Conversation  Piece:
Soprano  Margaret  Harshaw

By Bruce Duffie


It is safe to assume that one is rarely paid a compliment by a great artist before the actual meeting, but I am pleased to say that happened in this case. 

As a connoisseur of fine singing from a very young age, I have heard hundreds of voices both live and on recordings.  Most have been enjoyable, many are quite good, and a very few earn the label
“artist.”  Those are the ones I treasure and know that my own life has been enriched for having experienced their work.

In my time with WNIB, I was able to present programs featuring a wide range of performers, and though I never betrayed my own opinions to the public, it can be assumed that my feeling was a professional one for all that I aired.  Each was given their turn and every one was allowed to show whatever gifts they had.  For the most part, I maintain that objectivity to this day, but it is not wrong for me to express a bit of extra delight in those I admire.

In the realm of Wagnerians, I was drawn, naturally, to the few who are known to be outstanding, and I've interviewed several of them.  Though not as formidable as others with larger names and fuller discographies, Margaret Harshaw was always very special.  I took to her early on while collecting broadcasts from the Met, and always wished she had made more commercial recordings so that I could show her off on the radio.

As she approached her eight-fifth birthday, I contacted her and that is when I found out she was not only living in Chicagoland, but she actually listened to my programs and felt I was doing a very good job!  So despite the fact that she loathed [her word] interviews, she agreed to meet with me.  What you are about to read is that conversation, and at the end she complimented me and said she was genuinely pleased with the result.  A week later I enjoyed the box of Godiva Chocolates she sent, and when the program aired she wrote a lovely note which is shown later on this webpage.

Her home in Lake Forest was a lovely place.  Nothing ostentatious, but charming and well-appointed.  We sat in the dining room with the tape machine on the table, and just conversed for awhile.  It was quite natural and often jolly, with several serious threads woven into the discussion.  While setting up, we spoke of a few of her students, and one in particular
— Franz Grundheberwho had just been involved in a recording of Hänsel und Gretel . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:    At the moment we are talking about a new opera recording on CD that includes a jigsaw puzzle, and we came to the conclusion that the bonus gift is to make it more user-friendly.  Should we try to make opera in the theater more user-friendly?

Margaret Harshaw:    [Laughs]  Well, I think they try to do that with these supertitles.  I like them; I think they’re good.  It’s better than sitting there wondering what they’re saying if you haven’t studied the libretto before going.

BD:    How much can the performer expect of the public that comes and buys its tickets and sits in the theater?

MH:    One wonders about that.  I once sat behind a couple and it was obvious that the man definitely was dragged, as they say, to the opera.

harshawBD:    Kicking and screaming?

MH:    Kicking and screaming.  There was a rather over-active Brangane on the stage, and when the potion was taken by Tristan and Isolde, Brangane really took off and was acting and acting!  This man said to his wife, “Well, they had something to drink.  What did she have — laughing gas?”  [Both laugh]  So it’s nice to know what goes on, even if they’re dragged there.  If there had been supertitles, he would have known.

BD:    In the supertitles, should there be stage directions and other things besides just the text?

MH:    The one that I found most interesting, and hardly anybody would agree with me, was the Tannhäuser I saw in Chicago several years ago.  [That production was by Peter Sellars.]  They had three in three different colors — red, white and blue.  One was a literal translation, another, I believe, was a poetic translation, and then in the way that we speak today.

BD:    As I remember, that last one was sort of a smart mouth translation, actually.

MH:    Right, a smart mouth translation!  [Both laugh]  And I thought that was clever.

BD:    Did you find that too distracting from what was going on on the stage?

MH:    Oh, I didn’t.

BD:    Was it the fact that Tannhäuser is a slower-moving opera that you could take in all of this?  Maybe a comic opera by Rossini might go by too fast...

MH:    Too much, yes.  Slower-moving, you’re correct, yes.  Maybe that’s why they do some Rossini operas in English.  But can you understand it? [Laughs]

BD:    Let’s get the singers to continue to work on their diction!

MH:    Yes!

BD:    When you were singing, were you very careful with your diction?

MH:    Oh, I should say so!  Very, very much so.  I studied diction before I went to Julliard, and then during my whole stay there it was perfected.  Then when I began my career, it was constant criticism.

BD:    Did you work harder at your diction if you were singing in the language of the audience?

