Soprano  Dame  Felicity  Lott

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


Dame Felicity Lott was born in Cheltenham, into a family of amateur musicians. From an early age she learnt piano and violin, and took singing lessons. Her real love was the French language and she took a degree in French and Latin at Royal Holloway College, University of London, with a vague idea of becoming an interpreter. As part of the degree course, Felicity spent a year as Assistante d’Anglais in a school near Grenoble. Besides her teaching duties she enrolled at the Conservatoire de Grenoble and found an excellent singing teacher who encouraged her to pursue her singing studies. After returning to England to take her degree, she obtained an Associated Board scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music, where she studied for four years, leaving in 1973 with the Principal’s Prize.

In 1975 Felicity made her debut at the English National Opera as Pamina in Mozart's Magic Flute, in 1976 she took part in the first performance of Henze's opera We Come To The River at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden. In that year also began her long relationship with Glyndebourne, with the role of the Countess in Capriccio on the Tour, and in 1977 she appeared at the Festival for the first time, as Anne Trulove in Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress. Since then, Felicity has appeared at all the great opera houses of the world: Vienna, Milan, Paris, Brussels, Munich, Hamburg, Dresden, Berlin, New York and Chicago. Her many roles include the Marschallin (Rosenkavalier / Strauss), Countess Madeleine (Capriccio / Strauss), Arabella (Strauss), Christine (Intermezzo / Strauss) Countess Almaviva (Le Nozze Di Figaro / Mozart), Fiordiligi (Così Fan Tutte / Mozart), Donna Elvira (Don Giovanni / Mozart), Ellen Orford (Peter Grimes / Britten), The Governess (The Turn Of The Screw / Britten), Lady Billows (Albert Herring / Britten), Louise (Charpentier), Blanche (Les Dialogues des Carmelites / Poulenc) and Elle (La Voix Humaine / Poulenc). Conductors she has worked with on the opera stage include Andrew Davis, Bernard Haitink, Vladimir Jurowski, Carlos Kleiber, Antonio Pappano and Simon Rattle.

More recently, Felicity has shown her affection for operetta. In 1993 she sang the title role in Lehar's Merry Widow with Glyndebourne Festival Opera on a recording for EMI, but she had sung the role on stage in Nancy as well as in Paris in the 1980's. In 1999 she appeared as Rosalinde in Johann Strauss' Fledermaus in Chicago. Her performance as Hélène in Offenbach's La Belle Hélène at the Chatelet in Paris, in a production directed by Laurent Pelly and conducted by Marc Minkowski brought her a great success in 2000. In the 2004-2005 season Felicity appeared with the same team as Offenbach's La Grande Duchesse de Gerolstein.

Felicity is well known as a concert artist, working with all the great conductors and orchestras. She is an experienced recitalist after many years of singing with Graham Johnson, whom she met when they were students at the Royal Academy of Music. Her repertoire includes songs by Strauss, Schubert, Schumann, Wolf and Brahms as well as the masters of French Mélodies. As might be expected, Felicity is also very fond of English songs, particularly those of Benjamin Britten and William Walton. She is a founder member of Graham Johnson’s Songmakers’ Almanac.

Felicity has received many honorary doctorates, including those from the Universities of Oxford, London, Leicester, Sussex, the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama Glasgow and the Sorbonne in Paris. By the French Government she was awarded the titles Officier dans l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in 1990 and Chevalier dans la Legion d'Honneur in 2001. In 1990 Felicity was made a CBE. In 1996 she was created a Dame Commander of the British Empire. In 2003 Felicity was awarded the title of Bayerische Kammersängerin and in 2010 she was awarded the Wigmore Hall Medal.

--  Biography from her personal website.
--  Names which are links throughout this webpage refer to my interviews elsewhere on this website.  BD 

Felicity Lott has appeared in Chicago on several occasions both with Lyric Opera and the Chicago Symphony.  The details of her performances are listed in a box at the bottom of this webpage. 

Her first visit was as the Countess in The Marriage of Figaro in the fall of 1987, and she was most gracious to invite me to her apartment for the conversation.  She was balancing her artistic and domestic sides as we sat down for the chat . . . . . . .

Bruce Duffie
:    Thank you very much for taking time from your busy schedule.

Felicity Lott:    [Giggles]  Well, it’s only doing busy domestic chores!

BD:    Is it special that you are able to travel with children and husband?  Many singers say that they don’t have that luxury.

lott FL:    It’s wonderful to be able to do it.  My husband is an actor, reader, recitalist, and gives recitals about the lives of poets and dramatists and novelists.  So he’s freelance, and he’s doing some programs in America while I’ve been here.  He’s limited to English-speaking countries, of course, because of the language, but he gets work if he can in the places where I am, so that’s very useful.  And my mother looks after our daughter, which is wonderful for everybody, and great for me as she looks after me too!  And she cooks for us all.  My parents are leaving tomorrow, but we’ve all been here together for a month.  My husband just arrived last week, and then he’ll take our daughter back on 3rd December, and I do the last few days alone.

