Conversation Piece:


By Bruce Duffie

Among the treasures we have in American opera are the performers who take the time and make the effort to pursue and learn roles which are new and untried.  There are a few well-known names who often get the plums and bring a great work to life.  But for an opera to be truly successful, it must remain on the boards during many seasons, and for that a small army of American singers is needed to continue the productions and nurture the roles as they make their way across this land - and perhaps even to far flung corners of the operatic universe.  Sheryl Woods is one of that distinguished array who make it their business, literally, to grapple with these parts and carry them forth, finding ever widening audiences and repaying those who choose to come back for repeated experiences.

Her wide repertoire includes not only a growing list of these wonderful American characters, but also some of the bread-and-butter roles that sopranos love to sing everywhere.  She regularly sings with many of the leading opera companies here in the United States, and occasionally ventures overseas when the situation is just right for her professional growth and personal life.

What follows is a conversation I had with Sheryl Woods in October of 2003, while she was in Chicago doing Birdie Hubbard in Marc Blitzstein's Regina with Lyric Opera of Chicago.

Bruce Duffie:  You're an American singer and you get to play American ladies quite often.  Is this particularly satisfying?

Sheryl Woods:  Yes it is, but it's not that I don't enjoy playing other ladies as well.  When your mother language is English and you get a chance to sing in it, you are able to use nuances so much more effectively.  You know the cadence, you know the inflection, and when it is based on a really wonderful piece of literature, it's just a pleasure to do.

BD:  When you prepare a role that comes from literature, do you go back and read it first?

SW:  Absolutely.  When I'm looking at an opera for the first time, whether it's in English or not, I always go back.  First of all I look at the story and then I look at the role from the standpoint of the libretto, and then I look at the music and see if it's going to be a good fit.

BD:  Are there times when the role in the literary work conflicts with how it's been treated by the librettist or the composer?

SW:  It may not conflict but it can vary.  I did Mrs. Patrick de Rocher, the role that Frederica von Stade originated in Dead Men Walking, and that work started out as a book by Sister Helen Prejean and then it was a movie and then it was an opera, and in each of those forms they changed a little bit about the story.  In the book there were two characters that the author dealt with.  In the movie it was kind of an amalgam of the two, and the opera is different from that.  The mother doesn't figure very greatly in either the book or the movie, but she has two incredible scenes.  He knew for whom he was writing the part, and that's not a conflict, but rather something to be celebrated!  It's an extension of the role.

BD:  Well, in general, is it more comfortable doing an American lady since you are an American lady, as opposed to a European lady or one from the far distant past?

SW:  I don't think of it that way.  I really take the stories as they come.  I have loved doing a lot of other things, too.  It's interesting to me because over the last three or four years, I've done a lot of Southern American ladies.  I'm not from the South . . .

BD:  Does that make you more genteel in your normal life?

SW:  I've always been genteel!  (laughter)  I've really loved doing that.  It's been a chance to get acquainted with a different part of the country.  I've had a lot of friends from the South.  The first one was Celia Townsend in Carlisle Floyd's Passion of Jonathan Wade who was a woman of the South who fell in love with a Northern officer who was in the South during the occupation after the Civil War during the carpetbagger period.  I've also done Blanche DuBois in Streetcar Named Desire and most recently Susanna Polk in Floyd's Susanna, and that's different from Southern because it's Mountain, so there's a little bit different twist on it.  I've loved all of those roles, but over the years I've also loved Gilda and Lucia and Violetta and Norina in Italian opera.  You take each story as it comes.  I've also done many operettas and musical theater pieces as well as Manon and Blanche in Dialogues of the Carmelites from the French repertoire.  Someone once asked a friend of mine what his favorite role was and he said, "Generally I love the one I'm with."  There have been a few exceptions to that in my life, but for the most part, if I agree to do it, it's because I know that I'm going to be able to put myself into it.

BD:  Without mentioning specifics, when you find a role that doesn't suit you, do you then quietly drop it from your repertoire?

SW:  That's only happened twice, and in both case they were roles I could do when I was younger and I discovered they weren't going to work.  So I dealt with the heads of the companies and pulled out.  It was just wisdom, but generally I head them off at the pass, particularly if it's a new piece.  I always ask to see the score before I accept it.

BD:  So when you are offered a role, how do you decide yes or no?

