Soprano  Susan  Dunn

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


A native of Bauxite, Arkansas, soprano Susan Dunn (born July 23, 1954) is completely American trained, having studied at Indiana University in Bloomington and then at the University of Illinois privately with the renowned coach and accompanist John Wustman. During the final years of her studies, Dunn began to attract the attention of the music world and also to win prestigious awards: the D’Angelo Young Artist Competition, the Metropolitan Opera National Council Award and the Opera Company of Philadelphia/Luciano Pavarotti International Vocal Competition, and then in 1983 three major honors – The Richard Tucker Award, Chicago’s WGN-Illinois Opera Competition and the Dallas Morning News-G.B. Dealey Award.

During her career, Dunn has achieved international success in Verdi, Wagner, Strauss and recital singing. She has demonstrated her gifts on the world’s most challenging stages: La Scala in Milan, where she made her debut in Aïda, New York’s Carnegie Hall, where she created a sensation in a concert performance of Act I of Wagner’s Die Walküre; at Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall where she appeared with the New York Philharmonic in the Verdi Requiem and Strauss’ Four Last Songs; with the Lyric Opera of Chicago as Leonora in Verdi’s La Forza del Destino; at Chicago’s Orchestra Hall in a concert performance of Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra; at the Vienna State Opera as Amelia in Un Ballo in Maschera and at the Australian Opera as Desdemona in Otello. She made her debut at the Metropolitan Opera in Il Trovatore in February of 1990.

Dunn has recorded an album of arias for London/Decca Records with Riccardo Chailly conducting. She sings Tove in London’s recording of Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder and appears on that label’s recording of Mahler’s Das Klagende Lied, all with Maestro Chailly conducting. In addition to Act I of Die Walküre (with Lorin Maazel conducting) recorded for the Telarc label, Dunn is also the soprano soloist in their release of the Verdi Requiem. This recording, with Robert Shaw and the Atlanta Symphony, was awarded the Grammy as the Album of the Year of 1988. Her staged performances of Giovanna d’Arco and I Vespri Siciliani from Bologna, again with Maestro Chailly, are also available on video.

Susan Dunn is Professor of the Practice of Music and Director of Opera in the Duke University Department of Music.


Susan Dunn at Lyric Opera of Chicago

1987-88 - Forza del Destino (Leonora), with Giacomini, Nucci, Kavrakos, Sharon Graham, Andreolli; Conlon, Maestrini, Samaritani, Schuler

1988-89 - Aïda (Aïda), with Giacomini/Lamberti, Zajick, Nimsgern, Giaotti; R. Buckley, Joël, Halmen, Schuler, Tallchief

Susan Dunn with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra
[Both concerts also featured the Chicago Symphony Chorus, directed by Margaret Hillis]

October, 1988 - Simon Boccanegra (Amelia), with Nucci, Aragall, Estes; Solti

July, 1989 [Ravinia Festival] - All Beethoven Concert Ah! Perfido and Symphony #9 with Mentzer, Heppner, Cheek; Conlon

--  Names which are links refer to my interviews elsewhere on my website.  BD  

This interview took place in January of 1988, during her first visit to Chicago.  As shown above, she would return for more Verdi, and a Beethoven concert at Ravinia.  

Our conversation was held in a dressing-room backstage, and was both serious and jolly.  She seemed pleased with the questions, and answered thoughtfully and honestly.

Here is that chat . . . . . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:   Leonora in La Forza Del Destino is one of the large Verdi roles.   Do you enjoy singing the big Verdi heroines?

Susan Dunn:   Oh, I love Verdi.  It’s my very favorite thing to do.  This one is a little more difficult that most of the others that I’ve been undertaking right now, but I’m still enjoying a lot.

BD:   Why is it more difficult than Aïda, which seems to be a bigger part?

SD:   Aïda is longer, but the pacing is the difficult part about Forza, because the most important part of my singing comes in what we play (here in Chicago) as the first act, which is really the first and second act as it’s written.  Then there’s a long rest where you can gather forces again, and do ‘Pace’ in the death scene.  But it’s very difficult.  There are ten high Bs.

dunn BD:   Those hold no terrors for you?

SD:   They’re difficult in the approach to them.  You’ve been singing for a long time, and singing in a difficult part of the voice, and then suddenly you have to pop out high Bs.  It’s difficult, and that is the scary part of Forza.

BD:   Do you ever wish that Verdi had written it a little differently?

SD:   Sometimes!  [Both laugh]  No, it’s very beautiful the way it’s written.  It’s very effective.

BD:   You do not sing at all in the middle act.  Do you let the voice cool down and rewarm it, or do you keep it going in the dressing room for all that time
the act, and two intermissions?

SD:   Usually I read a little bit, and calm myself down a little, and then warm up a bit before I get on stage for the last act.  So, I suppose I do let it cool down a little bit, if that’s what you call it, but it doesn’t have really a chance to do much more than just rest a little bit.  It’s not really cooling down.  It’s not that I have to warm up completely again, because you’ve sung so much in the first act.

