Baritone  William  Sharp

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie

Baritone William Sharp (born June 1, 1951) has a reputation as a singer of artistry and versatility, garnering acclaim for his work in concert, recital, opera and recording. He performs actively, as he has for four decades. He has appeared with most major American symphony orchestras including those of New York, Chicago, Washington, Boston, Baltimore, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. He has created world premiere performances and recordings of works by composers such as Leonard Bernstein, John Harbison, John Musto, Jon Deak, Libby Larson, David Del Tredici, Lori Laitman, Steven Paulus, Scott Wheeler, and David Liptak. His performances and recordings of baroque and earlier music are equally acclaimed.

Sharp’s discography of several dozen discs encompasses music spanning 900 years, from the 12th century to today. His 1990 world premiere recording of Leonard Bernstein’s last major work, Arias and Barcarolles won a GRAMMY Award [shown immediately below], and Sharp was nominated for a 1989 GRAMMY for Best Classical Vocal Performance for his recording featuring the works of American composers such as Virgil Thomson, John Musto, and Lee Hoiby [shown farther down on this webpage].


[Steven Blier, Michael Barrett, Leonard Bernstein, Judy Kaye, and William Sharp (left to right)]

He made his New York recital debut in 1983, Kennedy Center debut in 1984, and Carnegie Hall recital debut in 1989. He is winner of the Carnegie Hall International American Music Competition, the Young Concert Artists International Auditions, the Kathleen Ferrier Memorial Prize, and the Geneva International Competition.

Sharp has taught voice at the university level since 1977 and joined the Peabody Conservatory faculty in 2002. His students are performing throughout the world in concert and opera.

==  Text of the biography from the Johns Hopkins Peabody Institute website  
==  Names which are links in this box and below refer to interviews on my website.  BD  

Having grown up in the Chicago area, in mid-February of 1991, William Sharp was back to the Windy City to sing the St. Matthew Passion with the group named Basically Bach.  He graciously agreed to take time from his schedule to speak with me about his musical adventures.

As we set up to record our conversation, we discussed the recordings which I had placed on the table . . . . .

Bruce Duffie
:   Here’s the St. John Passion [conducted from the harpsichord by Anthony Newman]

William Sharp:   I don’t like it very much, but it may be better than I think it is.  The reason I don’t like it is because we did it so fast, and it seemed to have no real coherent direction.  [A very favorable review of this recording is shown below.]


BD:   Then, here is something by the Florilegium Chamber Choir.  [Recording is shown at left.  Also, see my interview with Thea Musgrave.]  What is your contribution?

:   I sing Abram in the Abram and Isaac Parable, which is the same Wilfred Owen poem that Britten used in the War Requiem, in which he tells the story of Abraham and Isaac.  Abraham is prepared to sacrifice Isaac.  He makes the fire and prepares an animal sacrifice.  He takes out his sword and is ready to kill his own son.  In the Bible, an angel comes down and says,
Wait, you’ve proved that you are faithful and love the Lord, and so you don’t have to sacrifice your son.

BD:   In this setting, there’s no angel and the son gets killed?

Sharp:   Yes.  It’s a parable of war.  Abram slew his son and half the seed of Europe one by one.  It’s really very powerful, and there are some other words mingled in, as there are in the Britten, which is based on the Requiem Mass, but then it’s all interspersed with the war poetry of Wilfred Owen.  It’s the same idea here.  I am talking about something that’s unfresh in my mind, because I haven’t looked at it in a while.  But I remember it’s a very powerful piece.

BD:   When you learn a piece just for a recording, is it something that you just do for that and then forget?

Sharp:   Sometimes that’s the case, although I did do a performance of that piece.  It’s rare to learn a piece only for a recording and not to perform it.

BD:   But if you learn it for just one set of performances, then it drifts away?

Sharp:   It does drift away in the mind.  The faster I learn something, the faster I forget it.

BD:   Perhaps if you had to do it again, it would come back quickly?

