Soprano Nadine Secunde
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie
|American soprano Nadine Secunde (born
December 21, 1953 in Independence, near Cleveland, Ohio) studied at
Oberlin Conservatory, at Indiana University with Margaret Harshaw, and
at the Musikhochschule in Stuttgart with a Fulbright Scholarship. She
has become a leading artist in the world's finest opera houses in
the demanding Strauss and Wagner repertoire. Critical acclaim for her
”glowing, blooming soprano” and her ”brilliant character portrayal”
has been ratified by tremendous popular success and reengagements by
the theaters in which she appears. She made a triumphant debut at the
Bayreuth festival in 1987 as Elsa in a new production of Lohengrin
by the noted German film director Werner Herzog. The following summer
she scored a great personal success at Bayreuth as Sieglinde in Harry
Kupfer's controversial production of Die Walküre conducted
by Daniel Barenboim
which has been recorded for audio and video.
Since her Bayreuth debut she has appeared in many
of Europe's great theaters. In Munich she has sung the role of Elisabeth
in Tannhäuser conducted by Zubin Mehta. In Hamburg
she appeared in the title role of Katya Kabanova and as Isolde;
her debut in Vienna was as Sieglinde; there she has also sung Elisabeth
in Tannhäuser and Chrysothemis in Elektra. In
this role she made her Paris debut with Seiji Ozawa conducting, and in
Covent Garden with Sir
Georg Solti. Anthony Papano conducted
her first Lady Macbeth of Msenk in Brussels, and she was privileged
to take part in the world premiere of Venus und Adonis by Hans Werner Henze as
The Primadonna, conducted by Markus Stenz.
Her American debut took place at the Lyric Opera
of Chicago is Peter
Sellar's highly acclaimed production of Tannhäuser. Other
important engagements have included her Los Angeles debut as Cassandre
in Les Troyens, and her San Francisco debut as Chrysothemis, conducted
Thielemann. In Seattle she sang her first Brünnhilde in the
1997 Ring, and her first Marschallin.
Since then she has garnered critical acclaim and
enormous public reaction in her ”new” repertoire. Her first Bünnhilde
in Die Götterdämmerung in Amsterdam is 1999 was
greeted with ”an unimaginable outpouring of audience jubilation” Her
debut as Elektra in the prestigious ”Leonie Rysenek Memorial
Production” in Marseille was a stunning success with audience and critics,
leading to new productions scheduled in Tokyo and Amsterdam in 2006.
Important orchestral engagements have included
her American debut with the Los Angeles Philharmonic under André Previn in
Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, which she also sang in Paris with
Daniel Barenboim and in Rome with Christian Thielemann. She took part
in the Towards the Millenium concert series in London's
Royal Festival Hall as the soloist in Berg's Seven Early Songs
conducted by Simon Rattle. Her Italian concert debut was a celebrated
performance of Britten's War Requiem with Wolfgang Sawallisch.
In the spring of 2000 she sang a concert performance of Die Walküre
in the recently renovated Teatro Lyceo in Barcelona with Placido Domingo.
Miss Secunde made her recording debut as Chrysothemis
in a concert performance of Elektra with Hildegard Behrens in
the title role. Seiji Ozawa conducted the Boston Symphony in the Philips
release. She also recorded the demanding role of Renata in Prokoviev's
The Fiery Angel for DGG, with Neeme Järvi conducting
the Goteborg Symphony Orchestra, The Turn of the Screw by Benjamin
Britten for Naxos, and a complete video recording of Elisabeth in
Tannhäuser conducted by Zubin Mehta, with René Kollo
and Waltraud Meier.
-- From her official website (with slight
corrections and additions)
-- In this box and throughout this webpage, names which
are links refer to my interviews elsewhere on my website. BD
Nadine Secunde appeared in two different seasons with Lyric Opera of Chicago,
including her American Debut in the fall of 1988. Then, she was Elisabeth
in the Peter Sellars production of Tannhäuser conducted
by Ferdinand Leitner.
Also in the cast were Marilyn Zschau and Sharon Graham as
Venus, Richard Cassilly and John Duykers in the title role, Håken
Hagegård as Wolfram, Jan-Hendrik Rootering as Hermann, Ben Heppner
as Walther (!), Donald
Kaasch as Heinrich, and Constance Hauman as the Shepherd. Secunde
would return in the fall of 1992 for Chrysothemis in Elektra, with
Eva Marton and Zschau
in the title role, Leonie Rysanek as Klytämnestra (!), Barry Busse
as Aegisth, and James Johnson as Orest. Leonard Slatkin conducted
the Götz Friedrich production, which was lit by Duane Schuler.
It was in the midst of that debut engagement in 1988 that we had
a chance to speak together backstage between performances. She was
forthright in her responses, and gave much insight into the working world
of an international soprano of this repertoire.
Knowing that we would come back to the Tannhäuser,
she was mentioning some other upcoming productions . . . . .
Bruce Duffie: What are you working on now?
Nadine Secunde: I’m going to do a record in Boston
with Seiji Ozawa and the Boston Symphony. We’re doing a version
of Elektra with Hildegard Behrens and Christa Ludwig. It’ll
be coming out next year sometime. Of course, when it’s on a record
you really want to have everything as perfect as you can possibly get
it, and if you have a pair of ears at your disposal, like John Fiore’s, who has also
conducted here with the Symphony, who’s very talented, then you usually
take them up on it. You grab them and drag them into a practice room
somewhere, and they can listen!
BD: Are records too perfect?
NS: [Thinks a moment] I don’t
know. There are two points of view on it. It’s certainly
wonderful to hear an idealized performance of a piece with everything
as good as it could be. The only thing that worries me a little bit is
that it may lead our normal public to believe that that’s what they’re
going to hear when they go to the opera, which is – let’s say – both too
much and too little demanded of the cast. Too much in the sense that
we’re regular human beings. People have off-days and on-days. Sometimes
it’s really great, and sometimes it’s maybe less than great. And
too little in the sense that the record gives you no feeling of spontaneity
whatsoever. It’s completely canned. There’s very little
feeling of the drama that comes across, and most of us never give that
stale a performance on stage. So, recordings have been a real blessing
and a real curse for singers everywhere.
