Soprano  Judith  Nelson

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


[The recording shown above is, perhaps, a bit misleading, because the music
of Schubert comprised a very small portion of the repertoire of Judith Nelson.
There is, of course, nothing wrong with the disc, nor her interpretations, but the
photo was selected because it is the nicest image of her that I have found.  BD]

The American soprano, Judith (Anne) Nelson (née Manes) (September 10, 1939 - May 28, 2012), was the daughter of musical parents. She studied music at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota, where she became a leading singer in its noted choir, and obtained her BA Music degree in 1961. On August 5, 1961, she married Alan H. Nelson. When she moved with her husband to Berkeley in 1962, she sang with the UC Berkeley Collegium and the Berkeley Chamber Singers. Her principal voice teachers were Thomas Wikman in Chicago, James Cunningham at Berkeley, and Martial Singher in Santa Barbara. She also studied piano for 12 years. She sang with music groups of the University of Chicago and the University of California at Berkeley.

An Alfred Hertz Memorial Fellowship of the University of California at Berkeley in 1972-1973 enabled Nelson to travel throughout Europe. She made her debut in 1973 in Paris, and began her career as a soloist, traveling in England and continental Europe. She joined the Five Centuries Ensemble, and met Geneviève Thibault de Chambure, who became her Parisian “angel.” She was a founding member of Concerto Vocale, with René Jacobs, William Christie, and Wieland Kuijken, and a soprano soloist with Christopher Hogwood’s Academy of Ancient Music. She made her operatic debut in Brussels in 1979, singing Drusilla in Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione de Poppea with Alan Curtis, a performance repeated at the historic La Fenice in Venice.


Nelson performed and recorded extensively as a soloist throughout North America (including Mexico), Europe, and Asia in concerts, operas, and for radio and television. She was acknowledged as one of the world’s leading singers of the Baroque repertoire as the early music revival began. She sang with most of the major Baroque ensembles and orchestras including the Academy of Ancient Music, Concerto Vocale, the Bay Area’s American Bach Soloists, the San Francisco Bach Choir, Toronto’s Tafelmusik, Joshua Rifkin and The Bach Ensemble, and Massachusetts’ Aston Magna Festival.

In the San Francisco Bay Area, Nelson was one of the founders of the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, and was on its Board of Directors. She sang and recorded often with the orchestra, and its first office was located in her home. She sang on Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra’s debut recording, of George Frideric Handel’s Apollo and Daphne, as well as in other works by Handel and Purcell. On stage, she sang several operas, including Handel’s Teseo at the Boston Early Music Festival, and Sant’Alessio at the Nakamichi Festival in Los Angeles. With harpsichordist Laurette Goldberg and actress Rella Lossy, she formed the Elizabethan Trio. The singer Anna Carol Dudley was invited to join the group, renamed Tapestry. They toured every year with performances combining Renaissance and Baroque music with literature from various countries. Joshua Kosman wrote, “In music of Bach, Handel and countless other composers of the 17th and 18th centuries, Nelson brought a blend of technical panache and expressive fluency to her performances. The graceful elegance of her singing, combined with an ability to traverse the most challenging passages with complete assurance, made her regular appearances count among the reliable delights of the Bay Area's musical life.”

Nelson performed with major symphony orchestras, including the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, National Symphony Orchestra, Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra, and San Francisco Symphony Orchestra. Although she was particularly noted for her performance of Baroque music, she also introduced compositions by American and English Composers.


She has some 70 recordings to her credit, including LPs, cassette tapes, and CDs, many on the Harmonia Mundi and L’Oiseau-Lyre labels. Her recordings with such conductors as Hogwood and John Eliot Gardiner helped usher in a new era of historically informed performances of Baroque music. Of particular note is her role as first soprano on the Hogwood recording of Messiah, recorded in Westminster Abbey in 1980 for BBC TV, and now released on DVD on the Kultur label [shown above]. The classical performance magazine Music (January 2012) ranks that release as number 25 in a list of “The 50 Greatest Recordings of All Time.” Other notable recording include: Belinda in Dido and Aeneas (Chandos) Handel's Alceste and La Resurrezione; Haydn Canzonets and Cantatas. She also performed on radio in France, Belgium, Holland, Federal Republic of Germany, Italy, Austria. Scandinavia, several Promenade Concerts on the BBC, and on Television.

