Mezzo - Soprano  Yvonne  Minton

Two conversations with Bruce Duffie


Yvonne Minton was born in Sydney, Australia.  She studied music at the Sydney Conservatorium and singing privately with Marjorie Walker.  In 1961 she travelled to London to further her career in Europe.  She first came to notice by winning the Kathleen Ferrier prize for contraltos at the prestigious s’Hertogenbosch Vocal Competition in Holland.  Following this success, she began to build up a reputation as a concert oratorio singer in the United Kingdom. 

Minton was engaged by the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden during the golden years of Sir Georg Solti’s tenure as Musical Director.  During this time she had the opportunity to learn and perform many major roles which included Marina, Octavian, Cherubino, Dorabella, Orfeo, Sextus, Brangäne, Fricka, Waltraute, and Kundry, several of which she subsequently recorded.  She sang small roles and later large roles on disc, and Solti also engaged her in his first years as Music Director of the Chicago Symphony for performances and recordings of Mahler, Verdi and Beethoven.

Minton established herself as a sought after singer on both sides of the Atlantic, appearing at all the major European opera houses, and had a long association with Cologne Opera and the Bayreuth and Salzburg festivals as well as in America.  She was a regular guest at the Paris Opera and took part in the first complete production of Lulu which took place under Boulez and was recorded.

In parallel with her operatic career, she was also an active concert singer, and worked with many of the world’s leading conductors and orchestras with whom she also recorded much of the mezzo repertoire.  These days she devotes her time to private teaching and Master Classes in the UK and abroad.

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

Yvonne Minton graced Chicago several times between 1970 and 1981, and then returned once more in 1992.  She sang and recorded with the Chicago Symphony, and also appeared in staged productions at Lyric Opera. With the CSO, she did Mahler (Songs of a Wayfarer, four songs from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, Symphony #8, and Das Lied von der Erde), the Beethoven 9th and Missa Solemnis as well as the Verdi Requiem all under Solti, and the Bruckner Te Deum with Barenboim.  At Lyric she made her American opera debut as Octavian in Der Rosenkavalier on Opening Night of 1970 with Ludwig, Berry and Dohnanyi, and she then returned in 1978 for Charlotte in Werther with Kraus, Nolen and Giovaninetti.  In 1981, when we met for the first time, she was doing two roles.  First, another Opening Night as the seductress in Samson et Dalila with Cossutta, Krause and Plasson, and then the Composer in Ariadne with Meier/Rysanek, Johns, Welting and Janowski.  Her return in 1992-3 was a Geneviève in Pelléas et Mélisande with Hadley, Esham/Stratas, Braun and Conlon.  During that last visit we met for our second interview. 

We arranged our first meeting after the run of Samson had finished and she has just started the performances of Ariadne . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:    How do you like the Composer?

Yvonne Minton:    It’s a wonderful role, if you can sing it.  [Laughs]  It’s really quite a difficult role to sing, in actual fact.

BD:    Really?  Why?

YM:    It’s just that the tessitura lies in a very awkward area, and strictly speaking, could more easily be sung by a soprano.  But these days they seem to prefer the quality of a mezzo voice for the role, so we’ve sort of inherited it.  Lotte Lehmann sang it, for example.

BD:    Yes she did, before doing the title role.  Will you graduate to Ariadne?

YM:    I don’t think so.  I don’t find Ariadne very interesting, if I’m truthful.  I like certain things about the opera.  The Zerbinetta aria, for example, is wonderful, and some of the Ariadne music is beautiful, but the last duet is somewhat long-winded.  Es gibt ein Reich is a little masterpiece, and there’s no doubt it’s a wonderful thing to sing.

BD:    You’ve done other Strauss roles.  Probably one of your most famous roles is Octavian.

YM:    I would say the most.  It is the one that I’m best known for, certainly.

BD:    Do you enjoy Octavian?

YM:    Well, not anymore.  I’ve been doing it now for twelve or thirteen years.  I enjoy it, of course, but if one had the opportunity to do a really interesting new production with a very interesting cast, then that would be something else.  But just to do these perpetual revivals in not very good productions, isn’t terribly interesting, really.

mintonBD:    You’ve consciously turned some offers down?

YM:    I’ve always tried not to do too many of anything because it’s very easy to become stale very quickly, especially a woman playing a man on the stage.  You get very set in your moves.  The first trainings that one has seem to stay with you, and you tend to continue to do the same hand gestures and movement of the feet, and all that kind of thing trying to be a young man.

BD:    Were those first trainings good trainings?

YM:    They were, excellent.  I did it for the first time in ’68.  Originally in the new production, I did Annina, with Solti conducting and Josephine Veasey as Octavian.  That was a Visconti production, and really not a traditional Rosenkavalier.  Many things were quite wrong, however he did many clever things with the smaller parts.  Then later I inherited the Octavian, so by the law of averages I shouldn’t have had very much rehearsal time.  But John Copley, who’s now our resident producer at Covent Garden, who was of course much younger and not quite so renowned at that time, gave me something like three weeks.  He played the Marschallin and Sofie and whatever else, and I rehearsed with him.  So I was quite well drilled.

BD:    So you were a woman playing a man, and he was a man playing a woman!  That’s poetic justice, I think.  [Laughs]

YM:    [Smiles]  Yes, I suppose.  German isn’t his strong point, but he happened to know the opera well because he had been in Covent Garden when we did it originally there in English.  So he knew exactly how one should be thinking about the role.  He was originally a dancer, and he helped me with my stance and all that sort of thing.  Of course I had wonderful people to observe, like Geraint Evans, who’s quite unique on the stage, and a young man called John Dobson, who’s very clever onstage.

BD:    He’s the character tenor?

YM:    That’s right, and he’s been a tremendous help to me in many roles.  Quite often he just happens to watch a rehearsal, and he’ll come up and speak to me.  For example, when I did Kundry in Parsifal, Terry Hands was producing this, and he had us quite well into the front of the stage — in fact, in front of the prompt box for a great deal of the seduction scene, which is wonderful acoustically.  That’s the best place in Covent Garden.  But the lights were very powerful, and I have an aversion to lights.  My eyes dislike any sort of brightness — like sunshine or any bright stage lights.  I was spending my time blinking, and John came to me and said, “Yvonne, you can’t afford to do that.  You’re almost in the audience, you’re so close.”  Our pit isn’t anything like as big as this one here in Chicago.

BD:    It’s a bit under the stage, isn’t it?

YM:    Partly, that’s for sure.  They have extended it somewhat.

BD:    I’ve not been there, but in the pictures I’ve seen, it seems like the tuba player and a few of the bass players are way underneath the stage.

YM:    Slightly, yes, but not as much as I would like to have!  [Both laugh]

BD:    Have you done Octavian in English?

YM:    Yes, I did once in Australia.  It’s my home country, of course.  I wasn’t very keen to do it, but Edward Downes, who was then the Musical Director in Australia for the Australian Opera, felt quite strongly.  He must have translated, if not himself, certainly he helped whoever did it at Covent Garden originally, so he used most of that translation with a little bit of updating.  He felt strongly that it should be done in English in Australia, because it was the first time it was to be performed there, and I think he was absolutely right.  I enjoyed it.  Well, I enjoyed just being in Australia, and it had an enormous success.

BD:    Do you work a little harder projecting the text when it’s in English?

YM:    You try.  I work hard on the text at any time, but it’s very difficult to know how much actually comes across.

BD:    Do you prefer singing in English so there’s a closer rapport with the audience, or do you prefer singing in the original so that there’s a closer rapport with the music?

YM:    I still always aim for the original because I think you catch so very little of the text in any case.  I’m sure in a house the size of the Lyric, it must be very difficult to catch individual words.

BD:    Sometimes, but usually the text comes across very well.

YM:    Depends on the piece, doesn’t it, and how it’s orchestrated.

BD:    Do you find that in a piece like Rosenkavalier in English, you would project more of the text than, say, the The Knot Garden, which is originally in English?

YM:    No, I don’t think so.  Besides which, you have a different orchestral problem.  A lot of The Knot Garden is quite lightly scored.  Certainly my bits were, and so you have to treat the language very carefully.  I still think one can project Rosenkavalier better in German.  With the Ariadne here, I did discuss this with Marek Janowski, who’s conducting, and we both agreed that it was probably a good case for doing the Vorspiel in English, because I’m sure a great deal of it is lost on the public.

BD:    They used to do it that way at the Met.  They’d do the prologue in English, and then the opera in German.  Would you prefer doing it that way?

YM:    I wouldn’t mind.  Obviously I prefer doing it the way I’m doing it, but you have to look at it from a public point of view.  These are operas which are actually so rarely performed anyhow.  Even in Europe, Rosenkavalier isn’t done every week.  In the Munich Staatstheater, of course they have a production which they do annually, and that comes up during the year.  But it’s really quite rare, in actual fact, in repertory theater to have that opera because it’s such a big thing.  It requires such an enormous cast.  Ariadne also needs a special cast, and it’s not something you can easily do without rehearsal.  Invariably one has to do things without rehearsal.

BD:    One last question about the English of Rosenkavalier.  How do you arrange to do the various dialects?

YM:    I can’t remember what I did, honestly not.  I probably tried to do it with an Australian accent or Cockney, or something, but I expect I found that quite difficult.  [Note: We have much more discussion about Octavian and Rosenkavalier in our second interview, which is presented farther down on this webpage.]

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Let’s talk a little bit about your Wagner roles.  You’re involved in this new Ring, with Janowski conducting?

YM:    Yes.  Well, I’m finished, actually.

mintonBD:    That’s right.  Both of your operas have been recorded.

YM:    We’ve done Rheingold and Walküre, and so that’s me, done.

BD:    You will not be Waltraute in Götterdämmerung?

YM:    No, because they have Ortrun Wenkel who sings Waltraute in the group of the valkyries, so therefore she will do it in Götterdämmerung.  They want to keep the same voice.

BD:    Absolute fidelity to the casting.  It’s very rare that you find one of the valkyrie maidens doing, then, this important part.

YM:    Oh, but I think probably it’s normally done in Bayreuth.  I didn’t do it.  I just did the Götterdämmerung in Bayreuth, but I think it is probably, usually done that other way.

BD:    I guess if it’s done that way, you have the important singer doing the Götterdämmerung, and then the same important singer thrown in with the rest of them in Walküre

YM:    Yes.  I expect that would be their attitude in Bayreuth.  Apart from the Brünnhildes and the Sieglindes and the Tristans and Isoldes, we are sort of all equal.

BD:    That’s true.  Do you like that feeling of being equal at Bayreuth?

YM:    I just think of myself as being a worker, really.  I don’t think of myself as being any different to anybody else.  I certainly admire the people who can stand up and sing things like Wotan or Brünnhilde; I mean, the sheer staying power that they have to have to maintain the length of those roles.

BD:    Do you ever feel cheated that your voice is not high enough for Brünnhilde?

YM:    No, not at all.  I have no desire to sing Brünnhilde.  I did have a desire once to sing Isolde because I do love that piece so much, but now I sing Kundry so I’m very happy with that, and that’s keeping me out of mischief.  As soon as you perfect it — you don’t perfect it, but as soon as seem to have mastered one little corner, then a nasty one comes creeping up and so you’re back to where you started.  It’s a never-ending process of trying to really make it into the right thing.

BD:    You’re always working to improve, then?

YM:    Yes, always.

BD:    Even from performance to performance?

YM:    Oh, most certainly.

BD:    Tell me about Kundry.  Do you enjoy her?

YM:    Don’t you know about Kundry?  [Both laugh]  I think Kundry could be anything, really.  She could be very masculine, she can be very feminine, she can be a witch, she can be a mother, she can be a lover, she can be a wife.  There are just so many facets to her character.

