Mezzo - Soprano  Sandra  Warfield

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


In March of 1988, I had the privilege of meeting James McCracken and Sandra Warfield in a quiet and peaceful room in their club.  We had conversations about their careers, and their views on music and other topics of mutual interest.  Portions of each chat were presented on WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago, along with some of their recordings.

The interview with the tenor was also transcribed, and published in The Opera Journal, and can be read by clicking the link above.  Now, this second one is also available in print-form on this webpage.

Having just completed my visit with the tenor, the mezzo arrived and settled in for our talk.  She was enthusiastic, and quite happy to answer my questions.

Here is that delightful encounter . . . . .

warfield BD:   Now I get to meet the other half of the family!

Sandra Warfield:   Right, yes!  Of course, the biggest half is our daughter... well, I shouldn’t say that, as she wouldn’t like that since she’s a little overweight.  [Laughter]  But she’s really quite a force.

BD:   Is she the most important thing in your life?

SW:   Oh, yes, in both of our lives.

BD:   [With a gentle nudge]  More important than singing?

SW:   [With a demure smile]  Well, yes.  If you have children, you have to put it down to that certainly.  [More laughter]

BD:   When she was growing up, did you try to get her interested in opera, or did you purposely get her to stay away from it?

SW:   No, we didn’t really push her either way.  She felt like coming to performances even when she was a little tiny child.  She used to come, and I did have the opportunity of having her on the stage once in Amahl and the Night Visitors.  There was no one to baby-sit, so we had her on the stage as an extra child.  I don’t know how many people had two children in Amahl, but we did!  [Much laughter]

BD:   Amahl is a crippled boy, and perhaps Menotti would have approved of you having another one in the cradle.

SW:   Yes, well, why not?  So we did that, and she loved it.  She still remembers it, but she came to whatever she liked... although sometimes, when she was very small, I did take her away from the fourth act of Otello.  I thought it was just too strong for her at the time, but now I realize some of the things that were very strong in her imagination.  When I used to do so many Carmens, all her school children and teachers wondered what kind of a mother she had [more laughter] who could say things like that, and look like that.  Considering all the things I had to do to be a good Carmen, that did make a big impression on her.

BD:   In all of these roles that you sing, do you draw your inspiration from the characters on the page, or are they from real life?

SW:   You have to look at what’s on the page, and then you relate it.  Somehow, you also have to bring it into experience from your own real life.  Somewhere along the line you may have to find an identification in there, which isn’t difficult with Carmen, because all women have some of that in them.

BD:   [Surreptitiously moving slightly away]  Really???  [Still more laughter]

SW:   Didn’t you know that???  [Continued laughter]

BD:   Do all people have a little bit of all these characters in them?

SW:   When I say characters, I mean the basic strong moments.  Take Azucena and her love for her child.  The fact is that it wasn’t her child, and yet how much she learned to love that child in order to take the place of her own child.  There’s certainly a basic human character right there.  Samson and Delilah is very difficult one, and that happened to be one of our biggest things together.

BD:   Why was it difficult?

SW:   Because you just can’t really believe that such great music
like ‘My Heart at Thy Sweet Voice’, that fantastic beautiful melody, with its sweetness, and soaring, and beautiful expressivenesswas really done under false circumstances.  That’s really hard.  You have to color that in your mind.  I actually used to believe that.  In order to motivate me, I always believed that she was attracted to Samson, that she did feel a lot for him, but, on the other hand, she was strong in her religion.  The priest had great power over her, and so she did what she felt was her duty.  But it wasn’t altogether motivated all the way through.  If you look, you might decide that no, this was a very conniving and cunning woman who wanted just to make herself big in the eyes of her people.  So that was hard to quite know which way to put it, and where to put the actual belief in love, or in the actual belief of the religion.

BD:   Do you feel that she regretted having to do what she did?

SW:   You don’t have a chance to feel that, because in the last act she stands right there and taunts him when he’s blind.  She was really a very base character.  What kind of a baser character could you have than that?  [Laughs]  So it was a difficult woman to portray because she had to be beautiful, she had to sing these gorgeous melodic lines which had to sound sincere as if from the heart, and at the same time, she obviously was not a good woman.

