Soprano  Marni  Nixon
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie

marni nixon

 "Loverly" soprano Marni Nixon has ensured herself a proper place in film history although most moviegoers would not recognize her if they passed her on the street. But if you heard her, that might be a horse of a different color. Marni is one of those unsung heroes (or should I say "much sung" heroes) whose incredible talents were given short shrift at the time. For those who think film superstars such as Deborah Kerr, Natalie Wood, and Audrey Hepburn possessed not only powerhouse dramatic talents but amazing singing voices as well...think again. Kerr's Anna in The King and I (1956), Natalie's Maria in West Side Story (1961), and Audrey's Eliza in My Fair Lady (1964) were all dubbed by the amazing Marni Nixon, and nowhere in the credits will you find that fact.

Born Marni McEathron in Altadena, California, she was a former child actress and soloist with the Roger Wagner Chorale in the beginning. Trained in opera, yet possessing a versatile voice for pop music and easy standards as well, she not only sang for Arnold Schönberg and Igor Stravinsky but also recorded light songs. Marni made her Broadway musical debut in 1954 in a show that lasted two months but nothing came from it. In 1955, the singer contracted to dub Deborah Kerr in The King and I (1956) was killed in a car accident in Europe and a replacement was needed. Marni was hired...and the rest is history. Much impressed, the studios brought her in to "ghost" Ms. Kerr's voice once again in the classic tearjerker An Affair to Remember (1957). From there she went on to make Natalie Wood and Audrey Hepburn sound incredibly good with such classic songs as "Tonight" and "Wouldn't It Be Loverly."

She finally appeared on screen in a musical in The Sound of Music (1965) starring Julie Andrews, who physically resembles Marni. The role is a small one, however, and she is only given a couple of solo lines in "How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?" as a singing nun. Marni's vocal career in films dissolved by the mid 1960s, but she continued on with concerts and in symphony halls, while billing herself as "The Voice of Hollywood" in one-woman cabaret shows. Throughout the years, she has played on the legit stage, including the lead roles in The King and I and The Sound of Music, and in her matronly years has been seen as Fraulein Schneider in Cabaret, and in the musicals Follies and 70 Girls 70. Her last filmed singing voice was as the grandmother in the animated feature Mulan (1998) in the 1990s. Married three times, twice to musicians; one of her husbands, Ernest Gold, by whom she had three children, was a film composer and is best known for his Academy Award-winning epic Exodus (1960).

- IMDb Mini Biography by Gary Brumburgh 

A few bits of trivia about her, also from the Internet Movie Database, plus a booking ad.

Started out at the age of four as a violinist and had a singing act with her sisters by age eight.

Earned her reputation as "Singing Voice of the Stars" by "ghosting" other film luminaries as well, including Margaret O'Brien, Janet Leigh, and Jeanne Crain in some of their song sequences. She even touched up some singing parts for Marilyn Monroe in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953), dubbing the phrase "These rocks don't lose their shape" and some higher notes in the "Diamond's Are a Girl's Best Friend" number.

She starred in her own local children's TV show in Seattle entitled Boomerang in the late 70s and early 80s and won four Emmys for her efforts.

Toured extensively with both Liberace and Victor Borge.


In June of 1987, Marni Nixon was back in Chicago to hear a group of singers audition.  She graciously took time from her schedule to speak with me, and here is what was said that afternoon . . . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:    You are here in Chicago to listen to voices and to judge voices.  What do you look for when you are listening to all the new voices?

