premiered in January 1900, Caruso was already a rising international opera star and had been considered by Puccini himself for Tosca's starring tenor role of Cavaradossi, though the part was given to another tenor, Emilio De Marchi. When Caruso first sang the role of Cavaradossi in Bologna later that year, Puccini stated that he had never heard the part better sung.
  • In the film, Caruso makes his American debut at the Metropolitan Opera in Verdi's Aida, and is met with silence from the audience and scathing critical reviews. In reality, Caruso's Met debut in Rigoletto was very well-received, and he became an immediate favorite with New York audiences and critics.
  • Giulio Gatti-Casazza is depicted in the film as the general manager of the Metropolitan Opera at the time of Caruso's debut there in 1903. In reality, Gatti-Casazza did not arrive at the Met until 1908, five years after Caruso's debut, replacing the previous general manager Heinrich Conried.
  • Although the events in the film follow no clear timeline, in real life Caruso met his future wife Dorothy Park Benjamin in 1917 and married her the following year. In the film, Caruso appears to meet Dorothy at the time of his Metropolitan Opera debut in 1903 (in reality, Dorothy Benjamin would have been only ten years old in 1903), and marries her after returning to New York from a long "world tour" which appears to last for several years. In actuality, Caruso never made any such lengthy world tour. While he did frequently perform in Europe, South America, Cuba and other countries, the Metropolitan Opera was Caruso's artistic home, singing there each opera season regularly from 1903 until 1920.
  • Caruso fathered two sons with Italian soprano Ada Giachetti, during a relationship which lasted from 1898 to 1908; Giachetti was married to another man and there was no divorce in Italy at that time. Caruso's relationship with Giachetti, nor the existence of their two sons, is depicted or ever mentioned in the film.
  • At the end of the film, Caruso appears to die onstage after a throat hemorrhage during a Metropolitan Opera performance of Martha. Caruso did suffer a throat or mouth hemorrhage during a Met performance of L'elisir d'amore at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on December 11, 1920, causing the performance to be canceled. On December 24, 1920, Caruso sang the final performance of his career in La Juive at the Met. He became extremely ill on Christmas Day and on August 2, 1921, he died in his native Naples, possibly of peritonitis, following many months of illness and several surgical procedures.
The Great Caruso was a massive commercial success and the most profitable film for MGM in 1951. It set a record gross at Radio City Music Hall in New York City, grossing $1,390,943 in ten weeks. According to MGM records, it made $4,309,000 in theatrical rentals in the US and Canada and $4,960,000 elsewhere, resulting in a profit of $3,977,000. The movie was also the most popular at the British box office the same year.

Nearly 40 years after its release, Caruso's son, Enrico Caruso Jr. reminisced that, "Vocally and musically The Great Caruso is a thrilling motion picture, and it has helped many young people discover opera and even become singers themselves." He added that, "I can think of no other tenor, before or since Mario Lanza, who could have risen with comparable success to the challenge of playing Caruso in a screen biography." The film has also been cited by tenors José Carreras, Plácido Domingo and Luciano Pavarotti as having been an inspiration for them when they were growing up and aspiring to become singers.

The Great Caruso record album (though not an actual film soundtrack) was issued by RCA Victor on the LP, 45 and 78 RPM formats. The album featured eight popular tenor opera arias (four of which were heard in the film) sung by Lanza, accompanied by Constantine Callinicos conducting the RCA Victor Orchestra. The album sold 100,000 copies before the film premiered and later became the first operatic LP to sell one million copies. After its original 1951 release, the album remained continuously available on LP until the late 1980s and was reissued on compact disc by RCA Victor in 1989.

[Griffel continues]  Some of those old films make you think you have to be something to be able to be an opera singer.  You may even buy jewelry, or walk a little bit differently, or do things when you’re young to try and make sure that you can live up to the ideal of the great singers.  It might even give you the courage to step out on a stage and try it.  The huge house of Lyric Opera is very imposing, and there you are, this tiny little soul stepping out on that stage, and daring to do this art.  I remember in my first season there when I made my debut there as Mercédès in Carmen.  I had nightmares about the stage slanting, and that I couldn’t stand up on it, and I kept sliding down.  All those kinds of things are such that we all have and go through.  So, if you can rid yourself of the need to have this superficial support system, that is really based on things other than personal things, and can find a director who is willing to hold your hand across that bridge and really go into the character, and let go of operatic gestures that we think are important to be an ‘Opera Singer’, it can get very exciting.  Then experimental theater is wonderful.  We did one of those productions in Bremen of Julius Caesar by Handel, but we cut it to an hour and forty-five minutes.  Arthur Grüber (1910 - 1990) was the conductor.  He was a crazy man, but he was brilliant, and it was so wonderful working with him.  I felt I really lost a lot of my crutches at that moment.
BD:   Are you ever sorry that you went into the opera business?

