Soprano  Judith  Blegen
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


Judith Blegen (April 27, 1943, Lexington, Kentucky) is an American soprano, particularly associated with light lyric roles of the French, Italian and German repertories.

Blegen was raised and attended high school in Missoula, Montana, during which time she began voice lessons with John L. Lester, head of the voice department at the University of Montana. She studied first the violin with Toshiya Eto, and later voice at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, with Eufemia Giannini-Gregory, and later in Rome, with Luigi Ricci. She made her operatic debut in Nuremberg, Germany, as Olympia in The Tales of Hoffmann, in 1965, where she subsequently sang Lucia, Susanna, and Zerbinetta. That same year, she appeared in Spoleto, Italy, as Mélisande in Pelléas et Mélisande.

She made her debut at the Vienna State Opera, as Rosina in The Barber of Seville, in 1968, and the following year appeared at the Santa Fe Opera, as Emily in the premiere of Gian Carlo Menotti's Help, Help, the Globolinks!, a role requiring her both to sing and play the violin. Her New York Metropolitan Opera debut took place on January 19, 1970, as Papagena in The Magic Flute. She sang there over 200 performances of 19 roles, including Marzelline, Zerlina, Nanetta, Sophie, Adina, Gilda, Oscar, Juliette, Blondchen, Gretel, and Adele. She made her debuts at the London Opera House in London, in 1975, and at the Palais Garnier in Paris, in 1977.

She appeared on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson on December, 20, 1979, [YouTube image shown below] where she performed the Christmas carol, O Holy Night.


A singer with a radiant voice, polished musicianship, and charming stage presence, she retired in 1991. She is married to former Metropolitan Opera concertmaster Raymond Gniewek.

She is a 1983 recipient of the Montana Governor's Arts Award.

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Judith Blegen at Lyric Opera of Chicago

1973 - Rosenkavalier (Sophie) with Ludwig/Dernesch, Berthold, Sotin, Gutstein, Merighi, Andreolli, Zilio, Gordon, Voketaitis; Leitner

1978 - Don Pasquale (Norina) with Evans, Kraus, Stilwell; Pritchard

1979 - Rigoletto (Gilda) with Manuguerra/Elvira/Salvadori, Pavarotti, Gill, Kuhlmann; Chailly

1986-87 [Opening Night] - Magic Flute (Pamina) with Araiza, Nolen, Salminen, Serra, Stewart; Slatkin, Everding

--  Names which are links refer to my interviews elsewhere on this website.  BD 

When we met in Chicago in October of 1986, she was singing Pamina in The Magic Flute, so we began our discussion with that . . . . . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:    Tell me the secret of singing Mozart!

Judith Blegen:    Ooh!  Well, you spend about 20 to 30 years learning it.  It is good technique, I’d say, if you really want an answer.

BD:    How is Mozart different from, say, Verdi or Richard Strauss?

Some Recordings of Mozart featuring Judith Blegen


To read my Interview with Teresa Berganza, click HERE.

To read my Interviews with Daniel Barenboim, click HERE.


To read my Interview with Thomas Moser, click HERE.

To read my Interview with Leopold Hager, click HERE.


JB:    He’s very different that’s for sure.  You need a good voice and you should have a good sense of style for all three definitely, of course.  But for Mozart you have to really have a good idea of a classic style and taste and if you have a good technique, too, that will help you go a long way.  If I were to make a generalization about the few Verdi roles that I do
namely Gilda in Rigoletto, Nanetta in Falstaff, Oscar in Ballo, and the Angel Voice in Don Carlos — one thing that’s impressed me especially with Gilda and Oscar is you have to have a lot of guts of a different type.  You really have to know where the Schwung [momentum] of the phrase is and give it all you’ve got.  Nanetta is different though.  She is almost like Verdi writing in a classical style rather than in his own style for which he’s so well known.

BD:    Did Verdi ever ask for too much Schwung?

JB:    As far as I’m concerned he did!  It’s all I can do to keep up with the Schwung in Oscar and Gilda!  But no, not as a general idea. 

BD:    Is it the voice that decides for you which roles you will accept and which roles you will decline?

JB:    Very definitely, yes.  Also, an absolute consideration is what roles they are and whether I like the person of that role. 

BD:    So, you would not sing a character you didn’t like?