MH:    I think that I worked hard when I would sing in English.  I had to work very hard at my pronunciation so that my Philadelphia accent would not show.  If you really want to be understood, you have to speak or sing the English very correctly; definitely not as one speaks it and definitely not with an ethnic or regional accent.

BD:    Sort of a neutral accent?

MH:    It must be pure in my estimation.  

BD:    Is this what you try to convey to your students today?

MH:    Oh, I should say so!

BD:    This may be a dangerous question, but is there ever a time when the stage action should take precedence over good singing and good diction?

MH:     They should really all go together.  Stage direction today certainly is very different from stage direction as I knew it.

BD:    Is it better or worse or just different?

MH:    Different.  Some of the things, I would say, are a little far-fetched.  Everything is different.  One can’t say always that the old days are the better, or always right.  I don’t believe in that.  I think life moves along.  There were things then that were not very good, as well as things that were wonderful.  Sometimes people think that those great singers of the past didn’t act.  They did act, but they acted through the music.  I get people talking to me every once in a while, “In your day...”  I love that.  Or, “In the olden days...”  That’s the one I love! [Laughs] “In your day, you didn’t have to act.  You just stood there.”  Now that is definitely not true!

BD:    Was it more cerebral?

MH:    Mm-hm.  It was more intellectual.  It was more soulful.

BD:    Did it demand a little more on the part of the audience to react to this intellectual participation?

MH:    The audience always reacted, maybe more than they do today for some strange reason.  Sometimes it gets so gimmicky with flashing lights and neon lights and this kind of thing; I think they watch that rather than listen to the music.

BD:    This is what I’m trying to get at.  Perhaps in the age of radio, when the idea of listening to something and creating pictures in your mind was so prevalent, perhaps on the stage you could do less and have the audience create the pictures in their minds, too.

MH:    Which, of course, is the way that it should be.  You should inspire people to listen with their own soul, and create their own interpretations by what they hear.  That’s difficult.

BD:    Is the composer always right?

MH:    For the most part, mm-hm.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    You had a long and distinguished career, starting as a mezzo soprano and then moving to soprano.  Why did you decide, or was it imposed upon you, to move from the mezzo range to the soprano range?

MH:    Oh, my voice decided that!

BD:    Completely?

MH:    Completely.  I never was a mezzo.

BD:    Were you given bad advice early on?

harshawMH:    No.  I grew up in an era that people would not understand today.  There was no television and for a long time very little radio.  In that period of slower and more gracious living, your parents had visitors.  The first thing a person would say was, “Oh, hello, how are you?  Come in.  Take off your hat and coat.”  Now the first thing they do is to turn on the television.  In those days, you did have conversation.  You shared ideas.  You talked; you communicated and children provided the entertainment.  You began what they called a well-rounded education.  Generally somewhere between five and six you learned to play the piano.  At some point in the evening, you would play the piano for their friends, or in my case, I played duets with my sister.  That provided a moment’s entertainment, and then more talking, more conversation, more communication about how their children were doing, and discussion of the teachers, this kind of thing.  One doesn’t do that anymore.  Then there were the moments when you sang hymns or home songs, because there was no other entertainment.  The people themselves provided the entertainment.

BD:    It’s a direct descendant of the old German hausmusik.

MH:    Yes, exactly right.  My sister was nine years older than I, and was certainly the more proficient pianist, by far.  She played right hand; I played second, the low hand, which is comparably very easy.  She could do all the fancy runs and I would say I provided the heavy chords.  When we came to sing duets, I naturally sang the second part.  That’s the way I came up, solely through that part of my voice, which was marvelous for me because I never had a break-off at the lower end of my voice, like one hears so much now.  Suddenly it breaks off, and it just kind of flops down into a different timbre.

BD:    I would assume, though, that once you got into serious vocal study, your teacher could see if the voice was lower or higher.

MH:    Oh, yes.  I studied with Schoen-René.  I never did study with Paul Althouse.  I see this even in a book that is published by musicologists.  They’re supposed to be the greatest researchers of all time.  Suddenly I see that I was a student of Paul Althouse; this is definitely not true.

BD:    You may have met him in the hall, and that was it?

MH:    I did.  I studied with Schoen-René, who was a pupil of Viardot.

BD:    Pauline Viardot?

MH:    That’s right.  Schoen-René also had some lessons with the brother, Garcia.

BD:    That goes back to the real roots of singing.

