Tenor  Jerry  Hadley

Two conversations with Bruce Duffie



Jerry Hadley

US tenor whose great vocal facility equipped him for both operas and musicals

By Patrick Stearns, The Guardian July 18, 2007  [Text only - photos from other sources]

Jerry Hadley, the fresh-faced tenor from the Illinois heartland, has died from an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound to his head at the age of 55, following treatment for depression. The incident occurred on July 10; he was taken off life support on July 16. For decades, he was a dependable lyric tenor presence in the world's great opera houses and music festivals with a particular facility for singing modern music with an Italianate lyricism, starting with his signature role, Tom Rakewell in Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress in a student production at the University of Illinois. With no change in technique, his clean vocal production also encompassed Broadway musical theatre.

In Hadley's best years, he was the ebullient, un-neurotic concert partner of baritone Thomas Hampson in what were playfully named the "Tom and Jerry" concerts. Hadley was married with two sons in affluent Wilton, Connecticut, and had a thriving recording career, including numerous complete opera recordings as well as highly publicised crossover albums in the 1990s for RCA.

Both Beverly Sills (obituary, July 4) and Joan Sutherland played significant roles in his early career, the former offering him his first big opera house contract with the New York City Opera in 1978, the latter casting him in his first full opera recording, Donizetti's Anna Bolena, in the mid-1980s.

The news of his death was, to say the least, a shock. One anonymous blogger from Boston spoke for many: "I saw Jerry Hadley [in a] master class earlier this year that rejuvenated my love of singing and brought many singers in the class to greater depths of emotional connection to their performances. I count it as a turning point in my own studies, and I cannot square that delighted, energetic man with the same person who wanted to die."

However, with last year's arrest for drink-driving (the charges were dropped because, while he had been drinking, he was not driving when apprehended), a different picture began to emerge. His voice had been less reliable and lustrous. Though a frequent presence at the Metropolitan Opera starting in 1987, he had not sung there since 2002, when he gave a performance of the John Harbison opera, The Great Gatsby.


See my Interviews with Dawn Upshaw and Susan Graham.

The RCA crossover discs had never made much of an impact, either with critics or on the sales charts. In recent years, Hadley was divorced from his wife and singing mostly pops concerts, though a Madam Butterfly earlier this year in Australia apparently gave him new confidence on his operatic prowess. Though he was reportedly discussing new roles such as Mime in Wagner's Ring cycle, he was also considering bankruptcy. Such circumstances among world-class singers are infrequent, but hardly unheard of in a world where vocal health - not financial acumen - is a paramount consideration. Hadley always seemed to be the exception to that.

Born in Princeton, Illinois, and brought up on a farm, he discovered his talent for opera while attending Bradley University in Peoria, Illinois, before he had even seen one staged professionally. Vocal rest, he once said, came second to family duties. Though he lost his voice for months in the late 1980s - and said he learned a greater appreciation for life beyond his career - he came back, singing as effortlessly as ever.

Indeed, what floored critics about the young - and even middle-aged - Hadley was his ease. Passages in The Rake's Progress that caused struggle with most tenors did not for him. Why, he could not say. The music's odd intervals simply never gave him trouble. As Alfred in Johann Strauss II's Die Fledermaus, he playfully tossed off bits of the most troublesome tenor arias.

During his New York City Opera years (1979-89), he learned new roles quickly - the title role of Massenet's Werther, among them - and in a special, all-star concert version of Richard Strauss's Capriccio at Carnegie Hall, sang the role of Flamand. Unlike many opera singers who lost credibility in singing Broadway scores, Hadley's prestige only increased - at first - with his celebrated recording of Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II's Show Boat with Teresa Stratas. He was a favourite of Leonard Bernstein, who is said to have offered him the leading tenor role in his 1984 recording of West Side Story, which Hadley turned down. However, Hadley was featured in Bernstein recordings of the Mozart Requiem, Puccini's La Bohème and Bernstein's own Candide. At Bernstein's memorial at Carnegie Hall, Hadley moving sang It Must Be So from that score.


As Hadley grew more confident on stage, however, critics identified a lack of artistic taste that grew more pronounced in later years. He was featured vocalist in the RCA recording Symphonic Music of the Rolling Stones, specifically singing Sympathy for the Devil in operatic voice. The disc was one of the label's biggest failures.

Nor did his appearance in Paul McCartney's Liverpool Oratorio, portraying a blue-collar worker shouting for his dinner, help his artistic standing. At Cecilia Bartoli's 1996 Metropolitan Opera debut in Mozart's Così Fan Tutte, Hadley sang Ferrando with extravagant ornamentation that left some critics baffled. None the less, he continued to be featured in prestige projects, such as the 1996 Peter Mussbach production of The Rake's Progress in Salzburg and the 2002 recording of Janáček's Jenůfa at the Royal Opera, Covent Garden.

Even with a self-imposed conclusion to his career, Hadley had what many tenors long for - nearly 30 years of almost unbroken activity, spread over both the US and Europe, in a nearly unprecedented range of composers, from Mozart to McCartney.

· Jerry Hadley, tenor, born June 16 1952; died July 18 2007

--  Names which are links refer to my Interviews elsewhere my this website.  BD 


See my Interviews with John Mauceri, Gian Carlo Menotti, Sheri Greenawald, and Martin Feinstein.
Also in the cast (but not pictured) was Richard Stilwell as Marcello.

Jerry Hadley at Lyric Opera of Chicago

1986-87 - La Bohème (Rodolfo) with Esperian, Wroblewski, Putnam, Washington, Kreider, Capecchi; Mauceri, Copley, Pizzi
                 Merry Widow (Camille) with Ewing, Titus, Adams, Kaasch, Negrini; Podič, Mansouri, Laufer, Tallchief

1987-88 - Così fan tutte (Ferrando) with Te Kanawa, Howells, McLaughlin, Titus, Nolen; Pritchard, Ponnelle

1988-89  Traviata (Alfredo) with Tomowa-Sintow, Pons; Bartoletti, Chazalettes, Pizzi, Tallchief
                Falstaff (Fenton) with Wixell, Daniels, Corbelli, Walker, Swenson, Horne, Andreolli; Conlon, Ponnelle

1990-91 - Magic Flute (Tamino) with Mattila, Nolen, Jo, Lloyd, Stewart; Kuhn, Everding, Zimmermann

1991-92 - L'elisir d'amore (Nemorino) with Gasdia, Corbelli, Desderi, Futural; Pappano, Chazalettes, Santicchi

1992-93 - Pelléas et Mélisande (Pelléas) with Esham/Stratas, Braun, Kavrakos, Minton; Conlon, Galati, Israel

1994-95 - [Stravinsky] Rake’s Progress (Tom Rakewell) with Swensen, Ramey, Palmer; Davies, Vick, Hudson

2000-01 - [Harbison] The Great Gatsby (Gatsby) with Berneche, Forbis, Braun, Risley; Stahl, Lamos, Yeargan

2004-05 - [Bolcom] A Wedding (Luigi) with Malfitano, Harries, Gardner, Flannigan, Lawrence, Nolen, Cangelosi, Doss; Davies, Altman, Wagner

I had the pleasure of speaking with Jerry Hadley on two occasions.  The first took place on New Year
’s Day of 1987 and was targeted for use in the Massenet Newsletter.  The second meeting happened on October 13, 1994, and encompassed a more general overview of topics.  Both encounters are presented on this webpage.

