Bass - Baritone  William  Powers

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


Since making his New York City Opera debut in 1972, Chicagoan WILLIAM POWERS has performed over 100 operatic roles with the major opera companies in the United States, Europe, and South America.  While the stylistic range of his portrayals spans the gamut from Renaissance (Monteverdi’s ORFEO for San Francisco) to Contemporary (Pasatieri’s SEAGULL for Washington DC), Powers has earned an enviable reputation as a “heavy” – due in large part to the dark, penetrating color of his voice – thus the portrayal of rogues and villains has dominated his career.  His teachers and mentors, George London and Norman Treigle, have also added to the intensity of the acting aspect of Powers’ delivery – for which he has become well-known.

Mr. Powers has been the creator of many new roles through world-premiers or important revivals…most recently singing the villain “Meyer Wolfsheim” for the premier of Harbison’s  THE GREAT GATSBY at the Metropolitan Opera in New York; other new creations have included Penderecki’s  PARADISE LOST  for Chicago’s Lyric Opera; Herrmann’s  WUTHERING HEIGHTS  for Portland; Stewart Copeland’s HOLY BLOOD AND CRESCENT MOON  for Cleveland; and Petrassi’s SESTINA D’AUTUNNO for Italy’s Spoleto Festival.  Of re-creations, Powers offered the role of  “Celio” for the 50th  Anniversary production of Prokofiev’s THE LOVE OF THREE ORANGES for Chicago; the rarely heard  BETLY of Donizetti for Strasbourg, and the  French version of Donizetti’s LA FAVORITE for the Theatre d’Champs-Elysees and the Opera Comique in Paris; the creation of the Italian version of  THE LADY MACBETH OF THE MTZENSK DISTRICT for Spoleto; and the American premier of G. F. Handel’s PORO, RE DI INDIE  for Kennedy Center’s Handel Festival in Washington DC.

William Powers’ voice has been widely recorded and has been heard in hundreds of Broadcasts.  A solo CD released on the Centaur label as ROGUES AND VILLAINS in 2000 has been followed with yet another collection of wicked evil-doers and miscreants entitled, THE WORST OF WILLIAM POWERS in 2009.  The two discs contain dozens of arias from many under-handed characters, including Rossini’s “Basilio”, “Dr. Bartolo”, “Mustafa”, and “Don Magnifico”; Verdi’s “Iago”; Beethoven’s “Pizzaro”; Ponchielli’s “Alvise”, and Mussorgsky’s  “Boris”.  Various devils include Gounod’s “Mephistopheles”,  Meyerbeer’s “Bertram”, and Boito’s “Mefistofele”.  The “Four Villains” of Offenbach’s  LES CONTES D’HOFFMANN.  Floyd’s “Reverend Blitch”;  Wagner’s “Alberich”;  Mozart’s  “Leporello”;  Puccini’s  “Gianni Schicchi”;  Gruenberg’s  “Jones”, and the ultimate rascal of them all – Verdi’s  “Falstaff”.

Symphonic repertoire has not been ignored with Beethoven’s NINTH and  MISSA SOLEMNIS; the REQUIEMs of Verdi, Mozart, Dvořák, Brahms and Faure; and the MESSIAH as well as many oratorios of Handel.  These standards being joined by the contemporary works of William Schuman and Ned Rorem, in conjunction with the Symphonies of Chicago, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Philadelphia, San Antonio, Los Angeles, and Dallas in the United States, as well as the Symphonies of Paris, Cologne, Strasbourg, Trieste, Prague, Bratislava, Hague, Amsterdam, and Vienna.

Recent performances have included the Chicago premiere of DER KAISER VON ATLANTIS, and THE TALES OF HOFFMANN (in the controversial  Ratner version) for the Chicago Opera Theater; WERTHER of Massenet for the Klangbogen Festival of Vienna, as well as the Basque National Opera of Bilbao; DEAD MAN WALKING for Cincinnati;  THE DAMNATION OF FAUST for Chicago’s Grant Park Festival, and the Pablo Casal’s Fesdtival of San Juan; the Opera Gala for the Festival of the Aegean in Athens and Styros; FAUST for Trieste; THE BARBER OF SEVILLE for Charlotte and Buenos Aires; THE MAGIC FLUTE for Bozman; FIDELIO for Cedar Rapids; and the national tour of  Teatro Lirico d’Europa’s production  of Puccini’s TOSCA, in the role of the corrupt Commissioner of Police, the despicable  “Baron Scarpia”.

For more information, see his official website,  [Note that all other links on this page refer to my interviews elsewhere on my website.  BD]

Being a resident of suburban Chicago, William Powers knew
and enjoyed!my programs on WNIB, Classical 97.  We became personally acquainted mostly via late-night phone calls, which often involved lengthy discussions about various musical topics, as well as ordinary day-to-day ideas.  On the rare occasions that he performed in the area, I made a point of clearing my schedule to be able to be there.  We also knew of a few concerts and operas which we both were to attend, and happily we often succeeded in getting together at those venues.
A few days before he was to sing at the Grant Park Music Festival in July of 2003, we decided to let the tape recorder eavesdrop.  Situated along Chicagos lakefront, with the skyline as a backdrop, the Festival presents free concerts every summer, and it was my pleasure to use a few of his comments and recordings to promote the event.

