Mezzo-Soprano / Soprano  Shirley  Verrett

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


Shirley Verrett (May 31, 1931 – November 5, 2010) was an American operatic mezzo-soprano who successfully transitioned into soprano roles, i.e. soprano sfogato. Verrett enjoyed great fame from the late 1960s through the 1990s, particularly well known for singing the works of Verdi and Donizetti.

Born into an African-American family of devout Seventh-day Adventists in New Orleans, Louisiana, Verrett was raised in Los Angeles, California. She sang in church and showed early musical abilities, but initially a singing career was frowned upon by her family. Later Verrett went on to study with Anna Fitziu and with Marion Szekely Freschl at the Juilliard School in New York. In 1961 she won the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions.

In 1957, Verrett made her operatic debut in Britten's The Rape of Lucretia. In 1958, she made her New York City Opera debut as Irina in Kurt Weill's Lost in the Stars. In 1959, she made her European debut in Cologne, Germany in Nicolas Nabokov's Rasputins Tod. In 1962, she received critical acclaim for her Carmen in Spoleto, and repeated the role at the Bolshoi Theatre in 1963, and at the NY City Opera in 1964. Verrett first appeared at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden in 1966 as Ulrica in Un ballo in maschera.

She appeared in the first concert ever televised from Lincoln Center in 1962, and also appeared that year in the first of the Leonard Bernstein Young People's Concerts ever televised from that venue, in what is now Avery Fisher Hall.


She made her debut at the Metropolitan Opera in 1968, with Carmen, and at La Scala in 1969 in Samson and Dalila. Verrett's mezzo roles included Cassandra and Didon (Berlioz's Les Troyens)-including the Met premiere, when she sang both roles in the same performance, Verdi's Ulrica, Amneris, Eboli, Azucena, Saint-Saëns' Dalila, Donizetti's Elisabetta I in Maria Stuarda, Leonora in La favorita, Christoph Willibald Gluck's Orpheus, and Rossini's Neocles (L'assedio di Corinto) and Sinaide in Moïse. Many of these roles were recorded, either professionally or privately.

Beginning in the late 1970s she began to tackle soprano roles, including Selika in L'Africaine, Judith in Bartók's Bluebeard's Castle, Lady Macbeth in Macbeth, Madame Lidoine in Poulenc's Dialogues of the Carmelites (Met1977), Tosca, Norma (from Boston 1976 till Messina 1989), Aida (Boston 1980 and 1989), Desdemona (Otello) (1981), Leonore (Fidelio) (Met 1983), Iphigénie (1984–85), Alceste (1985), Médée (Cherubini) (1986). Her Tosca was televised by PBS on Live from the Met in December 1978, just six days before Christmas. [Hirschfeld drawing of the cast is shown below, followed by the DVD release.]



See my interviews with Cornell MacNeil, James Conlon, and Tito Gobbi (production)

In 1990, Verrett sang Dido in Les Troyens at the inauguration of the Opéra Bastille in Paris, and added a new role at her repertoire: Santuzza in Cavalleria rusticana in Sienna. In 1994, she made her Broadway debut in the Tony Award-winning revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Carousel at Lincoln Center's Vivian Beaumont Theater, playing Nettie Fowler.

In 1996 Verrett joined the faculty of the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre & Dance as a Professor of Voice and the James Earl Jones Distinguished University Professor of Voice. The preceding year at the National Opera Association Gala Banquet and Concert honoring Mattiwilda Dobbs, Todd Duncan, Camilla Williams and Robert McFerrin, Verrett said: "I'm always so happy when I can speak to young people because I remember those who were kind to me that didn't need to be. The first reason I came tonight was for the honorees because I needed to say this. The second reason I came was for you, the youth. These great people here were the trailblazers for me. I hope in my own way I did something to help your generation, and that you will help the next. This is the way it's supposed to be. You just keep passing that baton on!"

--  Names which are links in this box and below refer to my interviews elsewhere on my website.  BD  

verrett In the fall of 1987, Verrett made her debut (!) with Lyric Opera of Chicago as Azucena in Il Trovatore.  By that time, she was already world-famous, so I began by asking the obvious question . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:   How did you manage to miss Lyric Opera of Chicago all these years?

Shirley Verrett:   [Laughs]  A lot of people asked me that same question, and I must say it’s not the Lyric’s fault.  They asked me on a number of occasions, and it just didn’t work out.  I do spend a lot of time at home... maybe I sing six months of the season, which means there are not too many places that I can go.  So, if I come to Chicago, it may be two years before I can get back.  At least, up to this moment it has been that way.  I still do quite a bit in Europe, and I even had to cut that down.  I went to La Scala one year, then it had to be London the next year, then back to La Scala, and then Florence.  I couldn’t get everything in the way I wanted to, and every time Chicago asked me to do something, it always seemed that I had just promised to be someplace else. I was very sorry about that, but here I am, and I’m very happy to be here!

BD:   How do you decide which engagements you will accept, and which you will set aside for another season?

Verrett:   It’s difficult, and I think my rules change all the time.  It depends on what is being offered at that moment, and what I want to do more.  That’s what I choose
something that I’m interested in really doing at that particular moment, and it changes all the time.

BD:   What are you interested in now?

Verrett:   It’s very interesting that you should ask me that question, because in August I went to Positano.  The Italians, and many of the people in Europe, had been after me to do some lighter things
like the Gershwin program I did.  I spent about three or four months working on a Gershwin program, and we did a complete program of Gershwin in Positano to honor the fiftieth year of Gershwin’s death.  It was something that I had always loved.  But even before doing Gershwin, I had thought I would do music of Richard Rodgers.  First of all, I love his music, and also because of the family.  Mrs. and Mr. Rodgers were very helpful to me in a monetary way when I was at Juilliard, but not by just shelling out money.  We became friends after this.

BD:   Did they help to steer you in the right directions?

Verrett:   In a certain sense, but because of that connection from my school days, I have a great love for the family.  Now that Richard Rodgers is gone, I stay quite in touch with Dorothy Rodgers, his wife, who was really the one who got the two of us together.  I didn’t do his music first because I didn’t have time to prepare it. But I did do the Gershwin, and now this is a third kind of thing in my career that I’m very interested in.  That gave me a great, great deal of pleasure to do, and it went out live in August throughout Italy.  I’m told that it’s already being heard in England now.  The songs were arranged not for an opera singer, and not for a jazz singer.  I didn’t want to sound like an opera singer in these songs, and I knew I’m not a jazz singer.  I love jazz, but I’m not a jazz singer.  I
m somewhere in the middle.  I found my own way, and the arranger, who is a dear friend of mine, did a beautiful job, and so she came with me.  She did the piano, and I also wanted her to conduct, but there was so much work to do that she couldn’t do it.  Finally, we had another young American conductor, Tzimon Barto from Florida, who is doing very, very well in Europe, and in the United States at this time.  He did the program.  He is very gifted, and he took on the job of doing the conducting, but the next time that we do it, I’m hoping that Pat will be able to do the whole thing.  That would be a joy.  [Laughs]  I answered your question in a very long, roundabout way, but that’s really what I’m involved with at this moment, besides doing Norma, and those things that I love very much in the opera.

