Mezzo - Soprano  Susanne  Mentzer

Two Conversations with Bruce Duffie


American mezzo-soprano Susanne Mentzer is an international opera star, known for a strong, bright stage presence and agile lyric voice that has made her a natural for the leading travesti (trousers) roles. She is also active as a concert and recital singer.

mentzer Raised in her home town of Philadelphia, she moved to Santa Fe, NM, and finished her last two years of high school there. This led to ushering at the Santa Fe Opera Festival, which awakened an interest in classical singing.

She enrolled in the University of the Pacific in Stockton, CA, as a music therapy major. Her music teachers immediately spotted her vocal potential and her flair for the stage, and sent her as an apprentice at the Aspen Music Festival after her first college year. Despite her rookie status, she beat all the rest of the competition for the trousers role of Nicklausse in Offenbach's Les Contes d'Hoffmann, which, she says, got her "really hooked on opera."

She transferred to the Juilliard School of Music in New York City, where she studied with Norma Newton. Her professional stage debut was as Albina in Rossini's La donna del lago with the Houston Grand Opera in 1981. She made an acclaimed European debut in 1983 at Cologne as Cherubino in Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro.

She rapidly established a strong European reputation, singing Rosina in The Barber of Seville at Covent Garden in 1985. Despite her growing fame in trousers parts (Octavian in Strauss' Der Rosenkavalier, Cherubino, Idamante, Sextus, the Composer in Ariadne auf Naxos, and others), she also enchanted audiences as Dorabella in Così fan tutte and in the soubrette part of Zerlina in Don Giovanni, which she sang in 1987 at La Scala in Milan under the baton of Ricardo Muti -- a portrayal available on video [shown at right. See my interviews with Thomas Allen, Ann Murray, and Francisco Araiza. Mentzer also appears on an audio recording on EMI, made in Vienna with Muti and a different cast.]

In 1987, as she was starting a family, she returned to the United States as a residence and base of operations. She made her Metropolitan Opera debut as Cherubino in 1989. When she started rehearsals, she recalls, her son Benjamin was four months old and still being breast-fed, so she was "feeling not very man-like."

She has developed into a natural successor to Marilyn Horne in the great coloratura mezzo roles of the bel canto era, such as Adalgisa in Bellini's Norma, and the growing interest in Baroque opera led to great acclaim in the title role of Handel's Giulio Cesare at the Bastille Opéra in Paris, where she has also sung Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande. Among her other roles are Romeo in I Capuleti e i Montecchi, Giovanna Seymour in Anna Bolena, Marguerite in La damnation de Faust, the title roles of Offenbach's La Périchole and Ravel's L'Enfant et les sortileges, Rossini's Cenerentola, and Purcell's Dido and Aeneas, and Concepcion in Ravel's L'heure espagnole.

In concert, she has sung in major works of Bach, Beethoven, Debussy, Falla, Mahler, Handel, Stravinsky, Ravel, Mozart, Floyd, Bruckner, Berlioz, Berg, and Pergolesi. Her growing number of recital programs tend to feature innovative mixes of art songs, operatic arias, and American folk songs, with an interest in vocal music by women composers. Mentzer has recorded for Philips, Telarc, Virgin, Decca, Erato, Arabesque, and Angel/EMI. She frequently sings in benefits for charities related to the care of AIDS patients, including an annual "Jubilate" concert in Chicago.

Most of the meetings with my guests over the years have been singular events.  However, in a few special cases, we met for a second time (and occasionally a third time!), and this is one of those double encounters.

It was my distinct pleasure to speak with Susanne Mentzer twice.  Our first interview took place in Chicago in January of 1987, and much of it was published in the Massenet Newsletter the following year.  The second interview was held when she returned twelve years later, in January of 1999.  Both interviews were also featured on WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago, and are now presented on this webpage.  Photos and links have been added, and, as usual, names which are links refer to my interviews elsewhere on my website.

Knowing that this would appear in the Massenet Newsletter, we began the discussion with her involvement in a major role of the French composer . . . . . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:   Did you enjoy the role of Cendrillon?

Susanne Mentzer:   Yes, I did.  I like the opera better than the Rossini version.  This one has the glass slipper and the fairy godmother, and it’s more complete.  It’s just more fun to perform it that way than the other way.  Vocally it’s apples and oranges.  Rossini has all the coloratura, and the Massenet is very middle-voice, but suddenly he’ll throw in a high passage, so it’s very taxing.  You can never really relax and let it go.  You have to concentrate on your phrasing.  The French repertoire is all the words and phrasing, much more so than the Italian comedies.

mentzer BD:   Do you feel that Massenet wrote well for the voice?

SM:   Yes, he did.  This role is often done by a soprano, and being a mezzo I had, perhaps, other problems.  But a soprano will be bothered by the way it lies in the middle voice so much.  I’m a high mezzo, so it was fine.

BD:   Why is Cendrillon not done more these days?

SM:   It’s hard for the audience.  It’s slow.  When I first heard the recording, I didn’t care for it.  There has to be a lot of going on onstage, and the scenes between Cinderella and the Prince are very stagnant.  They don’t seem to have much of the magic of falling in love; they’re so drawn out over many pages.  The scenes with the family are wonderful, and the step-family scenes move a lot more.  There’s a lot of ballet, but if it’s not done well, it can be deadly.  I’m doing a production with Von Stade in Washington where I’ll sing the Prince.  I like singing with her.  It’s a special situation.  I’d rather sing the title part, but they asked for this, and I’ll be glad to do it.

BD:  At this point, she is more well-known.

I wouldn’t welcome the pressure and publicity of being a star.  I enjoy causing a sensation when I sing.  I like an audience applauding.  I don’t know if mezzos can really be stars.  Horne is a unique case, and Von Stade is almost like that.  I’m not that kind of singer who listens to recordings of others very often.  I admire a few whom I’ve worked with.  The ones I like the most are those who are genuinely nice people.  It’s hard to have artistry on stage and not be a genuine person.

BD:   Coming back to Cendrillon and Cenerentola, are there some specific differences in the two versions when it comes to the character?  [Vis-à-vis the DVD shown at right, see my interviews with Neil Shicoff, and Jesús López-Cobos.]

SM:   In Cenerentola, there are scenes where the step-sisters and step-mother take advantage of Cinderella, and you get to develop your character a little more that way.  In Cendrillon, you just appear half-way through the opera, and you have to take it for granted that the audience knows that you have been abused by your family.  But then you have the wonderful scene where the fairies come out and transform you for the ball, and that’s not in Cenerentola.  There, you go off stage and change your clothes.  When I did the Massenet in Cologne, they changed me right in front of the audience.  I had a special costume and fell asleep, and they picked me up in a dream-state and dressed me for the ball.  It was really wonderful.  And you have a glass slipper, whereas in Cenerentola you have a bracelet, so it’s different.  I guess it depends on where you were raised as to how you know the fairy tale. 

BD:   Cologne seems to have done a bit of Massenet.  They recently mounted Werther...