SW:  I read it, I translate it if necessary, I look at the basic story to see if it's something I can put my heart and soul into.  And I see if it fits my voice.  You can't always tell those things ahead of time, but you have to live with these things.  It can seem perfect on paper and after living with it for several months you decide it's not optimal.  But for the most part, you can tell by looking at things if they're going to fit or not.  So if it doesn't look like it will fit, I just don't accept them.

BD:  With a lot of roles there is a history, but you've created a few new ones, or been in very early productions.

SW:  Then selecting has to do with the dramaturgy.  I really love words and I love drama as much as I love the music.  So if it's something that appeals to me on those levels and I think I can handle it, then I will generally accept it.

BD:  Are there some things you've declined earlier and changed your mind after re-looking at them?

SW:  Only if I declined them on the basis of not being ready for them vocally.  And many of those roles were not offered earlier, or I might have unwisely tackled them.  (laughter)  I lived in Chicago for thirteen years after attending Wheaton College, and the American Conservatory.  My teacher had a friend who ran a very small company in Oak Park in a church gym.  We only had piano, and my first four roles with them were Cherubino, Queen of the Night, Mimi, and Magda Sorel.  I knew nothing about fach and I didn't listen to recordings.  I'd learn it on my own and think, "Oh, I've got that note, so sure, why not."

BD:  Those are about as diverse as you can get.

SW:  It was totally silly for me, but I fell in love with the whole process.

BD:  Was it great experience doing such diverse roles?

SW:  You certainly get your stage legs!  You also become aware of your limitations, although when you're young you ignore that kind of idea.  But none of them are on my list today...  well, Cherubino would be a possibility, but there are a lot of others who do that role, and it's accepted as a mezzo part.

BD:  I do see a couple other mezzo roles on your repertoire list.

SW:  I've been singing professionally for 25 years, and in the community venue for many years before that.  Your voice changes over the years and so you change, or you accept changes.  I don't do Lucia or Violetta or Gilda any more.  Depending on how life and biology treat your body, you're wise to see where your strengths lie.  I don't have the very top notes any more, so I've moved down in tessitura.  I'm not a mezzo, but a few roles lie high in that fach.  Von Stade is really a zwischenfach who could do a lot of soprano parts.  And the thing about contemporary opera is that those categories are very fluid.  That has given me a lot of fluidity, too.

BD:  Do you feel that the composers who are writing today really understand the voice?

SW:  Generally speaking, no.  The younger ones don't.  I've had conversations with one whose basic idea was that important ideas were to be very loud and very high.  To try explaining tessitura has been very difficult.  When you really want to stress words, you cannot put them in the extremes of a person's range.  The space that you need for that pitch, particularly in women's voices, is much larger and differently shaped than the space that you need for the vowels and the consonants.  If you want it clearly enunciated, you're going to have to bring it down.

BD: And you also don't want it in the middle part of the throat, in the break or the passaggio do you?

SW:  No, you don't.  And that's where learning what works is important.  The variations are really wonderful.  You go up, you come down, you go up and come down, but this composer also puts in lots of octave-and-a-half skips which aren't incredibly grateful, either.

BD:  Sounds like he's treating your voice like a clarinet.

SW:  That's the thing.  Many contemporary composers - and some conductors, too, at this point in history - consider the voice just another instrument.  Because there are words with what we do, you can't do that.  I was talking with a scholar here at Lyric Opera about the differences between opera and operetta and musical theater.  It's more of a continuum now, and a lot of the lines are blurred, but generally speaking, the sound is the most important thing in opera and the word is the most important thing in musical theater, and operetta blurs the two.  But if you look at what they require, there's much more vocal athleticism and virtuosity in opera precisely because of the sound, but you'll notice that in the people who knew the voice really well - particularly in the Bel Canto era, and even almost every era until now - they didn't attach a lot of words to places where they asked for extremes of the range, or they repeated words or asked for melismatic runs on various vowel sounds.  There's a reason for that, whereas in operetta and musical theater, a lot of the vocal requirements are different because they really want the words to come out and you have to have it in a place in the voice that's going to work for that.

BD:  And in operetta and musical comedy, you have spoken dialogue.

SW:  Yes, and that's a whole other vocal requirement.

BD:  Is it particularly difficult to go from speaking to singing and back to speaking again?

SW:   It depends on how big the house is.  I don't know if they use microphones, but operetta is routinely performed in European houses where opera is also performed, and they are a lot smaller and more conducive.  Here, when you do it in an opera house, you have to use microphones because the dialogue can't fill a 4000 seat theater.  You don't do plays in that big a space, but in a more intimate room.  Speaking is, in some ways, harder on the voice because what we want to hear are lower pitches as opposed to higher sounds that might make it easier to switch to singing, but can indicate weakness as a character.