BD:   Do you sing as much in the long first act as other complete operas?

SD:   No, I don’t think so.  Over all, this is one of the short parts in Verdi.  It’s just that the difficulty of the writing for the soprano makes it seem so much longer.

BD:   What makes it difficult besides just the high Bs all clustered together?

SD:   The part itself is paced in such a way that you sing all this very difficult music in a very short period of time.  Usually, the soprano in Verdi has one act in which she sings from the beginning of the act to the end of the act, but somehow it can be paced in such a way that she has quite a bit of recitative and several duets, and trios, and maybe one big aria.  But here there are two rather important arias in the first act
one rather extended oneand a big duet scene with Il Padre Guardiano.

BD:   So, Aïda is longer, but it’s better paced?

SD:   It feels that way when I’m singing it.  It is longer, but the Nile Scene, the whole third act, is the soprano’s bit.  Somehow, in the midst of it, it doesn’t seem quite as difficult as doing Forza!  [Laughs]  I can’t split them much better than that, but that’s the way it feels when you’re on stage doing it.

BD:   Did Verdi write particularly well for your voice?

SD:   [Thinks a moment]  I feel that way when I sing it.  It’s something my voice is particularly structured to sing.  He just had a good idea about what good vocal writing was, and it makes even the most difficult passages easier to sing than some other composers.

BD:   What’s so especially good about the Verdi?

SD:   The lines and recitatives are wonderful, the arching phrases, the wonderful high notes and the way they’re placed... I just like everything.  It’s difficult to choose what I really think is stunning about it.  It’s just Verdi, and that makes it wonderful.  I’m not sure I can explain it better than that.

BD:   Are all Verdi operas like this, or just the ones you’ve sung?  And, are there a few that you would never sing?

SD:   There are probably some I will not sing.  I probably will never sing Gilda, for instance, although people have suggested that I could.  Some of the early ones with quite a bit of fioritura in them might not be as successful for me, but overall, most of the soprano parts that he wrote I could probably sing.

BD:   Then, how do you decide which roles you will accept and which roles you will save for later?

SD:   Generally, at the beginning of a career it’s what offered to you.  It’s very practical.  Whatever’s offered that you feel that you can do, you jump in and learn.

BD:   [Emphasizing the detail]  That you feel you can do?

SD:   [Smiles]  That you feel you can do.  That’s probably the catch word there.

BD:   When you’re looking at it, how do you decide if you really can do it?  Is it just singing through the role, or is it looking at it, or maybe judging from historical reference?

SD:   It is somewhat from knowing the kinds of voices have sung it in the past.  Singing over the parts that you can predict will be very difficult for you lets you see if you can handle them in the beginning.  Also, it helps to know if the part is going to appeal to you, if it’s going to be something you understand and will be able to interpret well.  These are all things that go into making the decision.  Also, knowing if your voice is at the point where it is mature enough to undertake some of these roles. Those are all things that my coach and I think about when we begin to accept a new role.

BD:   So you’ve got lots of input?

SD:   Oh, yes.  Many people offer suggestions and advice, and that’s good.

BD:   [Skeptically]  Are all these suggestions good for you?

SD:   Well, maybe not!  [Both laugh]  But I still think it’s good to have lots of suggestions.  Then you can weed out from those, and make your own decision.  That is what’s difficult.  When you’re a young singer, and new in the business, it’s tricky sometimes, because we all want to accept as much as we can.  We love to perform.  That’s why we’re in this bus
iness.  So, when you’re offered something that’s exciting, in a place that’s exciting, and a new production with someone that you’ve wanted to work with, and a part that you dreamed of doing all your life, it’s difficult to stand back and really look at it, and not rush into it with your heart, but think about it with your head to know what is right for you.  That’s when it’s helpful to have advice from people that you trust.

BD:   People who are looking out for you?

SD:   Exactly.

BD:   Do they really look out for you?

SD:   I think so.  The people that I take advice from, I believe they really have my best interest at heart.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Do you sing differently from one house to another?

SD:   No, I don’t think so.   That’s a dangerous thing to do because we don’t hear our voices the way people out in the auditorium do.  Sometimes the feedback that you get from the house can be deceiving.  For instance, sometimes it’s a house where you don’t get a lot of your own voice back.  If you don’t hear it bounce back, you feel that you’re singing into a pillow, and then, if you try to push harder to make a bigger sound, you can really hurt yourself.  One of the early lessons that you learn is if you’re singing correctly, then you sing the same way wherever you go, and you don’t try to make any sort of adjustments for acoustics, because that’s really not a problem with your voice.  You can’t make acoustic adjustments because there’s a problem with the house that you’re singing in.  That’s vocal suicide.

dunn BD:   [With a gentle nudge]  And you’re looking for a long career...

