Bass  Paul  Plishka

Two Conversations with Bruce Duffie





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Paul Plishka (born August 28, 1941 in Old Forge, Pennsylvania), is known for a wide range of major and supporting roles. Both his parents were American-born children of Ukrainian immigrants. As a boy, he was interested in farming and football, but also took guitar lessons. His teacher insisted that he learn to sing while playing, so he would sing popular songs such as Love is a Many-Splendored Thing. When his father moved to a new job in Paterson, New Jersey, Paul, joined the school chorus. Soon, he was offered the part of Judd Fry in the school production of Oklahoma! He was spotted by Armen Boyajian, who was starting a local opera workshop. Plishka joined Boyajian's Paterson Lyric Opera Theatre.

plishkaPaul Plishka sang major roles - Raimondo in Lucia di Lamermoor, Guardiano in La Forza del Destino, and King Philip in Don Carlos - when he was only 21. Meanwhile, Boyajian taught him singing. Plishka was his first student, and Boyajian was Plishka's only teacher. Plishka attended Montclair State College in New Jersey, where he met his future wife, Judy. At the age of 23, he won the Baltimore Opera Auditions, and then won a prize in the Metropolitan Opera Regional Auditions. This earned him a contract with the national touring company of the Met during what turned out to be its final year. After that, they offered him a contract to be a cover (understudy) singer in buffo parts. He accepted the offer, becoming a member of the company in 1966 and debuting on-stage as the Monk in La Gioconda in 1967, followed by parts such as the Sacristan in Tosca and Benoit in La Bohème.

At the Met, he became one of the company's leading basses, and has appeared in many other theaters, including the Teatro alla Scala (debut in La damnation de Faust, 1974) and the New York City Opera (I Puritani, 1981). He retired from the Metropolitan Opera after playing the Sacristan in Tosca, on the Saturday broadcast on January 28, 2012. He had performed at the Metropolitan Opera for forty-five years and in 1,642 performances, placing him at number ten on their official list of most-frequent performers, which dates back to the company's inception in 1883. There was a special tribute after Act I on stage, and on the air during the intermission. In 2016 he was invited back to the Metropolitan Opera for five post-retirement performances as Benoît and Alcindoro in La Bohème in April and May of that year, and 10 more in November, December, and January in the 2016/2017 season.

He is a National Patron of Delta Omicron, an international professional music fraternity.  He has also made many audio and video recordings, some of which are shown on this webpage.

Paul Plishka's artistry was recognized in 1992 when he received the Pennsylvania Governor's Award for Excellence in the Arts and when, several years earlier, he was inducted into the Hall of Fame for Great American Opera Singers in a celebration at the Academy of Vocal Arts in Philadelphia.

Despite all of this acclaim, Plishka's international artistic successes have been dampened by a life filled with personal tragedies. In 1984, Plishka's younger brother, Dr Peter Plishka, was found dead in his Bronx apartment with a self-inflicted stab wound. At the time, Dr Plishka, 33, was chief of children's services at the state-run Children's Psychiatric Center. In 1991, Plishka's son Jeffrey was accused of the murder and rape of Laura Ronning, a crime of which he was eventually acquitted in 2010. In 2004, Plishka's first wife, Judith Ann Plishka, Jeffrey's mother, died, according to an obituary in The New York Times. Plishka is currently married to Sharon Thomas, a former resident stage director at the Met. Another of Plishka's sons, Paul, Jr, also died, according to Pastor Protopresbyter Nestor Kowal of St Michael Ukrainian Orthodox Church in Scranton, Pennsylvania. Plishka has a third son, Nicolai.




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In November of 1981, I met Paul Plishka for the first time.  He was at Lyric Opera of Chicago singing in two operas, which are mentioned in the introduction to the published article below.  We had a lovely conversation, and much of it was printed in my magazine Opera Scene the following August, when Plishka returned to Chicago for a concert at the Grant Park Music Festival. 

A month shy of fourteen years later, when he was again singing in Chicago, we met and continued our chat.

Both of these encounters are included on this webpage.  First, the published interview (with slight editing, and the addition of photos and links), and then the second interview.  Links refer to my interviews elsewhere on my website.



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If there were such a thing as ‘Verdi bass’, Paul Plishka would be one.  Operatic historians have long used the term ‘Verdi baritone’ to describe the dramatic yet lyrical roles created and perfected by Giuseppe Verdi, and his roles for bass, though shorter, are often cut from the same cloth.


plishka

See my Interviews with Mignon Dunn, Jerry Hadley, Robert Shaw, and Zubin Mehta


To say that Plishka specializes in these roles would do him both honor and injustice: honor in that he sings them splendidly and as very few others do, and injustice because his successes include not only Verdi, but also operas by Puccini, Mozart, Beethoven, Mussorgsky, Donizetti and Wagner, as well as concerts and solo recitals.

Of Ukrainian heritage, Paul Plishka was born and reared in Old Forge, Pennsylvania, and at twenty-three won the Baltimore Opera Auditions.  Then he was with the Metropolitan National Touring Company, and soon with the parent company in New York.   After some years as a member of the Met, Plishka is now branching out to sing leading roles in opera houses all over the world.  His itinerary includes Paris, Hamburg, London, Milan, Salzburg, San Francisco, Philadelphia, Houston, Pittsburgh, New Orleans and Chicago.

Last fall [1981], Plishka made an exciting debut with the Lyric Opera of Chicago as Banquo in Verdi’s Macbeth, and also sang a gallant Rocco in Beethoven’s Fidelio.  [Full details of his appearances with Lyric are in the box between the two interviews.]  During the course of his work here, he was gracious enough to take time for a conversation at his hotel.  His career is a family affair, and so was the interview.  His wife, Judith Ann Plishka, who made a few comments during out chat, seems to be able to handle the family well, and support her husband without becoming the kind of pushy stage wife that opera house personnel dread.  Incidentally, one of their three sons played the role of Banquo’s son in the Macbeth performances.

This month [August, 1982], Paul Plishka returned to Chicago for a concert of excerpts from a work he had carefully avoided for many years, and is just now beginning to give to the world
Boris Godunov.  Concert performances in a few cities will undoubtedly be followed by staged productions, for it is clear that a major interpretation is being formed.  This provides Opera Scene with the perfect opportunity to present thoughts from this great singer.  Here is some of what was said last Fall . . . . .


Bruce Duffie:    As a bass, are you especially proud of your low notes?

Paul Plishka:    Of course, but there are only a couple of roles that require really low notes for the bass.   Sarastro and Osmin come to mind, but all the bass roles require great high notes.  Jerome Hines is writing a book, and he says some very kind things about my high notes.  

BD:    Is there any competition among basses?

plishkaPP:    There is always competition, but one of the biggest problems in opera today is that there are so many opera houses, and so many performances, that there aren’t enough really good singers to go around.  So in that vein, how can there be any bitter competition with so much work to be done?  

