Counter - tenor  Derek  Lee  Ragin

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


The American counter-tenor, Derek Lee Ragin, was born June 18, 1958 in West Point, New York and raised in Newark, New Jersey. He first studied the piano, and went on to begin his formal vocal training at the Newark Boys Chorus School. He later attended the Oberlin College Conservatory of Music, where he majored in piano and music education. He was first place winner in the 1983 Purcell-Britten Prize for Concert Singers in England, the Prix Spécial du Jury du Grand Prix Lyrique de Monte Carlo in 1988, and in 1986 the First Prize at the 35th International Music Competition in Munich.

With a swiftly moving career, Derek Lee Ragin made a series of highly acclaimed debuts, notably at the Metropolitan Opera in 1988 in George Frideric Handel's Giulio Cesare; in recital at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1991, and at the Salzburg Festival in Gluck's Orfeo with the Monteverdi Choir and Orchestra in 1990. He made his London recital debut at Wigmore Hall in 1984, and was immediately re-engaged for the following year.

Derek Lee Ragin is regarded as one of the foremost counter-tenors of our day. In great demand as a master of Baroque vocal style, he is also an inspired interpreter of contemporary music. He has performed throughout North America and Europe, including recitals at Wigmore Hall and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. His performances of such diverse repertoire are characterized by an unusual warmth and expressivity. He has received unanimous accolades from critics and audiences throughout the world. He has been described as "a rare performer who sets a new standard," [Financial Times of London] and "A soloist who simply overwhelms the audience," [Cleveland Plain Dealer].

Derek Lee Ragin sang in Leonard Bernstein's Chichester Psalms at Tanglewood with Seiji Ozawa and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. He has appeared at the Schleswig-Holstein Festival and at Salzburg in Györgi Ligeti's 1978 opera Le Grand Macabre, conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen and directed by Peter Sellars. The production was also presented in Paris at the Théâtre du Châtelet. He appeared in recital at the Metropolitan Museum of Art; sang the role of Arsamenes in G.F. Handel's Xerxes at the Seattle Opera, and in a return engagement at the Metropolitan Opera, sang the role of Oberon in Benjamin Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream. He has worked with many of the world's great conductors, including Leonard Bernstein, William Christie, Péter Eötvös, Christoph Eschenbach, Sir John Eliot Gardiner, René Jacobs, Kurt Masur, Seiji Ozawa, Helmuth Rilling, Esa-Pekka Salonen, and Robert Spano, among others.

In recent seasons, Derek Lee Ragin sang the 1739 (first performance) version of G.F. Handel's Israel in Egypt in Budapest, debuted Enjott Schneider's Der Name der Rose, written specifically for Ragin, and appeared in the world premiere of Jonathan Dawe's Prometheus at the Guggenheim Museum. He appeared in the Munich Opera's production of Rinaldo, toured Austria and Germany with the Vienna Konzertverein, and toured with the Baroque ensemble Florilegium in Israel, Germany, France and Spain. Recent USA appearances include a tour with the Baroque ensemble Rebel, G.F. Handel's Messiah in Cleveland with Appolo’s Fire, a collaboration with The Aulos Ensemble in a Christmas program at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and appearances in San Francisco with the American Bach Soloists.


See my interviews with Hans Werner Henze, and Gidon Kremer

Other highlights include the New York Philharmonic Orchestra world premiere of Kancheli's And Farewell Goes Out Sighing... [shown above, and a recording of another Kancheli work is shown at the end of our interview, near the bottom of this webpage]; performances of J.S. Bach's St. John Passion (BWV 245) with the London Philharmonic Orchestra; Gluck's Orfeo ed Eurydice in Vienna and at the Rheingau Music Festival; and Kancheli's Diplipito with the Stuttgarter Kammerorchester at the Lucerne Festival and again in Stuttgart when the work was recorded for ECM. Derek Lee Ragin sang Belize and several other roles in the world premiere of Péter Eötvös' Angels in America at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris. He performed G.F. Handel's Alexander Balus in St. Paul, Minnesota; concerts with the Kölner Kammerorchester in Cologne and Munich; and Bach cantatas with the Monteverdi Choir and Orchestra in Milan and London which were recorded for Deutsche Grammophon. Other engagements include performances of Messiah with the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, Philadelphia Orchestra and Louisville Bach Society; and the role of Anfinomus in Monteverdi's Il Ritorno d'Ulisse in Patria with the Netherlands Opera in Sydney.

