Tenor / Administrator  John  Vorrasi

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie




Having attended many concerts by the William Ferris Chorale, and promoted them on WNIB, Classical 97, I had known John Vorrasi for many years.  In April of 1998 we decided to get together for an interview, and he graciously came to the studios of the radio station.

While we were setting up to record our conversation, out chit-chat went back to his early training in the Church . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:   Do you have any regrets about not being a priest?

John Vorrasi:   [Smiles]  Well...  
I got some really wonderful training in the six years that I was in the seminary, but my vocation really is in music, and that’s ultimately where I was supposed to be.  That’s where God led me, if you will, so all is well.

BD:   Let me change the question.  Do you feel that by singing and presenting music for God and everybody that you are in some ways a priest?

Vorrasi:   I believe music is really a wonderful vocation.  I sing in a lot of different places, and a lot of different ways for a lot of different things.  I was a cantor in a synagogue for ten years, but primarily I’ve sung in Catholic churches, which, of course, is my faith.  I really believe that you move people terribly deeply when you sing.

BD:   No matter what you sing?

Vorrasi:   Especially if your heart is in it.  Beauty is certainly a pathway to God, and therefore I fulfill my vocation in a better way than I might have if I’d been ordained.  It’s amazing.  Sometimes people put down other singers by saying, “Oh, well, he’s a church singer,” but that’s insane.  Every weekend I sing for about 1,500 or 1,800 people, and it would take you a long time to build up that kind of audience if you do Schubert Lieder recitals.  But I do feel that when I sing I actually am praying, as Augustine said.  So, it ends up being my prayers which are always public.  It’s not as private as I’d like to be, but...

BD:   Do you ever sing just for God?

Vorrasi:   That’s a funny question.  I really do believe that music is a deeply spiritual and personal thing, and you can’t help but be moved, and be in touch with the great spiritual core.  When I perform, I do feel that connection.  It’s not always conscious, and you can louse things up if you begin to think too much when you’re performing.  I’m basically an instinctual performer, and so when I’m in touch with the essence of singing, then I guess that I am singing for God.

BD:   Is this some advice that you have for others singers
to get everything set, and get yourself set, and then make it instinctual?

Vorrasi:   That’s really true.  You have to have a natural sense of feeling for singing.  When I first began to sing, I would just sing totally naturally.  I was blessed with an instrument that is a natural sound.  Then I begin to study, and my first experience in studying was that I began to think about everything that I was doing, and I questioned everything I was doing.  I would question every breath, every support, every tone. It was terrible.  I thought that this was freaking nuts.  So, I finally got to a point where I just sang again, but, thank God, at that point I had learned technique from some wonderful teachers, so that I was pretty certain what was going to happen when I opened my mouth.  I knew basically what was going to come out, and it wasn’t going to be just a whim of chance.  There’s some science to it.

BD:   I assume that most of that helps to make the career longer?

Vorrasi:   True.  Giuseppe di Stefano had a fantastic voice, but unfortunately he had next to no technique.  He would spill that beauty out all the time, but eventually it burned itself out because, without the structure of the vocal technique, it’s just going to be murder on the cords.  Actually, one of my great teachers, Eileen Deneen, is in her 80s, and she’s singing very well.  She’s magnificent.  [To read a profile of Deneen, click HERE.]  I also sang with a wonderful old tenor named August Drozda.  In his late 70s and early 80s he was still singing better than some 25-year-olds.  Obviously, the voice had lost its bloom, but that guy had technique, and he knew what he was doing.  He was a sweet man who sang from his heart.

BD:   Do you do any vocal teaching?
Vorrasi:   I’ve been asked a gazillion times to teach voice.  Even Eleanor Steber sends students to me who were coming here from New York, but I really don’t have the time.  I do so many things besides singing that sometimes singing ends up being an afterthought because of all the other things that I end up doing in my life.  I manage the Ferris Chorale, and for a whole chunk of years I wrote program notes for the Chicago Symphony’s chamber series, and liner notes for recordings.  Managing the Ferris Chorale is a full-time job, in addition to my duties of singing with the group, and with the church of Our Lady of Mount Carmel Parish, where I’m the staff.

