Tenor  Paul  Sperry

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


PAUL SPERRY is recognized as one of today’s outstanding interpreters of American music. Although he is equally at home in a repertoire that extends from Monteverdi opera and the Bach Passions to Britten’s "Nocturne" and hundreds of songs in more than a dozen languages, he brings to American music a conviction and an enthusiasm that has brought it to life for countless listeners.

Many of today’s leading composers have written works specially for him. Sperry has world premieres of works by more than thirty Americans to his credit. [A detailed list of the composers whose music Sperry has sung is in a box farther down on this webpage, along with links where I have done interviews.] He premiered Leonard Bernstein’s "Dybbuk Suite" with the composer conducting the New York Philharmonic, Jacob Druckman’s "Animus IV" for the opening of the Centre Georges Pompidou at Beaubourg in Paris in 1977, and Paul Sperry and Bernard Rands’ Pulitzer Prize winning "Canti del Sole" with the New York Philharmonic in l983 under Zubin Mehta

Because he is a passionate advocate for American music, Sperry has tried to ensure that many of the wonderful works he has unearthed will be easily available to others. To that end, he has compiled and edited several volumes of American songs, both anthologies and single composer collections for G. Schirmer, Peer-Southern, Boosey & Hawkes, Carl Fischer and Dover Publications. His collection American Encores was released by Oxford University Press in October, 2002. In 1989 he became the first non-composer to be elected president of the American Music Center, a national organization which provides information all over the world about American composers and their music. He held that position for three years and served seven years as Chairman of the Board of the American Composers Orchestra, the only orchestra in the world devoted to the performance of American Music.

Paul Sperry’s recordings of American music include five CDs of American song available on Albany Records, as well as numerous songs and chamber works available on DG, CRI, Crystal, Musical Heritage, Summit and Nonesuch Records; and he is one of four singers to have recorded the complete songs of Charles Ives for Albany Records. Other recordings include four releases on Zephyr records with pianist Ian Hobson.

He taught classes in song interpretation and performance at the Juilliard School from 1984-2007, where he created what may have been the country's first full-year course in American song. He also teaches courses in American song at the Manhattan School of Music in New York and in 19th and 20th century song at the Brooklyn College Conservatory of Music. In the summer he serves on the faculty of SongFest at Pepperdine, a festival in Malibu, California. Since 1987 he has been the Director of Joy In Singing, an organization dedicated to helping young singers and American composers. In the summer of 2006 he delivered the keynote address at the annual convention of the National Association of Teachers of Singer — his subject was the delights of singing new American music.

In 1991 Mr. Sperry created the vocal program at the Pacific Music Festival in Sapporo, Japan, and served as its director until 1997; while there he performed, taught master classes, gave private lessons and organized the recitals given by the Academy students. He is in demand for his master classes given at such prestigious institutions as the Eastman School of Music, the Peabody Institute, Oberlin College Conservatory of Music, the Cincinnati Conservatory, the Cleveland Institute of Music, the University of Southern California, Harvard and Yale.

Since 1987 Mr. Sperry has been the director of Joy In Singing, an organization devoted to helping young singers. Under their auspices, he gives an annual series of master classes in New York City from which the best students compete for the Joy In Singing Award: a series of concerts leading to a New York City debut recital. Joy In Singing also sponsors an annual concert celebrating one or more American composers.

Born in Chicago on April 14, 1934, Mr. Sperry graduated from Harvard College and continued his studies at the Sorbonne in Paris. He worked extensively with such masters of art-song interpretation as Pierre Bernac, Paul Ulanowsky and Jennie Tourel.

==  This bio was put together from items on his official website.  

In March of 1989, Paul Sperry was at the University of Chicago to perform music of Robert Beaser with the Contemporary Chamber Players.  The work was Songs from the Occasions, which, according to the tenor,
“Is a setting of six poems by Eugenio Montale.  Beaser sets the first and last in English, the rest in Italian.  His music is tonal, but the pieces are complex and anything but a return to the 19th century.  The fifth song in B-flat minor invokes Tosca, possibly because Montale was an opera critic, but none of the others carries such obvious connotations, at least not to me.  The piece packs a wallop and audiences love it, unless they are died in the wool serialists.  Sperry speaks more about this work and its composer later in the interview.

His schedule in Chicago was tight, but he graciously allowed me to speak with him for a few minutes on the day before the performance.

Knowing his propensity for new music, I began with the obvious question . . . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:   Why contemporary music?  Why not all Schubert?

Paul Sperry:   There are lots of ways to talk about that.  The first is that all Schubert is not financially possible.  As my European manager once put it simply and succinctly, you could only sing songs for money if you’re world famous, and you can’t get world famous singers to sing songs.

BD:   [Laughs]  So, the original catch-22.

PS:   I didn’t feel, at that time, vocally or temperamentally suited for opera.

BD:   Why not?

PS:   The voice was small and my high notes weren’t secure.  The kind of things that you need to be competitive were not my strengths.  My strengths didn’t do me much good in opera.

sperry BD:   Then what are your strengths?

PS:   My strengths are musical and textual.  I pride myself in that perhaps I’m smarter than some of my colleagues, or perhaps I’m interested in different things.  But I discovered, or I assumed, that the things other people love about the opera
getting into costumes and make-up, and playing somebody elseis just what I don’t like.  Personally, I like having it all to myself.  I don’t like to have a director telling me how I ought to stand or move, and I don’t like a conductor waiving a stick in my face, telling me that his ideas are right, musically.  I like to make my own decisions, and work in a chamber music atmosphere.  That’s what I enjoy most.  I adore the song repertory.  If there had been a career truly made strictly as a song singer, I probably would have done it, and never gotten into contemporary music... except that I was also interested in American song, and most American song is relatively new.  So, I would have gotten into it that way.  But I got into it at first as a career decision, suggested by my manager.  Like everybody else, I went, Contemporary music???  Yuck!  Then I commissioned Bruno Maderna, and discovered that he wrote a perfectly wonderful piece and I loved it.  I also found that it was great fun to work with the composer, and as I got into more and more of it, I discovered how exciting it was.  Sure, I’ve done several pieces that I never want to do again, but so what?  If you’re any kind of a performer with any curiosity at all, you’re bound to get into that situation, and the fact that every new piece isn’t wonderful shouldn’t be held against the profession in general, or any composer in particular.  There’s a lot of dreary Beethoven.  We just don’t play it anymore.

