Soprano  Nancy  Gustafson

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


As an opera singer, Nancy Gustafson has been acclaimed in most of the leading opera houses of the world including the Metropolitan Opera, the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, Teatro alla Scala, Milan, the Opéra National, Paris, Chicago Lyric Opera, the Bavarian State Opera, Munich, Deutsche Oper Berlin, Hamburg State Opera, the Vienna State Opera and many others. She enjoyed an especially close relationship with the Vienna State Opera, and in 2001 she was honored there with the title of Kammersängerin.

Born June 27, 1956, in Evanston, Illinois, Gustafson received her bachelor’s degree and an honorary doctorate from Mount Holyoke College, and her master’s degree from Northwestern University. She was soon appearing in leading opera houses in North America, and made her debut at Chicago Lyric Opera as Marguerite in Faust, at the Metropolitan Opera as Musetta in La bohème, and at the San Francisco Opera in Wagner’s Ring.

Gustafson made her European operatic debut at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris as Rosalinde in Die Fledermaus. This was followed by her debuts at the Bavarian State Opera and the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden in Wagner’s Ring, at the Paris Opéra as Marguerite, at the Teatro alla Scala as Eva in Die Meistersinger, and at the Vienna State Opera as Violetta in La traviata. Gustafson also appeared as Tsarina Alexandra in the Los Angeles Opera’s world premiere of Deborah Drattell’s Nicholas and Alexandra opposite Plácido Domingo and under the baton of Mstislav Rostropovich. She returned to the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden for the world premiere of Lorin Maazel’s opera, 1984, and subsequently performed the work at the Teatro alla Scala in Milan and at the Palau de las Arts in Valencia, Spain as well, on all occasions under the musical leadership of the composer himself. Throughout her career Nancy Gustafson has had the privilege to collaborate with some of the most important conductors of our day such as Lorin Maazel, Leonard Slatkin, Sir Georg Solti, Sir Simon Rattle, Riccardo Muti, Sir Colin Davis, Christian Thielemann, Christoph von Dohnányi, Zubin Mehta, Kent Nagano, Marcello Viotti, and many more.

Her recordings include Das Rheingold with Cleveland Orchestra (Decca), Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra and La bohème (both for Teldec), Lehár’s Der Tsarevitch and The Land of Smiles for Telarc, live recordings of Herodiade (opposite Plácido Domingo) and Guillaume Tell with the Vienna State Opera, and Pavarotti and Friends 2 with Luciano Pavarotti, Andrea Bocelli, and Bryan Adams.

Ms. Gustafson was the general manager of the Castleton Festival with Maestro Lorin Maazel, and is currently an Artist-in-Residence at Northwestern University, where she has taught since 2006. She is founder and executive director of the Songs by Heart Foundation, which is dedicated to connecting people with memory loss to the language and joy of music. Songs by Heart is currently leading interactive sing along programs at over 50 different locations in Illinois, California, Arizona, Ohio, Texas, Florida, and Washington DC.

==  Biography from the Northwestern University website.  
==  Throughout this webpage, names which are links refer to my interviews elsewhere on my website.  BD  

In the fall of 1988, soprano Nancy Gustafson sang Marguerite in Faust at Lyric Opera, along with Neil Shicoff in the title role, Samuel Ramey as the Devil, J. Patrick Raftery as Valentin, and Wendy White as Siébel.  Jean Fournet conducted the Pier Luigi Samaritani production.

Early in 1999, Gustafson was back with Lyric for Die Meistersinger.  That cast included Jan-Hendrik Rootering as Hans Sachs, Gösta Winbergh as Walther von Stoltzing, René Pape as Pogner, Eike Wilm Schulte as Beckmesser, Michael Schade as David, Robynne Redmon as Magdalene, and John Del Carlo as Kothner.  Christian Thielemann conducted.  It was between performances of this Wagner work that Gustafson sat down with me for a lively conversation.

For many years I had been working evenings and over-nights at WNIB, Classical 97, so while we were getting settled in, the chit-chat turned to our sleep-schedules . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:   You say you’re basically a night person.  How do you manage to shift between Europe and America where the jet-lag would just blow you away?

