Soprano  Marie  McLaughlin

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


Distinguished soprano Marie McLaughlin has enjoyed more than three decades of performance at the highest international level. Over that time, she has collaborated with some of the world’s greatest conductors, including Daniel Barenboim, Bernard Haitink, Sir Antonio Pappano as well as such legends as the late Leonard Bernstein and Giuseppe Sinopoli. A wide repertoire of core roles took McLaughlin around the world at an early age including to the Metropolitan Opera, Royal Opera House, Opéra National de Paris, and the Salzburg and Glyndebourne Festivals. Her substantial discography includes many of those roles.

--  Links in this box, and throughout this webpage, refer to my interviews elsewhere on my website.  BD  

McLaughlin appeared during three seasons with Lyric Opera of Chicago, in the three Da Ponte operas of Mozart.  The details are in this brief chart...

Marie McLaughlin at Lyric Opera of Chicago

1987-88 - Così fan tutte (Despina) with TeKanawa, Howells, Hadley, Titus, Nolen; Pritchard, Ponnelle, Schuler
1988-89 - Don Giovanni (Zerlina) with Ramey, Vaness, Mattila, Winbergh, Desderi, Macurdy, Cowan; Bychkov, Ponnelle, Schuler
1991-92 - Marriage of Figaro (Susanna) with Ramey, Lott, Mentzer, Shimell, Loup, Palmer, Benelli, Kraus, Futral (Barbarina); Davis, Hall, Schuler

We got together during her third visit, in October of 1991, and our conversation began in a logical place . . . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:   Tell me the secret of singing Mozart!

Marie McLaughlin:   Oh, crikey!  [Laughs]  I don’t know if there’s a secret.  There’s a great truth in singing Mozart just by listening to your ears and heart.  It’s pretty straightforward stuff.

BD:   Is the truth about singing Mozart anything at all like the truth when he was around?

MMcL:   I don’t know... I wasn’t around then!  [Both laugh]  I can’t give you too detailed an account on that.

BD:   You’ve been singing Mozart now for a few years.  Has the style of Mozart changed at all in your experience?

MMcL:   Not thus far, no.  With all the conductors and all the accompanists and singers that I’ve been in contact with, I find that every interpretation is individual.  Each person is an individual, and each puts his own personal stamp on it with instrument, personality, temperament, what have you.  But it’s just something I love.  Perhaps it just come quite naturally to me.


See my interviews with James Levine, Sir Charles Mackerras, Robert Lloyd, Francisco Araiza, and Zubin Mehta

BD:   It gives you a special pleasure to sing Mozart?

MMcL:   Yes, and to listen to it, especially non-vocal stuff.  I can really get off on the symphonies and concertos.  I play them in the car, and it’s great.

BD:   It’s interesting to find out what the singer will do when they’re not singing.

MMcL:   Yes, well I’ve got two children, so life is pretty busy!

BD:   That takes up most of your time?

MMcL:   Especially with the baby, yes.

BD:   How do you combine the very difficult career of being a singer and the very difficult task of being a mother?

MMcL:   Oh, do you see these gray hairs here?  There’s just a few gray hairs.  A few more coming in there?  [Both laugh]  With great difficulty.  It really is loyalties divided, but we manage it somehow.

BD:   Family time has been forfeited the career?

MMcL:   Absolutely!  One hundred per cent.  My husband just left a few hours ago.  He’s going home to organize the next trip, so we’ll all meet at Heathrow Airport on Sunday, and gad off to Barcelona for a month...  Not the big boy.  He’s in prep school in England, so he’s only got one week to his half-term.  But it will be my mother, the baby, my husband, the big boy for a week, and then husband and the big boy come back to England.  We just point the car in the direction of the airport, and it finds its way there!  [More laughter]

BD:   With all of this, do you like being a wandering minstrel?

MMcL:   Yes, for the most part I do, but there are times...  For example, now I haven’t seen my big Marco for nearly four weeks, and that’s too long.

BD:   Are you organizing your schedule so there’s more time between productions?

MMcL:   This year [1991] certainly hasn’t worked that way, because this is the great Mozart year.  Those of us who certainly sing a lot of Mozart have put in our swimming pools, and bought our husbands special cars, and done all sorts of things, and have done pretty well.  Thank you, Mr. Mozart.  It’s been great.  So, this is a very special year, and also a very busy year.

BD:   Is it special for you to be singing Mozart in the Mozart year?

