[Note: This interview was originally published in The Massenet Newsletter in January, 1989.  It has been slightly re-edited for this website presentation.  Photos have been added, as have links to some of my other interviews.]

Presenting  Wendy  White
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


Members of the Massenet Society are certain to remember the various productions of his works as staged by the great opera houses of the world.  One of those was Werther as given by the New York City Opera with Jerry Hadley, Wendy White, and (in later performances) William Parker in the principal roles; Sergiu Comissiona conducted and Lotfi Mansouri directed.  In the last issue of this newsletter, I shared a conversation with Hadley, who sang the title role.  This time, chats with the Charlotte and Albert, Wendy White and William Parker.  Both were in Chicago (at different times and for different reasons), and it was my pleasure to speak with each of them about singing and dramatics, and, of course, about Massenet.

A detailed list of many of her roles can be seen at the bottom of this webpage.

In 1987, the mezzo-soprano was in Chicago for Siébel in Faust with Lyric Opera (with Neil Shicoff, Samuel Ramey, Nancy Gustafston/Diana Soviero, J. Patrick Raftery, conducted by Jean Fournet).  A strikingly lovely woman, she has the strength and fortitude to portray difficult and complex characters no matter what is happening in her own personal life.  For instance, while rehearsing for Carmen, her Don José actually knocked her out.  Cold.  Flat on her back, she was able to regain her composure (and control her anger) in order to complete the task of singing the role that day and in subsequent performances.  But more telling than that bit of violence (which seems to affect Carmens on a regular basis) is the trial she endured before and during this Werther production in New York.

I need not relate the story of the opera to readers of this newsletter.  Suffice it to say that during that period in her life, her own marriage was coming to an end, and the feelings in the opera were felt personally by White.  She knew that the audiences sensed the real emotions going on onstage.  Jerry Hadley was her friend of long-standing, and his responses onstage were predicated by his feelings offstage.  White told me during the course of our conversation that it was Beverly Sills who gave her the strength not to cancel the production. 
You may have lost your husband, Sills told her colleague, but don't let him take your career.  White said that Sills was completely supportive throughout the ordeal, and came to her dressing room every night before the performance.  By the way, the personal saga of Wendy White has a happy endingor rather an upbeat continuation.  When we met in Chicago in the fall of 1987, she was engaged to a wonderful man who is situated in such a position of force as can be hoped for in this fragile world of relationships.  We all wish them every happiness.

That said, let us now turn to this conversation with Wendy White.  That afternoon at her apartment was a great deal of fun for both of us.  We laughed and kidded about many things, as well as delving deeply into the serious nature of a singing career and her various characterizations.  Here is much of what was said . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:   Tell me the particular joys and sorrows of being a Mezzo!

Wendy White:   [Laughing]  You
re starting with a frustrating question!  No, I love being a mezzo.  The joy is that its a little more unusual in the sense that we have roles that arent so standardized.  Sopranos have roles that fit into the glamour girl image with not as much character.  As a mezzo, its more of a challenge as an actress.  Sometimes you can be very lovely (as the soprano roles are), but a lot of times you play character roles that are a lot more challenging and a lot more fun, too.

BD:   More fun musically or dramatically?


WW:   Both.  Certainly doing the so-called trouser roles gives a chance for something you would never be in real life.  Playing Carmen is something that is obviously totally different from most people
s lives.  Mezzos play older women or younger women, but I think the range for sopranos is somewhat limited.  The characters are pretty much the same basic actress/singer.

BD:   Let
s start off with some French roles.  Youve brought up Carmen, so is this a particular favorite for you?

WW:   I
ve enjoyed doing Carmen.  One of the reasons its been fun is that the first time I was offered the part, my initial response was, Yes, Id love to do it, but I want to do it my way.  I dont want to play it in the typical dramatic-mezzo heavy style.  Carmen is a very complex character.  She has more of a sense of humor than is often shown.  I dont like to see her just as a vixen.  She has a lot more qualities to her.  She has a zest for life.  I think that her intent with men is not necessarily to hurt them, but when something is not exciting any more, she moves on to something else.  Even vocally she can be played with much more character and complexity.

BD:   Did Bizet know what he was doing in writing the way he did?