Derek Lee Ragin has recorded for the Telarc, Philips, EMI, Erato and Capriccio labels. His discography includes Italian lute songs, G.F. Handel cantatas, and a disc of spirituals entitled Ev'ry Time I Feel the Spirit, all for Channel Classics. He recorded the role of Orfeo in Orfeo ed Euridice for Philips Classical, the title role in G.F. Handel's Tamerlano, and Teseo for Erato, and the role of Poro in the world premiere recording of Johann Adolf Hasse's Cleofide on the Capriccio label. With the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Robert Shaw, he performed and recorded Leonard Bernstein's Chichester Psalms and the world premiere of the composer's Missa Brevis. The recording subsequently won a Grammy Award, and his recording of Giulio Cesare with Concerto Köln received a Gramophone Award in 1992. He also lent his voice to Farinelli, a film about the famed 18th century castrato which won the Golden Globe Award for Best Foreign Film in 1995. The soundtrack won the Golden Record award the following year in Cannes. [Many of these recordings are shown later on this webpage.]

==  Biography from the Bach Cantatas website.  [Text only - photo is from another source]  
== Names which are links in this box and below refer to my interviews elsewhere on my website.  BD  



Derek Lee Ragin was in Chicago in February of 1995, for a program at the University of Chicago marking the 300th anniversary of the death of English composer Henry Purcell.  He was gracious enough to take time from his busy schedule for an interview.

As we were setting up to record the conversation, a few personal details were discussed, which led to my opening question . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:   Are you at the point in your career that you expect to be at this age?

Derek Lee Ragin:   I’ve never thought about that.  It’s a good question, because when I was twenty-five years old, I thought by the time I was forty I would be able to have an exclusive contract with one of the major record companies, which would make things a little easier, and would pull a lot of things into perspective.  It’s difficult not to have one, because it helps with publicity all over the place.  I’d probably have an easier time putting concerts together.  But as far as the profession, the disc that I did with John Eliot Gardiner of Gluck
s Orfeo was just a dream.  It happened about three years ago, and I can’t think of anything else that I’m dying to do, because it’s done.  [The audio recording Ragin is talking about is shown below-left.  The DVD shown at right is a live performance with a different cast and conductor, done at another venue.]

BD:   Tell me about singing this fabled musician.

Ragin:   The first time I heard the role was the recording with Kathleen Ferrier.  I never got to hear her sing live, but it’s a role that any counter-tenor would die for.  It has all of the right qualities.  I consider myself a more lyrical counter-tenor, but John Eliot Gardiner thinks differently.  He thinks I’m more of the dramatic and hysteric.  He always casts me in that kind of role, but I relate to more of the lyrical, legato, lamenting-type of role, such as Gluck’s Orfeo.  I can’t think of another composer who allows you to sing beautifully the whole time.  You don’t have to do anything but just sing with ease.  It’s in the perfect range.

BD:   You don’t prefer having a range of ideas and emotions within a character?

Ragin:   Another favorite role is Julius Caesar of Handel, but it is easy for me to sink my teeth into the role of Gluck’s Orfeo.  The way the character is written is perfect for the counter-tenor voice.  It lies perfectly in the range.  It doesn’t go up to high Fs, and you don’t need to do any expansive cadenzas.  It also doesn’t go very low.

BD:   Within this range, is Orfeo written so that you can produce a specific character, or does it require more projecting of you and your ideas of the character?

Ragin:   It’s more my ideas in this character.  I can relate to this melancholic and tragic figure.  It’s part of my nature, as well.  Someone who is more easy-going might find it more difficult to relate to this tragic nature.