MMcL:   Oh, yes, absolutely.  I was in Vienna for three months in the Spring time, which was very special.

*     *     *     *     *

mclaughlin BD:   Do you adjust your technique at all for the size of the houseif it’s a great big huge house, or a very small intimate house?

MMcL:   That’s a very good question at the moment for me, because I’ve just come from Glyndebourne...

BD:   ...that’s as small as they come!

MMcL:   Absolutely!  I did Elvira [Don Giovanni] for the first time, and it was well chosen because I wanted to sing the role, and because I thought I won’t be intimidated by the size of the house.  But, funnily enough, having then come from Glyndebourne to here, this house has smashing acoustics.  This one in Chicago is very nice.  I’ve quite enjoyed this, really, yet the last time I was here, I was rather overawed by the size of the place, and didn’t really allow myself to trust the acoustic.  This time I did, and I’ve enjoyed it.  Of course, the acoustic at Glyndebourne can be really tiny, whereas here you can just have to turn the notch up one inch and you’ve got it.  But that’s a good point, and I’m always a little bit nervous about it.  I always have somebody check
run upstairs, or run to the back of the hall, and tell me what they thinkif I can afford to sing it just as soft as I do it in Glyndebourne.  Having said that, one of the critics in the London Times said that he thought, with the first number of Elvira, that I had to do a bit of adjusting to bring my voice down.  In the first aria, you come charging on there, full steam ahead, and I just went for itas is my want.  This is my temperament, and I could have afforded to fill it a lot less.  However, it was good.

BD:   Did you make the adjustment then or did you ignore the critic?

MMcL:   A little of both.  [Laughs]  I think I struck a happy medium.  You know what the first night is like, anyhow.  You’re full of energy, you’re full of adrenaline, and you want to do your best, and sometimes you just overshoot the mark.

BD:   Do you ever wish that the critics would come on the second or third night?

MMcL:   Yes, absolutely.  Oh, yes!  Crikey, yes!  Do you always go on the first nights?

BD:   I practically never go first nights, as a matter of fact.  Since I do not write for a daily paper, I don
’t need to be there on the first night.

MMcL:   Yes.  Sometimes first nights can produce a very special thing, though.  It’s been my knowledge and my experience that, especially after a long rehearsal period, maybe various things happen
costumes aren’t ready, sets aren’t right, and even after endless orchestral rehearsals we think this is never going to work!  Then, the first night comes, and magic happens, and that’s great.   It’s nice when that happens.

BD:   That’s better than dragging yourself out there, exhausted for the first show.

MMcL:   Yes, that’s very true, and I try not to let that happen.  But, as you say, sometimes it does.

BD:   Is it possible that piece can get over-rehearsed?

MMcL:   Yes, yes, I think it is.  Over-rehearsed for me in the sense that a director can grind it into the ground, and then you’re just lost.  I remember once in Bonn we had just had far long a rehearsal period, in excess of six weeks.  Being a professional, I was there from nine o’clock on Monday mornings, but into the fourth week, one of my German colleagues said, “Ich kann nicht mehr!  Ich habe nich mehr Lust!
  [I can’t do this anymore!  I have no more spark left in me!]  I thought that’s right.  We were doing it over and over and over, and we were on automatic pilot on the first night.  So, there was no magic.

BD:   Are there times
perhaps in a run of eight, ten, twelve, fourteen performancesthat you get on automatic pilot?

mclaughlin MMcL:   [Sighs]  That never happens to me a lot, I have to say.  I would love it!  I would love to have that feeling of, Oh, here we go again.  It just doesn’t happen to me a lot.  I don’t work that way.  I always have too much energy, and sort of go into sixth gear.

BD:   When you’re singing a role on stage, are you portraying a character, or do you actually become that character?

MMcL:   I think I become it.

BD:   [Surprised]  Really???

MMcL:   Oh, I think I do.  I feel it.  I’m not aware that it’s me.  I know I can’t come out of myself and look and say, 
That’s me doing it.  I always think the way of whoever I’m playing.  Then, if something happens on stage, or you’ve got a particularly creative colleague who does somethingand I can think of a few that just do things to you dramaticallyif you are really in that persona, you respond and react absolutely perfectly.  But if you’re being you, and you’re on automatic pilot, or you’re doing your impersonation of the character you’re portraying, it doesn’t come out that way.  That’s always a good test.

BD:   Then how long does it take after the final curtain for you throw off this character?

