Mezzo - Soprano Tatiana Troyanos
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie
Tatiana Troyanos (September 12, 1938 - August 21, 1993)
The mezzo soprano whose career centered in New York was acclaimed in numerous
major opera houses throughout the world.
Raised in Queens, New York, Troyanos graduated from Forest Hills High School,
studied at Juilliard, and picked up such singing jobs as she could, appearing
as a chorister in the 1959 original Broadway production of The Sound of Music. In 1963 she made
her professional operatic bow at the New York City Opera as Hippolyta in
Benjamin Britten's A Midsummer Night's
Dream, and the next year sang Marina in the company's first production
of Boris Godunov. A mainstay of
the Metropolitan Opera from 1976, she sang in several opening-night performances
at that house including Adalgisa in Norma
with Renata Scotto in
the title role, Octavian in Der Rosenkavalier,
and Didon in Les Troyens. A praised
recording artist, Tatiana appeared in the title role of Carmen conducted by Sir Georg Solti, as Cherubino
in Karl Böhm's 1968 reading of Le
nozze di Figaro, and as Anita in Bernstein's operatic-style recording
of West Side Story, among others.
She earned praise as the Countess in Berg's Lulu, as Romeo in Bellini's I Capuletti e i Montecchi, and as Queen
Isabella for the Metropolitan's world premiere of Philip Glass' The Voyage.
Tatiana died of breast cancer, having concealed her illness from all but
her close friends. Maintaining a positive attitude to the end, she
sang for other patients in the hospital the night before her death.
Throughout this page, names which are links refer to my interviews elsewhere
on this website.
As can be seen in the chart below, Tatiana Troyanos
brought just a few select roles to Lyric Opera of Chicago. Each was
very special, and remains significant in the hearts of the Windy City.
Tatiana Troyanos at Lyric Opera of Chicago
1971 - Werther
, Angot, Miranda,
1980 - Italian Earthquake Relief Benefit
with (among others) Battle, Buchanan
, Dean, Howells
Nucci, Pavarotti, Payne, Scotto, Stilwell
1985-86 - Capuletti
1986-87 - Parsifal
, Becht, Salminen;
1988-89 - Clemenza di Tito
, Winbergh, Doss
; Davis, Rochaix
1989-90 - Don Carlo
1992-93 - Rheingold
Morris, Wlaschiha, McCauley, Maultsby, Terfel (Donner); Mehta
During her visit in the fall of 1985, she agreed to meet for an interview
on the evening after her first performance as Romeo. She was most gracious
to allow me to come to her apartment, and made me feel very welcome during
Here is what was said at that time . . . . . . . . . . .
Bruce Duffie: How’d
it go last night?
Fine. It was an experience. It was great singing here.
I haven’t sung here since ’71.
BD: That’s right,
TT: That’s right. It’s a long time ago, so
it’s like a debut in a most wonderful, wonderful opera. Great bel canto
singing, great demands and a great company. I’m so impressed with Chicago
BD: Good, I’m glad
you are. We get compliments from just about everybody. It gives
us a warm feeling to know that we’re doing something right.
TT: Oh it’s a wonderful
company. They care so much and they’re so sincere. You can tell
by the little things — how
they congratulate you afterwards, how professional the stage crew and the
chorus are and how much they love it.
BD: [Somewhat surprised]
Do you not find this everywhere else?
TT: It’s very different,
which is good. That’s the way it ought to be. It shouldn’t be
the same everywhere.
BD: How is the
TT: I’m not used
to it yet, quite frankly. It’s so very long. It’s very hard to
feel like you’re getting to everybody. It’s such distance I find that
I have to stretch myself.
BD: Do you make
any adjustments for the size of the house or acoustics?
TT: You have to
be careful that you don’t over-give. That’s a big tendency in any big
opera house, but this one is so long and the balcony seems so far away.
But the acoustics are very good and everything can be heard.
can be heard and that’s what you have to think about. This particular
set is made out of very hard materials, and everything bounces right off
BD: I assume that
is a good thing?
TT: Yes, it is
good, actually. You have to get used to it because it’s raked, but
it comes down forward as far as possible so that it brings the whole drama
much closer to the public, which is good.
BD: Are you conscious
of the public when you sing?
TT: I’m very, very
near-sighted, so it isn’t as though I can see heads or anything. I
can’t; it’s too dark. But yes, I am conscious of people there who are
listening, who are coming for that purpose, to hear the performance.
BD: Do you feed
off of their enthusiasm?
TT: Yes, I do,
and I also feed off of their concentration if their interested.
BD: Can you tell
when a house is with you and when it’s not with you?
BD: What do you
do when a house isn’t with you?
