Soprano  Mary  Beth  Peil

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


[Photo above is from 1964, at the very beginning of her career]

Mary Beth Peil (born June 25, 1940 in Davenport, Iowa) is an American actress and soprano.

She trained as a soprano at Northwestern University under Lotte Lehmann, and gave her senior recital on April 9, 1962. Other influential teachers in her development in the university's music department included Robert Gay, the director of the opera program, and Ewald Nolte, who taught courses in music theory and composition and conducted a university chorus in which Peil performed. While a college student she was a member of the Gamma Phi Beta sorority.

In her senior year, Peil performed the role of Violetta in Giuseppe Verdi's La traviata in a student production directed by Gay at Northwestern; a performance which was attended by Boris Goldovsky. This led to an invitation to audition for Goldovsky's opera company for an upcoming national tour of that opera. She was offered a contract, and moved to New York City in order to take that job. She made her professional debut as Violetta in the Fall of 1962 with the Goldovsky Opera Theater.

In 1964 she won two major singing competitions, the Young Concert Artists International Auditions and the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions; the latter of which earned her a contract with the Metropolitan Opera National Company with whom she performed in two seasons of national tours as a leading soprano from 1965–1967. She continued to perform in operas through the 1970s, notably creating the role of Alma in the world premiere of Lee Hoiby's Summer and Smoke at the Minnesota Opera in 1971. She later recorded that role for American television in 1982. With that same opera company she transitioned into musical theatre, performing the title role of Cole Porter's Kiss Me, Kate in 1983. Later that year she joined the national tour of Rodgers and Hammerstein's The King and I as Anna Leonowens opposite Yul Brynner, and continued with that production when it opened on Broadway on January 7, 1985. She was nominated for a Tony Award for her portrayal. [Photo from the Los Angeles Herald Examiner is shown at the bottom of this webpage.]

In 1965 Peil was the featured soprano soloist in a concert honoring Risë Stevens with the California Chamber Symphony at The Beverly Hilton. That same year she performed the role of Pamina in The Magic Flute with conductor Thomas Scherman and the Little Orchestra Society at Philharmonic Hall. In 1966 she was the soprano soloist in performances of Christian Ignatius Latrobe's Dies Irae at the Early American Moravian Music Festival at Salem College. In 1968 she made her much delayed New York recital debut at Weill Recital Hall of Carnegie Hall as part of her Young Concert Artists win from years earlier. She also sang with the New York City Opera, making her debut with the company in the Spring of 1972.

Peil performed as a chamber musician during the late 1960s and 1970s, often in conjunction with her then husband, the clarinetist Jerry Kirkbride. Both were members of the Divario Chamber Ensemble in 1969 and 1970. In 1976 the two of them were guest artists with the Boehm Quintette in a concert organized by the New York Flute Club entitled "The Flute In American Music- A Concert commemorating the Bicentennial of the Independence of the United States" at Carnegie Hall. On her own, she was the featured soprano soloist in a concert of Bach cantatas with the Hampshire Quartet at Alice Tully Hall in 1972. In the mid 1970s she performed with the Musical Arts Studio chamber opera ensemble, including performances at the Library of Congress in 1973. In 1977 she performed in a concert of Gerald Ginsburg's 'theatre lieder' at Alice Tully Hall.

After her Broadway debut, Peil has remained a stage actress in musicals and plays. She is the recipient of an Obie Award and has been nominated for a Drama Desk Award, a Helen Hayes Award, and two Outer Critics Circle Awards. She received a second Tony nomination in 2017 for her portrayal of Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna in Anastasia. In 1992 she made her film debut in a small role in the movie Jersey Girl, and made her first appearance on television in 1994 on the program Law & Order. She is best known for her roles in the main casts of two television series: as Evelyn 'Grams' Ryan in Dawson's Creek (1998–2003) and Jackie Florrick in The Good Wife (2009–2016). Her notable film credits include portraying Jack Lemmon's love interest in The Odd Couple II (1999), and performances in The Stepford Wives (2004), Flags of Our Fathers (2006), Mirrors (2008), Maladies (2012), and Collateral Beauty (2016). In 2020 she was nominated for the Daytime Emmy Award for Outstanding Guest Performer in a Digital Drama Series for the role of Helen in After Forever.

