Soprano  Sunny  Joy  Langton

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


A winner of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, Sunny Joy Langton has enjoyed an international career. Her other honors include a National Opera Institute Career Grant, and Rockefeller Foundation and Affiliate Artists Grants.

Langton has performed with the Lyric Opera of Chicago and the Cologne, Düsseldorf, Hamburg, Monte Carlo, Spoleto, Santa Fe, Miami, St. Louis, New Orleans, and San Diego Operas. Her solo engagements include concerts with the Rotterdam and Oslo Philharmonics, the Concertgebouw Orchestra, and German and Dutch radio orchestras.

Langton has made more than 100 appearances on PBS television and National Public Radio, and can be heard on the Koch International Records label.

Her husband, bass Bruce Hall, has appeared with her in performance and on recordings (as shown below).

We met in October of 1987, during the run of L
italiana in Algeri, and had a delightful conversation.  Portions were used on WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago, and now I am pleased to present the entire chat.

Bruce Duffie:   You must have the happiest name in show business
Sunny Joy!

Sunny Joy Langton:   [Laughs]  Maybe not in show business, but definitely in opera.  I was always told that I should change my name because an opera singer should present a more dignified image than that name suggests.

BD:   I take it you rejected that argument?
SJL:   I sure did.  First of all, everybody remembers my name, and everybody has something to say about it.  In marketing, I’m sure they would say whatever your product, make sure it’s a name that will stick with people.  When I was growing up, I hated my name because it wasn’t like anybody else’s.  But now that I’m an adult, it’s nice to have a name which isn’t like anybody else’s.  It suits me, and it suits the characters I portray on stage.  If I were going around the world singing Brünnhilde, I might think about changing my name, but for the kind the characters I play, it’s perfect.  I always play maids, or girls, or little boys, and that works.  Plus, it’s very American, and having done a lot of performing overseas, it’s nice that they have something that gives them pause, and makes them stop and say, “Gosh!  What an American name!”  I like that.

BD:   You mentioned marketing.  Do you feel that opera singers are commodities?

SJL:   [Thinks a moment]  In a broad sense yes, because we’re selling a product.  I don’t look at it that way personally as far as an approach to what I do, but in the general overall classification, just as you buy the sets and you buy the costumes, you buy the singers
or you hire the singersand in that sense we are marketing our capabilities.  I don’t do it for nothing!  The designers, stage directors, and the conductors are all remunerated for what they do, so it’s like buying a product.  That tends to cheapen it, or take it to it’s the lowest common denominator, but the arts are a business, especially opera.  It has to be a business.  If it isn’t run that way you don’t last very long, because it’s so competitive, as are any of the arts.  They do call it Show Business.  People would consider it a more cultured end of the spectrum, but it’s still Show Business.

BD:   Where is the artistic end of it?

SJL:   The artistic end is in the creation of music.  I’m not creating the music, but I’m certainly creating my interpretation of it.

BD:   Are you not re-creating the music?

SJL:   Re-creating, except if you do a world premiere.  But you would still say re-creating from the standpoint that the way you sing it is never the way it’s been sung before, or will ever be sung that way again.  That’s the artistic end of it, particularly with live performances.  But even if you have a recording, it was live at one time, so it’s a recording of something that was live.  At that moment you are living and giving life to that music, that character, that town, or that world which you’re showing people, either visually and orally, or just orally like on records.

BD:   Do you sing primarily opera, or primarily concerts, and how do you divide your career?

SJL:   I’ve done primarily opera, but I’ve also done a lot of concerts and oratorio work, or singing arias with orchestras.  I’ve also done recitals, but I would say the bulk of it is operatic.

BD:   Is that the way you wanted it to be?

SJL:   I don’t know that I really have said or set myself up to say, “This is how it’s going to be!”  It’s just how it’s been, but that isn’t to say that I’ve taken every job that was ever offered.  It’s difficult, particularly in America, to create an audience for recitals.  People tend not to come to them on a large scale like they would come to the opera.  In a symphonic situation, there are other soloists besides the singers that are employed by orchestras, and if it
s a great orchestra, people want to come just to hear the orchestra itself.  So, as an opera singer, or a classical music singer, most of my work, and most of the work that exists for my type of singing, is in the operatic world.

BD:   What is your type of singing?

SJL:   Generally, the kind of music I sing tends to be what they call ‘longhair music’, more in the classical vein.  [Stops to re-think the answer]  That is such a terrible way of putting it.  It
s not pop, not rock ‘n’ roll, and not show tunes.

The expression longhair music dates from LONG before rock music was even close to being a thing. It references particularly guys like Franz Liszt and Paganini, who were portrayed wearing their hair long. In the 1920s the term came to be applied to people who were generally intellectuals and aesthetes, like classical music enthusiasts, who didn’t have to conform to society’s views of hair length on men.  

[One of many responses to the question found on the internet.]  

BD:   It suits your voice and your temperament?

SJL:   Sometimes.  That’s a good question.  I like music which is operatic or classical.  I also like rock ‘n’ roll and pop music.  I like show tunes, and I like to sing them.  My voice is not suited to do rock ‘n’ roll, but when I do recitals I like to include certain kinds of popular tunes.  I’m a soprano, and when you have that high a voice, you just can’t easily fit into what one imagines, or what one pictures as a popular singer.  You need a little more of the chest sound, although I’ve done plenty of operatic roles that have required a robust sound.  But it’s high.
BD:   To fill a place as big as the Civic Opera House (home of Lyric Opera of Chicago), you’ve got to sing loud.