BD:   It’s really all wrapped up into one, though.
Vorrasi:   It is.  It is wrapped up into one, and it’s a very interesting wrap.  I wouldn’t change or trade the way I’ve lived my musical life with anybody.  I’m really quite content.  I’ve had the opportunity to work with some of the greatest composers in the 20th century, including William Schuman, Vincent Persichetti, Ned Rorem, Dominick Argento, Lee Hoiby, and of course William Ferris.  I’ve been involved with really some great artists, such as Steber and Sir Peter Pears, both of whom coached me.  I can’t even begin to say how wonderful those experiences were.  When I sang the role of Nicolas in Brittens Saint Nicolas, Pears coached me.  It was the piece that opened up the first Aldeburgh Festival, and Pears was in town for our anniversary concert of Benjamin Britten’s music.  I remember being in St. James Cathedral, an empty church except for Peter sitting in the congregation, and Robert Morrison at the piano playing the orchestra part.  I came in, and Peter said, “Could you just try it like this,” and he sang a phrase.  Here was Peter Pears, in his 70s, singing a phrase back to me.  I just wanted to die.  It was so fantastic, it was surreal, it was so wonderful.  It was a glorious experience to be able to work with these people, and to make music for them.  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at right, in addition to works by Persichetti and Schuman, see my interview with David Diamond.]

BD:   It seems like a great inspiration to you.

Vorrasi:   Oh, absolutely.  I’m mad about composers.  I truly love contemporary music.

BD:   Do you like all contemporary music, or just those pieces which are well-written for the voice?

Vorrasi:   [Laughs]  I think that all music imitates singing.  Every instrument should imitate singing.  Without melody, what is the point of music?  Just harmony and rhythm?  It’s the melody that sticks in your head, and melody is what drives it.  Melody is the great force.

BD:   It started with melismas.

Vorrasi:   That’s right, and those lovely chants from the East or West, whichever way you want to look at it.

BD:   Is it true that music is music is music, and is the universal language?

Vorrasi:   Certainly, if a Westerner would listen to Chinese opera, I don’t think it would be as instantly accessible as listening to something more in tune with our own cultural awareness.

BD:   But that’s just familiarity.

Vorrasi:   Right, that’s true.  If the intent of the gift or the spirit is really there, it communicates even though it’s strange.  We joke about music that’s easy to sing, but a lot of music I perform is not easy to sing.  It’s quite demanding, with quite a lot of leaps, and odd intervals, and this and that.  But it’s music, it’s truly music.  It’s got melody.  It may not be as simple as a Schubert song, but there is melody there, and that’s the driving line, that’s the force.

BD:   Do you get enough opportunity to sing Schubert’s songs?

Vorrasi:   I used to sing those things a lot.  I used to sing Schöne Müllerin, and Dichterliebe, and all those things, but I don’t have the time to indulge in that.  When I sing solos in church, sometimes I do pull up earlier music including Bach.  When I first came to Chicago, I worked with Gavin Williamson, who’s a wonderful coach.  He used to make me sing a lot of very lyrical opera arias, and some excruciatingly difficult, but beautifully lyrical Bach arias.  So, I do have those in my repertoire that I pull out every now and then, but I have got to eat my Wheaties first.  [Both laugh]

BD:   You’re from where?

Vorrasi:   I was born in Rochester, New York, upstate New York.

BD:   Why and how did you wind up in Chicago?

Vorrasi:   [Modestly]  I don’t know.  It
s God’s will, shall we say.

BD:   It
s fortuitous for us.

Vorrasi:   It was fortuitous for me, too.  I came here because I was going to continue my studies in graduate school.  Eventually that fizzled away, and I began doing different things.  I decided that working with other artists, rather than going into another academic thing, was what I needed to do.