In September 1989, in recognition of her contributions to music, St. Olaf College conferred upon her the honorary degree of Doctor of Fine Arts. She died peacefully on May 28, 2012 at the close of a 12-year battle with Alzheimer’s disease. She was 72.

--  Edited from the Bach Cantatas website [Text only - photos added from other sources]  
--  Throughout this webpage, links refer to my interviews elsewhere on my website.  BD  


I have always been grateful to live in and near Chicago because many of the world
s finest musicians come here on a regular basis.  Some stay for several weeks — such as those who perform with Lyric Opera; some stay for just a few daysincluding those who appear with the Chicago Symphony; and a few just pop in and out for a single performance.  Thus, arranging interviews can be easy, tricky, or nearly impossible.  I have been lucky, and am glad to have had the opportunity for these many years.

nelson Once in awhile, a performer will agree (and even be very glad) to have the conversation after a performance.  This webpage presents one of those times.  Soprano Judith Nelson was singing with Music of the Baroque in March of 1992, and decided that meeting after the concert was best for her.  Being a night owl, I jumped at this suggestion, and here is what was said late that evening . . . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:   You’ve made a specialty of early music.  Tell me the joys and sorrows of singing music that’s three or four or five hundred years old.

Judith Nelson:   I don’t know many sorrows!  The joys are especially things that have not been done lately, things that have laid in libraries for two hundred years.  What’s fun is that you’ve participated in a first performance, or one of the first performances.  On these concerts, the little trio by Luigi Rossi, Fan Battaglia, comes pretty close.  It was unearthed four years ago or so by Erin Headley and Andrew Lawrence-King in England, and they put together a three-ladies concert.  I came in as a last-minute substitute.

BD:   [Mischievously]  You were the third-and-a-half lady!

JN:   [Laughs]  I was the third-and-a-half lady, and I got a wealth of nice music from that.  Also, people are writing dissertations and finding things, and people are transcribing all these cantatas, and that’s what’s really exciting.

BD:   We’re getting all of this scholarship.  How is the performance practice of early music changing during the time you’ve been working on it?

JN:   We were much more careful in the early days to be correct, and as you get used the style it is good to see how fast these nice, wonderful, modern violinists are picking styles.  They have got old fiddles, but they’ve got old fiddles in a modern set-up, and modern bows, and they’re playing perfectly wonderful Baroque violin.  You learn about phrasing, and the different kinds of phrasing, and a lot of that you can learn from the old instruments.  Now you just relax and enjoy it and make music.  So, in that sense we’ve all become more forthright, and less careful, and scholarly.

BD:   Is there a point when it becomes too scholarly, and you’re putting too much thought into it?

JN:   Oh, I think so!  It can be sort of dry and boring, and that’s what people were criticizing in the early years.  Not from a group like the New York Pro Musica.  They were pretty interesting, but then everybody got more,
We have to do this absolutely correctly, and this trill has to start on the upper note, or the lower note.  [Laughs]  I’m exaggerating, but the thing is to make music, and the more people have gotten accustomed to hearing Baroque music played by Baroque orchestras, the more they think that’s normal, and the more they also can enjoy the contrast between that and a modern orchestra playing it more in a romantic style.  A lot of modern orchestras are now changing bowings, and are articulating when they play the earlier music.  But what you have is a choice.  You have a contrast.  You can hear both, and in the early days, before the movement to only use authentic instruments, you only got one point of view.  Now you get more than one.  In fact, you get many because everyone has a different style.  To me it’s exciting to hear the music played by instruments for which it was written, because the color is different just in tonal quality with the gut strings or the narrow bores.  It’s a less-bright sound, maybe a bit warmer, more intimate sound.  Even in later Beethoven they’re doing it now.  It’s a revelation to hear it.  It doesn’t mean that you have to do it that way, but it’s nice to have the choice of hearing it.

BD:   So you have all these choices.  None are right, or all are right?

JN:   All are right.  You can play Bach on the piano, so why not?  Of course, he would not have written the same music had he had a Steinway, but it is a fallacy to say that if Bach had a piano he wouldn’t have liked it.  He might have liked it a lot.  He didn’t like the ones he heard because those early ones weren’t in very good condition.  They weren’t developed enough.  He would have written different music, but they all would have written different music.  They write for what they have, not something in the great beyond.  They write for what they’ve got at that time.

nelson BD:   Now you’re talking about all kinds of instruments, and the instruments have changed, but the instrument in the throat really hasn’t changed that much.

