Soprano  Ellen  Hargis

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


Soprano Ellen Hargis is one of America’s premier early music singers, specializing in repertoire ranging from ballads to opera and oratorio. She has worked with many of the foremost period music conductors of the world, including Andrew Parrott, Gustav Leonhardt, Daniel Harding, Paul Goodwin, John Scott, Monica Huggett, Jane Glover, Nicholas Kraemer, Harry Bickett, Simon Preston, Paul Hillier, Craig Smith, and Jeffery Thomas. She has performed with The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, The Virginia Symphony, Washington Choral Arts Society, Long Beach Opera, CBC Radio Orchestra, Freiburg Baroque Orchestra, Tragicomedia, The Mozartean Players, Fretwork, the Seattle Baroque Orchestra, Emmanuel Music and the Mark Morris Dance Group.

Hargis has performed at many of the world’s leading festivals including the Adelaide Festival (Australia), Utrecht Festival (Holland), Resonanzen Festival (Vienna), Tanglewood, the New Music America Festival, Festival Vancouver, the Berkeley Festival (California), and is a frequent guest at the Boston Early Music Festival. Her discography embraces repertoire from medieval to contemporary music. She has recorded the leading role of Aeglé in Lully’s Thésée for CPO, which was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Opera Recording in 2008, as well as Conradi’s opera Ariadne, also nominated for a Grammy Award. She is featured on a dozen Harmonia Mundi recordings including a critically acclaimed solo recital disc of music by Jacopo Peri, and in Arvo Pärt’s Berlin Mass with Theatre of Voices, and two recital discs with Paul O’Dette on Noyse Productions.

Hargis teaches voice at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, and is Artist-in-Residence with the Newberry Consort at the University of Chicago and Northwestern University.

hargis At the beginning of 1998, Hargis was back in Chicago, and graciously agreed to spend an hour with me.  We spoke about various aspects of her career, and the special challenges of performing Early Music as the 90s were winding down.

Bruce Duffie:   Tell me the joys, which I hope are many, and the sorrows, which are hopefully few, of singing Early Music as we move into the new millennium.

Ellen Hargis:   I can’t think of any sorrows of singing Early Music, to tell you the truth.  As for the joys, it’s an immense body of music to pick from.  That’s probably one of my favorite things about it.  There’s so muchso many areas, so many countries, and so many styles of music that one can sing and really flirt with.  There are all kinds of styles, from really High Art to practically crossover, to folk music, and all of it will stay within what we call Early Music, and what we can put into a chamber music concert.

BD:   This is much more than someone who just specializes in Verdi and Puccini?

Hargis:   I think so, yes.  I can do something that’s very much like Lieder, and I can sing opera and oratorio, and still stay within what an Early Music performer can do in one’s career.  Singers who specialize in something like Verdi or Puccini have a little bit harder time going out and singing Bach, for instance.

BD:   How do you keep all of the different styles in your head, and not confuse them... or should you confuse them as the eras melt together?

Hargis:   No, they inform each other.  Certainly, I find that when I’ve been singing opera, I go back to singing dramatic art song with a very different kind of style because it certainly informs it.  But the stylistic points of the music are very closely linked to the texts and to the musical style.  It’s really in the notated music in a way that makes it very difficult for me to separate.  Issues of ornamentation would be the places where I have to keep the intellect plugged in so I don’t cross a national or a time boundary.

BD:   Is there ever a chance that you put in too much intellect?

Hargis:   Absolutely not!  [Both laugh]

BD:   Let me make it more general.  Is there a chance that we are getting too intellectual about this music that really we don’t know enough about?

Hargis:   I suppose you could say that it’s possible to be too intellectual about the music for it to be correct, and to forget why we perform music, and why people want to listen to music.  To worry about whether I know enough, or we know enough about a particular repertoire, and therefore to stay away from it, is a little dangerous because a lot of times we can’t know what we don’t know until we try.  We certainly can’t find out about the music unless we’re actively involved in playing it.  We, the performers and scholars, have to work together to find out what we need to know.  Clearly, it would be a mistake to go into a song and not know the translation, or not know the situation that the song came from.  But new repertoire needs to be explored with courage, and then we make our mistakes and move on.

BD:   How do you know when something is as mistake, and how do you know when you’ve got it right?

Hargis:   About ten years later it’s all clear.  [Both laugh]

BD:   [Gently pressing the point]  But way back then, so much was not notated.  Do we really know how things were performed, or how they were supposed to be performed, or was there any unification at all?