BD:   Were most of the characters that you played these kinds of cruel people?

SW:   No.  I never felt Azucena was cruel.  I never felt that at all.  I really thought that character was very understandable, even though all the critics said she is a crazy mixed-up woman.  I didn’t feel that way.

BD:   She’s not a loony?

SW:   Not at all... not any more than anybody else would be who had suffered through what she had suffered through.  Orpheus was a gorgeous character, a beautiful character, as was Leonora in La Favorita.  In Aïda there’s Amneris.  There’s a woman whose feeling you simply take from her situation.  From anyone’s life, what will you do with jealousy eating at you?  Look what she did, but you can’t say that she’s a cruel woman, actually.  She’s just not able to contain her emotions.


BD:   Throughout the years of your career, you’ve been offered many roles.  How did you decide which ones you would accept, and which ones you would either postpone or decline?

SW:   I don’t think I declined very many.  I enjoyed them all, and most of them I felt able to do.  I can’t think of any, except one of the Donizettis I was asked to do with Caballé in Barcelona.  I think it was Roberto Devereux, but I just can’t quite remember exactly.  I thought that I wouldn’t be able do it at that time.  I just didn’t feel right.  I was very busy, and saw it was going to take enormous work with all the coloratura involved.  Although I had done La Favorita, and had really good success with that, I thought I had better decline this other one.  But it was wonderful that they asked, because Caballé heard me sing Trovatore.  I sang Trovatore with her, and they called me to ask me if I’d do it, which I thought was wonderful.  I wanted to do it really great if I did it, but I just didn’t have the time to work on it.

BD:   Did you adjust your technique at all for large houses and small houses?

SW:   You could sing a bit softer in a smaller house than you can in the large house, and unfortunately I maybe didn’t know that as much as I should have known it.  I used to have a fantastic way of singing soft, and I thought it carried into the furthest reaches.  It does, but you have to have more presence in a big house.  A little more of the mezza voce, yes, but I should probably have used less of that pianissimo.  Although, Jimmy can take tremendous, almost pianissimo.  This is not a falsetto but a mezza voce, and it just goes ping.  There are marvelous voices that you can hear to the very end, but a mezzo is expected to have more body, so probably I should not have used that.

BD:   Do you like being a mezzo soprano?

SW:   Oh, I enjoy it very much.

BD:   No latent desires to be a soprano?

SW:   Never, although now that I’m teaching our daughter, she is a soprano, and when I work with her, she’s sung some of these roles.  Considering the acting and the great music that the sopranos have, if I had thought along those lines, I might have wished to do them.  I could have probably been a soprano at one time if I’d worked at it.

BD:   It seems like so many mezzos are trying to be sopranos when they’re really not.

SW:   When they’re really not, yes.  I think that’s too bad, but there are some sopranos right now who say they were always sopranos.  They just simply got caught doing mezzo roles early on.  Take Gwyneth Jones, for instance.  She was doing mezzo parts.  When we were in Zurich, she was understudying Orpheus.  She did the role, and then suddenly her coach said, 
“This is not a mezzo-soprano, this is a soprano, definitely, there’s no doubt.  There are so many different opinions about Shirley Verrett.  I personally think she’s fantastic.  Some people have never seen her do Aïda, but I think if they were to see her do it, they could be convinced that this woman is really a soprano.  On the other hand, she did a fantastic Azucena not too long ago at the Met, so she can do it all.  There’s nothing wrong.  All the best voices used to do that.

BD:   Are the great voices today comparable to the great voices of yesterday and the day before?

SW:   I don’t know really.  How far back do you want go?  We don’t have any Zinka Milanovs exactly, do we?  I don’t really know about this mystique for the voices that were further beyond the ones that I’ve heard.  I can’t tell that from the recordings.  A lot of people seem to be able to, but I can’t really say.  I will say that with Rosa Ponselle you can hear something there that is just unbelievable, and I guess we wouldn’t have anybody to compare with that.  But that’s just one, and it doesn’t happen every time.