SD:   Well, I hope so!  [Both laugh]

BD:   You don’t make adjustments for acoustics.  What about the size of the house?

SD:   Acoustics and size are, in my mind, the same, because in a smaller, more intimate house you’ll have the tendency to pull back on the voice more because you have the feeling that you’re really bouncing it off the back wall.  In a large house, you might not get all the feedback, but if you’ve been in an audience in a larger house, you’ll understand that what you hear coming back to you from out of the house is not necessarily the same thing the audience hears.  It’s difficult to learn that you cannot gauge what your voice sounds like from standing on the stage.  The audience really hears a totally different thing.  It’s an important lesson to learn, but a difficult one to learn.

BD:   What about the actual stage environment
the settings and backdrops?  Do you take advantage of large solid sets by singing in front of those when you can, or is that not possible because of staging?

SD:   Good stage directors will help you with that.  They all place you in good relationship to stages.  If you have to sing upstage or slightly off-stage, they’ll help you by placing you in an area on the stage so that it’s just easy to do.  Even in a house like the Lyric, it is possible to sing really right upstage, and because of a hard surface there, your voice will bounce back out into the auditorium.  It’s kind of scary sometimes to turn your back on the audience while singing, but it works.

BD:   You just have to have confidence?

SD:   You have to have confidence, and you have to go out into the house and listen to the other singers on stage, and realize that everyone’s projecting quite well.

BD:   Do you find that you’re more comfortable in a big house or a small house?

SD:   [Thinks a moment]  I’ve never thought about that.  I don’t know.  I’ve probably sung more in smaller opera houses, but I feel just as comfortable in the larger ones.  Acoustically, it’s a very good house here in Chicago, and I don’t ever feel that I’m not being heard.  It took me a while to learn that, because I went out into the house and listened to some of the other people on stage, and realized that they were really weren’t screaming.  They were just singing normally, and it was carrying beautifully all the way up and down, from the orchestra seats to the top balcony.

BD:   You’ve paid stage directors a compliment in saying they try to help you.  Are they really going to help you with the voice, or are they more interested in staging these days?

SD:   It depends on who the stage director is.  I believe most of them are interested in presenting the best product that they can.  In that sense, they know that since it’s opera, voices are very important, and they want to help you to get that across the footlights.  So, most of them are interested in helping you come across with your voice, as much as making pretty pictures on stage, or with the acting.

BD:   Obviously, you’ve never been burned.

SD:   [Laughing]  Oh, I wouldn’t say that...

BD:   When you’re deciding whether or not you’ll accept a production, do you look at who’s doing the direction?  Does that enter into it at all?

SD:   Not at this point, no.  It’s not something that the singer has a whole lot of control over.

BD:   In opera, where should the balance be between the music and the drama?

SD:   [Laughs]  Maybe it’s best to quote Verdi, who said an opera needs three things
voice, voice, and voice!  That is, of course, the musician’s standpoint.  The drama is very important, and you have to learn to act with your body as well as your voice.  That’s something we forget sometimes, and I’m trying to learn more about it as I go onto incorporate the interpretation with my voice into something that is physical, so that you can also see it as well as hear it.

BD:   Are the most of the ladies that you portray, victims, character-wise?

SD:   Hmmm...  Probably feminist philosophy would have it so, but I’m not sure it’s really true.

BD:   You’re a lovely young woman in the 1980s.  Do you have any trouble adjusting the women on stage with the women
and menthat are going to be in the audience, portraying these characters and bringing them to life?

SD:   No.  You have to accept the time that the opera was written, and not do any sort of revisionist performance.  I’m sure that my portrayal of these ladies is much different than the first women who portrayed these ladies, because they were contemporary with the person who wrote it, and their attitudes I’m sure were much different.  Most all of the women that I have portrayed by Verdi are strong people.  They may be victims in one sense, as Leonora certainly is a victim of fate.  It’s something that is much larger than she is.  She has no control over it, yet the choices she makes are strong ones, and that’s really true of all of the ladies I portray.  They’re very strong characters.  They’re women who represent everywoman, and they’re fascinating.  Each one has a lot of different sides.

BD:   Do you delve into as many sides as you possibly can when doing research?

SD:   I try to, and I try to put myself into the place of these women.  Maybe it alters how I would react from my standpoint, being an 1980s woman.  Thinking if I were in this situation when this opera was written, or maybe even when the opera was actually set, with all the clothing that she wore, and the attitudes about what was right or not right for a woman to do, then what would my reaction be?  In a way, I have to try to block out these 1980s feelings, and get back into the historical aspect of it.  It’s difficult to do, and I’m sure that it’s not possible to do totally.

BD:   You’re singing the same words and the same music, and yet your audience is listening and hearing with an extra 150 years of ideas, and progress.

SD:   Exactly, exactly.

BD:   Is singing fun?

SD:   I think so.  [Both laugh]  I like it a lot, especially when it goes well.  [More laughter]

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Do you do concerts as well as operas?

dunn SD:   I do recitals, and solo concerts, and oratorio, just a little bit of everything.