Nancy Gustafson:   When I came over to America, it was awful because I was getting up at six or seven o’clock every morning, and we had to ask them for a piece of fabric to put over the windows, because the light would come in.  I had really bad jet-lag coming this way, but going back to Europe is not as bad, because you stay up all night on the plane, which is easy for me.  My lifestyle is to stay up all night, and then try to stay awake the entire day, and then crash at about eight o
clock at night.  Then I sleep the night through, and I’m basically okay.  But coming this way, my body clock takes easily a week to ten days to get over it, and now we’re doing this opera that doesn’t end until midnight.  That means at ten o’clock at night I’m going to want to go to bed, and that’s before the third act, and before I have to sing that big stuff.  The other night I had gotten up earlier, at 9.30 AM, and in the third act I was yawning on stage because I was taxed.  My body wanted to go to bed!  [Laughs]  My colleagues aren’t boring, and particularly in these last performances the singing is just superb.  Every time he sings the Prize Song to me I have goosebumps.


See my interviews with Gwynne Howell, Thomas Allen, Robin Leggate, and Bernard Haitink

BD:   So, he’s really winning you!

Gustafson:   Yes, and I’ve sung it with him in London, and in Munich, and a lot of places, but it’s still wonderful.  I love Gösta Windbergh’s voice.  He wins me over, but also that music wins me.  It
s the same in Sachs’s Monologue, in the last scene.

BD:   It pays to have superb colleagues?

Gustafson:   Yes.
BD:   You don’t have to mention names, but are there times when you have lesser colleagues, and you find you have to work a little harder?

Gustafson:   I’d have to work harder if one of the colleagues was having problems singing it.  Then I start getting vocally tired, because I breathe and get nervous for them.  Fortunately, I don’t run into that much in Meistersinger, because if you can’t sing Sachs, or if you can’t sing Walther, you’re not going to be hired for those roles, because you won’t last six hours.  After your first performance the vocal cords won’t last.  It hasn’t happened to me, and I’ve been very fortunate with my colleagues in this opera.

BD:   Did Wagner ask too much of the singers?

Gustafson:   No!

BD:   Not at all?

Gustafson:   No!  You’ve got to ask the men that, but I’ve done this opera with Bernd Weikl and he’s still fresh at the end.  I did it with John Tomlinson, and he was still fresh, and here, Jan-Hendrik Rootering is just as fresh at the end as he is at the beginning.  So, I’m not sure that Wagner has asked too much of them.  I was watching Lohengrin last night, and, like Rienzi (which I’ve just recently done again in Vienna), I don’t know how Wagner thought a tenor could survive.  He has to sing the entire opera, and a lot of it is big heavy singing, and difficult singing on the passaggio [the transition area between vocal registers].  Then he has to sing that calm, beautiful aria at the end.  The Prayer comes late in Rienzi and that big aria comes at the end for Lohengrin.  I always wonder how they do it, and how they remain calm.  I hate singing Oh, Sachs, mein Freund before the quintet, because your heart’s beating a thousand beats a minute after that piece.  You really have to give it hard heavy breathing, and then you have to calm down for the quintet, and your heart cannot be racing.  If it were the other way around, it would be so much easier.

BD:   Does the length or heaviness of the opera influence what roles you will accept or turn down?  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at right, see my interviews with Kiri Te Kanawa, and Richard Leech.]

Gustafson:   Yes.  I haven’t really considered the length, as how much you have to give over a big orchestration.  Then I need to know who is conducting, and how much that orchestration will be held down.  I can always sing high and loud, or even high and soft for hours, but if I have to push at the middle part of my voice, that’s what gets me tired.

BD:   Do you look at the tessitura [vocal range]?

Gustafson:   I really look at that.  I’m not saying I’m a coloratura, because I don’t want to do the really high notes.

BD:   [With a gentle nudge]  The Queen of the Night [The Magic Flute] is not for you???

Gustafson:   No, the Queen of the Night is not for me!  [Both laugh]  But I find that if I sing higher things, the less tired I get.  My fatigue comes if I really have to sing middle-voice things loud.

BD:   Have you been asked to do some of those roles?

Gustafson:   Oh yes... Sieglinde, Brünnhilde, Leonora, and Salome!

BD:   You just turn them down?

Gustafson:   I turn them down.

BD:   [Musing]  You’d make a wonderful Salome...