Sharp:   Yes, it does come back.  It’s unpredictable.  Some things I find are very easy to relearn, and other things I feel like I’m starting from scratch again.  I had sung a song cycle by a composer from Rochester named David Liptak five or six years ago to poetry by James Wright.  It is a really interesting cycle of seven songs with piano accompaniment.  [CD of this work, as well as two other subsequent Liptak pieces are shown in the box at the end of this interview.]  I had learned them and performed them several years ago, and then he invited me to come to Rochester and record them just about a month ago.  When I re-learned them, I really thought I was starting from scratch.  I found it very difficult.

BD:   Is that because the music was more difficult than some other pieces?

Sharp:   It was hard music, and I’m not really facile at learning difficult music, which is tonally unclear and craggy melodically.  I don’t have great facility at doing that.  I have to work really hard at it.

BD:   Yet you seem to have taken it upon yourself to do quite a bit of new music by American and European composers, that is not necessarily the easy melisma that you would find in earlier music.

Sharp:   I found myself in the position of being some sort of representative of American song, which means, to a large extent, contemporary American song, because the art song in America doesn’t have a long history.  So it does put me in a position of singing a fair amount of new music by contemporary composers.

BD:   Is this a welcome happenstance, or has it been thrust upon you unwillingly?

Sharp:   No, it is a welcome happenstance.  I’m very happy to be doing all the things that I’m doing, and that’s a big part of it.  It sounds a little bit like happenstance, and in a way it is, because most people tend to go along performing standard repertoire choices.  You tend to make these choices because of what you do well, what you’re successful at doing, and what seems to suit you.  That’s what people will like, and will ask you to do again.  I found myself doing a fair amount of American song in my recitals.  My repertoire was growing, and that’s why I did enter the Carnegie Hall American Music Competition in 1987.  When I won it, then it became expected of me to do it, which is fine with me, but I probably wouldn’t have gone so far in that direction if I had not won that competition.  Sometimes I am thought-of as a specialist in American song, and I suppose I am, but it’s not an exclusive thing, nor is it a crusade.  I don’t feel like it’s an obligation.  I like it a great deal, but I choose my repertoire because of what I like.  My repertoire in American song is not encyclopedic, nor even really a cross-section.  It really has a lot to do with my personal taste, and it does lean toward the tonal.  I don’t really lean necessarily toward neo-romantic music or anything like that, but I don’t do a lot of the craggiest and what is to me
and to most audiencesthe most cerebral and least accessible music.  I’m not that attracted to it.  I don’t sing a lot of Milton Babbitt and that type of music.

BD:   Do you find you have a closer affinity with the audience because your taste would be a little more closely aligned with theirs?

Sharp:   My taste is also music that tends to be somewhat more accessible to the audience, but sometimes I’m wrong about that.

BD:   Is that also music which fits better in your throat?

Sharp:   Yes, I think so.  I think that’s true.  It’s hard to say what fits best.  I have tried to figure out what it is that makes my repertoire, because it seems kind of far-flung, and consisting of a lot of different unrelated facets, such as a fair amount of early music, and baroque music in the
original instruments camp, as well as American contemporary art song and American popular song.  There is a certain amount of opera, but not a lot.  I’m not sure what makes it all relate to what it has in common, but probably there’s a common thread of language.  I tend to like things which rely upon an ability to communicate linguistically, which I have a gift for doing.  My voice is not particularly opulent or operatic, so although I can make beautiful sounds and sing in subtle ways, I don’t rely upon power and knocking people out with the sound.  The visceral side of singing is not probably my strength.  I tend toward subtlety, and language, and also acting, which is another thing that I seem to have a gift for.
BD:   You can communicate more directly by singing songs which are in English?
Sharp:   Yes.  It is certainly a different experience.  Another thing is the fact that the audience is listening directly to what I’m saying.  I do happen to be gifted with good diction, and I don’t think it’s necessarily a matter of my having worked terribly hard to do that, but my vocal apparatus and my voice range is suitable for clear diction.  So people can understand me when I sing.  So if I’m singing in English, and particularly if I’m singing English texts and poetry, people feel like I’m really speaking their own languagenot just English, but American.  They feel that I’m really communicating something really quite directly to them.  It’s a surprise, because American classical vocalists spend very little time actually doing that.  They’re singing mostly in foreign languages, and when they do sing in English, such as Messiah, which people certainly can understand, there’s nothing really being revealed to them in the language.  So to me, it was a new experience to find that audiences were actually going along with me when I would sing an art song to them in English that they could really understand.

