Soprano  Edith  Mathis

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


[Edith Mathis is married to the conductor and pianist Bernhard Klee,
with whom she has often appeared in recitals and on recordings]

The Swiss soprano Edith Mathis, was born February 11, 1938 in Lucern, Switzerland. She received her musical training at the Lucerne Conservatory, and from Elisabeth Bosshart in Zürich.

In 1956 Mathis made her operatic debut as the 2nd boy in Die Zauberflöte in Lucerne. Her first stage experience was gained in Lucerne and Zürich, and soon afterwards she joined Cologne Opera (1959). During this period she also appeared as guest artist at the Hamburg State Opera (1960-1975), at Glyndebourne Festival (1962-1965; as Cherubino and as Sophie in Der Rosenkavalier) and at the Salzburg Festival (debut in 1960, in concert). In 1963 she became a member of Deutsche Oper in Berlin, and has since sung in most of the leading opera houses of the world, including The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden in London (1970-1972, as W.A. Mozart's Susanna and Despina), the Metropolitan Opera in New York (debut in 1970, as Pamina in Zauberflöte; returned to New York as Ännchen in Der Freischütz, Sophie, and Zerlina in Don Giovanni), the Bavarian State Opera, the Vienna State Opera and the Opéra de Paris. Her roles include also Ninetta in La Finte Semplice (Salzburg), L.v. Beethoven's Marzelline, Debussy's Mélisande, Verdi's Nannetta and W.A. Mozart's Aminta; W.A. Mozart's Countess in Le Nozze di Figaro; Weber's Agathe in Der Freischütz, R. Strauss' Arabella and Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier. She sang in the premieres of Henze's Der jung Lord (Berlin, 1965) and Sutermeister's Le Roi Berénger (Munich 1985). In 1956 she appeared in the title role in the revival of the opera Massimilla Doni in Berne and Zürich as part of Otmar Schoeck’s 70th birthday celebrations, followed by a recording conducted by Gerd Albrecht (shown below). In 1986 she appeared in Barcelona as Agathe, and in 1990 made her debut at the Berne City Opera as the Marschallin.


See my interview with Hermann Winkler

Alongside her operatic career, Edith Mathis also has an extensive Lieder and oratorio repertory and her many concert appearances have included tours to Japan, the USA, Australia, Russia and Israel. She has received numerous awards for her work on the operatic stage, in the concert hall and in the recording studio, including the Mozart Medal from the Mozarteum Salzburg, the Hans-Reinhard-Ring from the Swiss Society for Theatre, the Arts Prize from the city of Lucerne, the Buxtehude Prize from the Lübeck Senate, and the Prix Mondial du Disque. She has been a Bayerische Kammersängerin since 1979. In recent years she has become a sought-after teacher.

Besides her solo many discs, concert and oratorio issues, sacred works, as well as many Bach Cantatas, her complete opera recordings include Mozart's Le Nozze di Figaro; Die Zauberflöte; Don Giovanni; Ascanio in Alba, Il Re Pastore, Il Sogno di Scipione and Apollo et Hyacinthus; Fidelio (Beethoven); Die Freunde von Salamanka (Schubert), Der Wildschütz (Lortzing); Der Freischütz (Weber); Lustige Weiber van Windsor (Nicolai); Ariodante (Handel); Il Mondo della Luna and L'lnfedeltà Delusa (Haydn).


mathis In August of 1992, Edith Mathis was at the Ravinia Festival (summer home of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra) to teach young singers and give a recital of her own, with David Owen Norris, another faculty member and performer with the CSO, at the piano.  She graciously took a half hour from her busy schedule for a conversation.  She was enthusiastic about my questions, and responded with insight and much laughter.

As noted above, Mathis made many recordings.  Some of the ones selected for this webpage represent unusual repertoire.

Here is what was said that afternoon . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:   You are an opera singer, and a lieder singer, and a teacher.  How do you divide your time among those three very taxing activities?

