Tenor  Thomas  Young

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


Thomas Young (born June 30, 1946) is a Grammy and Clio-award winning American lyric tenor. His first appearance at New York City Opera was in the roles of Street and Elijah Muhammed in the world première performance of Anthony Davis's X, The Life and Times of Malcolm X. He made his Lyric Opera of Chicago debut in the world première of Amistad by the same composer, portraying the Trickster God. Davis then composed another role for Young in his opera Under the Double Moon, which received its premiere at the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis.

Young's other performances have included Aron in Schoenberg's Moses und Aron; Desportes in Zimmermann's Die Soldaten at City Opera; John Adams's The Death of Klinghoffer at San Francisco Opera; Schwalb in Hindemith's Mathis der Maler at The Royal Opera, Covent Garden; and Polo in Tan Dun's Marco Polo at the Hong Kong Festival, a role he created for the Biennale Festival (Munich).

He has sung under the batons of Marin Alsop, James Conlon, Dennis Russell Davies, Reinbert de Leeuw, Oliver Knussen, Zubin Mehta, Roger Norrington, Simon Rattle, Esa-Pekka Salonen, and Leonard Slatkin, among many others.

Young's North American concert appearances include performances in Blitzstein's Airborne Symphony and Schmidt's The Book of Seven Seals with the American Symphony Orchestra at Avery Fisher Hall; Beethoven's Ninth Symphony with the Brooklyn Philharmonic conducted by Dennis Russell Davies at Brooklyn Academy of Music and Avery Fisher Hall; Mozart's Great Mass in C conducted by Lukas Foss at Brooklyn Academy of Music; Too Hot to Handel, written for Mr. Young, and Duke Ellington's Sacred Songs with Concordia Orchestra conducted by Marin Alsop at Alice Tully Hall; J.S. Bach's Mass in B Minor and Beethoven's Missa Solemnis with the Long Island Philharmonic conducted by Christopher Keene; Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde with St. Lukes Chamber Orchestra, Philippe Herreweghe conducting; Handel's Messiah with the St. Louis Symphony conducted by Andrew Parrott; Elliot Carter's In Sleep In Thunder with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, Oliver Knussen conducting. His collaboration with Julius Hemphill and the World Saxophone Quartet resulted in the world premiere of the Saxophone Opera Long Tongues at The Apollo in New York City.

His performances have included Stravinsky's Oedipus rex, Gounod's Faust, the U.S. premiere of Armida (as Rinaldo) with Tulsa Opera, Handel's Imeneo at New York City's Town Hall, and Gershwin's Porgy and Bess (as Sportin' Life) with Houston Grand Opera. He has also performed musical theater roles, including Judas in Jesus Christ Superstar, the title role in The Wiz, the Leading Player in Pippin, and Che in Evita. He is also the singing voice of Mighty Mouse in the animated series.

Young has made numerous concert appearances with many major orchestras at venues that include Avery Fisher Hall, Alice Tully Hall, Brooklyn Academy of Music, and The Apollo. He has performed in jazz concerts with Tito Puente, Nancy Wilson, Clark Terry, Phil Woods, J. D. Perren, James Carter, Julius Hemphill, Mike Renze, Doc Cheatham, and Michael Wolff. Young performed with Ann-Margret at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. He performs as part of the ensemble Cook Dixon and Young, formerly Three Mo' Tenors.

Young's many recordings include Nancy Wilson's album Life, Love, and Harmony, the Grammy Award-winning recording of William Bolcom's Songs of Innocence and of Experience with Leonard Slatkin; and Too Hot to Handel with Marin Alsop.

Young's television appearances have included: The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd, Aida's Brothers and Sisters, and the Mitch Miller Show. He performed at the Will Award Gala at the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington D.C. in honor of Judith Dench. He is a professor of music at Sarah Lawrence College, and is married to the soprano Susan Eichhorn Young.

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

As noted above, Thomas Young was in Chicago in the fall of 1997 for the world premiere production of Amistad by Anthony Davis.  There were ten performances, and the work was well-received.  In the middle of the run, Young was very gracious to take time between performances for an interview.  Portions were aired on WNIB the following day to further promote the production, and I am pleased to be able to now present the entire conversation.  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at right, see my interviews with Mark S. Doss, and Florence Quivar.]

Bruce Duffie:   Tell me the joys and sorrows of singing contemporary music.  You seem to do quite a lot of it.

Thomas Young:   The joy is being able to sing it all.  Sometimes the technical challenges are rather daunting at times, so there’s a great deal of satisfaction just to complete the task.  To be specific, there’s one of Anthony Davis’s operas that I performed which had a part written for me called Inspector.  This was an opera called Under the Double Moon, and I sang an A natural 119 times just in the first act alone.  So, there’s a certain amount of satisfaction just getting through that.