BD:    But it’s nice that you’re able to at least travel in entourage once in a while.

FL:    Yes, it’s lovely.  I’m not very good at being away.  Ten days is about the longest I’ve been away from my daughter.  I couldn’t manage much longer than that.  She’s fine, however.  She doesn’t miss me a bit.  [Both laugh]

BD:    The problem’s not hers, it’s yours!

FL:    That’s right.  It’s often the way, actually.

BD:    Coming back to your own work, tell me the secret of singing Mozart!

FL:    Oh, golly!  Well, loving it perhaps.  It’s what I started with.  I did more oratorio and recital to begin with
lots of Handel.  We do Messiah all the time in England.  The great choral tradition means choral societies all over the country.  I don’t know if you have quite so much of a tradition of it here, but I didn’t think I’d ever want to do opera actually when I started.  I wasn’t bitten by the opera bug at all, but I found a wonderful accompanist as a student at the Royal Academy of Music in London.  We did a lot of recitalslots of Schubert and Mozart lieder and I sort of came into it that way.  Mozart is a wonderful voice exercise.  It’s very good for keeping the voice in trim, and Handel is, too.  I don’t know what the secret is of Mozart really.  I’ve never done any Italian opera so I tend to stay with the German style more.  I sing Mozart and Strauss more than anything else really. 

BD:    Is there any connection then between Mozart and Handel?

FL:    Yes in the style of singing and the coloratura.  They’ve very good vocal exercises certainly; Mozart I think is better. 

BD:    They must be more than just vocal exercises though?

FL:    Oh yes, they’re wonderful melodies, as well as being great masters of music.  They are very good for voices.  They wrote very well for voice.  Mozart’s quite hard sometimes, and Handel is very hard.

BD:    Is it rewarding to sing though?

FL:    Yes.  Messiah not as much as some of the Italian operas, which are wonderful.  I’m going to do Julius Caesar again next year.  I did Cleopatra a long time ago, and that’s a wonderful role in a marvelous opera. 

BD:    Will you do it in Italian or in English?

FL:    In Italian.  When I first left the Royal Academy of Music, I did Handel operas once a year.  They have a festival in a little town near Oxford called Abingdon in a tiny, tiny theater.  It used to be an abbey, and the conductor and the orchestra were behind the singers in the Minstrels Gallery.  The conductor used to follow the singers, which was most unusual and great.  [Laughs]  I like that very much.  

BD:    Should more conductors do that?

lott FL:    Well, I think it’s a nice idea considering what late invention the conductor is really!  [Both laugh]  But the orchestra is very small so there aren’t any balance problems.  We used to use very basic staging for these Handel operas.  His arias have three sections
the first one, a middle, and the Da Capo.  We sang the first section by one pillar, the middle section by the other pillar, and the Da Capo in the center.  To vary the production, you vary the order of the pillars!  But it was wonderful, wonderful music.

BD:    Did you do lots of embellishments in the Da Capo?

FL:    Yes.

BD:    Who decides the embellishments
— is it you or is it the conductor?

FL:    Depends.  Charles Mackerras, for instance, usually writes his own decorations, and is much more daring than most singers would be.  There are such different fashions or preferences now.  Some people hate any kind of decorations still in spite of the fact that they obviously did decorate everything.  But we have this idea that Mozart is sacred now.  He’d write arias to suit whatever singers he had, and tailor them to the requirements of the singers as well. 

BD:    How slavishly faithful should we be to musical scores, be they Handel or Mozart, or anybody?

FL:    I wonder really.  We are extremely faithful to Mozart.

BD:    Too faithful?

FL:    He was pretty amazing.  I wouldn’t like to set myself in competition, to choose what should be better than he wrote.  But it must have been so different when he was writing.  Nobody knew how great he was
except us probably.

BD:    What makes his music great?

FL:    There is so much emotion in it, plus the wonderful harmonies.  He was such an innovator in the operas.  Figaro is just about the perfect opera.  The characters are real, and that was quite extraordinary at the time.  I think he must have been the first opera composer to have real people, real characters.  The Count and Countess, and Figaro and Susanna are real people.  They have their own styles of music, I suppose.  The Countess’ music is noble and sad.  Perhaps other composers did it, but there’s been nobody like Mozart for writing music that makes your heart stop when you hear it.  Some of it is so moving.

BD:    Let’s talk a little bit about this particular opera.  You’re singing the Countess.  How old is she? 

FL:    Younger than me!  [Both laugh]  I don’t know how old she is supposed to be actually but I know she must be only late twenties probably.

BD:    Now this is the central of the three Beaumarchais dramas.  In this Mozart opera do you look back to The Barber of Seville or forward to the next drama that’s coming?

FL:    The relationship with Cherubino is very strong in this production, as I think it should be.  The Countess is young and in The Barber of Seville she had a wonderful ideal happy love affair, but it didn’t last very long at all.  The Count’s off pursuing anything that moves by the look of it around the castle, and trying to secure his ‘droit de seigneur’ that he abolished.  So he is chasing Susanna on her wedding day, and it’s all gone so sour.

