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…
By Bruce Duffie
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.
Bruce Duffie: Do you like
life of a wandering minstrel?
NR: In some ways I do,
and in ways that I didn’t I’ve gotten used
BD: Do you have to
acclimate to each new surrounding wherever you
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
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
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.
BD: You are asked to sing
many roles. How do you decide
which you will accept and which you’ll put off for awhile?
NR: 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.
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
Grimes. That’s not really a heavier role, but we have a tradition
of knowing Jon
Vickers in the part.
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?
NR: 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
really great. I was lucky, and sometimes it has more to do with
luck than with art.
BD: What kind of guy is
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
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
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
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
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
BD: If there had been no
husband in the story, could Charlotte
and Werther have been happy together?
NR: Perhaps for
BD: Was Werther screwy?
NR: 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
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?
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
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
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
BD: Do you ever wish you
could extend the trip beyond the final
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
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
NR: I used to do Almaviva
in The Barber of Seville, but
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.
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
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.