Edith Mathis:   The teaching is quite new for me now.  I just took on some masterclasses in the summer when the opera season is not on, and they went okay, but for the past year I have been teaching at the Hochschule für Musik in Vienna, and that makes life a little bit difficult.  I have to plan very well, and it’s not so easy.

BD:   Teaching is not easy for you?

Mathis:   Teaching is very exhausting.  It makes you so tired because you give more intensity than when you sing yourself.

BD:   [Surprised]  Really???

Mathis:   Yes.  You have to shake the students to wake them up sometimes!  There are many young people who don’t dare to express themselves through music, and so you must encourage them.

BD:   You have to get them to loosen up, as we say?

Mathis:   Yes, yes, yes!

BD:   I would think that performers would automatically try to express themselves?

Mathis:   I thought so too [laughs], but as far as I have seen now, they don’t do enough.  They are too shy.  Of course, they are always different people, but in general they are afraid to open themselves up.

BD:   I trust you’re able to get around this, and get them to open up?

Mathis:   Yes, yes, yes.  You have to encourage them, not just to read the music but to interpret the music and the words which are said in the poem.

BD:   So, you emphasize the text?

Mathis:   Yes, very much so.

BD:   Are you pleased with what you hear coming out of the throats of the young singers?

Mathis:   Here at Ravinia?

BD:   Here, and in general.

Mathis:   Yes, but the level is very variable.  It varies very much because they are very young singers, and so they are not so advanced as the older people.  There are also people who are not gifted, but nobody dares to tell them... and that’s a pity.  Sometimes they just try and try and try, and go to another teacher, and again another teacher.  I’m happy I don’t teach voice.  I just teach interpretation.  I don’t like to teach technique.  I think that’s the most difficult thing on Earth.

BD:   Do you feel there are some youngsters coming along that should be encouraged to sell insurance, or used cars, or do something besides sing?

Mathis:   Yes, I think so.  Sometimes it’s very hard, but there are so many good singers that it’s a pity to waste very much time of your life just hoping you will sing one day at the Metropolitan.  It will never work!

mathis BD:   Was that always a goal of yoursto sing at the major opera houses?

Mathis:   At first it was not my goal, no.  I loved music very much, and then singing, of course.  I went to good concerts and Lieder performances, and then I started singing.  First, I did Lieder and also church concerts, and then I started to sing opera.  It was in my home city of Lucerne, in Switzerland.  I was very lucky to be able to sing there.  It was like a school for me.  Later I also sang in Zurich, and then my first engagement was in Cologne.  I wanted to go step-by-step into bigger opera houses, more important opera houses, but you never stop wishing to do more and more.  I always wished to do one concert better than the concert before.  I’m never satisfied with a performance I do.  I always want to do better the next time.

BD:   Do you ever feel satisfied when you leave the stage?

Mathis:   Sometimes I say it was quite okay, but the next time it will be even better.

BD:   Even in a role that you’ve sung a hundred or two hundred times, you’re trying to do it better next time?

Mathis:   Yes, yes, that’s true!  Vocally, you always find some notes or some phrases you think could have been better.  They could have been more beautiful, or more expressive.  You always find something, so you try and try and try.  You must never stop learning in this profession.

BD:   Is it ever possible to achieve even just one night of perfection?

Mathis:   I don’t like so much the word ‘perfection’ in music.  That sounds like a CD, or a computer, or something!  What is perfect?  Of course, the technique has to be okay, and the musical expression has to be filled with your heart, but ‘perfection’ is not the right word.  It depends on so many things belonging together in a good singing performance.  The technique can be perfect, but the whole togetherness cannot be perfect.

BD:   Can you get closer to perfection
or at least satisfactionin a solo recital, where you are the only performer along with one colleague, rather than in an opera where you have a cast and an orchestra as colleagues?