BD:   [Feigning alarm]  You mean to say you’re having a tragic life as you go along???

Ragin:   [Smiles]  I don’t think it’s tragic.  I just think by nature I’ve always been that way.  A lot of my closest friends don’t see that.  I don’t know why they always think of me as someone you can have a good time with.  But I see something in this part of Orfeo.  It’s a longing to find, or in his case to regain this love.  In my case, it’s a continuous search for the same kind of thing.  I’ve never had to think about that until you asked about it.
BD:   We’ll look for that in your characterization.

Ragin:   It’s easy to see when you’re on stage.  I don’t think you’ll be able to hear that in the recording.  I was sick when I did it, and John Eliot Gardiner screamed at me.

BD:   But it came out all right though?

Ragin:   Yes.  It’s all right, but it’s not my best singing because I had tonsillitis.  Not too many people know that.

BD:   Well, I won’t tell them!  [Both laugh]  How do you divide your career between staged operatic roles, and concert or recital work?

Ragin:   Most of my career is spent in Europe, and ninety percent is probably oratorio and concert work.  Opera is once every two years, or once a year, or not at all, whereas most of my colleagues are making careers doing opera.  It’s probably much easier to cast a male Caucasian in the roles.  I’ve never asked directors in opera houses why, but they prefer that, and it’s fine.  It’s something that will always be a mystery to me.  Colleagues of Vinson Cole say he has less of a problem with that because he’s light-skinned, and they can make him up so he can pass as a white male leading tenor.  But it’s just in the last five years where there’s been a problem with that.  I’m not even saying it’s prejudice or anything like that, but...

BD:   Is it getting to be more of a problem, or less of a problem as we move along?

Ragin:   More of a problem, especially the older I get, where you’ve got a twenty-five-year-old who has only just begun.  They win a competition, and do something at the Met, and all of a sudden presto, they’re a star.  [Laughs]  No, it’s not actually like that, but...

BD:   Have you sought advice from people like George Shirley, or Simon Estes, or other older colleagues who are African-American?  [Note that a list of my African-American guests can be seen HERE.]

Ragin:   Not yet, because I’ve only encountered the problem in the last five years.  There are times when I’ll be considered, and then they’ll come back in two weeks’ time and say they
ve found someone else.  The audition went well, and I got good press, but it’s just that it’s less threatening to see my Caucasian colleague with the female.  There’s less of that in Baroque music, though.  It’s easier to cast me in a Handel role, but I don’t think I’d be asked to do Gluck’s Orfeo anywhere in America.

BD:   Yet Phillips had no problem putting a picture of you and Sylvia on the cover of the recording!

Ragin:   That was done in Holland.  That wouldn’t have happened in America.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Let’s talk a little bit about singing.  If you were just singing in your normal voice, you would have no choice because you’d be a tenor, or a baritone, or a bass.  But to be a counter-tenor is a conscious decision, is it not?

Ragin:   Yes, but even before that I was going to play the piano or teach music!  [Laughs]  It took this German-American woman, Ursula Stechow, who lives in Ohio to help me decide.  I met her in 1977 in an early music group at Oberlin.  For four years she kept telling me that I should go to Europe and audition for John Eliot Gardiner.  At that time I didn’t know who this person was.  I didn’t know anything about the Baroque world, or counter-tenors.  Then when I graduated, she sent me a check in the mail.  She said,
“You may not remember this elderly lady who used to sit out in the audience and cheer you on, but I want you to take this check and go to London.  As it happened, I got to London but I never got to the audition.  I got to Camden Town, and took the tube in the wrong direction.  When I got to the audition, John Eliot Gardiner was gone with his choir to France.  I waited until I got back to America to call Ursula and tell her it didn’t happen, and she said not to worry.  But she helped me to realize this potential.  I had done some pop music in this voice at Oberlin, but not professionally.  I’d also done some duets with my mother between the ages of eighteen and twenty-one years, and I used to accompany her, but it took someone with that kind of background.  Stechow grew up in Göttingen, and her husband was Director of the Orchestra, and later on the Board of Trustees of the Göttingen Handel Festival.  She had heard Paul Esswood there singing the part of Medoro [the African Prince] in Orlando, and she said it was her dream to one day see me in that role.  That never happened, but that was how she got the idea for me to pursue a career as a counter-tenor.  Before that, I had no desire to do this whatsoever.
BD:   What was the feeling the first time you tried singing falsetto?

