Tenor  Neil  Shicoff

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie




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Neil Shicoff (born June 2, 1949) is an American Jewish opera singer and cantor known for his lyric tenor singing and his dramatic, emotional acting.

He was born in Brooklyn, New York, and studied at the Juilliard School of Music, with his father, the hazzan Sidney Shicoff and others, including Franco Corelli in the early 1980s. He sang in small theaters in New York before music school, including a Don Jose in Bizet's Carmen at Amato Opera and small roles at Juilliard, and was an apprentice at the Santa Fe Opera in the summer of 1973. His professional debut as a tenor lead in a big opera house was in the title role in Verdi's Ernani, conducted by James Levine in Cincinnati in 1975.

In 1976, Shicoff made his debut at the Metropolitan Opera as Rinuccio in Gianni Schicchi conducted by Levine. Shicoff was then engaged by the Met to sing the tenor leads in Rigoletto, La Bohème, Der Rosenkavalier, and Werther, which was to become one of his signature roles. He soon sang in the major opera houses in the U.S. and Europe, winning great notices and recording some of his roles. Shicoff experienced severe stage fright well into his career, which caused him to cancel a number of performances. He was known to be a perfectionist, carefully researching and preparing each role, both dramatically and vocally.

In 1978, Shicoff married fellow Juilliard graduate, lyric soprano Judith Haddon. After the death of his mother in 1984, Shicoff suffered emotional problems, technical vocal difficulties and increasing performance anxiety. He cancelled numerous performances, and by the end of the 1980s he had developed a reputation for unreliability.

Shicoff continued singing at the Met, but in 1991, he left America, fleeing the stresses and headlines engendered by his ongoing divorce proceeding and custody battle concerning his daughter, into a self-described European exile. He lived for three years in Berlin, then Zürich, performing throughout Europe (with a handful appearances in Buenos Aires), and he slowly rebuilt his reputation for reliability. He appeared at Vienna State Opera, La Scala, Paris Opera, Covent Garden, Berlin's Deutsche Oper, Bavarian State Opera, Zurich Opera House and numerous other opera houses and concert halls throughout Europe.

By 1997, Shicoff and Haddon finally reached a divorce settlement. Their final decree left Shicoff free to marry soprano Dawn Kotoski, with whom he had lived since 1990, and to renew his relationship with his daughter, Aliza. Shicoff also returned to the Met, as Lensky in Eugene Onegin, to good notices. He has now been heard in nearly 200 performances of 20 roles at the Met.

Due to his personal friendship with the Austrian Federal Chancellor, Alfred Gusenbauer, Shicoff was widely expected to follow Ioan Holender as director of the Vienna State Opera (Wiener Staatsoper) in 2010. In a surprise decision, and in defiance of Gusenbauer's publicly stated wish, Austrian Culture Minister Claudia Schmidt appointed Dominique Meyer as director, and Franz Welser-Möst as musical director on June 6, 2007.

Shicoff's most famous roles (besides Werther), include the title roles in Tales of Hoffman,and Peter Grimes, Lensky in Eugene Onegin, and Eleazar in La Juive, as well as a number of the Romantic French and Italian lyric and spinto tenor roles. In addition to his opera performances, he has also sung concerts with the Israel Philharmonic conducted by Leonard Bernstein, the Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Claudio Abbado, the San Francisco Symphony conducted by Edo de Waart, and the Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted by Seiji Ozawa, among others, and at many festivals.

Shicoff became Head of Opera at the Mikhailovsky Theatre of St. Petersburg, Russia in 2015.

In recent seasons, Shicoff sang the roles of Cavaradossi in Tosca and Hoffmann at La Scala and Paris’ Opéra Bastille; Des Grieux in Manon Lescaut; Don José in Carmen at the Lyric Opera of Chicago and the Zurich Opera House and Eleazar in Halévy's La Juive at the Teatro La Fenice in Venice, with Wiener Staatsoper and the Zurich Opera House, Peter Grimes at the Teatro Regio di Torino. He has sung also Edgardo in Lucia di Lammermoor, the title role in Idomeneo, and Rodolfo in La bohème at the Wiener Staatsoper; Rodolfo in Luisa Miller at the Met; Gabriele Adorno in Simon Boccanegra at Covent Garden and in Paris; Hermann in Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky's Pique Dame; and Manrico, Cavaradossi and Pinkerton in Madama Butterfly at the Zurich Opera House, among others. A regular at Wiener Staatsoper (where he attained the rank of Kammersänger and the rarely awarded honorary lifetime membership in the company [shown in photo below]) he continues to triumph mostly in the verismo repertoire, and in February 2011 he repeated his huge success in the role of Captain Vere in Benjamin Britten's Billy Budd which he sang in the company premiere of the opera in 2001.


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--  Throughout this webpage, names which are links refer to my interviews elsewhere on my website.  BD  






When one reads the current (2018) biographies of Neil Shicoff, it is clear that his life is much more settled than it was in the earlier part of his career.  The interview you are about to read was done in Chicago in November of 1986, and though it was a calmer interlude, he does speak of the ongoing turmoil in both his professional and personal lives.  

I did not inquire (as I never do) about any details of his marriage, though he did mention some items here and there.  Our guest during the conversation was his three-year-old daughter, Aliza Danielle, and she made herself known at several points!

As can be seen in the chart, Shicoff sang with Lyric Opera in four seasons...



Neil Shicoff at Lyric Opera of Chicago

1979 - Bohème (Rodolfo) with Mitchell/Soviero, Romero, Ramey, Zilio, Nolen, Tajo; Chailly, Pizzi, Frisell, Schuler
                              [Note: A photo of Shicoff as Peter Grimes appears with the Zilio interview.]

1986-87 - Bohème (Rodolfo [one performance only]) with Daniels, Corbelli, Washington, Brown, Kreider, Capecchi; Mauceri, Pizzi, Copley, Schuler
                 Lucia (Edgardo) with Gruberová, Raftery, Howell/Giaiotti; Mackerras/J. Rescigno, Bardon, Reichenbach, Schuler

1987-88 - Faust (Faust) with Gustafson/Soviero, Ramey, Raftery, White, Vozza; Fournet, Samaritani, Diaz, Tallchief, Schuler

1990-91 - Carmen (Don José) with Golden, Cowan, Mazzaria/Hartliep/Lawrence, Foster/Futral, Maultsby; Mata/Pappano, Ponnelle, Calábria.



As we were setting up, he was mentioning having to ask the management to make an announcement for him before a performance . . . . . . . . .

 
Bruce Duffie:   I can understand your reluctance to ask for an announcement to be made before you sing.  Do you feel that as a singer you have to give a thousand per cent at every performance?

Neil Shicoff:   No, I don’t like to give a thousand, but a hundred and ten per cent.

shicoff BD:   Why a hundred and ten per cent?

NS:   It’s just a part of my make-up.  I have the personality that digs deep and gives a lot.  Even this morning I took a tennis lesson, and the teacher kept saying,
Let’s deal with technique; let’s not deal with hitting the ball as hard as you can.  [Laughs]  To a certain extent, that’s somehow the way I’ve always approached singing, which is to go as far as I can emotionally and physically.

BD:   In singing, where is the balance between technique and artistry?  [Vis-à-vis the video shown at right, see my interviews with Ileana Cotrubas, Marilyn Zschau, and Sir Thomas Allen.]

