Soprano Valerie Masterson
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie
This interview was held in
September of 1982, and much of it was published in the Massenet Newsletter
in January of 1985. For this webpage, the transcript has been
slightly re-edited, photos and links (to my interviews elsewhere on my
website) have been added, and the unpublished material has been included.
Here is that conversation with Masterson, beginning with the
introduction as it appeared in print in 1985 . . . . .
Valerie Masterson is a fine British soprano whose charm and
— to say nothing of a magnificent voice
— have taken her to the top of her profession.
The British critic, Harold Rosenthal, writing in the New Grove,
stated, “Her development into one of the leading British operatic sopranos
has been the result of sound technique, continued study, and careful
pacing. To her clean, forward, smooth vocal production with its
ease and lustre in high phrases has added the assets of excellent diction
and attractive stage presence.” That just about says it all from
an observer’s point of view. The interview that follows gives an
insight into her ideas and creativity from her own point of view.
Masterson started out singing light operetta, and was with
the D’Oyly Carte company from 1966 to 1970. In 1971, she joined
Sadler’s Wells — later the English
National Opera — and in 1974, became
a member of Covent Garden. Since that time, she has appeared
in many festivals, as well as in operatic centers around the world.
From a mostly comic repertoire, she now sings ‘serious’ roles almost
exclusively. From Monteverdi and Handel, from Rossini to Verdi,
to even a premiere of Henze,
she has given the world many enjoyable evenings in the theater.
But it is with French music that she identifies most closely.
Her debut in Paris in Faust in 1978 was enthusiastically received,
and since this is a Journal for the Lovers of French Music, we
should also add that she has appeared throughout France with great success.
She was heard in Carnegie Hall in February of 1984 in Massenet’s Chérubin,
and despite a mild review, many in the audience really enjoyed her performance.
In the Fall of 1982, Masterson appeared first in San Francisco
in Handel’s Giulio Cesare, [with Troyanos; Mackerras, Copley], and then came
to Chicago for Antonia in Les Contes d’Hoffmann [with Kraus, Welting, Zschau, Mittelmann, Andreolli, Kavrakos,
It was between performances of Hoffmann that she took the time
for a lively chat. She was warm and sensitive, and seemed to be
bubbling over with ideas and enthusiasm, not only about her career but also
about her family.
Our conversation ranged far and wide, and here is some of what
was said that afternoon . . . . .
Bruce Duffie: You’ve done a huge variety of
roles — everything from Monteverdi
to Henze. Do you enjoy doing this wide range of styles?
Valerie Masterson: I’ve really narrowed it
down. I’ve looked at my calendar for the next year, and I sing
French opera for twelve months.
BD: By choice?
Masterson: It’s just happened right now.
I do get offered a lot of French music, and Handel, and Mozart, so
from a wide range it’s getting a bit tighter. I haven’t done much
modern opera. The little bit that I did convinced me that it
wasn’t right for me, but now I might gently have a look again.
There was talk of an English composer writing something with me in mind,
and that would be an interesting idea, but I think the whole idea was
scrapped. Modern things require a technique that I haven’t got,
and there are certain roles I couldn’t possibly jump to from one to another.
BD: That was what I was getting at when
I asked about the wide range of style.
Masterson: I feel now that I’m getting
a little bit polarized. Last night, when I couldn’t get to sleep,
I was working out how many roles I know, and how many I know in the
original languages, and it’s quite funny. In that list, I suddenly
realized that I haven’t got any humorous roles left. From having
started out in light music, and having done comic roles, I found myself
being pulled in that direction so strongly so I made a conscious effort
to make people listen, and not give me Adele in Fledermaus, or
Orpheus in the Underworld. I really enjoyed them when I did
them, but now it’s all sort of fallen over, and I haven’t got a comic role
to my name.
* * *
BD: Tell me about the role of Manon.
Do you enjoy her?
Masterson: I think it’s probably my favorite,
but it’s always a hard thing to say which is your favorite. It
sort of varies depending on what I’ve just sung, but really I feel that
Manon fits me very cozily. I don’t think that she is a nice person.
There is a lot about her that I don’t really like.
BD: Is she wily?
Masterson: She is just headstrong and
foolish. Because of the way she feels, she gets herself into
these situations, and she flees. She gets out of it the fastest
way she can.
BD: So she doesn’t plan two or three steps
Masterson: I don’t think so, no.
That’s her downfall, really. If you go back before the opera begins,
she’s been a very frisky young lady, and her family was worried about
this. She wasn’t in any sort of trouble, but they thought that
she was heading for disaster. She’s just one of those sort of
people, so her parents tried to push her off to the convent, and she
would do anything rather than go there, because she realized it wouldn’t
suit her at all. So, when she meets Des Grieux, she goes off with
him straight away. But to explain why she leaves him is that she’s
really in love with the idea of being in love.