SJL:   Yes, but it’s not a question of loudness.  It’s a question of quality in the sense of what it sounds like, not quality in the sense of better than anybody else.

BD:   Do you like singing?

SJL:   I love singing – I love it!  It’s one of my favorite things to do.  There’s nothing that compares with the feeling of being on stage, and knowing that what you’re doing not only makes you happy, but makes other people happy.  I love just the feeling of singing.  It feels good.  It’s a fun thing to be able to do.  To open your mouth and have a pretty sound come out is great.  Singing itself is really fun, but the career aspect of it sometimes has its frustrations, as I suppose any profession does.  There are disappointments, but then those are balanced out, or even counter-balanced, by such enormous high points that you forget them.  The hardest thing for me, being an active performer, is that I have a family, and having to leave them and spend weeks at a time away from them.

BD:   I would think that would be extremely difficult.

SJL:   It’s very difficult.  It’s hard on them, although they adapt.  They’re very good children, and my husband is a very understanding man.  It’s also hard on me.  I miss them, and it’s funny when I
m home to be some place where I’m accustomed to be, being a parent, and being part of a marriage.  When I’m singing, I’m there to rehearse and to perform, but I don’t have any housework to do.  I don’t have any kids to watch.  I don’t have to do any shopping.  It’s not hard to cook for one person, but it’s not fun.

BD:   Then do you make sure that your manager knows that you should not have lots of engagements back-to-back-to-back?

SJL:   Yes, much to his frustration.  [Both laugh]  I haven’t always been a parent.  My children are very young, but when they came along, I realized that it was necessary to spend a little more time at home.  So, I try to have at least two months in between every engagement.  Sometimes it works out that way and sometimes it doesn’t, because there are some offers you get that you just can’t turn down.  This is not in the same way that you think you’ve just got to be all over the world singing, but if the role is such a good one, or the opera company is one you want to sing with, or the city is one you want to see.  There are just elements that you just feel like you can’t say no.

BD:   Then how do you decide which roles you will accept, and which roles you will decline?

SJL:   First and foremost, if the role is suited to my voice.  My manager is wonderful because he won’t accept anything for me without talking with me first, and telling me what the offer is, and saying to go look at it and decide.  Once that’s determined, then you weigh all the other factors.  For instance, if it’s a role that you’re trying for the first time, and it’s one that is perhaps more difficult than anything you’ve undertaken before, do you want to sing this in a high visibility area?  I have been offered the possibility to sing Susanna in The Marriage of Figaro, and in fact I did sing it for the first time last year in Tulsa.  That worked out very well because, although Tulsa is a wonderful company, it’s not like singing it in Chicago, or New York City where you get more national attention.  It was a good place to sing it for the first time, whereas if I was offered a role that I had done many, many times, like Blonde in The Abduction from the Seraglio, I would feel prepared to sing that anywhere, because I’ve performed it a great deal.  You also have to decide if it’s a good idea to sing a certain role after you’ve been singing a series of other roles.  If it’s too diverse, how much time do you have in between?  How much rehearsal time will you be given?  If that’s the case and it will work out, you go.  If it happens that you were singing one role that was not very high, and then you go to sing another role that’s very high, if you’ve not enough time in between, and you have only five days of rehearsal, that’s no condition under which to work.  I wouldn’t say this advice is for everybody, it’s just for myself.  That’s my thinking process.  It is not something that’s black and white when it comes to someone calling you up and asking if you can do this or this or this.  There are a lot of questions that have to be asked.   Then, of course, when you get asked back there are many known factors.  Here in Chicago, I know the working conditions are good.  I know that there is plenty of rehearsal time, and they in turn know my voice, and my capabilities well enough that they always offer me something that’s suited to me.  So, whenever my manager gets a call from Chicago, we just automatically accept it.  [Laughs]

BD:   That must be a nice feeling.

SJL:   It’s a very nice feeling.  It’s a nice company to work for.

Sunny Joy Langton at Lyric Opera of Chicago

1981  Ariadne auf Naxos (Naiad) - with Meier/Rysanek, Johns, Welting, Schmidt/Minton, Nolen, Sharon Graham, Harman-Gulick,
                                                              Negrini, Gordon; Janowski, Neugebauer, Messel, Schuler

1982 [Spring]  Die Fledermaus (Adele) - with Brown, DiPaolo, André Jobin, Nolen, Malas; Schaenen, Mansouri, O'Hearn, Tallchief

1984  Arabella (Fiakermilli) - with TeKanawa, Wixell, Daniels, Dunn, Kraft, Greer, Kunde, Korn; Pritchard, Decker

1985-86  La Rondine (Lisette) - with Cotrubas, Kunde, Redmon, Stone, Doss, Kaasch; Bartoletti, Chazalettes, Santicchi

1987-88  L'italiana in Algeri (Elvira) - with Baltsa, Blake, Alaimo, Nolen, Sharon Graham; Ferro, Ponnelle

1995-96  Ghosts of Versailles [Corigliano] (Florestine) - with McNair, Greenawald, Hagegård, Croft, Wendy White, Clark,
                                                                                           Della Jones; Slatkin, Graham, Conklin, Schuler, Tallchief, Dufford

1996-97  Un Re in Ascolto [Berio] (Soprano II) - with Lafont, Woods, Harries, Desderi, Begley; D.R. Davies, Vick, Dyer

==  Names which are links in this box and below refer to my interviews elsewhere on my website.  