Gustafson:   [Smiles]  Salome I’m starting to reconsider.  Two or three years ago, I had four contracts to sing it around the world, but I canceled them all, because I thought it was too soon to start doing that to my voice.

BD:   Now you’re moving in that direction?

Gustafson:   Now I’m starting to think that at my age, if I start signing a contract for four years from now, then I’ll be ready.

BD:   So, you really are looking into the future, and feeling how the voice will develop?

Gustafson:   Yes, and I am willing to take more risks because I can’t continue to just sing the lighter lyric things.  I’m just getting kind of old for them, not that my voice is getting old for them!  [Both laugh]  I am thinking of me as an artist.

BD:   The last time we had Romeo and Juliet here [1981], it was Alfredo Kraus and Mirella Freni.  They were, of course, much older, yet still they sang like angels!

Gustafson:   Absolutely!

BD:   Is this the goal, to always sing like an angel?

Gustafson:   [Thinks a moment]  If you have to sound like an angel in what you’re singing, yes.  But if you’re angry as heck, you probably don’t want to sound like an angel.  The goal is always throughout your career to be able still sing like an angel, if you want to sing like an angel.  You want to keep the voice fresh.

BD:   Does the character that you portray enter into your decision to accept it or decline it?
Gustafson:   Absolutely.  As an artist, I prefer to have roles where I can dramatically convey something.  I like doing parts where the character goes through a dramatic change.  That’s why I like roles like Violetta, or even Eva, though she doesn’t go through a lot of personal changes.  But Katya and Jenůfa are roles where you can really show this change.  You can’t say they’re dramatic soprano roles because they’re not for a dramatic voice.  It’s just dramatical on the stage.  This is where I like to be able to give different colors to the music based upon what the character is going through.  I’m not good at roles where you just have to stand and sing, and you don’t need much dramatic presence.

BD:   You’re not a good victim?  [Vis-à-vis the DVD shown at left, see my interviews with Joan Sutherland and Richard Bonynge, Marilyn Horne, and John Cox.]

Gustafson:   [Laughs]  No, I’m a terrible victim!  I always said I would never be a good Countess, even though the music that she has to sing has to be sung lyrically and beautifully, there’s not much guts to it.  I like it where you can just throw yourself into the role.  I just did The Merry Widow, which does not require anything with real guts, but it requires dramatic coloring and dramatic presence.  So all this goes for suicide victims in operetta as well.

BD:   A lot of these roles are 50, 100, 200 years old.  Are they still speaking to women who have now been emancipated, and gone through women’s lib, and wars, and depressions?

Gustafson:   Oh, sure!  A lot of the stories deal with love, or with tragedies that are universal themes which continue regardless of what goes on around us.  Violetta earned her living as a courtesan, but you could apply that to another type of woman.  Despite her illness, she tried to change her life in loving another man, and tried to clean it up, as it were.  I’m made more along those lines.

BD:   Is there any character that you do which is perilously close to the real Nancy?

Gustafson:   I’m a vulnerable type emotionally, and when I fall in love I give it my all to the point of almost giving it all just for being in love.  There are a lot of characters like that in opera.

BD:   Perhaps too many?

Gustafson:   Yes!  I just hope not to end up like most sopranos do in operas!  [Both laugh]

BD:   [With mock horror]  Do you want to wind up killing the tenor???

Gustafson:   No!  [Much laughter]  No, no, no.  I have no desire to kill anybody.

BD:   When you walk out on the stage, are you portraying the character or do you actually become that character?

Gustafson:   You come up with very, very good questions.  [Thinks a moment]  It depends.  I would hope to actually become that character in those three hours that I’m on the stage, and I am at my best when I can lose myself in that character.  I don’t sing as well when I cannot lose myself in the character, and that’s probably the accurate definition of the roles I like.  There are certain roles that you just have to stand and sing beautifully, and that’s also why I don’t like doing concerts, because when I have to stand and sing, and just think about my vocal cords, I can’t sing.

BD:   You can’t just imagine that you’re in an opera, even though you’re not moving around?