BD:    Should we feel sorry for him?

FL:    For the Count?  I think one should sympathize with all of the characters in this opera.  That’s also something Mozart manages to do.  Every character has his point of view.

BD:    How should we feel towards the Countess who has been somewhat neglected of late?

FL:    You should feel sorry for the Countess, certainly, but there should be sympathy for the Count as well.  Otherwise you think the Count is wasting your time.  There should have been some kind of good relationship at the beginning, but their marriage has had it.  I must say, by the end of Figaro, even though there is a so-called ‘happy ending’, you can’t change this man. 

BD:    It’s a facade?

FL:    Yes.  He apologizes for the time being and the final resolution is all so quick.  The ‘Contessa perdona’ is all over in flash, and then let’s go off and have a party!  The next day he’s going to be looking for the next serving girl, I’m sure.

BD:    When does it occur to the Countess to begin pursuing Cherubino, or to let Cherubino’s pursuits affect her?

FL:    I think she’s quite affected in this opera, but she hadn’t fallen so far down as her husband.  She’s decidedly virtuous in comparison to her husband.  When she gets a bit older and Cherubino’s a distraction, I quite sympathize with the lady.  She’s not getting a lot of appreciation from anywhere else.  She sides with Susanna against her husband, and she doesn’t like being reduced to taking sides with her servants against her husband.  It’s pretty demeaning, really.  

lott BD:    So there’s a chance she’ll run off with Cherubino, or does she think about that?

FL:    I don’t think so.  Certainly not in Figaro.  No, I don’t think so.  I think she likes her life as the Countess.

BD:    She likes her position?

FL:    She likes her position, yes.  That I don’t sympathize with!  I would go, personally, rather than stay and be humiliated.  But it wasn’t so easy in those days anyway.  She wasn’t a self-supporting singer!  [Huge laugh from both]

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    What other Mozart have you sung?

FL:    Così Fan Tutte.

BD:    Fiordiligi?

FL:    Fiordiligi and Dorabella, actually!  When I was a student I sang Dorabella, which is great fun.

BD:    Which is the better part?

FL:    Fiordiligi is more interesting.

BD:    Why?

FL:    She has a harder struggle.  Dorabella is more fun and Fiordiligi is more interesting.  Dorabella has a good time, and  Fiordiligi tortures herself about it all.  Then finally when she gives in to Ferrando they have the most wonderful music written for that duet, or the capitulation into their duet, which makes me think that maybe they are the real couple.  I can’t bear to think that Ferrando is just trotting out this wonderful music as an attempt to seduce Fiordiligi.  I can’t bear the thought of that.  I think he must really feel some for her.  Otherwise...

BD:    Who should wind up with whom at the end?

FL:    After that duet, Ferrando and Fiordiligi just can’t say,
Well, it was nice, cheerio!  That’s another place where the denouement happens so fast.  It’s very difficult for a producer.  I’ve actually played it both ways, or where the girls are ostensibly back to their first partners and Ferrando and Fiordiligi surreptitiously hold hands across the table.  But it’s very hard.  People say it’s a silly opera but I think it is a most wonderful opera.

BD:    Does it speak to people in the 1980s?

FL:    I think so.  It’s not possible to believe in the disguises, but that’s all irrelevant, really.  It’s not what it’s about.

BD:    What is it about?

FL:    People, and it’s a terrible, terrible trick to play on the girls.  Alfonso is a real old cynic.

BD:    You don’t think if the tables were turned that they’d play the same kind of trick on the men?

FL:    No, I don’t think so.  [Both laugh]  I don’t know. 

BD:    Maybe after it had been done to them?

FL:    That’s right, yes.  I don’t know whether they’d be the innovators.  I love that opera too, and Don Giovanni.  I’ve also sung Elvira, and I’ve fallen out of love with her.  She’s a wonderful character.  Everybody says she’s a wonderful character, and I love her, and she is a great lady and has some wonderful music.  But somehow she’s difficult to play.  I suppose it’s pathetic to say that I like to play parts that people like.  You admire Elvira and you laugh at her, and somehow I quite enjoy the performances, but I loathe the rehearsals because every time you walk into a room everybody says,
Oh Christ, here she is again!  [More laughter all around]  So by the end of six weeks of rehearsal, I’ve got a terrible complex!

BD:    How much can you separate Felicity Lott from whatever character you are playing on stage?

FL:    Not too much, really.  I’m not a very good actress.  I have to adapt whoever I’m playing to something that is the closest thing that I can understand. 

BD:    Are there any characters that you play that are perilously close to your own personality?

