[This interview was originally published in The Opera Journal in March, 1992.
Photos and links have been added for this website presentation.]

Conversation Piece:

Mezzo-Soprano Jean Kraft

By Bruce Duffie

jean kraft

Mezzo-soprano, Jean Kraft, has been singing a wide variety of roles for many years
mostly at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, but also with other companies in the United States and in Europe.  Being a regular at the Met also means that she has been heard on many of the Saturday afternoon Texaco broadcasts, as well as a number of the ‘Live from the Met’ telecasts.
Among her recordings are RCA releases of Otello, Andrea Chénier, and Cavalleria Rusticana, all conducted by James Levine, with Renata Scotto, Placido Domingo, Sherrill Milnes (in Otello and Chénier), and Pablo Elvira (in Cavalleria), and A Quiet Place conducted by its composer, Leonard Bernstein.  She is also featured on Opus One recordings of music by Ivana Themmen, and Beatrice Witkin.  [Names which are links on this webpage refer to my interviews elsewhere on this website.]

The following chart shows her appearances with Lyric Opera of Chicago.

Jean Kraft at Lyric Opera of Chicago

1984 - [Opening Night] Eugene Onegin (Mme. Larina), with Freni, Brendel, Dvorský, Ghiaurov; Bartoletti
           Arabella (Fortune Teller), with Te Kanawa, Wixell, Daniels, Korn, Kunde, Dunn; Pritchard

1989-90 - Rosenkavalier (Annina), with Tomowa-Sintow, Von Otter, Moll, Battle, Andreolli, Voketaitis; Kout

1990-91 - Eugene Onegin (Mme. Larina), with Tomowa-Sintow, Brendel, Polozov, Kavrakos; Bartoletti

1992-93 - Bartered Bride (Hata), with Daniels, Rosenshein, Rose, Clark; Bartoletti

1993-94 - Susannah [Floyd] (Mrs. McLean), with Fleming (debut), Ramey; Manahan

As noted above, in 1990, Jean Kraft was back in Chicago for the production of Eugene Onegin, which was also televised.  It was during that run of performances that I had the pleasure of chatting with her in her apartment.  Full of life and energy, one would hardly guess that she was in the midst of scaling down her performance schedule, with an eye on the day when she would not be treading the boards anymore.
We spoke of many things, and here is much of what was said . . . . .
Bruce Duffie:   Do you enjoy singing contemporary music?

Jean Kraft:   Oh, I enjoy it, yes!  First I thought I’d be a Lieder singer.  I didn’t think I’d be an opera singer.  Then when I went to New York, I thought I’d give a couple of recitals to start, and since I have absolute pitch, I thought I could cash in and do contemporary stuff.  But the fates didn’t work that way, and I became involved in opera
not overnight, mind you, but it happened.

BD:   I’m surprised that with absolute pitch, all the composers didn’t come beating down your door for performances of their music.

JK:   Well, I couldn’t hang a sign on my door to that effect, but when Lenny Bernstein found out, he was very funny.   We were in a limousine about three years ago going to a performance at St. John’s Cathedral of a Mahler piece.  He asked me if he should give me a chord or something, and I said I didn’t need to hear the pitch.  I assumed he also had it, but later in Vienna doing A Quiet Place, several times he asked me if such-and-such was the right pitch.  I don’t say all this to boast, but I don’t think most people understand what it really is.

jean kraft

See my interviews with Theodor Uppman, and Wendy White

BD:   Is it a blessing or a curse?

JK:   Unless you want to read, it’s really of no use at all.  I did do a rehearsal one time when the piano was about half a tone low, and I couldn’t find my place.  When I perform with the Boston Symphony, they’re tuned very high and it sometimes is hard for me.  I read a dissertation one time advocating the different placement of pitch away from the standard A=440, and I wonder how I would react if it happens.

BD:   There’s an early music group called Ensemble 415 because that’s where they tune!