Griffel:   I never ever thought of that in my life.  There have been moments when I’ve been tired, and life got a little bit too busy, and the voice didn’t work as well as I wanted.  I was maybe sick or tired, and I wished I’d had about three months when I didn’t have to sing a note.  Everybody goes through those phases, and probably that’s when you should take three months off, but usually you can’t.  You might have the most important things happening at that time.

BD:   Do you look at your schedule, and consult with your agent, and make sure that you block out times when you don’t have strenuous concerts and operas?  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at left, see my interview with Ernst Haefliger.]

Griffel:   I’m pretty lucky right now in that I just moved back to the States.  I don’t have that problem.  I’ve never sung too much.  I’ve been very fortunate.  I’ve never been pushed into that spot, but I’ve gotten tired.  When I first got married, I was more interested in my marriage than I was in singing for a couple of years, so perhaps I was wishing I didn’t have so much work.  But I’ve never been in a position where it grinds at you.  A lot of singers have sung 150 performances in a year.  They just run around and do everything.  It’s incredible, and it’s easy to do in Germany because there are a lot of opera houses, so the traveling doesn’t take that much time.

BD:   What gave you the impetus to move back to the States if you had a successful career going over there?  Why change it around?

Griffel:   I was always basically homesick, even though I loved Europe, and I loved Germany, and I loved all my experiences.  But in the back of my mind I’ve always wanted to come home.  I left actually with a Rockefeller Scholarship and promised them I would bring it all back to America.  I had no intention of staying the number of years that I did.

BD:   How long were you over there?

Griffel:   I was over there for twenty years.  It was a repertoire theater, and then it changed through the years into the guest-performing theater.  I went through that old repertoire theater action, even into the early
70s.  When I went to Cologne, gradually the guest artists became more and more important, and then the ensemble singer was less important and less respected.  I feel very badly about that because if you are in an ensemble, you have a chance to lose these things that bind you and inhibit you into being something we think we should be.  If you’re in an ensemble, you have a chance to experiment with a lot of different ideas, and you won’t get cut down.  If you’re guesting, you’ve got to put your number on the line, and be good because you want to get the next job.  So when you do your number it’s harder to experiment.

BD:   You have to play it safe.

Griffel:    A little bit, and as long as there’s that possibility, that inhibits the creative force or spirit.

BD:   Have you sung all the roles that you want to?  Are there any roles that you still wish to sing?

Griffel:   Yes, there are still a couple I would very much like to sing.  One is Elsa in Lohengrin.  I would like to try it in a smaller house, not a large house.  But really and truly, I want to do the Countess in Capriccio.  There are a couple of other roles that I will always want to sing, but they are out of my range.  One of them is Leonora in La Forza Del Destino!  Oh, my gosh, it’s got to be one of my most favorite, but I never will sing it.  Then, of course, everyone wants to sing Leonore in Fidelio.  That’s one of the ones I would love to sing, and I may even do it just to do it by the time I stop, simply because I love the opera so much.  I know there are other roles, but I don’t sit around and think about that.  I do what I’m doing.  I’ve done all of the Strauss, and I’ve done most of the Mozart.  I’ve just done Donna Anna recently, and I would like to do that maybe in two or three more productions to see if it really is what I think it is.

BD:   Have you been doing Elvira?

Griffel:   I’ve always done Elvira, yes, and it was a real experience for me to be Donna Anna.  I’ve always thought of her as sort of an insipid and uninteresting character, but I found that not to be the case.  She is a volcanic experience for me doing that first recitative, the duet and the big aria.  It was riveting for me.  I had never realized the energy and the force that’s in that music.  I don’t know why, because I’ve always loved it.  I’ve especially loved the second aria so much, with the coloratura and everything, but I found out that I would like to do a lot more.

BD:   While we’re talking about Mozart, tell me the secret of singing his music.
Griffel:   [Laughs]  Well, if I had that answer...  [Pauses a moment]  Whether singers, or instrumentalists, or conductors, we all stand somewhat in perplexity and awe of Mozart.  For me personally, it takes such true clarity and simplicity, and at the same time, such knowledge and understanding of his phrasing.  The more you try to do to it, the less it gets done, and yet you cannot not do anything.  It’s such an in-between thing.  I remember so well working on Dove Sono at the Met for the production I just did last season.  One of the coaches said to me that I don’t have to do so much in between each note; just sing it the way he wrote it, and it helped me.  That doesn’t mean that you’ve got to be boring, or anything like that, but it’s knowing where a line is going harmonically, and musically, and expressively.  It’s a study of a lifetime.  I don’t believe for me there’s any composer that I love as much as Mozart, and I’ve loved him ever since I got into music.  It’s been a miracle to me again, and again, and again.
BD:   Mozart seems to be having a bit of a renaissance because of the film.
Griffel:   In Europe, Mozart was always there, so I never thought about it.  But it’s wonderful to go into a store and hear a Mozart piano concerto that has been a background theme in the movies.