BD:   Are you purposely re-balancing your career
opera, recital literature, songs, and oratorios?

verrett Verrett:   I started my career as a recitalist.  I didn’t want to call myself an opera singer, although I had been put in the opera department.  When I began to sing in Europefirst at Covent Garden, and then in Florence, Italy, where I made my European debuts in the early 60sI decided that I would call myself an opera singer.  But even at that time, sixty or seventy per cent of my work still remained recital and concerts.  That has flipped over to being just the opposite now, an about-face, where I do seventy per cent opera, and about thirty per cent recitals and concerts.  Because I wanted to be a good wife and a good motherwe have one daughter, and I wanted to be with her a lotit made me stay very, very loose about the opera, and now the Gershwin and the lighter music come into my life.  I still feel it’s very Classical Music, if you want to call it that, because I think it’s great music.  It’s not Serious Music, as we think of it, but it’s great music, and I hope it will live as long as many of the old composerslike Verdi.

BD:   Do you expect some of the audience from the Verdi operas to go to your Gershwin recitals?
 [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at right, see my interview with Alfredo Kraus.]

Verrett:   I would imagine that some of them will when find that I’m doing Gershwin.  You get a certain amount of people who just want to hear me sing.  They love me, and so they will come and hear it, and vice-versa.  I hope that by singing Gershwin, certain people who have only been tied into Broadway may want to come to the opera.  That happens, and so that’s what I’m doing.  Making the film of Macbeth was also a great thing for me.  It keeps me very, very alive and interested in music.  I have certain avenues
not only recitals, but the opera, and now hopefully more filmsand now the Broadway kind of thing.

BD:   It all sounds very exciting.

Verrett:   It’s exciting to me, and it keeps me alive so I don’t get bored.  I don’t like to be bored, and this always gives me something else to look forward to.

BD:   You may be the ideal person to ask this.  You’ve done a lot of recitals, and you’ve done a lot of operas.  Which is more difficult, or it is it just a different kind of difficulty?

Verrett:   I think that opera is easier.  Opera was easy for me because of my background in recitals.  To a great extent, recitals separate the men from the boys, because when you’re doing a recital, you are completely exposed.  You don’t have costumes, you don’t have make-up, you don’t have orchestral sounds that allow you to get away with not being 100% if, at a certain moment, you are not feeling too great.  I’m not saying you can get away with this in an opera, but every once and a while, if something is not working quite well, it’s forgiven because it can be hidden in those moments.  Whatever happens on stage, and it can be covered.  I don’t recommend it, but with the recital you’re standing there alone, facing the audience, with your accompanist at the piano
your partner, because it’s really a co-operation between two people.  It’s chamber music, and what you hear and what you see is what you get.  All of the sounds are either very good and pleasing to the ear, or they’re not.  I am so happy that this is the particular avenue that I started in, because it has made it possible for me to be able to move and to do things on the operatic stage that some opera singersolder ones, not the new generationwere afraid to do because they didn’t have that particular background.  Maybe I’m superimposing something else on all of this because I felt it was a good way for me, but as a discipline, it was really great that I started out as a recitalist.  If I can stand up for two or two and a half hours, and sing one little opera after another, and persuade the audience that this is truth, then opera becomes easy for me, because I’m always involved with the words.  No matter how a lot of people think about Trovatore, they will say they love the music but ignore the plot.  It is true, but our job as singers is to make the audience think that this could be happening now, and you do it by being very, very much wedded to the sentiment of the words that the composer has written, and that goes through all of music.  A lot of times audiences get very, very bored, but if the music is great, there is no reason why they should be bored by what we do up on the stage.  We have to bring that music alive for the audiences of the 1980s and 90s, and into the Twenty-first Century.  We have to keep it alive, and that’s the only way we can, because the music is beautiful.  People will say its ‘old-fashioned’, but it’s great, and it’s beautiful.  Through the words that the composers have used, we communicate to the audience.  Even if you don’t understand the words, you understand the music, and you understand the expressiveness that’s coming across.  [Remember, this interview took place just as the new technique of Supertitles was being introduced into the theater.]

verrett BD:   You’re a very forward-looking opera singer.

Verrett:   I am.  There was a time that I used to think it possibly would die off, but I don’t think so now.  Every generation seems to get more and more young people.  We have a lot of young people who are interested.  Yes, the young people are going to the opera houses.  They’re very interested in it, and recordings have helped a great deal.

BD:   Have films and television also advanced all of this?

Verrett:   I think so, but more than films, the possibilities of the recordings have.  At least, that’s from my standpoint.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Let’s talk a little bit about recordings.  Do you enjoy the business of making records?

Verrett:   I don’t think
enjoy is a great word for it.  No, it’s work because of all that you do, but it’s wonderful if you have all of the elements come together beautifully... and most of the time they nearly do.  But if something happens in the orchestra, or maybe the conductor is not happy with a section, or something is not quite together, it means that passages have to be repeated, and repeated, and repeated, and you must keep the freshness.  That’s where the difficulty comes in.  Of course, we’ve been trained to do that, but it is not an easy thing to do all the time.  I don’t say that I dislike it.  If there were another way I could do it, I would possibly choose that other way, but I don’t dislike it.  It’s a part of the business.

BD:   Are you pleased with the end product, though?

Verrett:   I usually am.  We, as singers, have a little bit to say about what our performances sound like.  If we sing well, and it’s recorded well, then fine.  There’s nothing to say.  Every once in a while, you hit a little snag where maybe the mike is a little bit off, or you’re not right in the center of the mike, but that you fix with the re-takes.  About two times in my life I was able to record straight through a piece... not a complete opera, but, for instance, when I did Oedipus Rex years ago, we did just two takes.  The first take was good enough of my part.  It wasn’t a big work, but when you can take slices and big pieces and chinks of a work, this is the way I like to record, and this is when I don’t mind it.  I’ve been able to do that with Giulini and Abbado.  Then you feel as if you really are doing a performance, and not splicing, and cutting, and chipping, and so forth.  To a great extent, that’s for people who are sitting and listening, but from our standpoint, you don’t really know what you’re getting when you’ve had to edit it.  When you need twenty-five or thirty takes to get what you really want, somehow the life does go out of it.  I really like it when we’ve rehearsed, but you must rehearse with the conductor and the orchestra.  Giulini likes to do this a lot.