Ragin:   That came easy because it was something I was doing at the early music group.  But I didn’t realize that people were doing it as a profession.  I was singing Josquin des Prez, and lots of other early music including Monteverdi.  I was asked by the opera theater person (at Oberlin) to audition as Oberon.  I wondered how I could do that since I was a piano major.  They won’t mix.  They won’t let me do that, but I was cast in the part.  This gave Ursula another little reason to guide me in this career.  That’s actually what she did at the very beginning.

BD:   How long did it take to develop the idea that you could use this voice, and make a living with it?

Ragin:   I went back to Oberlin to see if someone there would teach me, and they didn’t know what to do with a counter-tenor.  So, I wound up at the University of Maryland.  Originally, I was supposed to study with Phyllis Bryn-Julson, but she was off in Europe, so I met Dr. James McDonald.  He’s a tenor, and Head of the Department, and he said he would teach me.  He introduced me to quite a few Baroque organizations in the Washington D.C. area.  I also auditioned for the Men and Boys Choir at that National Cathedral.  With all of that experience, at the end of that year I decided I could do it.  I applied for a fellowship.  There were one thousand applicants to study in Amsterdam, and I was chosen.  But winning that fellowship and then spending that year in Washington gave me the confidence I needed.  When I went to Amsterdam, I was studying with Max van Egmond.  It was more of a masterclass, but I got to study with him.

BD:   He’s a fine Baroque specialist.  Did you seek out other Baroque stylists, or counter-tenors?

Ragin:   I can’t think of anybody who actually taught me how to sing.  You just have that, and then you can pick up the style from someone.  That’s what I did, because my voice is almost identical to my mother’s.  It’s just pitched a bit lower.  I’ve always mimicked people throughout my career, classical artists such as Joan Sutherland and Leontyne Price, but never any male singers because it just didn’t interest me.

BD:   This was before your voice changed?

Ragin:   As a boy soprano, that’s right.

BD:   Then when the voice changed, you kept it up there with the falsetto?

Ragin:   Yes.  For a year I didn’t know what would happen.  The voice broke, and at fifteen I couldn’t sing anymore.  Then when I turned sixteen, I joined a choir in high school.   But coming back to the Baroque style, I picked it up just by listening to instrumentalists in Amsterdam, and the little bit I heard in college.  I was a pianist, and would have to play for lots of singers, but I can say stylistically we were not doing anything special.  When I was in Amsterdam, I traveled to Germany quite a bit, and to London.  Probably the best way to pick up the style is from instrumentalists.

BD:   You sing a lot of Baroque music, and also some contemporary music.  There seems to be much less for you in the Romantic era.

Ragin:   I do quite a bit of German Lieder including Schubert and Mendelssohn, but I’ve been very specific about which songs to do.  I don’t think I would do Liederkreis.  Take gender and all that out, and just do basically songs about love.

BD:   You sing vocal writing written for altos?

Ragin:   For altos, that’s right.  The Germans don’t like it but I don’t care what they think.  I don’t want to limit myself singing Baroque music.  I’ll never be able to sing a legato line.  You have to have the tool to do it.  There are certain voices that can do it, and certain voices that can’t.  That’s just nature.  I don’t think you’d want to hear a whole lot of operatic singers singing Lieder.  It’s only because they have sung opera so much that it’s hard for them to come down a notch and just sing piano sometimes.  You’ve got these great orchestras over the voices, and the singers have to push and push all the time.

BD:   You sing Lieder in a much smaller hall with just the piano, and you’re right there almost in the lap of the audience.

Ragin:   Exactly, and you can do anything you want.  A lot of the operatic singers shy away from doing Lieder recitals, and I think it is where you can be the most expressive.

