Mezzo - Soprano  Hilda  Harris

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie



Mezzo-soprano Hilda Harris, formerly a leading artist of the Metropolitan Opera, has performed throughout the United States and Europe.

A native of Warrenton, North Carolina, she is known for her portrayals of the "trouser" roles in the mezzo repertoire. She has established herself as a singing actress and has earned critical acclaim in opera, on the concert stage, and in recital. At the Metropolitan Opera, she made her debut as the Student in Lulu and also sang Cherubino (Le nozze di Figaro), the Child (L'Enfant et les sortilèges), Siebel (Faust), Stephano (Roméo et Juliette), Hansel (Hansel and Gretel), and Sesto (Giulio Cesare). During her extensive career, she has sung such roles as Carmen in St. Gallen, Switzerland [photo at right], Brussels, and Budapest. In Holland and Belgium she sang the roles of Dorabella (Così fan tutte) and Rosina (Barber of Seville), and the title role in La Cenerentola. She has also sung leading roles with the San Francisco Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago, New York City Opera, Pittsburgh Opera, Seattle Opera, Spoleto USA, and the Spoleto Festival of Two Worlds in Italy. She has appeared extensively in symphonic and oratorio repertoire with the New York Philharmonic, Pittsburgh Symphony, Chicago Symphony, Oregon Symphony, Quebec Symphony, Helsinki Orchestra, Sweden's Malmö, Symphony and the radio orchestras of Hilversum in the Netherlands.

Ms. Harris is a member of the Chicago-based Black Music Research Ensemble, whose purpose it is to discover, preserve, promote and perform music of black composers. Her accomplishments have been documented in And So I Sing, by Rosalyn M. Story; Black Women in America, an Historical Encyclopedia, edited by Darlene Clark Hines; The Music of Black Americans by Eileen Southern; and African-American Singers by Patricia Turner. Ms. Harris's discography includes Hilda Harris (a solo album); The Valley Wind (songs of Hale Smith); Art Songs by Black American Composers (album); X, The Life and Times of Malcolm X (CD); From the South Land, songs and Spirituals by Harry T. Burleigh (CD); and Witness,
Volume II, compositions by William Grant Still (CD).

Ms. Harris taught voice at Howard University from 1991 through 1994 and is presently a member of the voice faculties of Sarah Lawrence College and Manhattan School of Music. She maintains a private studio in New York City and is on the voice faculty at the Chautauqua Institution during the summer months.

==  Biography from the African American Art Song Alliance  

At the beginning of April of 1994, Hilda Harris was back in Chicago for a performance with the Black Music Repertory Ensemble, and agreed to meet with me for an interview.  She was in good spirits, and her responses to my questions revealed knowledge and experience, mixed with much laughter.

Portions were used on WNIB, Classical 97 the following day to promote the performance, and again a couple of years later.  Now I am pleased to present the entire chat . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:   You sing both opera and concerts.  How do you divide your career between those two?

Hilda Harris:   It’s been that way the whole time I’ve been a professional singer.  I started out doing more concerts than opera, and as my voice developed, I then went into the operatic field.  But I started out doing recitals and concerts.


BD:   How does it break up now?

Harris:   There are more concerts and orchestral engagements than opera, because I’m beginning to teach, and my teaching schedule is so full.  Opera takes much more time than to go out and do a recital, or an orchestral engagement.  I teach at three universities now, so it keeps me quite busy.  [Both laugh]  I’m at Sarah Lawrence College two days a week, and at Manhattan School of Music, Conservatory, New York, and I teach at Howard University one day a week in Washington DC.

BD:   [With a gentle nudge]  Then do you try to also have a personal life?

Harris:   [Laughs]  Exactly, so it keeps me quite busy.

BD:   Does it keep you too busy?

Harris:   A little bit at the moment, but I’m loving it.  I’m really enjoying all of it.
BD:   We’ll come back to the teaching a little bit later, but in the opera field, how do you decide which pieces you will learn, and which pieces you will turn aside?
Harris:   Most of the time, it depends on what I’m offered by either the Metropolitan Opera or regional opera companies.  I look at it if it is a role that’s in my repertoire, or if it’s something that I’m really interested in, or if it’s a new piece.  It all has to do with what’s offered, and my availability.  That has a lot to do with it.  It’s not always my choice whether I’m not going to sing this or that piece.  We very seldom have that kind of choice.
BD:   There must be some things that come along and you know it’s not for you.

