Baritone  Richard  Stilwell

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


Hailed by The New York Times as "representative of the best type of American singing actor," Richard Stilwell has appeared regularly with the major opera companies of the United States and Europe. His performances have taken him to La Scala, Covent Garden, the Paris Opera, Deutsche Oper Berlin, the Vienna Staatsoper, Teatro de la Zarzuela Madrid, the Holland Festival, and Glyndebourne Festival, as well as the San Francisco, Los Angeles, Dallas, Chicago, Washington, St. Louis, Seattle, and Metropolitan Operas in the United States. Stilwell has collaborated with Leopold Stokowski, Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein, James Levine, Zubin Mehta, Seiji Ozawa, Sir Colin Davis, Andre Previn, James Conlin, and Lorin Maazel. His recordings include “Le nozze di Figaro” (Haitink), “Pelléas et Mélisande” (von Karajan), the CBS “Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria” by Monteverdi, and both “Messiah” and the Brahms’ “Ein deutsches Requiem” with the Atlanta Symphony (Robert Shaw). Stilwell also appears in the Unitel film of “Falstaff” with Sir Georg Solti, and on the soundtrack of the Academy award winning film, “Amadeus”.

[Note: Names which are links refer to interviews with Bruce Duffie elsewhere on this website.] 

The brief bio above reflects the current (2013) state of the career of Richard Stilwell.  The interview you are about to read, however, dates from 1980, when he was in the early stages of this significant journey. 

The week before we met, I had done the first of my three interviews with John Pritchard.  While in the studio, one of the cats had jumped down onto the desk, whereupon the conductor started playing with it, and continued to do so during the first several minutes of our conversation.  I mention this because the same little gray cat (named Charlie) was again in the same studio and approached Stillwell just as we were setting up . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:   Maestro Pritchard said it reminded him of his cat at home.

Richard Stilwell:   Oh, yeah?  I have cats, too.  I’m a cat person.

BD:    Singers tend to be.  I wonder why, rather than dog people or parakeet people?

RS:    I don’t know.  I guess they understand cats somehow more than other pets.  Cats are more artsy, maybe [laughs], than dogs. 

BD:    Artsy!  [Laughs]

RS:    Mysterious.

BD:    More self-regulatory, too, to take care of.

RS:    Yes, independent.

BD:    I suppose it’s easier to take care of a cat than to have to walk a dog twice a day, rain or shine.

RS:    Well, this is true, and it’s a problem with a dog with the traveling all the time, too. 

BD:    How do you get around the traveling?  Is that a big problem?

RS:    It’s not fun, but it’s part of the game.  It’s what it’s all about.  You manage.  My wife travels with me most of the time.  We take an apartment or a house, depending on where we are, so we just make a home away from home.  It’s not like living in a hotel, where you have to eat out all the time.  We don’t have any children, so it’s no problem.

BD:    When you have children you’ll have to make other arrangements.

RS:    Some of our colleagues have a couple of kids, and I don’t know how they do it.  They go up the wall is what they do a lot of the times, admittedly.

BD:    [Actually beginning the interview]  First, are you aware that you are in the new Grove?  [See my Interview with Stanley Sadie, Editor of The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians.]

RS:    In the new Grove?  No, I’m not aware of that.

BD:    Congratulations.  You have achieved a state of immortality.

RS:    [Laughs]  Thank you.  How often does the Grove come out
every year, or what?

BD:    No, no, no.  This is a brand new edition of the big encyclopedia.  It used to be nine volumes.  Now, the new edition which is just out is twenty volumes. 
It’s the standard reference of the English-speaking world.

RS:    Oh, my goodness!  It’s good to know.  You just made my day.  [Laughs]

BD:    I’d like to talk with you about contemporary opera.  You have almost a unique position, in that you are a leading exponent of contemporary opera and a leading exponent of early opera.  You seem to have really aligned yourself with both of these.  I have a theory that there is something more akin to these two factions, as opposed, say, to new opera and Wagner or Verdi.

RS:    Yes, I think you’re right.  As far as contemporary opera, I’ve done Tom Pasatieri’s works which are certainly contemporary, but other than Tom’s works, I have done a couple of things by Britten
— if you want to call him contemporary.  He’s already not really contemporary, but I guess so, in a way.  I’ve done a couple of his things but other than that I haven’t done that many contemporary pieces.

BD:    Do you find that contemporary opera is split into two
the kind that’s singable and the kind that’s not singable?

RS:    Yes, exactly.  But I enjoy a good performance of Wozzeck, for instance, which is more singable than many contemporary things, or Lulu, this kind of thing, although I don’t think I would ever take part in anything like that because it’s not what I’m all about as a performer.  But back to the business of the similarity between the contemporary pieces and the very earliest pieces of Monteverdi, there is definitely correlation there because the words were all important.  There’s a hybrid arioso style, as somebody once said, about Monteverdi, which I love in particular.  I’ve done both Poppea and the Return of Ulysses, which by the way, just came out on recording.  As to performing, it’s fantastic because for me Monteverdi is really dramatic music theater; the way he shaped phrasings and everything, and the words — such wonderful poetry with his pieces.  In that same line I was thinking Menotti, which is certainly contemporary, in fact has that same kind of hybrid arioso recitative style.  I had forgotten that until you mentioned it, and particularly Maria Golovin, which I have done in Marseilles and at the Paris Opera in French, and in Italian in Trieste in Italy.  I’ve never done it in English yet, but I think I am going to in Charleston for the Spoleto Festival.  I love this kind of style, where the words are important and the action is important.

