Soprano  Lucy  Shelton

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


Lucy Shelton is an American soprano best known for her performance of contemporary music. She graduated from The Putney School in 1961 and Pomona College in 1965.

The only artist to receive the International Walter W. Naumberg Award twice (as a soloist and as a chamber musician), Shelton has performed repertoire from Bach to Boulez in major recital, chamber and orchestral venues throughout the world. A native Californian, Shelton's musical training began early with the study of both piano and flute. After graduating from Pomona College, she pursued singing at the New England Conservatory, and at the Aspen Music School, where she studied with Jan de Gaetani.

Shelton has taught at the Cleveland Institute of Music, the New England Conservatory, and the Eastman School of Music. She is currently on the faculties of the Contemporary Performance Program at the Manhattan School of Music, Tanglewood Music Center, and coaches privately at her studio in New York City. She has recorded for Deutsche Grammophon, KOCH International, Bridge Records, Unicorn-Kanchana and Virgin Classics.

Shelton has appeared with major orchestras worldwide including Amsterdam, Boston, Chicago, Cologne, Denver, Edinburgh, Helsinki, London, Los Angeles, Melbourne, Minnesota, Munich, New York, Paris, St. Louis, Stockholm, Sydney and Tokyo under leading conductors such as Marin Alsop, Daniel Barenboim, Pierre Boulez, Reinbert De Leeuw, Charles Dutoit, Alan Gilbert, Oliver Knussen, Kent Nagano, Simon Rattle, Helmuth Rilling, Mstislav Rostropovich, Esa-Pekka Salonen, Leonard Slatkin and Robert Spano.

Notable among her numerous world premieres are Elliott Carter’s Tempo e Tempi and Of Challenge and Of Love, Oliver Knussen’s Whitman Settings, Joseph Schwantner’s Magabunda, Poul Ruders’ The Bells, Stephen Albert’s Flower of the Mountain, and Robert Zuidam’s opera Rage d’Amours. She has premiered Gerard Grisey’s L’Icone Paradoxiale with the Los Angeles Philharmonic; sung Pierre Boulez’s Le Visage Nuptial under the composer’s direction in Los Angeles, Chicago, London and Paris; appeared in Vienna and Berlin with György Kurtag’s The Sayings of Peter Bornemisza with pianist Sir Andras Schiff; and made her Aldeburgh Festival debut in the premiere of Alexander Goehr’s Sing, Ariel.


Ms. Shelton has exhibited special skill in dramatic works, including Luciano Berio’s Passaggio with the Ensemble InterContemporain, Sir Michael Tippett’s The Midsummer Marriage (for Thames Television), Luigi Dallapiccola’s Il Prigioniero (her BBC Proms debut), Bernard RandsCanti Lunatici, and recurring staged productions of Arnold Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire (with eighth blackbird and Da Camera of Houston). Highlights of recent seasons include her 2010 Grammy Nomination (with the Enso Quartet) for the Naxos release of Ginastera’s string quartets, her Zankel Hall debut with the Met Chamber Orchestra and Maestro James Levine in Carter’s A Mirror On Which To Dwell, multiple performances of a staged Pierrot Lunaire in collaboration with eighth blackbird and, in celebration of the work’s centenary, concert versions with 10 different ensembles worldwide. Shelton also coordinated two intense 8-day residencies at the University of Oregon (Eugene) and Southern Illinois University (Carbondale), where she coached composers and singers in “The Art of Unaccompanied Song”.

Over the years, Shelton has participated in various composers’ birthday and memorial celebrations as follows: Elliott Carter’s 100th in Turin, Italy and New York; Oliver Knussen's 50th in London; Sir Peter Maxwell Davies' 70th in Turin, Italy; James Primosch's 50th in Philadelphia; both George Perle's and Milton Babbitt's 90th in Princeton and New York.

==  Names which are links in this box and below, refer to my interviews elsewhere on my website.  BD  

In May of 1991, Shelton was in Chicago for performances of Le Visage Nuptial by Pierre Boulez, with Phyllis Bryn-Julson and the Chicago Symphony conducted by Daniel Barenboim.  She had previously appeared with the CSO in 1985 for Magabunda by Joseph Schwantner, conducted by Leonard Slatkin.

Needless to say, her schedule was tight, but she graciously allowed me to visit her at her hotel for this conversation . . . . .

shelton Bruce Duffie:   Thank you for agreeing to take a little time out of your busy schedule.

Lucy Shelton:   No problem.

BD:   What has drawn you to Twentieth Century music?