JB:    That is one reason I decided not to do Lulu.  James Levine invited me to do it at the Met, but I really couldn’t make inroads as to who she was and what this trilogy of plays were really trying to say.  I came to the conclusion that I couldn’t figure out what angle I wanted to approach it from.  I thought it over for a long time, but I didn’t want to take that major an assignment upon myself at that point, which a role like Lulu is.  It was all so very much looking toward negativism and decadence, and at that point in my life I really did not think that’s where I wanted to put my emphasis.  Now I’m not sorry I didn’t do it.

BD:    So you were really turning down Wedekind rather than Berg?

JB:    Yes, definitely.  I have nothing against Berg, per se.  I don’t think there’s any composer that particularly scares me or that I specifically don’t like.  That’s not a thing that would make me back off. 

blegen BD:    While we’re thinking about contemporary music let me throw you a curve and ask you about Globolinks.

JB:    Globolinks!  [Laughs]  That was fun!  I was four, going into five months pregnant for starters, and I was trying very much to hide it from Gian Carlo because I didn’t think he would take too pleasantly to the idea.  He would have accepted it, but I didn’t think that is what he would love to think about in terms of Emily.

BD:    He wrote the role though around you and your voice and your violinistic techniques?

JB:    Yes, he did.  I didn’t get to do the world premiere because at that time I was on Mr. Rolf Liebermann’s black list in Hamburg... and I suppose rightly so because he was very irked at me for many years because I didn’t accept the marvelous offer he made me.  He wanted me for three years continually, take it or leave it, and I just said no.  I didn’t want it at that point and so I didn’t take it, and I think his feelings were hurt.  So he decided he didn’t want to hear about me for a good many years, and that was just when Menotti was getting it ready.  He wanted me to do it, but...

BD:    Did he do anything to tailor the part to your voice?

JB:    Oh, sure.  I think he did, yes.  

BD:    Or did he tailor it to your type of voice?

JB:    Gee, I never thought about it too much.  I’m sure it must have been my type of voice.  After all, I prefer to go from the character because on the operatic stage it’s just the way I see things.  In the end I’m portraying somebody, and whatever credit I’m given as to my ability to get into a character and portray her is because I do approach it from that angle.  However, this goes on top of many, many years of very serious vocal study, really trying to build up a good technique, and even before that, years of string playing where I really learned musicianship and ear training.

BD:    So then, the
Capriccio question.  Which is more important, the music or the drama?

JB:    Wow, I don’t even know.  What does Capriccio say about it?

BD:    She doesn’t take either suitor.  She winds up without either suitor at the end.

JB:    I wouldn’t be able to decide between the two.  It really is a combination of the two.

BD:    [With a slightly sly nudge]  So if you were the Countess, you would have a ménage à trois?

JB:    I guess so.  [Smiles]

BD:    Where is the balance then?  You’ve obviously got to accept both.  Are there times when the music takes precedence and then the drama takes precedence?

JB:    I don’t think that it’s either-or at any time, at any moment.  You have to be equally involved with both of them.  I’m very careful to watch my voice all the time, and very careful about what parts I do, and very careful about how I sing them.  This doesn’t mean that I sing them as though I’m walking on egg shells at all times, but every second that I’m singing I’m very aware of how the voice is feeling and how it is sounding.  For example, the other day at our last performance of Magic Flute, I was feeling in good voice but I noticed that the voice could have been perhaps a little bit more rested.  When I would go for some phrases in parts that would take quite a bit, I was being very careful.  I thought to myself,
“Remember your support, remember your placement, remember what you can give and remember not to cross that line.  When you cross that line a disaster can happen at any moment, so I always try to stay on this side of that line and don’t go over a certain point.

BD:    So you’re always aware then of these technical things?

JB:    Absolutely, always.

BD:    Has there ever been a performance when you abandoned all of that and just threw yourself completely into the spirit of the music and the drama?

JB:    There have been moments when I have done that and it was not a pleasant experience.  This is something that the audience would not necessarily notice, but I noticed it, and I noticed certain sounds or certain feelings in my voice in the process of doing it that I thought I didn’t want to do.  I definitely don’t want to cross over a certain line.  It’s not necessary to have to do that.  You can give your very best performance without crossing over that invisible line.

BD:    Does the size of the house make any difference to the way you sing?