BD:   Is every singer unique?

SW:   I would say so, yes.  Everybody has their own special God-given gifts.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   You’ve made some recordings...

SW:   Some, yes.

warfield BD:   Are you pleased with the ones that you’ve made?

SW:   Yes.  We did one we particularly liked, our duet album where we do our opera duets together.  I think that’s good.  I spoke to somebody the other day who had found one. They’re hard to find, and he said he was so happy with it.  [Remember, this conversation was recorded in 1988, during the last days of the LP, just before the onslaught of CD re-issues.]  He was enjoying it so much, and it made me happy to know that.

BD:   Is it always special to sing in performances with your husband?

SW:   Oh, I enjoy that.  We both did, and we still love it, we really do.  It’s fun.

BD:   Tell me about these duet recitals that you give now.

SW:   We do a really marvelous program, at least we try to vary it very much.  We start out with some nice art songs, and some duets by Purcell or Dvořák.  Things like that aren’t heard too often, and they have some marvelous things in that repertoire for duets for soprano, or mezzo-soprano, and tenor.  We do a group like that, and then I do a group of art songs of French, Italian, German, and he does some fabulous Irish songs, which no one would believe that this enormous voice could do because he has this parlando way.  He just speaks them, and they are great.  Then we end the half with another duet.  By the way, now we’re talking crossover.  I usually do ‘Memories’ or something from Candide.  ‘Memories’ has been a very big hit on the program, as they love that.  Then the last section is devoted completely to opera.  It’s fun.  The ending is always the last act of Carmen.  We’ll also do Trovatore, and Samson & Delilah.  I’ll do a couple of arias, and he’ll do a couple of arias, and then the three duets, so it’s a nice program for everybody, not just esoteric or anything like that... not something you do at Carnegie Hall!  [Laughs]

BD:   Is opera for everyone?

SW:   Opera is for everyone.  I would certainly say so.  We see that so much.  People who have never been to opera will come and see something, and they just have a whole new world opened up to them.  I believe it’s for everyone if they’ll allow themselves to give themselves that chance.

BD:   Is the television helping by bringing it into everyone’s home?

SW:   I definitely think so, I really do.  This is where Jimmy and I have big discussions about the subtitles.  They are very, very helpful.  People know exactly what is being said and what is happening at that time, and it just is marvelous for them.  Seeing it on television is marvelous.  It brings it right into their homes.

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

SW:   Yes, I like it, but Jimmy doesn’t because he says it takes it away from the stage.  You look up, you look down, but most people can look up and down very quickly.  You’re not going to miss that much in the action, and, in fact, often the action will be explained because of having seen exactly what is happening at that moment.  It makes so much sense to me.  I like it very much.

BD:   Do you prefer to have the titles in the theater, or would you rather have the opera done in translation?

SW:   No, I think not in translation.  Singing in English is not good.  You cannot understand the words as much as you would like to.  If it’s on a big stage like the Metropolitan, you are not going to understand the words, and you’re going to be straining to hear the words.  You catch a word here and there, so you want to hear the words, and before you know it, you’re really not hearing the music.  It’s the music that you want to hear and know what it’s about.  So, I think they’ve got the best of both worlds with the titles.

BD:   Is opera art or is opera entertainment?

SW:   I think it’s both.

BD:   Then where is the balance?

SW:   That’s a hard question.  You’d have to qualify what is art other than entertainment.  I think art is something that anyone should be able to enjoy.  That is the meaning of art in its highest form.  Let’s just say the difference between art and entertainment would be probably that art is a much higher form of entertainment.  It appeals to your highest senses, to your inner most spiritual senses, whereas entertainment could be just something that is here today and gone in ten minutes.  But art could also be entertaining because you enjoy it, and certainly you should enjoy anything that’s an experience of the senses.  There is nothing better than music and beauty.

*     *     *     *     *

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

SW:   I think I become the character for that time, I really do.  It’s not difficult for me to do that if I can truly think that character through, and know the meaning for every reason
why she is saying this, and why those phrases are coming.  I need to know the reason behind all of that, and I always go through that first.  Then, I become the character, and it’s me saying these words, and singing these phrases.  It is me, the person who I’m playing, not me, Sandra Warfield.