FL:    [Thinks a moment]  Yes.  I bring everything nearer to me, which is probably the wrong way round. Maybe I should start with myself and reach outdoors to the character from there.  I don’t know which way round I do it, really.  I certainly find it very hard not to get emotionally involved in whatever is the fate of the character I am playing.  I probably do this more than one should as a singer, to the point of almost uncontrollable tears, which are very difficult to cope with as a singer.  I had awful trouble as Octavian in Rosenkavalier from that point of view, because in the trio I felt so awful towards the Marschallin.  I would be in floods of tears.  The Sophie would say,
You’ve got to sing, you mustn’t cry; singen nicht weinen! because I’d turn to her and have make-up all over my face!

BD:    Do you like playing a boy?

lott FL:    Yes.  I’ve sung Octavian, and Sifare in an early Mozart opera Mitridate.  It has wonderful, wonderful music in that very static opera seria.  But Octavian was great fun.  I really did enjoy that.  It was a big gamble.  Everybody said I wouldn’t be able to do it, and it was sort of fifty-fifty of success.

BD:    Is it a role you would accept again?

FL:    Yes!  I’ve never been asked again though, so that much of a success it wasn’t!  I don’t know if I would be able to do it in a much bigger house.  I sang it in Glyndebourne, and actually the acoustic in Glyndebourne is so dry, it’s quite difficult to sing there.

BD:    Even though it’s small?

FL:    Yes.  It feels difficult from the stage.  Once you’ve sat out in the house and listened in rehearsals, you realize that everything comes over very well.  But the extra decibels don’t pay off there somehow.  You can sing very loudly in Glyndebourne, and you might as well not bother because it doesn’t actually come over louder.  In a way it’s a strange place; it’s very dry indeed.  The orchestra plays a huge chord and it’s gone.

BD:    Do you adjust your technique for large houses and small houses, or warm houses and dry houses?

FL:    Well, a bit I suppose.  Chicago is certainly the largest opera house I’ve ever sung in. 

BD:    Is it comfortable to sing in?

FL:    Very, very comfortable.  It’s lovely.  Probably one has to be more conscious of not singing into the wings, which I always forget.  There are people out there in the house who have paid!  I’m having a lovely time playing about on the stage, and then you look out and see this vast auditorium stretching up miles.  It’s wonderful, though.  It really doesn’t feel that big on the stage partly because we have this wood behind the set to enclose it.  But it feels very good, and you can feel something coming back, which you never feel in Glyndebourne.  There it’s just gone.  I love the place though.  I keep running it down but I adore Glyndebourne.

BD:    Are you not really conscious of the audience in any performance?

FL:    Here they’re a long way away.  One very exciting thing I’ve done here in Chicago is to get contact lenses!  For the second performance of Figaro I wore contact lenses for the first time in my life on stage, and wow, it’s so different!  It was wonderful.  I could see the audience.  I could see the size of the theater and I could see the other people on stage very clearly.  It was quite wonderful.   

BD:    Before you were just going from one blur to another blur?

FL:    Oh, it was better than that, but I had to concentrate to be able to see.  I cannot spare any concentration from hearing and doing other things.  I did have to focus as well, so this could be a great new departure.  I’m thrilled to bits with them, except I came home from the performance and took one out and tore it.  So now I have to get a new pair now.  They lasted a week, but that’s a whole new life for me. 

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    How is the audience different from Europe to America?

FL:    I haven’t been here very much.  They’re certainly very responsive for this Figaro.  This is the first opera I’ve done in America except for a concert, a semi-staged performance of Capriccio we did in New York in Carnegie Hall last year.  My experience of America is that they’re extremely warm and great, lovely here.  But I think this production of Figaro has to be one of the best things I’ve ever been in.  The cast is extraordinary.  Where you’d find a cast like this I don’t know.  The Lyric Opera is extremely well-managed.  The people are very lucky because with cast list and the people who come here you do have the best in the world.

BD:    It’s very much like a festival.

FL:    Yes, I should think so.  It’s marvelous and it’s thrilling to be part of it.  My husband came to the first night of Figaro and the first act was so stunning and so wonderful and everybody was so good that he thought,
“My goodness, poor ‘Flott’ has to open the second act!  It’s fairly terrifying anyway to start the second act of Figaro as the Countess.  You have no warm up, and that aria is not easy. 

lott BD:    Is it easier to do because there is no intermission?

FL:    I don’t know if that makes much difference.  It makes a difference to the evening, but I don’t know whether it makes any difference to me.  I think it’s much better for the audience if it goes on like that.  It’s such a long opera anyway, so it’s better not to have too many intermissions. 

BD:    When I first saw there was only going to be one interval in the middle I was so pleased!

FL:    Yes, it’s very good.  But it makes for a long first half.

BD:    It’s similar to Don Giovanni or Così, with two long acts.

FL:    That’s right, yes.  It’s very good that way.  It’s a wonderful production.  Peter Hall is excellent, and everybody’s real and acts like mad all the time.  It’s just wonderful to be part of it, it really is.

BD:    Let me ask the
‘capriccio’ question.  In opera, where is the balance between the music and the drama?