==  Names which are links in this box and below refer to my interviews elsewhere on my website.  BD  

Soprano Mary Beth Peil was in Chicago in May of 1980 for performances and TV taping of Summer and Smoke by Lee Hoiby.  The production also starred Robert Orth as John Buchanan, Jr.  The conductor was Robert Frisbie, and the stage director was Frank Galati.  During the rehearsal period, Peil graciously came to the studios of WNIB, Classical 97 for an interview.  A portion was aired a few days later to promote the production, and now, as the company celebrates its 50th anniversary, I am pleased to present our entire conversation.

I began with a formal introduction for the radio audience . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:   I’m speaking today with Mary Beth Peil, who is in Chicago to perform the role of Alma in Summer and Smoke with the Chicago Opera Theater.  The opera by Lee Hoiby is based on the Tennessee Williams play, and Mary Beth created the role in 1971, and now she is performing it once again.  Tell us a little bit about the role of Alma.

Mary Beth Peil:   Alma is a very interesting lady, perhaps one of the more likable and totally understandable of Tennessee Williams’s ladies.  She is a southern lady, as are they all.  She’s a preacher’s daughter, or a minster’s daughter as she would say.

BD:   She was always very proper?

MBP:   She’s very proper, and is known as the town eccentric.  She’s still a young woman, but she is an
old maid.

BD:   How old is she, actually?

MBP:   I’m not really sure.  In the play she’s meant to be in her middle to late twenties, but obviously she can be any age.  Geraldine Page created the role on the stage, and I’m sure she was much older than that when she created it.

BD:   Do you like the part?

MBP:   I love the part.  She’s wonderful!  She has characteristics that are in all of us.  Perhaps this doesn’t sound right, but her interior landscape is as familiar to the male members of the audience as it is to the females, which is the strong point of the play.  Everyone relates to her dilemma.  Even though the play takes place at the turn of the century, it is still a modern dilemma of the basic pull between the flesh and the spirit.

BD:   Do you feel there are women today who are actually Almas?

MBP:   Absolutely, and there are also men who are!

BD:   What kind of advice would you give to someone who is an Alma?

MBP:   [Laughs]  Oh, dear!
BD:   Well, based on your experiences with the role and how it comes out, and how would you perhaps like it to come out?

MBP:   That’s an interesting question in the sense that most people have very strong feelings about what happens to her.  After the curtain has gone down, people come backstage and ask what I think happened to her, and I usually turn it back to them and ask what they think happened to her, and they always have a very strong answer.  They feel very strongly that she has become a fallen woman, and that she has gone the way of Blanche DuBois [the character in A Streetcar Named Desire, also by Tennessee Williams], or that she has lost everything and has become a total recluse.  They feel it’s a very sad story, and it’s a very unhappy ending, while other people feel very differently, that it is a very happy ending, and that she has finally come to grips with her Doppelgänger, her other alter ego, and that she’ll be all right.  In this day and age, it seems that we’re so sophisticated, and above and beyond those kinds of dilemmas, but I have a feeling that we all go through it, and that people continue to go through it.  There is still a great deal of self-consciousness involved in proclaiming that we are free.  I can’t help but think that if we’re all that free about everything, we shouldn’t need to talk about it quite so much, or work at it quite so hard.
BD:   Has Lee Hoiby, the composer, done a good job at laying this character into the music?

MBP:   First of all, the Tennessee Williams play is masterful.  We don’t need to discuss that, and Lee Hoiby’s music reflects the subtext, the underlying colors of the play beautifully.  Lanford Wilson took the play and condensed it into a libretto.  He cut out huge sections of dialogue and huge sections of the play, and yet left intact the essence of the play.  You come away quoting memorable Tennessee Williams’s lines intact, which is quite something to have done.

BD:   Did Hoiby know that you were going to sing this role as he was writing it?

MBP:   No, not at all.

BD:   But I remember the reviews of the first performance were all very laudatory.