BD:    Do you try to bring all of these out in each production, or do you bring out just a couple of the facets?

YM:    I don’t know about masculinity.  Let’s face it, I’ve spent my life playing men on the stage, so I’m now enjoying being able to play a couple of females.  But she certainly has, from time to time, a tremendous strength which has to come through.  One of the things which excited me more than anything about the role was, in fact, the Klingsor scene.  She really has this tremendous guilt problem, and she knows exactly what’s going to happen.  She can see it; it’s all there.  It’s like having a video turned on.

BD:    How hard does she fight Klingsor?

YM:    Oh, very hard, very hard.

BD:    Even though she knows she is lost even before she starts?

YM:    Oh, yes!  Yes.

BD:    Then why doesn’t she give up?  Why doesn’t she just save herself the trouble?

mintonYM:    That’s not her nature.  Why does she bring the balsam to Amfortas?  She really hates all these people, basically speaking, on the one hand, and yet on the other, she can’t help helping them.  There are always two sides to her at least.  In the big scene with Parsifal, where she is seducing him and almost succeeds after all, right in the middle of it she comes back to her previous vision, and again this tremendous guilt comes in.  It’s almost like a passion play in the center.  Oh, it’s all fantastic!  The possibilities are just unlimited.

BD:    Deep down inside, is she rooting for Parsifal to push her away, and applauding him when he does?

YM:    I think so, probably.  She recognizes the fact that this is her salvation.  She knows that it’s going to be a tremendous battle, and she has obviously got to fight him for it.  But then the other side to her nature says, “Oh no, come on.  If you’re really wise about it, you know exactly how it’s going to turn out.”

BD:    Do you enjoy the third act where you have only the two words to sing?

YM:    Oh, it’s wonderful, wonderful!  You have to live through the first and second acts in order to be able to live the third act.  Isn’t it strange the way composers write for voices, just to give her two words in the third act?  But in actual fact, if you’ve played it according to what Wagner is trying to do, you do not have strength to do anything else, really.  It’s not only that the second act is so dramatic and that the ending is very dramatic to sing.  It’s not just that.  If you actually go through from the beginning, from the first act entry right through, you get to the third act and that’s all you’re capable of saying, really; “Dienen, dienen,” and you are without strength anymore.  That’s how I feel it.

BD:    That probably adds so much to your acting.

YM:    I’d like to think so.

BD:    Do you work on your acting all the time?

YM:    Yes.  I would like to have much more help, but we don’t get very much help.  Strangely enough, there’s never time these days for it.  What opera needs, desperately, is some really good theatrical people who know about how to move and can help you with your movements onstage, because for myself, I think most opera singers move rather badly and not very gracefully. 
One needs it when one is young, but also when one is established.

BD:    It’s sort of an awkwardness on the stage?

YM:    Yes.  I’ve been to quite a lot of things here... in fact, I’ve been to everything here that I haven’t myself been involved him, and a lot of the moves they do just seem to be, “Well, I’m going to sit down here and sing the next half-page, and then I stand up.”  I wish that there was a little more time for the director to say, “You’re sitting here because of this, and I want you to stand here because of that.”  Sometimes this happens, but opera’s so mammoth that one is not able to go into all this intimate detail, especially in a season like the Lyric where you don’t have six weeks to rehearse.  We were lucky with the Samson.  We had something like three weeks.

BD:    Is this why you try to get in as many new productions as you can, rather than revivals?

YM:    That varies, because if they’re interesting, then that’s fine, but they’re not always interesting.  If it’s a role I’ve done many times, one tends to end up knowing it better sometimes than some of the producers.  Not all, because there are, after all, quite a lot of the old school still around.  But we have a new generation coming along, and they’re not quite so experienced.

BD:    You don’t think they bring as many fresh ideas as they should?

YM:    Sometimes, yes.  A lot of what Patrice Chereau did with The Ring in Bayreuth was wonderful.  I don’t agree with all of it, but it was theater, most certainly, and after all this is what our job should be.  We are entertainment, and any way we can bring the public closer to what we’re trying to achieve should be the ultimate goal.

BD:    When you’re on the stage, you have to concentrate on acting and vocal production.

YM:    Yes.

mintonBD:    Do you concentrate on the vocal production any less on the opera stage than you do on the concert stage?

YM:    By the time you get to the operatic stage, the technique should be so secure that you shouldn’t have to think about it too much.  You can always make adjustments.

BD:    When you’re standing in front of an orchestra singing some Mahler songs...

YM:    [Interrupting]  Yes, that is much easier.  In a way, technically, it’s much easier.  In another way, it’s much harder because with the movement onstage, a lot of the technical problems are lost.  You cannot hear them.  Before my first performance I sat in the audience for Ariadne, and last night, when I sang the Composer, I stood by the side of the stage, and it’s quite a different picture.  They have this big orchestral pit to sing over, and it’s a big distance.  With Samson it was an even bigger distance because we were set so far back into the stage.

BD:    Does that scare you at all, being so far upstage?

YM:    I don’t like that at all, and I think that is unnecessary, I really do.  In a house this size, it makes it very hard work.

BD:    [With a gentle nudge]  Maybe you should seduce a designer and have him put roofs and lids on all of the sets to help project the sound.

YM:    [Smiles]  I don’t think that’s a bad idea.  Jean-Pierre Ponnelle has just done Carmen in San Francisco, and he did it basically for Teresa Berganza.  He made the set all wood, and shaped in such a way that she would be able to project straight into the theater.  That’s also a very large house, and I think it was very successful.  Obviously, it’s difficult to do that with a tent in Samson, but surely they’re clever enough to be able to get around it somehow.  There was absolutely nothing.  It was open to the winds.

BD:    Even on the sides?

YM:    You can’t sing to the side; it’s completely lost!  Somehow you have to project it into the house the whole time.

BD:    Is the Bayreuth theater designed better for the singer?

YM:    Oh, yes!  Of course, the orchestra are buried.  You don’t see the orchestra.  You can just see the conductor.

BD:    Is the stage itself designed to reflect the sound out?

YM:     Most probably, and the theater is nothing like as large as the Lyric.  It’s all wood; everywhere is wood.  There’s no plush anywhere, so you can hear yourself.  It’s a wonderful feeling.  Really, it is a wonderful feeling!

BD:    When you’re singing here in Chicago, do you hear yourself at all?

YM:    I didn’t think I could hear too much in Samson, I must admit.  I sang originally Octavian here, when I was much younger.  That’s ten years ago.  In fact, I don’t suppose the voice had as much projection.  Then I came back to do Werther.  In the first and second acts there’s not very much for me to sing, but in the third act there’s the big letter scene.

BD:    And of course, that’s an interior.

YM:    Exactly, and it was quite well downstage.  I had no problems at all, but this Samson was a little bit of a blow.  We did two rehearsals which I felt went extremely well for me, and then when I got on the first act set, it took, really until about the third performance that I felt happier.  Not happy, but happier because I was so far away from the conductor.  I moved it downstage somewhat.

BD:    Do you still find yourself sneaking farther down?

YM:    Yes, even three or four feet.  At the dress rehearsal and the premiere I was even that much further back upstage.  Then they always have steps.  Why do they have to have these?  I can see the logic, but I have to say, again coming back to the Bayreuth Ring, most of that was on the flat, and that was a joy.  I can’t tell you what a joy that was to be able to sing on the flat!  You could support your voice, and it was just a wonderful feeling.  I did my first Frickas in that production, and then I went to Salzburg.  They offered me Rosenkavalier, and I really felt I couldn’t refuse that because that would only come once in my lifetime.  So I went off to do that, so I was then out of the Ring.  But I’m now heavily involved in the Covent Garden Ring which is a very difficult set.

BD:    Is it dangerous?

YM:    Yes it is, the whole thing.  The whole of Walküre is on a slope side-to-side so that when you’re singing it’s like walking up a mountain.  You never have that feeling of security.  Fricka’s only twenty minutes or something, but still...

BD:    They should give you a spear for support, like Wotan has to steady himself.  [Laughs]

mintonYM:    When she leaves him before she addresses Brünnhilde, he has a kind of heart seizure.  But it was such a rake that all he had to do was just lean a little bit, which was actually quite clever.  Don McIntyre did it very well, indeed.  But if it had been on the flat, it would have looked very strange.  He’d have had to go all the way down, but he just he had to go a small distance.  It was very interesting; a lot of things were.

BD:    Let’s talk a bit about Fricka.  How much nastiness is there?

YM:    It’s not nastiness.  She just believes in what she believes, and she is immovable!  She firmly believes in marriage, and in one just having the two people in the marriage, and not being allowed to have wanderlust or anything like that.

BD:    Happiness, then, for the two is irrelevant?

YM:    I suppose, to a point.  [Laughs]

BD:    Do you suppose that she’s happy with Wotan?

YM:    That’s difficult to say, isn’t it?  I suppose up to a point she is.  I imagine that they were very happy.  She must have had an enormous power.  Certainly the way both Chereau and Friedrich wanted me to play it was that she was quite voluptuous.  In Bayreuth she was very voluptuous, in fact it was quite a seduction scene. 

BD:    She’s really re-seducing him?

YM:    Yes.  She’s trying to assert her own feminine powers, and she wins, doesn’t she?  Well, you could do it another way.

BD:    But she wins, really, by force.  She doesn’t really win by seduction, again.

YM:    Eventually it’s force, but she has to lead up to that.  This was their idea, that you can’t have twenty minutes of screaming, and I must say I agree with them.  I don’t play the lady like that, anyhow.  She’s very subtle, and you’ll not move her from her opinion.  There’s no way you’re going to do that.  She’s going to have him right there, eventually.  There’s no way he’s going to get out of it.  But you can go about it in many different ways, like any role, of course.

BD:    So you’re really enveloping it like a Kundry, almost?

YM:    Almost.  Mm-hm.  You don’t have the length of time to do that, so it has to happen much quicker.

BD:    Have you ever been in the position where they want to make cuts in the Fricka scene?

YM:    No.  They do that?

BD:    They used to.  They’ve gotten away from that completely.  I just wondered if you had been anywhere where that had been the policy.

YM:    I wouldn’t sing it.  It’s small enough as it is!  I don’t see the point in having me to sing it if they’re going to cut it.  Then that would be a case for giving it to a younger person to spread their wings.

BD:    What about a long part like Octavian, do you believe in any cuts there?

YM:    I think Rosenkavalier is too long.  A lot of Strauss is too long.  Things like Elektra and Salome are just a good length, but there are moments in Ariadne and in a lot of moments in Rosenkavalier, most certainly, but it has to be cleverly done.  Invariably, it’s not; it’s always badly done.

BD:    Would you ever decide to be a director, and then do it cleverly?

YM:    No, I don’t think so.  That’s too much of a responsibility.  I know up to a point how Octavian should be played, and the main characters generally.  I suppose I know quite a lot about Rosenkavalier, really, but whether I could actually gently lead the singers into their interpretation with my ideas?  I don’t think I would be equipped to do that.  But for example, when I did Parsifal, having someone like Terry Hands, who’s produced some wonderful theater and had many very fine actors and actresses go through his hands, I thought, “Ah!  What a gift this is.  I’ve been given this gift, and I sincerely hope he’s now going to take me in hand and show me how to do it all.”  He showed me one or two things, and then he stopped.  He said, “I wouldn’t be directing if I were able to do the acting.  This is why I’m directing — so that you can do the acting.”  [Laughs]

BD:    Do you ever find yourself giving suggestions to the director or to other colleagues?

YM:    No, never.

BD:    Even if you have a brilliant idea?