BD:    For a long time, a contemporary composer such as Menotti would be maligned, because he wrote nice tunes.  Do you think we are now coming around to the idea that maybe this is not so bad after all?

RS:    Yes, I think so.  There’s a way to put your own stamp on a piece and yet to write a tune.  For a while it seemed music was going in the direction that went further out and further out — John Cage, and this kind of thing.  Then some of the things were really unsingable, practically, just to stretch the vocal limits.  A lot of my colleagues experienced situations where they had done too much of that, and in fact got into vocal trouble because they were trying to make the vocal cords do something they weren’t meant to do.

BD:    Do you find that a composer such as Pasatieri really understands the voice?

RS:    Yes.  This is the point, because Tom really is a singer’s composer.  He loves singers and writes for singers.  He knows the people quite often that he writes for.  He wrote the role of  Constantine in The Seagull for me specifically.

BD:    Is that a special thrill for you to know the part was written around your voice?

RS:    Yes, it’s kind of nice.  He would collaborate with me and say, “What note would you like here?” and then say, “That’s fine.  Good.”  I did another one of his pieces, Ines de Castro, which I thought was wonderful.  I think he’s re-writing it and re-doing it.  It was done in a Baltimore world premiere, but hasn’t been done since.

BD:    Why?

RS:    I don’t know.  I can’t tell you.

BD:    It seems that it’s not particularly difficult to get a work done once.  The difficult part is to get it done that second or third time.

RS:    Yes, this is it.  The Seagull has certainly proven itself to be a wonderful piece.  It has been performed all over the United States now.

BD:    Would that kind of work play well in a large house as well as a small house?

RS:    We’ve done it.  I don’t know what you call a large house, but it was world premiered in Houston.  We also did it at the Washington Opera, Kennedy Center, which is a pretty good-sized house, and it played beautifully.  It’s a wonderful piece.

BD:    Do you find the audiences respond to that?

RS:    Oh, yes!  First of all it’s in English, which a lot of people love.  There are opera buffs that don’t care if it’s in English or whatever, but a lot of people do.  Then that kind of work actually draws in a lot of theater people, surprisingly enough, because it’s based on Chekhov and Tom stays very close to the play.  So you get a cross mixture of theater audience and opera audience and musical comedy audience.

BD:    Do you feel this is a good thing, to bring more people who are not so much involved in opera through this door?

RS:    Yes!  Any way to get them in!  [Both laugh]

BD:    If they will come to see a Pasatieri work like The Seagull, do you think they would also be interested in Trovatore or Eugene Onegin or Poppea or Pelléas?

Richard Stilwell at Lyric Opera of Chicago

1972 - Pelléas et Mélisande  (Pelléas)  with Pilou, Petri, Arié; Fournet

1975 - Orfeo ed Euridice  (Orfeo)  with Cotrubas, Zilio; Fournet

1977 - Orfeo ed Euridice  (Orfeo)  with Shade, Zilio; Fournet
           Barber of Seville  (Figaro)  with Ewing, Alva, Montarsolo, Desderi; Bellugi; Gobbi (Director)
           Callas Tribute Concert  with Neblett, Vickers, Gobbi, Bartoletti, Fournet, and others

1978 - Don Pasquale  (Malatesta)  with Evans, Blegen, Kraus; Pritchard

1979 - [Opening Night]  Faust  (Valentin)  with Freni, Ghiaurov, Kraus; Prȇtre

1980 - Don Giovanni  (Giovanni)  with Tomowa-Sintow, Neblett, Dean, Winkler; Pritchard, Ponnelle (Production Designer and Director)
            Italian Earthquake Relief Benefit Concert  with Battle, Buchanan, Nucci, Scotto, Troyanos, and others

1982 - Così fan Tutte  (Guglielmo)  with Yakar, Howells, Winbergh/Negrini; Rudel, Sciutti (Director)

1985-86 - Madama Butterfly  (Sharpless)  with Tomowa-Sintow, Dvorsky, Zilio, Doss, Del Carlo; Gomez-Martinez, Prince (Director)

1990-91  The Voyage of Edgar Allan Poe [by Dominic Argento]  (Griswold)  with Kaasch, Swenson, Futural;  Keeene, Conklin (Sets)

1991-92 - Madama Butterfly  (Sharpless)  with Malfitano, Leech, Romanò; Gatti, Prince (Director)

2011-12 - Magic Flute  (Speaker)  with Cabell, Castronovo/Shrader, Degout, Luna, Groissböck/Boyer;  Davis, Everding (Original Production)

-- [Note: In several of these productions, the ballet was directed by Maria Tallchief, and the lighting was designed by Duane Schuler

RS:    I think that yes, many would.  Of course everybody has their favorites.  It’s funny... some people only love Puccini or Verdi, but I’ve talked with a lot of people who particularly love Pelléas and say it
’s their favorite opera.  Other people can’t get into that one; it’s beyond them; it’s one of these operas you’ve got to study or become familiar with after a while.  There’s no place to applaud.  I have a theory that it’s because within Pelléas it’s one long line of music.  It goes on from act to act with no real stopping place because there are orchestral interludes that follow immediately after action on stage.  So the people don’t quite know what to make of it, I guess.  You’ve got to get yourself in a proper state of mind to watch Pelléas.  You’ve just got to settle back and let yourself be transported into another time and place.