Gustafson:   That’s why I’m going to do some concerts of Lohengrin.  Then I can probably do it, but when standing and singing an oratorio, I’m not as good because I cannot lose myself.  My voice teacher at the university used tell me to just sing the darn thing!  [Laughs]  You have to think about vocal technique, and you have to prepare the breath, and take the breath, even if you’re losing yourself in the role.  But I do better once I go out on stage.  Then I no longer want to think about vocal technique.  I want it to just be in the instrument.  I go out there and think only about what Violetta or Katya or Eva is thinking at that minute.

BD:   Then you can react better to the colleagues, and to the music?

Gustafson:   Absolutely.  Every performance shouldn’t be the same.  You’ve got to have things worked out with the conductor, such as the tempi changes, and the colors, and the dynamics, but the readings of the lines must be natural.  That’s what I love about Die Meistersinger with his cast.  You can give slightly different readings to the lines.  You have to be able to keep it fresh.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Do you ever give song recitals?

Gustafson:   Very infrequently.  I’ve maybe given six in my entire life.  I do like them, and I would consider doing more of them... I just don’t do many.

BD:   But for those you just stand and sing.

Gustafson:   Yes, those are just stand and sing, but you’ve chosen your literature to stand and sing.

BD:   Do you find that each song is a little bitty opera?

Gustafson:   Yes.  I did a recital five or six years ago with Tchaikovsky songs, and some Janáček songs, and Strauss.  That kind of repertoire you can lose yourself in.  Song recitals are not the same as standing up and singing a Stabat Mater.

BD:   With all that you do, do you leave enough time for you?

Gustafson:   Yes!  [Laughs]  I’m at that point of my life were I’m trying to balance it all, so I can have a life and be an opera singer.

BD:   [With a gentle nudge]  Being an opera singer is not real life???
Gustafson:   [Bursts out laughing]  Absolutely not!  There’s nothing real about it.  It involves traveling non-stop, going from one contract to the next, going from one country to the next, and having to always think about the your voice.  Thinking about the music is a joy, but always having to think about those stupid two little vocal cords in your throat is most difficult.  Now, being at home in Chicago, where I was born and raised, I have more friends here, so everybody calls.  Of course I want to see them, but I’m sure they think I don’t love them anymore because I can’t see them.  I have to be quiet.  When I’m singing, I have to cancel everything the day before so I can just be quiet.  Otherwise, my vocal cords get too tired.  So I find that singing at home is really harder, because you can’t have your personal life and be a singer.  When I’m off on the road, even though I have some friends in each city, I’m much more alone, and I spend more time just being quiet, so my vocal cords don’t get taxed.

BD:   Where is home for you now?

Gustafson:   The house I own is in Naples, Florida, but I’m not there very much.  When you total all the days, I’m there about three weeks a year.  It’s just where all my things are.  Ninety percent of my possessions are there, but I’m not there very often.  So it’s a good question to ask.

BD:   You say that’s where ninety per cent of your possessions are.  Is your voice part of you, or is it a possession?

Gustafson:   It’s part of me.  I always said I was born with this voice, and it was a God-given gift that I have these vocal cords.

BD:   Do you like the roles that your voice imposes on you?  If you had a lower voice, you’d be singing Delilah and Carmen, and things like that.

Gustafson:   Those would be fun.  That’s where I’ve got to be angry.  I was born with this voice, and I can’t do the real fun ones.  I was listening to Ortrud, and I wondered why I couldn’t have a bigger dramatic voice so I could sing her.  That’s a meaty part, and it would be really fun to sing, but I don’t have that much of a dramatic sound.  But I’m happy with my voice.  I’m not somebody who loses sleep over what I don’t have.

BD:   I assume you have so many offers that you have to select which ones you want to do.  [Vis-à-vis the DVD shown at right, see my interviews with Felicity Palmer, Ryland Davies, Barry McCauley, and Sir Andrew Davis.]

Gustafson:   You have to select what path you want to take.  My agent always laughs because I get offered the widest variety of roles.  Eleven years ago, back in 1988, after I’d sung Katya they offered me Leonora.  Then, a year after that, they asked for Sieglinde.  The only problem is that I have no power in the lower register, which is necessary for those roles.  Somebody offered me Ariadne.  I’ve sung the Composer, and I’m dying to do it again.  Recently I’ve had to cancel a contract to do it because there was a conflict, but I love doing the Composer.  A lot of mezzo-sopranos sing it, but it was written for a soprano, and I love it.

BD:   Do you like being a boy?