BD:  Could you use that as a trick - make the last couple words of the dialogue go up in preparation and placement of the voice for the music to come?

SW:  Not as a general practice.  There might be particular places where you would do that for a reason, but it would depend very much on the character and the role and the moment.

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BD:  You sing a lot of roles where the composer is sitting there.  Do you ask their advice or request slight changes here or there?

SW:  Usually, yes, particularly if they're amenable to collaboration.  Most of them are, actually.  It's very interesting to me.  We treat those who are long-dead as sacrosanct.  It's Holy Mozart, but if he were alive and someone wanted to suggest a change, I believe he would be open to it.  Certainly most of the composers with whom I've worked have been.  If something works better for you vocally, most of them are willing to change it.

BD:  And it's known that Mozart re-wrote arias and changed things for certain singers.

SW:  He did.  But we can't do that because he's not here.  (laughter)  Later, in the time of Rossini and Donizetti, singers would interpolate.  Rossini complained that he hardly recognized his music after the singers got through embellishing it!

BD:  But he'd be pleased if the show was a hit.

SW:  Oh sure.  You can't argue with success.

BD:  Does it do your heart good to know that you've been in some premieres and early productions of works which come back again and again, and might even get to be standard repertoire?

SW:  Yes, because usually if that's the case it's because it's a good piece.  It's always wonderful to be associated with a really good piece.

BD:  Do you know when you're creating it that it will turn out to be a good piece?

SW:  Not always.  Sometimes it takes people awhile to be receptive.  The Tobias Picker piece that I did was co-commissioned by three companies, and it wasn't until the third time that it really gelled.  Being a part of it, I could hear the craft involved.  It was wonderful, but I don't think any of us appreciated it the first and second times through.  Exposure definitely helps, and the more exposure you have to a new piece will help our ears get used to the aural idiom.  It takes practice listening as much as it does anything else.

BD:  You select the roles because you can sing them.  Does it surprise you to get offers of roles that are not going to suit your vocalism?

SW:  I don't think they're always aware of it.  Sometimes, if it's a new piece, it's a matter of needing to get with the composer and have a workshop.  Then we'll find what works and what doesn't.  If it's my limitations as a singer, they can find someone else who can do more or better.  Or perhaps the composer needs to reconsider how it's being written.  You have to be very careful how you suggest that, and I'm certainly not an arbiter of impeccable musical knowledge.

BD:  Well, what contributes to making a work - either old or new - good, or even great?

SW:  Good text.  Something meaningful or highly entertaining.  If we're talking about an entire piece like an opera, it's a story and how it's constructed.  A story can be really great but not find success as an opera unless it's had a highly skilled librettist who understands what to leave in and what to excise.  The overall architecture, the overall structure of the piece needs to work dramaturgically.  If it's going to have a long life, it has to be singable.  That doesn't, necessarily mean a piece of cake, but something that's going to wear well over time and that's not going to kill voices.  I also think that it needs solid composition underneath it.  It needs sophisticated knowledge of the materials of harmony and rhythm, and those architectural composites.

BD:  You brought up a word that I want to ask about - entertainment.  In opera, specifically, or in music in general, where is the balance between art and entertainment?

SW:  That's a highly subjective thing.  I can't tell you that.

BD:  Well, where is it for you?

SW:  For me it's probably a lot broader than for some people because I really enjoy things that are highly entertaining and very funny.  I don't enjoy slapstick vulgarity, but I think there are a lot of things that can be an awful lot of fun.  If I find it amusing and there tends to be a bit of zaniness to it, then that, for me, is highly entertaining and in good taste.  That's another aspect which, again, is subjective.  I can recall some productions I did in Central City.  One was Daughter of the Regiment and by the end of the summer I was eight-and-a-half-months pregnant.  So the lesson scene was all Lamaze jokes that were improvised!  Now was that in the best taste?  Probably not, but the audience was howling and we were having a great time onstage.  The other thing was that it was still being well-sung by everybody in the cast.  Those things didn't compromise the quality of the music.

BD:  Make a sequel...  The Daughter of the Daughter of the Regiment!