BD:   But it had to be played to be discovered that it was dreary?

PS:   Of course, and there’s almost nothing but dreary Baroque
if you want my opinion.  I would infinitely rather hear a second-rate new piece than a second-rate Baroque piece.  I’ve heard too many of them.  I know exactly what’s going to happen, and it doesn’t interest me.

BD:   What is it about a piece, new or old, that grabs you and makes you want to perform it again and again?

PS:   The emotional kick.  I’m not nearly as drawn to music that takes a great deal of intellectual study to figure it out.

BD:   Do you mean on your part or on the part of the audience?

PS:   On my part as a listener.  I like music that goes right at my emotions.  That’s why my heart was always in Nineteenth Century music.  I am much more drawn to Bellini than Bach, although I’m perfectly aware that Bach was a much greater composer.  It doesn’t say anything about my predilections.  I don’t turn on Bach for pleasure very often, but I will turn on I Puritani over and over again.

BD:   So did you specifically search out the Bellini songs?

PS:   No, because as a performer, I take a somewhat unorthodox view.  Besides, I don’t think the Bellini songs are his best things by a long shot.  If I could play the piano, I would want to play Chopin, and if I had a voice for Verdi, then I would want to sing him.  But I don’t have a voice for Verdi, and nothing else interests me that much.  So, I don’t miss it.  I can listen to the music that I adore, and envy them, and sing it in the shower, but I don’t go after it professionally.  I have been fortunate in that I am suited to sing a great deal of the music that is my particular favorite
Schubert, Poulenc, Schumann, Brahms, Wolf, and tons of Americans where I have created their songs, or found their songs when they had lapsed into total obscurity.  That’s a lot of fun.  Whether I’m singing Theodore Chanler, or Richard Hundley, or Paul Bowles, or Arthur Farwell, or what have you, I’m pounding the drum for American music because I think it’s wonderful.  I feel that I’m doing something that I do better than other peoplenot better than everybody, but it’s where I feel that I really have something special to offer.  More performers should try to focus on what they can and can’t do, and try to perform what they can, and leave what they can’t to somebody else.  I sang Don Ottavio [in Don Gioanni by Mozart] once.  It was a pretty reasonable Don Ottavio, and there are 150 tenors around who sing perfectly reasonable Don Ottavio.  I don’t want to be one of 150.  Conversely, there aren’t 150 tenors around who can handle Canti del Sole by Bernard Rands, and make it sound like the great piece of music that it is.  I don’t want it to be my exclusive property, by any means.  I would love to find that there were about bunch of people out there doing it.  So far, I’ve heard of three other tenors doing it, and two of them were apparently disasters, and one of them was terrific.  So I’d rather be one of two or three for the moment, and let other people’s technique and understanding catch up with mine, and put my performing abilities at the service of what I can really do special justice to.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   You mentioned several composers who are now gone, but you especially like to work with living composers, and creating new works.

PS:   Oh, yes.

This is a list of the American composers whose music has been sung by Paul Sperry.
* indicates Sperry sang a premiere;  ** indicates works were written for and premiered by Sperry
§ indicates interviews by BD yet to be transcribed and posted

Names which are links in this box (and both above and below on this webpage) refer to my interviews elsewhere on my website.  BD

David Amram 
Dominick Argento 
Harold Arlen 
Daniel Asia
Frederick Ayres 
Victor Babin** 
Ernst Bacon 
Samuel Barber 
Amy Chaney Beach 
Robert Beaser*

Christopher Berg 
Arthur Berger 
Irving Berlin 
Leonard Bernstein 
William Billings 
Susan Blaustein 
Marc Blitzstein 
William Bolcom** 
Carrie Jacobs Bond 
Victoria Bond 
Alla Borzova 
Paul Bowles 
Daniel Brewbaker 
Claire Brook
Dudley Buck 
Abe Burrows 
Ronald Caltabiano**
Hoagy Carmichael 
John Alden Carpenter 
Elliott Carter 
Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco 
George Chadwick  

Theodore Chanler 
Paul Chihara
Thomas Cipullo** 
George M. Cohan 
Robert Convery 
Aaron Copland 
John Corigliano 
Henry Cowell 
Ruth Crawford 
Richard Cumming 
Nathan Currier** 

Norman Dello Joio  
David Diamond 
Lucia Dlugoszewski 
Celius Dougherty 
Jacob Druckman** 
John Duke 
Vernon Duke 
Arthur Farwell 
Irving Fine 
William Flanagan 
Arthur Foote 
Stephen Foster 
Charles Fussell** 
George Gershwin 
Gordon Getty 
Miriam Gideon 
Henry F. Gilbert 
Philip Glass 
Charles T. Griffes
John Gruen 
Louis Gruenberg 
Daron Hagen**
Charles Harris 
Lou Harrison 
Victor Herbert 
Lee Hoiby 
Richard Hoyt 
Richard Hundley 
Chester Ide 
Charles Ives 
Jerome Kern 
William Kraft** 
Meyer Kupferman

Libby Larsen 
Tom Lehrer 
David Leisner 
Marvin David Levy

Frank Loesser  
Lowell Liebermann  
Edwin London  
Harvey  W. Loomis 

Joel Mandelbaum 
Edward MacDowell 
Paul Moravec

Lawrence Moss
John Musto**

Ethelbert Nevin 
Robert Paterson 
Stephen Paulus

Daniel Pinkham
Russell Platt** 
Raoul Pleskow 
Cole Porter 
Bernard Rands** 
Paul Reif 
Vittorio Rieti  
Richard Rodgers 
Robert Rodriguez*
Ned Rorem 
Peter Sacco 
Gregory Sandow 
Ruth Schonthal 
Gunther Schuller 
William Schuman 
David Sisco 
Larry Alan Smith** 
Edwin Soule 
William Grant Still 
John Philip Sousa 
John Stromberg 
Warren Swenson 
Louise Talma** 
Virgil Thomson 
Francis Thorne** 
Nicholas Thorne 
Lester Trimble 
Harry von Tilzer 
Ben Weber
Kurt Weill 
Hugo Weisgall 
Dan Welcher**
Richard Wilson
Maury Yesten 
Judith Lang Zaimont
Among the non-American composers are Hans Werner Henze**,  Peter Jona Korn**,  Bruno Maderna**,  Philip Martin**

sperry BD:   Tell me what is special about working with a composer as the song is being fashioned.