BD: Is it more of a blessing or more of
a curse, or does it shift back and forth?
NS: In spite of all the problems that have
arisen, it’s still more of a blessing because it’s brought up a broader
public. The classical record business is certainly not Big Business,
but it has served us well. Just take the case of the movie Amadeus.
How many people got turned on to Mozart that way, and how many people
were able then to buy sixteen different recordings of Mozart Symphonies,
or something of that order, simply because they are available? So,
in spite of everything else, I would have to still call it more of a blessing
than a curse.
BD: Is this recording of Elektra
the first one you will have made?
NS: Yes. I’ve done some radio work
in Germany, but that’s a little bit different. I was just being
told about the glories of digital recording these days, which makes me
a little less nervous than I would be ordinarily, because I guess all you
have to really do is get it right once, and they can put in that good note
wherever you make a bad sound. But I’m a little nervous about it.
BD: [Gently protesting] Is that what
you really want — to give a sloppy performance,
and have them put in the right note here and the right note there?
NS: [Laughs] No, of course not. That’s
not what you want, but until I did the radio work, I’d often wondered
how singers could let such things go by on recordings. The answer
is exhaustion. You do it so many times that you just can’t do
it anymore. Then the last takes are often what they use because
that’s when the orchestra gets it all right, and you sound like a pig.
So, it’s really a tough thing to do — to
get it right the last time with all the feeling of drive and spontaneity
that you want to have with the first time, and still have everything go
right with the orchestra, and the chorus, and everybody else that’s participating.
BD: [Facetiously] Would it be better
to lay down a track down of voice, and a track of orchestra, and a track
of this and a track of that?
NS: They’re trying that. I don’t know
what it would sound like because everybody on those tracks would be
at their peak. The question is so metaphysical. Is it possible
to bring in all these people’s performances and have the result be an
incredible whole thing, or is just going to be a bunch of people not relating
to each other?
BD: Would it sound like a bunch of tracks
that almost meet?
NS: Like ships passing in the night!
I don’t know. It would be interesting to find out.
BD: In your young career, have you already
learned a lot from recordings, or have you learned more from your teachers
and stage performances?
NS: I would have to say I’ve actually learned
practically nothing from recordings, simply because I don’t listen
to them that much. I have the Solti Ring, and of course
I have a few recordings of Elektra which I would listen to simply
get a good idea of the performance, and what the orchestra is going to
sound like underneath. But I have to say I get much more from a
personal kind of hands-on teaching method, either vocal teaching
— which of course I still study — and
the coaching that I mentioned we do with people who have really good
ears. I don’t think you can replace that with listening to somebody
else’s idea of a role, so I don’t even try.
BD: Does it take a woman to teach a woman’s
voice? I know you are studying with Margaret Harshaw...
NS: No, I don’t think so. She’s produced
some of the best tenors that are singing, such as Vinson Cole, and one
fabulous bass, Kevin Langan. Actually, she has a great luck
BD: Does she have great luck with sopranos,
NS: Well, she’s okay with me. I don’t
know. She always says that singing is singing, and if you can
teach it, you can teach it to anybody. Probably you would have
more affinity to one particular voice type or another. She often
says that she has almost more of an affinity towards men and the way they
sing, than she does to the extremely high voices. But teaching is
teaching in its own way. I don’t know, though, since I’ve never
tried to teach.
BD: There’s so much that goes on in vocal
technique — all of the little details.
Should the public be aware of all this that you’re going through?
NS: Oh, my goodness, I hope that they’re
not aware of any of it! That’s one of the big problems. For
example, with a very close-up shot of an opera performance when somebody
is going for a high note. A high note is physically extremely hard
work. It takes an incredible amount of concentration, and you’re
going to see it on the singer’s face. The eyes glaze over, and
there’s this incredibly atmospheric look on his face. It’s
almost what you would see on an athlete’s face who is doing something
incredible at the Olympics. In that moment in the opera Tannhäuser,
the person ceases to be the Virgin Elizabeth, or the man is no longer
in Troubadour times. They become people who are doing a very difficult
thing, which is why I think opera really does belong at a distance from
BD: Is singing an athletic contest?
NS: No, I don’t think so... [laughs] though
I hear it gets that way in the Italian opera houses sometimes! In
our performances it certainly isn’t. It’s a contest against yourself
to see if you can get that one extra thing, or do a really spectacular
performance — which we hardly ever do, no
matter how hard we try. You could call it a contest in the same
way that a long jumper tries harder every time for that extra inch or
BD: Are the Wagnerian singers the ‘milers’
and the Italian singers the ‘sprinters’?
NS: Sprinters??? [Laughs] I really
must say, I’ve never met a Wagnerian singer that I didn’t like.
They are not placid, because there’s a lot of fire underneath, but
they’re usually quite solid people in comparison to some of my Italian
colleagues that I have met in passing in the halls, or singing in bathrooms
as they tend to do. For that reason, the atmosphere usually in a
Wagnerian opera will be almost, let’s say, kind of low-key and comfortable
and gemütlich [pleasant and cheerful] in the old sense of
the German word. Everybody’s trying very hard, but the resulting
tensions are not what they would be if they were built on a bunch of very
temperamental people. There are tensions, but it’s of a different
nature than in the Italian operas.
* * *
BD: How early on did you decide
that you would go into the German Fach rather
than the Italian Fach — or was it decided for you?
NS: The German system in the theater, where
I have been now for seven years, tends to pigeon-holing a bit.
If you get into what they call a Fach [category], you more than
likely stay there — especially if it happens
to be in German or Wagner, simply because
there are not that many people who sing it.