BD:   Are there any other characters that you’ve sung that are maybe a little too close to the real Sandra Warfield?

SW:   [Laughs]  No!  I managed to handle them all as best I could.

BD:   Did you do any comic operas?

SW:   I did some.  I love comic operas.  When I first came into the Met, I was doing all the comprimario parts, and I had to do things like Marcellina in Figaro, and Berta in The Barber of Seville.  Little comical things like that, and Martha in Faust I did at one time.  I love to do comedy, but unfortunately I did not do too much.  The only thing I’ve missed is Falstaff.  I should have really gotten into that, but I never was asked for Quickly.  I think it would have been nice to have done that.  I never put myself forward as that.  You’d have to say, “I’m studying Quickly now, and I’d like to do it somewhere.”  But I didn’t do that.

BD:   It seems that the mezzos who wind up doing leading roles tend to be the evil-type characters.

SW:   Yes!  Mezzos are the evil ones, usually.  Somehow others say they are evil, but I don’t see them that way.  Amneris is supposed to be evil, but I don’t see her as evil.  I see her as a human being who has allowed herself to be overcome by her emotions of jealousy.  I don’t see her as evil, standing there absolutely deliberately being mean.  I don’t see that.

warfield BD:   What advice do you have for the younger singers coming along today?

SW:   If possible, they should go to Europe, and if possible, they should find themselves a place in a theater where they can do their roles over and over.  This is what Jimmy and I did when we went to Europe.  I don’t really think it’s possible to find the way to just step on the stage, do a part once a year, and then consider that you’re really able to say this is my part.  You just can’t do it that way.  You have to do them over and over.  You have to live with them, and that’s only possible in some of the smaller theaters in Europe.

BD:   They should go there, and eventually come back?

SW:   Oh, absolutely.  Then they’re so much more equipped to come back than someone who’s never stood on the stage, and suddenly they’re thrown onto the Metropolitan.  That’s not fair to anyone.  It’s not right.  We should have some places like that, and we do have a few now, such as Santa Fe, and we are getting more.  But most of the opera companies in America will use big singers.  They won’t use a beginner, so they almost have to go to Europe if possible.  That’s my opinion.

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

SW:   I think Carmen.

BD:   Tell me about her.

SW:   One can hardly speak about Carmen.  Everyone has such a different idea about her.

BD:   Has your idea of Carmen changed over the years?  Do you see her differently now than when you first started singing her?

SW:   Yes, sometimes.  I like to play with the characters with whom I am working, because as you work with another José, you’ll find you’ll be motivated entirely differently with each one.  How that person comes to you in your mind, and how you play against that person makes a lot of difference.  I shouldn’t say that her whole character is based on the other person.  I don’t mean that, but it does change things as you go from one performance to another, if you have different people who are working with you.  It makes a lot of difference.  Her basic character is certainly her own, but how that applies with the people she’s working with is very interesting, and can make a lot of difference in your reactions on stage.  That will make it much more interesting.

BD:   Have you done both versions, the spoken dialogue version and the recitative version?

SW:   No, I never have done the spoken dialogue.  I’ve done it in French and I’ve done it in German, but I’ve never done the spoken dialogue.  Jimmy has, of course.  Every place I’ve been, they’ve always done it with just the singing dialogue.

BD:   Were there any other roles that you sang where you had dialogue and singing, and you had to go back and forth?

SW:   I’ve only done that with light opera.  I’ve never done that with any grand opera that I can think of at the moment.

BD:   Did you do a lot of light opera?

SW:   Yes, I’ve done a lot of light opera, like Song of Norway, or Naughty Marietta.  Then I would do the dialogue.

BD:   Is it difficult to adjust the voice from singing to speaking?

SW:   Yes, it could be, but actually the support is the same, so you have to consider that you must support.  [Noticing her projection in our conversation]  You see how much better I’m supporting my voice now than I did when we started?

BD:   Because you’re thinking about it!