Gustafson:   I love being a boy, and I always get angry at the mezzo-sopranos when they’re singing it.  It’s one of the most beautiful pieces of music written in the entire repertoire, and, of course, they get angry when I sing it because they think there are so few great mezzo roles.  There are really only two moments in that role where it is low, but you don’t have to have a dramatic sound.  You just touch them.  I always say there are two moments when I wish I had a microphone, but the rest of it is okay.

BD:   Do you sing other Strauss operas?

Gustafson:   I’ve sung Arabella, and I’m learning Daphne to be done in Berlin with Christian Thielemann.

BD:   [Musing again]  You’ll make a lovely tree!

Gustafson:   [Laughs]  I
ve looked like a tree all my life...

BD:   Has being tall and slender been a help or a hindrance to you, especially with so many short dumpy tenors?

Gustafson:   Every now and then, being so tall has been a hindrance.  My weight has never been a hindrance, but being so tall is sometimes.  It’s good for certain roles...

BD:   You must wear flats and the tenors wear lifts?

Gustafson:   Exactly!  They often put me in a ballet slipper.  I must say, though, that many of the colleagues I’m singing with now are taller than I am.  I don’t know why the baritones and the basses are taller than the tenors.  I love the role of Juliet, and I sang it last year, but a five-foot-eleven Juliet is hard to portray on the stage.  Years ago they were going to cast me as the Forest Bird in Siegfried, and somebody said it would like Big Bird [the character on Sesame Street]!  [Much laughter]

BD:   Now you sing Eva, and you’re about to sing Elsa.  Is there more Wagner in your future?

Gustafson:   I sang Rienzi in a new production in Vienna with Zubin Mehta.  As for the rest of Wagner right now, I’m holding off.

BD:   Will you eventually perhaps do Brünnhilde or Isolde?  
[She would later appear on recordings of the Ring as Freia (sets conducted by Christoph von Dohnányi and Wolfgang Sawallisch), and Gutrune (led by Sir Mark Elder).]

Gustafson:   I don’t know.  I will have to wait and see.  I keep thinking that my voice is going to get lower as I get older.  It hasn’t lowered yet, so I’ve got to wait until I get more meat.

BD:   But you’re still learning new roles?

Gustafson:   Absolutely!  This year I’m doing Lohengrin, and then the next month I’m doing Daphne, which are both brand new.  Then next October, I’m doing The Dialogues of the Carmelites with Seiji Ozawa in Paris, which is also brand new.  So, I’ve got new things to learn, and I just finished doing The Merry Widow in Paris.  I’d never done it in German, so that was as if it was brand new.

BD:   Is it grateful when you come back to a role that you have sung a number of times?

Gustafson:   Oh yes, but when I came to do Meistersinger, I still forgot words.  I’m capable of forgetting my own name, but it’s wonderful to come back to other repertoire.  I listen to Lohengrin every day, and I melt with it.  It’s exciting to learn the music.
BD:   It’s nice to know that a singer actually gets excited about the music that she is singing.

Gustafson:   Yes.  It doesn’t happen all the time, but I remember doing a production of Arabella about two years ago in Vienna, and Wolfgang Brendel was the Mandryka.  I was singing the duet with him, and I had goosebumps.  I was overwhelmed with the thought of how lucky I was to be singing this gorgeous music with the Vienna Philharmonic, and Brendel was singing like a god.  I love to learn music.  Sometimes staging rehearsals get a bit boring, but I still love singing.

*     *     *     *     *
BD:   You work a lot in Europe.  Do you get involved in any of their notoriously wild far-out productions?

Gustafson:   Yes.

BD:   Do you like them?

Gustafson:   Sometimes I do and sometimes I don’t!  [Much laughter]  I always say if two and two make four, then I’m willing to buy into it.  But there are certain times when a director will have an idea, and I’ll think that they chose the wrong person.  But I’ve got to say I’ve been fortunate.  Even if I may question the production around me, the sets or the costumes, usually what I have to do on stage as the character has been fine.  I’ve only had a problem in two productions.  Once, they flew me up high, and I’ve got a fear of heights!  I don’t have a fear of heights if I’m standing up high on a balcony, but it’s the flying.  They had me sit in a swing for the entire duration of the ballet, which seemed like a half an hour long.  I was sitting up there high in the air just trembling, and wondering why they made me do this when I didn’t have to sing.  I just had to stay there, but that’s the only time I really was scared.  In the end, though, I did it for all the performances.  I like seeing the new ideas, and if something makes sense, I accept.  However, we have got to remain true to the work.  I always will try it whatever a director will ask me, even for weeks of rehearsals.  But then in the end, if I can’t make it work I just tell the director I can’t do it.  We have to work something else out.