BD:   Do you feel that your communication of the words helps them to get around music that might not be quite as easily familiar?

Sharp:   Yes, sometimes that’s very true.  I have leaned toward American art songs which use the vernacular language and musical language as well.  There is a collection of American composers over a fairly wide period of time which uses the language of American popular song and jazz incorporated into the classical style in which they’re trained.  A good example of that is Paul Bowles, whose songs draw from the theater style, the popular style, and also from the classical style.  [Recording is shown at right.]  He then assimilates those styles so that he presents something to the listener which doesn’t jump out and say,
I’m an art song.  People are not sure whether they’re listening to an art song, a theater song, or a popular song.

BD:   Is that good?

Sharp:   Yes, it’s very good, especially now when the
Art Song Recital either has a reputation of being dry as dust, and stuffy, and of very little interest, or has no reputation at all.  There are many people who haven’t got the foggiest idea what an Art Song Recital would be like, even people who know a little bit about classical music.

BD:   Is an Art Song Recital, such as one that you would give, for everyone?

Sharp:   No, I don’t think so.  I don’t think there’s anything wrong with presenting something which is of particular interest to connoisseurs.  There’s nothing immoral about being elitist.  Many people are elitist about a lot of different things.  They might be baseball card collectors.  They know more about baseball cards than anybody else, and the average guy on the street hasn’t any idea what they’re talking about when they discuss it.  The same is true for someone who loves fine wine.  There’s nothing wrong with that, and it’s the same thing with music of any style.  You can be an elitist for folk music, or jazz, and you can present a concert of music that only a few people will really get into.  The audience of real connoisseurs and people who really perceive the living art of the art song
whether it be the European art song or the American art song such as it ishas dwindled a great deal.  Almost any presenter or singer who’s interested in that field, who’s been involved with it over the past 20 or 30 years will agree that it’s something that has really dwindled away.  There are very, very few singers at this time who can fill a large auditorium of people to hear a program of classical art songs.

BD:   Are you trying to revive this, or are you just marking time until its final demise?

Sharp:   No, I really am interested in getting a new group of people interested in it.  This does not necessarily mean a new group of people, but developing an audience that will realize what a fantastic body of repertoire there is, both old and new.

BD:   You’re providing a transfusion?

Sharp:   Yes, and one of the ways I do it is by pulling the wool over their eyes a little bit, and fooling them into thinking they’re just having a good time.  It doesn’t mean that I’m singing concerts that are superficial or just entertaining, but at least sometimes I like to give a serious recital for the lofty connoisseur crowd, too.  But when a general audience is being drawn into a theater to listen to me, I very often give them a program that they will find engaging from the first to the last.  They will see some kind of sense in it, not only in the individual songs, but in the whole program.  They really won’t feel like they are being expected to sit through something that is, for some reason, beyond them or over their heads.  The real wool that was pulled over their eyes was by the people who sang song recitals that were uncommunicative.

BD:   Off-putting?

Sharp:   Off-putting, right, to an audience of people who didn’t understand it.  They didn’t realize that not only did they not understand the language of the songs that were being sung, but they were being sung in a way that wasn’t very communicative.

BD:   I’m glad that you’re trying to communicate with everyone who is there.