FL:    It has to be weighted on the side of music because that has to be the most important.  But anything you do dramatically that goes against the music then is wrong and works against it.  For instance, you cannot put the singers where they can’t sing or can’t be heard.  You can’t just take it as if it were a play.  Otherwise you might as well do the play and leave the music out.  But there should be a wonderful balance between them.  There must be credible theater, and once you’ve got that proviso, the theatrical side is very important.

BD:    Is it becoming more important these days?

FL:    Yes, certainly.

BD:    Is that being helped or hindered by films and television?

FL:    Oh helped, certainly.   You have to have credible people who could possibly be in love with each other.  Some of the opera films are stunning, and singers are required to act.  They’re usually very good actors and actresses.  The standard of acting amongst singers is extremely high when you think of all the other things they have to do as well.

BD:    Is it too complicated?

FL:    No, I don’t think so.  It makes it immensely rewarding if you can have a theatrical experience as well.  Then it’s a complete art form.  It has got everything.  It can be so frustrating if things are wrong with it.  That happens if you get a director who doesn’t like music, which you do sometimes, or doesn’t understand music and doesn’t think it’s important, or if you get somebody from the straight theatre who thinks that the music is a secondary aspect.

BD:    Do you try and avoid those contracts?

FL:    Yes.  I’ve been very lucky.  I’ve worked with wonderful directors, and I was very lucky to start with.  I hadn’t had any theatrical training as a student.  I auditioned umpteen times for Glyndebourne chorus and didn’t get in.  The first thing I ever sang with Glyndebourne was the Countess in Capriccio in the Glyndebourne tour in 1976, which was one amazing way to start really.  I’d done a bit of Mozart and Handel, but this was such a completely different departure for me.  We went on tour with it round the Provinces in England, and we sang it in English, which was great because it’s a fascinating opera if you can understand what they’re talking about.  It’s really a conversation piece, and a wonderful role.  I had a marvelous director in John Cox, and the production is fantastic.

BD:    How do you feel about translated opera in general?

FL:    Mixed.  Ideally it’s great, but in practice it can’t really quite work because you’d have to learn so many translations.  Singers couldn’t do it with the number of roles they’d have to learn, and also having to learn various different translations into different languages wherever they went.  It isn’t practical, but I think it’s very good.  I don’t know what system you have here but in London we have Covent Garden where they do more or less everything in the original, and the English National Opera where they do everything in English.

BD:    So you have the best of both worlds.

FL:    Yes, and that’s very good.  Supertitles are a very good idea too.  I must say, the response from the audience here for Figaro has been terrific.  The people who don’t want to look at them presumably can look at the stage.  They’re not intrusive.  In Covent Garden I did Rosenkavalier earlier this year, and we did alternate performances with and without supertitles.  The audience reaction was very different, and was noticeably warmer and more enthusiastic on the supertitle nights.

BD:    Is that enough to convince management to do more on the supertitles?

FL:    I think they are doing more and more in London.  For Jenůfa in Czech, not many people are going to understand that without a bit of help, and you can’t get too much from the synopsis in the program.  It’s great just to have key bits and pieces so you can latch onto something.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Let’s talk a little more about Strauss.  What other roles have you sung?

FL:    I’m doing Intermezzo in Munich, which is another great role, but my goodness, there’s a lot of it.  I thought I would never learn it.  I also did it at Glyndebourne.  Then there are Arabella, Octavian and the Marschallin.  I sang the Marschallin this year for the first time.

lott BD:    Is it confusing going from one part to another in the same opera?

FL:    Not as confusing doing that as it was going from Dorabella to Fiordiligi because I had all the ensembles.  Learning a different line in the ensembles is more difficult.  But it was great having done Octavian as I’d learnt quite a lot of the Marschallin’s role before had to sing it.  Also I could see her character from a different side, which was very interesting really.

BD:    Would that now make you a better Octavian, having done the Marschallin?

FL:    I think it works better the other way.  Octavian is too young and selfish to see other points of view.  Probably Octavian should forget about the other characters.  Maybe it would help; maybe I wouldn’t have seen it like that because I should not let myself get carried away by the emotion of it all in the third act.  He’s bowled over by Sophie, and he’s not going to be so guilt ridden.  It’s my inborn guilt.  But the Marschallin is a wonderful role.  I just wish she came on in Act 2.  I don’t know what to do with myself in the second act.  There’s a lovely story about Elisabeth Söderström, who was singing the Marschallin in Sweden.  She sang the first act with Sylvia Lindenstrand as Octavian, who was taken ill and they had to get a new Octavian for the rest of the performance.  They managed to get Kerstin Meyer to come for the third act, but she couldn’t get there for the second act, so Söderström went on as Octavian in the second act!  [Both laugh]  Then Kirsten arrived for the third act.  That would be great to play Octavian in the second act because I like the role so much.

BD:    When you have this long second act just to sit there, do you let the voice get cold and re-warm for the third act, or are you constantly singing backstage?