We began by speaking about recordings . . . . . . . . .

Jerry Hadley:    To get a studio quality recording in a live performance situation poses some problems.  However,
the advent of the compact disc opened up the whole industry for all of us.

Bruce Duffie:    Do you like the way your voice sounds on recordings?

JH:    That’s a loaded question.  I’m pleased with the way it records, and I’m always pleasantly surprised that it sounds better than I think it’s going to sound.  If you ask if I’m totally pleased every time I hear my voice played back, that’s a tough question because I can remember the circumstances surrounding that particular take
what was going on in my mind at the timeand when I hear it, I can hear all the imperfections which are probably only imperfections in my own mind.  You’ve interviewed enough people to know that we’re our own worst critics.  If I had to characterize it, I’d like to have the playback sound like Enrico Caruso, but it’s not supposed to.  It’s supposed to sound like Jerry Hadley.  But for the most part I’m pleased with what’s there.  I think it’s an accurate representation.

BD:    Do you get the same kind of feedback when you’re on the stage where you don’t hear a playback, but rather you hear yourself as it’s going on?


JH:    Acoustically it’s a different process
for me at least — when I record as opposed to when I perform.  When one records, there’s a kind of concentration that lets you remember the last take where a certain few measures weren’t as good as possible, or perhaps the high A wasn’t the best I’ve ever done, so let’s concentrate on that one element.  You tend to focus in on rather technical details in a recording session because you know it’s going on that digital master and will be there.

BD:    Are you pre-making splices?

JH:    Generally what happens is that you’ll do two or three takes pretty much straight through.  Hopefully in those takes the engineers can get what they want, and if there’s a measure or two that they think was better elsewhere they can splice it in.  Or, you do a take which acts as a road map.  You go in and listen to the playback with the conductor and several assistants who are also listening for very specific things, and they’ll say to the artist, “This measure you need to bring out,
or “That measure you need to hold back,” or whatever.  You go back and do a second take and try to accomplish the things that have just been spoken about.  Then, if it still isn’t to the satisfaction of the producer or the technician or the conductoror even if the artist feels he can do betteryou can, with the digital, do just that one measure (with a few beats lead-in and lead-out) and it will be spliced right into the master.  In a sense, the recording becomes better than real-life.

hadley BD:    At what point does it cross the line and become a fraud?

JH:    I don’t know.  If you start talking about the recording as a representation of a live performance, then almost every recording is a fraud.  But, we’re not striving for a kind of archival document.  We are trying to make something that is as blemish-free as possible.  As a record collector and audiophile myself, I appreciate being able to put on a piece of music done to perfection and listening to what a great work it is.  Sometimes it concerns me because we’ve all run into a situation where someone will come backstage expecting to hear the same kind of acoustical balance and detail in the theater that they have heard on the recording where everything can be done perfectly and balanced just right.  They’ll even say that there were things they liked better on the recording than in the performance.  That’s a danger we run into.

BD:    Do you ever feel you’re competing against the recordings
either by another tenor, or even yourself?

JH:    So far I’ve never performed any of the works I’ve recorded since the recording has been issued.  I remember talking to Placido Domingo about this when we were double cast in a production.  He’s a very open and generous man with both his time and his encouragement, and gives words of wisdom to people like me.  Perhaps with the exception of Nicolai Gedda, Domingo may be the most recorded tenor of the last couple of decades, and he said that sometimes it’s very difficult to recreate on the stage exactly the same kind of ambiance that you have on the recording
particularly in works that are heavily scored.  Also, the large American opera houses will have a different situation from the smaller European houses.  Even someone with a canon for a voice will have trouble matching the presence of a recording when the orchestra is going full-tilt.  Domingo said he knows that there is a limit to what a human can do to compete with that.  You have to just sing the same way you always sing, and the balance is the problem of the conductor. 

BD:    Do you sing differently at all from big theaters to small ones?

JH:    My intention is not to sing differently.  Remember that when I step on the stage here in Chicago, this house is almost as big as the Met which is 4,000 seats, and is almost twice as big as even the largest European house.  You don’t go out and push more, but you do have a sense that there is more space in which you have to operate, and we all tend to work a little harder than we do in a smaller situation.  I remember the first time I sang in Vienna, which holds about 2,200 people and is a rather severe horseshoe shape, so no seat is all that far from the stage, even the ones way up in the fourth ring.  You still have a sense, perhaps not of intimacy, but at least that you’re in the same geographical area.  I’ve noticed that those of us who are used to these huge theaters feel we don’t have to work as hard over there to make the same musical or vocal points.  I must say, though, that of all the houses, this one here in Chicago is quite a gem acoustically.  I had some relatives who sat way up in the back, and they were surprised at how splendid the acoustics were.  But coming back to the idea of recordings, back in the 1950’s, London records made an attempt with their opera recordings to try to recreate the ambiance of the theater.  If you hear some of those discs where the singers don’t have quite as much presence as they do on the more modern sets, the consumer probably has the same idea that I do, being that when we pay $35 or more for a set, we want to hear everything.  I don’t know what the answer is.  In the same way, opera videos can present opera in a different light from the theater.  Having real outdoor sets and so much freedom gives a richness that you can’t get when you’re confined to stage settings.  On the other hand, you must realize it was conceived as a theater piece to be done on a stage where you have four walls, with the audience looking in from one of those walls.  I’ve often wondered how the advent of the opera video will affect the expectations of the audience in twenty years. 

hadley BD:    Do you feel opera works well on television now?

JH:    I have seen lots of opera productions which are simply staged performances that are filmed and broadcast to audiences throughout the country.  Some things work and some things don’t work.  For instance, in order for histrionics on the stage to “read” clearly to the back row of the theater, there needs to be a kind of larger-than-life quality.  You have to exaggerate the gestures
which doesn’t mean it’s unreal or contrived.  It’s the art of stagecraft.  Some props that are real wouldn’t look nearly good as artificially-made ones.

BD:    Is there a sense of schizophrenia about live performances which are televised?  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at left, also see my interviews with Richard Van Allan, and James Levine.]

JH:    There is just that, which is my point.  Actions for the live audience will look over done or too cluttered for the audience at home.  By the same token, things which are filmed or made for the television can afford to do actions in a much more subtle way than you can on the stage.  The camera can catch a raised eyebrow, which can say tons about what a character is thinking.  The one singer who mastered the middle ground was Callas.  If you’ve seen the films of her Tosca, for instance, she did very little on the stage in terms of movement, but what she did was so direct and almost film-like in its intensity.  That’s something from which we can all learn.  It’s a real problem for those of us who come from a theater background and now are on screen much more often than singers of the past.  I know this for myself.  I’ve tried to learn from some of the great actors like Gielgud and Olivier who have done both extremely well.  They have said that the hardest thing to learn to do on film is to stand still and trust that the material that’s being delivered is enough the carry the moment.

BD:    In either situation, are you portraying the character, or do you become that character?