Hargis:   I don’t know that we can say we really know, but we can get an idea.  If we take a multi-disciplinarian approach to music, or to any of the arts, that’s very helpful.  If I have an idea of the general aesthetic sense of a period, that informs my way of performing ornaments which may be notated on paper, but which don’t tell me if they’re supposed to be jazzy or languid, or any of the emotional things that we know about music.  I was just in a rehearsal, and was saying to the director that this piece makes me think of a particular kind of English Seventeenth Century landscape painting, and that very much informs the way I sing this piece, and how I look at it.  I’m thinking of a visual art form, and it’s very helpful.  For years, people have known that dance music informs vocal music and instrumental music.

BD:   You wouldn’t have gotten this picture in a Fifteenth Century Burgundian piece?

Hargis:   No, it would be completely different.

BD:   Then is this just your experience, or is it your heart, or is something that we would all feel?

Hargis:   It’s something everybody can feel.  It’s certainly my experience.  Part of my pleasure in this repertoire is trying to know a little bit about the art, and the dance, and the literature, and the language of the people who enjoyed the music, so that I can, as much as possible, experience it through their experience and through their perspective.  It’s probably hard for modern people.  There are many, many years of history for us to try to keep in our heads.  I suppose that’s why audience-goers tend to specialize as well as performers.  There are people who love the opera, who wouldn’t go to a Mediaeval concert, or vice-versa, and people who prefer dance, or prefer modern symphonies.  Maybe we can’t keep every aesthetic current, and really present things just for ourselves.

BD:   Should be try to get the Bruckner audience to come to a Consort concert?

Hargis:   [Laughs]  Sure, why not?  You never know until you try something, and sometimes you have to try it many times before you know.  It took me a long time to learn to appreciate Wagner.

BD:   Should we also try to get the Consort audience into Bruckner and Wagner?

Hargis:   Sure!  Everybody should experience as much as possible.  The way you listen to Wagner changes when you listen to other repertoire.  It always changes.  The music doesn’t change, but the way you listen changes.

BD:   We talk about music being a universal language, but that’s a vertical perspective.  You look at it as a linear perspective from early time to late.  Is there a cohesion, a continuation of music that goes from the early to the late?

hargis Hargis:   [Thinks a moment]  It changes so much.  The social context of concerts, for instance, is something that doesn’t have much of a continuation from very early to very late.  The modern phenomenon of a concert or a recital in a concert hall is very much a modern phenomenon.  So, when we do early music in that context, it’s very unhistorical.

BD:   Should we all gather in the woods in little groups?

Hargis:   [Laughs]  No, we have to hear music in concert halls now, but it’s one of the challenges we struggle with, in early music in particular, to make music that was done in very casual settings, or perhaps formal settings, but very small and intimate ones, say at Court.  For instance, sacred music which would have been performed behind a screen absolutely invisible but completely audible to audiences, is now done on stages such as Carnegie Hall, which is absurd if you’re trying to recreate something historical.  But the music is gorgeous, and we have to hear it, so we have to perform it.  It still moves people, but the context needs to be flexible now.  I don’t know if that answers your question about continuity, but what music does to people who perform it and listen to it is maybe continuous through time.  It seems to keep filling many of the same functions.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   You talk about creating and recreating.  How much are you recreating this music, and how much are you creating something brand new on the evening of a performance?

Hargis:   I hope we do both.  We’re studying the original sources very carefully
if we can get our hands on them.  We try to know the stories behind the piece that we are doing, if they make classical references, or if they make literary references that enlighten us.  We try to give those references to the audience in our program notes, or in our verbal comments, so that they can enjoy those various levels, layers, and meanings in a piece.  But we have to create it right here and now for these audiences, and we do consider who we’re performing to, and on what kind of occasion.

BD:   You mentioned that you need to understand why the music was being done.  Why do you do this music?  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at left, see my interviews with Paul O
Dette, and Mary Springfels.]

Hargis:   Maybe that’s back to your original question of the joys of being in early music.  I do this music because I love to sing.  My particular instrument is very well-suited to this repertoire.  Possibly it might have been trained in another direction, had I decided to go that way, but it naturally falls this way, and it’s very physically pleasurable to sing this music.  Intellectually, I find the poetry and the texts utterly compelling.  I really love them, and relate to them.  I love the languages.  I have a particular interest in old languages, and did a lot of study in old languages when I was in school.  So, this is just a delight for me to spend my time fussing around with words, and words-to-music is even better, so it’s a really nice combination for me.

BD:   Instrumentalists can deal with what they call
authentic instruments, or reproductions.  Have you got an authentic instrument in your throat, considering that you’ve probably been pumped up with vitamins and herbal teas, and all of the things that we have now that they didn’t have before?