SW:  I lived in the drum in the first act!  They were very kind to me in dealing with it, and then two years later we did Don Pasquale that was absolutely side-splittingly funny, and there was a lot of upstaging going on.  But because it was so funny and the musical quality was not compromised, I thought it was great.

BD:  Whether you are pregnant or not, when you go out onstage are you portraying a character or do you become that character?

SW:  That's the perpetual question for an actor, isn't it?  I don't know that I can give you a cut-and-dried answer to that.  At the beginning of my career, I remember talking to Bliss Hebert, who was doing a lot of opera-directing, and I asked him what he thought about method-acting.  He said it was great but it doesn't work in opera.  You have to keep an eye on the conductor, you have to listen to the orchestra, there are too many contingencies, too many parameters.  But there are two prongs to this.  I have found myself coming much closer to becoming those characters usually when there is something inside of me that I can strongly identify with.  The trap is that it can really take its toll vocally because you become so emotionally involved, particularly if it involves darker emotions.

BD:  You can't cry, you have to make the audience cry.

SW:  Right.  But there are times when I have cried and it worked in the role.  There was a place to do it without interfering with vocalism.  You play around with it and some nights you're closer to being with the character than other nights.  The goal is always to be honest, but honest doesn't necessarily mean becoming overly distraught.  Remember the famous quote from Lawrence Olivier to Dustin Hoffman, "Why don't you just act, my boy?  Just act."  Actors can learn to use such an array of tools.  The son of a friend of mine attends the Goodman School here in Chicago, and he calls his father to say, "Well, Dad, your $125 today went into learning how many different ways can I drool."  By the same token, he has worked with fairly popular actors who have come up to him and asked, "How did you do that?  I only know one way but yours was different."  We tend to idolize becoming, but that's not always the best way to get into the character's skin.

BD:  Let me turn the question around a bit.  Is there any character that you sing which is perilously close to the real you?

SW:  There are bits and pieces in all of them.  The more time one takes to know one's own heart, the more you find in yourself of both the good and the bad, and you come to a greater understanding of those characters.  That's one reason to be careful in your choice of roles.  You need to be discerning, not necessarily cautious, but discerning.

BD:  Are there some you'd love to sing because of the music but you hate the character?

SW:  Not really.  I don't know if I'd find it different now, but I had a very difficult time warming up to Baby Doe.  It fit me vocally very well at the time I sang it, but part of it was that the woman singing Augusta was particularly incredible.  By the time she finished with me, I just felt about an inch tall.  There was such shame in my character and Baby Doe has to get by on charm, and I didn't like her.  I found her too shallow.  I don't know why that is because Manon is really a despicable character and I loved her!

BD:  Then the other direction - are there some characters you'd love to do but the vocal part is wrong for you?

SW:  Yes!  I would have loved to sing Desdemona or Tatiana.  A role I did early on before I knew any better was Alice in Verdi's Falstaff.  I love the whole piece, not just Alice's part.  It's such a masterpiece.  The ensemble is incredible and I love being part of that.  When you're young, you just long to go out and conquer the stage and be these incredible heroines, and you have to reckon sooner or later that there is an emotional weight to them as well as a vocal weight.  If you want to perform for a long time those aren't the things you should be doing.

BD:  Are there times when all the demands of performing a role or a production are too much for you, or for anyone?

SW:  Those things are never set in stone.  Do you mean nerves?

BD:  Just too many things coming at you all at once.

SW:  No, that's part of the appeal.  There are times when I battle nerves, but that's a confidence thing.  It's not that there's too much.  To me, all of those things are part of what makes it such a challenge and a delight to do.  That's all part of the drama.

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BD:  Is the music that you sing for everyone?

SW:  No because people's tastes are different.  Some things are going to appeal to one person that are not going to appeal to another.  It's still good for people to be exposed to things that they may not have a great affinity for just to broaden their horizons and grow, but it's a fact of life that not everything is for everyone.  And that's OK.

BD:  Should we try to get some of the sports fans and rock fans into the opera house?

SW:  Absolutely.  We need to invite them and stretch the boundaries a little.  Here, Lyric Opera did Sweeny Todd last year, and that probably brought some new faces into the house.

BD:  But will they come back for Regina?

SW:  I don't know.  You can't arbitrate that.  It might make them curious, and sometimes you get people in a Wagner piece or a Puccini piece who are overwhelmed by the beauty of it, and they didn't ever think they would be.  And there are people who are literarily sensitive and music doesn't add anything for them.  Everybody's got their own points of sensitivity.

BD:  Are you optimistic about the whole future of opera?