TT: You just have
to get with yourself. That’s all. They’ll get with you or they
won’t. You just have to make sure what you’re doing is what you want
to do, and if it isn’t then you make adjustments. It’s always different
when you’re singing and there’s no one in a house than when it’s filled.
The capacity here has got to be about thirty-seven hundred, so it’s a large
group of people.
BD: Do you ever
sing in a house that’s as small as say twelve hundred?
TT: I love it.
It’s great. It’s a wonderful relief to go to a place like Geneva where
I am going in January and sing a Handel opera. They’re all just right
there in front of you and it’s heaven. One should do that in your calendar
if you can so as not to sing constantly in large opera houses or in large
concert halls... which reminds me, I sang a recital here in Chicago at the
Auditorium. That was certainly not meant for intimate recitals.
It’s an enormous hall, but acoustically wonderful.
BD: When it was built Jean de Reszke said it had
the best acoustics in the world.
TT: Oh, I agree,
I agree. But it’s very healthy for a singer to be exposed to a smaller
BD: You sing Handel,
you sing Romantic, you sing 20th century. Do you purposely try to balance
it with a little bit of each?
TT: I don’t do
lots and lots of contemporary. I certainly did when I was starting
in Hamburg. I had to because I was on that kind of a contract where
I had no say.
BD: You were handed
roles and told to sing them?
TT: For the most
part. If I really disagreed, I would go up to Professor Liebermann
and tell him so. But for the most part I had to do them.
BD: Was Liebermann
at all conscious and aware of the problems and technical things involved
in singing? Was he careful about each singer?
TT: Yes, he was.
He guided our careers magnificently in those years, yet what was most important
was his theater and his ensemble and his repertoire and his excellence.
The people that he surrounded himself with could do what he wanted.
That’s why he hired them. He hired a lot of Americans because of the
willingness, the versatility and eagerness to work.
BD: More open mindedness
toward new ideas?
TT: Yes, that also.
He left Hamburg for many, many years and just returned a year and a half
ago. So a lot of us are going back just for guest performances.
It’s going to be great. I’m thrilled to be going back. It’s like
BD: Are there enough
of these kinds of situations in various houses where they have an ensemble
to bring along young singers for several years before they go out on their
TT: The major companies
are now trying to do that with their young talent because talent is rare
and it has to be fostered and looked after and supported and guided.
The big impresarios in this country are looking to take the best care of
their talent that they can, and I think that’s very wise.
BD: Are there enough
young singers around, or are there too many?
TT: When I listen
to the Metropolitan Auditions of the Air, you realize that there are so many
people involved in gathering the talents of this country together and putting
them on the stage — the process of elimination, keeping
in touch with them, watching their progress, selecting those that really
meet some specifications by coming to the Met. There is the Young Artists
Program at the Met, and there are so many more programs now for young people,
as well as support and actual money that’s given to the young artist.
They can live off of this so they don’t have to hold down another job
— which is what I had to do, and lots of people had to do.
BD: Some will waitress
during the day and sing at night?
TT: Or sing in
the chorus or waitress or work on the weekends — whatever
was needed to hold it together. These young people are really the cream
of the crop of the American talent, and every year there are new people.
BD: Are they really
TT: Some of them
are fantastic! Really! I know that Professor Liebermann was here
in the spring. He called me and said he came specifically to hear these
young people. There are a number of them that are tremendously gifted.
That would be just like him; he loves to do that. Who doesn’t love
to take a young talent and build it and make it grow and watch it and care
BD: And then give
it flight and let it go?
TT: Yes, for sure.
You have to have the talent to be talented, and if you’re going to make it
you have to have that quality. Not only do you have to have the talent
but you have to know what to do with the talent. So there’s a talent
in that, too. There are so many, I’m sure, who have talent, but that’s
as far as it goes. The next step is to know what to do with it, and
to be talented enough to make it work. There are so many qualities
that you need.
BD: Are there some
that don’t make it that should?
TT: I’m sure.
I would think so.
BD: Are there some
that do make it that shouldn’t?
How could I know that for sure? All I know is there are a lot of talented
people, and some make it and some don’t. You have to bring that indefinable
luck into it because luck is a tremendous part of it. It really is.
It’s some kind of fate, some kind of indefinable part of one’s life where
one is actually at the right theater at the right time, with the right intendant,
with the right repertoire, with the right rate of growth, not doing too much
too soon and having to take time off to restudy altogether. One needs
some kind of an instinct of what’s right for you and what isn’t, or at least
finding some one person who knows and who can guide you. It’s all luck.
BD: That’s the
trick — finding that right person who has the ears
and the ability and the interest in you.
TT: Yes, and also
developing it for yourself because it would be ideal, of course, to have
always someone there, but you can’t always have the ideal. So you develop
it, certainly, after years. But luck plays an enormous part in a career.