Hargis:   Probably, but I’ll probably have a little longer lifespan than they did.

BD:   You can’t re-tune the voice, or put a different instrument in your throat.

Hargis:   No, and voices have always been individual.  When we read about what they said about singers in the Seventeenth Century, they describe singers quite vividly sometimes.  
Please don’t sound like so and so who screams until his face turns red!  They describe people’s vibratos, and they describe their top notes and their bottom notes, and what they looked like when they sang.  So, we have some idea.  Of course, one of the big mysteries is that we can’t reconstruct a voice and find out what the vibrato was like.

BD:   Would it be better or worse to have had recordings back then so we could hear them?

Hargis:   It would be interesting to have them, but I don’t mind not having them.  I can guess enough from the way the music is written and what they said about singers.  I always think it is an interesting thing that a lot of times the instrumental treatises will say you must sound the way a singer would sound if he were to do this.  We’ve done things backwards in modern times by building the instruments in reproductions
measuring very carefully, and doing acoustic tests to fragments of instruments, and so forth.  But then the singers listen to, and try to sound like the instruments that were trying to make sound like singers.  It’s very circular and backwards, but it’s the way we have to do it since we can’t yet clone an early singer from a scrap finger nail.

BD:   Should we now exhume and clone the most famous singer from back then?

Hargis:   And then try to put them through a similar training system to what they had then?  I can’t imagine it...  [both laugh]

BD:   If you had a time-machine, would you go back and listen, or would you rather just leave it as a murky idea that you don’t really see clearly?

Hargis:   Oh no, I’d love to listen.  We probably have only a tiny fraction of the music that was played and published, and I’d love to hear some of the lost repertoire.  We know that there are operas out there that were very well regarded and lost.  We’ll never hear that music.

BD:   So, you just want more?

Hargis:   Oh, I’d love to hear more, absolutely.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   You sing Early Music.  How far back does this go, and how late can you push it?

Hargis:   It partly has to do with my interest.  I do a little bit of Mediaeval singing.  I sing some with the Sequentia Women’s Ensemble, and with Paul Hillier’s group, the Theatre Voices, which does Mediaeval music.  Sequentia does very early stuff, and I enjoy everything I do with the group.  I enjoy some of that repertoire, and spending some of my time doing that.  But my real love is in Renaissance and early Baroque Music, and that’s where I spend most of my time.  I also love the Eighteenth Century music.  I do a reasonable amount of that, and I dabble in Twentieth Century music as well, again mostly with Paul Hillier’s group, which does Mediaeval and Contemporary.

hargis BD:   [Gently protesting]  But that leaves a big gaping hole in the Romantic Century.

Hargis:   Yes, and for my own pleasure I love to sing Fauré and Debussy, but it’s not something I do professionally right now.  I sing Schubert sometimes, but it
s mostly Seventeenth and Eighteenth Century for me.

BD:   Is it right that the Twentieth Century composers are trying to bring back this sound and this style, and these instruments?

Hargis:   No, it’s a coincidence.  I don’t know if I can say it’s right or wrong, but it goes along with a lot of modern aesthetic work, where you are visually enjoying things.  It
s a return of the Shaker Furniture idea.  For instance, people are liking simplicity and transparency, which are some of the things Early Music offers, in contrast to the thicker, lusher, denser textures of later music.  It’s also somewhat coincidental that the pentatonic sound of Contemporary Music reminds us of the modal Mediaeval Music.  I’m not sure that it’s a deliberate attempt to imitate it, but I am sure it varies from composer to composer.

BD:   Have you any advice for composers who want to incorporate these ideas and sounds into newer pieces?

Hargis:   I can’t say I can advise them.  It’s interesting that a lot of times these composers are seeking people who specialize in Early Music to sing their works just because the aesthetics they want are the things that early music singers work on
purity of intonation, agility, accuracy.  There’s just no room to fudge things if you can’t use portamento and glissando much.  Those things are very useful in singing Twentieth Century music.  Actually, perhaps this would be a bit advice...  I would love to see a Twentieth Century composer work with unequal temperaments, since we have early music players and singers who are used to working in all kinds of unequal temperaments.  That would be a very interesting thing to return to our modern musical vocabulary, instead of using equal temperament all the time, which we tend to think of as equally out of tune from note to note.  [Both laugh]  It would be fantastic to experiment with that.

BD:   Are we getting audiences that can hear and enjoy the different tunings?