MH:    The real roots of singing, and that’s what I come from.  I was with Schoen-René for seven years.  After that I certainly needed no teacher.  I had to continue working with everything that she gave me.  She died in the year that I went into the Met.

BD:    This was 1942?

MH:    Yes, and there was never anyone after that.  I had three very fine coaches.

BD:    So then instead of studying voice, you were studying repertoire?

MH:    I studied repertoire.  I knew what to do.  I couldn’t do it all, but you keep working with the tools.  Truly, singers teach themselves.  They are given the tools, and you keep working with the tools until you can do the thing, and you do it until you can do it correctly.

BD:    So then you’re not only taught to sing, but you’re taught how to understand the vocal mechanism to teach yourself.

MH:    Exactly!  Exactly.

BD:    Is this what you impart to your students?

MH:    Yes, indeed I do.

BD:    So you plan for yourself to be obsolete?

MH:    That’s right, yes.

BD:    Is this then your greatest joy, when someone can take what you have taught them, and use it, and even improve on that?

MH:    Exactly.  That’s a great joy.  Then you know that you’ve lived for some reason! [Laughs] Yes, it’s satisfaction.  You know that you have managed to do something for somebody.  This is very much in my makeup.

BD:    Do you ever think beyond, that you do something for the singer who will then do something for the public?

MH:    Exactly.

BD:    So your real ultimate goal, then, is the public again?

MH:    Yes.  Well, you’re a performer; you have to give something.

BD:    Are you an entertainer, or are you an artist?

MH:    I’m both.

BD:    Where’s the balance?

MH:    I entertain through my art... or hope to! [Laughs]

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    You started your career singing mezzo roles, but you say you never really were a mezzo?

MH:    No, I never really was.  I came along at a time when there were some fantastic mezzos, but they were getting tired.  I had a high voice, which was easy for me, and it was never noticed that I probably didn’t have that other thing that many of them do on the bottom, which is an open chest sound.  I had the height and the middle, and of course a solid sound, so I moved into those roles and then through Ortrud and Brangane.  That was the process that led right on.

harshawBD:    Did you know even when you were singing traditional mezzo roles like Amneris that you would eventually be singing Aïda?

MH:    Yes.  Oh, yes, I knew that almost to the year, because Schoen-René told me.  She said, “Somewhere between thirty-eight and forty, you will probably move into that area.”  And it was just around those years.

BD:    Did you look forward to it, or did you have some trepidation about it?

MH:    Oh, I looked forward to it!  I don’t know fear very much.  I know caution, but not fear.

BD:    [With a gentle nudge]  You and Siegfried, eh?

MH:    Uh-huh.  [Both laugh heartily]

BD:    Is it good to go fearlessly into all of these things, that might damage the voice?

MH:    You know what you have to do, but I knew not to do that!  I will be eighty-five in May, and I can still sing phrases.  Oh, yes.

BD:    That’s solid vocal technique.

MH:    That’s solid; the chords have never been abused.

BD:    Even singing the large, long, heavy parts over huge orchestras?

MH:    When you know how to do that, it doesn’t happen that your voice breaks up.  I would say a smart singer knows — what is it that they always say when you play poker?
you quit when you’re ahead.  Yeah.  You don’t try to ring out the very last note that you’re ever going to be able, regardless of whether it’s ugly or not.  You begin to know when it becomes an effort.

BD:    So then did you immediately stop, or did you cut back?

MH:    I cut back.

BD:    For a singer
— or any performerwho likes to be in front of the public, how difficult is it to say no?

MH:    I had always prepared myself for that, also.  I watched a few of them get older.  I will not say get old, but get older, and I observed what they did with their lives.  Helen Traubel, whom I adored, turned to nightclubs and Jimmy Durante.  That was her way.  Milanov stopped; that was her way.  She did less and less and less.  And then, of course, other singers come in and take over, so for a while you do some, they do some, and then gradually you do less, and they do more.  And that’s the way it should be.

BD:    So there’s a constant — the young singers learn from the old singers who are still working?

MH:    That’s the way it should be, mm-hm.

BD:    Passing it along?

MH:    Passing it along.

BD:    But even when you were singing, even when you were singing full voice and full career, you obviously had to pick and choose.  How difficult was it say, “No, I don’t want to sing this role,” or, “No, this is too many performances this week,” or, “No, I don’t want to travel that far for an engagement”?

MH:    For me that was easy because I had a very balanced life.  I had a husband who had his own profession.  I consider myself to be one of the most liberated females ever.