NS:   You’ve got to have a technique to get to a certain level.  I think I’ve reached that level, but the artistry is another point.  For me, it’s an emotional process, somewhat intellectual but mostly emotional, and I don’t deal with it on an artistic level as much as an emotional level.

BD:   When you’re on stage, do you become the character or are you portraying a character?

NS:   It depends on the part.  I’ve said numerous times before that Hoffmann is a part that I like to feel as if I become.   There’s many facets to that particular personality that I can relate to very well.  In a situation with Lucia that I sang last night, I would say I truly feel it in the final scene where there’s a sense of loss
for Edgardo and Lucia, a sense of separation from their love.  Those are things I can relate to very well.  If I’m good on a given night, and if it works for me, I don’t think about the character.  Rather, I think about the emotions that are there.  I don’t really relate to whether or not this is what the character would think.  It’s what I think.

BD:   Is there any character that you play that you perhaps a little too close to the real Neil Shicoff?

NS:   The two characters that I do by far the best are Hoffmann and Werther, and both of them are dark figures.  Certainly, both of them are really self-destructive figures, which is something that is within me.  I’ve learned to control it, and to a certain extent we all have a self-destructive streak.  It depends how much we control it.  So, for me it’s a playground out there with those two roles, to enjoy the masochism and whatever else is involved with self-destruction.

BD:   After a performance, how long does it take before you shake off the character?

NS:   An interesting question...  With those two roles, I’m physically exhausted the next day, but emotionally with those two characters, I would say it’s the second day later I start to feel like me.

BD:   So, you really throw yourself into the fire?

NS:   Yes, but I wish not as much because I would last longer.  I don’t know how long all of this will last because of the way I’m involved in the parts, and that’s the only way I am.  It’s the way I am in most things, with great involvement and a lot of emotionality, and just forging my way through life.

BD:   I assume you are looking for the long career?

NS:   Oh, yes, but the process for me is now to actually go on stage and give less, so that I can ultimately give more.

BD:   That seems like a contradiction.

NS:   Yes, well it’s true because the more in control a performer is, and staying a little bit back from these characters, one is going to give a better performance.  [At this moment, Aliza says she’s got hiccups, and there is a conversation between her and her parent.]  She’s carrying on in her opera shoes, ones with fake diamonds.

BD:   What’s it like traveling with wife and daughter?

NS:   My wife at the moment is in London covering the part of Jenůfa.  She’ll be back here on Saturday.  She’s been gone ten days.  What’s it like?  This is a difficult life.  I have a lot of friends that still very much want to make it in this profession and if you’re in it for the glamor, boy this is a hard life.  I have four shows in twelve days now, which means that I sing every third day.  I try very hard not to do a lot of talking in between.  I do play tennis in between as much as I can, but since I don’t recover incredibly quickly, essentially those two days are wasted days for me.  Then I’m at the performance day, so for those twelve days I’m sort of within a twilight zone.  There’s no glamour, there are no parties, there are no tuxedos.  It’s work.

BD:   But I assume you wouldn’t give it up for anything.

NS:   I do this because it has something to do with me.  I do it to explore something inside me, and I do it to make a living.   But first and foremost, I really do it to explore something inside me; to find out why I relate well to these characters that have all this angst, and to work out something inside me.  There is also the idea of meshing together technique and emotionality.

BD:   But you’d rather be a singer than just spend all the money on analysis?

NS:   [Laughs]  If you look into it, and go into yourself, this is a profession that offers the opportunity to learn a lot about yourself.  There’s a lot of pressure in it, a lot of growing-up or you don’t make it.  You may make it for a real short time, but you don’t last.

BD:   You don’t want to be a comet?

NS:   I’ve already been the comet.  The question is whether it’s turning into something longer than that.  I had a very mediocre beginning to my career.

BD:   Is that good or would it have been better to have it go a different way?

NS:   I’ve had friends of mine, tenors on the international scene who are my age, one in particular, Luis Lima, and he and I are very good friends.  He has said to me,
“It would probably have been better in the long run if you had gone slower.  I don’t know if he’s wrong.  He may be right.  At the time I was very ambitious and thought I wasn’t fast enough.

BD:   Too ambitious?

NS:   You can only be too ambitious if you alienate people.  I don’t think you can ever be too ambitious if you work hard.  I certainly didn’t alienate people... well, I can’t really say that.  There was a time in certain houses that I was a difficult performer, a difficult colleague and a difficult artist to contract.  I don’t sing in those houses at the moment, and paid the price there.  But overall, I think I handled that aspect of it pretty okay.  As I’ve gotten older and more mature now, I have grown.  I have relationships with people, like Ardis Krainik here at Lyric Opera, and Jonathan Friend and Jimmy Levine at the Met, and Peter Katona who is artistic administrator at Covent Garden.  I begin to speak to these people on a one-to-one level, and the idea of being difficult with them doesn’t make sense to me at all.  I’ve worked through all of that.  They no longer are parental figures that are ‘up there’, that I am going into combat with.  I don’t have that anymore.  They are in some cases friends, and in all cases people who have a job to do.  They do it well, and I try to make their life and my life easier.

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BD:   How do you decide which roles you will sing and will roles you’ll say either no, or not now?

shicoff NS:   Sometimes it’s very easy, as in a case of Manon Lescaut, which is a part I very much want to do.  I’m thirty-seven now, and I won’t touch that role before forty-four.  I want to do it very badly, but I’ll wait.  Pique Dame [The Queen of Spades] is a part that I have been consistently offered a lot.

BD:   It’s another brooding character!  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at right, see my interviews with Mirella Freni, Simon Estes, and Janine Reiss, who is the Assistant Conductor and Language Coach, and adapted the dialogue.  She also is the Language Coach in the Hoffmann recording shown later on this webpage. ]

NS:   Yes, it’s a part I want to do, but I think it’s vocally heavy for me yet.  The first time I’ll tackle that is in 1991.  This year, I do Tosca for the first time.  We’ll see how that goes.  I do it in Berlin, and next year I do Carmen in Seattle, and a new production at Covent Garden.  That’s the new roles for me.  The following year I have repeats of operas.  I want to see how these go.  I’m very conservative in that area.  As aggressive and as forceful as I am in terms of doing the performances that I do
going out there and giving a hundred and ten per centI don’t mess around with repertoire.  That’s too dangerous with my kind of temperament if I moved into really heavier repertoire.  Even the Carmen one would say is a bigger part, but let me see how it goes, and see if I have the discipline to pace myself through that part.

BD:   Do you learn some roles that you just think should be in your repertoire, and hope that people will offer them to you, or are these all roles that you have had offers, or at least tentative offers for?

NS:   I looked at Pique Dame because of the offers that came in.  Manon Lescaut I have seen many times, and therefore I know it.  [At this point, Aliza once again inserts herself into the conversation, which leads to more talk about family life.]

BD:   You mentioned before that your wife was doing Jenůfa.  I didn’t realize she was a singer, also.

NS:   Yes, she has sung the part at the Met in New York last season.

BD:   Under which name?

NS:   Judith Harron.  She was just called in at the last minute to go to London.  She’s a good soprano, but we don’t work a lot together because it’s too difficult to do that.

BD:   So you purposely keep your lives apart then?