Marni Nixon:    If you can talk about voices in hypothetical terms, I look for a voice that can really tell a story through music, and that has at its disposal the finest kind of musical sound it can make.  The person has to have a personality and they have to have intelligence to know when to use what and how much.  Sometimes big huge voices can get away with operatic pyrotechnics and think that’s enough for opera.  It never really is, but you can get by with that.  On the concert stage, to me that’s where the highest artistry still lives.  We used to talk about ‘Lieder singing’, and now we don’t say ‘Lieder’ anymore or even ‘art songs’.  It’s just songs!  So you find that combination of a person whose voice is developed enough and who has an artistic concept of why to sing what kind of things, and how to program.  They must communicate, because to me any kind of singing can be really boring, especially nowadays where we can turn out gorgeous sounds.  We can teach beautiful singers and just push a button and everybody sings beautifully, but if there’s no meaning behind it there’s no reason for it, and there’s no place for them.  So I look for the person who will be a representative
like a missionary who will represent music in its highest formthat can make chamber music with a pianist and with a small ensemble, who can really beautify that and reach a single person right in the core.  My secret purpose is to revitalize or re-describe and redefine the concert, the recital stage.

BD:    Redefine it how?

MN:    Vocal recitals don’t exist anymore, really.  The business as a recital singer doesn’t exist.

BD:    Is this good or bad?

MN:    Oh, it’s bad!  However, as any trend, you use your rage and anger and horror in a constructive way to see what went wrong, find out what can we do to fix it up, and think about what new form can we devise so that the recital serves a social function.

BD:    So what has gone wrong?

nixonMN:    It’s like defining what’s gone wrong with Broadway.  It’s such a complex problem.  First of all, just to dip into the circle in some way, I don’t know what starts what or in what sequence it happened, but there’s been an over-emphasis on huge operatic voices.  You have to make a career operatically to exist economically as a singer, so the song in the meantime is what you learn before you really get where you want to get.  This is the impression people coming out of universities have, and the universities have taught them repertoire that was necessary to exist in the vocal realm thirty years ago.  The teachers only know that.  The students learn that very well, and faster and quicker than they used to.  They come out of the universities, and there’s nothing there.  Then they find that actors who can’t sing are getting the jobs.  Why?  Because they can communicate, and one forgets the fact that they can’t sing, or they eventually learn how to sing besides, or they go into opera.  The opera world requires the singers to sing in these huge auditoriums.  They have to become amazons, and all the nuance goes away.  So the satisfaction in singing a song
if you sing it that waygoes down the drain.  It doesn’t hit the average person, and it doesn’t tell a story anymore if you sing it too operatically.  And yet these huge auditoriums make it necessary to produce these huge sounds, and you have to spend so much of your energy and time just producing the sound that you forget the meaning behind it, or it doesn’t come through.  So I think the concert organizations gradually were fed by the agents who were pushing the operatic people, and would buy people to do recitals that didn’t know really how to do recitals but would sing a lot of operatic arias in a row, and said that was a recital.  Eventually the people who used to go to recitalsmaybe the European public who used to love German Lieder and French Mélodies, those older people who were born in Europe and came over here — are now dying away, and their generation is now being fed on instant gratification on television.  They don’t have all that knowledge of those kinds of songs.  They get fed so much of the opera that they never had the lack of any kind of entertainment.  So they don’t seek the recital out as some necessary part of their cultural way of being, or to help their soul hear these things.  So gradually all of these things come to play, and now everybody’s talking about it and writing about it, and the singers are really able to identify that problem a little bit, and can choose to say they don’t want to do opera.  Their voice isn’t big enough, so they’re going to do concerts, but there aren’t any concerts, so they’re going to design a special program for their church or for their parents and their friends, and so you get to starting again from scratch what the recital did in the very beginning.  That’s what I think is happening.  It’s like a backlash of this huge overblown sound.

BD:    Can you be directly helpful with all of this?

MN:    I do a lot of judging of contests and a lot of master classes at this point, and visit a lot of university and school situations in conjunction with recitals.  Now that the problems are defined, there are enough people who really know what the problems are and everybody is making sure that those requisites of being a good recitalist and a good singer exist not just in operatic terms.  Also they can educate the agents and can maybe educate the organizations that hire.  As a judge I feel very honored because it’s not only a forum whereby people can learn standard and contemporary repertoire, they can also define the American scene and help the world culturally.  They can help themselves and their communities, and you help them by defining the best so that everybody that’s been involved in the contest or knows about singing can hear these singers and see why that person is good and understand the signs of excellence, and try to emulate that.