BD:   It’s where Derek Ragin can be the most expressive.

Ragin:   That true, yes.  A friend of mine in London, and Phyllis Bryn-Julson, and all of the people that I’ve ever worked with told me, with my timbre I should explore everything, and not limit myself.  They said there’s something in my timbre that’s unlike most of the other counter-tenors, particularly the English ones, that allows me to sing songs, be it American, or German, or French.  They told me to experiment with it, and that’s what I’ve done.  I’ve just tried Ned Rorem for the first time in London at Wigmore Hall, but that took everything out of me.  I just overdid everything.  I’d never programmed Ned Rorem before, and the next day I couldn’t sing.  [Laughs]  I don’t know if it was just that... I’m sure the writing of Ned Rorem had nothing to do with it, but I still haven’t gotten over this little bit of laryngitis.

BD:   That was six weeks ago?

Ragin:   Yes.  It’s kind of weird because I went to the doctor, and he told me I’ve got laryngitis, and I had to keep singing over that, to just go on with it.  It
s a tough business!

BD:   Is it too tough being both the singer and the business man, and holding together the artist career and the financial career?

Ragin:   It’s been a little rough for me, yes.  Five years ago I thought I would be living in Europe, but I do have a home in New Jersey, and mortgage, and until I sell that house I have to keep making those long trips.  They’re pretty exhausting, and financially you do much better in Europe.  America’s a tough country to just make a living unless you’re doing opera full time.  But that’s very limiting.

BD:   The old Community Concerts Series have died out, and that’s too bad.

Ragin:   It is too bad.

The history of Community Concerts parallels in many ways that of the past century. During the 1920s, radio, film, and the phonograph gave millions of Americans their first taste of professional-quality performing arts. There was a problem, though. This problem was that while America’s interest in great, live music was growing, the audiences to support such concerts were largely confined to major cities, while hundreds more cities had no concerts at all, for it was too risky a business. It would be up to some group like the local ladies’ musical club to try to bring some noted musical artist or group to their city, which first meant lining up some deep pockets to underwrite the cost. Guarantors too often got stuck with meeting a deficit when attendance might rise or fall depending on the public’s whims, the weather, or competition from other local events.

Community Concerts proved to be the solution to this problem. Community Concerts started on a shoe-string budget in Chicago in 1920, the brainchild of two music managers, Dema Harshbarger and Ward French. It was an idea born of desperation. They were faced with declining concert dates for their artists as both small towns and larger cities were cutting back on concert presentations. The idea that French and his associate came up with was disarmingly simple. They proposed to do away with such local financial risk by organizing a permanent concert association on a non-profit membership basis, raising funds through an intensive one-week campaign. Once the money was raised, artists would be engaged within the limits of the available funds. Sale of single admissions would be done away with — only members could attend the concerts. Thus was born the organized membership concert audience movement.

The idea blossomed and fostered cultural development on an unprecedented scale. Families who had been indifferent to “highbrow” single concerts were attracted to a whole season with varied offerings at a reasonable price. A new appreciation for the performing arts, deeply rooted in community spirit, steadily developed across North America, contributing to the growth of local symphonies, theatres, and dance companies. The first year saw the new idea planted in 12 cities, and by the end of the second year 40 cities in the Middle West had organized membership concert audiences. By 1928, the movement was organized in New York City as the Community Concert Association, with French as its president. In 1930 the nation’s leading artist management organizations, Columbia Artists Management, Inc. and National Artist Service (representing a majority of the established musical artists and attractions) put the weight of their artistic and financial support behind Community Concerts. Despite the ravages of the Great Depression in those years, the organized concert membership movement rapidly expanded as artists could depend upon a network of cities with money in the bank to pay for the season’s concerts even before contracts were signed. This meant their fees could be lowered as concert tours were expanded, and the organized audience movement became a significant new artistic and cultural development for the nation. As the nation emerged from the traumas of the Depression and World War II, Community Concerts expanded rapidly. Concert Associations were formed in Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean, and even, briefly, South Africa.

