Mezzo-Soprano / Soprano Janis
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie
|Janis Martin (born 16 August
1939) is an American opera singer who sang leading roles first as a
mezzo-soprano and later as a soprano in opera houses throughout Europe
and the United States.
She was born in Sacramento, California and studied at California State
University-Sacramento and the University of California-Berkeley. She
began studying singing in Sacramento with Julia Monroe and later
studied in New York with Lili Wexberg and Otto Gruth. She made her
operatic debut in 1960 at San Francisco Opera as Theresa in La sonnambula, and at 21 was the
youngest member of the company that season. She continued to sing a
number of comprimario mezzo-soprano roles with the company through
1969, including Sister Anne in the 1961 world premiere of Norman Dello
Joio's opera Blood Moon.
[Names which are links refer to my interviews elsewhere on my
website.] She returned as a soprano in 1970 in the
title role of Tosca and
appeared there regularly though 1990, when she sang the role of
Brünnhilde in Die Walküre,
Siegfried, and Götterdämmerung for the
company's complete performance of Wagner's Ring Cycle.
On 23 March 1962 she had won the National Finals of Metropolitan Opera
National Council Auditions singing "Mon cœur s'ouvre à ta voix"
from Samson et Dalila, and
later that week made her New York City Opera debut as Mrs. Grose in The Turn of the Screw. Her
Metropolitan Opera debut came on 19 December 1962 when she sang Flora
Bervoix in La traviata with
Anna Moffo as Violetta. She went on to sing 147 performances at the Met
between 1962 and 1997, first in mezzo-soprano roles, including Singer
in the 1964 US premiere of Menotti's The
Last Savage and from 1973 leading soprano roles including Kundry
in Parsifal, Marie in Wozzeck, Senta in Der Fliegende Holländer, and
the title role in Tosca. Her
final appearance with the company was in 1997 when she sang
Brünnhilde in Die Walküre
with Plácido Domingo as Siegmund and Deborah Voigt as Sieglinde.
Martin sang with the Deutsche Oper Berlin from 1971 to 1988 and at the
Bayreuth Festival from 1968 to 1973, also in 1989, and 1995-1997. She
retired from the stage in 2000 to live in Nevada County, California,
where she gives singing lessons and occasional recitals and concerts.
Janis Martin visited in Chicago in six seasons -- five at
Lyric Opera (as seen in the box below) and in May of 1976 at Orchestra
Hall for The Flying Dutchman
with the Chicago Symphony conducted by Sir Georg Solti.
included Norman Bailey,
René Kollo, Martti
Talvela, and Werner
Krenn, and the concert-version was presented both here and at Carnegie
Hall, and then recorded.
During her visit in the fall of 1980, she graciously took time to visit
the studios of WNIB for a conversation. I
don't remember exactly why it came up, but we spoke briefly about being
Thank goodness I remember my parts!
Do you use a prompter?
Sometimes, but sometimes the prompter doesn't know just what you want
when you look down to him. He should give everything all the time.
[Surprised] Don't they speak all the lines regularly?
JM: Some do
and some don't. Some think they're bothering you by giving you
your text, but if all of a sudden you need it and they are just then
deciding not to give it to you, that's when you need it -- and it's too
late by the time you've looked down and they've looked down and found
the line. Sometimes you do use them because you're not a machine
and you can have a blackout, and you don't want to have it go on
forever, or sometimes you might twist a word around, or get the next
sentence one sentence too early and it wouldn't work out with the music.
BD: Do you
sing your roles in more than one language?
one opera that I've done in three languages and I'm going to probably
do it in my fourth -- Bluebeard's
Castle, which I did here in Chicago in 1970. That I've
done in English, German, and Italian, and now Maestro Bartoletti wants
me to do it in Florence for the Maggio Musicale in Hungarian. I
told him I would if I have time to come for four days rehearsals for
the staging, and he said he wanted me on any condition. So I'll
try to work it out. I'm very busy at that time, and then to learn
it in Hungarian... Right now I could learn it very easily because
there are a lot of Hungarians around this area.
station where you are right now has a Hungarian-language program, and
the guy has been doing it for forty years! [With a gentle
nudge] Solti is in town right now, so you could go to him!
[Laughs] Oh yes, I'm sure he has a lot of spare time to do that
BD: Did you
like the staging here? [The
production at Lyric Opera had one small door at the back-center of the
stage, and each time it opened and the entire cyclorama "opened" and
revealed projections over the entire back and sides of the stage to go
with each new door.]
Janis Martin at Lyric Opera of Chicago
1970 - Bluebeard's Castle
(Judith) with David Ward; Bartoletti, Puecher
1971 - Tosca
(Tosca) with Bergonzi
1972 - Walküre
(Sieglinde) with Nilsson
Hofmann, Esser, Hoffmann, Rundgren; Leitner
1980 - Lohengrin
Marton, Roar, Sotin
1982 - Tristan und Isolde
(Isolde) with Vickers
JM: I've also
done it on a ramp where there were not the doors, but each time a light
would come on along the ramp. That was enough in a small
theater. Then I did a crazy staging in Frankfurt with Dohnanyi
conducting and Ingvar Wixell was my partner. It was on a double
bill with Schoenberg's Erwartung.
I did not do the Schoenberg -- I had not done it yet, but I've done it
lots and lots of times since then. But in Frankfurt, the director
had me start out on a carousel horse and the wind was blowing through
my hair. I had a white dress with lights all over it, and each
light had a little battery. Later I was in a field and corn was
blowing back and forth. It was just nutty, but sometimes those
kinds of things are fun to do.