SW:   I am thinking about it, and if you do consider that when you sing, you also are speaking on this support, not just singing.  One can go into the other.  That’s such a fine art which you see often on Broadway, where someone will be speaking and then just out of that they’ll start in on a song.  It will be right on their spoken voice, and yet it’s on a pitch, and that’s quite an art.  We don’t realize what the people on Broadway, and that type of entertainer, have to do night after night.

BD:   I would think it would be more difficult to do that for seven or eight shows a week, rather than an opera where you sing once or twice a week.

SW:   That’s right.  The operas are so terribly long, and so much goes into them that you just couldn’t do that every night.  Three times a week is the most you’d want to ever think of doing opera.

BD:   And yet some of the young singers have to sing the same opera Friday, Saturday, Sunday matinee.

SW:   Not too many opera singers do that, do they?

BD:   Occasionally in the small companies.

SW:   [Genuinely surprised]  Do they???  They shouldn’t have to do that.  They don’t do that with baseball pitchers.  Pitchers get three days off!

BD:   Is singing opera like pitching?

SW:   My husband thinks so.  He’s always giving me this information that you have to let your muscles rest, and certainly the star pitchers have to let themselves rest for three days.  They don’t pitch except every fourth day, so it’s quite a bit the same.  You’re up there, and you’ve got to perform.  You
ve got to be at the height of your performance, and you’ve got to use all your muscles, and your mind.  Everything that you’ve got you’re going to use, and you can’t do that every single day to its best.

BD:   Is opera an athletic contest?

SW:   Oh, absolutely, yes.  One role I didn’t mention to you that I’ve done a lot is Fidès in Le Prophète of Meyerbeer.  That is definitely an athletic contest!  [Laughs]

BD:   Tell me about her.

SW:   This is a great woman.  I did sixty performances in Berlin, and sixty in Zurich, and I can tell you that I used to go around with little pieces of sugar hidden everywhere, so I that I could take sugar between phrases.  This was because you just couldn’t sustain it, and I sang every note that he wrote.  We didn’t do any cuts.  I did about sixteen high Cs, and all kinds of coloratura.  It was a tremendous part.  So when you ask if it is an athletic endeavor, that was it.

warfield BD:   Did Meyerbeer write it wrong to make it so difficult?

SW:   That is an interesting question.  Perhaps women in those days did sing easier, but I don’t think there’s ever been anyone who ever did sing it that could say it was easy.  There was just no way, unless they were really a soprano and not a mezzo.  That happens where the parts will be what they call between, or Zwischenfach.  They could be taken by a soprano.  Now if a soprano were singing Fidès, it would not be nearly so difficult, but if you’re truly a mezzo, then it is difficult.  [The role was written for mezzo Pauline Viardot, who was phenomenal.]

BD:   You really need a mezzo in that part, especially for the contrast with the other characters.

SW:   Yes, with the beautiful high soprano, you would.

BD:   Is that one of the reasons Le Prophète is not done very often?

SW:   Yes, I believe so.  It
s very hard to find not only the mezzo, but the tenor, and the soprano.  All three are difficult to find.  When they did it at the Met, Marilyn Horne did Fidès, and Renata Scotto did Berthe, and Jimmy did Jean de Leyde.  [Jerome Hines sang Zacharie, and Henry Lewis conducted.]  But it is hard to cast, very hard.  They’re doing more of the Meyerbeer things now.  Hes very interesting, actually.

BD:   Are we getting a Meyerbeer revival?

SW:   It would be nice.  Poor man, he was so popular once, and suddenly to go into obscurity seems a shame.  He must have had something to offer that would be wonderful to hear again.  I think they’re doing Robert Le Diable somewhere, but I can’t remember.

BD:   L’Africaine is coming back.

SW:   L’Africaine, yes.

BD:   Is it the public’s taste that’s changing, or is it just the style of singing, or the expectation on the part of management to be able to sell tickets?

SW:   I don’t think the taste of the public changes that much if it’s presented with a good cast and with more of what Meyerbeer had in mind.  If you present ballet in an ice-skating rink, those days it would really be a spectacle.  [Laughs]  Wouldn’t that be fun?  We have spectacle now anyway with Zeffirelli’s things.  If Zeffirelli did a Meyerbeer opera, it might be something people would love.  With the beautiful melodies and wonderful characters, I don’t see why it shouldn’t be revived.

