Mezzo - Soprano  Janice  Taylor

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


Janis (Janice Kathleen) Taylor (b Schuster). Mezzo-soprano, b Westfield, NY, 10 Mar 1946, naturalized Canadian 1972. Initially trained as a pianist and a clarinetist, she was persuaded to study voice by a fellow music student, Robert Taylor, who subsequently became her husband and manager. After moving to Montreal in 1967, Taylor began studying voice with Bernard Diamant and made her recital debut with John Newmark at the Montreal Musée des Beaux Arts in 1971. She has also studied with Lina and Antonio Narducci, Stevenson Barrett, Gérard Souzay, and Danielle Valin.

taylor In the early stages of her career, Taylor concentrated on recital, oratorio, and orchestral repertoire rather than opera; she has sung with most major Canadian orchestras. She made her orchestral debuts in Canada (1973), the USA (1979), and Europe (1980) singing Messiah with the TS, the National SO in Washington, DC, and with the RAI orchestra in Milan, Italy, which performance earned her a standing ovation. She made her Paris debut in 1986 performance of Beethoven's Missa Solemnis with l'Orchestre national de France, and her London debut occurred in 1989 in Verdi's Requiem with the London SO.

Taylor has made a specialty of the music of Mahler, having performed his Kindertotenlieder Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, Das Lied von der Erde, and the Rückert Lieder, and in all of his symphonies scored for voice (No. 2, 3, 4, and 8).

Taylor began singing opera in 1975 with the role of the Queen in Harry Somers' The Fool at the Stratford Festival. She sang Pauline in Tchaikovsky's Pique Dame at the NAC in 1976. She has subsequently sung with most Canadian opera companies, with US companies such as the Chicago Lyric Opera, San Francisco Opera, and Opera Theatre St Louis, and in 1985 she appeared in the title role in a concert version of Handel's Alessandro at Carnegie Hall. In 1979 she made her European staged opera debut in Spoleto, Italy in Shostakovich's Lady Macbeth of Mtensk. In 1990 she performed Schoenberg's one-woman opera Erwartung at the Holland Festival in Amsterdam. Her repertoire of operatic roles also includes Queen Hippolyta (Britten's Midsummer Night's Dream), Waltraute (Die Walküre), Vitellia (La Clemenza di Tito) and the title role in Massenet's Herodiade.

Taylor is a mezzo soprano with a particularly powerful lower extension to her range which has prompted some reviewers to perceive her as a contralto. Her voice is rich and large, also allowing her to venture into some dramatic soprano repertoire. In order to avoid a vocal classification which might limit her choice of repertoire, she has not pursued a primarily operatic career but has concentrated on concert repertoire where wider vocal and linguistic range of expression is allowed. According to a Montreal review 'her voice is projected with ease throughout its range, with a particularly seductive top octave, dramatic lower notes, and the power of an Anderson in her middle range' (Montreal Gazette, 24 Mar 1986). She has been broadcast on CBC radio and TV. In 1980 she made New York her base while retaining her Canadian citizenship.


While my guest for this interview seems to usually spell her first name Janice
— as seen on most of her recordings, and in many of the programs where she has performed — the authoritative Canadian Encyclopedia (shown above) displays it as Janis.  I only bring this up because some readers have pointed out discrepancies and inconsistencies in the past.  I try very hard to be accurate and consistent, but this time it will be impossible to bring every reference and photograph into the same line.  Fortunately for everyone, it is her artistry and insight that are relevant here, so I hope everyone will understand and enjoy what is presented.

Now, before getting down to the thoughts about music, we will go out of this world!  Despite the fact that my e-mail address is, I have never watched Star Trek, nor do I have any particular interest in that series.  It
’s not that I dislike it, but I simply have never gotten into that particular story.  When I was younger, I did watch and enjoy the first three films produced in the Star Wars series, but I have not followed any of the later ones.  My limited knowledge of the characters and plot of the later films, as well as details about Star Trek, come from my genuine enjoyment of another TV series, The Big Bang Theory.  On several occasions, the young men discuss various science-fiction sagas, and even speak a few words and phrases in the Klingon language.

My reason for saying all this is that my guest on this occasion, Janice Taylor, spoke with delight about Star Trek.  We met in December of 1993, when she was at Lyric Opera of Chicago, portraying Siegrune in Die Walküre.  As we were setting up to record our conversation, she was informing me about the Klingon opera . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:   Is the Klingon opera at all like the Wagner Ring?

Janice Taylor:   [Laughs]  It would be interesting to see a Klingon opera staged.  [In 2010, the first Klingon opera was staged in Holland.  To read about it, click HERE.]  It might not be unlike the Ring in certain ways.  Everybody knows Star Trek, and that Klingons are warrior people from another race, and the opera that was played for Klingon officer Worf was full of war whoops, and growls, and groans, and he was very happy to hear all that.  In that sense, it bears resemblance to the Valkyrie warrior-like creatures that are on stage.  They are not all that much different in physical resemblance.  The Klingons do have a spiny forehead, and wear their helmets and their gear.  But that was a very funny episode.  I love Star Trek whatever they do.

BD:   Does this put the idea in some stage director’s mind, to try to make the next Walküre into a Klingon episode?

Taylor:   Who knows?  They’ve done everything else, haven’t they?  [Both laugh]

BD:   Is it good that stage directors try everything else?