MMcL:   It was twelve o’clock when I walked out of the theater last time, and then we all went together to eat.  Then I got home at quarter to two, and it was about five before I fell asleep.  But even then, I’d wake up a few hours later.

BD:   So, even when you go out to eat, you’re still that character?

MMcL:   Last night it was good because we were with all the colleagues, and we all eased off gradually.  But I don’t unwind until a good four hours later.

BD:   Is it different for different characters?  [Vis-à-vis the photo shown at right, see my interviews with Norman Bailey, Richard Van Allan, and Mark Elder.  Also, costume sketches by Sally Jacobs for this production are presented at the bottom of this webpage.]

MMcL:   Yes, yes, oh yes.  The shorter the role, the easier it is, absolutely!  But like Susanna...

BD:’re on stage all night!

MMcL:   It’s all-absorbing, and I find that hard, yes. 

BD:   Are there any characters that are a little too close to real Marie McLaughlin?

MMcL:   [Smiles]  I wouldn’t be very good at answering that.  I would find that quite hard.  I’ve always quite enjoyed playing women that are far removed from what I’m like in real life.  I’m always the obvious choice for all the sparkly, energetic, lively personalities, but I really rather like playing all the sad women.  Mimì is great, and Tatyana in Onegin is great...

BD:   Maybe that gets it out of your system, so it’s not really what you do all the time.  That way, you can do what’s interesting.

MMcL:   Also, it’s much more of a challenge to play somebody that’s not near you personally.  You really do have to get down into the bones of another character, and I enjoy that.  But then I always enjoy the dramatic side of it, anyway.

BD:   You don’t need to say which ones, but are there any characters that you sing that you’d rather not sing because of the character, even though it just fits your voice?

MMcL:   No.  That’s not true.  However, when I did Traviata, I found that very hard.  I found I could not leave that woman alone.  She was very invasive in my life.  She really affected me.

BD:   A number of the women that you play are victims of either the characters or society at the time.  As we head into the Twenty-first Century, how does a woman on stage portray a woman who is a Nineteenth Century victim?

MMcL:   Read, read, read!  That’s what I do.  I read them all to get through them out there.

BD:   But do they speak to the women and men in the audience?

MMcL:   All I can do is put in as much information from wherever.  Certainly, reading is my big thing.  I found that when I did Traviata, I read a lot, and my problem with these kind of static women is that I move very quickly.  I had to really learn to do everything half-speed.  Doing Tatyana, doing Micaëla, I had to put everything into slow motion because I’m not that kind of person.  I’m fast, and also I’m impatient.  I like things done yesterday.

BD:   You are a Type-A personality.

MMcL:   Really?  What’s that mean?

BD:   You want everything done now, and it is just what you’ve been describing.

MMcL:   I’d rather be a Type-B then, whatever that means.

BD:   Someone who is Type-B is more relaxed and laid back.

MMcL:   Then I live in hope, I do, really.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   What is the role you’ve sung the most?

mclaughlin MMcL:   Susanna.  I’ve done about eighteen different productions of it.  I don’t know how many performances I’ve sung, but certainly I have sung it in all the major opera houses by now.

BD:   Is that a role that you’re going to continue to stay with for a long time, or are you going to retire her for a while?

MMcL:   No, the interest is now for me to sing the Countess.

BD:   You will move up from the chamber maid to the master’s suite?

MMcL:   I don’t know.  I’ve worked very hard on my Susanna, and in a way I would find it very hard to watch somebody else doing it while I was playing the Type-B personality!  So I shall have to see how I feel about that.  For the next four or five years, I’m happy to keep her in my repertoire, but maybe not to sing her as often as I did this year.

BD:   I have a feeling that Mozart is going to go out of the repertory just a little bit for a while.

MMcL:   Right, so what I shall I do?  What shall I think about, then?

BD:   What’s the role you’ve sung second most?

MMcL:   There isn’t a second most.  It goes into all different things.

BD:   When someone offers you a new role, how do you decide if you’re going to sing it or not?

MMcL:   I’ve just had mega-conversation with the conductor today just about this.

BD:   He wants you do something, and you’re saying no?