FL:    I let the voice get cold, yes, but I like to listen to the opera.  I don’t like to read a book or get lost in something else. 

BD:    You don’t go out for a steak dinner?

FL:    Certainly not, no.  [Laughs]  I couldn’t do that.  I’d get terribly twitchy.  I think they’d got through it all in double time and I was late!  I couldn’t bear that.  So I listen to it all and knit, or maybe write half a letter.  I get carried away listening to the music.  I love it.

BD:    Talking about various roles, how do you decide which roles you will accept and which roles you will decline?

FL:    With a bit of help from my agent and singing teachers.  I don’t know all that many operas, I must admit.  I didn’t ever go to see much opera when I was young and when I had time.  I spent my early years doing a French degree.  I thought I was going to be an interpreter, and I wasn’t really interested in opera very much!  Now I don’t have too much time because a family, and if I’m not working I
’m looking after my daughter.

BD:    Should opera be for everyone?

FL:    I think so!  Yes.  Ideally it’s such a complete art form.  As I said before, it’s wonderful theater and wonderful music, and I don’t see why it has the elitist tag really... except for the prices of course.  But television and radio and touring and seats at the back of the theater I suppose should bring it to more people.

BD:    Let me ask another balance question.  Where is the balance between the artistic achievement and the entertainment value?

FL:    For whom?  For the audience? 

BD:    For the singer and then for the audience.  In other words, is opera art or is opera entertainment?

FL:    Oh both!  Goodness, it was written for entertainment and as means of expressing what composers wanted to express.  I think it should be entertainment.  One shouldn’t be too poo-faced about it at all.  I don’t know what people are like here, but people tend to go to concerts in England and sit there with faces looking as if they’re at a funeral service or something.  It should be enjoyable.  Not all, though.  Music is to cry to as well as to laugh to.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Tell me about making recordings.  Do you enjoy singing to a microphone?

FL:    Not very much, but I’m getting better at it with experience.

BD:    Do you sing differently in the studio than you do on stage?

FL:    Yes, because I find it very difficult to breathe and all sorts of silly things.  I hold my breath because I’m frightened  of making a noise in front of a microphone.  [Huge laugh]  That’s so silly!  We’ve just recorded Figaro in London with a Glyndebourne cast.  We never all sang it together, but we’ve all sung it there at some time or other with Bernard Haitink conducting.  That went quite well, and it comes out next year. 


To read my Interview with Gianna Rolandi, click HERE.

To read my Interview with Richard Stilwell, click HERE.

To read my Interview with Faith Esham, click HERE.

I’ve done a couple of recital records.  I enjoyed that but at first I found it very difficult.  As soon as that red light goes on, something freezes inside you.  It’s much easier to record things that you’ve done on the stage.  I don’t know how people manage to record operas they’ve never acted.

BD:    They muddle through the best they can.

FL:    That’s right, yes, like the rest of us.  No, it’s not my favorite thing.  I prefer live performances to be recorded.  I heard some pirate recordings of things I’ve done which people have sent me, and the quality of the sound is frequently better than what is achieved in a recording studio.  Perhaps I’m not good enough at saying that it doesn’t sound like me, it doesn’t sound like the sound I expect!  It’s very hard when it gets to a whole barrage of technicians.

lott BD:    But do you really know what you sound like?

FL:    No, probably not, but then when I hear some of these pirate tapes, that’s what I thought I sounded like.  And sometimes with a dry recording studio acoustic, it’s quite different.  That’s something they should teach you at music academies
microphone technique.  It would be great.  They don’t do that... well maybe they do now but they didn’t in my day.  We got History of Music and lots of useful things like that!

BD:    Have you got some other recordings coming up?

FL:    I’ve done quite a lot in the last year.  I’ve recorded the Four Last Songs, and whole series of Strauss orchestral songs with Neeme Järvi and the Scottish National Orchestra.  I like him very much.  He is a very nice conductor from Estonia.  They’ve brought out in England the Four Last Songs and on the other side is Heldenleben.  They’re bringing out about four songs per record, and one of the orchestral tone poems.  The Alpine Symphony is out with ‘Morgen’ and I can’t remember which other songs.

BD:    Do you like having a few songs on each of several albums, or should all the songs be collected into a Felicity Lott double set? 
[Note: After this series was completed, it was later re-packaged in various configurations.]

FL:    Maybe, for people who don’t like all the orchestral pieces, and then the ones who don’t like the songs wouldn’t have those either!  Yes, that would be quite fun if they’d do that maybe one day.  We have plans to record more of the orchestral songs.  We’ve done twelve and I did very much enjoy those.  He’s a very easy conductor to work with.  We sang everything twice and that was it.  You can treat it as a performance if you just sing the whole thing through.  The more often one has to repeat things because there was something wrong, the more often something else goes wrong.  I don’t like that.  I find that very hard.  I have strange nerves.  I was never any good at competitions, auditions, any of those things.  I haven’t got the nerves to cope with that. I love performing, but to stand up and be criticized in master classes and things like that, forget it!