BD:    In a day before that was politically correct?

MH:    Yes.  His work was so that he was stationary in one place, which left one parent solidly there.  And then I did not travel like the singers of today.  I would say, “No, I can’t do that,” because my children did come first.  I had a boy and a girl.  Now I have grandchildren, and even a great-granddaughter, so that part of my life was a very solid situation.

BD:    Did you encourage them into music, or did you discourage them and make them stay away from music?

MH:    They were given what I call a well-rounded education.  My son is not exactly tone deaf, but it certainly is a raucous noise — and huge!  So there was no problem there.  At two years old, he could also explain to me how a furnace worked.  He did get violin lessons — that was a torture — and piano lessons, especially since we had a dog that used to cry every time he played the violin!  I cried, too, but I told him it was not because my ears hurt.  It was just so terrible!  Poor dog!  The high frequencies, I believe, hurt the dog’s ears. [Both laugh]  He took piano lessons, and theory.  The theory teacher said to me, “You know, this boy is not musical and he will never go long in music, if that’s what you’re thinking.”  I said, “No, that’s not what I’m thinking.”  He continued, “Before I finish the question in theory, he has the answer.”  And I said, “Mm-hm.  His brain is the other way.”  But I said, “This he cannot accomplish quickly or easily, or ever.  He simply should know, in order to appreciate artists that sing and play.”

BD:    Has this turned him in to a good audience?

MH:    Yes, he’s a good audience.

BD:    Do we need more of this
to get more good audience?

MH:    I think the well-rounded education idea is something that has been lost.  I like the idea that you take music, not to sing in the show in high school but to understand it better.  I went to art school and I used to say to my mother, “I will never be an artist.  All right, I can draw, but that is not it.”  And she said, “Yes, but when you stand in front of a painting, you will have at least a tiny idea what it has taken to paint that picture.”

BD:    So you feel the audience that comes to hear an operatic performance should be aware of a little bit of the vocal technique and a little bit of musical history?

MH:    At least aware of the fact that it doesn’t come easily, that it is a real chore.

BD:    Was it ever too much of a chore for you?

MH:    Maybe once. [Both laugh]

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Throughout your career as both mezzo and soprano, I assume the roles you sang were imposed on you by the voice.

MH:    Mm-hm.

BD:    Did you enjoy the characters that were imposed by those vocal categories?

MH:    Oh, I think the only role that I did not enjoy was the mother in Louise.  That was in my mezzo days, and she was so hard and so mean.  But everything else, I loved.

BD:    So she was the complete antithesis of your own character?

MH:    Yes, my own character.

HarshawBD:    Let me turn the question around, then.  Was there any character that you played that was perilously close to the real Margaret Harshaw?

MH:    Oh, yes!  I think Brünnhilde in Die Walküre.  She is such a free spirit.

BD:    Really?

MH:    Oh, yes, very much so.  I would say that’s it.

BD:    Did that ever interfere with your performance of the role?

MH:    No!  I was happy! [Both laugh]  Oh, I would have loved to have been like that and leaped from mountain to mountain! [Laughs]

BD:    Taking orders only from Wotan, and even then defying him.

MH:    And even then, defying, mm-hm.

BD:    Was Brünnhilde right to defy him?

MH:    Oh, I should say so.  I never liked Fricka.  There’s a character I didn’t care for too much.  She was so strict; there was no leeway.  I didn’t like her too much.  I guess the mother in Louise was the one I really disliked and probably Fricka right after that.  However, I enjoyed singing them.  The music’s marvelous.  Wonderful music!

BD:    After you stopped singing Fricka and began to sing Brünnhilde, was there any confusion when you had the scene with the confrontation of your two characters?

MH:    Oh, I enjoyed that! [Laughs]

BD:    When you get on stage and a character could be, as you say, very close to you, are you still portraying that character or do you actually become that character?  

MH:    You become the character.  Anything that you do, that should be your effort, to become that character.  When you step over that line and step on stage, you should be able to move into another world or another dimension.

BD:    Do you become that character just as you walk on stage, or was it when you were putting on the costume and the make up?

MH:    No, no, when I got to the edge of the stage.  That was it.

BD:    And then the same going off?  When you went off the stage, you’d throw off the character completely?

MH:    Ah, yes.  I should say so!  You better, mm-hmm.

BD:    Especially the murderous females?

