Presenting  Tenor  Barry  McCauley

By Bruce Duffie

[This article originally appeared in the Massenet Newsletter in July, 1987.
For this website presentation, the biography has been added, as well as the photos and links.]


Barry McCauley (June 25, 1950—October 10, 2001) was born in Altoona, PA. He received his BA from Eastern Kentucky University, his MA from Arizona State University. He was a member of the San Francisco Opera Merola Program for two summers, and made his professional debut as Don José with the San Francisco Spring Opera in 1977. The following year he sang the title role in Faust with the San Francisco Opera. Other roles in San Francisco included Edgardo in Lucia di Lammermoor, Ruggero in La Rondine and Pierre in Prokofiev’s War and Peace, conducted by Valery Gerghiev.

mccauleyHis New York City Opera debut came in 1980 with the title role in Gounod’s Faust. Additional roles with the company included Rodolfo in La Bohème, Alfredo in La Traviata, Roberto Dudley in Maria Stuarda, Nadir in Les Pêcheurs de Perles, Pinkerton in Madama Butterfly, Ruggero in La Rondine and Gerald in Lakmé. His performance of Edgardo in Lucia di Lammermoor was telecast nation-wide on “Live From Lincoln Center” during the 1981-82 season [shown in photo at right].

He made his Metropolitan Opera debut in 1986 as Jaquino in Fidelio. He also sang the painter in Lulu, and Cassio in Otello in a gala performance conducted by Carlos Kleiber.

His Santa Fe Opera debut was as Wilhelm in Mignon opposite Frederica von Stade. His Lyric Opera of Chicago debut was as Gerald in Lakmé  He returned there as Ruggerio in La Rondine with Ileana Cotrubas, and as Loge in Das Rheingold, conducted by Zubin Mehta.

McCauley also had a major European career. For the Opéra de Paris he sang Boris in Katya Kabanova, Belmonte in Die Entführung aus dem Serail, Lensky in Eugene Onegin, Admete in Alceste, and des Grieux in Manon. At the Netherlands Opera he debuted in La Damnation de Faust, later returning to sing the title role in Parsifal and Hegenback in Catalani’s La Wally.

Other important European appearances included Salzburg Festival performances such as Filka Morosov/Luka Kuzmic in From the House of the Dead, conducted by Claudio Abbado, and as Aegisth in Elektra (a role he repeated in concert with the Berlin Philharmonic); a portrayal of Alwa in Köln Opera’s production of Lulu; Andres and the Drum Major in Wozzeck, both at the Teatro la Fenice in Venice; Gregor in The Makropoulos Affair at the Teatro Communale in Bologna; Don Ottavio in Don Giovanni for his debut at Aix-en-Provence; Boris in Katya Kabanova and Don José in Carmen at the Glyndebourne Festival; Idamante in Idomeneo and Belfiore in La finta giardiniera in Brussels; Wilhelm Meister for the Maggio Musicale in Florence; and Hoffmann for the Grand Théâtre de Genève.

He was the recipient of the prestigious Richard Tucker Award in 1980.

--  [Names which are links refer to my interviews elsewhere on this website.  BD] 

It took me some time to finally figure it out, but there was something about Barry McCauley that was familiar.  When we sat down in his apartment at a small table, I felt I had seen him before – and not just when he’d been onstage with Lyric Opera of Chicago.  I brushed the feeling off and we had a fun conversation, but that nagging feeling kept up for days.  Then, when watching “Late Night with David Letterman” one evening, I realized that there he was!  No, not McCauley, but the reason I’d thought I’d seen him before.  It was Jay Leno.  That’s right, the comedian and frequent guest of that program.  The facial appearance and vocal mannerisms were strikingly similar.  I wonder if the comic has ever been told he reminds people of a famous American tenor who excels in the French repertoire. . .