NS:   Yes, our professional lives.  It’s hard.  I start to worry about myself, then I start to worry about her, and vice-versa.  When she’s working, I prefer it if I have the opportunity to go into the audience.  Although that’s not easy, at least I get to go into the audience and watch her, and be involved in her rehearsal period if I have the time.

BD:   If you talk to Cossotto and Vinko, they have a wonderful relationship, but they said they hate going to each other’s performances because they worry.

NS:   It’s very difficult.  You have no control.  She did a live televised Butterfly from the New York City Opera about four years ago, and I flew in.  I was rehearsing in the Comique in Paris to do a new production of Hoffmann with Ponnelle, and her performance came at the beginning of that rehearsal period, so I was able to fly to New York and surprise her.  When I was sitting in the audience and the curtain went up, she started to come out and I froze.  I was so scared.  I had no control over what she was going to do, and it was frightening.  I thought nerves were difficult when I was on stage, but there’s something about watching someone you love up there, and you can’t do anything about the show when it’s that important on nationwide television.  She sang very well, and she had a big success.  That was the sweet part of it.  But the beginning of it was nerve-wracking for me.

BD:   Does opera work well on television?

NS:   I like to see that, mainly because I’m interested in watching the singers up close to see how they act, and how they sweat, and how hard they work!  I don’t like to think I’m the only one who’s working hard!  [Laughs]  When I see Luciano Pavarotti or Plácido Domingo sweating, I like that!

BD:   Do you ever feel you’re in competition with them?

NS:   No, absolutely not.  First of all, we’re a totally different generation, and there’s more than those two tenors that I admire.  There’s a lot of tenors, even though those are clearly the two leading tenors of the world.

BD:   Do you feel the public has become so transfixed with them that any a tenor must come up to that level?

shicoff NS:   Do I think that I have to be as good?  No, I don’t feel that.  I have to be as good as I can be.  I put enormous pressure on myself to be better than I was at the last show.  Do I relate that to how well Luciano sang Ballo the other night?  I don’t do that because he’s a different tenor.  He’s a quite spectacular tenor, and when I feel genuine admiration for singers, it’s easier when they’re not your age.  If I were the same age as these tenors, it might be more difficult, but there’s an age difference.

BD:   Is there a competition amongst tenors of your age?

NS:   I think so, but there’s certainly enough work out there for all of us.

BD:   Is there too much work?

NS:   Can there ever be too much work?  [Both laugh]  I mean, the offers?  Never.  Too much work?  Yes!  Too many offers?  No!  When something opens up, it’s usually an important part.  I’ve missed a part to someone else, and they’ve missed some to me, but that hurts a little bit if you want to do it.  Or when a record comes up and it’s offered, whoever gets that, is fortunate.  To the other man, it’s a little bit painful.  However, competition to the death doesn’t exist.  I’m not like that, and Luis is not like that.  We joke about it, but that’s why we’re good friends.  We say that when somebody wants Luis and he starts discussing fee, they say they’ll bring in Shicoff.  Then when they come to me, and want the moon for a fee, they say they’ll bring in Lima!  So we joke about that, and we say maybe we should unionize!  [More laughter]  But everybody tries to do the best they can.  I’d like to believe that we’re pretty human.  We have our good points and bad points, like everyone else.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Do you sing differently for recordings than you do for live performance?  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at left, see my interviews with Brigitte Fassbaender, and Robert Lloyd.]

NS:   I probably should not, but I do.  When you do a recording, the microphone is very close to you, and you don’t have to give as much.  I tend to give more in a recording, because if you record a twelve-minute segment, that’s a lot of recording time.  So let’s say you have eight minutes to record that day, that eight minutes can take you three hours.  There’s breaks, and Perrier in one hand, and chewing gum in another, and a towel... I look like I’m selling things when I do a recording.  When I did the Rigoletto with Maestro Sinopoli, and he said later,
I looked up at you, and you had a towel, and Perrier, and you were blowing your nose, and you had bubble gum, and you looked like a street vendor!  [Much laughter]  You sing for that period.  I give a lot, and then I hope that I recover for the next day.  Even though there isn’t quite the pressure because you can redo on a recording, there’s more pressure because it has to be more perfect.  I find recording depends on the conductor.  If he wants the entire aria done in one shot, one segment with no stops and no splicing unless it’s a disaster, that’s a little difficult.  I love to do segments of an aria, to do a page and then go back and do it again.

BD:   That doesn’t lose the artistry?

NS:   It depends on how much you splice.  If you splice every measure, you’re finished.  It sounds like it was done that way.  At the end of a session, you usually run the whole aria through.  If you have good technicians they’re fantastic.

BD:   At what point does it become a fraud?

shicoff NS:   Studio recordings are never as good as performances because they’re bigger than life.  Firstly, you hear the voice much clearer, but you don’t have the ambiance of the voice that goes into the acoustics of a theater.  I wouldn’t call them a fraud.  It becomes a fraud when you can’t sing a note softly, and they make it soft for you; or when you can’t sing a high note.  Let’s say you have to sing a high C, and you only have a B.  So you record the B, and they jack it up to a C.  I’ve never had to do that.  I haven’t made that many recordings.  I’ve done Macbeth and Rigoletto, and I’m now completing Hoffmann, which comes out after this summer.  I haven’t asked them to do something I haven’t been able to do.  I suppose you could say it would be a fraud if they put a tremendous diminuendo in somewhere that you couldn’t do.  I haven’t needed to do that.  I haven’t seen that either with the colleagues I’ve worked with.

BD:   You say you’re completing the Hoffmann, so it’s not yet finished?  You have to go back and do something?

NS:   Yes, I just have to finish a few things that didn’t really work when did the whole recording.  There was one day I didn’t feel in very good form, and they said,
“Let’s do it on a playback.  Playback???  I had no idea what I was getting into because you wear earphones, and it’s already been pre-recorded.  Then, wherever you werein this case I was in Brusselshopefully the playback will take place in New York, and I’ll be listening to what was done in six months before.

BD:   Aren’t you going to get a different acoustic?

NS:   No, the technicians match the acoustics.  They spend a couple of days doing that.  It’s not an easy job, but they do that.  Playback is done all the time.  I don’t have much to do, which is a relief.  If I had to do a big part of a record, that would be a very hard job.  It’s not something you really want to do.  You lose the spontaneity.  I hope it’s a good recording.  We all worked hard enough on it.  I haven’t heard it, so I have no idea.  I have no idea when I do that.  I generally don’t have any idea anyway about what I do.  I thought last night’s performance, although I didn’t feel well, was not as good as the Sunday one three days before, but someone said it was better.  So, I can’t really tell those things.  I strive hard for perfection.

BD:   Are you generally pleased with what you hear?

NS:   I’ve gotten better at that.  I used to be never pleased.  I’ve now gotten easier with myself.  If it doesn’t go well that night, I think it’ll go better the next time.  I say that glibly now, but I lose sleep over it when I don’t think it goes well.  But I’ve grown up a lot through a lot of bad performing.  I went through a crisis about two years ago.  During that crisis I did not sing well, and I’ve grown up a lot since then.  There was a time when, if I didn’t sing one note right, I was devastated until the next performance.  I’m not like that anymore.  Life is too short.  There are too many important things in life than missing a note, or singing a note flat, or making a wrong entrance.  I don’t like feeling like that.

BD:   What is the most important thing in life for you?