Taylor:   I like to see something new if it’s realistic enough to still maintain some of the original focus the composer had intended.  I’m not so sure that I like the factory setting that Chéreau had for his production [Bayreuth, 1976].  I’m also not so sure that anything is better as long as it’s new.  I’m a bit of a traditionalist in thinking that there ought to be some link to the original concept.

BD:   Do you want to go back to rocks and helmets and spears?

Taylor:   In this production, it’s a rock.  It’s maybe a stylized rock, and we certainly have got the spears and helmets and all the gear.

BD:   How much do the stage setting and the costumes of each production influence your interpretation of a role?

Taylor:   There is certainly is a big difference when you walk on stage in your costume, and onto the set from when you’re on a rehearsal platform for weeks on end.  It begins to take shape into a solidified concept the moment you put on the makeup and the costume.  To a large part, those who don’t have the imagination perhaps rely upon that a great deal, but as concert singers primarily, we have to call upon that imagination quite seriously to create all those costumes and sets in our recital programs.  We don’t have the advantage of being able to wear them once we entered the stage, so that’s all part of what our training is about.

BD:   It becomes theater-of-the-mind?

Taylor:   Exactly, and you can do so much more with your imagination that anybody ever could with a stage setting or a costume setting.

BD:   If you’re imaginative.

Taylor:   Yes, exactly.  Television and films can do quite a bit today with special effects, but live performances are a bit more limited.

BD:   When you’re on stage with all the old-fashioned trappings, do you ever feel you’re competing against film and television where they can have special effects and dissolves and changes?

Taylor:   It would be nice, but it would be a mistake to try to combine them too much.  The format of the live opera and concert performance has something that you cannot grasp on video and film.  You, as an ardent opera- and concert-goer know what that is.  It’s the tension that you can’t capture easily on film and video.  It’s something in the air that strikes you from the sound, and your body resonates and vibrates to that wonderful orchestra.  There’s just nothing that can compare to being in the live stage performance.

BD:   Even though I make my living playing records on the radio, I still tell people they are plastic.  Live performance is the reality.

Taylor:   Yes.

BD:   When you’re on the stage performing either concert or opera, are you aware of the audience that’s in front of you?

Taylor:   Less so in this case because we can’t see. [Laughs] The darkness of the stage, and the spotlights that come at us from off stage absolutely blackens out the hall.  We haven’t a clue beyond being able to glimpse the conductor from time to time who is out there... except that we hear little chuckles from time to time, and that’s so wonderful.  That kind of feedback is so encouraging.

taylor BD:   [With a gentle nudge]  Are Valkyries supposed to be funny?

Taylor:   They certainly are when they’re jumping on trampolines.  That always gains a chuckle.  [This production allowed some of the Valkyries to get airborne via trampolines, which were out of sight to most of the audience.  Others in the cast included Eva Marton, James Morris, Siegfried Jerusalem, Tina Kiberg, Marjana Lipovšek, Matthias Hölle.  The conductor was Zubin Mehta, the director was August Everding, with sets designed by John Conklin

BD:   Did you see the production in Seattle where they have the carousel horses [shown at right]?  [Another photo a bit later in this act is HERE.]

Taylor:   I heard about that, but I didn’t get a chance to see it.

BD:   Those were wonderful, but these are all ideas in the mind of the stage directors.  How much should we go back into the mind of Wagner?

Taylor:   I don’t think we’d like it very much if we saw exactly what he had in mind, with the staging that he had originally produced.  Today we would think it was all kind of stagey-looking.  It’s been a nice progression ever since.

BD:   But more than a hundred years ago that’s what he had to work with.

Taylor:   Yes, exactly.

BD:   Do you feel that opera is always progressing forward, at least in stagecraft?

Taylor:   Yes.  Who knows what is coming next with technology developing?  [Thinking of Star Trek again]  Instead of having to actually exit the stage, maybe we can work out a transporter beam or something.

BD:   [Laughs]  The stage manager can beam you up!

Taylor:   Right!

BD:   We’re progressing in the visual.  Are we also progressing in the musical?

Taylor:   I think so.  Of course, I wasn’t alive when Wagner was writing...

BD:   If you were, this would be a much different interview.  [Both laugh]

Taylor:   All kinds of progressions happen, and it’s right and natural that it should be so.  The instruments have changed, and the techniques have seen a change to the taste of the audience.  What they want to hear has changed in terms of the sound from those singers and instrumentalists.  There used to be much less vibrato in the strings especially, and in all the instruments.  I don’t think the audiences today would like it very much if they were to go back to that older sound.

BD:   [Staying with the Star Trek motive]  What if they were just warped back there?

Taylor:   [Laughs]  Warped back, right.  There’s a wonderful development in the symphony in the colorations of the modern instruments over the old.  Yes, there were some wonderful woodwind instruments that had special color, but the advantages of the new instruments is that they are broader-ranged.  Contrary to some people, I happen to think that singers are getting better and better trained.  There are some wonderful voices, so I don’t think we need to look to the golden age for our standards any longer.
BD:   Each age is, in its own way, a golden age?

Taylor:   Yes, and it’s well-suited to this era as well.  Art does reflect the era in which it is.  No longer do we have small 1,500-seat opera theaters.  We have 2,700- to 3,500-seat auditoriums, and the vocal demands are quite different.

BD:   Do you change your technique at all when you’re in a small house or a big house?  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at right, see my interviews with Zdenek Macal, Paul Plishka, and Benita Valente.]