* * *
BD: You have such
a wide repertoire — Handel, 19th century, 20th century.
Is there any connection at all between the early and late bypassing the 19th
century, or is that a myth?
TT: Whether or
not it’s a connection, there are things that seem to help one another, that
seem to augment the fact that one can do one style well and then incorporate
something from that into another style. One helps the other.
It isn’t that I’ve always just wanted to just do one style and excel only
in that, but the more I do of one style and then pick up something else,
the better I do each one. In that way I find some connective ideas
about the various repertoires and different styles that I do.
BD: Is there, then,
a long unbroken line back from Monteverdi through the 20th century?
TT: Well, I don’t
know if I’d call it an unbroken line.
BD: Perhaps a bumpy
TT: I don’t know
how I would describe that. Different demands are certainly needed for
that wide span, but it’s just very important for me anyway, but for any singer
not to just sing 20th century music. I couldn’t maintain any kind of
health, and I couldn’t maintain any flexibility with those vocal cords that
I can by encompassing the wide variety of styles that I sing. At least
I’ve got the flexibility and I know the style. I understand the style
and I try and understand how I have to meet it and what I have to bring to
it. One of the pieces I did in Hamburg was by Penderecki, and I’m
sure that he’s been performed here.
BD: We had the
premiere of Paradise Lost.
I did a role in the premiere of the Devils
of Loudun in Hamburg, and that was the closest I came to really experiencing
what it was like to have some kind of vocal difficulty. It isn’t that
I don’t think he’s a genius. I do. I think he’s a fabulous writer,
but he can’t really write every note with the thought that this is going
to be marvelous for the throat of a singer, or this particular singer.
BD: Does he understand
TT: I don’t think
BD: Should he go
and take voice lessons for six months or six years?
TT: I don’t think
he cares about it. He cares about the music that he’s written, and
he wants it to be performed. I have not heard his latest opera but
I don’t think he has the same protective attitude towards vocal cords that
a singer would have; even conductors don’t. A singer has to know what
they can and cannot do, but I knew then that I certainly could not concentrate
my vocal talent to just one composer or one style.
BD: You feel that
he uses the voice like a clarinet or a flute?
TT: It’s been a
long time since I’ve looked at that particular score, but I do remember it
was not easy. It took months and months to get it right in my voice,
and it took some months to get it undone so that I could go on to other things.
It took its toll, yes. I wouldn’t want to do too much of that.
BD: Did the composers of the 19th century understand
TT: I think more
BD: And the 18th
TT: Yes, for sure.
BD: So the line
is losing the understanding of the voice as it gets closer and closer to
BD: Are there some
composers today who do understand the voice?
TT: I’m sure that
there are, but I’m afraid I’m not the person to ask about that since I don’t
really sing those parts. They seem to write more for a particular person
or have a particular performer in mind more than they used to.
BD: Is that a good
TT: I think that’s
a good thing, yes.
BD: Then is it
a good thing for someone else to try to sing something that was tailored
for another voice?
TT: One can try
it. It may not exactly suit you. I don’t know if I would sing
something that was written specifically for Janet Baker. We have different
temperaments, we have different timbres, we have different ways of expressing
ourselves. So I don’t know. I probably would not. I’d rather
have someone write something specifically for me.
BD: Have you had
TT: I’m hoping
to. So that should be really fun.
BD: Is there any
competition at all amongst mezzo-sopranos?
TT: I’ve never
thought of it. Everyone is who they are, and if they have a strong
enough personality it isn’t a question any longer of competition. Maybe
it is when you are starting out. You’re very aware of who’s doing what,
but once you become more established, I’m aware of what people are doing
but I’m also much more aware of what I’m doing and how I want to do it.
I’m not as aware of competition as such.
BD: Are you glad
you are a mezzo rather than a soprano?
TT: Oh, yes I am.
Yes, yes. I am a mezzo. I’ve always been a mezzo.
BD: No latent desires
to sing Norma or Brünnhilde or anything like that?
BD: Then I’ll ask
the fatal question. Why do some other mezzos want to try to force their
TT: It isn’t that
they even think they’re forcing their voices up. A lot of mezzos, colleagues
that you and I both know — including myself as well
from time to time — have easy facility for the top
register. So one gets very easily fooled into thinking, “Well, if I
have no problem singing a B-flat or a C and I can stay up there, then why
can’t I do such and such a part?” Then you start singing it, and if
you have a good day when you’re rested and you’re in good shape and it goes
well you say, “My, this is really something to be looked at.” Then
there are the days when you’d come to the theater and you’re not feeling
as well, but you are faced with a performance that you know under any circumstances
will not be a problem for you. Now, if I were to go to the theater
and have to sing Leonore in Fidelio
— which has tempted me — I think at this
point it doesn’t make any sense anymore. It isn’t really what I want
to hear when I go to the theater. I want to hear a dramatic soprano
and that’s it. I don’t want to hear a mezzo with wonderful high notes
because a dramatic soprano generally also has a fuller middle, and that’s
really what I want to hear. It’s fine and good to sing excerpts if
that’s what will do it for you, but at this point I want to do the roles
I do as well as I can do them, and that’s it, as well as a wide, wide variety
of recital and concert repertoire.