SM:   ...a very controversial production by Hans Neugebauer.  I didn’t sing it but I saw it.  It was very surreal, with coffins were used as doorways.  It was all kind of Salvador Dali!

BD:   I had a nice chat with Kathleen Kuhlmann, who sang Charlotte in that production, but we spoke only about the character and not the sets.  How does a production affect the way you sing any role?

SM:   Quite a lot.  I try to do whatever a director wants me to do.  Even if I disagree, I try to do it because I feel they have a certain concept in mind, and I’m not so rigid that I want to do my thing.  But sometimes if it just doesn’t work for me, it can be upsetting.  I try.  Part of my job is to trust the director.  Sometimes it’s less of a success if the production is not so strong, but it’s not my responsibility to make the whole production a success.  It’s my responsibility to take what was given to make and to do what I’ve been asked to do.  That, plus my own ideas make the character.

BD:   Do you feel that producers are working in wrong directions these days?

SM:   Some, yes.  Some are a little extreme, and will try an effect for effect’s sake.  If it has nothing to do with the piece, that can bother me.  I emphasize my singing, and I also emphasize my acting, so I really place a lot of importance on my acting.  For that reason, I’m much more satisfied doing opera than concert work.

BD:   Then let me ask the Capriccio question.  Where is the balance between the music and the drama?

SM:   That’s really a tough one.  For me, right now my singing is not good unless I’m concentrating on the character.  That’s not to say that I don’t think of my technique.  I really try to get my role down with my voice teacher before I go to do it, and during rehearsals I will work on it vocally as well as dramatically.  But once I’m on the stage, there is a point when I stop thinking about vocal technique, because then there’s not much I can do to change it.  Occasionally there will be something.  If I’m singing a little too heavy, I’ll change and sing a bit lighter, but there is nothing drastic I can do at that point.  So if I concentrate on the character, I get a lot more of the emotion and meaning into the role, and into my voice, and the vocalism becomes a lot easier. 

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   You travel the world, but where is home?

SM:   My home currently is Houston.  I started out at the Texas Opera Theater, and I met my husband there.  He is the technical director of the opera there, so it works out great.  My husband is there, and my voice teacher is there, so when I go home I am really balanced, and can study... as well as be with my husband!

mentzer BD:   Being involved in the opera, does he understand your problems a bit more, and can he sympathize with your need to travel so much?

SM:   [Smiles]  I think so, but he has his limits.  He is very understanding about it.  I sang in three operas there last year, and I’ll be back in 1988 and again in 1990.  But they have to consider the audience, and they can’t bring back the same artists every year.  I’ve been fortunate.

BD:   Is it hard being a wandering minstrel?

SM:   There are times...  It’s hard when you’re gone for a long time.  Last year I was home for only two months, and when the Shuttle disaster happened, I felt for the families, and wanted so much to be home.  At the beginning of this year, I was away for ten weeks, and it’s a long time to be gone when the Astros are in the play-offs.  I had to listen on Armed Forces Radio.

BD:   How are the audiences different from Europe and America?  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at right, see my interviews with Jerry Hadley, Cecilia Gasdia, Alexandru Agache, Brigitte Fassbaender, and Carlo Rizzi.]

SM:   I find the opera in Europe is more like a spectator sport.  The audience is very responsive whether it’s bravos or boos.  I also find them very educated there.  Lots of teenagers come to the opera, especially in Germany.  When you come out of the stage door, lots of kids will be there with their scrapbooks, and they’re very organized.  They have a page for each cast, and they know opera.  In the States it’s different.  We’re not raised with it here.

BD:   Are we colder in our response?

SM:   Not at the final curtain, but during the show it’s quieter.  I think surtitles are a wonderful thing.  They are a really big help to the audience.  It’s hard being in another language.

BD:   Would you prefer to sing in translation, or have surtitles?

SM:   In the original with surtitles.  I love having an audience know what we’re saying without us having to take a translation that really wasn’t written for that music.  It’s so hard to split words on the notes, and it’s hard to understand opera in any language.  The words get modified a little whether it’s Italian, French, or German, and it’s hard for the audience to understand every word.  So surtitles help in that respect.  Then we can make a more beautiful singing line without having the burden of getting the words across.  I worry about the diction, but not to that extent.

BD:   Do you work harder at your diction when you’re singing in English to an American audience?

SM:   Absolutely!  You tend to work harder in your own language, whereas in Italian and French and German I work hard, but not ev-er-y lit-tle syll-a-ble.  But I do spit out all the little tiny words in English.

mentzer BD:   Do you rely on the prompter at all?

SM:   Not at all.  I found it annoying at first, but not any more.  I’m more used to it.  My nerves simply could not stand going into a production having to rely on a prompter.  I have to know it cold.  In their defense, I have had to step into productions, and then the prompter really saved me.  They not only give word cues, but also help with blocking and movements, and with cuts in the music.  They’re good in rehearsal.  If you forget a word, you don’t need to stop every time.

BD:   In this operetta, you go from singing to speaking.  What special problems does that pose for the voice?  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at left, see my interview with Sunny Joy Langton.]

SM:   So far, none.  The other night, when I wasn’t feeling well, I didn’t speak as well as I sang.  I don’t support when I speak.  Singing is kind of automatic, and I didn’t really have any training in delivering dialogue.  But really it poses no problems.  When I did Beatrice and Benedict of Berlioz, we had a dialogue coach, and that worked out very well.  There’s a real technique to it that I learned.

BD:   Do you sing any evil characters?

SM:   No, not really.  I’m always the sweet person on stage.  Beatrice is feisty, and I’m dying to do it again, but it’s not done.  My roles are ones that aren’t done!  I did some Handel with Harnoncourt, and his idea of embellishment is so different from the British conductors.  The British come in with everything planned out, and it’s so elaborate.  Harnoncourt wants things to be more inventive as you go along.  You just stand there and let it rip.  Even if you plan something out, it should sound very spontaneous.  Some nights, things were different because you had the urge to do a little trill here, or a passing note there.  He calls it a collaboration, which is what it should be.

BD:   Is opera art or entertainment, and where is the balance?

SM:   Anything on stage is art, but opera is half and half.  From the audience standpoint, it’s entertainment; from the performer’s standpoint, it’s art.  We have to consider the audience that’s paid to be there.  We’re not playing in a void.  I don’t mean we do gimmicky things just to please the audience, but we must consider the fact that they’re there, and we have to include them.  There are performers who think it’s
art for art’s-sake, or for self-gratificationand it is, to a pointbut there is still an audience there.

BD:   Since your husband is a technical director, does that give you more sympathy for the technical aspects when you’re on the stage?