BD:   You didn’t go to the composer and shake him by the lapels, and say, “Don’t do that!”?

Young:   [Laughs]  I didn’t shake him by the lapels, but I did inform him what I was going through.  He seemed actually genuinely surprised.  He probably wasn’t doing the math, and under normal circumstances I wouldn’t either, but I was compelled.

BD:   Should you be able to go to the composers and say, “Look!  This is a human voice.  I’m not a clarinet!”?

Young:   Certainly, you should able to, and my research tells me that has never been particularly uncommon.  This is, after all, essentially a collaborative field, and where the premiere of any work is concerned, everyone talks to everyone
at least hopefully that’s the way it isand you hope that people listen to so that you can produce the best effort possible.

BD:   Do you find that these composers that you have worked with understand the voice somewhat?

Young:   That’s an excellent question, and the shortest answer would be yes, somewhat.  There’s a learning curve to this.  It’s all new, of course, but even Verdi didn’t get it all right the first ten or eleven times.

BD:   Fortunately, he had something like twenty-seven times to get it right!

Young:   Exactly!  So did Mozart.  Donizetti wrote over sixty-five operas, and how many do we have in the repertoire?  Perhaps four or five.  You have to have an opportunity to find your voice, literally and figuratively.  One of the problems with twentieth-century music, or twentieth-century opera and vocal music specifically, is that composers have to have the opportunity to learn the instrument, and they’re not really given that opportunity.

BD:   There aren’t going to be very many people nowadays who get twenty-seven operas on the board by the time they’re finished.

Young:   That’s exactly right.  History shows us that there’s an enormous amount of vocabulary one has to build in order to really do it effectively.

BD:   Should composers take a half a dozen voice lessons just to know what it feels like to produce the sound in the throat?

Young:   That would be an excellent idea, yes.  Of course, that might also be said of some directors and choreographers as well!  [Both laugh]  But in answer to your question, certainly.  You want to develop as much literacy as you can.

BD:   Directors and choreographers can change things on the spot.  The composer has the music on the page, and that’s harder to alter, especially after the work’s been printed.
Young:   Certainly, it is a much more involved process.

BD:   Do you find it gratifying to bring a character to life for the very first time?

Young:   Oh, that’s wonderful.  It’s a wonderful privilege to be able to do that, and you have the advantage of not having to suffer by comparison with other people who have done it.  So, on one hand you’ve got the challenge of trying to establish a bedrock of interpretation, but you’re not going to be necessarily compared to other people who have done the role previously, because it’s the first time.

BD:   Are you conscious at all of setting down a standard that then has to be either attained or surpassed?

Young:   That’s a good question.  I don’t think I’m concerned so much about setting any standard except my own.  I want to do the best job I can do.  I want to be able to finish a piece that I’ve done, look myself in the mirror and say, “You did the best job that you could do,” and feel reasonably good about the job that you did.  But beyond that, no.  My principal competition, my only competition really is with my best previous self, musically and artistically.

BD:   You’re always striving to do just a little bit better?

Young:   Any artists worth their salt would have to take that point of view, that position.

BD:   Do you usually attain that?

Young:   No, I’m afraid in that regard my reach exceeds my grasp... but I don’t think that’s a bad thing.

BD:   As long as you generally perform at high level?

Young:   That’s precisely right.  If you talk to a lot of artists in any field, they’re never completely satisfied with their effort.  It’s an evolutionary process, and that evolution never really stops.  You’re never really finished.

BD:   Is it different dealing with a character who is real (a historical figure), rather than fiction of someone’s mind?

Young:   It can be.  Obviously, if you’re playing a historical figure that has been written about a lot, there are going to be preconceived notions on the basis of history’s previous telling about how that character should look, and act, and speak, and so forth.  As an actor, you’re not always faithful to those kinds of restrictions.  The public either believes that you are who you say you are as a character, or they don’t.  You still have to suspend that disbelief for the audience as an actor, and as a singer, and people still have to come to the conclusion that they’re glad they came.  Art succeeds or fails ultimately on an emotional level.

BD:   When you’re on stage, how much of you is a singer, and how much of you is an actor?

Young:   There are times when, for a number of reasons, the demands of a piece that I might be doing require that I pay perhaps a little bit more attention to technique than at other times just to be able to get through it.  If you’re doing The Daughter of the Regiment, for example, and you open up all the cuts, and you’ve got those nine high Cs to sing, so you have to pay attention.  [Both laugh]  By that reckoning, strictly speaking you’re not really concerned about your Thespian chops.  [Both laugh]  But for the most part, whenever I can, I try and integrate those two.  I want to sing a beautifully, of course, but I also believe that I have a responsibility to the text and to the character that I’m trying to play.  So I find both singing and acting as often as I can.