BD: Suppose she’d been picked up by Brettigny
instead. Would she have been happy, or been turned off by it?
Masterson: Things in the beginning would
have worked out better for her if she’d got together with Brettigny,
because he had the money. Once she got into a life of crime
and was living in sin with this man, she might as well be living in
style instead of in a poky little garret.
BD: Is she is still a virgin in Act 1?
Masterson: [Hesitating] Probably...
give or take a night or two! [Laughs] But she’s from a
rural area where she’s not seen fancy ladies with those fantastic jewels
and dresses. On her way to the convent, she sees them, because
she sings about them, and her mind just flips about all of them. So
when she runs off to Paris with Des Grieux, she thinks it’s going to be
like that. Then when they end up in this little room, she is happy,
but she thinks there must be more to life than this. It’s all in the
plot. She hears that his father is going to come and take him away
BD: How old is Manon?
Masterson: Very young, seventeen perhaps.
So for her, it would be back to the convent, and Brettigny is there
with all these fantastic jewels and dresses, and she goes off with him.
By the time she’s been with him for a while, she’s had the glamor and
the jewels and the dresses, and she begins to regret it. She
realizes what she had with Des Grieux. The scene where she meets
his father is very interesting. When she asks him how his son
is, I wonder what she would have done if he’d replied that his son was
broken-hearted. I wonder if she would have been happy with that
answer, and would have thought he was really happy with her, and was
sorry it had to end, but then gone off with Brettigny, or looked for somebody
else. I feel that when the father says that their affair didn’t mean
anything to him, it’s like a knife inside her. “He forgot me???
That’s not possible! It’s going to be the love of my life!”
So she goes running off after him, and there again, she doesn’t think
about it. She just goes running off to the monastery and drags
BD: She doesn’t seem to realize her power
Masterson: No. That’s one of the
nice things about her. She’s quite innocent and I like to think
that in the big Cours-La-Reine scene, she finally enjoys it, but
in a really nice way. I’ve got to find something nice about it because
I like to play nice people. Really, she absolutely destroys De
Grieux, and pretty well everybody else around her.
BD: But not intentionally?
Masterson: No, absolutely not, and that’s
what I try to feel — that she is so
headstrong, and she is so pathetic in the end. This all comes
out in the last scene. She knows she’s destroyed the only man
who really loved her. She realizes what she’s done, and what sort
of a man he was.
BD: She doesn’t mind hurting Brettigny?
Masterson: With Brettigny, she realizes
that she is one of many. There’ll be another three after her just
waiting around the corner. But I think she bitterly regrets that
she left Des Grieux.
BD: Is that any motivation for her leaving
Brettigny — that he’s having others
while she is still there?
Masterson: I hadn’t thought about that,
actually. I’d rather like to think that he was smitten with her,
and that there is no one else for him at that time, so she laps it all
up. Manon loves all the presents, and being paraded in front of the
public as his prize possession. I just presume that in her innocence,
she wouldn’t think he’d be with anyone else at that time. The gambling
scene presents another interesting idea. Having got Des Grieux back,
she’s not prepared to go back to the garret room and live with him again.
She is saying to him, “I want you, but I want you on my terms in the
sort of lifestyle that I am living now.” So she drags him off to
the gambling place. I am not absolutely certain, but one producer
did tell me that in those days, women couldn’t gamble, so she had to make
him do it. In that production, the women didn’t sit at the table.
They sort of urged their men which number to play, but that was it.
The men were seated and the women were all around, but she couldn’t actually
place bets. So, Manon pushes Des Grieux in there. He doesn’t
want to go, but she pushes him, and tells him how happy they will be if
he wins. She can only accept him again if he has lots of money.
It’s fascinating because you can look at any character in many different
ways. I’m sure there’s not just one version of Manon. Each
time I do it, I hope to work with somebody new, because you get something
new out of someone else’s idea of it. Then I wonder why I didn’t
think of that idea! [Laughs]
BD: Have you ever been involved in a production
where the producer was way out of line?
Masterson: I’ve had to do things that,
if I were given free rein, I wouldn’t do in that way. But I try
to be versatile enough to take it and absorb it. There are certain
things that I feel, as an actress, I just wouldn’t be able to pull off
or portray. If he was looking for those sort of things, I would have
to tell him that I just couldn’t be convincing doing it, and I wouldn’t
feel right. Of course, the best producers and the best musical directors
are the people who begin by telling you what sort of ideas they have,
and they let you get up there and do it. They immediately see
what it is you can bring, and then they bring that out. This is
when you’re the most comfortable, and really the happiest because they
bring out the very best. Everything feels natural and right, and
they are improving what you can do.
* * *
BD: Have you sung Manon in both French
and in English?