BD:    How does something like Pelléas compare with the works of Pasatieri?

RS:    Pelléas is a lot of words, interestingly enough.  It’s this kind of sustained recitative so the big difference is just what we’re talking about.  Pelléas, the Menotti operas, the Pasatieri pieces all tend to have more emphasis on words.  It’s the counterpart to the bel canto, where everything is florid; everything was the voice, and what really happened on stage in the words was almost secondary to what the voice was doing.  I realize that it’s important to have a beautiful voice, but for what I’m about, it’s the drama.  I’ve said this many times
— it’s the acting, it’s the feasibility of the character, so that people can look up and say, “Yes, I can believe that person would be the person he’s portraying,” without having to stretch the imagination.  This is the most important aspect for me.

BD:    What about something that is more angular, more atonal, where it’s really more drama and the music is disjointed?

RS:    Such as what?

BD:    Perhaps the operas that do not fit comfortably in the voice; that are really more drama clothed in music that may or may not be appropriate.  We’re talking about two different things here
operas that are quite singable as opposed to operas which are not singable.

RS:    I really don’t do anything that isn’t singable. 

BD:    Have you been asked to do things that you have turned down?

RS:    Perhaps a couple of things.  I can’t think offhand, but nothing that sticks out in my mind because these things all go through agencies and through my manager, and he knows me very well.  He’s a good friend, and so...

BD:    ...he protects you from that?

RS:    Yes.  If it’s something that he knows, he knows me so well that he wouldn’t approach me about something that wasn’t right for me.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    You were talking about some operas which are in English as being a big plus.  What about opera in translation?

RS:    I’m ambivalent about that.  I can understand the audiences wanting to hear some things in English, but it’s so difficult to accept some of these translations and make them work.  For instance, I just did Onegin in Santa Fe in English.  The opera is based on the Pushkin poem.  It’s a long poem, and in the Russian it’s beautiful.  But when you start rhyming in English it all sounds like Mother Goose!  How do you get away from this? 

BD:    So you decide not to rhyme, then?

stilwellRS:    We actually sat down and decided that at the expense of a couplet sounding ludicrous we would just strike the rhyming altogether and get to the sense of the words and the drama and what was happening.  You don’t want titters and guffaws in the audience when it’s meant to be dramatic silence, and this has happened sometimes!  So, it’s a problem.  It really is a problem.  I understand some of Andrew Porter’s translations are very good.

BD:    Porter’s translations are wonderful!  He’s the outstanding translator today.

RS:    Yes.  I haven’t heard any, unfortunately, but if he can take the time necessary to put it all together, then it’s super.  I wish him lots of luck in it.

BD:    As I understand, his method of working is to sit down and listen to the phrase in the original over and over again, and all of a sudden the English words just begin to fit into it.  It’s almost like it transforms itself into the English, rather than just plugging in a correct translation.

RS:    That would be good, yes.

BD:    If you were asked to sing Orfeo or Pelléas in English, would you take the trouble to re-learn it?

RS:    No.  I would never sing Pelléas in English because that, of all operas, cannot be translated.  That is so, so French, I can’t imagine it in any other language.  I know it has been done in other languages, but for me it’s not right.  The language is almost as important as the music and the drama, and it’s just, I think, untranslatable.  Actually the Menotti works very well, curiously enough, in French and Italian.  In fact, Gian Carlo told me that he thought the Maria Golovin worked best in French — better, in fact, than English.

BD:    Have you done The Last Savage?  The first performance of that was in French.

RS:    No, I never did do that.

BD:    Thinking about the modern works of Pasatieri, Menotti, Britten
the ones that are very singableand going back to the Monteverdi works, is there a clear pattern that we’ve lost melody, or did we go on a by-road?

RS:    We went from the words and the poetry being very important in Monteverdi and Cavalli into the bel canto where the voice and the sound the voice made was everything, and where the words became very secondary.  Then we have sort of come back to the fact that the words are, in fact, very important.

BD:    Did Monteverdi not write some passages which allow the voice to really shine and show off?

RS:    Oh, yes!

BD:    And does Pasatieri?

RS:    But not for its own sake.  This is the big difference
— not just to let the voice go for its own sake.  He would let the voice go when the piece called for it dramatically, and only then.  Otherwise it was a kind of arioso or recitative, which some people today may think is kind of boring, but I think it’s wonderful.

BD:    Do you think that the works of Monteverdi speak to us today?