Mathis:   It’s possible in opera to be satisfied with yourself and with your performance.  I don’t know how the others are, and how the orchestra was, but you can say,
“Tonight I did sing very well!  That’s possible in opera and in oratorio, and that’s good for us.  We have our instrument, and we have to show our instrument.  We have no excuse.  A conductor can say, “They didn’t play well for me, and a pianist can say, “The piano was very bad, and was not in tune, or was a very old instrument, but we singers are our instruments, and we have to do the whole business ourselves.

BD:   So, you always have to keep in trim?

Mathis:   Yes, in trim, and be careful.

BD:   Are you also partly an athlete?

Mathis:   I’m lazy... I just try to feel healthy, and I do some exercises because it’s necessary that the body feels well.  Otherwise, it’s very difficult to sing when you don’t feel well.

BD:   Do you have to take care of the throat like an athlete must take care of the muscles?

Mathis:   You must be careful not to catch a cold, and not to shout and to laugh, and to smoke and everything else too much.  You have to be careful of the voice, of course, yes.

BD:   Do you ever feel you’re a slave to the voice?

Mathis:   Yes, I must say, really.  When I know that in two or three days’ time I have to sing, then I’m afraid to go swimming, or to go to a party.  I’m also afraid to go into an American hall where the air conditioning blows from every side!  I’m afraid of that because I have to sing.  That’s my business, and I have to care for my instrument.  It’s true that sometimes you feel like a slave, and when you go on holiday it’s okay.  When you have four weeks holiday with no singing, that’s great.  I can do whatever I want.  I can even catch a cold!  [Both laugh]  But when you have only two weeks, in the second week we are already afraid in case something happens with the voice.

BD:   After you take four weeks off, how long does it take to get back into the mental and physical shape for singing?

Mathis:   About two or three days.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   You have so many roles to choose from, how do you decide which roles you will sing, and which ones you will decline?

Mathis:   The managers and directors decide, not I!  I have sung repertoire which is as a light lyric soprano, and then I switched to a little heavier repertoire.  I did Agathe in Der Freischütz and the Countess in The Marriage of Figaro instead of Susanna, and I do the Marschallin in Der Rosenkavlier, not Sophie anymore.  It’s very nice to change.  When I was young, I sang Susanna a thousand times.  Then I thought it’s better to try the Countess, and if it works, then it’s okay.  I went on singing the Countess.  It was the same for the Marschallin.

BD:   But, if they ask you for Brünnhilde, or Tosca, or something like that?

Mathis:   Oh, no, of course not.  They wouldn’t ask me.

BD:   [Pretending to be officious]  Okay, I’m an impresario and I say,
Edith, please sing Brünnhilde for me!

Mathis:   I would say, 
“You are crazy!  [Both have a huge laugh]

BD:   This is what I’m asking now.  How do you decide which roles yes, and which roles no?

Mathis:   That’s my own feeling.  When I try a role, if I feel it’s too heavy for me then I will never do it.  I might just wait perhaps until later, but I wouldn’t do something which hurts the voice, and where I have to force against the orchestra.  That’s impossible.

mathis BD:   You still sing a lot of Mozart?

Mathis:   Yes.

BD:   Is there a secret to singing Mozart?

Mathis:   It’s just a love for Mozart.  That’s the secret!  Of course, you must have the ear for the style of Mozart, but I don’t know what the secret is, really.  I always loved Mozart very much as a young girl.  Then it was only Mozart, Mozart, Mozart.

BD:   You still get a kick out of it?

Mathis:   Yes.  Fortunately, I am still able to sing Mozart.

BD:   Your voice dictates which roles you will sing.  Do you like the characters that are written into those roles?

Mathis:   Yes, more or less, yes.  There is one role they always ask me to do, and I’m sure I could sing it on stage voice-wise, but I don’t like that character, and that is Arabella.  She’s such a silly girl.  I don’t like this character, and I always say no!  I can’t do that!  A producer must come to convince me to do it.

