Baritone  William  Stone

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


William Stone has had an operatic career at the international level for over thirty five years. He has sung extensively in the major opera houses of Europe and especially in Italy, where he twice opened the May Festival in Florence, first as Wozzeck with Bruno Bartoletti, and then, as Orestes, in Gluck's Iphigénie en Tauride under Riccardo Muti. His creation of the role of Adam for the Lyric Opera of Chicago's world premiere of Penderecki's Paradise Lost, was followed by his debut at La Scala in its European premiere and a performance at the Vatican for Pope John Paul II. With Sir Georg Solti, he toured with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe in the role of the Count in Le nozze di Figaro. He has sung lead roles with the main opera companies in Rome, Genoa, Naples, Venice, Paris, Toulouse, Lille, Amsterdam, Bonn, Stuttgart, Brussels and Amsterdam.

His North American opera engagements included the Metropolitan Opera (Moses und Aron, Wozzeck, La traviata, Sly, Die Fledermaus, Romeo et Juliette, Lucia, Madama Butterfly), and roles for over a decade at the New York City Opera, notably as the Count in Le nozze di Figaro in a Live from Lincoln Center telecast, and the title role in new productions of Hindemith's Mathis der Maler, and Busoni's Doktor Faust.

As a concert artist, Stone has appeared with every major orchestra in the country, including the New York Philharmonic under Kurt Masur and the Boston Symphony Orchestra with Seiji Ozawa conducting the premieres of Takemitsu's My Way of Life, and Kirchner's Of Things Exactly as They Are. His long relationship with Robert Shaw resulted in acclaimed performances of the monumental choral works and over a dozen recordings, including the two Grammy Award recordings of Hindemith's When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd, and Walton's Belshazaar's Feast, and an Historic Live Performance Edition of Ein Deutches Requiem with the Cleveland Orchestra. Other recordings include The Songs and Arias of Robert Ward, and DVDs of Carnegie Hall's Performance Series of Hindemith's When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd, and Verdi's Falstaff with José van Dam.


Professor Emeritus of Voice and Opera at Temple University, Stone was recently a voice teacher for the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program with the Washington National Opera, and the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. He served on the voice faculty at the Academy of Vocal Arts for 10 years, until 2019, and has been the Head of the Voice Faculty for the Maryland Lyric Opera Young Artist Institute since 2017. Stone continues to teach privately, and adjudicate for the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions and other vocal competitions.

==  Biography from the artist's official website (June, 2023)  
==  Links in this box and below refer to my interviews elsewhere on my website.  BD  

William Stone was back in Chicago at the beginning of 1986 for performances with two major organizations.  First, he was Rambaldo in La Rondine at Lyric Opera, and then he would sing Bach with Music of the Baroque.

Bruce Duffie:   First let me ask you about singing Bach.  You’re going to be appearing with Music of the Baroque, so do you consider yourself a Bach singer?

William Stone:   I sing a lot of Bach, so to answer your question, yes, I do!  [Laughs]

BD:   Do you like singing Bach?  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at left, see my interview with John Aler.]

Stone:   Very much.  It’s extremely difficult to sing because it’s technically demanding.  Bach basically was an instrumental composer and not a vocal composer, and his music for a singer requires a tremendous amount of discipline.

BD:   Different from Puccini or Verdi?

Stone:   Verdi and Puccini were opera composers.  The lines of Bach don’t lend themselves to taking good breath.  The musical line continues and you have to catch a breath as you can.  Sometimes you are on the very last ounce of oxygen, and you take as quick a breath as you can and hope you can make it to the next point.

BD:   Did he treat you like an oboe?

Stone:   Yes, very much so.  For that reason, it’s difficult.  But it’s nice, because combined with Verdi and Puccini, it gives you a well-rounded musical style.  What you don’t get in Verdi you do get in Bach, and vice-versa.

BD:   Is Bach at all like Handel?

Stone:   I sing Handel too, and Bach is similar to Handel.  But Handel was an opera composer, so he is a little more kind to the voices, and treats the voices a little better.  But any of the baroque composers are much more inclined towards an instrumental approach, because it was the time of the ‘castrato’ singers, and they could do things that we mere mortals find difficult to do.

BD:   Is it rewarding to sing Bach?

Stone:   Oh, very much so, especially with a group as fine as the Music of the Baroque.  Thomas Wikman is the conductor and the director of the group, and it’s as fine a group as I’ve sung with.

BD:   Aside from the vocal problems, how does one sing Bach as opposed to the romantic literature?

Stone:   Harmonically it’s very difficult.  I’ve done all kinds of music.  I’ve done Penderecki, I’ve done Berg, I’ve done Schubert, and Wolf, and Bach is harmonically very complex.  He does things that you don’t expect, and frequently I’ll have to check the instrumental score to be sure that the notes are actually what are printed, because sometimes it doesn’t sound like it should be, but in fact it is.

BD:   How much research do you have to do to sing anything?

Stone:   You have to learn the music, and be sure that the notes that you’re singing are correct, which is an interesting thing.  In 1978, we did the world premiere of Penderecki’s Paradise Lost, and you would think in this day and age, if there ever was a time where a score would be correct, it would be now, because we have tapes and all kinds of means of getting on paper what the performance is.  When I saw the printed score of Paradise Lost that came out, I couldn’t believe the mistakes that were in it in my part alone!  I don’t know everyone else’s part, because in that particular opera, all I could do was learn my own!  [Both laugh]  So, this is going to go down in generations to come as the Urtext, and in fact, it isn’t.  So who knows what it was like in Bach’s time, or Mozart’s time, or Verdi’s nineteenth century.
BD:   There are new Verdi editions coming out of the University of Chicago, which are supposedly going back to the manuscripts, and correcting the scores, and making them for the first time ‘clean’.  [Philip Gossett is the General Editor of both the Verdi Edition and the Rossini Edition.]