BD: Do you
like all this imaginative staging?
depends on what you are singing. I wouldn't want to sing my
vocally most taxing roles doing those gymnastics, no.
BD: In Bluebeard, there are just the two
characters onstage for the whole hour.
JM: Yes, it
can be kind of boring if you don't have two strong people. You
have to know exactly all the time what you're gong to do.
BD: One of
the great theatrical experiences of my life was at a Chicago Symphony
concert version of that opera. When they opened the fifth door
and all that spectacular brass burst forth...
would be shattering, yes.
BD: Let's get
back to Wagner. Do you sing your Wagner roles in one or another
you, if you were asked?
not. In the early part of my career I did sing a Venus in
English, and vowed then and there never to do anything of Wagner in
BD: You don't
think it works?
probably works for the audience, but it doesn't work for me. I
don't like it.
BD: If you
were in the audience would you enjoy it more?
JM: I don't
suppose so because I speak German so fluently, but if I were an
American and did not understasnd German it would be nice to understand
the words. But translations are usually quite archaic. You
can't understand them anyway, and if you do you laugh.
BD: Of course
translation of the Ring is superb. I saw and heard that in
Seattle. There they
did it one week in the original German and the following week in the
English translation. Noel Tyl mentioned to me about having a
memory lapse in English cycle.
JM: I can
understand that. All of a sudden you don't know which language to
sing it in. You know what you want to say, especially if you're
fluent in both languages. It's criminal to make someone do that
-- to go back and forth. They should do it all in one or the
other. However, in Ariadne,
quite often in America the Prologue is done in English and the opera is
in German. I used to sing the Composer, and it's easier to sing
in German, but I think the audience appreciated having it in English.
someday they'll rig up some kind of thing like they have on the
television screen with the running translation in a box on the
floor... [Remember, this
interview was held in the fall of 1980, long before supertitles were
being used in theaters! Perhaps I should get credit (and
royalties) for my idea... (!)]
JM: And too
bad if the singer is on the floor with her face behind all those
words! In the Manon Lescaut
on the TV from the Met recently, I noticed they were on the ground a
lot in the last act and the words were passing all over their
BD: How about
singing two different roles in a single opera?
JM: Oh my,
I've done lots of roles in lots of operas. This is my 20th
anniversary year in opera. I started so very young and I began in
little tiny parts in San Francisco. I studied there for two years
in the Merola training program but was too young to be in a contest
they had out there. I was 18 and 19 and you had to be 21, but Mr.
Adler said that I was very talented and should come and study
there. I learned my first scenes and saw all the rehearsals --
chorus and orchestra, everything.
BD: Is this
good experience for a young singer to witness these rehearsals?
JM: It was
for me. I was eating it all up. I'd never seen an opera
before. I had quickly learned 3 arias to sing for Mr.
Adler. I'd only been studying voice for 3 months when I
auditioned for him. I guess I was a "natural" at that time.
I auditioned for him and then trained with him for two years, and had a
standing room pass to the operas. In the mean time I was going to
the University of California at Berkley. Then I got my contract
for the following season when I jumped in for a girl who had won the
auditions. It was in a television program. She was in two
scenes and I was in two others. I was singing mezzo at that time,
and she got sick the morning of the program. I had learned all of
her things, so I did Suzuki and Maddalena and Martha in Faust and part of the title role of
Carmen. It was
funny. I was changing from my Japanese eyes, and to long hair
back and forth between the old grey wig and the regular one. Mr.
Adler was announcing the program and was calling off-stage, "Janis are
you ready? Can we go on?" At the end he was very pleased
with the way I had handled everything and kept my nerves, and offered
me a contract for the following season. That was in 1960 and I
got very tiny parts. I was an orphan in Rosenkavalier, and the next season
I sang Annina. Then in Germany I sang Octavian and now I sing the
Marschallin, so I really know Resenkavalier
you were asked to do a recording of Rosenkavalier
and sing all the parts that fit your voice. Would you do some
kind of stunt like that?
JM: I don't
think my voice would be suited for Sophie ever, but it would all sound
the same, wouldn't it? Your voice sounds the same whenever you
sing even when you are a different character. You could try to
color it but everybody'd say, "It's her, I can tell!"
of many roles, you've sung Venus, but have you ever done Elisabeth?
JM: I've sung
Venus many many times. It was the first part I ever sang in
Germany. I've sung Elisabeth in concert and I'll sing it next
year in Germany.
BD: Would you
do both on the same evening?
JM: It can be
done but there's no reason to do it. You can say that it's the
different sides of the character, but you don't have to do it. It
can be that was in Tannhäuser's imagination that it's the two
sides of the woman he likes, but it doesn't have to be the very same
BD: Then you get
into Wagner's imagination.
nobody can ask him any more! He had a wild imagination, I must
say; some of the stories, and his twists of the various legends such as
the Ring that he put into it himself.
parts do you sing in the Ring?