PS:   I’m not sure that I really get much into that.  Most composers hand you a finished product, or an almost finished product.  Around fifteen years ago or so, Bill Bolcom wrote me a wonderful piece called Open House, and at his request I wrote him a very detailed letter of what I could and couldn’t do at the time
which notes I thought were good, and which notes I felt were less good.  He said, Gee, I never had such an honest statement in my life from a singer.  Then he started composing the piece and lost the letter.  When the score came, it was just terrifying, and I called him up and asked what was going on.  He told me that he had lost the letter, so then he started rewriting it because if he put in a lot of things that I wasn’t going to do well, neither one of us was going to sound any good.  He’s smart enough to see that.  So there are alternate notes in the score, and that’s perfectly fine with me.  Sometimes a composer hands me something and I say, This really doesn’t work right here.  In this piece of Robert Beaser that I’m going tomorrowwhich I’m so mad abouthe makes mistakes in Italian.  He was living in the American Academy in Rome, and his Italian’s pretty good, but he made some mistakes.  Montale’s language is very recherché [exquisite, refined], and Beaser had an edition perhaps with an accent missing, or something like that.  We had to go back through it, and I had to say this doesn’t do it.  He asked how he could pull it off and put the accent on the right syllable, so I tried various things, and we rewrote it in two or three spots.

BD:   You were really just talking about details, not the shape?

PS:   Details, yes.  I’m not a composer.  I don’t have an ounce of compositional skill or curiosity.  I don’t want to try my hand at that.  I’m no good at it.  I can tell that without ever trying to pick up a pencil.

BD:   But you can tell a composer what will and will not work?

PS:   Not necessarily.  I can tell them what I can do and can’t do, and I can make suggestions about something that I think is particularly ingratiating or not.  I can tell them that I’m going to get swamped at this point, and he believes it or he doesn’t.  There are some composers who insist that it can all be taken care of in performance, and if they’re sure of it, okay, and sometimes they’re right and sometimes they’re wrong.

BD:   I often ask composers how much interpretative latitude they expect.  So, from a performer’s standpoint, especially in a new piece, how much interpretive latitude do you feel you can get away with, or how much do you insist upon?

PS:   I don’t insist upon anything.  I start out trying to learn the score at the tempi that are suggested.  If there are metronome marks, I’ll try and learn it with the metronome marks that are there.  But it depends on the particular composer.  If Louise Talma writes 88, she doesn’t mean 92.  I’ve done her songs with her at the piano, and she means 88.  She hits 88 every time, and when I try push her to 92, I don’t get anywhere.  With another pianist, I might do it at 92, but if she’s that precise about what she wants, I try to respect it.  There are other composers who don’t care what you do.  Ned Rorem is one of them.  He’s told me to just go and do it.  I try, at least when I’m learning, to be as precise as possible.  Then I take an attitude that was well summed up by Neely Bruce, who was wonderful performer, composer, conductor, and specialist in American music.  He said,
You’ve got to approach American music with a hands-on attitude.  You don’t leave it alone, and certainly if I’m doing earlier music, turn-of-the-century stuff, which I do a lot of, if you do what’s on the page, it’s going to be boring as all get out, because that was a period in which performers were expected to own the piece, and to start it any old way they chose.  Listen to the records, and you find that they even rewrote them.  One of my favorite songs of Ethelbert Nevin has a marvelous and totally unexpected harmonic shock in the postlude.  But when Alma Gluck and Louise Homer recorded it as a duet, they took it out.

78 rpm duet

Single-sided 10" 78rpm, Victrola 87110, recorded on April 12, 1912 (matrix B-11869-1; Homer ends on B resolves to C), and later Victor 87525, recorded on May 21, 1914 (matrix B-11869-3; Homer ends on C).  The duet was later paired with the duet
Long Long Ago by Bayly (with the same two artists) as a double-sided 10" Victor 3001, which was originally a single-sided 10", 87267, recorded on September 25, 1916 (matrix B-18396-1)  Each was recorded with orchestra, and was listed at $1.50 in some catalogues, and re-issued often.

BD:   So you put it back?

PS:   Oh, sure.  I did the original, but I mess around with the tempo.  I do a lot of rubato.  It’s a shock to find how polite we are nowadays, and how much latitude there is between what we do and what would be considered vulgar in the style of the turn of the century.  But if I’m talking about neo-classisists, I’ve got to be different.  If you take Stravinsky, you can’t mess around with the crispness of his articulation.  Otherwise, the piece falls into the ground as there’s nothing left.  That’s the life blood of it, so you’ve got to have a certain amount of sense about what this music is about.  Is it about a tune?  Is it about rhythms?  Is it about words?  Is a particular string of pitches a necessity, or is it a musical gesture?  In some very difficult atonal pieces there are rapid strings of pitches.  Sometimes I stop worrying
I’ll start in the right place and end up in the right place.  I did that once in one of Bolcom’s pieces, and he said, Don’t worry about it too much.  I had to put something down.  It is a very rapid gesture that went up, so what difference does it make what those three pitches are in between?  You can’t hear them.

BD:   [Gently protesting]  Yet there are going to be so many kids in school who are going to be slavishly spending hours in the practice room getting those exact pitches and the exact tempo.

PS:   It’s certainly possible.  I would love to think that there were tons of students who would learn any of this music, but I’m not convinced of that.  At that point, Bolcom would have done himself a favor if he’d put it in Sprechstimme notes, or suggested pitches, instead of written as exact pitches.  He does that many other times.

BD:   Then would we have gotten notes, or would it just have been a smear?

PS:   Not necessarily.  If you sing words at a very high speed you’ll get [demonstrates].  I get the G on top, and nothing else really matters.  It can’t come as a smear because there are too many consonants.  It has to come out clear.