MBP:   They were quite nice, yes.  People have somehow come away with the impression that he did write it for me, and in a kind of spooky way, I do feel that, and he does also.  In a sense, it was certainly tailor-made for me.

BD:   Do you enjoy singing this role?

MBP:   I love singing this role!  It requires things from me as an actress and as a singer and as a musician that very few operas require in abundance all the time, every moment I am on stage!  Very few operas require that much.

BD:   It’s a very deep characterization, and has a lot that you have to bring across to the audience.

MBP:   Extremely, yes.

BD:   Do you find that the audience grasps all of this?

MBP:   Yes, I do, and it’s very exciting.

BD:   Are you looking forward to filming this production for public television?

MBP:   Oh yes, because in the same sense that this opera was not written for me but it feels like it was written for me, this opera was not written for television but it is a perfectly natural vehicle for television.  The intimacy of the drama, and the lyric qualities of the music lend themselves beautifully to the TV camera.

BD:   How will the TV film of the opera compare with the film of the play?

MBP:   It will be infinitely better!  [Both laugh]  Actually, it should prove to be quite interesting because the production will be directed for TV by Kirk Browning, who is a master of television opera.  [See his biography in the box below.]  He knows every trick in the book, and all that can be known to this point about TV opera.  The plan is to do it in a rather impressionistic way, rather than the realistic way in which it has been done up to now.  It will be better able to get into the psychological underpinnings of all the characters, and this little southern town at the turn of the century.  Then one can relate it to one’s life very easily, so it’s not just limited to this little southern town, and just these people, but is a kind of an everyman story.

browning Kirk Browning (March 28, 1921 – February 10, 2008) was an American television director and producer who had hundreds of productions to his credit, including 185 broadcasts of Live from Lincoln Center.

Born in New York City, Browning dropped out of Cornell University after attending for only one month and moved to Waco, Texas, where he was hired as a newspaper reporter. Because of a childhood injury, he was rejected by the United States Army when he tried to enlist during World War II, so he worked as an ambulance driver in England and France. In the late 1940s, he was a chicken farmer operating an egg route in Ridgefield, Connecticut when one of his customers offered him a job in the music library at NBC. The clerical position led to his directing live televised performances by the NBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Arturo Toscanini. Soon after he was made a stage manager of the network's newly formed opera company, and he later became its Director.

Among Browning's many credits are the premiere of the first opera written specifically for television, Gian Carlo Menotti's Amahl and the Night Visitors in 1951; Frank Sinatra's first special in 1957; numerous Hallmark Hall of Fame productions between 1951 and 1958; Live from the Met and Great Performances for PBS; and television adaptations of plays such as June Moon, Damn Yankees!, A Touch of the Poet, The Taming of the Shrew, The Time of Your Life, Tartuffe, Fifth of July, You Can't Take it with You, The House of Blue Leaves, Our Town, and Death of a Salesman, which earned him a nomination for the Directors Guild of America Award for Outstanding Directing - Television Film.

Browning won two Primetime Emmy Awards, one for directing a 1987 special with Plácido Domingo, and the other for his 1988 production of Turandot, both broadcast by PBS, and two Daytime Emmy Awards, for The CBS Festival of Lively Arts for Young People in 1973, and La Gioconda in 1979. He also received two Christopher Awards and a Peabody Award.

BD:   You’ve been in several productions of this particular work.  Each time you come to it, do you find more in it?
MBP:   Absolutely.  It’s constantly a very delicate balance between the other characters, and with those whom you’re playing opposite.  You can’t just go in and do this role.  You can do a Bohème and sing your Mimì almost no matter who’s doing Rodolfo.  However you feel it, and whatever way you want to do it, it will work.  In this opera, the balance and the give-and-take between all of the characters is so fine and so real that it demands that you react accordingly with whom you’re playing.
BD:   This is the second time that the Chicago Opera Theater has mounted a production of Summer and Smoke, and the last time [1977] all of the characters were really fleshed out.  Did you happen to see that production?

MBP:   No, I didn’t unfortunately.  I have never seen a production of this opera, unfortunately, and I feel cheated!  [Both laugh]

BD:   Do you enjoy singing contemporary music?  Or is Hoiby not really
contemporary music because it’s so lyrical?