NS:   My family.  My wife and daughter, and I’m trying to solidify our relationships
the three of us as a unitand keeping it together and moving forward, and being happy.

BD:   How can you solidify a relationship among three of you when two of you are traveling in divergent careers?

NS:   That’s what I mean.  It’s not an easy situation.  Mostly we are mostly together.  For instance, I go to Hamburg after the last show.  I leave next Wednesday, and my wife is going to join me there with Aliza.  [Hearing her name, the child again joins the conversation for a moment.]  So, we’ll be a family there.  I don’t know how long she’ll stay, but she’ll be there for a while.  Then I’ll be coming back to New York to begin a new production of Manon at the Met for about two and half months.  Also, I’ve made a decision that I’m not going to work anymore in July and August.  Unless it’s a recording or something very important, I’m not going to work.  We just bought a house in Connecticut on a lake...  I would say ‘we’, but my wife bought the whole thing and drew out all our money and bought this house on a lake.  It’s fantastic, and I feel in a position that I want to be more stable than ambitious at the moment.  Being home for two months with my daughter, wife, fishing, will help.  We have a boat house, and it’s wonderful, so we might as well enjoy it instead of always on the road.  That’s a major change, and it’s now the priority for me.  The secondary priority is to get better at what I do.  Partially the reason for taking off the time is to study.  There was a time several years ago where I didn’t have time to study, and that’s what precipitated my going into a crisis.  I saw those signs and ignored them because of egotism.  I thought I knew better, and I didn’t, so one day I had to pick up the pieces.  I started working with woman in New York, Marlena Malas, a fantastic voice teacher, and we worked very hard.  It’s a continuing process.  I haven’t been able to work with her now for a while because I’ve been on the road, but I’m going back certainly to work with her for those two and a half months, and also in July and August as much as I can.


malas Marlena Malas has taught at Juilliard for almost 30 years. Her students can be heard in the world’s major opera houses and concert venues and her graduates also hold teaching positions at many esteemed conservatories and universities worldwide. In addition to Juilliard and her private voice studio, Malas teaches on the faculties of the Curtis Institute of Music and the Manhattan School of Music. She is the chairman of the voice department of the Chautauqua Institute, a summer vocal program for young singers. She also serves as a vocal consultant and teacher for the Canadian Opera Company (since 1979), the Metropolitan Opera’s Lindemann Young Artist Program, the English National Opera, the Santa Fe Opera, the Castleton Festival, the Chicago Lyric Opera Young Artist Program, and has also taught voice at the Hartt School of Music.

Malas has taught singing master classes at the Blossom Music Festival, the San Francisco Opera Center, the Santa Fe Opera, the European Center for Opera and Vocal Studies in Brussels, the Israel Vocal Studies Center, the English National Opera, the Metropolitan Opera National Council, Westminster Choir College, and Rutgers University. She has also served as a judge for the Metropolitan Opera National Council auditions. Most notably, in 1993, she taught master classes in collaboration with her mentors Joan Sutherland, Richard Bonynge, and Luigi Alva in association with the Sydney Opera House, at their first Opera Symposium.

A native of New York City, Malas, a mezzo-soprano, graduated from the Curtis Institute of Music. She then sang with opera companies including Santa Fe, Boston, Miami, Washington, D.C., Baltimore, San Diego, and Milwaukee, and made appearances with the Marlboro and Casals Festivals as well as concert appearances with the Philadelphia Orchestra and the New York Philharmonic. She is featured on a definitive recording of Brahms’s Liebeslieder Waltzes under the direction of Rudolf Serkin and Leon Fleisher.

Malas lives in Manhattan with her husband, renowned operatic bass and voice teacher Spiro Malas. They spend wonderful times there with their two sons Alexis and Nicol and their families, including their five beautiful grandchildren: Sascha, Reed, Grant, Max, and Flynn.



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BD:   You’re going to do the new Manon?

NS:   Yes.

BD:   Have you done the role before?

NS:   I’ve just done one performance of it in Boston.  It’s certainly a switch from the way I sing.  I’m a full-bodied singer, and Manon needs lots of pianissimos and delicate singing.  It’ll be a challenge, and I’m looking forward to it.

shicoff BD:   Are you looking forward to working with Maestro Rosenthal?

NS:   Yes.  He’s a tough conductor.  He’s a very precise conductor, a very good conductor.  It’s with Ponnelle and Catherine Malfitano. I’m looking forward to it.

BD:   Tell me about the character of Des Grieux.

NS:   It’s not something that I can be incredibly intelligent about at the moment because I did a concert version of it in Boston.  Certainly, I have an idea of the character, but I need to do more research before and during the rehearsal period with Ponnelle.  I really need to get into that with him.  For me to talk about it now is going to be shallow.  I learn a lot in a new production rehearsal period.

BD:   When you study a character, how much do you go back into the composer’s letters and ideas?

NS:   I don’t do that.

BD:   Where do you go for the character, then?

NS:   I can read something, certainly, on the story, but I’m a person who likes to sit down one-on-one with a director and talk a lot about it.  Then I find out why things are happening, and talk about it with the coaches.  But to go through a composer’s letters?  I don’t do that.

BD:   Then let’s talk about other Massenet then. You’ve done Werther a number of times?

NS:   Yes.  Werther is a very complex character.  He’s a person who wants a woman that he can’t have.  I’m sure if he could have her, I don’t know if that relationship would last.  Although they say opposites attract, those two, Charlotte and Werther, are certainly opposites.  I don’t think that she would fulfill what his needs are.  It’s simply that he sees her as almost the Virgin Mary in terms of how good she is, and how wonderful she is.

BD:   What are his needs?

NS:   His needs are to try to be normal.  That’s why he goes after her.  I don’t think it would work; I don’t think that’s what would satisfy him, but I think that’s why he wants her.  He wants to be more stable.... which is something I spoke about regarding the lifestyle I live.  It becomes a total obsession for him, and it’s fascinating how much he wants something that, even if he attained it, I don’t think would work.  Then, we have to watch him crave it so much, and ultimately to kill himself because of it.

BD:   So he’s doomed from the start?

NS:   I think this character is doomed.  He’s very doomed, yes.

BD:   Are there people like that in the world today?

NS:   That are doomed?  By self-choice, absolutely.  I wouldn’t say most people, but I think there certainly are a lot of people who blame exterior events in their lives for why things aren’t working for them, instead of making changes themselves, making their own luck, making their life and moving forward, and being positive thinkers, let’s say.  That’s something I’m learning because I have always been a very negative thinker.  Even though I was very successful very young, I always was a negative thinker until, as Norman Vincent Peale says, it starts to happen.  You start to visualize what is in your subconscious, and that’s what happens.  Life doesn’t have to be like that.  You can visualize positive things and be an optimist, and not worry about what’s going to go wrong, but concentrate on what’s going to go right, even though it doesn’t seem to be going right at that time.

BD:   You are optimistic about your own future now?

NS:   I’m teaching myself to do that.  I’m teaching myself not to be such a pessimist in general.  That’s why Werther is an ideal part for me.  One day I’ll become such an optimist I’ll say,
I can’t sing Werther anymore, and I can’t sing Hoffmann any more.  These are very depressing parts, and I don’t relate to them anymore.  I read a lot of inspirational ideas in those books, and I think that it certainly helps.  I also have a strong belief in God.  I’m not here to preach to people, but it’s helped me a lot.  I was at a point where I where didn’t want to sing anymore, and I didn’t think I really had anything to offer.  I don’t believe that anymore.  There is something inside me to offer, and there’s as great deal that I want to give, and that process of believing and turning around where I was, is working for me.

shicoff BD:   Are you optimistic about the future of opera?