BD:   At least you give it a shot.  [Vis-à-vis the recordings shown at left, see my interview with Frank Ferko.]

Gustafson:   Absolutely, I always give it a shot because that’s the only way you learn new ideas.

BD:   Are you sometimes surprised that in the end it really does work?

Gustafson:   Absolutely!

BD:   Then you try to work with that director again?

Gustafson:   Yes!

BD:   And when it doesn’t work, do you try to not work with that director again?

Gustafson:   Yes!  Absolutely!

BD:   So you have your Good List and your Not Good List...

Gustafson:   [Laughs] I’m sure the directors do for the singers.  Fortunately, there have been very few instances where I’ve refused, and where I’ve really come to loggerheads with the director.

BD:   Then let me ask the
Capriccio question.  In opera, where is the balance between the music and the drama?

Gustafson:   I think it should be together.  In opera, that’s what you’re doing
music and drama.  But with certain composers, there is not as much drama inherent in the music.  For instance, if you have a style in which you’re saying the same thing fifty times, and you’re repeating the same words, you have to just think about the music and the voice, and do it.  The drama stops for a minute, and you have to think about the musical aspects of it.  But in Wagner, you can’t separate the music.  The music and the words go together, and you can’t just stand there and sing pretty.

BD:   Of course, he was his own dramatist, so that’s a special case.

Gustafson:   Right, but I’ve always had difficulty when they’ve translated 
Janáček into English, because you lose the drama a lot by taking out the words.  You lose the color of the music which comes from the Czech language.  It has its own rhythms that the composer wrote.

BD:   Do you like this idea of having supertitles, with the translation over your head?

Gustafson:   I love it!  The Met Titles are on the back of the chairs.  Even though I know what the story is, or if I’ve done the opera, every now and then you forget.  When people are singing at the top of the lungs, you can’t always understand, and it’s not because of bad pronunciation.  So it’s so nice to have the text.  It’s wonderful to be able to get all the subtleties of it.  The other night in the third act of Die Meistersinger, when Beckmesser is singing his song, the audience was really having a great time laughing.  My colleagues later said that they don’t laugh that much in Germany!  We don’t know what they’ve written in the translations, but it’s wonderful to hear an audience reacting.

BD:   It keeps them involved.

Gustafson:   Absolutely, and it makes their experience better.  It also makes our situation happier.  The only problem is when you look out into the audience, you see they’re not looking at you.  They’re just staring up at the supertitles, and you wonder how much they’re catching of me as an actress.

BD:   [Facetiously]  You’d find out immediately if you made an obscene gesture...

Gustafson:   [Bursts out laughing]  We could try that!

BD:   Let me ask the real easy question.  What is the purpose of music?
Gustafson:   What’s the purpose of life?!  Music is an art form, and it’s an expression of life.  You’re going to be expressing what a composer is feeling, or what he is seeing, or what he is thinking.  Sometimes there are words to that music, so you are going to express it with those words, but you also express it with the music.  Sometimes there aren’t words.  When it’s just orchestral, or just instrumental, it’s just a pure expression.  I heard the Schoenberg Five Orchestral Pieces the other day, and I just love hearing these different types of music.  If you don’t read the program notes, you’re free to interpret it as you want, and free to let your mind go to wherever it wants to go.
BD:   The perennial question is whether you would think of water if that work by Debussy wasn’t named La Mer.

Gustafson:   Exactly, right!  [Laughs]  How many times do you go into an art museum and wonder why they gave a certain painting that title.  It does not have anything to do with the work, but that gets you to think.  Music exists on all different levels.  The only type of music I have problems with is rap, because it doesn’t have a melody.  
It just feels like somebody’s yelling at me all the time.  But I haven’t educated myself on rap, so maybe it’s like people educating themselves on opera.  Maybe it’s not as readily accessible to my ear, and I have to educate myself more to appreciate.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   You sing in very small houses such as Glyndebourne, and in great big houses including Chicago and the Met.  Do you change your technique at all for the size of the house?