BD:   [With a gentle nudge]  Is it wonderful when Mozart becomes the grist for Muzak?

Griffel:   I don’t think Muzak is ever wonderful!  [Both laugh]  It must have its purpose.  There must be a reason... maybe to make the cows give better milk.  But I feel I’m being invaded.  I know I may be offending someone by saying that, but I hate it in restaurants, and stores, and elevators.

BD:   You don’t like little snippets of it here and there?

Griffel:   I like to have a choice of when I’m going to hear something.  In the airplane, the minute they get on the ground they turn on that music, and I don’t like it.  I know for some people it calms and soothes, so perhaps it’s important.

BD:   You do music as your business, so what do you do when you want to relax?

Griffel:   I like to walk.  I like to read a lot.  I’m interested in psychology, and I like to play golf very much [shown in photo at right].

BD:   Does this psychology then go back into the music, and do you look at the characters a different way?

Griffel:   Certainly, but I’m very interested in people.  I’ve always liked people, and I’m interested in why people do things the way they do.  I guess that has a lot to do with the characters as well.  I’m sure I’ve used that back and forth both ways.  But I have a nice family, and I enjoy being with them.  I enjoy traveling, and I really like being out of doors.  I like nature.

BD:   Do outdoor opera!  [Both laugh]

Griffel:   Actually I went out on my deck the other morning.  It was one of those early spring days, and the birds were all singing.  It was very early, and I just started singing as well.  I never sing with the birds, and this isn’t one of those Nellie Melba stories or Joan Sutherland stories!  But I got so enchanted with this blackbird, so I just started singing myself.  I couldn’t believe it.  The next house is quite far away from ours.  We’re spaced right
two farm houses, and then the rest of it is just open fields.  I was amazed at how it sounded, and I thought about how I worry about singing in those huge big auditoriums, and this outside world is a lot bigger.  So I don’t have to push so much!  Just let it go!  It was great fun.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Do you sing differently at all from a small house to a big house?
Griffel:   If you’re talking about the size of the Metropolitan Opera and the Chicago Lyric Opera and the San Francisco Opera (3500-4000 seats), compared to the normal opera size in Europe of 1,500 to 1,800 seats, then yes.  You really have to give more in the bigger houses.  You have to scale it slightly differently.  I’ve been wonderfully impressed with Renata Scotto, who did very fine piano singing as Vitellia in the Mozart La Clemenza di Tito.  But that takes a tremendously co-operative conductor, which she had in James Levine.  He was wonderful.  He had the orchestra down to nothing.  But if you want a very large sound in the bigger houseif you’ve got itit’s easier to sing at the Met because you have more space to get over the orchestra than you do in the smaller houses where the sound can get all tied up together.  So, you have advantages and disadvantages with both.  The other thing that’s wonderful about a smaller house is you can act differently.

BD:   You can be more subtle?

Griffel:   Yes.  You can use your eyes.  You don’t have to use big gestures.  You can be more subtle and you know it will come across.  The more I work at the Met, the more I realize that it takes some very clear dark sharp lines to make the characters.  You don’t want just a lot of little blurred lines.  It’s very hard to get to that point where you just draw simple lines that will carry all the way back to the house.  The subtlety has to be there, of course, but too much too fast doesn’t work at the Met.  The eye doesn’t go back and forth between the characters that quickly because they’re often spaced far apart on stage.  It takes a second here and a second there.  So, if you move too fast, or do too much too soon, it gets lost.

BD:   Is this the advice you have for young singers who are aspiring to have a career at the Met?

Griffel:   [Thinks a moment]  It’s advice for all of us!  It’s not really advice, but rather just a recognition.  When we talk about it at the Met, and when we discuss things with each other, we realize that you have to be super-super clear because of this very large house.  That’s all.  But I guess that’s a good idea for everything, actually.  Clarity is always good.

BD:   Speaking of clarity, have you been singing opera in translation?

