PIECE: ELLEN SHADE
by Bruce Duffie
Ellen Shade is one of those vital, vibrant people who, as she says, simply has to sing. For that we are fortunate because she happens to sing splendidly.
native New Yorker, she started as a mezzo-soprano at Juilliard and
singing a variety of leading soprano parts in opera houses and concert
all over the world. In
during one of those visits to the
Bruce Duffie: Are you still confused with Nancy Shade [another opera singer of similar age and repertoire]?
Ellen Shade: All
the time. In fact, last summer we worked together
— not in the same opera but in the same company. I bumped into
her on the street and she said she had some fan mail of mine.
BD: How did you get into opera?
ES: Because of a guy. I was a music student and came from a very musical family, but we weren’t particularly interested in opera. I met a fellow who was an opera singer, and he said I really should know what he was going through and suggested I take some voice lessons. In the beginning, I wasn’t exactly hooked – especially talking to other opera people because all they talked about was opera, and it was real boring. But the better I got vocally, the more interesting it became.
BD: Do you like opera now that you’re in it?
ES: When I’m in it, sometimes. I very rarely am happy attending an opera. By now I know the stories so it’s not a case of wanting to see it until the end. I applaud in the right places and yell and scream, but I want to be moved and I want to hear good, healthy singing. And I’m a glutton – I want them both at the same time, and that’s very rare. Also, I’m too restless. I can’t sit through a whole opera. I’m much better in the standing-room or if I can sit out an act.
BD: Ever find yourself wandering backstage during an opera just to see what’s happening?
No, I would never
do that and I wouldn’t want other colleagues to do that to me. It’s particularly upsetting to see faces
which do not belong in that opera standing there. It’s
upsetting to me and I’m sure it’s
upsetting to others. There are singers
who carry on when they see friends in the wings, but that’s not part of
What do you do if you get upset while onstage — if you stub
your toe or if something strange happens?
ES: My first Micaela in Carmen was in the Ponnelle production in Frankfurt. On opening night I came down two little steps underneath an archway. I was fine but my wig stayed up in the archway. That was very embarrassing, especially as Micaëla in that production was a blond and I have very dark hair. The audience could see the white thing which kept my own hair up under the wig. People can’t tell me jokes or play jokes onstage because I’m a giggler. We must all try very hard to make it like real life for the audience.
BD: Is opera real life?
ES: It’s heightened life, don’t you think? If you think it’s boring life, then we’re doing a bad job. It’s not real, of course, but I try to make it as real as I can. It’s the old problem of how much do I cry in order the make the audience cry. Basically, an audience is more interested in seeing a struggle to survive rather than seeing martyrism. The more an audience sees you weep onstage, the less they will be involved. However, the times that I become weepy and ruin my makeup are often the times that are the most electric to the audience. It’s a funny line and I don’t know exactly where it is. I’m still experimenting with it.
BD: Do you ever cross that line and become the character you are supposed to be portraying?
ES: I have a tendency to refer to the character I’m playing as “me.” On the other hand, I usually play characters who are just a little touched. I mean those women get into situations that I don’t.
BD: Do you like to die at the end?
I die well. I’m
a good victim.
Would you rather kill someone onstage instead?
No, I’d rather be killed.
Is it believable when you take twenty or thirty
minutes to expire?
never seen anybody die so I don’t know
how believable it can be. Sopranos don’t
usually get shot — it’s stabbings and poisonings and the famous TB.
When I did my first Traviata, I went to a
BD: If a director insisted you play it that way because it was correct and the critics panned you for it, would you write to the critics and tell them to go to a clinic and observe the reality of the situation?
ES: Then I’d be writing them every day of my life! No, there has to be a certain theatrical license, I guess. That’s why opera is heightened life.
BD: Do you enjoy the characters you play?
ES: Some of them; others are pretty sappy. I like the ladies who fight and struggle against what is happening to them. I have a certain simpatico with victims.
BD: Are you
Oh no, no! But I like victims when they are not succumbing to
their fate; all these ladies who get killed off or die don’t
embrace death but rather fight against it.