Sharp:   I think that’s important, obviously.  First of all, you want to make your audience happy.  You do want them to be glad they came to the concert, and you also want them to have a new interest in whatever this genre of concert is that they just came to.  Many people come to my concerts because they’ve subscribed to a series in any number of places in this country.  It probably won’t be a series of song recitals, but it may have one on it...

BD:   ...and you’re it!

Sharp:   Right.  Very often that’s the concert the people don’t come to because they just don’t know what it is, and they probably think they’re not going to be interested.  But if they do come, when they go home I want them to feel that the next time a song recital appears somewhere, they’re going to go to it.
*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Do you make your living just singing, or do you do some teaching as well?

Sharp:   I do a little bit of teaching.  It’s been somewhat irregular, and I have not had a regular teaching position at a university for some time.  I’ve done one-year things, and sabbatical replacements.  Last year I had residencies at two colleges, which I enjoyed very much.  This summer, I’m going to be on the faculty at the Aspen School, so I’ll have a studio of private students there.  But so far, teaching hasn’t been on a continuing basis.  [As noted in the biography at the top of this webpage, he would increase his teaching significantly in the years since this conversation (1991).]

BD:   What advice do you have for the next generation of singers coming along?

Sharp:   I have a lot of different kinds of advice for them.  The most important thing is that they should be doing it because they love to do it.  Especially if they’re interested in singing the art song repertoire, they should have a very strong desire to do it.  Whether it ends up being a career for them or not, they should love doing it.

BD:   About what percentage of your time is spent in opera?

Sharp:   Pretty small, actually.  Currently, I’m singing maybe one opera each season.  Because other things became so important, and I got so involved with other stuff, I moved away from opera.  When I first started singing, I did what most singers do, which is to try to break into the regional opera circuit.  I got sidetracked from that by two things.  One was early music, Medieval and Renaissance music, which was my first interest in music to begin with.  When I first moved to New York, I landed a place in the Waverly Consort, which gave me regular employment singing the music that I really loved, which was Medieval and Renaissance.  [To see a 1988 review in The New York Times which praises Sharp, click HERE.]  That snowballed into something I did quite a bit.  
The other thing that sidetracked me was when I was taken on to the Young Concert Artists roster.  That’s an organization which provides opportunities for young performers, and for singers it means giving song recitals.  So those two things combined to draw me away from my interest in being an opera singer.

BD:   Do you ever include an aria or two on your recital programs?

Sharp:   Hardly ever.  Very often presenters want me to.  It’s kind of expected.  In fact, recently I sang on a rather large prestigious series in Los Angeles, and for a couple of years the presenter insisted that if I didn’t sing opera, I couldn’t sing on the series.  So I simply said I wouldn’t do it, because I really don’t like to do that.

BD:   [Mildly shocked]  So you turned it down???

Sharp:   So I turned it down.  Finally they made an exception, and decided since this is what I do, I could come and do it.  So, I gave a program of all American songs.

BD:   Was it well received?

Sharp:   It was very, very well received.  The audience just loved it.  I really don’t think the recital stage with a piano accompaniment is the place to sing an opera aria, especially out of context of the opera.  The aria belongs in the opera, and on the stage.  I even have a problem with a group of five arias, one right after another.  They never do what they do in the context of the opera.  It’s a very different aesthetic aim that the composer and the librettist, because the words to an opera aria are not usually much of a poem.

BD:   They’re enhancing a dramatic situation.

Sharp:   Yes.  I’m not running down operatic libretti or the music.  I have great admiration and love for opera.

BD:   What you’re saying is that it should be done in the right place, and in the right way.

Sharp:   Yes.  One of the aims of the art song is to wed great music with great poetry, and to do it in such a way that they’re both perceivable.  The subtlety of the poet’s art is as receivable by the listener as the music is, and that’s not really true of opera.  In opera, the gestures are much broader in both the word and the music, but the individual words on a small scale are not as subtle as the poetry that’s used in the art song.