BD:   When you go out on stage to do something that you have recorded, do you ever feel that you’re competing against your recording?

Verrett:   I don’t ever feel that I’m competing against the disc when we record as I have just described.  Where I can do a full aria straight through, that’s a performance.  On that particular day, that’s the way I sang it, and if everything else underneath is fine
if all the orchestral instruments are doing well, and I’m in time and not behind, and everything’s donethen it’s fine with me, because next week it will sound a little different.  It will be the Verrett voice, but it will be a different interpretation completely.  So no, I don’t let that worry me too much.

BD:   Every time you come to a new production, do you re-think the entire character?

Verrett:   Yes, I try to because otherwise we do a disservice not only to the composer, but in a more concrete manner to the director who is, at that particular time, taking the work on.  Hopefully, if he or she is a good director, then we owe our bodies, and our minds, and our concentration to trying to understand what that director might have in mind... unless it’s something that’s really off the wall, as the youngsters will say.  Then I don’t want to deal with that kind of thing.  But if someone is very musical, and is a great directorand you know these things before you work with these peopleyou come and you owe them respect.  You ask the director what he has in mind, and then we try.  It’s impossible to come and say that I have a clean slate because after a hundred performances before, something has had to stick.  But what you do is try to erase as much of the previous life of that character as possible, and try to rethink it with whatever that new director has in mind.  What usually happens, in the case of something like Il Trovatore, is that you’re continually adding things, and the character becomes deeper because there are so many ways that you can do this opera.  [The production at Lyric Opera opened the 1987-88 season, and besides Verrett, the cast included Anna Tomowa-Sintow, Giuliano Ciannella/Bruno Sebastian, Leo Nucci/J. Patrick Raftery/Piero Cappuccilli, conducted by Bruno Bartoletti, directed by Sonja Frisell, sets by Nicola Benois, and lighting by Duane Schuler.]

BD:   And none of them is exactly right?

verrett Verrett:   Exactly.  You’re always digging to find how much deeper you can go into this character, trying to find how much more can you show to the audience that this character has going for himself or herself.  In this particular case, the thing that was really a big change for me was in the last act, in the prison.  I am not lying down at the beginning of that scene, when Manrico asks me if I can’t sleep.  Usually, I’m turning and being restless, which precipitates the question.  This time, Sonja Frisell said that all the time she’d seen Azucenas try to sleep at that moment, and she wanted to try something else.  She wanted me to try walking around tiredly, trying to find a way to get out of this place.  She is hemmed in, and this gypsy is not used to being confined.  So why would she very meekly rest there?  The directions from Verdis time say that she’s tired, she’s worn out.  At the end, when she has gotten her revenge, and tells Manrico that his brother has been put to death, she has disintegrated so much that she absolutely dies at that point.  So, there is no punishment for her because she dies, but in this particular production we don’t do that.  I move around restlessly and at a certain moment I go to sleep.

BD:   That works for you?

Verrett:   It works for me.  I said that I wanted to try it because it makes sense.

BD:   You’ve sung quite a number of the Verdi roles.  Do you particularly enjoy Verdi?

Verrett:   Very much.  I love many composers, but possibly Verdi is my favorite.  That’s why I sing most of those roles.

BD:   What’s special about the way he wrote for the voice?

Verrett:   He is not easy!  [Both laugh]  Everyone knows that.  He was not easy on the voice, but really he’s easy on the voice if you know how to sing.  People talk about Norma, which is one of my favorite roles, and they’ll give you all of quotes saying that this is the most difficult in the world.  I would say that’s a very dangerous statement to make, because to me, Bellini wrote in such a way that even if you’re not feeling well, but you have the technique, and the notes were made for you voice, you should sing Norma.  I can sing that role easier than if I had to sing Lady Macbeth at the same point with having the beginnings of a cold because of the way the notes are strung out on the page.  In Lady Macbeth, and in many of the big Verdi soprano or mezzo soprano roles
or the baritone, or the tenor parts for that matterthere are moments when everything is so lyrically written.  It’s all sounds that way, but he will hop.  You will jump from the top of the voice down to the bottom, and sometimes you will be coming down nicely in chromatic steps.  But he uses the whole voice in a very, very different way than Bellini did.  Bellini was a little bit earlier time, and Verdi kept progressing, but even his early operas were like that, a little bit more like what Donizetti wrote.  Even as Donizetti’s writing was not as jagged, he made use of the voice in a very different way, which meant that you really, really had to know what you were doing to get certain kinds of effects that he had written.  With Bellini, singing Norma only from that standpoint, the line goes up gradually.  Usually, you go from a low note and then hit the octave, or maybe an octave and a third, but in Verdi, a lot of times you won’t do that.  The line doesn’t just gradually go up in a limpid fashion like that.  There are phrases, like the end of the first aria of Leonora in Il Trovatore, ‘Tacea la Notte’, which is very, very beautiful.  Then, in the last act, there are lyrical moments, but generally Verdi is using the whole palette of the voicejust playing around with the low notes, the middle notes, and then the high notes.  That is intriguing to me, because it makes you really continue to study.  If I don’t like that way my voice sounded tonight, why wasn’t it there where it was supposed to have been?  Why can’t I do this when I’m moving?  I cannot figure this out until I’ve tried to meld the two things togetherthe way the voice is supposed to sound with the movements.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Your voice obviously dictates which roles you’ll sing.  Do you enjoy the characters that imposes upon you?

Verrett:   Yes, I do, and in fact I usually pick the roles because I like the characters, rather than just saying I love the music because it’s beautiful.  There’s a lot of beautiful music that would not suit me as a personality.  I try certain things because of a particular love of the music, and also a discipline for myself.  That’s why I sang the Second Prioress at the Met [in Dialogues of the Carmelites of Poulenc].  They had wanted me to do a couple of the other roles, and I said no because at that time I was going through a discipline of trying not to do very much on stage.  So I did the Second Prioress because it was not as emotional as Maria, or as the First Prioress.  That was my time for a discipline, and as I saw myself in the photograph afterwards, I may have stood a little bit still and quiet on the stage, but the face was really saying a lot.  I saw the emotion in the face, and that’s something I
m still working on especially for films.  It’s inside, and it comes out in the voice, but I don’t show or paint a picture of every emotion in the face.  Maybe to some people it’s a terrible thing to say, but because I’m interested in films, I have to master, or nearly master, this discipline.


See my interview with Riccardo Chailly

BD:   [Gently protesting]  But for films you can be much more subtle because you’re always close up.