JN:   No, ours is the original instrument!

BD:   Do you think that because human beings are perhaps stronger, or more fortified with vitamins these days, that it is a little different?

JN:   Could be, could be!  Also, we really have no idea what people sounded like then.  Mary Springfels [gamba player and scholar, and founder of the Newberry Consort] was telling me that she found something at the Newberry Library by some English writer saying that English singers of the seventeenth or sixteenth century should sing out to the fullness of their voices, and not be faint.  This is very interesting because you do get this kind of weepy sound, which is very precious.  But it depends.  If you’re singing with a consort of viols, you’re going to make a straighter sound simply to sing in tune with them.  But I wouldn’t say early music has to have a straight sound.  You have to be able to control, and you have to be able to tune.  Tuning is extremely important when you have instruments that don’t make much vibrato.  You can’t cheat!

BD:   Have you decided which tuning system you prefer?

JN:   I just try to adjust to what’s going on.  [Laughs]

BD:   Do you find that the public is more or less bothered by different tuning systems now?

JN:   I don’t know.  We were working at 448 tonight, and Venetian Italian music would have been higher than today
s usual 440.  A lot of people know a lot more about pitches than I do, but I’m not sure everybody knows everything about pitches in various places.  Sometimes you work at a lower pitch, such as 415, or for the French music, even lower, almost a whole step lower sometimes, even 392.  But the key is colors.  If it’s a temperate tuning, then the key colors are the same.  But if you have equal temperament, then you might feel like you’re transposing, and some people in audiences find that they think things are not quite right, if it’s a piece that’s familiar to them and they know what key it’s in.  But if you have a temperate tuning, that shouldn’t matter because the color would move with the pitch and the intervals, because equal temperament is out of tune by definition.  It’s very clever.

BD:   String instruments and the voice can make all the adjustments whereas wind instruments and keyboard instruments can’t.

JN:   Right.  You have to make choices.  You have to go with the winds, basically.

BD:   Do you feel that audiences are becoming more sophisticated today?  Then, do you feel that audiences who were listening to this music originally, were very sophisticated, or perhaps even naïve about what they were hearing?

JN:   These would have been noble families who were listening.  It would have been music in the courts, or in stately homes, so they were pretty knowledgeable I would think, and they would have had the King or the church.  People were pretty knowledgeable.  This didn’t go out to the farmers’ fields.

BD:   [With a gentle nudge]  Is it sacrilege to put it out for the masses now?

JN:   [Laughs]  No!  Of course not!

BD:   Is this music that was written for the courts, really for everyone?

JN:   Does it seem to be accessible?  There’s some music which is more difficult than others.  It’s seems to me that this is very accessible.  Viol concert music might be a little hard if you haven’t heard a lot of Jenkins, or those people.  It’s difficult, but string quartets can be difficult, too.  You have to get used to these four guys playing together.  [Laughs]

John Jenkins (1592-1678) was a long-active and prolific composer, whose many years of life -- spanning the time from William Byrd to Henry Purcell -- witnessed great changes in English music. He is noted for developing the viol consort fantasia, being influenced in the 1630s by an earlier generation of English composers including Alfonso Ferrabosco the younger, Thomas Lupo, John Coprario and Orlando Gibbons.

jenkins Jenkins composed numerous 4, 5, and 6 part fantasias for viol consort, almans, courants and pavanes, and he breathed new life into the antiquated form of the In Nomine. He was less experimental than his friend William Lawes. Indeed, Jenkins's music was more conservative than that of many of his contemporaries. It is characterized by a sensuous lyricism, highly skilled craftsmanship, and an original usage of tonality and counterpoint.

Little is known of his early life. The son of Henry Jenkins, a carpenter who occasionally made musical instruments, he may have been the "Jack Jenkins" employed in the household of Anne Russell, Countess of Warwick in 1603. The first positive historical record of Jenkins is amongst the musicians who performed the masque The Triumph of Peace in 1634 at the court of King Charles I. Jenkins was considered a virtuoso on the lyra viol. King Charles I of England commented that Jenkins did "wonders on an inconsiderable instrument."