BD: How do you
balance opera and concert?
TT: It’s hard.
A lot of colleagues will say they devote a certain amount of time to this
and then to this and that, but it’s not so simple.
BD: [With a gentle
nudge] You can’t just cut out three months to do recitals and then
TT: No, because
the schedule doesn’t work out that way. Three years from now I’ll get
a wonderful offer and I’ll say, “Oh well, my goodness, I was going to do
recitals then.” You just have to make sure that in your operatic repertoire
you’re not overextending yourself, and if you are, know it and at least and
give yourself some time.
* * *
BD: Let me ask
you about Handel. When you think of the opera Julius Caesar which role do you think
TT: I think of
Julius Caesar now. It’s very interesting because years ago, when Joan
Sutherland made her debut in Hamburg with a wonderful production of Julius Caesar, Rolf Liebermann asked
me to sing the role of Caesar to her Cleopatra. I couldn’t because
I had another contract. I recorded the role of Cleopatra, which was
TT: Because it
was just wrong for me. The recording is, in my opinion, terribly long.
BD: Then is it
wrong for someone to tell you they really enjoyed that recording?
TT: No, not at
all because there might be some very enjoyable things on it. There
are a lot of artists who record things they would never sing on the stage,
or their voices are totally wrong for it, or it’s not balanced enough.
But today it’s wonderful to be able to sing the part of Julius Caesar.
BD: Do you like
doing trouser roles?
TT: I do yes, but
I also like doing lady roles. I like them both.
BD: Does it make
you schizophrenic at all to sometimes have to be very feminine, and at other
times be very masculine?
TT: No, hopefully
it makes me a better actress.
BD: A few years
ago the other classical station here in Chicago broadcast your Julius Caesar from San Francisco, where
you were singing Caesar, and the next day on our station I played the recording
with you as Cleopatra, just to give the audience a chance to hear both of
them in succession.
TT: Oh, that’s
interesting. It’s so different. The reason I didn’t do the role
of Julius Caesar earlier was that I always thought it was too low for me,
and would be very hard to transpose because of the instrumentation.
But Charles Mackerras
and I worked it out so it’s now extremely suitable.
I remember trying to talk him into raising some more of the keys,
but he said if we did that, there’s not going to be too much difference between
Caesar and Cleopatra... and of course he was right.
BD: How much tampering
was there with the score?
TT: There were
cuts, of course, and there were some key changes made, and a mezzo-soprano
was to be singing the role of Julius Caesar.
BD: It was written
for castrato, so that would put it about the same range.
TT: About the same,
yes. The recording was with Fischer-Dieskau, but I love doing the part
of Caesar. It’s just such a great challenge to act and to
sing that part. It’s a feat, really, and to be believable in it is
also a feat. I worked very hard at that, and I really think
it’s a wonderful opera.
BD: What makes
TT: The character
and the music. Handel’s written I don’t know how many operas.
As a matter of fact I’m doing his last opera with Stephen Simon in Washington
next season. It’s called Deidamia
and I’m singing the part of Ulisse, which is very cantabile, very simple,
very elegantly beautiful.
BD: Does it a take
a special kind of audience to understand something that’s 250 years old?
TT: I don’t think
so, no. They relate to the music, they relate to the Shakespeare, they
relate certainly to the characters that they’re familiar with after all these
centuries. It seems everywhere I’ve been they respond magnificently
to it. I’m involved in a wonderful production that originated in England
at the English National Opera. John Copley produced and directed it,
and he’s a very talented director.
BD: You said that
you and Baker are so different, and yet you and Baker are the ones singing
TT: Yes, but she
no longer sings it. She no longer sings opera at this point.
We are different, and if you were to see her and myself in the role it would
be very different. We are different even though we do some of the same
parts, but not an awful lot, really. She doesn’t sing Wagner; she doesn’t
sing Strauss. She did do Octavian I think once at the Glyndebourne
Festival, but she doesn’t do it often, and I don’t think she ever performed
Carmen. She recorded Capuleti
but I doubt if she’s ever sung it on stage. We’ve done Julius Caesar and we have done the Monteverdi
Poppea and other operatic roles.