BD:   In that specific instance, does your performance change after you’ve gotten through the hurdle of the nine high Cs?

Young:   I wouldn’t say that it necessarily changes, but clearly there are certain aspects of what you’re doing that will undergo a kind of transition.  If you’re doing song literature, such as Schubert, Schumann, or Wolf, certainly there are moments in the music when the piano will have greater prominence.  Then there are moments when the voice will have greater prominence, and those are moments when the text clearly has to speak with a certain amount of resonance.  Then there are times when ideally they all work together.  So, I don’t think that any one thing is necessarily most important in any field.  In terms of revealing the character, or revealing a principle on which the character may be based, there are moments the text has to come to the fore.  But there are certainly musical moments which, because of their power and beauty, must be stated in a particular way that they supersede everything else.

BD:   Is it your responsibility, as the artist, to sort all of this out and make sure that everything comes forward where it is supposed to come forward?

Young:   Yes, and there’s a lot of room for disagreement as to what should come forward when, or how fast or slow it should be.  It is the artist’s responsibility to make those decisions.

BD:   That is just interpretation?

Young:   Exactly.

BD:   How much of yourself is part of that interpretation?

Young:   I’m not sure it’s possible to separate oneself from one’s performance in any field, whether you’re a writer, a sculptor, or an artist.  In the final analysis, one of the things that makes one artist unique from another is how they synthesize their particular experiences, and process that, and express themselves through the medium that they’ve chosen.  None of the Impressionists, nor the Fauvists express themselves in the same way, so that principle applies across the board.

Fauvism is an art movement and style that was established towards the beginning of the 20th century. Pioneered by the likes of Henri Matisse and André Derain, in its early years Fauvism was predominantly affiliated with French artists. Fauvist art is characterised by its bold colours, textured brushwork and non-naturalistic depictions.

In some ways, Fauvist artists emerged as an extension of the Impressionist artists working at the turn of the century. Linked by the way they painted directly from nature, Fauvists are sometimes associated with post-Impressionism. However, unlike the Impressionists, the Fauvists paid particular attention to capturing emotion in their subjects. Often painting portraits, landscapes and nudes, the Fauvists enhanced the colors and tones of the natural world, while closely observing scientific color theories that had been developed in the previous century. Fauvism combines many of the art movements that proceeded it, borrowing everything from German Expressionism to neo-Impressionism.

The term ‘Fauvism’ translates to mean ‘wild-beasts’ and was coined by critic Louis Vauxcelles following the 1905 Salon d’Autumne exhibition. The exhibition, which was held in Paris, caused widespread outrage. Such vibrant and unnatural colours shocked the public and critics alike, but Fauvism soon earned its place as one of the first avant-garde art movements of the 20th century.

The figure most commonly associated with Fauvism is none other than Matisse. Taking influence from Gauguin, van Gogh and Seurat, Matisse moved art that one step closer to abstraction. This groundbreaking modernist movement did away with the stillness of the subject matter, instead instilling color with movement and brushwork with energy.

Listen to various singers.  Most really, well-known singers can be recognized immediately.  You can hear the voice and recognize immediately who that is.  Or, for that matter, take pianists.  If you listen to Chopin, you’ll know if it’s Rubinstein or Horowitz almost invariably.  So yes, that’s a part of any expression.

BD:   Is this a good thing?  Should we not just be listening to Chopin?

Young:   Oh, no.  I want to see how the people respond.  I want to hear Wanda Landowska’s interpretation of the Bach Partitas or The Well-Tempered Clavier.  In fact, it’s less important whether I agree with one interpretation or another than that there are other interpretations.  That kind of diversity is welcome, and even necessary.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   When you’re dealing with a new score, and you’ve decided that you’re going to sing it, about how long does it take to get it into the throat, and into your psyche?

Young:   The short answer is that it depends on the score, but your voice will respond depending on your training, and temperament, and what time of day it is.  There are any number of things...

BD:   [With a gentle nudge]  You mean you’re human???

Young:   Yes, exactly.  [Both laugh]  What a concept!  It really depends.  Let’s say, for example, that you’re used to doing a lot of bel canto literature.  If you’re faster with that, and it’s the kind of thing that you do a lot, or perhaps even exclusively, then a transition from one role to another, or perhaps from one composer to another, is smoother than if you were going from twentieth-century opera to Mozart, and then doing bel canto literature.  Those shifts are much wider to make.

BD:   This is what you do with your wide range of styles?