SM:   Absolutely!  I’m always defending the crew. Singers tend to be very selfish, and think the whole rehearsal is for them.  There is always a tech rehearsal, and that’s so you can find your way around the set and get used to the costumes.  But it’s also for the technical people to get used to their changes, and manipulating the sets and the lighting.  I’ve seen so many singers get upset if the light isn’t exactly right when there’s still a week to go.  They don’t realize that the tech people have to get their work done, too.  They’re going to have to make noise in the wings during the rehearsal, so I get real defensive about it.  Those people save your life.  It’s a very dangerous business with scenery flying in and out.  But when I’m singing in a production he’s involved in, I can look off-stage and see him standing there.  I’ll walk off the stage and he’ll be there.  But he has his work to do, and he can ignore me sometimes.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Are you singing enough, or, perhaps, too much these days?

SM:   In 1989 I’m getting a little over-booked, and that worries me.  There are lots of wonderful things that I’ve always wanted to do in wonderful places, and it’s harder to pick
La Scala, Covent Garden, the Metand I can’t say no to any of them.  I will be working without any time off, really.  Last year I worked straight through from September to June, and was really mentally fatigued.  That’s not good.  You can’t bring life to your art.

BD:   Do you change your technique at all when singing in different houses?

SM:   Not for the house, but for the role.  Singing Anna Bolena was totally different from singing Mozart.  Bolena was a lot more free.  Mozart felt like it was too controlled, and the French style is even tougher than Mozart.  For me, it felt more instrumental.  It had passion to it, and it’s very warm, rich music, but the way the line is written reminds me of an instrument.  I’m studying Werther.  I’ll always be studying that role!  I’m not scheduled to do it, however.  I’m also learning Octavian, but that will be done in 1989 in France.

BD:   What is so intriguing about Werther?

SM:   The story, the character, the music, everything.  It’s just beautiful.  I like Werther’s music better than Charlotte’s.  It’s so beautiful and so emotional.

BD:   Is it perhaps too emotional?

SM:   No, not for me.  There are few things that make me cry tears, and Werther is one.  Bohème is another.  Singing the composer in Ariadne is another.  The beauty of the music is so stunning.

BD:   When you’re on stage, do you portray the character, or do you become the character?

Susanne Mentzer at Lyric Opera of Chicago

1984 - Barber of Seville (Rosina) with Raftery, Araiza, Siepi, Montarsolo, Andreolli; Bartoletti, Sciutti, Schuler

1986-87 - Merry Widow (Valencienne) with Ewing, Titus, Hadley, Adams, Kaasch, Negrini; Podič, Mansouri, Tallchief

1989-90 - Clemenza di Tito (Sesto) with Winbergh, Vaness, Graham, Doss; Davis, Rochaix

1991-92 - Marriage of Figaro (Cherubino) with Lott, Ramey, McLaughlin, Shimell, Loup, Benelli, Palmer, Futral (Barbarina); Davis, Hall

1993-94 - Don Quichotte (Dulcinée) with Ramey, Lafont, Perkins; Nelson, Koenig, Samaritani

1994-95 - Barber of Seville (Rosina) with Braun/Gilfrey, Blake, Halfvarson, Desderi; Behr, Copley, Conklin

1995-96 - Don Giovanni (Zerlina) with Morris, Terfel/Held, Orgonasova, Vaness, Lopardo; Kreizberg, Ponnelle



To launch the Chicago Symphony Orchestra's 100th season, an all-star
cast of conductors and soloists was assembled for a gala
opening concert on October 6, 1990.
Left to right, back row: Associate Conductor Kenneth Jean,
pianist András Schiff, conductor Lorin Maazel, tenor Gary Lakes,
soprano Sylvia McNair, bass Samuel Ramey;
middle row: Music Director Designate Daniel Barenboim,
Lady Valerie Solti, Music Director Sir Georg Solti,
conductor Leonard Slatkin, cellist Yo-Yo Ma;
front row: violinist Isaac Stern, cellist/conductor Mstislav Rostropovich,
mezzo-soprano Susanne Mentzer, pianist/conductor Murray Perahia.

SM:   I become the character, I really do.  It can be dangerous, and my vocalism suffers occasionally because of it, but I get into a track, and I block everything else out.  Bombs can be going off and I wouldn’t know about it.  I like that way.  But I can walk off stage into the wings, and the character has gone; it’s just while I’m out there on the stage.  I’m not the kind who plays to the audience.  I play for them, but not to them.  I want them to experience something by watching me experience the character so they will experience it.  I’m serious about my vocal technique, and I work very hard at it, but once I’m on stage, I’m very instinctive about it.  After studying a long time, what you’ve learned becomes your instinct.  If you’re properly prepared, it becomes automatic.  Rosina is sometimes played strong, sometimes innocent and sweet.  She is my most performed role, along with Cherubino, who can be naïve or impetuous.  He is my lucky role, since it was my debut at the Met and at La Scala.  It’s been a kick for me to go to where the pieces where first performed, or be where the composers lived, and see the culture and the history.  When I first did Cherubino in Paris, I stayed two blocks from where Beaumarchais lived.  It was very inspiring.  I’ve also sung Rossini in Pesaro where Rossini lived.  You can feel it.  I also identify with Carlisle Floyd because he’s from the Carolinas, and I’m from the mountains of Maryland.  So we have the same kind of Appalachian background, and can identify with each other that way.

*     *     *     *     *

mentzer BD:   Is singing fun?

SM:   Sometimes it’s fun.  It’s a lot of pressure.  Sometimes I wish I was a jazz singer, or scat singer.  It looks like that would be more fun, but who knows?  The grass is always greener...  [Laughs]  I’m pretty lucky to be doing what I’m doing.  It’s fun to meet a lot of people, and it’s fun to travel, but that gets old real fast.  There are sacrifices.  It’s a very lonely life.  It’s a big adjustment to go home.  You’re always thinking about where you’ll be two weeks from now.  It’s harder on a woman in terms of the family.  You can have a family these days, and opera companies are willing to work around pregnancy, and accommodate changes in costumes, but then the child is there, and you have to leave it or take it with you, and have a nanny, and then the husband doesn’t see the child.  It’s more common for the man to go off on business trips, and Mom stays home with the kids.  I couldn’t ask my husband to be Mr. Mom and stay at home... but he can’t ask me to do that either!  We have to find a balance where we won’t be resentful, and the children won’t be resentful, and everybody will be happy, and that’s hard to do.  But some families are successful, so there’s hope.

BD:   Is it harder these days to portray a really feminine lady on the stage to an audience that doesn’t accept that anymore?  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at left, see my interviews with Joan Sutherland, and Bernadette Manca di Nissa.]

SM:   No, but you mustn’t look for pity from an audience.  Don’t play for sympathy.  If you just live the situation the character is put into, everybody is going to react a little differently.  If somebody gets mad at the way I portray a character, that’s good.  At least they’re reacting.  I hope that the feminists of the world don’t go to the theater looking for ways to criticize.  

BD:   How do you react to criticism by others, or reviews in the newspaper?

SM:   Reviews will either elate me or upset me.  I’ve learned from negative criticism.  Opera is a grand art form, even when doing Philip Glass.  Richard Bonynge has helped me by suggesting repertoire.  I want to do Adalgisa and Mélisande, but I have no desire to be a soprano. 

