By Bruce Duffie


As regular readers of these pages are aware, I have had the pleasure and privilege of meeting and interviewing many of the musicians who traipse round the world performing concerts and operas in cities and towns with companies great and small.  Naturally, I try to keep up with much of what’s going on by subscribing to many of the critical magazines with the words “opera” or “music” or “records” in their titles.  Each issue of every one provides me with the joy of seeing pictures or reading reviews of any number of my guests.  Several times, I’ve been airing a conversation on WNIB during our Sunday Evening Opera, and reading about that person in the New York Times Arts & Leisure Section of the same date.  Great minds think alike…

Anyway, after transcribing the conversation you’re about to read, I was gathering my thoughts on these introductory paragraphs (while reading another of the magazines) and there on the page is Neil Rosenshein as Peter Grimes!  This is a role he had mentioned he wanted to do, and under the picture, the reviewer said his “shattering reading” of the part was “gripping.”  Chalk up another success for this guest.

Tenor Neil Rosenshein has traveled widely, and in Chicago he’s portrayed Verdi’s Don Carlo, as well as lighter roles in Die Fledermaus and The Bartered Bride.  It was on one of those trips that we chatted between the performances, and we pick up the conversation with a surprising story… 

Neil Rosenshein:  The Australian Opera is a fantastic company.  There’s only 16 million people in the whole country, and it’s the largest opera-going public per capita in the world.  I had signed a contract to go there and sing, and the Christmas before my debut I got a Christmas card from the company.  All those people signed it and said they couldn’t wait for me to come so they could meet me and make music together.  When I got there, it was just as I thought it would be – the people were very friendly and very professional.  It’s a real company in the sense that they don’t bring in that many stars from outside.  There are maybe 7 or 8 a year, so I felt a kind of belonging, especially since I’m not a member of any company.  So I go there semi-regularly.  Their TV-film of Bohème that I was in won an Emmy award.

rosensheinBruce Duffie:  Do you like the life of a wandering minstrel?

NR:  In some ways I do, and in ways that I didn’t I’ve gotten used to.

BD:  Do you have to acclimate to each new surrounding wherever you go?

NR:  Yes I do.  It used to be very difficult and now it’s much less difficult.  You develop a discipline for your work and this is really part of the work.  If you don’t find a way to relax and enjoy this part of your life, it will not be much pleasure because you spend a lot of time alone and in cities you don’t know.

BD:  Is it fun to learn new cities?

NR:  Somewhat.  Some cities are fun to learn – the ones you can walk around in are the ones you learn.  If you have to drive around, you don’t get around as much, and don’t really learn them.  Here in Chicago I know the downtown area, but I can’t say I know the city.  I don’t know Los Angeles, but I’ve been there for concerts.  However, San Francisco, New York, Boston, Washington, Venice, Rome and Paris are ones I can get around in, and it’s easier to know them.  I love them.

BD:  Does the reaction or acceptance by the public have anything to do with whether you like a city or not?

NR:  I think so.  Basically, whether the public accepts you or not is up to the artist.  Even if you don’t get them the first time, if you’re generous in your expression and do your job with integrity, you’ll get the public.  By the same token, if the opera doesn’t work, it’s probably not Verdi’s fault, it’s our fault.  Either we’re not giving enough of ourselves, or we’re not spending enough time in preparation to understand what we’re doing or what we’re asked to do by the composer.  Responsibility lies with yourself.

BD:  Is there any chance of giving too much on occasion?

NR:  In different senses there are ways.  You could give too much vocally and over-sing, or you could give too much emotionally and lose your voice and not really express the emotion of the composer by only expressing your own emotion, but that’s basically indulgence.  If you indulge, you have to pay for it, just as you do if you over-eat or over-drink.  However, the greatest freedom is within a discipline.  With a fine vocal technique, when you prepare a role you can go as far as you can emotionally and musically.  You can go incredibly far with abandon as long as you start within that discipline.

BD:  So you work painstakingly hard on every little facet during rehearsals, and then let yourself go during the performances?

NR:  Yes, exactly.  There’s a stack of music over there that I’m working on for performances a year and a half away.  You need a flexible approach because they’re complicated operas.  If you want to give a profound performance, one approach is to learn the music thoroughly and also the nuances of the text.  Going back to the original play might or might not be a help, but I throw myself into it and become intoxicated with the beauty of it.  You also need to understand each phrase and know where the accents go and understand the style.