Hargis:   Audiences definitely enjoy it.  They hear it whether they know it or not.  They feel it more than they can intellectually analyze it.  They hear, for example, that it’s a
pure third.  Those tunings simply exaggerate dissonance and consonance.  It makes dissonance extremely jarring and physically upsetting, and consonance is very calming and very still, and pure.  Audiences definitely perceive that, whether they know what it is or not.  They just know that they’ve been moved more than usual.

BD:   So, it all has to be one piece that comes to you with all the different aspects of it?

Hargis:   Sure, otherwise it would be nothing but an intellectual exercise for us to bother to tune that way, and learn to sing that way.  There would be no reason to do it at all, except that it has this really fantastic effect in the harmonic language.

BD:   Do you always keep in mind this end result, that it has this fantastic effect?

Hargis:   Oh yes, and we can use it.  It’s great fun.  Working with tuning and pitch in this music is one of the big fun things to do.  It makes something that was pretty crunchy on the page even more distressing, or stressful, or anxious, or angry
whatever the ethic it’s supposed to beand then it resolves to something that is much calmer than two notes on the piano can ever be.  Its a wonderful effect.

BD:   We’ve tried to get back to the original sounds, and the original instruments, and the original styles, and yet the audiences are going to have come to the concert being perpetrators or victims of road rage.  Are we really juxtaposing two things that shouldn’t be put together, or are we trying to put back into our lives something that should be there anyway?

Hargis:   It sounds to me that you’re suggesting that Early Music is sort of conning the audience.

BD:   I’m trying to find the bridge.

Hargis:   There’s plenty of passion, and rage, and outrage in this music as well.

BD:   Is it a different kind of rage than the people will have during their daily lives, when they’re beating their brains out at work every day?

Hargis:   Right, but the music still conveys a whole range of human emotions, everything from jealousy, insanity, fury, irritation to the little things as well.

BD:   Is there joy and passion also?

Hargis:   Of course, there’s joy, and passion, and delight, and a good deal of humor.  It’s nice to have it all in there.

BD:   We’re dancing around it a little bit, so let me hit you with the big question.  What’s the purpose of music?

Hargis:   I think the purpose of music is to communicate things that can’t be communicated with just words or just pictures, or just sound.  The picture part you have to do in your imagination, but when you put all of that together, you take little trips, little excursions of the imagination that you can’t do with other single mediums.

BD:   Are we losing that somewhat because film and television are doing the pictures for us?

Hargis:   Yes, I think we are.  I’m glad to see that there’s a renaissance of reading, because that was one of the things I loved about reading stories as a child
seeing it all in my head, and being able to imagine it.  It’s too bad, nowadays, that we have to spoon-feed people a bit.  The imagination is a pretty great place.

BD:   A number of people have told me they like dramas on the radio because the pictures are better!

Hargis:   Yes!  [Both laugh]

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   You perform with different kinds of instrumental groups.  Do you change your technique at all if you have a little larger group, or bigger-sounding instruments, as opposed to just one instrument that you could easily drown out?

Hargis:   It’s not so much a changing of the technique, but you use different tools to make different kinds of sounds, and different amounts of sound depending on the ensemble.  Singing with a lute is very different than singing with a consort of viols.  This is mostly in sound quality, and it doesn’t have so much to do with the volume.  The theorbo can make plenty of noise, and I can sing full out.  I don’t have to tiptoe around with that at all.  But it’s very different in its degree of sustain than the bowed consort, for instance.  The sound of bowed strings is a sound I can sing into in a different way.  One has to articulate differently when singing with a continuous accompaniment versus a plucked accompaniment, for instance.  I like to think of the technique as a little tool chest full of options, and you put together the set of options that you need for a given situation.

hargis BD:   Do you keep finding new tools?

Hargis:   I hope so!  [Laughs]

BD:   Do you ever run out of tools?

Hargis:   When I run out of tools, I have a lesson, and my teacher usually comes up with another one.

BD:   Are we getting enough teachers who understand the old styles?

Hargis:   [Thinks a moment]  That’s an interesting question.  What’s more important is that people who want to sing this music have a good teacher of technique.  It’s not possible yet to find teachers who combine wonderful technique with a real understanding of these early styles.  This is a very new field.  We haven’t really had a chance to grow Master Teachers out of a field that’s twenty or thirty years old.  But that will come.  Right now, most singers coming up need to learn their technique from anybody who is teaching good technique, and coach style with a specialist in the area.  If you can find somebody who can do both for you, that is all the luckier.

BD:   Are you a potential Master Teacher?

Hargis:   I hope so.

BD:   Do you do some instruction already?

Hargis:   I do quite a lot of teaching, yes.

BD:   Do you like the sounds that you hear coming out of the young throats?