Here is a transcript of the entire conversation . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:   You’re going to be singing outdoors at Grant Park.  Do you have much experience singing outdoors?

William Powers:   Actually, yes, because in the earlier days of my career, I was a member of the United States Army Band and Chorus.  Stationed in Washington DC, we were obliged, by just the very nature of the business, to give concerts for the public, primarily during the summer time, in the various outdoor venues.  These included the Plaza where the Washington Monument is, the steps in front of the Lincoln Memorial, and also on the backside of the Lincoln Memorial, which was called Memorial Park, right at the Memorial Bridge.  We also performed on the steps of the Capitol building.

BD:   Is it satisfying singing outdoors?

Powers:   No!  There are sirens and airplanes, and kids running up and down, and dogs barking, and people making noises, and coughing and hacking, and cars honking.  It’s incredibly distracting, so if you really want to hear a good performance, you probably shouldn’t go to an outdoor performance.  On the other hand, there’s a certain portion of being outside that’s fun, and the blankets, and the kids, and the dogs, and the sirens are maybe why you want to go to an outdoor show.  And it’s free!  [Both laugh]  You don’t have that $75 price tag, and you don’t have to sit there, and worry about unwrapping your candy because everybody’s unwrapping candy.  No one’s going to make faces at you.

BD:   Now you’re going to be singing at Grant Park, which is specifically a music festival with a shell behind you, and amplification.  Does that help to bridge the gap between the outdoors and the indoors?

Powers:   As a performer, I don’t know.  That would be for the audience to determine.  But I must say that when I have gone to an outdoor performance at Grant Park to hear other artists perform, I would primarily be there for the ambiance of being there, and being able to visit the [Buckingham] Fountain afterwards, and seeing Lake Michigan, and just looking at the wonderful sights of Chicago while the concert was going on, and not specifically to hear the beauty of Berlioz or the greatness of Mozart.

BD:   Did you enjoy the music at least a little bit?

Powers:   Oh, absolutely.  Otherwise I wouldn’t have gone... even though it was free.  [More laughter]

BD:   You’re going to be singing The Damnation of Faust.  Tell me a bit about this particular work.

Powers:   As everyone knows, we’re in the Berlioz bicentennial year, so that
s the reason why so many Berlioz pieces are being produced at this point in time.  Berlioz is a very unusual character.  He was not appreciated during this lifetime at all.  The man worked as a librarian, and a part-time music critic, and was thought to be rather a strange fellow...

BD:   [With a gentle nudge]  Arent all musicians strange to a certain extent?

Powers:   [With a broad smile]  Some of them are lucky enough to be honored in their own day, but Berlioz was not one of the fortunate ones.  It wasn’t until much later that we began to appreciate his genius.  This piece, The Damnation of Faust, is early enough in the Berlioz oeuvre to be really considered the inspiration for many of those pieces about Faust and devils
Gounod’s Faust, Boitos Mefistofele, Robert Le Diable of Meyerbeer.  All of these things are inspired by this sudden excitement about the Devil, and a man selling his soul to the Devil.  We can really give Berlioz a lot of credit for getting all this going.

powers BD:   Do you really understand that Devil?

Powers:   [Thinks a moment]  He
s a manic depressive.  Whether we want to think of it in religious terms, isn’t there a certain inhabitation of somebody who’s manic depressive?  Berlioz understood Satan.

BD:   Do you understand Satan?

Powers:   [Laughs in an evil way]  He’s served me very well over the years.  I’ve really been privileged.  I have to say that Signor Devil has done well by Bill Powers.

BD:   Has Bill Powers done well by Signor Devil?

Powers:   I hope so.  I’ve been doing it for forty years.

BD:   Do you think he’s pleased?

Powers:   Don’t know.  Can’t say.

BD:   Do you think you will find out?

Powers:   Hope so.

BD:   [A bit frightened]  Really???

Powers:   Sure!  I want to know!  There’s got to be some answer at the end of all this!

BD:   So, you wish to meet Satan eventually???

Powers:   Oh no, but I’d like to find somebody who will know whether Satan is pleased.  Maybe St. Peter will say, “No, he was not, and that’s why you’re up here!”  [Both have a huge laugh]

BD:   Is it satisfying playing someone who is mostly, or even purely, evil?

Powers:   Absolutely!   On TV they’ve been running this advertisement of late about what is drama.  Drama is conflict, of course.  You can’t have good if you don’t have bad.  Milton pointed this out in Paradise Lost when he says, “It wasn’t that Satan wanted to be bad.  It’s after God won the conflict of the Great Battle that took place on the plain, and Satan was cast out of this place, and wound up in what was Hell.”  Milton tells us that Satan says, “Better to reign in Hell than to rule in Heaven!”  But it wasn’t a choice.  He didn’t pick it.  It’s all that was left.

BD:   So he did the best that he could with what he had?

Powers:   We should admire him for it.  Don’t we admire people who start out on one path, and find that path either blocked or closed, pick up another path and do the best we can?  Satan did this, also.