BD:   No regrets?

Vorrasi:   Oh, none at all.  Chicago is my second home.  My accent is certainly upstate New York, but Chicago is really my hometown now.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Do you change your style at all if you’re singing in a concert hall or at a church venue?

Vorrasi:   Oh, yes.  You have to be sensitive to what you’re doing, and to the purpose of what’s going on.  Even in a concert hall, you change your style if you’re doing an intimate song, or you’re doing something wildly dramatic.  Generally speaking, in church services you need to know where you are in the service, so you know whether you can do something that’s particularly showy or you need to be more reserved.  But ultimately whatever you do, it has to serve the purpose at hand, which is the liturgy.


BD:   Are you sometimes crippled a little bit in not being able to sing music you want because of the acoustic environment?  If it’s a big booming acoustic in a church, you can’t do some more technical things that would show off details.

Vorrasi:   That’s true, but a lot of the Baroque music was written for big bath-tubby churches, where all that sound is knocking around in there.  But I like to play with the acoustic.  For example, at Our Lady of Mt. Carmel, on Holy Thursday at the end of the service of the Institution of the Eucharist, there’s a stripping of the altars where they take away all the adornment because the next day is Good Friday.  During the stripping of the altars, Father Healy has asked that I would sing, unaccompanied, Were you there when they crucified my Lord?, which I do.  Every year I try to sing it a little bit differently.  I have different ornamentations, and move things around, but I learned that it’s really wonderful to be able to play with the acoustic that’s there, to sing in a certain way so that the sound resounds in a certain way.  One does use the room.  When Peter Pears was here, I was taking him to the airport after ten days that he was here with us.  We were in the airport, and there was one of those famous Chicago snowstorms that came up out of nowhere, so the airport was practically closed down.  We had to wait four and a half hours before his plane left.  So we sat in this very crowded waiting room, and we talked about singing, and about how one makes the sound one makes.  We began talking about a certain vocalise, and he began to sing vocalises to me, and I sang vocalises to him.  I’m sure the people thought we were totally nuts, but we did discuss it, and we both agreed that one can use the overtones that are created when you sing, and the tones in the room that pick them up to amplify and press them on.  Peter’s voice was not enormous, and yet Britten wrote these huge operatic parts for him, and he was always able to cut through the orchestra.  He was always on top.  That’s why I have to laugh sometimes, when you see a role that Peter created sung by a heldentenor, which is the farthest thing from what was in the composer’s mind.  But that shows there’s other ways to do those roles...
BD:   ...and it still works.

Vorrasi:   Right.  The music is just wonderful.

BD:   Was the airport crowd really pleased with what you did?

Vorrasi:   [Laughs]  Well, I think that they thought we were crazy, but I’ll never forget it.

BD:   Have you thought about performing in different places in the church, perhaps from the back or from the side?

Vorrasi:   Normally when I’m working in the church, I sing in the front because I’m leading the congregation.  I do sing from the back sometimes, in the choir loft, because the music was meant to be coming from there.  These churches are built like that.

BD:   [At this point, the dogs which were kept at WNIB started barking, and could be heard as we continued our interview]  Is music for the animals too?

Vorrasi:   Yes, of course.  There’s a wonderful dog at Mount Carmel named Annie, and she does love music.

BD:   Being so much of a church singer, you don’t get as much choice of repertoire as if you were just doing concert works.  Is this a good thing or a bad thing, or do you like doing this repertoire?

Vorrasi:   I do tend to pick my repertoire that I sing in church, at least the solo things I do.  And certainly, when I’m working with William Ferris, we’re doing things that are interesting.  But even though I’m singing in church fifty weeks a year, I’m singing with the Chorale almost as much, so I don’t think it’s limiting, even though I’m not doing concert music in church... although, I did a role in a Menotti opera, the Chicago premiere of The Egg, which one could consider a parable, or a religious opera if you will.  That was an interesting thing.  I played St. Simeon Stylites.  They had to build a huge column for me to sit upon, and I had a long, long beard, and long, long hair.  I was supposed to be there forever in the desert, waiting for passersby to offer me a glass of water.