BD:   I hope you don’t change your mind about that.  [Both laugh]  How do you decide which roles you’ll do and which you’ll pass?

SM:   It’s really pretty easy.  I accept most things but not all.  I turned down a Werther because it was to be done in English.  If it had been in French, I’d have done it.  I turned down Carmen a few years ago.  I might do it in ten years, but my personality isn’t really suited to it.  I’m not comfortable with it.  Those are about the only ones I’ve declined because of the role.  I’ve had to say no a few times because of conflicts in the dates with other engagements I had already been contracted to do.

BD:   Is it comfortable to know that on a certain date two years from now, you’ll be singing a certain role in a certain place?

SM:   No, it makes life more complicated and more confusing.  I’d rather think that I had a clean slate, and I can deal with other things next month.  I like living month to month.  For a year it’s nice to know that there will be so much money coming in, and we can plan to do things like build a garage, but in the long term, it drives me crazy.  With so little time off, I tend to cram too much into those precious weeks.  I see my parents, see my husband, doing everything I wanted to do.  Some people welcome knowing what is coming, but I don’t.  I told my agent to keep June of 1991 open for my parents’ fiftieth wedding anniversary, so he penciled that in.  He said he could pencil in children for me if I wanted them... [Both laugh]

BD:   Do you ever wish life was that simple?

SM:   Yes, all the time.  I’ve decided that I’m not going to squeeze children in between one job and another.  If I get pregnant, I’ll stop singing and have the family, so I’ll wait and see. 

With that I wished her well and hoped for continued success.  We agreed to meet again in the future, which we did twelve years later, at the beginning of the final year of the 1900s.  Her career was moving along nicely, and it was good to see the growth in her artistry, and understanding of all that goes with it.

BD:   Do you like being an opera singer at the end of this Millennium?

SM:   I guess it’s a good option, but I don’t know!  I’m trying to be more of a concert singer than an opera singer now. 

BD:   How do you divide your time between operas and concerts?

SM:   I’ve got a good manager, and she puts the word out that I want to be doing more concerts.  Actually, it varies because some of the work I do is with orchestra, and some of it will be with piano.  The orchestral jobs are fewer and farther between because every orchestra presenter has their preference about whether they want a pianist or a vocalist.  They only have so many slots for vocalists, or so many slots for an oratorio, so it’s really the luck of the draw.  I’ve been really fortunate in this coming year of ’99 – 2000, to have a lot of orchestral engagements.  But I’m also trying to do a lot of recital work.

BD:   Are you trying to do too much?

SM:   No!  [Laugh]  I’m actually doing less now than I’ve been doing.  I was doing too much; I readily admit that.  Gone are the days of those two-month engagements on the road.  They’re just really too exhausting, and too emotionally exhausting for me now to be away from my son.  Wisdom comes with age!  [Both laugh] 

BD:   Is it more difficult to balance a career because you have family life?

SM:   Oh, yes.  I’ve had my son for ten years, but when he was really little I was still making a lot of debuts, and I was really gung-ho about trying to fulfill those commitments.  So I was always pulled, but he was also more portable.  Now he’s less portable.  He has his friends, he has a school life, and I just don’t want to disrupt that.  So, the only option for me is to try to be home more so that I can see him.  Then, in the summer if he can go with me, that’s great, and it’s for him, but it’s also for me, emotionally.  I find myself more committed to my work because I’m less strung out.  It’s funny because a lot of the Lieder repertoire that I’m doing I never appreciated before.  Some people start out with Lieder, and then they go into opera, and I never was attracted to it.  But now I’m very attracted to it, and I think it’s because I understand the poetry better... or I’ve just lived life a bit.  I’ve had the struggles, and I can understand what a lot of the poets are talking about, so it’s more satisfying for me to interpret it.

BD:   How do you select the songs
from the poetry, or from the music?

SM:   It’s a mixture of both, but normally it’s from the poetry.  I like to find settings that are appealing, and I can usually tell by listening to it if it means something to me.  Sometimes the settings just don’t do it for me, but then sometimes I’ll hear something and know I’ve got to do that.  I just heard some Strauss songs the other day, Mädchenblumen, and I adore them.  I haven’t heard those done often, and they’re beautiful.  So it’s hard to know.  I don’t know why certain songs fit certain people.  A lot of people say I should do Spanish repertoire, and I’ve tried looking at Spanish pieces and they just don’t do anything for me.  It’s nothing against Spain, it just doesn’t hit me.

mentzer BD:   But the German and the French songs do?

SM:   Very much.  Probably more the German, and anything American really touches me.

BD:   I was going to ask how American songs fit in to the mix.  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at right, see my interviews with Libby Larsen, and Elinor Remick Warren.]

SM:   They do if they’ve got a good vocal line for me to be able to carry it off.  But it’s back to the intensity.  The problem is I’m liable to do a whole concert that’s really depressing because I’ll choose all this poetry that’s really intense.  Then I realize I can’t do that.  I’ve really got to vary it a little bit because the audience is going to be so worn out at the end.

BD:   [Surprised]  You’re not such a depressing kind of person, so why do you pick all of this?  Can’t you pick some happy poetry???

SM:   A lot of the operatic roles I do are happy.

BD:   So there’s the balance?

SM:   Aha!  Also, I think that deep inside me is a little voice trying to get out in terms of expression.

BD:   You’re a tormented soul???

SM:   [Laughs]  Yes, I have my problems!  I have my big existential crises from time to time.

BD:   Do you feel your Lieder recitals are therapy for you?

SM:   Oh, they can be, yes.

BD:   Knowing this, do you then make sure that when you find a happy song, you plug that into most recitals?

SM:   Yes, and I do.  I really have to be aware of that, and I have to be aware of the audience.  I can interpret all I want, but they have to sit through it.  I just can’t get up there in a void and have a great musical experience.

BD:   So you’re conscious of the audience when you’re putting the program together?

SM:   Yes, very much so.

BD:   Then, are you conscious of the audience when you’re actually singing?  Do you see them out there?

SM:   No, I block that out.  I always have.  It probably looks different from an audience point of view, because at different times people said I could really sell a song, or that I communicate so well.  But what I do best is getting lost in what I’m doing.  So, if I’m doing a role, and if I get totally lost in the character and the music, I do far better.  It is the same thing with recitals.  It’s very unnerving, in a way, to do recitals because you realize that all the focus is on you and the pianist.  You could move your little finger, and they’ll wonder why she is moving her little finger.  In opera you don’t have that.  But I try to block that out, and just get very lost in what I’m doing.  I feel like if I believe in the integrity of what I’m performing, then an audience will, too.  They need to come to me a little bit.  I can’t hit them over the head with it.

BD:   Do you try to hit them over the head?

SM:   No!  I know some people do...  They have to point out everything they’re doing on stage, and I’m a little less that way.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Do you sing any different for the different sized houses
if you’re in a small recital hall, or a big opera house?