BD:    Are you basically encouraged by what you hear in all of these auditions?

MN:    [Ponders a moment]  Not always.  In one respect I’m encouraged that there is so much talent and that everybody is devoting so much time to it.  But I’m discouraged because all of the people who are auditioning could be with the right educational focus.  They could be ten or twenty times better than they are really fast if the teachers understood the problems and could transfer that to the students.  It’s not that there isn’t a lot of talent around; it’s that we’ve required the singers to get to places too fast.  We skip by the hard element
which is to really get into the musicthinking that just learning the notes and learning the dynamics is enough.  Now our requirements are much more specific, much higher than they used to be.  The advent of television can be used in a positive way because the camera picks up singers and you see right away if they’re motivated or not.  You see what’s behind the eyes.  If you get dead eyes, even though they’re singing for huge auditoriums it can be seen on the screen.  It’s the real stars that have that intent.  You can make that big or small, but the intent is always the same, and that is the hardest partto really thread the material that you sing through your own personality and make it sound as if you are singing it.  Yet you need to have it right, with all the discipline of the requirementshaving the bars and the dynamics and everything that’s written exactly right — but it’s coming through this particular person.

BD:    Is there any chance you’re expecting too much out of the singers who are auditioning, that they’re not ready yet to give you what you’re looking for?

MN:    Then we don’t choose them, but there are some we will have to weed out.  We have 350 applicants, I guess.  500 applied and the office chose 350 to go through.  We have to narrow that down to twelve to go onto the semi-finals.

BD:    So you take the best of the best?

MN:    Oh yes, and then there are too many, so now we’re going to have fights about that.  Then we go down to six semi-finalists and three finalists.  So we will have the cream of the crop.

*     *     *     *     *

nixonBD:    Are the colleges and universities perhaps turning out too many people who want to be singers?

MN:    Yes, but there are two sides to that.  Singing for its own sake is very important, and you have to be trained to do that.  As far a professional things, those problems have to be addressed.  Coming from my weird career background from all the dubbing that I’ve done, even though I’m classically trained and have been singing that way all my life, people know me and think of me as a popular singer, which I’m not.  I’ve had to learn how to do that because that’s what they wanted me for, and that’s the way they know my name.  That happens to be the greatest number of people because it’s involved with  pictures which are shown to millions, and in the process of learning how to do that, I’ve learned to respect the fact that you can’t fake anything.  You can’t fake being a popular singer.  People can tell.  You can’t just say,
“Oh I’m just going to sing this stuff because it’s easy, and get away with it.  That’s what I mean by faking it.  There’s a different focus, and it’s really out of the acting process when you really learn the intense of the reason for the song and the musical sense of style, and what’s required vocally of all the different kinds of singing in music.  You get to the point where you really know how to do a program that is appealing in a certain sense to the lighter faction.  You can sing a popular song and you can choose which kind of popular music to sing that you know you can sing.  It’s precisely because I’ve had to learn how to define the popular thing that’s taught me the intent of how to really be my classical self more.

BD:    You put out a record that they call ‘cross-over’.  Should there really be a barrier between the two styles that they have to jump across?