Stone:   Riccardo Muti did Rigoletto that way in Vienna, and the public didn’t like it so much because he took out all of the high notes, and had the people sing just what was in the score.  Of course, tradition is hard to overcome.

BD:   How much of a musical performance is the score, and how much is tradition?

Stone:   It depends on the score.  When you do Bach, you do basically what’s printed.  You add a few appoggiaturas here and there, but basically, it’s as written.  Then when you get into nineteenth century music, that’s a different style completely because so many times the singer was called upon to improvise vocalises, and cadenzas, and things that were in their own particular style.  It’s very hard to write all of that sort of thing down, and to say that this is the way to do it.  For one thing, we don’t have the ears of the people of the past.  So, to do an ‘Echt’ [genuine, true] performance of Bach really doesn’t make sense in the twentieth century, because we don’t hear things like they heard it.  In the time of Bach, for example, harmony, that we hear today all the time was considered very bizarre.

BD:   Is it a mistake for the purists to use baroque instruments, and baroque pitch, and make sure that they play it exactly the way that Bach, or Handel, or Mozart heard it?

Stone:   I don’t think it’s a mistake, but it’s very difficult to come to that, because we don’t know what it was like.  We can only guess.  It’s the same with Mozart.  Every time I do The Marriage of Figaro with a different conductor, the appoggiaturas are all different, because each one has their own idea of how it should go.  We really don’t know.

BD:   Who decides the appoggiaturas
the singer or the conductor?

Stone:   It’s a combination of both.  Some singers have good taste, and some don’t.  Some conductors have good taste, and some don’t, so you try to get a balance of the two to give a performance that always has good taste.

BD:   Does the public appreciate the effort that goes into finding good taste?

Stone:   By and large yes, but since you mentioned it, I don’t think the public at large understands the difficulty of singing.  Many people think we just stand up and sing.  It’s happened to me enough times that it’s really not a joke, but people will say to me,
I know you sing, but what do you do for a living?  [Both laugh]  Or, When are you going to get a real job?  I used to live south of here, in the country outside of Champaign-Urbana, and my neighbors would always say, “Go ask William Stone.  He’s at home, and he doesn’t do anything!  [More laughter]  Little did they know that I’m frantically learning an opera that I’m going to do in Rome.

BD:   How much do you expect from the audience?

Stone:   I expect a great deal from the audience, because that’s who we sing for.  I don’t mean to discredit the audience, because the audience is wonderful.  In the end, the audience tells us as musicians whether we were successful or not.

BD:   Are they always, right?

Stone:   Usually they are, but not always.  We all hope to keep singing for a long time, but in the case of many super-stars, for example, sometimes people will sing when they are really past their greatest years.  Frequently someone will not sing their best, and the public just goes wild just because of the phenomenon of a particular personality.

BD:   This is the star personality...

Stone:   ...which we certainly are in the middle of today.  But, by and large, the public really is the factor that decides whether someone is successful or not.

BD:   Are there some singers who should make it, who really don’t?

Stone:   Yes, there are some wonderful singers who never get major careers because of a series of things that happen.  I was talking to Luciano Pavarotti one time, and he said that a singing career is really about three per cent talent, and the rest of it all sorts of other things.

BD:   Important things, or peripheral things?

Stone:   Both!  Let’s use Luciano, for example.  He’s one of the most well-known singers of today.  He has a wonderful personality and there’s something very charming about him as a person.  When he sings, he gives a hundred and ten per cent for every concert, or opera that he does, and the people sense that.  There’s a wonderful thing there, but he is a pioneer in many respects.  He comes into the musical world today much the same as Caruso did in his time.  Caruso came along at the time when they started to make records, and it was the disc, the records, that made Caruso’s name disseminated wide and large.  In the same way, it’s Pavarotti’s exposure through the television that has made him disseminated wide and large to an enormous audience.  Luciano was the first singer to do a concert that was broadcast live from the Met.  He was in the first television broadcast live from the Met, La Bohème [in 1977, with Renata Scotto, conducted by James Levine].  He’s been on numerous live broadcasts from Lincoln Center.  He was in La Gioconda [in 1979, again with Scotto, conducted by Bruno Bartoletti], which was the first opera transmitted in the whole world simultaneously from San Francisco.  He’s just constantly been before the public on the television, and it’s been this enormous exposure that has made him the super-star that he is.  Aside from being a wonderful singer, I think he is the super-star that he is because he’s first and foremost a wonderful singer.  But he has a wonderful personality, he’s an Italian, which to Americans is very charming, and he has a teddy bear image.

BD:   Has all of this exposure, and getting people aware of opera helped you and your career?

Stone:   Absolutely.  I remember when I was studying music in college, and I wished I had lived thirty years ago because, at that time, there were many more opportunities to sing.  You had the tail end of Vaudeville, there were live radio shows, you had a tremendous amount of concert and oratorio singing, and I remember thinking that it was too bad there were no opportunities like that.  It was really dying out.  But in the last ten years, the number of opera companies in this country has quadrupled.  I don’t know the exact figures, but now there’s an opera company in Peoria, and Champaign-Urbana does opera.  Every town that has a major university does opera.  There are probably thirty or forty regional opera companies in the United States.  There’s a tremendous amount of opera.  The Lyric Opera here in Chicago how now extended their season through January, and the San Francisco Opera is almost year around.  The Met is year around except for the summer, and the New York City Opera has more performances.