They fight and lose...
They fight and lose, otherwise there’d be an extra act in Traviata.
How do you
approach characters that fit your voice but not your psyche?
You wouldn’t play the Nurse in Die Frau ohne Schatten? She
really is the devil.
I aspire to one of the other ladies in that opera, but there it’s
a vocal choice. I’d rather play the
Empress, but a friend of mine in Berlin says I should play the Dyer’s
wife because of who I am as a human being. I haven’t
made that decision yet. I’ve been asked to look at it,
so we’ll have to see.
Either way you’ll be competing against top singers of the
world because you’re in that fach. Is that frustrating at
Yes, it’s very hard and I haven’t really found my
fach yet. I’m
still searching. I get a real thrill out of singing Verdi, but my
manager says I have to be more vulgar onstage.
Are there any characters you play which are awfully close to the real
Yes. Do I have to say which ones?
No, but is it harder playing those characters?
It depends on the cast and the director.
Would the character and reality meld a bit too close?
That hasn’t happened yet, but I could very easily see how it
could. It would have to be a totally nurturing atmosphere
— which ones gets infrequently — where
all the colleagues and the director are very close. The
conductor, in that instance, would not be so important because he would
not be part of the inter-personal thing that happens between the
director and colleagues onstage. You can sing wonderfully and
still have nothing going on onstage, but I could see where it might get
Are these roles you have sung, or roles you have just looked at?
Yes. [Much laughter]
You say it would need a certain kind of atmosphere that you don’t
usually get. I feel a sense of frustration there.
The dichotomy of being a performer is that you work to make yourself as
vulnerable as possible, which is as open as possible, and that openness
is not always treated with loving care. I find this more and more
as I deal in the international level of performing. Americans, as
a general rule, are really terrific colleagues. They’re
ingenious. They’re out to have a good show.
There are obvious exceptions to that, but on the international level of
performing — both in Europe and when European performers
come here — it’s a whole different
ballgame. They are not necessarily out for the good of the show.
What makes a star?
Adulation from the audience. I don’t
think stardom comes from within.
How much of this is PR?
Probably a lot, but I say that hesitatingly because I have a PR agent.
Don’t you like having someone working for your good and
The person and the company I’m dealing with now have turned
out to be very loyal friends and supporters, so I don’t
feel the conflict. The basic idea seems to be anti-art.
When you get superstars who don’t perform up to the level
that I expect them to, then a lot of that has to be the PR. It can’t
be because they’re not intrinsically talented.
BD: You don’t like being treated as a commodity?
I am a commodity and I have to accept that, but I don’t like
being treated that way.
You wouldn’t mind being on the stock exchange along with
pork bellies and hog futures?
As long as I’m up high! [Laughter] Of course I
mind, but I have to be realistic. Life is just full of these
conflicts. I have to assess my good points and bad points to bury
the bad ones and bring out the good ones, and try to figure out how I
can make myself better. That’s the commodity end of
it. But on the other side, I’m a human being who has a
heart and a soul, and I have to deal with those on a day-to-day
basis. I only have to deal with the commodity when I’m
Can you completely separate your personal life from your professional
No, not completely because it’s an integral part of
me. When I first met my husband, I asked at least fourteen times
a day if he wanted me to give up singing. After we were married
he did say he wanted me to be home more, but he did not want me to give
up singing because he loved me the way I was, and so much of that was
because I was a singer.
Could you have been content if he had said he wanted you to give it all
The question is can I be content singing because it is a
real burden. It’s something I have to do. Those
little grey-haired ladies come up and say, “It’s
such a blessing to sing,” but it isn’t.
It’s hard and it takes hard work from my heart as well as
just plain hard work.
BD: But isn’t it better than being in an office from nine-to-five every day?
ES: I don’t know. I have worked at other jobs, including being in an office from nine-to-five. I don’t think I would devote as much of me to another job as I do to singing, but it’s a moot point. It doesn’t matter. I have to sing.
BD: Are you glad you have to sing?
Do you like being a wandering minstrel?