BD:   Your path, of course, has been music and singing.  I assume that is has been open, at least to a great extent, for you?

Powers:   I’ve been blessed!  I’ve had a phenomenal career.  I’m not a household word.  One does not say
William Powers and Robert Merrill in the same breath.  One may not even say William Powers at all, and yet within the scope of the business that I inhabit, and the people that I see day to day as colleagues, I am respected and I am well-regarded.  I can walk into a room with Plácido Domingo, and he’ll say, “Hi, Bill!” which is nice.  The man on the street may not know who I am, but my colleagues do.

BD:   Would you want the man on the street to know who you are?

Powers:   [Thoughtfully]  It’s a double-edged sword.  It’s seems that we see Hollywood personalities continually striving to be recognized, and as soon as they are, they wear dark glasses and walk down the street with the hope of not being recognized.  It’s a funny thing... you want the glory, you want the glamor, you want the recognition, you want the monetary reward that fame brings, but by the same token, you don’t need the weirdoes who harass you, or the ones that are chasing you, and the ones that are continually giving you a bad time.  Unfortunately, one comes with the other.

BD:   [Optimistically]  Are there people who harass you and give you a good time?

Powers:   Hmmmmm...  Sure.  You, for example!  [Gales of laughter]  You don’t harass me.  You honor me by giving me your friendship, and many, many people who appreciate what I do, also do this.  This is what the business is about.  This is why we strive because, God knows, there’s no money in it, at least for the majority.  Ninety-five per cent of the money is made by five per cent of the people in the business.

BD:   Can I assume you make enough to get by?

Powers:   We all hope to.  Any artist who gets by, who just has enough to survive considers himself very fortunate.

BD:   In the end, it’s all worth it?

Powers:   I wouldn’t do anything else!  Can you imagine sitting in an office, at a desk with no window for forty-five years?

BD:   And yet you are singing for people who sit in an office with no window for forty-five years.

Powers:   That, in a way, is my reward, because they come to me for their escape.

BD:   Is that what music is
an escape?

Powers:   Absolutely!  Absolutely!

BD:   Is there any enrichment to it, or is it just an escape?

Powers:   It’s got to be an enrichment, but escape can be enrichment.  You can go to see Star Wars, which has very, very little social value.  It’s total escapism, and yet there is a basic underlying good-over-evil moral behind it.  I’ve noticed in the more recent of the Star Wars episodes, there are little bits of Buddhism that creep in, where the Jedi Knight says, “There’s always a bigger fish!”  All right, we know that’s your message for the day.  That’s your fortune cookie.  The rest of it is just you-chase-me and I’ll-chase-you.

*     *     *     *     *
BD:   Are you a bass, or a bass-baritone, or what?

Powers:   I am a bass-baritone, [winks] which means I can’t sing high and I can’t sing low!  [Both laugh uproariously]

BD:   It gives you a wider range of repertoire?

Powers:   It gives me that.  All of the operatic characters seemed to be pigeon-holed.  The tenor is always going to be a good guy, the bass is always going to be a bad guy, but there’s a range of bass parts.  The super-bass, the really low Russian profundo bass is unfortunately bound to become a priest, or the old father, or the dictator.  The bass-baritone can actually be a hero, or an anti-hero perhaps, such as Don Giovanni, or Mephistopheles, the Devil.  The guys who really have the super low voices aren’t singing the Devil because, periodically, the Devil has to scream and shout, and deliver a G.  So you’re not going to find a person that is limited in his range on top doing the really good bass parts.

BD:   Is it part of your job, as the singer, to find something heroic about each part you portray?

Powers:   Only within my own framework.  I try to see myself as the hero of every part I play.  I don’t call the opera Tosca.  As far as I’m concerned, it is called Scarpia.  [Chuckles]  Without my help, it was Verdi who did not want to call the piece Otello.  He called it Iago in his working sketches, and when I walk on stage, I don’t care who I’m singing across from, as highly as I regard them and as great as they may be, it’s still my show.

BD:   And it
s your job to put this across?

Powers:   If the audience says so, then I have done my job.  It’s all being told at the end of the show
not by the critic who has his own score to settle, but by the audience, and it is the audience for whom I’m performing.

BD:   Also the management that will or will not ask you back?

Powers:   Well, I wish I could say that just because you get a phenomenal audience response it automatically means a return engagement, because it does not necessarily mean that’s going to happen.  The critic, to a degree, is important in that regard, but there are so many sides which we’re not going to get into in this conversation.  There are so many political aspects that come into play, and whether or not you really are great, or really do get a great response is not necessarily the criterion.

BD:   You spend most of your days working with the ideas and the thoughts of the director, and the conductor, and the politics, and everything.  When you get on the stage, can you get rid of all of that and just be a musician?

Powers:   I’m near the end of my career, Bruce, so I can say things and not worry about being hired or not being hired again.  Frankly, once I’m on stage at the end of the grueling four weeks of rehearsal, where some moron was trying to tell me how to sing a part, I throw it all out.  As I walk on stage, I go out and do whatever I damn well want to do.

BD:   [Defending the singer]  But this is based on forty years of experience!