Taylor:   I don’t, but I guess in some ways I do scale down for a smaller house, because there I’m able to give more nuance in the sound.  A big theater mostly requires volume, and just opening it up and letting the voice come through.  There’s very little chance in the bigger auditorium, and especially with a big orchestra, to do much in the way of subtle coloration.  I’m a classical recitalist, so we’re talking about a huge drop there.  On the opera stage here, which is a big hall, we
re talking about volume, and beauty of tone, and words, and all those other things, but essentially volume down to the finest delicate turn of word, or a color of a sound of a vowel.  That is so important, and it takes me perhaps a week to adjust technically from that big stage to the small one.  I say that because just now I am in the process of preparing for a big recital soon after Christmas, so I find it’s difficult while I’m working Wagner, to scale down as much as I would like for that recital repertoire.  I’m still a singer, and I still have the same voice, but I’m looking for different things from the opera stage.

BD:   When you’re on the opera stage, do you miss being able to do all the subtle things?

Taylor:   I do, but it’s a thrill just to sing this wonderful heroic Wagner music, just to go with the sound, to ride the crest of the wave of that glorious music.  And it is wonderful glorious music.  I wouldn’t change it for any coloration.  There is just the glory of it alone.  The heroic quality of it is a thrill.

BD:   Is this your first foray into Wagner?

Taylor:   One of my first.  I have done several Wagner operas at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, and in my adopted home country, in Toronto.  More and more I’m looking at doing Wagner.

BD:   What roles have you done?

Taylor:   I have done Fricka, and I have done other Valkyrie parts, plus the First Norn in Götterdämmerung.  Now, I feel very much encouraged to go on and do Brangaene, and such roles that I think are going to be very well-suited to my voice.

BD:   Waltraute, also?

Taylor:   Waltraute certainly, yes.

BD:   Do you think about Fricka when you’re singing one of the Valkyries?  They’re all important roles, of course, but do you pay particular attention in the second act, when Fricka comes in, to learn as much as you can from each production and each singer?

Taylor:   Oh, certainly.  There’s so much to be learned from this production.  The cast is just top-rate, first quality, and I admire them very much, and the staging that Everding has created around that role is very interesting, too.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   How do you divide your time between the concerts, which you love, and the operas, which you also love?

Taylor:   About 20% of my season is opera, and the rest of it is in concert.  But you must remember that I am a mezzo-soprano, and the opera roles for mezzo-sopranos are mostly mothers and witches and maids and such.  For musical fulfillment, from my earliest beginnings of singing, I’ve found nothing to compare with the beautiful modern works that the symphony orchestra and the concert stage offer.  My selfish request was to be gratified musically in what I sing, so I gravitated immediately to the concert stage rather than the opera stage.  Though there are beautiful roles in opera, the main part of it is not what I relate to, that I resonate to as a mezzo.  So, about 80% I would say is in concert.

taylor BD:   Are there some concert works that you would not want to do, or would you accept anything that will fit your voice in the concert repertoire?

Taylor:   I’m having a little bit of difficulty identifying any repertoire in the concert world that wouldn’t suit my voice.  As a mezzo-soprano, that covers a wide range.  It allows you to do contralto things, and even some things that are meant for soprano.  Schoenberg’s Erwartung can be done by either a mezzo or a soprano if they have the range.

BD:   How far do you push the limits on the top and the bottom?  [Vis-a-vis the recording shown at left, see my interview with Robert Shaw.]

Taylor:   That’s a very good question.  Certainly, the limits of mezzo-soprano are established to exclude soprano repertoire, but an individual artist now can find examples.  Jessye Norman certainly can go beyond that classification of voice.  One must see if the voice is capable, and is built in such a way to reach into other territory, and this is the position I find myself in.  It’s not always been easy, because people don’t like it very much if you tread over the boundaries, and thats a shame because I feel you lose out so much when you don’t allow a person that may be an unusual case to adopt a new brand from time to time, to step into the soprano or contralto territory.  I have done just that kind of thing.  It was a long time before I really got a grasp on what kind of a voice I was because I had the ability to sing high and low.  In essence, I like to think of myself as mezzo-soprano, and anything that is written in the concert repertoire for mezzo-soprano is my territory.  I also sing contralto because my voice is very low.  I started singing as a tenor, for instance, so it’s always had that base.

BD:   [Laughs]  Don
’t say that too loud, or they’ll ask you to sing Siegmund!

Taylor:   Yes.  [Laughs]

BD:   [With a big smile]  I’m afraid you’re too feminine for that.

Taylor:   [Beaming]  Thank you!

BD:   Being a mezzo-soprano, are you ever called upon to sing

Taylor:   I have never done that.  I’ve never felt that was me.  I’ve never felt I could be convincing in a trouser-role for some reason.  Perhaps vocal color has something to do with it as well.  I could fit into trousers and look rather convincing, but the color of my voice is not suited to a boyish or mannish style, as so many wonderful mezzo voices are that can assume those roles.  There’s too much richness in my voice to be rather convincing, so I’ve never done it.  I don’t really have any great attraction to do it.

BD:   Talking about the color in voice, is this something that is there and you bring out, or is it something that you can put in?

Taylor:   No, it’s there.  It’s what nature gave me.  It’s what God’s gift to me was.  For a long time, I thought that it was bad because it didn’t sound like other singers.  So, I tried to take that quality out, and of course that was not the right thing to do.  I found that you really need to go with your instrument, not to indulge it, but to go with that instrument that God gave you.  That’s the glorious part of singing
to have something that’s yours and is unique.