MH:    Yes, especially the murderous females, although that would be in style today! [Both laugh]

BD:    That’s true!  That is true!  Life imitates art!

harshawMH:    Yes, indeed.

BD:    Should there be operas written today about today’s ideas, and newsmakers?

MH:    I sat through the dress rehearsal of Wozzeck.  That goes on all the time, especially the abandoned child in the end.  You are constantly reading in the papers about children that are abandoned or left locked up someplace.  It’s almost a daily news report.  People like Wozzeck himself are so confused.  I feel that way about the Ring cycle.  It is timeless; the politicians, the greed, the incest, everything!

BD:    Are those characters up there gods or are they humans?

MH:    Well of course, some of them are gods.  Fricka is a goddess; Erda is an earth woman.  I look at Wotan, and how many names I could put on him that you read in the newspaper constantly.

BD:    Good and bad?

MH:    Good and bad, yes.

BD:    Is this what these characters are
— a combination of so many traits?

MH:    Yes, that’s why I think it is timeless.  Many times when people say, “Oh, no, I can’t stand the Ring,” it is because they face something in themselves.  I really do believe this.

BD:    So it’s not just a like or dislike of the Wagnerian music?

MH:    No.  It is the text and the characters and what they do.

BD:    Let me take this to its ultimate extreme.  Is there anything on earth that should not be portrayed at some point on the operatic stage?

MH:    Don’t you think everything on earth is portrayed on the stage?

BD:    We seem to have gotten around to most of it, yes.

MH:    I should say so! [Both laugh]  You’ll find it in one or the other, or somebody’s interpretation of it.  

BD:    This opens up a whole kettle of fish about the stage direction and productions.  You were saying that stage direction has changed a lot.

MH:    Oh, yes.

BD:    Are there times when it has perhaps gone too far?

MH:    Well, maybe that’s for my taste.  As I often say, all of us don’t like vanilla.  I just don’t think that I can make a comment on that.  I think they are trying to express something or make something clear.  Maybe they don’t always go about it the way I think they should, but then I have been on this earth a long time.  Maybe I’m old; maybe I have old values.

BD:    But they shouldn’t necessarily be discarded.

MH:    No, I guess not.

BD:    But being a renegade, would you not encourage everyone else to be a renegade in their own way?

MH:    You have to be free, but I think you have to be disciplined.  People don’t realize that the highest form of discipline is what gives you freedom.

BD:    The freedom gives you the discipline, and the discipline sets you free?

MH:    That’s right.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    You’ve been teaching singers for many years.  Without mentioning names and perhaps not even just your students, are there singers in this generation and the coming generation whose vocal and artistic level will match the highest levels of the current generation or the previous generations?

MH:    The singers are going to have to look at some things slightly differently.

BD:    How so?

harshawMH:    Technically.  I think they don’t take long enough.  They all want to start at the star level and I don’t think you can build it that fast.  The old singers did not build it that fast.

BD:    [With a sly nudge] You mean you can’t take a voice, add water, put it into the microwave and it’s done?

MH:    [Smiling] Exactly!  It takes training, and it is slow training.  It can’t be really, really, really slow; you have to get somewhere.  But it has to have a lot more thought and there has to be more training.  Singers now don’t want to start with small roles, yet all of those older singers, if you really look into their history, had periods of small roles in the beginning.

BD:    To learn their craft?

MH:    To learn the craft, exactly.  You grow up with it, in a strange way.

BD:    You mean opera is strange?

MH:    No.  When I say that you grow up with it, I don’t mean you grow up by having it in your home.  I mean you grow up with it by doing a little on the stage and a little bit more on the stage and a little bit more on the stage.

BD:    So you do more and more, rather than being thrown full-out, immediately.

MH:    Exactly.

BD:    Are you optimistic about the whole future of opera?

MH:    Sometimes I try to be, and sometimes I am. [Laughs]

BD:    That’s good!  At least there’s hope.

MH:    Yes, I think so.

BD:    You’ve advised singers to
take it easy and slow down.  What advice do you have for voice teachers?

MH:    Oh, I keep away from that.  I am not a loner, but I’m not a joiner, either.  Everybody has their own way of doing things, and I think that that’s the way it should be.  Certainly in my day, teachers taught differently from the way they teach now.  But then, everything is different now.

BD:    Are you teaching in the same way that Viardot taught her students who then taught you?

MH:    Oh, that’s exactly right!

BD:    Really?

MH:    Oh, yes!  I don’t know any other way.  That is the way all those singers sang in those days.