YM:    That would be very, very rare, unless I felt very strongly about something.  I didn’t agree with everything in the Samson, but I did it, basically, because after all that’s his job.

BD:    Have you ever been in the position where you really hated the production so much you wanted to walk out of it?

YM:    Oh, I think so, yes.  Of course, I can’t just remember off-hand what production it was...

BD:    No, that’s all right!  I just wonder, what does a singer do in that case when they’re trapped into a contract?

YM:    There isn’t very much you can do.  I have been involved in a production when the soprano did walk out, which was very unpleasant for everybody involved.  We are contracted, and it is a blind contract because quite often you don’t know who’s going to conduct it.

BD:    [Surprised]  Really???  They don’t tell you at the time they ask you for it?

YM:    No.  We’re booked sometimes three or four years ahead, and that can change.

BD:    I would think that the conductor would also be booked.

YM:    Yes, generally speaking, but it can change.  The singers can also change.  Sometimes you can start out with one director, and then when the conductor and director get together, they do not see eye to eye, so someone has to go.  You can have a change in plan.  Originally the Parsifal at Covent Garden was to be with Solti, but a completely different director.  I don’t know what happened.  I don’t know the ins and outs, but Terry Hands came into it eventually.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Coming back to Fricka just a moment, how different
if at allis the role in the two operas?

YM:    It’s very difficult to do very much with Rheingold.  One just looks dignified, and you just really do what the text dictates because she never has more than two lines at a time.  There are one or two really beautiful phrases, but they are very short.

BD:    Do you find it a gratifying part?

YM:    Rheingold, no.  I love Rheingold, but really now I would prefer a little more to sing, though there are many advantages in doing short parts.  It’s rather nice to do Waltraute in Götterdämmerung.  It can be very rewarding, because if it’s well done you can almost steal the whole show.  It can certainly be the highlight of the first act.  It’s a very moving scene.  That’s a very special scene, and I suppose the Walküre Fricka can also come off as well.

BD:    And with both of those scenes, you do them and then you go home.

YM:    That’s right.  Rheingold, of course, you are involved with so many people, and there’s no way you can prepare it quickly.  I suppose you can rehearse it in two days, but it’s very difficult.  It always takes weeks and weeks and weeks, until you’re sick of the sight of everybody.  You have to know where the giants are going and who’s running here and who’s running there.  At Covent Garden it’s particularly complicated because of the set.  The set changes; it goes into steps and non-steps and the like.  You have to know when it’s changing and what area’s going to steps, and oh, it’s a madhouse!

BD:    The set actually changes form during the action?

YM:    When we’re all on it, yes.  So it’s really hairy, we would say.

BD:    Have you ever thought of maybe getting a union together of all the singers and going on strike?  You could say, “We must have flat floors, and we must have non-moveable sets!”

YM:    Yes.  I don’t know why they make it so complicated.  They also make it very costly.  I remember when we did The Knot Garden.  That was Peter Hall, and he had his team of designers, who are very, very clever.  They wanted to have this sort of... it wasn’t a revolving stage, but we had almost little tracks on the stage so that this kind of cage effect moved from time to time, and one of us would be caught in this area which was really like a maze.  This was the whole idea.  It was a super idea, and to get this thing running smoothly and noiselessly, the tracks were about two or three inches to start with, but they ended up to be four to five inches, which is certainly large enough for some people to put their foot down, and it became really very dangerous in the end.

BD:    Were there any accidents during that?

mintonYM:    One person did get her foot caught in it on one occasion.  She was very lucky.  She could have broken her ankle or her leg, or anything.  It was then I went to the opera manager and said, “This is silly.  No insurance company is going to insure us for something like this, but I do think it’s up to the opera house to take out some form of insurance on us for this period because I just don’t think it’s right.
  If something happens to us, we cancel and we get no compensation at all.  They just put in a cover.  I remember when we did Moses und Aron at Covent Garden, again, that was Peter Hall.  It was a wonderful production, very exciting, but also quite dangerous.  In the orgy scene there was blood everywhereblood effects, kind of like evaporated milk with red coloring in it.  It was very slippery underfoot, and one of the girls in the chorus slipped.  She was quite a way downstage.  She had slipped, and the curtain came down simultaneously and crashed into her arm.  It was a very heavy curtain at Covent Garden, and I think that really her career was finished.  She played the piano and everything, and I don’t think she’s able to do that anymore.

BD:    There is no kind of workmen’s compensation or anything?

YM:    No.  I’m sure they are covered here, and I’m sure they are in England now, too.  This is a long time ago.  I’ve been sixteen years with Covent Garden, and it had to be thirteen or fourteen years ago.  The unions have certainly stepped in now.

BD:    We’ve been talking about The Knot Garden and Moses und Aron.  Do you enjoy singing twentieth century music?

YM:    Some things I enjoy, yes.  I love some Schoenberg and some Berg.

BD:    Do you find them gratifying to the voice?

YM:    Not always, no, but I did something like Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire which is such a wonderful work.  It was very hard work!  I had to devote a great deal of time to it, because it’s something like twenty-two songs and the language has to be very crisp.  All language does, in actual fact. 

BD:    Are any languages easier to sing than others?

YM:    I suppose.  I never sing in Italian, but if you had the choice, Italian would be the language to sing in really.

BD:    Because of the vowels?

YM:    Yes.  I sing only La Clemenza di Tito, and I don’t do that very often.  I’m almost totally singing in German the whole time, but I enjoy it.  I’ve got used to it, so I do enjoy it.

BD:    Do you enjoy Lulu?  You were Countess Geschwitz in the completed version.

YM:    Oh yes.  It’s a very hard opera, and Geschwitz is not a long singing part.  It’s quite a short singing part, really.  The ending is wonderful, but then you’re always singing that about half past eleven or a quarter to twelve, which is a pity.

BD:    Are you tired, or the audience is tired?

YM:    Oh, I’m tired.  You’d think they’re tired, too.  I should think we’re all tired by that time.  Lulu is really quite a harrowing piece to sit through.

BD:    You were in the premiere of the third act.  Is that exciting, to be in that kind of a premiere?

YM:    Oh, certainly.  Oh, very!  Yes, the whole thing was very exciting.

BD:    I would think that it would be exciting to be in almost any premiere, and yet you’re doing a premiere of an established piece, going into something that you already know is a landmark.

YM:    Yes, yes, yes.  Oh, it was a very exciting time.

BD:    When you’re working on a world premiere of something that is a new piece, do you get the feeling that something’s going to be a landmark, or something is going to be just a waste?

YM:    I don’t think I’ve ever done any wastes in my life.

BD:    Then you’ve been very fortunate!

YM:    Yes, haven’t I?  I think that’s because I’ve always had a very small repertoire, never a big a repertoire.  At the moment I’m singing perhaps no more than five or six roles.

BD:    You have some roles, then, that you have cast off, and others that you pick up?

mintonYM:    Yes.  I’m doing Titus again, which I haven’t done now in a long time.  I do that in Cologne, and then I do it in Covent Garden again next year, but I’m not sure I would do it again after that.  But I have quite a mixed concert repertoire as well, and I’m also trying to cut down on the amount of work I’m doing.  I like to take a week off here and there.  You need to rejuvenate a little once you get older.

BD:    How difficult is it to say no?

YM:    Oh, it’s really quite easy unless it’s going to be extremely interesting and important.  I had, in fact, planned to have this whole last summer free.  I had something like eight weeks, and then a very interesting project came along.  Hans-Jürgen Syberberg is going to film Parsifal, but unfortunately he was not going to use singers.   The fact that they have to open their mouth and do what they have to do would destroy his filming effects.  But having approached the various companies for the rights to use the existing recordings, no one would give him any rights.  He then had to set about getting someone to do a recording of Parsifal.  [See my Interview with Armin Jordan, who conducted the recording and then acted the role of Amfortas on screen!]

BD:    To lay down a voice track that the actors would mime to?

YM:    Yes, that’s right.  It was then Erato, in France, who did it.  So that came up quite at the last moment this last summer, so if I hadn’t been free I would not have been able to do it.
  It was a very interesting experience, I must say.  I think some of it has come off very well, and I hope all of it will be acceptable.

BD:    Will it be freaky to watch the film, hear your voice, and see somebody else?

YM:    Yes, I imagine.  I think it was pretty freaky, actually, for the lady who’s going to play Kundry  She is a wonderful actress from Germany.  She saw a lot of the recording sessions, and she was there when I did the second act with that big dramatic scene at the end.  I do not know how she is going to handle that.  You really have to be able to sing that to be able to emote properly.

BD:    I wonder if during the filming she would ever say, “I wish she had taken a split-second longer on that note,” just for the little bigger gesture or something.

YM:    She really was quite concerned about it, about how she was going to do, how her role was going to fit into it all.

BD:    Let’s talk about recordings.  Do you enjoy making them?

YM:    Oh, I hate them, just hate them!  I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed any recording, ever.

BD:    The process of doing it, or when it’s out, or all of it?

YM:    All of it.

BD:    Then why do you do it?

YM:    Well again, it’s a challenge, and it’s necessary to your career.  I like to be able to dabble in everything.  I’d like to be able to do more oratorio, but I never get asked, or if I get asked, I’m busy.  Now I just refuse to do it unless I have sufficient time to devote to the preparation.  It’s a bit like liederabends, too.  I would like to do more recitals, but I have no intention of doing them unless I have sufficient time to devote to the preparation.  They’re both very specialized things and you have to be so well prepared, but I think they’re necessary.  I don’t do a recital every week, but I’m now doing one from time to time.  And recordings are necessary to your development.

BD:    What about the process do you like the least
the cut and paste, or the repetition?

YM:    Now you have no time.  Because of the costs, you have to do your solo recordings in a very short space of time.  I’m a slow developer, and if I have two sessions in which to do something, the first session is pretty well a waste of time as far as I’m concerned.  But I need that first session to become integrated with everything else that’s going on.  By the end of that three hours I’m feeling much happier.  Then when the next one comes around, I’m really warmed up and things are going well, and then that’s faster.  But now you have to get it right the first time round, and it’s really quite hard!  Even with that Parsifal recording.  Now that it’s all digital, they want you to do great long chunks in one take.  There’s no way you can go twelve pages onwards and have everything in its rightful place.  But their idea is that you get a certain flavor and interpretation from one long take more than you would from a series of broken-up ones.  It’s a bit hard to achieve.  It’s a bit like this Tristan I’m doing now for Bernstein in Munich.  We started in January doing just an act at a time, which is very hard because Brangäne has very little in the second act and virtually nothing in the third act.  This is supposed to be a live recording, you see.  The whole idea was that it was to be a live recording, and they would take it from live concerts.  But when you actually hear it, and you hear people coughing and spitting and carrying on, nobody’s prepared to have that.  In the quietest moments, someone’s going [coughs], ruining the whole atmosphere.  You eventually end up doing the whole thing over again in the studio!  So it’s no longer a live recording.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    You mentioned that you were trying to cut down on the amount of work you do.  Is this to ensure a lengthy career?

YM:    Careers used to last much longer twenty or even thirty years ago, but singers were just not singing as much.  Now we can actually get on Concorde and be in Europe in three hours.  So the big temptation is just to do too much the whole time.

mintonBD:    Do you wish for the days that you could take a steamer from London to New York, rather than the Concorde?

YM:    No, because that would take too long.  That would be too time-consuming for me to do that alone.  I would never do that.  If I could have my family with me to do it, of course I would enjoy it.  Still, I’d rather have Concorde, but then I’d rather take off those two weeks either before I go or when I get back.

BD:    Is your family supportive of the career?