WW:   Absolutely.  I just think that a lot of interpretations of it have been ridiculous.  It
s gotten totally twisted in the sense that people see her as a one-dimensional person.  Shes multidimensional.

BD:   You don
t find this same multidimensionality in other roles?

WW:   I wouldn
t say that, but there are certainly structures in music that force you toward simpler performance.  I find Rosina in The Barber of Seville somewhat limiting.  She is somewhat one-dimensional, but Charlotte in Werther is very multidimensional.  She sometimes is portrayed as the victim of the circumstancesa poor, sweet, innocent thing — but I think she can be played in a much more real sense where people can relate to her much more.  Im sure weve all been put in a certain circumstance wed like to change, but were limited by social structures and cannot make the alteration.  The Rossini characters are fairly clear-cut.  Isabella is quick, cunning, very sharp, strong; she knows exactly how to work men, and its the same with Rosina.

BD:   Are those two women in the 1980s?

WW:   Definitely.  [Laughs]  I can relate to them!  The only Rossini character I
ve played who is a victim is Cenerentola, but since these characters are clear-cut, you dont have a lot of opportunity for choice.  Its clear what he intended and the kind of characterization he wants.  Other composers have given you more choice to portray the character within your own experiences and emotions.  I enjoy the Rossini characters, though.  Its entertaining for the performer as well as the audience.  Rossini had a wonderful sense of humor, and its fun to get into the comic sense.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   You sing different styles
the lyric style, the coloratura style.  Do both of these fit well into your voice?

WW:   I think they do.  It
s been interesting.  In the last few years, Ive tried playing different rolesincluding Carmen, some Bellini, also male roles — and so many opera companies offer you these roles and I have to laugh.  Id love to sing them, but Id never sing again after that!

whiteBD:   When they offer you one of those parts, are they aware that it might mean the end of your career?

WW:   I
m not sure.  Certainly if they are savvy and know what a person is capable of at a certain age, they know, but their main object is to find a voice, an actress to portray the character for their opera house.  Thats their job and theyre going to make the offer.

BD:   It seems rather shortsighted, though.

WW:   It does, absolutely, but there are many companies that don
t think in long-term.  Theyre struggling to stay above water now.  But as a singer, as a performer, we always think in the long-term.  Thats what it takes to survive and have a career.  Youve got to know that one night youll be doing Carmen, and the next day you will be on a plane to do Cenerentola somewhere.  Those are very different voice-types, and require very different energy levels to perform.  You have to know how to plot your time very carefully so that you dont make major mistakes where youre doing the wrong things back to back.

BD:   How difficult is it to say
no to management?

WW:   It
s very difficult because its a real Catch-22 for the performer.  If you say no, it can be taken in an insulting wayeven though its not intended to be.  But you have to look out for yourself because no one else is going to.  Everyone else has their own objectives that they have to be concentrating on.

BD:   Don
t the various personal managers look out for their clients careers?

WW:   In a general sense they do, but sometimes no.  They know that certain roles bring in big bucks and others do not.  The ones where you take risks and where you are put on the block, so to speak, do, and the careful ones do not.  Managers want to make big bucks just like anyone else, and a savvy manager will know that selling a voice down the river will leave them with nothing very quickly.  But you can
t totally blame the manager.  The bottom line comes down to the performer, but there are pressures.  I remember my first Adalgisa in Norma.  I thought it was too high for me and too big, and my instincts told me to say no.  But my manager said it was right for me, and the director of the company said it would be a great thing for me at that time, and it turned out to be one of my greatest triumphs.  On the other hand, Ive been offered big Wagnerian roles by major housesthings you just would not believe — and to me thats just ludicrous.  My instinct is my greatest asset as a performer.  You cant teach instinct.  Its either there or it isnt, yet it affects everything that a performer does.  It affects the musicality, the musical choices that you make, the acting and how you relate to others on the stage, and it affects your decisions about how you view your own performing abilities.

BD:   In opera, where is the balance between the music and the drama?