BD:   Is there ever a chance that there might be too much opera going on?
Stone:   Not for me!  [Laughter]  No, I don’t think so.  It’s supply and demand, and people have suddenly learned to enjoy the opera through radio programs
like yoursand through the video discs and cassettes.  The tremendous resurgence of technological advancements has made possible all of these things.  When I was first studying, it was difficult to find copies on tape or record of some of the more obscure operas.  Now you can find a copy of just about anything you want to hear.  If you can come up with a title of something that has been done lately, you can find a copy of it.

BD:   So, that’s a great boon to study?

Stone:   Yes, and it makes it so much easier to get familiar with operas.  I never saw an opera until I was in high school.  I listened to the Metropolitan Opera broadcasts as a child, but I grew up in North Carolina, and my family was not particularly musical.

BD:   Were they surprised when you decided on a singing career?  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at left, see my interviews with Janice Taylor, and Tom Krause.]

Stone:   It kind of evolved, so it wasn’t something that came as a big surprise.  For me, it took a long time to just evolve into being an opera singer.

BD:   Do you have any regrets about being an opera singer?

Stone:   None whatsoever!  I love it!

BD:   Do you get support from your family?

Stone:   My wife, Bonnie, is a wonderful support.  She’s a pianist, so she helps me learn my music, and knows my voice as well as anyone.  She helps me in rehearsals.

BD:   She puts up with you being away for engagements?

Stone:   We travel together as much as we can.  We have two children, and they are extremely supportive of what I do.  When I first started singing, I was at the Met auditions in 1976, and John Alexander was one of the judges.  He’s married and has a lovely family.  My children at that time were much, much younger, and I remember asking him at the time how he managed to deal with the travel and family life.  I wondered if it was possible to do both, because we’re in a business where marriages frequently don’t last very long because of just that.  He said,
“When I was young and first started traveling, I told my wife we could either do it where I traveled alone, or we could travel as a family as much as we could.  We chose the latter, and we’ve seen a lot of places all over the world.  There are times when we are separated, but we thought that the advantages they got from seeing all the places, and meeting all the people far out-weighed the disadvantages.  So, we’ve tried to do much the same, and my children have been to most of my major debuts.  They’ve been to Europe about six times themselves, and probably will go again this year.

BD:   It sounds like an exciting life.

Stone:   It is exciting, but I don’t mean to make a false picture of it.  I spend a lot of time by myself in a hotel room, and there’s the unglamorous side of it, too.  It is very exciting to be involved in a world premiere, or an opening night, and to be singing on a major operatic stage.  I can’t discount that.  That’s a wonderful thrill, and I’ve already done more than I ever dreamed I would.

BD:   What’s the difference between singing at the Lyric or the Met, and a smaller regional company, if anything at all?

Stone:   The main difference is that at the Lyric, or the Met, or Rome, or Florence, or Venice, or wherever in the major opera houses of the world, you have major conductors and major stage directors.  Whereas in the regional opera houses, frequently they can’t afford the major conductors and the major stage directors.  But still, in this country we have very, very fine regional opera.  I’m amazed at the quality of some of the regional opera in this country.  For example, I’ll be singing The Marriage of Figaro in Portland, Oregon.  They have a wonderful company there.  I’m also going this spring to Omaha, and John DeMain, who’s the musical director at Houston Opera, is the head of the Omaha Opera.  So frequently you’ll have carry-overs from a major house into a smaller regional house, and the quality carries forth.
BD:   Are the audiences different at all?

Stone:   The audiences are probably not as used to opera, because most regional companies will do two or three operas a year, with two or three performances of each, whereas an opera audience like the Lyric Opera is used to six or seven or eight productions, with anywhere from seven to ten performances of each production.  So you’ve got a much wider opportunity and exposure.

BD:   Is it easier or more difficult to do a run of ten or twelve performances as opposed to a run of two or three performances?  
[Vis-à-vis the recording shown at right, see my interviews with Dawn Upshaw, and David Gordon.]

Stone:   It’s much easier to do a longer run of the same opera, because it gives you a chance to refine and pace a character, and really develop yourself as a singer and as a singing-actor.  I much prefer that, and that’s the advantage of singing in a major house.  I sing a lot in Italy, and there they do six or seven performances, or sometimes as many as ten, and it gives you a chance to develop the character in that particular production.  So I find it’s much easier, because the rehearsal period is the same.  You still have to rehearse the opera enough so that you’re comfortable with the staging, and the movements, and the people, and the music, and how a particular cast will perform an opera, because that’s the beauty of music.  It’s never the same.

BD:   So, nothing carries over from one production to another?  It’s always starting fresh?

Stone:   Sure, you carry some things.  I do La Traviata a lot, and my characterization of Germont is going to be similar from one production to another.  But each stage director brings in new things.  Each time you have a different Violetta, you have to interact slightly differently.  It is different, but the basic elements are there, and are pre-determined by the music and the character itself.

BD:   Have you ever had a stage director that wants to update the scene, or have you come in on a bicycle, or something?

Stone:   Yes, and I don’t like that sort of thing.

BD:   Does it work?

Stone:   No!  I’m not in favor of gimmicks.  I don’t think they work.  A masterpiece can stand as a masterpiece, and a wonderful opera can stand tradition.  A Rigoletto set in the Mafia style that they did at the English National Opera company I find repulsive, because it has nothing whatsoever to do with Verdi’s Rigoletto.

BD:   So if your agent says you’ve been offered the role in this production, you would turn it down?