No. I don’t travel very well. I don’t
sleep well in strange beds, I don’t drink different water
that well and I don’t eat restaurant food well. I’m
much happier being in an apartment even if I’m only there
for two weeks because then I can cook for myself and not have to eat
ancient vegetables and sad pieces of lettuce. But thanks to Ma
Bell, I can talk to my husband.
* * * * *
BD: Now that you look back on Paradise Lost, was it all worth it?
yes. It was a devastating rehearsal
period and it was almost devastated by the Lyric Opera of Chicago. Personally, the role was very successful for
me. It was the first time I came before
a real international audience. It made
my debut at La Scala and I’ve continued to have a very good
that theater. It was the second time I’d
worked with Penderecki, but the first time in a major role, and he has
asked for me and has written something with my voice in mind.
BD: Is that good, or
does it present special problems?
ES: The piece is fantastic. It’s
thirty-seven minutes long and is a Te
Deum for four solo voices, chorus and orchestra. I’m
a good musician, a good sight-reader, so the trials of learning that
piece were not as difficult as for someone else. I had studied
his works during my technical training, so it was a real thrill working
as closely with him as I was. On the negative side, we had a
director who just couldn’t deal with it. Toward the
end of his tenure, he would just come in and sort of slouch because he
was so depressed, and that bled onto all of us.
Does that whet your appetite for another world premiere?
It depends. If it were some crazy lady I don’t
know... [Laughter] But the Te Deum is a spectacular piece and
was written in somewhat of the same style as Paradise Lost. The forces of
good fight the forces of evil. It was right about the beginning
of the Solidarity movement, and the chorus sang an unaccompanied
chorale in Polish which had been banned. At the very end of that
chorale, I entered in an unrelated key to sing, “Save your
people, God; Jesus died for us.” It was
wonderful. Originally we were to perform Paradise Lost in
1976 but, as you know, it wasn’t staged until 1978.
I’m glad for those two years because I was a
more mature person and somewhat more equipped to deal with the
stresses of the situation. Opening
nights are hard enough as it is, and I’m one who gets nervous for every
performance. But opening that opera for
that audience in the middle of a snowstorm… Many of them were
supposed to have been at the final dress-rehearsal and could not get
in, so the audience was not as knowledgeable about the piece as they
could have been.
I saw three
performances — the final dress rehearsal, an early performance, and the
last night. It was a great experience and
interesting to see the various changes during the run.
It held together very well and I was caught
up in the whole thing.
I think a bigger scissors could have been used. It was at least
an hour too long. I think the scene where Gabriel takes Adam
through all the visions of the future would be better as a separate
piece. If you remember, Eve is sleeping during that whole time so
it was great for me, but it’s a wonderful scene for the
chorus and there were some interesting things going on in the dancing.
I thought it held together very well, but I was caught up in the whole
Most people felt
that way, but he’s not a theatrical writer. It’s a mood piece, not action,
but we’re talking about the man who wrote the book on orchestration and
who developed the theme of characterizing people through the music. Verdi did the same thing and so did Mozart,
and I think Penderecki is a genius. It’s
the classic American opera and I think it should be THE twentieth
piece. It won’t be, though, because it’s
theatrical enough. Had he had a theatrical person standing over
him with a big red pencil, I think the whole piece would have worked
out a whole lot better. But most works seem to be presented later
in a more adaptable form. It’s been done again, but
the cuts have been little bits and pieces. They could have cut
out whole scenes. The children’s scene didn’t
do anything. It explained who Eve was as a human being, but it
could have been cut.
If it was cut, a hundred years from now they’d find the
scene and put it back in again, and probably be able to justify its
re-inclusion. [Laughter] Have you heard the Violin Concerto which was written
at the same time?
I’ve heard it and it seem to have more theatricality than
the opera does. It’s the same for the Te Deum. Maybe he’s
turning over a new leaf.
Maybe his next opera will be more theatrical.
Are operas generally too long?
From who’s standpoint? Luisa Miller is the longest
role I’ve ever sung and it’s somewhat longer than
a normal opera. Butterfly, which I do not sing, is perhaps the
longest role ever, and nobody gets bored during that. So it
depends. There’s an old joke about the man who goes to
a 6 PM performance of Parsifal.