JH:    That’s why we have rehearsals.  It’s very dangerous to totally become a character in performance to where you lose control as a performer.  You have to know that you’re starting at point A, and by the end of the evening you will arrive at point Z.  You must take your character through the progression of emotions.  If you so totally become the character in performance that you are experiencing in a real way what the character is going through, it’s very difficult to maintain control.  In a very pragmatic sense, if you allow yourself to become overly involved in a real way, you often sacrifice the kind of vocalism you need to sing the piece.  Rehearsals are where I try to do all my digging.  If I’m going to go over the edge, I want to do it there.  This summer I did Werther for the first time, and it may be the most difficult thing I’ve ever tried to do.  It’s a load.  There were a few days when both Wendy White (who was singing Charlotte) and I lost it because of the subject matter we were dealing with.  Even though they had no direct relationship to the situation Werther and Charlotte were in, there’s a common emotional vocabulary that all human beings have, and we were touching some of that and finding ourselves in tears or depressed about the situation, and at the end of the rehearsal we couldn’t sing because we were so emotionally choked up.   That’s what rehearsal is for.  Once you’ve experienced that and gone over the edge, you have a new color to add to your palette as a performer.  It’s an emotional memory which allows you to realize for the audience what the character is going through, and believe it and be a part of it without allowing it to totally consume you to the point where you can’t maintain the kind of control you need to get to the end of the piece.  Sometimes you can do it successfully, and other times it’s difficult, particularly in a piece like Werther.  With Massenet, it’s very easy to get carried away with the emotions of the moment.   

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Let’s talk a bit about Massenet.  You seem to be moving into the French repertoire now.  Tell me about the character of Werther.

hadley JH:    Werther is the prototype for all of the tragic romantic heroes of the 19th century.  When Goethe wrote the novel
which tells the story of a man whose love for a young lady cannot be realized in their own marriage because she is married to another manWerther ends up committing suicide, the ultimate act of a romantic lover.  There was a rash of suicides in Europe that resulted after the publication of this book.  Young men who were so carried away with the emotion that they went out and killed themselves.  It’s a very complex opera and a difficult opera to realize both for Werther and for Charlotte because she has equally as many problems as he does.  In the one production that I’ve done so far, the most difficult thing was to realize that the problem Werther and Charlotte have is that they’re both tremendously honorable people.  At the beginning of the opera when they first meet, it’s love at first sight, but she’s betrothed to another man.

BD:    If she hadn’t been engaged to Albert, do you think Werther and Charlotte could have been happy with each other?

JH:    That’s a question that we posed to ourselves.  I think the door is wide open for speculation on that because in many ways the two of them are very much alike.

BD:    Too alike?

JH:    Perhaps.  It may have been a love that would have consumed them both even if there had been no obstacles.  If they had been able to carry on an affair, then there would not have been the kinds of problems that resulted in this unwillingness to allow either to dishonor the other.  As soon as she tells him she’s betrothed, he says he cannot do this.

BD:    Why can’t he put her out of his mind, then?

JH:    That’s the dilemma.  He can’t live with her and he can’t live without her.  As you know, she marries Albert, and Werther becomes friends with him as well, which makes the problem even worse because he really likes this man.  Albert ultimately understands that Werther is in love with Charlotte, and he says he doesn’t condemn Werther for it, because he, too, loves her.  This adds another wrinkle to the problem.  So Werther sees suicide as the only way out of this, but his sense of honor and sense of right get in the way because he knows it’s wrong.  So he goes away, but is constantly in turmoil.  That element in the character is the hardest to portray because, in a sense, Werther does not develop in a way that other operatic characters do.  At the beginning of the opera we have the sense that he is a loner, a dreamer, a visionary, who sees this woman who fulfills every fantasy and ideal that he’s ever had about the perfect woman.  He falls in love with her and finds out he cannot have her.  From that point forward, everything he does is obsessive behavior toward Charlotte.  For the whole evening, he’s walking a tightrope.

BD:    Do you wish you could just shake him and say, “Get on with your life?”

JH:    Yes, absolutely.  It’s a tremendously precarious position to be in as a performer.  I’ve found myself wanting to have some kind of a catharsis, to want to get on to the next level, but you can’t.  After every pathetic outburst, he has to stay in control, and the same is true of Charlotte, especially in the third act.  She is constantly trying to keep her feelings in check.

BD:    Is there any way to bring this mid-nineteenth century character to audiences in the late twentieth century?

JH:    I try to recreate a nineteenth century ambiance.  Certainly, the morality with which both Charlotte and Werther are dealing
both in the book and the operais different from our own mores.  I don’t think that a vow means as much toady as it did then.  We could extend this into opera in general.  There are so many operas in which a promise made or a vow spoken is the hinge on which the whole story turns.  To those of us who read the papers every day and who went through the free love of the 60’s, and who haven’t been taught that a promise means the same thing as it did to these people, accepting these characters becomes difficult.  There are so many friends of mine who saw the performances who came to me and asked why they just didn’t go off together!  They were just expected to behave that way no matter what.  It was their behavioral code.  The common ground between the characters and today’s audiences must be the suffering and turmoil.  We’ve all been in some situation where we must go on despite desperately wanting not to.

BD:    You’ve also sung many Italian operas.  Are there any basic differences between Italian operas and French ones?

H:    Certainly stylistically there are lots of differences.  The kind of singing one has to do in Massenet, for instance, is somewhat less exuberant than Verdi or Puccini.  There is an elegance and preciseness to the vocal line in the French operas.  The portamento, for instance, is not used the same way.  In French music there is an attention to the text which, though not unimportant in Verdi, is more a vehicle to supreme vocalism.  The Italian composer might call for several notes on each syllable, whereas in the French works the text is joined to each note.  It expresses the emotion, but the character is feeling in a different way.  It’s a more through-composed approach.  This is not to say there are not times when everything stops because it’s time to sing an aria.  There is a kind of subtlety in French music that is not there always in Italian music.  Remember the dream aria in Manon?  It’s a simple, almost understated expression of what Des Grieux is feeling at that particular moment.  Given the same situation in an Italian opera, the character might well sing an exuberant aria ending with a big high note.  The French composers call upon a great deal more subtlety than the Italians.  This not meant as a criticism of the Italian composers, but simply a difference.  While Massenet understood equally well the capabilities of the human voice, sometimes one gets the feeling that he didn’t really care whether it was easy to sing a particular vowel on a certain note.  It was important to the musical-dramatic experience, whereas the Italian composers who were schooled in the Bel Canto tradition would make the technical act of singing the most important.  I’ve sung both for a long time, and I find that whichever style I am doing, I crave the other style after a while.

hadley BD:    Do you purposely organize your career so that you have both?

JH:    I am.  I’m trying at this point to concentrate on the Bel Canto repertoire with a few of the lighter Verdi scores thrown in.  Most of the French roles are already in my repertoire, or will be there within a couple years.  But I don’t want to be considered only a French tenor.

BD:    What do you look for in roles that help you decide which you will sing?

JH:    Obviously, I look to see whether it’s appropriate for my particular talents.  There are lots of roles which fall within the classification of Bel Canto which I don’t feel I do as well as others.  Certain roles that I can sing just don’t speak to me as well as others.  There are intangibles, and I’ve retired a few roles which I don’t think I can sing really well any more.  It’s not that I can no longer sing the notes, but other roles suit my technical abilities more now than before.  If you’re going to make a career that makes any difference for you or for your audience, you have to do that.  You have to decide what it is that you do best.