BD:  Is there any chance that you might over-analyze it?

NR:  That’s very interesting, and yes you can.  You get to a point during your study when the piece seems to deaden.  That can happen in rehearsals, too.  One has to come full-circle.  First, you sing through the piece without knowing very much about it.  Then you study it for a year and a half, and you finally come back to where you started with 50% or 60% or 70% of what you did the first time, except that now you’re sure it’s right.  With that attitude, you can give it much more, plus all the nuances of what you’ve learned.  Your instinct is the basis of it, but the rest has to be laid on top.

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BD:  You are asked to sing many roles.  How do you decide which you will accept and which you’ll put off for awhile?

rosensheinNR:  There is a kind of logic to your repertoire.  One has to look not at how high the role is, but what the weight of it is – the tessitura and also the extremes.  Some roles have lots of high D’s or E-flats, and I couldn’t do that.  Others don’t have the high notes but sit lower and pull the voice down.  There are a number of things you take into consideration.  I’m very lucky now because people offer me everything from the ridiculous to the sublime, so it’s up to me and to my advisors, my managers and agents who are really colleagues.  We really work these things out together, but one decides on a role if you really love it.  However, if you don’t love it, that might be simply because you don’t know it as well, so when I’m asked what my favorite role is, usually it’s the role I’m doing then because you get more excited and more intimate with it this week because you’re doing it.  However, when deciding on roles, I think it’s better to know the weight of your voice, then take off 15% and sing that repertoire.  Too often singers will go up 15% rather than opting to be conservative and stay vocally healthy.  Also, when you have control of your voice, you have control of your interpretation.  You can sing something the way you feel it should be sung rather than being forced to sing it so you’ll just manage to stay alive until the finale.

BD:  Do you sing differently from large houses to small ones?

NR:  No, not really.  To some extent a little bit.  Some small houses have terrible acoustics and many large ones have great acoustics, but in the big ones, you are aware that you can never, not even for an instant, get off your voice.  You can never sing in a whisper or use an airy tone in a large house.  You must stay completely in the voice.  You should in a small house, too, but once in awhile you can do something subtle either dramatically because people can see it, or vocally because people can still hear it.  On the other hand, in a big house like Chicago, you don’t need to make your gestures bigger, but they must be born of great emotion.  You can’t just wander around the stage because you’ll strangely disappear even though you’re still there.  You must concentrate all the time.

BD:  Is this concentration as the character, or as Neil Rosenshein portraying the character?

NR:  There is a little bit of Neil Rosenshein in all the characters.  We live according to our experiences, and no matter how much we read, we still react with a great amount of ourselves.  That’s what makes it unique; that’s what makes my performances different from anyone else’s.  It’s not better or worse or louder or softer, it’s just me; people like it or don’t like it, and that’s OK.  It simply has to be an honest portrayal as far as I see him through my own experience and my reading, and my distillation of all that experience.  It’s a great job and a pleasure to do it.  What I’m describing is a great pleasure to do and incredibly creative.  I feel very lucky these days.

BD:  Do you ever feel you’re competing against other tenors who have sung or recorded these parts?

NR:  Totally!  That’s the other side.  I’m a competitive person and this is a competitive business.

BD:  Too competitive?    

NR:  I’m doing pretty well, so I guess I’m happy about it.  I’m not really competing so much against tenors of the past because they were of another age and another style, and I don’t feel the competition against Domingo, the greatest tenor with whom I share roles.  I have enormous respect for him and his artistry.  But for instance, when I was at Juilliard, the teachers were great, but it was the other students who kept me on my toes, and I thank God for the other tenors in my age group, mostly American, because they force me to always do my absolute best.

BD:  Are we building a tradition of great American tenors like our tradition of great American baritones?

NR:  I think we are, I think we definitely are.

BD:  Do you see your voice getting bigger and/or heavier as you go along in your career?

NR:  As I’ve been getting a little bigger and heavier (ahem), the voice has been getting a little bigger and heavier, too.  It’s also getting freer and has more breadth to it.  I plan some roles that are somewhat heavier in the future, but in a conservative way.  So far, the heaviest roles I do are Don Carlo and Werther.  I’ll be doing Romeo and Don José, and later on Peter Grimes.  That’s not really a heavier role, but we have a tradition of knowing Jon Vickers in the part.