NS:   Please be more specific about that.

BD:   Opera is often accused of being a museum.

NS:   Oh, I don’t think so.

BD:   It’s a living, vital force for you?

NS:   [Thinks a moment]  For the general public it certainly is.  The idea of supertitles is a good one, although I was against it when I first saw it.  [Remember, this interview was held in November, 1986, just as supertitles were starting to be used in the theater.]  I thought the public is going to look at the supertitles instead of at me or my colleagues.  I changed my opinion about that having seen it a lot of times.  It’s very helpful to an audience.  It involves them.  It’s something that takes it a bit out of the museum and makes it more relatable.  There’s a great many regional companies, and there’s a lot of American series.  Usually companies have a Gold Series and an American Series, or an International Series and an American Series.  The American Series is usually for younger singers who are on the rise.  Not in all instances are they Americans, but many times they are.  I don’t think that opera’s particularly in trouble.  Let’s see what happens with the new tax laws.  I don’t know how that’s going to affect all of that.

BD:   Does the business of opera worry you at all?

NS:   If people don’t realize that they must support it, then we’re going to be in trouble.  It would be really a shame, I must say.  It’s very funny... last night I was in my dressing room, and I was listening to Kenny Rogers on a tape right before I went out on stage.  The make-up artist said to me,
I don’t know too many of your colleagues who do that.  For me, when I sing opera, I think I’m Kenny Rogers out there.  I just happen to be singing with a different voice.

BD:   And a different style.

NS:   And a different style.

BD:   And for a different audience.

NS:   Yes, for a different audience, but it’s not only for the white-tie-and-tails crowd.

BD:   You don’t think opera should be elitist at all?

NS:   No, absolutely not.  Are you kidding???  It should be for the general public!  First of all, I’m American, and to be an elitist about opera is not an American thing to do.  It should be for all people that want to see it.  I would like the prices to be a little bit lower in some cases so that they can all go to see it and afford it.  But it’s interesting...  Sometimes opera can be very boring if you put together a cast, a conductor, and a director that don’t want to work together.  Then, it’s boring.  I’ve seen popular singers who have big names be boring.  It didn’t work that night.

BD:   Should we try to get the audience that goes to see Kenny Rogers, or a Bears football game, to come to the opera house?

NS:   Sure!  It’s a very interesting idea.  Maybe more exposure for the younger Americans by going on TV on talk-shows so they can realize there are many personalities out there, not only the one or two.  The reason there are one or two
Luciano and Plácidois because they are exciting to watch, and they do offer something.  But there are many other singers that offer something, and I don’t know why the general public doesn’t really realize it.  They think opera’s for the aristocrats, whoever they are, and I don’t see it like that.  I totally don’t see opera like that at all.  I see it as an expression of emotions, of sexual intensity, and so much more.  Also, it should happen on a regional level.  I have to say I haven’t really given that much thought.  I know that I feel I should be more intelligent at the moment, but I leave that to the powers that be in the profession who are in marketing.

*     *     *     *     *

shicoff BD:   [At this point, Aliza again chimed in, demanding her father
s attention.]  As a father, what are you going to tell your daughter about opera?  And is it going to be different because you’re actually in it?

NS:   That’s very easy for me because she goes all the time.  She stays in the wings and I take her on stage in the rehearsal period.  When the set is up, she walks on the set, and she looks out into the seats.

BD:   Does she understand that later, when she’s in the seats watching you?  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at left, see my interview with Dmitri Hvorostovsky.]

NS:   I debuted in La Scala last June [in Eugene Onegin, with Freni and Ghiaurov], and she sat in the first box with my wife.  There was my wife and this tiny little head right over the box, and she didn’t have any problems.  She loved it... except when I got shot, and later she spoke about that for a long time.  She spoke about the snow, and had to see the snow.  She wanted to go up on stage and see the snow.  So I took her on stage, and I remember Seiji Ozawa wanted very much to be near her, to talk to her, and she kept running away from him.  It was a whole nursery school scene, but she’s involved with that.  She’s back-stage all the time.  It’ll be interesting to see what happens with her as she gets older, whether or not she goes into some facet of being creative.

BD:   Are you going to encourage her in this?

NS:   I’m going to encourage her in a lot of areas and see which one she takes.  She’s very physical.  I can’t say she’s a wonderful athlete yet
at just three years and four monthsbut she’s very physical and has a great sense of balance.  So, she will do ballet and gymnastics, and assuming she’s ready, whatever the age is, I’ll try to get her as tennis partner and play doubles with her when she’s six!  [Both laugh]  Whatever she takes to she will do, and if she doesn’t like it, she won’t do it.

BD:   It’ll be interesting to see what she says when she goes to her playmates and declares,
My daddy’s an opera singer.  What does your daddy do?

NS:   Yes!  And they’ll say, What’s that?

BD:   Exactly.  She’ll be teaching the rest of the class about opera.

NS:   Well, she seems to like it at the moment.  She’ll sit down and watch an opera on TV.  She likes that, but I’ve never forced her into that.  I don’t dress her up and make her sit through a whole performance.  I would never do that.  Judy and I will take her into a rehearsal.  If Judy’s up there, or I’m on stage, the other one will take her in and let her watch ten or fifteen minutes.  She’ll stay a half-hour if she can handle it, and if she starts to get a little bit wild, then she goes into the dressing room.  There’s no forcing of this on her, so she seems to like it.  She takes to it and enjoys it.

BD:   It’s interesting that she would take your onstage death calmly.

NS:   She never has a problem with that.

BD:   Other singers I’ve talked to say the kids just go bananas when they see their dad getting killed.

NS:   Yes, I’ve heard that, but she didn’t.  My wife put her hands over Aliza’s ears when the gun when off, but she watched me fall and lay there, and she didn’t make a sound.  She was right there in the front of the audience.  She could have started screaming that her daddy’s dead, but there was none of that.  It’s an interesting question about how to further or market the idea of opera to the general public.  There have been singers who have certainly done that.  Beverly Sills was a wonderful exponent of that, and helped popularize opera.

BD:   Now back to this business of supertitles.  Has this spelled the death of opera-in-English?

NS:   [Laughs]  Sometimes you can’t understand it when it’s being sung in English!  It wouldn’t hurt to have supertitles occasionally.

BD:   Sills has done both.  She puts the titles in the English performances.

NS:   I don’t know if that’s something I would necessarily do.  I haven’t given it a thought.

shicoff BD:   Do you think opera works well in translation?

NS:   I don’t like to do it.  I’ve done that when I started my career.  I sang Lucia in English, Don Giovanni in English, and Faust in English.  I prefer to sing these roles in the original languages.

BD:   Do you work harder at your diction when it is in the language of the audience?

NS:   Oh, absolutely, but I don’t do any English operas.  When I sang in La Scala I was very smart to sing in Russian, thank you very much!  I’ve sung a lot in France in French.  I’ve done Romeo and Werther in the big theater, the Palais Garnier, and I’ve sung Hoffmann in the Comique.  Yes, I work harder when I know that the language is of those people.  It’s more pressure for me because I tend to
‘frump occasionally, let us say.  My memory is a little bit like an old car... sometimes it works and sometimes it just doesn’t.