BD:   How do you balance it?

SD:   In the last couple of years, I’ve been doing quite a bit more opera than I did at the beginning of my career.  It’s good to intersperse a little bit of concert work and recital work with the opera, because it keeps flexibility in your thinking, and in your voice, too.  There are different challenges with everything you do.

BD:   You’ve made some recordings.  Do you sing differently for the microphone than you do in the theater?

SD:   I try not to.  Everyone who has ever worked on a recording realizes how nerve-wracking it is, and the tendency is not to consciously sing differently, but to be more safe because you want everything to be absolutely perfect.  When you’re under the gun on stage doing a performance, you are more free to throw yourself at it, and try to just do it as the moment goes by.  But when you think this is going down on tape, and it’s to be there for all posterity, and everyone’s going to listen to it, if it’s not absolutely note-perfectly in line, then they’re going to think I’m a terrible singer.  That may account for what some people call a slight coolness in comparing records to live performances.

BD:   Do you prefer one over the other?

SD:   It’s always wonderful to have documentation of what you sounded like at a certain point.  But right now, as far as enjoying one thing or the other, I actually like performance a lot more.

BD:   But I assume you’re pleased with the recordings that have come out?

SD:   Yes, overall.  Every singer tells me the same thing...  You finish a recording, and when you listen to it six months later, you think,
I’m so much better now than back then.  Why couldn’t I record it tomorrow?  Of course, if you heard it six months after you recorded it tomorrow, and you’d say the same thing!

BD:   You’ve just got to live with it?

SD:   Yes, and be happy that you do think you’re getting better all the time.  Maybe that’s the nice thing about it.

BD:   You’ve recorded the Verdi Requiem.  Is that an opera, really?  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown, see my interviews with Jerry Hadley, Paul Plishka, and Robert Shaw.]

SD:   I don’t think of it that way.  It’s very intensely religious for me, but I know that lots of people refer to it as his greatest opera.  Certainly, people who do not necessarily enjoy operatic works are less likely to enjoy the Verdi Requiem if they’re going to it thinking it’s an oratorio.  It’s very dramatic, but I always feel that it’s also very religious.

BD:   You’ve also recorded the Beethoven Mass in C [photo shown above].  How do those two religious works compare?

SD:   The Mass in C is much less dramatic, and it has much less work for the solo voice.  It’s a bit like most of Beethoven for the voice, as far as having a quartet that sings together as an ensemble, and then a choir that sings large pieces of it.

BD:   So it’s like a concerto grosso?

SD:   In a way.  The Verdi Requiem is very much full of solo work, duets, trios, and in that sense it is very operatic.

BD:   I understand there is also a solo recital also coming out?

SD:   Yes, I believe it’s in August of this year.

BD:   What’s on that?

SD:   Verdi arias, Beethoven’s Ah! Perfido, the Tannhäuser aria, and two pieces of Sieglinde from Die Walküre.

BD:   Do you see yourself moving gradually into more Wagner?

SD:   [Thinks a moment]  I must admit it holds an interest for me, but right now I don’t really feel that my voice is going in that direction.  Maybe ten years down the road I’ll change my mind, and decide I would really like to do it.  Right now, I’d really like to concentrate though on Italian, specifically Verdi, for the next few years.

dunn BD:   Let’s talk a little bit about Wagner and then we’ll go back to the Verdi.   You’ve sung the first act of Die Walküre in concert.  Is that a satisfying thing to do?

SD:   I really enjoyed it.  It’s also very dramatic music, and moves quickly.  It’s a beautiful part.  That, if anything, would draw me to singing Wagner.  I’d like to do Sieglinde on stage someday.

BD:   You had no trouble doing the concert, even though you hadn’t sung it on stage?

SD:   No, we had adequate rehearsal time.  I’ve done a lot of things first in concert and then transferred them to stage, so that’s not a really new experience for me.

BD:   Is that, perhaps, a good way to get all of the music down before you work on the staging?

SD:   You have to certainly be more sure of yourself if you’re doing it first in concert, because usually you don’t have the leisure of two or three weeks of rehearsal beforehand, and you don’t have what I call
muscle memory.  You don’t have movements in your mind that you did to correspond to certain parts in the opera, so you really have to have the music done well.  It’s good preparation if you intend to do it on the stage later.

BD:   Besides the Tannhäuser aria, have you done any other Wagner arias or excerpts?

SD:   I did Gutrune in Götterdämmerung in Dallas a few years ago, and that’s really my only other essay into Wagner.  [This was in 1985, conducted by Berislav Klobucar, and had Johanna Meier as Brünnhilde, Wolfgang Neumann as Siegfried, William Wildermann as Hagen, Waltraud Meier as Waltraute, Victor Braun as Gunther, and Marius Rintzler as Alberich.  Dunn, by the way, also sang the Third Norn.]