BD:   When William Ferris writes something specifically for you, is it special to create this part or this role or this song?

Vorrasi:   Yes.  It’s really a marvelous thing, because he writes for my voice.  So, in a sense I become the instrument that he’s working for, and the sound he’s working for.  I’ve done some very beautiful things of his.  He set the poetry of Salvatore Quasimodo, the Nobel Prize winning Italian poet, called, Ed È Subito Sera, that he wrote for tenor and string orchestra.  I did that with the Chicago String Ensemble led by Alan Heatherington.  [CD of that work is shown below-right.]  It was quite a wonderful experience to do that, but it’s true that when things are written for me, there’s an ease and the grace to them.  Although, he knows my abilities, sometimes he makes things more difficult than he would for someone else.

BD:   It’s written for you.  Does that preclude it from any other tenor?

Vorrasi:   Oh no, it
s just different.  It sounds different, that’s all.

BD:   Have you heard some of
your pieces sung by other tenors?

Vorrasi:   Actually, I haven’t, sorry to say, but some of the pieces that I sing I’ve heard other singers sing, of course.

BD:   Do you get ideas from those performances?

Vorrasi:   I wouldn’t have done it that way.  People’s different voices can bring out different things.

BD:   Then let me ask this.  Is there such a thing as a perfect performance?

Vorrasi:   We’re really spoiled by the perfection that comes from the recording studio.  What makes the performance perfect to me is if the music speaks directly to the people with no impediments.  If you have horns that are constantly cracking, or a voice that’s constantly cracking or singing out of tune or wobbling or not pronouncing the words, this is not making the channel direct.  A perfect performance is merely if the essence of the music can reach the people.  Everything doesn’t have to be technically perfect, but the spirit has to be right.  I don’t mean to excuse bad performances by saying they were heartfelt.  They have to be technically up there, too.  
Sharp or flat, they’re both out of tune.  One is not better than the other.

BD:   I assume, though, that you’re always striving for that perfect performance?

Vorrasi:   You want to communicate things in the best possible way, so naturally you want it to be technically perfect.  But, again, you know, the first time I heard Dichterliebe, Ernst Haefliger was singing it.  He was way beyond his prime, but I was never so moved by anything in my life to that point, because I had never experienced the work, and he was a great artist.  It was just unbelievable, and is still indelibly burned into my memory.  I know it wasn’t perfect, but it was so musical, and that really is the bottom line for me.  It has to be musical.

BD:   Who is it that puts the music into the music
is it the composer who sets the scores, is it the performer who performs the works, or is it the listener who hears it in a certain way?

Vorrasi:   I suppose all of those come together at one point.  The composer, obviously, puts the music into the score.  If the performer doesn’t make the music, then there’s no music.  The notes are really a road map to performance, and you have to understand what’s going on in the music.  Otherwise you’re not going to get the essence of it, and you’re not going to be able to communicate it.  It needs to be something well-communicated.  The audience certainly has to feel it, otherwise they’re stones.  I really feel that if a person is the least bit open, and a really musical thing is being performed, they’ve got to be moved by it.  I believe that.

BD:   To a greater or lesser degree?

Vorrasi:   Yes.  I’ve seen it happen.  People who wouldn’t have a clue what was going on can be extremely moved by a heartfelt and really musical performance.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   You do both solo singing and Chorale singing.  Is there a difference for you?