BD:   Do you rely on the prompter?

NS:   I was talking a friend of mine last week about prompters.  You get to be very addicted to them because it’s so simple.  They give you the beginning word of every phrase.  They put their hands up when you’re not supposed to sing.  They give you a cue when you’re supposed to start.  It’s almost as if you never have had to look at a part...  [Laughs]  That
s not entirely true, but to a certain extent I begin to rely on them.  When I know there’s a theater that doesn’t have a prompter, I think I had better look at this part a little more seriously.

BD:   Are you watching the prompter too much and not the conductor?

NS:   First of all, when I take off my glasses I’m blind, totally blind, so the conductor’s a bit far away from me.  I can see him, but not that clearly, so I rely a great deal on the prompters.  I don’t really look at prompters, but I listen a lot.

BD:   Are they tapping the beat?

NS:   No, no, no.  I can keep the beat because they put speakers on the side of the stage.  There’s somewhat of a time lag, but very slight, split-second stuff.  I work a lot with my ears.  Of course, if there’s a big downbeat or an entrance, I’ve got to look, and that comes from the conductor.

BD:   Do you have to be like a double bass and anticipate slightly?

NS:   Yes, a little bit.  Prompters are there for you.  Some singers hate it because they find themselves becoming lazy.   I know singers who will specifically request that the prompter not prompt them.

BD:   The prompter has to do what is asked, right?

NS:   Well, that’s their job.  They just don’t prompt.  They prompt the singers who want them, but that’s not usually a problem.  It
s very rare that a singer doesn’t want to be prompted.  They may not relate to it, or they may just ignore it, but some singers say they don’t want it.  It annoys them, and breaks their concentration.  It doesn’t break anything for me.  It’s given a split second before you sing.  I see the music in my mind before I sing it, but it doesn’t hurt to have that little voice right there.  It does depend on the prompter.  In the world, there aren’t that many great prompters.  I’ve had prompters in Europe give me the wrong cue, and I’m a bit like a parrot.  Because I rely so much on my ears, when I hear something, it comes out of my mouth immediately.  So, I’ve sung wrong things because the prompter has given me the wrong words.

BD:   [With a gentle nudge]  Then do you go and kick a little dust in his face?

NS:   [Laughs]  Or throw a sword in that direction!

BD:   I was talking to the prompter here at Lyric, Jane Klaviter, and she said that in one of these big scenes where everyone
s rushing around, she had actually to put the score in front of her face so that she didn’t inhale a cloud of dust.

NS:   It absolutely gets like that.  Joan Dornemann at the Met mentioned to me that it gets dusty down there.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Tell me a bit about Hoffmann!  What kind of a screwball was he?

shicoff NS:   He’s a pretty neurotic character.  There are three women that are one woman.  He says, that.  These three women
Olympia, Antonia, and Giuliettaare Stella.  I played them as separate women when I was dealing with them.  I don’t play them as three facets of the same woman, although I say that in the Prologue.  But they’re individuals for me at the moment, and in each case, he doesn’t consummate his relationship with them.  Various things happen because of this evil figure that looms throughout the opera.

BD:   Is that evil figure a real figure, or is it something in his imagination?  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at right, see my interviews with José van Dam, and Dale Duesing (who sings Schlémil).]

NS:   Again, that depends on how you want to look at it.

BD:   How do you look at it, or does that change production to production?

NS:   I like to look at him as he exists, and, of course, it changes from production to production.  Also, the ending changes.  For instance, the ending can either be played that he’s ruined, and he collapses in a pool of beer, or he starts to write again, and he’s very optimistic.  I don’t like that ending.  I don’t think he recovers, frankly.  I don’t see him recovering from that.  [Laughs]  Well, I shouldn’t say that.  I think he learns a great deal, and he grows a lot, but it’s too sugary, and too
ninety-minute mini-series that works out fine to see him become something right at the end.  I don’t think it’s needed.  You hope that he will find himself as time goes on, but you don’t see it in front of you.  The idea of being plagued by evil, or the idea of bad luck, is an interesting concept, and we all face that.  We all say, That was just bad luck, and it doesn’t work, and how you cope with that.  Lots of things in life are timing.  And you know what?  It doesn’t mean that if the timing of an event doesn’t work for you that it’s the end, because another one will come if you make it, or if you work hard enough.  Several have come for me.  It doesn’t just happen once.  I grew up believing that everything was timing, and then if you missed it, you missed it.

BD:   There wasn’t another bus coming down the street?

NS:   Exactly.  I don’t believe that anymore.  We are all given at least several, if not many, chances to regroup and find ourselves.  I believe in that on all levels.

BD:   Is Hoffmann a loser?

NS:   He eventually pulls himself out of it, but not on that night.  In other words, not on that stage, not in front of this public that sees it that night.  When I play him, he’s out of it at the end
if I’m lucky enough to have a director who agrees with me.   Inside me, when it’s over I don’t think he’s finished or a loser.  He’s a loser at that moment, but he’s going to come out of it.  All of this is for a reason, but I play him all night long as a loser, absolutely.  The whole night long he lets his emotions rule, and his instincts are all wrong.  All night long he constantly makes the wrong decisions, and all his reactions are backwards.

BD:   There are two different versions
one with recitatives, and one with spoken dialogue.  Which do you prefer?

NS:   The spoken dialogue is very short, and that’s the one the Met does.  The other one has problems, and that’s the Bärenreiter.  That’s the recording I’ve done, which is the big version.  Now they’ve found even a bigger version.  They keep on adding things from I don’t know where.  [Laughs, then continues facetiously]  There must be a grandmother that has a printing press, because they keep finding other versions of Hoffmann.  Somebody says,
I discovered another one in the attic of the house that was knocked down.” [More laughter]  The long version has problems on stage, and needs cuts.  There was a good version that Ponnelle and Levine put together that they did in Salzburg.  Then in Paris at the Comique I did one that combined the two versions.  That one I liked!  I thought it was very interesting the combining both versions.  The Epilogue is very different in the two versions.  One repeats O Dieu! de quelle ivresse, which is that big screaming thing which is repeated again in the Choudens version.  That’s really the standard, usual one.  That’s the one they’ve always done, and now this new one is really different, in a lower key with a more inspirational ending.  I like the combination of them.  I like them to be put together because there’s some very beautiful things in the Bärenreiter, and that big scream at the end is also fantasticif you can do it, if you have still got the voice at the end.  You have to hope when you’re singing that your voice is going to be there at the end because it’s a little like the marathon.  You sing all night, and then you’ve got one of the hardest arias to do at the very end.  It is not long, but very high.  Your last high note is a B-flat, but it seems like a high D.  It’s a very high note!