Masterson: Yes. What I like to do
is start each role in English. This has evolved through necessity,
because I worked with English National Opera where they do everything
in English. That’s how I started out, and I feel more secure if
I have done it in English.
BD: Does it confuse you at all to sing
the same role in two languages?
Masterson: Not at all! It’s an amazing
thing, but the brain kind of computerizes that role in the two languages.
If the producer asks what the words are in the other language, I have
to go back to the beginning of that section. I can’t just jump
into it and change the language. Once I get the internal tape of
the other going, it’s never a problem, but it happened once that a tenor,
who also does the role in both languages, slipped and I jumped with him.
Without thinking about it, he launched off into French, and so I did.
I couldn’t convince everyone that I hadn’t meant to do it. They
all thought I was trying to be international, too!
BD: Does English work in a large house,
or would it be better to do operas in English only in smaller houses?
Masterson: I think it works in a large
house. If you’re going to sing it in English, rather than the
original, your diction had better be pretty superb. There is no
point otherwise. If they can’t hear what you are singing, there
is no point in doing it in English.
BD: Do you work on your diction as much
in the original?
Masterson: It is a different technique.
The problem there is not actually diction as much as it is the sounds
and pronunciation. I worked terribly hard to sing in French
before I went to Paris. I thought it would be awful to be invited
to the capital of a country to sing one of their operas and not be precise.
I really worried about the French accent because I was surrounded by
French singers, and their actual sounds are strange to us. But
I worked with two coaches, and they assured me that my diction was just
BD: Did you work with Janine Reiss?
Masterson: Yes, and she was fantastic.
I’d carry her around with me if I could, especially this year with
all the French I’m doing. But I insisted on working with her, and
she said I had nothing to worry about. She said my French was
very good, and that I would find, when I worked with French singers, that
they also had to modify their diction. They don’t use the guttural
R, for instance. Pop singers use it, but it would be impossible for
an opera singer. They do open the sounds slightly. So it all
worked, and I was very happy.
BD: Have you done any other Massenet?
Masterson: I will probably sing Cendrillon.
I’ve still got to go through the score and be sure that I can sing
BD: That’s interesting.
I usually think of that role as going to a mezzo.
Masterson: Yes, I know. It’s quite
a high-lying mezzo role. If you look at Manon, without the
alternatives it is for a quite middle-of-the-road voice. So I’m
looking at Cendrillon, and I’ve promised to look at Chérubin.
Several Massenet works have been in the pipeline for a while.
Thaïs was another one, but even though it’s musically beautiful,
it would be terribly difficult to produce.
BD: Would you strip to nothing?
Masterson: No, I wouldn’t. That
would be my first hurdle.
BD: There was a famous production in
New Orleans with Carol Neblett, and she wound up with nothing on, and
all the cameras were there just for that. It turned into a kind
That’s the problem. I see it as part of that particular role.
In fact, I discussed it very closely with a producer. We almost
got to do it once, and we talked about this problem, because I feel
that unless you’ve got Raquel Welch’s body, to be nude on stage really
doesn’t work. You can’t just stand there like a statue. You
have actually got to sing, and that’s when you run into real problems.
So we devised this wonderful production where we got around this, but
then the whole project turned into Louise. But I’m looking
at it again for a couple of years hence.
BD: Is Louise at all like Manon?
Masterson: No, I don’t think so.
I think she is a product of an over-protecting family, and that’s
the crux of the story. I just hope I don’t get like that with my
children. [Laughs] When I was doing it, I had so many mental
problems. I would see Louise’s point of view, and, at the same
time, I kept thinking, “Gosh! In a couple of years’ time I might
be doing this to my daughter!” Also, I couldn’t come to terms
with Louise’s boyfriend treating her parents the way he did. I
would be very unhappy if my daughter ran off with a man who called me
a ‘silly old cow’, or
whatever it is he calls her. He seems to have no respect
for her, and in fact he talks Louise into leaving.
BD: Isn’t Louise happy with Julien?
Masterson: I thought she was, but it seems
such a short time that they are together. I don’t think it would
have lasted if they had been left alone.
BD: So in the fifth act, are they splitting
Masterson: I think he’s pretty unlivable,
quite honestly. I don’t think I’d like to end up with him.
He’s so pompous, really.
BD: He is very strong. The theme
that opens the opera is him, and it’s so strong.
Masterson: Yes, he’s a headstrong political
activist. But my whole version of that opera is tainted very
strongly by the fact that I’m a mother, and that made it hard.
But as far as Louise is concerned — again,
just like Manon — she
is squeezed so tightly at home that she just has to escape, and she
runs off with the nearest follow, who is the fellow next door.
It’s interesting to wonder, when she flees the house at the very end,
what will happen. Charpentier did write a sequel, didn’t he?