YM:    I don’t know what my children would actually say about that.  I suppose they don’t have much say in the matter, really.  They landed with a mommy who sings.  But my husband is a tremendous help, and I certainly couldn’t do it without him.

BD:    Do you like your peripatetic kind of life at all, living a little here, a little there, going all around?   

YM:    I try not to do that too much now.  I’m trying to be much more organized and spend much more time at home.  This fall is just a special occasion.  I was really due to be finished with Samson, and then Lyric had the problem of the three extra performances of Ariadne.  It was then Carol Fox asked me if I would stay on and do them.  I would have had those ten days at home doing nothing.  I said to her I would do it for her, and as it’s turned out, as this season is dedicated to her anyhow, I think that it’s rather nice that I’ve had the opportunity to do the Araidnes as well.

BD:    That’s good.  I’m glad you feel that way.

YM:    I knew Carol well.  She was quite a good friend of mine, and she did give me my first break here.  She was the first one, really, to start me off in this country.  It’s a risk, really, to take a virtually unknown singer and put them into a major role like in Rosenkavalier.  That’s the whole evening, and if the Octavian’s not good...  In some ways it’s not totally rewarding because usually the Marschallin sweeps away with the accolades.  But nevertheless, the Octavian has to be of a certain level throughout the opera.

BD:    You have to have a lot of stamina.

YM:    He has to be able to sing the same at the end as he can at the beginning!

BD:    Do you ever find yourself holding back a little in the first act just because you know the trio and duet are coming at the end?

YM:    No, no.  I never do that.  But the first act is very hard.  I think, again, this slow development of mine comes into being.  The first act is hard to start, and is orchestrally very loud in places.  That can be somewhat off-putting, really, and a little daunting when one is younger.  Now I don’t worry so much.  I just let them have it, but once upon a time it was probably a little daunting.

BD:    You were talking about Carol Fox.  How much can the managers of various theaters influence a career either good or bad?

YM:    They can influence it tremendously.  I’ve never allowed anyone to influence mine, because I have always just wanted, basically, to do what I want to do.  The big pity now is that we have so little opera in England that all of us on my sort of level have to travel.

BD:    You would be happier staying at Covent Garden for much of the season?

YM:    I’d like to spend a little more time at Covent Garden, certainly, but it has to go around a lot of singers.  After all, there aren’t that many mezzo parts, and there are an awful lot of mezzos.  So it has to be shared around quite a lot of people.

BD:    Is there a disproportionate amount of mezzos in England?

YM:    Not in England, but I’m talking about worldwide now.  There are quite a few.

BD:    Are we going through a golden age where we have a lot of a brilliant mezzos, or is it just sort of a fashion?

YM:    No, we have proportionately more mezzos than there are roles, basically speaking, and the repertoire I do is just not done very often.  Rosenkavalier isn’t something you do every month.  You do things like Butterfly and Bohème and Tosca, things like that much more frequently, but certainly not Rosenkavalier.

BD:    How do you go about deciding what you will sing and what you will learn and what you won’t learn?

YM:    I don’t really think about that because the offers just come in.  If it’s something I really want to do I do it, and if it’s something that I don’t find very interesting, that I think would probably be a waste of time...

BD:    So if a manager says, “We would like you to sing a certain role,” you will go and explore it first and then say yes or no?

YM:    Normally, yes.  At this time in my life I wouldn’t learn anything that I couldn’t use again.  I’ve been through all of that; I’ve been through the Knot Gardens and the King Priams, and things like that.

BD:    Do you enjoy working with a living composer?

YM:    Oh, yes.  Yes, yes!

BD:    Is there something special about that?

YM:    Yes.  I’m only sad that I didn’t have the opportunity to do more Britten because I think he wrote wonderfully well for the voice.  I like a lot of what Michael Tippett does.  He does some very interesting theatrical and orchestral things, and he is a nice man, too.

BD:    Thank you for being a singer!  You bring a real warmth to the roles I have heard and seen.

YM:    [A bit surprised]  Really???  I find that hard to believe!

BD:    The Rosenkavalier was very satisfying, as was Werther

YM:    In a way, Charlotte is an easy part to do, and on the other hand it’s a difficult part to do because she virtually has nothing until that last act, and then everything for her is in the last act.  Ideally speaking, one would rather have it spread out a little more evenly.

BD:    Do intermissions bother you? 

YM:    I don’t think I’d like to go through Dalila without them  I don’t know how I’d manage the costume changes, actually!  [Laughs]

BD:    Some singers say that the voice gets cold, and you have to re-warm it.

YM:    Oh, not in twenty minutes.  When you’re doing Octavian, there’s barely time to get from one wig to the other, really.  You actually need at least twenty minutes to get from the first act to the second.  You have a complete wig and costume change, and you have got to get the sword into place.  There’s no way you could do it without an interval, and then you go again from the second to the third with another complete change.

BD:    Is there a chance that the interval might be too long?  Suppose it drags on to thirty-five or forty minutes?

minton30YM:    In Bayreuth, it’s an hour, of course.  That makes it very long.  For Tristan you have to be there at three, and you still don’t get out until half past ten or eleven at night.  The Tristan that we did all those years ago was a phenomenal success, and they just wouldn’t let us go!  We used to be there for an hour afterwards.  It always seems to go well, and the Kurwenal and the Brangäne just thought, “Well, let’s go and leave it to them.”  It is called Tristan und Isolde, and we should just let them get on with it.  But it was a very, very, very long day.  By the time you’re through the second act, you have then another hour intermission, so it is two hours then you have to wait until your next entrance.  I used to lie down on my couch and invariably sort of go off to sleep, almost.  Then you feel dreadful when you get up and have to rush on to do your final bit.

BD:    Tell me a bit about Brangäne.

YM:    You can play Brangäne many ways, but I’ve always just felt that she was really a very close friend and companion to Isolde. 

BD:    Does she know she’s making a mistake putting the wrong drink in the cup?

YM:    Oh yes, I’m sure she does, but then she doesn’t think about it as being a mistake.  She thinks she’s helping the situation, but it’s certainly premeditated, yes.  It does have a dreadful miss, really.  This is what happens, then, with meddling females!

BD:    [Laughs]  Is that what Brangäne is, a meddling female?

YM:    No.  She really does love Isolde very much as a friend.

BD:    She wants Isolde to love Marke?

YM:    No, no.  No, because Isolde’s previous lover was killed in battle by Tristan.  This piece that came off Tristan’s sword, she removed from her lover who died, and then later on Tristan came into her hands.  She found that the splinter fitted his sword, and so she knew.  Her temptation at that time was to kill him on the spot, but she couldn’t bring herself to do it, which is where the love/hate thing starts.  So when she is confronted with this man who’s taking her to Marke — after all, she’s a princess, so she has to marry a king — she says to him, “There’s only one way out of this.  Our only salvation is we have to atone for what has gone, and therefore we have to drink the poison cup.”  You could look at it from many angles.  You could say of course, Brangäne is meddling in putting a Liebestrank as opposed to the Todestrank into the cup, but I don’t think she thinks of it like that.  She really thinks that she can’t kill the woman, because she cares.  She probably cares about him, too.  She sees something there, obviously, so you can do it in a naïve way.  You can change the bowls around and wait for it to happen.  But obviously, she doesn’t realize what the outcome will be.  It’s the sort of stupid thing that one could easily do, and she doesn’t really think of the complications.

BD:    Do you enjoy the Warning?

YM:    Well, I don’t think it’s a piece you actually enjoy.  You kind of get on and do it.  [Laughs]

BD:    Do you sing it from offstage or backstage or upstage?

YM:    Normally offstage, but this can present many problems because acoustically you can’t really hear what you’re doing.  You can’t hear the orchestra, invariably, and you can’t see the conductor, or not very clearly.

BD:    Can you watch him on a little television monitor?

YM:    Well, he’s now watching you half the time.  It’s a very special piece of music.  Invariably, he’s so involved with the orchestra at that time, making lush sounds, so one feels very isolated.  I think that gets much worse as you grow older, really.  When you’re younger your nerves can take it, but as you’re getting old you like to be acknowledged from time to time.  [Laughs]

BD:    I would think it would be just the other way around
that when you’re younger you’d be so nervous, and with more experience you would feel more confident about being thrust into any kind of situation.

YM:    It varies from person to person, but one has a sort of brute strength when one is young.  When you’re older you think, “Oh, my God!  Yes, this could happen at this particular time and such and such could happen here or there...” and if you’re not careful, invariably it can happen just from a psychological reaction.  It’s very hard.  It really is very hard.  Once upon a time I would have let it get out of proportion.  After all, we are not machines.  We can’t just turn the knob and expect brilliance every night.  Nobody can do that.  If one can sing as long as a great many of my colleagues have been doing, and been doing it quite well, then that’s all one can ask for.  Thank God I’ve been singing for twenty-five years and I’m still singing.  I’ve still got the strength and the voice.

BD:    Which is why I say,
“Thank you for being a singer.  You’ve brought so much in so many different areasthe concert work, the opera work, the recordings.  It seems like you have made a success out of each facet.

YM:    Oh, that’s kind of you to say so.

[We now move ahead eleven years and three weeks to our second meeting, which took place in mid-November, 1992.]

BD:   We will just chat about all kinds of things, and I’ll use that at various times
— to promote performances, when I play your records, and to celebrate your birthday.

YM:   Oh, how nice!  Yes, I have a birthday coming up soon.

BD:    Well, let’s start right there.  Are you at the point in your career that you expected to be at this age?

YM:    It’s really rather difficult to say.  When you start off, you never visualize what you’re going to be doing in middle age, really.  There’s no doubt that all female singers in middle age have a repertoire problem.  When I look at my contemporary sopranos, they also have a repertoire problem.  They cannot go on singing.  I have a very dear friend in the UK who was a renowned Butterfly, and she says, “I’m not going to sing those top notes anymore.”  She also went around the world singing the Verdi Requiem, and has now decided that she will sing the mezzo part instead.

BD:    Is that a threat to all mezzos everywhere?

YM:    Obviously, and she does more than I do!  [Laughs]  She has a reputation for singing Verdi, and basically she wants to confine her activities to the UK.  So she does a quite a few up and down the country.  A few of us have the same problem, my problem being that the voice sounds youthful, and I still look reasonably youthful and slender.  So I’ve postponed things, putting off the more mature ladies, let us say.  I find them very interesting as characters.  Last year, for the first time I did Klytemnestra in Australia, and the conductor said he had never heard it sung so well.  Then you ask yourself the question, “Does that role need to be sung well?”  As a character part, is it better just to characterize it?  So you go the full circle and come back to the same spot, I’m afraid, because it depends on the person you are.  I, personally, would have to sing it well.

BD:    I would assume you could only sing it the way you can sing it.

YM:    That’s right.  That is true, and I suppose I would have to approach all those roles in that manner.

BD:    You speak of moving into more mature characters.  Is this more of a problem for mezzos, since they tend to be mothers and older ladies in the operas?

YM:    Yes, I would say so.  I still do all the Wagner roles that I’ve done for some long time.  I don’t do Octavian anymore, and I haven’t done the Composer in Ariadne in quite a while.  I just felt I had to graduate from playing trouser parts, but that’s what people still remember me as, basically.  It amazes me the amount of people who come up are very charming and complimentary about the Rosenkavalier I did here back in 1970, which is 22 years ago!.  And it doesn’t just happen here; it happens anywhere.  That’s the memory they have of you, but I have done a lot of things in between.

mintonBD:    Are you consciously trying to create new memories in the audience’s mind?

YM:    I hope so.  Now I really have to create new ideas for myself, as well.  I have to take that step and not be so reticent about it.

BD:    Is there any joker being added because of the fact that your recording of Rosenkavalier is out there so that it’s continually being enjoyed?