BD:   Do you work particularly hard at your diction to make sure people get all these words?

PS:   Yes.  The words are fifty per cent of the business, and probably why the composer set out to write the song in the first place.  There are some composers who don’t want to work with words.  They want to write music for voice, but they distort the words and destroy the words because they really don’t want to deal with the words, or because they don’t want the words to matter.  They want the sense behind the words to matter, and that’s what Philip Glass is doing with Satyagraha.  It’s in Sanskrit because that’s an appropriate language, but also so you don’t have to confront the emotion of the fact that this line is more telling than that line.  It all disappears into syllables that nobody can understand, so he can take the syllables and turn it into trance-music instead of declamation.

sperry BD:   Is this something you could do, whether it falls into your fach or not?

PS:   I was the runner-up for the part.  I’m not sure I wanted it because I was terrified of how hard it would be to memorize.  The memory is not usually my problem but that kind of repetition would demand it.

BD:   Have a little counter in your hand.  [Both laugh]

PS:   Yes, it’s really rough.  Doug Perry was spectacular in the part, but I felt that’s not what I like best.  I don’t like singing without words.  I never have, and I don’t much enjoy the school that fragments them.  I’ve done a piece by Druckman which, again, was not words, but it was suggestions and syllables and such that the moods were terribly clear, so you could play the theater of it without the actual words, and that’s fine.  That was terrific fun and I enjoyed that a lot.

BD:   Do you ever sing any songs in translation, or do you provide translations for the audience?

PS:   I usually just provide translations.  As far as I know, I haven’t sung anything in translation.

BD:   You don’t believe in translating songs?

PS:   Not really.  I like learning the other languages, or at least learning to pronounce them, and I feel that the word-rhythms are so important that they rarely are going to sound the same way in another language if the composer was good at setting words.

BD:   Is that also true in opera, or is that a different beast?

PS:   For me that’s a different beast.  In a concert hall you can have the lights up high enough so that you can follow the words.  If you do that in an opera house you lose all the illusion.  I’m all for supertitles, or the vernacular, particularly for comedy.  Comedy translates very well, and sure, something is lost but on the other hand, if it’s not sung in the vernacular, usually the audience is lost, and I would rather lose a little bit of the value there for the theater.  In a song recital, your theatrical moment rarely lasts more than three minutes, so if I get somewhere and there aren’t any translations in the program
because they were too cheap to print them, or they got lost in the mailthen I talk from the stage.

BD:   You just speak the translations?

PS:   I paraphrase something so that they’re not in the dark about what’s going on, because it’s totally frustrating when they are lost.  I once went to Russia and sang Canti del Sole with the Moscow Philharmonic.  That’s in German, French, Italian and English, and they refused to print any information about it.

BD:   [Genuinely shocked]  Why???

PS:   [Matter-of-factly]  They don’t do that.

BD:   It seems rather closed-minded to bring you all the way over there, and not give you what you need.

PS:   That’s right, but they also give away enormous blocks of tickets to people that don’t use them, so there are people outside trying to get in, and half the hall is empty.  So what they do and don’t do is not the greatest, but I was particularly frustrated over the issue with the translations, and so was the conductor.  They wouldn’t even print the original texts, and we provided them!  All they would have to do is xerox the copies.  It was not a big deal, or I would have brought xeroxed copies.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Let me ask the big philosophical question.  What is the purpose of music in society?

PS:   [Thinks a moment]  When you say music, there’s always music.  People sing and people dance.  If you’re talking about the little corner of music that I’m in
the so-called serious music, classical musicwhatever name you give it, it’s a mistake.

sperry BD:   Even concert music?

PS:   [Somewhat scornfully]  Concert music???  There are Rock concerts, too.  What makes our music different?  Is it music that will stick around for a while, music that has a certain compositional thought and tradition behind it?  That’s a very hard question to answer.  When I left the Real Estate business to try and sing, I thought at least I’ll be doing something useful for society in my life.  I’ve commissioned pieces and I’ve premiered pieces.  I have a great long big list of them [shown above], and when I think over how many people’s lives it has touched, I can’t answer that.  But I can give you a recent example about a man who was my finance professor when I went to business school.  He’s now retired and he’s a perfectly wonderful man.  We stayed good friends over the years, and I just sang in Miami, so he drove over with his wife and came to hear the concert.  I was singing Flanders & Swann cabaret songs, of which I am very partial.  It was a program about animals, and the second half of the concert was the Trout Quintet.  About ten minutes after the end of the concert I found him, and he was in tears.  He was just taken to pieces by the performance.  Now this is a man in his late 70s or early 80s, and he wrote me a letter a couple of weeks later thanking me for the ticket, saying he enjoyed the Flanders & Swann, and even more for having the opportunity to hear that performance of the Trout.  It was certainly a piece he’d heard before, but somehow he said it opened something in him, and subsequent to that, he’s been listening to music in an entirely different way, and getting so much more out of it.  He opened up even to the Gershwin Rhapsody in Blue, which came on the radio the next day, saying that he’d heard it a hundred times, but now was
with it in a new way.  How can one deny the importance of something that can produce that kind of emotion in somebody who has basically lived with it all his life, but still has that power?  We may not be able to articulate what it is, but people who have written about the impact of Mozart on their livesor Schubert, or Verdi, or hopefully Bernard Rands, or Ralph Shapeyhave said that the capacity to strive for values which we would consider in some way timeless, or in some way more important than three minutes of entertainment, stirs you in a way that poem will.  Sometimes you encounter that in music.  It reveals something about the world to you, or it simply transports you, or it entertains you.  I have nothing against being entertaining.  I don’t like to think of the concert hall as a surrogate for church.  I think of it as a place that ought to supply all those things.  In the concert we’re going to do tomorrow, Steve Reichs Vermont Counterpoint is a very entertaining piece.  It’s delightful.  The piece that I’m doing is extraordinarily moving and gorgeous in an old-time sense of that word.  It’s harmonically lush and it’s tonal.  Its got a movement in B-flat minor, which is the closest that I’m ever going to come to Tosca!  It’s a wonderful piece of music by a young composer named Robert Beaser, and its thoroughly persuasive.  The players love it and the audiences love it.  I can’t speak for the Shulamit Ran piece (which I have not yet heard), but I have heard her other music, and there’s a tremendous intellect at the work, as well as the terrific musical gift.  She writes music that’s bursting with energy and has very different styles.  That’s what’s exciting about American music today is that there are all these styles co-existing, and people drawing in such different ways.