BD: Did you start out as a German singer, or as an all-round
NS: I had a Fulbright Scholarship, and
I went into the house in Wiesbaden. I sang Micaëla in Carmen,
and The Bartered Bride of Smetana, and Donna Elvira in Don
Giovanni, and even Elisabeth in Don Carlos. But as I
got a little bit older, it became increasingly clear that the quality
of my voice was such that it would fit really well in the German repertoire.
Then they started to give me things like Der Freischütz,
which are your typical roles.
BD: Did you sing Agathe or Ännchen?
NS: No, Agathe. I never quite got
to Ännchen, thank goodness!
BD: [Gently protesting] But she’s
got a nice aria...
NS: Yes, she’s got cute arias, but they’re
so hard! They put you into Freia [Das Rheingold], and Gutrune
[Götterdämmerung], and you sing a Norn or something
like that, and they work you up. Then about three or four year
ago, I finally got a crack at Tannhäuser. When somebody
makes a debut in this kind of repertoire, and is fairly successful, it
causes quite a bit of publicity simply because of the market there is
for these kinds of voices. That immediately took me to much bigger
houses, like Munich and Hamburg. Then you find that your telephone
is ringing a lot of times, and they only want Wagner. I never
really made a conscious decision to get into Wagner. I’d always
loved the music of the German repertoire, but that was what I could sell.
BD: Do you then make a conscious effort
occasionally to get an Italian role or French role? [Vis-à-vis
the recording shown at right, see my interview with John Tomlinson.]
NS: I haven’t been offered any in the last
four years. It’s really that black and white a situation.
BD: Could you tell your agent to look for
NS: I have mentioned it to both my American and
German agents, and they say, “Okay, yeah,”
and that’s all you hear of it. [Both laugh] That’s not
where they’re making their money, so they don’t really go to help you
that much. You can possibly get to a point in your career where
you have a good relationship with the house, and say, “Listen,
I will do your Ring for you, but I’d really like to do Don
Carlos or The Masked Ball.”
They will maybe give you one like the booby prize, but it’s always going
to be going against the grain a little. However, I still sing
The First Lady in The Magic Flute, and I still do a lot of high-flying
things to try and keep the voice light. But I can’t deny it’s
still in that direction, so I guess I’m stuck with it. I shouldn’t
say ‘stuck with it’
because there’s no place I’d rather be in the whole repertoire, but
I certainly would like to take a crack to Oscar [Masked Ball]
or something like that at some point. It would be a lot of fun.
BD: What is it about Wagner that has grabbed
NS: [Thinks a moment] It is sort of
like the pattern of human nature. Whatever you have most success
at you like, and I seem to have an immediate affinity towards his characters.
I come from a German background, by the way. I had an affinity
for the language, and I really love the way his operas lie vocally.
They work well for me, so I guess it’s six of one and half dozen of the
other where my feeling of comfortableness with him and my love of his music
starts. The one sort of feeds into the other. I did a concert
version of the first act of Die Walküre when I was still at
Indiana University. It’s a big school, and they do a lot of opera
— including things like Tosca and Bohème
— and although I had done a fair amount of performing,
that first act of Walküre made me think that this was what
I’d like to do more than anything in the world. It was that kind
of love-at-first-hearing experience, and after that it just wasn’t the
same. I thought that if I had the choice, that would be what I
BD: What if you had been given a small soubrette
voice, suitable for the French and lyric repertoire?
NS: That happens a lot. It’s very sad,
actually, that some people do totally lose themselves in Wagnerian or
heavier roles, and they feel their own personalities get so suited to
this music, but the instrument just isn’t there. I know of several
colleagues that it has happened to. They’re people who simply can’t
produce the kind of volume, or don’t have the appearance for this kind
of repertoire. A lot of things have to come together to be able
to sing these parts, including that one has to be a fairly intelligent
human being. The music is very complicated.
BD: Too complicated?
NS: It is very deep. I love puzzles,
so for me it’s great, and I’m always hearing new things every time I hear
the Ring or Tannhäuser. I think, [excitedly]
“Oh, let’s listen to that!”
No, I don’t think it’s too complicated. It’s wonderful,
but you have to look a certain way to be successful
— in Germany at any rate. They like a certain appearance.
You have to have a certain bent towards the dramatic characters
that are in the opera. Not everybody can sell these characters.
They can be very bland if they’re not done well.
BD: When you get on stage, are you portraying
these characters, or do you actually become these characters?
NS: Oh, no! I don’t think any singer
would ever say they really became a character because you simply must
keep singing. That may be possible in straight theater, although
I’d be very surprised if it were true. There’s always a certain
amount of technique in what we do. You have to know your tools.
You have to know what you’re doing and what you’re dealing with, and
for that reason I don’t think identification is ever total. There
is more or less a total possession by the music, which is not quite the
same thing. You’re just totally caught up in this act of making
music. You never let go of that thread of technique, and the idea
that you are doing something at conscious level.
BD: Where does the technique let go and
the artistry begin?
NS: I personally would say the technique never ever lets
go. It becomes part of the artistry. In an ideal world, we
would like people not to be aware of what we do. We like to be magicians
and say, “Watch me pull this rabbit out
of the hat,” and they will never know how I do
it. But sometimes it’s just a little bit too hard, and
I have not found it a good thing if you make an audience aware of how
hard it is. If they can really see your concentration, then it has
a negative effect on them. On the other hand, they tend really to
appreciate it. I remember very vividly a master class my teacher
once did. A tenor was singing a really hard aria, and she said, “Why
are you trying to make this look easy? It isn’t!”
People appreciate the effort that you’re giving them. If they think
it’s too easy, they say, “Well, I can do that!”
Let’s take the Prayer in Tannhäuser, which is one
of the most difficult things to sing in the Wagnerian repertoire, simply
because of the intonation. It’s me against the woodwinds, and they’re
sometimes playing in several different keys... not in this orchestra, but
it happens. You’re concentrating like a laser beam, trying to focus
in on exactly what you’re doing, and people pick that up. It produces
a vibration that they appreciate.