MN:    That’s one thing about the university
a lot of the times the kids themselves don’t have that barrier at all.  If they’re given something that is relevant to their lives, they will accept anything popular or classical and get to the core of it and enjoy it for its own sake.  There are barriers that have to be gotten rid of, but at the same time each piece has to have its perimeters defined even more.  But just because we’re talking about getting rid of barriers, you can’t sing Mozart like a popular song.  You’ve got sing Mozart like Mozart.  You’ve got to sing a popular song like a popular song, and that’s the point that people don’t address.  Popular singers do it, and classically trained people want to sing popular songs but they can’t do it because they overload it with too much tone, with too much training, with things that are not street, which are not ordinary.  And yet you can do that and still use your voice in a beautiful way if you know what you’re doing, and be popular.  I’m all about audience development and audience growth in numbers.  That’s when the boundaries have to be defined and then arbitrary ones broken apart.  Certain people are doing that, sometimes consciously, sometimes unconsciously.  In this Gershwin record that I have, I approach it like a 1930s popular singer, not jazz-oriented but out of the era it was done.  Think of Helen Morgan, for instancewhen you hear her early records, that’s classical singing just in a small way.  A torch song doesn’t have to be low and have no tone, it’s about the intent behind it.  So it’s redefining those things.  Also the classical audience is now accepting our American heritage more and more, like Ives was accepted.  Earlier in my career I was one of the first people in the west coast who did Charles Ives even though he wasn’t accepted.  Now he’s accepted as really standard literature.  Jerome Kern, Gershwin and that era is in some instances now is really accepted as being classically-orientated, as a classical piece even though it’s got jazz roots.  I really hate the term ‘cross-over’ because it’s defined in such weird ways sometimes.


BD:    It seems like ‘cross-over’ is the popular coming into the classical, rather than the classical music going to the popular audience.

MN:    True, but it can be the other way around.  Even though I don’t necessarily like the Linda Ronstadt recordings the Gershwin or Nelson Riddle things, her audience that bought that record suddenly was introduced to Gershwin.  They’d never heard these songs before, so now they’re all inquiring about Gershwin and these songs.  They’re all looking into singing them, and now they’re trying to go round finding the people that sing them right.  Somehow in their search they’re getting to the people who do them well, and so their tastes have been upgraded a little.  So that’s kind of ‘crossing over’.  When you talk about a popular singer singing a classical thing in a popular way, I don
’t know whether that’s really good.  It’s probably helping, in a certain sense, like Barbara Streisand singing her Classical Barbara album.  People ran to find that music.  She didn’t sing the music acceptably in classical terms, except that it was as pure like a jazz tone constantly.  But the people heard that music, so now when they want to hear the real thing maybe they’ll go to a concert and hear the Pavane or they’ll listen to Ravel.  My son is Andrew Gold, who was Linda Ronstadt’s musical director for many years.  He did a lot of her hitsplaying the keyboards and guitars and arranging thingsand he’s done a lot of hits on his own including Thank you for being a friend which is the theme song for the TV show Golden Girls, and the hit Lonely Boy.  He has group now called Wax, and they had a hit last year called Right between the Eyes.  Anyway, he’s been a biggie in rock terms for many years.  I remember in the 50s with Felix Slatkin I did the Bacchianas Brasileiras No 5, with the eight cellos, which I do a lot and which is favorite piece of mine.  Andrew was coming to those concerts in those days, and I had a manager who decided that they were really going to make me popular.  They were going to have me pick my favorite tunes, almost like parlor tunes that were everybody’s favoriteslike Ave Maria and Songs my Mother taught me, and things like that.  They were going to make real rock arrangements of those, but I was going to sing it straight.  So they had this Bacchianas arranged for saxophone, harmonica and synthesizer that was making weird sounds.  It was so interesting and it had sort of a flavor, but I played it for my son one day.  He was in his twenties and he said, “Mom, don’t you have your original recording of that?”  So I put it on and he said, “Do you think that ‘my crowd’ would really think that this hodgepodge, terrible ghastly thing that you’ve done with this Bacchianas is something they would think is better than the original?  That’s not true.  When you hear the original, it’s gorgeous.  It’s beautiful and everybody falls down with the melody.  It hits a chord that just makes you weep.  That’s beautiful.  The other thing is just patronizing.  That’s not cross-over and they wouldn’t like it.”  The problem is you wouldn’t get them into the auditorium doing the original!  So we’re talking about marketing.  That’s really a major problem at this point.  How do we capture that audience which would listen to the classical things and which would listen to the lighter things well sung?  They don’t have to be all sung by Frank Sinatra.  You can listen to Frank Sinatra’s old records and die, but there’s no reason why they wouldn’t admire good singing if somehow they were there.  At this point the trick is marketing, even though I hate that term.  It’s so high-tech, and we classical people just cringe thinking of that, except that really is defining what happens when you try to create vocal recitals.  You have to do it.  You have to do a lot with television, and yet television itself is not the same as coming to something live. 