JM: I used to
sing Fricka in both operas, but I never did the Götterdämmerung
Waltraute. I've sung two separate Walküren, and Fricka and
Sieglinde, so that's four parts in that opera. In Rheingold I used to sing Fricka and
now I do Freia -- not everywhere, just in my home theater, the Deutsche
Oper in West Berlin. In Siegfried
I don't sing anything and in Götterdämmerung
I used to do a Norn, which is very interesting. I like those
parts; they've very short, very important, and you're through at the
beginning of the opera. Now I sing Gutrune and I'm there the
whole evening and I don't have a bit more to sing. Probably it
won't be too long because everybody's been asking me for years and
years, but I'm starting to get ready to do Brünnhilde. I
will be doing my first Isolde in Zurich in January, and that leads into
that direction. But I've always said that as long as I'm singing
Sieglinde I don't want to do Brünnhilde
because nobody will ask to me to Sieglinde any more, and that happens
to be my very best part of any part I sing. Everybody tells me
they think that's the best thing I've ever sung.
BD: It was a
very satisfying portrayal here.
JM: I feel
very engaged in that opera. I do in most of the parts I sing,
unless it's a part I really can't identify with, and I end up
eventually dropping those roles.
BD: You're to
the point in your career now when you can say "no"?
JM: I've said
"no" for years. I've always been able to say "no" because I've
kept my cool and I've never been so ambitious that I've taken things
that I felt were too much for me.
BD: Is it
hard to say "no"?
JM: Oh, of
course it is because you know if it goes well it might make the
difference as to whether you make a world career or not. I
decided that I would like to take the middle way -- take the big houses
and take the parts I'm offered that I want to do, and if they offer me
things that I don't want to do then I don't do them. Maybe people
get angry if you say "no", but that's too bad because if I feel it's
not a part for me then I don't do it. It takes a lot more
strength than to say "yes" all the time. I think that my voice is
much fresher at my age than a lot of others singers who were much more
ambitious. I would not say I'm not ambitious but I just think
about it a little more.
paced your career in such a way as to not burn yourself out. Is
this the kind of advice you'd give to a young singer?
depends on the temperament. I know I had a lot of temperament,
and if I had gone right into the repertory I sing now I would have
probably sung myself out because I would not have been able to control
my self at a young age. If you can keep cool about it, it is
alright, but if you're too cool then you don't make it very
interesting... and you don't make it either. If you're cool on
stage, that's the bad part. If you're cool when you're thinking
about it and looking at your calendar and being realistic, that's
necessary; knowing that there I'm going to have this much time to
rehearse, and I'll have that much time to get used to the time-change
from the jet-lag, and then there will be that many days for a new role,
that many days to feel comfortable with it, who's the conductor going
to be, who's my partner going to be, etc. There are certain stage
directors who are so taxing that you come crawling out for the first
performance, so I try not to work with them too much.
BD: Do you
prefer doing new productions and premieres as opposed to a set show?
depends on how much time I have. If it's a big new production in
an important house, then you take the time for it. I don't like
to work with people who upset me and have ideas that go against my
convictions. I'm rather traditional. I like new ideas and I
am very excited to be able to talk to a stage director about them, but
I don't like to be forced to do things that I feel are absolutely wrong.
BD: Have you
pulled out of a production in the middle of rehearsals because of
JM: Not in
the middle, but one time it was very close to the beginning. I
must say I'm rather consequential and I'm not hard to get along with,
but I don't accept everything that is thrown at me. There are
some things that are incredible that you can't say yes to if you have
BD: Tell us a
little about the characters you've portrayed. You're doing Ortrud
here in Chicago. Will you eventually do Elsa?
JM: I don't
think so because I don't think anybody's going to think of me as
Elsa. I have rather a light-colored voice for Ortrud, but I don't
believe Ortrud's a mezzo. I never have believed it. Astrid
Varnay was probably the best Ortrud that ever lived, and she was never
a mezzo. Ortrud needs such a strong high voice, and there are
only a couple of places in a couple of ensembles where it's low.
The rest of it is very declamatory and very high.
BD: Do you find it
easy to be menacing?
JM: Well, I'm
such a nice person really... Actually, it's funny. The
people who are the nicest find it easier to be menacing on stage than
some people who are really conniving and terrible. I guess maybe
they don't want to show their true character. Ortrud is not a
very nice lady, but she's convinced that she's right in what she's
BD: Is she
the power rather than Telramund?
I think Telramund is rather in the hands of Ortrud. She puts the
things in his mind to make him think, "Oh yes, I must do this and
that." He is continually looking to Ortrud, "Am I doing this
right?" He relies on her to give him advice, and when she gives
advice to fight against Lohengrin and he loses, he says, "It's all your
fault. You told me to do this." But then I tell him also to
plant this idea in Elsa's mind to ask Lohengrin his name and where he
comes from. I do it myself, too. So he's a little bit of a
puppet, or a marionette under Ortrud's power. She's more of a
force then he is. He has to be strong on stage, but he is the
weaker of the two. I don't think he really realizes just how bad
BD: How would
you feel if, at the end of a performance, the audience was hissing and
booing for the two of you?
JM: I would
not take that as a compliment, but when we are getting into position
before the curtain rises, the chorus will start to hiss and we have a
big laugh before we get going.
BD: Are you
distracted by extraneous things before or during a performance?
JM: I try to
detach myself completely from anything personal while I'm on stage,
starting from just before I step on stage. Five minutes before
you go on, you need to blank out anything else because you need a
tremendous amount of concentration onstage. I find it terribly
distracting to have things like noises from the wings and flies, or
doors opening backstage so you hear the faint sounds of others away
from the performance. In Berlin the stage hands have little
walkie-talkies and you can sometimes hear that, or hear some feedback
from there. Things like that jolt me -- nobody else notices it,
but it irritates me tremendously, because it breaks my
concentration. It makes me angry that people are not more
considerate of the performance that's going on, since that's the most
important thing happening in the house that night.