Young:   Yes, and I do require a certain amount of time to accommodate each style.  It’s not like flipping a switch.  It’s not something that I could be specific about.

BD:   There is a growing list of things that you’re asked to do.  How do you decide yes, you will work on this, or no, I will not work on that?

Young:   Again, there are a number of factors.  One of the principal ways to decide is whether or not you have time to do it.  Also, whether or not you’re available, whether or not you believe in the project, whether or not it’s something that you really want to do, or if you think it’s going to be beneficial to you artistically, and perhaps even career-wise.  There’s making beautiful music, and there’s having the career at it, and they’re not the same thing always.  Sometimes you, as a singer will take a role that you might not otherwise take because it makes sense for your career.  Or sometimes you want to take a role because you would just like to learn it, and it becomes part of your continuing personal and artistic development.  Sometimes you don’t want to be away from home at that time.  I know that sounds odd, but I remember when I was at Covent Garden, and I was talking with Robert Tear backstage.  He looked at me and said, “You know, Thomas, I would give real money to sing and be able to stay at home!”  At a certain point in one’s life, being on the road gets old.  It’s part of the business, so you accept that.  You go where your voice takes you, but being away from home gets tiring.

BD:   The further you go in your career, you arrange to be away less and less?

Young:   If you can, certainly.  Obviously, it depends on the person.  Some people are very comfortable being on the road a lot.  I used to be, but I’m not so much anymore.  [Laughs]  That’s what you do, so maybe it’s as simple as that.

BD:   This might be a dangerous question, but do you find that you’re aging well in the voice, in the career, and in the roles you select?

Young:   I think so.  I hope so!  That’s what I’ve been told.  That’s the one thing you hope for.  You want to sing well, but also want a career that has some kind of length.  It’s not just about singing for a long time
although that’s nicebut what we’re really talking about is being able to invest in what you do over time, so that as you develop as an artist and a human being, you can manifest that in your work, and that takes a certain amount of time.  People don’t play Hamlet at fourteen.

BD:   Neither are you going to sing Nemorino [from L’Elisir d’Amore] at sixteen.

Young:   Precisely.  One has to sit down and think about what relationship you have to the piece that you’re doing, including the technical demands.  Lots of decisions clearly have to be made, and I hope my choices have been intelligent choices, and effective choices, both artistically and otherwise.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   You’re involved in what we call Concert Music and Opera.  Are the songs and roles you sing for everyone?

Young:   Oh, certainly not, if for no other reason than one must have a certain facility as well as a gift just to be able to sing the roles, or to meet the technical demands of the piece.  Not everyone can sing The Daughter of the Regiment for that matter, and not everyone can do the Duke [in Rigoletto].

BD:   I was thinking more of the audience.  Is all this music for everyone in the audience, anyone who wants to come?

Young:   The short answer would be nothing is for everyone, but if you come to any new endeavor, whether it’s opera, or concert music, or whatever, if you bring a willingness to be attentive, or a willingness to try and meet it on its own terms, and have a certain pliability in a new learning situation, then there’s something you can get out of it.  You have to be willing to pay attention.  It’s not necessarily a good idea, for example, to go to the opera if you’re tired, or hungry, or otherwise uncomfortable.  You need to pay attention to what’s going on.  So, the audience has to bring something to whatever piece they’re watching in whatever venue.  It may sound like a cliché, but there is a relationship between what you get out of something and what you put into it on both sides of the curtain.

BD:   Are you conscious of the audience that is out there each night?

Young:   Not really.  That
fourth wall is real for a lot of us.  In this particular instance [Amistad at Lyric Opera of Chicago], you have so much to do, and it’s so knowingly difficult to do, that concentration really becomes an important factornot that it isn’t normally, but it really is important in this piece.

The following item is from my interview with Lyric Operas Property Master Thomas Gilbert...

:   Are you supposed to try to come in under budget?

Gilbert:   Yes.

BD:   [With a gentle nudge]  Do you get a bonus if you beat the budget?

Gilbert:   [Sadly]  There are no bonuses.  [Both laugh]  This budget is pretty strict.  Most of the time I usually don’t work with the budget.  It usually comes down to a matter of making them happy.  I go out and look, or my assistant goes out and looks, and then we come back and say these are options, these are pictures, this is going to be this, this is this much.  Then, I sit down and talk about it, and it goes all the way up.  They say, okay, yes or no, and you eventually either go back and get that, or you have to settle for something else... or we go down into the shop.  We have a couple of pretty good carpenters downstairs that can whip out in a day or two what you need and make it look aged.  For instance, last year in Amistad, we were trying to find two tables for the two sets of lawyers in the trial scene.  They had to sit on little pallets that could only be so big, and they had to be pushed out with push sticks, and ride in the tracks.  So, they had to be a certain size, and the certain style that he wanted.  We couldn’t find it, and we didn’t have much time, so we made them.  We went through a book with the designer, and he picked out what he wanted to see.  We took that down with the dimensions we had to have, and the carpenters made it.  The next day we brought in the scenic artist to paint it the way he wanted, and he was very happy.  So were we, because it worked!  In the end, it didn’t cost nearly as much as a real antique table that size.