MMcL:   I’m saying that I don’t know.  It’s happening quite a lot because I have never been a soubrette.  So, there’s always been that latent interest that I might, one of these days, sing something broadly interesting to some people.  For sure, I’ve been playing it safe now for a long time.  I turned down all the Mimìs, and lots of heavier roles to sing vocally safe things, and it’s about time to decide
before I’m much older, given that for the next four years the calendar’s already made up.  We know what we’re doing.  There’s three or four spaces for roles that I have to make a decision on, and, as you say, how do you decide?  I have been going through several scores here with Danny Beckwith [accompanist and (beginning at that time) conductor], and I had my coach from New York come out for the last two days.  We’ve just been looking at things that I’ve been offered that some people seem to have confidence that I can sing, and for me certainly the dramatic interest is great.  I can rise to that.  Vocally, I’m always a little bit nervous, especially as I have to take into consideration the size of the house.  You also have to get a full score and look at orchestration to see what instruments are playing against you when you’re blasting out some of these big phrases.  I usually listen to a recording and see what other types of voices singor have sungthe same things, which is hard to tell because I can’t be out there listening to me.  You have to go round and ask roughly what kind of noise I make in here, and if I should think more of this size role, and it’s really difficult!

BD:   You also need to make sure when someone else sang a role, if they then were able to continue with the roles you enjoy, or if that was the end their career!

MMcL:   Right, right!  I remember going to Dr. Krüssen in Vienna, who is a great throat man.  I went one morning after a performance, as I had a bit of a cold and he said,
Your vocal cords are great!  You’ve got a cold.  Of course, everything’s inflamed, but you’ve just sung all evening, and now the cords are fine and healthy.  I asked him if there was any way that I could tell what would be good for me vocally, and he said, Sure.  If you want to sing something, and then come to me afterwards, we can have a look at your cords.  He’s got one of these little cameras that goes down there, and you see on a big video screen what your apparatus looks like.

BD:   [Mildly shocked]  I think that would be ghastly.

MMcL:   It was pretty ghastly, and a bit scary.  But coming back to Mozart roles, I love Elvira.  She’s great.  She has so much fire and passion.

BD:   She’s the only one that really stands up to the Don.

MMcL:   Yes, and I really liked it vocally.  It suited me well.  So, how do I know that until I actually sing fifteen performances of it?  Sometimes it’s a little bit trial and error.

BD:   Obviously if someone says they’d like you for the Götterdämmerung Brünnhilde, you would say no?

MMcL:   [Laughs]  That hasn’t quite happened to me yet.  I had a few crazy suggestions, but that’s not been one of them, thank God.

BD:   Then you’ve gotten some good advice and good offers?

MMcL:   Yes.  I’ve been well enough represented thus far, but I’m also very picky and very careful... too careful, probably.

BD:   Are you also careful about limiting the number of performances you give per year?

MMcL:   I’m manic about it.  Also, it is limited by the fact that I have a family life.  I can’t be everywhere.  I’m not a very good sleeper, and I’m not very good at jumping on a plane, getting here and singing two performances, and flying there.  I don’t find it easy.  I find it difficult.  I’m happier being settled, and being in a place for a wee while.  I also wouldn’t be happy here to sing all eight performances [she sang the first three], but that’s the nature of things, and it doesn’t always work that way unfortunately.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Do you enjoy the process of making recordings?

MMcL:   I’ve not made that many, but I’ve just done a Schubert solo recital, which was great.

BD:   A cycle, or a selection of songs?

MMcL:   It’s part of Graham Johnson’s series.  He’s recording every song Schubert’s ever written.

BD:   Oh, the Hyperion series?

MMcL:   That’s it.  But for me to learn twenty-four songs on the road was hell!  Everywhere I would go, I would look for a coach to help with a Schubert song.

BD:   Were you assigned certain songs to learn, or did you make the selection?

MMcL:   He gave me beautiful songs.

BD:   So, he’s organizing the whole series so that he gets the right voice for the right song?

MMcL:   Yes!  He is so clever.

[Here are a few brief sections from a long essay by Graham Johnson, which he wrote when the entire series was being re-issued in 2005.]

It took Franz Schubert eighteen years (1810–1828) to write his lieder. It has taken Hyperion Records exactly the same amount of time (1987–2005) to record all the songs, to issue them on thirty-seven separate discs, with over sixty solo singers.

The Hyperion Schubert Edition came into being because of the daring and initiative of the late Ted Perry, founder of the label that contains his own name in its second and third syllables. In the middle to late 1980s it was a particular joy to be caught up in the orbit of Ted’s confidence, his optimism and generosity of spirit, and his unswerving belief in his chosen artists. Although he was a businessman, he trusted his own ears more than the critics’, and he was not afraid to listen to his heart. At that happy time a favourable climate in the classical music industry provided strong winds in the sails of his enterprise.