BD: Does the
conductor waving his baton bother you?
he's part of the performance, but I don't always look! One night
there was a man in the first row, right to the side of the conductor,
and he was reading his program with a little flashlight! This
annoyed me a lot. I wanted to stop the performance and tell him
to put it out! It was driving me crazy!
scolded the audience once.
JM: Well, I'm
not Vickers, and I didn't want to distract the whole audience. If
I am distracted, I would not want the whole audience distracted.
I love Jon, but I don't understand how he could do that, and I could
not do that myself.
BD: How much
do you rely on the conductor?
Everything has to stay together, that's for sure. He's not a
machine and some nights he's a little faster or slower. It can be
a problem if he doesn't catch it right away when you want to go faster
because he happens to be slower that night, or because you have phlegm
in your throat or have to swallow one more time or are a little short
of breath or whatever.
BD: Do you
find the good conductors are singing with you?
Yes! The very best are. There are a lot of good conductors
who are not always concentrating on the singers because they feel they
can rely on certain people. They feel they can let them go and
concentrate on the orchestra, and I happen to be one of those people
they sort of let go. I don't have really low performances.
If I don't feel well, then I cancel, and that is one thing I've always
done... unless there's no other way for the theater to get somebody
else at the last minute, if you get sick at the last minute.
BD: So there
are no times when the manager comes out to announce your indisposition?
JM: There was
one time I had a cold and thought it was over. I had taken some
strong medicine and the doctor said I could go on, and I did, but
during the second act my voice kept getting smaller and smaller.
The conductor said he didn't notice a thing, but I said somebody should
go out and make an announcement before the last act. If I don't
make it through the last act, it's too late after it's over to say
anything. I did sort of scrape though, but it was not the kind of
performance I like to give. It was Meistersinger, and the most
important things that Eva sings are in the last act. You just die
up there if you're not feeling well, and my vocal cords were swelling
and I couldn't do anything about it. I had to keep taking more
breaths because my air was escaping.
BD: Did that
break up the line?
JM: Well, if
you're as experienced as I am you can fool a lot of people. I
don't like to fool them, but if you're in trouble you have to sometimes.
BD: Those are
the times you rely heavily on technique.
JM: You must
or you might hurt your throat, and that's your capitol, your whole
life, your career. You must not damage your vocal cords.
BD: I've been
at performances where they announce an indisposition and the singer
JM: They feel
more relieved. It's all psychological. There are ways of
thinking about that. One can tell the audience that you're
indisposed, and then they're grateful that you've done the performance
and gotten through it. Sometimes they're listening for a little
something they might not have heard otherwise, and they say, "Oh yes,
you could certainly hear she was indisposed." Last December I did
my first Marschallin. The first performance I sang with a cold,
and the second one I wondered if I'd ever get through it at all.
The doctor wouldn't guarantee for it, but said 90%, and I felt well
BD: Of course
you have the long break because you do not sing in the second act.
JM: Yes, but
that's exactly when your voice can drop. If you keep going and
keep singing and singing, it might drop at the end of the
performance. But if you sing the first act and then it drops
before you have the third act to do, it's too late to stop before the
trio and say you're not feeling well. So I had an announcement
made, but I thought that second performance was better than the first
one, so you never know.
BD: Do you
read the critics?
JM: We have a
little system in our house. My husband reads them, and if they're
good he shows them to me. If they're not, he doesn't say anything
about them. I want to read them anyway, but not before the second
performance because you find yourself being influenced by them.
You're a little bit excited and roughed up a bit before the performance
to read something that may not be even true, but it may make you wonder
about something you've done and there's no time to really think about
it. So I don't read them just before a performance, I read them
sometime when I can be objective about them. I must say I haven't
had a bad critic for years [knocks on the wooden table]. I joked
about it the other day saying the good reviews go in an album and the
bad ones go in the wastebasket. It's just one person's opinion,
and everybody has a different opinion -- even the critics. They
have their problems, too. They might have been working hard all
day, or eaten too much or not eaten anything, or just had a fight with
their wives or whatever.
BD: Do you
like singing the long parts? You're into Wagner and these are the
very long and arduous parts. Do you like these as well as shorter
JM: It's a hard
question to answer. I don't like them because they're long, they
happen to be long and I happen to love some of those parts. I
would prefer to have some shorter parts, and I'm hoping maybe in the
future to have a few that are shorter because at the moment all of mine
are just killers. There are none where I can go in and say,
"Tonight I have an easy evening." One of my easiest evenings
would be a hard one for anyone else. In my theater in Berlin,
they asked if I wouldn't like to have an easy evening and do the mother
in Hansel and Gretel.
Actually, I'd rather do the witch ... [laughs] My son would love
BD: Do you
like all the parts that you sing? Are you sympathetic with the
characters, or are there some that lie well for the voice but you don't
like the character?
JM: I do not
like Venus, and I've done Venus probably more than any other single
part in my repertory. It is not written very sympathetically for
the character, and consequently for the person singing it. She
should be seductive and she has no chance at all to be seductive -- at
least in the Dresden version.
BD: Do you
prefer the Paris version?