Griffel:   I did for a long time.  I did everything in German for years, and I loved it because I spoke German, and so I was singing in a language that I really began to understand.  You know what the words mean.  I’m thinking of the German word Widerhall [echo].  They come back!  Each word rings someone’s bell in a different way, so to speak, and when you have your audience hearing the words, even if they don’t always understand all of them, it makes a lot of difference in how they respond.  For that reason, I believe that we should be doing opera in English... not everywhere, but in our regional companies because it gives the singers a chance to act in their own language, a language they speak.  They’re not faking something.  It gives them a chance to really get into the character, and really think through it properly.  So I believe in translation a lot.

BD:   Have you seen this new gimmick with the supertitles in the theater?

Griffel:   I haven’t seen it, but my first reaction was that it will distract from what’s going on, on stage, especially when we think back to the idea that I said about the Met... watching things and then looking up at the top of the proscenium.  But I think the benefits of supertitles must be so much more since we are singing in languages that we don’t understand, or if it would be in English, it’s hard in the big houses to get the diction.  So, we understand much better what’s going on when there are supertitles, and that can only help the opera, and allow the actresses and the actors to be more subtle.  We don’t have to make things quite so sharp then.  We can go more into the delicacy of the piece.  I certainly support anything that helps to make it easier for our audiences.  For example, I’ve met some people who didn’t have any real yen for opera, but because they met me, they thought they’d give it a try!  I told them to read the program and read the opera guide, but they don’t do that, of course.  They have all good intentions, but when they get there and the lights go down too soon, they haven’t read the program, so when the curtain goes up, they have no idea what’s going on.  Now, imagine for that person how great it would be to have supertitles.  That way they understand it, and I think it would be great.

BD:   Do you think that opera works well on the television?

Griffel:   I think it’s wonderful.  It’s a different vehicle at that point, and I’m sure with experimentation in how we go on more and more with it, that it will be get better and better, as far as the shooting, and the camera angles.  But I do think it’s wonderful.  [Remember, this interview was held early in 1987, and the techniques and equipment have improved immensely since that time.]  It presents the opportunity to be close to these people’s faces, and have it in the living room.  We’ve become a very comfortable society, and we like to have things in our living rooms, so why not opera?

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Have you sung some French repertoire?

Griffel:   I haven’t, but I’ve always wanted to.  I love French music, and I love the French language.  It’s difficult to sing, but I love it.

BD:   What makes French music difficult to sing?

Griffel:   The French language scales the voice down.  [Illustrates a couple of the vowel sounds]  If you’re not careful, or if you don’t understand the French language really well, and how to sing it, there is a tendency to close the voice slightly, and make it smaller.  You have to learn to work around it.

BD:   What about the twentieth-century?  Have you sung some contemporary works?

Griffel:   Very few.  I don’t know how it happened, but I never got to where I was doing a lot.  I did Henze’s Elegy for Young Lovers, and the thing that I loved immensely was Peter Grimes.  This summer I’m going to be doing the Governess in The Turn of the Screw in Des Moines, Iowa [photo shown in the box below].  I’m really looking forward to that because of Robert Larsen, who’s an old, old friend.  It will also be nice to be in my home state.

With heavy hearts, Des Moines Metro Opera shares the loss of our beloved Founder and Artistic Director Emeritus, Robert L. Larsen. He passed away peacefully in Indianola on Sunday, March 21, 2021. Our hearts go out to his family, friends and former students at this time of immense sorrow.

Visionary conductor and stage director Robert Larsen was born in Walnut, Iowa, in 1934. Against the backdrop of that rural Iowa community, he developed an unlikely interest in opera. Early in his career, he declined an offer from the Metropolitan Opera in order to remain in his home state to share his love for music and theatre with his fellow Iowans. Dr. Larsen believed that quality performances of great music should not exist exclusively in America’s largest cities, but could belong to everyone. With that in mind, in March of 1973 and with little time to spare, he selected opera titles, hired singers, formed a board of directors and raised $22,000 to launch Des Moines Metro Opera just a few months later on June 22, 1973. That first season, professional singers worked alongside his students to create something out of nothing via sheer determination and loyalty to their beloved leader.  Larsen served as Conductor and Stage Director for every one of the nearly 120 productions for the Company’s first 38 seasons – an unparalleled accomplishment in American music. He worked and collaborated with more than a thousand singers, orchestra musicians, designers, technicians, and he motivated colleagues to reach the peak of their own capabilities. Today as the company he founded approaches its 50th Anniversary Season, he remained immensely proud of its next generation and the Company's continued success following his retirement in 2009.

larsen His love of Iowa and great music was boundless. Nothing delighted him more than great singing and marvelous young voices. His passion for music-making inspired all those who had the opportunity to work alongside him including artists, colleagues, students and members of the community. He instilled in them the same awe and wonder that surrounded his earliest memories of music and the joys of his life. The strength of his vision to bring quality opera performances to Iowa brought thousands of people to this magnificent art form, forever changing the lives of so many. He will live on in our hearts forever.

