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
Bruce Duffie: You must have the happiest
name in show business — Sunny
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 singers — and 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
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
, Nolen, Sharon Graham
1982 [Spring] Die Fledermaus
(Adele) - with Brown,
, Nolen, Malas; Schaenen, Mansouri
, O'Hearn, Tallchief
(Fiakermilli) - with TeKanawa
, Wixell, Daniels,
, Greer, Kunde,
1985-86 La Rondine
(Lisette) - with Cotrubas
, Kunde, Redmon,
1987-88 L'italiana in Algeri
(Elvira) - with Baltsa,
Nolen, Sharon Graham; Ferro, Ponnelle
1995-96 Ghosts of Versailles
- with McNair, Greenawald
Hagegård, Croft, Wendy White
Della Jones; Slatkin
, Graham, Conklin
, Schuler, Tallchief,
1996-97 Un Re in Ascolto
] (Soprano II) - with
Begley; D.R. Davies
== 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
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!”
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
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?
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
else — that he either has to
have her or die — is 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
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 it’s 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
* * *
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.
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
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
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.
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] She’s 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 they’d
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 &
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
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.
* * *
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 ’90s.
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
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
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
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
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
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.
---- ---- ----
© 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.
* * * *
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.