JM: I did
that first, and they still do that version in Vienna -- an old Von
Karajan staging of it with terribly old costumes and wigs. It's
probably one of the few places outside of Paris that they do that
version. The Parisians feel it's their version. That
version is longer but easier for me. It's more singable, more
seductive, so you can understand how he was there in the first
place. In the Dresden version, the minute she opens her mouth
she's screaming at him all the time, being sort of nasty to him all the
BD: But you
convey this nastiness?
JM: I do, but
if someone asks me if I like the part I cannot honestly say that I like
BD: Are there
roles that you want to sing that are not in your voice?
JM: I suppose
some of the Italian, Verdi roles. I never really thought about
roles that are not for my voice. I'm not an Aïda, I'm not a
Traviata. I would like to sing Manon Lescaut and have not done it
yet. I would also like to sing Santuzza. In Europe that's
done a lot by a soprano. It needs a good middle and lower range,
which I have from the days I was a mezzo. I need that for Ariadne
and Sieglinde and other parts in the soprano repertoire.
BD: How did
you arrive at the decision to go from mezzo roles to soprano roles?
JM: My voice
made a gradual change as I matured. When I went to Germany I was
26 years old and I had not yet sung a big part. That's the reason
I went there. I went to Nuremberg to get my repertory, and
through singing Amneris, Eboli, Dorabella, the Composer, Octavian, and
Cherubino I found that I was the best in the high parts. One of
my best parts used to be Eboli, although some of it was too low for
me. In all the parts where most of the mezzos would die because
of the high range, that's where I would shine. The Composer is
very high, and Octavian is not very low, and people and critics were
writing that perhaps I was becoming a soprano -- which in fact, I
was. It was a gradual, natural thing. I didn't just decide;
it happened to me.
BD: There are
some mezzos today who are trying to push their voices up to soprano.
JM: I don't
know whey they don't just try to be what they are.
they want to sing Tosca?
JM: Tosca is
a fantastic part, I must say, but you can't push yourself into
something you're not. Eventually you pay for it. You have
to find out what you can sing and what you can't.
BD: This is
the patience that you have which is all too rare.
JM: I don't
know if it's patience. I certainly try things out before I say
that I'm going to do them.
BD: When you
approach a new role, what steps to you take?
JM: I get the
score and I look at the music and at the words. I look at the
type of character and the kind of singing that's going to have to be
done, and the range -- whether there is a lot of piano in the high portions.
That's why I would not do Aïda, because although I have a good
high voice, I don't have the kind of voice that can keep singing piano with great relaxation in the
top. That takes more lyricism, and I have a more dramatic
voice. I think the parts I sing suit me physically and
vocally. There are a few roles that would suit me very well -- I
could sing Octavian perfectly well -- but nobody's going to engage me
to sing them, so why would I try to sing them? I must be
realistic about it. I'm smart enough to know that nobody's gong
to think of me as that character. I would love to sing Desdemona,
but nobody's going to engage me to sing that. People think of me
in the Wagner/Strauss roles. In a way it's too bad, but in a way
it's good because it's the roles I do sing the best.
about making recordings of a few of those roles that you would not do
on the stage?
JM: As a
matter of fact I did Adriano in Reinzi,
and I would never, ever sing it on stage. I had a series of
concerts in Berlin and Vienna and the house just went wild, but I
wouldn't want to do a lot of fencing and protecting my girl
friend. Being a knight in shining armor just doesn't suit me,
although it's a beautiful part to sing. It's very taxing, very
BD: How did
you approach Octavian, then, when you were singing it? You've got
to be a young man.
JM: I was a
young woman, and it is written for a woman, so you don't really have to
be a man. You're a young person. I was very arduous in a
way that I could make it believable. I was quite slender
than. Most people are surprised to see how short I am. I
think big! I have a certain carriage and I do it on
purpose. I know why I am doing it. I do try to wear
comfortable high shoes to make myself look a little bit taller.
about modern repertoire? You do some Berg...
JM: The only
Berg opera I've ever done is Wozzeck.
I wouldn't do Lulu. That wouldn't suit me, anyway. The only
other new work I do is Erwartung
of Schoenberg. That's 30 or 35 minutes of just one person, a
monodrama. It's very taxing and very hard. When I first
started I thought I would never ever get it learned right. It's
just something that's incredible.
BD: What if a
young composer wants to write something for you and asks for advice?
JM: I'd say
to finish it first and let me see it. It would have to be someone
who knew my voice while composing it. I wouldn't just say, "Oh
fine, I'm thrilled." I would ask if he knew what I can and cannot
do, and what I do the best and what I don't do the best. It would
have to be someone who was writing it with me in mind, knowing what I
can do and what I sound best doing. It wasn't written for me, but
I was offered a part for a record in Milan recently while I was there
doing Erwartung with Abbado
at La Scala. I was shown the score, but I knew before I was saw
it that I wasn't going to do it because I know what this composer
writes like. It's been done, but never recorded. I looked
at it and thought, "My God, how could anybody want to do that?"
It had me humming a high C with the mouth closed and slowing opening
the mouth. Maybe somebody will say yes to that, but it's not
going to be me.
BD: Are there
any composers today who write in a style grateful to the voice?
you're asking the wrong person because I don't know too much about
it. In the time I was at the Met we were doing Vanessa. Barber, Britten and
Menotti are the three that come to my mind that I think write
beautifully for the voice.