When the English Civil War broke out in 1642 it forced Jenkins, like many others, to migrate to the rural countryside. During the 1640s he was employed as music-master to two Royalist families, the Derhams at West Dereham and Hamon le Strange of Hunstanton. He was also a friend of the composer William Lawes (1602–1645), who was shot and died in battle at the siege of Chester.

Around 1640 Jenkins revived the In Nomine, an archaic form for a consort of viols, based upon a traditional plainsong theme. He wrote a notable piece of program music consisting of a pavane and galliard depicting the clash of opposing sides, the mourning for the dead, and the celebration of victory after the siege of Newark (1646).

In the 1650s Jenkins became resident music-master of Lord Dudley North in Cambridgeshire, whose son Roger wrote his biography. It was in these years, during the Commonwealth under Oliver Cromwell, in the absence of much competition or organized music-making, that Jenkins took the occasion to write more than 70 suites for amateur household players.

After the Restoration he obtained a place as a musician to the Royal Court. However, the viol consort was less fashionable in the court of Charles II. 

Something of Jenkins's own temperament is indicated by his setting the religious poetry of George Herbert to music. Like Joseph Haydn, he was a pious, reticent, and private person. Workmanlike and industrious in composition, he wrote dances by the cart-load, according to Roger North, an English lawyer and amateur musician.

nelson BD:   I understand you’ve also done some world premieres.  

JN:   Of new music?  Yes.

BD:   Before we come to that, my question is, having done a lot of old music and some brand new music, is there a closer connection between the very old and the very new, as opposed to the romantic and the new?

JN:   A lot of people say yes, but I’m not sure.  The voice can do anything that each particular voice wants to do.  If you’re doing Grand Opera from the earlier times, you might find it more difficult to do this music if you are a Verdi singer.  But I’m not sure that’s true because there are a lot of people in this group who sing romantic opera.  It is fine as long as you can come to the music on its own terms.  That is to say, you wouldn’t sing Monteverdi in the same way that you would Verdi because you wouldn’t have the same kind of orchestra.  You wouldn’t have to have as big a voice.

BD:   And yet it’s all music.

JN:   Oh, yes!

BD:   Does music as an idea change from period to period?

JN:   It’s always changed with tastes, and with every generation.  The Academy of Ancient Music was an organization founded in the late eighteenth century to revive the music of Handel, who was the generation of twenty years before.  That was
Ancient Music because you had your courts or your patrons, and you wrote for them.  So, everybody knew exactly what they were doing.  They knew the style and they didn’t have to worry about understanding.  On the other hand, today we have to do everything, and that’s what’s fun.  If I had wanted to set out to be a Verdi singer, over the years I would have had to do a lot of work on enlarging the voice.  I probably wouldn’t have made it anyway, because I don’t have a very big instrument.  But it could have got bigger.

BD:   Coming back to this idea of the music changing, is there anything that you can do, or should be doing, as a bridge between music that was created at a time which was perhaps simpler or slower, for people who today have experienced two world wars and global depressions?

JN:   Performances like we are doing would help.  You can talk to audiences and explain all of this, and you can also have program notes about the circumstances under which the music was written.  Richard Wilson was commissioned to write a piece for the Library of Congress, and he wrote it on some Elizabethan texts, which was nice.  I did that, so you had a patron actually commissioning a piece, but the patron wasn’t imposing a condition.

BD:   The patron just said write a piece?

JN:   Yes, and I was lucky enough to be able to do it.

BD:   I’m glad you say you’re lucky to do new music because a lot of people are afraid of it, or scared of it, or feel that it’s a real imposition while they long to get back to the standard repertoire.

nelson JN:   Going back to other question about whether it is related to this music, if you’re really used to doing Renaissance music, or Mediaeval music with all the complicated rhythms and all the poetry and the rhyme schemes, maybe that discipline transfers more to contemporary music, because you really get into ways of thinking about these things.  They’re much more complex when you get into the eighteenth century and Handel.  It’s much less complex now, much more immediately accessible.  Machaut and people like that wrote really complex stuff, and so a lot of the contemporary music would slot into either end.  I find that if I haven’t done any new music for a while, I actually get out of the ways to break up rhythms and the ways to think of intervals.  I have to work at it!