BD:   [With a gentle nudge]  You want to be an individual, rather than sound like somebody else???

Taylor:   [Laughs]  We all want to be like everybody else.  I went through many years of trying to sound like others, and realized that it’s just not me.  If you felt like you were an ugly duckling, and the rest of your family was cute, wouldn’t it be nice for you to know that the reason you’re the oddball is because you will be a swan later?

BD:   Of course!  Do you feel you’re a swan?

Taylor:   I think every one of us is a swan.  Everyone has something individual, something personal, something unique, and we ought to remember that we don’t have to be the same as all the other ducks.


See my interviews with Susanne Mentzer

BD:   Did you begin singing at a very early age?

Taylor:   No, I didn’t.  I was a late bloomer.  I was a pianist before I became a singer.  I did not start singing until I finished my university studies as a pianist, and had learned other instruments along the way, including clarinet and harp.

BD:   [With special enthusiasm]  Now you can give your recitals with yourself at the piano!

Taylor:   [With mock horror]  Oh, no!  [Laughs]  I shudder thinking of myself at the piano, but it is a wonderful ability to play my own accompaniments to learn the music.  The accompaniment is a quintessential part of the melody line.

BD:   If you were an accomplished pianist and harpist, what got you started singing?

Taylor:   My husband, who is sitting across the room.  He heard my speaking voice when we first met, and thought I was a singer.  He prodded me for years about singing until I finally said yes.  I took some singing lessons, and he said that I didn’t have to do more than six months, and sing for him once in church.  If I still didn’t like it, then I could stop, but at least I should do that much.  So, I studied with Maureen Forrester
s teacher in Montreal, the Dutchman Bernard Diamant, and learned the wonderful traditions that existed there at that time.  What a beautiful city that was.

BD:   Did you go to Forrester
s teacher because you had a similar voice, and knew what she had done for her?

Taylor:   Not really.  We certainly knew that they were similar... at least my husband thought that it was a similar voice.  I didn’t think I had any voice.  Diamant was the star teacher of the day, and if anybody really wanted to be a singer in Montreal, they went to him.

Professor Bernard Diamant, baritone, was born in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, in October, 1912. His father, also Bernard Diamant (1872-1936), was a well-known opera conductor, and his mother, Marita Verna, was a well-known opera singer specializing in Wagner roles.

diamant His father was very against him following any kind of musical career and, different from his school mates of the time, he received no musical education at all. However, such was his love of music that he taught himself piano at a very early age, learning from a book he found in his father’s library. He would accompany his mother when she rehearsed and thus learned not only a large repertoire but also how to accompany a singer–a skill which served him well when he began to teach. 

He tells the story of when he was in elementary school and the teacher asked him to sing a song (knowing that he was the son of a famous conductor and singer)–a children’s song, or a folksong. To the embarrassment of the teacher he told her he didn’t know any children’s songs. The teacher could hardly believe her ears and, feeling that he had said something wrong, quickly added: “But I can sing you the whole of the Verdi Requiem.” (Quote from an interview with Martine van Os on  Netherlands Radio 4 (Tros) )

Despite his father’s objections he began vocal studies in The Netherlands when he was 17 with the then 71-year-old Cornelia van Sante. Later he studied with Louis van Mulder, Max Kloos, Ton de Nijs and Maartje Offers. When he was 19 he went to Paris to study with Rose Heilbronner (who was a star at the Opéra Comique) and then with Charles Panzéra. His last teacher was Otillia Plaut in Berlin who, as he states in the radio interview mentioned above, helped him find the “core” of his voice–something he searched for over a long period of time. It was this search which drove him from teacher to teacher until, at last, he found someone who could help him find it.

He sang in The Netherlands and in many leading German opera houses (Frankfurt, Munich). During the second world war he had a permanent engagement at the opera in Carlsbad, in Czechoslovakia, where he not only sang but acted. 

Shortly after the war ended Prof Diamant emigrated to Canada where, based in Montreal he gave many recitals and broadcasts for CBC Radio Canada with the pianist John Newmark and with the CBC Radio Orchestra which was mostly made up, at that time, of German and Austrian émigrés.  The programmes were varied and included a series called “Anthology of the German Lied” and another series called “The Earth which Sings.”

He began to teach singing privately in Montreal (and later at the University of Toronto) and quickly established himself as one of Canada's foremost singing teachers. Among his notable pupils were Maureen Forrester, Gaylene Gabora, John Boyden, Joan Patteneude and Janet Stubbs.

He retired in 1985 and returned to Holland where he lived in Amsterdam in an elegant canal house on the Leidsegracht, filled with beautiful antique Dutch furniture, paintings and always masses of freshly cut flowers. He returned to Canada regularly to give master classes. He died, in Amsterdam, in August 1999.

BD:   Because he worked so well with Forrester, did he work especially well with your voice?

Taylor:   I think so.  I credit a great deal of my training to his teaching.  Also, he was part of that group from Europe that included John Newmark, the great accompanist for Kathleen Ferrier and Janet Baker.  Newmark was the pianist that played for my very first recital, and that was, by the way, my debut.  Can you imagine being so bold as to sing a whole recital with him as your first performance before an audience?  [Both laugh]  He took me in hand and we worked for months on it.  A great deal of my basic training, and my approach to singing stems back to that era in Montreal.