BD:   Have the works by Davis given you too much to do, and to think about?

Young:   Oh no, not at all.  But certainly there is enough to think about and do, and to occupy you so that in the ten performances there’s still plenty to work at and look at in turn.  But you could say that about the Brahms Requiem.  You listen to it when you are twenty-three years old, and then you listen to it at thirty-three, and it’s a very different piece.  What a monster that is!  The historical facts surrounding the piece
its formulation and presentation not withstandingit’s a huge piece to do, as are any of the Passions.  It’s an ongoing process.

BD:   Is there ever a time that you get to the bottom of a piece, and have discovered all of its secrets?

Young:   If there is I’m not aware of it, and I would be very suspicious of anyone who told me they’d garnered from a particular piece of music, or literature for that matter, all there was to garner.  When you’re speaking to the human condition, for example, basic questions about loss, love and death, those archetypal questions that we’ve been talking about for all of recorded history, if we’ve been shown anything, we’ve been shown that there is no final answer to any of those questions, which is precisely the reason that we keep talking about them.

*     *     *     *     *
BD:   This opera, Amistad, is the second time you’ve been involved in a major operatic production which is co-incidental to a major film presentation of the same topic.

Young:   Yes, indeed!

BD:   Is that a good thing, or an unsettling thing for you as the musical artist?

Young:   It’s a good thing, and I don’t find it at all unsettling in the sense that it’s been talked about in more than one venue.  That’s rather a fortunate thing, actually.  In the case of Anthony Davis’s X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X, we actually recorded that piece four years before it was released, and I think that the release of the movie really did have something to do with Gramavision’s decision to finally release the album.  I can’t be sure of that, but I wouldn’t be surprised to discover that was the case.

BD:   Being a commercial venture, they would want to get as much as they can out of it.

Young:   Of course, they’re in business.

BD:   Now in the case of Amistad, you’ve got this major film coming out at the same as the opera.  Is the opera being talked about enough when they talk about the film, or is it just a side-light that the Lyric Opera is doing this other piece?

Young:   It’s pretty much a side-light.  First of all, people make films basically to make money.  I don’t mean to apply any criticism there, but we’re talking about a product.  This is about commerce.  You make a film, it’s about commerce.  A studio gives you money to make a film because they expect to make that back and more.

BD:   The actual telling of the story, and the learning of history is secondary?

Young:   Sometimes it is.  If you’re talking about The Attack of the Killer Tomatoes, then that particular history is probably secondary to making money at the box-office.  [Both laugh]  If you’re talking about a more serious subject, those lines become a little bit more blurred.  The only point I’m trying to make is that essentially, when we talk about that aspect of the business, namely making movies, it is essentially about commerce, and if there are occasions when commerce becomes secondary, I would suspect that they’re relatively rare because these people are in business, after all, to make money.  The nature of what it is we do, whether we’re painting, or writing, or sculpting, is that posterity is the ultimate judge about whether something succeeds or fails.  So much of what we hear in the concert halls and see on the operatic stage is music that we’ve been listening to for quite some time, and by that reckoning it has been posterity that has essentially been the yardstick that has conferred immortality on these pieces.

BD:   Is history always right?

Young:   Certainly not!  The problem is we’re speaking in those kinds of absolutes.  History is revealing for anyone who’s paying attention, and can certainly learn from it.

BD:   Is this one of the big things about Amistad
to bring this corner of history to an even wider audience?

Young:   I think so.  That’s one of the things, yes.  Obviously, as a composer you want to write beautiful music.  As a singer, you want to sing beautifully, but you also want other things as well.  You want to reveal things about the human spirit.  In this particular instance, this is a story that needs to be told for any number of reasons.  It’s a story about struggle, it’s a story about humanity, it’s a story about the lack of humanity, it’s a story about loss and gain, and it also is a story about one aspect of the history of this republic.  For all of those reasons, and quite a number that I haven’t mentioned, certainly I think it should be seen, heard, and discussed.

BD:   You knew ahead of time that being on the opera stage you were going to get relatively few of the black community coming to see it, and relatively more of the white community coming to see it.  Did this make any impact at all, or is this just another side-bar of your presentation?