BD:   What advice do you have for someone who wants to compose a new piece for your voice, or for you any voice?

JN:   You’d have to listen to the person singing.  You can’t just ask for the highest notes and the lowest notes.  That’s a mistake.

BD:   [With a gentle nudge]  You mean, you’re not a clarinet???  [Both laugh]

JN:   I actually did a piece by Giuseppe Sinopoli, in which my part was very much like
a clarinet [Souvenirs à la mémoire (1974)].  It was scored for three voicestwo sopranos, and a counter tenorand twenty-one instruments.  It was quite an interesting piece, but there’s no text.  I was essentially doing a clarinet part, so its funny you should have picked that instrument!

BD:   You just articulate on different syllables?

JN:   Yes, and I had higher notes then, too.  It was very, very high.

BD:   When I interviewed Sinopoli a few years ago, I tried to get him to talk about his compositions, but he didn’t want to address them, just his conducting.  He dismissed his works as though they meant nothing.

JN:   He was into it at the time.  He was very serious about it.  It’s very complicated and mathematical.

BD:   Was it music?

JN:   Yes, it was.  The three singers got together to read through the first time, and we fell apart after about six bars.  We were laughing because we made such a hash of it.  It was really hard, but when we got it all together, it was pretty exciting.  It was a good piece.

BD:   Is it something that would be worth repeating?

JN:   Oh, I think so, yes.  I’m sorry he never recorded it.  He wrote some piano music, too.

BD:   We’re kind of dancing around it, so let me ask the big philosophical question.  What’s the purpose of music?

JN:   Oh, golly!  It makes life better.  It makes people feel good.  I suppose in the days of the patrons, it also made them feel better.  They were the richer people, and they were the better kings at that time.  As for today, I hate to see music cut out of schools.  It seems to me it’s something that some kids can possibly excel in, that they wouldn’t necessary go in for when they’re not particularly academic, with the actual studying of notes and rhythms.  It also draws on perspective, and light and shade, and those skills feed directly into mathematics.  That’s why the liberal arts are the Liberal Arts.  It seems to me to be a very big mistake to cut these programs.  Also, don’t cut sports.  That was something considered important to ancients.

BD:   Educate the mind and the body!

JN:   Right, and music is of the soul.  It makes you happy to do it.  It feels good to sing, and it feels good to make these sounds.  In schools, they’re making a bad mistake to cut them in the name of budget.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   You’ve made a number of recordings.  Do you sing differently in the studio as opposed to the concert hall?

JN:   You can maybe take more risks in a concert.  On the other hand, you can correct it for the recording.  You try to be more consistent if you’re in a recording studio, but I don’t think I sing differently.  I like microphones.  I can personify a microphone, but you do want to be fairly consistent.  That way, if you do something with a note, then you have to be careful with tempi so that it’s the same from take to take.  But I like recording.

nelson BD:   Are you pleased with the discs that have been issued so far?

JN:   Some.  Some have real mistakes on them, and we let them go at the time because we thought that the feeling was good.  But every time I hear it, I hope that maybe the mistake won’t happen this time.  But it always does!  [Both laugh]  A little crack in the voice was left in because the flow of the music was so nice, and you think it’s okay.

BD:   But you’re expecting it.  I would assume that someone who’s listening to it once through probably would not hear that.

JN:   They might, but maybe they think it must be the record.  With digital editing now, they can go in and pick out this and drop in that.  They can even watch it on a screen.  It’s amazing to see that.  It’s scary.

BD:   Is music something you should watch on a screen?

JN:   I don’t know.  It means deaf recording engineers can make edits if everything lines up!  [Much laughter]

BD:   Is there any way that perhaps a recording that’s cut and pasted together becomes too perfect?

JN:   None of mine have!  [More laughter]  I suppose it could, but it shouldn’t.  If you have good producer and a good technician, they should get a performance out of people.  I suppose you can eliminate wrong notes, though.

BD:   Do you ever feel then that you’re competing against your recording if you do the same work later in a concert?

JN:   I don’t, no.  I know some people do, especially if you’re really a famous singer.  If you command huge fees, you have to compete with your recordings.  You don’t ever want to have an off-night.  You’d probably cancel if you don’t feel quite up to it.  I’ve never canceled concert, but I should have canceled few.

BD:   So you’re a real trouper, and the show must go on?