RS:    Oh yes, definitely, more so than most other operas because they’re concerned with true human feelings.  There’s nothing more touching in the world for me than the final scene in The Return of Ulysses.  After twenty years of wandering, and finally, after having slain all the suitors of Penelope, in an incredible show of force and kind of teatro coup he’s finally reunited with her.  She still can’t believe it’s him because many people through the years have said that they were the returned Ulysses.  He convinces her, and this melting music
when she realizes it is him and she lets down her guard after twenty years and accepts himMonteverdi catches it to a tee and you can’t help but be moved.  I did this piece with Janet Baker in Glyndebourne once, and it was an experience I’ll never forget.  It was one of those things where we were both transported beyond, into a fourth dimension.  We have talked about it since, and it’s the kind of thing you experience once or twice in your lifetime.  Monteverdi captures this wonderful love that has been lost and regained, and in this one particular performance we both were transported.  I didn’t remember watching the conductor or anybody else.  I was totally lost in it, and curiously enough, she was, too.  I love this kind of thing, and it’s the kind of thing you can try for the next performance, but it doesn’t work.  All the circumstances together worked that night, and the audience felt it, too.  My manager was in the audience, and he said he couldn’t believe it.  The intensity and all was so strong.  Everybody was in tears in the audience, and, well, I was, too.  I could barely get through the duet because the emotional aspect was so strong!  But this is what I mean about Monteverdi capturing the essence of humanity and what love means and what faith means.  These things that quite often lost sometimes in the musical passages of other operas.  I don’t know how to explain it exactly...

BD:    One of the nineteenth century composers you have sung is Donizetti.  How does he compare with the other names we are talking about?

RS:    Already, he was doing the bel canto number.  You’d sing an aria and the cadenzas were put in.  I am not putting Donizetti down; I enjoy doing Don Pasquale¸ for instance.  It’s a comic opera, so it’s a totally different kind of thing, but already the cadenzas were put in, and it was the voice saying, “Look what I can do on this, and look at this high note I can make!”  Really it was removed from the drama or what was happening, whereas Monteverdi never swerved from that story line all the way to the end.

BD:    Do you approve of the way Maestro Leppard handles re-orchestrating and punching it up just a little bit?

RS:    Yes.  I love this.  Of course this is another big argument between the purists and the Leppardists...  I’m not a purist in that sense.  I’ve seen and heard some of these so-called Monteverdi realizations by Harnoncourt, for instance, and a few others, and I was just bored to tears.  I thought this is why Monteverdi doesn’t have a greater following.

BD:    Is that something too far removed from our day and age, then as we head into the 1980s?

RS:    Perhaps.  The thing is we don’t really know how Monteverdi was performed.  Raymond Leppard’s argument is that in his day instruments which were available would have been used.  Therefore, he includes trombones.  This kind of thing he puts into his pieces.  All that’s left of the scores of Monteverdi are the vocal line and the bass line.  Actually, everything else was improvised after months of rehearsal.

BD:    Everybody would improvise in the style that they were accustomed to?

RS:    Yes.

BD:    They all knew what was expected of them, and we don’t.

RS:    Yes, we don’t know.

BD:    Taking that argument one step further then, why do we not add saxophones or synthesizers or gongs and things like this?

RS:    We might, but then that’s maybe carrying it a bit too far.  For me, it’s that Raymond’s realization gives the work a richer tapestry and something you can get your teeth into a little more.  With the others, I find that there are so many plinks and plunks, and there’s nothing to hold onto, really.  Of course, they maintain this is the way it would have been done in his time.  Raymond says, “No, it would not have been done that way, and nobody really knows.”

BD:    Is it possible that the human development, the voice as the strength of people, has gone beyond what the instruments would have been capable of, and so Leppard has just simply moved the instruments along to keep pace with human physical development?

RS:    This could be true; also for the size of the houses that we perform in, this is very likely.

BD:    So what you want to do, then, is give a performance that speaks as much as it can to the audience that’s going to be seeing it?

RS:    Yes, exactly.

BD:    How much control can you as a singer
even a leading singerexercise over details of this kind, of production or instrumentation?  If you were involved in a production that you felt was really going astray, going haywire, how much could you argue for changes?

RS:    [Laughs]  Yes, this is a problem.  There’s always compromise, or at least most of the time you can get compromise from directors.  I’ve done, for instance, Pelléas in many different productions, and some ways work better than others.  But on occasion, several times in fact, when a producer will come with an idea about a different way to approach it, I’m not one to pooh-pooh that idea.  I really will go along with just about anything if I feel that I can work within that and still make the character believable.

BD:    So you will try an experiment?

RS:    Oh yes, I will certainly try.  Sometimes it doesn’t work.  I’ve had arguments with directors, and on occasion refused certain direction because I felt it simply would not work.  These have been pretty rare, though.  By and large I will go along with the director.  I like a good director.  I like somebody who has a lot of ideas.  This is why I like Ponelle very much, and he is sometimes criticized for going too far.  Perhaps he does.  By going too far, I mean over-directing, you might say.  But some of my best work has been done with him, and I think he is a real theater man.  So in that sense, we believe in the same thing.  We have a good rapport.

BD:    It’s really a belief in theater, belief in presentation as a whole?

RS:    Yes, very much, and also conviction that what you’re doing is so important.  If there’s one thing I hate more than anything about opera, it’s seeing a performer who lets his mind wander for a while on stage.  You can see it.  Keeping with the drama constantly is very important.

BD:    Especially when you’re not singing!

RS:    Especially when you’re not singing.  That’s right, that’s right.

BD:    You’re a participating character, but someone else has the aria.

RS:    That’s right.  It’s reacting, not only acting but reacting with conviction, with believability.  This is one of my pet peeves, when I see performers who perhaps can get by with their glorious voices, but then let down when somebody is performing.

BD:    So, you wait until you get offstage before you let down?

RS:    Right.

BD:    What is the place of recordings in all of this?  How do recordings fit into the stream of opera-as-theater, and do they set up an impossible standard.