BD: Are you
JM: Yes, at
something that I don't have a part in or don't sing. Watching an
opera that I have a part in, I can't sit still. Everybody does it
differently. I know all the mistakes and I think, "Oh isn't that
terrible," or "Oh, I wish I could do it like that." I'm a good
audience if I have the nerves for it and have the time. I don't
go to a log of opera, though. I go to other things. I like
to go to musicals and the ballet and symphony concerts.
JM: Mm-hmm, a
BD: Would we
find you at a disco?
JM: No, it's
too loud for me. I'm used to having the orchestra in front of me,
but not that way.
of things in front of you, do you like working with a scrim?
JM: It's good
for the lighting but it's terrible for us. We can hardly see the
conductor sometimes. In this Lohengrin
in Chicago there are two scrims, and you feel like you're singing into
a paper bag.
overall impression comes across to the audience very well, however.
JM: Oh I know
it does. I'm not worried about it. It's good for certain
lighting effects, but sometimes I wonder why they're using it because
certain effects are not very effective. The visual effect is very
BD: Are there
times when you go to the director with an idea to try?
JM: Only in
things I'm doing myself. I don't give hints on how to stage the
opera in any way. If he's told me to do something and I don't
feel that it's right, or if I feel I can't do it yet, I ask him to
explain it to me in another way and then I try it a couple of
times. If I can't do it properly and with conviction, then I say
to give me another day or two to work it out, or eventually ask him to
do something else there. I ask if we could find another way to
express the same thing.
BD: What if
you got a really good idea for another character? Would you ask
the director to try it?
probably talk to my colleague first and see if he thought it was a good
idea. Sometimes you can offer the stage director something that
works because the two characters have already gotten together on
there ever been directors who have left you too much on your own to
come up with ideas for your character?
Absolutely. There was a problem at La Scala recently.
Abbado, who was conducting Erwartung,
wanted to do all the staging that Schoenberg had written into the
score. There are only about ten things he wrote there, and it's
usually when there is not very dramatic singing -- things to the side
which are not very important to the action, actually. He wanted
somebody to stage it, but the person did not want to do what was in the
score, so it was up to me. Then they gave me a very unfortunate
dress. It was by a very famous designer, and everybody was so
impressed that I was going to get this beautiful dress from him.
I thought it was just awful, and so did the critics. They said it
was too bad that this dress was designed for this opera, and the poor
lady sang so beautifully and had to wear this horrible thing. It
distracted rather than helped. I saw that from the very
beginning, but everybody was so impressed with the designer's
name. I'm not impressed by that very much. So I had to do
the staging myself. I asked for this and that, and the director
gave me those two things on an empty stage. The rest of it was
flat with nothing on it, with the projections that Schoenberg had used,
and they just didn't work, that's all. I thought it was
miserable, but the main thing was the music and we got that over.
BD: Is that
the way it is in opera -- that the main thing is the music?
JM: In this
case the main thing is the dramatic impact of the music and the
dramatic impact of the one person, no matter what is surrounding
her. If the personality of the one person in this work does not
come through, you might just as well forget it because there's nothing
left to it. Nobody can help you.
about in a larger work like Meistersinger
or some others?
there are lots of people, and each does his own thing and relies on the
others to do theirs. Then they get together on it.
BD: In a way
I'm asking the "Capriccio" question -- is the music the servant of the
words or vice versa?
JM: I don't
think you can separate them at all.
BD: Do you
enjoy doing recordings?
depends on the conditions . If they're done too hastily without a
chance to repeat things and do them well and be relaxed about them,
then I don't enjoy it. The Rienzi
was quite satisfying and I did enjoy it. We had lots of time for
it, and that was nice.
looking for your thoughts on the put-together perfect-performance that
emerges on the plastic disc.
JM: It's hard
on the live performance because people sit at home and listen to the
"perfect" performance. They're almost dead performances because
they don't have any imperfections in them -- at least they
shouldn't. Sometimes they do because they've been made too
hastily and not heard well enough before they're been released.
Then the audience goes to a live performance, and somebody stubs their
toe or something distracts the audience and they say they'd rather
listen to their recording. But then that's not realistic because
you have a completely different kind of acoustic in a live theater and
you also have this chance of something going a little bit wrong --
which is interesting I think. It's the live performance with the
personal things about it...
BD: It has
does. You just can't compare them. I'm much more for the
live performance than for the recording. I think things should be
recorded so you have them forever and you can listen to them at your
leisure. Why shouldn't you have recordings as well as the live
performances? I'm for both, but it's not so good to compare the
about TV and films?
JM: It can
bring people closer to the opera -- especially those with subtitles --
and brings opera to people who might not ever have a chance to see an
opera otherwise. I think it's good.
BD: It should
stand along side but not be a substitute?
hardly a substitute.
BD: I want to
ask you a bit about Isolde. You're just coming to this part, so
tell us a little about the Irish princess.
JM: She gets to use
a lot of the things I've learned though many years of singing.
She's very angry at the beginning with Tristan, and she gets to be
ecstatic in the love duet and then sort of mystic and mythical at the
very end. I can see myself using a lot of the experience I've had
from many parts I've sung. I'll need a lot of the good middle
range that I've had in the mezzo parts and a lot of the good high range
and a lot of the experience I've had from singing Wagner.
BD: You have
done many performances as Brangäne...
JM: Yes, as a
matter of fact that was the last mezzo part I ever did, and I did it
with Birgit Nilsson in 1969 or 70.
BD: Will you
wipe out the one part when you sing the other?