JB:    Yes, to some degree.  I’m under five-two.  I’m five-one and three quarters and I don’t weigh that many pounds over a hundred, which is the right weight level for my height, and my teacher at Curtis, Madame Gregory, used to emphasize for me that I should absolutely never go for size of sound.  This is a big mistake being made by young singers, and they’re being encouraged from all sides to make this mistake.  I notice it all the time.  There’s so much talent around and beautiful voices, but when I hear so many of them, I think to myself it’s not beautiful.  It just seems to me that young singers are trying to make these big sounds that really don’t mean anything at all.

blegen BD:    Who is encouraging the young singers to violate this trust of their voice?  Is it the teachers, the impresarios, the singers themselves?

JB:    It’s a combination of everything, plus the music business.  I don’t think the music business cares at all about the voices or artistry of singers, frankly.

BD:    It’s each singer’s responsibility to care about the art?

JB:    Definitely.  Absolutely.  It’s an individual responsibility.

BD:    Is there any way we can clobber an agent or impresario into thinking about the art?

JB:    I don’t think it’s a matter of clobbering anyone.  It’s a matter of understanding and enlightenment.

BD:    Was there ever a time when the business was interested in the art?

JB:    I am trying to speak from my own personal experience, and anything that happened before I don’t feel I should make an evaluation of.  I hear many, many stories coming from people I greatly revere, and some people I don’t necessarily revere so much, but they have to be taken for what they are, namely stories.  But when I’m asked my own opinions, I’m trying to base them on my own experience and knowledge.  I would say that it is a question of enlightenment, it’s a question of knowledge, and very much a question of taste.  I’m all for everybody getting into the act.  If a person loves music or wants to start getting into music, going to a performance might be a starting point.  But if he or she likes it, then by all means go on to the next step and get yourself into participating.  That is how we will start, individually, just one little drop in a bucket and one little step at a time.  If that could be done a million times over it would cause enlightenment in the society as a whole. 

BD:    In terms of audience participation?

JB:    Supposing you have a young person who likes to sing in the shower and is intrigued by the opera.  If he comes to a performance sometime and he likes it and thinks it is kind of neat and wants to come again and again and again and again, what would be a next step?  Why doesn’t he take his singing out of the shower and try it somewhere else?  Try getting involved with a choir somewhere.  Try getting involved with participation yourself.  That’s where the real learning comes in, instead of just being a bystander, watching and observing as a member of the public.  Get involved, roll up your sleeves and get in and do it yourself.  And for string players, play some chamber music.

BD:    Was it difficult for you to decide to get out of string playing and get into singing?

JB:    Yes, as a matter of fact it was very difficult.  I’ll never forget sitting down to write a letter to Oscar Shumsky who was my violin teacher at that time.  I saw it coming and I just didn’t want to have to see it.  But, as I always do, I think to myself,
The truth is eventually going to win out.  Sooner or later I was going to have to face up to the truththat I wasn’t taking the violin out of its case between lessons.  I was faking it.  I would go into a practice room an hour before my lesson and quickly look at the music and try to do the best I could.  I knew that after a while Mr. Shumsky was certainly going to see through that.  Then my guilt started to get the best of me until finally I sat down with myself and knew I was going to have to decide one way or another.  Where does the truth lie?  Where is my future really going to be?  The answer was obvious, so I wrote the letter.

BD:    Ever have any regrets?

JB:    No, no regrets.  I guess I could say my only regret would be that I couldn’t do both.  That’s a great regret.  I keep thinking that I’d like to take the violin out of the case and do exactly five minutes every day.  That would make 365 times five minutes.  That’s how much progress I could make in one year, then I think about two years and three years.

blegen BD:    Maybe after you’re through singing you’ll get back to playing a little bit.

JB:    I very well might, except I have a drawback there.  My husband, Raymond Gniewek, is the concert master of the Met Orchestra.  He’s got this thing about his wife.  He’s definitely got rose-colored glasses on me.  I don’t dare get out my violin.  Occasionally when I do, I’ll start sawing away on it for five minutes.  I’ve got really no left hand anymore, but whatever he hears me he says it’s marvelous, which is ridiculous.  It isn’t.  It wouldn’t be too bad if it would stop there, but he goes over to all his colleagues at the Met and says his wife is such a wonderful player.  It really is embarrassing, and his colleagues don’t have any other choice except to agree.  So I’ll take my violin out when he’s at work and do my five minutes a day and never ever let him hear me.

