Mezzo - Soprano Patricia Kern
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie
|Patricia Kern (born July 14, 1927)
is a British mezzo-soprano and voice teacher. She was born in Swansea, Wales.
From 1949 to 1952 she studied with Gwynn Parry Jones at the Guildhall School
of Music and Drama, London. She began her career with Opera for All (1952–5).
In 1959 she joined Sadler’s Wells, making her début in Rusalka. For ten seasons she was a member
of the company, her most notable achievement being her interpretations of
La Cenerentola, Rosina in The Barber of
Seville, Isolier in Le comte Ory
and Isabella in L'italiana in Algeri.
Her other roles included Iolanthe, Hänsel, Cherubino, Pippo in Rossini’s
La gazza ladra, and Josephine
in the première of Malcolm Williamson’s
The Violins of Saint-Jacques
(1966). She made her Covent Garden début in 1967 as Zerlina. Her American
début was at Washington, DC, in 1969 and in 1987 she sang Marcellina
Kern's stage personality was described as engaging and sympathetic. She made
several recordings, including Hansel and
Gretel, Merrie England of
Edward German, and Monteverdi's Madrigals
with (among others) Norma
Burrowes, Ryland Davies,
Stafford Dean, Anne
Lloyd, and Benjamin Luxon,
conducted by Raymond Leppard.
[Names which are links both in this box and below refer to my interviews
elsewhere on this website. BD]
Kern went on to teach Voice at the University of Toronto.
In the fall of 1987, Kern was in Chicago for Marcellina in the new production
of The Marriage of Figaro, conducted
by Sir Andrew Davis and
directed by Sir Peter Hall.
Also in the cast were Felicity
Lott, Maria Ewing, Frederica von Stade, Samuel Ramey, Ruggiero Raimondi, Arthur
Korn and Ugo Benelli.
It was a very busy time for her, but she found a few minutes for us to speak
in the lobby of her hotel . . . . . . . . .
Bruce Duffie: You
spent a number of years singing Rossini coloratura parts?
BD: Tell me the
secret of being a coloratura mezzo.
PK: Hard work,
nothing but hard work. It doesn’t come just like that. You have
the facility, maybe, but it has never been tried or tested before, so you
have to work at it like everything else. Then it seems to become a
BD: Is it fun hard
work, or is it just work hard work?
PK: I find anything to do with music eventually
is fun hard work. You’re leading somewhere that’s most enjoyable, to do something
that’s most enjoyable. I’ve always loved theater ever since I was tiny.
I was on the other side of theater... should we say I used to be in the English
Variety, on stage singing and dancing before this other happened. So
I wouldn’t say it is work hard work, but the outcome is great fun, really.
BD: What are the
basic similarities and differences between, as you say, the ‘other
side’ and this side? [Vis-à-vis the
recording shown at right, see my interview with Peter Glossop.]
PK: They all take
a great concentration and devotion, and both are a lot of fun. I love
to get fun out of everything, and once that’s aside then I can concentrate,
but I can still have fun. Both are a lot of hard work. There’s
no difference. The similarity is there with the hard work, and the
communication with your audience, with your colleagues, with everyone.
It’s just like a general waltz, and although you are one that has it, most
people have it, and it’s drawing that out and using that.
BD: Is the balance
between the artistic achievement and the entertainment value different from
the lighter entertainment, to the Rossini operas, to the heavier drama?
PK: You have a
different audience, so I would say it’s similar. You have to work just
as hard for one audience as you have to work for another audience.
I would say that the balance is fairly equal. I have a teenage daughter,
and occasionally she will say to me, “Would you like to come to such-and-such
a concert, Mom?” It’s a rock concert, naturally, so I go and I am amazed
at the effort that goes into putting on these concerts — not
only from the people involved, but the people behind the stage that makes
it run. It’s the same with us. The people behind have as much
— if not more — to do as we do in front.
We produce it in front, but if it doesn’t happen behind, nothing happens.
So I would say there’s an equal balance there.
BD: Should we try
to attract the same or similar kind of audience from the rock concert to
the opera house?
PK: Very often
you do. I’m only one person, but I enjoy rock, and I can appreciate
it as much as I can something like Mozart or Charpentier. They work
very hard and they seem to live a little harder than we do.
BD: What do you
expect of the audience that comes to the opera on any given night?
PK: Who knows?
It’s very difficult. We had one audience on Saturday night and it wasn’t
terribly responsive until the end. Now, The Marriage of Figaro is an opera which
practically feeds on what the audience response is. It’s nice to be
appreciated in between, while still for us we are being truthful up on stage.