BD:   I’m glad that you’re able to articulate the way you view all of this.

PS:   At times, as a performer I despair.  So what if I introduce ten more people in my lifetime to Schubert.  They knew it before.  The world is falling apart around us.  We
re destroying the ozone layer, and doing all kinds of terrible things to the ecology of the planet, and we may blow each other up, and every place you look people are murdering each other off... and I’m singing songs!

BD:   [Being eternally optimistic]  Maybe one of those songs will touch the right person and the right heart.

PS:   Yeah, I doubt that!   But I guess the feeling that, well, we remember past civilizations because of their arts and crafts, and somewhat for their belief structure if we have enough for the anthropologists to reconstruct it.  The commercial products and all the things that we spend most of our time at, are not what come down through the ages... except for artefacts like arrowheads and pots, and things of that sort which are utilitarian.

sperry BD:   Thinking about the music that you perform, assuming that civilization lasts, do you expect that this music, all these pieces will last?

PS:   All of them?  Surely not.

BD:   Some of them?

PS:   I hope so.  I’ve done pieces that I think are pretty special.  I’ve been very fortunate, even though I’ve done some pieces I think are perfectly dreadful.

BD:   You have commissioned a number of composers.  How do you decide which composers you will commission and which ones you’ll maybe wait until next year?

PS:   It’s generally been people whose music I like.  A couple of times a composer has come to me and said,
I want to write you a piece.  Then the grant that he was expecting didn’t come through, and he needed some money to finish it, so I’ve contributed.  Other times I’ve commissioned something outright.  Sometimes people write pieces for me and just say, Please come and do my piece.  There are all kinds of different ways in which this happens, but I haven’t commissioned anybody where I didn’t think I was going to end up with something I’d want to do.

BD:   Do you perform these works again, or do you set them aside after the premiere?

PS:   I don’t deal with the commissioned pieces any differently than the pieces that weren’t commissioned.  I have a long repertoire of new pieces and new songs, and if I really love a piece I’ll try to sell it anywhere I can.  If I believe in a composer, I’ll talk about my piece and everybody else’s piece.  I don’t have the opportunity to program, and I don’t have my own orchestra or my own chamber ensemble.  The only place where the choice is mine is in a song recital.  There I do some of the new American songs that I think are wonderful, but I don’t want to sing only new music.  So, song recitals are where I also sing a lot of other things that I’m crazy about.

BD:   Can I assume that on any song recital you’re involved in, you’ll make sure there is some new music?

PS:   Not necessarily.  It depends on where I’m doing it, and for whom.  My favorite language to sing in is English, so if I’m going to do a varied program, then there’s likely to be something that’s new because all American music is new... say from the 1930s on.  But an awful lot of that sounds like music which was written in the Nineteenth Century.  An awful lot of song writers are Derrière Guard, and that’s fine with me.  I don’t demand that new music be far-out to be attractive.  I like it to be attractive.  I was a listener first, then I’ve been a performer, and I have difficulty with music that’s going to take twenty times before you can find anything to like about it.  If it takes time and effort, I’m not likely to put it in.

BD:   What do you expect of the audience that comes to a concert of yours?

PS:   I expect they’re going to have a good time.

BD:   Do they usually?

PS:   They always do!  There may be some people who don’t like my voice, and that’s perfectly their prerogative.  But if I put a program together, they’re going to enjoy the program.  I’ve never had anybody come and say that was a terrible program.  I’m really good at that, and when I go out with the new pieces, the ones that I push hard for are generally ones that satisfy me, which means that I get an emotional kick out of them, and therefore I think the listener is going to, too.  I don’t care what the idiom is.  I don’t care if it’s tonal, or atonal, or serial, or anything else as long as it delivers an emotional wallop of some sort or another.  The public will respond.  I find the only place the public really gets turned off is if the appeal of the music is totally cerebral.  We are too accustomed to the Nineteenth Century values.  That’s going back a long way in music.  You can say that the Eighteenth Century music is much more formal than the Nineteenth Century, and it probably is.  Mozart would not have thought of himself as an emotional composer in a way that Liszt would have, or the break-out kind of writing that Schumann was doing.  That wasn’t the reason for writing.  This whole exalting of emotional values comes with the Romantic movement, but it is very easy to detect the moods in Mozart.  There are some composers of the last fifty years where it’s very hard to know what they’re after.  Other people have no difficulty.  Fortunately it’s like horse racing
you don’t have to like everything.  I’ve done some music that I don’t like...

BD:   When do you discover that you don’t like it
after you’ve performed it a couple of times, and then you drop itor do you know earlier than that?

PS:   I would hesitate to decide that I didn’t like it before the performance.  I don’t think that’s fair.  I sometimes get hired to do a concert, and on it I am told I have to do a certain new piece.  Then I get the piece in the mail, and I like it or I don’t.  That’s happened a few times, or something about the work turns out to be no pleasure.  When you’re starting out you take anything that comes along.  Now I’m a little bit fussier.  If a composer sends me a piece, or says he’d love to write me a piece, if I’ve heard of other pieces of those composers and don’t like them I’m likely to try and wiggle out of it because I don’t want to spend an enormous amount of time on something that isn’t going to be roaring.

BD:   But you’ve basically been pleased with the music you’ve been sent and the music you commissioned?

PS:   Oh, I’ve been very, very fortunate.  There are only about two or three pieces that I would really say I don’t want to do again, and out of fifty, or whatever it’s been, that’s pretty good.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   You’ve made a number of recordings.  Are you basically pleased with them?

PS:   Yes, and no.  We’re never pleased because we learn how to do something better, and we wish we had another chance at it.  But the recordings, in so far as they go, were representative of what I could do at the time I made them.  The recording of Canti del Sole is a good performance of the piece [photo of LP jacket is shown farther down on this webpage].  I probably could have given it better in a live performance because I enjoy live performance very much, much more than I do recording.  Getting worked up enough to deliver what the piece has emotionally is hard when it’s getting chopped up, and it’s hard when there aren’t any people there.  But it’s a good recording, and on the whole I’m satisfied with the recordings I’ve made... but I don’t listen to them, so I can’t tell.

sperry BD:   Do you sing differently in the recording studio than you do on the concert platform?