BD:   Do you like the current trends in operatic direction
the ideas that producers and stage directors come up with?

SW:   I like it up to the point that it is a great spectacle, and opera should be that.  But I do resent it a bit when the spectacle overcomes the singers to the point where you really are hardly hearing the singers, and you can’t even see where they’re standing on stage, or recognize where they are and who they are.  When you no longer have the feeling that you are associated with those people and the story on the stage, and everything else is bigger than that, then I think it’s wrong, yes.  But there are great moments when you don’t have to have that story being so intimate, and then that’s the time for the stage director to do marvelous things.

BD:   Are you optimistic about the future of opera?

SW:   Oh, yes!  I don’t think anybody’s ever going  to quit loving opera.  I don’t believe that.  There’s just something in man that wants good, and beauty, and as long as we have it and people can taste it here and there, it’s always going to grow.

BD:   One last question.  Is singing fun?

SW:   Oh, yes, the greatest.  The greatest personal satisfaction that you can have is to really be able to sing a part, and be feeling that you’re satisfying the demands of that part.  That’s a great feeling, and just the pure singing is a wonderful feeling.

BD:   Thank you for spending some time with me.  I appreciate it.

SW:   I enjoyed it very much, Bruce.

Sandra Warfield (June 8, 1921 – June 29, 2009) was an American operatic mezzo-soprano who performed with New York City's Metropolitan Opera from the 1950s through the 1970s.

She was born in Kansas City, Missouri on June 8, 1921, as Flora Jean Bornstein and studied music there at the Kansas City Conservatory of Music (which later became a division of the University of Missouri–Kansas City). She made her stage debut with the Los Angeles Civic Light Opera during the 1940s. In 1950 she portrayed Prince Orlofsky in Die Fledermaus at the Chautauqua Opera.

Warfield first appeared on the stage of Metropolitan Opera in a 1953 performance of The Marriage of Figaro, by Mozart, in which she sang the role of a peasant girl. She sang the role of Delilah in Camille Saint-Saëns's Samson and Delilah at a concert in Norfolk, Virginia in 1953 for which she was separately booked with tenor James McCracken, also a fellow performer at the Met, and the two were married shortly thereafter. McCracken left the Met in 1957, complaining that he was not being given lead roles. They moved to Europe, where they spent several years. There she performed with the Zurich Opera, where in 1961 she sang Katerina in the world premiere of Martinů's The Greek Passion. They returned to the United States, and the Metropolitan Opera, in the 1960s.

Her performances at the Met included Ulrica in Giuseppe Verdi's Un ballo in maschera, Berta in The Barber of Seville by Gioachino Rossini, Marcellina in The Marriage of Figaro, Maddalena in Rigoletto by Verdi and Erda in Richard Wagner's Siegfried, totaling 172 performances. She sang the role of Delilah in Samson and Delilah, with Richard Tucker performing as Samson. In her farewell performance in January 1972, Warfield performed Delilah with her husband as Samson.

Following her opera retirement, Warfield began cabaret singing, at such venues as Manhattan's Don't tell mama. Warfield told The New York Times how she was greatly satisfied with cabaret, which allowed her to "express not only the sadness, gladness and hate in opera, but the smallest emotions".

Her first marriage to Frank Warfel, which ended in a divorce, became the source of the last name she adopted as a performer. Her second marriage, to James McCracken, ended with his death in April 1988.

Warfield and McCracken co-wrote the 1971 memoir A Star in the Family, edited by Robert Daley and published by Coward, McCann & Geoghegan.

A resident of Manhattan's Upper East Side, Warfield died at age 88 on June 29, 2009, at Lenox Hill Hospital, due to complications of a stroke. She was survived by a daughter, a stepson, and a grandson.

© 1988 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in New York City on March 23, 1988, immediately following my conversation with James McCracken.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB the following year, and again in 1994 and 1999.  This transcription was made in 2020, 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.

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.