BD:    Are you glad you’re a tenor?

JH:    Of course.  I don’t have much choice, but there’s so much great music to sing.

BD:    What kind of guy is Des Grieux?

JH:    Des Grieux is the ultimate victim.  In the novel, Des Grieux is the narrator, and you see the story from this standpoint.  You come away with the sense that he’s writing an apology, a justification for the relationship having ever happened.  In the Massenet opera
which is very different from Puccini’s realization of the pieceyou meet Des Grieux reading a letter from his father, and he’s not happy with the prospect of seeing him again, so something has passed between them that is not good.  You feel that somehow he is a troubled soul.  As in Werther, Des Grieux and Manon meet and fall head over heels in love, but this time they run off together.  He finds that when he runs out of moneyand this is very quickManon is ready to leave him, not because she doesn’t love him anymore, but because Manon is the most amoral person that could ever be.  She’s not immoral, but amoral.  She doesn’t view things from the same set of rights and wrongs as the rest of us do.  After Des Grieux is kidnapped by his father’s agents, he enters a monastery where he is going to be ordained as a priest.  Then Manon shows up and seduces him back to the wanton life.

BD:    Would Des Grieux have been a good priest if Manon had not come back into his life?

JH:    I doubt it, because the whole point of the aria is that he’s been there for several months, gotten to the point of ordination, and he can’t get this woman out of his mind.  “Stop tormenting me,” he sings.  “I’ve tried to purge my soul of every thought of you.”  There is some discussion about whether, when Manon seduces him and he runs away, Don Grieux has already been ordained.  If he has he already taken his vows, this throws a whole new wrinkle on the situation, and it’s not made clear.  In the next act, he knows what he’s doing is not right.  His first words in act four are, “What am I doing here?  I tried to resist her, but I can’t.”  He’s there to gamble and win enough money to keep Manon the way she wants to be kept.  In the last act she’s been taken away, and Des Grieux is ready to do anything, including risking an encounter with the French military authorities to prevent her from being deported.  I’ve often tried to imagine what happens to this man after Manon dies.  I suspect he ends up a very broken, disillusioned young man, because in that very short period of time he certainly lives a whole life of excitement and emotional ups and downs.

BD:    Are these the only two Massenet roles you’ve sung?

JH:    Yes.  I will do Hoffmann in 1988, and eventually I’d like to sing Romeo.  I’ve sung Faust many times.  I’ve also had a great success with Pearl Fishers.  That’s an opera which deserves to be done more than it is.  There’s something about the French composers that really appeals to me.  It’s a combination of extreme romanticism and ultimate elegance that all of those composers have.  I sing a lot of Mozart, and there’s something almost Mozartian when you sing in the correct French style.  It must be clean and uncluttered.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Do you believe in opera-in-translation?

JH:    Yes, I do.  For us to presume that we can build an opera audience in this country by taking the novice opera-goer, bring him into the theater and, even with the greatest opera, expect that person to respond to the piece if it’s in a foreign language in the same way that he would if it’s a language he can understand, we’re sadly mistaken.  That’s one of the reasons that the surtitles, which are now being used in a lot of opera houses, are a tremendous advance for us as opera singers.  I know that the purists hate them, but perhaps in a run of performances, some can be with titles and some without.  I’ve done a lot of opera in translation, particularly earlier in my career when I was primarily doing regional opera in the United States.  It’s not impossible to translate a piece into a language other than the one it was written without compromising the piece so much that it’s no longer that piece.  Obviously, it’s preferable to do it in the original language because that’s how it was conceived.

hadley BD:    Will the surtitles mean the death of opera in English?

JH:    I don’t think so.  Not every theater is equipped to handle surtitles.  What about a theater without a proscenium, or theater in the round?  Or what if you don’t have the kind of budget or staff that can accommodate yet another piece of technical gizmo?

BD:    Won’t there be a time when the titles are as essential as makeup and lighting?

JH:    Probably.  I’m surprised it’s caught on so fast.  I thought there would be a lot more resistance to it.  The first time I performed at the New York City Opera with surtitles was La Bohème, which I’d done there many times before.  But it was really fascinating to do even this well-known piece and have people totally involved in it from the moment it started.  Even the people who knew the work went into it with an immediacy they hadn’t known before.  Judging by the ovation which we got at the end of each act, I think it has an impact on how much the audience enjoys the piece.

BD:    Do you feel that opera is a participatory sport?

JH:    It should be.  I don’t feel opera should be something that we shove down the throats of audiences.  We’re not supposed to
culturize them whether they want it or not.  It’s much more gratifying and much more desirable if the audience gets involved in what’s going on onstage.  As performers, we know when the audience is involved and when it’s not.  When they’re involved, there’s a kind of electricity and energy that passes from the stage to audience and back again.  This creates an atmosphere in which great discoveries can be made on the part of both performer and listener.  It’s happened to me many times.  Often in Europe, because it’s so much a part of their heritage, there is an adversarial situation set up.  This is not because they want you to fail, but they come to the theater knowing more than the average person... or at least they think they know more, and that can be intimidating at times.  In America, people go to the theater with fewer biases, and they will respond or not respond depending on the degree of honesty with which you perform.  American audiences will not sit still for something that is dishonest or insincere, and I like that.  Europeans will come to the theater much more easily, but once inside, Americans are much more willing to listen.  This is not a criticism, but just the way it is.

BD:    Is there a competition amongst tenors?

JH:    I am sure there is, but I get along great with my tenor-colleagues.  After a certain point, you realize that everybody is so very different.  There is competition between people of like voice-types, but the kind of competition that the press would lead you to believe exists doesn’t, at least in my estimation.  There may be a little bad blood between Luciano and Placido, but that may be the result of all the press machinations they’ve undergone.  I get along with all the tenors.  You never know when you’ll need someone to bail you out of a situation when you’re sick or something.  It’s much easier to deal with life when you’re on friendly terms with everybody.

BD:    I wish you lots of continued success.

JH:    I’ll try not to let my head get too big!  All that extraneous stuff robs you of the energy you need to perform.  The antics may be right for Luciano, but those of us coming up behind him can’t get away with that stuff.  We’re expected to be more versatile, and audiences aren’t going to put up with it any more.  Working with Joan Sutherland was a wonderful experience.  She’s a product of that old school and she hasn’t indulged in any of that foolishness.  She’s now 60 and still sounds great.  The same for Alfredo Kraus.  He’s unbelievable.  He still blows everybody else away.  People half his age don’t sound nearly as good.

BD:    Are you striving to be fresh-voiced when you’re that age?

JH:    Sure, but that has to do with picking the right repertoire.  You have to look at those tenors who are still going strong and figure out why.  The idea that every tenor starts out doing Rossini and moves through Puccini and ends up singing Otello is just not right in many instances.

hadley BD:    So you will let your voice dictate what you will sing?

JH:    It makes life a lot easier.

BD:    How difficult is it to say no?