BD:    Are we getting too many mediocre performances?

PP:    Yes.  There aren’t enough good singers to do all the performances.  There are only a very few great basses
ones where you come out of the performance saying, Wow.  That was great!  So with all the houses in the world, I might envy a certain situation where another bass is doing a role that I’d really like to do, but then I’m sure that at another point he’s envying something that I’m doing.  There are only about a half-dozen ofcan I say ‘us’?and several are Americans. 

BD:    Not so much in the Germanic repertoire?

PP:    No, but in the Italian repertoire. 

BD:    Who are the great Italian basses?

PP:    Siepi was always my idol, but he is now in the autumn of his career.  To me, though, he was the best, and I’ve always modeled my singing after him.  Some of the old choristers still talk about Pinza, but it’s impossible to compare generations.  I hate to listen to those old records.  Even with modern records, you don’t really get the true sense of the person.

BD:    Do you enjoy making recordings?

PP:    That’s a hard question.   Of course I enjoy making records because the voice goes down for posterity, you make money, it’s good for the career, and all that.  But as a purist, all sound systems somehow disappoint me.  We (artists) hear so much live music, and we hear it in such a pure way that I prefer it to the ‘canned’ sound.  But in recordings you do hear things you won’t hear in performance because of the vagaries in the halls and other extraneous distractions.  On a record you hear it in better balance. 

BD:    So there’s a trade-off?

PP:    Yes.

BD:    Have you recorded roles that you haven’t sung on-stage?

PP:    I recorded one about eight years ago that I’ll be doing for the first time on-stage at La Scala soon
Anna Bolena.   The role of Henry VIII is quite suited to me physically [laughs], and temperamentally, too.  [Mrs. Plishka laughs]  He’s a great character. 

Mrs. P:    I’m safe!  I’ve given Paul three sons!  [Both smile]

BD:    That leads me into my next question.  How do you select your new roles?

PP:    Because I’m asked for so many things, it’s generally a matter of learning what you’re asked to do.  But I don’t accept everything I’m offered.  

BD:    What kinds of things do you turn down?

plishkaPP:    I’ve turned down Boris for the last fourteen years.  I will do it, and I’m looking into it now, but so far I’ve only done the two other bass roles, Varlaam and Pimen.  I’ll be doing them again this coming season at the Met.

BD:    Have you sung those two in the same performances?  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at left, see my Interviews with Ruggero Raimondi, and Mstislav Rostropovich.]

PP:    No.  They don’t want that.  In the last few months though, I’ve been looking at the title part.   Last summer I heard Ghiaurov do it at La Scala, and he really sang it!  For years we’ve been hearing that part shouted and screamed, and that’s not the way I want to do it.   I didn’t want to do it when that kind of performance was in vogue.  It simply would not be accepted.  But when I heard Ghiaurov do it and really sing it, I thought I could begin to think about it.  I’ve been learning it all these years while singing Pimen.  That was one reason to sing that role, but now that I want to sing Boris I don’t have any time in my schedule for the next five years.  I will be able to sing parts of it on a few concerts [as he did at Grant Park in Chicago], but I’ll have to wait a bit more to sing the whole role on stage. 

BD:    How do you decide whether or not sing a new role?

PP:    There are many roles where I can easily sing the notes, but adding the required emotional intensity makes them devastating to the voice.  It has been proven countless times by people who have sung the roles and paid the price, which is loss of the beauty of the voice and the sheen which is required for the ‘bel canto’ repertoire.   Once that sheen begins to be torn away, it’s impossible to put it back. 

BD:    So you’re not going to fall into that trap?

PP:    Well, I’ve avoided it so far in my career.  After I did the role of Procida in Vespri at the Met, a very famous impresario asked me to do Scarpia because he saw the character in me.  If I had been foolhardy enough to have accepted, I would have been doing Scarpia all over the place.

BD:    Could you have done, perhaps, only a few performances of the role?

PP:    It’s not just one set of performances.  There is all the rehearsing and getting it into the throat.  I would have to stretch my throat where it really doesn’t belong, and if the performance is successful, then come the others, and after two or three years I’d have a major problem. 

BD:    Would you ever learn a role to sing just once?

PP:    Oh, yes.  I’ve done that quite often. 

BD:    Some singers like to get mileage out of their efforts.

PP:    Sure, but those things I’ve done have been good.  I did one performance each of I Lombardi and I Masnadieri.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    I understand you were in the famous Nilsson/Vickers Tristan at the Met?

PP:    I’ll never forget that performance.  When people ask me about the greatest moment in my career, I’d like to say something in the Italian repertoire, but that Tristan stands out, partly just because of the massive response we got at the curtain calls.  I’ve sung in maybe five hundred performances at the Met in the last fifteen years with the greatest voices in the world, but the pitch of the sound of the audience shouting and hollering was like none other.  It was a frenzy.  Everybody in the audience just shrieked.  There’s something that certain audiences do.  They go to the top balcony and tear up their programs, and throw down the pieces of paper.  After that Tristan there was so much paper coming down that we could not see the back of the house.  It was like a blizzard!  It was almost scary the amount of sound that was coming back at us. 

plishkaBD:    Did you know it was going to be like that before the performance?

PP:    I didn’t realize it, but Leinsdorf kept telling us.  Not until the curtain came down did I realize what we had done.  When you’re in a performance you give equally, and you give what you feel is your best.  Then suddenly this one clicks.  I’ve been in performances which I thought were equally as good, but the response wasn’t the same.  Here in Chicago I know we are appreciated, but the audiences are not as vocal as some other places. 

BD:    Don’t let that throw you.   We do appreciate you, but we just don’t scream and carry on as much.

PP:    Of course. But along with that check they hand you, we also wait for that applause.  That’s the spiritual pay.

BD:    Is the operatic public more informed today than in previous years?

PP:    I think they are, but it’s like everything else in the US today.  There’s more and more leisure time, and more people are getting involved in more things, and that includes opera.

BD:    You are the father of three sons.  How do you get them involved in opera?

PP:    There is a lot of music in our house, and they used to go to my voice lessons all the time.  My wife would come and bring the boys, and they’d play with their blocks and trucks. 

Mrs. P:    I didn’t know that wasn’t the way you raised children!

PP:    In nursery school, Jeffrey brought his recording of The Marriage of Figaro, and he was staging it with his classmates, placing them about while the recording was playing.  To him it was like hide and go seek.  But then he got involved with his peers and with other music, so now they play Figaro sometimes, and rock other times.   [The youngest of the Plishka boys arrived as we were concluding the interview, and I asked whom he would rather meet
Pavarotti or Frank Zappa — and he left little doubt that the rock star was preferable.]

BD:    Is ‘rock’, music? 