BD: Yes, in fact it is called Julien.
|Julien, ou La vie du poète
(Julien, or The Poet’s Life) is a poème lyrique or opera
by composer Gustave Charpentier. The work is devised in a prologue and
four acts and uses a French libretto by the composer. Julien is
a sequel to Charpentier's Louise (1900) and describes the artistic
aspirations of Louise’s suitor Julien. The opera premiered in Paris at
the Opéra-Comique on 4 June 1913.
Like that of Louise, the plot of Julien is semi-autobiographical
and requires many characters and chorus roles; in Julien, the
female lead portrays four smaller characters in addition to the role
of Louise. The opera integrates elements of an earlier composition,
La Vie du Poète, a symphony-drama of 1888–1889. The
chorus consists largely of filles du rêve ("girls of the
dream"), fairies, and chimeras as well as various men's roles, mainly different
kinds of working-class men. Charpentier stated that, except in the prologue,
"Louise and the various characters who surround Julien are not so much
real people as an exteriorized realization of their inner souls".
The opera was not well received at its premiere, although
it did gain Gabriel Fauré's admiration for its expressionist
qualities. Apart from two productions in 1914, one of which was at
the Metropolitan Opera in New York City with Geraldine Farrar and Enrico
Caruso in the main roles, it had not been revived until 3 December 2000,
when it had its German premiere.
Masterson: In that one, he spends the
whole opera looking for Louise, and she never does materialize, so
that’s interesting. It means that when she runs out at the end
of the first opera, it’s not into Julien’s arms but back to Paris.
She feels liberated in Paris.
BD: [With a gentle nudge] Maybe
she winds up with Brettigny!
Masterson: [Laughs] Or with Lescaut!
* * *
BD: Have you done a character that you
just hate? Perhaps you like the vocal line, but hate the personality?
Masterson: I can’t actually think of one
right now. Most of mine tend to be rather pathetic heroines.
BD: Would you rather be known as a singer
or an actress?
Masterson: Obviously as a singer, because I work terribly
hard at it. But it is interesting that along the way, and in
the very beginning, I could easily have gone into straight theater.
At one point in my life I would have liked that, and in the course
of my career, I have discussed in three countries the possibility to
do a straight play. I feel it could only help me on stage as
an actress. We get so little time to develop that side.
We just have to do it on instinct, and hope the producer will help us
through. We spend most of our time concentrating on the voice and
the music. If I was stretched by a dramatic part, it would give me
more equipment on stage.
BD: Singing takes a lot of stamina.
Is it really an athletic contest in a way?
Masterson: You just use your whole body
when you sing, and sometimes, after doing a demanding role, my legs
will ache because I have been using that area to support my whole system.
BD: Does a slanted stage accentuate that
Masterson: Yes, that’s terribly hard,
or if you have to kneel for a long time. I’ve had to sing lying
on my stomach, and my back, and swinging six feet in the air... and it
wasn’t in time to the music! For instance, now that I know
that I have got a Juliette coming up, I think to myself that I’ve got
to be as slim and as athletic and agile as I possibly can be. A
young girl of that age is going to be able to whip around the stage, and
in the production coming up, I have a lot of running around at the same
time I have to sing. You can only achieve that by constantly
trying to keep in shape.
BD: If a producer said he’d ask you to
do a role if you lost ten pounds, would you say no?
Masterson: No, I’d lose ten pounds if
I wanted to sing the role... and if I had the time to lose the weight.
When we say that losing weight is bad, we are not talking about small
amounts. But if you have a great deal of weight to take off, unless
you do it correctly, you don’t have the stamina to sing, and it is hopeless.
Fitness is something all singers seem to be into now. It’s a
very sedentary life that we lead unless you get out and do some exercise.
BD: [Patting his ample paunch] I
know the problem! [Both laugh]
Masterson: It’s good cooking, isn’t it?
BD: Do you enjoy being a wandering minstrel?
Masterson: It would be ungrateful to say
no. I enjoy my work. I enjoy challenges, and coming to
new opera houses, and meeting new people, which is something I couldn’t
do if I stayed at home. But I leave my family behind whenever
I come, and I don’t like that.
BD: Is your husband supportive of all
Masterson: Oh, yes! I plan my career
very much with my family in mind. I’ve turned down a lot of engagements
which I know will take me away from them for a long time. Of
course, the children are getting older now, so I feel slightly freer.
When they were small, it was just not possible to be away from them for
long. I used to bring them with me at times, but now it’s
important for them to stay in school. So, I’m the one who feels it
more than anyone else, really. The times together are rather precious
because the children grow up very fast, and very soon we won’t be a
tight-knit unit anymore. They will have their own friends, and
will be doing their own things, and that’s what we all hope for.
BD: Do they enjoy your performances when
they see them?
Masterson: Yes. It comes in phases.