MBP:   There are those who would argue that it’s not contemporary music.  It’s very romantic music, and it is romantic music in intent.  It’s contemporary in the sense that there are lot strange intervals, and there are no real measures.  It’s 5/8, 6/8, 9/8, with no key signatures.  In that sense it’s contemporary.

BD:   It goes along with the flow of the text?

MBP:   Yes, it goes with the flow, and it’s very immediate music.  It’s certainly not George Crumb, or anything resembling his music.  In fact Lee Hoiby feels very proud of the fact that he, as a composer, has stuck to his way of composing, rather than going along with whatever is the vogue at the moment.  That’s important, and that sincerity and honesty with himself comes across in the music very beautifully.

BD:   Do you feel that one of the failings of contemporary opera is that it doesn’t speak immediately enough to an audience?
MBP:   Yes, I do.  It can be very contrived.

BD:   If you were asked to sing a work by George Crumb, would you?

MBP:   Well, George Crumb happens to be a very fine composer, and writes very well, very interestingly, and theatrically for the voice.  For George Crumb, I probably would say yes.  There are others whom I feel I could not do, because with contemporary music, it’s not just a question of your values.  There’s also a question of vocal ability, and vocal damage.  A lot of people have voices which have been hurt by singing some contemporary music, because the demands are so unrealistic and so extreme.
BD:   Extremes of range and power?

MBP:   Extreme of range, of sounds, and of things that you do which are vocal sounds, but are not beautiful things. They’re totally opposite to a bel canto feeling.

BD:   Do you feel then that this particular opera and this particular style is the continuation of Verdi and Puccini?

MBP:   Yes, I do.  We were discussing that the other night, in fact.  Sometimes I hesitate to call this an opera, because it is so theatrical.

BD:   Would you call it a lyric drama?

MBP:   Yes, I think
lyric drama is a wonderful name for it.  It’s like a tightrope.  There are many people who have seen it and feel it’s really more musical theater.  Then other people feel it’s not musical theater, but it’s really opera because it has a big orchestra in the pit, and there’s a cast of legitimate singers.
BD:   Its hard giving names to new works.

MBP:   It’s very hard, and it’s really beside the point.  When we were discussing it, someone mentioned that in Puccini’s time, he set his operas to popular plays of the time.  Madam Butterfly is David Belasco’s play, and Tosca was a popular play [by Victorien Sardou
], so when you look at it that way, this definitely is a continuation.  It’s in our time.  It’s the music that is in our ears, and it’s a play in our tongue.
BD:   Do you feel it’s a strong work?

MBP:   I sure do.  It’s so real, and it’s so immediate.  You just can’t get away from it.  You sit down in the theater, and when it starts it reaches right out... at least that’s what I’ve been told.  [Both laugh]

BD:   When they did it here in 1977, I was very satisfied.  I felt that it did indeed speak to me, and to those around me.

MBP:   It speaks to you.  It comes right out and gets you.  It doesn’t let you just sit there and listen to pretty music.

BD:   On the other hand, it doesn’t grab you by the throat and shake you.

MBP:   No, no, no, it pulls you into it.  You can choose to think or not think about things that maybe you had put away somewhere, and not thought about for a long time.

BD:   Like opening a trunk in the attic.

MBP:   Exactly!  We all do those things.  One thing for sure that everyone has in common with the character of Alma is the sense of loss.

BD:   Do you feel that she and John could have made it?

MBP:   Oh yes, I do!  
It’s a question of timing, which is a universal thing.  Everyone’s life is constantly made up of timing.  It’s either good timing or bad timing, and that’s why things happen in your life.  It would have been a tempestuous relationship, but that’s great!  As far as I’m concerned, that’s terrific!  [Both laugh]  It wouldn’t be comfortable all the time, and there’s no doubt that he chose comfort.  He chose what he knew would work for him, and be where he was safe.

BD:   Do you think that John is happy in his marriage?

MBP:   [Thinks a moment]  Not totally.