BD:   Someone such as Peter Sellars?

Mathis:   Yes, he would do it in a quite different way.  [Laughs, and speculates]  Then perhaps it’s okay?!?!

BD:   Do you like all these new outlandish stagings?

Mathis:   No... Peter Sellars brings some curiosity.  It’s funny, so why not?  Why should it not be tried in a different way?  I’m not against it, no.  I saw on television the Don Giovanni he did in Vienna, and I must say that at some points I was much more touched than ever.

BD:   So, if he asked you to be in a production of his, you would accept?

Mathis:   I don’t know!  I would like to know about it first!

BD:   Did you ever decide to turn down a production because of the staging?

Mathis:   No, not yet.  I must say that I had productions which were really out of the ordinary.  I had mostly very normal productions.  Some were by John-Pierre Ponelle, and Günther Rennert, so they were quite normal.

BD:   They are the giants in the field.

Mathis:   Yes, yes.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Do you adjust your technique for different sized houses?  The Metropolitan is 4,000 seats, and the Vienna State Opera is only 2,200.

Mathis:   No, absolutely not!  I don’t change anything because you have to sing with your voice.  You can’t change your voice!

BD:   You don’t try to sing a little bigger in a bigger house?

Mathis:   No, no, that doesn’t work.  When you try to sing bigger, you’re forcing, and then it sounds even smaller rather than bigger.  You have to find the spot where you’re singing.  It’s like a laser beam.  It’s a compact tone, not a white tone.  The white tone doesn’t fill the hall.  Focused is the right word.

BD:   You don’t scale it down even for some places as small as Glyndebourne?

Mathis:   [Thinks a moment]  The trouble is with small houses, often is that the acoustics are worse, much worse.  I prefer to sing in a very big hall where the acoustics are good, than in a small hall.  Once, many years ago I sang a recital in Prague in the very famous theater where Don Giovanni was first performed, and I was completely unhappy.  It was a joyful theater, but the acoustics were terrible.  It was like singing in cotton wool.  It was terrible.  It was a very small theater, but terrible.  The whole evening you try to find some resonance.

mathis BD:   And it didn’t happen?

Mathis:   No, it can’t!  It is full of velvet, and was so very bad.

BD:   It had material that soaks up the sound?

Mathis:   Yes, yes.

BD:   [Stating the obvious]  That could be very frustrating.

Mathis:   Yes, that’s frustrating.  Sometimes in big halls, it’s much easier to sing.

BD:   Is there one hall somewhere in the world that is the best?

Mathis:   They say the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam is a very, very good hall, and also the Musikverein in Vienna is a very good hall.  There is one chamber music hall, also for recitals in Tokyo, and that’s Casals Hall.  That’s marvelous.  It really sounds like a cello.  It
s all made of wood, and wooden resonance is marvelous.

BD:   Have you sung in the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires?  They say it is wonderful.

Mathis:   No, I haven’t sung there.  Everybody says that.  They also say Bayreuth is marvelous, but perhaps that is because the orchestra is underneath the stage.

BD:   Have you sung any Wagner roles, such as The Forest Bird, or a Rhine Maiden?

Mathis:   I sang once the Hirtenknaben [shepherd boy] in Tannhäuser, but that was at the beginning of my career.  When I was in Cologne I had to sing everything.  When you’re young, you come to an opera house with a big repertoire.  They need young people who can sing everything, all the small roles.

BD:   Do you ever wish you could sing Brünnhilde or roles like that?

Mathis:   Oh yes, it would be nice!  It would be very beautiful, but you don’t get everything!

BD:   Do you have enough?

Mathis:   Yes, I think so, yes.

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

Mathis:   In that opera?

BD:   In any opera.

Mathis:   It depends on the opera.  In some operas, the play isn’t very good, or the libretto is not good.  It’s absolute nonsense, but the music is marvelous and makes the show.  Maybe sometimes the music is not so good, and then the libretto is great, and for some works they both work together.  It’s like Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro... that’s absolutely the top!