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BD:  Let’s talk a little about your French roles.  Is Werther the one you’ve sung the most?

NR:  Yes.  I’ve done it in Paris…

BD:  Is it special to do a French role in Paris?

rosensheinNR:  To sing a French role in Paris, yes.  To singer Werther there, definitely.  It’s one of the great masterpieces, so it’s like doing Bohème in Milano.  I was nervous that night, which was good, but I wasn’t too nervous because I’d sung it in Amsterdam and at the Met as well as in Sidney and one or two other places.  That one in Australia was a fabulous production by Elijah Moshinsky with Carlo Felice Cillario conducting.  That was my favorite, I think.  The one in Paris was also wonderful.  I was lucky to have a production of that quality.  It is hard to describe, not a modern one nor a period production.  It was set in a timeless time in between.  The public was taken aback when the curtain went up.  The stage was a diagonal row of flowers and dirt, so the first aria about nature was sung to these roses, and as I sang, the lights came up stronger and stronger so that at the end they were like on fire.  The more I sang and the more passionate the music became, the more the flowers seemed to come to life.  It was very effective and the public liked it.  The Paris public is very quick to boo and scream and walk out, so it’s difficult to please.  Someone is booed usually every night, and it doesn’t have to do with the reality of the evening.  It’s just an odd personality, that public.

BD:  Do they come to boo?

NR:  Ummm, no, but I think there are elements that get together beforehand to decide if someone’s right or not right for a role.  I don’t know if they decided I was right for Werther, but they didn’t decide that I wasn’t right for it, so I had the evening to convince them that I was.  By the end they were very appreciative and it was really great.  I was lucky, and sometimes it has more to do with luck than with art.

BD:  What kind of guy is Werther?

NR:  It varies somewhat from production to production.  He’s a very dark, complicated character.  You can approach it in many different ways, so it’s difficult to say what he’s about exactly.  I don’t approach it any one way.  When you have a good producer to work with, you can change the concept of the production.  He can be madly in love with Charlotte, or he can resent her terribly and torture her the whole night.  There’s no question he is a poet and a philosopher to some extent.

BD:  Is he tortured by himself?

NR:  Yes, he is tortured completely by himself.  He’s the one who sets it up.  He falls in love with her in the very beginning, but it’s really infatuation.  His first aria is about nature and mother, and when she comes in she embodies all of it.  Werther intellectualizes everything and turns it around and around and around until he becomes quite mad.  But it’s hard to say exactly what it’s about because I’ve played it so many different ways, and all of them honestly.  Sometimes he’s hostile, other times he’s passive and she’s aggressive.  There are moments that give keys to the character one way or another, so you can take one as being of major importance this time and in the next production you can take another key as being the most important.  For Charlotte, Werther can represent a freedom from the bondage she’s had with her family, or she might just want him around because she sees her very bourgeois life continuing.  So it can all change very much depending on who’s playing the parts.  That’s why you can go to this or any other major opera many times over the years to see different productions with different conceptions.  They can become completely different pieces.  The casts change, the productions change, and the operas get a completely different feel.  That’s what’s so great about these pieces.

BD:  Did Massenet write well for the tenor voice?

NR:  It’s great; I love his music.  He wrote intelligently; he gives you an opportunity to warm up.  Physically, vocally, technically he wrote in a fabulous way to heat the public and yourself, and to get the evening rolling.  The story has its whole hue and color without having to come out and create a big moment.  Especially in Manon, it starts gently and climbs up and up and up and reaches its climax at the very last moment.  I think the last act of that opera is the most wonderful – even better than the last act of Werther.

BD:  Sticking with Werther, could Charlotte have been happy with him by keeping him as a lover on the side?

NR:  There’s the politics of men and women all the time, and from my personal point of view, Werther didn’t play it right.  If he wanted her to leave Albert, he didn’t approach it right.  Werther couldn’t; he opens his heart and that was it.  He didn’t have the kind of power over her that he wanted and needed to make his story succeed.  But if he’d succeeded in making her run away with him, that would have made her impure in his mind.  Therefore his illusion of perfect nature would have been shattered.  Werther is in love with love, and Charlotte is just the vehicle for that love at the moment.