At this time the horizons and the aspirations of the series were still local. Ted saw it as part of Hyperion’s brief to record fine British artists who had been unaccountably passed over by the bigger companies. It was impossible for me to plan out the allocation of songs for this series far in advance. Hyperion could not engage singers years ahead – if we had had the clout of a great opera house it would have been different – but artists who were available would usually slip three days of recording into their timetable fairly late in the day, and in the absence of operatic or orchestral engagements. Who were to be my next singers? I did not really know, yet all the programmes had to be tailor-made with an actual voice and personality in mind. To avoid a pile-up at the end, it was a general rule never to allow any one singer too many well known songs. After more than a decade of Songmakers’ Almanac programmes, many of my closer colleagues trusted me to provide them with suitable material.

We continued on the basis of two to three recordings a year, [and began to includ singers from abroad]. This fitted Ted’s idea of how many new Schubert discs from Hyperion the record-buying public could cope with. There was still the ambition to finish by 1997, Schubert’s bicentenary, which then seemed a long time ahead; some simple arithmetic at the time might have made us more realistic.

Right at the end of 1990 Marie McLaughlin came into the studio for a mixture of songs, both sacred and suggestive (Volume 13). The settings from Walter Scott’s Lady of the Lake gave the programme an appropriately Scottish accent. These performances remain among my personal favourites of the series. When at the end of the sessions the beautiful (and happily married) Marie whispered that she needed a lift home (the microphone was still ‘live’), a phalanx of admirers materialized in seconds, competitively brandishing their car keys.

== * == * == * == * == * == * == * == * == * == * == * ==

By the way, in addition to Ms. McLaughlin, I have interviewed several of the other singers who participated in this Hyperion Schubert Edition.  These include Sir Thomas Allen, Dame Anne Murray, Arleen Augér, Brigitte Fassbaender, Elisabeth Connell, Dame Margaret Price, Elly Ameling, Ian Bostridge, Christine Schäfer, Thomas Hampson, Dame Felicity Lott, Peter Schreier, Anthony Rolfe Johnson, Edith Mathis, Marjana Lipovšek, Gerald Finley, and Michael Schade.  (Names which are not links have not been transcribed as yet.)  BD

BD:   He didn’t give you choice?
 He didn’t ask you to take twenty of this fifty?

MMcL:   No, he asked me what I felt about this one or that one, but who can turn down Ave Maria?  Who can turn down Gretchen am Spinnrade?  Mine were great songs, and he knows my voice very well.  Anyway, I love Schubert, so it wasn’t like there was something I would not sing.  There was one I would have really liked to have said no to just because I did into the ground when I was a student.  But there was a fabulous selection, and then I had two duets with Tom Hampson on the end of my album, and he’s got two with me at the end of his album.  So that’s rather nice.  It was great.  It was a wonderful experience, and I loved it.


BD:   It’s your first recital?

MMcL:   Solo, yes, it is.

BD:   The other recordings have been complete operas?

MMcL:   Yes, but doing that takes a long time.  You have to really commit to it.  I’m busy... I’m here and I’m there, and it’s a hectic life.  It took a lot of work to prepare the music to the level that I wanted.  Because I’m not a regular Lieder singer, I was super, hyper-critical of myself, and drove Graham into the ground rehearsing like crazy.  I was aware that the other people who’d done the recordings are all Lieder singers, and I wasn’t.  I really wanted to do it all right, and he was great, wonderfully patient, and Hyperion is a fabulous company to work for, fabulous.  I’ve got some future things for them lined up...

BD:   Ted Perry came to Chicago about a year ago, because it was the tenth anniversary of Hyperion records, and I did an interview with him.

MMcL:   I love him.  He’s great.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Let us talk about the complete operas have you done.  There’s the Così...

mclaughlin MMcL:   Yes, and there’s Don Giovanni with Marriner.  We did it last year.  It might just be on its way.

BD:   You were Zerlina?

MMcL:   Yes, and then I did Dido and Aeneus with Jessye Norman, which was nice.  I also did First Lady in The Magic Flute.

BD:   That’s a nice part.

MMcL:   Yes, and it’s hard.  God, yeah!  I also did a Handel work, L’Allegro, Il Penseroso ed il Moderato [Pastoral Ode after Poems of John Milton] with Elliot Gardiner.

BD:   Are you pleased with the records that have come out?

MMcL:   I’m not very good at listening and looking, as there are a lot of videos as well.  I’m never very pleased, actually.  I find it hard to listen because I’m far too critical, and it really sort of ruins my day.  Anyway, that’s a whole other issue.