BD:   Do you suppose Nellie [whom John married] is ever jealous of Alma?  John is always going to speak of Alma with a tenderness in his voice that is not going to be there for Nellie.

MBP:   Yes, it’s true, although Nellie is a tough cookie.  She was raised in a house of ill-repute by a mama who was the town madam.  So Nellie probably knew all there was to know about sex by the age of six, and yet rose above it.  She got herself put together, and became respectable, and got herself a respectable husband, and the whole bit.

BD:   Was that something which attracted John to her originally?

MBP:   Yes, I think so.  He saw a lot of spunk, and she’s obviously got the smarts and spunk, and he was attracted to that.  She really got him.  He let himself be got, and she got him!

BD:   In the middle of a performance, do you ever wish you could go out and strangle the one who is standing in her way?

MBP:   Well no, because the real one who is standing in her way is Alma herself!

BD:   I always feel sorry for her father.  When John comes back and has realized his error, and has changed his attitude toward living, the father says that Alma is not there.  So, he becomes the villain.

MBP:   The father is the villain.  Certainly her parents were very repressive, very suppressive elements in her life.

BD:   Its always interesting to think what would happen and how it could happen.

MBP:   Oh, I know.  It’s so much fun, because you get people who feel very vehemently one way or the other about what happens, and why it shouldn’t have happened this way, and why it should have happened that way.  It’s really amazing.  They feel real strongly about it.

BD:   It affects me differently at different times.  I’ve seen the movie a couple of times, and one time I wanted to strangle the old man, and then the next time I felt sorry for him.

MBP:   That part is left out of the opera.  John talks about the fact that he came to see her when he heard she was ill, but if you miss that line, you don’t know that it might have happened if he had been let into the house.

BD:   How do you feel about the mother, and how she should be played?

MBP:   That’s a very interesting question.  When we first did the original production, Mama was played very heavily as a crazy, zany-crazy lady, who got quite a few laughs and was just totally bonkers.  Then over the years, in various other productions that I’ve done, some of that zaniness has been tempered with a more pathetic kind of craziness.
BD:   It seems that she’s in another world, and is not in touch with reality.

MBP:   Right, and one should come away with a feeling of loss.  When you see anyone who is terribly sick, you’re horrified, and yet you do see things that are terribly funny about them.  If you just look at what they do and say, it’s very funny, but you can’t help but see why it is that they’re doing it.  That’s so horrible, and so very touching and sad that it’s not a real belly-laugh.
BD:   How has Alma changed for you since the premiere in 1971?  How is she different, and perhaps how is she the same?
MBP:   I’m not sure that she is different.  Basically I do conceive of her in general as very much the same.  Having been able to do more than one production, and several performances, there are small details which begin to become more finely edged and clearer to me, which hopefully will also become clearer to the audience.  But her general feeling of where she’s coming from, and who she is, and where she’s going has really not changed that much.  What Tennessee Williams wrote is there.

BD:   Does John feel a real loss at not having Alma?

MBP:   He certainly doesn’t feel the loss that Alma feels because his loss has been filled.  He’s filled with his professional life.  He’s gone out of his way to be sure he’s going to be a good doctor.  So that part of his life is taken care of, and then he’s filled his personal life with Nellie, the other woman.  It’s not that he’s unthinking or unfeeling.  He feels he’s made the decision.  It’s simpler that way.  It’s easier for him.  He can’t be all things to all people, and he knows that those two things he can handle.  His life will be fine.  It may not be complete, or perfect, or glorious, but fine.

BD:   It is certainly acceptable.

MBP:   Acceptable, yes, and what he’s looking for at that point is to be accepted and respected.

BD:   Does he get that acceptance and respect even from Alma?

MBP:   Yes, I think so, because he’s come to grips with what was wrong with his life, just as he respects her, and recognizes that she, too, has come to grips with it.  She will go on with the rest of her life constantly looking and searching, but she’s out of her cage.  She’s out of her shell, and she’s no longer frightened to look.  So, in that respect, it’s a happy ending, even though she’s alone.

BD:   I thought she went off with the traveling salesman, Archie Kramer.

MBP:   She does goes off with him, but that’s alone if you ask me!  [Both laugh]

BD:   It’s not something that would last?