PP:    I must say I’m not fond of it, but I feel that any music that communicates is art.  If the person on the stage communicates in some way with the audience, then it’s worthy.  But it all has to do with individual tastes.  On a recital, I might sing ‘Some Enchanted Evening’ as an encore, and when the first chords are being played, I can hear the sighs of recognition in the audience.  They will have loved the whole rest of the program
all the esoteric stuffbut that song at the end will really stir something in the audience.  What warms their souls is what it’s all about.

BD:    How do you balance a career and a family with their separate but equally strong demands?

PP:    It’s kind of the same thing.  You’re making decisions with directors of opera houses, and having to make peace between the conductor and the stage director.  Most of the people in this business are children anyhow!  [Laughter all round]   I’m only joking, but I think you apply one to the other. 

BD:    Is it easier now than ten years ago because your family is more secure?

PP:    It’s easier for me now because my older son is off on his own, and my second son is at school.  So the only one we have to worry about directly as far as my schedule and his schooling is the youngest.  It’s easier in that sense, but their problems are different.   It’s more complex to answer a teenager’s question than it is to change a diaper.  

BD:    Is the teen’s question more complex today than the ones were from the older children?

PP:    I think so.  I would hate to be a teenager today, and have the problems and choices and the pressures they are faced with. 

BD:    Does it help them to occasionally be on-stage with you, such as was the case here in Macbeth?

PP:    I think so.  It gives them experience to the demands of this business.

BD:    Do you write that into your contract, to get them to play the role in your performances?

PP:    No, I just volunteer them.  Sometimes there are children at a particular opera house that have been looking forward to the opportunity for a year or more, so all of that must be taken into consideration. 

BD:    Are you encouraging your sons to go into the theater?

PP:    I don’t encourage or discourage.  Jeff has been supering since he was five.  Nicolai is in this production, and my oldest has been in other productions. 

BD:    You’re really an operatic family!

PP:    We’ve been at it for a long time together.

BD:    Is it easier now?

PP:    In the early years of my Met career, I was there every day and then home, but I wasn’t doing the repertoire I wanted to do, namely the big, leading roles.  Then once you start doing those big roles, you have more free time.  But the Met can only offer one bass a limited number of those roles, so you have to go to other houses.  Then you get roles you want, but you have to travel, and that isn’t the most pleasant situation.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Do your characterizations grow over the years?

PP:    Oh, yes, of course.  Your feelings about certain things
like a wife’s infidelitywill be different in your 30s to your middle 40s.  You approach it in a different way.  I really feel that an opera singer has to put a lot of himself into the character.


plishka

See my Interviews with Renata Scotto and Tatiana Troyanos


BD:    How
much does your daily life affect tonight’s performance?

PP:    Very muchat least in mine.  My moods have a lot to do with my performance because I like spontaneity.   You will see many different things in my performances.  I never know really how I’m going to respond to the way I feel at that moment.  Sometimes being very upset makes me very docile on stage.

plishkaBD:    Does having your wife in the opera house affect you one or the other?

PP:    If my wife was not there, and my teacher is not there, I feel I can get away with a lot more than I normally can.  They’re the two people who know my voice and what it’s capable of doing.  But, for instance, here in Chicago during the Macbeths, members of the Opera School analyzed my performances very clinically.  They told me one note was longer last time, or another note was softer this time, and I told them it was many ways of saying a sentence.  Once your vocal technique is secure, you can do things in many ways. 

BD:    Does it take a bass to teach a bass?

PP:    I don’t think so.  I’m quite sure it doesn’t.  My own teacher is a baritone.  

BD:    Does that account for your great high notes?

PP:    Could be...  Actually he’s had a great success with dramatic voices.  He grabs at that kind before he would do a lyric or soubrette type. 

BD:    Is that because he’s had more success with those voices?

PP:    I don’t know.  We started together.  He was my first teacher and I was his first student.  He was a pianist, and then a coach, and then he started an opera company to help those people he was coaching have a chance to perform.  For me, though, it’s easier to deal with lower voices.  I’m really quite confused as to what to tell sopranos. 

BD:    Then technique and interpretation are different things?

PP:    I think they’re very separate.  When I first begin a new role, I approach it from a vocal point of view, and I’m not involved with it the dramatics.  Once I get a secure feeling of all the vocal positions, then I get involved dramatically.  That works best for me
getting it all in the throat without any emotional intrusions or obstructions that might interfere with the way you produce a good sound.  Then I add to it and start shading it.  It’s like drawing the outline of a picture and then filling in the shadings and the colors.

BD:    Does that shading ever alter the vocal production?

PP:    I’m really a firm believer of what’s first, but I often come across dramatic moments when the color is more important.  Then it becomes a fight among my wife, my teacher, and me, and sometimes we have some pretty wild situations!   But my technique is secure, and that takes care of me pretty well.  Even conductors’ tempi and other things that cause problems for other singers, can be comfortable for me because my technique is secure.  I can cope with a lot more, so a lot of the problems are eliminated for me.  Even so, there are times when I want the character to be nastier, so I’ll snarl a word, and my wife or teacher will come back and scream at me for making such an ugly sound.

BD:    Do you like playing evil characters?

PP:    They’re interesting.  There is more dimension to them.  But there are other roles which are beautiful singing roles, like Guardiano in Forza.


plishka

See my Interviews with Dolora Zajic, and Sesto Bruscantini


BD:    Can you play him too pure?

PP:    Yes, you can.  There are probably many dimensions to him, but in the situation in which you see him, he’s only using one or two facets of his personality.  With other characters you see many parts of their make-up, and that makes it more interesting from a singer’s point of view.  

BD:    Which are the most interesting roles you sing?

plishkaPP:    I love most of the Verdi roles, especially Philip II in Don Carlo, but not so much Ramfis in Aïda because, again, you don’t get to see much of him.  He’s probably very much like Iago.  To be the High Priest, he must be involved with a lot of intrigue and juicy scandal, but in the opera we don’t really get to see those interesting aspects of him.  Another character that could be great is Sparafucile in Rigoletto, but again there’s just not enough of him.  It’s a great bit, but not really good music to sing. 

BD:    Don’t you enjoy walking off-stage singing a low F?

PP:    Yes, but still it’s just one bit.  That’s a low note, and people are not impressed with low notes.

BD:    [Gently boasting]  I am!

PP:    [Smiles]  Yes, but as soon as the tenor comes in and sings high notes, you forget all about the bass.

BD:    Then let’s go back to my previous question.  What are the great roles for you? 

PP:    Guardiano, Philip II, Mephistopheles...

BD:    Tell me about playing the Devil.