BD:   You were a pianist and accomplished musician, so what was the most surprising thing when you started becoming a singer?  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at right, see my interviews with Christoph von Dohnányi, Carol Vaness, and Robert Lloyd.]

Taylor:   The most surprising and horrifying thing to me was my chest voice.  I thought that was the most vulgar and ugly sound.  Of course, it was rather untamed at the time that I first discovered it, and was very shocked to learn that it was something to develop.  That was a good quality to have.  [Laughs]  The other thing was, as a pianist I didn’t have to look at the audience when I played.  But as a singer, you haven’t got any escape.  You must look into the eyes of your audience.  So, that was a different kind of preparation than I was accustomed to.

BD:   In opera, generally the lights will be in your face, and you won’t be able to see the audience.  They’re also quite far away, but on the concert platform they’re very close.

Taylor:   Yes.

BD:   Do you feel more closeness with them because you are right there and can see them?

Taylor:   Yes, I do.  I absolutely do.  I’d like to be able to say I don’t, and maybe in some theaters where opera doesn’t have the same kind of barrier of lights, I could say so.  Certainly, there is a presence of the audience who feel that.  It’s something I couldn’t put into words or explain, but maybe you just feel the presence of an audience, even if you can’t see them.  They certainly are there in opera, but in a concert presentation, you see the reactions, and you see the one sleeping in the front row.  Or you see them laughing, and you see them nodding, and reacting.  That helps you a great deal to feel convinced, and to feel propelled to continue.

BD:   You feed off of them, and they feed off of you, so it’s a circle.

Taylor:   I think so, though I don’t project myself out to them as much as I require that they come to me.  But to see them do that is really a remarkable thing.

BD:   Are the audiences similar or different from city to city, and country to country?

Taylor:   It might sound like I’m just plugging Chicago because I happen to be sitting in Chicago right now, but they are the most phenomenal audiences.  I have had the pleasure to observe and be part of the audience myself, as I attend other performances of the opera and of the symphony.  The reactions are intelligent, they’re interested and eager.  Needless to say the houses are sold out, so somebody is doing something very, very right in the presentation of music to Chicago audiences.  In return, Chicago audiences seem to be very proud of their opera and their Symphony and the quality that’s being produced.  They go out to support it with interest and knowledge.  I overheard some comments from the audience about the Leitmotifs of the work, and I thought that’s a wonderful thing to have that kind of background.  They’re certainly not that way in New York, where I’m from.  There are many wonderful people that attend the concerts and operas there, but there are a lot of people who are just passing through that drop in because it’s exciting to be in New York.  It’s not the same kind of thing.  I don’t think they bring the same kind of serious interest as the Chicago audience.  European audiences offer something else.  They have the ability to comprehend the language that you’re singing, and that makes it easier, specifically when you’re doing Lieder recitals.  You don’t have subtitles, and the programs are often printed with the translations, but not too many people like having to deal with reading pages of notes while they’re listening.  Audiences are more appreciative of a Lieder recital when they can understand the words.  For that reason, I think it’s nicer to do recitals in Europe, just because they know more of what is going on.  We should have subtitles in the recital stage and the orchestra stage as well.

BD:   Do you work a little harder at your diction when you know that most of the audience will be able to understand every word?

Taylor:   Yes.  I do try all the time to have as clear diction as possible, but you know that for a program of French music in France that they’re going to appreciate very much every clear consonant that I can give them.  That way they can follow along without having to read texts.
BD:   The voice carries on the vowels, but you have got to project the consonants.

Taylor:   That’s right, and one often forgets that you do need those vowels, too.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Tell me the secret of singing French music in the French style.

Taylor:   The thing to avoid is to over-nasalize the vocal sound, to produce those nasalized vowels that are inherent with the French language.  I’ve worked with some wonderful French coaches, and there are some differing opinions on this.  They have produced some great singers, but not a lot of international singers.  That’s because they tend to close off the voice, and make these nasal sounds to match the way they speak.  But you must not sing in that way.  You must modify and adapt those vowels a little bit, so it carries the flavor, and is intelligible as the word with one of those nasal vowels.  I certainly place my voice in the same way when singing French or Italian or German.  It’s just sometimes easier in French because the nasal quality of some of the vowels that you’re aiming toward helps place the voice in just the way you would like to have it placed in this and other languages.  Open vowels are present in French.  It’s a beautiful language.  

BD:   Can you just impose the French language on the bel canto style?

Taylor:  The coach that I’ve worked with, Danielle Valin, was the principal coach at The Met for years in the French repertoire.  As I was preparing for the recording of Berlioz songs, she urged me not to go too far, and to keep the vowels as open.  I can certainly expect that in the bel canto, but not always in the French style.  But then, there aren’t too many French singers and maybe that’s why.  [Laughs]

BD:   Did Berlioz know how to write well for the voice?

Taylor:   I think he did.  I think he wrote magnificently vocally.  I’ve certainly had a chance to explore a lot of his song literature, and he wrote very poetically.  In other words, he wrote a melodic line to reflect the poetic depth of the meaning of the words, so that while you’re singing a specific word, the way that he’s written the word in the line helps to bring out the natural quality of what it is you’re aiming to say.  The French language, anyway, has a lot of that in it.  The sound of the word often suggests its meaning, so perhaps he was aided in that already.

BD:   That also aided his choice of pictures and colors in the orchestra.