MBP:   She might go off with him for maybe a few nights.

BD:   She wouldn’t go traveling with him until he got tired of her?

MBP:   I don’t think so.  I think of Alma pretty much as a rather self-sufficient lady who will probably be pretty much of a loner all her life.  People will come in and out of her life, and she may go and search from time to time, but she’s all right!  She’s safe, and she knows she’s not going to end up crazy like her mama, and that’s the most important thing, actually, because she was raised in a house with an insane mother.

BD:   Was Mama crazy all the time, even all the way back?

MBP:   In the play, if you recall, it says in no uncertain words that Papa, who was the minister of the town, is trying to explain to someone why Mama is the way she is.  He just shakes his head and says,
I don’t know what happened.  All I know is that after our wedding night, she was never the same.  So one can only take his word for it.

BD:   Do you think Alma would have supported the E.R.A. [Equal Rights Amendment]?

MBP:   Oh, yes!  She certainly would have by the end of the second act.

BD:   Not at the beginning of the first act?

MBP:   No!

BD:   So this is part of her metamorphosis?
MBP:   She would have supported it intellectually, but she was too frightened of the world and all the repercussions of what it might mean to really support it.

BD:   A number of eighteenth and nineteenth century operas have been moved into
modern dress.  One thinks of The Marriage of Figaro, or La Traviata, or La Bohème.  A hundred or two hundred years from now, do you think there would be any reason for doing a modern dress version of Summer and Smoke?
MBP:   Oh, I hope so.

BD:   Would there be any changes, or would they just simply put it in new garb?

MBP:   [Laughs]  I don’t know what people will be like in two hundred years, but I suppose it would be like anything else in the sense that most of the productions in modern-day versions are done to try to make it more relevant to a modern-day audience.

BD:   [Gently protesting]  But you seem to think that this play as it stands is relevant to all of us today.

MBP:   Oh, definitely.  Plot-wise, I don’t think we could make it work in 1980s dress, because plot-wise one would sit in the audience knowing the mores [customs] of 1980 and wonder what she is going on about!  [Both laugh]  What is all this fuss?  The modern-day dress would get in the way of what they were actually saying, because what they’re actually talking about is much more than just their values.

BD:   Would an Alma today have more experience, or at least more knowledge?

MBP:   She would.  Just by looking at television, she would be exposed to it all.  So to do it in modern-day dress would get in the way of what the real issue is.  When you put it in the original framework, you give it a certain poetic license, which then allows you to hear what they’re really saying to each other, which is a universal dilemma, not just the dilemma of those individuals.

BD:   It’s a drama for today clothed in music that we can listen to today, so it’s a happy marriage of those two.

MBP:   Exactly.  That’s a perfect description of it.  It’s a happy marriage of those two.

BD:   [When segments of the interview aired, I then gave the details of dates and times for the performances.  We then continued to chat...]  You seem to be very happy about singing and your career.

MBP:   [Laughs]  Well, I am!
BD:   There are some people who are not.

MBP:   I know!  I have to tell you this... the secret is that I have a family
a husband and two children.

BD:   Are they supportive?

MBP:   Very, very much so, but I’m not a full-time opera lady.  I do a lot of concerts and oratorio, and I do whatever opera I can, but I don’t pursue it full-time.

BD:   If you don’t get a certain role at a certain time, it’s not going to break you?

MBP:   That’s right.
BD:   Many people are clawing their way trying to get to the top, and it’s awful.

MBP:   Yes, and it’s so debilitating because there’s really no other way to get there.  There are so many talented people, and the competition is just formidable.  It is a full-time occupation, and the singing on the stage is only a small fraction of it.
BD:   If you had not been married when you created the role, and then found someone, how would your conception of Alma changed?

MBP:   I may be kidding myself, but I don’t think it would have changed that much basically because of the core of what she touches is there, and it’s been probably something that I have been in touch with since I was fifteen.
BD:   How old are your children?

MBP:   Twelve and just about seven.

BD:   Do they understand your singing on the stage?