BD:    At least he’s a fan of yours.  He could be saying that it’s awful and tell you to put it away.

JB:    I almost wish he would because that is where the truth is.  I really am awful.

BD:    Next time you should get involved with a trombone player or a football player.

JB:    I’m not going to get involved anymore.  I’m happily married now.

BD:    You have a very special case.  You live in New York, your husband works in New York and you sing a lot in New York.  You have your home life all revolves around a major part of your career, but when you go elsewhere, or for others who really don’t have this kind of stable base, is it hard to coordinate family and career?

JB:    For me it’s impossible!  It’s not hard, it’s impossible!  The biggest regret in my life is the realization that I’m not an everyday, 24-hour-a-day mother to my son from my first marriage.  I haven’t been since I got divorced in the spring of ’75.  I made the decision that my son would be best off if I gave custody to my ex-husband.  I knew darn well that my husband would ask his parents to rear my son, and his parents are two people that I absolutely adore and always have.  So I really did feel that my son would have the best chance of growing up normally and stand the best chance of his own happiness.  So that’s my very biggest regret. 

BD:    Have you stayed in touch with him?

JB:    Oh, I’m in touch with him all the time.  We talk all the time on the phone, and he comes to visit me and I go to visit him.

BD:    Are you encouraging him to get into music, or are you encouraging him to stay out of music?

JB:    No, definitely not!  Definitely not!  I not only was encouraged, but I was slave driven to get into music.  That’s something I would never want to do to my own son, no.  And he’s not interested in music.  He’s a very laid back California kid now.  He’s sixteen and he’s thinking definitely of going to college maybe major in business administration or something.  So that is just fine.

BD:    Do you feel you’re a slave to the voice, still?

JB:    I don’t like that word
slave because that implies a total lack of freedom.  That I definitely I am not.  I have so much freedom it’s not even funny.  It’s through my education and my experience in the career and the whole artistic venture that my knowledge has come.  And knowledge does bring freedom in a certain way.  So in that sense I am not a slave at all, but in terms of the voice itself, technically speaking, and my own health and keeping my technique in line, definitely I’m a slave to that.

BD:    Do you feel you’re an athlete?

JB:    Yes, definitely.

BD:    Is every performance an athletic contest?

JB:    It’s not a contest, but it’s athletic.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Are there different publics?  Is the concert public different from the opera public, and is the public in one city different from the public in another city?

JB:    It’s so funny.  I wish I could give some sort of brilliant answer to that, but I don’t have a brilliant answer.  To me, people are people, and when I sense that the communication is good from the stage to the audience, then I am fortunate enough to enjoy the feedback from the audience to the stage.  That’s where it’s at.  That’s what’s marvelous.  It’s funny though... I don’t sing for my public.  I guess I’m probably very much in the minority there, but I don’t sing for the public, and I’m not ashamed of it.

blegen BD:    For whom do you sing?

JB:    I sing for myself and I try to bring out the best in myself.  I really try to aspire to the mountaintops of what I think these great composers had in mind.  That’s really what I sing for, definitely.  I’ll gladly not be the most popular singer of the evening.  I don’t even worry too much about the fairness of it, though the unfairness of it sometimes hurts.  At times in the past it’s hurt deeply, but the continual striving to learn the whys of things has taken a lot of that pain away.  So that doesn’t bother me so much anymore, no.

BD:    Because you have the light lyric voice do you regret not being able to sing some roles that you would really like to sing?

JB:    No.  It’s almost like regretting not being me, and I don’t regret being me at all.

BD:    Which role have you sung the most?

JB:    I never count my performances.  I remember that for a while I couldn’t look at Despina in Così fan Tutte, and even today I sort of get a stomach ache when I think of Despina because I had to do 28 performances in one season.  It was in my first season in my first house, and I wasn’t prepared for the reality.  I had no idea what was meant to be a professional opera singer.  I had no idea when they mentioned to me the premiere would be this or the premiere would be that, and they weren’t sure whether I’d do the premiere.  I had not the vaguest idea what they were talking about, and then when I asked,
“What is the premiere? I was told it’s the first performance of a production.  I said I didn’t care whether I did the premiere or not.  I didn’t care if I did the first performance or the second performance, so I wasn’t prepared at all.

BD:    Do you care now?