I met McCauley on his second trip to Chicago as Ruggero in La Rondine.  His debut had been as Gerald in Lakmé during the 1983 season, which, incidentally, was the centennial of the first performance.  Since then, he has sung a lot of French opera, including a Manon at the Opera-Comique during that opera’s centennial.  He mentioned what an honor it was to do these two pieces on such auspicious occasions.  I asked him about the character of Des Grieux.  “I shouldn’t say he’s a hopeless  romantic,” McCauley said, “but I envision Des Grieux as the type of person who, if he saw someone (besides Manon) that attracted him and brushed him off, he would go home and sulk in his room for a week.  He’s the type of person who’s so much in love that he’s blind to what’s going on.  He doesn’t see the changes that are happening in front of his eyes.  If he would listen to the music, he’d notice the development of Manon’s character between the first and second acts.”

I asked him if he felt this was Des Grieux’s first affair, and McCauley said he thinks so, despite there being no comments to the fact in the text of the opera.  McCauley then spoke of Wilhelm Meister, his character in Mignon as being quite different.  “He’s not a cad, but he is a man of the world.  So from that you’d take it that he’s seen love before.”  McCauley then remarked that my question about Des Grieux being a man of the heart was a good way of putting it.


Despite his youth, Barry McCauley has portrayed a number of French and Italian characters on the operatic stage.  He finds that when one mentions Italian opera, you associate a certain type of sound and a certain type of timbre, as well as other specific points including the orchestration and the way the text is delivered.  “I do mostly French repertoire, and it’s like putting on a glove.  With each opera, I feel more and more at home within the style, knowing what the textures in the orchestra are going to be, how to deliver, and how to become more fluent.”  When he does Italian pieces, he tries to sing them with a more gutsy kind of sound, whereas the French works are, as he says, more refined.  “Then,” he goes on, “there are pieces like Werther which have finesse, and also require a lot of guts within the singing.  Manon requires that same combination of refinement and guts.

He also talked about some other characters, such as Faust, which he notes is different after his youth has been restored.  Gerald, he says, sits up in the high register, but needs some of the weightier kind of sound.  McCauley then spoke of Carmen
In the first act, Don José must be leggiero-lyric; the second act needs lyric sound with weight to it; the third act requires that you stand on yourself to sing out, and the fourth act you just throw to the wind!  So you have these different aspects within that one role.  Naturally, I asked him about going from one kind of singing to another within the same evening, and the tenor agreed that once you start putting the pressure into the voice, its very difficult to back up and let go.  Fortunately, these roles go from lighter to heavier during the evening, and neither of us could think of a role that was written in the reverse manner.


To read my Interview with Bernard Haitink, click HERE.

To read my Interview with Sir Peter Hall, click HERE.

After talking a bit about the musical nuances of these roles, we went back to chatting about the characters.  He noted that Faust has searched for everything, and even though he calls on the Devil, Faust still detests him. 
It was his last resort, and theres a constant rivalry between the two of them.  But hes blinded by his search for eternal youth, and even after he has it, he realizes that he cant keep it, so he suffocates it by the romanticism he shows toward Marguerite.  Faust may be manipulated mentally by the Devil, but what he exploits toward her from the heart is something he never had even when he was young.  I asked the tenor if it was so very different from what Des Grieux was looking for, and he said, Yes.  Its kind of quick, almost what youd hear in a bar when a guy was trying to pick someone up.  Its the innocence of Manon that catches the eye of Des Grieux.

While speaking about Manon, McCauley recalled what happened during the production at the Opéra-Comique.  The woman singing Manon was doing her first major operatic part, having only done comique parts previously.  McCauley was very diplomatic when he said that she was a rather large woman who realized her size.  She was awkward onstage, and she was worried about how she would be accepted in the role by the public. 
During the St. Sulpice scene, where she was supposed to be seducing me before the altar, I played it that her rawness was making me seduce her!  At the end of the scene, I tried to get her to relax enough so I could pull her down on top of me.  I finally got her to do it at the dress-rehearsal, and that made her feel good.  The General Director of the company complimented my ability in working with her, and it helped her gain confidence and composure.