Hargis:   Yes.  I’ve had some wonderful young people come to study with me, some during summer courses, and some who’ve come to Boston to work with me on a long-term basis.  There are some really fabulous singers out there.  It’s exciting, and I look forward to working with some of them some day.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Let
s talk about recordings.  Different techniques produce different instrumental sounds.  Do you change your technique at all when you’re working for the microphone?

Hargis:   No, I don’t.  That’s really the job of the engineer to put the microphone in a place that works for the ensemble.  The only thing I’ve ever had to adjust occasionally is the articulation of text, because I’m used to doing it for a big distance.  I have to consciously just soften it a bit for the microphone, but mostly those issues are taken care of by the setup.

BD:   You don’t feel that you can be more subtle because the microphone is there right in front of you?

Hargis:   I don’t think I make much adjustment for sound.  It
s a personal thing for recordings, to be basically the same as I am, and do what I do on the recital hall, so that there aren’t any surprises.

BD:   When singing this kind of music, you’re in various halls rather than mostly with the usual orchestra in an opera house, or concert stage.  What are some of the different things that you find when you perform in different rooms?

Hargis:   Actually, that’s one of the issues about recording, and that’s why I don’t have to do big adjustment, as I don’t tend to sing in gigantic halls.  It’s just not appropriate for this kind of music, and certainly not for the instruments, or the kind of vocalism that I want to use for most of this music.  I haven’t yet found myself in a situation where I have to do very intimate music in a hall that is just cavernous.  Mostly things have been intelligently booked by whoever was booking the concert.  They usually know the appropriate space.  Occasionally we get one that’s too live.  We can be in a church, for instance, where the acoustic is very, very boomy, and distorts to the sound.  Then, we try to fix that with our set up, by being closer to the audience who are in some place architecturally.  That helps to clarify the music, but there’s not a whole lot you can do.  A lot of people say you can adjust the tempo, but it’s hard to change your interpretation to suit an acoustic.  It’s more likely that you’ll get an acoustic that enhances something, and you find you can do a little more of what you wanted to do already.  But to change it altogether because of an acoustic is a very difficult thing.

BD:   If it
s a wonderful space, do you jump at the chance to sing in that place again?

Hargis:   [Laughs]  Yes.  The favorites are well known, and it’s very common that you hear,
Oh, you’ll love the hall!

BD:   You get asked to sing all kinds of things.  How do you decide yes or no?

Hargis:   I have a friend who has a great system for this.  He says he always decides whether to take a job based on three out of five items.  Great music, great location, great colleagues, great pay, and great cuisine.  He has to have three out of the five, and if so, then he feels he should do it.

BD:   [Patting his ample paunch]  I hope there aren’t too many where great cuisine is the first choice.  [Much laughter]

Hargis:   Right!  One hopes that you don’t have to compromise too much on the really important items.  Frankly, though, I often decide by who asks me first.  When someone calls and asks if I am free, I say yes.  After that, I’m not free, so I don’t have many problems of another thing coming on later.  There’s no question about taking a different job.  I might turn something down if the repertoire is inappropriate for me, but mostly people call me because they know what I do, and I get asked to do what I do.  So, I don’t really have too much problem with that.

BD:   Do you make sure to only sing a certain number of dates per year?

Hargis:   I do have to build free time into my schedule, yes.  It’s easy to overdo it in the excitement and looking forward to new experiences.  It’s probably not singing so many dates as being away too much, or not leaving time to learn music in between engagements.  That’s something I have to carefully watch when managing the schedule.

BD:   [With mock horror]  You mean you want to have a personal life???

Hargis:   [Smiles]  Well, there’s that, yes.  I need to go home now and then between things.  [Laughs]

BD:   You don’t want to be a wandering minstrel all your life?

Hargis:   No!  [Much laughter]  I need something left of myself to be able to dig deep and find strength for these performances.


BD:   When you get a new piece of music, how long does it take you to learn it and get it into your voice and into your psyche?

Hargis:   It depends on the piece.  If it’s an operatic role, I like to learn it way in advance because it’s more comfortable, even if I learn it and put it away for many months, and bring it out again.

BD:   You find it steeps by itself?

Hargis:   It absolutely does.  It’s terrific!  Everything changes with time and experience.  Pieces I’ve been doing for years do grow as the time goes by, even if I haven’t consciously made any changes.  It doesn’t take very long to learn notes for most pieces, but to really get comfortable with the text is different.  I really can’t put a timeline on it, but I like more time than less time, that’s certainly true.

BD:   How do you divide your time between opera and concert?  I would assume it’s geared mostly to concerts?