After three hours of music he looks at his watch and it says
Would you turn down the role of Kundry for that reason?
I have sung small roles in that opera — a flower maiden, an
esquire, and the voice from above. I did all those in the same
Did you enjoy doing more than one role in the same opera?
It was more interesting than sitting and watching it. I just
think it’s not a terrifically exciting opera. In this
particular staging I had to lie down on the floor looking up at
Gurnemanz, and it was hard not to fall asleep.
You’ve done Eva in Die
Meistersinger. How much of a pixie is she?
When I was in Germany, I was accused of being raffiniert and that’s
about as close as you can come to “pixie.”
I think Eva is terrific. She’s full of fun
and really loves Walther. She also really loves Hans Sachs, but
in a totally different way. Like any teenager, she spreads her
wings and tries herself out on the nearest-loved person, who happens to
be Hans Sachs.
Would she have been happy to marry Sachs if Walther had not come along
at that precise moment? I have a theory that Sachs would have
entered the contest just so she would not have been given to Beckmesser.
Perhaps, but I think that makes less of the character of Hans
Sachs. He’s a great man and he loves her beyond what
we can understand. He loves her not only as a man but as a
father, and he realizes that it wouldn’t work. If it
had come down to Beckmesser and Sachs, he would have refused the prize
and said she should wait a year... or something like that. He
would have won only to save Eva from Beckmesser and then figured
something out. She’s going to turn up on Sachs’
doorstep one night — perhaps when her own father dies
— because it’s an ongoing relationship. Sachs knows
this, too, and you know there are going to be problems in
the marriage between Walther and Eva.
Because they are both very temperamental people and they
would have flown off the handle at each other all the time. Plus,
Walther tends to sulk when his feelings get hurt. They are both
so human. Wagner wrote such a human piece, as opposed to all his
Are these characters too human?
Oh I don’t think so.
BD: Can operatic characters become too human at times?
When they do things we don’t want them to do,
sure. I’ve seen Beckmesser done as a characterization,
as a cartoon, and he was not intended to be like that. He was
intended to be a very real man. He has to be drawn that way
because the rest of the characters are. The ideal Beckmesser
would be someone who would be attractive in some way, but whose
personality is so bookkeeperish and so nit-picking that it would be
BD: Sort of a guy who works for the IRS?
What would Sachs be doing these days?
Not making shoes. He’d be doing something
I don’t see him with a briefcase riding the
train to work every day...
ES: He wouldn't live in a city. He’d probably live in a town.
BD: Would Eva be happy in a town, or would she go to the big city for awhile before becoming disillusioned?
You could play her either way because she’s too
young in the opera. She’s about seventeen, which is
young even in today’s terms. Kids today who are
seventeen look older than I do. Walther is nineteen and
Beckmesser is twenty-five. They’re all real
people. Sachs is in his forties. His wife died in
childbirth. That’s why it’s important he
not be an older man. You have to see that it’s
possible for him to physically love a woman... not that somebody in his
sixties couldn’t, but it makes it more reasonable.
BD: Does opera belong on television?
ES: I don’t think opera is meant to be seen so very close up. No one except the singer is interested in seeing the tongue under stress and the veins in the neck.
BD: Why then can’t you get the producer to use most medium and long shots?
ES: That’s a very good question. I’ve done it where they tape it first and then we lip-sync later, and I’ve done it live, and it just doesn’t work. Lip-syncing isn’t real because you don’t make all the actual movements when you’re dubbing sound.
BD: Why can’t you sing in half-voice just to have the movements there while the film is rolling?
ES: Because then you can’t hear the sound coming from the speakers. There are so many things that could go wrong during a session. I was doing a film in Yugoslavia and we had to re-shoot a whole day’s work because the electrical current was a bit less and it didn’t match up with the current elsewhere.
BD: Your hair is thick and covers your ears, so couldn’t they give you a tiny earphone so you could hear clearly while you re-sang?
