[Note: This interview was first published in The Massenet Newsletter in January,
1986. It has been slightly re-edited, and the photos and links
have been added for this website presentation.]
The Elegance That is Martial Singher
By Bruce Duffie
As a singer I have performed some hundred operatic roles
as well as hundreds of songs which is not really a different art.
Whatever I have achieved later in my music career has been due to the
constant union of an often pedantic study of words and music and an
abandon as complete as possible to the inspiring demands of the
composer. (...) In the final analysis, all the precise
any interpretation build up to one goal: to express. The inspired
and the sensitive heart of a good interpreter find in the shape of the
phrase, the inflection of the words, the right rhythm, the true nuance,
the rare color, the changes of pace, the silences, all they need to
convey to the audience the changing emotions of a role.
[From the book]
Those words above, which form a credo of sorts, were penned by Martial
Singher in the preface of his book, An
Interpretive Guide to Operatic Arias, published by Pennsylvania
State University Press. The subtitle is A Handbook for Singers, Coaches, Teachers,
and Students, but it also should be on the shelf on any fan of
opera performance or recordings. This is what Singher has learned
as a student, what he practiced as an artist, and what he now passes
along to the next generation of musicians.
Martial Singher was born in Oloron-Sainte-Marie, Basses-Pyrenees, in
August of 1904. Studying at the Paris Conservatoire from
1927-1930 brought him first prizes in both operatic and opéra
comique singing. His roles in Paris included Wagner, Verdi, and
various French composers until 1943 when he became a member of the
Metropolitan. In New York he added the four villains in Hoffmann, as well as Pelléas
and later Golaud. (He is one of the very few singers who have
done both on the stage.) He was also the first interpreter of
Ravel's Don Quichotte à
Dulcinée. The New
Grove calls him a “fastidious musician,
and an elegant interpreter.”
After retiring from a very active performing life, he
continued his teaching and headed the Department of Voice at the Curtis
Institute in Philadelphia, and later was Chairman of Voice and Opera at
the Music Academy of the West in Santa Barbara. Among his more
well-known pupils are James
King, Donald Gramm,
John Reardon, Louis Quilico, Benita Valente, Thomas Moser, Judith Blegen, Thomas Hampson, and
It was with eager anticipation that I was able to arrange an interview,
and in the course of a conversation which ran a bit more than an hour,
we discussed many things, including views on operatic practice both
yesterday and today, as well as some of his many roles. Several
times he simply referred to what he had said in his book, so those
comments have been included in this presentation.
I had asked about the inevitable mishaps which occur in every career,
and that is where we pick up the thread . . . . .
Martial Singher: It
happened in Werther in
Philadelphia. My Charlotte was Licia Albanese,
and at the beginning of the second act, the left side of the set
started falling upon us. I saw it out of the corner of my eye,
and was able to turn and hold it with both arms until some stage hands
came and saved us. That was the only time such a thing happened
to me onstage, though.
Bruce Duffie: While
we’re about it, tell me something of the
character of Albert.
MS: He is what is
called a ‘noble character.’
I don’t think that the character has been very
deeply carved by the librettist or the composer. There are really
only two characters in the opera — Charlotte and
BD: Could a stage
director make Albert too weak?
MS: It could be
done. I don’t remember every having any
qualms about it being very sentimental at his return in the first act,
very happy and then worried but thinking he had a solution with the
exile of Werther in the second act, and then being decidedly murderous
in the third act.
BD: Is Albert happy
that Werther commits suicide?
MS: He doesn’t
see it happen and doesn’t know about it.
Probably he would be a bit remorseful, or even deeply remorseful, but
he had to save his marriage and probably some kind of honor. When
he gave the pistols to be sent to Werther, he certainly knew what he
BD: You also sang
MS: Yes, I sang
Lescaut. I think that Manon
is a masterpiece with stronger and weaker points. Unfortunately,
I don’t think Lescaut is one of the strong
points. However, it was very pleasant to sing. There is not
great vocal responsibility, but he has the opportunity to swagger
— which the singer always likes. [Laughs] I
sang it very often, but it is not possible to devote your soul and
heart to the role of Lescaut.
BD: You have to
sing it and get it over with?
MS: Right, but as
elegantly and pleasantly as possible. He could be a little bit
touching in the last scene.
BD: Would the
character of Manon been better off if she’d
met Brettigny before meeting Des Grieux?
[Chuckles] Here I can make reference to the novel which I know
very well. It was essential for Manon to meet Des Grieux.