PP:    It’s interesting.  The other day we were talking about the Mussorgsky Songs and Dances of Death, comparing them to the Schubert Erlkönig.  In these songs, very often it’s Death speaking, and when I’m working through them, I often confuse Death with the Devil.  That’s an easy thing to do, and in these songs Death is not the Devil.  But the Devil is fascinating.  God and the Devil are the two most interesting characters to play.

BD:    And you don’t get to play God very often.

PP:    Exactly!

BD:    Is the Devil a bass?

PP:    I think it would be logical that he would be.

BD:    Do you resent being stereotyped into these kinds of roles
fathers, villains, evil ones?

PP:    Every day I wake and thank God I was born a bass.  Tenor roles are so boring!  He’s always trying to get the girl, and either he gets killed or she gets killed, so it’s a lost cause.  Every character is basically the same in the tenor repertoire, but the basses are all kinds of really interesting people. 

BD:    But you say they don’t have enough to sing.

PP:    Well, many times it’s too little, but there’s always at least one big aria and a big climactic scene where you beat somebody, or kill someone, or get killed yourself!

BD:    Would you rather kill or be killed on stage?

PP:    [Hesitates a moment]  Probably get killed myself.  Getting to die is much more interesting.  Killing is just one stroke.  Of course, in Vespri I get to kill about half a dozen people!

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Where does the French repertoire fit into your life?

PP:    I like the French repertoire very, very much.  Mephistopheles is truly a great role.  The role in La Juive is a little bit like Guardiano.  Le Cid has a beautiful part for the bass.  Don Quichotte is wonderful.  It has two basses!

plishka

See my Interviews with Grace Bumbry, and Arnold Voketaitis


BD:    Have you done either role?

PP:    No.  This production running now in Chicago is the first I’ve seen.  Now I’m very eager to do either role, but probably Sancho first, then maybe later Quichotte.  I also love doing the Berlioz dramatic oratorios.

BD:    You enjoy singing!

PP:    I love it!  To me it’s always been a sensual thing.

BD:    Do you vocalize much before a performance?

PP:    I don’t ever vocalize before a performance unless it’s something with a lot of coloratura in it.  Of course, it depends on the role.  Sometimes you get a few minutes on stage to warm up a bit in the part.  But if you walk on and start with a big cadenza, then you must warm up in the dressing room.  Also, if I’ve gone for a long time without singing, I’ll vocalize, but otherwise I’ll just make a few sounds in the dressing room before going on.  

BD:    Do you have any other special routines?

PP:    No.  I’m a strong believer that someone ‘up there’ has been good to me and looks down on me.  I should appreciate what’s been given to me, and try to take care of it, and protect it, and do the best I can with it.  If I abuse it or take it for granted, it will be taken away from me.  It’s that old-fashioned religion
you’ll be punished if you do bad things. 





Paul Plishka at Lyric Opera of Chicago

1981 - Macbeth (Banco) with Cappuccilli, Barstow, Little, Kunde; Fischer, N. Merrill, Benois, Schuler (and all subsequent productions)
            Fidelio (Rocco) with J. Meier/Marton, Vickers, Roar, Hynes, Hoback, Kavrakos/DelCarlo; Kuhn, Hotter,

1985-86 - Otello (Lodovico) with Domingo/Johns, M. Price, Milnes, Redmon, McCauley; Bartoletti, Diaz, Pizzi
                 Samson [Handel] (Harapha) with Vickers, Shade, Howell, Anderson, Gordon; Rudel, Moshinsky, O'Brien, Tallchief
                 Anna Bolena (Enrico) with Sutherland, Merritt, Toczyska, Zilio, Doss; Bonynge, Mansouri, Pascoe

1986-87 - Gioconda (Alvise) with Dimitrova, Ciannella, Welker, Milcheva, M. Dunn/Curry; Bartoletti, Crivelli, Brown, Tallchief

1991-92 - Puritani (Walton) with Anderson, Merritt, Coni, Maultsby; Renzetti, Sequi, Lee

1995-96 - Don Pasquale (Pasquale) with Swenson, Ford, Nolen/Benedetti; Olmi, Montarsolo, Conklin

1999-2000 - L'Elisir D'Amore (Dulcamara) with Futral/Swensen, Lopardo/LaScola, Lanza; Abel, Chazalettes/Liotta, Santicchi




One month shy of fourteen years later, in October of 1995, Plishka was again in Chicago and we met for a second time.
As we were setting up to record our chat, the bass was speaking of a recent festival production and recording of
The Rake’s Progress in Japan with Seiji Ozawa and Sylvia McNair . . . . .


BD:    You play mostly rather grim characters, but here in Chicago this time you’re playing a comic character.  Is that a relief to play a comic character for once?

plishkaPP:    It’s very interesting.  I was thinking about this the other day.  Years ago when I first started singing, I was asking the questions about what I wanted to do.  One of things I said was that I needed to wait to do some of these more dynamic characters.  I tried to pace the career very carefully because there is a lot of vocal danger, vocal traps, throughout a career.  So I said I wouldn’t do things like Boris Godunov, or Scarpia, or things like that until much later in my career.  I was going to spread it out to the younger bel canto where the voice and the character really needs the beautiful instrument early on.  Then later, when I was in my middle-to-late-forties and fifties, I’d begin to do Boris and characters like that, these real dramatic things that make shreds of the vocal cords.  Then after that I was going to see about character roles.

BD:    Even if you sing the big parts in a bel canto way, it still shreds the vocal cords?

PP:    It’s hard.  There are two problems to singing them in a bel canto way.  You have to be so emotionally mature.  When you’re on that stage and you’re you’re strangling people and doing these dramatic things, you can’t be gentle.  Especially if you are younger, you just get overwrought, and you just begin screaming and shouting, and it just wrecks the throat.  That’s the one pitfall.  The other pitfall is if you do basically sing it very, very lyrically and beautifully, it’s boring.  It may be beautiful vocally, but the character depends on what the listener is listening for.  To me, it’s very often just a one-dimensional, and you need colors.  If you just use the voice in a very lyrical way, you don’t get those colors which are necessary for these characters.

BD:    So you’re still talking about the vocal production, not the dramatic action?  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at right, see my Inteviews with Anthony Rolfe-Johnson, and Ian Bostridge.]

PP:    You can’t separate them.  When it comes to Boris Godunov, when it comes to Scarpia, you can’t separate the vocal production and the characterization.  You need different colors, and they are sometimes quite gruesome, vocally.  They’re very difficult to separate.

BD:    Did these composers not know how to write for the deep voice?