JN:   The concerts usually involved other people.  But with a concert like this one tonight, we did have only one second soprano and two first sopranos, so I suppose if I had dropped out, the other soprano would have carried on.  But if you’re the only one and you drop out, if you can’t find a substitute the whole concert has to be canceled.  I couldn’t live with that.  I would rather croak through the performance
which I have doneand that’s not good.  It’s better to cancel, but my conscience wouldn’t let me unless I was really in bad shape.  But if you can’t do it, you can’t do it.

BD:   Does the public expect too much of the singer?

JN:   In a way, but they don’t want you to do poorly.  Sometimes they like flaws because they make you human.

BD:   Are you expecting you to be super-human?

JN:   Yes, and then it doesn’t work.  I think about every mistake.  I’m counting the mistakes that I made tonight just from lack of concentration at certain moments.  I think they will be fixed tomorrow night, but I hardly remember what the places are because the score goes by so quickly.  I try not to make the same one twice.  That’s important.

BD:   Have you ever given a performance that is purposely or accidentally been just right?

JN:   I don’t know if that’s possible.  In a way, yes.  You can come off feeling that it was really good, and then you listen to the tape and you feel that was flat there, and that was sharp there.

BD:   So, who’s right
your memory or the tape?

JN:   The tape is right, I suppose, but the concert is the real reality.  If you’ve made the music, and everybody’s been happy, and your audience has gone home happy and you’ve gone home happy, then that’s the reality.  That’s what performance is
sticking your neck out.  It would be pretty boring if you didn’t throw in that ornament or take that risk.

BD:   [With a gentle nudge]  So we can assume you’ll never lip-sync your performances?

JN:   [Laughs]  I wouldn’t know how!   [Gales of laughter]

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   How do you divide your career between opera, recitals, early music, and new music?

nelson JN:   I don’t do much opera.  I occasionally do early operas
Handel and earlier.  In fact, I’ve done roles nobody’s ever heard of because nobody’s ever heard of the operas.  [Laughs]  That’s been fun, and I’ve been so lucky to beam in on them.  As to how I divide my time, my kids are grown up now.  When they were little, we also always had somebody living in our homea student usually.  My husband teaches at the university, and when I was not off somewhere the student would have nothing to do, and when I was gone, she’d have lots to do.  That was the way we lived, but I didn’t go away for longer than a week at a time if I could help it, and usually it was less than that.  For years I didn’t do any Messiahs close to Christmas because Christmas was the family time, so we all had to be home.  I would never accept a Messiah on December 23rd, which I would do now.

BD:   Let’s talk just a little bit about opera.  Is it good to do a role that hasn’t been done in a couple of hundred years, so that you are the one essentially creating it?

JN:   I’m not sure that’s the reason.  It’s good to do it because it’s interesting.

BD:   But if you were doing Violetta or Mimì, there’d be all of this memory on the part of you and the audience.

JN:   That’s true, yes.  It’s like when I do song recitals, Lieder recitals, I am always thinking about Elly Ameling, or Fischer-Dieskau, and what I should and shouldn’t do.  Whereas if I’m giving a Baroque recital, there are other people who do those things, but I feel much more on my home turf.  I’m not trying to lock into somebody’s else’s interpretation.  I haven’t done many Lieder concerts, but I enjoy them.  I enjoy working on songs.  I’m working on some Fauré now, and I’m enjoying that immensely but it’s not for any performance.  It’s just because I’ve never worked on a group of Fauré songs, so I’m doing it.  I like French eighteenth century music a lot.

BD:   Will doing Fauré help the French Baroque, or the Baroque in general?

JN:   I don’t know.  I never thought of it that way.  I just like the songs.

BD:   From this huge range of songs and material, how do you select which roles and which pieces you will do?

JN:   Roles are ones you’re asked to do, so that’s not a selection.  For example, now somebody wants me to do the title role in Sant’Alessio (1632) by Stefano Landi.

BD:   So how do you decide yes or no?

JN:   I have always wanted to do that.  It’s a good thing to do.  As to the songs, I heard somebody else do the Venetian songs of Fauré, so I decided I’d like to learn them, and that’s what I’m doing.

BD:   When did you decide that you wanted to get Baroque music?  I assume that you had a standard musical training of romantic literature.