BD:   Is performing on stage like a contest
you versus the audience?

shicoff NS:   No, it’s a contest of me versus me, clearly.  It has nothing to do with the audience.  For me, what the audience is for is to try to show them a part of myself through this character.  That’s an interesting point.  They’re very important to evening.  It
s not like doing it in a practice room.  What happens to me is frequently I can’t get through a piece in a room.  Given the pressure of having to do it in front of three thousand people, my body reacts chemically, much differently than it would if they weren’t sitting out there.  Even in this Lucia, there are times at the end of the piece when there’s no way I’d be able to finish the piece.  It’s very high at the end, and I sing it in the original key, and that key is a high key.  But in front of a public, what always crosses my mind is that I’m going to die if I don’t do this now.  I’m literally going to die up here if I don’t finish this, and so I finish it.  It may not sound fantastic, but if I didn’t have that, I wouldn’t put myself through it.  I would say that I’m going to do it another day, but that’s not what I want to get into.  What I want to get into is that with an audience there’s an electricity that exists, and that is what’s between us.  There are nights that audiences are total disasters, and it takes a lot out of my performing because I feel they’re wearing white ties, and they’re not involved, and they’ve got a big gala after-party.  Then the performance simply belongs to me.  I do it for me.   That doesn’t mean that if it’s a gala performance that they’re not necessarily involved, but that can happen.  It can happen a lot of nights.  You can grab an audience that just came from work, theyre tired, they couldn’t eat, but they are involved.  They can pull a lot out of me and I can give them a lot.

BD:   Do you ever give them too much?  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at right, see my interviews with Eric Halfvarson, and Donald Runnicles.]

NS:   Yes!  I do give them too much, and that’s why I think if I gave them less they’d get more.  Sometimes I give them too much, and they don’t see it as too much.  They see it not working.  They really didn’t like me, and they don’t know why.  It
s because it didn’t work, that’s why.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Which composers wrote well for your voice?

NS:   That depends.  Nobody writes well in the repertoire that I sing.  Verdi is supreme of those writers in my repertoire.  Hoffmann, for instance, is very jagged writing.  It goes up and down, and it’s not really built on building blocks as Verdi writes.  I like that, though, and I don’t have a problem with it.  I don’t find Offenbach being a difficult writer for the voice.

BD:   What about Verdi makes it so special for the voice?

NS:   The way he builds.  He builds the crescendo of a piece extremely well.  It is very difficult to sing Verdi because you have to have a good technique.  It doesn’t teach you.  You better learn how to have a good technique, or you’re not going to get through these pieces.  For instance, even here in this Lucia, suddenly I learned things because last year I spent a great deal of the season either making that Hoffmann recording or performing Hoffmann in Covent Garden, and a new production in Munich.  A lot of places I did Hoffmann.

BD:   You were immersed in it!

NS:   I was immersed.  I was definitely Hoffmann last year.  Having arrived here now to do Lucia, I suddenly realized that I have to technically get things better than I had to in the HoffmannHoffmann I can act around.  Lucia is a little more difficult.  It’s harder, shorter, but it’s a hard sing.  As Sherrill Milnes once said to me,
This is a hard sing.  But you learn a lot through those difficult things that are in your repertoire.  If I sang Andrea Chénier, that would be very difficult for me, but it’s not in my repertoire now.  It’s too hard for me.  Maybe eventually, who knows?  Perhaps at forty-five I’ll tackle it.  I’m sure one day I’ll see how it goes, but I don’t have to think about it now.  But within my repertoire, a Lucia is a lesson, or I don’t get through it.

BD:   Let’s shift to Verdi a little bit.  What kind of a clown is the Duke?

NS:   I can’t answer that.  It’s sort of one-dimensional.

BD:   Is it hard work?

NS:   Certainly got a lot of reviewers have said that.  Maybe I see him as one-dimensional, and maybe they’ve all been right.  I’ve just vindicated all of those reviewers who have given me those reviews.

BD:   You don’t try to engage substance to him?

NS:   I used to play him at the Met like he was Captain Kirk on the Enterprise!  That’s the way I portrayed him.  He was absolutely Captain Kirk.  That’s him.  When I do opera, it’s all imagery for me.  It’s a lot of fun for me.  I’m a very tense singer to be around, although not in this series here.  It’s this company; it’s the atmosphere.  I’m not very tense here, but generally I’m a tense singer.  I don’t look at operas as everybody else sees it.  I look at it as Days of Our Lives [the television soap opera], the relationships that I work out on stage.  Excuse me for saying this, but I don’t perform it as an incredible Art Form that belongs in a museum, because if I saw it as an incredible Art Form that Maria Callas showed how great it was, I wouldn’t be able to sing.  I would get up there and say,
I can’t be as great as such-and-such.  I used to be like that, but I don’t do that anymore.

shicoff BD:   Is opera art, or is opera entertainment?

NS:   I think it’s absolutely both.

BD:   Then where’s the balance?  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at left, see my interview with Alexandru Agache.]

NS:   It should be art, but it should entertain you.  [Laughs]  Maybe I’m the Bruce Springsteen of opera being up there, but I see it as a laborer.  I get up there, and I relate specifically.  I don’t do it as a painter would.  I do it as an emotion, as a work through emotions and characters.  It’s not a dinosaur to me.  That’s old, and it’s really today.  The kids, the teenagers out there are going to think I’m crazy when I say it’s something for today, but for me it is.  As I did last night, I was listening to Kenny Rogers, and two minutes later I was on the stage singing for Lucia.  I don’t know if Gruberová knew I was doing that, although I met her in the elevator two shows back.  We were leaving together from the building where we’re staying, and I had earphones on.  She wanted to hear it, but I said,
‘No, no, no, it’s okay.  So she said, Is it pop music again?  [Both laugh]  I have spent so many years listening to opera and singers, that now I immerse myself with pop music because there’s something about it which is very relaxing.  I like the lyrics.  So, like on American Bandstand, I give Kenny Rogers ninety-five!  It’s good beat!

BD:   They should send you over to Dick Clark!

NS:   Right, Dick Clark!  But opera becomes real to me.  It has to be real to me.  I’ve got to relate to it, and to the characters.  When I played the Duke as Captain Kirk, I had a grand time.  When I went out in the second act and I put my foot over the table, I was very brash.  The good reviews would say I was like Al Pacino, that I was swaggering around on the stage.  There were times when I didn’t see that, and if you put me in a production where I can’t communicate the feeling that I’m Captain Kirk, and I look like a cardboard figure, primarily that’s because I’m not a singer who stands and just sings beautiful sounds.  I’m a singer who’s filled with neurosis and neuroses, and something inside that it’s a little bit like a volcano.  I’m not a calm singer inside, and to stand there and sing is not me.  To stand there and rip out something is me, and that’s too bad, but that’s me.  I’m beginning to accept that.  I have to accept that.  It’s me.  A calmness is starting to come in because I want it to come in.  That’s what I spoke about before, about visualizing something.  I want a calmness to come in.

BD:   Do you ever sing concerts?

NS:   Not a lot.  I have done that, and it’s something I keep bringing up to my agent that I should do.  Then some interesting new production comes up, and I say that I’d rather do this new production.  It always seems to be that something else comes up.

BD:   Do you like being booked so far in advance?

NS:   There’s a certain security to know that in 1990 I’ve got X amount of engagements, but if I fill it with junk, no.  I fill it with something that I really have wanted to do.  There are a couple of engagements I have, on in particular, that I don’t want to mention yet.  It’s confirmed to me but I don’t have the signed contract.  It was something that I worked very hard with my agents on the behind the scenes, and then it actually happened.  This production I want came together, and that’s something I look forward to four years from now.  If I overbook, of course I can always cancel, but if it’s junk, I’m unhappy.   If I wind up doing provincial stuff, and it’s not an interesting director, conductor, cast, and I did it because I got worried that two years from now I wasn’t booked, and life is passing me by, then it’s too bad.  A lot of people like to know exactly that on this day four years from now they’re going to be doing such-and-such.  But it also enables me to say that I’m not going to work July and August because I’m working the rest of the year.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Do you sing differently in different houses?  Does the size of the house make any different to you?