Taylor:   The colors he has, and turns-of-phrase, help so that it would sit comfortably in the voice.

BD:   Why is it that we don’t know many of the songs of Berlioz?  We know a few of them, and your record is particularly helpful because it is rather rare.

Taylor:   Thank you.  Yes, I aimed to try to expose more of the songs.  Some of them on that disc have never been recorded before, and I thought that they were of value.  It was a service to sing some of his songs.  Why they aren’t heard more often?  There’s a lot of repertoire beside just Berlioz that’s out there that’s not heard as much.  Perhaps it
s because there just are fewer opportunities to hear Lieder and mélodies.  Opera is king, so to speak, now and that’s wonderful.  It’s very approachable, certainly, and there perhaps were not performers that preferred to go the route of singing Fine Art Song.  They preferred to do the more glamorous opera presentations, where you can make a big international career and a name for yourself much easier than singing recitals.  I’m not sure I know the answer, but I do know there is a wealth of repertoire out there, and I’m here to claim that there is a world outside of the opera.  There is beautiful, beautiful music, and when it is well sung, I claim it to be equally accessible.

BD:   Are there more Berlioz songs that you are going to bring us?

Taylor:   No, I think that perhaps that disc has as much as I would care to record.  There are others that are beautiful that don’t suit me as well, or that are not his best writing.  Composers have early attempts at things, and he did re-write so much of what he wrote.  There are sometimes three versions of one song.

BD:   Do you have to go to a historian to find which one to sing?

Taylor:   Yes, and I love going to the library.  I spend a lot of hours researching back versions, but not all of the output is going to be as magnificent as the songs on the recording.

BD:   Might you then be interested in also doing some Berlioz operas?

Taylor:   Yes.  Les Troyens is something I would love to do one day.  It’s not done that often, though.  It seems to be the day of Verdi and Italian opera, and certainly Ring cycles and other Wagner works.  But the French operas seem to be a little bit left behind, and maybe that is because they have some sleepy moments from time to time.  But we lose so much by overlooking them.

BD:   Since you would like to sing Dido, do you then work on it and hope that maybe the opportunity will come, and then you’ll have it mostly learned?

Taylor:   I should, but I get so little chance to do that.  I’m so busy preparing for the next seasons of concerts that I find myself with very little time to do anything except what I need to prepare.  I have looked at it enough to know that it would suit me.  I have sung through it, but I couldn’t claim to have really put it into my voice.

taylor BD:   From the time you get an assignment and start learning a piece, how long does it take to when you have it in your voice and perhaps even in your psyche?

Taylor:   [Thinks a moment]  That’s a good question.  It depends on the role, and certainly on the difficulty of the writing.  Modern contemporary music would take me considerably longer than the war horses that everybody knows.  I’ve just done Erwartung in Geneva.  When I first did it in the Holland Festival, I had three weeks to learn it.  That’s a work which should probably take six months to learn, but I had a very brief notice on that in advance.

BD:   There, you are the whole performance.

Taylor:   Exactly, yes, because nobody else is on stage.  So, you
ve got to know it and be able to pull off the characterization as well as the music, and make it as gripping and as magnetizing as you can.

BD:   Was this on stage or in concert?

Taylor:   It was on stage both times I’ve done it.  It was much more comfortable in Geneva.  The production there had three weeks of rehearsal instead of just the one-and-a-half in Holland.  Generally, the longer ahead you can start the role the better, I have found.  I like to work on it, and then put it aside for several months, and pick it up again just before going to the rehearsals.  That way, you’re going to find the best approach to take.

BD:   You prepare it vocally as much as you can, but then do you feed off of the stage director, and the conductor, and everything else that’s going on around you?

Taylor:   I sure do, and probably most everybody does.  I don’t think it’s a terribly good thing to come with too much of a concept of what you envisioned the character to be, because the director has to have his concept predominate.  When I’m doing a role for the first time, I like to let it take final shape when I’m on stage with the director and the conductor.  Then we can change a great deal of the character or the vocal lines.  So, if that’s going to change, then you mustn’t be too stuck on the way you’d like to see that role portrayed.

BD:   When you come back to the same role again, do you try to forget the previous production?

Taylor:   I don’t know that
forget is the word, unless it’s not a good production.  [Laughs]  Then you might like to forget it entirely.  [More laughter]

BD:   I hope there were only a few of those in your life.

Taylor:   Occasionally one comes, but the interest is in exploring new avenues.  The fun of repeating music is to find new things to appreciate, and to bring them out.  I always look forward to a new approach.

BD:   Is it the same with songs?

Taylor:   Oh, sure.  The song is never the same in different concerts.  It also depends on the audience.  Who you’re singing for helps decide how that will take shape, and how you feel at that moment.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Let’s get back to the French repertoire a little bit.  Have you explored some of the other roles, such as Massenet for instance, or Saint-Saëns?

taylor Taylor:   Yes.  It’s so sad that they’re not done enough, so it would be wrong to really dedicate oneself to that... unless you’re a superstar, and then you can have any theater mount Samson for you or Massenet’s Werther.  But very often, practicality would insist that you go with what you know is going to be there to be able to perform.

BD:   Do you try to take into account the selling of tickets and all of that?

Taylor:   That is the big consideration.  The economic crisis of today demands that opera houses produce things that people want to come to hear.  I don’t think the Chicago Lyric Opera has any of that problem, but they are in a unique position.  Most opera companies are finding themselves strapped, and some of the orchestras are having to cater to more salable repertoire these days.