BD:    Obviously the physiognomy of each voice is going to be at least similar to what it was decades ago, and yet kids today are packed with vitamins and nutrients and perhaps are a little bigger and stronger.  Should that not alter the technique of singing at all?

MH:    I often say to them, “Anything I did, you should do better.”  After all, we didn’t have those kind of things when I grew up.  We had cod liver oil.  Have you ever even smelled that?  It’s horrible!

BD:    I’m glad I missed that! [Laughs]

MH:    That’s what we had for vitamins.  Today you take shots or you take fancy pills; everything is  all different, and it’s marvelous that they’re different!

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    What was the role you sang the most often?  Not necessarily in exact numbers, but what was the role you felt you performed more than others?

harshawMH:    Oh, I would say it would probably have to be Azucena or possibly Amneris.

BD:    They are in the mezzo realm.

MH:    Mm-hm.  I did Donna Anna thirty-eight times.  That’s a pretty good number because I didn’t sing Donna Anna until I was about forty-three or forty-four years old, which is late.

BD:    Is there a secret to singing Mozart?

MH:    Yes, there certainly is.  It requires the most pure placement of the voice, and for that reason it’s very difficult to sing.

BD:    And yet that’s what is imposed on a lot of youngsters.

MH:    Yes, and I will say I don’t think that’s always the wisest thing, because they will sing it by manufacturing, or singing it in a small voice.  You have to sing it with a real voice that is well controlled, which is different, and in a very high placement, but not high larynx — there’s the difference.

BD:    Is that something that can be explained, or is it something you have to feel?

MH:    Well, that’s not for... [laughs] I don’t want to get into that, but that is where a great mistake is made in it.  That’s very technical; sort of like telling you how to fly an airplane in only a few minutes. [Both laugh]  I have trouble enough getting on one, with my nerves!  I don’t like to fly.

BD:    The days of train travel and boat travel, I’m afraid, are passé.

MH:    It’s a pity about train travel.  When I was in the Met, they had the Metropolitan Opera Special.

BD:    Oh, for the tours, sure!

MH:    Yes, it was wonderful!

BD:    I would assume there would be a great sense of camaraderie.

MH:    Oh, wonderful!  There’s always competition, but there always was a great as colleagues; a caring.  It was the closeness along with the competition.  It has to be. Well, there’s competition in everything in life.

BD:    And with competition comes winners and losers.

MH:    That’s right.

BD:    I assume that you always want the audience to be the winner.

MH:    I like to know that I have entertained through my art.

BD:    There we are again.

MH:    Uh-huh.

BD:    Getting back to roles a little bit, is it right to impose both Mozart and Wagner on the same voice?

MH:    The reason I sang Mozart was to keep my voice from falling lower and lower, getting thick and heavy, and not being able to get to the top notes
which is what the older singer fights.  If you sing Mozart, it keeps you in that high position.  It isn’t easy, but there it is again; if you want something, you will work for it, and that is the reason I sang it.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    You made only a few recordings.  Are you pleased with those recordings that exist of your voice?

MH:    Oh, so-so! [Laughs]  I’ve heard some tapes that I have liked, but they are not on recordings, they’re pirated.  Some of those I have liked better than others.  I like the Santuzza.  The man that conducted that said he didn’t want any tradition.

BD:    Was that Fausto Cleva?

MH:    Yes, mm-hm.  He wanted everything exactly as it was — no big liberties
— and it is accurate when you follow it with the score.  That is the way he wanted it, and I agreed with him, too.  Some of these traditions, the liberties, really are too great that they take.

BD:    I assume, though, that a musical performance must be more than just accurate?

MH:    Well, surely.  You begin with accuracy, though, and then you take it into music.  You have to have everything the way it is on the page.  Then the next step is a big step is where you take all those notes, those little black notes, and they become music.

BD:    Is singing fun?

MH:    Yes!  I don’t like the word fun, and with students I correct that.  It’s joy.  Fun is when I go to the Haagen-Dazs Ice Cream Store! [Laughs]  Joy is when I work hard and I get very, very tired, but I’m satisfied with the job I have done.  That’s joy.

BD:    And throughout your career, it has been joyous?

MH:    It has been joy.  Yes, it certainly has.  I really can say there are no bad moments.  Like anybody else, there certainly were moments when I had to sing that I didn’t feel well
infections, colds, that kind of thing.  That’s just an occupational hazard.  Every singer goes through that, but there were never any bad moments except that.