Verrett:   Exactly!  For someone who is born for the stage, it can be a very difficult thing, as I found out in Macbeth.  One thing I didn’t do was see the rushes, because I didn
t want to see myself on the big screen.  I don’t want that to color or prejudice me in what I would do the next day.  But I must say, when I saw Barbara Hendricks as she was about to film Bohème, I told her to look at her rushes.  See the dailies, because there are other things that you can do aside from what the director would wish.  You still do what he wants, but there are things about your own face that no one else will know.  You know yourself so well that no one else will pick up on certain details.

verrett BD:   When you’re looking at the rushes or the finished product, do you find that when you thought something was coming across, something different was coming across?

Verrett:   Yes.  Something different was coming across.  I love the film of Macbeth, not just because I
m in it, but there were moments when I didn’t think about the singing too much.  I don’t know if people who love opera would like me saying it or not, but it seemed more like a play than an opera.  The music is there, and you expect it to be sung well, but then I forgot about it, and as I was looking at the images, that is what I saw.

BD:   Perhaps that is the greatest tribute to the composer you could make!

Verrett:   I think so, and I was very happy about that.  When I looked at myself, the moments that I loved very, very, very much were those where I seemingly wasn’t doing very much.  It was all inside, and I think this is what screen acting is all about.  But then I see certain actors and actresses who are all over the place, and they are great.  Their hands are going, and they are doing things with their eyes that someone who’s black really should never do.  I’m now looking at films in a different way, and I sit there and wonder why not? 

BD:   Are these operas on film?

Verrett:   I’m talking about just films, not opera-films.  I’m looking at the blacks in the films, and I’m looking at the whites, and what they’re doing with the eyes, and movements, and so forth, and I suppose it depends on who’s doing it.  You can say that there is a way that it should be done.  This is great acting, as opposed to not-great acting, but in the end, who is getting to me?  This is not that you want to be gotten to in the low sense of the word all the time, but what you’re looking for is who believes, and who makes me believe that he believes.  That’s what’s important to me.

BD:   It is those who are speaking directly to you?

Verrett:   Yes, who is speaking directly to me, whether that person is one of the kinds of people who will move a hand a little bit more than another, or the one who doesn’t move at all, yet is saying the same thing as the one who has moved the hand.  They’re different, and you have to work with that.  So after flagellating myself a little bit about no movement, no this, no that, I’m now coming to a middle ground.  I am having to find what is going to be best for me, and what will best serve the work that I’m doing.

BD:   When you made the film of Macbeth, you did the voice track and then just acted to the playback?

Verrett:   Yes, but a lot of times we also sang, even if it was an octave lower, because I found that just mouthing the words didn’t work.

BD:   You had to have the rest of the mechanism going?

Verrett:   Yes, I wanted the whole mechanism going.  I really needed it.  Sometimes, when people have only done the playback with their lips, it didn’t seem like that they were really singing as we know singing on the stage.  When there’s an emotion that’s very strong, I want to see it in the mouth.  I don’t want to see a very small opening when I’m saying something really tremendous.  So, I found to be truthful to what the tape was saying, I had to do it, and Leo did the same thing.  Sometimes he wouldn’t use the words.  He would voice anything, but most of the time he would use the voice because he got the same feeling that I did.

BD:   Whose name should go on the top of the credit list?  Should it be Shakespeare, should it be Verdi, should it be the singers, should it be the producer?

Verrett:   Because it’s an opera, I would say Verdi has to come first, then Shakespeare, and then the singers.  Of course, the opera is named Macbeth, so that name should be first.

BD:   I always wondered why is it Macbeth and not Macbetto.

Verrett:   I don’t really know, because in the opera he is referred to as Macbetto.  In the same way, we say Dez-DAY-moh-nah in the opera, and Dez-deh-MOH-nuh in the play.

BD:   Right, and it’s Otello and not Othello.

Verrett:   You’re absolutely right.  [Both laugh]  We just accept it.


BD:   You made the film and also released a CD?

Verrett:   We did two things.  There was a recording that was done purely for CD, and another for the sound track.  The sound track was different, unfortunately, because I feel that the CD recording should be the one that’s played in the theaters.

BD:   Was the film sound track taken from the same material, and then the sound effects and everything else added?

verrett Verrett:   I think so, because we didn’t do it three times.  It was interesting how it was recorded.  I’m learning as I go along.  For the movie sound track they must put certain other kinds of mikings, or something.  I don’t know what the terminology is, but it’s something I want to learn about.  Some of the people who were selling the recording were saying that they felt the same way I did about it.  The record should have been used in the theaters because every house is different, and most of them have dilapidated equipment, or equipment that doesn’t lend itself to opera recordings.  I would think that the better of the two sounds should have been used.  That’s my opinion.  I remember when we saw it in Cannes, at one point we had to ask them to raise the sound a little bit because it was just so hard to hear.  Cannes has supposedly wonderful equipment, but it had to be adjusted, and I’m just hoping that they are adjusting it to the right place for each house in each movie theater it goes into.

BD:   Of course, movie theaters are used to showing movies, not operas.

Verrett:   Exactly.  They’re working on it, and it should be good.  I’ve gone to see a couple of opera films, and I’ve liked what I’ve heard, given the special places in special theaters, where I like the sound.  I was not upset by the sound.  Sometimes they used to overblow the sound too much, and I think that’s wrong because when you do go to the opera, you’re not going to get this same sound.  It has to be somewhere in between.

BD:   This is the second time that you have recorded the role.  
[Vis-à-vis the (first) recording shown at left, see my interviews with Nicolai Ghiaurov.]

Verrett:   That’s right.

BD:   Do you have any feelings about one from the other?

Verrett:   It was a different place, different time, different conductor, different circumstances, which made a different thing.  There are many things that I like from the earlier recording.  I will always love that I did it, because it was my baptism into Lady Macbeth.  So, that will always hold a certain special place in my heart.  I also will stand behind what we did, and what we were after in the recording that we did for the movie.  The producer was there, and the director of the film.  He wanted to be at the rehearsals, but even after we recorded the sound track, when we got on the filming site there were changes in the approach.  That always happens.  I was told that on the Don Giovanni film, a lot of the recitatives had to be re-done.

BD:   For the film, you are acting to something, but you have an immovable soundtrack.

Verrett:   Exactly.  Oh yes, and at certain moments
especially when you’re so used to being a stage personalitythings change all the time, and that was a little difficult.  The lip synching was difficult.  In passages where you’re just going on, that’s all right.  But at the moment when you rest, or you have a ritard, and then you start again, you had to count in your head.

BD:   You were no longer in control?