Powers:   Precisely, but if he comes at the intermission and says, “I told you to be in the middle there, and you walked down to the front of the stage!” I’ll say, “Oh! I am so sorry.  I got carried away and forgot.  Please forgive me.”  In the end though, I do what I want because I’m out there to please myself, with the knowledge that if I am happy with what I am doing, I’m quite well assured that the audience will be also.

BD:   So you’re the first audience?

Powers:   It’s not just me, and I don’t mean to sound incredibly arrogant, but what is boils down to is that the artist in any art form is always at least fifty years ahead of his audience.  We have to have the edge, otherwise we would be like Chinese artists who are drawing the same picture for 4,000 years.  We have to keep pushing the envelope.  We have to keep going ahead, and if the audience doesn’t quite understand it now, give them fifty years and they’ll catch up.

BD:   Is there ever a chance that a director is actually seventy-five years ahead rather than just fifty years ahead?

Powers:   I have had the great, great honor of working with two who really, really knew what they were doing, and were so phenomenal that you just put aside all of your ego and say, “Yes, Sir!  Thank you for that.  I never would have thought of that.  That’s brilliant, and the fact that I have just sung this part for the last forty years, and have been doing it another way, I only wish that you had told me this forty years ago.”

BD:   So then it becomes part of your performance for the next however long you continue to sing?

Powers:   Absolutely, however long I have to do it.  There are those out there that are that smart, but the majority of them we call Flavor of the Month.  It’s pistachio in July, and it will be chocolate in August, and you just flush them away at the end of each rehearsal period.

BD:   That sounds like it would be incredibly frustrating.

Powers:   The hard the part of the business is not the singing, and it
s not the preparation.  It’s dealing with these other egos.  It’s dealing with directors, and it’s dealing with conductors, and it’s dealing with administration, all of whom have their own agenda.  They are all trying to validate the fact that they’re getting a paycheck, and have to tell me, who knows more than they do, how to do my business.  It is their job, and I comprehend this, and knowing this makes it easier to not accept what they say, but to deal with it until I can flush them.

BD:   You play it their way as much as you need to, and then get rid of it?

Powers:   You have to.  If you walk in the first day and call them all jerks, you’ll be fired.  They do have that power.  Even though you broke every rule, and didn’t do what the director said, if the audience screamed and yelled and hollered and loved it, and stood and applauded for five minutes, they can’t very well fire you.  [Both laugh]  This is especially true when you go up to them at the end and say, “Golly!  That stuff that you gave me worked so well.  Thanks a million!  I appreciate it!  Look at the response we got!”

BD:   So, you’re part-charlatan, too!

powers Powers:   Oh, you have to be.  That’s why I play the Devil so well!  [The laughter continues]  I had an opportunity for this...  I was doing the part of Mephistopheles in Gounod’s Faust in a long run of nine performances.  That’s long for opera.  This isn’t Broadway where you get four hundred.  If you get nine, you’re really, really lucky.  This time, the conductor simply had it in his mind that the tempi should be very, very slow, and I suppose that’s valid if you can sustain it.  But in Le Veau d’Or, ‘The Golden Calf’ aria, doing it that slowly, for me at least, is impossible vocally.  It just doesn’t work for me, and I can’t imagine it working for anybody.  But he took it so slowly, and every night in the first four performances he killed me.  I’d run out of gas.  I sounded terrible.  I didn’t have enough energy at the end to make the high notes.  He just embarrassed me artistically, and after each performance I’d go to him and say, “Please, please, take it quicker!  You’re killing me out there!”

BD:   I would have thought this would have been worked out in rehearsal.

Powers:   It wasn’t.  Finally, during the fifth performance, instead of going to him at intermission and complaining, I said, “Maestro, thank you so much for taking it faster.  Did you notice how much better it sounded, and what great response we got from the audience?
 For the balance of the performances, it was faster!  [Again, lots of laughter]

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   You mentioned that you started out with the US Army Chorus?

Powers:   Yes, this was as a young singer.  I was in my twenties.

BD:   How did you make the leap from being a choral singer to being a solo singer?

Powers:   At that point in time, the Vietnam War was pretty hot, and every person who had a voice of any sort was trying to get into one of these military organizations, because that would mean you would spend your time fighting the traffic getting to the base, rather than fighting the Viet Cong.  They were very, very choosey, and to be selected as one of the forty members of the Chorus was a phenomenal break, as well as a phenomenal honor.  After the war was over, and we all served out our three-and-a-half years and went on to other things, at least ten of them went to the Metropolitan Opera.  So, the group was made up entirely of great solo voices.  We had a sound that I quite honestly feel has never been equaled as far as the Army Chorus was concerned, because they just didn’t have the option to pick this type of voice anymore.  It wasn’t a matter of trying to blend, it was just how loud you could scream, and hope you were louder than the guy sitting next to you.  We had a sound that was really quite remarkable.

BD:   Yet it was very musical?

Powers:   Yes, absolutely.  If you were a member of the Army Chorus with the Army Band at that time, you went in as an enlisted man, even though everybody had a degree.  There were doctorates, so we all qualified for officers’ training.  Every one could have been an officer in any other realm, but they could only have one or two officers, and so everybody else was a non-com.  But it wasn’t a problem as far as education was concerned.  Everybody was already very, very highly trained, or they wouldn’t have gotten in to begin with.  So we were lucky.