BD:   In the music that you sing, where is the balance between the artistic achievement and the entertainment value?

Taylor:   Oh, what a good question that is.  [Pondering]  The entertainment value and the artistic achievement...  What is
entertainment?  Is entertainment being taken out of yourself to witness and be uplifted to view another man’s life from his shoes for a moment?  Or is it to step into a Mahler Symphony and see the world as Mahler did?  Is that entertainment?  Is that uplift?  I don’t know.  Every person’s definition of entertainment is different.  Of course, if we are speaking about a frothy kind of entertainment, then that probably isn’t my mainstream repertoire.  But, if we’re speaking of entertainment as we live, and from seeing our own problems uniquely as the opportunity to ride the crest of inspiration, to witness the soul-searching depths that music drags us into either willingly or not willingly, if that is entertainment, then I would say that’s what I do.

BD:   Then let us pursue this just a little further with an even a bigger question.  What is the purpose of the music that we are talking about?  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at right, see my interview with David Gordon.]

Taylor:   It has many purposes, and to entertain might be one of them.  But beyond that, music is not just an adornment.  It’s not just an ornament, but a statement of a culture.  It holds a unique place, more than perhaps some of the other art forms, because it is so easy to become absorbed into.  The unique place that music has is that it speaks of the soul, and one can communicate on that level within a musical idiom.  Expression of the soul is something which is perhaps being lost in our technologically perfect age, as we are advancing and live now.  More and more, people need to return to that emotional depth within, to explore the person that they are, and not just the product that they produce for the market place.  That is a remarkable position to have such a wonderful job to be involved in such a thing.  I have an experience to relate that underscores my point.  I was doing a Bach cantata program with the Bach Aria Group.  I was singing an aria from the St. John Passion, and afterward, a woman came backstage.  My husband was standing at the door, and this woman came up in tears.  She said to him, “Please, I don’t feel I can even speak to her, but would you kindly tell her how much her performance meant to me.  I have just been diagnosed with having cancer, and hearing Ms. Taylor sing has taken away the fear.”  Isn’t that a beautiful thing?  Doesn’t that gratify you to some far-reaching extent beyond all the sacrifices and difficulties that are involved in a career?

BD:   What a beautiful thing for you to carry with you for the rest of your life.

Taylor:   For a long time I carried her picture with me.  My husband took the picture, and I did speak to her, and got to know her.  She came to many concerts after that.

BD:   It’s nice to be able to touch someone so directly.

Taylor:   Yes, and that’s what music is for.  There is something that it can say to that person to help them in their life.

BD:   [After a brief pause during which we both simply sat and smiled with understanding, we returned to the conversation]  Is there a secret to singing Bach?

Taylor:   Certainly, Mozart and Bach provide the ultimate challenges, in that the music is passionately written even though it is within these constraints of the Baroque limitations of what is acceptable stylistically.  It’s like an atom bomb wanting to burst forth, but you must restrain it, you must keep it under wraps, so to speak.  You sense the depth of feeling in the works, but you must never really present it as you would with a Puccini opera aria.  That having been said, the other thing that good Bach singing demands is to keep excesses out of the voice.  One must keep the voice in line, in balance, and pure.  It’s difficult when you’re talking about technical things to explain what that means.  The purity of the line is everything.  It’s just an instrumental line oftentimes, so you need good breath support.  [With a wink]  You need an extra tank of oxygen to strap onto your back.  [Both laugh]  You must learn to be economical with that oxygen, so the voice responds very easily and quickly to just a tiny bit of air.  In other arias and other works, you can be more extravagant.

BD:   Are you at a point in your career now that you want to be?

Taylor:   I’ve been very lucky in many ways.  I’ve gone around the world singing the music that I love.  I’m going to be doing more recordings because I would like to reach more people, and that seems to be the easiest way today.  However, live performances still remain the most important communication device.  I would really like to do more Mahler songs because that really has been, from the very beginning, my great love.  It’s the reason why I became a concert singer as opposed to an opera singer, and I feel I have something unique.  I’ve dedicated my life to that, not exclusively, but especially to Mahler.  I feel I know very much how to sing his music.

BD:   There’s something that speaks directly to you.  Are you able to translate all of this through his songs, and then let them speak directly to the audience?

Taylor:   Perhaps that’s very true, or perhaps I’ve learned from him what I’m searching for.  We both served each other.  When I was first starting to sing, I attended a master class given by Maureen Forrester.  I was invited to attend, which was a great honor.  In this master class, she was doing all of Mahler’s vocal repertoire and you know how much that is.

BD:   That’s a huge amount.

Taylor:   This was an enormous undertaking and it was more than one night, thank goodness.  We had several days, but still it was a long process.  I’d never heard of Mahler before that.  I’d never heard any of his songs, and never tried to sing any of them, so in a space of a week I learned all of his songs, and all of his vocal output for the purposes of this master class that I was going to do.

BD:   Is it safe to assume that what you learned in that week was merely pitch and duration?

Taylor:   [Laughs]  Absolutely.  One could barely get the notes right at that point, but what I learned in the process of that week was why I was in music.  This is what I wanted to sing.  This was going to be the principal direction of my life.  Once I’d gotten into the master class, I began to see even deeper into the music.  That is music of such depth that it takes repeated listening to be able to truly appreciate all that it has.  I do many performances of the Mahler Second every year, and each time I come to it there’s a new revelation.  It’s a wonderful experience, because you’re in a different hall, you’re with a different orchestra and a different conductor, and the conductor’s concept of it certainly is important to incorporate.  So, you see a different aspect, and I feel that I have grown as I have worked with his music.  I’ve grown as a person as well as an artist, quite frankly.