Yes. I've really not done it in 10 years. I remember having
done it and I remember the words she sang and the music she sang, but
it's not going to interfere at all. I've never had any trouble
weeding out one part from the other -- like the Marschallin and
Octavian. I was a little worried about Eva and Magdalena in Meistersinger because they have all
that pitter-patter dialogue singing, but nothing ever happened. I
would always warn the mezzo not to make any mistakes because then I'd
ask the question and answer it, too. [Both laugh]
about the end of Tristan?
How do you see this transfiguration -- is it mystical?
JM: It's not
mystical, but it shows a person who has gone through the span of life
in a very short time -- from the child she was at the beginning, she's
the mature woman at the end who knows. She's sort of wise and all
knowing. I've not done it yet so it is really too early to ask
me. I'm right in the middle of studying it now.
BD: Is it
something you're really looking forward to?
JM: Oh, very
much. It's the longest part I've ever done in my whole life --
it's probably one of the longest in the repertory, and the most taxing,
BD: We've not
touched on the Dutchman,
which you sang here and recorded with the Chicago Symphony and
Solti. Do you find that she goes through the same kind of thing
as Isolde only in a shorter time span -- from the innocent to the
JM: No, I
think Senta is a much different character. She's the
dreamer. She's looking for someone she's not even sure was even
real or that she would ever see. Isolde is dealing with a person
she fell in love with. He killed her fiancée and sent her
the fiancée's head, and she still fell in love with him.
Tristan's really a pretty miserable character when you think about
it. So she's dealing with a real person and Senta is dreaming
about this picture and the story she's heard.
BD: Is Senta
really surprised when the Dutchman actually arrives?
JM: I think
deep down she knows he exists, but doesn't expect him to be standing in
would she have done if he had picked one of the other girls who were
[Laughs] That's a good question. I don't know!
They're not so interested in him. They probably would have all
run away. They all know the story, but there's a bond between
those two electric poles.
JM: I do that
one all the time. Around Easter time I could do ten Kundrys in
ten days if I'd let myself. Vienna, Munich and Berlin all do
productions at the same time, and it's a part I've gotten so well known
for that I get asked by everyone to do it. I never can say "yes"
to everyone, so somebody's always angry and you can't help it.
Sometimes I split myself between two, but not
more. Last year I did Vienna and Berlin, and the previous year I
did Munich and Berlin. It's just different each year. You
can't do everything.
BD: Tell us
fascinating. She's in a different state in the different
acts. In the first act she's not being possessed by
Klingsor; it's when he pulls her with his magnetism towards the
end of the first act when she's going to sleep. She says she must
sleep and asks that no on come near her. Then he takes possession
of her, and all her actions toward trying to seduce Parsifal are under
the influence of Klingsor. It's not what she wants to be; it's
what she has to be.
BD: Is it her
mind that is under his power or her soul?
JM: I don't
know... Can you separate your mind and soul in an opera
character? It's hard to say. She must do it for whatever
reason. She's compelled to do it; he makes her do it. She
doesn't want to do it. She wants to be good. She says to
Gurnemanz, "I never can be good. I'm terrible. Don't thank
me for anything." She doesn't want anybody to be nice to her
because she feels terrible. She feels guilty although she doesn't
know what she's done.
BD: Is it
almost like a hypnotic state?
Yes. Then at the beginning of the second act with Klingsor she's
miserable, absolutely miserable. She's trying to fight him off
and he's stronger than she is. Then he takes possession of her
and wins her over, and she starts laughing and becomes hysterical.
BD: How does
the laugh and the scream affect the voice?
learned how to do them without hurting myself at all. The first
time I thought I was going to strangle myself. You have to
support it like a high G and let your voice come down like a waterfall
-- at least that's how I do it. You must never just scream.
You have to support like mad, otherwise you could hurt yourself.
BD: Do you
enjoy the third act where you only sing a couple of words?
much. It is the most rewarding thing, although you must get
calmed down and quiet enough to do that third act. It's simply an
acting part. It's just beautiful and I just love it.
you're looking toward Brünnhilde?
everyone else is looking toward it for me! I've said "no" up to
BD: Would you
be able to do just one and not the other two?
the thing. Once you start doing one, then everybody what you to
do all of them.
BD: Would you
be happy doing just one of them?
would like to do the Walküre,
but most people think of me in Götterdämmerung.
Siegfried is the shortest but
probably the hardest. You have the whole day not knowing what to
do with yourself because you have a hard performance, but it's so very
late that evening and the tenor is nearly dead by that time.
People think she's got it easy but she doesn't. She has to come
in there and be fresh and not worried, and that's hard.
matinee performances bother you?
JM: I draw
the curtains and pretend it's later. The voice is different at
that time of day; our bodies are geared for eveing work. We're
used to getting up late and having something to eat, and then
exercising or resting and then going to a performance.
about going from one side of the world to the other?
JM: I try,
now, not to sing immediately after I get somewhere. When I went
to Japan last February, I stopped over in Anchorage first for two days
to break up the trip, and then went on to Tokyo. Then I was there
about a whole week before I sang. I gave myself the luxury of
having a whole week before and a week after so that I could get used to
the time change, then have my rehearsals, then the concert, then a week
after for myself to enjoy seeing a little of Japan. It's not
every day you can go to Japan.
BD: Is going
from East to West easier than going from West to East?
depends on whether you've just packed your suitcase and rushed off with
hardly any sleep or not both ways. Sometimes you're a victim and
other times you can plan a little bit better.
I trust you enjoy singing!