BD:   Should the public be that critical?

MMcL:   [Thinks a moment]  Hmmm... that’s a good point.  [Laughs]  They should be pleased, and I should do everything to the best of my ability to make sure they’re well and truly entertained.  When I go, I don’t want to be bored, or embarrassed, or self-conscious, or uncomfortable, so that’s what I aim for.  These American audiences are appreciative here in Chicago, aren’t they?

BD:   Very much so.

MMcL:   They get right in there with all the drama.  I guess the subtitles help.

BD:   Do you like having those there?

MMcL:   [Thinks again]  I’m not mad on them.  When they first came out in Covent Garden, we did one night with them, then one night without them, and we always knew when we had them.

BD:   There was more laughter?

MMcL:   More laughter, and also laughter at points where you’d wonder what’s happened on stage.  Why are they laughing?  Everybody was nervously looking over their shoulders thinking who’s lost their dress?  What’s gone on?  Then you think that they’re laughing and they’re not even looking at us.  They’re laughing at the bloody titles!  So, I’m kind of mixed.  Mind you, if I go and see something in Russian, like Boris, I’m glad that I know exactly what everybody is saying.

BD:   Some of the Italians who sing comic and buffo roles, have told me they get two laughs
one when the line is read on the screen, and another when it’s sung.

MMcL:   Yes, they would.  Great characters.

BD:   You do some comic roles and some serious roles.  Is there a balance?  Do you do more of one, or want to do more of another?

MMcL:   No.  The comic stuff comes easy to me, and I really enjoy it.  I love doing Despina here.  It is such great fun.

BD:   How do you keep it from becoming slap-stick?

MMcL:   I try to vary what happens on stage every night.  You can’t always do that with your colleagues, but if you’re singing a role that is slightly less vocally demanding, you can afford horse around a bit.  If you’re singing Fiordiligi, you’re just singing.  You can’t always change things, but if you get flexible colleagues
like when these Italian buffos are wonderful actorsyou can have a lot of fun with them.  Doing different things every night, and suddenly changing the speed or the inflection of a recitative, I’ve had lots of fun.

BD:   Do you rely on the prompter at all?

MMcL:   I wouldn’t have one for this, and more and more we’re not having them at all I notice.  For these roles that I’ve done hundreds of times, I find they get in my way sometimes.  For Zdenka in Arabella, then I’m glad he’s there because that’s difficult musically.

BD:   Is there a special affinity for a Mozart singer to sing Richard Strauss?

MMcL:   Technically there are a lot of parallels.  They both need this ability to float.  I enjoy it, and I can sing it in the same way that I sing Mozart.  So, I guess you’re right, although I’ve not given it much thought.  I only sing that one Strauss role, but I’ve always sung a lot of Strauss songs, and yes, you’re right
musically, vocally, technically you’re in the same vein there.

BD:   Is it fun being a girl playing a boy, as Zdenka does?

MMcL:   Oh, I love it!  It
s not like Cherubino, because there’s a girl (singer), playing a boy, playing a girl.

BD:   Yes, it’s the same with Octavian in the third act of Rosenkavalier.

MMcL:   Yes, exactly.  I love trouser roles.  I think they’re great.

mclaughlin BD:   What other ones do you sing?

MMcL:   Years ago, I did the Page in Romeo and Juliet.  And, I did Cherubino as well, and I loved it.

BD:   [Surprised]  I would think your voice would be too high and too light for that.

MMcL:   No, no, no!  I liked it. It was good.

BD:   So you learned Cherubino, and you’re doing Susanna...

MMcL:   [Interrupting]  I’ve done Barbarina as well!  [Laughs]  I’m waiting for Marcellina!  I’m learning her aria now, just in case.  I’m getting ready for her.  She’s a real laugh.  [McLaughlin would, in fact, sing that role at the Ravinia Festival with the Chicago Symphony led by James Conlon in 2014, as well as Covent Garden, as seen in the photo at right.]

BD:   Is it difficult at all to keep the roles separate?

MMcL:   Yes, I think it is.  I have to have a little break in between singing different productions.  After Traviata, I went straight to do Susanna, and I had to really rein it all in.  Mind you, that was five years ago, and anyway I mustn’t generalize as I say this to you.  Probably there are lots of singers out there who just jump into this and that.  I don’t find that easy, and I have to be careful.