BD:   Does your technical approach to singing change from house to house, if it’s a big house or a small house?

SJL:   No!  Absolutely not.  It’s a good question because you walk onto the stage in Chicago, and you can be overwhelmed just by the distance between the stage and the conductor.  But then you look out into the house and think you’ll never fill that!  For me, having a lighter voice, there would be a danger of wanting to make my voice bigger, so that I would at least think that it was filling the hall.  For one thing, that’s bad for your voice, and for another thing, the louder you sound to yourself, the less likely it is that the audience is able to hear you.  [Laughs]  So, it’s better just to use the same technique.  I will say from the standpoint of singing piano or forte, that piano in this house is probably a little louder than in a smaller house.  There are some houses where you can practically whisper and be heard, whereas a forte in this house might be too loud in another house.  Most of the time you’re singing with an orchestra that is of the same or comparable size, so basically you don’t sing to fill the house.  You sing to suit the role, and to be heard over the orchestra.  It must be very frustrating to be an orchestra member in an opera orchestra because they’re always being told to play quietly all the time.  Having gone to a university and spent a lot of money learning to make my voice big, and round, and full, the musicians in the pit probably also spent a lot of years and a lot of money making their sound big, and round and full!  [Laughs]  So, when they’re told to be quiet, it can’t be very nice.  But you don’t sing to fill the house, and the acoustics are very good here.  Most larger houses do have very good acoustics.  You use the voice that you have, and if you have been properly cast in a role, it shouldn’t make any difference how loud you’re singing, or how big your voice is.  You will be heard.

*     *     *     *     *
BD:   You mentioned being properly cast.  Your voice dictates which kinds of characters you will sing.  Do you like those kinds of characters?

SJL:   Yes, very much, although when I’m around forty or so, I’m going to have to reconsider playing fifteen-year-old girls, or fifteen-year-old boys.  That might be a little hard for people to believe.  I’m hoping with age and with experience, to be able to move into roles that are more suited to an older performer.  [Mildly shocked]  Forty certainly isn’t old, but it isn’t always believable to have somebody that is more mature singing parts that are meant to portray someone who’s in their teens.  I’m thirty-three, which is a fine age to be doing all these ‘soubrette’ roles.  I was in Germany for four years, and they’re very much into classifying people’s voices.

BD:   Yes, putting them into the right Fach.

SJL:   Yes, exactly, and my Fach was soubrette.  I did all of the soubrette parts one can imagine, and even some I didn’t know about.  So, it meant that I spent a lot of time with a feather duster in my hand, or carrying flowers around, or dressed as a page boy of some kind or another.  But it is great fun.  It’s like your second childhood!  [Both laugh]  The soubrette character tends to be the comic relief, and has generally the lighter, happier music to sing.  That’s why, when you asked me about my name, I think it is perfectly suited to those kinds of characters.  They’re meant to be a breath of sunshine when they come on stage.  They generally don’t carry the plot forward, but they’re the relief from all the tension that goes on in the dramatic pieces.  In the comedies, however, they tend to be very pivotal characters.  But in the more dramatic pieces, they’re the ones for people to go, “Ahhh!  Thank goodness she’s here!”  [Both laugh]

BD:   What’s the role you’ve done the most?

SJL:   [Thinks a moment]  Either Adele in Die Fledermaus, or Blonde in The Abduction from the Seraglio.  When I was in Germany, I had a contract at an opera house in Cologne, and they do a lot of Mozart.  Abduction, or Die Entführung as they call it, was a very popular piece.

BD:   Did you have any trouble with the spoken German dialogue?

SJL:   My first year, yes, but that was … let’s see.  My first role year I did there was in French (Sophie in Werther), but then the next role I did was Blonde.  I had worked very hard on the dialogue but I had a terrible accent, and they forgave me for that because they could tell I was trying.  The German audiences are very, very lovely, and they feel if you’re at least trying, and you’re giving it your best shot, they’re very sympathetic.  But by the twenty-second or twenty-third performance, it was rolling along quite smoothly.  I did another role right after that, Ännchen in Die Freischütz, which is not performed at all in this country.  It’s a marvelous piece, and it is probably the most German of the German operas, and had even more dialogue.  That was the third thing I did over there, so it was really trial by fire.  It was another one I did several performances of, and right after that I did Adele.

BD:   More dialogue!

SJL:   More dialogue, yes, although they were very nice to me.  They cut a lot of my dialogue.  By then it was good, so I don’t know why they felt they had to cut it.  Maybe they were giving me a break.  But those were challenges, and, as I say, the audiences were very forgiving and very sympathetic, and when there was improvement I was informed about it.  That was very nice.

BD:   Tell me a little bit about Sophie.  What is she like?