RS:    I haven’t done that many recordings, frankly, so I’m not well-versed on this.

BD:    For instance, there are so many excellent recordings of La Bohème.  If you were asked to sing in a new La Bohème, would you?

stilwellRS:    A recording of it?  Yes, I would because I like the character of Marcello.  It would depend on what the opera was going to be, and the character, but I think I can make something of Marcello.  I’m doing several performances coming up with the Met and several places in Europe, so yes I would certainly do that.   I just recorded Ulysses, and I hope that as far as this recording goes, that it will introduce people to this work and Raymond’s realization, which had never been recorded.  Perhaps will turn several people on to Monteverdi because, as I’ve expressed, I think he’s the greatest.  I hope that also affords us an opportunity to perform this piece on several other stages in the United States and other places in the world.  It’s incredible to think that the North American premiere of Return of Ulysses was just done in Washington about four or five years ago [1974].

BD:    Do you think there are other great works that are languishing on the shelf?

RS:    Yes, I do.  This is another interesting thing, because Raymond has always maintained that he’s convinced that there are other of Monteverdi’s works that are lost in the libraries of some palazzi in Venice.

BD:    Of the ones that are listed as lost, do you think they really exist?

RS:    Yes.  To think that there are only bits and pieces left!  It’s unimaginable.

BD:    We’re always lamenting for the rest of Arianna, and all that’s left is the
Lament.  [Both laugh]

RS:    Yes, right.  Exactly.  Some of these old nobility in Venice have these incredible libraries, and he’s convinced that somewhere amongst the debris is stuck an original Monteverdi that someone has put up there somewhere and just forgotten about.  So he’s trying to befriend some of these people for the chance to get in, but they’re quite often very reluctant to let anybody come in and search.  It’s invasion of privacy and all this sort of thing.  I hope in my lifetime they find at least one other Monteverdi opera.  It would be incredible.

BD:    What about some of the things that were done in the nineteenth century?  Some of these are now languishing on the shelves — the unknown works of Giordano and Mascagni and Montemezzi.

RS:    I have not performed any of the obscure works of verismo artists, so I’m not really that familiar with them.

BD:    What about versions?  For instance, if someone said, “We’re going to do the original version of Madame Butterfly, as opposed to the standard version.”  At what point are we invading on the composer’s choice? 

RS:    [Pauses to think a moment]

BD:    I ask all these easy questions.  [Both laugh]

RS:    Yes, you really do!  I don’t know about Butterfly, but as far as versions I was thinking of Don Giovanni because there’s the version where the opera ends at Giovanni’s death.  As far as I know, they still perform it that way in Vienna.  It became tradition during Mozart’s time to do that, but everywhere else in the world, it would be unthinkable to end the piece there.  But I don’t think that I would have the right to come into Vienna, for instance, and say, “You ought to change tradition and do what the rest of the world is doing, and finish the opera with the epilogue.”  On the other hand, I think it would be wrong for any other opera house not to do the complete work.

BD:    What about inserting arias?  “Dalla sua pace” came in later and it’s become tradition to insert it.

RS:    Yes.

BD:    Should we go a little farther and maybe insert a couple of other concert arias if we have someone who can sing them?

RS:    [Laughs]  No more!  Please!  The work is four hours long now.  It’s too long.  But this is a problem, too, and I think quite often producers would like to drop “Dalla sua pace,” but the problem is that you’re not going to get a first-rate tenor to come and sing it if you do.  I did have one other experience when I did an Orfeo here, because there had been a tradition of inserting an aria.  I can’t remember who the composer was, but there’s an aria in Orfeo, and I learned it because I had heard it was tradition.  When I got here, the conductor decided it would not work in this production.  It’s a very florid piece with a lot of coloratura, and had become tradition after a while.  But I must admit after seeing how they were approaching the piece, I agreed with him that it didn’t work, and though I’d learned the aria to perform there, I decided it was best for the production that I not sing it.

BD:    So Don Giovanni is four hours long.  Is a composer like Pasatieri going to be conscious of writing too much music, or too little music,  or placing the intervals at the right time and that sort of thing?

RS:    I don’t think it has anything to do, really, with the composition.  It depends on the libretto, of course.  We realize that it can get tedious when you write a piece that’s too long.  As far as I know, none of his pieces are that long.  The Seagull is a good length; it’s probably three hours total.  But I don’t think he has written anything that’s terribly long.  I don’t think that’s a criteria to think of how long it would be.  If you’ve got the book, the story, the libretto, you’ve got to go with that.  Of course you’ve got to pare it down and edit and figure out what’s going to play well and what isn’t, but you’ve got to keep the necessary ingredients.  So I don’t know that the length is really all that important, as long as you feel that it’s going to play and there won’t be a big letdown, or that you’ve tried to stretch something out just to make it long.  That doesn’t work.

BD:    Occasionally I’ve been in the theater for a standard-length opera and felt that it was very, very long, and then I would sit through Götterdämmerung and feel that it’s over in a flash.

RS:    Yes, that’s the point, you know.  [Laughs]  If you’ve got the wherewithal to make it exciting for four or five hours, then do so, but you’ve got to be very talented to do that. 

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Could you give some advice to young singers embarking on a career
dos and don’ts, perhaps, and also specific ideas about contemporary opera?