Vorrasi:   Certainly.  Singing is singing, but there are certain styles or certain manners of performance.  When I’m singing in the chorus, and then I suddenly have a five- or six- or seven-measure solo, there’s a difference in the way I’m producing sound coming out.  When I’m in ensemble, I’m blending into the ensemble.  Even when opera people on the stage do their quartets or quintets, if they’re really with it, they’ll listen to the other singers, and they’ll blend and make a fabulous sound.  Therefore, the music comes out, and it’s really being more musical, instead of some kind of a shouting match.  But that’s really the only difference.  It
s just the intensity, or the way one personalizes the sound when singing solo, as opposed to the benign dictatorship of the Chorale ensemble.
BD:   Do you help in selecting the singers for the Chorale?

Vorrasi:   No.

BD:   That’s Ferris
s decision completely?

Vorrasi:   Right.  Sometimes he has his associate conductor with him, but he does pick.  I don’t sit in on the auditions.

BD:   What does one look for in a good Chorale singer?

Vorrasi:   You need a voice that can blend, and because we do so much contemporary music, singers need to be rather adept at reading.  We put together very complex concerts of music in about thirty to thirty-five hours of rehearsal, so they’re very intense, and they’re very difficult.  Bill certainly knows how to structure the rehearsals so that they make a lot of sense.  We can learn things that individually you might throw up your hands, but the ensemble together, under his leadership, manages to digest an awful lot of very complex music in a relatively short time.

BD:   What are some of the things about running the Chorale organization that the public doesn’t know about?

Vorrasi:   Almost everybody who’s in Arts Management would say it’s the Drop-From-Heaven Syndrome.  People just think everything drops from Heaven.  The programs drop from Heaven, the press releases drop from Heaven, the labels or the seat markings just drop from Heaven, the ushers just automatically appear...  Somebody has to prepare all this!  There are a gazillion things that need to be done in the background that everyone just takes for granted.

BD:   And you have to do it all?

Vorrasi:   [Blushing]  Well...

BD:   Or you have to make sure it all gets done?

Vorrasi:   Right.  Happily I do have some support in this, but in the early days, I didn’t really have too much help.  But I shouldn’t really complain.

BD:   One can always use a few more assistants.

Vorrasi:   That’s right.  
A few more hands maketh the labor light.  [Both laugh]

BD:   I assume that you enjoy running the Chorale?

Vorrasi:   I do, and I enjoy doing the music from the other side of the footlights, too.  It’s really fascinating.  I certainly enjoy being in touch with all the guest artists, and all the things that are part of that.  It’s really quite fascinating and quite wonderful.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   What advice do you have for audiences who would come to a Chorale concert, either for the first time or for the fiftieth time?

Vorrasi:   Just come with open ears.  One of the aspects of the Ferris Chorale is that we’re always doing off-the-wall things, but it is all certainly listenable music.  Bob Marsh [long-time music critic for the Chicago Sun-Times], once wrote,
Contemporary music is supposed to scare audiences away, but it seems to have the opposite effect with the Ferris Chorale audience, because it seems to be getting larger all the time.  It’s really because the audience has come to trust the fact that if we’re preparing it and doing it, Bill obviously believes there’s something there that’s worth hearing and knowing about.  That’s a good attitude to havejust always come to the Ferris Chorale concert and you’re bound to get a good meal.

BD:   It’s trust that you have built up over the years?

Vorrasi:   Yes, yes, indeed.

BD:   Does it please you to know that a lot of the music being written now at the end of the
90s is starting to come around to being more tuneful?

Vorrasi:   That’s quite interesting, really.  The pendulum is indeed swinging back.  We’re getting more conservative, and I think that’s good.  It’s just a pity we had to lose so many years when we could have been building up all this music, rather than things that didn’t really want to communicate.

BD:   Is there a place for that music, or is it consigned to the trash leap of history?

Vorrasi:   [Thinks a moment]  It’s consigned to the dusty old tombs and universities, where most of it came from anyway.

BD:   You have no part of it?

Vorrasi:   I’m not moved by it, so it doesn’t speak to me.  I can’t find the music in it, really.  I can see the technique in some of it, which is quite brilliant, but it’s like getting all dressed up for dinner and being served sand.