PP:    No, that’s not true.  They were looking for characters and not necessarily vocalism.  Let’s have Philip II, or really all the Verdi roles.  These are beautiful vocal roles that can be sung with the purity of voice, and you need very little distortion of the throat to get these characters across on stage.  In fact, the less distortion of the vocal technique, production, the better.  The characters will come across very well.  But when you take a character like Boris Godunov, something different happens.  When Mussorgsky wrote this, he did not have the same sounds in his mind as listeners do today.  We don’t have the same sounds that we listen for when we’re listening to Philip II.  When Boris is singing his main aria, sure, but when he’s having a battle with Shuisky, he wants to strangle Shuisky and explain to him the stress, this mania in his mind that’s going on.  So it has to be colored with the distraught physical activity that’s going on in his brain, and this has to be projected vocally somehow to the listener.  It’s usually done with a strangly-type sound in the voice, something that gives the listener a very vivid picture of what’s happening inside his mind.  If you do it just very straight vocally, it doesn’t come across.

BD:    So there’s a different way of producing the sound when you’re being introspective for yourself as opposed to carrying the dramatic action forward?

PP:    No, you produce the sound the same way.

BD:    Then with the monologues of Boris, where he’s being very introspective, that’s not as tiring?

PP:    Right, that is not so tiring.  [Starts to sing in a very legato way]  This is all very beautiful, vocally, and it should stay that way.

BD:    There he’s talking to himself?

PP:    He’s talking to himself.  His son’s generally there, but he’s explaining why he is in the state he’s in.  But then later in the scene, when he’s threatening Shuisky with death, he’s describing to him what he’s about to do to him.  Even Ivan the Terrible will tremble in his grave at the image of what he’s about to do to Shuisky if he doesn’t come across with what he wants from him!  So to get this across to an audience, to a listener, you have to be extremely graphic with your throat, with your vocal cords.  You can’t just do it in a very beautiful way.  It has to get [illustrates a growling sound], and it happens a lot in a role like Boris Godunov.  There are many places where that happens, and when that happens, it takes a large toll on the vocal cords.  So the more mature you are, the older you are, the more you know when these moments are coming and you can plot them very, very carefully.  You know when they’re coming and you know how to use them, how to do them to a minimal detriment of your vocal cords.  When you’re younger, you start screaming from the word ‘go’, and you don’t stop till it comes to an end, and you pay a big price.

BD:    Coming back then to my original question, is it better on the voice and maybe a happier time for you to do a comic character, rather than these intense characters all the time?

PP:    That’s the other point.  I had this image of doing it all in three stages.  First, all this beautiful bel canto repertoire, then going into this dramatic repertoire that is very dangerous to the cords, and then toward the end of the career the character parts.  Of course I’m not at the end of the career yet, but you begin them at this point.  One of the things that’s very important for these character parts like Don Pasquale or Falstaff, anything like this, these roles don’t necessarily ruin the voice.  Think back to some of the people who’ve been doing them over the years, and they are not the greatest voices, not the greatest prettiest sounds.

BD:    Well, not always, but sometimes.

PP:    I am not going to deny that there have been, but some of them are basically not the most pretty sounds.  But what they did have was stagecraft.  They had a wiliness about them that can only be acquired by many years on the stage.  You have to know all the little tricks, all the little gimmicks.  Someone has to have taught them to you.  My observation over all these years is that you’ve been on the stage for so long, and when you’re up there you’re just Mr. Cool.  The audience has to have the sense that you’re having fun, and the more you’ve been on stage, the more you’re up there with all those years, the more comfortable it becomes for you and the more relaxed you are.  So the more you relax, the more fun the audience will have.

plishkaBD:    So even though in the end Pasquale gets duped, he’s an older, more mature man?

PP:    Oh, yes, he definitely is.

BD:    So it takes an older, more mature singer to do it?

PP:    Generally, most of these characters are older men, and they are generally thinking of themselves.  Early in a rehearsal here with our conductor, Paolo Olmi, we were talking about the moment when Pasquale is preening himself.  The thought is that he could actually pursue a woman, that a young girl would come to him.  It is kind of stupid that he would think this, but probably when a man reaches ninety-nine years old and a beautiful twenty-one-year-old walks into the room, somewhere in the back of his mind there’s a little flame that still flickers.  He feels that there’s something inside of him that’s going to appeal to that twenty-one-year-old.  It’s just human nature.  At first he does it just to rile up his nephew, but then it just sort of grows on him, and the thought of this really is going to happen.  It just lights his mind and his fire goes on.

BD:    Now, as we talk here, you’re sitting next to your beautiful wife.  Has she given you any encouragement about all this, or she broken your bubble about all it?

PP:    This is human nature.  She lights my fire.  I don’t think it ever goes out.  It may go down to a pilot light, but basically it’s always there. 

BD:    Does it take a real lover to play a lover on stage?

PP:    I think there’s a great lover in every man.

BD:    Does it take an evil man to play an evil character on stage?

PP:    Well, the natural follow-up is that there’s probably a bit of evil in every one of us.  I think the most important thing on the stage, as far as characters are concerned, is that ability to project your feelings.

BD:    Your feelings, or the character’s feelings?

PP:    Both.  Maybe we can separate them, maybe we can’t.  I’ve worked with a lot of singers who can explain to you their characterization.  They can really tell you exactly what they’re talking about, what they’re singing about, and the historical facts behind it.  They know exactly every move.  They’re rehearsed every little step of their movement.  They walk out on that stage, and somehow between them and the audience, nothing happens.   Nothing happens because they’re afraid.  They don’t have the ability to release their inhibitions.  They don’t have this ability to let it all hang out, as they say.  I have this silly little description of what I feel happens to me when I go on the stage.  I consider myself a very conservative person, and I wouldn’t do certain things in normal life that these characters would do.  This may sound silly to you, but to me it makes a lot of sense.   When I walk out on the stage, be it in rehearsal or a performance, or whatever, there’s a little imaginary man, like an elf standing in the wings, and he has a piece of paper.  This paper is a license, and this license says that when I walk out for this performance, I’m allowed to do anything that I want to do, and no one will laugh at me, no one will make fun of me, no one will say I’m stupid, or will lock me up, or anything.  That way I can go out on that stage and I can do all of these crazy things, whether they be evil, or funny, or silly, or romantic, or whatever.  I do them out there, and when I walk back into the wings, he’s standing there waiting for me, and he takes his paper back.  Then I go back to being the other person.

BD:    Sounds like occupational therapy?

PP:    Well, whatever!  It frees me to be able to do these things which you need to be able to project on stage.

BD:    With this paper in hand, are you portraying the character, or does the paper let you become that character?

PP:    It lets you become the character.  When I’m out there I am what I’m doing.  I really like to feel that.  If I don’t feel that, I’m extremely uncomfortable.  It’s like trying to walk around in somebody else’s shoes that don’t fit.  When I go out there, at that moment I really pretend, or I really image myself in what I’m projecting.


plishka

See my Interviews with Thomas Hampson, Kiri te Kanawa, Dawn Upshaw, and Renato Capecchi


BD:    Is there any character that you do that is a little too close to the real Paul Plishka?