BD:   When you got out of there, you went into solo singing immediately?

Powers:   The Army is wonderful in that it is regimented to the point where I knew that in June of 1969, I would be a free man, and I’d have to do something other than collect a military paycheck.  So, as 1968 rolled around, I began making some auditions.  I took my leave, and rather than go fishing with my Dad, I flew out to Kansas City and had an arrangement made to sing for the Kansas City Lyric Opera.  At that time, Russell Patterson, a wonderful fellow, heard me sing, and he said, “I don’t know what next year’s repertoire is going to be, but I guarantee if there’s a bass part in it, you’re going to have it!”  So, when the day came that I left the military service, I already had a singing engagement lined up on the professional circuit.  I could just take off my uniform, and put on my Levi’s, and go to rehearsal.

BD:   It must have been good that Patterson would have you in mind when he was selecting repertoire.

Russell Patterson, Former Opera And Symphony Director, Dies At 85

Updated: Friday, October 4, 11:15 a.m.

patterson Russell Patterson, general artistic director of the Lyric Opera of Kansas City for four decades, as well as one of its founders, died Wednesday; he was 85. Patterson was also the first music director for the Kansas City Symphony.

From 1957 to 1998, Patterson served as the Lyric's artistic director. In a history of the company posted on its website, he's credited with sparking the idea:

In the fall of 1957, a young conductor, Russell Patterson proposed to transplant the European opera-theater pattern to a more or less typical American setting. A number of local opera buffs welcomed the idea, but there were many qualms...

Patterson described these early days in his 1987 book, A View from the Pit: "When we formed the Lyric, we called it The Kansas City Lyric Theater. We wanted a place for those who love theater and those who love music. They discovered that opera was fun – not a cultural castor oil."

The Lyric's general director and CEO, Deborah Sandler, said in a statement, "His legacy to Lyric Opera of Kansas City and the Kansas City community cannot be overstated...without his ceaseless energy and imagination which created a strong opera and arts foundation in Kansas City, we would not be here today."

A native of Mississippi, Patterson earned a bachelor’s degree from Southeast Louisiana University in 1950 and went on to earn a master's in music in 1952 from the Conservatory of Music at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. After graduation, he studied opera in Germany, and later taught at the Conservatory. He played with the Kansas City Philharmonic from 1951 to 1959. When this organization dissolved in 1982, Patterson served as the first music conductor for the Kansas City Symphony, from 1982 to 1986.

"It would be impossible to imagine where the Symphony stands today, or to dream about our future, without understanding from where we came," said current music director Michael Stern in a statement. "Russell Patterson is part of the DNA of our orchestra, and he was and always will be part of the lifeblood and the history of The Kansas City Symphony."

In 1982, Patterson received the Ditson Conductor’s Award, a recognition given to conductors for "distinguished contributions to American music." Others who have received this distinction include conductors such as James Levine, Christoph von Dohnanyi, Leonard Slatkin, and Leonard Bernstein.

After retiring from the Lyric Opera of Kansas City, Patterson moved to Cape Cod, Mass. and he continued to conduct.

Patterson was the founding artistic director and conductor of the Buzzards Bay Musicfest, a summer classical concert series, in Marion, Mass., from 1997 until his retirement this year due to health issues. He also co-founded the Sunflower Music Festival in Topeka, Kan. in 1987; he returned in 2011 to conduct in honor of its silver anniversary.

Powers:   I was very fortunate again.  I have had an incredible amount of luck in my career.  That always plays a big, big part because there’s so many talented people out there that are capable of doing it.  But Russell Patterson did live up to his word, and for the next three seasons he engaged me regularly.  I sang eleven major roles in Kansas City, which also happened to co-ordinate with wonderful years of the Kansas City Chiefs, who were playing decent football.  So, that made it even more fun.

BD:   You became a real KC-er.

Powers:   Oh, I was.  The young artists that were in the Kansas City Lyric Opera during those seasons were also living in New York, and came out to Kansas City for their summer opportunities.  I picked their brains, and asked them what I should do, and who I should see, because as soon as the Kansas City season was over, I got on the train and went to New York.  With the names that had been given to me by my colleagues, I was able to have introductions to some of the managements, and some of the smaller opera companies.  I also got the names of the people to whom I should write in order to get auditions for the big opera companies, such as the New York City Opera, and the Metropolitan.  It was a snowball effect.  One thing led to the next.  One of the wonderful names that was given to me by those people was Boris Goldovsky, who gave me my very first work in New York.  I literally got off a train and went to work singing for school kids at 9 o’clock in the morning.  These were knocked-down performances of Tosca and The Magic Flute, but at least it was a paycheck.  It was something to keep me alive in those times when I was going to my earliest auditions.

BD:   When you’re singing for school kids, I assume that you get a little satisfaction of knowing that you’re bringing the opera to the next generation, but is that also good to keep the voice in trim by singing each day... or am I being overly optimistic?

Powers:   [Laughs]  Oh no!  I wish I could say that.  Singing a knocked-down version of Tosca for third-graders at nine in the morning, is hell.  They couldn’t care less about it.  It means nothing to them, other than the fact that they’re not sitting in Arithmetic class.  It’s just an excuse to go and get out of whatever it is that they are were otherwise supposed to do.