Stone:   It depends on the situation.  I wouldn’t necessarily turn it down, but yes, something like that I would turn down.  I wouldn’t want to do that, but I’m always open for new ideas.  But if it’s totally ridiculous, then, of course, no, I wouldn’t want to do that.  I saw a Cenerentola once in Italy, which is a wonderful comic opera, and the director had Cenerentola be a crazy person.  That has nothing whatsoever to do with the opera.  Nothing!  Cinderella is crazy???  Come on!  The sisters maybe...  [Both laugh]

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Have you done some of your roles in English?

Stone:   Yes, I have.

BD:   Let’s wade into the arguments for and against opera in translation.

Stone:   In translation, or with surtitles, or both?

BD:   Both, if you please.

Stone:   Some operas translate rather well.   The difficult problem for singing opera in English is that it’s just the tremendous amount of work involved.  I’ve sung The Barber of Seville in English, and I’ve sung it in Italian.  I’ve sung The Marriage of Figaro in English and in Italian, and all of the Mozart that I do, I’ve done both ways.  It’s fine to learn one translation, but the problem arises that we’ve used the Ruth and Thomas Martin translations for a long time.  Now, Andrew Porter, who’s a critic for the New Yorker, decides that he wants to make new translations.
BD:   Are they better, perhaps?

Stone:   Not necessarily!  They’re different, and now he’s translating the Mozart operas.  So no longer do people do the Ruth and Thomas Martin translation.  Now we’re doing the Andrew Porter translation.  Well, I’ve already learned the opera in Italian, and then I learned it in English, and now they want me to do another English translation, and after awhile you just have to stop!  I don’t have enough time to learn the same opera that I already know in one English translation and in Italian, in yet a third English translation, because it changes it completely.  I sang with the tenor a couple of summers ago, and he was on his fifth English translation of The Barber of Seville.  Then he was taking a contract in Germany, and he had to learn it in German!  [Both laugh]  But it’s too hard.  The Italians don’t do that.  They just learn all the operas in Italian.  They learn it once, and that’s all.  American singers are called upon to do a tremendous amount of work.  Most Italian singers, first of all, don’t sing anything but Italian.  Some of them do, but most American singers sing everything.  I’ve had to sing in Russian, in Hebrew, in Latin and in English, as well as Italian, French, Spanish, and German.  We’re expected to just jump from one of these to the next, and it’s hard.  In the time of the great age of bel canto singing, with Caruso and [Antonio] Scotti, and that whole group who were singing in the early 1900s, they stayed in one place for a long time.  You asked earlier if it was easier to do a long run of an opera or just two or three performances.  Today, with the jet plane, we can fly into a city, be there for two or three days, have a quick rehearsal of the blocking, and jump onto the stage for one performance of an opera we have done many times.  Then we get on the plane the next morning, and jet off to another city, or across the ocean, or another country, and do the same thing.

BD:   I would think that would be very wearing.

Stone:   It’s very wearing, but the problem is as singers, and as artists, and as musicians, we’re not getting a chance to develop.  We’re just being pulled in too many directions.

BD:   Are there many singers who would be willing to sit for three or four months with a company to do two or three parts?

Stone:   No!  You can’t make a living that way, so it’s a catch-22.  But back to your question about the English translations, I think it’s wonderful in a regional company to do The Marriage of Figaro in English because it doesn’t make any sense to go to Omaha and do that opera in Italian.  It’s much easier to sing in Italian because that’s how it was written, and I don’t want to go anywhere and sing La Bohème or La Traviata in English because the Italian words are just too much a part of the music.  But some operas do lend themselves to translation, and in those cases it’s fine to do that.  But now that we have the possibility of surtitles, that is starting to change the whole ballgame.  Now you can go to an opera, and it can be in any language, and they can put the surtitles above the stage.  Anybody can walk in off the street and follow the story.

BD:   Do you find them distracting at all for you on the stage?

Stone:   I don’t see them.

BD:   Does the audience find them distracting, having to look up and down all the time?

Stone:   Some people do I’m sure, but it’s like anything new.  You have to become accustomed to it, and once you are accustomed to it, you just do it and you don’t think about it.  As a singer and an actor on a stage, in some ways it’s more difficult, because when you are watching the surtitles, you really are missing maybe a third of the opera.  Depending on how quickly you can read, and how fast you can go up and down with your eyes, you lose the continuity of the stage movement.  But in a long opera, such as a Wagner opera, it’s very, very nice because it enables you to follow a story, and the words in those operas are frequently very beautiful.

BD:   Now you’re involved in La Rondine, which is a lighter piece with a little faster action.

Stone:   Yes, which the people seem to enjoy.  I was talking with Ardis Krainik the other day, and she said that the response has been an overwhelming yes to the surtitles.

BD:   Yes, we get questionnaires in the programs, so she’s actually getting to see what the people think.

Stone:   I was at New York City Opera before they started using them, and I’m still singing there, and I can tell the difference in the audience before they were used and after they were used.

BD:   With the same operas?

Stone:   Yes, the very same operas, and the audience is much more responsive now.  It’s a new thing and there’s still a problem of co-ordination, and sometimes the translations are not quite accurate.  I was doing The Barber of Seville in Italian, and at the point when Figaro is talking with the Count out in the street, he was saying that he’s just fallen in love, and has to see the young woman who lives in this house!  Figaro says, 
“That’s great, because there I’m the barber, the surgeon, the coiffeur... I do everything, so I have easy access to this house.  Then in Italian he says, Ah, cospetto! siete ben fortunato; sui maccheroni, il cacio v'è cascato.  This literally means, “You are very fortunate; the cheese fell right on the macaroni.  They use that phrase much like we would say, “That’s just icing on the cake! 

BD:   It
s an idiomatic expression?