JM: Oh I
do. I must admit that. It's a great part of my life.
love sports and I love to swim, but my family and my singing are the
most important things to me in my life. Sometimes it's very hard
co-ordinate the two, especially travelling around. I have a
who will be seven in two days. We live in Germany. He was
there and is being brought up bi-cultural and bi-lingual. He goes
the John F. Kennedy Schule, a
BD: So how do
you bring your youngster to opera?
JM: In our
case it's quite interesting. My husband started a boys
choir thirty-three years ago in West Berlin, in the ruins of the
He had gone to the musik hochschule
and studied instruments. He wanted to do something, but after the
war what was he going to do? He took little boys from the street,
the patches sewn on their trousers and their shirts, and had them sing
for the grandmothers and the wounded. In the years they have made
recordings and gone all over the world and been to the World's Fair and
on TV. They are the Schöneberger
[named after the District of Schöneberg in Berlin]. They
sung at the Deutsche Oper in many operas that need children.
days he has children of the first group of boys! That's quite an
accomplishment to have started that out in those times without any
government support and continue for all these years. Anyway, they
in Hansel and Gretel, and
that was the first thing my son saw at the opera. He went
afterword and saw where the angels had been kneeling down and the tree
that Hansel and Gretel went to sleep under. He was fascinated by
all. He doesn't like to go to rehearsals; he just likes to see
finished product. He hasn't gotten that far that he wants to see
repetition. But I can't take him to all the things I'm in.
too long, or I'm killing somebody, or they're killing me, or I'm
jumping off somewhere. In the Flying
Dutchman I kill myself in the end, and in Tosca
I kill the baritone and then kill myself and the tenor gets shot.
still a little young for that when it's Mommy, but he is getting so he
can take it in other works. There are lots of theater mothers,
not too ambitious about forcing my child into that.
BD: If he
goes in that direction, will you encourage him?
JM: I would
rather hope that he does not want to become a singer.
Unless you become someone very, very famous, it's a very difficult job
for a man. You can land at the very bottom or not very much above
eating your heart out because you didn't make it. If you don't
something to fall back on it's a miserable profession. If you
to some degree and you're satisfied with what you've done, then it's
but what can a singer do if you can't get a job and can't sing?
not prepared for anything else. It's too young for my son yet,
he's said he wants to be a veterinarian and an astronaut, so who knows
what he will be? But I would like to have him trained to do
that's useful and needed at the time that he's going to be grown
nothing else, he will be a good audience!
JM: He will
be a good audience, and he has a gorgeous voice. I
could imagine he would want to be a singer, but he has said he'd rather
be a conductor. [Both laugh] He's definitely a
leader. He stages all
the games you play with him, and tells you what to say and where to
stand. I might imagine him as a stage director...
despite the difficulties, you enjoy your own career!
much! You know what I hope never happens to me is that I
sing just for money. I like to make a good salary because I have
live, but I never want to go on the stage having the feeling that this
is a job. It's a performance for me every time I step on the
matter where I am. It's an experience for me and I hope it is for
audience. I don't know what will happen when I get too old to
these parts, but I'm not too worried about that.
BD: Might you
then sing smaller character parts?
JM: Someone I
admire is Martha
Mödl, and she's done that. I
don't know whether it's out of necessity or if she just would collapse
she didn't sing.
seems to be a German tradition of leading singers doing
small roles as they get older. This brings their huge experience
the younger colleagues. Paul Schöffler did that as I recall.
depends what kind of singer you are. Martha Mödl can do that
because there are interesting parts for her, but for someone who has
sung soubrette all their life, what can an old soubrette sing?
just aren't any parts for an old soubrette. Astrid Varnay is
who has done some interesting parts later on. That might be what
happens to me because I tend to go for the interesting parts
love the interesting characters. I do Marie in Wozzeck
because she's an interesting and complex character. She's
and tragic. She wonderful. Tosca has everything a woman
from a part -- glamour and love and hate and violence. I can see
people would want to give up everything else just to sing Tosca.
I suppose I'm able to be more grateful to be an
opera singer now that I'm a little bit older. When you are a
beginner you're just more anxious to get going and get your career on
its feet. When I left the Met I was still singing small parts,
made up my mind I wanted to sing big parts. This is how much I
about things before I do them. When I went to Germany, I secretly
to myself -- I don't think I ever said it in words -- if I don't make
it at least to some degree within two years, then I am going to give up
completely and do something else. By the time I'd been there for
months, I'd already sung Venus in the Paris Version of Tannhäuser
in Paris! I was under contract to a smaller theater, but I
Paris. I also sang Venus at La Scala. I'm grateful to have
because it's taken me so many different places, but I still don't have
to say I like it.
BD: Thank you
so very much for taking the time to speak with me.
-- -- -- -- -- -- -- --
===== ===== =====
© 1980 Bruce Duffie
This conversation was recorded in the studios of WNIB, Chicago,
on October 16, 1980. Portions were broadcast on WNIB in 1989,
1994 and 1999.
The transcription was made and much of it was published in Wagner News in April, 1981, and in Opera Scene in October, 1982.
It was re-edited and the complete interview was posted on this
website in 2014.
To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been
transcribed and posted on this website, click here.
Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975
its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001. His
interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since
and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well
on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.
You are invited to visit his website
for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of
other interviews, plus a full list of his guests. He would also
to call your attention to the photos and information about his
grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a
century ago. You may also send him E-Mail
with comments, questions and suggestions.