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
Susan Dunn with the
Chicago Symphony Orchestra
1987-88 - Forza del Destino
Giacomini, Nucci, Kavrakos, Sharon Graham
, Maestrini, Samaritani
1988-89 - Aïda
(Aïda), with Giacomini/Lamberti,
Giaotti; R. Buckley
Joël, Halmen, Schuler, Tallchief
[Both concerts also featured the Chicago Symphony Chorus, directed
by Margaret Hillis
- Simon Boccanegra
(Amelia), with Nucci, Aragall, Estes
July, 1989 [Ravinia Festival] - All Beethoven Concert Ah!
and Symphony #9
, Heppner, Cheek;
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
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
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 one —
and a big duet scene with Il Padre Guardiano.
BD: So, Aïda is longer, but it’s
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
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
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?
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
* * *
BD: Do you sing differently from one house
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
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
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 on — to 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 men
— that 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?
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
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.
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
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
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
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
SD: Yes, I have been. I’ve had
several offers to do Tristan und Isolde, and different things
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
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
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.
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 seen — that 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
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.
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
BD: Do you ever feel you’re in competition
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 movies — might 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
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
SD: [Laughs] That’s a marketing
* * *
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?
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
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 future — to
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
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
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
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
SD: No, I don’t think so! [More
BD: How do you reconcile home life
with the stage life? Is it difficult to go travelling all over
SD: It’s something that I enjoy.
BD: Do you like the life of a wandering
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.
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
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
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.
© 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.
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.