BD:   With that, you’re going to just leave it alone for a while?

SD:   I’ll drop it for a few years...

BD:   ...because you’re going to be flooded with offers.

SD:   Yes, I have been.  I’ve had several offers to do Tristan und Isolde, and different things like that.

BD:   How difficult is it to say no?

SD:   I don’t find it very difficult to say no, because I really believe that you don’t gain anything by doing something badly.  You only are helped in your career if you do things well.  I believe in challenges, but I don’t believe in undertaking something that when it’s not mentally, physically, and spiritually ready to do.  I just know at this point in my career I’m not ready to do Wagner, so it really hasn’t been a problem, although I’ve had some very persuasive people ask me to do it.  [Laughs]

BD:   Are they concerned only about their house and their audience, or they have any concern for you?

SD:   No, I believe that once it’s explained to them the reasons I’ve decided not to do it, most of them understand, and they support me in that decision.

BD:   Do they then offer you things that are better for you?

SD:   Most of them have, yes.

BD:   What’s the role you’ve sung most?

SD:   Leonora in Trovatore.  I have done that about twelve times, and then comes in Elena in The Sicilian Vespers.

BD:   A lesser known Verdi.

SD:   A lesser known, but very beautiful.  I’m a real fan of that opera.

BD:   Would you ever sing that one in the original French?

SD:   I am not really interested in doing Verdi in French.  I don’t speak French, and it’s not something that really appeals to me.  Even though that’s the original language, it doesn’t strike me that it loses anything in Italian translation, because, after all, he was Italian, and I’m convinced he still heard it in Italian no matter what language it was he was writing in.

BD:   Do you like this new gimmick of having the supertitles in the theater?

SD:   I think it’s really helpful.  I have been to some performances with supertitles, and I’ve always enjoyed them.  I found them helpful.  At something that you know, you may not feel the need to watch them, but they’re there if you really want to tune into them, and keep track of what is being said as it goes along.  Most people I’ve talked to have enjoyed them.

BD:   Do you sing any opera in translation?

SD:   I began my career singing Verdi in English translation.  It’s just very difficult to re-learn it in a different language.  I didn’t really enjoy learning that much in English.  I don’t think the works gain that much from being sung in translation.

BD:   You don’t feel more closeness with the audience?

SD:   No, because I don’t think most people can tune into the words and make sense out of them as they go along.  Otherwise why would Italians need librettos when they go to the opera to hear something in Italian?  It’s just a fact of opera that it’s very difficult to catch all the words as they go by.  So, I don’t feel it gains anything.  Of course, if it’s originally written in English, it needs to be performed in English.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   In opera, where’s the balance between art and entertainment?

SD:   I would hope that for the singers the art is the most important part.  Obviously, the audience has to be entertained, but that’s a difficult question.

dunn BD:   Does the balance, perhaps, shift from some operas to other operas?

SD:   That’s a possibility.  If you mean in the sense of the artists taking it very seriously, and trying to be more interested in recreating these roles and doing the things the composer intended, and being true to the art form, then I would say art always comes out on top.  The term ‘Entertainment’ has bad connotations in our language, and I don’t necessarily think it should.  Something can be full of art and also entertaining without making it cheap.

BD:   What do you feel is the purpose of opera in society?

SD:   As with most art, the purpose is to uplift, to teach us something, to make us feel better of ourselves.  When people are feeling bad, I hope they can come to the opera and go away feeling good about something
themselves, or what they’ve just seenthat lifts their worries for a little while.  I really believe that’s the main purpose of all art.

BD:   What if they come already ‘up’?

SD:   Then maybe they should go away an appreciation of something beautiful.

BD:   [With a gentle nudge]  I’m hoping you feel that opera is more than just therapeutic.

SD:   [Smiles]  Yes, I do.  Anything beautiful is there to be appreciated, and if it’s uplifting, or if it takes your mind off your troubles, or if it just makes you feel good about yourself, or if it’s just something that when you’re in a good mood you want to go and see a beautiful painting or hear an opera, then it’s served its purpose.

BD:   Do you sing any comic roles?

SD:   I haven’t.  I’d love to someday.  There aren’t a lot of comic roles in Verdi, but I would like to someday branch out and do some things that are a bit lighter.

BD:   You’re not limiting yourself just to Verdi?

SD:   No, no, but there’s a lot of Verdi to be sung, and I do enjoy doing it right now.  I would like for the next few years maybe to just concentrate on Verdi.

BD:   Do you ever want to make your way through his entire canon?

SD:   That would be wonderful!  [Much laughter]  I’m not sure it’s possible, but it would be wonderful.

[At this point, another singer could be heard warming up in the dressing-room next door.]

BD:   Do you sing better on stage when you have better colleagues?  Or does it really matter?

SD:   It’s always fun to sing with other people that enjoy themselves as much as I do.  When we are having a good night, and everyone’s singing well, and the performance is doing wonderfully, there’s a special kind of magic in the theater for everyone.  I’m not sure that you sing better if your colleagues are better, but you probably enjoy yourself a little bit more.