Verrett:   You were never in control!  [Both laugh]  On the stage you are in control, because at a certain moment, the conductor waits and then you take the beat, and go with it.  Here, no.  It’s immovable.  You’ve done it, and you’ve got to do it that way.  It was easier, I felt, for the two persons who took the place of Samuel Ramey and Veriano Luchetti.  They couldn’t come to film it because they were too busy with other things, so we had two actors who did a superb job.  But I feel that to a great extent it was easier for them not being professional singers.  One had studied singing, but the other had not.  He just loved singing, and he did sing.  It was interesting... he would sing as we were singing, just an octave lower.  I must say that was difficult for me.  It was a challenge to remember just exactly which shades of expression they had used on the final recording.  

BD:   You can’t erase all the other shades.  [Slyly]  You cannot wash out that damned spot!  [Both laugh]

Verrett:   Exactly, that’s it!  Leo would say,
Oh, my God, why did I do that???  The next time I record an opera, I’m going to do it exactly the same on every take.  But it’s impossible to do that, because when you have a col canto, it is impossible to do it exactly the same way again.  Then it becomes too sterile, and that’s what we don’t want.  We’ll just have to live with that difficulty.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   What other Verdi operas have you sung that you really enjoy... Amneris?

verrett Verrett:   Yes, Amneris, but I took it out of the repertoire.  I sing Aïda now.

BD:   Would you ever get involved in a film where you could do both?

Verrett:   I don’t know if that could ever happen.  I was supposed to have done a film years ago with Zeffirelli.  I don’t think the film has ever been made yet, but he wanted me to do Aïda.  Then he got other notions.  He said, We can always find Aïdas, but we can’t find an Amneris.  So he asked me to do that, but I said no, no, no, no!  Now I’m rethinking that because I love the part of Amneris, and only took it out because I was afraid that certain conductors would try to ruin my voice.  There are certain moments where they feel that the orchestra just wants to come out and cover you.  [Laughs]  It wants to eat you, and I said no, not with my voice.  I would not let someone else do something bad to my voice.  If I do it on my own, that’s one thing, or if there were circumstances that I have no control over, that’s one thing.  But to take my voice and try to push it out of shape because that particular conductor has a certain sound in his head, then he shouldn’t have me as the singer.  He should get a person who might have the bigger sound.  I’ve heard this from many Amnerises who feel that the conductors just try to cover them.  The great ones don’t, but others just overwhelm them with sound, and that’s why I took it out of the repertoire.  I still can sing it, but why should I fight the orchestra?  Once you come to an agreement, and say you’re going to do it this way, when the conductor gets into the pit, you’re at his mercy.  Even if I’m not going to sing it with him anymore, this time you have to sing it.

BD:   Do you sing better when you have more experienced or greater colleagues?  
[Vis-à-vis the recording shown at right, see my interviews with Ruggero Raimondi, Sherrill Milnes, Simon Estes, and Ryland Davies (Lerma).  It is also interesting to note that this (and other) recordings sometimes render the title as Don Carlo, and other times as Don Carlos.]

Verrett:   Yes, of course.  If you have a down feeling, as a professional you can’t do that.  You’ve got to keep picking yourself up and making it go.  But it’s always a joy when everything is equal on the stage.

BD:   Do you become greater?

Verrett:   You become great.  The whole is greater than the parts because when you’ve got everything working together, you’re inspiring each other to do better than each could do.  It’s like playing tennis.  You’re playing over your head when you’re playing with a better partner, and it makes you better. There’s a tension there, but it is a good kind of tension because you know that person is going to do well.  Then, I’ve got to do well, too, and I’ve got to do more than well.  I love it!  In their early years, young singers are going out and getting experience, and that’s great.  I don’t want anyone who hears this to feel that I am not involved with young people getting experiences, but I said I don’t want to go to bad performances.  It doesn’t take a genius to know when something is bad.  I want to hear good performances, because then you can even think about being better.  I’ve never felt that I gained anything by seeing bad performances.

BD:   What advice do you have for the young up-and-coming singers?

Verrett:   They’ve just got to do it.  That’s a part of our life.  That’s the road we have to take.  I took a little bit of shortcut, because when I started I had another career going for me.  If a young singer wants to totally do opera, I think that is a mistake, but many people don’t want to be recitalists or orchestral concert singers.  If they want to be only opera singers, then the only road they can travel is to put themselves in it and try and find themselves the best house that they can in Europe.

BD:   Are there more opportunities in America these days?

Verrett:   Oh, there are more opportunities in America these days, but if you really want to tread the boards a lot, I suppose Germany is a good bet.  Not even Italy so much.  I love the Italians very dearly, but they’re not too interested in foreigners who are just making it.  They have to be excellent first, but in Germany they’re still giving chances to young people who go over.  They should just get out there no matter how they do it, even in the United States.  I made a career starting off as a recitalist in the United States, and then going to Europe.  I went to the big houses, so what I had to do was try to be as good as I could be at that time.  I didn’t want to go to stay a year or two years, because that wasn’t my life.  I wanted to be at home with my family.  I couldn’t go to Europe and spend time when my husband had his career in the United States.  I don’t believe in that kind of separation of six or seven months at a time, and then just visiting each other.  That is not why I got married.  So for me, whatever I did I had to do it in the big houses of the world.  I didn’t have time to do it in the smaller houses.  But my advice to people who have no encumbrances, and don’t have the responsibilities of a family, I would say definitely, if you want to be an opera singer, go and really get the training by going through those roles over and over again.  It makes no difference that you’re singing with pretty bad people, but at the same time you’re learning, and every year you should be stepping up into another category.  Then you start being invited to the different opera houses around other countries where you begin to gradually advance.  For someone who has learned German, and is talented, it wouldn’t take that long to be able to get out of the horrible performances with terrible singers, and terrible orchestras.  Immediately, you’re going on to the next step.


BD:   Now, the Lyric and the Met, and a few other companies have their opera schools...

Verrett:   ...which are very good these days!  Those young singers can get a chance to sing small roles in a big house, and gradually learn.  They also will be able to take jobs outside of that big company, and make a career if they’re wise, and don’t let the opera schools keep them too long.  If they really are talented, don’t let them keep them bogged down doing ten and twelve and thirteen roles a season, so they don’t have time to really concentrate on doing anything but the
C roles.  This is a mistake, so it takes intelligence.  The best singers have always been those who are musicians, and who also have brains, who can think and try to find out what is the best thing.  They want to be the best singers that they can be, and to sing in the major opera houses of the world.  You don’t go about it by being bogged down in one place too long.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Let’s talk about a couple of your other parts.

Verrett:   I’ve done Eboli, which is one of my favorite parts.  I had taken it out of the repertoire, but I’ve put it back.

BD:   Would you ever do it in French?