BD: The Julius Caesar at the English National
was in English, so is that how you have done it?
TT: No, no, no.
We used that production in San Francisco and we used that same production
in Geneva when I was there last. That’s the only production that I’ve
ever been involved with.
BD: Would you sing
it in English if you were asked?
TT: I’ve sung it
in both languages now, and I would prefer to sing it in Italian. It’s
BD: What’s the
point of doing opera in English, then?
TT: So that it’s
BD: Is it not an
overriding concern anyway?
TT: It is.
Yes, it is. But the question is how often is a singer really understood
in their own language?
BD: Do you work
harder at your diction when you know that the audience is going to understand
TT: I work harder
at the diction no matter what I’m singing because hopefully there’s someone
there who understands what I’m saying. But English is not the most
grateful language to sing in, and all those runs and all those leaps and
jumps, and you have to make it sound like something. Surely the Italian
language lends itself to that much more beautifully than the English language
does. So that’s the reason for singing it in
BD: Is the use
of supertitles in the theater the best compromise?
TT: I’d like to
really experience that myself. It depends a great deal on the translation
and on the opera when it’s on the screen. How’s your attention diverted?
Is it diverted?
BD: I’ve only seen
it once. [Remember, this interview
took place in 1985, when the use of supertitles was just getting started.]
TT: You were impressed?
BD: Yes, I liked
it very much, but it was a Wagner opera so it was moving much more slowly.
I don’t know that it would work in a Rossini comedy where it’s chatter, chatter,
chatter all the time.
* * *
BD: Let’s move
to Wagner a little bit. Do you consider yourself a Wagner singer?
TT: No, not specifically.
No I don’t. I sing Venus in Tannhäuser,
which I enjoy a great deal, and I sing Brangäne which has become an
BD: And Kundry...
TT: Yes, and I
sing Kundry. Now Kundry is the borderline Wagner part for me, mainly
because of the last ten or twelve pages of the second act, which is a really
Schreierei [yelling]. It’s
very hard to get over the orchestra. It doesn’t matter really what
you sound like as long as you get it out, and I’ve always found that part
to be a borderline one for a mezzo-soprano. Certainly a mezzo-soprano
with a high extension and with some personality and with a big enough voice
can manage that part, but it’s very elusive.
BD: Would it be
better sung by a dramatic soprano?
TT: It can be.
I heard Leonie Rysanek
sing it this past season at the Met with Jon Vickers. I went backstage
to see her and she said, “Tatiana, you sing this role. How do you do
it?” She asked me that! I read an interview
with Régine Crespin
where she said she gave up the role because of those last pages of the second
act. It just wasn’t worth it. Often I finish that second act
and say, “Why am I doing this?”
BD: But, of course,
you come to those few pages and you realize that’s the last thing you have
to sing all night.
TT: Yes, but you
don’t want to feel like it’s got the best of you and not you of it.
BD: Would you rather
go home then instead of having to be on stage for most of the third act?
TT: No, I like
being on stage for the third act. I really do. It’s a great cleansing,
a wonderful, holy experience. I identify a great deal with that.
I find her fascinating. Her character is so fascinating. It is
so hard to grasp, so hard to get ahold of. I’ve only done a run of
it twice or three times, and each time they’ve gotten better. That’s
a role you’re going to give up or you’re going to give it a chance.
I’ve given it a chance. I love the opening of the second act especially,
when she becomes again the seductress. The whole Herzeleide scene and all of that is fine
until her fury at not getting what she wants just overpowers her. That’s
where it gets overpowering for just about any singer. Again, it depends
what theater you’re doing it in. I’m doing that part here in Chicago
in September with Jon Vickers, and we’ve performed it once in a concert version
with Erich Leinsdorf
at the Hollywood Bowl.
BD: The whole opera?
TT: It was just
the second act. So this next series will be the first time I’ll be
performing it on stage with Jon, and I expect I’ll learn a great deal from
him. It’s a tremendous challenge. It’s one of the most challenging
parts I’ve ever done.
BD: You said that
Julius Caesar is very long.
Is Parsifal too long?
TT: I don’t find
it too long, no. Parsifal is
a long opera, yes. Most Wagner is. It is what it is, and it’s
BD: Do you object
when they make cuts?
I don’t like cuts, really, as a rule. But it’s very hard to argue with
your colleagues when they look you square in the face and they say, “Tatiana,
don’t you think this ought to be cut?” and it’s clear that they might have
a problem with it. Or if the director doesn’t want that section, it’s
not my place to say. It can be done, but if I feel terribly strongly
about it, I don’t like cuts generally, no. As a matter of fact, when
we did Rosenkavalier at the Met
we did open some cuts that were always closed. It takes getting used
to, but I much prefer that than leaving out the sections that are always cut.