nixonBD:    When you’re doing a live performance, do you ever feel that you’re competing with your recorded material?

MN:    That’s another problem.  For this Gershwin recording I painted myself into a corner because I can only do it with that pianist, with Lincoln Mayorga, who is a monster.  He is a jazz pianist and I knew him when I was at the Academy of the West with Lotte Lehmann.  He was a classical pianist and superb accompanist, became a superb concert pianist and then went into doing studio work.  He did a lot of things with Lou Busch and ragtime, and he knew all sorts of styles and played with bands and did arrangements and studio stuff.  Now he’s got his own record company, Sheffield Records.  They did a wonderful recording, by the way, in Moscow with the Moscow Philharmonic.  The American conductor, Larry Smith, conducted Russian things and the Russian conductor [Dmitri Kitayenko] conducted American music.  It’s just been released and it’s an interesting record.  Anyway, Mayorga’s a brilliant person, and he does his own arrangements of these Gershwin songs.  He can remember them and do concerts with them, but you can’t write them down and say to a commercial pianist that these are my arrangement of these things.  I can’t get him anymore because he’s on his own private tours.  So now the next recording that I’m doing is a Kern record for Reference Records.  We’re doing it with instruments and he’s making the arrangements and also playing.  So it’s like in the popular scene, they usually make a recording and then go around promoting the recording and doing concerts
which are exactly like the recordingsand selling the recordings.  So it’s happening in the classical way too.  When I do recitals, I will be in the lobby and sign my records.  It’s a part of the business at this point. 

BD:    Is there too much business, and is it starting to interfere with the artistic merit?

MN:    Yes, definitely.

BD:    In there any way we can get away from that, or is it here to stay?

MN:    Subsidy!   But how that is going to happen I don’t know.   I suppose there still exists wonderful subsidies and corporate subsidies, but if you ask for too little they don’t want to subsidize it.  Like Texaco, you have to ask for a $1 million for the Met broadcast.  You can’t just ask for $10,000 to set up one recital.  They won’t give money for that.  [Laughs]  So it’s to know how to ask.  There are foundations in the NEA.  The National Institute for Music Theater, which I’m involved with in several panels, gives money for developing new works and new projects, and they do a singer career development award grant.  There is the George London grant for operatic talent, and now the Mary Martin grant for music theater talent.  But what you do after that?  I’m concerned about the singers wrecking their voices too soon.  They’re pulled out of the wind too fast.

BD:    [With a sly grin]  They should wait and wreck their voices later!  [Both laugh heartily] 

MN:    If they developed their voices carefully, doing recitals and not having to sing their guts out too much on the operatic stage, and in oratorios where that is not required, even mature people could sustain themselves and develop.  Then the voices could get larger and gradually we would have the Wagner voices like Kirsten Flagstad or Birgit Nilsson that then can exist for a long range.  [See my Interview with Birgit Nilsson.]  Now we have these
flash people who can make it fast and early, and get worn out because it’s too heavy and they have to sing too much.  It’s become the routine.

BD:    To grab it quick and get off?

MN:    Yes, and the poor singers don’t know.  The managers say that you have got to do it when it’s happening, and there are very few managers who really know how to guide a singer.  The singer has to learn how to do it, but they only learn that by gradually finding whom to listen to and who really knows.  They don’t know who really knows.  Everybody tells them they know what is good for them, so they have to learn by themselves, and by that sometimes it’s too late.