Hargis:   Yes, it is.  One way that I manage it is that I try to reuse repertoire whenever I can.  I work with a lot of different ensembles, and a lot of different recital and chamber situations, but I often am asked if I have some favorite Purcell songs that I like to do.  I can take them from the recital program, and put them into a chamber concert with violins, because they need a little solo set.  When I reuse repertoire, I don’t force myself to be learning whole new concerts every two weeks, and also it gives the music a chance to mature.  That way I do it with different people, which also brings new ideas to the music, so that is stimulating and inspiring.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Let
s talk a little bit about opera.  What kinds of roles do you sing?

Hargis:   Lately, I seem to be singing ‘pants roles’ a lot.  I’ve sung Nero in The Coronation of Poppea [Monteverdi], and recently I sang the role of Adonis in a Spanish opera, and I sang Orfeo a couple of years ago at the Boston Early Music Festival.  I’m going to sing another version of Orfeo, singing again the role of Orfeo.

BD:   Is that the Monteverdi or the Gluck?

Hargis:   Neither.  T
he Rossi is the one that I sang, and I’m going to sing one by Sartorio next year.  That seems to be a favorite.  [As shown in the box below, Hargis would record the title role in that opera.]  One thing I haven’t been asked to sing is the young love interest, which is actually fine because that’s not as interesting to me.  I would rather sing the Sorceress [in Dido and Aeneas of Purcell], or the Empress in Poppea.  Those are very interesting to me.  I’m more inclined toward mad scenes, and scenes of rage and lament than I am to young love.

BD:   [The interviewer scoots a little further away from his guest, amid much laughter]  Let’s go back to Orfeo.  Tell me about singing the mythological musician.  Do you like portraying him?

Luigi Rossi (c. 1597 – 20 February 1653) was an Italian Baroque composer. Born in Torremaggiore, a small town near Foggia, in the ancient kingdom of Naples, at an early age he went to Naples where he studied music with the Franco-Flemish composer Jean de Macque, organist of the Santa Casa dell’Annunziata and maestro di cappella to the Spanish viceroy. Rossi later entered the service of the Caetani, dukes of Traetta.

Rossi composed two operas: Il palazzo incantato, which was given at Rome in 1642; and Orfeo, written after he was invited by Cardinal Mazarin in 1646 to go to Paris for that purpose, and given its premiere there in 1647. Rossi returned to France in 1648 hoping to write another opera, but no production was possible because the court had sought refuge outside Paris. Rossi returned to Rome by 1650 and never attempted anything more for the stage.

A collection of cantatas published in 1646 describes him as musician to Cardinal Antonio Barberini, while Giacomo Antonio Perti in 1688 speaks of him along with Carissimi and Cesti as "the three greatest lights of our profession."

Orfeo (Orpheus) is an opera in three acts, a prologue and an epilogue by Rossi. The libretto, by Francesco Buti, is based on the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. Orfeo premiered at the Théâtre du Palais-Royal in Paris on 2 March 1647. It was one of the earliest operas to be staged in France.

Rossi had already written one opera, Il palazzo incantato, for Rome. This aroused the interest of the French first minister, the Italian-born Cardinal Mazarin, who was eager to bring Italian culture to Paris and hired Rossi in 1646 to write an opera for the Paris carnival the following year. During his stay in France, Rossi learned that his wife, Costanza, had died, and the grief he felt influenced the music he was writing. The premiere was given a magnificent staging with the sets and stage machinery designed by Giacomo Torelli. Over 200 men were employed to work on the scenery. The choreography was by Giovan Battista Balbi. The performance, which lasted six hours, was a triumph. However, Rossi proved to be a victim of his own success. The expense of the performance was just one of many reasons stoking popular discontent against Cardinal Mazarin, which soon broke out into full-scale rebellion (the Fronde). When Rossi returned to Paris in December, 1647, he found the court had fled Paris and his services were no longer required.

*     *     *     *     *

Antonio Sartorio (1630 – 30 December 1680) was an Italian composer active mainly in Venice, Italy, and in Hanover, Germany. He was a leading composer of operas in his native Venice in the 1660s and 1670s, and was also known for composing in other genres of vocal music. Between 1665 and 1675 he spent most of his time in Hanover, where he held the post of Kapellmeister to Duke Johann Friedrich of Brunswick-Lüneburg – returning frequently to Venice to compose operas for the Carnival. In 1676 he became vice maestro di capella at San Marco in Venice.