BD: You’re concentrating and then they concentrate
NS: Yes, that’s it. We all give these
waves back and forth to the audience and the audience to us. The
second act is really great, but because that Prayer was so hard,
you have to concentrate. That also, interestingly enough, is
a basic theme of anything that Peter Sellars does. He said, “I
make it as hard as I can to do so that everybody has to concentrate
so hard that this comes over the ramp.” And
it works, yes!
BD: Where is the balance between this dramatic
force and the musical ideal?
NS: That’s probably something everybody
has to answer for themselves. There are operas where the plots
are so stupid that you’re probably thankful that nobody understands them.
Then there are operas — like Wagner’s
— where his dramatic ideas — mind
you, I don’t say the texts always — but the
ideas are at least as important than the music, or almost as important
as the music. In this case, you have to make a conscious decision
to devote a certain amount of your brain power to what’s going on dramatically
on the stage. Ideally, what happens is this serves as almost a springboard
where you can get into the next level of technical concentration, and
the whole thing moves up one notch simply because of the combination of
your technical skills and your dramatic concentration. If you’re
having trouble that night, there’s no way you’re going to get there, so
you just chuck it out and realize that this is one of the hard-work nights,
and that’s all there it to it! But sometimes it works.
BD: You mentioned Peter Sellars, and he
has taken this Tannhäuser, the whole opera, and changed
it around and remolded it in his own image.
NS: Hmmm... a little bit, yes. I think
in the American image.
BD: Is it a valid image, whatever image
NS: I have a big problem in my profession, and
that is I have absolutely no sense of judgment when it comes to people
that I like. I happen to really love Peter Sellars as a person.
He’s been one of the most really wonderful people to work with. He
has produced an incredible atmosphere of comradeship and good humor,
and just pulling together the team spirit, or family, or whatever you
want to call it, in this production. So right away, that takes away
about fifty per cent of my judgmental capacities. I’ve probably
done about forty or fifty productions by now, and usually they’re somewhat
old. Take the production in Munich, which is seventeen years old.
Hans-Peter Lehmann was the one who did the direction, and that
was a lot of years ago. As far as I know, he’s never seen it since
then. I know him pretty well, and I think he would have told me.
There’s a ‘book’ that says
where you go, and there’s a stage manager who knows how to do it, and
BD: So you have a road map and a traffic
NS: That’s it. Or take the classic
case in Vienna, also a fifteen-year-old production, of Walküre.
You get told, “There’s the tree and the sword,
and there’s the tenor, there’s the door, now do what you want.”
These things happen in Europe. I don’t think anybody would
disagree with me about the new Tannhäuser in Cologne. It
was musically wonderful and ultimately a disaster. What I’m saying
is that it’s very refreshing for me to do a thought-out production of Tannhäuser.
For all the ‘updating gimmickry’, what happens within this oddball
setting is very solid theater. I don’t think anybody can deny
that. You may say yes or no to how he does it, but what he does
would work in any century.
BD: Do you have different expectations of the audience
when they’re coming to this kind of a production, as opposed to a fifteen
or twenty-year-old standard production?
NS: Oh, definitely! I expect them
to get excited about it one way or the other. Either they hate
it, or they love it. I expect them to be alive. I expect
them to have some kind of a response to something besides the musical
side that’s going on.
BD: Does the aliveness of the audience change
from city to city, and country to country?
NS: There’s really no replacement for a German audience
hearing its own music in its own language. For example, we have
Håkan Hagegård singing probably the most beautiful Abendstern
aria that I’ve ever heard, and there are people coughing! If this
was Bayreuth, these people would get the death penalty. There is a
level of sheer reverence that a German audience produces that I’ve never
experienced in any other country. On the other hand, American audiences
are much more capable of a lively spontaneity. If they would have done
this production in Germany, they probably would have ripped down the house.
We had enough trouble with Bayreuth, and it wasn’t anywhere near what this
is, and these Chicago people welcomed it with open arms. It was something
they could understand.
BD: So now we’ve gotten into a total reversal
of acceptance. Usually it’s the German houses that are doing
things that are way off the deep end, and American houses are much
NS: Yes. German theater has come
a whole long way in the last ten years. It’s gotten quite progressive
in a lot of ways, but still, the Americans, as far as newly radical productions,
are still pretty much in the forefront.
* * *
BD: Now you sing mostly in Europe?
NS: Yes, almost exclusively.
BD: The houses there are smaller.
Is it difficult singing in a house that is this size [Civic Opera
House in Chicago, 3600 seats]?
NS: I was very worried about
it, because even the very large houses, like the Paris Opera [Palais
Garnier, 2000 seats, later (since 1989) the Opéra Bastille which
has 2700 seats], or Munich [National Theater, 2100 seats], don’t get close
the size of this place. Fortunately, I’m so happy that my first
experience in an American house is here because this house is lovely to
sing in. It’s really acoustically a great joy, and I also think it
adds a lot of luster to a voice, which other bigger houses simply don’t
do. I haven’t found it to be a problem, which is a great relief
BD: Do you have more engagements now
in American houses?
NS: I’m doing in San Francisco a Ring,
and we’re going out to do this Elektra in Boston, and a couple
of things in Seattle, so I’m moving home and gradually.
BD: What are you doing in Seattle?
NS: I’m going to do Tannhäuser,
and then in about three years, Fidelio. I’m looking forward
to it because they really have a great working company out there with
a really wonderful atmosphere.
BD: Yes, it’s a nice house. I’ve been
out there a couple of times for the Ring. Will you be
singing Sieglinde and other roles in San Francisco?
NS: I just do Sieglinde.
BD: Not Gutrune?
NS: I hate Gutrune in a big way! [Laughs]
She’s a stupid girl, and she has stupid music to sing. She
has very ungrateful, ridiculous music.
BD: Is that because she is an ungrateful character?