Stone:   Yes.  So the surtitles came up and it said in English,
“The cheese has fallen on the macaroni!  It doesn’t make any sense, and of course the whole piece falls apart.  So sometimes it’s not quite right, and there are some bugs like that.  Remember the famous line from Tosca when she says to Cavaradossi, Ma falle gl’occhi neri, which means, “Paint her eyes black.  The translation comes up and says, “Give her two black eyes! which changes completely the meaning of the situation.  But there are some funny moments.  Sometimes the titles are flashed too soon, or they give a whole line with part of another line, and the audience will laugh at a particular joke before it’s actually been sung.  [Some of my guests have mentioned that they get two laughs - one when the audience reads the line, and another when the action happens on the stage.  In my interview with director Patrick Bakman, he speaks about having to correct a few of the titles in his production of Manon in Seattle.]

BD:   But that’s just refining the timing.

Stone:   Oh sure, but overall it’s a wonderful idea, especially if we’re going to do opera in the original language.
BD:   Do you think that because of the translations of the television, that has opened the way for the translations in the theater?

Stone:   Oh, sure!  We’ve been doing that with foreign movies for as long as I can remember.  You go to movies with subtitles.  In the opera house they’re not ‘sub’, they’re ‘sur’, which is above the stage.  [Both laugh]  It works out very well, and is a wonderful idea.

BD:   So, you’re very much in favor of doing that more and more?

Stone:   Yes.  I can see both sides of the picture.  Artistically it would be better to not do it.  I can’t argue that, and I don’t think anyone can because it breaks the concentration from the stage.  You could say that people should prepare themselves before they go to the opera.  But, on the other hand, and in a practical way, if you want to make opera available to a wider public and sell more tickets
which is what most opera companies want to doif we continue to do them in the original language, it’s certainly a very good compromise.

BD:   Are the surtitles going to spell the death of opera-in-English?

Stone:   I don’t think so.  I’m singing The Marriage of Figaro in English in Portland and in Omaha, and they have access to the surtitles as well.  I think that you will see more of the standard operas done in the original language, even in the smaller regional companies, but hopefully we’ll get some people excited about writing operas in English.

BD:   Would you ever want to do an opera which is originally in English with the surtitles?

Stone:   It doesn’t bother me at all.   The New York City Opera did Casanova’s Homecoming [by Dominick Argento] with English surtitles.  The opera is written in English but they used English surtitles.

BD:   Did they have the actual lines up there, or were they paraphrases of the lines?

Stone:   I think they had the actual lines.

BD:   Did you ever sing Casanova?

Stone:   No, I didn’t.  Julian Patrick, who was the Beckmesser here in Chicago, did the world premiere in Minneapolis, and in New York it was Timothy Nolen.

BD:   Would that be a good role for you?

Stone:   It would be a wonderful role!

BD:   [With a wink]  Would your wife put up with that kind of thing?

Stone:   [Smiling]  Of course!

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   You’ve done Germont a lot.  Is that the one you’ve done perhaps the most?

Stone:   Yes, I’ve done Germont more than anything.  For a while, it was Paradise Lost constantly... we did seven performances here, and then we did seven in Milan at La Scala, and then it was done at Stuttgart in German.  I did not do that production, but then I did a concert version in Poland.  Penderecki wants to do that again next year in Poland as well.

BD:   Is it a strong work?

Stone:   It’s a wonderful piece, but it needs the proper production.  I would love to see the Lyric do it again.  I went to Penderecki’s concert [with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra] here last Sunday, and they did the Adagio from Paradise Lost.  It’s a beautiful piece.  It has powerful music.  He could do some cuts and just condense it a little bit.

BD:   At La Scala it was the composer conducting?

Stone:   Yes.  Here it was Bruno Bartoletti.

BD:   What’s the difference with a conductor conducting, and the composer conducting?

Stone:   A conductor is more used to conducting.  That’s his particular skill.  Penderecki hears the music, and the same was true with Verdi.  He wasn’t noted as a great conductor.  Penderecki is not noted as a great conductor, and in fact says he doesn’t like to conduct.  He just does it when he has to.  In the case of La Scala, he really wanted to do those performances.  But Bartoletti was a wonderful conductor for that opera.
BD:   Did Bartoletti find things in the score that even Penderecki didn’t know where there?

Stone:   I think so, yes.  Penderecki wrote the music, but that’s different than conducting the music.  It’s a totally different discipline, and Bartoletti does that for a living.  That’s his job, and he’s very good at it.

BD:   Have you done any other world premieres?

Stone:   Yes, I sang the American Soldier in Napoli Milionaria [Naples’ Millionairess] by Nino Rota.  It was directed by Eduardo de Filippo, who was the Sir Laurence Olivier of Italy.  He was a very well-known and revered actor and playwright in Italy.

BD:   Is that a good work?
Stone:   I thought it was a wonderful piece.

BD:   The only one of Rota I know is The Italian Straw Hat.
Stone:   Right, that’s the one which is done most frequently, and in this particular piece the conductor was Bartoletti.  That’s when I first met him.  It’s a very regional piece, very much a Neapolitan drama, but it would translate very well into some kind of a dialect in this country.  It’s a very powerful piece.

BD:   If properly translated, or properly surtitled?

Stone:   Either, but in a case like that you would lose so much in surtitles.  It’s such a drama that it really would do better in a translation.

BD:   Is opera for you more music or more drama?

Stone:   [Thinks a moment]  It’s both.  I can’t separate the two.  Opera is musical drama.

BD:   Where’s the balance?

Stone:   I’m first and foremost a singer, but very close behind that I am an actor.  In so many of the parts, you can’t just stand up and sing, and have them come to life.  Especially today, no longer can you just stand and sing.  You have to bring to life a characterization.