SM:   Yes, I do.  I never thought I could sing softly.  I don’t think my teacher thought I could either.  

BD:   [With a gentle nudge]  You’re a loud singer?

SM:   I used to be a loud singer, and now I’ve learned how to sing softly.  I think that’s why Lieder is becoming more enjoyable, because it’s not torturous for me to cut my voice back now.  My voice has become a lot more flexible for some reason, and I enjoy that.  I enjoy really being intimate.  It’s so weird when you’re an opera singer because you sometimes feel that loud is better, and it’s not better!  But you get this phobia because the houses are so big, you feel you got to sing loudly.  Or, if somebody comes back in an orchestra rehearsal and says that you’re covered a little bit, then you think it’s your job to sing louder instead of the orchestra
s job to play softer.  You get this thing in your head, and loud is not necessarily better.  I found that out after many years.

mentzer BD:   Can you ask the conductor to hold them back?

SM:   A good conductor knows the whole idea of that.

BD:   Do you try to only work with the good conductors?

SM:   I’m very lucky, yes.  I pretty much only work with the good conductors.

BD:   Do good conductors know the human voice, and love the human voice?

SM:   Well, not all of them love the human voice, but those who understand the human voice are the great conductors in my opinion.  Those who understand the human voices are the ones that can let each voice be its own instrument, and not try to make it sound like somebody else.  You never get the feeling that you’re not living up to their expectations.  I’ve often found different conductors that I’ve worked with in the past had a recording going in their head before they ever met me.  They have an idea about the way they think it’s going to sound, and then I don’t sound the way they think that it’s going to sound.  Well, that’s not fair.  They’ve got to be open-minded.  I’m open-minded enough to look at their technique and get used to that, so they’ve got to get used to me, too.  I’m not saying that I’m not open to interpretation.  Obviously, I have to do what the conductor wants me to do.  But I’m talking about the sound, the tone, the color.  I like to have the freedom to make some choices there as well.

BD:   [With feigned shock]  You’re a thinking-singer???

SM:   [Smiles]  Yes I am! I don’t like to have to walk in somebody else’s shoes.  Really, an ideal situation is when a conductor can work as a collaborator instead of a dictator.

BD:   What should conductors know about the human voice?

SM:   They should know that it’s very uneven sometimes.  There are a lot of different things.  If you didn’t sleep well, it’s not going to come out the same way as it is if you have slept well.  The voice will sometimes be dried out.  Breathing has to be different sometimes.  We try to make it the same very night, but we can’t always.  Instruments are the same way, except they cover it better.  The voice shows a lot of flaws.  Anybody, even a non-singer, can get up in the morning after being at a ball game, and their voice is really raspy.  That’s life.

BD:   So it’s your responsibility not to scream at the ball game ?

SM:   Yes, but we use our voices all the time.  We have to talk...

BD:   [With a gentle nudge]  You don’t go around just whispering to everyone?

SM:   No, I
m not going to get that crazy.  I’m just insistent on having a normal life.  

BD:   Being a singer is not a normal life???

SM:   It is, but what I mean is I’m not going to go around on the day of a performance not talking.  I have too many other responsibilities in life
like motherhood.  I can’t put life on hold just because I happen to be a singer.  I’m not one of those pampered singers.  I don’t sleep to noon...

BD:   ...and yet you’re up until midnight if it’s a long opera.

SM:   Yes, but when I had my son I found that I didn’t have to pamper myself the way I had been.  That was a myth.  I was amazed, actually, at what I could do
get up in the middle of the night, and breast feed and all that stuffand still be able to function and sing.  It was actually a good lesson.  I didn’t have to place so much importance on my voice.  Some people talk about their voices like it’s outside of their body.

BD:   Do you ever wish it was like a clarinet
that you could pull it apart and put it in case on a shelf overnight?  

SM:   Sometimes.  I’ve had my moments of extreme fatigue.  I wish I could reverse that but...

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   A lot of the roles that you sing are boys.  Now that you have a young son, is this altering the way you view some of these characters?


See my interviews with Ryland Davies, and Sir Charles Mackerras

SM:   Oh, absolutely.  As a matter of fact, he recently said to me,
Gee, Mom, isn’t it great that you have me?”  I said, “Of course it’s great!  He said, No, I mean because you have to be a boy, and I’m a boy, so you can base it all on me.  He thought of that before I could say it.  [Both laugh]  So, yes, it does affect my characters, and I’m sure that when he gets to be a pre-teen and teenager, it’s going to have even more of an impact.

BD:   Are you perhaps, then, a little more alert to what he’s going to try to pull, having played some of these boys?

SM:   [Bursts out laughing]  I’m ready for it!

BD:   Does it make you at all schizophrenic going back and forth between playing a boy and playing a girl?

SM:   Playing them?  No!  It’s always fun to go to either one, but it’s always fun to finally be a girl after being a boy for awhile.  It’s sort of a novelty because I don’t do that many female roles, and then when I go back to the pants roles, I’m really thrilled about that because they’re all so very freeing and much more comfortable in terms of costumes.  You don’t have corsets and all that...  But some of the pants roles are very demanding
like Octavianand so when I get into singing that, I sometimes think, Wow, this is really exhausting, because it’s probably the longest role I do.

mentzer BD:   You’re on stage most of the night.

SM:   Most of the night, and you have so many costume changes, and gender changes in a way as well!  [Laughs]  So that’s a challenge.

BD:   Is there any one role that’s perhaps too close to the real you?

SM:   Hmm!  I used to get really lost in the Composer in Ariadne.  [DVD shown at right.]  I think I lose myself less now, but there was a time when I was first going that I would get so lost in it that I would come off shaking.  I really felt like I was the Composer.  I felt that I had something I wanted to say, and nobody was listening to me.  I was like the misunderstood person, and that’s basically how he feels, and it was kind of upsetting.  I would get upset every night when I’d do it, and that doesn’t happen anymore
although I’m just as committed.  Its just that I don’t lose myself as much.

BD:   Was it good that the role was just forty minutes or so?  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at right, see my interview with Deborah Voigt.]

SM:   Yes, probably.  I said it was my primal scream therapy!  [Both laugh]  I work at the Met a lot, and I do a lot with Levine, and one of the things that I love about him is there’s a great trust factor.  He knows that’s how I like to work
where I get real lost in what I am doingso he doesn’t demand me to keep staring at him.  He knows that I have a process in rehearsal, and that I really have to grow; that it’s just not there all together until I’m actually in a performance.  He trusts that, which is so great.  It’s like he gives me a rope, and he lets me go, and sometimes if he thinks I’ve gone too far, or it’s not quite right, he’ll reign it in a little bit.  But it’s a wonderful feeling of trust, and people who don’t know me may not give me that kind of trust, and that’s hard because everyone has their process.

BD:   Levine obviously knows that you’re going to deliver the goods.  I would think that anyone else who hires you would know by reputation that you deliver the goods.