BD:   You’ve sung at many of the big houses, including La Scala.  Are the audiences different from house to house, or country to country?

SD:   A little bit.  American audiences are notorious for not being as demonstrative as Italians are.  I wouldn’t necessarily count that against the American audiences, because the Italian demonstrations and affection can also be balanced by equal demonstrations of dislike, and that’s very unpleasant to be involved in
even when it’s toward another singer.  Audiences around the world show their approval in different ways.  That’s the main thing you have to get used to.  If you go to a place where they’re not quite as ready to whistle, and shout, and stamp their feet, then sometimes you’re not quite sure that they liked it as much as the people who will assure you that they did like it a lot.  If you’re used to being in a place where people really clap, and stomp, and yell, and cry out your name, sometimes that can affect you a little bit.

dunn BD:   Do you ever feel that opera’s becoming a contest in those places?

SD:   [Laughs]  Oh, I hope not a contest, no!  Maybe it’s not the opera that’s the contest, but the singers are in competition with each other.  [More laughter]  No, I really don’t think that’s it.  They’re only on competition with themselves.

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

SD:   No, because I probably have heard more recordings than I’ve heard live performances.  But most people that listen to recordings and have gone to a lot of performances realize there is a big difference.  Most times, performances will be more exciting because you never know what’s going to happen.  That’s the excitement.  You’re pretty assured on a recording that it’s going to be a perfect performance in the sense that no one’s going to blow a high note, and the orchestra is always going to be with the singers, etc.  This is not the way it always happens in the house.

BD:   Are records sometimes too perfect?

SD:   No, I wouldn’t make that criticism of them.  They do, however, set up unreal expectations.  As I walk on stage, it’s sometimes difficult for me to accept that I cannot do an absolutely perfect performance.  It’s not that I’ve never done one, or ever will do one, but they’re never going to be on the same level as a recording of the same piece would be.  It’s much easier to sing something once through without stopping and having to do a phrase in the studio fifty times in a row.  You just can’t maintain that same sort of energy.  No one can.  The orchestra can’t do it the same way every time, and the conductor can’t conduct it the same way every time, with the same sort of feeling.  You reach a point where you’re just too tired to go on.

BD:   What about on television?  Do you think the opera works well on the small screen?

SD:   I don’t have much experience with that.  I’ve always enjoyed those things that I’ve seen on television.  Sometimes I do think it’s an art form that’s a little big for such a small television screen.  [Both laugh]

BD:   Might it work better on the
silver screen’ in a movie house?

SD:   It might, but it really works best on a stage.

BD:   So you’re a traditionalist?

SD:   Maybe I am.  I never thought of it that way.  As I say, I’ve always enjoyed the ones that have been on television, but when I look at them, I think maybe if they’d been staged originally to be on television rather than taken straight from the stage, it might work just a little bit better.  We who enjoy opera are used to the way things look on an operatic stage, and we accept them the way they look on television.  But maybe somebody who’s used to watching television shows all the time
or plays and moviesmight look at these opera singers performing on an operatic stage singing, and they might wonder what a funny contortion they’re doing with their mouths.  Why is it that way?  Why doesn’t it look pretty and sanitized the way the television shows do?  I’m not sure that’s a possibility for opera.

BD:   Should we try to get the people who watch television a lot, into the theater to see opera?

SD:   I don’t think it would hurt them.  [Laughs]  It certainly wouldn’t hurt the opera coffers.  I’ve never believed that opera is an elitist art form.  It was originally for the people, and it still is.  Most people are afraid of it the way they are afraid of a lot of other art. 
I don’t understand paintings, but I like that one,” is the sort of thing that applies to almost any art.  Most people that have come to operas because they’re friends of mine are not involved in opera.  They don’t know what it’s about and they don’t understand the language, but they come away surprised and pleased that they did enjoy it.  It’s a phobia that keeps most of these people away rather than the fact that they really don’t like it or enjoy it.

BD:   Then will they come and enjoy it and see something that you’re not in?

SD:   [Sighs]  I don’t know.  Most of them probably not, but I’m still not convinced that the only reason they enjoyed it was because I was on stage.  Most of them enjoy the singing, or are surprised that it doesn’t sound as false and phony as they thought it was going to.  They enjoyed the drama, and the color, and pageantry, and everything about it.  Most people really are afraid of it because they don’t understand what it’s about.  They don’t think they understand what the proper response to it is, and that probably is the worst phobia of all.  They don’t trust themselves to respond in a way that’s appropriate.

BD:   Should they learn opera manners, or should they just be themselves?

SD:   I feel they should just be themselves.  If they like it, just do whatever they feel is right.  Go ahead and scream and yell the same as if they went to a Country Music show, or a football game.  If they’re enjoying it, do what comes naturally.

BD:   What about contemporary works?  Do you sing any new operas?