BD: What kind of
a woman is Kundry? Is she two different women?
TT: Oh yes, definitely...
BD: Would it be
wrong for a stage director to have two different performers in the role?
TT: It’s been done. I think Karajan did
it that way. If they were to engage another singer, as long as they
could sing those last pages of the second act, I would be delighted to have
them do it.
BD: Then you have
to squabble over who appears in the third act.
It would be a toss-up for the third act.
BD: Would it be
wrong for the director then to have both of them appear for the third act?
TT: No, I think
there should be just one because she has to come together as finally someone
who has had her own salvation.
BD: I guess I just
wonder if stage directors today often go too far?
TT: This is what
a lot of people say. I’ve been very fortunate in working with the people
that I do. Sometimes they have ideas that I don’t think correspond
with what the composer wrote, but if you’re a good enough actress, then you
can correct it yourself without getting into a big number about it.
Obviously I cannot do something that I don’t believe in and that I cannot
compromise. Otherwise I would not be giving a true performance.
BD: Has it ever
surprised you when you take some direction thinking it won’t work and then
you find it actually does work beautifully?
TT: Yes, and I
think that is what one always has to do. You have to try and do what
the director wants you to do to see if, in some way, it cannot become valid
for you, or if in some way it cannot stretch you as an actress. Yes,
I think that’s important. Then if you find it’s not going to work for
you, you try and work it out. You try and do everything you can to
make it work and to make it believable and to look at it from a different
point of view. I think one has to do that. That’s what a stage
director is there for, too.
BD: We’ve been
taking about drama and music. Where is the balance between drama and
music on the operatic stage?
TT: Sometimes you
see one and then you see the other. It’s wonderful when you see them
both, when they both come together. That’s what everybody’s looking
for and what everybody wants. It takes a lot of hard work.
BD: Too much work?
TT: No, I don’t
think so. It takes a lot of looking into the role yourself to see what
it is you can bring to it. Perhaps that’s work that one does by one’s
self alone with the score, which is really where a lot of creativity is accomplished
— in solitude, really.
BD: Then it has
to be integrated with everything else that’s going on?
TT: Yes, but you
have to integrate it within yourself. That’s what’s important.
You have to get up there and do it. You have to have an idea of what
you want to present and how to present it. It has to make sense to
you. It has to be integrated in yourself, and the only way to do that
is to think about it, then do it, and then make mistakes and do it again
over and over until it becomes a part of you. Then maybe you can get
the drama and the music so that they’re both speaking and they’re both alive.
BD: Do the Wagner
operas have a more integrated concept because the librettist was the composer?
TT: I think so,
BD: Is it special
for you to sing Wagner?
I never thought I’d ever be singing Wagner.
surprised] Really, why?
TT: I didn’t think
I had the right kind of voice to sing Wagner. I started singing it
in Hamburg when I would do a Rheinmaiden or a Norn.
BD: Are those grateful
parts or are they just too short?
TT: They were fun parts. They were good parts
for a young mezzo in an opera ensemble in Germany, but I never thought I
would be singing things like Tannhäuser
or Parsifal or Tristan. That’s all the Wagner
I do. There are times when I say Brangäne is a good friend, and
she sort of is. She’s always come into my life when I’ve needed a Brangäne,
when I didn’t need any pressure to carry a performance or to be the lead
in the performance, but just needed to do some real good healthy singing.
BD: It’s a non-pressure
TT: That’s right,
and she’s come in and out of my career just when I’ve needed her. So
she isn’t anybody I throw away too readily.
BD: Tell me a bit
about Brangäne. Is she more of a help than she should be to Isolde?
TT: I don’t think
so. Her instincts are quite good, quite correct. She’s really
necessary in the whole scheme of things, without which there wouldn’t be
that glorious, glorious music because she’s fooled around with her potions.
BD: It is a conscious
TT: She wants Isolde
to be happy. When the opera starts she’s just destroyed inside, and
she wants some happiness and some peace and some love for her lady.
That’s what she sets her mind on doing. And of course it’s a very rewarding
part because some glorious music is written.
BD: Is the Warning a nice set-piece in the middle?
TT: It’s something
that everyone identifies with Brangäne. If you can sing that beautifully,
this is all they want. You can be up there... I remember at the
Met production I was up very, very, high singing the Warning. There has to be a certain
quality and beauty to it. It has to set up that love duet in an incredible
BD: It almost has
to come from another world, really.
TT: Yes, yes.
BD: Has anybody
ever asked you to sing it from the pit or from backstage or from out in the
TT: No, no, no.
BD: Would you be
willing to do that?
TT: I don’t think
I would do it in the pit, no. I’m not much for singing in the pit.