SM:   You’d think so but they don’t always trust that.  There are a lot of control-freaks in the business.

BD:   You’re not a control-freak?

SM:   No, I’m not.

BD:   Not even for yourself?

SM:   No.  I go and basically try to do justice to my interpretation of something.  But I’m also paid to do a job, so I have to weigh what the director wants, what the conductor wants, and what my colleagues want.  I’m not going to go in like a bull in a china shop, and say,
“This is what I want, and I’m going to control the situation.  But there are a lot of people do that, who feel their integrity is at stake.  I just look at it differently, and being paid very well to do a job, I do have to consider who’s hiring me, and who I’m working with.  I can’t work in a void.

BD:   Does part of that enter into your decision to accept or turn down an offer?

SM:   Yes, it does.  That’s also another thing that’s freeing about doing concert work.  It’s a little less complicated in terms of there not being too many cooks.  In opera there are a lot of cooks!  You’ve got the casting director, the set designer, the lighting designer, all these different people besides the conductor and a director.

BD:   Do you ever feel that you’re just an onion in the stew?

SM:   Oh, often!  But I realize that’s what opera’s about.  It’s an ensemble thing
or at least most of the ones I do.  If you’re going to be a Mozart singer especially, you’ve got to really eat your ego and just be an ensemble player, and I enjoy that.  A lot of the roles I do are what I call ‘second lady roles’.  I do Adalgisa [in Norma], Jane Seymour [in Anna Bolena], and things where I’m not the leading role, and I enjoy that.  I don’t like the pressure of having to be the leading role.  I enjoy making it work for the leading lady sometimes.  I can help, and still do the job myself, and feel satisfied.

mentzer BD:   But you do some leading rolesRosina in Barber of Seville, and Cenerentola.

SM:   Yes, but less often.  I consider Octavian a leading role because without her there is no plot at all.  [Photo in costume shown below-right.]  But the audience considers the Marschallin the lead role.  I think it’s because so many people can identify with the Marschallin, and Octavian is just some seventeen-year-old squirt.  People don’t identify with that.

BD:   Even the men in the audience don’t identify with that?

SM:   Maybe they do...

BD:   [This next question was also asked in the first interview, and interestingly, she begins her response almost exactly the same.  Very shortly, though, the conversation does move along a different path.]  When you walk on stage, are you portraying a character or do you actually become that character?

SM:   I become that character.  I really do.

BD:   Is that a good thing?

SM:   For me it is.  A bomb could go off and I wouldn’t know it.  I totally live the moment and I really enjoy that.  I need people around me who can trust that, because if I start to doubt it, if I start to think, if I can’t lose myself like that, everything gets too planned out.  It’s really unnerving for me when a colleague says he’s got to know exactly what I’m going to do right there!  I can’t deal with that.  I have to have it a little different every night. It will be the same general place on the stage, but...

BD:   You’ll cross to the table, but where you’ll land is new?

SM:   Right.  It’s all the emotions for me, and I will react differently if somebody reacts a certain way.  I am a reactive person.  I can’t just plan out my reactions.

BD:   If even they’re giving you exactly the same thing each night, you want to react differently?

SM:   I’ll probably try to interpret it in a different way, or experience it a different way.  It all depends on how I’m feeling on this particular night.

BD:   [Surprised]  It’s not your responsibility to feel good no matter what???

SM:   No!  I’ve been to many Broadway shows, and I love Broadway, but I could never do that exact same thing every night where it’s almost synchronized.  And if there’s an understudy, they’ll do the exact thing that the other person has done.  I can’t do that, but that’s unnerving for some people.  It’s probably why I just don’t work with everybody.  I don’t work with every director or every conductor because they can’t all handle that.  They need it to be really set.  I did a concert a couple of weeks ago with Christoph Eschenbach in Houston.  We were doing Les nuits d’été of Berlioz, and it was my first time from memory, the only time I’ve done it.  About five o’clock I decided I was going to do it from memory.  It was kind of unnerving, and the first performance went okay but I wasn’t thrilled.  Then, in the second performance I looked at him and I said,
Well, Christoph, I’m just going to go out there and get lost, because if I think about it too much I can’t do it.  I’m just going to go out there and live it.  He said, That’s great, because that’s what I do, too!  It was wonderful because we went out there, and I hardly ever looked at him, and I don’t think he looked me.  We just lived it, and the orchestra played so gorgeously.  It was a real neat moment.  So, that’s the way I like it to be.

BD:   Does that encourage you then to do this piece more often?

SM:   Yes, absolutely, but maybe only with him!  [Laughs]  I don’t know if all conductors could be so understanding.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Going back to the characters a little bit, are there some characters that you sing that you really, really like, and others that you really don’t like at all?

SM:   [Sighs]  There’s some that I find a little vacuous, I guess.  There’s some that aren’t as fleshed out as well as I would like.  I love Adalgisa, but I wish there was a little more to her.  I’m not quite sure if there are a lot of scenes missing in the opera!  [Much laughter]  It left me kind of short.  I like ones where the character starts at the beginning, and changes overnight.  Over the evening they grow, and I like that.  Even Dorabella grows.  A lot of mezzos don’t like Dorabella, but she really has a big experience during the evening.

BD:   Who should Dorabella wind up with?

mentzer SM:   That’s a toughie.  There’s a lot of different ways of looking at it.  I don’t think it’s a happy ending.  I don’t think anybody ends up with anybody.  If you’ve had an affair, life will never be the same with that person again.  I think everybody splits up and goes on with their life, but Mozart didn’t write that.  He didn’t write a sequel, so we don’t know.

BD:   What about Octavian?  Is he happy with Sophie in the
fourth act?

SM:   Yes!

BD:   Is he faithful to her?

SM:   I believe he is.  By the time the Trio comes, he feels so horrified at what he’s done.  All along, he’d been this tacky kind of jerk, and he didn’t realize that he was hurting people.  He suddenly realizes he’s going to lose both of them, and he has to swallow his pride.  Then, the Marschallin is so good to him, because she actually knows what’s better for him than he knows himself.

BD:   That’s just experience, really.

SM:   Yes, and he is overwhelmed by that.  I love it.  I like it at the end where you almost think he’s going to go back with the Marschallin, and he doesn’t.  He turns round, and he’s finally happy, and so resolved to be with Sophie.  But it’s not until the very, very end, and I don’t even think Sophie should know that it’s really going to happen until the very, very end.

BD:   Does Sophie know that Octavian has been with the Marschallin?

SM:   Oh, yes.  She figures that out.  She puts two and two together.

BD:   [Somewhat surprised]  Really???  Having just come out of the convent, she still figures that out?

SM:   Oh yes, because she sees the whole thing happen at the end where Octavian’s dressed up as a woman.  The whole thing when the Marschallin shows up is a kind of a dead giveaway.  Octavian is very attentive to the Marschallin, and Sophie is probably wondering why this is happening.  I think she puts two and two together.