My son was very possessive at one point when he was small, and I think
he saw my singing as the big barrier and the big threat. I was
very busy at that time, so I tried to involve him. I’d come home
and tell him I’d been flying on stage like Peter Pan, and that helped
a lot. He came to the performances, but now he is one of the boys,
and going to see Mother on stage is not the thing to do. He’s more
keen on going to watch stock car racing, or football games. Now my
daughter is coming to the point where she would be in the dressing room
every night if she could. She wants to try on all the dresses, and put
on all the make-up.
BD: Are you trying to encourage them to
go into the theater, or making a point of keeping them away?
Masterson: I’m trying very consciously
not to do either, but that is very hard. It’s really impossible.
I just want them to have normal kinds of upbringing, and that’s impossible,
too. They should choose themselves what they want to do.
I have a very strong feeling that my daughter will end up in the theater,
but I’m going to make sure that it’s hard for her. You’ve really
got to want to do it. She remembers what a wonderful life we had
when Mother was out singing, and she’s got to understand that it’s not
that wonderful. It’s really hard work! Yet, at the same time,
I don’t want to leave her with all the negative aspects of it too soon.
If she wants to do it, I want her to enjoy it, so we’re filling her head
with all kinds of other things as well. She is a very feminine
BD: Staying with the idea of femininity,
do you find it harder to play feminine ladies today? Are they
harder to bring to reality?
Masterson: No, in fact rather like my daughter,
it fulfills an urge in me. To wear those costumes that are designed
for me is just pure delight, and I don’t think I’m alone in thinking
that. On the other hand, in some productions where the wig and make-up
are somewhat unusual, then it’s difficult to be ultra-feminine on stage.
BD: What if the character is somewhat
Masterson: At the end of Manon,
I look an absolute fright, and that’s okay. In fact, I got a rather
sweet letter from a person saying how much they liked me in the performance,
but they said they were worried about me at the very end. I
seemed to be so ill, they said! So I wrote back and explained
that I was dead! I guess the make-up worked in that one. [Laughs]
BD: Do the kids mind seeing you out there
Masterson: Not now. We’ve got through
that one. When my son was two and a half, we took him to see
Orpheus in the Underworld. We thought it is all bright
and bubbly, and he would like it, but we forgot that at the end of the
first act, I was supposed to go to Hell, and I disappeared behind a cloud
of smoke. Well, he was on the floor screaming, and my husband had
to take him out of the theater and bring him round to the dressing room
to see that I was actually still there. He didn’t go back to see
any more of the show. I was worried about it, and I did protect them
from it. My daughter has just seen Manon complete, and the
people that took her to the theater asked her if she minded seeing her
mother die, and she replied, “Oh, No! I’m quite used to it now!” [Much
* * *
BD: Do you listen to your own records?
Masterson: Certainly not from choice.
In fact, an aversion I have is people playing my music when I’ve been
invited to a party. I hate that, I really do!
BD: Do you enjoy making records?
Masterson: Yes. That’s totally different,
of course. All the time it’s kind of cold and impersonal.
Microphones bring out goose pimples in me, but I’m getting better.
In fact, I was just discussing the possibility of doing something in
such a vast place that microphones would be mandatory, and that really
scares me. I suppose if it’s done in a subtle way, it would be all
BD: They could give you a lapel mike hidden
in your costume.
Masterson: I have done that for television
once or twice, and I can’t help banging against it, and driving the
technicians mad. And they put it on you so far ahead of when you
enter, that you feel every noise or cough is going out on the tape.
I forgot my words once when doing a television program, and to my daughter’s
complete horror, they left the mike on when they stopped the performance.
It was one of those shows where we could stop, and I was backstage saying,
“What are the words??? What are the words???”
So I told my daughter that everybody makes mistakes, but the point
is getting out of it because I had to walk back onstage very quickly after
that to put the fault right.
BD: Does knowing that a performance is
being broadcast bother you?
Masterson: It’s always in the back of
my mind. In the beginning, I felt worse about it.
BD: I was wondering if maybe the third
or fourth performance was so spectacular that you’d wished the BBC
were there that night instead of earlier.
Masterson: That is very often the way,
especially when first nights are broadcast. I think that it
is a slight mistake to broadcast first nights because of the tension
that everybody is under, especially if it’s a new part. As the
performances go on, I’m more relaxed and I’m getting into the part more,
and I wish they would broadcast later performances. It would be
nice to be able to feel that it doesn’t all rest on one particular performance.
BD: Have you recorded the roles which
show you to advantage?
Masterson: There are a few I really would
have liked to have recorded. Manon is one that I would like to
record at the stage where I am now.
BD: Are you happy that at least these
are being preserved on tapes from broadcasts?
Masterson: Yes, but I would have preferred
to have recorded it under studio conditions, because records are balanced
against other records, and there’s not the pressure of trying to project
to the theater and worry about being at the right spot on stage.