YM:    I don’t know.  I believe it is still being enjoyed.  I think it’s still quite a good record.  It is now quite old, in actual fact, as records go.

BD:    Yes, but now it comes back on compact disc which gives it a new life.  [Vis-à-vis the recording which is shown at right, see my Interview with Régine Crespin, and my Interview with Helen Donath.]

YM:    Yes, that is true indeed.

BD:    Do you feel you’re competing against yourself from twenty years ago?

YM:    Oh, no, I don’t think so.  Not at all.  When I hear it, I don’t say what I did then pleases me overmuch at all.

BD:    [Surprised]  You don’t like it???

YM:    I don’t say I dislike it, but I don’t say it pleases me greatly.  There are lots of things I hear that I would have preferred to have been done better, let us say.

BD:    Putting an older head on younger shoulders?

YM:    Yes, but you can’t do that, can you?  You get that flush, that bloom that is, in fact, what they needed on that record at the time.  The thing about that disc is the fact that all three female voices are quite different.  You can distinguish them immediately, and this is not always apparent on some Rosenkavalier discs.

BD:    Right.  That’s especially needed in a purely aural medium.

YM:    It’s perfectly obvious who is the Marschallin and who is the Octavian and who is the Sophie.

BD:    You wouldn’t want another shot at recording it now?

YM:    I don’t think so, no.

BD:    Would you give advice to others who are attempting the role of Octavaian?

YM:    Sure, if they ask me.  Nobody asks me.  [Laughs]

BD:    [Taking up the challenge]  Okay.  What advice would you have?  I’m singing Octavian, so what advice do you have for me?

YM:    Right.  First of all, how to play it, for a start, and then how to sing it.  Which advice would you like first?

BD:    [Being greedy]  A then B.

YM:    Okay.  From the playing point of view, I was young when I started it but I had very many people that I could emulate at Covent Garden
people like Geraint Evans.  He was always so wonderful onstage, and there were many other male singers there who were very fine actors.  So I observed the way they stood and the way they walked.  I did it for some long time, so even in the years when my son was growing up, I watched him, too, because young men have a quite distinct way of walking.

BD:    There’s a certain awkwardness.

YM:    Indeed there is, and whilst I was a woman, I wasn’t about to be able to do that exactly.  But it’s a good thing to bear in mind that they walk quite differently to young girls.

BD:    So you made sure that even if you weren’t walking exactly as a young boy would, you were not walking as a young woman would?

YM:    Yes, yes, yes.  After all, everyone knows that I’m a woman playing a man, but you have to make it as realistic as you possibly can without hamming it too much.

BD:    You don’t want to make it a caricature role.

YM:    No, no.  Then when you play the Mariandel, you’re a girl playing a man playing a girl.  [Laughs]

BD:    Right.  So it’s come more than full circle, really.

YM:    Indeed it has, yes.  Then you have the scenes with the Marschallin.  I found that for a woman to play a man making love to a woman onstage is much easier than for a man to do it to a man, say.  The modern operas do have that.  They have homosexuality, which I suppose you could look at, but Strauss never intended that, I’m sure.  He wanted the female voice to sing it.  He had a purpose in mind.  Certainly with the ladies I’ve played it with, those scenes were always easy.  They were experienced people who put you at your ease, and one never felt awkward.  I don’t ever remember feeling awkward with the Sophies, either, because you had the two extremes.  You had someone who was just starting, and someone who had been around for some time.  So with the Sophies, I suppose I tried to put them into their ease.  The other way, the Marschallin was putting me at my ease.

mintonBD:    Were you able to relate any of the sexuality that you got from your husband?

YM:    Oh, yes, most certainly, yes.

BD:    It wouldn’t have been better to have had a little bit of lesbian tendency in you?

YM:    No, I never thought of that.  I always thought of a male handling the tenderness.  It always had to be with tenderness because his feelings are very strong for the Marschallin.  This is a true feeling.  This is probably the first loving he’s had, and it’s a different sort of tenderness for Sophie.  It’s a very protective one for her.

BD:    You say it’s the first loving that he’s had.  Is it the first sex that he has had?

YM:    Quite possibly.  He’s only seventeen.  I imagine he’s just played around before, you know, behind the door somewhere.  [Laughs]

BD:    But never gotten a real tumble?

YM:    It’s difficult to say, but I would think that the first passion has come from his feeling for the Marschallin.

BD:    Does he then try to transfer all of that to Sophie?

YM:    I think it’s quite different with Sophie.  He would have to teach her, and we cannot predict that it lasted with Sophie.

BD:    There seems to be a conviction that it doesn’t last, I’m afraid.

YM:    Yes, well, it could just be fluff and bubble, couldn’t it, really?

BD:    But that’s not what Sophie wants.

YM:    No, of course not!  And that’s not his intention.

BD:    So he would like it to last?

YM:    I don’t think he thinks about that.  That’s not a thought that ever crossed my mind.  This was this beautiful, divine creature.  After all, he has just been rejected.  He’s on the rebound and he comes in with all this glamour on this wonderful, wonderful occasion, and sees this divine creature who’s also sort of in her silver outfit.

BD:    Has he really been rejected before he falls in love with Sophie?  I thought there was a duality there somewhat.

YM:    No, no, she throws him out in the first act, really.

BD:    Has she not thrown him out previous to this?  Doesn’t he think that he’s going to come back to her?

YM:    It’s possible that she has said to him that this is a ridiculous situation before.  She may have said that, those very words, “This is quite ridiculous.  Here’s me, an old lady of thirty-five.  You’re far too young for me.”  But, no, she now says to him, “You must go.  Be good, and go.  The time has come.”

BD:    [Protesting just a bit]  But in the trio, he is so torn.

YM:    Oh, well, of course!  He can’t bring himself to leave her on his own.  She was everything to him.  This was the first real love and passion and warmth maybe he’s ever truly known.  She taught him an enormous amount, but she’s an intelligent lady, which you wouldn’t think of Sophie as being.  Sophie is just someone to admire and look at, really.

BD:    I think of Sophie as being naïve, but not unintelligent.

YM:    Oh, no, I don’t mean unintelligent — a bit silly, perhaps.  She’s innocent and very inexperienced.  She just hasn’t had a lot of experience of life in general.

BD:    She’s obviously had no love experience if she’s been locked up for years.

YM:    Yes, and that is also quite interesting for him.

BD:    Does she respond as much as he would like, or do we know that?

YM:    Well, sufficiently, I would say.  Oh, yes.  It depends on who’s playing it, of course.  [Both laugh]

BD:    One hopes that she’s not cold fish, I suppose.

YM:    Oh, no, no.

BD:    So Sophie is looking for passion, too?

YM:    She’s sweet-natured.  I don’t know that one can consider it passion at this point, but I don’t know if that’s something he necessarily sees.  I’m sure she is, for herself.  These are adolescent feelings that she has, very strong ones, and she’s certainly feeling them very strongly.

BD:    So what really does happen in the fourth act?

YM:    They have babies, I guess.  As for the singing of the role, it’s a real middle-voice role.  It’s not too low.  It doesn’t go below middle-C and it doesn’t go above an A, so it’s a real mezzo-soprano role.

BD:    It lies comfortably for your voice?

YM:    Oh, yes.  It was perfect for my voice, apart from the odd, awkward note here or there.  But on the whole, I’m sure that could be said for many mezzo-sopranos
— if you’ve got a real medium voice, not one that’s tending to lean downwards or one that’s only sort of upwards.  You do get some mezzo-sopranos who are almost soprano, really, in their vocal height. 

mintonBD:    And then of course, they try to sing the soprano roles.

YM:    Oh, I don’t blame them for that.  The list of mezzo roles is very thin on the ground, really.  [Laughs]

BD:    But I would think they’d be more interesting dramatically than some of the big heroines.

YM:    I did so many heroes and heroines, really.  That’s basically what I played
La Clemenza di Tito and Orfeo, and all these sort of roles — that’s basically the little niche that I seem to be in — and then all the Wagnerian ones, as well.

BD:    How early on did you figure out that this was where the voice was going to be placed, and it wasn’t going to move up or down?

YM:    That was a transition because it has moved up and down, in actual fact.  Think of something like Kundry, which is extremely dramatic and high, and then quite low in the first act.  When I started to sing Octavian I was only 28 or 29.  My first performances were age 29, so the voice went through a lot of maturity in the fifteen or more years I was singing it.

BD:    Was there ever a time when you were singing it that you felt the voice wasn’t right for it?

YM:    No, I felt it got better and better.

BD:    Vocally, would it still be there?

YM:    Yes, I would think so.  Maybe one or two lyric phrases I would find hard to do now.  I’d have to really work on those, but the big outbursts, I’m sure, would be better, be stronger.  All those top notes would be better, I think, although the second act was always tremendous for me.  I always felt, vocally, very happy in the second act.

BD:    So then you gave him up reluctantly?

YM:    No, I don’t think so.  I don’t think it was reluctantly.  I felt that I had had just tremendous years from it — a big career from that role, really.  It took me all around the world.  I’ve done well over a hundred performances of it.  I did more performances of that than anything else. 

BD:    [With a gentle nudge]  And you wonder why you’re remembered for that...  [Laughs]

YM:    Well, I had seen performances of mature ladies playing Octavian, although 29 is young to do it, there’s no doubt about that because it’s heavily orchestrated.  Strauss is a dangerous composer for young singers.  You have to look at it from a credibility angle, as well.  Although I’m fitter now than I was 10 or 15 years ago, it’s a matter of how you feel inside.  You can’t possibly hope to feel at 45 the way you did when you were 30, and that’s very important to bring to the role.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    With all the experience that you had with Octavian, did that help when you were doing the Composer?

YM:    Yes, although I always found the Composer more difficult.  The tessitura is just that much constantly higher, and I didn’t do as many performances of that role.  It’s frequently done by a soprano.  Octavian can be, as well, but I think it sounds better if you have three different voices in Rosenkavalier.  But the tessitura is such in Ariadne that the Composer could easily be done by a soprano.  And of course, the orchestration is much less.

BD:    Sure, it’s only a third of an orchestra, really.

YM:    That’s right.

BD:    Do you regret that he doesn’t come into the opera proper?

YM:    He has enough to do in the Prologue, doesn’t he, really?  [Both laugh]

BD:    [Gently protesting]  We want more! 

YM:    I should say, I enjoyed doing the Frickas and the Waltrautes and things like that, just confining myself to that short period and then being free for the rest of the evening.  You basically have to sit around to take curtain calls, but you can give all you’ve got in that 20 or 30 minutes.  You have to get in there and really sock it to them immediately.  You can’t afford to wait.  With Rosenkavalier you can tend to be a bit lazy in the first act because you’ve got another two acts in which to prove yourself!  And that can be a danger.

BD:    But you have the other two acts in which you still have to be awake and alert, so you have to pace yourself.

YM:    Yes, that’s true, although that’s something I never had a problem with, I must say.

BD:    I assume that after the trio and after the duet, you wouldn’t want to turn around and do it all again?

YM:    No, no.  You are tired by then.  It’s just so long; the piece is so long!  I remember the first ones I did were a trial, because it was the first role of that length I had ever done.

BD:    Is it the longest for a principal mezzo?

YM:    No, I don’t think so.  Something like the Nurse in Frau Ohne Schatten is probably more.  That’s very long, isn’t it?  I remember people saying to me that Octavian was the longest, but I don’t think so.

BD:    Maybe that was before Frau Ohne Schatten had its vogue that it has today.

YM:    Indeed, and I think that Marfa in Khovanshchina is also a very, very long part, as I remember!

mintonBD:    Yes, but there seems to be a lot of other things going on, whereas in Rosenkavalier, you’re the whole show.