So you can never tell how an audience is going to react. Some of them
concentrate so much that they don’t feel that they can disturb anything by
laughing or clapping. In some instances, that’s not bad. If they’re
going to get a joke, that’s fine. Obviously, there are always traditional
jokes in Figaro that people tend
to laugh at whether they’re laughable on stage or not. They remember
the situations or what they it should be, so they will laugh, which might
give you a false impression of what the audience really thinks. It’s
really difficult to predict how an audience is going to react. You
can’t tell; you just have got to work hard. The thing is that when
you don’t get that warmth coming over the footlights, you tend to work harder,
and therefore you maybe overdo something, which will kill it.
BD: You’ve done
a lot of opera in English.
BD: Do you feel
that the communication is closer when you’re speaking in the language of
PK: Again, it depends
on the audience. Some audiences are much more educated than others.
For instance, here in the Lyric, you have the sur-titles which obviously
helps the people in the audience a lot.
BD: Is there a
difference between singing in English, or singing in Italian with the sur-titles?
PK: You mean for
BD: Well, first
for the singer, and then for the reaction.
PK: For the singer, we have to understand every
word we’re talking about. Otherwise the communication goes out of the
window. The weight of the important or key word changes from each language.
The stress is in a different place. From the audience point of view,
they do enjoy watching the sur-titles, unless, of course, they understand
exactly what you’re talking about. They seem to enjoy seeing the sur-titles
up there. It isn’t a deterrent. I don’t think it’s a deterrent
at all if the translation is a good one.
BD: Do you feel
that the sur-titles are going to mean the death of opera in English?
PK: Oh, no.
They won’t have sur-titles then.
BD: How should
management decide whether to do The Marriage
of Figaro in English or in Italian with the sur-titles?
PK: I don’t know.
That’s up to management. I really don’t know how they should decide,
or what would make them decide. More often than not now, Figaro is done in Italian.
BD: I’m giving
you a vote. How would you vote?
PK: It’s very difficult
because they both roll off the tongue very easily. I like them in either
language. The trouble is to get a good English translation from the
Italian, a true English translation. In order to make it more feasible
for the audience to understand, very often slang is used, or some strange
turn of phrase is used instead of the true translation
of what’s going on.
BD: Is the true
translation, then, English-English, or American-English?
PK: Here, it’s
American-English. It tends to favor, naturally, the American side.
If we were to put an English-English phrasing up on there, people would wonder
what on earth is that? There would be question marks all over the place.
You have to provide your audience with something that they understand if
you’re going to use sur-titles. Where I live now, in Toronto, the Canadian
Opera Company was the first company that started these sur-titles, and even
they tend to favor what the audience is going to be able to deal with.
BD: How is the
audience different from Europe, to America, to Canada, if at all?
PK: That’s a hard
question. The star system is what you have to look at. I don’t
honestly believe too much in the star system because we are an ensemble up
there, and if you’re going to have ‘great’ stars, then
you’re going to have a separate entity on stage. You’ve only got to
look at Figaro; you’ve only got
to listen to the way we work together. We are a team. We’re all
‘stars’ in our own right, but
when we’re brought together, we are all one. If one person stuck out
as a prima donna, as a ‘star’, then for a piece like
this, which is an ensemble piece, I don’t think you’d have that close-knit
quality. Obviously, there are stars. People make them so, and
with certain people that ego tends to build, and then goes slightly overboard.
It’s a dangerous thing.
BD: Has your view
on this been colored at all by the fact that you sing a lot of ensemble operas,
rather than star-type operas?
PK: I have sung
a lot of star-type operas. I’ve done the title roles in a lot of pieces.
BD: But most seem
to be the Rossini comedies with more ensembles.
PK: They are, yes.
La Cenerentola and even The Barber are big ensemble operas, but
nevertheless one could come out as a star because you are capable of doing
that very, very difficult music. You’re singing four notes to most people’s
one! [Both laugh] So there’s that difficulty with it. I
don’t think of the star system when I perform, or when I’m with my colleagues.
I don’t think of it in that way. Whatever opera you do, you’re still
part of an ensemble, from the smallest part up. Operas should be cast
from the bottom up. You have strength at the bottom, therefore, the
top has to be good because we’re all there to make a point, to help to make
BD: What is the
statement of opera?
PK: To tell a true
story, if we can.
* * *
BD: How did you
go about selecting which roles you would sing and which roles you would pass
PK: Trial and error.
My voice is not a Wagnerian one. There are certain things I could do
on a smaller scale, but I’m a high, light-ish mezzo. My voice is very
light, but it’s on that plane. Therefore, to begin with my main singing
was done in oratorio and concert work, which I’ve done a great, great deal
of. I really was a contralto, but I found that when you’re an alto
you’re stuck with certain things. You’re also type cast, and I didn’t
like that. I thought maybe I’m being lazy, so I started to exercise
the voice a little more floridly, and the voice really started to travel
up very easily. As a result, most of my time was spent in the higher,
lighter mezzo range.