BD:    What advice do you have for young singers coming along?

FL:    Follow your instincts and find a good teacher, someone you can really trust, and be careful not to do too many big things too early.  It’s so tempting if opera houses take an interest and ask you for wonderful roles in huge theaters with vast orchestras.  I couldn’t have done it.  I give this advice to myself.  I couldn’t have done any of those things, and I’ve been lucky, really, that I’ve had very good advice.  Also I was never asked to do too many huge things.  It was right for me not to have gone to the strength of a particular opera company.  I didn’t join a company, which I think was right for me because I would have had to have done all sorts of things that probably wouldn’t have suited me.  I managed to keep a balance of oratorio and recitals and opera.  I do about equal parts of all them now still.  It’s very healthy for the voice.

BD:    Starting out as a concert singer maybe put you a just a little bit older then when you got more involved in opera?

FL:    Yes, that’s right, and also doing the French degree.  I had four years French degree and four years singing training, so I’m terribly old really!  [Laughs]  I went to the Academy when I was 22.  I’m 40 this year, but I must say the last four or five years things have started to move in another pleasant way. 
I’ve never gone from one German company to another doing one night stands of different operas.  I can’t do that kind of thing.  I like to rehearse with people, get to know them a bit, then I can relax and do music the way I can do it.  Otherwise I’m too worried about too many different things that I can’t give of my best.  I’ve never done that.  Financially it’s not so good, but never mind.  It is so much better for the music and certainly for my emotional stability.

BD:    Do you like being a wondering minstrel?

FL:    Yes I do, quite.  I’ve never been a jet-setting one.  I like to go to one place and stay there for a bit.  It’s lovely to be in Chicago for seven weeks.  It seemed an awful long time when we left England, but we also left the debris after the hurricane we had in the south of England just before we came away.  When we left we still had no light and no heat in the house.  It was amazing, so it was wonderful to get away and leave all the mess behind.  We came here where everything works and it’s warm and it’s light.

BD:    Well, this is mid-November, so it won’t be warm for much longer I’m afraid. 

FL:    No.  We’ve been really lucky so far, haven’t we. 

*     *     *     *     *

lott BD:    Do you sing any modern opera?

FL:    I’ve sung Britten and Tippett, and Poulenc if you count Poulenc.  I love Poulenc.  I have done lots of his songs.

BD:    Of course, you being a French scholar and all...

FL:    It’s wonderful to be able to combine the two interests.  I’ve done three recital records of French music.  As I say, I don’t like the sound of me on recordings very much, but one that I quite like is a recital of settings of Victor Hugo.  There are some lovely, lovely songs on that record by Liszt, Saint-Saëns, Gounod, Bizet; interesting things.  I like that one, but back to modern opera, yes I’ve done The Turn of the Screw, which I love.  That is an amazing piece.  I was the Governess, the neurotic lady!  That is a fascinating part.  They’re all slightly strange, these Britten pieces, but this is a particularly spooky story.  I remember the first time I saw it I couldn’t speak for half an hour when I came out.  It was so upsetting.  I’ve also sung A Midsummer Night’s Dream of Britten and The Rake
’s Progress of Stravinsky and Midsummer Marriage of Tippett.  Such wonderful music.  I don’t know if that’s ever done here.  I love that.  It is a great piece.

BD:    Does Tippett write well for the voice?

FL:    I haven’t followed his development from then onwards.  He probably went out of my possibilities after that.

BD:    I saw The Knot Garden a few years ago when it was done at Northwestern University.  It was a good production, and he was there.

FL:    Yes.  He’s wonderful.  He goes to hear everything and he takes such an interest.  He’s a marvelous man.  It’s not easy for the voice, really not easy.  It’s very angular and instrumental in a way.  He also uses such a combination of complicated textures.  There’s so much happening in the orchestra and the voices at any given time.  I wonder how much can be heard or can be sorted out of this great web in the Midsummer Marriage.  The music at the end when the singers join in is fiendishly difficult to learn and amazingly complicated, and when you get out there I don’t think anybody can hear it.  It’s a bit frustrating when that happens.  You wonder why you bothered!  

BD:    It must make a special impact.

FL:    It must, it must, I hope and trust!  But I haven’t done so much new music lately.  I’m going to do Peter Grimes.

BD:    Do you sing any French works beside the Poulenc?

FL:    I’ve sung Louise by Charpantier which was recorded [cover shown above].  Erato recorded the performances, so there’s a lot of stomping and banging and crashing and things!  It was a Brussels Opera production.  There’s one wonderful, wonderful scene from the father, and that was Ernest Blanc.  Jerome Pruett was the tenor, and Sylvain Cambreling conducted.  I love that piece.  It’s wonderful and really French.  You can smell Paris!  Maybe that’s not a good advert, but it’s lovely; a great piece about working-class people that is interesting and a bit unusual.

BD:    Tell me about Louise.  What kind of a woman is she?