BD:   Do you ever do any opera in concert?

Stone:   Very seldom.  The one time I did an opera in concert, it turned out to be practically staged, with entrances and exits.  I thought this isn’t a concert performance!  We had little platforms and a stage.  It was just sparsely staged, but it turned out to be a staged concert performance.

BD:   How do you balance your career with opera, concerts, solo recitals, chamber music?

Stone:   It just kind of balances itself.  This month I’m singing at Lyric, and then at the end of the month I’m doing the concert with the Music of the Baroque.  Next month, I’m doing a recital in Tennessee, and then I do another opera.  Then I’m making a recording with Robert Shaw of When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d of Hindemith.  We’re doing some concerts of that.

BD:   Is that the best way to record, to first do some concerts and then go into the recording studio?

Stone:   It’s a very good idea.  I’ve never done that before.  We rehearse for about a week, then we do three performances, and then we have two or three days to record it.  It’s wonderful having just performed it three times.

BD:   Have you done that piece before?

Stone:   I’ve never done it.  It’s a beautiful piece.  It’s a very difficult piece, but beautiful.

BD:   What makes it difficult?

Stone:   First of all, the poetry is Walt Whitman.  It’s a little esoteric, but also musically very difficult.  Hindemith is not easy to sing.  It’s not as disjunct as Berg or Schoenberg, but rhythmically it’s quite difficult to get absolutely right.  Within a complex rhythmic scheme there’s a tremendous amount of tempo change, and that’s always difficult.  Actually, the most difficult thing is to wed the music and the words together, because the words are already difficult, and the music is difficult.  So, if you put the two of them together, it just takes a lot of trial and error, and hard work to make it all come together.

BD:   You say it’s difficult to perform.  Is it difficult to listen to?

Stone:   It’s wonderful to listen to the notes.  It’s not difficult at all.  It’s very romantic, and it’s not terribly atonal.  In fact, it’s not atonal at all.  It’s a very romantic piece.

BD:   Have you done some other recordings?

Stone:   I did a recording of Salammbô of Mussorgsky in Milan.  It was supposed to have been a live recording, and had they taken the live recording it would have been an even better recording.  But on the night of the the concert, a gentleman was in the front row, and he had a terrible coughing-fit .  So they took some of the very early rehearsals, from the first time we were getting together with the orchestra.  That particular opera was in Russian, and I had worked each day with the Russian coach who was actually the companion of the singers from Moscow.  They were working very hard to help me with my Russian, and so each day it got a little bit better.  By the concert she said it was very good.  [Laughs]  I don’t speak Russian, so I did it totally phonetically.  I had learned just the things that I had to sing.

BD:   How much in the finished product was cut from the performance?

Stone:   I think they cut one whole verse of my song.  I had a little song at the beginning of it, and they took one whole verse of it from the rehearsal.  You can hear the snips on the recording, and it sounds like it’s in two different rooms.  In fact, the hall was empty, and it was about ten o’clock in the morning.  Then at the performance the hall was full of people, and in the evening, so naturally it sounds different.
*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Let’s go back to some of your roles.  What kind of a guy is Germont?

Stone:   Germont is a very caring father.  He wants his daughter to be happily married, and his son is carrying on in a way that is going to bring shame on his family.  That’s basically it, but he is a very compassionate man.  He does what he has to do to get things accomplished for his daughter’s wedding.  He’s very remorseful in the end.  He’s really stricken.
BD:   Has any director tried to make him a cad?

Stone:   No.  Germont is a very difficult part to do because frequently the reviewers use the word
stolid’.  But there’s not a whole lot that you can do.  You can’t do handstands, you can’t be a Marcello-type figure as Papa Germont.  It just doesn’t work, and it’s interesting that reviewers frequently want the characters to be their conception of the part.  Everybody has their own conception of the part.  I see him as a very warm compassionate man, who is firm with Violetta.  Its as simple as that.

BD:   [Speculating to the ridiculous]  In the middle of that big duet, he shouldn’t take out a knife and physically threaten her?

Stone:   [Laughs]  Absolutely not.  He is a gentleman, after all.

BD:   What if a stage director tells you to do that?  How much pull can you have to say you will not do that?

Stone:   Usually, it’s an agreement between two people.  W don’t blindly follow what the stage director says.  If there’s something that he or she asks me to do that I don’t really want to do, or don’t feel is right, then I speak up.  We discuss it, and come to an agreement.  I was doing Sharpless in a production of Madama Butterfly where, at the end of the opera, when Sharpless says È un immenso pietà [it is an enormous pity], and he just can’t take this sad scene when Butterfly’s giving up her son to Pinkerton, which means that she’s going to kill herself.  Sharpless had warned Pinkerton from the beginning that he should never become involved with this girl because she would take it very seriously.  Pinkerton is a cad, but this particular director wanted me to take out my pocket watch at that point, as if to say,
I’ve got to get back to the office!  Enough of this!  I just never did it because to me, Sharpless was sincere, and was involved in what he was doing.  Sometimes that happens, but not very often.

BD:   Do you sing Rigoletto?

Stone:   I’ve done one Rigoletto.  I love it!

BD:   Is it true that all baritones learn it whether they can sing it or not?  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at left, see my interviews with Susanne Mentzer, and Francisco Araiza.]