SJL:   Sophie is innocence, youth, and purity.  In all ways she wants to be like Charlotte when she grows up.  She adores her sister, and she loves her family.

BD:   How old is Sophie?

SJL:   She’s around fourteen or fifteen, and she just loves everything.  It’s that age at which you’re in love all the time, and everything around you reminds you of being in love.  It’s not necessarily that you have an object for that emotion, but it’s quite obvious she’s got a crush on Werther.  She takes it very seriously, and is very hurt at his rejection.  But life goes on, and with all of this there’s innocence, and there’s youth, and romanticism, and a sensitivity about her that makes her aware that Charlotte needs to be alone at certain times.  She is going through something, and maybe Sophie even realizes what it is.  But to me she is a classic soubrette character.  When she comes on stage, all the lights should be yellow because she’s so bright.  She’s sunshine, and all her music is happy... and in that opera, particularly, which is very, very wrought with tension and tragedy, you must be the relief.  With the exception of the children in the first act, and the father, and then the two drinking buddies of the father...

BD:   ...Johann and Schmidt...

SJL:   ...she’s the only release from that Sturm und Drang which is going on all the time.  Then, of course, there’s the great irony in the end when Werther is dying.  She comes in and starts singing about the joy of Christmas.  Jesus is born, and there Werther is dying, and it’s a great juxtaposition of the two.  Sophie represents life and youth, and everything to look forward to, and Werther feels he has nothing to live for.

BD:   Is that a role you’d like to sing again?

SJL:   Oh yes!  Actually, I’ve sung quite a few performances of that role.

BD:   Were you in the production with Kathleen Kuhlmann?

SJL:   Yes.

BD:   Who was the tenor?

SJL:   There were two of them.  The first one was Alberto Cupido, who was wonderful, and Luis Lima.  He was also wonderful.  When I sang it with Luis I was about seven months pregnant with my first baby, so that was interesting.  There are times when you have to expand the imagination of an audience.  They’re asked to forgive a great deal, like no profiles!  [Both laugh]

BD:   That’s right... Sophie’s not the kind of girl who would be messing around.

SJL:   No, no, no, no, not at all.

BD:   Even though Werther was not available, could he have had a moment of weakness with Sophie?

SJL:   [Matter-of-factly]  No.

BD:   Are you sure?
SJL:   No, I’m positive.  In my view of what Werther is like, his weakness is his obsession with Charlotte.  Had he, in fact, had a moment of weakness with Sophie, it might have saved his life.  Not that Sophie was a great savior or anything, but it would show that he could think about something else.  But the fact that he’s so obsessed with Charlotte, and can’t think of anything elsethat he either has to have her or dieis why he dies, because she is, above all things, a virtuous woman.

BD:   If Werther could have had a moment of weakness with Sophie, and perhaps gotten her pregnant, would Sophie have turned him down?

SJL:   That’s a good question.  I would say she would have turned him down because of her upbringing.  I’m sure of that.  There are plenty of characters I’ve played that could have been pregnant...

BD:   Blonde, for one?

SJL:   Blonde definitely!  Despina’s another one.  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at left, during our chit-chat as we were setting up to record, she mentioned that she was a Christian Scientist, as was Ardis Krainik, the General Director of Lyric Opera.]

BD:   [In addition to the radio work, I also gave some of my interviews to the Massenet Society for publication in their semi-annual newsletter.]  Have you sung any other French roles?

SJL:   I just did Olympia in The Tales of Hoffmann, and she couldn’t be pregnant!  [Laughs]

BD:   Maybe she could have a little baby robot...

SJL:   Right, exactly.  [Both laugh]

BD:   Can you get your whole mindset to being a mechanical object rather than a human being?

SJL:   I did, and it was great fun.  What was hardest about it was that I was able to realize all the bad habits I have as a singer.  Often as you sing, your hands just go up, like when I’m talking now I use my hands a lot.  You make gestures that don’t mean anything.  I’m fascinated by linguistics, and the development of language, and I read somewhere that the part of the brain that controls your hands is the same area that controls your speech.  That’s why a lot of people use their hands.  Mine must be juxtaposed, because I use my hands a great deal when I talk.

BD:   For most roles that should be a good thing.

SJL:   Yes it is, provided you just don’t have your hands all over the place.  Then it’s a movement that can enhance what you’re singing about.  When I was singing Olympia, her movements had to be very controlled, and very angular, and timed to the music.  I found how difficult that was, and how my tendency was to be more freestyle in my movements.  But there, everything, had to be very controlled.  When I was holding my hands up like a robot my thumbs went up, and the director said not to do that.  It didn’t look appropriate.  So they had to tape my thumbs down until I got used to keeping them down.  [Laughs]  There were a lot of things like that.  It’s like rubbing your stomach and patting your head to sing and move in a certain way.  If a director says to sing this line and walk over there, you time it to your own body rhythms.

BD:   So it’s a free-flow?

SJL:   Yes, but when you have to take a step on a certain note, it gave me a tremendous amount of respect for anyone who is a dancer-singer.  For me, it’s like playing the piano and singing at the same time.  I cannot do both at the same time.  I could never just practice the movements.  I had to practice the movements with the music and with my singing, because singing is something for which you use muscles, and when you’re moving you use muscles.  So, I had to get them all working together in here [points to her head] at the same time.  I was able to do it, but it was really hard.  I don’t know how a soprano can go from singing Olympia to singing Giulietta to singing Antonia because they’re so diverse, not only vocally, and maybe even especially vocally, but as characters.