SD:   I haven’t done very much contemporary music.  I’ve done a couple of Britten operas, and I’m premiering a new song cycle in Frankfurt in the fall by Mark Neikrug.  It’s a group of songs with orchestra, set to Eichendorff poems.  So, I dabble a little in it.

BD:   What advice do you have for someone who would like to write operas?

SD:   Learn the voice well!  That’s the really basic thing.  If you intend to write for voice, like any other instrument you must know it very well.  You can’t approach it as just another instrument.  It has colors and possibilities the same way a violin has colors and possibilities.  You can’t write for the voice the same way you write for a violin, just as you can’t write for a violin the same way as you write for a French horn.  They each have different possibilities.

BD:   Are you optimistic about the future of opera?

SD:   [Sighs]  For the immediate future, I guess I am.  I know it gets more and more expensive to do, and that’s a problem because the more expensive it gets, the more elitist it will become, and that’s a little sad.

BD:   Even though it has this tremendous exposure with all the records and television?

SD:   It’s a lot less expensive to buy a record than to go and hear an opera, and people might buy one recording of an opera, and never set a foot in the opera house, which is kind of sad.

BD:   Should we make it a package deal
buy a record get a pair of tickets at the same time?

SD:   [Laughs]  That’s a marketing idea.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Let’s talk about a couple of roles specifically.   You’re involved now in La Forza del Destino so that’s the freshest in your mind.  What kind of a woman is Leonora?

SD:   Of all the Verdi heroines I have done, this is one of the hardest to get a handle on because essentially the opera is about events rather than people.  It’s been said by other people that all the action happens in the very first scene, and the rest of the opera is merely a reaction to that one cataclysmic happening.  So, in a sense she’s a victim of fate, and is not totally successful in avoiding any of the problems that she’s gotten herself into with this affair that she’s wanted to have with Don Alvaro.  She begins the opera being a weak person in the sense that she can’t choose between this great love that she has for Don Alvaro, and the great love that she has for her father and her country.  That is what sets up the whole action of the opera, because she dithers so much in that first scene that eventually she manages to cause the death of her father.  But I believe that her problem was that she loved her father so much that she wanted him to know that she was leaving with Don Alvaro.  She wanted there to be a confrontation, and somewhat of resolution in which the father would bless the union, knowing in her heart that it was never going to happen.

BD:   If she had it all to do over again, how would she change that first scene, or the events preceding the first scene?

dunn SD:   I’m not sure it’s possible for her to have changed any of that.  That’s the fate part of it.  In looking at it again, I don’t think she’s weak.  It’s just that she’s uncertain about this futureto leave her father and leave her home, that she’s no longer living a lie.  She can go away with this man that she probably hasn’t known for very long, to a new country and an uncertain life.  She’s very young, and she’s going through the phase of growing away from her home, and maybe if she had been older when all this happened it would have been easier for her.  But for her at that time, there was no other way for it to happen.

BD:   This sort of parallels the situation of Aïda.

SD:   In a way, that’s happened to her already
being exiled from her country, and being in a strange land, and falling in love with the person who is not of her country, and not of her race.

BD:   Have the decisions that Aïda makes been the right ones?

SD:   I’m not sure they would be the ones that I would make in the same circumstances, but for her they are the right ones.  It’s the only choice she has, because she doesn’t feel that she can live without this man.  Whether I believe that’s true or not is not really germane to the point.  It’s what she believes.

BD:   But you’ve got to make the audience believe that you believe it.

SD:   That’s true.

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

SD:   At the very best of times, I become that character.  That’s not always possible, for whatever reason, but when the performance is going very well, and things are perfect, I really can become the character.

BD:   Does it take you a long time, then, to throw it off once you get back into the dressing room?

SD:   No, it’s a very clear-cut thing.  When you walk off the stage you’re yourself again.  [Both laugh]

BD:   Like going through a mystic veil?

SD:   Yes, something like that.

BD:   Are there any characters that are perhaps a little too close to your real self?

SD:   I’ve been told that the most difficult characters to portray on stage are the ones that you’re most like; that it’s much easier to assume the character of someone who’s mile and miles away from your own personality.  I don’t know that there are any that are close to me.  They’re all probably much bigger women, more noble, at least all the ones that I’ve portrayed so far.  They’re much more complex than I am as a person.

BD:   Are you growing more complex in your personal life?

SD:   I think so.  Every year helps me as a person, and also helps me in my career.  The more things you live through, the more things you experience, the more sad times you have, the more happy times you have, all have a bearing on how you interpret a role.

BD:   Let’s talk a little bit about the other Leonora, the lady in Il Trovatore.  It’s the one you’ve done most often.  What kind of woman is she?

SD:   A young girl, and she’s very impetuous.

BD:   Too impetuous?