BD:   What advice do you have for someone who wants to write for the solo voice, or for the chorus?

Vorrasi:   There are a lot of wonderful models they can look to in both early and contemporary music.  Certainly they should think about melody as being not necessarily tunes, but lines that actually fit the voice.  In the Chorale, we certainly sing a lot of music that’s somewhat jagged, and not quite as linear as polyphony from the Renaissance.  But there is a way to be able to sing contemporary music that still maintains a line.  I’ve done music which is not as melodic in the traditional sense as, say, a Schubert song, but they’re definitely melodies, and they definitely can be sung lyrically.  You aren’t barking like the dogs here trying to grab notes, or flying up and down off the page.  There’s a logic to the movement.

BD:   [With mock horror]  You mean music is supposed to be logical???

Vorrasi:   [Laughs]  Well, of course, it’s logical.  When you talk to someone, your sentences have logic.  If it doesn’t have logic, they wouldn’t know what you’re talking about.
BD:   Is music supposed to be pretty?

Vorrasi:   [Hesitantly]  Well,
pretty is a strange word.  Music is supposed to be beautiful.  That’s a more difficult word, and it’s better than pretty.

BD:   Then where is the balance then between the logic and the beauty?

Vorrasi:   Beauty has its own internal logic.  Beauty has an internal form.  It
s very difficult to say that merely if it has technique it’s going to be beautiful, because that’s not true.  A statue can be technically wonderful, but not be beautiful.  It can be correct, but it can be nothing.  A poem can be metered and have rhythm, but not necessarily be beautiful unless there is some internal beauty to it.  The internal form has to be beautiful.

BD:   Is this what you look for when selecting pieces to do either for yourself or for the Chorale?

Vorrasi:   I certainly look for the beauty of a piece, and if it
s something for me, whether I feel that my vocal abilities would suit the music, or if the music would suit my abilities.  There are certain things that I would like to do, but they’re either too low, or the range breaks in certain ways that I don’t feel I’d be comfortable with.  Remember, we can’t afford to hire orchestras.

*     *     *     *     *
BD:   Do you like being a tenor?  Would you rather be a bass?

Vorrasi:   Oh no, I love being a tenor.  We tenors are very rare birds.

BD:   Has the phenomenon of The Three Tenors helped or hindered you as a tenor?

Vorrasi:   I must say that I absolutely love the sound of Pavarotti’s voice, and I like very much the voices of Domingo and Carreras as well.  They’re wonderful singers.  I’m not too keen on The Three Tenor thing.  I understand that’s a great way to make money, and it’s a great crossover event, but it’s a little too much of a carnival for me.  I don’t need to hear Nessun Dorma where everybody takes a line and then sings away.  It just doesn’t make too much sense.  There’s not much real integrity in the music-making there.  It’s beautiful sounds, but it’s not much music.

BD:   If you get in a taxi and the cabbie asks what you do, and you say,
I’m a tenor, does he respond, “Like The Three Tenors?

Vorrasi:   Oh, yes.  The best thing was when I was visiting in Italy, and they asked what I did, and I said,
I’m a tenor.  They replied, Caruso!  [Laughs]  So, that was more fun.

BD:   Is music fun?

Vorrasi:   Oh yes, music is fun.  It’s a cruel mistress sometimes, but it is fun.  I do love music.  I don’t know what I’d do without music.  Ever since I was a kid I was singing.  When I was in second grade, the good nuns brought me down to the seventh- and eighth-grade classrooms to sing Santa Lucia for them, because here was a little kid that could actually sing in a foreign language.  My family, of course, would always sing, too.  My aunt and my uncle belonged to an operatic society in Rochester, and they took me to my first operas.  I was eight or nine years old when I went and heard Rigoletto for the first time in Rochester.  I was just unbelievably excited by that.  Images and music kept running around in my head.  I went back to their house and spent the night after that.  My cousin had a piano, and she had the music of La Donna è Mobile.  She was couple of years older than I was, so she was about ten or eleven, and she played.  It was just grand.  It was wonderful.  At family gatherings we always sang.  We were a very musical family.