JB:    Yes, I do, because professionally speaking, for the false values of fame and prestige, the premiere is where it’s at.  For the true values of artistry, the person who does the first performance generally get the whole rehearsal period.  You also are one on one with the stage director in the act of creation, which you do not get if you are not in the first cast.

BD:    You’d rather do that than come in and work with an assistant director and a book?

JB:    Well, no, not necessarily that.  Some directors
I haven’t actually cared for too much because it seemed to me they were into their whole thing, or that there was some hierarchy, that his word had to be obeyed.  In other words I had better kowtow to what he wants, and sometimes I felt a little stifled.  I couldn’t say that about any of the most famous directors, though.  Really, it’s been some of the directors who are not so famous and not necessarily so nice either.  But as to the assistants, I’ll never forget working on a Romeo and Juliet which had come out years before that at the Met.  Fabrizio Melano was the assistant stage director at that time.  He had taken over the production and he was just absolutely wonderful.  I just loved working with him.  Placido and I and he, really the three of us just figured out our whole staging, what we wanted to do, and it was very poetic.  It was an absolute equal among the three of us, and it was just really wonderful.

BD:    Is there too much emphasis today on the staging?

JB:    I suppose so.  It depends.  I hate to make a generalization because I shouldn’t have too many personal opinions about other stagings in which I was not a part.

BD:    Are there some stagings you’ve looked at which you were glad you were not involved in?

JB:    I got sued for one!  I was gladly sued if they were going to do that to me.  I’ll take that over having to do the production.

BD:    You had gotten involved in it and then pulled out?

blegen JB:    Yes.  I was at Aix-en-Provence and it was a production of Magic Flute.  I had just come from my first production of the work which was in Hamburg with Achim Freyer.  He was the designer and stage director, and was quite an artist.  But I thought his production was ridiculous and I told him so.  I got called on the carpet by Dohnányi.  Freyer had complained about me being difficult.  So I was very embarrassed, and apologized immediately to Mr. Dohnányi.  I was very sorry to have offended somebody that deeply.  I had said to Freyer,
Das ist mir Wurscht!  That’s baloney, and maybe in German it’s a lot stronger than I ever realized.  After all, he’s an artist.  Designers, directors, and performers, we’re all artists and I know how sensitive I have always been.  I obviously offended him and he went to Dohnányi and complained about me.  But I stood my ground with Dohnányi, too.  I said that I was sorry, but I just don’t like avant-garde on top of Mozart.  I don’t have anything against avant-garde but don’t combine it with Mozart.  I’m sorry, that’s where I stand.  Then in Aix-en-Provence it was not just avant-garde but it was brutality and cruel, and I felt it was absolutely untrue and unright.  For example, in the fire and water trials of Pamina and Tamino, his idea of the fire was that I would hold a torch disguised in my hand.  To the audience it looked as though the trial was that Pamina would put her own hand into the flames.  It was so funny because there was an elevator that came down three stories, and at that point I was supposed to come out of this elevator with my hand extended, which in reality was a torch, sort of like the statue of liberty.  I would take this elevator down and get to the bottom, and then I was to take this torch and put it in this bucket of water to put it out.  Then for the water trial, Pamina was supposed to kneel down at this bucket and put her head in it!  Then one of the armored men was supposed to pretend to hold my head under this pretend water while I was supposed to writhe my shoulders to demonstrate that I’m running out of breath and was about to drown.  The armored man would let go of me and I could take my head out of the water just in time to say, Ihr Götter, welch ein Augenblick!  Gewähret ist uns Isis’ Glück!  Oh Gods, what a moment!  Come true is the happiness of Isis!  We got to that and I just thought, “That’s ridiculous!  I can’t do this!  I won’t do it, period!  Something even more brutal and cruel than that was before they start do go onto those trials.  Pamina comes out and sings that magnificent, absolutely precious, perfect phrase, Tamino mein, oh welch ein Glück!  That’s the moment she is saying finally, Tamino you are mine now, oh what a glorious happiness!  Again I was up about three stories high and I was supposed to come through this old-western-type swinging bar room door.  That was the first door which was facing the audience.  Then I was covered by another door up to my neck, and I was to sing that beautiful phrase from there, covered up to the chin looking down three stories and across the stage to Tamino who was blindfolded with a black blindfold with his hands tied behind his back.  Then, what really made me break down on the spot in tears, uncontrollably sobbing so that I absolutely could not bring a sound out of my throat was that one of the armored men was sitting in between the two of us on a regular folding chair, leaning back in it so the front two legs of the chair are in the air.  He was grinning at me, smirking at me, looking back and forth between the two of us.  I remember sobbing that day.  I broke down sobbing, and left the stage.  I said, I’m sorry but this is the end.  I’m going home right now.  I’m quitting and I don’t care what the price is but this I can’t take!  And that’s exactly what I did.  I just left.