Harris:   Of course.  There are roles that come along I really prefer not to do.  For instance, the mezzo in Messiah is really too low for me.  I’ve sung it many times, but if there a choice, I would rather do something else.
BD:   This comes from experience.

Harris:   Yes, but I did it many times in my early years.  I can sing it, but it feels less comfortable because it is very, very low.

BD:   Let me turn the question around.  Have you been able to do most of the roles that you’ve wanted to do?

Harris:   Not all, but most of the roles.  There’s one role that I have wanted to do for many years, and it’s one of those dreams I don’t think will ever happen, and that’s Octavian in Der Rosenkavalier.  For many years I wanted to do that role.  It never happened when it was possible, and now I think the tessitura at this point is just a smidgen too high.  It’s a vocal thing.  It lies just a little bit too much in the upper tessitura for me.

BD:   Have you basically enjoyed the roles you have done so far?

Harris:   Very much so.  I’ve done a lot of what they call
trouser roles, and I’ve sort of been pegged as a mezzo who sings those kinds of roles.

BD:   Do you like being a boy?

Harris:   I’ve enjoyed it.  It’s been most of my career that I’ve sungthose roles.  I also have done various very sexy parts, like Carmen, or Rosina in The Barber of Seville, or Cenerentola, but most of the roles that I’ve been cast have been of the pants variety, and they’ve been most enjoyable.  These include Hansel in Hansel and Gretel, Cherubino in The Marriage of Figaro, Stefano in Romeo and Juliet, Siébel in Faust, and Sesto in Julius Caesar.

BD:   Some of them are very florid singing, and some are very dramatic singing.

Harris:   That’s very true.  I made my debut at the Metropolitan Opera in Lulu in 1977, before the three-act version, when they did only the two-act version.  [
See program at right.  Also, see my interviews with James Levine, Donald Gramm, Tatiana Troyanos, Andrew Foldi, and Lenus Carlson.  Harris would also sing in the completed three-act version in 1980 and 1985, both of which were televised.  DVD of a 1980 performance is shown below.]  I eventually did three roles [Wardrobe Mistress (act 1), The Schoolboy (act 2), and A Page (act 3)] on the same night.

BD:   Is that confusing to do different roles in the same opera?

Harris:   Oh, no!  You get accustomed to changing over from one character to another character.  You go on through the whole rehearsal period, and that prepares you to get from one role to the next role.

BD:   Is it like singing different operas when you have the different roles in the one piece?

Harris:   No, it isn’t, not really.  I didn’t feel like it was singing different operas.

BD:   Is singing the music of Berg good for the voice, like singing Mozart would be good for the voice?

Harris:   I think so.  It’s the way one approaches Berg.  One has to sing it really gracefully.  The way I approached it was to sing it as if I were singing a Mozart opera.  You really have to get it into your voice.  Otherwise, if you don’t, then you’re not really singing the role.  I feel it’s on top of the voice.  It’s not really in the instrument.  I don’t know how other people work on this music, as opposed to Mozart, but I always feel as though it has to be in the body and in the voice in order for it to really sing well, and to come out, and to keep the voice healthy.

BD:   When you’re singing an operatic role, how much is the music, and how much is the drama?

Harris:   It’s a marriage, because if it was just the music, then we would put on a recording, and listen to that.  [Laughs]  It is drama, and the dramatic part is just as important as the musical part.  We put a lot of emphasis on the vocal.  We want it to be sung beautifully, or sung well, but for those who are in the audience attending a performance, after they’ve heard this voice they want to see what’s going on with the dramatic part of this character.  They want to know what this character is all about, so that’s very important as well.


See my interviews with Evelyn Lear, Frank Little, and Jeffrey Tate

BD:   Do you also pay particular attention to your diction?

Harris:   Oh yes, very much so.  That’s all part of the training of an opera singer, and it’s very important.

BD:   Can you use some of this dramatic and operatic training when you do concerts and recitals?