MBP:   Yes.  Most of the operas that I’ve done in the last few years have been in the summer, so I try to take them with me.  When my eldest was first born, I took him everywhere with me.  I was still doing a lot of singing, and I took him everywhere.  It sort of happened subliminally to him because he was always there.

BD:   Do your kids like classical music?

MBP:   Yes, they do.  They like everything.

BD:   The question I get asked a lot is,
“How do I get my kids to like classical music?

MBP:   They have to hear it!

BD:   There are many stories of parents who have classical music going on all the time, and the kids hate it.

MBP:   It depends on the parents, and how they bring anything into the home.  There are a lot of kids who, no matter what they are taught at home, will rebel against it or hate it.  It’s part of the script of the family.  It’s built in, somehow.  If the mother fixes fried chicken, the kids hate fried chicken!  I don’t think music is any different than a lot of other things if they look at it carefully.  I don’t think you can make your kids like it, but if classical music is a natural part of your life, and they see that it brings you pleasure without any effort on your part, and you’re not listening to it because it’s good for you, they have to react to that.  If it makes you happy, they can’t help but be happier when you’re happy, if it’s an honest reaction.  My husband feels very strongly that he doesn’t want to hear rock music, so Michael just doesn’t play it unless he wants to go up to his room.  I don’t really mind it, but Michael knows that I don’t like it, and he always asks me.  I’ve never made a big deal about it.  I’ve never said “I can’t stand it! Don’t do it!”  He just knows I don’t like it, so he’ll ask me if I mind it.  So, who’s to say no?  [Both laugh]  Sometimes I say yes, and sometimes I say no, but it’s an honest question, and I give him an honest answer.  That way he’s not threatened.

BD:   Where is opera going today?

MBP:   [Thinks a moment]  It seems to be going everywhere, doesn’t it?  It’s getting big and it’s getting small.  It’s going into small intimate things, and it’s going into big things.  It’s going into schools, and on television, so it’s going everywhere!

BD:   If you were suddenly made General Manager of the Metropolitan Opera, what would you do?

MBP:   [She thinks and sighs]  I feel very strongly that there should be one place where all the great singers and the great works should be able to be heard.  Call it a museum, if you like.  I’m not saying other places shouldn’t do it, but there should be one place like a Mecca.

BD:   What if they asked you to sing Aïda?

MBP:   I’d say they should find somebody else!

BD:   You know when to say no, and you’re able to say no!

MBP:   I learned that the hard way.  I was really young when I started singing, and there were things that I knew I should say no to, but I couldn’t.  There was so much pressure, and the world was saying, 
Come one, come on, it’s okay!  So, I just sort of went, and it was great, but it was just too much too soon.

BD:   What suggestions do you have for young singers coming along?

MBP:   If you’re twenty-three years old and have a Master’s, it depends on how you sing.  But, in general, I would say to most twenty-three-year-olds, especially men, to go find yourself the best vocal teacher, or vocal coach for your voice and for your temperament, and if you can live with them, live with them.  If you can’t live with them, live next to them, but get as close to them as you can.  Get as many hours as you can of solid technical work day-in and day-out.  Also, learn roles.

BD:   Have you been lucky with teachers?

MBP:   I started out very naturally.  I had a wonderful teacher in high school.

BD:   This is in Iowa?

MBP:   Yes.  This teacher got me off on the right foot, on a natural footing for me, for my voice and my temperament.

BD:   Speaking of Iowa, is there any relationship between Alma and Marian The Librarian in The Music Man

MBP:   I don’t know that show well enough to know, but I always picture Alma working in a library.  If she was going to move on to another town, or if she ever left her town, I could always picture her going somewhere and becoming a librarian, because she’s so well-educated, and she’s so proper about it all.  I don’t think she’d ever lose that aspect of herself.

BD:   Thank you for coming back to Chicago, and thank you for speaking with me today.

MBP:   Thank you.  It
s my pleasure.


National tour production of The King and I by Rodgers and Hammerstein

© 1980 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in the studios of WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB a few days later.  This transcription was made in 2023, and posted on this website at that time.  My thanks to British soprano Una Barry for her help in preparing this website presentation.

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

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

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