Orfeo (Orpheus) is an opera in three acts by Sartorio. The libretto, by Aurelio Aureli, is based on the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. It was first performed at the Teatro San Salvatore, Venice in 1672. With its clear division between arias (of which there are about 50) and recitative, the work marks a transition in style between the Venetian opera of Francesco Cavalli and the new form of opera seria.


Hargis:   Oh, it was fantastic!  It’s a wonderful character.  Being so familiar with the Rossi, which I just sang, I
m enjoying looking at the Sartorio version.  There, the character changes a lot, and the story is manipulated in a different way.  This Orpheus has real jealous rages, and shows quite a different side to his character from the very noble one that Rossi portrayed in his opera.  That’s great fun to look at, and I’m looking forward to it, but it’s certainly is a thrill to sing the role of Orpheus.

BD:   In one version of the legend, he gets cut to shreds and winds up floating down the river.  Is that ever portrayed in an opera?

Hargis:   No.  Nobody wanted to see that when they were producing these operas.  There are a number of brutal endings, and one rather nice one by Monteverdi.  There, he simply goes and becomes a star.
BD:   [Pondering]  Perhaps someone will do Orfeo as a slasher movie.
Hargis:   Right!  [Much laughter]
BD:   Now we are again bumping these two completely different kinds of lives, and looking at things from the modern point of view.  This is what I was trying to get at before, looking at it instead of being real, or looking at what you sing and the kinds of characters you portray as being remote and distant.  Is this a mistake for us, and if so, how do we get over that?

Hargis:   We have to know more about the people, because we tend to be fed things rather easily these days through movie images, and language being simplified so that we always can understand things.  We’re down to a handful of regional accents, and a handful of expressions that everybody understands.  But if we can stretch our brains, and have everybody dig back into their world literature course material, and remember what it was like to read poetry and Shakespeare, and slightly more complicated language, it’s tremendously enriching.  We have many more ways of saying things and understanding things, and the pictures become more complex.  The characters become very, very human when we take time to really understand them in their own context.  The recent film versions of Shakespeare are wonderful for that.  I hope that people will see those and think that they never thought of it that way.  The words ‘thee’, thou’, and doth’ can be very stodgy, but when you see Denzel Washington in blue leather pants on the movie screen doing scenes with Emma Thompson, then suddenly it’s alive, and it’s juicy, and it’s great.  I hope that people see those movies and then go read Shakespeare, and listen to Shakespeare’s songs with voice and lute, and hear them in a different way.  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at left, the following note comes from the CD manufacturer: Shakespeare lovers have long lamented that few songs in his plays survive with original music. Of about sixty song lyrics, only a handful exist in musical settings. In addition, Shakespeare quotes fragments of about thirty other songs and alludes to another sixty by citing a title, character, or refrain. Shakespeare’s Songbook (W.W. Norton, 2004) and this companion CD set assemble this entire repertoire of songs, including ballads and rounds, that Shakespeare knew and used in his plays.]

BD:   In the
30s, the movies had live Prologues, and choruses and dancing in between each feature film.  Maybe they should run the Shakespeare movie, and put a Renaissance group between each showing.

Hargis:   Right, but with all that heavy velvet, the acoustics will not be very good.

BD:   Of course, the movie houses are getting smaller with the multiplexes, rather than the great big barns and palaces.

Hargis:   They would be more like historical size concert halls.  You’re right.

*     *     *     *     *

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

Hargis:   Yes, I’m actually very happy to be where I am right now.  For a long time I was a bit frustrated.  I considered myself to be something of a late bloomer.  But now that it’s done, I’m in bloom!  I’m very happy to have taken the time that I’ve taken.  There has been a tremendous amount to learn, and I’m glad I went slowly enough, and was able to find my own way.  I chose my own repertoire.  I had no teacher pushing me, or telling me something when I was too young to know any different.  I just had very patient guidance and people who made suggestions left the decision-making up to me, and I really took my time doing it.  My voice is in good shape.  It's never been stressed.

BD:   You’re very lucky.

Hargis:   Yes, I am lucky.  I’ve made some good choices, and I’ve had some good advice, and some good teachers.

BD:   Your voice category in modern terms is soprano?

Hargis:   Right.

BD:   Back then, would it just be

Hargis:   Yes.  They didn’t really have these multiple definitions of voice that we use now.  You would call yourself whatever the line of music that you sang
canto, alto, basso, etc.  So, I would just be a canto, in the Seventeenth Century it would be a soprano.  It doesn’t say mezzo-soprano ever.  It’s good that they had various ranges.  They had high ones, and low ones, too, just as we do now, but they didn’t have to say high lyric, or spinto.  You didn’t have to have ten adjectives attached.  You just picked the lines.  If you didn’t have a very good High C, you’d take the second soprano.