Harris:   Oh, definitely!  When you do recitals, we’re constantly changing characters.  In the German Lieder, you’re painting pictures.  You’re creating characters who are lovers here and there, or talking about beautiful roses or violets.  There are so many pictures that you have to paint, and so many characters that you have to portray.  We’re not just there singing these words that have no meaning.  You have to bring these words to life.  You bring them to life for yourself, and you bring them to life for the audience.  Otherwise, you may as well be singing la, la, la!  [Both laugh]  It really is true.  I’ve heard singers who are inexperienced, and who have not put the time in learning the repertoire so that they can bring it to life for themselves and for the audience.  They’ve learned it very fast, and it hasn’t had time to really sink in and have really special meaning for them.  La, la, la doesn’t say anything.  You can bring la, la, la to life, but words have colors and meaning, and you have to bring words to life.  You have to bring them off the printed page so that it comes to life.
BD:    When you’re bringing the words off the page, how much of the color is the poet, and how much is the composer, and how much is you?

Harris:   It’s very important that you consider all three of these.  The composer wrote what he wanted express in the music.  Whatever that piece was, he was trying to bring the words to life in a way that the singer could express the poetry and the music.  Then, when I’m singing it, I will bring some of myself through this.  How can I not?  I have to bring my life experience to these words and what they mean for me.  I first try to understand it.  Some poetry has a deeper meaning than other poetry, and you have to really try to find what it means for you.  One’s life experience has a lot to do with what you bring to the poetry.  We try to live as much as possible in order just to experience life.  As artists, how we live our lives is what helps us to communicate our art.
BD:   You bring up the word ‘art’.  How much is art and how much is entertainment?

Harris:   [Laughs]  Hopefully there’s quite a bit that’s art, and it’s important that it not be so much art that there’s no entertainment.  It’s very important that it’s enjoyable.  Although it’s artistic, it can still be enjoyable on a level that is just as enjoyable as going to a movie, or hearing a wonderful sonata played by a pianist or a violinist.  It’s important that there’s communication, and that communication is part of the entertainment.
BD:   The music that we’re talking about is concert music.  Is this kind of music for everyone?

Harris:   When you talk to a lot of people, you wouldn’t think so!  [Both have a huge laugh]  It’s just preference.  A lot of people might enjoy concert music and not necessarily enjoy opera or a solo recital of Lieder or art songs.  It all has to do with one’s tastes.
BD:   I’m diverging even a little more than this...  Can we get the Rock audience, or the audience that goes to a Rap performance into the concert hall for the music that you perform?

Harris:   I’ve had this discussion with people, and what needs to happen is early in one’s education.  If you’re not from a musical family, then perhaps it can start very early in school.  Unfortunately, it seems as though it’s being taught less and less in schools, and that is really a crime, because music is just as important as math, and reading, and history.  It develops one’s whole being.  If you’re exposed to music, it gives one a choice, and if it’s being cut from our programs in schools, the children are being deprived of a choice.  They have not been exposed to it, and so they don’t have a choice.  They can’t make up their minds if they like it or don’t like it because they haven’t been exposed to it.  What usually happens is that they talk to other people who don’t like opera, or who don’t like concerts, and they form their opinion that they don’t like it.  Then when they hear it later in their teenage years, they’re so involved in other kinds of music that they couldn’t possibly open themselves up to even listen, or allow themselves to be exposed to it.
BD:   They don’t give it a chance.

Harris:   No, they don’t.  They aren’t given a chance.  So, if they hear it very young, then they have a choice.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   You’ve been involved in The Life and Times of Malcolm X by Anthony Davis.

Harris:   I was not in the stage production.  I was only on the recording [shown at left].  I did some excerpts from Malcolm X when it was in formative stages, but I was not involved in the stage production.

BD:   Is it special to be able to bring this particular character, and this particular experience to the white community, and the black community as well?

Harris:   Oh, I think so!  In fact, we did a concert version of excerpts from the work at Orchestra Hall here in Chicago last year.  It is very important to bring it to both white and black audiences.  First of all, the piece is well-written.  The composer expressed through the music what was very poignant about Malcolm X, and Davis has really brought this character to life in this opera.  I made a special point of seeing it when it was done at the New York City Opera, and it was really riveting on stage.

BD:   Was it well received by the audience?

Harris:   Oh definitely, very well received.