WW:   We
re seeing a real turnabout.  When I first went into opera many years ago, they were just singing and not acting at all.  In this day and age with the TV and the VCR, the public is not as willing to just accept singing.  They want to be moved dramatically, also.  When I go to a performance and someone just walks out and stands there and sings, I dont care if its the most gorgeous music and the most gorgeous voice.  I go crazy.  I want them to do something to show that they understand and feel what theyre singing about.  More and more people are watching opera on TV, and when it becomes fulfilling for them, and when the singers give part of their souls in the acting, you cant just shut your eyes and ears to that.  Something happens.  Each of us needs and desires that, and it becomes a fulfilling experience.  Its almost like voyeurism.  Youve just peeked in on someones life and have seen something incredible happen.  When its done well, people can be moved to tears.  It is not acceptable anymore to just have a good voice.  Here again, instinct plays a significant role.  You cannot teach someone to be a great actor if its not coming from within.

BD:   Where do you get your inspiration to play boys and young men?

WW:   That
s hard to answer.  For instance, my first male part was Cherubino.  Hes not yet a man, and he has been raised in this genteel setting.  Siebel, on the other hand, is a much more manly character.  Valentine is older, and Siebel looks up to him and aspires to be like him.  There is a much more serious quality
about Siebel than Cherubino, and he must be played in a more controlled way.

BD:   If Faust hadn
t come along, how long would it have been before Marguerite and Siebel would have gotten together?

WW:   That
s an interesting question.  I dont know.  Ive never thought about it.  He must be a plausible suitor, and she dearly cares for him as a person, but he is still somewhat of a boy, and his manhood hasnt really come out yet.  Ive sung the Composer in Ariadne in concert, and hope to do him on the stage someday.  Thats an exciting role.  Ive also done Stefano in Romeo, but thats about it for pants-roles.  I prefer dramatic roles, but my friends say I have a wonderful comic sense, and urge me to do those parts, even though those do not thrill me as much as the dramatic characters.  I enjoy doing Adalgisa or Charlotte or Carmen.

BD:   Are the comic roles a little too close to your real personality?

WW:   That
s what I think.  Its not interesting to me anymore because Im out there playing me and not becoming another character.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Let
s talk about Charlotte.  Shes a womans woman, almost the antithesis of Rosina.

WW:   Absolutely.  She is definitely a thinking woman and a very sensitive woman.

BD:   Is she happy with her lot in life?

whiteWW:   Yes and no.  She adores the children and feels they are an extension of her.  She takes great pride in the fact that she
s been the mother-figure for them.  She has a great love for them and takes pride in their growth.

BD:   Would she rather they had been her own children?

WW:   I think so.  In a sense, she thinks they are her own because she has been in charge of them and has been their mother.  They adore her and love her, so in that sense she is totally fulfilled, but choices were made for her that she would not have made herself.  In that time and place, she had to go with the circumstances.

BD:   Was she at all happy with Albert?

WW:   I played her so that she was trying to be happy.  All of us have seen many marriages where people have made a mistake, but will hang in there and put on a front, and will try to make the best of the situation.  Charlotte was doing just that.  She doesn
t feel love or passion for Albert, but a fondness.  She respects him and cares for him, but more as a friend, and would never hurt him.  That is why she will not go with Werther.  She cares so much about Albert that she cannot bear to hurt him and do something torturous to this man who has been so good to her.  In the short span of time that you can bring this out on the stage, that was one of the choices that I tried to make in my portrayal of her.

BD:   How old is Charlotte?

WW:   I played her very young in age, but old in experience.  She
s 18 or 19, but because of circumstances, she is much more mature, and did not have the silly and giddy side of being in love most 18 year olds have.  She didnt have a childhood.  She had to grow up and accept certain responsibilities of an adult woman.

BD:   How old is Albert?

WW:   I think he
s a little oldermaybe 25 or 26.

BD:   Does he love Charlotte?

WW:   He adores Charlotte, but it was an unrealistic thing.  She was his dream-girl, and he viewed her as a wonderful mother and felt she would be a wonderful wife.  I think he knew she didn
t love him, but he was so taken with her that he felt in time he would make her love him.  If they were together and he was good
enough to her and was good to the children and took care of them, it would win her over.

BD:   Was he thinking he would make her love him, or that the love would evolve naturally?

WW:   Perhaps both.  She did love him in a way, but more in an appreciative kind of love and respect and gratitude.