YM:    Oh, I don’t know about that.  I always had the feeling that the first act was the Marschallin, and the second act was the Ochs, and you sort of stagger through the whole night.  But the compliments and accolades are sort of shared around.

BD:    It is, in fact, The Rosenkavalier.  It’s not The Marschallin.

YM:    Oh, certainly.  Yes, yes, yes.

BD:    Let’s talk a little bit about the Composer.  Is he as impulsive as Octavian, or is he a little more down to earth?

YM:    He’s somewhat older, for a start.  I see him as a slightly more mature character, and mature insofar as he, being an artist, having written this opera.  Octavian’s just played around, really.  I think that makes the Composer a more mature young man, let us say.

BD:    As a musician, are you more simpatico with the Composer than you would have been with, say, the Artist or the Painter or the Sculptor?

YM:    Oh, yes, I would imagine so, and also with any of them because both my children are artists.  My son is a painter.  It’s very interesting that this is something that grows from within for them.  Singing does too, but a singer’s life span tends to be a short thing, whereas these people can go on forever.  You can appreciate how they feel.  I suppose it’s like giving birth, in a way, and for a composer it must be that very same feeling.  This is why he’s so dreadfully beside himself, really, at what they’re trying to do to his opera.

BD:    “To” is the operative word.

YM:    Yes, indeed, yes.  They are slashing it and putting these dreadful inserts in.  [Laughs]  These crude people doing their circus act. 

BD:    Can you then sympathize with the stage directors today who are doing violence, perhaps, to some of the standard operas?

YM:    I can’t understand that. 

BD:    So you sympathize with the composers, then?

YM:    Oh, always, first and foremost, but one loves to see interesting direction and sets and things like that.  I saw Nozze di Figaro in Australia where he was actually doing a little bit of wife molestation — the Count to the Countess
— and I’m sorry, I don’t think that is necessary at all.  I’m sure that’s not what Mozart intended.

BD:    She would not have put up with it?

YM:    No, I’m sure she wouldn’t.  Why would she stay in an environment like that?  He actually sort of belted her across the face.

BD:    But of course, back then where would she go?

YM:    Well, true, true, but that’s not necessary in the theater.  You don’t have to do that.  He could freeze her out, but not use physical violence.

BD:    Would the audience of the 1990s now understand that as well as the audience of the 1770s, since we have come 200 years through wars and pestilence and atomic bombs?

YM:    Yes, well, we don’t know how they did it.  I imagine they just sort of minced about the stage.

BD:    But are the stage directors perhaps trying to make the same kind of impact that a subtle action would back then?  Do they feel they have to do it so explicitly now because the audiences are more blasé or immune to this kind of thing?

YM:    I appreciate what you mean, but I don’t see the necessity of it.  The music is so wonderful.  Do you get tired of Figaro?  I never, ever get tired of hearing Figaro.  There’s just no way I could with that and Magic Flute.  I just never cease to be amazed at the power this music has.

BD:    Naturally, I feel the same way, but I’ve somewhat immersed myself for all of my life into this kind of style, and into the stories and into the periods.  What about, perhaps, for an audience member who’s coming either to opera for the first time or to these kinds of operas for the first time, who’s only seen television and movies which are loud and violent?

YM:    Well, it doesn’t work for me, I have to say.  My daughter has seen a few of those rather famous television videos of the Mozart pieces, and it didn’t work for her, either.  I have never discouraged my children to go to the opera, but they’ve never been particularly interested until now, and they both seem to be interested in different things.  She has become very interested in Mozart operas, and she thought the new stagings were perfectly awful.

mintonBD:    Does she feel the old stagings were perfectly fine?

YM:    She hasn’t seen too many of those.  I shall have to introduce her to some, however finding a good Figaro now is not quite so easy as it was.

BD:    That’s true.  We’re losing the style a little bit.

YM:    Yes, we are.  I’m sure we’ll come back to it, though.

BD:    I was going to ask if it seems to be cyclical.  For a long time we had no bel canto singers and now we have a lot of them.

YM:    Yes, yes.  I’m sure that is true.  We go in phases, don’t we?

BD:    Who dictates the phases
— is it the producers or the audience?

YM:    I think the producer, in fact, with swings and roundabouts.

BD:    Since I’ve been asking a little bit about the audience, do you take the audience into account in each one of your performances?   

YM:    Oh, most certainly.  Yes.  That’s why I’m there!

BD:    Do you react instantly to them, or are you just aware of them in general?

YM:    I would try to react instantly, and always the same.  You can feel some nights are not as warm as others, but I don’t know if that’s always an audience participation thing.  I tend to think that’s just how you’re feeling on the day.

BD:    Should opera be a participatory sport?

YM:    Oh, not too participatory, I don’t think.  No.  [Laughs]  I love to have that orchestra pit in between.  With those Promenade Concerts you do in London, if you do an opera in that situation they’re literally on top of you.  The concerts are always very successful, but I don’t think you have the same freedom.  To be on the stage and also to have to project with the voice makes for a totally different performance.

BD:    Do you adjust your vocal technique for a small house like Glyndebourne, or a large house like Chicago or the Met?

YM:    I don’t sing very often in Glyndebourne, but whereas the technique remains the same, the projection doesn’t have to be quite so much.  Here you certainly have to work at it.

BD:    Do you like the idea of having the supertitles above you, knowing that the audience is a little more connected with drama?

YM:    Yes.  For me personally it doesn’t do very much at all.  I find them rather distracting because I find that I’m forced to read them, but I think it is wonderful for audiences that are, in fact, seeing an opera which is not in their language.  Even for people who know the opera very well, it’s just so valuable and it gives them a feeling of participation, of being involved, which they may miss, especially with a piece like Pelléas which is so convoluted.  I’m in the beginning, and I haven’t done it in twenty years, so I had to re-learn the piece, so to speak.  But things that you learn in your youth stay with you forever, so it came back very quickly.  But for the rest of the opera, although I recognized the music, the text was something else.  I wanted to know what the text was all about.

BD:    So it really was like getting a clean score and starting over?

YM:    Oh, yes, certainly.

BD:    How do you decide, then, which roles you’ll accept and which contracts you’ll put aside or turn down?

YM:    It depends what comes in, first of all.  You get to a stage where it’s interesting to do something like this, which I haven’t done for a very long time.  I do it at Covent Garden next year, as well.  It is a Pelléas time at this moment.  I was asked to do four in one year, which I’m delighted that I was not able to do.  Two is sufficient, really, but it is sort of in vogue at the moment.  Interesting, that, isn’t it?

BD:    Back to being cyclical.

YM:    Indeed.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    You also sing concerts.  How do you divide your career between orchestral concerts and staged operas?

YM:    The problem with concerts, really, is again, repertoire.  I need to find new concert repertoire, so if anyone has any ideas I’d be delighted.  The repertoire I have is the repertoire I’ve been doing all my life, and whilst it’s wonderful, wonderful music, it doesn’t make it so interesting from my point of view.

BD:    [Gently protesting]  You mean you want to set aside all the Mahler???

YM:    I know it seems ungrateful for me to say that, but I have done it quite a lot, really.  I’m not saying I won’t or wouldn’t do it again, but I’ve given it a good go.

BD:    So you’re looking for something fresh?

YM:    Ah, yes, yes, yes.  Very much so.

BD:    Should composers write some things for your voice?

YM:    Well, of course.  Why not?  Yes.  I’d be delighted.

BD:    What advice do you have for the composer who says, “I’d like to write something for you”?

mintonYM:    I’m very interested in good words.  The text is always as important to me as the music, which is why I enjoy doing those Hofmannsthal-Strauss pieces so very much.  That’s why they meant so much to me.  Word picture is very, very important, and then also painting a picture with the music.  The two really go together.  That collaboration is quite rare, but it does happen.  I have been involved in a few new things from time to time.  I was involved in two Tippett pieces, for example.  One was an opera and one was a concert piece, and it was interesting.  There was a span of some years between the opera [1970] and the concert piece [1984], so in fact, it was interesting to see how he used different ideas.

BD:    Were you able to influence the way he wrote for your voice?

YM:    Oh, I wouldn’t dream of it.  Not Michael, no, because he’s very sure about what he wants.  I was in the premiere of The Mask of Time, which was commissioned by the Boston Symphony Orchestra [for their 100th anniversary].  He used a mixture of poets in that, and they were very beautiful words.  I did other things of his.  I also created the role of Thea in The Knot Garden.  They were Michael’s own words, so that was quite different.

BD:    That opera is rather violent.

YM:    Indeed.  Very.  Yes, I have to use a bullwhip in that, which I enjoy quite a lot, I might say. [Laughs]

BD:    [With mock horror]  I see.  [Squirms in his chair]  Let me move just a bit farther away...  [Both laugh]

YM:    I did not make physical contact.  I was careful to do it away from my colleagues, but it was a marvelous sound!

BD:    How much of you is in each role that you portray, or do you actually become that character when you walk on the stage?

YM:    I try to.  Oh, yes, yes.  I love doing the nasties!

BD:    How long does it take you, then, to throw off the character once you walk off the stage?

YM:    One obviously carries the mantle a little.  You don’t carry the character with you, but you carry the tiredness from actually performing the role.  I don’t actually keep playing the character, but I keep on thinking how I can improve what I’m doing vocally.  That has never stopped all my life, and onstage as well.  I do a lot of teaching now.  I teach at the Royal Academy in London.

BD:    Teaching vocal technique?

YM:    Oh, absolutely, and I find it quite fascinating.  I wish more of my colleagues did it, the ones who are really experienced and have had big, long careers.  It’s only when you’ve done it right and wrong, and done it all ways...  My goodness, when you’ve been singing as long as I have, then you have done it all ways — unknowingly, perhaps
— and then you say to yourself, “That does not feel right.  Why does it not feel right?”  So you go about analyzing it and then sorting it out and saying, “No, that is wrong.”  Then you hear it in someone else and say, “I don’t like what they’re doing.  I’m not going to do that again.”  Maybe you’ve been doing it that way for some time, so the eradication process could be a little while, but everything is possible.  I just find the whole thing quite fascinating — the way the voice works, what we have to do to make it betterand because we’re singing actors or actresses, we have to make it fit in with what we’re doing onstage.

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

YM:    I think the music has to come first, but that’s just a little way ahead.  You have to have that drama, as well.  You really do, otherwise it falls flat.

BD:    Can you find much drama to utilize in Mahler songs or other concerts?

YM:    Yes.  Yes, indeed.  You do it with painting that picture, again, vocal painting.

BD:    But I would think it would be easier if you were in costume and had scenery behind you.

YM:    Always, always.  No doubt about that.  You sort of shed that skin and you climb into another skin, really.  It’s a wonderful, wonderful medium!

BD:    Are there any parts that you have done
or will dothat are perhaps perilously close to the real Yvonne Minton?

YM:    Ah, I don’t know.  I suppose all of them have a bit of me, certainly, at least the ones I enjoy.  Take Fricka for a start, who’s nagged her husband to death.  I suppose I’m a bit of a nagger, really.  I certainly am always putting my oar in at home, and telling them what they should be doing.  I do it with my students, too.  I don’t say to them just once, “You’re pushing here,” or, “You’re not using a bright enough vowel, or a big enough vowel.  You don’t have enough space.”  I don’t say that once in a lesson; I would say that, perhaps, I don’t know, dozens and dozens and dozens of times.  In the course of a year, I don’t know how many times I would say it.  So, I suppose that’s a little bit of Fricka because she can’t leave him alone.  She’s got to keep on digging at the subject, really.

BD:    But once she’s made her point, though, she does stop.