In 1993, Community Concerts restructured its relationship with Columbia Artists Management, Inc., its longtime parent company, and was free to feature artists outside the CAMI roster and make its own artistic decisions. In 1999, Trawick Artists Management purchased the company and continued to provide national leadership until its demise in 2002. The 2002-2003 season was the first that local Community Concert Associations operated independently of any national organization. There are several new national organizations that will provide the services that Trawick provided if the local Community Concert Associations wishes to join them.

==  From the Tehama County Community Concert Association, Red Bluff, California  

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Each night you sing in a different house.  Do you adjust your technique if the house is large or small?

Ragin:   Yes.  With opera I tend to use more chest voice at the bottom of my range, but in recital less, except for one aria I do, and that is for effect.  Handel’s Tamerlano aria is a ‘bravura’ aria that I do on most concerts, and I tend to put the chest in there because it’s fun for the audience.

BD:   [With a gentle nudge]  You just want to show off!

Ragin:   [Laughs]  Well yes, but it’s also the way it’s written.  You don’t want to sing falsetto all the way down.  It looks as if it was actually meant for an alto, female or male, to use the chest voice there.  But the answer to the question, when I make an adjustment to the hall, it’s not usually the top of the voice, because that’s easier to adjust.  I usually have to adjust the bottom.  René Jacobs [CD sets shown below] told me a long time ago, when I first began, that unless you learn how to use this chest voice properly, your voice won’t resonate properly.  So I had to learn how to sing chest voice properly with the guidance of Dr. James McDonald, and René himself.  I had three or four masterclasses with him, and he showed me how to go from the head voice into the chest.

BD:   Without creating a big hole in the middle?

Ragin:   Exactly, yes.  They were just saying to trust the change.  Everybody has a change, so just trust it.  You have to think like a mezzo-soprano.


See my interviews with Jeffrey Gall, and Jennifer Larmore

BD:   I asked about changing for different sized halls.  Do you sing the same for live performance as you do for the microphone?

Ragin:   [He laughs]  That
s a really good question.  Let me make an observation about another singer first.  I find it fantastic the way Sylvia McNair does that.  Then there are other people who can also do it, such as Dawn Upshaw, and in pop music theres Patti LaBelle.  They have a way of using the mike like they have just done it forever.  I don’t know how they do it.  I can’t explain it because you have to watch them.  They just know instinctively what to do.

BD:   They work with the microphone?

Ragin:   That’s right, but not everybody does that.  The microphone is there.  You just do it, and let the engineers tune you up and down.  [Much laughter]  Then when you hear the final result, you wonder if it was like that.  So to answer that question, I’m less experienced with that.  I don’t think about the mike being there, so I would approach an opera recording and there wouldn’t be much difference.  I would have to rely on the engineers, because it’s not always going to be like this.  Sometimes the mike is hanging there, and you just sing.  I don’t really think about that change.

BD:   Most of the engineers these days are getting pretty good at capturing the sound.  If you make the right sound in the hall, the engineers will capture that sound where they have placed the mikes, and however they twiddle with the knobs.  They’re there to make you sound the best.

Ragin:   Exactly, or as natural as you’re able be.  Sometimes that happens with orchestral recordings as well, but that’s harder to do.  So I let them do all the work.  For example, listen to my Channel Classic discs.  I’ve known the guy for eleven years, and every year they upgrade their equipment, and somehow they do capture the live feeling of the hall.  I sound more natural than in any of the operatic recordings that I have done.  I’m thinking of the Spirituals recording I did with them, and even the first Handel disc I did with them [both shown below].  It was just much more alive.  That’s what I think of them.


BD:   It must be very strange listening to your own voice coming off the record, because you will never hear it the way we hear it.  All singers have that problem, that they can’t hear their voice, even on the record.  They don’t hear it the way the public hears it.

Ragin:   Maybe that’s why we never want to listen to ourselves.
BD:   Probably so.  In any event, does it please you when the public says they like your recording?

Ragin:   Yes, of course!  [Gales of laughter]  However, I haven’t listened to any of my recordings.