PS:   I don’t think so.  Maybe with a little more energy on the concert platform because when you set out, you know how much you’re going to sing.  When you go into the studio, you know that you may be there for four hours, or, in the case of recording a scene from Stockhausen’s opera, eleven hours in two days.  That exhausting.  You cannot pour it all on the way you would in a performance.  A recital has maybe sixty-five or seventy minutes of music in it, and that’s all, so you can put it out there for sixty or seventy minutes.

BD:   You can pace yourself for exactly that?

PS:   Yes, and you’ll have plenty of adrenaline left for another twenty if you get that many encores!  [Laughs]  But when you’re doing it in the studio, there’s this nagging thing about it having to be right.  It doesn’t only have to be good, but it has to be right.  It has to be correct, and that’s very irritating.  I remember doing a recording with Gerard Schwarz [shown at left].  We did this silly little piece for tenor and trumpet by Josef Berg, who’s a Czech.  It’s a whole opera for tenor, trumpet and two radio announcers.  It’s a very funny, dadaesque piece.  Gerry was opting for the most correct, but little bit less-energetic takes, because he says when you listen to it, the wrong notes are going to drive you up the wall.  And he’s probably right.  I knew just where I cracked on the live performance, and I go back and wince every time it comes through because you can’t do that on a record.  So you’ve got to be just that little bit more cautious.  You don’t take the risk that could make it transcendent.  It’s frustrating in a sense.

BD:   Do you get a more bland performance?

PS:   I think so.  I’ve always thought that records are a blessing and curse, and that people who grow up with the perfection of recorded performance are missing what’s really exciting about music-making, which is that you can miss.  If you go to a concert, the reason people have always liked the flashy Paganini encores and the dazzling coloratura pyrotechnics is because they’re waiting for someone to fall off the high wire.  Will he really play all those notes again?  That kind of tension is a very important part of performing, and it’s lost when you listen to records.

BD:   Do you have to overcome this?  Is your audience expecting the same kind of technical perfection that they get on the records when they come to concerts?

PS:   Yes, they are, and it’s an unfortunate thing.  Maybe the more sophisticated ones in the audience aren’t, but...

BD:   Should put a little disclaimer in the program notes
like on the side of a cigarette packwarning that this performance is not a recording?

PS:   It would be a nice thought.  Too many people have given up, and have just gone into the slightly safer mode of performing.  That’s a shame, but there’s an awful lot of bland music being made, and I try not to do it.  If I really think a note should be delivered pianissimo
and that’s very chancyI’ll risk it.  Sometimes I’ll miss, or I’ll blow it wide open.  Who knows?

BD:   Are you a renegade?

PS:   [Laughs]  No, a lot of performers feel the same way, that overall in the concert hall the audience forgives you for a whole lot.

BD:   It’s gone in a flash, and they’re caught up in the emotion.

PS:   That’s right, and if you’re so safe that you’ve lost the emotion, then too bad.  The only thing that I resent in a concert hall when I’m listening, is being bored.  I don’t want to be bored, and I’ll forgive them the wrong notes.  If he or she’s got something to say, I’m perfectly happy to sit through the inevitable mistakes that will happen.  I can only remember hearing perfection a couple of times.  It was impressive the first time I heard Joan Sutherland.  She did it just the way it sounded on the records, so for all I know the records were all one-take.  [Laughs]  The lady doesn
t miss.  Mirella Freni didn’t miss when I went to her recital, and I don’t think Clara Haskil missed.  Clara Haskil’s playing of Mozart was so transcendently wonderful that I don’t remember if she missed any notes or not.  All I know is that I never heard Mozart played like that, and I probably never will again.

BD:   But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go to somebody else’s concert of the same piece, does it?

PS:   Oh, no!  I just remember walking out of the concert hall, and thinking I just heard something perfect by Clara Haskil.  I couldn’t imagine that Mozart could be more gloriously played.

BD:   If you heard a tape that was made of that concert, I wonder if it would make the same impact.

PS:   I don’t have any idea, but it was partly the way Clara Haskil looked.  I’d never heard of Clara Haskil, and it was the first time I’d heard her.  I went to a concert with my brother.  He was stationed in the army in Germany.  I was a student in Europe, staying over the summer, and I went to visit him.  We drove to Salzburg, and they had these two unknown people on the morning concert.  One was Rita Streich, and the other was Clara Haskil.  Rita Streich came out and she was very good.  Then this crippled old lady came walking out on stage for the Mozart C Minor Concerto, and I thought,
Oh my God!  This is going to be a catastrophe.  She’s so frail that she won’t be able to do anything.  She spent the whole long orchestral introduction with a handkerchief in her hands, wringing her hands, rubbing her hands with the handkerchief.  I was sitting there thinking this is going to be ghastly.  Then she put the handkerchief inside the piano, and hit the first few notes, and I felt like an electric shock had gone through me.  I looked at my brother wondering what this was.  It was just astounding, and every time I heard her, it was astounding.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Let’s talk a little bit about the Stockhausen opera.   You were in the premiere of Donnerstag aus Licht?

sperry PS:   One thing that was fascinating about working on Donnerstag was that I went to stay with Stockhausen for ten days as he was writing the last scene, which was scored for solo tenor, trumpet, dancer, electric organ.  That’s all, and it lasts twenty-five minutes.  He has very specific ideas.  He’s an enormously intelligent and interesting man, very charming, and also very dogmatic.  The thing that was frustrating about it is music hits him with incredible difficulty, because the three people have to be in total synchronization.  There’s no conductor.  The tempi have to be picked out of the air, and they have to be together.  So, I found myself in a funny position.  Music is terribly effective, and at the same time, I wasn’t contributing anything towards making it effective.  All I could do was to get it right.  If I get it right, it’s going to work, and if I don’t get it right, it’s going to come apart.  It was terribly frustrating to work like that, because I don’t think that’s what my strong suit is.  I’m not an automaton, and I don’t tend to do things exactly the same way every time.