BD:   I’m just wondering... should there be some cross-fertilization?  Perhaps Anthony Davis and Spike Lee should get together, and when the movie is given they could also promote the opera, and when the opera is given they could also promote the movie?

Harris:   [Laughs]  When the opera was done, it was promoted as an opera, and when Spike Lee’s movie was done it was promoted as a movie.  I don’t think there was any meeting between Spike Lee and Anthony Davis.  It was talked about, but I don’t think either had the interest to try to collaborate with the other.  Lee had his movie, and Davis had his opera.  They were both involved in their projects.  Anthony’s opera was what it was, and Spike’s movie was what it was, even though the opera was released very close to the time that the movie was released.

BD:   If people who are interested in the character come to the opera, might they then go to see Carmen or La Bohème?

Harris:   That’s possible, because some operas have been made into movies.  The fact that operas are on television, it’s possible that somebody might accidentally see them and may become interested in going to see a live performance, to explore what the whole spectrum of this production looks like, rather than just it from the TV-director’s point of view.  They might want to see everything, and be able to look at what they want to look at, rather than what the director wants them to look at a specific point.  So it’s possible that some people have been turned on by the fact that they have seen a production on television.   You never know!  It’s very hard to tell at this point who has been inspired by seeing an opera on television, but I hope that it’s made a difference in some people’s lives.
BD:   Do you adjust your technique at all for the different sized houses that you sing in?

Harris:   No, I don’t.  I sing the way I sing.  Of course, I use nuance...

BD:   ...but that’s artistic.

Harris:   Yes, right, exactly, but I don’t adjust my technique because it’s very difficult for me, as a singer, to know exactly what the acoustics are out there.  I’ve also observed that acoustics change.  For instance, when I go to a hall and rehearse in the afternoon, the hall is empty.  The acoustics will change when there are people in the audience.  So I sing the way I sing, and my technique is my technique.  I use my technique all the time when I sing.  When I’m in a very small room, I might maybe sing a little more piano, but I still use my technique.

BD:   Can you then can be more subtle?

Harris:   I can be more subtle.

BD:   Are you conscious of the audience that is there in any size hall?

Harris:   During an operatic performance I’m not conscious of the audience because the hall is usually dark.  In a concert hall, I am more aware of the audience because the lights on the audience are up.

BD:   Is this so that people can read the texts?

Harris:   People can read their programs, and read the texts.  So, I’m aware of people being there, but I’m not distracted by their presence.

BD:   Do you feed off of their energy?

Harris:   [Thinks a moment]  Sometimes.  I usually have a good feeling of the energy of an audience.  That’s just something I always have been able to do.  Sometimes I feel that they are there, and that they are enjoying it, and they are really with you.  Then sometimes I feel as though they might not be as excited as they might be...  [Bursts out laughing]

BD:   Is there anything you can do to wake them up?

Harris:   I might concentrate just a little more on what I’m doing, and really try to communicate.  Maybe I’m not doing enough myself.  Maybe I’m not really communicating.  Then sometimes, audiences just are not enjoying the piece, depending on what it is, or they’re tired after a long day of work.

BD:   I’ve often wondered... is it right for the artistic community to expect the people who have been beating their brains out in business all day, to come and enjoy and appreciate a performance in the evening?

Harris:   If they’ve bought a ticket, they must want to be there.  If they’ve spent their money to come to a performance, I would think they want to be at that performance.  If they don’t, then I guess they would leave.  I wouldn’t think they would sit there and suffer, and be miserable the whole evening, just to occupy a space.  But in some instances there is a subscription which they got for specific things that they want to go to.  Then there are other things that they’re not too particular about, but it’s on the subscription, and so they go even though they’re not too particular about this performance.

BD:   At least they’re giving it a shot.

Harris:   But they’re giving it a shot, right.  They’re there.  They’re present, and they’ve contributed their effort to that performance.  Then if they stay, that means there was something that was important enough for them remain.

BD:   We hope there’s lots of that!

Harris:   I hope so too, and I hope it continues!  But what does concern me is the fact that there are fewer music programs in the schools.  That really disturbs me, it really does, and I don’t know what I can do about it.  We always say that to make the world a better place starts with me, and if everyone thought that way, the world would be a better place.  I’m wondering, as a musician and as a singer, what can I do to make it a better place in which to live?  Music has its part in making this place a better place in which to live...