BD:  If there had been no husband in the story, could Charlotte and Werther have been happy together?

NR:  Perhaps for awhile…   

BD:  Was Werther screwy?

rosensheinNR:  You have to be a little bit screwy to kill yourself.  Lensky is younger than Werther and he kills himself – or allows himself to be killed
but that can be attributed to the impetuousness of youth.  Lensky cannot be played with great intellect.  I play him as a reasonable young man who gets wrapped up in circumstance.  Werther has a circumstance before we meet him in the opera.  The same with Don Carlos.  Who is he?  There’s a lot to him that is put together before we see him.  By reading the Schiller you can get more depth of character.  Whether it is accurate or not, it’s better to have some understanding so you can make him a whole person onstage.

BD:  For the singer, or for the audience? 

[Vis-à-vis the recording shown at right, see my Interviews with Kiri Te Kanawa, Thomas Hampson, and Sir Charles Mackerras.]

NR:  If the singer knows what the character is thinking and believes it, the audience will get it.  That’s why you don’t need to speak Italian to understand these operas.  The audience will miss some of the subtleties and it’s better to know more about it, but opera is not “Laverne and Shirley.”  You only get out of if what you put into it.  It’s not a passive art form.  It requires audience participation.

BD:  What do you expect of the audience?

NR:  Nothing in particular.  Some will be there hanging on every word looking for each nuance, and others will just want a sensual experience from the beautiful music and wonderful story.  Some just want the highlights, and others want the minutest details.

BD:  OK, then why do you sing opera?

NR:  For the sensual experience of it and the pleasure of taking an artistic trip someplace in the world of the theater.  If I’m strong enough, I’ll take the whole public with me.  If I believe in where I’m going and understand and experience this trip, people will leave the theater having been someplace they couldn’t have gone otherwise.

BD:  Do you ever wish you could extend the trip beyond the final curtain?

NR:  Sometimes.  At the end of Bohème, I wonder if the guys become the middle class that they despise, or stick to their ideals and become famous artists.  I’d also be curious to know how Rodolfo approaches and appreciates his next love.  On the other hand, it’s not an easy opera to do well, and I’m physically tired at the end and I wouldn’t want to have another act to perform.

BD:  Are there any easy operas for you?

NR:  Not really because whatever you do you must do as well as possible.  It requires the same involvement no matter what role you’re singing.  Some might be easier evenings, but you must work at that same high level.  The easier ones are simply shorter and have fewer dangerous moments, so there’s less pressure.

BD:  When you’re deciding to add a role to your repertoire, do you count up the dangerous moments?

NR:  More important it to look at your schedule and try to surround dramatic roles with lyric roles.

BD:  Do you sing any comic roles?

NR:  I used to do Almaviva in The Barber of Seville, but it’s not in my repertoire any more.  My voice isn’t really dramatic, but it’s more dramatic than the comic roles are.  I love getting laughs.  When the audience applauds at the end of an aria, it’s nice but perhaps obligatory.  Laughs are completely spontaneous, and a roar from 4,000 people is wonderful.  Artistically I’m very happy not because I’m “The Greatest Star, the Best By Far,” but because I have the ability now, after years of study, to sing the music I’ve always wanted to sing in the way I’ve wanted to sing it.  That is such a pleasure that I’d be ashamed to have any kind of complaint.  I sing these great roles in major houses around the world, but there’s always something more to strive for.  You need a healthy ego to get out there, but that should be the smallest part of the picture.  You shouldn’t be like a child always screaming for more ice cream.  I have great colleagues and I’m very lucky.

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When not behind the microphone at WNIB, or in the balcony of the Opera House or Orchestra Hall, Bruce Duffie arranges for more interviews.  Next in The Opera Journal, the British baritone Peter Glassop as he prepares to celebrate his 65th birthday. 


© 1990 Bruce Duffie

This interview was recorded at his apartment on January 10, 1990.  Sections were used (along with recordings) on WNIB in 1994 and 1997.  It was transcribed and published in The Opera Journal in March of 1993.  It was slightly re-edited, the photographs were added, and it posted on this website in 2012.

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.