BD:   [With a gentle nudge]  Are you getting better at The Singing Game?

MMcL:   [Laughs]  God, you really do ask some questions, I have to say!  The Singing Game?  Or am I getting better at performing?  I don’t know, but these are very pertinent questions for this time, and my mood today.  Sometimes I think I do get better, and sometimes I just think I’m getting it all wrong.  Then, on other days, I feel this is great, that I’ve found it, and I love it!  Then the next time it’s,
Oh God, I can’t face that, it’s dreadful!  All I can tell you is I’m working at it, harrowing away, working, working, working!  I’m never complacent, never!  I wish I was.

BD:   [Surprised]  Really??? Why?

MMcL:   I wish I was that Type-B personality, and I wish I took it all in my stride.  I wish I just slept every night.  I wish I didn’t care.

BD:   [With a gentle nudge, pointing out the obvious]  Then it would be awfully dull.

MMcL:   Well, that’s one thing I’m not!  [Much laughter all around]

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Is singing fun?

MMcL:   Sometimes...  [Laughs]  Only sometimes!  I probably create more problems than is necessary, but it should be more fun than it is.  But if you have good colleagues, if it’s a good atmosphere, if I’m doing something I know very well, then it’s fun.  But it’s hard work as well.  I’m too much of a perfectionist to tell you I go out there and have fun.

BD:   Do  you ever get involved in very strange productions?

MMcL:   Yes, I have been involved in rather too many, I’m afraid.

BD:   Is there anything you can do to keep your sanity?

mclaughlin MMcL:   I’m not very good at that, because I tend to believe very much in the director, and really try my hardest to be as flexible as possible.  I think to myself that I can do it, and sometimes, at the risk of downright bad taste, I end up doing something that I later wonder why I did it.  It’s disgraceful, it’s dreadful, it’s got nothing to do with piece, so why didn’t I say something?  But, as the good old trouper, I keep going and thinking this will be fine.  It’s all going to work out.  I remember one new production we did in Covent Garden, and we had this really crazy director.  On the day of the opening night, he called me at home and said, I am going to change all of this first act.  Please come at four o’clock for rehearsal.  I went at four o’clock, and he changed the whole of the first act.

BD:   You should have said it was too late!

MMcL:   I couldn’t believe that I could have done it.  Mind you we had already done it a good few years before.  Then, he sat in the wings and all through the performance, and he was shouting, Marie, turn right, go left, look out to the audience, look to me, move this, move that,” all the way through the first act.

BD:   [Shocked]  While you’re trying to concentrate???

MMcL:   While I’m singing!

BD:   Did he do this with other people, or just you?

MMcL:   With all the people who were involved in the first scene.  This is the kind of thing that you just think is nuts.  The thing with me is I’m very sensitive, and I get very easily upset.  Rather than face being upset, I’ll go along and try to keep a reasonably happy situation.

BD:   Do you tell your agent not to sign anymore contracts with that director?

MMcL:   Either that, or I will be big enough and brave enough to confront him and say,
No, this is not going to work.  Anyway, they’re quite a breed, these directors these days.

BD:   Who should run the opera
the singer, the conductor, the director, the composer?

MMcL:   Ardis Krainik should run the opera.

BD:   She is the General Director of the company, but who should have the final say for each production?

MMcL:   I should think that it’s a joint effort from all these talented people, and it should be a unanimous and happy favor.  It shouldn’t be a question of one ego saying yay or nay, quite frankly.  That’s what really annoys me
this lack of consideration to your colleagues, and these chaps with huge chips on their shoulder, and huge egos.  I can’t handle that.

BD:   You’re from Scotland originally.  Do you sing there at all now?

MMcL:   No, I don’t.  I wish I did.

BD:   Whereabouts from Scotland are you from?

MMcL:   Between Edinburgh and Glasgow.  I come from just the next village to Alexander Gibson, so it’s nice.  I love it up there!  All my family are there.

Sir Alexander Drummond Gibson CBE FRSE FRCM FRSA (11 February 1926 – 14 January 1995) was a Scottish conductor and opera intendant. He was also well known for his service to the BBC, and his achievements during his reign as the longest serving principal conductor of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra in which the orchestra was awarded its Royal Patronage.