*     *     *     *     *

Robert L. Larsen, Founder and Artistic Director Emeritus of Des Moines Metro Opera and Professor Emeritus of Music at Simpson College, has died. Dr. Larsen passed away peacefully in Indianola on Sunday, March 21, 2021. The announcement was made by DMMO General and Artistic Director Michael Egel. Known in music circles as the “Wizard of Iowa,” Dr. Larsen achieved widespread acclaim by almost single-handedly founding an annual summer opera festival amidst the Midwestern cornfields and guiding the organization to national prominence.

Robert LeRoy Larsen was born into a farming family just outside the tiny town of Walnut, Iowa, on November 28, 1934. By age ten he was immersed in rigorous piano instruction and had become obsessed with the Saturday afternoon radio broadcasts from the Metropolitan Opera. The young musician entered Simpson College to study piano with Sven Lekberg. He subsequently attended the University of Michigan for graduate study, returned to join the music faculty at Simpson, and completed his doctorate in opera coaching and conducting at the Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University. His piano studies were with Sven Lekberg, Joseph Brinkman, Rudolph Ganz and Walter Bricht. He worked as a conductor with Tibor Kozma and Wolfgang Vacano and with Boris Goldovsky in stage direction. Along the way, he received what might have been considered an irresistible offer to join the conducting staff of the Met. Larsen, however, had a different ambition – a resolve to bring professionally produced opera to a middle-American audience who had limited opportunity to experience the art form.

Larsen’s first efforts resulted in Des Moines Civic Opera, which mounted two productions before he conceded the experience taught him “everything about how not to organize a company and board.” Then in 1973 he struck operatic gold with the formation of Des Moines Metro Opera with his co-founder and friend Douglas Duncan, utilizing the summer festival format and intimate performance space within Blank Performing Arts Center at Simpson College. Larsen perceptively realized he would need to strategically augment a repertory of accessible standards to cultivate developing audiences with more unusual fare that would potentially attract the attention of national audiences.

His first season included Puccini’s La Rondine (a virtual rarity at that time), Benjamin Britten’s Albert Herring, and a double bill of Menotti’s The Medium paired with the North American premiere of Arthur Benjamin’s Prima Donna. His later seasons brought the world premiere of Lee Hoiby’s The Tempest and a rare American mounting of Weber’s Der Freischütz. The formula worked. Opera News magazine showed up that first year, followed by Opera Now and a host of major market newspapers, all of which helped to establish DMMO as one of America’s leading regional performing arts entities. The company’s subscription base quickly came to represent 40 states, most Iowa counties and several countries.

Larsen mounted some 120 productions in 37 seasons, functioning as both conductor and stage director. This dual role resulted in an unusually cohesive fusion of musical and dramatic values. Although his command over a vast range of repertory was formidable, he displayed particular affinity for American works at a time when many companies were ignoring them. Floyd’s Of Mice and Men and Susannah as well as Blitzstein’s Regina, the major works of Menotti and three near-definitive mountings of Robert Ward’s The Crucible were highlights of his stewardship. He never shied from controversy and even presented nudity onstage in Richard Strauss’ Salome. A roguish humor evidenced itself on Independence Day performances when Larsen would conduct the national anthem using a blazing sparkler as a baton.

Dr. Larsen served as Chair of the Department of Music at Simpson for 33 years, where he taught from 1957 until 2017. A consummate educator, he began an undergraduate opera program there, taught pianists, and lectured extensively on music history and theory, notably in a specialty course on Medieval and Renaissance literature. He coached and accompanied vocalists and founded a beloved chorus of Madrigal singers, whose concerts, European tours, and Christmas dinner performances became college and Midwestern traditions. Music lovers and artists frequently gathered at his Indianola home for DMMO and college events, and to marvel at his remarkable collection of European antiques (some of which found their way onto the DMMO stage as props) and a basement styled à la La Bohème’s Café Momus. Larsen was a remarkable solo and collaborative pianist, and he was well known for his collaborative performances with students, faculty and major performing artists including bass-baritone Simon Estes. Whether as professor or impresario, he nurtured the careers of countless musicians, many of whom enjoy international careers. He was selected as a recipient of the first Governor’s Award in Music in 1973 and the 1990 Iowa Arts Award presented by the Iowa Arts Council.