After all of this, McCauley did say that his not-so-diminutive lady did
freak a little bit during one of the performances when she got on the wrong side of Des Grieux.  She crossed in front and wound up changing the staging while watching the conductor and listening to the orchestra and seeing what was going on onstage.  It all got to her, but it happens.  So I asked our tenor if there wasnt really too much going on for most people to cope with, and he agreed.  One has to learn to forget theres an audience.  If youre at the edge of the stage looking out, its difficult not to see people in the house.  But if youre involved in the piece and the character, and youre working off the others in the piece, you become so involved that if something falls beyond the stage you dont even notice.  What you dont want to take in you block out.  You try to get as close to the character as possible.

*     *     *     *     *

Knowing that during this trip to Chicago (in January of 1986) the company was experimenting with supertitles in the theater, we talked a bit about this new device for bringing the audience closer to the drama.  He mentioned that he heard a few laughs where he
s not heard them before, and was glad that the public was more involved with the details of the story.  He joked with Ardis Krainik, the General Manager of Lyric Opera, that he couldnt see the titles from where he was singing!  She got a kick out of that, but McCauley did note that there were pros and cons about using a projected text.  If whats going on onstage is tied in with the text, you dont need to read them.  If a guy is standing over somebody with a dagger saying some words, theres no real necessity to read what is being said!  All you have to do is look at where the knife is and know that the guys are not really pleased.  But McCauley is an actor as well as a singer, so hes used to interpreting visual actions and reactions.  He told me about seeing a foreign film with titles (such as Das Boot) and watching the titles at first, but then becoming so enthralled with what was going on that eventually he didnt look at the lines any more.  I was watching the acting on the screen, and even though I could have seen the titles without too much movement, I was looking at the actors straight in the face.


This brought up the whole subject of doing opera in translation.  McCauley, like all singers, has done some, but rarely sings anything but the original language any more.  He recalled a Contes d
Hoffmann in Hawaii which was originally to be in French, but because the chorus was made up of volunteers, the management felt it would be better for them to do it in English.  So McCauley relearned it for that production.  But arent there always changes made by the cast when doing opera in English?  Singers always work with the translation and improve it, and also bring it more up to date.  In any translation, you can always find words that have vowels closer to the original which mean about the same thing.  And scores today still have thee and thou and other words we just dont use any more.  I chided him a little, noting that we wouldnt want the Devil to address Faust with something like, Hey you, jerk!  Cmere!  The tenor acknowledged the point.

When thinking about texts and the intricacies of language, there come the problems involved with spoken dialogue in operas.  The tenor told me about a production of Mignon in Italy with an all-Italian cast, but sung in French.  When McCauley was contacted about it, he was told that they
d use the comique version, but the conductors score didnt have any of the dialogue.  So the conductor made many cuts in the spoken passages which meant that going from scene to scene was very disjunct.  And to add to the problems, the stage in Florence is very large, so going from scene to scene often meant moving from one side of this huge space to the other.  Then, to top it all off, a man came up to McCauley saying how much he was looking forward to the big aria.  The last person hed heard do it was Gigli.  But the cast found out later that many in the audience were disappointed because it was going sung in French and they couldnt understand all the words.  They were used to hearing it in Italian.

*     *     *     *     *

mccauleyComing back to purely vocal considerations, McCauley seems not to mind the label French Tenor.  He says there arent that many around, but his is not a specifically French style voice.  That type doesnt exist any longer, and theres no one around to teach it.  The closest who still exists is Alfredo Kraus.  He can go up into the high register and do what is called a voix-mixe, which is a mixture of voices.  Its not falsetto or head voice, but a certain technique that was taught in earlier days.  Gedda could do it.  At the time I should have learned it, I was out in the business world and didnt have the time to work with my teacher.  McCauley then added that if he could find someone to teach it, and if time could be found in his own busy schedule, hes be glad to work on the technique.  But time is important to this family man, and as he pointed out, Once the ball starts rolling, you go from one job to another with maybe two weeks in between, and during that time you want to do nothing, or youre coaching roles that are coming up.  Its a shame, but its what happens.  Developing that special technique must be done over years.