Verrett:   I don’t know.   I had been asked to do it with Abbado, and to make the recording.  At the time it wasn’t because I didn’t want to do it in French.  I simply didn’t have the time to do it.  But I do like it better in Italian.  It’s one of those times that an opera was written in another language, but works particularly well in Italian.

BD:   Is Eboli a good role for you?

Verrett:   Yes, it is.  It’s one of my best roles.

BD:   What makes it a best role?

Verrett:   It’s very interesting.  It’s the same with Azucena.  Eboli is sung mostly by very high mezzos, but it started out being a true mezzo part.  I always had this feeling when I was in school that this was not totally a mezzo part, but really a soprano part.  It starts off typically, and in mid-stream he changed.  It’s one of those strange kind of parts.  Azucena is the same because of the tessitura that is used.  Not every mezzo can do it.  Verdi liked his mezzos very much.  He liked most of the singers, but he wrote so well for the baritone.  He also had a tenderness for the mezzo.  I have a feeling that it was due in part to his life with Strepponi.

strepponi Clelia Maria Josepha (Giuseppina) Strepponi (8 September 1815 – 14 November 1897) was a nineteenth-century Italian operatic soprano of great renown and the second wife of composer Giuseppe Verdi.

She is often credited with having contributed to Verdi's first successes, starring in a number of his early operas, including the role of Abigaille in the world premiere of Nabucco in 1842. A highly gifted singer, Strepponi excelled in the bel canto repertoire and spent much of her career portraying roles in operas by Vincenzo Bellini, Gaetano Donizetti, and Gioachino Rossini, often sharing the stage with tenor Napoleone Moriani and baritone Giorgio Ronconi. Donizetti wrote the title role of his opera Adelia specifically for Strepponi.

She was described as possessing a "limpid, penetrating, smooth voice, seemly action, a lovely figure; and to Nature's liberal endowments she adds an excellent technique"; her "deep inner feeling" was also lauded.

Both her personal and professional life were complicated by overwork, by at least three known pregnancies, and by her vocal deterioration which caused her to retire from the stage by the age of 31, in 1846 when she moved to Paris to become a singing teacher. While it is known that she had a professional relationship with Verdi from the time of his first opera, Oberto in 1839, they became a couple by 1847 when they lived together in Paris, then moved to Busetto in 1849, married in 1859, and remained together until the end of her life.

I love Eboli because she’s a complicated lady.  I like singing roles where no one facet is their total personification.  There’s no such thing as being one-faceted in this world.  We all have different facets to our life and to our characters.  I feel the colors and characters of Eboli and Azucena.  They’re wonderful to play on stage.  Eboli is a little bit easier to do, I would think, than Elisabeth, which I want to do.  Rome wants me to do it, and I think I want to do it.  For years, people have been asking me to do Elisabeth, and I love her.  She has very, very beautiful music to sing, as does Leonora, which is something I will be doing soon again.  But I will always be cut in half because I like both, and the ones that possibly that will give me the greatest joy to do will be the parts that I have done before, and those are Eboli and Azucena.

verrett BD:   Do you ever regret that Il Trovatore was not called La Zingara [The Gypsy]?

Verrett:   No, because you get the same mileage out of it anyway.  [Both laugh]  Really, it doesn’t really matter to me that it’s not called La Zingara.  But it’s very interesting to think about.

BD:   Verdi was thinking about calling it that.
 [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at right, see my interview with Anna Moffo.]

Verrett:   Yes, he was, and it’s always been rather strange to me to realize that people really are drawn to this part.  I have not seen many performances of Trovatore that I was not in myself.  I’ve seen a few, and I’ve sat there those times, and wondered about Azucena.  It’s a great part, but sometimes, when I’ve heard and seen it on stage, I haven’t felt that it was such a wonderful part.  I wondered who would want to sing Azucena, when there’s Leonora to sing all of this gorgeous music that she has.  I really love it, and some of my friends came backstage after the performance last night, and said they loved this Azucena, but when am I going to do Leonora?  I said I was thinking about it very seriously, but I will always have a place in my heart for Azucena.  For one thing, I love playing a part that is not facially beautiful.  I physically change my nose to not look like myself on stage.  Other people have blacked their teeth out, and I don’t go that far, but I enjoy walking in a different way.  Eboli is another part where I love her music and the characterization very much.  There’s some guts you can show on the stage. 

BD:   You can really sink your teeth into that role.

Verrett:   Yes.  This is the same reason I like Lady Macbeth, and, in a strange way, why I like Bellini’s Norma.  Most people would wonder how I could get my teeth into her.  I feel that the notes were not just to be sung as beautiful bel canto.  To me, all singing should be bel canto, and we should always deal with what the words are saying to us.  Bellini has written a perfect opera to be interpreted, but it needs life.  You’ve got to bring life to it by what he is saying and the words.  You’ve got to point up those words.

BD:   You’ve also sung Adalgisa...

Verrett:   ...and I like that part, also.

BD:   [With a gentle nudge]  Might you find it boring to sing an opera where you only portray one role?

Verrett:   [Laughs]  No!  It will possibly come down to Don Carlo, if I ever do Elisabeth, Leonora and Azucena, Aïda and Amneris, Norma and Adalgisa, and that’s it.  I won’t be doing delving into too many of the other things.

BD:   What about Amelia in Ballo in Maschera?

Verrett:   No, Amelia is not for me.  I love singing the arias in concert, but not as a character.  When I did it at La Scala I was not in very good health.  Abbado talked me into that one.  He had also talked me into Lady Macbeth, which I was very happy about.  Amelia I would do for an opera house as a favor, but not for myself and my own pleasure.  I love listening to the music, but I would much rather hear the baritone and the tenor than Amelia.  For me to sing it, the character is not something that I feel very at home with.

BD:   Are there any characters you would love to do, but the writing for the voice is just that you can’t sing it?  [Slyly]  You’re not a latent Brünnhilde, are you?

Verrett:   [Laughs]  People have thought about that idea, but I’m not thinking about it, no, no!  I suppose I’m a very strange singer in a certain way... or maybe it
s not so strange.  I have spoken to some other people who have the same ideas.  Roles come to me when it’s time for me to do them.  I don’t hanker after roles and think that one day I’ve got to sing her, or I wish I could sing her.  I’ve never done that.

BD:   [Strongly protesting this time]  You’re not strange, you’re being true to yourself!

Verrett:   [Smiles]  It’s so interesting because there have been other singers who have said,
“In so many years I want to sing that part, and they’ve done it, and they’ve done a beautiful job.  Norma came to me because of people wanting me for her.  I said, “Wow, I never thought of it!  Why haven’t you thought of it?  Because it never interested me  Why?  “Because there were other things that I was interested in at the time,  Why not get interested in this one now?  Okay, I’ll get the score, and see if I’ll get interested in it.  So, I looked at it, and in that case I said yes.  I thought it’s fine for my voice, and it will feel good in my throat.