PP:    [Thinks a moment]  These are hard questions.  I think a lot of them are close to the real me.  Sometimes things happen in rehearsals or in performances that are really rough.  I can remember doing a production of Fidelio, and I was working with a director who was looking for certain emotions in the character.  Rocco sees Florestan in the dungeon.  He brings him food, and he feels so bad that he’s doing this to this man.  The director was trying to get out of me the emotion that when I was doing this to somebody I didn’t feel it was wrong.  But I knew it was wrong to be doing it, and I basically liked the person who was down there, yet I was doing this because my boss told me to do it.  I really felt overwrought.  Really there were tears in my eyes that I could be doing this to somebody.  I remember not liking it because it’s a terrible feeling.  The rehearsals for many days were very intense.  It was a very difficult time.  It was great direction.  It was great bringing that out of me, but it was hard to do.

BD:    Does this then make it so you would turn down future contracts for Rocco rather than put yourself through that again?

PP:    No, you have to just deal with those things.  I really like that production... well, not necessarily the production, but I liked working on it and getting that deeply into a character.  I didn’t even know that those feelings were there.  So very often in this business, for many reasons, unfortunately, we don’t have a lot of time to get into these characters as deeply as probably would be necessary.  This was the one moment where I really, really got deeply into this character, and emotionally it was dangerous and scary.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Throughout your career
in the three phases of your career, as you described themhow do you decide to accept or turn down roles that were offered?

PP:    Always in the past I have turned down roles that I felt were going to be too premature.  When I was twenty-seven I was offered my first Boris Godunov, and that was much too early.  It was dangerous.  I could not have coped.

BD:    But do you start learning the music in your studio?

PP:    Well, I started with Pimen, although Pimen is a man who’s probably twice as old as Boris, chronologically.

BD:    But that’s a different character.

PP:    Right, it’s a different character and it was right for my voice.  It fit right, and I was able to deal with that.  I had so many, many performances of Pimen, so if you’re in the opera doing Pimen, you’re really absorbing the role of Boris by watching the other artists, and learning it through osmosis.  You start really knowing it, and it’s growing on you.

BD:    So there really is a difference between just playing old and playing mature?

PP:    Oh, yes, definitely.  We all have to do characters in this business that are not necessarily comfortable, but I do not do any that are not comfortable because the vocal writing isn’t ideal for me.  I’ve never sung Don Giovanni in my whole career, mostly because I’ve been very heavy, and it was just not something that was physically right for me to do.  But when I started doing Leporello very early, I found it very satisfying.  So there was really no need to do Giovanni.  But also Giovanni lies vocally in a way that is not comfortable for me.  The same thing with Mefisto.  I enjoy Faust very, very much, and Mefisto very, very much, but the last aria, the serenade, is not necessarily comfortable for me.  It’s not where my voice lies.  Giovanni lies in that same area, and the voice has to be used in such a way that I am not happy there.  It’s not a matter of singing high notes, because I’ve lots of high notes.  Falstaff has G, and I’ve recorded Ab, so it’s not the problem.  It’s just my voice is not happy sustaining a high tessitura in a very soft way for a very long period of time.

plishkaBD:    Tell me a little bit about playing the Devil!

PP:    [Laughs]  It’s funny.  Many years ago, one singer refused to do certain things on stage that were opposite to his religion.  He was of a different religion than he was playing, and he wouldn’t use certain gestures that are part of the other religion.  Well, you’re playing a character!  Recently I did it because another bass canceled, because it was against his religious principles to play the part.  He decided it was against his religious principles to play Mephistophélès.  I figured I don’t have any problem.

BD:    For religious people, I would think it would be the greatest thing in the world to show Mefisto defeated.

PP:    Exactly!  There are many ways you can explain that, but who knows what the real reason was?  We play all kinds of characters that do certain things we’d never do.  I’ve played people who want to kill other people, and I certainly don’t want to kill.

BD:    Are there different shades of evil that you bring to different productions of the Devil?

PP:    I’ve only done two.  Until this Rake’s Progress, it was just the Faust one.  I have done Damnation of Faust, but never in production.  The Devil’s the Devil!  That’s the bottom line, but there are styles of writing, styles of music, periods of history that things were written differently.  The Gounod, and the Berlioz, and this Stravinsky, and probably the Boito, are all very different stylistically.  So you approach it in a different way.

BD:    Even with the same opera, with different production of Faust from one place to another?

PP:    There are many, many ways to do it.  I did one which I thought was really fun.  It was a production in Mexico City, and the director saw each act in three different time periods.  The one that I liked very much was the second act where I was made like Al Capone.  I had spats on, and hat and a cigar, the whole thing.  It was fun.  I enjoyed that very much.  

BD:    That wouldn’t have worked for the whole opera?

PP:    Who knows?  They do anything today.  Why not?

BD:    Let’s wade into this momentarily.  Has stage-direction gone too far?

PP:    From my point of view, yes, but I’m very conservative, as I said before.  I find a lot of things a bit bizarre, and unnecessary, and I don’t buy tickets.  There are many houses
like Chicago Lyric, San Francisco, the Met, Covent Garden — which should be museums which show the pieces as the composer had in mind.  There is room for experimental ideas, these modern productions, but they should be done in festivals.  They should be done where the production is shown onceis done for one summerand then it’s taken out to the nearest dump and burned.  [Both laugh]  There’s a lot of experimenting going on, and that would be a place where it can happen.  However, once an investment is made in a production, a lot of money is spent and then the theater is stuck with that production for a long timesometimes twenty years.

BD:    Hopefully happily, but sometimes not so.

PP:    Unfortunately, sometimes not so, and then the company’s stuck with this bomb.  In that sense, I don’t think it’s a place to experiment.  If they want to experiment and bring in something different, they can go to some of these places that do these pieces, find one that really works, and go to that director and say,
I love the way that worked.  Let’s broaden that.  Let’s bring it to the big house, and expand on it a bit to make it something that will fit into our long-range project.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    We’ve be dancing around this, so let me ask the big philosophical question.  What’s the purpose of opera?

PP:    [Thinks a moment]  Opera brings together all of the art forms.  You’ve got acting, you’ve got scenery, you have music and the drama.  All these things are brought together.  The one thing that opera does that none of the other ones do is draw such a vivid picture of the emotions that are going on inside.  If you go to a play, you can see the actor acting, and you can see him doing his words.  You can see a painting and you can see how everything is beautiful, but you don’t hear anything.  Each one is in sort of pigeon hole, whereas with an opera, you not only see what’s happening on the stage, you hear what’s happening on the stage.  This is another dimension that’s brought.  A composer of the music draws you an audio picture of the emotions that are happening, of what’s really going on in this whole piece.  It’s like a sixth sense, in a way.

BD:    It gives the audience an extra dimension?

PP:    It is an extra dimension that no other art form has.