I’ve not worked all these years to do that. [Laughs]
BD: What happens
to Brangäne in the (nonexistent) fourth act? Where does she go
and what does she do?
TT: She’s done
her deeds and she witnesses the end of the saga.
BD: So what happens
to her then after both Tristan and Isolde are gone?
TT: Perhaps she
goes into some other area of service. Serving is her calling in life,
and that’s not such a terribly bad thing to be called upon to do. So
this is what she might continue to do. I don’t know. I haven’t
really thought about what she does afterwards. I guess I’m so grateful
to get to the end when we do because it takes me many hours to come down
after singing Wagner. It isn’t that I can take my makeup off and go
home and that’s that. It’s such an extraordinary experience.
After performing Wagner and being a part of it for so many hours, it’s very
hard to let go of it. I find it takes me at least two to three hours
to just come down from it because it’s a great experience for the singer
as well as it should be for the audience.
The audience should just float out of the theater.
TT: Yes, and it’s
the same way it is for me.
BD: Would it be
good in Parsifal not to have applause
after the first act?
[Ponders a moment] Would it be good not to have applause at all?
BD: [Asking the
question] OK, would it be good not to have applause at all?
TT: It would be
a very difficult thing to achieve. Perhaps they can manage something
in Bayreuth. I don’t know exactly how they do it, but I don’t think
that there is applause after the first act. But applause isn’t something
that you crave or that you want at all. It’s like your part of this
metamorphosis of experiences, and it isn’t anything that one wants applause
BD: So you’d be
content for the lights to just fade out, and go back to the dressing room
and spend your two hours coming down?
TT: Yes, I would.
BD: Are there any
other composers that take you that long to come down after?
BD: Tell me about
TT: The great Love
Goddess. I’ve been very lucky in the sense that I’ve only sung that
part in the Met production which is very, very beautiful. You have
to be alluring. You have to really sing that music in the most beautiful
and seductive way. The change of moods have to be very definite so
that she really never gives up, and the audience realizes, and so does Tannhäuser,
that she doesn’t give up easily. She has to use everything that she
BD: And yet she
still loses him.
TT: Yes, she still
loses him, but not without a big try from every aspect — from
the way she looks, from the way she gets up, from the way she walks, from
the way she strokes him, from the way she sings Wagner’s music and what it
suggests, and the quick changes of mood, and throwing him off balance.
I don’t know how long that scene is — it must be an
hour — you really have to show a woman that is using
every ploy, everything she possibly can use.
BD: Would she be
happy if she had gotten Tannhäuser back?
TT: I don’t know.
I don’t know, or if so, for how long.
BD: Would be never
TT: Perhaps not.
I don’t know. The Met’s is a magnificent production, which is a great
help. So much is done for you.
BD: Do you use
the same kind of wiles in the second act of Parsifal?
TT: No, I think
Kundry uses much more.
BD: Might Venus
have succeeded if she had used the ideas that Kundry had?
TT: It’s just not
the same thing. It’s not applicable. The temptations were just
too big, too difficult.
* * *
BD: You’ve recorded
Carmen. She’s not really a seductress, but rather a free woman.
Is she a woman of the 1980s?
TT: She can be, certainly, yes. When she’s
in love she’s in love, and when she’s out of love she’s out, and then she
goes on to the next one. She’s not a vamp or a tramp or in that sense
a loose woman at all. She’s very proud and very passionate in her love,
and it’s very present. It’s now. It’s what’s now that’s important
BD: She just gets
tired of one man or another?
She perhaps tires easily, or she realizes the affair is coming to an end,
and that’s a very tricky situation to be in at any time. If a man is
still very much in love with you and you’re tiring of the whole situation
and you want to end it, murders are committed every day because of these
kinds of emotions. But so much is in the music... the Habanera and the Seguidilla, the Card Aria and the whole second act, and
her seducing him and her rages of jealousy, and then her boredom. It’s
all there in the score, and if you can interpret that you’ve got already
quite a bit.
BD: Is that opera
TT: I don’t think
there’s such a thing as an opera being too popular. It’s popular.
People love it. People identify with it. They know the arias.
There aren’t that many operas for a mezzo-soprano that you could call protagonist
roles, so there is one right there. Everyone sees Carmen as they want
to see her. That’s one of the tricky parts of singing Carmen because
everyone has their own viewpoint of how a Carmen should be. So there
you’re at a bit of a disadvantage. I don’t want to discourage young
singers from singing Carmen. I think that they ought to, but after
a time it becomes somewhat ungrateful. It may sound strange because
you get the complete opposites all the time. You have the wonderful
Michaela, and it’s all innocence and beauty and beautiful music to sing,
and she can come on in the third act and absolutely take the whole thing.