BD:   Have you done any other Massenet besides Sophie?

SJL:   I’ve sung parts of Manon.

BD:   Is that role for you eventually?

SJL:   I think so.  That’s one of the ones I think about when I get beyond my capacity to play the fifteen years olds.  That’s one that I should sing in a less-visible house before I sing her in a bigger house, because it’s very lyric, it’s very intense, and it’s long.  It takes a great deal of pacing.

BD:   Because you think it’s on the horizon, do you purposely learn the part a little bit at a time, and maybe coach beyond the parts you’ve sung?

SJL:   Yes, absolutely.  Another French opera I’ve done is Carmen.  I’ve done Frasquita, but that in itself actually is a great deal of work.  The production I was in was by Jean-Pierre Ponnelle, and he believed very strongly that it was an ensemble piece, and every character in it was very important.  Consequently, I was on stage almost the whole night.  When I didn’t sing, Mr. Ponnelle’s concept was as much an acting role as it was a singing role.

BD:   Was he right?

SJL:   Yes, absolutely.  I had so much fun with it, and I got some of the best reviews of my life.  It
s hard to imagine, but that was the impact the production had on people watching it, that it was in fact an ensemble piece, and the ensemble was as important as the two central characters, because the ensemble affected the way they were.  I have since learned Michaëla’s aria because its another role I could move into some day.  As for other Massenet, there aren’t that many which are performed with any frequency.  I was asked to do the Fairy Godmother in Cendrillon, but it conflicted with another contract I already had.  It’s a charming piece.  It is wonderful.  I have seen it, but I’ve never performed it.  The music is absolutely breath-taking.  In some ways, it is prettier than Werther because of its almost ethereal quality.  The production I saw was very pretty.  It was very much like a fairy-tale.  That was in Cologne, which is the production they had done in Brussels.  It’s just beautiful, with all those gorgeous pastel colors, and the lighting was such that everything looked a little misty.  I have such a wonderful memory of that production, and everything being so beautiful in it, that it enhanced everything for me. 

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Do you like singing Rossini with all the coloratura?

SJL:   Oh, very much.

BD:   They always say Mozart is cleansing for the voice.  Is the Rossini coloratura cleansing in the same way?

SJL:   I could never compare Rossini and Mozart.  They’re nothing alike.  I find all of Rossini’s music full of humor and bubbliness.  I love to sing Rossini because it makes me happy.  It’s just got this warmth about it.  Mozart’s music also has warmth about it, but they’re different.  It’s like comparing apples and oranges.  Regarding cleansing, that’s an interesting thing.  Rossini is cleansing in the sense that it requires a great deal of accuracy in terms of pitch.  Because there are so many notes, you have to be very accurate.  They’re both concentrated.  If the truth be told, I prefer Mozart.  For me, it has a little more to it than Rossini, but there are some arias in The Italian Girl in Algiers that are just beautiful.  The tenor has some gorgeous things, but Rossini’s music is the kind that you go out of the theater singing.  This is true of Mozart’s as well to a certain extent, but it makes you think a little more.  As a singer, I find Mozart the most satisfying to sing of all the composers I’ve sung.  There’s so much in a phrase, and yet it’s so simple. 
BD:   Have you read many books and articles on either Mozart or Rossini?

SJL:   When I was in college we were never made to read beyond the textbooks for the courses, and I didn’t do any graduate work.  I just did my undergraduate work at Indiana University, where I studied with Eileen Farrell.  She was a great lady, but we had a lot of fun.  I’m ashamed to say I have lost touch with her.  I’m not very good keeping in touch with people, but Eileen left Indiana University about two years after I graduated.  She was not one for all the paperwork involved in being a college professor.

langton BD:   She was just an artist.

SJL:   That’s right, and a lot of fun.

BD:   Is there a secret to singing Mozart?

SJL:   I don’t think there’s any secret.  First of all you have to have a voice that’s suited to it.  I really do believe there are certain kinds of voices that either by virtue of their size or the color are not as suitable.  I won’t say they can’t sing it.  All good singers can sing anything they want to, but there are certain voices that you would rather hear sing Mozart than others.  If there is a secret to singing Mozart, it is just to sing it.  Because of the purity and the simplicity, and yet the great profundity of the music, there is a tendency to want to manipulate it, and if you do that it’s like putting too much sugar on an already sugary dessert.  It ruins it.  It destroys it because everything in terms of intent and meaning is already in his music.  It’s very full.  A singer has to approach it from the meaning that it takes on for each singer personally, but mostly what is needed is just to sing it.  It’s music that cries out for caressing, and real singing.  There’s such passion in it.  Because of the time period in which he wrote, the general public seems to think of dainty powdered wigs, and the delicate china, and lace hankies.  His music is anything but delicate.  It’s real.  It’s alive, and the people he wrote about are full of passion.  His music cries out for real singing.  I don’t know if I answered your question, but technically there’s no trick to singing Mozart.  Whatever your technique is, that’s what you use to sing anything.  Even if you sing a pop tune, you use the same technique as you would to sing a Mozart aria.  They’re basically all the same.  It’s just terminology which may change.  It’s how you produce your voice, and you don’t change it.  You change style, but style and technique are two different things.