BD:   When I talk with people who are involved in new music, I ask if they’re optimistic about the future of music.  Are you optimistic about the future of old music?

Hargis:   Yes, I am.  It’s been a hard time.  For the last ten years it’s been a very hard time for the arts in general, and it’s easy to get discouraged.  There seems to be a new interest in opera, and this is a very good thing for Early Music as we’re suddenly discovering this enormous body of staged works, and we’re actually discovering how to do them.  We’re realizing what the accompanying bands are supposed to be like, and they are very different from what we thought.  It’s not just a harpsichord and a bunch of strings.  We actually need a section of plucked strings in these pits.  We need lirone players [see box below], and there are only a handful of those in the world.  So, as people learn, we’ll get more of those, and that’ll be dandy.  We’re learning that the historical stagings and sets and costumes are essential in many ways to understand these works, and then we can probably do some more modern interpretations
if that’s the way our taste runsbut that’s a very positive move.  I love seeing that there are more contemporary operas being written, and more early opera being produced, and that’s a very healthy thing.  The recording industry certainly has done a lot to promote our field, and there are lots of good groups out there.  I see a lot of young people, and a lot of educational institutions are getting very, very good early music training programs in place.  So, despite all the hard times that we’ve all run into, and the changes that are going to take place now in the next decade and in the next Millennium, I don’t think there is any reason to imagine that people will get tired of hearing music.


The lirone (or lira da gamba) is the bass member of the lira family of instruments that was popular in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. It is a bowed string instrument with between 9 and 16 gut strings and a fretted neck. When played, it is held between the legs in the manner of a cello or viol (viola da gamba).

It was used in Italian operas and oratoriums to accompany the human voice, especially the gods. Because the lira da gamba cannot play the bass, there must be a bass instrument, theorbo, harpsichord or viola da gamba. Sources describe that the instrument was "used for the special sound, although it is an imperfect instrument."

The Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians [edited by Stanley Sadie] describes the lirone as essentially a larger version of the lira da braccio, which has a similar wide fingerboard, flat bridge, and leaf-shaped pegbox with frontal pegs. Its flat bridge allows for the playing of chords of between three and five notes.

The lirone was primarily used in Italy during the late 16th and early 17th centuries (particularly in the time of Claudio Monteverdi) to provide continuo, or harmony for the accompaniment of vocal music. It was frequently used in Catholic churches, particularly by Jesuits.

Despite the resurgence in Baroque instrument performance during the 20th century, only a handful of musicians play the lirone.

BD:   Good.  Perhaps a dangerous question... should we encourage the people who work with electronics to try to not only reproduce the sounds that we’re getting today, but to reproduce the early sounds in their electronic instruments?

Hargis:   They’ve done some of that already, and I’ve worked with contemporary ensembles that use early sounds in the synthesizer.  Sounds of early instruments are synthesized accompaniments that use a combination of synthesizer and live musicians, but they really can’t quite do what humans do in any kind of music.  They can do it for fun, I suppose, but I don’t really see where that leads.

BD:   Will you be back in Chicago?

Hargis:   I will.  This is a busy spring for me in Chicago.  I’ll be back here in Hyde Park at the University of Chicago in a couple of weeks, and then April, The King’s Noyse will be here with a different program at the Newberry Library.

BD:   You keep very, very busy.

Hargis:   Yes.  It can be very hard, but when I’m managing it well, when I’m scheduling myself well, I really love it.  I’m very lucky that I love travel.   I travel well.  It’s not terribly stressful for me.  Some people have a hard time sleeping in a different bed every night.  I don’t happen to.  I’m quite adaptable, and the result of this is that I have a circle of friends that go about the world.  It’s really quite wonderful to know that if I’ve got four days off in Amsterdam, I’ve got somebody to call for dinner.  Since all of my colleagues are in the same boat, they all spend time nurturing those friendships.  There are friendships where you might only have contact once or twice a year, but they’re important, and they’re treasured, and it’s actually a kick to run into somebody that you know from Italy on a job together in Vancouver.  It’s fun!  There’s something fun and exotic about that thrill, and it hasn’t gone away from me.

BD:   Is the music among your friends?

Hargis:   Oh yes.  It’s very nice, and I like having both new challenges all the time and old favorites that just keep coming back.  It’s very nice.  Going back to an old program is really fun.

BD:   Good!  I wish you lots of continued success.  Thank you for the chat.

Hargis:   My pleasure.


© 1998 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in Chicago on January 13, 1998.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB three years later.  This transcription was made in 2021, 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.

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.