Gustafson:   No.  Not a bit, and the interesting thing is when lighter soprano voices sing at the Met, you can hear every word that they sing.  I was with a colleague recently who was concerned about being heard, and I told them not to worry about it.  You have to balance it.  You might have to sing louder in a passage where the orchestration is heavy.  With Wagner, you’ve got many people in front of you, so you have to move yourself downstage.  A lot of the time you’re standing upstage, and a piece of scenery will be like a wall behind you to send the sound out.  There are things you can do, so it’s a joint venture of you and the director.  Before the opening night, somebody will have worked those balances out.

BD:   Ultimately, isn’t it the conductor who has to balance everything between the stage and the pit?

Gustafson:   The conductor has the ultimate control of the balance, yes.  At one of the rehearsals, I asked Christian Thielemann about a detail.  It was written piano, and was supposed to be light when Eva’s talking.  I knew I shouldn’t try to get a dramatic sound, and he said,
Don’t change a thing!  That’s my job.  I will keep that down.

BD:   But from where he’s standing, how does he know what the sound will be like in the various places in the house?

Gustafson:   That’s when you need the assistants.  You need the other people who’ll hear it, because he might hear it perfectly where he is, but if you’re sitting at a different point in the house, one can’t necessarily catch every detail.  We have to sing, and it can’t be lighter because it’s a smaller theater, because you’ve still got that orchestra in front of you.

BD:   Do you change your technique at all for the microphone?

Gustafson:   I hate microphones!  [Bursts out laughing]  I wish I could change, and I probably should.  Then maybe I’d have more success with my recordings.

BD:   You’re not pleased with the recordings you’ve made?

Gustafson:   None of them.

BD:   [Shocked]  Really???

Gustafson:   Yes.

BD:   Even when people come up to you and say your recording was wonderful?

Gustafson:   I’m happy they think that, but I’ve haven’t been happy with one of them.  I don’t like my voice on the recording.  When you put me in front of a microphone, I don’t sing as well.  If you listen to me in a live recording from a video of an opera, I sing much better than I do in front of a microphone.  I know colleagues who can sing in front of a mic and they say to just sing lightly, and it will work.  But I haven’t learned that technique yet, and I probably should.

BD:   Have you turned down some recording offers because of that?

Gustafson:   Yes.  Right after I’d sung Katya at Glyndebourne, they wanted me to do a recording of it.  They also wanted me to do a solo recital, and I turned down both of them.  Years ago I turned down a recording of Die Meistersinger because I didn’t feel I was ready to do it.  In that case, to not to have done Meistersinger was stupid, but the other ones I’m not sorry I didn’t do.  I’m much better on video.  I’m much better in a live performance.

BD:   Are you at the point in your career where you want to be now?

Gustafson:   Sure!  [Thinks a moment]  I never ever dreamed of being this far in my career at this age.

BD:   You just thought you’d be a church singer or do a few local things?

Gustafson:   I never dreamed of being a singer.  I wanted to be a Dean of Students at a university.  Would I have ever thought that I’d sing in all the major opera houses of the world?  No!  There are some jobs that I haven’t sung as well because of personal situations in my life, and traumas that I’ve gone through.  There are things in my career that I regret, but I don’t lose sleep over them.  You just go forward, and I’m very, very thankful for the work that I’ve done, and for the work that I’ve got coming up.

BD:   Do you like being booked two, three, four, five years in advance, knowing that on a certain Thursday, a few years from now, you’ll be in a certain city singing a certain role?

Gustafson:   Yes, because then I know I can pay my mortgage!  [Both laugh]  I don’t know how musical comedy people can do it.  They finish a job, and then they don’t know what their next job is.
BD:   But often their job will be six months doing the same role, night after night after night.

Gustafson:   Yes, and for me that would be terrible.  But to not know your schedule in advance?  I’m not the type who could just live knowing you’re unemployed, and maybe three months from later I might have work.  I wouldn’t do well in that kind of a lifestyle.
BD:   Are you planning for the day when you will stop singing, or have you not even thought about that?