BD:    Is this art form for everyone?

PP:    [Thinks again]  Yes, it can be.  The reason probably some people like it and some people don’t like it has to do with the way we learn as we grow up.  When they were small, I’d walk by their rooms and my children would be listening to The Marriage of Figaro¸ Don Giovanni, Emerson, Lake & Palmer, everything.  To them it was all music, and everything was extremely appealing.  As they grew older, they found different social groups, their social circles, and they went in whatever directions they wanted.  But those people in that social circle were not necessarily influenced by the classical music, so it begins to influence them in what they want to hear.  In other words, people are influenced by their peers, and if their peers don’t like opera, then sometimes they can draw them away from it.  My little granddaughter is now two and half years old, and she adores Hansel and Gretel.  She watches Falstaff.  She sees me in the picture, but it appeals to her.

BD:    Does she know it’s Gramps?

PP:    Oh, yes, it’s Papa she sees.  In the tape of Hansel and Gretel that we have, there’s an advertisement for all the Met videos, and there’s a little snippet of Lucia, and in the sextet I’m singing.  Whenever she sees that, she says,
Papa!, and she caught that herself.  No one told her it was there, but she recognized the face. 

BD:    Even with all the stage make-up and lighting and everything?


plishka

See my Interviews with Alfredo Kraus, and Pablo Elvira


PP:    Yes, she picked it up.  Another interesting thing was that she has this tape of Benji, the little dog movie, and there’s a little bit of a musical interlude at one point in it.  It’s not Beethoven, but it’s a nice musical interlude, and she loves that little musical interlude.  She sits there and conducts this musical interlude.  She loves the overture in Hansel and Gretel, and she watches the conductor, Tom Fulton.  She watches him, and she beats with her hand.  It’s just an innate thing.  When they were young, my little boys just loved the Mozart.  There’s just something about the mathematical aspect of it all, I guess, which was appealing to them.

BD:    For youngsters it’s the rhythm.

PP:    Yes it’s the rhythm.  It’s very, very appealing to all children, and it only happens later on that they either stay with it or they’re drawn away from it.  But it’s available and accessible to everyone.  

BD:    How can we draw more kids and more adults into it?

PP:    That’s really tough because of media and lifestyle today.  We’re going to get into screaming argument here about media and about the garbage you see on television.  It’s just easier to throw on the TV and sit there with a can of beer, and watch whatever is there.

BD:    [Gently protesting]  But one of the things that’s there is Live From the Met.


plishka

See my Interviews with Ragnar Ulfung, and Cornell MacNeil


PP:    Right, but it
’s a little bit of work, unfortunately.  One of the things people say to me is [says the word in a somewhat snooty tone] ‘opera’, so I tell them that they watch these little dramas in the afternoon that are called ‘soap operas’.  I tell them they are called ‘soap operas because they’re basically the stories of love and hate.  They’re simple stories, all of them, which is exactly what operas are.  They’re nothing but little stories about love and hate.  There’s a whole booklet that gives you the stories of each opera in one sentence.  Anyway, the reason they’re called ‘soap operas’ is because they were sponsored by soap companies years ago, but they’re basic little stories, and operas are basic simple stories.  You don’t need to know an awful lot, but you put a little effort into it.  What I always tell people do is to pick a piece, like Bohème or Butterfly, and go home with it.  Don’t sit down, don’t read the libretto.  Just every once in a while, put it on while you’re doing the things that you do around the house.  Just put it on and ignore it.  Do this for a couple of weeks.

BD:    So it seeps in?

PP:    Right.  It’s like a cancer; it gets you.  [Both laugh]  Then, some day when everybody’s out of the house and no one’s around, get the libretto, sit in the chair, get yourself a glass of Diet Coke, or of can of beer, put your feet up and put it on.  You’ll start following the story, and like all these little tumors that began to eat into you, you’ll see what’s happening.  You’ll probably say,
I knew it was something like that, or Wow, I didn’t think it was that.  Then all these things will just mushroom.  That’s my favorite way of trying to explain it to people.

BD:    You’re involved in Don Pasquale here.  Is this an ideal first-opera to come to?

PP:    Probably it
s a good one.  I never thought of it that way.  It may seem to the modern ear maybe a little frivolous or of another era.  That’s why I always recommend something like Bohème, which is very accessible.  It could fit into Beatnik New York City; or Butterfly, which is a little more dramatic.  Don Pasquale is a simple story, but it’s set in a period that might take a little more acceptance of theater and of the art form for the very, very, very novitiate.  But it is good.  In the story, I want my nephew to get married, and he just won’t get married.  He wants this simple girl and I want him to marry this rich lady.  So I threaten him.  I say that if he doesn’t take the one I picked, I’m going to get married myself, and he’s going to get disinherited.  So they begin to plot against me, and they arrange for this girl to come that I’m going to marry.  I marry herbut it’s a fake marriageand she begins to make my life SO miserable that I would give my nephew anything just to get her out of my life!  [Much laughter]  It’s a beautiful piece, and it ends very happily.

BD:    It’s interesting
you refer to him as ‘me’.  You don’t refer to him as Pasquale.

PP:    That is natural.  That’s the thing we all do.

BD:    You get so wrapped up in it that you take on the whole persona?

PP:    You have to.  You have to make it feel like yourself.  This Pasquale character is new for me.  It is not a piece I’ve done before.  One of the things that I’ve said about doing this kind of repertoire now is that a lot of the characters I’ve done in the past are similar to this character.  Two places in this score that are identical to other characters that I’ve done before.  The words are almost the same, and one of the character moments is the same as Falstaff.


plishka

See my Interviews with Marilyn Horne, Barbara Bonney, and Susan Graham


BD:    Tell me about playing the fat Knight!

PP:    When I first started singing, I wanted to be a Verdi bass.

BD:    Did you ever do Pistol? 

PP:    No.  I wanted to be a Verdi bass.  That was my dream when I first started.  This is what we felt my voice would end up being.  To me, to do Philip II in Don Carlo at the Met, televised and broadcast, would be the epitome.  To do that, I would have reached the crowning glory of what I wanted to do.  I didn’t have the desire, necessarily, to be Boris, or to be Mefisto.  To me the music and character of Philip II was the crown.  Well, I reached that crown.  I don’t remember how old I was when I did that, but I sang that in the Met televised version. 


plishka

See my Interview with Vasile Moldoveanu


I continued in that repertoire, and then came the opportunity, when I was forty-three, to do Boris at the Met.  First I thought that Philip was it.  Then came Boris, and it’s another plateau, dramatically.  Boris is a very special character.  It’s a wonderful, wonderful character.  When I did my Boris at the Met, to me that was the next step.  I thought that after this, what else is there?  In fact, I have a funny little story about that.  In the last scene, when Boris dies, he falls down this long flight of stairs, and people say,
Oh, it’s so dangerous!  So I say, “For a bass to be singing Boris Godunov at the Metropolitan Opera, and to have gone through the entire performance and sung really well, if at that moment you should break your neck and die, what better way to go?  [Laughs]  To me, that Boris was the next pinnacle.  Then I figured what else?  There could be nothing better than that.  Then Jimmy [Levine] asked me to do Falstaff.  I said, Whoa!  It’s baritone and it’s high... although I do have the extension.  I can get up there.  So I said, Okay, if you think I can do it, I’m going to do it.  It turns out that nothing I have ever done comes anywhere near the reward, the satisfaction, the greatness of the character of Falstaff.  That character is so wonderful.  It’s so well written between Verdi and the librettist.  Without a doubt it’s the perfect role, and it’s been the crowning glory to me.