SD:   Maybe a bit, but again, it’s not possible for her to be any other way.  She’s a young woman who’s in love with a mysterious stranger, and being partly pursued by someone she can’t stand.  So, it’s difficult to see how she could make any other choices but the ones she does make.  She’s probably very religious, as a young girl would be in those times, and the choices she makes are very difficult ones.  But again, I don’t think she has any choice.  They’re not things that she probably could have done any differently.  It’s not a time when she could have moved out of the castle and gotten a job at McDonald’s, and waited for the Troubadour to settle things with Mom, and come back and marry her.  She really was in the situation she was in.  Maybe there were other choices, but she does not see them.

BD:   Are you glad you’re living now and not back then?

SD:   [Laughs]  If my life were like any of these operatic heroines, I’m glad I’m living now!

BD:   [With a gentle nudge]  No suicidal tendencies?

SD:   No, I don’t think so!  [More laughter]

BD:   How do you reconcile home life with the stage life?  Is it difficult to go travelling all over the world?

SD:   It’s something that I enjoy.

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

SD:   That’s a fair question.  Yes, I do.  I enjoy travelling.  I like going back to places that I’ve been before, because there’s a sense of familiarity.  We all, who are in this travelling business, learn to take a little bit of home with us everywhere we go.  For me, my phone bills are quite large because I call my sister, I call my parents, and I call my friends so that I have a support system.  It’s as if I were living in one place and had my family around me.  I use the phone a lot to keep up with them.

BD:   Hurray for AT&T!

SD:   [Laughs]  Exactly.

BD:   Is it more difficult for you, being a woman, than if you were a man singer doing the same kind of thing?

SD:   I don’t think so.  It’s difficult on everyone... maybe in the sense that it might be easier for a man to take his wife with him everywhere he went.  I think it would be a little more difficult to find a man who is willing to travel all over the world with his wife just being Mr. Dunn.

BD:   If you could find one like that, would you want kind of life?

SD:   I don’t know.  I haven’t settled that yet in my mind.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Another of your characters is Elena in The Sicilian Vespers.  Tell me a bit about her.

dunn SD:   She’s a hostage in a foreign country, and has been through the death of her brother at the hands of a tyrant.  She’s most bound up in vengeance for her brother. and maybe because she’s in love with Arrigo, she’s adopted the country of Sicily as her own, and functions as an insider.  She’s constantly trying to get the Sicilians to take charge of their own affairs, rise up and throw out this foreign government.  She’s a little hot-headed, and tends to do things without thinking them through very thoroughly.  Considering the rather precarious position that she’s in, she gets herself into a lot of trouble to the point of almost having her head chopped off.

BD:   Does she get massacred at the end along with everyone else?

SD:   She doesn’t die at the end, actually, which is maybe her tragedy.  She knows what’s going to happen because Procida has told her that as soon as the wedding bells signal, there’s going to be an uprising, and all French people will be killed.  Since Arrigo has claimed Montforte as his father, he is now considered French rather than Sicilian, although he’s half French and half Sicilian.  So, she realizes that he will be included in this group of people who will be killed, and tries to get them not to proclaim the marriage.  Of course, the bells do ring and everyone’s killed, and she’s left standing with all these dead people at her feet.

BD:   Does she wish she was among the dead?

SD:   Somehow, I think of her as the real winner.  She’ll walk away from that tragedy and go onto something greater.  It will stop her for a while, but she’s strikes me as being a strong enough person to overcome that.

BD:   Is she a Calamity Jane, that wherever she goes she’s going to cause massacres?

SD:   [Laughs]  Oh, I hope not!  That would be really sad.

BD:   When you’re on stage, are you pulling for these women?

SD:   Yes, I do, because I think they’re all worthwhile people, and they really are doing the best they can in difficult circumstances.  I am hoping every night that something different happens, and Leonora doesn’t, in fact, get stabbed by her brother when she goes off stage, or maybe the wedding bells misfire and Elena doesn’t have to stand midst of all this massacre.  In the end, I suppose the opera has to be like it is, because without the conflict the opera has no meaning.

BD:   You couldn’t have a happy opera for a while?

SD:   I suppose we could, but the
force of destiny is such that the whole culture has to be wiped out at the end of the opera.  So, we’d have to find some other way for Daddy to kick off if he didn’t die in the gun incident.

BD:   Do you schedule yourself enough time off?

SD:   I try to.  I’m going to be busy for the next couple of months.  I go from here to Dallas, and then from Dallas to Santiago to do Trovatore, and then I have quite a bit of time off until the middle of May.  I try to schedule enough time in between to learn new roles, rest, and get my mind collected, to come back to the twentieth century!  [Both laugh]

BD:   Thank you so much for spending this time with me today.  I wish you lots of continued success.

SD:   Thank you very much.

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© 1988 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in Chicago on January 27, 1988.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB a few days later, and again the following fall, and in 1994 and 1999.  This transcription was made in 2019, and posted on this website at that time.  My thanks to British soprano Una Barry for her help in preparing this website presentation.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.

Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, 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.