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
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 in Chicago.
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 Howells,
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 . . . . . . . . .
spent a number of years singing Rossini coloratura parts?
BD: Tell me
the secret of being a coloratura mezzo.
work, nothing but hard work. It doesn’t come just like
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 natural extension.
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,
BD: What are
similarities and differences between, as you say, the ‘other
PK: They all
take a great concentration and
devotion, and both are a lot of fun. I love to get fun out of
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
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
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?
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?
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
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.
done a lot of opera in
BD: Do you
feel that the communication is closer when
you’re speaking in the language of the audience?
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
there a difference between singing in English, or singing in Italian
with the sur-titles?
PK: You mean
for the singer?
first for the singer, and then for the
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,
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?
no. They won’t have sur-titles
should management decide whether
to do The Marriage of Figaro
in English or in Italian with
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.
giving you a vote. How would you
PK: It’s very
difficult because they both roll
off the tongue very easily. I like them in either language.
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
phrase is used instead of the true translation
of what’s going on.
BD: Is the
true translation, then, English-English, or American-English?
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
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
PK: I have
sung a lot of
star-type operas. I’ve done the title roles in a lot of
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
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 a statement.
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 by?
PK: Trial and
error. My voice is not a
Wagnerian one. There are certain things I could do on a smaller
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
BD: Did you
enjoy those parts?
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]
talk about some of the roles you’ve sung. What recordings have
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,
get that on a recording is special. It
BD: That was
with the Sadler’s Wells Company?
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.
talk a little bit about Hansel, then. Do you
like playing a boy?
PK: I seem to
have done nothing but!
[Laughs] Oh, Cenerentola and Rosina are
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?
Hansel considerably younger than
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
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
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?
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
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
they did with their hands and their feet.
BD: Or what
they didn’t do!
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?
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
difference, or driving sound from the throat, or anything like that in
order to be heard. [Demonstrates a driving sound] We hear
very often and now it always gives me a
throat ache when I listen to it. But generally most singers learn
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
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?
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 sometimes.
BD: Do you
sing much contemporary opera?
PK: No. No.
BD: By choice?
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
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.”
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 you’re
BD: [With a
sly nudge] Two weeks?
[Laughs] 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. Yes, the majority, but I can’t see
enough work for all the voices that are coming up.
BD: So we
have too many budding young careers?
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 person.
BD: Are you
optimistic about the future of opera?
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
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?
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
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.
[Reassuringly] What I’m looking for is your opinion.
Yes. 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
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 my pleasure.
© 1987 Bruce Duffie
This conversation was recorded in her hotel in Chicago on
November 5, 1987. Portions were broadcast on WNIB in 1992 and
This transcription was made in 2015, and posted on this
at that time.
To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been
transcribed and posted on this website, click here.
Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975
its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001. His
interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since
and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well
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
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.