BD:   What other new roles are you looking at now?

Verrett:   I’m doing Medea.  That was a role which was suggested to me seven years ago, and I kept saying no.  My reasons for saying no were two-fold.  At that certain moment, I could not get over the fact that I would portray killing my children.  Being a mother, I could not show that personality.  The other thing was that I felt the ending of the opera was very weak.  I still feel it is very weak, but when I got over those two hurdles, I started to do Medea, and I want to continue to do it.  It’s one of my favorite roles now, and I have thought of doing it in French because that is the version I like.  That’s what I wanted to do, but for Rome I told them I would learn it in Italian because I would like to sing it in Italian.  I would love doing it in French, but again, I like the way the Italian feels in the mouth.  I like the French because I have a wonderful affinity for the language, but there are certain words on certain notes that I like singing much better in the Italian than in the French. 

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Let’s move over to the French repertoire, and talk about a couple of your great French roles.  Tell me about Carmen.

Verrett:   Carmen is no longer for me.  She is completely out of my repertoire.  The only thing that I would with Carmen at this particular time would be to record it.  Carmen was grafted onto my body, on my skin.  It’s a fabulous role, but I always felt more of an affinity with Delilah.  When I was at Juilliard, and was much thinner, and very young, and had the voice who could sing Carmen, so naturally I did Carmen.  I did many performances of Carmen, and I can say truthfully that there were two performances I really loved very much.  Retrospectively I look back, and the first one was when I did it in Spoleto, Italy with Gian Carlo Menotti.  At the time I didn’t think too much of it, but in later years I reflected, and thought it was not bad for a first go at the role.  Then, the one that was the best Carmen I’ve ever done was in Florence, Italy, because it was a very intimate Carmen.  It was a Carmen that was musica da camera, chamber music, and that’s what Carmen means to me.  It’s not full-blown, it
s not huge, it’s talking to individuals and people, one-on-one.

BD:   That’s because it was written for the Opéra-Comique.

The Opéra-Comique is a Paris opera company, which was founded around 1714 by some of the popular theatres of the Parisian fairs. In 1762 the company was merged with, and for a time took the name of its chief rival the Comédie-Italienne at the Hôtel de Bourgogne, and was also called the Théâtre-Italien up to about 1793, when it again became most commonly known as the Opéra-Comique. Today the company's official name is Théâtre national de l'Opéra-Comique, and its theatre, with a capacity of around 1,248 seats, sometimes referred to as the Salle Favart (the third on this site), is located in Place Boïeldieu, in the 2nd arrondissement of Paris, not far from the Palais Garnier, one of the theatres of the Paris Opéra.

The musicians and others associated with the Opéra-Comique have made important contributions to operatic history and tradition in France, and to French opera. Its current mission is to reconnect with its history, and discover its unique repertoire, to ensure production and dissemination of operas for the wider public. Mainstays of the repertory at the Opéra-Comique during its history have included the following works which have each been performed more than 1,000 times by the company: Cavalleria Rusticana, Le chalet, La dame blanche, Le domino noir, La fille du régiment, Lakmé, Manon, Mignon, Les noces de Jeannette, Le pré aux clercs, Tosca, La bohème, Werther and Carmen, the last having been performed more than 2,500 times. [Photo below shows the theatre at the time of the premiere of Carmen (March 3, 1875)].


Verrett:    Of course, but today we’ve made it much too big.  I enjoyed the movie of it very much, because in a movie you can do things.  You can take it outside, you do can do anything with it.  But when you’re talking about the opera house, I feel that it has gotten to be too over-blown, and we’re not concentrating on the characters, on really what’s going on, on the intimacies.  This is what I had in Florence.  Everything came together for this, and I was a mysterious kind of Carmen.  It suited me, and that what’s I’m about as a Carmen.  I can’t lend myself to all of the different approaches.  I’m very honest about it.  I did it in La Scala the last time, but I wasn’t very well.  That had nothing to do with my idea, but I wondered why I kept putting myself through this misery?  I could sing the role, but why do I want to do it when I don’t believe in what’s being done with it?  I don’t believe in it.  So I said to myself that I’m not using my head.  Now, I don’t sing it anymore.  I was supposed to have recorded it years ago, and I didn’t do it.  So, I would like to record it, but that’s it.

BD:   What recordings are in the works now, either as yet unissued or about to be made?

Verrett:   We’re talking about things now.  Mine has been a maverick career.  I’ve knocked over certain buckets that now have to be picked up again.  [Both laugh]  We’re in the talking stages about certain things, like Gluck, which I have a great love for.  I would like to record Iphigenie en Tauride because I did it at the Paris Opera twice, and Alceste.

verrett BD:   In French or Italian?

Verrett:   I did them both in French because that was the way they were supposed to be done.  I felt I had to do them in French, and now there’s talk of doing them maybe in Florence.  I was speaking with Maestro Bartoletti because Florence has, for years, been trying to get me to do Armida, and I’m looking at it again.  I have the score at home, and I’m looking at it again because years ago I said no, not yet, but maybe now it is time.  So, I’ll take a second look.

BD:   So you were right that it was not yet for you?

Verrett:   That’s it, and in that sense I do put things off if they are offered to me, and I look at them and say no, that’s not what I’m about at this moment, vocally or otherwise.  Maybe later, I’ll take another look.  I love the French operas very, very much.

BD:   Your eyes lit up a few moments ago when you mentioned Delilah.  Tell me about her.  [Photo at right shows Verrett as Delilah and Jon Vickers as Samson at Covent Garden in 1981.]

Verrett:   I’ve taken Delilah out of my repertoire now.  I’m not saying that I will never do it again, because I still feel I can sing it.  As you know, they say I’ve gone from one voice category to another, but I really didn’t go from one voice category to another.  I always had a certain voice.  I only sang certain roles at certain moments, but I was always mixing the categories.  When I made my debut at San Francisco, I was singing a work that I will be opening with again next season, L’Africaine, which is a soprano role.  I was always mixing.  When I made my debut in Florence, it was in a soprano role.  I always used my voice not as a voice that is categorized as a mezzo, or a contralto, or a soprano, but as a voice.  Let me see the score, let me see the notes, and I’ll tell you whether I can sing it or not, no matter if it is marked as a contralto or as even a lyric soprano.  Not only in the United States, but in other parts of the world it can also be problematic because people don’t really know.  They want to put you in a box, and I don’t like being put in a box.

BD:   Not even if you are the one to make the box?