SW:  Well I'm not pessimistic.  I think you have to take it one thing at a time.  I am worried that live performance isn't as valued because of recordings, but that whole industry is in a crisis now so it may not be the case.  It bothers me that productions are using microphones more and more, and I wish very much that Americans weren't so tied to bigger being better.  Then we could perform in smaller venues and really allow voices to do what they're supposed to do in spaces that are more natural.  I think drama and music aren't ever going to go away, so opera may undergo a metamorphosis, but that doesn't have to mean we say goodbye to pieces of the past.  I don't think opera is going to die completely, just as I don't think plays are going to die or symphonies are going to die.  Art is a part of who we are as human beings and music is a part of that.

BD:  Are you pleased with where you are at this point in your career?

SW:  I would be terribly ungrateful if I weren't.  I have had wonderful opportunities and worked with terrific colleagues and sung with terrific companies.  I haven't done a lot overseas, but I've had so many opportunities here and have been able to have a life besides that.  I have a husband and a daughter, and we have been able to spend a lot of time together, and that's very important to me.  I have friends not all of whom have heard me sing and who treat me as a normal person, and I love that!  I have a life and that's important to me.  This career has been, for me, a real gift from my Maker.  The fact that it has continued as long as it has I consider an extension of that blessing.  I know it's not going to go on indefinitely, but it's been interesting to see the way it's changed over the years.

BD:  Do you specifically limit the number of dates you'll sing each year?

SW:  Not intentionally, but I do know my limits, and I don't do well with a lot of back-to-back things.  I've never been a jet-setter even when my family was traveling with me.  I need to spend some time at home.  We've lived in Philadelphia for 18 years after having lived here in Chicago.  I need my civilian friends as well as my professional colleagues.  Balance is a very important thing.  I'm careful about what I accept and one does have to reckon with the fact that life brings changes and you can't always tell what you're going to be doing three or four years from now even if performances are scheduled.  You make your decisions to the best of your ability and then you have to roll with the punches.

BD:  I assume you vocalize all the time even when you have a few weeks between engagements.

SW:  Absolutely.  You can't take that for granted at any age.

BD:  You're part athlete?

SW:  I'm not a good athlete, but that career does, actually, make you be one in a way.  The woman with whom I studied for many years is now in her eighties, and one of the reasons she maintains that she's in such good health is because she's always sung.  The physical act of singing uses so much of the body and the spirit and the mind.

BD:  You sing many roles which are in English.  Do you like that the houses use the supertitles when the opera is in English as well as to translate from others?

SW: I do because it's helpful for the audience.  I don't like it if we are getting lazy and not working hard enough on the English diction, but there are some times when you just cannot make something completely intelligible depending on how the piece was written.  I think it's just less frustrating for everybody to have those.  I've heard colleagues say that if they forget something they're tempted to just step out on the apron of the stage and look up at the titles!

BD:  Do you rely on prompter at all?

SW:  I've almost never worked with a prompter.  The few times there has been one I've found it helpful, but I came to the conclusion that it must be especially good for the singers who jet all over the place and forget what day it is.  However, I do know that some people have used prompter wisely to program their breathing.  It helps to cue things in a Pavlovian way.  But it really takes getting used to because there is a lag.  I would rather not rely on them because I'm more fully engaged when it's all coming from inside.  I try to watch the conductor but not be overly dependent because that ties me to always stare at him.  It's something you keep in the periphery and use your ears for.  You have to use all of your senses, and the better you know the score and the less you have to rely for cues, the more involved you can be in the piece... within limits, because ensemble is an important thing.

BD:  One last question - is singing fun?

SW:  Yes, although it's a lot more work now than it was twenty years ago!  (laughter)  When it's a role that really fits and I've had time to do enough that it feels really comfortable so the nerves are not in the way, yes, it's fun.  When there's a lot of vocal challenge, it takes a little bit more work for it to be fun.  I don't experience it as much as I did earlier in my career, but there are times when I realize in the middle of an interpolation that, "Man, this is great.  This is so much fun!  This is what I was made for!"  There is a kinesthetic joy to it, but it does become a lot more about technique and physical work as you get older.

BD:  Thank you for coming back to Chicago.

SW:  Oh, it's my pleasure.

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Bruce Duffie has been a regular contributor to The Opera Journal since 1985.  Next time in these pages,
a chat with mezzo-soprano Gillian Knight.

©2005 Bruce Duffie