BD:   Now you’re singing art songs which are new, and it’s a form which has been around for a couple of hundred years.  Yet it’s being given to audiences who’ve come through a couple world wars, and a depression or two.  Do you feel that you have to change or expand or enlighten it all in any different way?

Sharp:   I really hope that the kinds of experiences a modern audience has had will be directly addressed by the songs and the poetry that I present for them.  It’s interesting you should mention those specific things, because I’m involved with a song series called
‘The New York Festival of Song, which is directed by two people, Steven Blier and Michael Barrett.  Blier is my pianist of long association, and we’ve been working for a long time trying very hard to make the song program something that relates directly to people.  The program we just did was ‘The German Lied Between the Wars  [CD shown below].  It was an attempt to show the effect of what was happening, the social change in the German-speaking countries.  In a very oversimplified way, it concerns the groups of composers who stayed, and those who left, and their kinds of music.  There was a tendency toward those who stayed to look back at the tradition, and to write songs which looked back in style.  They also tended toward a nostalgic and sentimental viewpoint.  Those who were either oppressed or unable to live with what they saw as the coming storm, wrote songs which took a different direction in style, and maybe more importantly in the content of the poetry they addressed.  So the effect of this particular program was very, very powerful, especially because there’s a war going on right now.  The poetry became much more immediate than it ever would have in a setting which didn’t actually directly cause people to put themselves into the social situation, the world situation, the political situation of that song when it was written.  You have to do that in a way that doesn’t seem pedantic, or feel that you’re trying to give someone a lesson.  You might do the same thing in a class, and it wouldn’t have the inspirational or edifying effect that a concert is supposed to have.

BD:   With the song text, you’re tied much more to the exact ideas and the time when it was written, as opposed to abstract music where it can or cannot relate to one thing or another, depending on the opinion of the composer and the listener.


:   Yes, that’s true.  Also, the style of language can be more alienating than the style of music.  We teach ourselves to listen to music of different periods.  I don’t think we can listen to Mozart with the ears of someone from the 18th century, but we do expect ourselves to adjust to that.  When we read the words to a Schubert song, and we read the translation in English, and we see what these German words really mean, very often people are alienated by a style which is very different from the style of poetry which they find directly speaks to them.  It takes more of an effort to get yourself into the aesthetic viewpoint that is linguistically language, or the style of language.  Victorian songs may sound really flowery to us, and hard to take, whereas to someone of the period could be taken as very moving and sincere.  Many people have even tried to sell music and songs of past times as campy items.  Maybe as entertainment that’s okay, but it does a disservice to the artistic goals of the poets and musicians who made them, who may have had a serious intent.

:   Then the big question becomes, what do you feel is the purpose of music?
Sharp:   Music has all different kinds of purposes.  This is something that I don’t really talk about too much because it’s always a little bit embarrassing, but I really believe that we can actually change the world with music.  It’s something that we in our culture and in our country don’t have.  We’ve lost sight of the fact that art is very important to the human race, and that it actually can inform us about humanity, and about what it is to be a human being.  I really think of getting up and singing songs for people as potentially a very important thing.  It can really make people better by listening to it.  I know that it has made me a better person.  It has really humanized me because of what I’ve learned from the poets and composers who have spoken to me through their music and their poetry.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Do you like being a wandering minstrel?

Sharp:   Sometimes I like traveling.  One gets really tired of living out of a suitcase, and I get to the point where I feel like my little apartment in New York is just another hotel.  It’s very much the same, except I don’t have a maid in my apartment.  But there’s a side to the wandering minstrel life that I do like, and a side that I don’t.  It can be isolating because you can be with a group of people and get very friendly and close to them.  These are not just your audience, but the colleagues that you work with musically.  You have an intense experience with them because you’re making music.  It makes us all feel deeply, and then we all leave.  Some of those people you may never ever see again, and some of them you hope to see again in another situation.

BD:   But it will never be just that collection of individuals again.

Sharp:   Right, never that same group of people in the same place.  So psychologically, it can be kind of hard.