Shelton:   A love for colleagues being involved with the music that’s happening right now.  It just happened, and my involvement started.  I can’t even say when it began, because it’s a part of what I thought music was about.

BD:   Then, what is music about?

Shelton:   For me, it started off as a real family activity.  I recognized what being communicative means, and it was very exciting to play instruments with other people, and read things from the past.  There’s something about just the activity of making music together that was extremely attractive to me.  I grew up in a musical family.  There were seven of us, five kids, and we sang madrigals and Bach chorales, and going across the country we would sing rounds.  Music was just something we did together a lot.  My parents had actually met at a music camp, but they’re not professional musicians by any means.

BD:   Did they try to get you into the music business, or did it just happen?

Shelton:   I wouldn’t say they tried to get me into it.  I’m the fourth out of the five kids, and we all were given piano lessons and instrument lessons as well.  I studied the flute from age eleven, and I’d taken piano since I was about three-and-a-half.  I couldn’t wait to be doing what my older siblings were already doing.  One reason I’ve stayed with it is that I had this piano teacher who was an extraordinary woman, who didn’t just deal with fingers on a keyboard.  We used to have ear training and harmony lessons.

BD:   Music not just as technique?

Shelton:   Yes.  When you’re starting off at that age, what she just instilled was a whole thing to explore that I loved from the beginning and she actually gave me contemporary pieces. I remember doing some Milhaud, and then she gave me a recording.  She was encouraging with new music.  Then, when I was in college, it was always just a challenge to do the stuff that was a little bit harder than the usual.  I love doing Bach, and Mozart, and Schubert on the flute, but there wasn’t that much repertoire.  I had to go to some of the newer composers, Twentieth Century composers to get more repertoire.  But this is not true with the voice, and that was when I decided to really concentrate on singing.  I carried with me that same curiosity, and just the love for doing it.  When I was in college, I took composition lessons, and I played pieces that my friends had written, and that the composer-teachers had written.  It was all very natural, and I never felt I was doing anything peculiar.

BD:   Do you find that you’re always exploring new areas with these pieces?

Shelton:   One thing that doing new music does is it helps you explore your own instrument, and I feel like I’ve done nothing but gain from that, and I love it for that.  I approach a new score with a very open mind.  I’m not someone who says, “I can’t do that.  No.  No.  Why do you write that?”  I just I assume that the composer had something in mind, and I try to find my own solution to make it work if it’s something new for me.  If I can’t, then I assume that the composer will help me.  I’ve had one difficult situation, but basically I’ve had nothing but good situations with the composers.  If I’m nervous about something, or if I haven’t quite found what I thought would work, and if they agree that it isn’t working, then they’ll make a small change.

BD:   It’s good that they’re listening to the performer.

Shelton:   Oh, yes.  Except for that one, I find the composers are very interested in understanding and learning from the performer.  If they’ve written it for you specifically, then there’s a little extra pressure to make it work.  [Laughs]  But they’ll also adjust, and then you do your part and really prepare it, and they’re very appreciative of that.

BD:   You do so many new scores, and I’m sure you’re offered a lot of pieces.  How do you decide, perhaps even before seeing it, whether you’ll accept to sing the piece, or turn it down?

Shelton:   I actually tend to say yes.  I’m a
yes person, rather than a no person.  I’m actually needing to learn how to say no’.  I basically have such sympathy for the composers, or I feel they need their pieces to be done so much, that if I can’t do it, I’ll recommend somebody else to do it.  But I hardly ever say I won’t do something because I don’t like the piece.  It’s only a scheduling problem that makes me say no.

BD:   What about this one composer (who shall remain nameless) that you didn’t get along with?

Shelton:   Oh, I love the piece.

BD:   Just not working with him?

Shelton:   Yes.

BD:   So, you might accept to sing another of his pieces?

Shelton:   I actually am doing another of his pieces, but he won’t be around.  There are actually some composers I have never sung because I’ve never been asked to, and I would never schedule their works myself.  I have control over scheduling.  It’s not the awkward situation where someone says, “Will you sing this?” and I look at it and say, “No.”  A lot of pieces are chamber music, and I have my places where I can perform those, and if it’s a big orchestral thing, chances are I’ll be interested in doing it just because I like singing with orchestra.

BD:   Do you find that most of the composers you work with write gratefully for the voice?