Verrett:   Not even if I make the box!  I somehow work myself out of the box because I’m a singer.  That’s what I’d be liked to known as, but it’s impossible because people want to put something behind the name
soprano, mezzo-sopranoand my life has been mixed up with both.  Now I call myself a soprano because in the recent years I have sung and stuck very closely to the soprano repertoireLady Macbeth, Norma, the Gluck operas, Medea, even Tosca and Desdemona, which I love very, very much.  I only did it once in Boston, but that was a challenge for me, and I wanted to do it.  But then, on the other side there’s Azucena, and Delilah of the mezzo parts that I sang.  Eboli I don’t call completely a mezzo part.  It’s a mix.  I felt I should take them all out of my repertoire, and I did.  I am just left with the soprano roles, and I am now getting myself back out of that other box that I made for myself, and I will sing what is good for me.  I’m here in Chicago doing Azucena, and I will possibly sing it in other places. but that doesn’t mean that I will not add Leonora, and sing that also.  What I’m doing is following the advice that my husband gave me years ago.  He said, Shirley, don’t let people ever dictate to you what you should sing.  You have never done it, so don’t start.  Sing what is good for you.  If it is not good for you, that is your decision, and you’re wise enough to say it was a mistake, and you won’t do it again.  On the other hand, if it is good for you, why should you let it go because other people feel that you’re a soprano, or you’re a mezzo.  You shouldn’t do that.”  I’m a voice, and God gave me a particular kind of voice, and I’m always working on trying to perfect it.  I will never be perfect, and it will never be perfect.  No one is, but I’m trying to see what else I can do with the voice.  You brought up a very wonderful point because I put myself in another little box when I said I won’t do Delilah anymore.  Now that’s a very silly statement.  I can understand saying that I will not do Carmen, because it’s the staging.  It’s a concept.  But Delilah is still in my voice.

BD:   So you’re just not doing it now.

Verrett:   I’m not doing it now.  It’s something that has a little question mark.  When I’ll do it again, I don’t know.  I do love Delilah very much, as much as I love Norma.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Do you alter your technique when going from one house to another, from a big house to a small house?

Verrett:   I try not to.  It’s very difficult sometimes when you go to a new house trying to find out what is best in that house.

BD:   We have such a big house here, but it’s acoustically good.

Verrett:   Yes, I’ve been told that.  The sound goes out, except that on the stage you don’t always hear it come back.  That’s what I still haven’t adjusted to yet.  In the most pianissimo moments, I hear certain ringing tones.  It’s not that, it’s just that I have not adjusted to the stage yet.  I appreciate that it is a good house to sing in, but it’s long.  That’s the difficulty, because the Met is larger but it is wide.  It doesn’t go back too deep.  The difficulty here is possibly the deepness, but I try not to get too much involved in that.

verrett BD:   You just sing!

Verrett:   I sing!  I really sing.  It’s the same thing when you sing Lieder, I don’t pull the voice back.  The song dictates to me what I do with it.  I don’t sit there and say that I’ve got to be very pure when I’m singing this Lieder.  These men who wrote these songs were men.  They were men!  Some of them had children, they had mistresses, wives, whatever, and they wrote music.  Of course, you have to sing it a certain style, but that’s different.  Just don’t say that if this song is an outspoken song, you should sing it pianissimo because it’s Lieder and it’s sacrosanct.  It’s the same as singing Bach.  If you have the style, and you are gifted, and you have studied in music school, you learn that you don’t sing Bach the same as you would sing Stravinsky or Mozart.  There are guidelines.  Your musical feelings will tell you a lot, even where a teacher won’t tell you.  If you’re musical enough, you don’t overstep the bounds.  I get very annoyed at people thinking that you have to be very precious about Lieder.  You dont just stand there and sing words.  People have come to listen to me sing because they want me to give these words back to them.  They want to get meanings from what these composers have said.  I’m not saying taking liberties, but I hate when people put in so many rules.  There are nice rules, but after you have gotten that foundation, all of a sudden let’s just lend ourselves to music.

BD:   Be human?  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at left, see my interviews with George Shirley, and Donald Gramm.]

Verrett:   Be human.

BD:   Do you feel there are any great composers writing today?

Verrett:   I think I’d better stay away from that question.  I really don’t know.  I feel very, very badly, to a certain extent, that I have concentrated so much on the ‘old’ composers and the old music.  I have not been very good at helping the composers of our time get their music across.  I had started out with Stravinsky, and made a recording, but it is not a twelve-tone piece.  [Oedipus rex was written towards the beginning of Stravinskys neoclassical period, and is considered one of the finest works from this phase of the composers career.]  We’ve gone so much further than that, and I know that I’m not an expert, or an authority on what is being written today.  There is a possibility that we have some wonderful young composers around that I just don’t know of.  I’m an old-fashioned singer, and people have tried to get me out of that rut.  At that time, they were trying to push me into doing more Schoenberg, which I did, but it’s not enough.  I didn’t really get into it because I had so much music that I didn’t know of the old.  I wanted to get into that first, and then I thought I would start concentrating on the new.  But then you get really quite involved with that old, and somehow you can’t get out of it.

BD:   So much music, so little time.

Verrett:   That’s it.

BD:   One last question.  Is singing fun?

Verrett:   Yes, it is.  What is fun about it is continually trying to figure out what else you can do with the voice.  How can I make it better even though I’m older?  A lot of people say that as you begin to get older, the voice goes.  I feel I sing just as well today, or maybe better, than I did ten years ago from a technical standpoint.  Maybe I’m wrong, but people have come backstage and said that I sound so good and so fresh.  It’s wonderful, and I’m very happy about that because maybe it is because I didn’t over-sing.  I work a lot and, when I’m home, I’m singing, but it’s not that I’m on the road.  When I do go on stage, when you see this Trovatore, I move a lot on the stage, especially in this particular part.  I don’t always do that, but there’s a lot of energy that is expended on the stage, and that has nothing to do with voice.  It’s just pure energy, and I just couldn’t do that ten or eleven or twelve months of the year.

BD:   You could do it for a while, but then you would collapse!

Verrett:   Yes, I would collapse, and then the voice would go.  If you don’t have the energy, the voice will go because you begin to do all kinds of stupid things to try to make up for it, and you can’t.

BD:   Thank you for being a singer.

Verrett:   Thank you.  I’m happy I am.

BD:   This has been a wonderful conversation.

Verrett:   I enjoyed it also.  You’re very easy to talk to because you ask questions, and you’re very calm. 

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© 1987 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded at her hotel in Chicago on September 23, 1987.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB the following year, and again in 1991, 1992, and 1996.  This transcription was made in 2020, and posted on this website at that time.  My thanks to British soprano Una Barry for her help in preparing this website presentation.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.  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.