BD:   Are audiences different from town to town and country to country?

Sharp:   Yes, they are.  It’s a cliché that every audience has something of its own personality.  There’s something of a personality to audiences from various regions in the country.  You could say the audience that you find in a large city is more cosmopolitan, or maybe you get a more sophisticated audience, but it’s very, very unpredictable.  There have been times when I’ve gone to places such as Sioux Falls, South Dakota, at a college or university, and I’ll find an audience that is not only very receptive, but very sophisticated.  They seem to be very open to what I’m doing, and also more knowledgeable about it than I would have thought.  That has a lot to do with what the presenting organization has developed in their audience.

BD:   Does it have nothing to do with the fact that your recordings have preceded you, to demonstrate what you do?

Sharp:   Maybe.  There are places where records can precede you, if there’s a fine radio station with a good program director who happens to like the music that I do, and is playing it, and people have heard it.  On the other hand, how are the people going to hear the records?  The availability of a broad variety of music is very restricted in a lot of places.  Classical music radio has changed a lot, and there are many, many places where people are really listening to it.  On the other hand, the function of radio in most lives is not to sit down and seriously listen to the music.  That requires some effort.  It’s wallpaper or background in offices and homes.

BD:   Do you sing differently on the recording than you do in the concert hall?

Sharp:   Yes, you do.  In a way you don’t want that to be true, but in a way it has to be true.  You can do things of great subtlety on a recording that you may not be able to do in a hall that is perhaps large, or does not have great acoustics.  Also in the recording studio you have the opportunity to do things over and over and over again, until you get it a way that you find particularly valuable. 

BD:   Does this cut-and-paste become a fraud?

Sharp:   That’s a really good question.  I don’t think you want to do a lot of cutting and pasting, not because it’s inherently immoral to make a performance, but because what you end up with is very often a performance which doesn’t really have that ineffable continuity, or unifying interpretive thrust to it, and you can’t always tell why.  Sometimes you listen to a record, and you can’t figure out why it’s not really doing what it’s supposed to do, and yet everything sounds fine.  You think it’s great because everything’s perfect.  It gets loud when it’s supposed to get loud, and it gets soft when it’s supposed to be soft, and its phrasing is fine, and there’s no wrong notes, but it’s not moving.

BD:   The life has been edited out of it.

Sharp:   Yes, it certainly can be.  But on the other hand, there’s the possibility that an editor can also be an artist, and can assemble something very well.  We might have four really great takes of a song, and 30 or 40 little bits that we’ve also recorded because the artist was compulsive about it and really wanted to get it the way he wanted it.  So the editor sits down and decides that take two is really the one to use.  It is a great performance, but maybe we can drop in this little tiny thing because the singer had a little more finesse there.  Maybe this particular phrase was really exciting when we did out of context, and if we put it in there, it won’t wreck the overall performance.  That can happen, but there is a great danger in editing the performance too much.  As people tend to say,
“That’s the greatest performance I never gave!  [Both laugh]

BD:   Then do you strive later to give that performance when you do it later in a live performance?

Sharp:   That is really one of the big problems of recording, because it gets you into a frame of mind that you can’t have when you perform.

BD:   Do you ever feel you’re competing against the recording if you sing the same piece that is on a disc?

Sharp:   You would think maybe you would, but I really don’t.  I was just talking to a friend of mine about this.  When I’m in front of an audience, I have this very, very strong desire and need to feel like I’ve got the audience on my side, that I’ve got them with me.  I’ve started, I’ve gotten their attention, and they’re following me with my thoughts as I perform.  That’s really the only important thing.  If I don’t get all the little niceties perfect, and if the sound isn’t perfect, it doesn’t really matter.  That’s okay because if you’ve got them in your spell, they won’t really notice if there are imperfections.  But when you’re in front of the microphone, there isn’t anybody there to do that to except the guys in the control booth, and they’re not like a typical audience.
BD:   They’re paid to look for those little mistakes, and slight imperfections as they happen.