BD:    So how does the singer avoid those pitfalls?

MN:    Listen to me!  [Both laugh]  Gradually the knowledge sifts through.  They have to somehow maintain themselves financially and not have to accept so much.  I have students that come to me that work all day with responsible jobs, and at night they go to dance class, they go to their coaching, they go to their opera workshops and they come to their lessons.  They learn things on the side, and you know they’re trying to have some kind of private life besides.  Some of them, God forbid, have kids.  How they do it it’s just too discouraging.

BD:    It’s simply too much?

MN:    Yes.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Let’s talk a little bit about opera.  You’ve sung quite a number of operatic roles.  Do you enjoy being on the opera stage?

MN:    Oh, I love it.

BD:    More than the recital stage?

nixonMN:    I enjoy recitals the most because you can define the material.  It’s really your show, and you can do it exactly for your voice.  But there is something about the operatic stage where you’ve got the dramatics for you.  You’ve got the costumes, you’ve got the hair, you’ve got the orchestra, you’ve got the fellow performers.  You can just plug yourself into it and really get yourself into the role.  You can really be complete within that.  I find that the most glorious thing.  I miss it a lot.  I miss doing a lot of oratorio singing, which I also like. 

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

MN:    [Somewhat sadly]  Yes...

BD:    That was sort of a sad

MN:    Yes, it is sad because it’s all on the artists shoulder.  The artists will be the ones who will do things for nothing to keep the values alive eventually.  The people who maybe have been stung or can’t sustain the crazy career lifestyle they put you through will go back to their grass roots community and maybe will start their own little opera companies, or plug in to the community opera that already exists, and will define for that community some kind of excellence.  Eventually the young people will learn from them, and will come around full circle to the big cities and will know more on how to define themselves.  But it’s all so rough.  If only there were some kind of umbrella organization that could exist, or if there were some kind of subsidy or some kind of training ground.  This is an eternal dream I’m sure in everybody’s day.  But now it’s going so fast that it seems to me all the advocates are going down the drain because they can’t sustain themselves financially.  Television entertainment has deadened our minds, and the singers have no knowledge of literature.  They don’t know history, they don’t know the famous singers, they don’t run around to look at who’s in town.
Oh, there’s this singer!  I know this singer and she’s supposed to be a good recitalist.  I’ll do anything to get out of school and cut classes and go to hear this person and then learn these songs.  They want to learn what they’re told to learn quickly, and they have their goals defined now.  I’m going to get to this audition.  I’m going to learn these pieces and I’m going to win this audition.  I’m going to get $2,000 and then I’m going to win this next audition, and then I’m going to learn this program.  It’s not defining their whole life ahead of them. 

BD:    They’re short-sighted?

MN:    Yes, and then they’re not complete.  It is sad. 

BD:    Is there a specific role you’ve performed more than others?

MN:    I’ve done a lot of Mozart.

BD:    Tell me the secret of singing Mozart!

MN:    Mozart fits my voice very well, so I didn’t have to think about things.  I didn’t have to first go through it, looking at it with a fine tooth comb for vocal problems.  The singing of it was easy for me, perhaps it was because I had an instrumental background.  I was a violinist first, and I could always get to the music quickly.  If it’s dramatically correct, it’s musically correct, and vice-versa because there’s so much dimension in the role.  It’s like the classic era.  Maybe it’s that instrumental approach that I liked, and yet also being trained as an actress it was bringing those two things together.  I also love Puccini.  That was more difficult because it took a lot more meaty a voice.  I had to learn how to really sing it more, but it’s emotionally satisfying in that way.  Emotionally the most satisfying thing was Traviata, because that’s like three different people.  You have to sing the different acts differently, and I only learned how to really sing it after the first performance.  It’s something about performance level that only happens at a certain point, and then you can go from there and perfect it.  Somehow it doesn’t happen in rehearsals, but it’s that way with anything.  But Traviata is the hardest thing I think I’ve ever sung.