BD: Did you enjoy
PK: Oh yes, very
much. I have enjoyed everything, and I’m enjoying everything, really,
that I do. I love the theater; I love the stage. It’s what I’ve
known since I was five, so it’s in the blood. As I say, I sang and
danced from the age of five until about fourteen, and then I started to change
over onto the other side.
BD: You keep coming
back to this idea of one side or the other side. Is there a big gulf
in between, or is it really just a gradual change?
PK: There is, obviously,
a gulf. [Ponders a moment] Oh, I mustn’t say that because a lot
of opera singers are actually recording lighter stuff at the moment, but
not vice versa. Not many rock stars are into the other side.
I don’t think they’d perform the opera stage too much. [Both laugh]
BD: Let’s talk
about some of the roles you’ve sung. What recordings have you made?
PK: I’ve done Hansel and Gretel, Romeo and Juliet, and I’ve done a lot
of recordings with Sills. [The Sills sets include Maria Stuarda, Anna Bolena, Manon, Thaïs, and Lucia.] I loved, and still do love,
the Hansel and Gretel recording
because it sounds quite theatrical at times, and to get that on a recording
is special. It was good.
BD: That was with
the Sadler’s Wells Company?
PK: Yes, that’s
right. I enjoyed doing that very, very much, indeed. The Berlioz
is quite a different cup of tea because it is so symphonic.
BD: Let’s talk
a little bit about Hansel, then. Do you like playing a boy?
PK: I seem to have
done nothing but!
Oh, Cenerentola and Rosina are women.
PK: Yes, yes, but
those are only two, don’t forget. But I think I’ve done most of the
major boys’ roles that have been written — like Smeton,
Siebel, Cherubino. I spent years in trousers or britches to begin with
because I’m small. I’m small and quite nimble, and that has a lot to
say for it. But also, a lot of the male roles are written for mezzo
BD: Is there a
difference between playing a young boy and a teen-ager?
PK: By young boy,
what do you mean?
BD: Isn’t Hansel
considerably younger than Cherubino?
PK: Sure, and a
little more clumsy. Cherubino is not clumsy. The ardor and the
emotions are quite different at those two ages — in
a boy of eleven and a boy of, say, sixteen who is already into puberty and
is feeling different things toward women. When you’re eleven, it’s
a pain, really, to have sisters telling you to do, or the mum telling you
to do this or that, or all the elderly ladies telling you to do this or that.
There’s a difference in their understanding and there’s a difference in the
body. There’s a difference in the stance. It’s very interesting
to play these characters, these young boys and young men and how the emotions
develop. You need to remember what you mustn’t do when you’re eleven,
because young kids that age don’t use their hands the same way and they don’t
stand the same way.
BD: So, you have
to lose all of your experience?
PK: That’s right.
Absolutely. Watching youngsters is just wonderful. I just watch
them and see how they react to certain things and what they do when they
just stand. It’s very, very interesting.
BD: Did you gain
any insight in watching your own daughter grow up, or is the gulf between
the boy and the girl so completely different?
PK: With this one
it is different because she was never gangly, funnily enough. Boys
tend to be a bit gangly. I watched my own brother and his friends to
see how they reacted and how they behaved in certain company, and to see what
they did with their hands and their feet.
BD: Or what they
PK: Or what they
didn’t do, that’s right. It’s really very interesting. I have
a boyish streak in me, anyway. I am a bit of a tomboy... maybe not
quite as much now!
BD: Tell me a bit
about Hansel himself. Does he mature over the opera? Does he
gain a lot of insight or is he basically the same before and after?
PK: No, I think
there’s just a situation that happens. He might have learned not to
be quite as adventurous, or maybe not quite as naughty, but I’m sure if it
were a real story, in a few weeks he’d go back to doing the same thing again.
It’s like every child. You have to treat it very really.
BD: So it’s just
a temporal change then?
PK: Yes, absolutely,
but exciting and interesting to work at.
BD: In any of these
operas, did you go from singing to speaking?
PK: Yes, Die Fledermaus.
BD: What are the
special problems of going from singing an aria to then speaking dialogue?
PK: To try to be
a speaker. Generally singers make the transition more difficult than
it is. You try to emulate what you do when you sing, whereas if the
singing voice is free, why should it be any different when you speak?
There should be no great difference, or driving sound from the throat, or
anything like that in order to be heard. [Demonstrates a driving sound]
We hear that very often and now it always gives me a throat ache when I listen
to it. But generally most singers learn how to do it.
BD: Do you sing
differently on microphone than you do in the house?
PK: You mean, if
I were doing a broadcast?
BD: No, for a recording.
PK: For a recording?
No. Not at all. Maybe a few less popping of Ps, and a few less
crossing of Ts because they’re apt to burst and catch into the microphone.
But otherwise, how can we perform? On recording it has to be a performance,
as if you were singing truthfully in a hall.
BD: Do you change
your technique at all from a small hall to a large hall?