Stone:   I don’t know all baritones, but it’s one of the great baritone roles, and I would love to get the opportunity to do it again.  I’m in a difficult situation in that respect, because today we have such large theaters in the United States.  People want Rigoletto to be a gruff, heavy, full, loud voice, and I’m a lyric baritone.  There really are two schools of baritones.  There was Titta Ruffo, and a whole group of baritones that came from his school of singing, which were the loud, brusque, big-voiced baritones.  Then there was Giuseppe De Luca, who was really an elegant beautiful-voiced singer, who also did Rigoletto.  I think of myself as a lyric, a more cantabile baritone.  I don’t bark Rigoletto.  I sing it, and if you look at the score, it’s very sparsely orchestrated.  Most people think that Rigoletto is the pinnacle for the baritone, and that it is very difficult to sing, and that it’s an all-night involvement.  It is all of those things, but if you look at the score, Verdi has written pianissimo [pp] and pianississimo [ppp] for the orchestra when Rigoletto is singing.  Except in the ‘vendetta’ duet with Gilda, there’s very little orchestration when Rigoletto sings.

BD:   Is it enough support for the singer?

Stone:   Oh, absolutely enough support!  But if you carefully look at the score, it is not an opera that is as heavily orchestrated as, for example, Un Ballo in Maschera.  That’s a much heavier orchestration.  Eri Tu [the baritone
s big showcase aria] is harder to sing through, and requires more force than Pari Siamo or Cortigiani [two of Rigolettos arias] because it’s a full orchestration.

BD:   Do you take the A-flat at the end of the ‘vendetta’?

Stone:   Yes, I do, and also the A at the end of the opera, when he sings La Maledizione, but that’s not in the ‘Echt’ [genuine, accurate] editions.  So that won’t be in the new edition.

BD:   But you will sing it anyway?

Stone:   Of course.  [Both laugh]

BD:   It’s tradition.  When people come to the opera, do they look too much for the high note from the tenor, or the high note from the baritone?

Stone:   That’s what it’s all about!  Opera is high notes and excitement.  People come to the opera to be excited.  They don’t come to just say,
“Oh, isn’t that lovely... mmmm, that’s nice.

BD:   Then is opera art, or is opera entertainment?

Stone:   It’s both.

BD:   Again, where is the balance?
Stone:   It’s both, and it overlaps.  Opera started as entertainment for the common people.  I was doing a paper once on Mahler, and came across a letter of Tchaikovsky from around 1885.  Tchaikovsky had written ten operas, and he lamented the fact that his symphonies were heard and appreciated by a select few, whereas his operas were heard by the masses.  Now, of course, that’s completely turned around.  The symphonies of Tchaikovsky are the thing that everybody knows, and the operas are not so well known.  In this country, it has always been an elitist art-form because people haven’t been able to understand it.  I remember telling a friend of my brother that I was an opera singer, and he said, “Opera?  Wow!  If you like it, there’s nothing better, but if you don’t, there’s nothing worse!”  He’s got a point.

BD:   How do we get more people to like opera?

Stone:   I’m not sure with any art-form that you want to get the masses to like it.  The masses eat fast-food hamburgers, but don’t tell me that because the masses eat fast-food hamburgers that it’s good food.  It isn’t!  We’ve all partaken of this, but it’s not a wonderful meal.  [Both laugh]  Art is not, and never has been for the masses, so it’s a mistake to try to make it for the masses.

BD:   Are surtitles making it more for the masses?

Stone:   As I’ve said, I see both side of the problem, and I cannot say that artistically it is a good thing to do.  But practically it is a valid compromise if we’re going to continue to do opera in the original language in this country.  If we’re going to try to sell tickets, and try to get more people into the opera houses, then it’s a compromise.  But if you want to talk about opera as an art-form, then you won’t do it in a translation, and you won’t have surtitles.  You’ll do it like it was intended to be done.  But it’s a question.  Do you think Verdi was writing great art, or that he was was trying to appeal to the people?  His music speaks straight to the heart of the Italians.  Verdi used opera as a political tool, and he was involved in the Risorgimento [The Unification of Italy].  A lot of his operas were censored.  Ballo was moved to Boston because it was too close to the political climate at the time.

BD:   But was he writing it because he wanted it to be political, or was it just the way it turned out?

Stone:   You’ll have to ask him!  [Both laugh]  He was a very political man, but that’s a philosophical question.  Opera as art is something that you should ask a philosopher, or a musicologist, but it’s a problem because it is entertainment and art at the same time.  Pavarotti is under an enormous amount of criticism at the present time because he’s very successful.  When you’re just starting up, everybody is behind you.  But then the minute you get to the top, people start trying to pull you down.  Pavarotti has been in the media for such a long time that people are tiring of that.  They want new faces, they want new underdogs that they can push up to the top.  It’s the same as the Super Bowl.  Now that the Chicago Bears are on top, everybody is having a great time.  But let them win the Super Bowl three years in a row, then everyone will be trying to claw them right down to the basement again.

BD:   So, we should just enjoy it while it’s here?

Stone:   Absolutely, and I hope they win.  [As of 2023, when this is being posted, the Bears won their only super bowl on January 26, 1986, just a few days after this interview!]

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Moving on to another role, let me ask you about Wozzeck.  How complex is he?

Stone:   Wozzeck is extremely complex.  It’s probably as hard as any part I’ve ever done.

BD:   Do you have sympathy for the guy?
Stone:   Very much.  He’s a victim of circumstance, and that’s the whole point.  He’s a helpless victim, and he does what he does just out of despair.  It’s very difficult for me to talk about Wozzeck because it really affects me a great deal.  When I’m involved with it, I get morose and very introspective.  It makes me think about a lot of things that normally I wouldn’t think about.  I’m not a morbid person.  I really try to think positively, and I would never do the kinds of things that he does.  But I’ve never been subjected to that kind of torment and abuse.  It just makes you wonder about all sorts of things.  It’s a powerful image.  I was doing it in Italian Florence, and at one point he feels the ground shaking, and he starts to get crazy.  As it happened, I was in my hotel, and all of a sudden I was awakened in the morning by an earthquake!  [He laughs]  I thought, “Uh-oh, it’s getting a little too real here!  Then, after he’s killed Marie, he sees the moon that’s red with blood.  So another time in Florence, there was this enormously beautiful full moon right over the Cathedral, and it was blood orange!  Again, I thought, “Wait a minute!  [Both laugh]
BD:   It was all just a little too much for you?