BD:   You’ve sung Blonde.  Have you sung Zerlina?

SJL:   Yes, and Despina, and Susanna.  I have sung the Queen of the Night in the past, although I don’t do it any more.  [Photo at left was taken at the time of her performances of the Queen of the Night in Houston.]

BD:   Why did you abandon her?

SJL:   It’s too hard and too high!  [Both laugh]  I sang it one time, and it was a time in my life where it was a challenge and an adventure.  I went out and sang it, and it was fun, but repeating it after that was no longer a challenge.  It was having to prove that I could sing it.  People claim they can sing this role, so let’s see if she can!  Let’s see if she really has those high Fs.  But there are so many other things to sing where you have to be put on the grill like that, although I must say it was a very satisfying feeling to be able to sing it.  But it’s hard, and it takes such a special voice
one that really has a lot of steel and a lot of size to it.  My voice is different than that.  It’s a more lyrical soubrette sound, and Queen of the Night is anything but a soubrette role.  [More laughter]

BD:   Tell me about Zerlina.  Is she a strong woman?

SJL:   Oh, very!

BD:   Is she a woman of the 1980s?

SJL:   I suppose.  Do you mean in the sense that she’s a liberated woman?  I think she’s very smart.

BD:   Savvy?

SJL:   Yes!  I don’t think for a minute that she is surprised at what Don Giovanni does to her.  She’s lived in a small village in the country all her life, and probably has grown up with Masetto.  I’m sure she loves him, and wants to marry him, and spend her life with him.  But this incredibly handsome and sexy man comes into her village, and he is obviously from a very cosmopolitan background.  She’s completely swept off her feet.  It doesn’t have to do with the fact that she doesn’t know what he’s going to do.  She knows exactly what he’s going to do.

BD:   Do they actually get together, or this is another one of Giovanni’s failures?

SJL:   [Sighs]  I don’t know.  Part of me says they do, and part of me says they don’t.  The part of me that says they do thinks that Zerlina would want that, because she’s very passionate and very sensual.  But the part of me that says they don’t says that she loves Masetto and wants to spend her life with him.  He’s not the most exciting man in the world, but he’s fun, and he
ll take good care of her.  He adores her.  So, when I was performing that role, that was something I never really decided on.  Also, judging by the way things go, and the quick forgiveness, I would say she probably came to her senses, and ran away from Giovanni.  She knew that if something happened, it would destroy her relationship with Masetto, and that’s more important to her.  She doesn’t take that relationship lightly, but she likes to have fun.  Flirting is one thing, but...  [Sighs again]

BD:   What about Despina?

SJL:   I see Despina as older.  That’s one of the soubrette roles I could probably sing until I stop singing.  I think she’s jaded and cynical.

BD:   Is Don Alfonso an old lover of hers?

SJL:   Yes definitely, and she’s perhaps the female counterpart of Don Alfonso, except that she’s not quite as clever as she thinks she is, because in the end she was also fooled.  Don Alfonso and the two men are the only ones that know that the men are masquerading.  If she was really that clever, she would have figured it all out.  Her biggest problem is that she thinks she knows everything, and she’s just a little too jaded, or a little too cynical.  She’s been burned one too many times, and she’s very definitely lazy.  [Both laugh]  She is a Lady’s Maid, but she does as little as possible.  She’s the kind that will sweep the dirt under the rug if she ever has a broom in her hand
which isn’t likely!  [More laughter]  Shes not at all enterprising, except when it comes to getting involved in other people’s business.  Falling in love is no big deal for her.  She could very easily be in her mid-forties, or even fifty.

BD:   From her point of view, who should end up with whom after the masquerade has been revealed?

SJL:   She doesn’t know.  I really think she is flabbergasted by the whole thing.  From her point of view, being to protect her position, her work, and her job, I think she hopes it will be Guglielmo with Fiordiligi, and Dorabella with Ferrando.
BD:   So theyd better go back to the way they were originally?

SJL:   Yes, the way they were originally, but she’s confused.  She’s not at all sure of anything, yet at the same time, somebody like her who’s been hurt often enough and loved often enough knows that nothing lasts.  She probably really doesn’t care how it turns out, and feels the chances are they may end up switching around later on anyway.  Maybe it’s going to be a real modern relationship!

BD:   Like Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice?

SJL:   Exactly.  She’s a very interesting character, and I find her in some ways very complex.  There are a lot of things that don’t come out about how she feels and what she thinks.  She’s obviously hiding a lot of her inner feelings.  In the first aria, she comes out and sings that men are faithless.  They go off to war, and they have their girlfriends there.  In the second aria, she sings as how women can control them, and how to flirt, and how to let them know that you’re the boss.  Whatever her history is, I don’t think it’s just that Don Alfonso loved her and left her.  She probably had a lot of lovers, and none of them were particularly successful.  She probably left a lot of them, and she seems to be the kind of woman that would have a younger man around.

BD:   Would she ever get involved with Ferrando or Guglielmo?