BD:   Did you feel you were in a straight-jacket?

PS:   I felt absolutely that way, and so it made the performance of the music not as enjoyable as listening to the music.  That’s the only time I had that experience.

BD:   Was it worth the effort, though, because the performance came off well?

PS:   It was fascinating. I’m thrilled that I had the opportunity, and it was fascinating to work with him.  He is unique, he’s brilliant.  Working at La Scala was an enormous thrill, and a totally unexpected one from somebody who wasn’t singing opera.  All my opera friends are struggling away at regional theaters in Germany, and there was I going to La Scala.  That’s pretty fun, and was all terrific.  I should say it wasn’t all terrific because there was a strike that canceled five of the eight performances, and there was an awful lot of tension and bad will over that.  It was a chorus strike, and so it only affected Act 3, which was the only act I was in.  They went on with Acts 1 and 2, and then on the night that I was supposed to be having my La Scala debut, I was sitting in the audience, which was one of the most depressing days of my life.  But there were wonderful things about it and, when I finally went on, it was exciting.

BD:   You sing all over the world.  Do you adjust your vocal technique at all for the size of the house?

PS:   No.

BD:   Not at all?

PS:   I don’t have a huge voice.

BD:   So you just sing?

PS:   I sing!  I find you can’t really change how you do it.  If I’m going to come out and sing Erlkönig in a living room, there’s no way that I can deliver less than what the music asks just because I’m in a smaller room.  Then, if they’re too close to it, that’s their tough luck.

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

PS:   I’m sure they are, but I have never sung the same program over and over again.  I always try to arrange the program to be something that I think will suit the environment, or will make a pedagogical point that I’m trying to make if I’m going to a university.

BD:   Are you conscious of the audience while you’re singing, or it is before when you do the planning?

PS:   Both!  I remember going on a little tour with the Netherlands Wind Ensemble doing performances of Bruno Maderna’s Boswell
s Journal in German, which is a very funny piecealmost kitsch, really, very silly and a lot of fun to do.  The first night we did it in Groningen in the north of Holland, which is a university town, in a small space.  They were roaring with laughter through the whole piece, and leaped to their feet and gave us a standing ovation at the end.  It was really wonderful, and I thought that Holland is the best place in the world to be.  The next night we went to Scheveningen, which is a resort for the elderly, and the average age in the audience was ninety-four.  I found myself encountering total silence as I was trying to do this funny piece.  I found myself muggingtrying to get some response out of the audiencebut they hated it!  Clearly they hated it, and the applause afterwards was [demonstrates slow, boring applause].  So, I wasn’t so sure about Holland anymore!  [Both laugh]  Since then, if I program comedywhich I do a great dealif it’s not getting the expected laughs, then drop it.  You can’t try to be funny.

sperry BD:   In general, though, is singing fun?

PS:   Oh, yes, absolutely.  Is there any question about that?

BD:   There shouldn’t be, but occasionally I’ve been told it is more work than fun.

PS:   For me, it’s more fun than work, otherwise I wouldn’t do it!  [Both laugh]  There’s an old and delightful dirty joke that I always tell to my classes when that question comes up.  It concerns a man who’s about to set off on a lengthy cruise with his girlfriend.  He goes into the local drug store and buys himself a box of contraceptives and a supply of Dramamine, and the druggist says,
“If it makes you sick, don’t do it!  [More laughter]  That’s my feeling about singingit had better be fun, because for most of us it isn’t remunerative enough.  There is no great prestige or reward in it.  There aren’t many Pavarottis in a generation, so you don’t become a household word.  If you’re interested in the kind of music that I am, you are likely to be performing for modest-sized audiences for modest fees, and your satisfaction had better be from doing it.

BD:   Do you want to be a household name?

PS:   Who doesn’t?  Sure!  I would love to, and then I could go out and do fifty recitals a year of all the music that I love best.  There are so few recitals in the world available to anybody now.  I have a list longer than both arms of pieces I would love to be sharing my particular thoughts with everybody.  Why not?  We all have this desire as part of our egos, and if you don’t have an ego, you’re not in this profession in the first place.  I think that I do a hell of a job on Winterreise [song cycle by Schubert].  I don’t know anybody who does it better, but I don’t get very many chances to go out and sing it.  I’d like to be in a position to do it next year on my Chicago recital.

BD:   Knowing that Hermann Prey, Martti Talvela, and Dietrich Fischer Dieskau have all done it within the last three months?

PS:   That’s right.  [Thinks a moment]  Although, I don’t want to do Winterreise next year.  I’d really like to do an all-French program, including Tel Jour, Telle Nuit [a cycle of nine songs from 1937] of Poulenc.  Or I could do all-American recitals all over the place, or mix it up in any way that happens to strike my fancy.  I learned a stunning group of songs by Toivo Kuula
, a Finnish composer who was killed in a dual at age thirty-five in 1918.  [Kuula was the first composition student of Sibelius.]  They’re really wonderful pieces.  I’ve only done them twice, and I don’t have the opportunity to do them as much as I would like to.  Oh sure, there are lots of reasons that I would like to be a household word, and I’d like to proselytize the things that I feel are terribly important.  The more famous you are, the more people listen to you, but I have long since reconciled myself to the fact that I’m not going to be a household word, because I’m not doing the things that make you one.

BD:   [Again, showing unflagging optimism]  At least you can take comfort that you’re a household word in a few households.