“Robert’s sense of awe and wonder for great works of music and art knew no bounds,” Michael Egel reflects. “His fierce passion for and devotion to sharing that love with colleagues, students and audiences through teaching and performing led thousands of people to this magnificent art form, forever changing the lives of so many. We are all forever in his debt. Nothing will ever quite be the same.” That passion remained with Larsen after his retirement and on to the end. During a celebratory gathering in DMMO’s lobby following the 2017 season, Larsen was seen to pull himself from his wheelchair to greet a young singer who had enjoyed a considerable success with the company that year. “Isn’t he a find?” Larsen enthused, his eyes sparkling once the singer had moved on. “Extraordinary voice. It’s so wonderful to encounter new voices like that.”

Robert Larsen is survived by two nephews: Richard Healy (Maria Louisa Magcalas) of Seal Beach, CA, and Gary Healy of Oakland, CA; a great-nephew: Nathan Healy; as well as numerous friends in Indianola. He was preceded in death by his parents G. Dewey (1962) and Maine Larsen (1996), his sister Dorothy Healy (1972) and brother-in-law Early Healy (2015). Visitations will be held on Friday, March 26, from 3-8pm at the Overton Funeral Home in Indianola and on Saturday, March 27, from 9:00-10:30am at the First Presbyterian Church in Walnut, IA. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, no public graveside service is planned. When it is safe to do so, Des Moines Metro Opera will host a Memorial Concert for all to pay their respects and celebrate Larsen’s extraordinary life. Further details will be available at a later date. In lieu of flowers, memorial contributions may be directed to the Robert L. Larsen Scenic Fund at the Des Moines Metro Opera Foundation.

==  The text of the two items in this box are an appreciation from the Des Moines Metro Opera, followed by the full obituary (with photos added).  

BD:   Local girl makes good!

Griffel:   The local girl, yes!
BD:   Will you do anything different in Des Moines than you do on the stage at the Met?

Griffel:   Probably, but I don’t know what it’ll be.  I hope I can really bring about a very realistic human portrayal.  Because it
s a smaller theater, I can work on a small-scale as an actress in a whole different way.  I’m really looking forward to it, and it’s in English.  So, I’m most excited about it.  It’s a scary piece.  It’s a strange piece.  It’s not going to be easy for our audiences, but it’s really a wonderful piece.
BD:   How are the young voices coming along today, compared to the ones of fifteen or twenty years ago?

Griffel:   I don’t ever compare in that sense.  I had a few idols like Renata Tebaldi, Birgit Nilsson, Christa Ludwig, and Leontyne Price.  Once you have an idol, someone you love and admire, the voice is so special to your ear when you’re growing up that no one ever can come up to it!  It’s just one of those things.  I remember people saying Birgit Nilsson was not as good as Kirsten Flagstad.  To me, Birgit Nilsson was as good as anybody ever wanted to be, and I felt that way about Renata Tebaldi and Leontyne Price.  I’m sure there are voices as beautiful today.  Mirella Freni has been one of the great singers, but for me, they were the ones that I grew up with.  They were the sounds that really touched me and inspired me to want to sing, so they remain in a special corner, and no one can get close to them as far as I’m concerned.  However, I’ve heard of a lot of young singers that are very talented and offer a lot, and they continue to come, and they always will.  They have good schools and good training systems, and it will grow and grow.
BD:   Do you feel that your voice comes up to that level to which you aspire?

Griffel:   No.

BD:   But you keep trying!

Griffel:   Right!

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   What are the roles you’ve sung the most?

Griffel:   Maybe the Countess [The Marriage of Figaro] and Fiordiligi [Così Fan Tutte].
BD:   Youre going into Donna Anna.  Are there any other operas where you’ve sung more than one role?

Griffel:   Yes, there are.  I’ve sung Dorabella and Fiordiligi, which is great fun.

BD:   I don’t think of you as a Dorabella.  I think of you as a Fiordiligi.

Griffel:   I am, but remember I started out as a mezzo, and I sang it for a number of years.  My voice teacher at Northwestern said I would be a soprano when I’m about twenty-eight or so!  I was a mezzo, and I didn’t want to be anything else, but gradually my high voice began to come more and more, and this wonderful old conductor in Mainz [Karl Maria Zwissler, shown above-right] supported me, and gave me an opportunity to change to soprano, which I did on my own, and which was a mistake.  I then found a teacher, thank goodness.  But I always loved Dorabella.  I just adore her coquettishness, and her freshness, and her willingness to jump in over her head much too soon.  Basically, when I got into Fiordiligi, I knew that I was Fiordiligi because I always needed a little push.  There’s that lightness, but that sadness, and that depth that I adore in that role.  Per Pietà is one of the most beautiful musical experiences I’ve had on the opera stage, and every single time it’s that way for me.  With the horns and the recitative before, it shows her tremendous anxiety of not knowing, not wanting to give in, not wanting to feel these feelings, and yet she can’t help herself.  She does, and how she fights with it, and struggles with it.  It’s so human.  It just moves me every time I sing it.