BD:   Does Albert make the right decision in handing her the pistols for Werther?

WW:   For me, I wish it had been more innocent, but it
s usually played that he hopes Werther is planning to shoot himself.  That way there will be no more Werther to challenge Albert for her love.

BD:   Does she love him differently in the
fifth act?

WW:   I don
t think anything is changed.  When Werther is dead, she probably blames herself.  She thinks its her fault that she married Albert and didnt go with him, so she takes the total guilt for the whole thing.  I dont think she blames Albert, so she doesnt hate him.  If she hates anybody, she hates herself.  Then she goes back to Albert and the children and carries on with a hole in her heart.

BD:   Could Charlotte and Werther have been happy if there had been no Albert and no promise to the dying mother?

WW:   Of course!  [Laughs]  This is true love, destiny, fate!  They would have been happy for all time.  Of course, we all know that in real life that doesn
t happen.  I get a kick out of the fact that only in movies and opera do people live happily ever after.  In real life, there are ups and downs, and ups and downs, and ups and downs.  Love is a constant struggle because it is life, and that is what life is.  This is one of the reasons that people dont look at life realistically because they see stories on the stage.  Im sure that there would have been days that Charlotte would have not wanted to see Werthers face.

BD:   Should opera be a portrayal of everyday life?

WW:   No, it should be an escape.  I really believe that.  I go to the movies to escape from my own life, from the stresses and strains of being an opera singer.  That is one of the most hilarious things
its never failed that when I go to a party or a reception where I am meeting people, that someone has not come up to me and said, Youre so lucky.  Your life is so glamorous!  I just want to laugh in their face because they dont know what it is to lead the life of an opera singer.  They dont know how difficult it is.

BD:   [Taking the hint]  OK, what is the life of an opera singer?

WW:   The upside is that it is very fun, and very few of us get to choose something for our life
s work that we enjoy.  Performing is something that is within me.  Just as I have to eat and sleep, I have to sing and perform.  A conductor said to me one time that performing is like having a baby.  While youre doing it, its the pits and you wonder how you ever got involved with it, but once its over youre ready to go right back and do it again.  The downside of performing is the sacrifices that you make yourselfand force upon your familyare very hard.  People dont realize that there are times when were not home for months at a time.  You go from show to show to show and you dont see the inside of your own home for long periods.  There are times that youre sick as a dog with the fluor worseand youre being sick in your dressing room, but there is no one available to cover your part, so you feel the responsibility to keep this $2 million production alive to satisfy 4,000 people.  You hold your stomach and go out and perform, and when you walk offstage you may throw up every five minutes, but youre out there and doing it.  I dont think the public knows that, but I dont think they need to understand that.  Im just saying it isnt the glamorous life people imagine.  When I leave here, I literally finish the last performance, get on a plane and fly to France for the first rehearsal of the next show.  I will not have slept, but I will be expected to put in a six hour day of rehearsal.  Its very hard physically and emotionally.  There are times you miss home or family or holidays because youre performing.

BD:   But you must feel the sacrifices are worth it all.

WW:   Definitely.  There are times you think they aren
t, and times you just want to go home, but Ive always felt that when God was dishing out abilities or talents, he said, OK, Im going to stick a voice in that ones throat,” and it was placed in mine.  I feel a great responsibility to that, and if God gave me this gift, it is my responsibility to use that gift to the greatest potential that I can attainnot for myself, but to give the glory back to Him for having given it to me in the first place.  Id feel like I was doing something very wrong if I didnt do that.

Born in Chicago in 1953, Wendy White is a graduate of Wheaton College (1975, Bachelor of Music) and the Jacobs School of Music of Indiana University (1978, Master of Music). She won the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions in 1978. In 1979 she made her debut at the Lyric Opera of Chicago as Smeraldina in Sergei Prokofiev's The Love for Three Oranges. She appeared in two more roles with the company that year: the Countess di Coigny in Umberto Giordano's Andrea Chénier and Giovanna in Giuseppe Verdi's Rigoletto. She later returned to the Lyric Opera as the 3rd Lady in Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's The Magic Flute (1986), Siébel in Charles Gounod's Faust (1987), Charmian in Samuel Barber's Antony and Cleopatra (1991), Susanna in John Corigliano's The Ghosts of Versailles (1995), and Suzuki in Giacomo Puccini's Madama Butterfly (1997/1998).