BD:   [Gently protesting]  But you’re moving the voice a little bit...

Powers:   At nine o’clock in the morning, all you’re doing is hurting your voice.  It’s a pain in the behind, but it is a forty-five-dollar paycheck, and forty-five dollars in 1969 meant a great deal.  Also, it may possibly have added a wee bit to the stature.  You add to your stature the way a mason adds mortar to brick
a little at a time until you get a walland maybe having sung all of these things makes you a little sharper and little more desirable for the next guy who was going to hear you.  The object in those days was to sing for anybody and everybody.  If the janitor would hear you, then you would sing for him because you didn’t know if he might have the ear of the assistant to the assistant of the assistant.

BD:   Through it all, you kept making progress?

Powers:   Obviously.  I’ve been doing it for forty years!

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powers BD:   You sing big parts and you sing small parts.  Is there a huge difference between singing the lead, and just being someone that appears in one scene?

Powers:   Big role means big pay, small role means small pay, but otherwise it’s all the same.  I just had the great honor of doing the world premiere of The Great Gatsby at the Metropolitan Opera, singing a very small part.  It wasn’t because I wanted it to be small, it’s all that Mr. Harbison wrote.  I was singing the villain, of course, Meyer Wolfshiem, who was the Al Capone-type character, the bad guy, the one who got Gatsby into all of his mess to begin with.  He only has, maybe, six minutes on stage, and yet the part is large in that during the course of the three and half-hours of the opera, the characters are continually referring to Wolfshiem’s guise...
Watch out, it’s Wolfshiem!  An aura is built around him, so that when he walks on stage for his six and half minutes, and says, “I wouldn’t have come if it wasn’t important!  Philadelphia was on the line.  They callin in their chips!” you have to live up to that expectation. 

[Note: While preparing the interview for this website presentation, I asked Powers about this detail, and he responded in an e-mail...
While I did not discuss my interpretation of the character with Maestro Levine beforehand, he seemed impressed with my “gangland accent” during the first rehearsals, and never said NOT to use it throughout the run.  We did it eighteen times over two seasons.  So, to be as precise as I can with the text, using this “gravelly, Bronx-ese” speak, my words would have sounded like: “Ah wahden-nah kum, if it wazzen’t impor'dent.  Filladelfia wuz on dah line… de’r callin’ in der chips.”]

So, suddenly this very small part becomes, at least in my mind, the crux, the pivot upon which the entire show hinges.

BD:   So, for you, the show is The Great Wolfshiem?

Powers:   Absolutely, just like The Great Scarpia, or The Great Iago!  If you don’t have this in your mind, you fail.  Can I digress and tell a story about Laurence Olivier?

BD:   Please do.  [Vis-à-vis the program shown at left, see my interviews with John Harbison, James Levine, Duane Schuler, Dawn Upshaw, Susan Graham, and Jerry Hadley.  The item is for sale by a commercial firm, hence their

Powers:   In his biography he talks of an incident early in his career.  He was doing a very small part in a performance in London, and his good friend, his buddy, came to see the show.  After the performance they were going to the pub to have a glass of beer.  Olivier had taken his make-up off, and he and his friend were walking down the sidewalk in London, heading towards the pub.  The friend didn’t say a word about the show.  Olivier became a little uncomfortable that nothing was being said about his performance, and so he said, “That part I played was such a lousy part, a rotten part.  I really hate it,” and the friend said, “It shows, doesn’t it?”  Olivier said that was the most important lesson he ever learned about acting, because he vowed from that moment on to make every part that he played valid in some way; not to show that it’s a rotten part that he hates, but to find some value in it to make it worthwhile.  I’ve always kept this in my head in any role that I’ve played, large or small.  This one that I’m doing at Grant Park this summer, Brander, is a very small role, a very small part, but as far as I’m concerned, it’s very important because it sets up the scene.  It gives the springboard for the rest of the cast to jump off of.  Jennifer Larmore always said that even though she had sung The Barber of Seville over five hundred times, it was different every single evening because she was using the rest of the cast as a foil for her show.  If the tenor happens to be rather weak and placid, then her performance will be affected by that.  Or, if the tenor happens to be flamboyant and outgoing, and very exciting, then her show takes on that aspect.  But as far as her character is concerned, she can only be a representative of what is being fed to her.

BD:   But if the tenor is letting her down a little bit, could she not feed off the baritone, or the bass?

Powers:   Yes, and that’s what makes it interesting every evening.  That’s why five hundred performances have always been five hundred different performances, because she never knows until she walks out there what she’s going to get.

BD:   Is it good for you to come back to familiar roles?