JN:   Yes, but when I was in college, I was in a repertory group, and we did old and new music.  We did a lot of madrigals, we did some church music, and we did some modern pieces.  I went to St. Olaf College, so I was in the St. Olaf Choir, and it was its own thing.  [See my Interview with Kenneth Jennings, faculty member beginning in 1953, and later Director of the Choir.]  They learn one program, and do that program for the entire year, and tour it.  You memorized that and you know that cold.  It was as an alternative to that I headed to the repertory group.  I’d already known at high school that I liked madrigals, and also that it was suited for the sound I made.

BD:   [With a gentle nudge]  You don’t have a secret desire to be Brünnhilde?

JN:   [Smiles]  No, no.  I would have loved to have been able to sing the Verdi Requiem.  There are some big pieces I wish I could have sung and I never will, but I like to hear other people do them.

BD:   You say that you learned this one concert and toured it.  How do you keep something that you’re singing a lot of times fresh for each performance?

nelson JN:   For a choir, we were striving for perfection and some sort of religious experience.  It had its goods and its bads.  I often wished they had done a couple of concerts.  In fact, when they did their home concerts, it was still the same so if the people at the college come to the choir concerts, they would hear the same pieces for every concert.  In the end, though, you know that stuff awfully well, and when you tour it makes a really nice effect.  I loved being in the choir.  I love choral singing, too.  I hear a lot of singing teachers tell their students not to sing in choirs, but you can certainly sing in choirs if they don’t ask you to sing horrible things, where you have to play with your voice or force yourself into something that can hurt the cords.

BD:   What sort of horrible things?

JN:   You hear some hooty sounds sometimes from a chorus where everybody has to sing without vibrato.  In the choir people say they did that, but they didn’t really because they took voices and matched voices, and had similar voices together, like streams working out to the lake.  It was very calculated so you didn’t have to make those sounds.  You could sing normally, but sing in tune.

BD:   What advice do you have for young performers coming along who want to have a singing career?

JN:   [Sighs]  It’s very hard to judge a good teacher.  It’s important to have a good teacher who is good with beginning students, and you ought to be able to shop around
take a sample lesson, ask to sit in on a couple of lessons while the teacher is working with other students.  I might be a little suspicious of a teacher who doesn’t allow you to do that, because they should welcome that kind of thing to see if it suits you.  Not every teacher suits every student.

BD:   Is it fair to say that every teacher will suit some students?

JN:   Yes, if the teacher’s any good at all!  There are bad teachers out there, but there are a lot of good ones, and you just have to find them.  There are several good ones here in Chicago.  This seems to be a good place for singers.

BD:   This is home for you, isn’t it?

JN:   Yes.  I was actually born in Evanston, but I grew up in Elmhurst.  [Elmhurst is a western suburb of Chicago, and Evanston is the first suburb north of Chicago.]

BD:   [Surprised and pleased]  Really???  I was born in Elmhurst, and lived all my childhood in Evanston!  [At this point we took care of a few technical details, which included having her read a Station Break for WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago, and then we proceeded to the final few questions.]  Is singing fun?

JN:   Yes, most of the time.  [Both laugh]  It is not if you have a sore throat.  Then it’s not fun.  Then it’s work, but mostly yes, it’s fun.  Of course it’s fun!  It makes your whole body feel good.

BD:   Are you optimistic about what you hear coming out of the throats of the next generation of singers?

JN:   Yes, very much.

BD:   Are you optimistic about music in general?

JN:   I don’t think music is going to die.  We have some very good young singers coming, even in this group [Music of the Baroque].  Young singers have to be sensible, and not be tempted into roles before their voices are ready.  They and their teachers can judge that, but if they get hold of, say, a good young tenor, if you’re running an opera house and you need good young tenors, you might want to put him in roles that he’s not ready for.  The singer himself has to have sense about that, and have sense to say no, not yet, and that’s hard to do.

BD:   Do singers generally have sense enough to say no?

JN:   A lot of them do, but some of them don’t.  Then they get into trouble, and the career ends in just a few years, and that’s not good.

BD:   Thank you for chatting with me.  I appreciate it on short notice, and after a concert.

JN:   Oh, thank you, it’s my pleasure.


© 1994 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in Chicago on March 16, 1992.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB in 1994.  This transcription was made in 2019, 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.

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.