Gustafson:   Sure!  I like a lot of things in life, and I haven’t decided exactly the other things that I want to do.  I’m signing contracts now into 2002 and 2003, so I’m not planning on ending it any day soon.  [Both laugh]  I’m still going to be learning all these new operas and new roles, but I like to do other things as well.  They just came to ask me to speak to some kids from Cabrini Green at the Fourth Presbyterian Church.  They’ve got a tutoring program, and I love that kind of thing.  I’d love to be able to balance that with my singing career. 

BD:   You seem to want to give a lot of yourself all of the time.

Gustafson:   It’s in giving that you receive, isn’t it?

BD:   True!  Tell me about your special project, Over the Rainbow.

Gustafson:   That’s the most important thing in my life.  It’s a building for thirty-three severely physically disabled adults that I’ve been a part of, and we do a benefit concert every year.  This will be our tenth year coming up, and the money we get from that concert pays for the building for the year.  I have a younger brother who is severely physically disabled, and he lives in the building.  But the interesting thing is that I am so inspired by them.  When I go there my life becomes so much richer.  I talk to a lot of people who live there because they have got such drive.  I was watching my little brother on the computer, and he had such patience.  I thought that he has far more patience and energy than I’ve ever had.  If the building had not been built, my little brother, who will be 38 this year, would have no place to live.  He would have had to go into a nursing home.  My parents can no longer take care of him because he needs to be lifted out of his bed to get dressed.  He’s in a wheelchair, and doesn’t talk or walk or hear.  He’s not mentally disabled, just physically disabled.  We could hire somebody to take care of him twenty-four hours a day, but who has the money for that?  Then what kind of life does that provide him?  Now he’s living in this apartment where he can live independently, and there are other people, such as car accident victims, or who have various illnesses.  There are people who had normal lives, and have become quadriplegic.  Where do they go in this country if they’re not independently wealthy?  These people are tremendous.  I see them in this building that I’ve been involved with.  They have a work center where they are gainfully employed, and they can live on their own.

BD:   I’ve always had a tremendous respect for those who can’t do what we do, and yet manage to accomplish so much in their lives.  When I was a little boy, the high school had a class of those called EMH [educable mentally handicapped].  There was one young man in there who was very interested in music.  I didn’t really understand it at the time when my father said that if I did the same amount of work, and put the same amount of effort that he did, I’d be Einstein!  Eventually, that changed my whole view forever.

Gustafson:   I was watching my brother surf the internet.  He is very spastic, but he knows how to do it.  I was asking him how to access various things, and he tried to put the arrow on the right thing with the mouse.  It takes him quite a while just to get the mouse in the right place, but he has no problem with that.  He has all the patience in the world.  He goes and does it, and he’s happy.

BD:   That’s the thing
he’s happy.

Gustafson:   He’s happy.  He’s got a job, and he’s got a place to live, so how dare I ever be sad or stressed out for what I’m doing?  That concert we do every year is my favorite thing.  I get my colleagues to come and join me, and sing in the concert.  They get to sing whatever they want, so they’re singing what they love to do.  Other Chicago area people
like Jennifer Larmore, and Bill Powerscome and join me.  They are my angels from heaven who come and help me do the concert.

BD:   I’ve attended a couple of the concerts, and they’re just wonderful.  They’re very special, and you can tell that they are very meaningful for those singing, as well as those of us who are listening.

Gustafson:   The first year we did it, Constance Hauman, Ben Heppner, and I were singing the Christmas Medley at the end, and we were all breaking into tears.  They were all so touched by the concert, and just thinking about that concert gives me goosebumps right now just talking about it.  What are we on this Earth for if not to use the gifts we’ve been given to help other people.  But I’ve got to say, they help me probably more than I help them.  If anybody is ever in need of feeling inspiration for life, go over to that building and see those people.  They are tremendous!  They’re far stronger than all of us.

BD:   That’s the answer to the idea we spoke of earlier, about the meaning of life.

Gustafson:   Yes!

BD:   Thank you for all of the music, and thank you for coming back home again.

Gustafson:   Thank you.  What a joy it is to be back in Chicago.



See my interviews with Hermann Michael, Richard Van Allan, Dale Duesing, and Hilda Harris

© 1999 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in Chicago on February 22, 1999.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB the following July, and again in 2000.  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.

*     *     *     *     *

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.