JK:   I remember when I was very small
maybe seven or eight years oldmy sister was practicing the piano downstairs while I was upstairs, and I screamed, That’s supposed to be in F#!  My dad rushed in and asked me how I knew that.  He was a band director in Wisconsin, so that’s when I found out what I had.  But really, it’s better to simply have a good ear for the relative pitches.  That’s all that’s important in the end.

jean kraft BD:   Did you play any of the band instruments?

JK:   I played clarinet in the band, and I worked on the piano from about age four, and never thought about being a singer.  I was playing the piano, and later they found out I had a voice, and from there it continued.

BD:   Do you have an affinity to new music?

JK:   It’s not a big deal for me.  Sometimes the composers don’t even know I’m singing the right notes!  I learn all my pieces by myself, so all the notes are right.  Then if I want to hear the orchestration, I’ll get a recording
if there is one.  When I was learning Herodias for my first Salome, I got the recording and thought to myself, My God!  They’re singing wrong notes!  What bothered me was not my own work, but the fact that other younger singers might learn wrong notes if they learn from recordings.

BD:   What other advice do you have for young singers, besides learning the notes from the page rather than from recordings?

JK:   When I have given master classes, I’ve been surprised that the kids don’t always really zoom in and understand what they’re saying.  This is true for opera and for songs.  I’m amazed that they haven’t gotten a word-for-word translation.  The other day, someone was singing for me, and I asked what the song was about, and he had no idea what the first sentence was.  A lot of singers are prepared, but others really don’t know what they’re saying.   How can you be unique if you don’t sing words as you feel them by knowing the texts?

BD:   So you assume an attitude based on what you’re about to sing?

JK:   Certainly.  When I was eighteen and learning a song cycle, my teacher told me to listen to Lotte Lehmann’s recording, but I insisted on learning it myself and doing it my way.  I still believe very strongly about that, but if the kids of today aren’t sure of themselves, perhaps they use records to reassure themselves.

BD:   After you’ve learned a cycle or a role, perhaps listening to a recording once would be enlightening.

JK:   Yes, that’s all right.  I’m not saying never listen to the recordings, but don’t learn things that way.  What are we all doing here as performers except to say our unique thing?  Otherwise everybody might as well copy everybody else.  Even if someone else is fabulous, don’t do as they do.   Do your own thing.  Perhaps this shortcut attitude is more prevalent at universities.  I went to Curtis where the atmosphere is more rarefied.  Then, I went to Europe for a while on a scholarship, and trained in both Lieder and opera.  I was the finalist in some contests, but when I came back to the US, I couldn’t make a living as a Lieder singer.  I gave recitals as often as I could, and then I worked with Boris Goldovsky and continued in opera.  But I’m not going to sing too much longer.

BD:   How do you know when to stop singing in public?

JK:   I don’t hae the answer to that, and I really don’t know how I will feel when I do.  But the body is telling me it will be a relief not to go on the stage anymore, so perhaps that’s the way you know
the body tells you.  But singing is like breathing, and it will be very strange to stop suddenly.  Maybe that’s why some people spend ten years singing farewell concerts.  After saying I’d go for several reasons, I finally stopped singing at the Met.  I honored this contract here in Chicago because I’d signed it a couple of years ago.  Houston called and begged me to do their Figaro, and I’d turned them down before.  But now I was going to be in Santa Fe, so it wouldn’t be too much trouble to hop over to Houston for a month.  But as I told Bernstein, I’ve always wanted to sing the Bluesnot as an opera singer does, but really sing the Blues.  So, that’s on my mind.

BD:   Is ‘the Blues’ really American Lieder?

JK:   That’s a nice thought.  It’s song-singing, and Lieder is song-singing no matter what language it is.  Yes, maybe it is.

BD:   Maybe your next recital should have a group of Handel, a group of Schubert, a group of Debussy, and a group of the Blues.

JK:   I’ve done that!  Blues, and those great old songs, which are wonderful if you start looking into them.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   During your career, how did you decide which roles you’d sing, and which you’d decline?