JH:    Sometimes it’s hard.  It’s not difficult to say no, but you must know why you are saying no.  If it’s for a trivial and silly reason, then you’ve got a problem.  But if it’s for sound artistic judgment about your career and abilities, then even the top managements and directors will respect that decision.

*     *     *     *     *

Nearly eight years later we met again.  He was suffering a slight cold, and I offered to postpone the meeting, but he insisted we keep the appointment . . . . . . .

BD:    You sounded surprised that I was concerned about your health.  Is no one but you concerned about your health, physical and vocal?

JH:    It wasn’t that I was surprised.  It was just because [hesitantly] I’m always delighted that somebody sincerely says,
How are you? because a lot of people just toss things like that off like as a social amenity, but you really sounded concerned!

BD:    Well, I was!  I don’t do an interview with someone when they’re not feeling well.  I keep them off performance days, or days just before they perform.

JH:    Normally I’m as strong as an ox and it doesn’t bother me, but it was just a wretched sinus infection and it took a long time for it to go away.

BD:    Does it take as someone who is as strong an ox to be an opera singer?

JH:    I don’t know.  There are a lot of people that are probably not as solidly built... or maybe as stupid as I am to just keep going day after day after day.  It depends upon to what you subject yourself.  I’ll give you an example.  I don’t know anybody
other than Placido Domingothat could do the schedule that Placido has.  But he has the constitution of someone who can do it, and he seems to be able to thrive on it.

BD:    Plus he makes a nice sound!

JH:    Plus he makes a nice sound!  It’s amazing.  I can remember when I got into the business twenty years ago, people saying with that schedule he’s not going to last.  Well, he’s proved them all wrong!

BD:    And the first time he sang Otello, people said that’s the end of his career.

JH:    People like to make generalizations like that, but you’re never going to find anybody smarter than Placido.  You’re never going to find anybody who knows himself as well Placido does.

BD:    Have you learned a lot of lessons from Placido?  Do you make sure that you stay away from the things that they say are bad for him?

JH:    It’s a question not of patterning yourself necessarily after somebody else.  If you patterning yourself after the trappings of what somebody else does, you’re going to get in trouble.  The reason it works for him, and why it works for any of us, is that you decide you need to do a lot of soul-searching, and you’re honest with yourself, and you figure out what it is that you do.

BD:    This is my question, then.  What works for you?

hadley JH:    What works for me is that I’m pretty clear about the repertoire that I sing.  One of the things that’s been very beneficial for me was that years ago, after having spent a lot of time looking at the careers of singers who had proceeded me and trying to figure out why they had the longevity that they had, it seemed to meand certainly this is the case with Placido, just using him as an example — that careers are not linear.  They are series of concentric circles.  By that, I mean if you look at the career of any great singer, you find that there is a core repertoire — those roles, those kinds of pieces which are so suited to them, which constitute that inner circle, that center of gravity.

BD:    Do you keep coming back to them again and again?

JH:    Those pieces are never abandoned.  Caruso
didn’t have the longevity because he died so young, but I think he would have had the longevity.  Joan Sutherland is probably the best example in this century because she had an incredibly long career, and she sang extremely well up to the very end.

BD:    She was still vocally healthy in her last performance?  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at left, see my interviews with Susanne Mentzer, and Bernadette Manca di Nissa.]

JH:    She was still very vocally healthy and it’s because she never abandoned who she was.  She kept coming back to Lucia and Sonnambula, and all those roles which she really owned.  The last two roles that Caruso sang were Nemorino in L’Elisir d’Amore and Eléazar in La Juive.  Now that’s a very broad spectrum.

BD:    A light role and a heavy one!

JH:    But the fact is that those terms, ‘light
and heavy’, are misleading because there are lots of roles that may be particularly suited to an individual singer which may not be suited to another singer of a very similar voice type because of factors other than the voice.  It could be temperament, it could just be physical strength, or something else. 

BD:    So each individual singer has to carve out his own set?

JH:    I think so, within certain parameters.  I’ve always admired people like Nicolai Gedda, whose repertoire is essentially the repertoire that I feel most comfortable singing.  

BD:    And yet he did Lohengrin once!

JH:    Yes, he did it at the very end.  I remember talking to Nicolai about that.  I said to him,
You have been so amazingly consistent, and you don’t seem to have ever made any mistakes.  He said to me, “It’s not a mistake if you try something and realize that you’re really not suited to it, and accept that fact, and don’t repeat it.  It doesn’t become a mistake unless you continue to repeat it.  One of the definitions of insanity, which I love, is to continue to do something or continue to behave in a manner which has repeatedly given you a particular response, but you continue doing it expecting a different response!  [Both laugh]  If you keep putting your fingers in an open flame, you’re going to burn your fingers.  Having burned your fingers once, you’d be insane to stick your fingers in the flame expecting your fingers not to be burned.  That’s what I mean.  If you sing a role one time relatively well, but you know in your heart it’s not right, if you keep going back to it and trying to beat your head against the wall you’re only going to do yourself harm.

BD:    Would it be right to come back to it, say, a few years later when the voice matures a little?

JH:    I don’t know the answer to that question.

BD:    Let me ask it from a different angle.  Would it be insanity not to try it again at a different point in the career?

JH:    No, but what I’m saying is to not have a sense of who you are, to not have a sense of what really is your center of gravity as a singer.  That is what I mean.

BD:    So what is that your core?  What half a dozen roles?

JH:    It falls into three large categories.  I will sing Mozart for the rest of my career.  I will also sing the bel canto repertoire and the French romantic repertoire, those three big things.  This role that I’m doing in Chicago now, Tom Rakewell in The Rake’s Progress, I think I am up to about 150 performances of this already in my career.  [Laughs]  Ever since I sang it first as a student at the University of Illinois, it has seemed like he wrote that role for me.


BD:    It’s not particularly light and it’s not real heavy.  It just fits you?

JH:    It fits me.  The six or eight roles I would say are Nemorino, Hoffmann, Tom Rakewell, Ferrando, Don Ottavio, the Duke in Rigoletto, and Werther.  I’m sure I’m leaving some out...

BD:    But even that represents quite a range of style.

JH:    Yes, but with any arbitrary classification of voices
and they are arbitrarythere’s tremendous range.  When I was in school, we all thought that if we didn’t sing Trovatore we were not men!  Well, if you don’t have the voice for it, it’s ridiculous to do that one.  As we’ve gone on over the years, we’ve gotten farther and farther from the sourceand by that I mean the recorded legacy we have.  For instance of those singers of the turn of the century, people that were singing opera back then knew Puccini and Verdi and Mascagni and Leoncavallo and Wagner, and they probably studied with people who knew Rossini and Donizetti and all the composers that preceded them.  We’re in a very strange place in this part of the twentieth century because in the last thirty years there is a growing reluctance on the part of the singers to avail themselves of that recorded legacy to gain a frame of reference.  The problem is also that there aren’t many new works being written, and because opera is essentially the recreation of works that represent a different time and different place than we’re in right now.  It’s arrogant and foolish for us not to constantly assess our frame of reference if we are going to go forward.

hadley BD:    Should the singers today not make friends with Dominick Argento and Robert Ward and Menotti?

JH:    Of course they should, but we’re living in a different climate today.  Composers are not necessarily involved in the mainstream of professional opera theater.