BD:    You went home!

JB:    I went home.  I was really sorry to leave them in the lurch like that, but if that production wasn’t leaving me in the lurch I don’t know what was, and I’m not sorry.

BD:    So you were more sorry for Mozart and Schikaneder?

JB:    Yes, I was sorry for Mozart and Schikaneder and for Judy too!

BD:    Have you been involved in productions that are just right, that everything worked perfectly?

JB:    Oh sure, many.  I think that I could call this Magic Flute here in Chicago just perfect!  I love it!  Professor Everding was just a joy to be with and the whole atmosphere is wonderful.  The cast is terrific, the costumes are very interesting, very colorful, and there is a lot of magic.  I feel that so many of the elements of Magic Flute are really coming out in this.

BD:    Do you have mostly warm feelings about productions you’ve been in?

JB:    If I had to make a general statement over the whole thing, I would say that once I made it to the really big houses there hardly is any problem at all.  Everybody seems so willing and so devoted and dedicated and so knowledgeable.  It’s just not necessary to have terrible tempers.  My own terrible tempers were usually due to one or two reasons.  One was ignorance on my part, not knowing what it was all about and then taking it out on my colleagues, and being difficult in that respect because I was always very nervous.  I wanted so badly to succeed.  Then, when I felt I didn’t understand something, instead of being open and honest about not understanding it, I would get mad at somebody.  I also went through a bad period when I separated and divorced my husband.  That was very difficult because I had a hard time doing anything.  I couldn’t think straight at all, and I wasn’t up to my commitments.

BD:    Singers like you bring so much of your own personality to your roles.  It is not like sawing away on an instrument where you have complete control outside your body.

JB:    Yes, that’s very true.  Strangely enough, though, I’m now so happily married that I’m probably bringing far more to each performance than I was capable of in those days.  I don’t think I ruffled too many feathers back then... I certainly didn’t mean to.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Do you sing differently when you’re on stage from when you
re making recordings?

JB:    Surprisingly enough, I found doing these recordings that it was impossible to sing sotto voce.  I ended up singing everything full out even in the recording sessions.  It’s funny, I would never have dreamed that.

blegen BD:    Do you enjoy making recordings?

JB:    No, I don’t.  It’s too hard.  It’s too tedious.  I’ll never forget in my first solo recording for RCA.  I put my heart and soul in it.  Martin Katz and I [seen together in photo at right] worked endlessly over it, and when they invited me to hear the finished playbacks, the edited tapes, it was just marvelous! It was so beautiful.  It was really very, very nice and I was thrilled.  Then a little while later, after the record was pressed they sent me a complimentary copy and on the phonograph I swear it was a different recording.  I don’t know what they did.  They did an awful lot of doctoring.  They raised the pitch, for one thing, I guess maybe to add more excitement to it, but it also made the vibrato a little too fast for my taste and I didn’t like it.  So as far as I’m concerned for the recording industry, that’s where it’s at with them... although, I shouldn’t seem so ungrateful.  I’m not at all.  I’m grateful for every invitation I get.  I just recorded The Creation with maestro Bernstein and the Bavarian radio orchestra.  It just meant more than anything in the world to me at that point, and I’m very grateful for that.

BD:    Were these recordings made in performance?

JB:    We had two live performances in Munich, and they recorded those performances.  Then we had another day for retakes after the editors had checked and listened and re-listened to things for slight flaws here and there.  When you have that many people involved
an entire orchestra and a chorus of I don’t know how many peoplethere’s always going to be a squeaky chair somewhere or a slight scratchy sound or a slight sound coming from the audience.  These things need to be retaken if you can hear them.

BD:    Are records too perfect?

JB:    I can’t make a general statement.  I know of some records that just seem to be perfect, that’s for sure, but I like them. 

BD:    Do they set up an impossible standard that you have to compete against in the theater?