BD:    How much should be
the show must go on, and how much should you take care of the voice so you don’t injure it?

MH:    Take care of the voice, so you don’t injure it.  That’s why you have understudies and covers!  You must find a doctor whom you can trust that can explain to you exactly how infected you are, or what you can expect to do, or what you must not touch.  You need the type that can say, “You don’t sing,” while he writes out a prescription.  Someone asked me if I ever started a performance with a doubt in my mind that I wouldn’t finish it.  I don’t think I ever did.  No, I’m cautious and I never did take everybody’s advice.  No matter whom you speak to, they have some bit of advice to give you.  I’m very cautious about free advice.

BD:    It’s worth what you pay for it?

MH:    It’s worth what you pay for it.  [Both laugh]  Opera houses don’t like you to cancel; I can understand that, it’s business.  But if you have a doctor whom you can trust, you can take his word for it because he can look down there.  The one I had was fabulous!  He was not a singers’ doctor; he was a straight ear, nose and throat man.

BD:    And yet if you’re traveling all over the world, it’s almost impossible to stay in touch with that one doctor.

MH:    That’s right.  So in each city you try to find one.  But by this time you have taught yourself a lot about yourself.  What actually do you feel like?  Would this be prudent?  You try phrases and if they don’t work, you better not sing.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Did you sing differently at all or did you change your technique at all for different sized houses?

MH:    No.  No, no.

BD:    A great big house and little bitty house — always the same technique?

harshaw3MH:    Always the same technique, mm-hm.  Yes.  When you talk about colleagues and getting along together as an ensemble and as a family, there’s not too much of that today, but there was in my day.  When I first went to Covent Garden, many people gave out the free advice, “You won’t have to sing as hard here.  It’s not as big as the Met.”  Of course, by this time I would say, “Oh, that’s nice to know,” or something like that, not believing it for a minute.  But two older and much smarter and more experienced artists than IHans Hotter and Set Svanholm — came to me and said, “You sing just the same in this house as you do back in the Met.  Don’t listen to these people.”  I think the old Met was thirty-four hundred seats and then they took some seats out.  And as far as I remember it was down to thirty-two hundred, and at that time Covent Garden was about twenty-three hundred. 

BD:    Is it right that we have these huge barns here in America?

MH:    But I don’t consider them barns!  Why did those other singers never call them barns?  There was never a complaint; I don’t understand that.

BD:    Did you ever sing in a house the size of Glyndebourne?

MH:    Yes, I sang in Glyndebourne!  I was there with Solti, when Solti was a young fellow.  [See my Interviews with Sir Georg Solti.]

BD:    Then please compare singing in a house the size of the Met with one the size of Glyndebourne.

MH:    I would say because a singer projects, it takes care of itself.  If you have a problem you probably don’t project, but you don’t change your technique to change your projection.  Not at all.

BD:    But I assume there’s a different kind of mindset if you have a little Mozart orchestra in a tiny house as opposed to a Wagnerian orchestra in a great big house.

MH:    There’s a mindset, but that’s mental.

BD:    Not technique?

MH:    It’s not technique.  No, no.  You do it yourself.  Even if you don’t know anything about singing, let’s just say an ordinary person goes out his front door and he sees the paper boy.  If he sees the paper boy down at the end of his driveway, he will call him and he projects his voice to the end of that driveway without thinking.  If he sees the paper boy at the end of the block, he’s going to project harder, but he doesn’t change anything in his technique to do that!  It is his technique of yelling or speaking.  No, the change is in his mind!

BD:    Mind over the technical values?

MH:    Certainly!

BD:    One other thing we have today is the television.  Do you think opera works well on TV?

MH:    I think it must be difficult because when you’re on stage, singers have a very intense face.  The pressure of performing shows on their faces.  If it is a film, the soundtracks are dubbed in ahead of time so the faces stay still and beautiful and calm, and they can do a lot with facial expression.  When they do live performances, it must be an added stress to keep your face and your mask
which we sing inin a certain position so that it doesn’t look as if it’s working hard.  It must be difficult.  It’s nice to hear it on television; it is certainly nice for me because I don’t move around that much anymore.  So it’s wonderful to have it come into my home.

BD:    As we retreat into our caves?

MH:    That’s right. [Both laugh]

BD:    I hope that never means the death of the live theater, though.