Carmen works terribly hard the entire evening long, and after a while I just
don’t find it as grateful a role.
BD: Should the
audience be happy or sad that you are killed in the end?
TT: That’s what
they want, and that’s fine. That’s what they expect from a mad, jealous
lover, who repents it immediately after he does it. It’s part of the
drama, of course. It should be in there. It’s very important.
BD: Which version
do you prefer doing — the recitative or the spoken
TT: I prefer the
spoken dialogue because I can get much more into the character. I love
it. I love the combination of the speaking and the singing voice on
the same stage with the same performers. It shows if you’re an actress
if you can present the spoken dialogue well. I do prefer the spoken
dialogue version much more. It gives it a great deal more color, more
flavor, everything. I like it.
BD: When you’re
on the stage, are you portraying a character or do you become the character?
TT: I certainly
think it’s healthier to portray a character. There are times when you
actually do become the character, but there’s always somewhere you’re watching
yourself so that you don’t entirely lose yourself, that you’ve lost all control.
It’s like life. You don’t want to just lose the control. You
want to present a dying scene, but you want to die in a theater and you want
to die in a way that’s believable. I’m thinking of Romeo now, where
you’re still singing what he wrote for you, and if you get so totally immersed
in it you won’t make any sense and you’ll be too emotional and you’ll be
a mess. There’ll be absolutely no point in your being on the stage.
You are there to perform, so you are there to portray a character.
That’s how I would answer the question.
BD: Do you enjoy making recordings?
TT: I do, although
I enjoy performing on the stage better.
BD: I just wondered
if recordings can then be made too perfectly with the take and retake and
TT: They can today.
I find it more rewarding to sing a performance than sing a recording.
BD: Do you prepare
a role differently when you are going to be recording it? [Note: Vis-à-vis the recording shown at
right, and also the Carmen recording
shown above, the diction coach is Janine Reiss.]
TT: Mm hmm, yes.
You certainly want to bring the essence of the character into the recording
studio, but you have to almost use a little bit more control so that you
don’t just rock the microphones. But this is what they want today.
They want not such large voices. They want voices that they can handle
easily in a recording studio. They don’t want a great deal of emoting.
It has to have control and concentration and substance and meaning, but the
great recordings are the one’s that bring not just these pure, pure sounds
but the characterization that you can listen to because you can’t really
see it but you can hear it.
BD: Let me ask
you about one last role — Charlotte.
She seems to be so very different from all the others that we’ve talked about.
TT: Yes, she is.
She starts out being very young and very protective of all her brothers and
sisters, and then she falls in love. Every act is extremely different.
The first act really has to portray this young girl who is innocent, pretty,
protective. She’s lost her mother. She’s close to her father
and she is now the mother, and she’s never really lived her life yet as a
woman. Her duties just override all of what she really feels, and she
needs to show how so much of it is kept inside of her most of the time.
So you have to portray this woman that has very deep feelings that she’s
not used to expressing. She’s reading his letter, and then she has
her feelings about his emotions, and then she has her own emotions, but she’s
alone when she’s doing this. It’s a wonderful opera. It’s a wonderful
character, and it’s a difficult one to act. It’s one of the most difficult
acting roles I’ve ever done because of the great subtleties of this girl.
She marries the man she’s originally betrothed to, and is not terribly happy.
Yet she is trying to present a serene personality, a serene front to everyone
when in fact she’s tortured inside. It’s such a switch from the first
act. There’s a tremendous growth of characterization within those acts,
and then finally at the end she succumbs when it’s too late, and she has
to live with that tragedy the rest of her life. It’s a remarkable growth
of character that I find not easy to do, and you have to be guided by a very
sensitive stage director. You have to show every sensitivity that you
have as an actress. There has to be a great deal of softness, a great
deal of femininity and simplicity. Then there is this incredible emotion
of her falling in love with Werther, and she can’t show how it tears her
apart, or if she does she tries to squelch it. She just can’t even
confront herself. It’s a terrific character, really.
BD: I would think
it would be very draining on you.
TT: Yes, it’s exhausting
because you start from one end of the spectrum and you end up finally admitting
and confronting your great passion and your love and the mistakes that you’ve
made. Life goes on and this man’s dying. It’s a whole lifespan
of experience that this young girl goes through in a relatively short period
BD: It’s a fabulous
TT: Oh, it’s spectacular.
BD: Thank you so
much. You have been very gracious to have us here this evening.
TT: You’re welcome.
I’m glad we could work it out.
© 1985 Bruce Duffie
This conversation was recorded at her apartment in Chicago on November
16, 1985. Portions were broadcast on WNIB the following year, and
again in 1992, 1993, 1997 and 1998. This transcription was made in
2015, 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.
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.