BD:   How do we get the audiences of the future if they’re all at rock concerts and sporting events?

Vorrasi:   That’s a real problem, because unless you come from an ethnic background, people don’t sing in their homes anymore.  A lot of my friends have come from Western European or Eastern European backgrounds, and they think nothing of bursting into song.  I was in a restaurant in Italy, and a bunch of Germans were there.  Suddenly, they all stood up and began singing at the top of their lungs.  I thought it was absolutely wonderful.  It was insane. We wouldn’t do it here... people would look at you like you were nuts.  Even Happy Birthday in a restaurant is considered extraordinary here, but they just do it.  Entertainment at home means everyone sings together.  So, it’s hard here.  In the schools, music programs don’t feature vocal singing.  So it’s difficult, and I don’t know what the answer is.

BD:   Is there a remedy?

Vorrasi:   I don’t know what the remedy is.  Certainly, it
s not just listening to pop songs.  I listened to the Academy Awards songs, and they’re eminently forgettable.  The three songs they sang were awful.  I’m hard pressed to even call them songs.

BD:   The vocal production by pop singers would take the life out of an artist such as yourself.

Vorrasi:   It’s all in the microphone.  Bocelli has a fabulous natural instrument, but I do believe that the sound is basically produced for the microphones.  There, it’s a wonderful sound.

BD:   Today’s Broadway singers produce their sound all in the throat, not in the diaphragm.

Vorrasi:   That’s absolutely true, and, again, it’s all put into the microphone.  They wear the microphones on their heads when they sing.  It
’s not like in Ethel Merman’s day when she got up there on stage and sang.

BD:   She belted it out.

Vorrasi:   She did, yes.  Also, the unfortunate thing that I find very distracting is to go to the theater when everyone’s on microphone, and to see the people in different parts of the stage, but the sound is always coming from the same place. It doesn’t make any sense to me.
BD:   Eventually they’ll have speakers across the spectrum, and the sound designer will be able to ‘stage’ what you hear.

Vorrasi:   That would make things better, but...

BD:   ...then, it’s just more technical gizmos?

Vorrasi:   Right.
 [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at right, see my interviews with William Mathias, and John McCabe.]

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BD:   Tell me a bit more about your experiences with Peter Pears.

Vorrasi:   We brought him to Chicago at the seventh anniversary of Britten’s death, and we did a special program called Bravo Britten.  We had a masterclass and lecture at the Cultural Center.  Then, the Chorale did the program which included the American premiere of a work of Britten that they found in a drawer after he died!  We also did Noye’s Fludde, but he was here for a whole week and it was just a wonderful thing.  He was a great man.  He invited us to sing at Aldeburgh... of course I thought he was just being polite, but he wasn’t.  He really wanted us to sing at Aldeburgh, so, about four years later (1986) we went.  I fought against it.  I didn’t want to go because I just was too nervous, but he said, “Just get on the plane and go,” so I went.  I went first to Cardiff in Wales because we had to do a thing for the BBC there.  Then I went to Aldeburgh and I met with the manager of the Aldeburgh Festival.  I went by the North Sea where the festival office is, and there was a gale.  It was January, and actually I left Chicago on the day the Bears won the Super Bowl.  It was just impossible.  It was madness.  So we went, and the North Sea had waves as huge as you can imagine.  Then, I saw the Moot Hall from Peter Grimes.  Of course, I had known Peter Pears as Peter Grimes, and we had all our meetings there.  We went into this wonderful pub for lunch, and I said, “Do you think I’ll see Peter?”  Well, Peter had come to the restaurant, and he had this big lunch party set up to welcome me there.  It was just great.  Afterwards he said, “Now you have to come for tea to the Red House.”  So I went to the house, and we had a wonderful time.  We sat by the fireplace, and I told him all my crazy prejudices in music
what I didn’t like and what I did like, and he went, “Hmmmm...”  I probably enraged him, but we had a really swell time, and he said, “We will see you in June.”  We hugged, and I remember turning around and waving good-bye, and then, a couple of months later he was gone.