Powers:   Absolutely!  You love the new one because it’s a challenge, and you love the old one because you try to find a way to make it better, or try to find a way to make it different.  Those roles that we sing over and over again
Bohème, Tosca, Tales of Hoffmann, Falstaffare so timeless and so gigantic in scope and concept, that there is no way in a single lifetime that you could ever exhaust all the possibilities.  Even after a forty-year career, such as I have been fortunate to enjoy, there is no possibility of even touching what Falstaff has to offer.  It just becomes so gigantic.  You can only feel bad at the end of each show that there was something you missed.  You are aware that you missed something, and in thinking about it later on you find some other big step.  Maybe you were lucky to have one of those two directors I talked about, who gives you yet another insight into the part.  Or maybe you watch the Orson Welles movie, Chimes at Midnight, and you see something that Welles did that wasn’t even musical, but it was such a marvelous touch, and you say, “Absolutely!  I can incorporate that into my next performance.”  Then you only hope that you get another opportunity.  You never walk on a stage that you don’t wonder, “Will this be my last Rigoletto?  Will this be the last time I ever sing the Four Villains?”  You never ever know.  When you’re twenty-five or thirty, you think you’ve got a whole career ahead of you.  But, as you get down towards the end, you wonder.

BD:   [With apprehension]  Your days are not dwindling to a precious few, are they???

Powers:   [Wistfully]  They may well be.  For me, it’s September.

BD:   You mentioned something that I want to ask about.  When doing the Four Villains in Hoffmann, is it nice singing four different people, or are they really four facets of the same person?

Powers:   They are the same person.  They’re all Death in different guises.  One of the greatest compliments I got was from a woman who obviously was not an opera fan.  She had been trucked in by bus to the performance, and she came back stage afterwards.  She said that she had no idea that the person who played the Four Villains was the same individual!  She thought it was four different performers.  What better compliment can you get?

powers BD:   You had created four different characters.

Powers:   Four different characters with four different sounds, because I alter my voice as well as my persona.

BD:   Without damaging the throat?

Powers:   Yes, it can be done.  You sing one, and you talk another, using Sprechstimme, for example.

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BD:   You’ve made a couple of recordings.  Are they satisfying for you?

Powers:   I’ve got to say they have.  In a way, they have been a summation.  The first one is Rogues and Villains, which came out in 1998.  The second one, The Worst of William Powers, was done two years later, both in the Eastern portion of Europe.  One was done just outside of Prague, and the second was in Bratislava, Slovakia, with wonderful musicians.  I have fourteen arias in each of these discs.  Twenty-eight characters, all different, all bad, and it took a lifetime to assemble them.

BD:   Is it twenty-eight different bad guys, or twenty-eight different facets of bad?

Powers:   You’d have to listen to it and tell me.  [Both laugh]  I have tried to make each one different, but some of them aren’t bad.  Adolf Hitler did not think that he was a bad guy.  Attila the Hun did not feel, in killing all those people to conquer those lands, that he was doing a bad thing.  He thought he was doing a good thing.  So did Alexander the Great.  Eisenhower felt that he was a good man, but the Germans did not think he was a good man.  It all becomes a matter of perspective.

BD:   Is it a matter of outcome, or does outcome alter perspective?

Powers:   Take Fidelio, for example.  Pizarro, the prison warden, is considered to be one of the opera’s worst villains, and yet he tells us in his big aria that he is only doing to Florestan, the man that he’s keeping imprisoned, what Florestan would have done to him had Florestan won the election.  Florestan was just as nasty a fellow, but he’s the one that unfortunately got captured, so he’s in the prison.  It’s perspective, and in answer to your earlier question, as to whether they are all bad, or are there shades of bad, some of them are good, but they’re perceived as bad.  Fiesco, in Simon Boccanegra, sings Il Lacerato Spirito.  He is a very, very bad man as far as the political party that he opposes is concerned, but at this particular moment in the opera, he is singing a very heart-moving aria about the passing and the horrible death of his daughter, who was murdered.  His humanity, in the sense that his heart is reaching out to his murdered daughter, touches us all even though he’s considered to be a bad guy.

BD:   Are there any characters that have no redeeming value... not even Iago?

Powers:   No!  I see where Iago’s mellifluence came from.  He tells us early in the opera that he is absolutely outraged, that after more than twenty years of service to General Otello, he has been bypassed for an increase in rank by this upstart popinjay Cassio.

BD:   Is there no chance that Cassio is actually better fit for the job than Iago?

Powers:   As far as Iago is concerned, the answer is no.  Iago says that in more than one hundred valiantly fought battles, “I have proven my worth to the State and to the General, and this man, because he’s handsome, and because he’s well appointed, and because he comes from a high-ranking family, is raised over me for promotion!”  That does not justify the horror of Iago
s deeds, but I see where the motivation comes from.  It’s not a justification from a moral standpoint, but it helps us to understand where the villain emits.  This is where I try to find validity in my evilness in whatever character I’m playing.  We’ve already talked about Satan, finding a humanity, if you will, in the fact that this evil is not what he wants.  It’s what is left over after Good has been claimed.  He didn’t want evil, he wanted good.  He wanted to reign in Heaven, but God took that job, so he got what was left over.

BD:   Should he not have been content to be one of the supporting players of Good, rather than the master of evil?

Powers:   He was the master.  He was God’s right hand.  Lucifer means ‘angel of light’. He was the strongest character next to God until the conflict took place according to Milton.  You have to read Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained to know these things.  It’s so exciting to dig into these various references, to read these literary things, and to find out where Boito got the sense of his Mephistopheles.  It’s very Miltonian.  It’s fun.