Young:   [Thinks a moment]  I never came to the conclusion, and quite frankly I don’t believe I’ve really ever thought about it.  But I didn’t come to the conclusion that the audience was going to be comprised one way or another.  Let me try and answer that question by another example.  When X was presented at the New York City Opera, if memory serves we did four performances, and it was sold out virtually immediately.  A lot of people who went to see that opera were African-Americans, and also there were a lot of people that went to see that opera that would, under normal circumstances, not see an opera of any kind.  It attracted an awful lot of theater people, and an awful lot of people of all segments of the community.  So, by that reckoning, I don’t think it’s simply a question of black and white.  What we’re talking about is a cross section of the community at large that came to see this piece.

BD:   But those are people who specifically came and bought tickets for that piece.

Young:   Yes, that’s true.

BD:   On the other hand, Lyric Opera is basically sold on subscription.  So you have your regular audience that comes every year to Bohème and Butterfly and Traviata coming then to see Amistad.

Young:   That’s true, and that has a lot to do with how the opera house is run.  If I’m correct, Lyric Opera is unique in that respect, in that they have an extraordinarily loyal audience of subscribers that really support the company in a way that no other opera house in this country functions.

BD:   We trust the company, and know that they’re going to put on extraordinary performances, and we’re very rarely disappointed.

Young:   Precisely, so in that respect we’re talking about a unique animal.  By that reckoning then, the make-up of an audience is going to be a reflection not so much of black and white, but rather a reflection about how the company is run, and how it’s set up to operate.

BD:   Was it special to you, being African-American, to help to bring this story out, more so than just another Nemorino or Daughter of the Regiment?

Young:   Absolutely!  The piece is beautiful, but also important, and there are a lot of amazing bonuses.  First of all, let me say that I really feel privileged to be a part of this production, but I would be privileged to be part of any production that brought to the surface something that needed to be discussed, whether it be talking about specifics of history or general principles of behavior of one human being to another.  What I was concerned about, more than anything else, was revealing what I thought this piece was about.  I wanted to sing it well, and have the words be understood.  I wanted the character to be revealed.  The short answer is I want to do my job.  Now it could be argued that everybody does, but the question is how badly do you want to do it, and that’s difficult to measure.  It’s difficult to quantify, but it was very important to me just as a human being, let alone an artist, let alone an artist who happens to be an African-American in this place and time.


:   I hope we are making progress with this, but have we made enough progress in getting the black singer, the oriental singer, and all these other singers into the European operatic tradition, and now the American operatic tradition?

Young:   In my view, no, but you can also argue that we’re not doing enough to give women conductors opportunities to stand in front of the podium, either.  It really depends on what your perceptions are.  Some people believe that sexism is not a dominant cultural mode in our culture, but I think there’s a substantial amount of evidence to show that there is.  Some people think that racism is not a dominant cultural mode in our culture, but again there’s evidence to indicate that it is, and by that reckoning it has to continue to be addressed until it is no longer part of our lives.  It should be addressed not because it is simply wrong, although I think it is, but it should be addressed because of the waste that is involved.  If you don’t tap into the talent pool of some thirty to thirty-five million African-Americans, or some seventy to seventy-five million women, and if you decide you’re not going to allow these people the opportunity to realize their potential in the same way that other members of society are, then we all lose, and that’s a tremendous waste.

BD:   Yes, it’s society that loses.  [If I may, here is a list of the African-American musicians I have interviewed, and the uses made of that material.  I have also made a point of including women and other minority composers and conductors in my presentations.]

Young:   Society loses.  That’s where the terrible loss is.  So aside from any philosophical debate, the practical reality is if people do not have the opportunity to realize their potential for whatever reason, we all lose.  Humanity loses.

BD:   Are we making progress, but it’s not enough progress, and not fast enough progress?

Young:   Literally whole generations are being lost.  How does one replace that?  Obviously, one does not.

BD:   A loss is a loss.

Young:   Precisely.  Thank you.  That’s really well said, and simply and eloquently said.  A loss is a loss, and we need to go faster, absolutely, because it is literally life or death for millions of Americans.

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young BD:   Let me ask a very easy question.  What’s the purpose of music?
Young:   [Laughs]  I’m not so sure that’s an easy question.  I think the purpose of music is to illuminate the human condition, and improve the human condition through the senses.  That’s one definition.  There are lots of them of course, but if someone presents something on that musical stage, if it really touches you while it’s happening, what it does among other things is make your life richer.  It improves the quality of your life, and if that’s true, it also makes you a little bit better human being, and that’s extraordinary.

BD:   I assume it pleases you to be part of that?