JK:   If you haven’t made a big, big international name, you sort of do what comes your way
unless the roles are very unsuitable because they lie badly for the voice, or if they’re roles you really don’t want to do because they don’t suit you temperamentally.  It’s the same thing with songs.  I won’t sing a song unless it means something to me.  I don’t sing something just because one really should sing this or that or the other thing.  When you can choose your roles, they have to have some interest.

BD:   Many of your roles are comprimario in nature.  Are they satisfying?

JK:   Yes, they can be really exciting.  Often they’re harder than roles that are longer because you have to give your all in just ten minutes, or so.  It can be great, but you don’t have a chance to settle in.  So, it can be difficult.  But again, if the role has interest, it can be satisfying.  There are several that I just love
Herodias, Mrs. Sedley in Peter Grimes, and roles like that which give you things to do on the stage, even when you’re not singing.  In a repertory theater, you can sing several times in a week doing different things each time.  One of the roles I was very happy with, which is out on video, is the part in Luisa Miller.  It’s not one that runs around the stage a lot, but it was a wonderful singing role.  Everything goes together in an opera like a package.  My husband, who is a violinist in the Met orchestra, kids me, saying, You always think you’re doing a leading role, but I really always feel that way.  Whether it’s five lines or whatever, in opera everything is important.  We’re all working together making the play with music, and most of the international singers that work at it feel that way.

jean kraft

See my interview with Nathaniel Merrill

BD:   I’ve found that the most satisfying evenings are when the leading singers are doing very well, and everybody else is doing just as well.

JK:   That’s right.  That’s what opera companies should be about.  Everybody should be that good, and that’s when the magic happens.

BD:   Should those who do leading roles all the time occasionally do supporting ones, just for perspective?

JK:   Not really, but most have sung supporting roles at some time in their careers.  Whatever you do should be as technically good as you can do.  Your attitude is right, and you sing up to your full capacity.  I may be old-fashioned, but I expect that of myself and of everyone else.

BD:   In opera, where is the balance between the music and the drama?

JK:   You can argue that non-stop, but in the end, you do have to sing, and that has to be primary.  Sometimes you’ve given staging that is contrary to what you are singing, and if you can’t make it all work you have to just stand there and sing.  But you have to try to make it work dramatically.  It often depends on how much the stage director cares or understands.  Some theater directors don’t know opera, or haven’t translated it carefully, and we’re told to do something that makes no sense.

BD:   What do you do in a case like that?

JK:   Sometimes you challenge the stage director, and sometimes you work around it so you can play your role.  But you’re an opera singer, and that has to come first.

BD:   If you’re an opera singer, and you act all the time, do you miss the stage when you do a Lieder recital?

JK:   No.  It’s harder to do a recital because every song is a little opera, and every song is a drama in itself.  That’s why a Lieder singer who goes into opera has an edge, because already the drama has gone on with every song.  It’s not just opening your mouth and making loud sounds, you’re thinking about what you’re saying.  So, it’s a good thing for opera singers to have done songs.  Youngsters have funny ideas. 
I’m going to be an opera singer, they say, so they learn how to singsomewhatand then they watch opera singers.  In master classes, I’m always holding their hands down, or making them sit down because they seem to think you always walk around gesturing wildly all the time on the stage.  It’s true, a lot of opera singers do do that, but it’s not necessary, and it usually doesn’t mean anything.

BD:   Do you adjust your singing or acting technique depending on the size of the house you’re in?

JK:   The Met is so easy to sing in.  It’s like singing in a tiny kitchen.  It’s the easiest house I know to sing in.  Sometimes there is a scrim, and then you have the feeling that the sound is being blocked.  That’s frustrating, but there’s nothing you can do about it.

BD:   As an observer from the other side, let me assure you that it doesn’t change the size or color of your voice at all.