SJL:   If she thought that they would be attracted to her, but they’re a little too class-conscious, at least in the productions I’ve been in.  She also thinks they’re stupid.

BD:   Are they?  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at right, see my interviews with William Ferris, and John Vorrasi.]

SJL:   Sure they are!  Anybody that would go through something like that, just to prove whether or not his girlfriend or his fiancée was faithful, are macho-men.

BD:   It’s really The Don Alfonso Show?

SJL:   Absolutely.  In Cologne I did the production that was staged by Jean-Pierre Ponnelle, and he saw it as the puppeteer controlling everybody.  He’s the only one in the whole show that knows at all times who’s who, and what’s what, and that gives it away.

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BD:   Are you coming back to Lyric Opera?

SJL:   Nothing is definite yet, but things are always in the works.  That’s what we pay our managers for.

BD:   How far ahead are you booked?

SJL:   Right now, through 1989 [two full years ahead], and there are some tentative things on into the

BD:   Is it a good feeling to know that on a certain day two years from now you will be in a certain city doing a certain role?

SJL:   I think so, provided it’s something that you feel comfortable with, and will feel comfortable with at that point in time.  It’s like being able to see into the future, to be able to know that on that date in two years you’ll be in that city.  That’s a secure feeling, unless it’s a city where a war breaks out.  That would not be ideal to have a good time.

BD:   You would turn down offers in that instance?

SJL:   I would, yes.  I would say no.

BD:   Are the audiences in Europe different from the audiences in America?

SJL:   Very different.  They’re more informed.  They’re more aware of opera in general.  You get a much larger cross-section of the populous.  People from every walk of life and of all ages come to the opera.

BD:   Should we try and get more of that here in America?

SJL:   It’s the only way to prove that it is a form of entertainment for everybody.  In Europe, they go to the opera like they go to the movies, and it’s not expensive.  That’s the difference.  It’s subsidized by the government, therefore they can offer reasonable rates for the top price on ticket sales.  In Cologne, for instance, the top price is about $25.  If you had a Student ID, you could get in for $4.  One of the things that makes people over here think opera is the art form for the rich, is that it is expensive, and lack of subsidy is responsible for that.  Anyone who thinks that government involvement in the arts means government control, doesn’t know... I should say perhaps there is government control to a certain extent, in that some of the people who are appointed to run opera companies have received political appointments rather than artistic appointments.  But in the better houses that isn’t true, and they make artistic decisions without having to ask anyone from the government whether or not this is allowable.  You very rarely see that happen in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland.  The public wouldn’t stand for it.  It’s a very singular system there.  They have seasons which last ten months, and they do six performances a week most of the time.  France doesn’t have anything like that, Italy doesn’t, and England doesn’t.  I’m not sure it would work in the United States.  It’s such a big country, and to centralize the arts in terms of having them being subsidized by the Federal government would be impossible.  Perhaps each state should do the subsidizing.

BD:   Are you optimistic about the whole future of opera?

SJL:   That’s a hard question to answer.  I’m going to say yes.  Certainly the example that Chicago is setting for the rest of the country would make one optimistic.  They have such tremendous financial backing from the audiences.  They work hard for it, but it’s heartening to see something like that.  Then there are other places that have nothing, and if they try and finally get something going, it falters and fails.  So, it obviously has to do with the people running it, because once you develop an audience and get people interested, they are very faithful, and they tend to love it.  I am not a great opera-goer.  It’s a busman’s holiday when I go to see an opera, but there’s nothing like sitting in a theater and hearing a legendary performance, or a legendary performer recreating a role.

BD:   Should the audience that goes every week expect all these performances to be legendary?

SJL:   No, but there’s no reason that they can’t be very entertained.  There’s nothing to compare with a live performance, because it’s like seeing history.  I love films, and I love good television, but that is a false picture because those things were done in several takes until they got them just right.  There are many times when I would like to say to the audience, “Let me go back and do that one again.  I didn’t like this note, so I’ll sing it again until I get it right.”  That’s what’s exciting about going to live theater.  You are seeing something creative right there, and if there’s a mistake, you can’t go back and do it over.  But if you do something really, really great, you can say, “I was there!”  I remember Lyric Opera was doing a production of L’Elisir d’Amore in 1981, and Luciano Pavarotti had canceled the opening night.  They got Carlo Bergonzi to sing, and I got a ticket to that performance.  It was legendary.  It was absolutely one of the greatest things I’ve ever been to in my life, and I will always remember that I was there for it.

BD:   Were you singing with the company that year?