RS:    Yes.  There are all kinds of ways to mount a career.  Many people have gone to Europe and spent two or three years learning repertory, and then come back to the United States and gotten jobs in various houses and worked their way up that way.

BD:    Or come back to the United States and languished?

RS:    Yes, exactly.  This is one of the problems with learning some of the repertories.  For instance, in some of the smaller German houses, you learn everything in German, and you come back here and you have to re-learn it in the original language.  In my career, everything I did was done in the United States as far as preparation, and then I did some guest appearances in Europe.  They turned out to be successes and therefore I was invited back, but my career has been totally American-based.  However, I think it’s important to have an international career.

BD:    Is there hope for the American singer in America?

stilwellRS:    Yes, definitely!  It’s very encouraging, in fact, because there are so many more opera houses now than there were ten years ago.  I’ve been singing professionally going on eleven years now, and it was much more difficult to get work when I was starting.  Wonderful things are being done now by several opera companies all over the United States, ones that have sprung up and have proven themselves very artistic and very worthwhile endeavors.  For instance, I couldn’t believe the number of music festivals this summer that were going on in the United States.  I picked up a copy of Opera News and paged through all of the festivals, and that was really heartening to see.  Some of them are only a couple of weeks, but nevertheless there is opportunity there, and there is more and more opportunity for young singers.  Of course, there are more young singers coming along, but there’s no one way to do it.  I would say that a young singer should enter contests.  It’s going to be deflating at times, and yet you’ll grow from it.  When I entered the WGN contest here in Chicago, back when I was at Indiana University, I came up here two or three times.  It had taken quite a while and some preparation.  I made the semi-finals and then I was in the finals, but I didn’t win anything.  I didn’t win any prizes, but I was presented with a WGN keychain.  [Laughs]  That was all I’d come away with for this endeavor.  Nevertheless, I grew from it, and I think it’s important.  I was put off by that, but I came back and won a prize in the Met auditions other ones.  After even the Met auditions, I entered another contest and I lost, and I didn’t get anything from it.  But these things are important, I think.

BD:    I wondered about contests because they put singers under such pressure.  Is this pressure good?

RS:    It’s not bad when you’re young.  You can get by with it.  Maybe if you’re older it’s a little more devastating, but it’s good to get up and have to sing under pressure, because it’s not going to get any better.  If you make it, every time you perform the bigger your name gets in the public eye, the more is expected of you, so there’s always pressure there.

BD:    Is there more pressure second and third night of the run, or once you’ve got the production started and reviewed, etc.?

RS:    The pressure is somewhat lightened after the opening.  You want the crits to be good, but I never consciously let down a performance, because people have paid a lot of money to see me perform.

BD:    Do you think the ticket prices have gotten outrageous?

RS:    In some instances, but they can command the price and they can get it  Opera houses need a lot of money to survive and to run, and the ticket prices are just a drop in the bucket to what the expense of mounting an opera is.

BD:    Without revealing any secrets, do you think singers’ fees have gotten too high?

RS:    [Laughs]  I don’t think mine are too high, no!  In defense of the singers’ fees, we have incredible expenses.  If somehow you think, “My God, that’s a lot of money to sing one night!” yet when you start breaking it down, you realize that a singer has to maintain, for all intents and purposes, two places of residence because we’re on the road almost constantly.  I’m on the road nine to ten months a year, so it means having to put out a lot of money.  You can deduct that from your taxes to a certain degree, but you still have to put out a lot of money.  Expenses are unbelievable! The IRS never believes you.  They can’t imagine singers’ expenses, and that’s why we’re audited a lot.  But the fact is that we do have a lot of expenses with taxis, eating out, and just maintaining apartments and hotel expenses and this sort of thing all over the world, so singers’ fees are not as great as they sometimes appear.  You’ve got the gross amount, and by the time you pay all your percentages and expenses, the fee is dissipated by at least a half.

BD:    What about a young singer who is offered a minor contract with a big house?  Would it be better to accept small roles in a big house, or big roles in a small house?

RS:    It depends on the talent.  People are talented in various degrees.  Some people have a great talent for comprimario roles, but because of something or other, could probably not carry off a leading role terribly well.

BD:    No one really starts out saying, “I’m going to be a great comprimario singer.”

RS:    No, this is true.  I don’t know how that is reached.  I only know that quite often it becomes frustrating, because people want to try at least to go as far as possible.  You might get into a situation where, after several years, you become known for your comprimario roles.  Andrea Velis, for instance, has done about seventy-five different roles at the Met and is ensconced there.  That’s what he’s noted for, but that’s pretty rare.  But should they accept smaller roles?  That really is an unanswerable question.  It depends totally on the person.  If they feel at the time that the experience is important and invaluable to them, then I think they should accept it.  Perhaps it is good for a year or even two sometimes, to do this.  I only know that I’ve talked with some colleagues who had been stuck at the Met doing smaller roles, and had felt that their artistic endeavors were getting squashed.  They were frustrated and so when their contract was up they would leave.  In some instances, after having sung and proved themselves in other places, would come back and do major roles with the Met, but if you’re going to wish for a major career, you can’t spend very much time doing small roles in any house.

BD:    What about selecting teachers?  How can you be very careful about that?

RS:    That’s another hard question because teachers are very important.  And the longer you sing, the more important they are, as far as I’m concerned.  I don’t think any singer should be away from a teacher, or at least somebody who has a good ear and can advise them well.