He stayed her only real love throughout her life. Her life would
not have been at all what it was without Des Grieux at the
beginning. After that, she went from temptation to temptation,
and success to success, but always returning to Des Grieux at the
moment things were not going well. He was really the solid base
of her life.
|The interpreters of the
opera should remember that the
roles of Manon and Des Grieux are written without artificiality or
exaggeration. The Chevalier stays passionately in love with Manon
despite her betrayals; she follows her irresistible yearning for
wealth, dragging him to dishonor and exile, yet loving him and him
alone all along. Even under the stress of such exceptional
but still express themselves with as much simplicity as the operatic
setting allows. The role of Des Grieux calls for skill,
and versatility as well as for power. It is one of the most
and rewarding roles in the French repertoire. The sweetness of
should express itself as freely as the fire of passion. The Rêve is
a great opportunity to prove it. The Gavotte is obviously an insert,
and in a way, slightly incongruous. It befits Manon’s
personality to urge all young people to listen to the call of love
before it is too late, as she has certainly done herself, even to warn
her listeners of the disappointments of love. It is hard to
however, that her audience is not more experienced than she is, and
the advice coming from her very young wisdom will be welcome by already
well-informed ears. Nevertheless, it is a pleasure to imagine
herself to a sort of intimate circle kneeling or sitting around her,
trading her grand airs for a friendly confidential tone, speaking to
women more than to men.
[From the book]
Manon a virgin when we first see her in Act I?
MS: I believe so,
and the novel lets us believe so.
BD: How different
is the libretto from the novel?
different. The novel has many more dark moments, and the
character of Manon is, at certain moments, quite vile. That never
appears in the Opéra. It was softened to fit the
Opéra Comique. You know that when Carmen was given at the
Opéra Comique, there was tremendous objection to the fact that
someone was killed onstage. So there couldn’t
be something too tragic in Manon.
She dies, but she is not killed, and she is not seen in her worst
BD: So if Massenet
had been writing for the Opéra rather than the Opéra
Comique, would he have used more of the tragic elements?
MS: I do not know
whether it would have been desirable in any way. The opera is
extremely well-balanced the way it is.
BD: Is opera art or
is opera entertainment?
MS: I believe that it’s
both. I believe very deeply that it is art because opera is not
only what the singers do onstage; it is the ensemble. It is
possible to make a great art with the orchestration of an opera.
I have a recollection of Maurice Abravanel
conducting Roméo et Juliette
here at the Music Academy of the West. The very young and
brilliant performers in the orchestra were sometimes given to taking
the music a little lightly because they were only playing for an opera,
and I remember Maestro Abravanel becoming very stern and telling them, “Don’t
you realize that in one page of Roméo
et Juliette there is more music than in all your Scarlatti
BD: I hope they
then had more respect for the music in front of them.
MS: I think
so. I have had the great privilege to work with most of the great
conductors of my era, and I have seen how the music of an opera can be
made into something of the highest level of art. Then comes the
singer, and then it can be more entertainment and less art. Then
comes the stage director and more and more in our days the focus is
pushed to entertainment. It may be good in some way and
ridiculous in other ways.
BD: Is the stage
director taking too much upon himself?
MS: That depends on
the stage director. There is no doubt that he has become a much
more important person than he was 30 or 40 or 50 years ago. It
may be for the best. I can remember when I came to the Met in
1943, very little attention was paid to the staging. Some of the
sets were extremely shoddy, and the action was totally
uninteresting. People would move onstage according to a certain
rhythm, but without much purpose. It has been changed radically,
and that is for the best. There has been enormous improvement in
both the concept of the sets and their realization, and the lighting.
BD: Is this because
we now expect it, having enjoyed the cinema and TV where technical
advances are brought out all the time?
MS: That is the way
it should be. Opera should not stay behind the other media.
BD: Then opera is
not a museum?
MS: In a way it
is. There are two things — the original
text, and the interpretation. The original text should never be
changed, but the use made of it lends to a great number of
possibilities. And if the modern ways can be added to the old
traditions without destroying them, so much the better. But it is
a matter of individual taste.
BD: Are all the
operas in the standard repertoire masterpieces?
MS: The judge of
the value of an opera changes with the years. We are speaking of
Massenet, and they are now giving works by him which I had not even
heard of when I was a young, or even a middle-aged singer. I had
never heard of Cendrillon and
suddenly it is everywhere, so it must be better than people thought in
my time. I remember during one of my last years of activity, I
gave a recital in San Francisco, and the local critic came to my
dressing room afterward to inquire about Esclarmonde. It was going to
be given there the following season, and he asked me if I knew
it. I said that certainly I knew it — I
had sung the part of the Bishop. He asked me what it was like and
I said it was miserable, it was nothing. Well, Esclarmonde was given the next
season and was a great success, and the production was taken to the Met.
BD: Why did you
think it was a miserable opera?