BD: Do intermissions bother you?
Masterson: Yes, if they’re not in the
right places. In Manon in London, we started by using
more music. Then some was cut, so we ran Acts 1 and 2 together.
That was tough because it’s a complete change
— costume, wig, and everything
— without a break. I went straight back on for
the whole second act. Then we had a proper interval, and then the
two scenes of Act 3 — Cours-La-Reine
and St. Sulpice. Then another break, and then Acts 4 and
5 together. By the end of the night, I felt I’d really done my bit.
BD: Is it like a marathon?
* * *
BD: Have you ever wanted to stop singing and just
be a housewife, or grow vegetables in your yard?
Masterson: That idea certainly crops up
many times. Usually that happens when I’m home and don’t want
to go away again. I’ve not been at home for a full year for a
long time, so I miss the seasons, and I miss things happening in the
garden. I also miss the children’s birthdays, and our anniversary.
It’s not nice to live like that.
BD: But you enjoy singing?
Masterson: I do, yes, but sometimes I
wonder whether I do. It’s so hard, and I particularly work very
hard at it. Sometimes it eats right into my personal life because
there is so much to do. I can’t relax in between. But then,
of course I enjoy it, or I wouldn’t have done it in the first place.
Youngsters seem to think that you want to do it always, and you work until
it comes to you, but it doesn’t happen like that. There are other
influences on you. Very often people find what they want to do
by way of somebody else’s enthusiasm, and it has nothing to do with their
upbringing at home.
BD: Are you today where you thought you
would be ten years ago? [Vis-à-vis the video shown
at left, see my interviews with Ann Muray, and Christopher Robson.]
Masterson: Yes, and it’s a progression.
But if you had asked me when I was first studying if I’d have thought
I’d get this far, I’d have told you no. What is nice about my career
is that it has kept on going, very slowly and steadily, but it has gone
up. I don’t think in the beginning I’d ever thought I’d be international
like this, but then it came, and here I am, and I’m enjoying it.
Luck has a lot to do with this whole business. I listen
to a lot of young singers. In fact, one time I went into the theater,
and they were auditioning. I thought, “Get
me out of here! Maybe they’ll put me on next, and I’ll fail!”
[Both laugh] You hear them warming up, and there are so many
wonderful young voices around. It must be the same here in America,
but now in England, we are just sprouting up these young singers. There
were beautiful singers in England in the beginning, but we didn’t seem
to be able to produce very many.
BD: Are there too many singers now?
Masterson: From their point of view,
there probably are too many singers for the jobs available. That’s
probably very true, but they’re getting more opportunities now to study,
not to work. More people are getting the opportunity than before,
and we’re getting more teachers interested in teaching in London.
BD: Are there singers who should make
it that don’t?
Masterson: Oh, yes, absolutely. It’s a
process of elimination from the day you start having voice lessons.
And it’s not all voice. Voice is terribly important, but there
are probably some fantastic world-shattering voices that have never
been heard because everybody’s got a basic instrument, but you’ve got
to have some sort of inkling of how to sing. Maybe you go to a church,
and you sing in the choir when you’re small, or you belong to something else
that makes you stand up and sing. You’ve got to have that first urge
to get up and sing. Now it might be, for instance, someone who’s too
shy, or into something else, and doesn’t ever use his voice, so that latent
instrument is never heard. It’s just completely ignored because
you don’t always find the voice. There are lots of people who are really
keen on music and opera, but they don’t have the voice. So, there
must be a lot of people who have got the voice, and who are not interested
in music. Then you come to the point where people start branching
out, saying they’ve got the voice, and they want to study, and they’re interested
in music. Now, in my case, I was encouraged at school... absolutely
pushed would be a better word than encouraged. That was because
my family were theater people. My father was in the theater. He
died when I was very small, so I was not actually brought up in the theater.
I didn’t go to the theater, or anything like that, but I heard stories
about it, and it all sounded terribly exciting. I had dancing lessons,
and just the fact of getting up in front of an audience and doing something
from the age of four, meant that when they looked in school and wanted
somebody to sing something, they’d give it to me because I was the one
who could get up in front of the audience. Finally, this woman kept
telling me that I did have a good voice, but I was still interested in
dancing right up until about age seventeen. I was never going to make
it as a dancer, quite frankly, because I was quite the wrong shape.
BD: I’m glad you made it as a singer.
Masterson: But that was a good way of
finding my feet, so to speak. Then, a series of things happened
to me. I was given a year’s singing lessons free. I had
done some student teaching at the dancing school, so they gave me a year’s
singing lessons, and that led me to try for a student scholarship at
home. That was just to have some more singing lessons, and I won
that. So, I had the singing lessons. I did two years of that
while I was still studying at home, and was going to get a third year but
for that my teacher said I must be aiming for something. “If
you only say you want a third year, they’re not going to be very happy
about that. Why don’t you try for a scholarship to London?”