BD:    How much can you rely just on a répétiteur to detect these things?

RS:    You can rely to a degree, but it’s got to be somebody who’s pretty sensitive and who really knows his business.  This is close to home for me because I’ve studied with a teacher for about ten years, and I’m having some doubts about our working relationship now.  I don’t know.  Maybe we shouldn’t even talk about it because it’s very personal, but all I’m saying is that teachers are very important.  Word of mouth with colleagues can help you find out.  You go up to somebody and say, “I like the way you’re singing.  Who’s your teacher?”  This has happened a lot, of course.  That’s not to say that the teacher will be great for you, however.  Sometimes it’s trial and error, and there’s nothing wrong with that.  You can go to him and see how it’s working. 

BD:    About how long should you wait?

RS:    You’ve got to give it reasonable time because obviously a teacher can’t work miracles and turn you around in a matter of weeks. 
If after a few months you don’t have a good rapport...

BD:    But how far should you let it go before you begin doing damage or getting misinformation?

RS:    It shouldn’t do damage.  If it starts hurting, then I would say it’s not right.  It should never hurt.  But you should give a teacher at least six months.  I don’t think any damage is going to be done.  Sometimes from the start there’s not a rapport there, and if there’s misunderstanding all the time, then nothing is going to be done.  Nothing fruitful is going to come of the relationship.

BD:    So there’s as much learning of how to sing as there is how to be a singer?

RS:    Yes.  Some teachers seem to teach certain voice types better than other teachers, so one teacher may be particularly effective teaching baritones and basses and another may be particularly effective teaching sopranos.

BD:    But this has nothing to do with whether they themselves are that particular voice type?

RS:    No, not necessarily, although it happens sometimes that a retired soprano would certainly know the soprano voice a lot better than the bass or baritone voice, although there are certain aspects of singing that encompass all voice types.

BD:    What about selecting an agent?

RS:    That’s a hard business, too.  Usually because of your talent or because you’ve accomplished something that was noteworthy somewhere, an agent will come to you, or a manager will come to you and try to woo you into his stable.  You’ve got to be willing to accept what he’s offering, and you’ve got to reach some compromises.  My manager, Matthew Epstein, was with another agency, Harold Shaw, when I first went to him in 1970.  Then he broke away from Shaw and I stayed with Epstein.  Now he’s with Columbia.  It was word of mouth.  I was doing Pelléas with Patricia Brooks and she was a friend of Matthew’s.  She told him there was this new young baritone he had to hear, and he came to a performance.  Then we set up an interview, and I decided to go with him.

BD:    This was in New York at the City Opera?

RS:    Yes, that was my debut.  I was covering the Pelléas and singing one performance.  I had just come into the company.  Obviously you can contact other agencies and audition.  There are several in New York and there’s nothing wrong with that either.  If you have been in Europe, or are not accessible, or have come from another city and have been slowly working your voice up and feel that it is in good shape and you want to embark out on the world, I would say come to New York and just sing for some people.  Really, that’s what it’s all about.  That’s why I moved to New York in the first place, because that’s where most of the agencies are and where most of the intendants, the opera managers, come at one time or another.  The most important thing for a young singer is being accessible to be heard, and to sing and to audition.  I know singers hate auditions, but they are a necessary evil if you’re going to mount any kind of career.  Being in New York, for me, was important because once I was with management, they would say,
“Such-and-such has come in from somewhere in Europe or California.  He’s only here for one day, and he’s hearing a few people at three o’clock tomorrow afternoon, so I’d agree to sing for him.  I was always accessible for auditions like that, and I think that’s very important. 

BD:    Do you think the fact that everything is happening in New York disenfranchises the rest of the country?

RS:    No, I don’t think so.  Sometimes singers or managers of other opera companies get the feeling that you’ve got to have done some work in New York to be viable somehow.  Sometimes that’s the way we feel, but the reason so many singers move to New York is that they have to be accessible to people coming there.  As far as the arts in the United States, it’s still the focal point.  It’s the most important city.

BD:    As well as being more opportunity, then there’s more competition.

RS:    There’s obviously a lot of competition, too, but it’s very difficult when you’re beginning.  I love Chicago and I love the opera here, and if you can get with the Lyric Opera School that’s not a bad first step either.  But still, at one point or another it’s worth it to move to New York.  I don’t live in New York now, and I don’t want to move back to New York because I’m there enough with engagements.  I live outside Washington D.C. now.  I lived in New York for six years, and it was important for my career.  A lot of young people say “I can’t stand New York!  I don’t want to live in New York.”  Well, sometimes you’ve got to make sacrifices for something you want.  A lot of them will stay around the New York area or Connecticut or New Jersey after they’ve established themselves somewhat, but I decided to move down to McLean, Virginia.  I like the country down there, and yet it’s very accessible to New York with the shuttle.  It’s also accessible to Europe through Dulles Airport.

BD:    It’s easy to know when you’re making it in a career because things are happening and you constantly have engagements.  But for a singer who is perhaps not doing quite as well as he had hoped, at what point should they hang it up and start selling used cars?