BD: Not a bit?
PK: Not really,
no. You judge your distance. You can judge a distance depending
on the acoustics of the hall, too, but it’s almost impossible to withhold
emotion — which is what you are expressing all the
time, because the spoken word comes first. That came before the music,
so whatever you have on your face or in your heart comes out of your mouth.
It’s very difficult to put a lid on that and make it smaller if the emotion
is big. This doesn’t mean to say that I have to sing loudly every time
I want to make a big point. Very often you can make a big point by
singing pianissimo. You can,
and then people hone in and think, “By golly!” That even has more effect
* * *
BD: Do you sing
much contemporary opera?
PK: No. No.
BD: By choice?
PK: Possibly so.
I don’t think I would be able to handle it from a harmonics point of view
very well. I don’t sing much modern opera. Stravinsky is about
as far as I go.
BD: Did you not
sing some Malcolm Williamson?
PK: Yes, but I
wouldn’t call that modern because his opera is very tuneful. It has
a lot of tunes that one can pick up.
BD: Would you encourage
new composers, then, to write tuneful operas?
PK: Let’s face
it, whoever the singer is loves to sing a line of tune. We love to.
There are some of the younger people coming up who really love to sing the
avant-garde stuff, where they write, “Do not sing this in tune.” “Sing
this out of tune.”
BD: What advice
do you have for young singers?
PK: Now, if you
had four days, I would be to discuss it... [Both laugh] This
is very difficult because I do a lot of teaching. What advice have
I got? Well, they all work hard. Sometimes they overwork.
I advise them not to be impatient, which I find most young singers are.
They sing, and they want a ready result the next hour, or they want to be
doing something the next week. It takes a little longer than that when
BD: [With a sly
nudge] Two weeks?
You have to find the truth within yourself. You wear your heart on
your sleeve when you’re out there. It’s like bleeding, it really is.
You show your inner self to your audience through whatever character you
are portraying. If you’re singing the Messiah, it’s the same thing.
BD: You say you
do a lot of teaching. Are you pleased with the voices that you hear
coming along these days?
Yes, the majority, but I can’t see enough work for all the voices that are
BD: So we have
too many budding young careers?
PK: Right now,
yes. The arts are always the last to have money, so something has to
stand by the wayside, and that’s going to be some of those young singers
— unless they have incentive and the wherewithal to keep going.
It’s a hard line to follow, it really is. I can’t call it a rat race,
because it’s not quite that, but it’s almost that, and a lot of it can be
heartbreaking. Very often there are more disappointments when you’re
young than there are successes. So you have to learn how to deal with
them, and each person will deal with them quite differently than the next
BD: Are you optimistic
about the future of opera?
PK: I’m always
optimistic about opera. Oh, yes. I can’t see that ever sort of
dying. No. There are too many people, and too many good young
people going into it. There isn’t enough of it going on all over.
There’s a lot of it going on and there still isn’t enough. I hear you
have a very good young people’s ensemble attached to the opera company, and
they take part in the season as well. [This is the Lyric Opera Center
for American Artists, now called the Ryan Center.] It would be good
if more opera companies did that, but not only in bigger houses like this,
in the small houses. They could have, say, two ensembles, but then
you’re into money. If you have two ensembles, you could use one to
train singers for smaller theaters. Not everybody has a big voice to
fill a big theater, but it’s a very interesting idea.
I’m glad that you’re singing Marcellina for us here. Do you enjoy that
kind of role?
PK: Oh, yes!
She’s a wonderful lady, a wonderful character, especially in this production.
She really is. I just love theater, and you have to treat it as such.
The spoken word, all that came before, so you think of a lot of it as a play,
which this was, of course.
BD: Then let me
ask the ‘Capriccio’ question.
Where is the balance between the music and the drama in opera?
PK: They are knit
because the composer works with the script, with the libretto, and makes
a drama out of that through his music. So they are well married, in
fact. There should be no separation. That’s me talking.
Lots of other people might have different ideas.
What I’m looking for is your opinion.
That’s how I’ve always performed, and it’s stood me in good stead.
It’s interesting to find out what other people’s opinions about that are,
but I think that the drama and music are knit. Everything is written
to be together.
BD: Are you coming
back to Chicago?
PK: I have no idea.
I hope so. It’s a lovely city. It really is a lovely city; structurally
and physically it’s a beautiful city. I love the buildings. The
architecture is very interesting and the people are very nice. It’s
an exciting city.
BD: Thank you for spending
a little time with me this afternoon.
PK: Oh, it’s been
© 1987 Bruce Duffie
This conversation was recorded in her hotel in Chicago on November
5, 1987. Portions were broadcast on WNIB in 1992 and 1997. This
transcription was made in 2015, and posted on this website at that time.
To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed
and posted on this website, click here.
winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with
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.
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.