BD:    That’s why I ask about those three, since they, as much as anybody, really are melodists.

JH:    As much as anybody, but they’re in the minority.  To make a living as a composer you have to be in the university.  You have to teach, and there’s a lot of energy that goes into that, but it actually draws away from the art of composition.  They’re not having any intercourse with people that are performers; they’re having intercourse with people who are students, who don’t yet know how to be performers.

BD:    So they’re getting a misguided view of it?

JH:    I think it’s a misguided view, and a lot of what’s written today doesn’t work because it’s not based on a practical working knowledge of day-to-day experience in the opera house.  It’s the same with conductors and it’s the same with singers.  We all are in danger of living in a vacuum, and you can’t do that.  You cannot do that and do what we do.   It’s very important to have that frame of reference.  Opera conductors today are largely not opera conductors
— they’re symphonic conductors.  There’s nothing wrong with being a symphonic conductor, but conducting in the opera house is a different kettle of fish.

BD:    It’s turned on its head.  It used to be the old Kapellmeister would be the repetiteur and then the opera coach and then the opera conductor before getting into the symphony hall.

JH:    That’s right, and the two disciplines are very different.  There are a handful of really great opera conductors in the world today, but by and large, those who come from a symphonic background don’t really have an innate sense for singers.  Not that singers need to be coddled, but the art of lyric theatre is different than the art of symphonic concerts because the orchestra has to be there to provide support, color, and all the things that are necessary to bring what’s happening on stage to life
— not at the expense of the score, but what happens on stage is not merely another section of the orchestra.  That’s the reason why we’re in the theater.  The words are the reason why we’re there, and the human experience projected through the words.  Without that, don’t do opera!

BD:    Let me ask the Capriccio question then
— where is the balance then between the music and the words?

JH:    It is a balance, and the trend to turn operas into symphonic tone poems is really a bad idea because that’s not what they are and that’s not what they were intended to be.  It’s a trend that people are realizing is not a good trend, and a lot of young conductors today are starting to reverse that situation.  But again, it’s because of a lack of a frame of reference.  I dare say that if you got fifty singers and fifty conductors under the age of twenty-five today and asked them who was Titta Ruffo, or who was Luisa Tetrazzini, or any of a whole long list, they couldn’t tell you.

BD:    So it is important that they would have heard the records of Ruffo and the others?

JH:    This idea that somehow by listening to records you’re going to taint yourself is stupid because, again, it’s a balance.  I’m not saying you should listen to recordings at the exclusion of everything else.  Of course you have to learn your craft; of course you have to go to a music school and learn the nuts and bolts.

BD:    You’re making it a color in the palette?

JH:    Yes, but it’s an important color if you’re going to be a singer because you cannot learn how to perform as a singer in any university or in any conservatory in the world.  What you can do is get some tools, but learning how to communicate and learning style has to be done by osmosis.

BD:    Is that osmosis or experience?

JH:    It is learned, or whatever you want to call it, by repeated exposure to people that know how to do it.  We have a wonderful university system in this country, a wonderful conservatory system, but you can’t learn to be a performer from people who don’t perform.  You can’t!  You cannot do it.  You have very insightful observers...

BD:    ...and a lot of good speculation!

JH:    And a lot of good speculation, but there is no substitute for buttonholing somebody that you admire.  I was notorious when I first started out singing because everybody that I heard sing, every great tenor that I heard, I’d buttonhole and say,
Can I go out to lunch with you?  Can I come and sing for you?  It’s not that you’re necessarily going to get the key or the gimmick or the answer by any one of those conversations, but what you’re going to get is another piece of the puzzle.

hadley BD:    Is the puzzle ever complete?

JH:    I don’t think so, but it’s necessary to keep doing that.  One of my best friends in the business is Thomas Hampson, and Tom and I are both fanatics about old recordings of singers.  We do joint interviews when we’ve gone out and done duo concerts, and one of the things people say to us is,
“How do you guys know so much about all this?  I say, “Anybody can do it.  You just have to sit down and spend the requisite amount of time.  You’ve just got to be wanting to invest the time.  That’s all there is to it, because there is no quick way through this.  It’s a lifelong process. 

BD:    Do you feel that you two are the heirs to the Björling-Merrill and Domingo-Milnes combination?

JH:    I don’t know if I would be that presumptuous.  We seem to be the only people in the business today that are regularly doing tenor-baritone concerts together.  It’s not that there aren’t lots of other people out there that are equally capable of doing that
and probably better equipped than we are to do an even broader range of repertoirebut there doesn’t seem to be the interest by people in doing it.  I don’t know why.  It’s certainly a long and rich tradition we have in this business.  I really enjoy doing those concerts and so does he.  The thing that’s so gratifying is that we’ve only been doing these now for two or three seasons, and wherever we go, people just love it.  We did a concert in Toronto in May, and it was like we were rock stars.  People were just going nuts in this little recital hall.   Tom and I were really overwhelmed by it, and people would come back and say, “There is nobody out there doing it, and it’s so wonderful to hear that music.  What helps is the fact that he and I are very good friends.  That means there is chemistry on stage, and we trust each other and we feed off of each other.  It’s a long-standing association, and we fully intend it to be a career-long association.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    You mentioned that you were being treated like rock stars.  You, yourself, have moved into a little different kind of repertoire for recording.  Is this helping your career or broadening your career, or is it a detriment to the opera world?

JH:    You’re talking about the crossover stuff, and so far it hasn’t been to the detriment.  I’ve been very careful about the non-operatic, non-classical things that I’ve done.

BD:    Do you do them just on record or also in concert?

JH:    The only crossover things I do in concert Romberg, Herbert, and Friml.  I’ll do an occasional Broadway thing like that, but recording those others I only do in a controlled environment.  I did an album for RCA Victor a couple of years ago called In the Real World.  We wanted to see what would happen if we took a bunch of pop and jazz standards, and wove them into a song cycle.  It turned out really marvelously.  I was very happy with it.  I’m not sure it would translate to a live concert because it was a real concept album.  I never try to do things which I don’t feel culturally equipped to do.  When people ask me why I am doing these Broadway things, I always answer that it’s part of my cultural heritage.  I grew up with that music.  I did one band on an album for RCA last year called Symphonic Rolling Stones.  It was a song called ‘Sympathy for the Devil’, which was done in a very operatic arrangement, so it wasn’t inappropriate at all for me.  The arrangement reminded one of what you’d expect if you go and hear Phantom of the Opera, or something like that. 

BD:    But then is it really authentic Rolling Stones?

JH:    It wasn’t intended to be authentic Rolling Stones.  If you want authentic Rolling Stones, you buy the Rolling Stones!  [Both laugh]  This wasn’t intended to be that.

BD:    Is this the answer to the Stokowski transcription of Bach?

JH:    I suppose.  It was sanctioned by Jagger.

BD:    [Surprised]  Oh, so he did like it then?

JH:    Oh, yes.  He’s on the album too.  But I don’t think it’s hurt my career because they
’ve all been received well.  So I’ve been lucky, and if anything, all those crossover projects have given me access to an audience that I might not have had before for my operatic and classical things.

BD:    So someone who buys the crossover record might now come into the opera house occasionally?