*     *      *      *     *

BD:    You’ve made a number of recordings.  Do you sing same for the microphone as you do for a live audience?

PP:    I’ve made quite a few recordings, and there are just two that sound like me.  When I hear these recordings, I say,
That’s me.  When we go to these recording sessions, they have a panel that looks like NASA.  These guys have all these dials, and they play with all the buttons...

BD:    So you’re at their mercy?

PP:    You’re at their mercy!  If I sang one song, and ten people all went and listened to that recording, it would sound different to each of the ten.  Every single one would hear it differently.  So in all this time, I have two that I feel sound like me.  One was the recording of I Puritani I did with Beverly Sills [shown in the box at the top of this webpage], and the other one was the recording of Ukrainian Songs [shown below-right].  To me, those things represent my voice the way I think it sounds, the way I like it to sound.  But to your question, yes, I will do things for the microphone.  Now I would say that, but back when I did most of my recordings, I didn’t.  I sang exactly the way I always did.  Now I think I would sing a little bit differently for the microphones.  I’d play around a little bit with it.

BD:    Why? 

PP:    I don’t know.  I’m a little bit more satisfied with these different kinds of sounds.  Before, they would not have satisfied me.  I would find them anemic.  Now I think there may be some character in them, and I might use them. 

BD:    Tell me the special joys of singing Ukrainian songs.

plishkaPP:    I’m American, and my parents were born in the United States.  My grandparents came from Ukraine, and I did not have this very strong Ukrainian connection.  In the town I was born in Pennsylvania, there were a lot of Ukraines and a lot of Poles, yet we all wanted to be very American.  It was a very American time in the late 40s and early 50s.  There was no ethnic connection.  Roots hadn’t happened yet.  When I did my first Pimen in Boris in ’72, I was approached by the Ukrainian community.  They began introducing me to my heritage.  I was born in 1941, and my grandparents came from Ukraine in 1910.  So there was thirty-one years between the time they left there and the time I was born.  Genealogically, thirty-one years is nothing, so basically it’s a Ukrainian physical body that I have.  It has to be hundreds of years before you become something else.  [Later, as we were saying good-bye, he mentioned that he would love to do the opera Taras Bulba by the Ukrainian composer Mykola Lysenko.  He mentioned that the Ukrainian Opera Company had given him the score, and all of their members had signed it.]

BD:    But you’re American culturally?

PP:    Culturally, yes, but that body has roots that were in Ukraine for thousands of years.  People like to categorize voices as Italian or German or Slavic.  I’ve always thought of myself as having a very Italianate sound.  I’ve always felt that way, and that’s the sound I strive to make.  People hear my name, and they rightly assume I’m from some Slavic country, so to sing those songs was very important.  I sang the role of Boris Godunov in Kiev about two years before the change in the political situation there.  It was very, very beautiful moment.  I can remember very, very vividly, in the coronation scene the Boyars came in with huge trays, and as I was being crowned, they poured all these gold coins down all over my shoulders.  After I had sung this little monologue, there in the coronation scene, and what went through my mind at that time was really a very touching moment for me because I thought of my grandparents.  I thought of my grandmother and my grandfather who left Ukraine about 1910 with nothing.  They were peasants.  They had left that country because my grandfather was about to be used for cannon fodder in the wars.  Before the Revolution they were looking for a new life for their children to come, and I thought about what those people must have been going through.  Back then they’d get on those boats, and they didn’t know where they were going.  They gave up everything, got on those boats and come here to work.  My grandfather worked in the coal mines here for forty-some years.  My grandmother quit school around fourth grade, and went to work in a factory just so that these descendants could have a better life.  So at that moment, while I was standing there in Kiev and these people were throwing all these gold coins over me, I thought of the price my grandfather and grandmother paid so that I could come back like that, stand there and have that happen.  To me that was a spectacular moment.  I was hoping that they were somewhere where they could be both looking down and be saying to themselves that i
t was worth what they did to be able to give this to their descendants.

BD:    I’m sure they’re very proud.  So I take it you are pleased with your career as it has progressed to this point?

PP:    You’re looking at a very, very happy and content man.  It’s basically the way I planned it, and the way I wanted it to happen... and I would like for it to continue.  I like very much these characters.  When I first started at the Met, they were looking for a ‘buffo’.  They were looking for a cover for Fernando Corena and I was happy at the time.  I was doing Bartolo in The Marriage of Figaro with the Met National Company, and the big company hired me as a ‘buffo’.  They offered me all the ‘buffo’ roles, and at the time I said I would accept them only if they would give me some dramatic roles.  They had also auditioned a guy to do dramatic roles, but he turned them down because they were all small parts.   So because he turned it down, they gave me all those roles.  So in my first season, one of the very first things I did at the Met was the Sacristan in Tosca.  I did Bartolo in The Marriage of Figaro, and I did Benoit.  I also covered Bartolo in The Barber of Seville, Dulcamara in L’Elisir, and Melitone in Forza.  For three or four years I did all the ‘buffo’ repertoire, and I really liked it.  But it was not really where my voice should have been at the time.  It was not fair for me to use my voice in that way at that time, and I really strove to eliminate that repertoire for the time being, hoping that someday I could come back to it because it’s a wonderful repertoire.  The characters are wonderful, and I looked forward to it very much.  Now it’s beginning to open up again to that period, and I really enjoy it very, very much. 

BD:    I hope it continues for a long time.  Thank you for coming back to Chicago.

PP:    Thank you.  I enjoy this town.



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See my Interviews with Wendy White, and Jane Klaviter




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See my Interview with Italo Tajo




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© 1981 & 1995 Bruce Duffie

These conversations were recorded in Chicago on November 24, 1981, and October 20, 1995.  The first interview was transcribed and published in Opera Scene Magazine in August, 1982.  Portions of the second interview were broadcast on WNIB two weeks after it was held, and again the following August.  This transcription was made in 2017, and posted on this website at that time.  My thanks to British soprano Una Barry for her help in preparing this website presentation.

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

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

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