BD:   When you’re performing in front of the public, are you conscious of the people who are there, or do you block them out?

Ragin:   No, especially on a Lieder recital.  I love it if I can see them.  Sometimes it’s lit where you can’t see anybody, and then I have a hard time.  If I can see the audience, then it puts me at ease.  It really does.  I try to find the smiling faces out there, people who are actually enjoying the recital.  That’s when I am most at ease.  I’m glad you brought that up, because that’s why I don’t like opera so much.  I can’t see them at all, and I’m not relating to anybody except for the person who’s onstage with me.  Other singers love that, but I don’t get any pleasure out of that.  I prefer the song recital.

BD:   Some people like to become another character because they don’t like being themselves on stage. They can hide behind the character, and be that character.  So it seems like you enjoy being yourself.

Ragin:   I’m not sure if it’s being myself when I’m singing a song recital.  It’s not as if you can hide behind the character, but in opera you don’t have to relate to the audience.

BD:   You’re relating to other characters, and the audience is just eavesdropping.  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at right, note that tenor Nigel Robson is the brother of counter-tenor Christopher Robson!]

Ragin:   Yes.  That’s a good way to put it.  I don’t mind that so much.  I think it comes from my childhood.  My mother had me performing all the time, even when I didn’t want to.  
Derek, play!  Derek, sing!  Derek, dance!  When you have that from age five, you get used to the public.  It doesn’t frighten you anymore.

BD:   Did you ever feel you were a trained seal, with your mother pushing you on all of this?

Ragin:   Not as a singer, though she did push me as a pianist.  That’s probably why I’m not playing today.  It frightens me.  I never told her, but it did.  I could never memorize the stuff quick enough.

BD:   But that gave you a good solid musical background.

Ragin:   That’s true, yes.  But all the pianists that I encountered were playing from the age of four, and I started at age twelve.

BD:    Isn’t that a little late?

Ragin:   It is, but I didn’t find that out until I got to Oberlin.  I thought,
“Welcome to the real world!  It was really tough.

BD:   Is performing the real world?

Ragin:   [Laughs]  It’s part of the real world.  So, yes and no.  It is, because if you didn’t have this, what would the world be like?  Can you imagine the world with no music?  It would be awful.  It’s already bad enough.

BD:   I wouldn’t want to live without it.

Ragin:   I wouldn’t either, not at all.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   When you’re performing, how much is art and how much is entertainment?

Ragin:   [Thinks a moment]  All the questions you ask make me think of other people first.  My step-father is a minister, and years ago when I first saw him preach, I asked him,
Was that all real, or do you have to perform like we do?  This was for a majority-black congregation, and he has to put on a performance in order to get them stirred up.  Basically we are here to entertain.  The art comes first, but after that, if the artistic side doesn’t shine through, then I’m not sure that you can be very entertaining.  There have been a couple of times when I’ve been too busy, and I wasn’t able to learn things properly.  I thought, “This is not going to be very good, and it wasnt very good.  There wasn’t any art at all, and I certainly wasn’t entertaining anyone. 

BD:   In the end, though, I’m glad you’re not scared to death when you perform.

Ragin:   I am sometimes, when I’m not prepared enough.  That’s because we just become too busy in the profession, too many dates, too little time.  I’ve just completed an oratorio in Holland, and they put it together in a day-and-a-half.  They didn’t have the money to keep us there, and the orchestra is very expensive.

BD:   Should you tell your management not to engage you for quite so many dates?  That might give you a little more time to rest and study.

Ragin:   Yes, that is partly my fault because I’m in a position now where I just need the money.  So I took on things, and I thought I’ll never do it this way again!  My manager caught me one day and asked why I was going to stay in Europe for so long, and suggested that I give a concert in Chicago.   So that’s just the way that it turned out.

BD:   We’re glad that you’re here.  It’s a pleasure meeting you, and I wish you lots of continued success.

Ragin:   Thank you very, very much.









© 1995 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in Chicago on February 23, 1995.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB two months later, and again in 1998.  This transcription was made at the end of 2022, and posted on this website early in 2023.  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.