Gibson was educated at Dalziel High School. He excelled at the piano and organ, and at 18 became the organist at Hillhead Congregational Church, Glasgow, while studying music at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama in Glasgow. In 1943 he matriculated at the University of Glasgow to study Music and English. After his first year, however, the war interrupted his studies and he served with the Royal Signals Band until 1948 when he took up a scholarship to the Royal College of Music in London. After that, he studied at the Mozarteum, Salzburg under Igor Markevitch, and under Paul Van Kempen at the Accademia Chigiana, Siena.

gibson He was Assistant Conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra 1952–54, and conducted two productions for the amateur Glasgow Grand Opera Society in 1954. At the time of his appointment in 1957 as musical director of Sadler's Wells, he was the youngest ever to have taken that position.

Returning to Glasgow, in 1959 he became the first Scottish principal conductor and artistic director of the Scottish National Orchestra, a post he held until 1984, to date longer than any other conductor. Under his leadership the orchestra built an international reputation through recordings and foreign tours, and appeared regularly in the SNO Proms in Glasgow, in Edinburgh International Festival, where he also created the Edinburgh Festival Chorus, and in London at The Proms.

Gibson created and launched Scottish Opera in 1962 and was its music director until 1986, when he was succeeded by John Mauceri. Through Gibson's artistic achievements, the Theatre Royal, Glasgow was bought from Scottish Television and transformed in 1975 to be the first national opera house in Scotland, and the home theatre of Scottish Opera and of Scottish Ballet, and from 1980 the Scottish Theatre Company. In 1987, Gibson was appointed conductor laureate of Scottish Opera and held this title for the remainder of his life. From 1981 to 1983 he was also principal guest conductor of the Houston Symphony Orchestra. He was principal conductor of the Guildford Philharmonic. During his career he made guest appearances with all the major British orchestras and extensively throughout Europe, Australia, the Americas, Hong Kong and Japan.

His many awards include two Grand Prix International de l’Academie Charles Cros Awards, the Sibelius Medal in 1978, and honorary doctorates from Aberdeen, Glasgow, Newcastle, Stirling, York and the Open universities. He was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 1967, was created a Knight Bachelor in 1977 and became president of the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, where in his memory, the Alexander Gibson School of Opera was opened in 1998. It is the first purpose-built opera school in Great Britain.

Gibson had a particular affinity for Scandinavian music, particularly Jean Sibelius, whose work he recorded several times, and Carl Nielsen. He was awarded Finland's Sibelius Medal in recognition of his distinguished service to the composer's music. He was strongly committed to contemporary music and in 1961 he founded a new music festival in Glasgow originally called Musica Viva, later Musica Nova Festival, Glasgow. Among the many important premieres he conducted there was the first British performance of Gruppen by Karlheinz Stockhausen, in 1961. He was also a constant advocate of new music by Scottish composers. In the opera house he was regarded as a particularly fine interpreter of Mozart and Wagner, conducting the complete Ring des Nibelungen with Scottish Opera in 1971. He was equally at home in the Italian repertoire. In 1969 he conducted a memorable Scottish Opera production of Les Troyens by Berlioz – the first ever complete performance of both parts of the opera in one evening.

Gibson was the recipient of the 1970 St Mungo Prize, awarded to the individual who has done most in the previous three years to improve and promote the city of Glasgow. In the Theatre Royal, Glasgow there is a lofty portrait of him in the orchestra pit perched on a stool, painted by David Donaldson, the Queen's Limner in Scotland, and a bust of him as conductor by the sculptor Archie Forrest. A street in his home town of Motherwell, is named Alexander Gibson Way in his honour.

BD:   You should arrange to go back to the Edinburgh Festival.

MMcL:   Yes, I know.  All my family are still there, and my singing teacher is still up there, so I do get up as often as I can, but I’m afraid it’s not very often.

BD:   So you drag them all down to London?

MMcL:   Absolutely!  [Both laugh]  They go all over the place.  My sister and my brother and my mother, everybody’s been here
not this trip, but the last time I was here.  Everybody loves Chicago.  It’s a great place.

BD:   Good, I’m glad that visiting singers like our city.

MMcL:   Oh, it’s a great place.  The opera house is a wonderful place to work.  There is such consideration to the artists.  It’s just unbelievable, and this is a wonderful, fabulous, great city.

BD:   Good.  I hope you’ll be back again.

MMcL:   I hope. 

BD:   Thank you for the conversation.

MMcL:   Thank you very much.  It was lovely to speak to you.


© 1991 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in Chicago on October 17, 1991.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB in 1994 and 1999.  This transcription was made in 2019, and posted on this website at that time.  My thanks to British soprano Una Barry for her help in preparing this website presentation.

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

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

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