NS: She’s a ridiculous character. There’s
really nothing to her at all.
BD: Is there no way to brilliantly portray
this stupid character?
NS: Oh, sure! Eva Bundschuh, who did it
in the summer in Bayreuth, made her so perverse that she was interesting,
which was great. But you have to have a great director to do
that. You can’t have everybody else doing a traditional Wagner
— leaning on their spears — and
have this incredible Lulu-Gutrune. You’d have to have the whole
production more that way. She had that production, and she did
a wonderful, brilliant character study of Gutrune. But you have
to be in that kind of show, and, as far as I can see I’d never encountered
that kind of a Gutrune, so I’m avoiding her.
BD: You sing Sieglinde. Are you going
to be moving into the role of Brünnhilde?
NS: No, not within the next four years anyway.
The middle thirties is a funny time for a singer. Things start
happening to a voice, and it really can go this way or that way depending
on which way you mature. You never really know what’s going to
happen. I feel at some point it would be possible, especially when
I read biographies of singers who didn’t get into this repertoire until
they were in their forties. I would probably have no problems singing
the repertoire in Europe, but whether I would ever come back here to
a house like Chicago, or even the Met [3800 seats], with its huge dimensions,
I don’t think I would really be comfortable in this size of a house, but
I don’t know. I have no idea what’s going to happen within the next
BD: Tell me about Sieglinde. What kind of
a woman is she?
NS: I loved the way she was this summer
because she was great. She was so sexy, and so aggressive at
the same time, which was fascinating for me.
BD: She really wanted Siegmund?
NS: It was an aggression that comes out of a despair
that most people can’t identify with. It is also a total resignation.
The despair was that deep that she never thought she’d get out the
situation, so when one flicker of hope arises, she goes to work with
everything she’s got. Most people thought the first act of
Walküre was one of the most successful things that Harry [Kupfer]
did this summer, and I certainly felt that it was totally abandoned,
totally sensual, and at the same time had an incredible energy of despair
from both people — Siegmund [Peter Hofmann]
as well as Sieglinde. It was really meaningful and different, a different
kind of Walküre.
BD: Does that carry for all three acts,
since you do appear again?
BD: You’re mostly in the first act, and
then you have the central scene in the second act, and then there’s
that little bit in the third.
NS: The second entrance is always difficult
because it comes after that incredibly long Wotan Monologue,
and unless it’s spectacularly done — and
even if it is spectacularly done — there is
a drop in the energy level of the audience. It’s unavoidable.
BD: You’ve just got to be wildly frenzied?
NS: You’ve got to be just incredible. I really
felt like we had a run-around the Festspielhaus three times, just to
get ourselves really worked up for this. But if you have enough
careful rehearsing, and you know what kind of energy you have to kick
into to get that kind of thing going, then it’s repeatable. I
found that the second act was really, for me anyway, much more meaningful
and much more interesting than I had done before because of this. He
tortured us, he really did in all the rehearsals. He said, “You
people really have to come out and look just totally out of it.
You both have to almost be on the brink of insanity.”
And if you do it often enough in rehearsals, you get the idea of what
that feels like, and then you can reproduce it. He also had a
wonderful gimmick. The second act opened with us out on the ground,
like after the fact. We then ran all of the 120 meters to the
back of the Festspielhaus, which must have looked incredible. Everybody
talked about it. Basically, we vanished in the distance at a full-speed
run, and that gave the whole act a real kick-off, which also made the
second entrance a little bit easier.
BD: It prepares the audience?
NS: Yes, because they remember what the characters
were doing. There were a lot of really good ideas. Harry’s
another one who really knows what he’s doing as far as solid dramaturgy
goes. You have a lot in those things, and in having a partner like
Peter Hofmann. I know a lot of people don’t think a whole lot of
his voice, or the rock-type of singing he does in Germany, but he is
one of the most commanding stage presences on the German stage today.
On the opera stage, a part like Siegmund that really is almost as
much acting as it is singing, you play off of each other, and get really
going on these almost hysterical scenes.
BD: I assume this is a several-year contract,
and you’re going back next year with basically the same cast?
NS: We are, and there’s talk of filming
it, so it’s a big deal. Because I know how hard Harry works,
I know we will be able to recapture this kind of energy level after a
whole year has gone by. It’s not always easiest thing in the world,
but I think we’ll be able to do it because I know he’ll be back with
his whip! [Laughs]
BD: [With a gentle nudge] Does he
have an Alberich Complex?
NS: He’s one of those directors who always
want a little bit more than you can give them, and that’s fine.
* * *
BD: You’ve sung in all of these various
houses, and then you get dropped into Bayreuth, with that hood over the
orchestra. How does that change the way you produce the sound, or
the way you hear the sound?
NS: You can just do things in Bayreuth
that you couldn’t possibly do any place else. You can sing softer.
You can sing almost like you were singing a Lieder concert.
It’s the easiest house in the world to sing in, really. There’s a
certain time warp at first because you hear very little orchestra because
they are so deep. This is a little bit off-putting at first, and then
you learn to live with it and let it carry you, which is great. I
would not be the only singer to say that it really is the easiest place
to sing. I can’t imagine a better acoustic than that.
BD: You’ve also sung Elsa there?
NS: Yes. That was my schizophrenic summer,
last summer, because Werner Herzog — who is
also a lovely, lovely man — did an extremely
static production of Lohengrin.
NS: Stand-and-Sing. That is what we
did, and it was visually gorgeous, one of the prettiest things anybody
has seen. Everybody adored it, but it was really a Stand-and-Sing
BD: Similar to what Wieland Wagner did in
NS: Sure, and some things never change. People
still like to see that because they think that’s what Lohengrin
is all about, and the big joke was the laser. When Lohengrin came
in, it was the first big laser effect, and it was stunning, just stunning.