JH:    I don’t know about the opera house, but I do know for a fact that when I give recitals, there are a lot of people come to those recitals having never been to a recital before.  They say,
“A friend of mine gave me this album of yours, and I’d never heard you, so I just wanted to come.  This was great!  So in that sense it’s been very helpful.  When crossover doesn’t work it’s because people are not willing to let go of their operatic stance and their operatic bias to do the music in the stylistically appropriate way.

BD:    They’re forcing a square peg into a round hole?

JH:    Yes!  I’ll give you an example.  Candide is an indefinable piece.  What is it?  Is it an opera?  I’m not sure!  Is it an operetta, is a Broadway show?  It’s sort of none of the above but all of the above.

BD:    I let it go as simply being Leonard Bernstein!

JH:    That’s right.  But it would have been inappropriate to sing Candide
which is a very vernacular, very witty, highfalutin American-Englishin the same stylistic manner that you would sing La Bohème.

BD:    Is it closer to West Side Story?

JH:    I suppose.  But if, as an opera singer you are concerned that everybody knows at every minute that you are an opera singer when you’re singing non-operatic music, you’re going to run into trouble.  That’s when it gets stale.  When someone feels uncomfortable in singing non-operatic music
if that’s what they’re known foreverything gets square.  If you’re going to do it, you have to decide if you can do this music in a stylistically satisfying way, and if you can do it without feeling self-conscious about it.  If you can, then do it, and if you can’t, then don’t because it’s not going to work.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    How do you adjust your schedule to put in all these things you want to do?  It sounds as if it’ll take three life times just to get part of it done.

JH:    I don’t know quite what you mean by
adjusting the schedule.

BD:    At what point are you doing too much?  Do you make sure that you pace yourself?

JH:    Oh, of course I do.  I’m a workaholic, but I also know that I can’t just hop from project to project, job after job without a certain amount of time to just clear my head and collect my thoughts and go on.  I don’t think anybody can.

BD:    [With a gentle nudge]  Not even Placido?

JH:    I don’t think so.  [Both laugh]  It would seem that he can, and maybe he does, but I can’t imagine anyone that far-sighted, and that thorough, just hops from one gig to the next.   That’s not the way it works.


BD:    Let me ask a philosophical question.  What is the purpose of music?

JH:    I think it is to communicate something.  Certainly vocal music is that way.  I know that sounds like a pretty obvious answer, but I’ve never been a fan of the kind of singing which is self-serving or self-consciously artistic.  I like singers who make me feel as if they are talking to me one on one. 

BD:    Interesting that you say ‘talking’ rather than ‘singing’.

JH:    But that’s what singing is
talking through music.  At least that’s what I think it is.  One of the reasons I love a lot of the singers of a generation or two ago is not that I don’t like singers today, but there seems to be a willingness in the first few decades of this century for singers to have a personal point of view about the music they were singing within the parameters of what the composer wrote.  From everything I have ever studied and read, every great composer wants his music to have a life beyond him or her.  One of the things that’s so magical about music is the composer’s inspiration towards a poem or libretto.  But it has to come out of some kind of collective consciousness because we all relate to it in various forms.  In the hands of different singers who are willing to stand on stage and throw their defenses down enough so that we can see how they are personally responding to those words as they sing to us, the same song sung by different people can give you totally different experiences.  But that only happens when people are sincere.  One problem is that when you try to communicate, you don’t communicate anything.

hadley BD:    You’re working too hard at it?

JH:    Yes, working too hard at it.  You somehow have to trust the fact that you are a human being who communicates every day in real life.  It is enough if you simply stand on stage, having done all the work that you need to do before you get there, and just sing
talkto the audience through your music.  I know that sounds dreadfully simple.

BD:    No, no, no, that’s fine.  Without mentioning names are there some singers or instrumental performers that become automatons?

JH:    I’m talking specifically about singers.  One of the things that has happened to us today is that we’re so concerned about being incorrect that we often don’t communicate in anything.  I’ve been to a lot of absolutely note-perfect performances that left me cold.   I happen to think you can have both.  You can have the technical perfection and you can say something through that because technical perfection ought to be the means through which you communicate rather than the end in itself.  Often I find when I give master classes at colleges and universities that there is a lot of fear that is generated.

BD:    By whom?

JH:    By academia.  And it’s not conscious.  It’s not necessary that we make these people afraid when they come there, but because you’re there to get a good grade so you can graduate, you’re concerned with doing it right.  You’re concerned with doing it correctly almost to the exclusion of everything else, and there’s certainly an argument that can be made that at a certain point in your life you’ve got to be concerned with that. 

BD:    Is there also fear on the part of the academicians of ruining voices?

JH:    Oh, I don’t know.  I’m not sure that I thought that aspect of it through enough to really make an intelligent observation.  What I’m saying is that our schools are so good, and we are trained in the nuts and bolts so well, that we leave college and we leave the conservatory forgetting that those nuts and bolts are only the first step.  When you get out of school, you have to be willing then to make mistakes, because that’s the only way you learn.

BD:    So you have to remember that commencement is the commencement and not the finality?

JH:    Not the finality, that’s right.  There’s a reason why it’s called commencement.  I just find that there is a fear on the part of young singers that I don’t remember being there twenty years ago when I started out.  Now, I might sound like a reactionary old codger, and I don’t quite mean that, but I remember the atmosphere being different in our profession when I started out because we were encouraged to take personal risks.  I’m not talking about risking singing something that we shouldn’t sing.  We were encouraged to take interpretative risks.  We were encouraged to go beyond just doing it correctly.  The public should know how you feel about the role.  Show them something!  Touch them with what you’re saying!

BD:    Touch their heart?

JH:    Yes, and I don’t see that happening all that much today.  I see people that are very proficient, and that’s it.  It’s scary to be beyond proficiency.  It’s scary to go and stand on stage and do something, and risk the kind of rejection that you think you’re going to get if people don’t agree with the way you’re doing it.  What’s strange, though, is that I’ve never found that one meets rejection when one takes that kind of risk.  People go into the theater and the concert hall to be moved, to be touched, to be somehow stimulated to either think or to feel something.  It may be the only place we have left to do that because we are so influenced by the passive visual media.

BD:    That’s right.  You can’t interact with a television or a film.

JH:    No.  If you’re go into a movie theater, the very fact that what you’re seeing is so large involves you in a way that the television doesn’t.  We have a generation or two (including mine) of people who are used to passive entertainment.  They’re just used to being bombarded with entertainment that they can tune out very easily.  When you go into a concert hall, you have a responsibility to participate as an audience member, and I have found that most audiences want us to reach out to them and take their hands and experience something together.

BD:    Do they reach back?

JH:    Yes, they do!  I have never, ever, ever in my life gone on stage where I felt calm and confident enough to not try so hard, and just be there, and to not try to prove to people how good I felt to just sing, to just do it because I love to do it.  You never get rejected when you do that, ever, ever!  Now, you do have to assume that you’ve done your homework and you’ve prepared properly.  That all has to be given.  Having done all that, you go out on stage with the attitude that you want to be there, and you have something to say to those people.  It may not be the most profound thing they’ve ever heard, but at least it’s genuine.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Where is the balance between the art and the entertainment?