Shelton:   Yes.  There are composers that I just don’t have a feeling for, and there are other people who do.  Thank goodness, I’m not the only person doing new music.  There are lots of people out there, and every one has different strengths.  Certain composers connect with performers who do their music well, and we don’t like to do music that we can’t do well.  It doesn’t mean that it’s bad music.  For instance, I don’t have the emotional, or maybe the intellectual strength to deal with a Babbitt score.  I’ve actually never done Babbitt, and I’ve heard fantastic performances by other singers.  I know for me it would be a tremendous lot of work to do something like that, because I don’t have perfect pitch.  I’m not about to take challenges that I have little chance to succeed in, or do something totally out of my range, or that I don’t have some little connection to.  That doesn’t have any appeal to me.

shelton BD:   [With a wink]  You’re not a masochist???

Shelton:   No!  [Both laugh]

BD:   The Twentieth Century music audience will come to a lot of things, but the standard audience seems reluctant.  How can we help to get them over the problem of new music?  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at left, see my interview with Charles Wuorinen.]

Shelton:   Actually, I’m more interested in the standard audience than the Twentieth Century music audience.  I’m involved with some groups who do programs that are just Twentieth Century, and I’m not really a fan of that because it stays very secluded.  You get your audience that loves to hear it, and you’re never really opening other people’s ears.  You’re not reaching out.  When I do recitals, I try to do a new piece along with standard repertoire or standard composers... though it may not be the standard repertoire of the well-known composers.  The most rewarding times are when somebody comes up afterwards and says,
I wasn’t expecting to like something Messiaen, but it was the best thing on the program.  I loved it the most.  Thank you so much.  One time I did a new piece by Schwantner that had a very, very beautiful poem about a mother and a daughter.  After, this woman came up to me in tears and said, “I’ve been having so much trouble with the relationship with my daughter, and that piece just hit me.  Thank you so much.”  If you strike feelings that way, you know that it’s worth doing.  In today’s whole battle for the music of our time, it’s never been so out of whack.  To have our own composers resisted is a very sad state.  I read the article about your new music director, Daniel Barenboim, and I certainly got very excited for Chicago that he’s taking such a stand.  I loved his statement that it’s not the first performance we should be worrying about, but the second performances, because it is a matter of familiarity.  With most performances, unfortunately you just get the one chance to hear it.  We have all these wonderful museums where people can go back time and time again to look at these striking new visual arts, and get to become friends with them.  Unfortunately, with performing arts, you have to be there the one time.  I do think it’s best to be there in a live performance, and not just be involved with recordings.  The recordings can certainly back it up, but I believe in the excitement of the live performance.  I came to Chicago for the Corigliano Symphony #1 premiere last year, and I was terribly excited with the feeling in the hall.  It moved me a lot, especially because people weren’t walking out.  The piece seemed to really grab them.  It’s the same for performersthere’s a tremendous amount of fear.  Audiences don’t know how to react, or they don’t know enough, and they don’t understand.  Fear is a real blocker, and it keeps you from experiencing these works.  Just be there!  You don’t have to like the entire new piece.  Just let the sounds come around you, and respond to them.  Try to not go to the concert with armor, because then it won’t happen to you.  You won’t hear it.

BD:   What should the public know about a new piece before coming to it, or should they just come with a completely open mind?

Shelton:   I don’t claim to have the answer.  It can work in lots of different ways.  You can come if you haven’t read anything about it, and that’s all right.  Or, if you’ve read something about it, that’s also all right.  It can be an experience for you no matter what you bring to it.  Hopefully, something will grab you so that you’ll want to come back again.  First of all, you need to be curious.  Resistance gets in the way, and fear doesn’t help you listen.  People are different.  Some find it helps if they have a lot of verbiage, and know something about the composer.  All of the institutions these days try to make the composer come to the foreground, and very often they’ll have them speak to the audience.  In the pre-concert talk, there’ll be lots of information, either from the composer himself or somebody else.  If somebody wants to know about it, it’s great to have all the information there.  We need to recognize that these are people who are active currently, just the way the way people were when the beloved Bach and Brahms and Schubert and Mozart were creating in their times.

BD:   It helps us to get back in the centuries, rather than just forward in the centuries?

Shelton:   Yes.  This is the tradition.  People have been attending performances ever since we were here and music began.  Composers have had varying degrees of being heard the way they want to be heard.  [Wistfully]  In a way, they probably never get heard the way they want to be heard because there’s always more they would like.

BD:   Do they ever ask too much of the performer or the audience?

Shelton:   I don’t know...  [Laughs]  If they ask too much of a performer, they’ll usually find out.

BD:   By an inability to perform it?