This, of course, brings up the whole question of natural talent vs. instruction.  McCauley says he
s felt he was given a gift, but people must see that its directed in the right way.  He quoted the old adage of being in the right place at the right time, and says it happens in any field.  He spoke of belting out songs as a child with his face getting all red.  He sang in barber-shop quartets, and it was really a last minute decision to go into performing.  Originally he knew it would be music, but he figured it would be teaching.  It was that second set of ears that convinced him to make the jump to performing.  This is essential.  Its very difficult to separate and not listen to what you think you hear.  What the singer hears is not necessarily what another person hears, and this continues once one gets involved in staged productions, because the design of the sets and the acoustics of the house affect what is eventually heard in the hall.

 *     *     *     *     *

In the course of these interviews with distinguished musicians, I like to find out their opinions as to where opera is going.  For Barry McCauley, this question brought to mind his time with the Affiliate Artists Program in San Francisco.  These young singers went out into the community with half-hour or hour-length concerts in retirement homes and Kiwanis Clubs, as well as in elementary, junior high, and high schools.  This, he says, will influence the ticket-buyers of the future. 
Its going to be more and more difficult as there are budget cuts.  The demand is there from the public to do more performances, but to balance the costs, managements have to choose the pieces wisely.  People arent so willing to take a chance on contemporary works, and thats a shame.  He noted the differences between smaller companies and the big international ones.  The small companies in smaller communities may have big problems as the costs continue to rise.  On the other hand, smaller companies may have more receptions and functions in order to get more publicity.  Sometimes thats good because you might get to meet the people who actually run the companies.  On the other hand, you literally are expected to sing for your supper . . .

As we continued to chat, we came to the other big Massenet opera. 
Werther must be the most difficult French piece to do as far as having the technique to do it and knowing what to do within the piece.  I listened to two different recordings.  One tenor does a certain finesse, and the other does it with a little different sounds.  So I have to weigh the two, look at the orchestration, and figure how my voice fits into the section, not forgetting that in a recording studio you dont have 3000 people looking at you.  There you can also try it a few different ways on different takes and select the best one.  Hopefully you can concentrate on just the music and the conductor.  It all makes a difference.

Then he spoke of other differences in performances he
s done.  In a concert, he says, you might wait an hour to sing, and you have to just sit there while your voice gets cold.  Then, all of a sudden, its your turn and you must be there instantly.  At the opera house, you can warm up in the dressing room, and get wrapped up in the character and the music.  You can forget about the public sometimes and just perform.  Its a lot easier, at least sometimes . . .

One thing that makes the interviewer
s job easier is when a guest has an amusing anecdote.  McCauley obliged with this one.  I was involved in a production of Hoffmann in Berlin staged by Mario Del Monacos son.  There was no set per se, but there was a wall which made a chamber onstage with doors that people came through.  There was a ladder on the stage that Hoffmann always went and hid under.  There were wheelchairs and things used.  Hoffmann was onstage from the opening writing the name Stella in fluorescent ink, and there was a strobe light used.  In the last act, Dr. Miracle was to hypnotize me and I came down and sat like in a funeral home.  Antonia also was mesmerized by him.  As I came to sit, figures of Olympia and Giulietta came in their costumes, but in masks of the woman who was singing Antonia.  At the end, the two others fell dead with Antonia, and I felt as though I was viewing the death of my final love and everything exploded.  It was very moving, but that was the most bizarre thing Ive been involved in.


© 1986 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded at his hotel in Chicago on January 5, 1986.  The transcription was made and published in the Massenet Newsletter in July, 1987.  It was slightly re-edited, the photos, bio, and links were added, and it was posted on this website in 2016.

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

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

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