BD:   Who should Fiordiligi end up with?

Griffel:   You ask the most thought-provoking questions!  Every producer has thought of it differently.  How are we going to end Così?  Are we going to have them go off happy-ever-after, or we going to have them do this or do that?  There’s no doubt in my mind that Ferrando is the match for her, and that the romantic spirit of those two meld, so to speak.  But oftentimes when we put two romantics together, it doesn’t work out the best.  So, who knows?  Actually, Mozart left it a question.  I don’t believe that it is totally and fully resolved, so life will give the answer in time.  I really believe that.

BD:   Coming back to Strauss, which roles have you sung in Der Rosenkavalier?

Griffel:   Octavian and the Marschallin.  That conductor in Mainz led it when I sang Octavian, and I’ve sung one other role!  I’ve sung one of the Three Noble Orphans with Lotte Lehmann in Santa Barbara when I was a kid.  So, I’ve done three roles in Rosenkavalier.  [Photo as Octavian is shown below-left.  It is from a commercial site, hence their watermark.]
BD:   We know that Octavian and Sophie wind up going off together.  Are they happy in the fourth act?

Griffel:   I believe with all my heart and soul at that moment that he is so overcome and enamored with her.  He knows that he’s loved the Marschallin, and probably still loves the Marschallin, but he is just carried away with the beauty of the moment, of this lover, and goes off.  Where it leads to in the
fourth act, I don’t know, but I do think that it’s right that he goes off with Sophie.  It fits into the characters, and it fits into the beauty of the older person letting go of the younger person, and of the whole greatness and complexity of the character of the Marschallin.  It has to be that way.
BD:   I assume the Marschallin goes and finds someone else?

Griffel:   Probably.

BD:   Was she the happiest in her life with Octavian?

Griffel:   That, I don’t know.  We don’t know who she’s going to find next.  [Both laugh]  I do know how I feel when I’m on stage.  I had a brilliant Octavian from East Berlin.  I did it in the Staatsoper [Berlin State Opera] quite a bit.  That was a wonderful old opera house, and was such a joy to sing in.  The people were so nice and so helpful.  We had beautiful costumes, beautiful wigs, and this girl who sang Octavian is a brilliant actress.  She had done a lot with Walter Felsenstein at the Komische Oper [in East Berlin], including Carmen, and some of the Janáček things.  In the first act the feelings the Marschallin has are very strong, and I know she is deeply moved and deeply touched by this young man, and by the special kind of quality of love that he gives her, even though he sometimes is as little bit too demanding, and pushy, and on top of her too much.  [Laughs]  I’ll never forget one evening where the first act was one of the most emotional and touching first acts of Der Rosenkavalier I ever experienced.  I couldn’t sleep afterwards.  I don’t know whether it was the happiest of her life, but the point of the whole opera is not whether this relationship or that relationship is the
one and only, it’s how the characters work inside the relationship, and the reflection of what the Marschallin says, and how she perceives life and looks at it.  Hofmannsthal has a way of making his womenincluding Arabella [shown below-right] and the Marschallinsay things that I, as a woman, find so big and so over-powering, that I feel as if I never could be that person.  I remember walking through the parks when I was studying the scores, and just saying the words over and over again.  Every time I say the words, I learn from them.  They are such global messages. They are real archaic figures.  These are women that convey an ideal, a trueness, and depth that is a role.  It’s a little bit super-human to me, and it’s just wonderful to be able to slip inside those characters, and those words and that music.  This is one of the things that I discussed with Lotte Lehmann a lotnever to take it too heavily, yet still to be able to slip in and out of those characters, and go on.  But every time you touch that music and those words, you’re changed.
BD:   On stage, do you actually become the character?

Griffel:   That’s a great thing.  You’re always supposed to have the one person standing outside.  Lehmann said to me about how she would always cry as Butterfly, and the conductor told her she mustn’t cry; the audience must cry!  This is the basic principle of acting.  There’s a great duality in all of us.  Some people have it more, some people less.  I’m a very dual person.  I have a very distant side, and a very close side, and that helps me in my acting.

BD:   When you get through with one of these heavy tragic characters, how long does it take you before you can throw it off, and be back to being yourself again?