ES: I guess they could, but it hasn’t occurred to them. But it would be difficult when you’re romping around all over the place. I’m sure they will eventually come up with a solution to the problem. I must say I’m a little against recordings, too, because the whole thing about opera is that it is a spontaneous performance. By that I don’t just mean that each night the performers are different and the conductor feels slightly differently and you create something, but there is an audience and they’re part of it, too. They’re very much a part of what happens onstage. For instance, there’s coughing and there’s coughing. Four hundred people with colds is very different from people coughing in sympathy with the dying Mimì.
BD: But on the TV, most of the audience noises and coughing and shuffling are eliminated, aren’t they?
ES: Yes, but the cameras catch the singers reacting to that commotion. However, on recordings and films you get a false sense of what the performers can do. It’s like listening to an orchestra on earphones — it never sounds like that in a concert hall to the audience. I know that as a performer because when I sing with an orchestra I have to readjust to hearing only the violins because the soprano always stands right next to them. It’s different, and a person who is uninitiated to live theater will listen to the recording and be disappointed in the live theater because it isn’t as immediate as the record, nor is it as perfect.
BD: For the recording you can do a section or a phrase maybe ten times and one of them is bound to be pretty good, so you can choose that one to be issued or even splice pieces from among several takes. But in the theater, you’re stuck with the one shot, no matter what happens.
ES: Exactly.BD: How do we get more people to come to the opera?
ES: Start them when they’re young, and if you miss that, then there’s the Affiliate Artist Program, of which I’m an ardent supporter. I was an Affiliate Artist and it was a very important experience for me.
BD: Is this good for the performers or the audiences?
for any of the performing arts — singing,
dancing, acting, theater, instrumental music.
It takes an individual and gets that individual together with a
sponsoring organization. There are lots
of schools that do it and there are clubs in towns, women’s
park systems in
BD: Did you get through to these audiences?
scared me to death, though.
Most people are not willing to accept you by
what you do. They’re much more
interested in who you are. So once you
present your personality and grab them with that, then they’ll be
listen to you sing. My life was
threatened once in a music class, but it became one of the most
experiences of my life. Those children
who are now young adults still come to my performances when I’m in
BD: So the experience really touched their lives?
Yes it did, and
that’s the whole point of the program. Most
of them may not go on to spend any time at the opera,
will go to live spectacle — theater or rock concerts even — and those
who would never come downtown. They were
locked into their ghettoes, but the Affiliate Artists send people to
places, and they say if you get one person committed to your art form,
Is rock music?
Sure. Don’t you think so? But ask me if disco is
OK, is disco music?
No, disco is beat. And that is said as the daughter of a
drummer! It’s 120 beats per minute and it doesn’t
matter what the chord structure is. So that’s
offensive to me.
So let’s go the other direction. Do early works such
as Monteverdi and Cavalli belong on the stage today?
Yes!!! They must be done with a great deal of thought and insight
because they, too, can fall into that vast category of being
boring. They deal with real life, particularly Cavalli.
I hope that you can come back to Chicago.
Me too. I think it has the best acoustics of the big three
because it doesn’t seem to favor one voice-type or
another. San Francisco has poor acoustics and the Met favors men’s
voices. I’ve heard women with rich, beautiful high
notes who sound a bit thin there. Chicago is not a very intimate
house, though. It’s a big house but it’s a
great place to work. A lot of the stagehands here are into opera,
Ken Recu [Captain of the supers] says we’re all opera
junkies. [See my Interview
with Ken Recu.]
There are no temperamental singers, only mistreated
singers. By the way, there is someone who is now giving a course
for singers on how to give interviews. I would think it would be
very important. There is no formula, no one way, but it sure is
helpful to find out what other people do.
Thank you for doing this interview.
ES: Thank you, also.
Duffie is an announcer/producer with WNIB, Classical 97 in
This interview was recorded in a dressing room of the Civic
Opera House in
Chicago on December 11, 1982. It was transcribed and a portion
was published in
The Opera Journal in
September, 1988. The
full transcript was re-edited, photos and links were added, and
it was posted on this
website in 2013.
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.