So, it was a huge success, but it was very difficult for me because
I kept confusing what style of acting we were doing that day. I
would have Mr. Herzog tell me I’m too active, and then I would go to the
next rehearsal and have Mr. Kupfer telling me that I was being too lyrical,
and asking me, “Where’s that biting aggressiveness
that I like in you?” It really was very confusing
BD: But you managed to keep them separate?
NS: [Laughs] Oh, no, I think not. Some
little things from one crept into the other. I know I did a more
active Elsa than I did the summer before, and I don’t know if Harry
was completely of my opinion, but there are some sex scenes in the
first act, especially in Walküre, that became quite lyrical.
We really just went down a notch and let the thing breathe a little
bit for a while, and I don’t think it really hurt the production.
BD: As you look at your career and at dates
in the future, will you try to separate these two kinds of productions,
one from the other, and not do them together?
NS: Oh, no. It’s a lot of fun to do
them that way. You find yourself demanding a great deal of yourself.
You have to concentrate very hard on both at the rehearsal level, and
you have to sing too! [Both laugh]
BD: Yes, oh, and by the way, sing!
NS: Yes, everybody has to sing! I think, though,
it probably only would be possible in a situation like Bayreuth where
you really don’t do anything else. It’s very isolated, very much
a summer-camp kind of atmosphere. Everybody’s pulling together.
Whether I would juxtapose those kinds of productions when they were
in Paris and London, or Paris and Munich...
BD: ...or Paris and Paris?
NS: Yes, even Paris and Paris, but that
would be something I’d have to try out because the traveling between
cities cuts off your concentration level. There’s no doubt about
it, traveling is exhausting, and to go back and forth between such geographically
distant places and still try to keep the two productions separate in
your own thoughts would be a real challenge. I don’t know if I could
BD: How far ahead are you booked?
NS: Oh, 1992 I guess.
BD: Is that a good feeling to know that
on a specific Thursday two or three years from now you’re going to
sing a specific role in a specific city?
NS: Oh, sure! Knowing you’re getting
a specific salary for that specific role is just fine!
BD: You don’t feel that you might have outgrown that
role and gone beyond it?
NS: I don’t book them in that case.
I wouldn’t book a Bartered Bride 1992. I simply wouldn’t
do it, or a Freischütz for 1991, or anything like that.
No, you keep your own progress in mind, and book a Fidelio for 1992,
not a Bartered Bride. Also, things happen in Europe.
I’m not familiar enough with the American scene, but a lot of things
crop up in between. People get sick, or maybe get called to do
this or that, or somebody cancels. So, it’s not like I have my life
set for the next four years, actually not at all. Let’s just say
I have a broad frame of reference for what’s going to be going on.
BD: How easy is it to turn things down if it starts
to look like you’re being overbooked, or if you’ve got too many heavy
things too close together?
NS: An agent or a management’s job is
not to let that happen.
BD: [Gently protesting] But you’re
the one who signs the contracts.
NS: Not always! [Has a huge laugh] Sometimes
they do it for you! They would always ask, and if I look at
a calendar and say, “No, that’s simply not possible,”
then they don’t do it. I’m very conservative about my bookings.
I’ve always been very conservative about it, and I very rarely sing
more than thirty performances a season. It’s very rare for me to
do more than that. I might if there are other performances to
sing — like the First Lady, or things that
really don’t take so much effort. I have been told many times that
I err more to the side of not doing enough than to the side of doing
too much. It’s just part of my personality. I don’t think
I’ll have any problem with that.
BD: That’s good.
NS: It is and it isn’t. You probably do
come to a point, let’s say in your middle forties, where you simply have
to step over that and say, “No, never,”
but I’ll worry about that when it happens.
BD: You’re in it for the long-haul, as far
as your career goes?
NS: [Thinks a moment] I think so.
I’ve talked to many colleagues about it, and of course the ideal thing
would be to get to the point where you can do exactly what you want.
You can say, yes there’s a Lohengrin production being done with this
or that director, with this or that conductor, and I would really like to
sing it. Or no, there’s a production being done, and the people that
are doing it have absolutely no interest, and I don’t care how much the
pay, I’m not going to do it. If you can maintain some kind of a
financial sanity about what you invest in and don’t invest in, and keep
your feet on the ground as far as your ultimate market-value, then there’s
no reason you can’t do a very successful long-haul, and not be forced to
sing anything you don’t really want to sing.
BD: Do you ever feel that you are a
NS: Oh, that’s what you are! There’s
no doubt about it.
BD: Should you have shares of your career
traded on the Big Board [New York Stock Exchange] on Wall Street?
NS: On the Big Board, right!
Shares in this and that, shares in Wagner today!
BD: Or shares in Nadine?
NS: [Laughs] I don’t know if anybody
would buy those! You touched on a very psychological aspect
of the business. It’s very hard, when things are going well, to
keep a perspective about what you actually mean to your manager, to your
boss in the opera house, to a conductor, because music people are very
open. They’re very loving a lot of times, and they talk a good game,
especially managers and bosses of opera houses. The one thought
that can keep your feet on the ground in this business is that you are
a commodity, and the moment you cease to sing as well as you do now,
you are a lifeless commodity. Never mistake the emotions of somebody
approving of you for the emotions of someone liking you. There’s
nothing personal in them firing you, just as there’s nothing personal
in them hiring you.
BD: You can separate what’s in your throat
from the rest of you?
NS: Yes, from the rest of your life if you’re clever,
because in any entertainment business — and
opera, for better or worse, is an entertainment business
— the feeling of approval, the feeling of being liked by
all the people that you work with, is important. We’re vulnerable
creatures, all of us. We want to be approved of, and we want to be
liked, and you are led to believe — it’s a very
old soundtrack — that they’re interest in you
is personal. Now if you ever try to bank on this, well, let’s say
I wouldn’t put it on the Big Board because that’s simply not the way it
is. Yet, I find myself buying into it. I catch myself really
believing that these people like me and not because of what I do.
BD: Is there no one in all of these people
who are managing and manipulating you that really do have a little
affinity for you?