Griffel:   I don’t know. Sometimes when I was doing roles like a gypsy, or the Marschallin, it stays with you longer than you realize.  Certain things edge into you.  You try to remain your own self, but every experience changes you.

BD:   I assume that you would portray each one of these characters differently now than you did five or ten or fifteen years ago?

Griffel:   I hope so!  I hope every time I do it differently.  One of the great things about rehearsals is to have the opportunity to do each character enough times, and to try different ways of doing it.  This is simply to build up your history of the character, and every time you do the character you have an added history.  You have new experiences, and suddenly after a number of years, you have a real person; not just your new shiny figure, but someone that’s gone through quite a bit.  Each has some experiences of excitement, and joy, and happiness, while some have less.

BD:   Is there any character that you’ve done who is perhaps a little too close to the real Kay Griffel?

Griffel:   Hmmm...  [Thinks a moment]  Do you mean one that showed too much of myself?

BD:   Yes.

Griffel:   Fiordiligi would be the closest.  That is one which truly nudges up to my inside self.  The amazing thing to me was doing Butterfly.  I’m very tall, and it certainly isn’t what we’d imagine a Japanese girl to be.  I felt very reluctant to do it for many reasons.  In the production at the Cologne Opera, the set is raised so that the opening in the stage is even smaller than usual.  I looked even larger that way.  I went to see another colleague do it.  She was quite short and a little pudgy, not overly so, but she was a slightly stocky woman, and she looked so big on that stage.  I thought if a short woman looks big on that stage, then I can look small.  I just decided there’s got to be some way for me to appear smaller.  Maybe it would be in the costumes, but I decided I would just be a small person.

BD:   Think small!

Griffel:   No, because you don’t want to think small in Butterfly emotionally or musically.  But I just felt that is what happened, and it worked.  I don’t know how well it worked, but it certainly worked for me, and I got around the inhibition of feeling like I was too tall through that process.  I never cried in the rehearsals, and seldom ever cried in all the preparation, but I sat in my room the night before I did it, and was reading through the score, and all of a sudden I just started crying.  It’s one of those characters that touches you and moves you so deeply.  I thought of her decision to... you know.  You have to understand the Japanese traditions and the ideas that they would kill themselves rather than lose honor, or hinder her child.  There are many and various reasons that she finally does commit hara-kiri.  It’s just that it really, really unnerved me, and it gave me so much doing that role.  I don’t know how much I actually gave it, but it gave me a lot.
BD:   Was your Pinkerton a little taller than you?

Griffel:   Yes, he was.  I was very fortunate.  All the people were relatively proportioned in size to me, so that worked nicely.
BD:   So many times you see the tall soprano with the short tenor.

Griffel:   It’s happened to me lots.

BD:   Is there anything you can do about your height in that situation?

Griffel:   Wear flats!

BD:   Sit a lot?

Griffel:   Sit a lot, or get steps.  There are all the obvious things, and in the end one must not worry about it.  Just realize that people are the way they are.  I never knew I was a tall girl until I went to Europe.  The men are a little bit shorter in Europe than they are in America, so it took me a while to get back into standing up straight, and not try and sit on my hip, or look a little bit shorter.  I never realized what it must be like for some kids who feel uncomfortable about their size, because I grew up playing basketball, and I wanted to be tall.  [Laughs]  There was a girl who was 6 feet tall on our team, and I was short at 5 feet 8 inches.  So I never thought of myself as being tall.

BD:   Have you done any musical comedies?

Griffel:   I never have, but I
ve always wanted to.

BD:   Why?

Griffel:   I love it!  I love the songs!  I love the music in the songs!

BD:   Is an evening of musical comedy different than an evening of opera?

Griffel:   In what way do you mean?

BD:   In the expectations on the part of the audience, or even of the performers.

Griffel:   Sure!  The audience is expecting something else when they go to see a musical, than when they go to see opera.  There’s no question about that because in musicals we have tremendous demands from our audiences in this country.  It’s truly interesting.  I’m glad you asked me the questions.  I’ve never thought about what I expect from my audience.  Maybe I should have...

BD:   Opera is not just a job for you, is it?

Griffel:   Oh, no!  When I say I never thought what I expected from my audience, I didn’t imagine that they would have to do something for me.  I have always wanted to be able to present my character to them, and I hoped that they would respond.

BD:   Thank you for all the music you have given us.

Griffel:   Thank you.  This has been a most interesting discussion.

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© 1987 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in Chicago on March 16, 1987.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB in 1989.  This transcription was made in 2023, and posted on this website at that time.  My thanks to British soprano Una Barry for her help in preparing this website presentation.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.  To read my thoughts on editing these interviews for print, as well as a few other interesting observations, click here.

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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.