BD:   I’m glad you went there.

Vorrasi:   Oh, man, yes, I am too.  There are just so many things that I’m blessed with because of my association with Bill Ferris and the Chorale.  We started it together in 1972.  I did the administration, and he did the artistic things.  It’s such a big part of my life.

BD:   [With a gentle nudge]  Were you also blessed to do commercials?

Vorrasi:   [Laughs]  I love to admit that I have done a bunch of commercials.  It all started completely by accident, and all the things I’ve done have been food commercials.  First, it was a McDonald’s commercial at Super Bowl time.  They were doing something that required a little trio or quartet of singers, and I went down and sang, and it was accepted.  It was a hit, so I was working with this wonderful company called Intuition Music, who put together these things.  Then I got to do things for the National Cheese Council, and I did a commercial for Wendy’s.  But of course, my biggest commercial was for DiGiorno Pasta.  I sang a little tag at the end of the commercial [
For restaurant taste at your place, DiGiorno!].  It must have run for a year-and-a-half.  It ran nationally, and I made an obscene amount of money for five seconds of music.  It was quite an eye-opening experience, but the amazing thing about it was that people from all ends of the country were calling.  First it was friends that heard the commercial and asked if it was me.  They said it sounds just like me, so was it?  Then, the advertising agency out in California called, because someone wanted to know if I had made any recordings that they could buy.  All this from a five-second tag at the end of a commercial!  I thought to myself, it really is amazing the power of music.  I’m very pleased they liked my voice, and that they could sense there was something they heard in five seconds.  So, it was a very intelligent commercial, obviously.  [Both have a huge laugh]

BD:   That’s the power of commercial advertising.

Vorrasi:   Well, I guess that is true.

BD:   Does that then translate back to your performances, and to the audiences for the Ferris Chorale?

Vorrasi:   The trouble with me is that I never take things seriously.  If I’m singing a five-second commercial, or if I’m singing a role in a contemporary opera, or singing a very complex contemporary song cycle, or even if I’m singing in the chorus, I treat it all the same way.  Ultimately, it really rips you apart, because you’re giving of yourself all the time.  But if you don’t give of yourself, then what’s the point?  The lyric art is the most delicate, the most fragile, yet the most sturdy of all the arts.  There’s a wonderful Warlock song that says, “I’m me.  How shall my heart be stilled, or where else shall we find one like me, who must be killed for being too, too kind?”   But you’ve got to give everything, otherwise there’s no point.  You have to burn your candles at both ends.  You have to have technique or you lose it all, but ultimately you have to give everything.

BD:   Thank you for being such a giver. 
You’re a very different kind of singer.

Vorrasi:   That’s true.  There are a lot of people out there who are just interested in doing the standard repertoire, but I’m not, and never have been.  I’m always more interested in making the music, and especially working with all these composers, and knowing them as friends.  It’s a joy to make music for them.

BD:   Thank you for giving so much of your time and talent to Chicago.

Vorrasi:   Chicago has been wonderful to me, especially working with William Ferris and the Chorale.  That really saw the flowering of my musical gift.  I have had magnificent opportunities to make wonderful music, and to meet with wonderful composers and artists, and to really contribute something to the life of the city.  Also, I’m very happy about my work at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church, because I really feel that I’m doing an important thing there as well.  So, I’m very happy that I could do this here in Chicago,


© 1998 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded at the studios of WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago, on April 4, 1998.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB the following month.  This transcription was made in 2021, and posted on this website at that time.

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