JH:    I don’t know.  I don’t think that we’re in business creating art.

BD:    [Mildly shocked]  You’re just an entertainer???


JH:    If it’s art, it’s not my judgment.  I can’t go out on stage thinking that I’m going to create art, because if I do that the chances are that I’m not going to create art; I’m going to be self-consciously artistic; I’m going to be concerned with the externals.  I think that we are essentially as performers.  Yes, I think we’re entertainers, but if you look at the meaning of the word ‘entertain’, it’s to capture the attention of the audience.  Let the audience make the decision whether or not you’re creating something that is art.  After all, what is art?  Is it those great works of art that we look at?  When you see Fred Astaire dance, that’s art, but it looks so easy.  It looks so natural and it looks as if everybody should be able to do that.  You can’t!  Well, at least, I can’t!  There’s a wonderful story that my voice teacher in New York told about a man that he used to know in Brooklyn, who went to hear Caruso when he was a young man.  He never heard Caruso, only heard about him, and he went to the old Met.  He got a cheap seat way up in the top ring, and he said,
I sat there, and a fat, little Italian man came out and started to sing, and he had a great voice.  Ah, that must be Caruso!  A few minutes later another fat, little Italian man came out and started to sing, and he was even better than the first guy, and the young man said, Ah, that must be Caruso!  Finally Caruso came out and started to sing, and the young man said, It was unbelievable.  I was transported and I watched everything he did, and I thought yes, that’s it, of course.  That’s how you do it!  So I went home and stood in front of the mirror, and I did everything that Caruso did, and I sounded terrible!  [Both laugh]  It’s one of those great paradoxes that you have to work very, very hardmaybe for your whole lifeto get to the point where you can do something on stage that looks so natural and so easy that people say it’s great art.  That is why I think that if we are self-consciously trying to create art, we don’t understand the process.

BD:    So then why do you sing?

JH:    Because I’ve always wanted to sing; because I can’t imagine doing anything else; because I just can’t not sing.  I know that’s what I’m here to do.  I love everything about singing.

BD:    Fortunately you do it very well, but if you had different equipment in the throat, would you have been driven to do something else, or would you have been driven to sing, and then been a very mediocre or non-career singer?

hadley JH:    That’s an interesting question.  I’ve never been asked that question before!  I don’t know.  If you get down to the question of equipment, basically everybody’s born with the same equipment.  Physiologically-speaking we’re not very different, all of us, but there are other factors that go into it that nobody yet has been able to define.  As far as the acts of making the sounds, if you have the right person showing you what not to do to get in your own way, it is relatively simple.  It’s then you decide if you can take that and use it as a means for expressing something.  There are lots and lots of people that I can think of from when I was in school that sang, that produced the sounds far better than I did, far better than I ever could still, who lacked the desire to do it.  Honestly, I would have been willing to do anything to do what I do today when I started out.  I can remember when I didn’t have any singing jobs and I was teaching part-time at the University of Connecticut.  I came to a point where they wanted to offer me a full-time position, and it was very tempting because it was very good money, but it was not what I wanted to do.  I would rather have continued to work part-time jobs and sling hash or whatever I had to do to continue to try to be a singer.  I’m not faulting them for this, but for whatever reason, I don’t know anybody who really wants to do this, who really wants to do it the exclusion of everything else, who doesn’t do it.  People who tell you they didn’t make it because of this, this, this, this, this, and have a whole list of excuses...

BD:    ...didn’t really want to do it?

JH:    I’m not convinced that they really wanted to do it.  That’s certainly not to say that is true in every case.

BD:    So the real desire to do it puts you in the race, and the equipment and the ability makes you win the race?

JH:    Yes, if you keep your head on straight.  There are a lot of pitfalls on the way.

BD:    [With a gentle nudge]  Oh, you mean it’s not a snap?

JH:    [With a sly grin]  No, it takes weeks to achieve sometimes.  [Both laugh]  But coming back to what I said earlier about a frame of reference, I still spend an enormous amount of time listening to recordings of singers.

BD:    And always discovering things?

JH:    Always discovering things.  We’re so far removed from the source.  I’ll give you something analogous.  There isn’t anybody on the Broadway stage today who, if they were going to do Oklahoma for the first time, wouldn’t go back and listen to the original cast recording.  So who are we as opera singers not to listen to the original casts?  [Both laugh]  You can go as far back to hear the last castrati, for goodness sakes!  [There is a CD reissue of recordings made by Alessandro Moreschi (1858-1922) in 1902 and 1904.]  He was still making those incredible sounds and still astounding listeners.  So anybody who wants to do this, and anybody who doesn’t avail themselves of these recordings or deesn’t inundate themselves in that history denies themselves of a tremendous amount of possibilities.

BD:    But you shouldn’t pattern yourself after that.  You should use that as the beginning, not an end?

JH:    It depends on what you mean by patterning yourself, because I know for a fact that a lot of the things that I have developed as my own means of expression will have started out as pure imitation at some point.  It had to, because that is the way it is with all singing.  It’s like composition.  How can a composer be expected to come up with something brand new when he’s not fully capable of doing what’s been done before?  You have to have that as a basis before you have a point of departure.  All great singing has to start as emulation, as imitation.  You hear somebody sing and you think to yourself that you want to do that!  Do you want to sound like Elvis or Caruso?  Everybody does it!  I see Placido or Luciano or any of those guys and I think back to the first time that I heard them sing on recording.  I tried to imitate what they were doing, and I made a mess of it!  [Both laugh]  But the very fact that you have those role models is really important.

BD:    Are you aware of the fact that you are perhaps a role model now for some twenty-three year old?

JH:    [Laughs]  I get people that come up to me backstage all the time, young tenors and others.  Part of my perception of myself is quite honestly that I am still back there when I was a student.  So it’s very strange when somebody comes up and says,
I’ve been a fan of yours for ten years!  I think, “Oh my, I’ve been singing for that long???  It’s all part of the process I suppose. 

BD:    Are you optimistic about the future of opera in America?

JH:    I’m optimistic about the potential.  Our profession is in state of reassessment at the moment.  The era of opera as being no longer Verdi’s Otello but the director
’s Otello with incidental music and words by those other guys is coming to an end.  I think audiences are now starting to demand more.  Certainly performers are beginning to demand more because we’re fed up with a lot of the charlatanism that’s been going on on the opera stage.


See my Interviews with Richard Stoltzman, and Angel Romero.


See my Interviews with Susan Dunn, Paul Plishka, Robert Shaw, Arleen Augér, and Tom Krause.


See my Interviews with Carol Vaness, and Kurt Masur.


See my Interviews with Alexandru Agache, Brigitte Fassbaender, Anja Silja, and Bernard Haitink.


See my Interviews with Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, Barbara Bonney, and Florence Quivar.


See my Interviews with Dame Felicity Lott, Sir Thomas Allen, and Sir Charles Mackerras.

© 1987 & 1994 Bruce Duffie

These conversations were recorded in Chicago on January 1, 1987 and October 13, 1994.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB in 1991 and 1997.  The transcription of the first interview was made in 1988 and published in the Massenet Newsletter in July of that year.  The transcript of the second interview was made in 2016, 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.