Young:   Not only does it please me, but I feel privileged to be part of it.  I’m living the life of privilege through that.

BD:   Are you at the point in your career that you want to be at this age?

Young:   [With a big smile]  You ask a lot of good questions, sir!  I’ll answer it in two parts, if I may.  I’m happy to be where I am, but I would like to be further along.  By this time, I would like to have had the opportunity to have done more standard repertory.  I have not been given that opportunity, and I would like to have just done more work in that field.  So, yes, and no!  [Both laugh]  How about that for a politician’s answer?  [Both laugh]

BD:   That’s fine because it’s an honest answer.

Young:   Yes, it is.

BD:   You also sing song recitals.  How do you divide your career between the opera performances, and the song recitals, and also the concerts with orchestra?

Young:   With a certain amount of difficulty.  You asked me earlier how it was I decided what I was going to do or not do, and that’s what it’s really about.  You open up a calendar to see what days you have available, but you also have to decide whether or not you want to do a project, and if you want to, whether you can, and then you hope that it works out.  Unfortunately, a lot of the times it doesn’t.  A lot of times there are overlaps.  You’re committed to one project, and another project comes along that you would love to do, and you simply can’t do it because your previous commitment will not permit that.  In general, though, it would be honest to say I’d like to be busier doing certain things.  I get called a lot of times to do twentieth-century pieces because people seem to think that’s something I do well.

BD:   They know you’re good at it so everyone wants you.

Young:   They call me a lot for that, and actually I say
no a fair amount of time for a number of reasons.  I would like to say it is always in terms of the calendar, but sometimes it’s difficult, and sometimes it’s not so difficult at all.  Even if you don’t want to do any of them, I do like to eat!  [Both laugh]  Then, there are other times when it seems impossible to figure out what it is you want to do, and get it all to fit neatly as you’d like it to.  Often it fits, but not neatly, and it’s an ongoing challenge.  A lot of times it is feast or famine.  One minute your phone is ringing off the hook, and the next minute it isn’t.  

BD:   Do you do some teaching as well?

Young:   Yes.

BD:   Are you pleased with the sounds that you hear coming out of the young throats?

Young:   Sometimes.  One of the things that helps is listening to the right singers.  Actually, I don’t want to say
right’, but listening to certain singers.  The word ‘right implies that I have some sort of monopoly on what’s right and what’s wrong, and nothing could be further from the truth.  But if you listen to certain singers, they can inform you, and they can suggest how you might want to approach singing.  As much as anything else, my concern is what people actually listen to.  What are they putting in the computer, if you will, and what they are digesting.

BD:   Are they putting enough concert music into their brain-computers?

Young:   In my teaching experience, no.

BD:   So, how do we get more?

Young:   By trying to encourage people to attend concerts, and also by making it easier for them to get to those concerts.  Exposure is very important, and the sooner the better.  What I’d like to see, and what a lot of people would like to see at the primary level is more young people exposed to this tradition of making of music in this particular way.

BD:   Sure, grab them early!

Young:   Exactly!  That’s very important.  It’s extraordinary, but think about it...  Unless you go to certain churches, there’s really no place for you to hear how the voice occurs acoustically, and how it can really
literally and figurativelyinfluence the environment around you.  That means a lot of people are not hearing this stuff.

BD:   Does that make it more important for you to make records, and television appearances, and radio appearances that are more accessible to more people over a longer period of time?

Young:   That’s important, but people have to come to live concerts, and see what happens.  That moment when someone walks out on the stage is unique in this particular space in time.

BD:   [Noting that Young is the first voice heard in this opera]  When Amistad begins, it’s you!

Young:   [Laughs]  That’s right, but I would like to see more young people getting an opportunity to really hear a violin close up, or hear a brass section close up, or hear a singer close up.  They need to know what that sound feels like in the room, because there is a tactile sensation associated with those sounds.  Much of the time we turn on the television, or we go to movies, and we’re talking about amplified sound.  If you go to rock concerts, that’s some seriously amplified sound!

BD:   The box that puts the sound out is called a
speaker, but its name originally was ‘loud-speaker’.  That’s the second time in history weve done that.  Many years ago we dropped the word forte (loud) off of the name piano-forte (literally loud-soft).

The pianoforte, more commonly called the piano, became, by the last quarter of the eighteenth century, a leading instrument of Western art music, for both professionals and amateurs. The modern piano is a highly versatile instrument capable of playing almost anything an orchestra can play. It can sustain pitches in a lyrical fashion, creating all musical styles and moods, with enough volume to be heard through almost any musical ensemble. Broadly defined as a stringed keyboard instrument with a hammer action (as opposed to the jack and quill action of the harpsichord) capable of gradations of soft and loud, the piano became the central instrument of music pedagogy and amateur study. By the end of the nineteenth century, no middle-class household of any stature in Europe or North America was without one. Almost every major Western composer from Mozart onward has played it, many as virtuosi, and the piano repertory—whether solo, chamber, or with orchestra—is at the heart of Western classical professional performance.