NS: If you’re fortunate, you maybe have one or
two that you’ve known for a long time, who will really tell you like it
is, and who will also warn you against buying into the rest of this business.
But really, it’s your own job of self-discipline that has to keep your
feet on the ground about it. You have to keep reminding yourself that
if tomorrow you start to sing like a pig, nobody’s going to care.
I find that thought rather refreshing, because it puts the whole business
of opera — as wonderful and as crazy and as artistic
as it is — in its proper perspective, which
is a business. It’s what I do, but it’s not what I am.
BD: Is it what you love?
NS: It’s what I love more than anything else.
I can’t imagine doing anything else to make money, but it’s still
a job, and I try to keep it at that. I don’t want to base my opinion
of myself on the fact that sing opera. That would be a mistake,
although you can’t deny to the world that you do it, it becomes a big
part of your personality.
BD: You know what you are to your management,
to your agent, to the management of the house. What are you to yourself?
NS: What I probably am not is an opera
singer, and if you can really keep clear on what you’re trying to do
with your life, rather than what you’re trying to do with the career,
then your problems are pretty well solved. It’s not easy.
What I’m spouting off here is one of the most difficult things to do in
this business, and it requires constant attention and constant discipline.
But I do believe it’s possible because I have known one or two people
who have done it! So, there’s hope for the rest of us! [Much
BD: I take it you’re coming very close to
NS: Hmm... No, I don’t think so.
When you have to fight with it as much as I have to, then I don’t think
it’s successful. But I think that I’m chipping away at it.
BD: You say you only sing thirty performances
a year. Do you have a home life and a family that are supportive
of all of this?
NS: Yes. My life in Germany is quite stable,
thank goodness. My family here in the States is a big part of the
business, but in a kind of an odd way for me. They really don’t know
a whole lot about it at all. They’ve only know what they’ve learned
through me and what I tell them. When I described what’s going on
in Lohengrin before they came to Bayreuth, they laughed, and they
thought it’s pretty silly. Then they go to see it and are impressed,
because when I go home I’m just me, and I’m fairly successful at what I do,
and I’m making a good living. But it has nothing to do their feelings
BD: Would Mama and Papa rather you’d be some place
nearer home, with husband and six kids?
NS: Oh, they probably would have liked that.
They probably would have liked whatever I did. They really didn’t
care, as long as doing something that I really like, which is great.
That kind of unconditional support is great, just to do what you
feel like and have a good time, and come and tell them about it.
But, they were pretty freaked out when they came to Bayreuth last summer
and saw people asking for my autographs because they never really computed
what this kind of thing was like. But it’s okay, because when I go
home the dog’s there, the cat’s there, and I have to mow the lawn, and
things are basically the way they were when I was there.
* * *
BD: Let’s talk about another of the Wagner roles.
You’ve sung Eva?
BD: Is she a fun character?
NS: It’s a great character. It’s a
wonderful character if you can really get into her. She’s a brat,
but a lovable one, a very lovable brat, and she has a distinct personal opinion,
which I think is really great.
BD: Would she have been happy with Sachs
if Walther hadn’t come along and she’d married Sachs?
NS: I think so. If Walther hadn’t come along
to rock the boat, probably she would have married Sachs. Quite simply,
there’s no one else who is interesting. If she had married Sachs,
they wouldn’t have written an opera about her because she would have
been basically everybody else. But she’s not, so that’s what makes
her really interesting. She’s a fascinating character. Actually,
for most of those who sing it, Eva is one of the most difficult roles
in the repertoire because she is basically written for two different
sopranos. The second act is written for one soprano, and the third
act is written for another, which makes it very hard. You have to
warm up two hours between the acts to try and sing successfully, especially
BD: You have to reset the voice?
NS: Yes, you really do. Otherwise the aria
sounds like a Brünnhilde cry, and you don’t get through the quintet.
It’s a hard part, but because she requires so much concentration she
can be really fascinating. I enjoy playing her. We did a lovely
production in Cologne, and it was very successful, with a very good
Sachs, Bernd Weikl. It was a lovely experience, really, really great.
BD: Do you sing better when you better colleagues?
NS: Yes, definitely. I wouldn’t know
if I would sing better, but I certainly sell myself better when I have
somebody to play-off off.
BD: You feel better about it?
NS: Oh yes. I’m always so much happier
when there are really excellent people on stage, because I work better
and, like I say, we play off each other much more successfully than if
you’re trying to carry a load of the show by yourself.
BD: You mentioned that you explained
the operas to your family, and then they go. Should opera be
NS: No, I don’t think so, no more than Rilke, or Shakespeare.
Well, Shakespeare is a little bit more universal, but Proust? We’re
getting into some pretty esoteric things here. I would like to
believe that in an ideal world everyone could accept the fact that operas
are about everybody, which they really are. That is often the theme,
but no, I don’t think it’s for everybody. I
certainly wouldn’t want to take my taxi driver, or even my downstairs
neighbor in Germany to an opera. She wouldn’t like it! I would
feel guilty about having dragged her there.
BD: What is the purpose of opera, then?
NS: The purpose of any cultural institution
— be it opera, be it painting, be it straight theater
— is to basically elevate the entire audience, the entire
cast, the people that are looking at the picture, into a place that
we simply don’t get in a normal human experience. Any really
serious cultural experience is looking into a better world for a short
time. I happen to believe very strongly in the theory of Hindemith’s
The Harmony of the Spheres. I really do believe that an
opera audience experiences that kind of metaphysical harmony when they
come to a successful opera performance. The Greeks we’re not far
off of it when they said that art was a catalyst to experiencing with the
people, being elevated by their actions, and that’s really the only excuse
for culture. Otherwise, we should buy more low-income housing, or
something. You really have to believe that these things you’re hearing
are making better people out of those of us that are there. We are
all being changed in some way.
BD: In some way, or in a positive way?
NS: It really has to be a positive way.