YM:    That’s true, but that’s all Wagner’s given her!  [Laughs]  He’s just given her that 20 or 25 minutes of bluster.

BD:    But do you find that you can stop the pushing in the lessons with the students when they get the idea?

YM:    Oh, God, they never get the idea; that goes on forever!  [Laughs]  I wish my students did get the idea!  It takes at least five years for it to sink in.

BD:    [Surprised]  Really???

YM:    Well, these are all young people who are studying.  Mine are young students, generally speaking, the oldest being 28, and by music college standards, that’s mature.  They tend to range, really, between 18 and 24.  So these are people who have no basic singing experience.

BD:    Are you trying to give them experience now that will last a lifetime?

YM:    Oh, certainly!  I couldn’t do it any other way.  I’m giving them what I have learned from age thirteen, and certainly what I learned from the time I went into Covent Garden, which is basically when I started to grow.

BD:    Do you think they will remember it?

YM:    Oh, I hope so.  Oh, my goodness!  I can’t do it any other way, but I sincerely hope.  I say it often enough, but it’s interesting.  I also say to them, “Now, you tell me what is wrong.”  Even though I have used the same vocabulary — you change it from person to person, obviously, but they may have heard that, goodness knows, how many hundreds of times
— they still don’t come straight back with the answers.

BD:    Perhaps they don’t perceive that what they’re doing is in error.

YM:    Oh, I’m sure they don’t.  Well, they know it somewhat.  They wouldn’t come to me if they didn’t feel that there was something wrong.  They obviously come to me to put it right because I’m a person who gets it right in the end.

BD:    They are not coming to you thinking they have it right, and they want to get it more right?

YM:    No.  No, never.  I only get students with problems.  It’s hard, certainly, but I don’t have many.

BD:    You should advertise.  “Wanted
several students who have it right, and would like to make even more progress.”

YM:    Well, yes.  I have a few of those, too, but, generally speaking, I find it’s the young who progress more quickly.  It’s an interesting experiment to see, in fact, if you get them at this age and you nurture them sufficiently, what the end product will be, or if it will be better than the one who starts with you at age 30.  Although in a way it goes quicker then because they are that much older, it is very hard for them to eradicate their vocal problems at that age.  The habits have become very ingrained.

BD:    Are there no singers out there with good habits ingrained?

YM:    There’s an awful lot of them, yes.  I’m not talking about people in the profession now, but there are an awful lot of young singers who have very bad vocal habits.  I haven’t heard a great deal of talent that I could say has thrilled me.  I’m not talking about America.  I can’t speak about this country, but what I’ve heard in Europe and the UK I’m astonished at the vocal standard.  Maybe it’s always been like that.

BD:    Are you not optimistic, then, about the future of opera?

YM:    Oh, I’m always optimistic about my students, yes.  Always.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Are you pleased with the recordings that you have made over the years?

YM:    No.  Not at all.

mintonBD:    [Surprised]  Not at all???

YM:    Not at all!  I don’t listen to them.

BD:    Then how can you smile at someone who comes up to you and says, “Oh, I loved your recording of this or that”?

YM:    Their listening ear is different to mine, that’s all I can say!  They’re not listening with the same ears that I am.

BD:    But I assume that each record that was made was the best that you could do at the time.

YM:    Of course.  Of course.  I’m sure it was, yes.  There’s not very much I can do about that now.

BD:    You can go back and remake a few of them.

YM:    That’s the problem with anything that’s done for posterity.  Eventually it’s only the good ones that remain and the others sort of fade away.

BD:    But they’re out there.

YM:    Yes.  It’s amazing, isn’t it?

BD:    I hope there are none that you would completely disown.

YM:    Oh, probably a few, I would think, yes.

BD:    Oh, dear.  I won’t ask which is which.

YM:    Let’s not dwell on that.

BD:    No, no.  Are there more recordings coming along?

YM:    No, I don’t have anything planned at the moment.  It comes back to the old repertoire problem.  I have to sort that out in my mind first, and once I’m settled on that, then we will see.

BD:    So you are really going through, almost, a crisis of what you’re doing?

YM:    No, I don’t think it’s a crisis, but I have to decide what new roles I’m going to learn and then say to people, “This is what I have now.”

BD:    Being an experienced singer, do you find it’s easier to sing into the new roles?

YM:    On the whole, in general, yes, I would say that.

BD:    Or am I getting the cart before the horse — do you find the roles that are easy for you to sing into, and those are the ones you decide to do?

YM:    Oh, no, not at all!  I don’t do anything like that.  No, it has to be a real vocal challenge.  That’s what makes it.  That’s the spice of life which makes it interesting.

BD:    [With a gentle nudge]  But we can’t look forward to your Tosca?

YM:    Oh, no, certainly not.  I wish I could, or my Butterfly or my Mimì, or anything like that.  No, no.  That’s not me.

BD:    You seem to have been glad to have stayed a mezzo-soprano all of your career.

YM:    There’s only one role that I’m very tempted to do
and I have done most of it in concertand that’s Sieglinde.  But because I’ve done Frickas and things like that, I don’t suppose anyone would ever ask to stage me as a Sieglinde.  In actual fact Sieglinde is very low, and apart from a few sopranos, most of them sound so ugly down in that lower register.  They lack warmth and they push it because they do find it low.  It doesn’t go excessively high, so that’s one soprano role I could do.  I don’t really think the Wagner roles can say they’re straight soprano parts because they’re so low and so very high.

BD:    That is true, really, for the tenor, too.

YM:    Indeed.  Sigmund is also very testing from that point of view.  It’s low and then he’s got those high patches, which is not kind.

BD:    Was Wagner cruel to the voice?

YM:    No.  I expect he didn’t really know a lot about it.  What composers do?  Very few know it intimately.

BD:    Should composers take a few voice lessons?

YM:    That is not a bad idea.  I remember one of my coaches at Covent Garden saying that he did a stint at Juilliard.  I don’t know if they still do this, but in fact all the répétiteurs were required to sing some of the roles.

BD:    So that they know what’s going on with the voice?

YM:    Yes, so they know how difficult it is.

BD:    So you would recommend this, then?

YM:     Well, perhaps it’s a little unfair.

BD:    Why?  If they’re going to try and coach you in something, shouldn’t they have some experience with it?

mintonYM:    It would be nice if they could, but their job, really, is to try to guide us.  They’re listening very hard with their ears, and trying to bring some new ideas.  When you spend a long time studying something, it becomes habitual to do it in a certain way.  It’s very good to go along, and for someone to play it and for you to sing it to that same person.  I had a friend, a coach, do this for me with Geneviève.  He just said, “All right, what you’re doing is super.  I like it.  Now what do you think her feeling is here, and what do you think her feeling is there?  Now why don’t you think something else, then?  Just try thinking something else.”  He said, “Because you know it backwards, change the thought, and instead of thinking that here, put that there and move that thought to somewhere else.”

BD:    Within the character, or completely contrary to the character?

YM:    No, no, within the character.  Changing the thought also changes the vocal color, and after all, this is what we’re trying to do.  We’re trying to color the voice so that we’re painting this big canvas.  The canvas is not going to be small and mean.  The canvas has to be awash with beautiful colors, and that’s basically what we’re trying to do with the voice when we get out there.

BD:    Does it behoove you to use all of the colors at your disposal in every performance?

YM:    You can’t do that.  You feel different each day.  I would hope that with the role of Geneviève I can almost do that.  Being such a short part, it’s over so quickly you have to be right in there from beginning to end.  With a long role, it’s easy to do that, certainly.

BD:    Are you still doing the Wagner parts, or are you giving those up?

YM:    For about eight years that was basically all I did.  That’s why I suddenly thought, “Now is the time to experiment,” which is why I did Klytemnestra last year for the first time.  I loved it, I must say.

BD:    That’s another one who’s on for about 20 or 25 minutes.

YM:    That’s right, yes, but a wonderful scene.  It is difficult musically and so it presented great challenge both musically and from the stage point of view.

BD:    Did you do your own scream or get a chorister to do that?

YM:    No, no, I did the scream.  But then I have always done my screams.  I always did in Parsifal, too.

BD:    But in Parsifal, you’re on the stage.

YM:    In the last Parsifal I did they wanted me to do extra screams.  But when I scream, I try to scream; they’re not fake.  They’re not sort of [demonstrates an airy vocalization] business.  They’re a real throat job.

BD:    At least with Klytemnestra it’s at the very end of the role.

YM:    Indeed, yes.  With Klytemnestra it’s to get it sounding blood-curdling enough when you’re doing it from backstage.

BD:    Did you ever shock one of the stagehands if he’s standing there and all of sudden you scream?

YM:    A few of the supers stood back and listened, yes.  I remember very distinctly when we did Cav and Pag at Covent Garden.  It was a Zeffirelli production, and there’s a very long, sustained scream in Cav.  They used to bring in this wonderful woman.  She was a hysterical sort of creature, but she had this scream that made your hair stand up on end!  I’ve never, never forgotten that, and I don’t think I’ve ever heard anybody scream like that.  You do hear actresses doing it, but one always feels that they are aware of their voice, and of course, a singer will be even more aware of the vocal cords.  But this woman could do it.  My God, it was riveting, really!  You just stood still every time.  It was wonderful.

BD:    So they hired her for the scream?

YM:    She came in especially for the screams.  It’s true.

BD:    Has she recorded her screams?

YM:    I don’t know that. 

BD:    Of course, they’d be preserved on a broadcast.

YM:    Oh, yes, indeed.  Certainly.  Yes.

BD:    Are you aware of the microphones when things are broadcast?

YM:    I try not to be.  It is a performance, first and foremost.

BD:    What about the telecast?

YM:    Yes, that’s more difficult, but I do try very hard to forget the dates that they’re doing video-ing.  I really do, because I don’t think one should change one’s performance for that.

BD:    So if it’s a live performance from an opera house, it’s the responsibility of the director and the cameraman to catch you, rather than stage it just for the television?

YM:    That should have been sorted out beforehand.  Most of the productions that one does these days are going to be telecast anyhow, and are staged with the camera in mind from the beginning.

BD:    Does it make you at all schizophrenic to know that you are asked to do something very subtle, but it will not go beyond the third or fourth row of the orchestra?

YM:    I’ve never been asked to do that.  I’ve never been asked to do something so subtle that it’s not going to be seen in the house.  I did work last year with someone who did not want a lot of movement, but I’m not sure that had to do with the telecast or whether he was a film director.  The width and the height of his vision was somewhat different, and I’m sure he was seeing it like that.

BD:    Perhaps in his mind he would be magnifying a small part of the stage to fill this huge CinemaScope screen.

YM:    Yes.  One would hope so.

BD:    This is what I was asking earlier, about contact with the audience.  Do you feel that certain gestures and certain reactions can play right to the audience, rather than to the other characters?

YM:    I think it has to be a combination of both because you’re telling a story.  It depends when you’re telling the story.  Sometimes you’re telling the story directly to the audience, and other times you are involved with your partner onstage.  Then at other times you’re involving the partner and the audience.  I don’t think I ever directly play just for the audience.  One is aware that people have come.  They’ve paid a lot of money, and it’s important.  This is what makes me very mad when I go to performances and I can’t hear the text.  I realize how difficult it is to make the text clear, but I think that we could try a little bit harder.  There are certain words which one should be able to make with absolute clarity, that people will understand, and I think it is our job to do that.  That goes into that big picture again, that big canvas.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    You’ve made a couple of different allusions.  How is it different to tell a story, as opposed to paint a picture?

YM:    It is a combination of things.  For example, in the Waltraute story she is telling Brünnhilde the story of Dad, and how he’s got the mopes, and all that sort of thing.