PS:   Yes!  I have nothing to complain about, really.  Anybody who does what he’s desperately eager to do with his life is in already such a small, fortunate, highly-privileged group.  Life ought to be structured so that everybody could be doing what they really want to do with their lives as an ideal.  But having spent some time in the Real Estate business before I started singing, I know perfectly well that I’m doing, and what I want to be doing with my life.  I feel very good about being able to serve composers who are living as well as dead.  The dead ones don’t need it the same way the living ones do, so being able to do that is very meaningful.  Let’s take Robert Beaser, since that’s what I’m here to do.  He wrote a song cycle called The Seven Deadly Sins.  It’s on poems of Anthony Hecht, and it’s an absolutely extraordinary piece of music.  A tape of it was made when he was at Yale with a young baritone who was at Yale, and they did it in a student performance.  The composer Earle Brown gave me the tape and said he thought it was my kind of piece.  It isn’t Earle’s kind of piece at all, but he put two and two together.  I flipped over the piece, and I looked up Robert Beaser in the New York telephone book.  I called him up and said,
I love your music.  Can I get a score?  Happily, in his household I am a household word!  So, he was excited by that, and I got the official New York premiere of the piece.  I’ve been doing it everywhere, and when he got a commission from the St. Louis Symphony for a piece for their chamber group, he wrote this piece which I’m doing tomorrow.  It’s an extraordinary piece, and the opportunity to create pieces, then to become friends with this man, has been very special.  I love his music.  It’s wonderful.  I feel the same way about a number of other composers that I’ve worked with, and I feel fortunate that I can then go around and get some of that music performed, as well as to tell other people about it.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   What advice do you have for young singers coming along?

PS:   Number one is to try to be relatively realistic about your strengths and weaknesses, and how they might change over time.  You don’t always have to go the exact route that your teacher says, or the direction you have assumed will be the best.  Be open to a pull that will take you on a side road, but try not to get up in public and expose what you can’t do.  That sounds inane, but I cannot tell you how often I’ve sat as a judge at a competition, and the singer picks the first piece to show everything he or she can do.  So, it’s a piece that is slow and fast, loud and soft, low and high, and it’s got coloratura, which is something they can’t do.  So, right from the start you know they haven’t got a chance.  With a smarter singer, at least you’re guessing in some areas.  Nobody should be expected to do everything.  We aren’t all universal artists, and there’s no reason we should be.  We can pick and choose.  I don’t think I’m a terrific Bach singer, but if somebody hires me to sing the B Minor Mass, I will go out and sing it as well as I can.  A lot of people can sing the B Minor Mass, but I sing the Messiah better, and I sing L’Enfance du Christ a hell of a lot better.

sperry BD:   So do you let you agent know this so he can push it?

PS:   Sure!  But when you get hired for Bach, you go and do it.  But, on those rare occasions when somebody says they would really like you to come and sing with their orchestra, what would you like to do, I’m not going to say Bach.  If they say they want a group of oratorio arias, one isn’t going to be Bach, even though there are some arias I love passionately.  I just don’t come across with it.  I’m a good musician and can make it sound all right, but somebody else might make it sound transcendent.  It’s not in my nature.  I know that about myself, so I don’t go ahead and push for those things.

BD:   When you judge contests, what do you look for in a young voice?

PS:   It depends on what contest you’re judging.  If it’s Concert Artists Guild, they want concert material.  They want a certain standard of musicianship, diction, phrasing, and so on; somebody who could engage your attention and enthusiasm for an entire solo recital.  When you judge the Met auditions, they want glorious voices.

BD:   Big sound?

PS:   Big sound and gorgeous sound.

BD:   [With a gentle nudge]  Freak voices?

PS:   No, not freak voices... gorgeous voices that have enough size in them.  I just did those auditions, and there was one person who is just an elegant, elegant singer, and I loved her singing.  However, we didn’t pass her on to the next round, and anybody who wanted to could come talk to the judges afterward.  I said,
You’re not going to get anywhere with the Met auditions because your voice is too small.  You use it wonderfully, and you’re a marvelously interesting singer, but you’re not going to make it in this arena.

BD:   So you encouraged her to go another way?

PS:   Yes.  It was her third time not to make it, and she said she was not going to do it again.

BD:   She came up to you.  Would you have sought her out to give her this advice if she hadn’t come over on her own?

PS:   I would have been glad to, but I would not have gone up to her to deliver bad news right on the heels of her losing a competition.  But if somebody asks, sure, I will be as honest as I can.  I don’t want to be destructive, and in her case I had a lot to say that was positive.  I do it all the time in class when I tell someone that song’s not for them.  They should put it away for ten years.  Or, that song will never be for you.  Take it to the bathroom.  You tell someone they’re not a Santuzza, they’re a Susanna.  That’s the kind of responsible thing to say.  Some people don’t want to hear it, and they say they were just having a bad day.  Well then, fine, and they’ll go kill themselves, and that’s not your problem.  Some people really don’t want to face up to their own limitations, but that’s one of the healthiest things you can do, to say no.  For instance, there is no way that I could get up on a stage and sing Trovatore.

BD:   Are you optimistic about the voices you hear coming along these days?

PS:   Oh, there are sensational voices.  There have always been sensational voices.  I don’t know how many sensational teachers there are, but there are sensational voices.  What I worry about for those sensational voices are the demands being put on them.  For the few that do make it, the jet plane will kill them.  The world is shrinking, and between recordings and jet travel, everybody wants to hear the same handful of people simultaneously everywhere.  If it isn’t that handful of stars, they don’t want to hear anybody else, and that’s squeezing out the people in the middle.  You can get work if you can command a fee of $25,000.  You can work every night for that, or if you work for $25.  But if you want to go out, as used to be possible, and get paid $3,000 per a recital, there’s no money out there for that.  A recitalist who travels with an accompanist can’t make any money for less than that.  If you figure two plane fares to anywhere from New York or Chicago, a minimum round trip, if you stay over a Saturday now, costs you $250.  So you double that, and pay for the expenses of getting to and from the airports at either end, and where you’re staying, and a fee of $500 or more to a good pianist, and twenty per cent off the top for your manager, you figure out that at $2,500 you just about break even.  So, where are the recitalists going to come from?

BD:   This has been fascinating chatting with you.  I’ve learned a lot.  Good luck with the recital tomorrow.

PS:   Thank you, thank you.

BD:   Can we hope to draw you back to Chicago again?

PS:   I hope so.  It’s my home town.  It’s marvelous what you do on the radio.  It’s what we need.

BD:   I am truly glad to be able to do it.  Thank you for the chat.  I appreciate it.

PS:   Not at all.  It’s my pleasure.

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© 1989 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in Chicago on March 2, 1989.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB later that day, and again in 1994 and 1999.  A few brief quotations were used in New Music Connoisseur in the Winter issue of 2002.  This transcription was made in 2018, and posted on this website early in 2019.  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, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

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