BD: Are there other Wagner roles that you sing?
Have you done Senta?
NS: I tried Senta twice, and that was about
the end of that.
BD: You don’t like her?
NS: I don’t like the role. I love the character.
She’s fascinating, but I don’t think Wagner knew a whole lot about vocal
writing when he wrote it. He obviously did, but he wrote a couple
of pages that were written for a flute or something, so I don’t really
enjoy that role at all. I fit well into the Fach of what
they call ‘jugendlich-dramatischer’. That’s my repertoire. Also,
as far as appearance and acting abilities and voice, I anticipate staying
very comfortably in these roles for my foreseeable future anyway.
BD: Any other Strauss roles besides Chrysothemis?
NS: I probably will do the Marschallin
someday. I did Arabella. That was fun. There were lots
of pretty costumes. That’s about it for the time being.
I’m playing around with the idea of Salome, but I have no affinity for
her at all. [Laughs] I just don’t understand her!
BD: I don’t think anybody understands her!
NS: I know, but some people like to try...
BD: Perhaps anyone who really understands
Salome should seek psychiatric help... [Both laugh]
NS: Probably true.
BD: Some of the ladies that are portrayed on the
stage are the old-fashioned helpless woman who are victims, but you
don’t do too many of those.
NS: No, I don’t. Very few. Wagner
women always know what they want.
BD: That’s true. Do you feel that
the ones you play speak more to women of the 1980s than, say, a Verdi
heroine, or a Puccini heroine who is really a victim?
NS: Any opera heroine who’s portrayed convincingly
and with a lot of heart can speak to women of any age, simply because
we have a lot of common emotions with all women. As to this little
quorum of wanting to sacrifice oneself for one’s mate, you’d have to
go a long way to find a woman that absolutely wants none of that.
Sure, they don’t all do it like Elisabeth. They don’t all go out
and die for their man, but they do it on an everyday level. They
do it by working four years to put him through college, or they do it by
staying home for years and years as a housewife while he goes out and does
the career. It’s a very common phenomenon, and that’s what you do
as a performer — you find these emotions that
people have in common, and build on them, and make them mean something
to the people who are listening to the opera. That is just my theory!
BD: One last question. Is singing fun?
NS: Oh, it’s a blast! [Laughs] It’s wonderful
fun. Even if things aren’t going a hundred per cent your way, it’s
total fun, but you pay a big price for it. There’s no doubt about
it. It’s not the easiest business in the world. I have to
laugh sometimes at people’s concept of how we live. They think we
get up at noon, run through a few scales, eat bonbons at the piano,
put on our negligees, lounge around the house, and then go to the theater!
[Laughs] And we never rehearse! We drink champagne before and
after the performances. It’s very, very funny.
BD: And then you go to a party.
NS: Right, and then go to an enormous long
party that lasts until four o’clock, and then get up the next day,
and sing another performance! Sure! [Both are laughing
hysterically at this point] The truth is, that especially in something
physically demanding, as this Bayreuth production, we live like nuns...
nuns who go to body building studios! That’s our lifestyle, and
to somebody that I really cared a lot about who was thinking of going into
singing, I would certainly tell them to think twice about it.
BD: [With a gentle nudge] Twice, or
three or four times?
NS: Or a dozen times, because it does require,
on a personal level, a private life of sacrifices that a lot of people
are not willing to do.
BD: You obviously feel that in your case
it’s worth it.
NS: Well, I have a very understanding person at home,
and that’s more than any money can really pay for. He is somebody
who says, “Well, dear, I see you in two months.”
Another time he says, “I’ll fly over a couple of
times,” and it’ll be okay. Not everybody finds
people like that, and that makes it doubly hard if you don’t have somebody
who is going to pull with you. People really have to understand
what they would be giving up for this career. I have a lot of discussions
with my sister. While I am performing at Lyric, I live with her in
Oak Park [first suburb west of Chicago], and she has what most people would
call a normal lifestyle. She’s a nurse, she has a baby, and she has
a very little house. It’s chaotic because there’s a baby there, but
it’s still a house with a yard and things like that. She talks about
how I went to Paris, and I look at her and think she’s got the world with
a fence around it because this is what I dream about when I dream about an
ideal life. So I guess it’s ‘the grass is always
greener’, but certainly there is a big price tag on
this kind of a career, and people should do some serious self-evaluating
before they even make one step in this direction. It seems like it
would be glamorous, but it’s simply not what it appears to be.
BD: It would be terrible to put in a lot
of hard work in school, and get started in the career, and then all of
a sudden find out this is really not for you.
NS: It happens a lot, or worse yet
— and this is really the fault of some vocal teachers
— they come to the point where they should be selling themselves,
and they discover they really don’t have the instrument to do it.
That happens a lot, but I guess that happens in every profession.
It would be a lot easier if the people themselves would think, when they
are eighteen years old, do I really want to spend the rest of my life
like a gypsy?
BD: Is that something that an eighteen-year-old
can make a decision about?
NS: I don’t know... It would have
to be a pretty smart eighteen-year-old. But judging from what’s
important to them at eighteen — what kind
of home life they have, and what they were raised to believe is normal
— that could make some kind of an impact. If it could
go either way, that might tip the balance as to whether they want to be a
high school music teacher, or I would like to be something else, but I
do not want to be an opera singer.
BD: Or, would they like to be a wife and
singer, with occasional performances here and there?
NS: Maybe they would like to be the star
of Oak Park, Illinois, and sing all of their chamber music, which is
just as defendable.
BD: Now I wish you lots of continued success.
It’s been fun talking with you.
NS: Thank you so much. I’ve never done it in English
before. I’m much more convincing in German. A lot of the lingo
that we use in the music business, I only know in German!
--- --- ---
© 1988 Bruce Duffie
This conversation was recorded in Chicago, on October 15, 1988.
Portions were broadcast on WNIB three days later. This transcription
was made in 2018, 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.
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.
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.