BD:   That’s where they both the music and the drama come together?

Mathis:   Yes.

BD:   Is that what composers are striving for?

Mathis:   Yes.

BD:   Do you sing some new music, some world premieres?

Mathis:   Yes.  I did some Henze, and von Einem, but not very much.

BD:   Did you enjoy doing them?

Mathis:   Yes, because both were not very, very modern!  [Laughs]  It’s not so that you choose to sing some strange tones or some [demonstrates wide intervals].

BD:   You don’t like that?

Mathis:   I don’t like that, no.  It’s not music for me.  I always have to feel that it’s music, not some guttural noises.

BD:   Where does music stop being music and become noise?

Mathis:   I can’t tell you that.  I don’t know.

BD:   Then let me ask the big question.  What’s the purpose of music?  Why do we need music?

Mathis:   It’s very strange.  Even people who don’t know how to read music, or absolutely have no connection with music in the sense of knowing what is music, have a feeling for music, and that’s very strange, but it’s marvelous!  I wouldn’t like to sing only for professional people who know the keys and the date when it was written, and all those things.  For people who don’t know anything about music, it
s great that they are touched by music.  It’s like a miracle.  The big thing of music is that it can reach everybodynot only the person who knows about music, but everybody.  Of course, it’s also a little bit different when young children just listen to pop and all those modern noisy things.  Then the ear cannot hear the fine tone of classical music anymore.  In Switzerland, my neighbors have a little boy, four or five years old.  When he was two years old, as a birthday present or a Christmas present they gave him a plastic radio.  It has a few channels, and the whole day while he’s playing, while he is eating, while he is doing his work now for the school, he is always listening to this awful music, very bad music, really.  I’m not against pop music or jazz music, but this is very bad cheap music.  For the past four or five years he has only listened to this music!  How can he ever appreciate Schubert, or Mozart, or Brahms???  I think his ears are broken.  They should call the child welfare agency and rescue him!  [Both have a huge laugh]  I’m afraid to do such a thing! I’m not the Messiah!  The neighborhood would become very angry if I were to tell the people, Please don’t destroy the ears of your children!  They wouldn’t understand that.

BD:   Is this the advice you have for all people and especially parents
get the children to listen to all kinds of music?

Mathis:   Yes, that would be very important.  But when the parents also listen only to the very bad music, they don’t know what is good and what is bad.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   You’ve made a number of recordings.  Are you pleased with those recordings?

mathis Mathis:   With some I’m very pleased... It
s the same as after the concerts, I find always something which I don’t like, especially when I find them years later and I say, Oh, I must relearn something.  But sometimes I go to my records, and when I listen to them I think, Oh, that’s good!  It’s not bad!  [Much laughter]  I forgot about it!

BD:   It surprises you that it’s not bad???

Mathis:   It’s surprises me, yes!  [Endless laughter, as throughout the whole interview]  I made, for example, a recording of all the female Schumann songs [an LP of part of that series is shown at right].  I heard it a few months ago and I was really surprised.  It sounds very good, really, but when I had just done it, I didn’t like it, of course.

BD:   That’s probably the way with all of them.  You come back to them later, and like them.

Mathis:   Yes, yes.  When you pay so much attention, and involved with doing them, then you don’t feel happy with the result.

BD:   I’m glad that you’re happy with them eventually.

Mathis:   Later, yes.

BD:   Do you sing differently for a microphone than you do for a concert?

Mathis:   No, I don’t think so.  The voice has to have this focus for the recording and for a big audience.  I don’t think I do anything differently.  When I do Lieder recordings, maybe I don’t give so much voice, but the intensity has to be exactly the same of course.

BD:   When you’re setting up a Lieder recital, how do you decide which songs you will sing, because there are thousands upon thousands of songs?