Shelton:   Because it won’t work... unless the whole point of the piece is that it’s supposed to be too hard to perform.  I’ve had experience with some pieces, where the point of the piece is the struggle to perform it.  Actually, it wasn’t so much on my part as it was for the pianist, but composers are very careful about that.  They’ve always pushed performers to their limits, because that’s just the nature of what their creative minds and skills are doing.  They’re working things in new ways, so that’s always pushing us.  They’re not going to just write a scale.  They’ll write a scale, and put in all sorts of different rhythmic complexities.

BD:   Do you have any advice for someone who wants to write music today for the human voice?

Shelton:   Just hear what’s been done before, but no, I don’t have any advice.  The exciting thing is that it comes out of individual imaginations.  With vocal writing, an awful lot of the inspiration comes from the text, so the choice of text is crucial.  It helps if you do know some singers with whom you can have open discussions, so that you don’t work in isolation.  That way the singers don’t feel they’re being threatened by composers.  We’re all trying to bring beautiful things, and make beautiful things happen.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   You brought up the subject of recordings, and you’ve made a number of them.  Do you sing the same, or do you try to sing the same for the microphone that you do for live audience?

shelton Shelton:   Yes, I think I do, but it’s hard.  The problem with doing a recording is that whatever you were doing that day, or those couple of days, was set and is permanent.  I recently made a recording of Pierrot Lunaire, which was really a dream.  For the singer, this work has as much room for different performances as any piece written because of its style and because of its notation.  So, putting this down on record feels even more trepidatious, if that’s a word.  Anyway, we did the recording with some chamber players, and I got to do twice, because we did both the German version, and one in Andrew Porter’s English translation.  There was something that felt just wonderfully relaxed in having to try that.

BD:   Have you basically been pleased with the other recordings you have made?

Shelton:   No, probably not.  I’ll keep working for my best, always.

BD:   You don’t disown them, do you???

Shelton:   No, no, no, but I look forward to doing more, and I hope to do better and better.

BD:   You also recorded some early music.  Is there a particular connection between early music and new music that leaves a big hole in the middle?

Shelton:   Well, I’ve done a lot from the middle, too!

BD:   It just seems that performers who do contemporary music also do Baroque things, but they tend not to do the big heavy romantic material.

Shelton:   There are certainly those who do that, but what contemporary music takes is possibly more variety.  You need to be able to follow the instructions in the score.  Composers get very specific in terms of vibrato, and that’s why early music singers do early music and contemporary music, because their voices are more like instruments.  This is a very dangerous thing to say, but the romantic period tends to get more of the singers who have less interest in how the music is made, and more in just the sound that they are making.  That may not be fair, and I care a lot about the sound I make in the contemporary music.  I have a real respect and interest, and I love figuring out how the new music is put together.  My mind appreciates that.

BD:   Do you do any opera, or is it just concert work?

Shelton:   I’ve done some opera.  I did a film of Midsummer Marriage by Tippett for Thames Television, and it was a wonderful experience.  I haven’t ever sung the piece from the beginning to the end, because we recorded it, and then staged it, and lip-synched while they were filming it.  That was a great experience, and I loved it.  I’ve also done Prigioniero of Dallapiccola, and La Vida Breve of De Falla.  I’ve done a little Mozart, but at this stage, no one would think to ask me for that.  I probably wouldn’t do it anyway, because there are awful lot of people who do it beautifully, and I don’t really need to add myself to that list.  I do the repertoire that’s a little more tricky, that doesn’t get heard so much, and that people don’t take the time to learn.

BD:   Do you feel that you’re championing new-music and a new style?

Shelton:   I do a lot of new music and I love it, so I guess that’s championing it, yes.  I love doing other things, too.  I don’t feel like I’m being exclusive, but I am aware that there are not enough people doing the new music, and since I do love doing it, and do it well, I’m happy to be in that place.

BD:   Do you adjust your technique at all for the size of the house?

Shelton:   I don’t sing in terribly, terribly, terribly, terribly big houses.  That’s more the straight opera singers.