BD:   ...and you are giving of your artistry, and your time, and energy.

Harris:   What if I haven’t given enough?

BD:   [Philosophically]  There’s always more we can do.

Harris:   What can I do to turn this around, so that it is seen as valid?  Music in one’s formative years is seen as something that’s very important, and that contributes to one’s character and well-being to this overall person that we are educating.  I don’t know what more I can do, but I still think about it.  There’s probably something else I can do.  I don’t know what it is yet, but I’ll continue to think about it.

BD:   And when you find it, you’ll do it!

Harris:   Yes, exactly!

BD:   One thing that you’ve found is to teach.  You’re teaching voice?

Harris:   Yes, I am.

BD:   Do you enjoy helping and imparting your knowledge to students?

Harris:   Very much, very much.
BD:   Are you encouraged by what you hear coming out of the throats of the young singers?
Harris:   Yes, very much so.  There are those who are just babies who are just starting to study singing, and it is very exciting to be a part of this process.  To see and hear their growth, and to see how much joy it brings them when they discover something or feel something new, is very exciting for the student as well as for me.  I hope that I am contributing in this way to making it a better world.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Are you optimistic about the future of music?

Harris:   Yes.  I think that it will continue, and that it will be on a high level.  I feel that we in this country have very good training, and that the performances tend to be on a high level.  It’s not that we’re just going to put this on but it doesn’t matter if it’s not good.  We wouldn’t think of that.  We strive to be very good.  I’m encouraged by the students who want to go into the music field, and think they know how hard it is!  [Has a huge laugh]

BD:   What advice do you have for the young singer coming along?  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at left, see my interviews with Philip Rhodes, Hale Smith, Ursula Mamlok, and Phyllis Bryn-Julson.]

Harris:   They have to really want to do it.  That’s the first thing.  You have to really, really want it with all of your being because it’s a lifetime of work and study.  As long as you are in the profession, you are constantly working, and there are sacrifices.

BD:   Is it all worth it?

Harris:   [Thinks a moment]  Yes, it is, it really is.  I always feel as though the voice is the healing instrument like none other because it is a part of the whole being.  It’s not outside of ourselves.  This is the instrument that is within us, and it is with us all the time.  It goes through all of our life experiences, so it’s unlike any other instrument.  With other instruments you don’t have that kind of emotional attachment.  You bring the artistry to the instrument through your hands, or your mouth, but this vocal instrument goes through everything that the person goes through.  There’s no way of separating the two.  That makes it very special, and I don’t think students really realize that part yet.

BD:   They have to get out there and do it in order to appreciate it?

Harris:   Oh, yes.  At first they’re more interested in technique, and learning to do it than learning to sing, and to sing well, and learn repertoire.  They’re not quite into that other part of it yet.  It takes a little more maturity and living experience before they really connect.  Eventually they see that this is the part of me.  So, if my big toe hurts, my voice is also involved in that as well.  If I’ve had a fight with my boyfriend, that also affects my singing.  If I awaken feeling wonderful, that affects my singing.  Everything is part of it.  There’s no way that we can separate this instrument from the whole because it is the part of the whole.

BD:   Are there times when you wished you could put it in a case like a violin?

Harris:   [Emphatically]  Oh yes, but you can’t!  As much as we’d like to, you just can’t!  It is what it is!

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

Harris:   Yes, I think so.  In fact, I’m at the point of my career where I had no idea that I would ever be at any age.  I lived in a very, very small town called Warrenton in North Carolina, and we had very little classical music.  The only classical music I was exposed to was in school.  My parents were not musicians, and I don’t think there was any other musician in our family.  But at a very early age I was exposed to classical music in elementary school, and right through into high school I was encouraged by teachers that I had something special, and should go to college and concentrate on and major in music, specifically in voice, which I did.  But I never imagined that it would take me where I have been.  I’m very pleased and delighted that it did, but I never thought it would.

BD:   I’m glad you’ve had a marvelous career so far.  I hope that it continues for a long time.

Harris:   Yes, I do too.

BD:   Thank you for speaking with me today.

Harris:   Thank you very much.  It has been a pleasure.


© 1984 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in Chicago on April 1, 1994.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB the following day, and again in 1996.  This transcription was made in 2022, 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.