BD:   Is Sophie fun to live with in that
fourth act?

SM:   I don’t know about that!  [Both laugh]  She’s so sweet and innocent.

BD:   You don’t play many sweet and innocent types.

SM:   No.  Even Zerlina’s not sweet and innocent.

BD:   No, she’s savvy.

SM:   Yes.  I’m not really a soubrette type, although, a lot of people see Cherubino as sweet and innocent.  I don’t see him as sweet and innocent at all.  I see him as totally a troublemaker, and putting his nose where it doesn’t belong.  He’s totally out of control, and he knows he can get away with it.

BD:   As Cherubino, do you pay a little extra attention to the Countess, knowing that you’re going to get her in the next play?

SM:   Absolutely.  Every time the curtain is going down at the end of the fourth act, no matter what production I
m in I try to give the Countess a look, because I feel it’s really important for me, as a character, to know that’s where my attention lies, and not with Barbarina.

BD:   What about Adalgisa?  She’s just left holding nothing and no one.  Does she go off and find another Pollione?

SM:   I don’t know what happens to her.  I never thought about her after the opera.  I’ve done some productions where she kills herself.

BD:   Is it important to you, as the singer of a character, to know what happens prior to the opera, and after the opera?

SM:   Sometimes, but all that depends on the director.  Sometimes the director is really into that.

BD:   Can things get over-analyzed?

SM:   Yes, absolutely.  

BD:   You don’t have to mention the specifics, but have there been times when you’ve gone into a production where the director’s just trying to do something that is contrary to what character and the music should be?

SM:   [Thinks a moment]  I guess... I don’t know.  I give them the benefit of the doubt.  If they can convince me, I’ll do it.  If I can be convincing doing it, I’ll do it.  If I can’t get it to work, if I just try and try and try, and it’s just not working, then I ask if we can adjust it.  But I’m not really anti-ideas.  If they say stand on your head and sing this, I will try it, but I know for a fact that I can’t stand on my head.  So, I will give it a good college try because that’s my job.  It’s not my business to tell the director how to direct, but it is my business to try, and admit to them when I can’t make it believable or successful.  But I like directors who make me think where the subtext is different from what you’re actually saying.  I really like that.  I often fine, especially if a singer is singing in their natural language, they are more reluctant to do that.  If it’s in Italian, and they happen to be Italian, they are more reluctant to try other line-readings.  They’ll say that this is what it says.  I don’t know why that is, and I don’t whether the Americans are more into looking at other layers.  But in real life we often say things and mean something else.  That’s very common.

BD:   [With mock horror]  Really???  [Much laughter]

SM:   Things go quickly, especially when you hear the music doing something that is contrary.  Mozart does it all the time.  He’s got music that’s totally contrary what somebody saying.  He’ll have this really dramatic music in a very humorous moment, or vice-versa.  So, you have to keep that in mind.

BD:   Do you like being a complex figure?

SM:   Absolutely, but it has to be clear to the audience.  That’s the thing, so that’s why it has to be clear to you an artist.  If it’s not clear to you, it’s never going to be clear to the audience.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Do you sing any American roles?

SM:   No, and I’d love to sing the Baroness in Vanessa.

BD:   Oh yes, the Resnik role.

mentzer SM:   Right.  And I’ve been nagging Carlisle Floyd to write an opera for me, but he hasn’t done it.  He likes sopranos.  I did a song cycle of his, a world premiere of an Emily Dickinson cycle, and I just love his music.  

BD:   What advice do you have for composers who want to write either for your voice, or just for the stage these days?

SM:   Go with the drama and make it vocally varied.  I don’t mind atonality, and I don’t mind big leaps in a voice, but I want it to be a lot of colors, and I want there to be changes in dynamics and tempi, so that a person is expressing different moods and different feelings. Sometimes I hear a work, and it’s all the same style throughout the whole piece.  Everything that a singer sings is like leitmotif, and that can get really old.  

BD:   What advice do you have for audiences coming to the opera these days?

SM:   Be more open-minded.  Be open to new works, and be open to the drama of it, the theater, the theatrical, not the visual so much.  There are a lot of operas that are really great plays, and there are a lot of very open-minded audience members.  But there are some who only want to hear the toe-tapping tunes.  For me, opera’s so exciting when it’s based on a play that is so rich.  To me, that’s what it’s all about.  I have a friend whom I told to hear Rosenkavalier.  He’d never heard it.  For me, it’s an incredible piece musically, but it’s also an incredible piece dramatically.  So he listened to the CD and just didn’t get it.  But then he saw it on stage, and it all clicked.  Not all operas are just to be listened to.  A lot of them, honestly, are for the stage, not just a recording.

BD:   A true marriage of the music and the drama?

SM:   Yes.

BD:   Does opera work on television?

SM:   Oh, yes, but it’s not as exciting.  I really believe in live performances of anything, whether it’s straight plays or operas.  I’m a real proponent of that because it’s a real, anything-can-happen atmosphere.  It’s very exciting, and very necessary.  I just hope that never gets lost in the age of the internet.

BD:   Are you trying to inculcate your ten-year-old son into classical music?

SM:   No, but he has no choice.  [Both laugh]  I don’t play music at home because I’ve gotten too much of it already.  He plays the trombone right now, and we
ll see how long that lasts.  His father works at Lyric Opera, so he has been a part of much music, and he knows it’s there.  If he wants to gravitate towards it, he will, but I’m not going to push it on him.

BD:   [With a gentle nudge]  You’re not going to force him to be a brass player in the Chicago Symphony?

SM:   [Smiles]  No, although today when we were cleaning his room, he was humming the overture to The Marriage of Figaro.  I don’t know where that came from because we haven’t played it recently.  He had it on a cassette, so he equates cleaning with Mozart overtures.  [More laughter]  I don’t know if that is indicative of the music...

BD:   Maybe when he was in the womb, every time you were cleaning there was Mozart thing going on.

SM:   I did a Bruckner once, and he kicked his way through that in my womb.  But he has no recollection of that when I play it.  I was hoping that when I’d play for him, he’d [gasps] have a big reaction because that was fantastic. We were in the middle of the Vienna Philharmonic, standing by the timpani.  There was ‘bang, bang, bang’, and he would jump, jump, jump.  It was great.  Everything was rocking.  Even their music stands were rocking back and forth.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   [Remembering what she had said about people often saying things, but meaning something else]  Let me ask the very
easy question...  [Smiles]  What’s the purpose of music?

mentzer SM:   [With a contented look]  It’s emotional expression.  So, when a person listens to music, it stirs emotions in them.  A person who performs music, it also stirs emotions.  I can only speak from being a singer, because I’m not a great pianist or instrumentalist, but I really don’t know anybody who sings for the technical aspects of it.  They sing because they have something to say, and we didn’t get into singing because we’re going to make money.  You go into singing because you had something to say, and you have this need to express.  I don’t think a writer goes into writing, or a poet goes to write poetry just to make a living.  You start doing it because it’s something emotional.  It’s good to go back to your first amateur experiences.  That’s something that’s lacking in America.  In the middle of the century and before, there were so many amateur organizations.  Every little town had their orchestra and their band and a chorus, or a choral society.  Fortunately, in Chicago we have a great choral tradition, but most of America doesn’t.  So, they don’t have that exposure, and it’s all based on money.  Most people don’t go into music for money, but there are few people who just do it just for fun, and that’s sad.  