Sharp:   Yes, although it’s very good to have somebody in the control room who knows how to deal with you psychologically, and who will listen to it as a real performance.  That person will give you the feeling that you’re really doing it, and that you’re really getting it.  Ideally what you want is to have someone who can get the great take, the entire take of the song just like a real performance.  Then, perhaps since we’re putting this down for posterity on a disc, if there is a flaw in measure five, let’s drop in something that you can live with instead of the note that you splattered.  He can fix that, but maybe leave some other imperfections that can’t be fixed because it’s a great performance of this song.

BD:   So you’d rather have the brilliant performance with some minor problems here and there?  [Vis-à-vis the Ives songs shown at left, all of the artists appear in each of the four volumes.  Also, see my interview with Paul Sperry.]

Sharp:   Yes, because performers are too obsessive about it anyway.  There are things that don’t have anything to do with being an average listener, but just the listener who is not the performer who isn’t so compulsive about every little thing.  It is the overall performance that matters to the listener.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Tell me about that old LP you recorded for Vox Turnabout.

Sharp:   [Smiles]  That was from a long time ago.  It is a recording of an early American ballad opera, like The Beggar’s Opera.  It was called The Disappointment.

BD:   Is that the one that Sam Adler reconstructed?

Sharp:   That’s right.  [With a big smile]  You really know your recordings!

BD:   As it happened, about two weeks ago, Adler was sitting right where you are now.  He was passing through town, and I’d been asking him to do an interview for a long time.  So he
was finally coming to Chicago, and we were able to meet.  He had a small hole in his schedule, and he came here [to my studio] on his way to O’Hare.

Sharp:   That is so typical of him, because he is always filling the tiniest holes in his schedule with something interesting.

BD:   What’s the material on your Columbia recordings?

Sharp:   Those are recordings with the Waverly Consort.

BD:   Are you ever soloist, or are you just part of the ensemble?

Sharp:   Everybody in the ensemble ends up singing some solos.  There are a few solo numbers in Waverly Consort recordings, but I’m not sure I can lead you right to them.  [With a grin]  You’ve got more of my records than I do!

BD:   [Surprised]  Does the singer not collect his own recordings?

Sharp:   What happens is that I’ll have five or six of each.  Then I’ll give them to people, and suddenly I find myself in the position of having one left, and really wanting to give it to somebody.  So I’ll give it to them, and then I can’t get another copy.

BD:   You grew up on the North Shore [suburban Chicago]  How did you get into music, and then decide you wanted to be a singer rather than sell insurance, or be a computer programmer?  [Vis-à-vis the LP shown at right, see my interviews with Miriam Gideon, and Stephen Dembski.  Note that all four of these works are included on separate CD re-issues devoted to each of the composers.]

Sharp:   I didn’t have much of a musical background as a child.  I had some interest in music, and I listened to some classical music records on my own.  I don’t know why I got into it because there wasn’t a lot of it going on in the house.  I had a circle of friends that were interested in music, and I got started in early music.  A friend and I started an early music ensemble in high school that lasted about two years.  We called it the North Shore Early Music Ensemble, and modeled ourselves on the old New York Pro Musica.  In fact, we used to copy their records, and do everything they did down to the last finger-cymbal clink and drum tap and things like that.  At the same time I was also getting interested in German Lied, and Bach.  I don’t know why.  I loved Bach, and I used to check out records from the library and bring them home and listen to them.  I can still remember the feeling that I had when I listened to them because it all sounded so new and very strange to me.  That’s something you can never recapture, that excitement of listening the first time to Schubert songs, or other wonderful pieces.

BD:   I assume you are very glad you did get started on that road?