BD:    What’s the easiest thing you’ve ever sung
— or is any of it easy?

MN:    The things that come to me easily now are the lighter things.  Some songs by Carol Hall that I do; other really light things; some Gershwin because I think my heart kind of lives in that 1930s sort of innocent, vulnerable time, and my voice goes along with it, that it is a kind of sweet sound when I sing right.  When I do a cabaret act and also in my concert programs I have to balance it in a different way, but I always have to make sure that I purposefully put in biting things, driving things, gutsy things because my voice has a certain sound to it which can get boring. 

BD:    Is that not true of everyone?

MN:    No.  I think some mezzos and real rich voiced people have a lot of density, a lot of different kinds of colors.  I’ve had to gradually change.  As my voice has matured, I’ve gotten that much more.  But coming from a coloratura side and doing the pyrotechnics, which I always hated, it was always like an instrument.  [She imitates the famous aria of the Queen of the Night from The Magic Flute of Mozart.]  You just flit around, and you don’t have so much dimension to your middle range.  So you have to find ways much more carefully to get different colors for the darkness and other things.  But it’s true that every voice has to discover how to do that, and some voices have an easier time and find an easier way.  Some voices are perfect!


BD:    What’s the purpose of music in today’s society?

MN:    I think it’s to connect on a deeper level than the everyday.  There’s something special about music.  It’s not only the harmony of harmonious things, but it’s the creating order out of chaos even in a classical piece that defines something in very frenetic terms.  That is creating order out of something, the violence that exists, let’s say, making sense out of it in non-verbal terms.  I look at it almost like a religious sense, a mystic sense.  I don’t care whether it’s a happy silly song or whatever, there’s something that everybody wants to sing this.  Symbolically when you think of the word ‘sing’, it has a ring in it.  It has a freedom.  It has a
soaringness, which is something that gets us out of the humdrum, that helps us understand our own humdrum things.  It’s like art itself.  It’s necessary to survive.  That’s the only thing we have in our civilization to sustain us.  We even make arts out of living, out of doing housework.  If you make an art out of it, then it’s fun.  Then it can exist and it doesn’t grate on us.  Then we can keep our minds and souls free to respond moment to moment as we ought to respond.  There’s meaning then, and yet it’s not overly intellectualized.  It’s a deeper experience than  ourselves.  We long for a religious connection, whether or not we define it in such terms.  Even our electing of presidents nowadays we feel there’s our leader and he can do anything.  Now it’s so destructive when we realize that they’re prone to all the lousy things that we as average people sometimes tend to do.  They’ve just people, too, and we don’t like that.  We want them to be super-human, and it’s because we don’t have enough super-human things that we deal with so that we project it onto other people.

nixonBD:    Do we expect singers to be super-human?

MN:    No, but in order to sing you’re making yourself open.  To own an audience is to have a super-human experience.  So when somebody sings and just zings the air around, feel this zing through the core of our bodies, and if then the words mean something, resonate, that’s super-human.  That’s what I call hitting the core of your heart.  It doesn’t have to be defined in mystical terms, but it’s the same thing, I think.

BD:    Is singing fun?