Mathis:   Yes, that’s always my big problem.  [Laughs]  I’m thinking about it night and day.  They ask me to send the program again and again, and finally I have to decide one day before they are going to print it!  It’s very difficult, really.  Lieder recitals are very difficult for the audience in these times.  People don’t seem to like them so much.  Perhaps the poetry is too old-fashioned and too romantic.  The halls are never full, and if they are full, it
s because of big names, but not because people like them very much.  It’s a small amount of people who really love songs, and so I try not to bore them.  It’s very simply that I try to make it so that it changes a little bit, that there is contrast of mood and color.

BD:   You make sure there is a variety?

Mathis:   Yes, a variety.  Otherwise they run away, or they go to sleep.  In the groups I always try to have a quicker one, a funny one, a sentimental one, a slower one, and a quieter one.  Then I also try to change the styles, from classical, romantic, late romantic, perhaps some modern ones.  Unfortunately, nobody wants modern music.  That’s a pity, I must say, but it’s the truth.  It’s very difficult.  I must bring contrast, otherwise the people are bored.

BD:   What advice do you have for someone who wants to compose for the human voice?

Mathis:   A singer’s advice to the composer is different than from the writers, critics, and musicologists.  They want them to compose something new.  It’s hard for composers, because a singer wants to have music which is singable as much as possible, which has melody, and doesn’t hurt the voice too much.  That’s very difficult for a composer.  At this time, the composers have a very hard job, not only with singers, because the music has come to a point where I don’t know they can do any more than twelve-tone.  Schoenberg, Webern and all those already did that, and then later there was the experimental music.  Maybe they can do more experiments and computer music, all with the new techniques, but there’s nothing for the human voice.

BD:   Have we come to the end?

Mathis:   Sometimes I’m afraid so, yes!  They’ve come to the end of composing.  I cannot tell you what will come next, whether one can follow all those experiments, or if they will go back again and make late romantic music... which would be nice for singers, but nobody wants to hear it because it was already done.  It’s really hard to find the new way for the composers.


BD:   Do you have any advice for audiences?

Mathis:   Not to cough too much!  [Both laugh]  We must be glad when we have audiences, so we are not allowed to tell them you have to behave so-and-so!  [Much laughter]

BD:   Is the audience different from city to city, and country to country?

Mathis:   I think so.  It’s a matter of temperament, of course, that’s for sure.  In Italy, they are enthusiastic but very short, and that’s strange.  In Germany, when they are enthusiastic it goes on and on and on and on.  You have one curtain call, two curtain-calls, ten curtain-calls, and again and again, and again, and one encore, and another encore.  It’s like a second Lieder recital.  But in Italy it’s very loud and then suddenly it stops.

BD:   How are we here in America?

Mathis:   Something in between.  At the Met, there are different audiences.  The audience for Italian operas and the audience for German operas behave differently.

BD:   No matter what or where, is singing fun?

Mathis:   Yes, it has to be.  Otherwise you can’t sing.  When it’s not fun, it’s a very sad thing.  It is nearly impossible when you don’t have fun.  Even on a day that you feel very tired or unhappy, or ill, or something, you have to raise yourself.  Otherwise you can’t sing, and that’s a hard job sometimes.  It’s a discipline you need, but it’s not only this tough discipline that does the work.  It has to be light.  There’s always a bit of psychology involved with singing... not a little bit, but very much!

BD:   Thank you for coming to Ravinia, and thank you for speaking with me.

Mathis:   You’re welcome!

========                ========                ========
----        ----        ----
========                ========                ========

© 1992 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded at the Ravinia Festival in Highland Park, Illinois, on August 6, 1992.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB the following year, and again in 1998.  This transcription was made in 2021, and posted on this website at that time.  My thanks to British soprano Una Barry for her help in preparing this website presentation.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.  To read my thoughts on editing these interviews for print, as well as a few other interesting observations, click here.

*     *     *     *     *

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

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