BD:   I’m glad the fun hasn’t been wrung out of it for you.  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at right, see my interviews with Lukas Foss, Vincent Persichetti, and John Corigliano.]

SM:   Oh, no, it hasn’t.  But I get a little frustrated that people may give it up because they won’t have a career, or won’t make money from doing it.  It’s because there aren’t as many opportunities as there used to be.  My mother sang in the Mendelssohn Society Chorus in Philadelphia.  They made recordings, and they didn’t make any money.  They just did it for fun, and what a great thing it was.

BD:   And now they’re proud of what they achieved.

SM:   Absolutely!

BD:   Are you at the point in your career that you want to be at this age?

SM:   Yes, I am really happy to have my thirties behind me in some respects.  There’s some things I didn’t accomplish that I wanted to, and I don’t think I ever will.   I want to do a lot more recording, and the industry is so different now.  I know they’re having a lot of trouble.  Classical music is now just two per cent of sales, and that’s a reality.  So, they have to record sure-fire things if they’re going to record anything.  The industry changed a lot in the span of my career.  When I started, one singer, or one instrumentalist, was
n’t necessarily bound to one label, and then that label did a mega-blitz of publicity.  You did a few different things, which is what I chose to do, but now it’s a very publicity-orientated.  It has to be, because they’re trying to sell records.  Obviously, it’s a business.  If you see enough of a certain product, then people will believe that’s all that’s out there, and I don’t think it’s fair to a lot of great performers who exist all over the world who don’t necessarily get recorded.  It’s almost if you’re not recorded, then you’re not an artist.  But I’ve been real lucky because I’ve done tons of operas, and a lot of oratorio and the new discs that I have.

BD:   Are you pleased with the discs that are out?

SM:   Very pleased, yes.  I would have liked, maybe, an orchestral disc with opera arias...

BD:   [Being hopeful]  Oh, that may still come.

SM:   Well, you never know.  But, then again there’s a trade-off involved with big fame, and you lose a lot of your personal life.  I’m happy to have my personal life.  I’m very guarded about it, and it’s a big priority, so I would have hated to have to lose that.  

BD:   We seem to be in the age, now, where we have little ‘boomlet’ of great mezzo sopranos, yourself included.  Is it good or bad to have several on the scene who are making it big?

SM:   Good or bad?  I don’t know.  It seems like there is enough work for everybody.  As far as I know, everybody’s a little different.  Some people are willing to work more in America, some are working more in Europe.  Some of well-known mezzos don’t want to leave Europe, as much because they’re European.  As for me, I want to go to Europe, but not all the time because my family is so important.

BD:   So, it’s a big balancing act?

SM:   It is, yes.  But everybody offers something different.  Everybody has their specialty.  Cecilia Bartoli and Jennifer Larmore both really do fantastic coloratura.  I’m sort of edging towards the end of my career, and there are a lot of people coming into their careers, so there’s always room for the big kid on the block.

BD:   Are you pacing yourself toward a definite stop date?

SM:   Not a definite date, but I’m not stupid enough to think that my career’s going to go on forever.  

BD:   [With a gentle nudge]  Oh, you can be a seventy-five-year-old Cherubino!  [Much laughter]  

SM:   But do I want to be?  That’s the question. 

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mentzer BD:   Tell me about the Haydn opera you’ve just recorded.

SM:   We did this with the group in Padova.  The project was put together by David Golub, who’s really well known as a pianist.  He’s also a conductor, and it’s just a very little-known Haydn opera, only about an hour long.

BD:   Was it fun singing Haydn?

SM:   It was different because I kept trying to sing it like Mozart, and the recitative is not Mozart.  In Mozart you can pace out your recitative according to the rhythm of the language.  With Haydn, he deliberately wrote his recitative to be sung exactly as he wrote it, so you feel a bit of a rigidity.  It’s not as spontaneous as Mozart, but it was fun.  It was an interesting experience.  We really tried to stick to the Haydn style, and not break into Mozart style.  That’s hard to do once you’ve done a lot of Mozart.  So, it’s jarring in a way when you first listen
at least for me it wasto hear the pace of it.  It’s very different; it’s slower and more deliberate, but beautiful.  It’s just an opera for four voices, so it was also interestinga tiny little gem.  On the same disc is Arianna a Naxos, which I recorded with David playing the piano.  It’s something different.  We worked on it, and recorded with orchestra, but then we decided he’s such a fine pianist we’re just going to do it with piano.  I love that piece.  It’s also very dramatic, but also very deliberate.

BD:   Let
s speak of some of your other recordings.

SM:   There is the Wayfaring Stranger with Sharon Isbin [shown below].

BD:   Oh, tell me about singing with guitar!

SM:   It was very different.  I had trouble finding my pitch for a while.

BD:   [Very surprised]  Really???

SM:   Yes!  I was dying to do this, and work with different instruments.  It was my idea to not do a traditional CD with piano, but to really do something with another instrument, so we thought why not a guitar?  I used to sing with guitar when I was a kid, so this was going to be no problem. 

BD:   Were you your own guitarist?

SM:   No, my brother played.  But then, when Sharon started to play an intro for one of the songs in our first rehearsal, I didn’t know where I was.  I looked, and I couldn’t even read her part.  It’s written so differently after looking at four-part harmony on the treble and bass clef, and I couldn’t figure out where my pitch was.  It was a strange sensation, but then once I got over it, that was okay.  It was very intimate, very different, very nice, very mellow.

BD:   Should we be mellow when we listen to it?

SM:   A little bit.  It’s good background music.  [More laughter]

BD:   [Concerned]  I wouldn’t think that you would want anything that you do to just be background.

SM:   I don’t mind.  I’m proud that on that disc are American things, because I sang those American songs for years on recitals.  When I was growing up, those were part of my heritage in Maryland and the mountains there.  There’s a wonderful recording of Jo Stafford singing them with an orchestral arrangement, and they’re just fabulous.  I’d been trying and trying and trying to get somebody to record them, and nobody would.  So, finally we slid them onto this disc, and people responded to them more than any other songs.  I’m glad about that.

BD:   Thank you for the continuing success of your career.

SM:   You’re welcome!



© 1987 & 1999 Bruce Duffie

These conversations were recorded in Chicago on January 5,1987, and January 30, 1999.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB in 1989, and again in 1993, 1997, and 1999.  Much of the first interview was transcribed and published in the Massenet Newsletter in January, 1988.  It was slightly re-edited for this website presentation.  The transcript of the second interview was made in 2017, and both were posted on this website early in 2018.  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.

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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.