FL:    She is wanting to be a liberated woman, but she can’t break away from her family background.  She adores her father but he won’t let her go.  It is a potentially very unhealthy relationship with her father.  Her mother is very, very strong and very cruel.  They’re over-protective and they don’t want her to grow up and leave the nest.  She breaks out and finds love, and then the mother comes with this tale about the father being terribly ill and drags her back home again.  She’s caught up back in this claustrophobic attic atmosphere.

BD:    Is she happy with Julien?

FL:    Only for the time being.  I don’t think it’s a lasting relationship, but she’s tasted freedom and love and excitement.  It’s something she didn’t get too much of at home.  But I think that relationship probably is over by the end of the opera.  She’ll look for somebody more like her father, probably.

BD:    Didn’t Charpentier right a sequel to it called Julien?

lott FL:    He did, yes, and I don’t know it.  I don’t know what happened in that.  But I do love the music, especially the wonderful aria, the only thing everybody knows, ‘Depuis le jour’.
  I will be doing La Voix Humaine, which is great.

BD:    We had that here two years ago and Josephine Barstow sang it.  It had a good success.  It was paired with Pagliacci, and she sang in both operas!

FL:    Oh my goodness!  Yes, she’s a great singer.  We did it on the Glyndebourne tour in 1977, and then it was paired with The Cunning Little Vixen.

BD:    That’s something we’ve just begun to experience here in Chicago
Janáček.  We had Katya Kabanova, and I hope we get more. 

FL:    Oh, it’s wonderful.  There’s something so heart-rending in that music.  I really couldn’t bear to listen to The Cunning Little Vixen when I was a student at the Academy.  I was supposed to understudy the Fox, but I managed to get out of it because I didn’t like understudying things... although if I hadn’t understudied Pamina, I probably wouldn’t have gotten my career off the ground because I jumped for somebody at the English National Opera as Pamina.

BD:    You’ve sung for both companies
The English National Opera and Covent Garden?

FL:    Yes.  I started with English National Opera.  I haven’t done much with Covent Garden.  The first thing I sang there was We Come to the River by Henze, which was the premiere.  I’ve been so lucky really with the things I’ve done.   It’s the only time in my career where I really felt that I might as well have not been there.

BD:    That is the one with the three orchestras?

FL:    Yes, that’s right, and I was the Second Soldier
’s Wife.  We had the most amazing, wonderful costumes and so much money spent on it.

BD:    Did it go over with a bang or was it a flop?

FL:    It was a pretty fair whimper, I would say; not a great success.  It has never been back anyway, but it had a cast of fifty-seven or something.  So everybody was employed for a bit.

BD:    What advice do you have for modern composers who want to write opera?

FL:    Tunes would be nice!  Get to know a singer!  Find out about voices!  People do write the most extraordinary things.  I suppose the majority of singers don’t have perfect pitch.  I don’t know what proportion of the human race has perfect pitch.  I don’t.  I have relative pitch and I’m quite a good sight-reader but if you have the ability to pick notes out of the air, that’s very useful for modern music.  But for the rest of us, it’s such a struggle.  You get a kind of muscular memory of pitch and notes.  Arias that I sing a lot I can more or less start off in the right key without a piano.  I don’t think I’m lazy, really.  I work quite hard, but the thought of spending weeks and weeks struggling to master something that I’m not going to like and will probably never do again, puts me off now.  That’s probably a very bad way of looking at things, but ...

BD:    Well you only have a certain amount of time!

FL:    That’s right, that’s right.

BD:    Will you come back to Chicago?

FL:    Oh, I hope so, I really hope so.  Please ask me back!  I love it here.  The company is so exceptionally warm and friendly.  It’s a fantastic theater, lovely orchestra, wonderful people, marvelous standard.  I really have enjoyed it. 

BD:    Thank you for spending some time with me this afternoon.

FL:    A pleasure.

Felicity Lott in Chicaago

Lyric Opera of Chicago

1987-88  Marriage of Figaro (Countess) with Ramey, Ewing, Raimondi, von Stade, Korn, Kern, Benelli; Davis, Hall
1991-92  Marriage of Figaro (Countess) with Ramey, McLaughlan/Hall, Shimel, Mentzer/von Stade, Loup, Palmer, Benelli; Davis, Hall
1994-95  Capriccio (Countess) with Streit, Gilfrey, Rootering, Finley, Bottone, Lawrence; Davis, Cox, Tallchief
1999-00  Fledermaus (Rosalinda) with Evans, Bottone, Allen, Castle, Nolen, Del Carlo; Hager, Copley, Tallchief

Chicago Symphony Orchestra

January, 1990  [Performances and recording]  B Minor Mass [Bach] with von Otter, Blochwitz, Shimell, Howell; Solti, Hillis

© 1987 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded at her apartment in Chicago on November 19, 1987.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB in 1992, 1997 and 2000.  This transcription was made in 2014, and posted on this website at that time.  My thanks to British soprano Una Barry for her help in preparing this website presentation.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.

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

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