*     *     *     *     *

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

Taylor:   The love for the music must be so strong that you’d be more miserable without it than with it, because it’s not an easy career.  It is difficult at all stages.  During the beginning stages, you must get good training.  Good voice teachers are not that often found.  Then, to find one that you have a relationship with is important and essential.

BD:   I assume that takes a long time to develop?  [Vis-a-vis the recording shown at left, see my interviews with John Aler, and Tom Krause.]

Taylor:   It does.  Five years is the approximate time needed to be able to plan and develop your voice before you really start a career.  Of course, I didn’t do that, but... [Laughs]

BD:   [With mock stern-ness]  Do as I say, not as I do!  [Laughs]

Taylor:   Yes, exactly.  But I still think it was perhaps five years before I really understood what I was, and got to be really in total control.  It never stops, though.  One is always going beyond perfecting, polishing, learning new approaches
and not just from singers and singers’ teachers, but from cellists and conductors and pianists and everywhere.  Aside from that dedication which has to be there, you need to have somebody else confirm your talent.  I didn’t think that I had a voice, but it took somebody else to tell me that I did.  Sometimes you have to say, yes, it’s a good voice, but maybe it doesn’t compare to other great voices.  So, if you want to go into singing as a profession, you should look at something else, or do it as a hobby.  You should not give up your day job while you’re preparing, and continue to work.  Others may have an exalted opinion of what they have, and some, like myself, think it was nothing, and it was really a stone-in-the-rough that needed a lot of polishing, but was capable of sustaining a career.  Then, if you have dedication, and a quality instrument, you also have to have intelligence and musicality.  These are all things that are important for young singers not to overlook.  It should not be just the voice that is developed, but the musicality as well.  Attending concerts is certainly important, but more serious conservatory-type training for theory and history is important.  Then, we come to languages.  How gifted are you at speaking languages?  You should decide if that’s something you have an ability to do, because, if you don’t, it’s pretty difficult to make a go of it.  Dedication is the key word.  You have to have all of those things.  Then you need the dedication, the courage, and the strength to pursue it in spite of obstacles and difficulties that almost always are there.

BD:   In the end, is it all worth it?

Taylor:   Oh, yes. I probably complain as much as anybody else along the way, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

BD:   Do you like being a wandering minstrel?

Taylor:   I do.  There’s a gypsy spirit in me.  My family is all European.  They came to this country, and I was born here.  I’m an American-born Canadian citizen, because I became a Canadian when I married my husband.  My parents were German and Norwegian.  So, when it comes to feeling that sense of heimat that the Germans call their home base, I’m all of those things.  For me, the greatest thrill is to travel the world, and see other cultures and lives, and appreciate them, and adopt some of what is good from those cultures.  Singing gives me the chance to do that as perhaps few other professions do.  Certainly the music takes me around the world, and the music is a reflection of other worlds and other cultures.  You can almost sit in your living room, put on a record and travel the world, but it
s not quite the same as being there.  We were just in Tokyo.  I thought I’d been through Asia until I went to Tokyo, and that was a unique experience.  So, traveling being exposed to those cultures also helps you and your music making.  It helps you in your understanding of the human condition.

BD:   For you, home is really the music.

Taylor:   It is.  Wherever I have to be, whatever hotel room I’m in, if my husband is with me, as he often is, then that
s home.  He’s been my mainstay.  We don’t have children.  We’re still raising ourselves.  [Both laugh]  That gives us full freedom and liberty to dedicate ourselves totally to this wonderful profession.

BD:   Are children on the horizon?

Taylor:   No.  I’m not a maternal sort of person.  I love children, especially somebody else’s children.

BD:   You’ll make a great aunt.

Taylor:   Yes, and I am many times over.  I love being around my nieces and nephews.  Children are a joy, but it’s just not part of my expression in this life.  There are those who will find that also to be true for them.  The dedication to music that my life has had to have, has been complete, and I don’t think I would have done justice to raising a family.  It’s probably their benefit as well as mine.

BD:   It’s good that you and your husband can travel and make your home wherever you are.

Taylor:   That is essential.  Many singers give up before the end of their careers because they just can’t bear being away from their families.  This is true for women, more than men.  Women who have children find themselves torn between the home and the stage, feeling unable to do both as well as they would perhaps like.

BD:   Is each performance one of your offspring?

Taylor:   That’s an interesting thought, but in a sad sense, not.  Perhaps each recording is, but each performance goes out into the air.  Maybe it’s continuing to echo today, but we don’t hear it.  So it’s gone.  Only the memory exists, and the essence of the joy is there, certainly.  What a better offspring to have.

BD:   Thank you for coming back to Chicago.

Taylor:   I am glad to be back, and to welcome Chicago audiences again.

BD:   Thank you for speaking with me today.

Taylor:   Oh, it’s been my pleasure.



See my interviews with Kurt Masur, Lorin Maazel, and Michael Tilson Thomas


See my interviews with Samuel Baron, Phyllis Bryn-Julson, and Yehudi Wyner

© 1993 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in Chicago on December 20, 1993.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB the following May.  This transcription was made in 2021, and posted on this website at that time.

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.