BD:   What about a chamber music setting in a small hall, as opposed to an orchestral setting which is in a fairly large hall?

shelton Shelton:   The adjustment comes with the style of the music, and playing with five instruments instead of with an orchestra.  I don’t think of it as being something for the hall itself, it just goes with the way the music is written.  At the Proms in London, in Albert Hall
which is one of the biggest halls in the world [capacity is listed as 5,272] — I did the Mallarmé Songs of Ravel, which are about as intimate a piece of chamber music as you can find.  I had a little battle with myself, looking at this football field in front of me, and I decided just to trust that the space would take care of what I did.  It would be foolish to think of the piece at any other dynamic than how it was written, and my colleagues playing the instruments certainly weren’t going to suddenly be playing a concerto.  So, we continued in our very intimate reading, and it had this wonderful hush.  Everybody had to listen, but it’s a little dangerous putting something of that size, and making the very intimate music in such expansive place.  It’s a very live place, so it worked, but, as I say, it’s more an issue of the style of the music.  That piece wouldn’t work with a big operatic sound.  That would be out of balance with the players, so that kind of sensitivity is very important.  I do go back and forth between orchestral recitals and chamber music, and I am always keeping those things in mind.  Here in Orchestra Hall, which is a very, very good hall [capacity listed as 2,522], and in this piece by Boulez, Le Visage Nuptial, I’m singing the lower part.  It’s not the best, most carrying range in a voice, so I’ll probably be singing fuller dynamics than I would ordinarily, because it’s with full orchestra.  But you also you have to trust that the composer knew what he was doing with this piece.  The work has two female soloists, and a female chorus, and a huge orchestra.  The soloists are doubled a lot with the chorus.  Phyllis [Bryn-Julson] has sung the piece every time it’s been done so far, and she said, “Well, Boulez, just likes it to be somewhat covered up.”  We’re supposed to come in and out of the texture of the chorus and the orchestra.  That’s the way he’s written it.  If he wanted something else, then he hasn’t written it well.

BD:   [Mildly confused]  I assume he doesn’t want to have wonderful soloists covered up.

Shelton:   No, no, no.  It’s not that we’re going to be covered up all the way through, it’s just when you’re being doubled by the chorus.  It’s like giving a little profile to the unison of the chorus behind.  You won’t hear the soloists the same way you would if the chorus weren’t shadowing.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Do you like the life of a wandering minstrel?

Shelton:   Yes, I do. Where I’m staying here in the Blackstone Hotel is bigger than my apartment in New York, and I get clean sheets every day!  I do like this life, not the wandering part, but the minstrel part, because I really love doing the singing.  And the traveling isn’t a drag for me yet.  I enjoy being in different places, and the telephone works wonderfully for staying connected with family, friends, and phone machines at home.

BD:   Will you be back in Chicago after this series of performances?

Shelton:   I don’t have anything scheduled in Chicago.  I’ll be in Europe a lot next year.  I’ll be there all of June, for the Festival in Aldeburgh.  I’ll be doing a recital with all of Stravinsky’s songs for piano, Mussorgsky
s Songs and Dances of Death, and some new pieces written for me by Oliver Knussen and Britten.  I’m very excited about that recital.  [Laughs]  When I say all of Stravinsky’s songs, it’s sort of joke.  There are maybe eighteen of them, but all together they almost don’t take more than eighteen minutes.  [Both laugh]  They do, of course, but some of them are only thirty seconds long.


BD:   That’s one group?

Shelton:   No, I was putting them into lots of different groups.  I’ll also be doing Der Wein of Berg.  That’s a way of getting a chance at him.  Then next fall I’ll be doing lots of interesting things, including a Sibelius piece that I wanted to do for years called Luonnotar.  It’s absolutely haunting.  There’s a lot of Twentieth Century repertoire that we don’t hear enough, but they’re still things we are really afraid of.  I feel that there’s just much too much repeat of the same standard pieces over and over again for our own good health.  This year (1991) we’re hearing so much Mozart, and that’s nice in a way, but every orchestra plays the Beethoven and Brahms symphonies, so wouldn’t it be nice to just put in a few other composers?

BD:   Neeme Järvi brought (and recorded) the Schmidt Symphony #2 (and would later bring and record his Symphony #3), so we do get a few interesting things.

That’s good.  We could use a little more variety in what were given in most big series.

BD:   Thank you for spending a little time with me today.

Shelton:   Oh, you’re welcome.



See my interviews with Jennifer Higdon, and Shulamit Ran


See my interviews with Gerard Schwarz, and John Aler



See my interviews with Donald Harris, Edwin London, Yehudi Wyner, and Gilbert Kalish



See my interviews with Leon Krichner, and Earl Kim


© 1991 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in Chicago on May 6, 1991.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB in 1994, 1998, and 1999; on WNUR in 2010, 2011, and 2019; and on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio in 2010, and 2013.  This transcription was made in 2020, 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.

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.

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.