A 1700 inventory of Medici instruments mentions an “arpicimbalo,” i.e., an instrument resembling a harpsichord, “newly invented by Bartolomeo Cristofori” with hammers and dampers, two keyboards, and a range of four octaves, C–c”’. The poet and journalist Scipione Maffei, in his enthusiastic 1711 description, named Cristofori’s instrument a “gravicembalo col piano, e forte” (harpsichord with soft and loud), the first time it was called by its eventual name, pianoforte.

Young:   Exactly!  We should actually reinsert it and say ‘very loud-speaker’ if you’re going to certain concerts.  [Much laughter]  But that influences how we hear tones, and when we start to hear sound in a particular way, we produce sound in accordance with how we hear it.

BD:   That has worried me for a long time.

Young:   I don’t want to be over-simplistic here, but take a look at the kind of society we live in now.  There’s no implied criticism here, but we are living very differently now.  For example, people don’t read as much as they used to.

BD:   Is it right to take the society that lives differently now, and give them a story with music that’s a hundred or two hundred years old?

Young:   That’s a really good question.  Thank you for asking that.  It’s a really good idea if whatever they’re listening to still continues to speak to the human tradition.  You can listen to Shakespeare with his four-hundred-year-old language, and I can assure you that if it is delivered well, it will move you because it still speaks to those things which make us human beings.  [Quotes Sonnet 91 of Shakespeare]  
Some glory in their birth, some in their skill/ Some in their wealth, some in their bodys force/ Some in their garments, though new-fangled ill/ Some in their hawks and hounds, some in their horse/ And every humor has his adjunct pleasure/ Wherein it finds a joy above the rest.  That’s four-hundred-year-old language, but it’s very present, and very alive.

BD:   Let us look the other direction.  Will the music of Anthony Davis, including what you’ve been singing here at Lyric Opera, last a hundred, two hundred, three hundred years?

Young:   There’s no way to know that, but I hope so.  Can we imagine for one minute what Mozart would have thought if he knew people would be driving around with little contraptions the size of a cigarette box, and be able to transport his music anywhere?  We put on these little things called headphones, and put little things in these boxes called batteries, and we are able to transport that music any place.

BD:   I think he’d be both elated and horrified.

Young:   Sure!  So, I have no idea, but I certainly hope that we’re listening to this music.  I hope we’re still listening to Bach four hundred years from now too, for that matter, and Purcell, and Byrd...

BD:   [Interjecting with a gentle nudge]  William Byrd (1539/40 - 1623) or Charlie
Bird [Parker, jazz saxophonist] (1920 - 1955)?

Young:   Both!  [Both laugh]

BD:   One last question.  Do you like being a tenor?

Young:   Yes, I do.

BD:   You don’t want to be a baritone, and have different kinds of parts?

Young:   No, no, no, I like being a tenor!  I really don’t have anything to say about it beyond that.  The question for all of us is are we content to be who we are?  Have we arrived at a point where we can say,
I am who I am, and that’s okay”?

BD:   You said earlier that you feel privileged, and for any one of us that lead a privileged life, the answer is yes.

Young:   Yes, absolutely, and by saying that, it’s also important to remember that if one does lead a privileged life, one has a responsibility.  A privileged life should mean that there are prerogatives that need to be transferred to making the place a little bit better than you found it.  We must find ways to do that, and create ways to do it if necessary.

BD:   With every gift you get, you get an equal responsibility.

Young:   Absolutely.  You really have no excuse not to be generous if you can afford to be.  One of the things I’m concerned about is not taking unfair advantage of this life of privilege that I lead.  I’d like to be able to be responsible, not just to the gifts that I have, but for the gifts that I have.  That’s all.

BD:   Thank you for sharing your gifts with Chicago and Lyric Opera.

Young:   It has been my distinct pleasure to do that, thank you.
 I really appreciate your interviewing technique.  The questions are thoughtful, insightful, and penetrating without being intrusive.

BD:   Thank you for saying so.  I hope you’ll come back in future seasons.

Young:   I would be delighted to come back.  I really like coming to Chicago very much, and if it weren’t for the winters I might consider living here!



© 1997 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in Chicago on December 15, 1997.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB the following day.  This transcription was made in 2022, 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.  To read my thoughts on editing these interviews for print, as well as a few other interesting observations, click here.

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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.