I said I wouldn’t get that, and she said, “We
know you won’t get that, but say you will try for it.”
So, I tried for it, and by the end of the year I had decided that if
I won a scholarship — after all, there
were only six given to the whole nation to study at the Royal College
of Music, tuition-free — that was going
to be a testing time for me. If I had some talent, I would get a
scholarship. If I didn’t have enough talent, it wasn’t worth studying,
BD: Did you did get the scholarship?
Masterson: I got a scholarship, yes.
But I could have been unfortunate enough to have six brilliant violinists
that year, and I would have been number seven, and I’d be at home
pushing on. So then I studied, and my life has gone on like that
— a series of chances, which I’ve taken.
BD: I hope your life continues to
be a series of successes.
Masterson: I do, too. Thank you.
* * *
BD: We’ve talked a bit about
Handel, so let’s go back further to Monteverdi. Do you find
that music grateful for the voice?
Yes, but it is very difficult.
BD: It’s so completely different than
the romantic music we mostly encounter.
Masterson: Yes. When you look at
the score, you cannot believe that this was written so long ago.
It’s absolutely amazing. But I enjoyed singing that.
BD: Do you do that with a standard orchestra,
or with a period orchestra?
Masterson: I’ve done it both ways.
BD: Which works better?
Masterson: For my voice, a modern orchestra.
BD: Modern voice, modern orchestra. [Vis-à-vis
the photo at right, the title role of Orlando was sung by Marilyn Horne. The
conductor and director were, again, Mackerras and Copley. The prompter
and musical assistant was Joseph De Rugeriis.
A color photo of Masterson in this production can be seen at the bottom
of this webpage.]
Masterson: Right, and at modern pitch.
I’m used to singing in modern pitch so to be put about a semitone down,
I find that is just pushing me down to the mezzo range. I’m a
bit of a megalomaniac, really. I like to be going up and not down.
If it were up a semitone, that would be easier. I recently did
Ariodante of Handel in Italy with original instruments, and then
was offered the opportunity of singing it again with the full La Scala
orchestra, and I was just not free to do it. I wish I had been able
to do that, because I think I would have enjoyed that more.
BD: What roles are you looking forward to?
Masterson: I’m looking forward to Semele,
which is my next new role.
BD: Are there roles you wish someone
would ask you to sing, so that you could learn them?
Masterson: I’ve more or less fulfilled
most of my ambitions. I have not yet managed to sign up to do
La Bohème in Italian. That’s one of the things
that I would really like to do.
BD: [With a gentle nudge] You’re
not a closet Brünnhilde, or Norma?
Masterson: [Laughs] No, but I keep
trying to persuade somebody to let me try Lucia, but that hasn’t materialized.
BD: Have you done all three parts in
Masterson: I did once, I must admit
that. Before I actually made my debut, I sang for a small company,
and happened to be asked to sing all three roles in Hoffmann.
I did two performances of it, but I wouldn’t like to do it now.
BD: I was just thinking that maybe if
you made a hit as Olympia, that they might think of you as a Lucia.
Masterson: Maybe, maybe. Next
time I’ll think about it. [Both laugh] I would like to
try La Sonnambula, or something like that of Bellini. Maybe
it will happen one of these days. I hope so.
BD: Do you like Antonia?
Masterson: Yes, I do, and I think it’s
just right for me now.
BD: Is it hard coming out and singing
the aria immediately? Would you rather just warm up a little
Masterson: I’d rather warm up a little bit,
but it’s equally preferable to coming out singing the Doll straight
off, which she has to do. I made my debut doing Konstanze, and
there’s nothing harder than that. Hooking up and singing that first
aria, there’s nothing that could be harder than that. But this
is absolutely right for me at this moment to do Antonia.
BD: Tell me about Konstanze.
Masterson: It’s just about the hardest role.
It’s technically very, very difficult, but it’s not as dramatically
demanding as Traviata, for instance, and doesn’t really have as
much to sing. But when she’s out there, those vocal cords are stretched
to the limits.
BD: Do you take the high Cs and Ds without
Masterson: I have done, yes! There
are so many of them, you see. That first aria is loaded with
them. It’s got thirteen in the first aria. So if you’ve
done that and got through that one, then you are OK. The first
aria is much harder, and the fact that you come out with no introduction
as to the note when you start off. I made my debut in London with
that. It’s the sort of role that you wake up every morning and wonder
if it is there. Other roles are quite not so scary.
BD: Do you sing any Verdi besides Traviata?
Masterson: Rigoletto, and that’s it.
BD: Do you like being in a sack at the
Masterson: No, no, I don’t.
BD: Do you try and arrange it so you’re
not in the sack when they bring it out, and just appear later?
Masterson: No, I did it.