In 1982 White portrayed the role of Colombina in Ferruccio Busoni's Harlequin at the Houston Grand Opera. In 1984 she performed the role of Valencienne in The Merry Widow with the Washington National Opera. In 1986 she made her debut at the New York City Opera as Charlotte in Jules Massenet's Werther with Jerry Hadley in the title role. That same year she performed the role of Cherubino in Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro with the Fort Worth Opera. In 1987 she sang the title role in Georges Bizet's Carmen in Orange County, California under conductor Victor Borge. In 1990 she performed the role of Rosina in Gioachino Rossini's The Barber of Seville at the Cincinnati Opera. In 1999 she made her debut at the San Francisco Opera as Suzuki in Madama Butterfly.

On October 16, 1989, White made her debut at the Metropolitan Opera as Flora in a new staging of Verdi's La traviata with Carlos Kleiber conducting. She has continued to perform annually with the company since, portraying more than 40 roles for the Met. She has appeared on numerous Live from the Metropolitan Opera broadcasts on PBS, including portraying the roles of Bersi in Andrea Chénier, Fenena in Nabucco, Marcellina in The Marriage of Figaro, Margret in Wozzeck, Suzuki in Madama Butterfly, and Tisbe in La Cenerentola. Some of her other roles at the Met include Anna in Les Troyens, Annina in Der Rosenkavalier, Baba the Turk in The Rake's Progress, Berta in The Barber of Seville, Brangäne in Tristan und Isolde, Carmen, Cherubino in The Ghosts of Versailles, Death in The Nightingale, Emilia in Otello, Erda and Flosshilde in The Ring Cycle, Federica in Luisa Miller, Giovanna in Ernani, Giulietta in The Tales of Hoffmann, the Innkeeper in Boris Godunov, Isabella in L'italiana in Algeri, the Kitchen Boy in Rusalka, La Cieca in La Gioconda, Larina in Eugene Onegin, Lola in Cavalleria rusticana, Maddalena in Rigoletto, Magdalene in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Mary in The Flying Dutchman, the Monitor in Suor Angelica, the Mother in L'enfant et les sortilèges, and Mistress Quickly in Falstaff among others.

On the international stage, White has appeared with several major opera houses in Europe. In 1986 she sang the role of Dinah in Leonard Bernstein's A Quiet Place at the Vienna State Opera; a performance which was recorded for CD release by Deutsche Grammophon. She has also performed roles with the Hamburg State Opera, Opéra de Nice, and the Théâtre du Capitole.


See my Interview with Theodor Uppman.

White has also had an active career within the concert repertoire. In August 1987 she was the soloist in Bernstein's Jeremiah Symphony with the Boston Symphony Orchestra at the Tanglewood Music Festival under the baton of the composer. In November 1990 she was the mezzo-soprano soloist in the world premiere of Ned Rorem's oratorio Goodbye, My Fancy with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and conductor Margaret Hillis. She has also sung in concerts with the Cleveland Orchestra, the Munich Symphony Orchestra, the National Symphony Orchestra, the Netherlands Radio Symphony, the New York Philharmonic, the St. Louis Symphony, and the San Francisco Symphony among others.

On December 17, 2011, during a performance of Gounod's Faust at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, a stage platform collapsed as White was walking onto it. (This occurred a week after an HD broadcast with White, starring Jonas Kaufmann, that has since been released as a Decca DVD which is shown below.) She fell about eight feet and was injured. Ten months later the New York Times reported that she had not recovered from her injuries and felt abandoned by a company she considered family after the company canceled her contract. In August 2013 she sued the company for damages as a result of the accident. According to her lawyer, "She has capitulated to the reality that she's permanently injured and won't get better."



See my Interviews with Kurt Moll, and Paul Groves.

© 1987 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in Chicago on October 29, 1987.   The transcription was made and much was published in The Massenet Newsletter in January of 1989.  Early in 2017, it was slightly re-edited, photos and links were added and it was posted on this website at that time. 

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

Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.   His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.   He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.   You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.