BD:    She’s bringing Brünnhilde up to date on what’s happened since she’s been asleep.

mintonYM:    Indeed.  Invariably they sit side by side, or kneel side by side, or something like that, and she’s painting the picture for Brünnhilde.  She’s also telling the audience the story.  So I’m not just telling the story to the audience.  I also have Brünnhilde there, and with the text, one is able to incorporate, hopefully, both.  You never stop trying to do it.  It’s not something you do once and think, “Oh I’ve done it so I don’t have to try again.”  It’s a constant concern that you have to feed what you’re saying into every little nook and cranny in that house.

BD:    Something’s just occurred to me — this is the only narration in the whole Ring where the audience has not seen what is being talked about.

YM:    I suppose that’s right.  Is it the only one?  I suppose it is.

BD:    When Wotan does his narration, he’s talking about what we’ve seen in Rheingold, and the riddles in Siegfried tell all of what’s happened in the previous two operas.  But the Waltraute scene is something that has happened offstage.  We haven’t seen Wotan sitting in the chair at the long table, or cutting down the World Ash Tree and piling up the logs for the fire.  So this is something brand new for the audience, rather than a rehash.

YM:    That’s another thing.  You have to make it feel new every time you do it.  That’s also something very important.

BD:    Often, Waltraute can really just steal the whole opera with that scene.

YM:    Oh, yes, I know.  I’ve been there.  It’s a wonderful, wonderful scene, very powerful.

BD:    Do you try to steal it, or do you try to fit in with the whole drama?

YM:    Oh, no, no, no.  I don’t ever try that.  It has to do with the stillness because there’s so much stillness in that scene.  If you think of the moments in the Ring which affect you greatly, they are still moments.  We’re absolutely drowned in this wonderful, lush music, and the moments when there’s absolutely nothing happening, they’re the moments that your heart almost stops, in fact.

BD:    When Waltraute comes to Brünnhilde, does she really believe she can get her to give up the ring, or does she know it’s a lost cause?

YM:    She comes full of hope.  She knows her sister well, but I think she really comes to try... though they have obviously sent her as the messenger, so she must have some powers of persuasion.

BD:    Have they sent her as the messenger, or has she come of her own volition?

YM:    I’m sure they’ve talked about it.  I’m sure they’ve all discussed it.

BD:    But I just wonder... have they said, “Please go,” or has she said, “I better go”?

YM:    It could work either way, depending on who’s directing it.  She obviously felt strongly enough to come and put it all to Brünnhilde and say, “Let’s get on; let’s do it.” 

BD:    “Let’s get on with ending the world”?

YM:    Yes, yes.

BD:    I remember one production, and in the third act of Walküre, where Wotan has chased off the others, the last one to leave, and very reluctantly, was Waltraute.  She had a last look, and you could see the two of them, Brünnhilde and Waltraute, looking at each other.  The director made a big point of trying to make that connection.

YM:    That’s very good, especially if it’s the same person, of course.  When we recorded it in Dresden with Marek Janowski, they made a point in having the same person who did it in the third act of
Walküre to sing it also in Götterdämmerung.  So I suppose it’s logical.

BD:    Could, then, the woman who sings Fricka in the second act come back and sing Waltraute in the third act?

mintonYM:    I have done it, yes.  I suppose, strictly speaking, she shouldn’t do it, and there are some people who prefer her not to do it, certainly.  But Walküre is done a lot when they don’t do the whole Ring cycle.  It’s more well known because of the lovely love duets.  It is perhaps the most popular of the four from an audience point of view.  So in that context I’ve done more Frickas, but on the other hand, I’ve also done Götterdämmerung alone.  But that’s rare; that is fairly rare.

BD:    How is the Rheingold Fricka different from the Walküre Fricka, if at all?

YM:    She’s still that harpy.  She’s still nagging him to death, but not as much, and it’s so little to sing, really, and the music is more lyrical.  The Walküre Fricka is really quite dramatic.  In the past, it’s been done by people like Rita Gorr.

BD:    Are you saying she’s a more splashy singer?

YM:    No, but she was basically a dramatic soprano.  It was a very voluptuous sound.  I’m sure she was a wonderful Dalila, but I just remember when I first thought of studying it, a colleague of mine at the Garden said, “Oh yes, but be careful because Rita Gorr sang it here a few years back.”  One tends to think, in one’s insecurities, that one is not going to be able to manage it, but in fact they were the roles I specialized in.

BD:    Did you ever have any thought of doing Erda?

YM:    I can sing it, certainly, but the part of my voice which speaks or sings best is a notch higher than that.  Although the Siegfried Erda is quite high, the Rheingold Erda is lower and it’s usually given to a lower voice.  It just basically depends on the quality of the voice that the producer and conductor have in mind.

BD:    Do you think that Fricka could have been happy with Wotan if he had been everything that she had wanted him to be, or would she have still nagged him or found something to nag him about?

YM:    It’s possible she may have found something to nag him about, but she’s very upset about the other women in his life.  This fact that he goes off wandering, and she knows what he gets up to, this upsets her terribly.  She’s dreadfully jealous.

BD:    They had no children together, did they?

YM:    No, that’s right.  They’re frustrated, obviously.

BD:    He’s had kids with others, so it’s obviously her problem.

YM:    Well, that could be the insinuation, couldn’t it?  Indeed.

BD:    Is there anything at all to like about Fricka?

YM:    In the productions I did it, both the directors wanted her to be very feminine, to use her feminine wiles.  It was interesting they both said to try it as a small seduction scene... not like Kundry in the second act of Parsifal, though.

BD:    But to re-seduce him, perhaps in the way she did prior to Rheingold?

YM:    Yes.  That’s right, yes, when it was young love.

BD:    She must have had something to induce Wotan originally.

YM:    Well, yes.  Most certainly.

BD:    Were they happy for a while?

YM:     I would imagine.

BD:    So perhaps it was just the lack of offspring that forced Wotan out?

YM:    Oh, I don’t think just that.  His wanderlust got in the way, I’m sure of it.  But she probably feels a lot of frustration.  She thinks they’re never going to get this Valhalla finished.  We don’t know how long that’s been going on, so that’s another cause of frustration for a woman.  I know my brother is building his own house in Australia, and he’s still building it.  I don’t know how long he’s been building it, but he’s still doing it...  [Laughs]

BD:    Is she not happy, then, that he hires the giants to get the damn thing done?

YM:    That’s a good idea, but things do go somewhat awry!  [Both laugh]

BD:    He’s paid an awful price, I suppose.

YM:    Yes.  Very costly.

BD:    Well, he has to do something just to get her off of his back...

YM:    Yes, yes, yes.  Well, that often happens, doesn’t it?

BD:    I often wish that Fricka could be more like the Marschallin and take another lover while Wotan is away, but she couldn’t do that and really uphold the marriage vows.

YM:    Oh, no, no, no.  Absolutely not!  But I don’t think she’s wise enough to do that, either.

*     *     *     *     *

:    Have you sung Venus?

YM:    No, I haven’t.  That’s a role I would like to do, depending on which version, but it’s not an opera I love greatly, I must honestly say.  But I think Venus is an interesting character.

BD:    It would have to be the Paris version?

YM:    Yes, I think so, probably. 

BD:    Have you sung some Verdi?

YM:    No.  I’d love to do some Italian opera, but nobody seems to want to give me the opportunity to do any at all.  Sad, isn’t it?

BD:    Maybe now that you’re rethinking parts and everything, you can insist on a few.

YM:    I don’t know that you can insist.  You can more or less suggest one be considered, but then they decide.  The problem with being a mezzo-soprano is that there are so many good mezzo-sopranos.

BD:    I would think if you were a lyric soprano, you would have four or five times the competition.

YM:    Oh, but there’s much more repertoire, much, much more repertoire.  When I look around at the mezzo-sopranos who are around today, there are many very, very good ones.

BD:    Is there a competition amongst all of you?

YM:    No, I don’t think so.  There’s not much point in that sort of thing.  It just depends on who wants you at the time and where their preference lies.  But it’s true that they do tend to think of me in German repertoire only, which is a great pity, really.

BD:    [Gently protesting]  But you do it so well!

YM:    That’s partly the problem.  The Wagner parts...

BD:    ...and the Strauss parts.

YM:    Yes, yes, true.  But they haven’t been in my repertoire recently.  I don’t see any reason why if you can sing Wagner you can’t sing other things. 

BD:    You want to be a more rounded singer?

mintonYM:    Yes.  I have done a lot of French opera in the past — not a lot, but some.  Originally at Covent Garden I did Benvenuto Cellini.

BD:    That’s another boy, isn’t it?

YM:    Yes, it is, but that was very early on.  It was a very nice part to sing, though.  In concert I’ve done things like Damnation of Faust by Berlioz.  I have done quite a few Berlioz things including Trojans.  I’d love to do Dido again.

BD:    You’ve done Dalila here.

YM:    Yes, I did it here.  It’s a very low part, in places.  Not always, but in places it is low.  Although it was a very beautiful production, I was set well back, and in the Lyric it always helps to be downstage a bit.  But that was a lovely production.  That’s a part I can still do quite happily, really, and better now, I would hope.  I have mostly mezzo-sopranos as students, and they always bring “Mon coeur s’ouvre à ta voix,” and “Viens, aider ma faiblesse,
and the first aria as well, “Printemps qui commence.”  They don’t sing that one so much, but they bring the others, and certainly “Softly Awakes My Heart” has been done to death.  So when I demonstrate, which one inevitably has to do, it still feels good.

BD:    Is singing fun?

YM:    At this time in my life, it is.  Yes.

BD:    It wasn’t always?

YM:    Yes, up to a point, but it’s also a responsibility.  You have to keep yourself well the whole time, and that is difficult when you’re travelling around.  I don’t travel nearly as much as I did, but when you’re travelling as much as I used to, it’s quite difficult.  I just need to get a really bad infection, and you could have spent six months preparing something and then find you cannot go on.  When I did the Composer in Geneva, I was singing like a dream, really singing wonderfully well.  The dress rehearsal was marvelous, but when I did the first night, that didn’t feel as comfortable.  I came back for the second performance, and I did a few trills and I thought, “Oh, that feels very strange.”  I went out and I did the very first line, and then I had to sing everything down the octave — the whole of the Prologue down.  I developed a tracheitis, and I had no means of knowing that because my speaking voice was fine.  The trachea was all inflamed and the air just couldn’t go down.  So then I was out for a couple of performances, and when I came back I had to take antibiotics, which I generally don’t take.  But on that occasion, I had to.  When I came back it wasn’t the same way as it had been before.  It wasn’t bad, but it didn’t feel as comfortable because it hadn’t healed properly.  Even taking the antibiotics, it can’t heal as fast as that.  You need several weeks.  It’s the same with a cold.  If you get a really nasty infection, you don’t feel right for several weeks, or even a month, probably, for a singer.  A month could be all of the performances.

BD:    Most of the time I’m able to hide it on the radio, but occasionally I have to work with a heavy cold, and people call up the station with all kinds of remedies.  Then they start sending me packets of soup and various home remedies.  I try to ignore all of it.

YM:    It shows in the voice immediately, doesn’t it?  It’s always very obvious to me when the announcers on the BBC have terribly heavy colds!

BD:    Thank you for speaking with me.  I appreciate it.

YM:    Pleasure.  Pleasure.

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© 1981 & 1992 Bruce Duffie

These interviews were recorded at her hotel on October 28, 1981, and November 19, 1992.  Portions of the first interview were transcribed and published in Wagner News in April, 1982.  Segments from the second one were used (with recordings) on WNIB in 1993 and 1998.  The transcription of all the material was edited and posted on this website in 2013.

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.