BD: You have to be in the sack, and rely
on the bass to actually carry you on stage?
Masterson: Yes. We had a scarier experience
in Geneva when we did it. I just had to rely on him, and I thought,
“I hope he likes me.”
[Laughs] I really hadn’t spoken to him, and I was beginning to
regret I wasn’t nicer to him before. [More laughter] In the
various operas I have sung, I have died in five different ways, so I’m
getting really, really good at it. Do you think many sopranos have
done it more ways than that? I wonder if I could get into the Guinness
Book of Records...
BD: You have been stabbed, strangled...
Masterson: ...gotten sunstroke, consumption...
[pauses to think]
BD: Have you been pushed off a bridge?
If you haven’t done Tosca, you have not jumped...
Masterson: No, I haven’t jumped off a bridge.
It depends on what you think Manon dies of.
BD: Does she die of a broken heart?
Masterson: Right, that’s another one.
She dies of a broken heart.
BD: On the other hand, one of your few comic
roles is Marie in Fille du Regiment. Is it a grateful role
Masterson: It’s quite a demanding role. I
was amazed by it. I didn’t really think it was going to be quite
so stretched as it is. It’s rather like Faust, but she
starts out in a quite light way, and develops into a heavy aria at the
* * *
BD: Coming back to Handel, when doing the three-part
arias, do you ever want a little TV screen placed downstage, that had
the score, just to keep track of where you are?
Masterson: So I could see the music?
I have wondered about that. When we did Julius Caesar
for the first time, we had a very good prompter. In fact, it was
one of the female conductors, and she came to our dressing room and
asked what I would like her to do. I was seriously thinking about
having figures. Because from that distance, even if she had the
music, I couldn’t read that, but just a diagram to show me which section
I’m in might have worked. It goes by so fast when you’re on stage,
and you suddenly lose track of which section you’re in. The problem
with it is if you are going to do a da capo [literally ‘from
the head’, it refers to the third section
of the A-B-A form which repeats the first section with added ornaments,
embellishments and flourishes], the hardest thing is to keep the
extras of the da capo out of the first time through. You’ve
got to sing it straight the first time. That I find the hardest
— not remembering the
ornaments, but doing it straight. What can very often happen, especially
if some little thing goes wrong on stage, or if there’s a noise or a distraction,
is that I might just launch into the da capo ornaments.
I’ve got to get out of that, otherwise I’m going to have to sing the da
capo twice, and that’s going to kill me. So you’ve got to get
off that track and, at the same time, remember what it would have been
if it had been the first time round. That’s tricky. But I must
say, Charles Mackerras is incredible. We had a funny experience at
the dress rehearsal of Julius Caesar in London. I had two
very ornate cadenzas to do in one of my arias, and everything was all
right until I got to the very end, and then I sang the first cadenza again.
Charles stopped the orchestra, and told me what I had done. I wondered
if I would have to sing it again, and do the whole da capo in order
to get the cadenza right. [Laughs] He wasn’t so mean as to
make me do that, but it is a problem. How can you really feel very
safe in Handel?
BD: Do you ever find yourself over-rehearsed?
Masterson: Very, very seldom. I seem
to have gone from virtually one new thing to another. I’m now
beginning to pick up a few that I’ve done before, which is nice, and
that’s a relief. If it is a long rehearsal period, I have time
to relax because I know this music. I’ve done it before, and the
pressure is off me because I’ve done this production before. That’s
nice, too. I enjoyed San Francisco so much this time. It
was a unique experience for me because I’d already done that role, and
I’d done that production.
BD: And in that translation?
Masterson: Yes, that translation. I’d
worked on with Charles on it, and I’d worked with John Copley, so it
was certainly comfortable. I couldn’t have gone there on better
conditions. It was really nice.
BD: [With a gentle nudge] Do I
dare ask how Tatiana Troyanos compares with Janet Baker?
Masterson: No, I don’t think that would be
fair. All artists are great, and anybody who can stand up there
and sing a role like Julius Caesar has to be great. That’s it,
BD: I feel that spills into everything.
Anyone who can go out there, night after night, and sing the various
roles must have something special.
Masterson: Yes. That is hard in
itself, but a role like Julius Caesar is just mind boggling.
And the closer you are to the people who are doing it, the more you know
how difficult it is. Probably only three people in the world really
understand how difficult that role is. My role is incredibly difficult,
but at least I’m not a girl playing a man at the same time.
BD: Thank you for all of your artistry, and for spending
this time with me today.
Masterson: This was very good. Thank you.
© 1982 Bruce Duffie
This conversation was recorded in Chicago on September 28, 1982.
Much of it was transcribed and published in the Massenet Newsletter
in January, 1985. Portions were broadcast on WNIB in 1987, and
again in 1997. The rest was transcribed
in 2020, and it all was 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.
winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was
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.