MS: Because that
was how I felt when I was singing it. I thought that the music
had absolutely nothing new. It was something we knew about
Massenet, and the subject was ridiculous — once
more one of those enchantresses who take hold of a noble knight
— and all that seemed very
uninteresting to me.
BD: So was it a
mistake to bring it back, or did you find something new this time when
you heard it?
MS: No, it is the
type of opera that banks on one superstar.
|Who can be sure that some
day Massenet’s Hérodiade
will not make a triumphant comeback on some great operatic stage?
story, the score, and the staging require on the part of an opera
company an effort almost comparable to that of a production of Aïda,
and few ‘grand operas’
include so many spectacular arias for all of the principals in the cast
— tenor, soprano, baritone, contralto, and bass
— or such large choral
scenes and diversified dance interludes. When I sang
Hérode in the
early 1930s in France, I felt that I had to meet some of the most
exacting demands a composer can make on his interpreters. Shortly
afterward, the opera went into a coma from which it has as yet not
recovered. But other works of Massenet have known a similar fate,
are fully alive.
[From the book]
there operas languishing on library shelves which should be produced by
the major companies?
not a researcher, but there is one opera I would love to see brought to
America called Marouf (1914)
by Henri Rabaud (1873-1949). If I call Manon a masterpiece, then I would
call this one also a masterpiece. It is in a lighter vein, but
the music is lovely and the story is very nice.
BD: Let me ask
about one other Massenet role — Athanaël.
MS: Yes, that was
the role in which I made my debut at the Paris Opéra.
Think of that — I was two months out of the
conservatoire and they took the risk to give me the role of
Athanaël for my debut. I was all of twenty-six!
BD: It was a
Well, it happened to work. I like the part very much, but that is
another one I thought I would never see again when I came to America.
MS: Because I don’t
think it is a very good opera. As always in Massenet, there are
extremely good parts and extremely good scenes, but there is all the
music which is so cheap. However, the relationship between
Thaïs and Athanaël is very well treated and becomes very
moving. I saw the production in San Francisco and it was very
well given. The two principals were excellent, and the suggestion
by the sets was nice.
|The aria O mon miroir fedele from Thaïs
is a great showpiece, dangerous for a tasteless performer given to
exaggeration but perfect for a skillful, sensitive, and discriminating
[From the book]
Thinking of Thaïs, did you ever see Mary Garden onstage?
[See my article, Massenet, Mary Garden, and the Chicago
MS: Yes, once, in
1930 I believe. It was her last year at the Opéra Comique
and she was in Alfano’s Risurrezione (1904). I was a
student and I did not know who she was. I remember she was
wearing a flaming red wig and looked very small beside René
Maison. Later, I had the privilege to appear a few times at her
side during one of her several farewell tours in America. She was
lecturing and I had been hired to sing a Debussy group at
intermission. So I had the privilege of knowing her quite a bit,
and she was a very interesting person.
BD: Are you
optimistic about the future of opera?
MS: I think it is
in better shape in America now than at any time since I came in
1943. There are many more operas in many more places than before,
and there are more and more excellent young artists.
BD: Do you feel
that young artists today are more prepared than they were thirty or
forty or fifty years ago?
MS: It depends on
what you call preparation. Young American artists have always
been much better prepared in musical ability and intellectual knowledge
than any other artists. There is a primitive character of many
European singers, and American artists bring to the stage more
intellectuality. I don’t know whether that
is good for opera. What keeps me happy and alive is the fact that
I have been remarkably successful in inspiring young American singers
in my way of thinking.
= = =
= = = = = = = =
[Note: This issue of The
Massenet Newsletter contained both my
interview with Singher as well as the one with Bidú Sayão,
the following comment at the end...] These two interviews
with Bidú Sayão and Martial Singher are the first in a
which spotlights the earlier generation. It has been my very
great pleasure during the last few months to locate several of these
distinguished artists, contact them and arrange for a
conversation. I get very excited when this happens, and I hope
this enjoyment comes through in print. Next time, my
conversations with soprano Helen Jepson and
conductor Maurice Abravanel. Needless to say, I am very grateful
to the Massenet Society for allowing me to gather, prepare, and present
these bits of operatic history.
© 1985 Bruce Duffie
This conversation was recorded on the telephone on April 20,
1985. This transcription was made later that year, and published
in The Massenet Newsletter in
January, 1986. It was slightly re-edited, photos and links were
added, and it was posted on this
website in 2017. Because the sound on the tape was poor, I quoted
some of his responses when presenting programs of his artistry on WNIB
in 1989 and 1994.
To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been
transcribed and posted on this website, click here.
Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975
its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001. His
interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since
and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well
on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.
You are invited to visit his website
for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of
other interviews, plus a full list of his guests. He would also
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.