SJL:   Yes, that was my debut here.  I did Naiad in Ariadne auf Naxos.  It was the year before I left to go to Germany, and the year before I got married.  So, it was the year before a lot of things happened.  But I still have a great memory of that, and there have been other performances that I’ve seen that have affected me that way.  When I was in New York for the Met auditions eleven years ago, I saw Joan Sutherland singing I Puritani with Pavarotti, James Morris, and Sherrill Milnes.  It was like opera heaven.  I saw Placido Domingo and Marilyn Horne sing Carmen, and I got to see the dress rehearsal of the production of Ariadne that was brand new then, with Ruth Welting, Tatiana Troyanos, René Kollo, and Monserrat Caballé.  It was absolutely thrilling, and I really felt like I was seeing history.  As far as my upbringing is concerned, I had little or no exposure to opera.
BD:   Where are you from originally?
SJL:   From Southern California, Los Angeles, and my parents are great music-lovers, but opera just was not ever anything that they were exposed to.  [The LA Opera was founded in 1986, one year before this interview took place.]  The first time I ever heard an operatic performance was when I was sixteen.  So, it isn’t necessary that you have to be trained to hear it, or that you have to be trained to like it.  There is something compelling about the sound of the human voice singing beautiful music.  It’s overwhelming.  I have three daughters, and I sang while I was pregnant with them.  They love opera, and every time there’s one broadcast on the television or the radio, they will sit absolutely enraptured by it.  The oldest one is four, and the twins are two and a half.  That’s an age when they’re fidgety, and sometimes they’ll get fidgety even if there’s a cartoon on.  But when they hear the sound of someone singing, their little mouths drop open, and they sit and they watch.  They’re just amazed by it.

BD:   Maybe they feel that they’re back in the womb again.
SJL:   That’s very possible.  I’ve often thought that.  The one piece I did most when pregnant with my first one was Der Freischütz, and I’ve always wanted to take her to see it, to find out if she remembers any of it.  The one I did the most when I was pregnant with the twins was Carmen, so I would love for them to see that opera, and learn if there’s any kind of recognition there.  They all run around singing, but I hope they don’t want to be opera singers.

BD:   You’re going to steer them away from it if you can?

SJL:   No, I’m not going to do anything.  I’m not going to say, “Why don’t you be just like Mommy when you grow up?”  But if they come to me and say, “Mommy, I want to be an opera singer,” I can’t say no.  The highest compliment would be that they want to do what you do, but I just hope that whatever they do, it’s their own choice.  I don’t want them to do it because I did it.

BD:   Has anything goofy ever happened to you on stage?  Maybe a piece of scenery fell, or something like that?

SJL:   I have had more goofy things happen to me.  These are things that were out of my control.  One thing happened here in Chicago.  I was doing Die Fledermaus.  It was the opening night performance, and it was staged so that I had to walk backwards, and I was supposed to bump into Ida, my sister.  It’s the beginning of the second act, the beautiful ball scene with the chorus singing.  I’d rehearsed this scene in costume and nothing happened.  This time, however, there’s a long train on the dress and it got caught under my feet.  I fell flat on my rear end.  It couldn’t have been more perfect as far as the character is concerned.  It’s absolutely something Adele would have done.

BD:   Did you keep it in at the next performance?

SJL:   I couldn’t.  It would not have been that perfect.  I would have had to rehearse it a long time.  My rear end hit the floor, and then my mouth fell open because I was so surprised.

BD:   I’m glad you had the presence of mind to keep going without letting it get to you.

SJL:   You have to.  I’ve had lots of things like that happen, where a piece of my costume comes off.  I had a slip underneath a costume one time that fell down around my ankles.  I’ve had tricks played on me on stage where it’s been very difficult to keep a straight face.  I’ve never been in a situation on stage where I’ve forgotten a line or a prop, but I really have a problem with falling down.  [Both laugh]

BD:   How did the current performance of The Italian Girl in Algiers go?

SJL:   It went very well.  It’s a fun piece.  It’s a real splash of cold water because it’s not like most Rossini.  The plot’s just a little different, but you can tell it is Rossini.

BD:   [Knowing the slapstick staging of the finale]  How was the spaghetti at the end?  Was it good?  [In my interview with Property Master Thomas Gilbert, he speaks about the variety and problems of having food on the set.]

SJL:   It’s never al dente.  If they’re going to make spaghetti for us, let’s have it al dente.  There was only been one time that I got to eat it at a rehearsal.  It must have been the piano dress rehearsal.  Those are the ones that go on and on and on and on, and everybody was starving.  So when the curtain came up and we were supposed to be doing our bows, all of us were eating the spaghetti with our fingers.  We didn’t even wait for a knife and fork.  [Much laughter]  But in performance,
by the time we’re through with all the curtain calls, the stagehands have gotten to it, so I haven’t gotten to eat it as I’d like to.  Singers are awful, they really are, and after a performance, you’re always so hungry.  It’s like a football game where you exert a lot of energy.

BD:   Do you feel you have to be an athlete?

SJL:   Oh, definitely.  I don’t mean in the sense that you have to do cartwheels or anything, but...

BD:   [With a gentle nudge]  Can’t you do vocal cartwheels???

SJL:   Definitely!  You’re a vocal athlete.  You do have to be in good shape and be in good health.  The way they approach staging is much more active and much more athletic than it used to be, and it just helps to feel good about it, and be able to run across the stage and sing your high Cs without running out of breath, or blanking out.

BD:   Thank you for being a singer.

SJL:   Believe me it’s my pleasure.

BD:   Thank you for the interview.  It was a lot of fun.

SJL:   It was fun for me, too.  You posed great questions that really made me think.

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© 1987 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in Chicago on October 30, 1987.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB in 2000.  This transcription was made in 2022, and posted on this website at that time.  My thanks to British soprano Una Barry for her help in preparing this website presentation.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.  To read my thoughts on editing these interviews for print, as well as a few other interesting observations, click here.

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Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.