JK:   I’m sure you’re right, but it feels that way on stage.  You don’t get quite the sound coming back to you as when it’s open in front.  If the theater is good, you don’t have to do anything extraordinary.  You have to sing full, but you can also sing piano
if the orchestra lets you!  [Both laugh]  It’s the conductors that never keep them down enough.  Some do, but others may not.  The good orchestras will play softly if they’re asked to.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Coming back to stagecraft again
and these days it’s a perhaps a dangerous questionbut how far is too far?  And how far will you go on stage?

JK:   That’s hard to say.  Once, in Santa Fe I was asked to do a nude scene.  The manager told me I could decline if I wanted to, but in the end, we did use a body stocking.  I’m not a prude or anything, but there has to be a reason.  This particular opera had been done in Europe, and the singer
a quite buxom ladydid it nude.  I’m quite thin, and told them they had the wrong person for the role if that’s what they were looking for.  I was in the bathtub with the baritone, and used a body stocking.  The question becomes whether it’s necessary to the scene, or if it is just in there for shock value.  There are no secrets anymore, and maybe secrets are important.  I’ve not talked about it before, or discussed it, because it hasn’t touched me, but as I think about it now, I really think something has to be left to the imagination, so the magic happens.  If it’s for shock value, it’s stupid.  If there are real reasons, and it’s in character, then okay.

jean kraft

See my interview with Judith Blegen

BD:   Are you conscious of the audience when you sing?

JK:   Yes, and no.  In some moments it will flash through my mind, or you’ll think you’d better get down stage.  But mostly you walk on that stage, and you are who you’re supposed to be.  You’re within the play.  You become the character, as far as I’m concerned.  I never talk about other things when I’m out there.  Some singers talk about other things, but I stay in character.  For this Eugene Onegin, I worked and worked at the Russian, having it translated, and working on the pronunciation.  Still, I don’t speak the language, so instead of lapsing into English, I might say,
Bonsoir! or something like that if I’m speaking to a colleague.  Mme. Larina might easily have used the French language occasionally.  I like to stay with the feeling, so I don’t talk about other things, or think about what I’ll do after the performance.  If I have a colleague that does, I don’t answer.  I’ll walk away.  They usually understand, and if they don’t, I just work around it.  Some just don’t take it seriously.

BD:   [With a gentle nudge]  Is opera a serious business???

JK:   [Smiling]  It’s very serious.  It’s fun, but you’re supposed to do the work.  The funniest times are when you get a bunch of Italian singers doing comedy.  That’s when things are wild.  But people have paid to see you deliver what you’re supposed to deliver, and if you don’t do that, it’s not right.

BD:   Do you like being a mezzo-soprano?

JK:   Yes!  In fact, when you’re seventeen, and singing from one extreme to the other of your vocal range, unless you are an obvious contralto, you usually decide you are a soprano.  But even then I called myself a mezzo-contralto.  I always wanted to be a mezzo, and indeed the voice truly was as I got older.  A true mezzo is a voice that lies happiest in the middle, but with glorious high notes like a true soprano.  There is a darkness of timbre, but you feel better when singing the range.  You don’t want to stay in the higher tessitura.  A good throat doctor can almost tell whether you’re a mezzo or a soprano by how long your cords are.

BD:   Is singing fun?

JK:   It’s incredible, and it’s exciting.  Youngsters ask me how much I make, or how much they can expect to make, or how they can get hired here or there.  I tell them that if they don’t want to sing more than they want to eat, don’t bother.  The need to sing is tremendous, and if you don
t have that, you won’t make it in the business.

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In December, radio station WNIB and producer and host, Bruce Duffie, were given the ASCAP / Deems Taylor Broadcast Award, for their ‘ongoing commitment to introducing the works of Twentieth Century American composers, and for music programming of the highest quality for radio.’

Next time in these pages, the very original director, Peter Sellars, to celebrate his 35th birthday!

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© 1990 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in Chicago on October 8, 1990.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB in 1995, and 2000.  The transcription was made in 1992, and published in The Opera Journal in the March issue of that year.  That transcription was slightly re-edited, and photos and links were added for this website presentation, which was uploaded in 2019.

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.