NS:   This is a rough house, Chicago.  It’s a big house and it’s a hard house.  The administration and the people involved in this house are fantastic, so you want to come back here when you work here.  American houses all tend to be big.  I think it’s the American syndrome of everything that is big.

shicoff BD:   The Met is also a very big house.

NS:   Yes, the Met is a very big house.  Do I sing differently?   When I walk into Munich, which is a fantastic, much smaller house with incredible acoustics, I don’t worry as much about not being heard.  Do I get out there and push because it’s a bigger house?  Not necessarily.  I push anyway, big or small!  [Laughs]  But not really.  When I sang in La Scala, I sang the same.  I didn’t sing any different.  You get used to it, looking out and seeing a lot of seats.  In the beginning it’s hard.  My first professional solo was in 1975.  I sang Narraboth in Salome in the Kennedy Center, and in ’76 I sang Rinuccio (Gianni Schicchi) at the Met, and in ’77, I sang Rigoletto at the Met.  That’s pretty fast!  I was an apprentice in Santa Fe in 1973.  I was in the chorus and being an apprentice, so I had done very little before I was singing big parts at the Met.  So, I kind of got used to it.  Sometimes it’s very strange... I was with my daughter, and we looked out into the house, and I asked her what she thought of all those seats out there.  I almost said wasn’t it scary, but I said, 
Isn’t it wonderful to see all those seats? which it really is, because when it works there’s nothing like it.  There’s a real magic.  There’s an electricity that goes through the air, a literal electricity.  It doesn’t happen a lot, but it happens more than just a couple of times a year.  It’s why you do it; it’s why I do it.

BD:   Are you coming back to Chicago?

NS:   Next year I do Faust, and I’m looking forward to that.  Then we’re talking about other things, so we
ll see.  I like this city.  There is a more open feeling than, say, New York... and I can say that because I have grown up all my life in New York.  But New York is a little claustrophobic, even though it’s big.  I like this city.  There’s a beautiful tennis center here, and the building we’re in is literally self-contained.  It has a wonderful supermarket downstairs, and there’s a swimming pool upstairs, plus its very close to the opera house.  It is a nice city!  I just came from San Francisco, which is also a very nice city.  I liked it very much.  I worked a great deal since 1980 in Europe, and I want to stop and come home, and work more in the States.

BD:   Since you’re coming back in Faust, tell me a little bit about the character.

NS:   Faust is a character that starts out fantastic.  In the opera, he’s not really the strongest character.  Méphistophélès is a very strong character, and Marguerite is also a bigger character than Faust.  It doesn’t seem to go anywhere!  It does go somewhere, and it starts out very strong.  Then you have the garden scene, which is beautiful, and wonderful to sing, and then that’s it until the trio.  I did a new production of it in Hamburg just now, and it was at the end of the series that I started to appreciate the character more, and I started to give more.  I started to think it had more to offer, and therefore I had more to offer.  That’s all I can say about it.  At the moment, I seem to relate very well to the parts that are the ‘doomed figures
.

BD:   In spite of all this, is singing fun?

NS:   Yes!  It
s hard work, but I wouldn’t stop it now; I wouldn’t give it up.  I’m not sure ‘fun’ is the right word.  It’s very gratifying, but it comes with a lot of baggage.  First of all, it comes with trying to hone in on a technique that’s difficult to assess because you can’t touch it in your hand; it exists in your throat.  Second of all, there are lots of personalities that you’ve got to deal with in the profession.  Usually that gets a little bit easier as one matures, but the baggage that comes with it is excessive traveling.  It sounds fantastic if you’re working in an office from nine to five, and you know that you haven’t been able to get your vacation in this year to go to Hawaii or Florida or Colorado, or wherever you want to go.  For someone like me, though, it’s rough.  From last March to this coming January, if I put together all of the little groups of three days here and two days there, I will have been home for two weeks.  That’s just too long to be absent, and it’s a big strain on a lot of things.  It’s a strain on friendships, and, unless youre clever, it’s a strain on the marriage.  My wife and I have tried to be very clever about it, so we travel a lot together.  It’s a strain watching my daughter being pulled out of the Montessori School in New York.  She’s here in Chicago now, and then she goes with us to Hamburg.  I feel badly for her because she’s very good in school, I may brag!  But she loses that stability, that continuity, and I appreciate that a lot.  I miss that for her.  But among the pluses and the positive side to it is that you can be one of the very few in the world that can really be creative, and express something publicly, and move people, really move them, and maybe change their lives.  I don’t know that I actually change people’s lives, but I have watched movies, for instance, and I know the movie that has changed my life dramatically.  So, why not think that a live performance can’t do that?  I’ve seen live performances do it to me, and e are lucky to be able to do that.  I’m very lucky to do that, but it’s hard.  I find it hard, though a lot of singers don’t.  They like it, and they enjoy the notoriety, and they enjoy all the perks that come with being a celebrity, and important within the realm of their career.  That doesn’t appeal to me.  [Laughs]  I can’t really say it doesn’t appeal to me, because I use some of my tenor perks... like having my checks cashed and brought to the room here instead of going to the bank myself.  But in general, the glamor of it doesn’t appeal, and it never has.

BD:   You wouldn’t rather be a baritone, and be afforded fewer perks?

NS:   In that sense?  No, I’d rather be just what I am!  There’s something special about being a tenor, and all baritones are always trying to be tenors; every one of them, amazing!  [Laughs]  I suppose in that sense it’s a little bit more glamorous.  It’s like being in the batting order.  You’re number four if you’re the tenor because you’re not number eight.  But the partying after performances?  I don’t do that.  When I get an invitation to go to a party, I don’t want to go.  I’d rather be with my family.  I’d rather be playing a lot of tennis with Gwynne Howell, who’s singing Raimondo in the Lucia.

BD:   How’s he doing?

NS:   At the tennis, or as a singer?  He caught what everybody seems to be having here, which is swollen vocal cords and an ear infection, but he seems fine.  He sang very well last night, and the bug just caught him for a little while.  Tennis is another story.  I hate him.  He kills me all the time!  He destroys me on the tennis court.  He says,
Well, okay, we’ll knock it around; it doesn’t matter much, and then he drills me into the ground.  [Both laugh]  I’m very competitive on the tennis court.

BD:   [With a gentle nudge]  Are you looking forward to doing an opera where you skewer him?  [Much laughter]

NS:   It’s funny, he and I.  We’re very, very opposite.  He’s very laid back, very calm and collected, and I can’t sit!  I’m pacing, and together we’re very funny.  We should go on the Borscht Belt to New York and be a comedy team!

BD:   He’d be your straight man.

NS:   I want to be his straight man.  That’s the funny part of it.

BD:   Thank you very much the conversation.

NS:   My pleasure.



shicoff

See my interview with Carol Vaness




© 1986 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in Chicago on November 20, 1986.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB twice in 1989, and again in 1993, 1994, and 1999.  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.

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.