RS:    This is the hardest thing for a singer to know, because it depends on how badly you want a career.  If you’re satisfied with a small amount of work and can get by, you should continue.  I can’t tell one person that he has limited talent and he should really be doing something else.  That would be the hardest thing in the world.  Sometimes teachers should say that and are afraid to, but it’s the place of the teacher after.  If you’ve studied with a teacher for years and obviously you’re going nowhere, it’s not very nice of the teacher.  It’s misleading for him to continue to come back for voice lessons if there’s no progress being made.  That’s his place, his responsibility, to really tell you that you should move on to something else.  But it’s very touchy thing because many people feel that it’s just a matter of a few more years or a few more voice lessons and they’re going to be right up there on the top.

stilwellBD:    How much is it waiting for the right break?

RS:    That can be very important.  You’ve got to be successful when you get the break.  In many ways I was really lucky because of the Pelléas.  When I auditioned for the New York City Opera, I didn’t even know the piece, really.  After I sang for them — I think I sang “Vision fugitive” — they came to me and said, “Could you sing the role of Pelléas?”  I said, “I don’t know.  Let me look at it.”  In my naiveté and my eagerness to get a job, I glanced through it and I said, “Well, sure.  This looks easy enough.”  [Both laugh]  Little did I know that it was one of the most difficult roles in the repertory for a baritone.  It turned out that it worked very well for me, and fortunately I had a big success with my one performance that year.  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at right, see my Interviews with José van Dam, Ruggero Raimondi, and the Language Coach Janine Riess.

BD:    Isn’t there an old adage in the business that if management asks, “Can you?” the answer is always, “Yes!”?  How much should you say, “I don’t know.  I’ll take a look through it.”  It must have taken a lot of confidence in yourself to be able to say, “I’ll let you know in a couple of days.”

RS:    [Laughs]  I don’t know.  I just said you’ve got to be careful, yet here I jumped into this Pelléas.  If I really hadn’t had the wherewithal to have sung this role, it might have been a big detriment to my career at that point.

BD:    You might be selling used cars or something.

RS:    Yes, exactly.  [Laughs]  But something told me I could do it, and I guess I had a lot of confidence in myself at that point.

BD:    Could a singer go into a house knowing their fach?  That he or she can sing such-and-such roles and can’t sing so-and-so roles, even if they don’t know the role?

RS:    They should know their own voice well enough to know what they can or can’t do.  Most houses in the United States are not going to offer you something that is beyond you.

BD:   I guess that’s just really a European trait, then, that they’ll ask a heavy-ish tenor to start singing Sigmund when he really should be singing Tamino.

RS:    That’s always a big problem as far as hiring singers for Wagnerian repertory.

BD:    Will you ever sing Wagner?

RS:    No.  The only thing I might possibly do would be Wolfram.  I can’t imagine what else.  I did sing Klingsor in Parsifal at Indiana University, believe it or not, but that will never come into my repertory again, I can assure you.  I’m not really a Wagnerian voice.  I’m essentially a lyric baritone. 

BD:    So you have sense enough to say, “No, I will not sing it,” even if they were to offer you a real fat fee?

RS:    Yes.  I’m going into some more of the Verdi repertory.  The only Verdi I’ve sung so far has been Ford in Falstaff.  In fact, I made a film of that which should be coming out soon.  But I would like to wade into the waters of Verdi a little more with some of the more lyric pieces, such as Rodrigo in Don Carlos, for instance.  But I don’t expect that I’m going to be singing Rigoletto or things like that because I’m not that kind of dramatic baritone.  However, my voice has gotten a little richer and fuller with years, with natural maturing.  So I will test that out.

BD:    It seems interesting, though, that you’re coming into the standard repertoire really late, actually.

RS:    Yes.  I have an interest in this kind of thing.  I love the character of Rodrigo, and he’s a young kind of swashbuckling personage which can be believable.  Again, it’s the drama I like about that, though that’s not to say I’m going to give up the Monteverdi or the other things.  It’s just testing some new waters.

BD:    I hope you swim well.

RS:    Thank you.

BD:    Thank you for being a singer.

RS:    [Laughs]  Thank you for having me here.

BD:    You’ve given a lot of very good advice.

RS:    It’s difficult to give general advice, but I am encouraged by the situation today with opera.  More and more good work is being done by more and more opera companies in the United States, and this can’t help but be encouraging.  So I’m hopeful at least that things in the future will be good for opera.

BD:    The outlook looks bright.  There seems to be more happening with recordings, and now the availability of opera on television.

RS:    Television has been very important in introducing a lot of people to opera.

BD:    We were talking about using or not using translations.  On the TV you can have the sound in the original and the translation can be there underneath.

RS:    The subtitles, yes.

BD:    Do you think this is the ideal compromise?

RS:    It’s a little difficult to do that on the stage, to flash the text somewhere.

BD:    I was going to say maybe they should have a ticker over the prompter’s box with a running line there that everyone can see... or off to the side, like the cards in the old vaudeville houses!  [Remember, this interview took place in 1980, and the first use of supertitles in the theater was still a few years off...]

RS:    Follow the bouncing ball!  [Both laugh as we said our good-byes . . . . .]

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© 1980 Bruce Duffie

This interview was recorded at WNIB in Chicago on October 10, 1980.  Portions (along with recordings) were used on WNIB in 1992 and 1997.  A copy of the unedited audio was placed in the Archive of contemporary Music at Northwestern University.  The transcription was made and posted on this website in 2013.

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.