BD:   In the end, has it all been worth it for you?

Powers:   Absolutely!  I’ve actually been privileged to make a living doing what I love most.  There’s probably not a tenth of one percent of the people on this planet who can say that.  Every morning, most people get up at a terribly ungodly hour, eat some wretched breakfast, and fight traffic to go to an office that has no window.  They then spend eight hours, fight traffic to come home, only to do it over and over and over again until they retire or die.  I look forward to every morning.  I’m excited about my music.

BD:   Are you excited about your music, or music in general?

Powers:   I’m excited about the music that I’m involved in, if for no other reason than just to find ways to get around the moron who’s directing the show.

BD:   Should you direct the show, because you’re not a moron?

Powers:   I have directed!  I’m a good director because, first of all, I know what I’m doing.

BD:   [Playing Devil
s Advocate, ironically to one who plays the Devil]  But then there must be several singers up there who think you’re today’s moron.

Powers:   I try not to let them think that because I let them take control.  My directing technique is that I walk into the rehearsal room the first day, and I say to these folks that are assembled, “You all have done this show before, otherwise you wouldn’t be here.  You all know what you are doing.  I’m going to give you the opportunity to do what you would like to do.  If there’s a problem, I’ll sort it out.  As far as blocking is concerned, I can move the traffic around so that we don’t bump into tables, or walk into each other.  But what comes out of the show is what you’re going to give me from this show.  I’d like you to tell me what you’d like to do.”

BD:   Then rather than a director, you’re more of an inspirer?

Powers:   Yes, and I think the best directors are.

BD:   But that assumes you have a great amount of intelligence on the part of each and every cast member.

powers Powers:   Hopefully, the cast has been chosen so that is taking place.

BD:   If you find someone who has a little less intelligence, or a bit less creativity, do you then put more into it?

Powers:   I have found from my own experience that when I’m surrounded by people who do better than I do, that my level rises to their level.

BD:   But you’re an intelligent singer.

Powers:   Those who are in the business for forty years are.

BD:   But what I’m saying is you may not get always great voices that have creative brains.

Powers:   There’s truth to what you’re saying, but an intelligent director will allow those who have that to let it surface, and not try to sequester it with stupid movements and stupid concepts.

BD:   Do you have to be flexible as a director?

Powers:   I think so.  I’ve only directed a couple of shows, but that was my approach.  I am not a professional director, and there may be directors who will read this and say, “He’s totally wrong!  He has no idea what he’s talking about!”  But it worked for me.

BD:   You should throw your hat into the ring of directing.

Powers:   I’d rather not, thank you!  I don’t want to.

BD:   Why?  Are you not squandering forty years of experience?

Powers:   I’ve never thought about it.  It seems that when my singing days are done, I’d rather just quietly sit back and go to performances and not be involved in them.  That is not to say if someone on a local level says, “Hey, there’s a bunch of kids here at the school, and we’d like to do The Barber of Seville.  Will you help us put it together?”  I’d gladly give my time.  But I don’t want to go into it and fight the administrations and the madness.

BD:   Would you be fighting the good fight, or fighting the bad fight?

Powers:   It’s gotten to the point in the United States to a large degree, and in Europe to a great degree, we always have to find ways to make it different.  Instead of a Napoleonic setting, let’s do Tosca in Nazi Germany.  Well, it doesn’t work.  The words don’t let it work.  Or let’s do The Barber of Seville where everybody is wearing bikinis, and instead of being in Bartolo’s house, we’ll do it in the Sahara Desert.  Why???  If you want to do a show in the Sahara Desert, write a show about the Sahara Desert, but don’t desecrate Barber of Seville.

BD:   It gets them notoriety, and maybe that’s what they’re looking for.

Powers:   I don’t want to be part of that.  However, when I get with one of the two directors that I talked about who has a brilliant take or a new concept, I am more than willing to jump into that with both feet.  I had the great privilege of doing Werther in Vienna last season, and instead of the candied saccharine Werther that we always see, it was the dirty underside of their life.  The part that I played, the father of Charlotte, was a child abuser, but the whole thing worked.  It never changed the words, nor the staging.  It’s the mentality.

BD:   Did they turn the character of Werther into a scoundrel, too?

Powers:   That particular tale did not work about the trials of poor Werther, but rather the trials of poor Charlotte.  She was thrust in the middle of this, and being a woman at this point in time, she really had nothing to say about what was going to be given.  When her father said she would marry this fellow, this was what was going to be done.  It became the plight of the poor woman, and it worked.  The audience was shocked, stunned.  They’d never seen a Werther like this.

BD:   But they still heard the beautiful music, and the long lines?

Powers:   Exactly, which is even more poignant when placed in this sordid kind of a setting.  It was very exciting, very fine.

BD:   Thanks for meeting with me today, and all the best for this upcoming performance.

Powers:   Thank you, Bruce.  Always great to see you.


See my interview with Samuel Ramey


See my interviews with Kurt Herbert Adler, and Hans Werner Henze

© 2003 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in Chicago on July 20, 2003.  Portions were broadcast on WNUR a few days later.  This transcription was made in 2021, 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.