MH:    I hope not, either.  There is truly nothing like a live performance.

BD:    Thank you for all of the live performances you have given.

MH:    Well, for better or worse, I enjoyed doing them and entertaining.

BD:    And thank you for continuing your career with the teaching, to give all of this to another generation of singers.  It is very important to pass this along.

MH:    I think anything that you know you shouldn’t let die with you.  You should pass it on for somebody else’s use.

BD:    So they can then build on it?

MH:    They can then build on it.  It’s a hard job to sing well.  I love the directive, “Just open your mouth and sing.”  I hear that one sometimes and was told it myself, but I know that isn’t true.  I deny being a voice teacher.  Instead, I think of myself as a friend to young singers, with whom I can share little bits of knowledge that I have gleaned from a wonderful teacher, and from great singers.  I was very fortunate to sing with the singers with whom I appeared.

Margaret Harshaw Dies at 88; A Wagnerian Opera Singer

Published: November 11, 1997, The New York Times

Margaret Harshaw, an American soprano and mezzo-soprano who was best known as a Wagnerian singer but whose performances in Mozart and Verdi operas were also highly regarded, died on Friday at Condell Memorial Hospital in Libertyville, Ill. She was 88 and lived in Lake Forest, Ill.

Ms. Harshaw sang at the Metropolitan Opera for 22 seasons, from November 1942, when she made her debut as the Second Norn in Wagner's ''Die Götterdämmerung,'' until March 1964, when she gave her final performance as Ortud in ''Lohengrin.'' Because she spent the first nine years of her Met career as a mezzo-soprano and then switched to soprano roles, she sang more Wagner roles than any other singer in the Met's history.

These include 14 roles in the ''Ring'' operas, in which she began as a Rhinemaiden and eventually sang all three Brünnhildes, as well as both Senta and Mary (in the same season) in ''Die Fliegende Holländer,'' Isolde in ''Tristan und Isolde,'' Magdalene in ''Die Meistersinger,'' Kundry in ''Parsifal'' and Elisabeth and Venus in ''Tannhäuser.''

Miss Harshaw was born in Philadelphia in 1909 and began singing in church choirs as a child. From 1928 to 1932, she sang alto with the Mendelssohn Club, a chorus that performed with Leopold Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra. A series of competition victories in the early 1930's led to performances in Philadelphia, Washington and New York City, all before she enrolled at the Juilliard Graduate School to begin her formal studies with Anna Schoen-René in 1936.

In March 1942, Miss Harshaw won the Metropolitan Opera's Auditions of the Air, and she began her career at the house at the start of the next season. In 1950 Rudolf Bing, the Met's general manager, was looking for a dramatic soprano to succeed Helen Traubel, particularly in Wagner roles, and persuaded Ms. Harshaw to switch to the higher range. She did so with notable success: her recordings as a soprano show her to have a clear timbre and considerable power.

All told, she sang 375 performances of 39 roles in 25 works at the house and was heard in 40 of the Met's weekly live broadcasts. Her non-Wagner roles at the Met included four in Verdi works -- Amneris in ''Aïda,'' Ulrica in ''Un Ballo in Maschera,'' Mistress Quickly in ''Falstaff'' and Azucena in ''Il Trovatore'' -- as well as Donna Anna in Mozart's ''Don Giovanni,'' Gertrud in Humperdinck's ''Hansel und Gretel,'' Geneviève in Debussy's ''Pelléas et Mélisande'' and Herodias in Strauss's ''Salome.''

Ms. Harshaw also sang at Covent Garden, Glyndebourne, the San Francisco Opera, the Paris Opera and with companies in Philadelphia, Cincinnati, New Orleans, San Antonio, Pittsburgh and Houston. She also made several Latin American tours and was a soloist with many of the major American orchestras. Roles she sang outside the Met include Dalila in Saint-Saens's ''Samson et Dalila,'' Leonore in Beethoven's ''Fidelio'' and the title roles in Puccini's ''Turandot'' and Gluck's ''Alceste.''

In 1962, Miss Harshaw became a professor of voice at Indiana University, where she taught until 1993. She is survived by a son, Oskar L. Eichna Jr., of East Northport, N.Y.

© 1994 Bruce Duffie

This interview was recorded at the home of Margaret Harshaw in suburban Chicago on January 17, 1994.  Portions were used (along with recordings) on WNIB later that year and again in 1999.  The transcription was made and posted on this website in 2009. 

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.