MN:    Oh yes it’s fun.  It’s the highest glory.  When you’re up there with an orchestra doing a concert, somehow you know the orchestra is loving the experience.  Not that it’s that way in rehearsals!  Usually the musicians are terrible, thinking,
Oh God, here’s another lousy singer.  We got to go through this program!  But when you catch them, and they’re suddenly excited and we’re going to make music together, all of us somehow doing it all together in tandem with all the musicians and yourself and the conductor, all sharing this musical experience, when you’re really on, when everybody is on and it all connects, you’ve reached all those people.  You can’t help that experience and the audience cannot help but receive that.  That’s the greatest high in the world.  It is beyond belief, and that’s what we get used to.  Sometimes it’s just that the work to get to that point is tremendous, but because you know the rewards can be so great, you just keep on.  Sometimes it never gets that way.  Sometimes the orchestra’s out of tune and the conductor doesn’t follow you, or you misread a cue, or you forget your words, or the plumbing leaks and the piano breaks, and somebody’s crazy out in the audience and they didn’t come to hear that.  Sometimes it’s just awful, and that’s when it’s really hard work.  But the more experience you get, the more you know how to at least get something across, which is then worthwhile.  But then it’s really pulling teeth!  And then there are the surroundings, the life, the hotels, the being away from your family and stuff like that.  That’s hard.  But I don’t think about the working on your voice, the working on the materialunless the material is just bad and you finally realize that and you give it up, or you have to keep on with it.  Then it’s really a drudgery.  But most of the time it’s just a glory to be able to do it and to have an assignment, and even to prepare something on speculationwhich we’re always doing ahead of time.  You, as a singer, can’t just be hired like a playing musician.  They get a job and then they go and read the music and do it.  With singing you have to learn it all beforehand, and maybe you’ll get a job singing that.

nixonBD:    Do the composers writing today know how to write for the voice?

MN:    Now I see a backlash.  For a while it was too avant-garde.  I did a lot of things
the complete chamber works of Webern I recorded for Columbia Records, the chamber music of Stravinsky, the first Cabaret Songs of Schoenberg I did on RCA a couple of years ago.

BD:    What about American composers?

MN:    John Harbison is writing me a piece for 1988 that I’m premiering and recording as far as I understand.  [See my Interview with John Harbison.]  I haven’t seen the music yet.  One side is going to be for popular recording, and the other side is going to be for classical.  So that’s a kind of a cross-over!  There some very good composers, yes.  It’s getting better now than it used to be.

BD:    What advice do you have for composers of arts songs?

MN:    They should learn by being around singers.

BD:    Should they study voice?

MN:    They should study voice.  I think that’s a good idea.  They should be around good singers and they should listen to a lot of singers.  But they should get acquainted with singers.  Go to their homes, hear them rehearse, and get them to describe things.  Listen when they say,
But I can’t do this note easily because it’s the EE vowel is a high A, and if I go from AH it takes a little time to shift gears and do this nicely!  Eventually they will get the feeling of it.  It would be nice to be as in Schubert’s era, where the songs of those days were like popular songs of the era.  Everybody sang them and so you could hear somebody sing them and edit them afterwards.  You could hear your performances done immediately.  That’s half the battle, I think.

BD:    Is Harbison tailoring this new piece around your voice?

MN:    Yes.  He knows my voice more or less.  We’ve been in contact.  He’s heard many recordings of mine.  It’ll be interesting to see if he sends me the piece fait accomplis or whether we’ll get together and I’ll make suggestions.  I’ve had other pieces that have been tailored for me where the composer has gotten together before they make the final thing we try it out.  I’ll say,
“There are some problems here, and I can’t do that this fast.  This word can’t be understood, and this sounds better in my voice if I did it here, and they will adjust.  Most of the time it’s not my peculiarities, but it’s the peculiarity of the soprano voice.  Composers find it pretty difficult to get their works performed and to hear them, and that’s half the battle right away.  When I do a recording of any piece, even if I do a commercial or something, I will record it and then say, I don’t care what it was like.  I know that was bad but I want to hear it.  Just from hearing it back I can do so many adjustments that they don’t even know I can do.  I tell them, I can do this better, and artistically it would sound better this way.  So it becomes like a co-operation thing.

BD:    [With a gentle nudge]  Can you make a commercial artistic?

MN:    [Smiles]  Well, as much as the material permits.  [Both laugh] 

BD:    Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me today.

MN:    Oh, I could go on and on and on!  This is my subject. 

nixon               nixon

nixon              nixon

© 1987 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in Chicago on June 10, 1987.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB in 1990, and again in 1995 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, 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.