Stone:   Yes, a little too much.  But Wozzeck is a very, very difficult part.  It’s much more difficult than Rigoletto for the music and the character, because it’s a kaleidoscope.  The scenes go so fast from one to the next that it’s a real tour de force.  You just jump from one characterization to the next.   It’s a powerful piece, and one of the great masterpieces of the twentieth-century.  I would love to do it again.

BD:   This brings up an interesting point.  When you’re on stage, are you portraying a character or do you become that character?

Stone:   [Thinks a moment]  It’s a balance of both.  It’s ‘method acting’ or ‘technique acting’, and that’s an old question.  A good actor does a combination of both.  You can’t become so involved in the character that you get so emotionally wrought up that you can’t sing.  You can’t do that.  You always have to control what you’re doing.  That’s the nature of what we do.  It’s a discipline.

BD:   Do you sing some French roles?

Stone:   Yes.  I do The Pearl Fishers, and Faust.

BD:   Have you done any Massenet?

Stone:   No, I’ve never sung Massenet.  I’d love to do Hérodiade, but I’m going to do Werther this summer.

BD:   Tell me about Albert.

Stone:   I don’t know the character well enough at this point to say anything about him.  I did do Oreste in Iphigénie en Tauride
at Florence.  It’s a wonderful part, but basically I do the Italian repertoire and Mozart.

BD:   Tell me the secret of singing Mozart.

Stone:   Sing it very well!  [Both laugh]

BD:   I saw in your biography that you did Hamlet...

Stone:   ...with the New York City Opera.  I was actually understudying Sherrill Milnes.  That’s a wonderful part.

BD:   Did you do some performances?

Stone:   No, never did.  I would love to!  It
s a wonderful part in a great opera.

BD:   How do the different size houses affect your singing?

Stone:   It’s not so much the size of the house as it is the acoustic.  Chicago is a difficult place to sing in because it’s so big.  Again, I have a medium-sized voice.  I don’t have a great big loud voice, so I try to do parts that are more on the lyric side, just for that reason.  I try to do a part that I can sing my best without having to push excessively.  Everyone does that.  Some parts that I would do in a medium-size house, or a good hall in Europe, I would not do at the Met, for example.  I probably wouldn’t be asked to do a Trovatore at the Met, but that I could do in Europe very easily.

BD:   Is it a mistake for the American opera houses to be so big?

Stone:   Yes, it is.  It’s very bad for voices.  Any time you hear a singer’s voice starting to wobble, and have a big wide vibrato, that’s exactly when people are trying to sing too big in these great big barns.  The voice was not designed to sing in places like that.  Most people don’t have great big loud voices, but being super-crazy in America, we want super-opera houses too.  But there are not too many singers who have super-voices.  I just try to sing the parts with my voice.

BD:   You don’t push in a big house?

Stone:   I’m aware that I have to sing my maximum in a big house.  If you hear someone like Jon Vickers, or Birgit Nilsson, those people have big voices.  Piero Cappuccilli has a big voice, and if you were to hear me sing right beside him, you would hear that Cappuccilli has a bigger voice than I do.  A lot of that is taken care of by proper planning in an opera house.  For example, if I’m doing Traviata, they’re not going to put me with someone with a voice the size of Nilsson.  A good opera company will balance the voices.  There are lyric voices and there are dramatic voices, and I’m not a dramatic baritone.  I’m a lyric baritone.  Today there’s a trend towards making opera singers just ordinary folks, but I don’t think there’s anything ordinary about singing opera.  It’s extraordinary, and it’s very difficult.

BD:   I hope you always feel that it
s extraordinary, with the little special spark.

Stone:   The minute I don’t feel that, I’ll stop.  I’ll do something else, because that’s what sets it apart.  It’s why it lives.  That’s why it’s been around for such a long time, and it will continue to be.

BD:   If you weren’t an opera singer, what would you do?

Stone:   I was a potter for a while, so I might do that.  [Photos of a few of his pieces are shown on his official website.]  That’s the antithesis of music and singing, as you can feel the clay, and see it.  Then, if you don’t like it, you can just smash it and start all over again, even when it’s fired.  You just take a hammer to it, whereas in singing we never know what it’s going to be.  We just have to go out on faith that it will work.  You’ve done it before, and you hope it’ll work again, but you really never know.

BD:   Are you a good audience?

Stone:   Yes, I am a good audience.  I’m a very attentive listener, and I enjoy going to the opera.  Not many opera singers like to go to the opera, but I enjoy attending it.  That’s what I’m going to do tonight.  I’m going in just a few minutes to hear Butterfly.  I try to cheer everybody on.  It’s a worthy thing to do.

BD:   Are you coming back to the Lyric?

Stone:   Probably.  I’m sure I’ll be back some time.  I’ve been here in 1978, ’79, and then last year and this year.  It’s just a scheduling problem for everybody, for them and for me.

BD:   Thank you for being a singer.  I’ve enjoyed your work over the years.

Stone:   It’s my pleasure.  Thank you very much.

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© 1986 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in Chicago on January 15, 1986.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB the following week.  This transcription was made in 2023, 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.