Sharp:   Oh, absolutely.  I feel so really lucky to be doing what I do, and I don’t take it for granted for a minute.  I know that the Fickle Finger of Fate could end my career as a singer at any minute.  Every time I get up and sing in front of people or in front of the microphone, I feel incredibly lucky, and just so grateful to be able to do this thing that I really love to do.  It’s difficult.  It’s an old cliché that it’s a hard, tough road to hoe, trying to make a living as a performer, as a classical musician, and it is really hard to do, but it’s so great to be able to do it, and I’m so lucky to be able to do it.

BD:   Now you’re just about to hit 40.  Are you where you want to be at this stage of your career?

Sharp:   Sure.  I would be very happy to be at this stage in my career for the rest of my career.  That doesn’t mean I want to spin my wheels and do the same thing, but to be doing the kinds of things that I’m doing, and on the level that I’m doing them now.  I really couldn’t ask for more, although it is kind of a grind to do the traveling.  Also the insecurity of it becomes difficult to live with because you know that it all could fall apart.  You don’t have any assurance that your job is still going to be there in a year, because even though you have some engagements for a year away, you don’t have a full plate.

BD:   Do you make sure you schedule enough time off to re-group, and to study, and to just get some rest and relaxation?

Sharp:   That’s really hard to do because I’m not in a position where I have so many great engagements, that once I have a few really hot, lucrative gigs, then I can turn everything else down.  I am still at the point where I take anything that comes along that I know I’ll enjoy doing, and think I’m going to be able to do a good job.  I accept things because I really want to do them, and I want to work.  I have never blocked off a period of time, like a month, and said that’s my vacation or that’s my study time, because if something comes up that I want to do during that period, I’ll do it.

BD:   Maybe the structure would be a little easier on you if you had a regular teaching gig.
Sharp:   Yes.  What you do then is juggle things around the teaching.  Unless you have a very big load of teaching and lots and lots of students, you can be flexible and move them around.  You can take a week off to go perform, and then make up those lessons later.  But if one has a very large number of students, then it becomes impossible to do that.
BD:   You mentioned that you sang with the Chicago Opera Theater?

Sharp:   I sang the Count in the Marriage of Figaro at the Athenaeum Theater, and also out in Aurora.  There was a refurbished, restored, old art deco style theater in Aurora where we performed.

BD:   Do you adjust your technique for the different sized houses?

Sharp:   Yes, you do.  You learn to do it, and it becomes more or less automatic, though sometimes you can be deceived.  There are times when you’ll be in an acoustical environment where you don’t think what you’re doing is coming across in such detail from the levels of subtlety, but it really is.  Because some halls don’t give you feedback, you can be wrong about it, but usually you get a sense of how broad your gestures have to be, and how subtle you can be, or how wide your dynamic range can be, and you adjust.

BD:   You’re singing this week with Basically Bach?  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at left, Sharp participates in four of the six volumes of the Cantata Series, as well as the B Minor Mass.  Among the other soloists are Christine Brandes, and Judith Nelson.]

Sharp:   Yes, the St. Matthew Passion.  I haven’t really had that many opportunities to sing in Chicago.  The last time I was here was maybe three or four years ago with The City Musik.  It was a really wonderful performance of Mozart, including the little Masonic Cantata.  I also sang some songs with a fortepianist.  It was really quite a good concert.

BD:   Do you have any more engagements that will bring you back?

Sharp:   I don’t think I have anything on the schedule right now, but I sure hope that the ball starts rolling in Chicago because I
d love to come back.  I like being in Chicago.

BD:   Im glad you enjoy singing.

Sharp:   I do enjoy singing, yes.  I really love singing.

BD:   Thank you for spending some time on your open day to chat with me.

Sharp:   It’s a great pleasure.







See my interviews with William Bolcom, Ned Rorem, and William Parker






See my interviews with Lucy Shelton, and Igor Kipnis




See my interviews with Phyllis Bryn-Julson, and Gary Karr




© 1991 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in Chicago on February 18, 1991.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB the following June, and again in 1996.  This transcription was made in 2023, and posted on this website at that time.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.  To read my thoughts on editing these interviews for print, as well as a few other interesting observations, click here.

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Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.