JB:    In the theater we’re competing against everything.  I’m sorry, but we are competing against the ignorance of the public in that respect.  It’s an ignorant thing for a person in the public to put on a recording and think it’s fabulous, and then go to see the same opera in the theater, and whatever cast is singing that night under those circumstances, to go away saying they didn’t like it.  It wasn’t good.  That’s an ignorant opinion because they’re not taking all the circumstances into consideration.  A recording is made by doing it over and over, and by splicing and with all kinds of reverberations they can add or take away.  In the live theater we do not sing with microphones up there, for starters.  And we are dealing with a million and one other things.  We’re singing from a set in back of an orchestra.  We are actually acting the part on the spot.  In a recording, nobody is actually acting in terms of wearing the costume.  It’s an athletic event on an operatic stage.  A more informed and wiser, more knowledgeable opinion would be one that has taken these things into consideration.  Then if you still don’t like the performance, you’re perfectly entitled to that opinion.  But it’s not so relevant to take the recording experience that you’ve just heard and then try to put that on the operatic stage.

BD:    Does opera work on television?

JB:    Definitely.  It’s working very well, especially with the subtitles.  And I love the surtitles in the theater.  I had my very first experience even seeing that just about two weeks ago when I went to the Bohème orchestra rehearsal in the opera house here.  I saw the surtitles, and believe me there was nobody up until then who was so against surtitles.  I had always thought,
Over my dead body!  Well, darned if a minute hadn’t gone by and I was won over completely.

BD:    You hadn’t seen them at all in rehearsals for the Magic Flute?

JB:    No I hadn’t seen them.  I still haven’t seen them.  I do know I have to be prepared for just an outburst of laughter when Sarastro says something to me.  I can’t remember exactly what it is now, but I have to be very careful to look down at the floor because I want to laugh also.  I’m facing Sarastro and he’s facing the audience, so nobody would see my laugh, but they would sure see Sarastro if a smile broke out on his face.  So I very dutifully look down at the floor and try not to laugh.

BD:    Do you get a better response with the surtitles than when you we’re singing in the language of the audience?

JB:    Oh yes, it’s all the difference in the world.  And if we’re going to get that much more communication, then I say by all means let’s have it.

BD:    Should we have the surtitles in operas that are in the language of the audience?

blegen JB:    Yes.  As a matter of fact, when I did the video tape of Hansel and Gretel from the Met, I was sorely disappointed that they hadn’t used subtitles there.  [DVD cover shown at right.  Also, see my interview with Jean Kraft.]  I thought about all my work, and I had just assumed they were going to use subtitles because on other Live from the Met broadcasts I had seen them.  I was sorely disappointed they didn’t use them for Hansel and Gretel.  English is the most difficult language I’ve ever had to sing in.

BD:    Why?

JB:    The number one issue would deal with how difficult it is phonetically.  So many of our vowel sounds are diphthongs.  They are two vowels such as the word
‘I’, ah-eee, a diphthong.  The word the has an ugly vowel.  ‘Uh’ is an ugly vowel sound.

BD:    So you have to make it beautiful!

JB:    Well, that’s the challenge.  It’s one of the things I’m always trying to work at.  The
‘e’ vowel,  ‘eee’, can get too bright and too brilliant.  That’s in any language.  The ‘e’ vowel is a pure vowel, but you have every shade.  I learned that when I was on my Fulbright living in Rome for a year.  My Italian voice teacher, Madam Gregory, used to say ‘ah’, ‘eh’, ‘eee’, ‘oh’, ‘ooo’, five vowel sounds.  She would say you must keep the vowel sounds pure.  That’s true, but I learned it being in Italy and being with my Italian boyfriend.  I had wanted to have an acquaintance with him primarily because through him I was learning to speak Italian.  He had a university degree and I would ask him over to my apartment, and we would sit there and the entire time, four or five hours, and I would be pronouncing the Italian from my grammar book.  He would be say something was not quite right.  It’s more ehh’, and then I would say aeh and he’d say no, ee, every possible sound.  That’s one reason.  The other reason that English is the most difficult language for me could just possibly be in truth because I understand English much better than I understand any of the others.  I do speak German fluently and I’m very comfortable in German, but I also have learned that there is no such thing as truly mastering a foreign tongue.  I would love to take several years of college courses in English to try to master English in that sense.  I’m nowhere near mastery of German, and I won’t ever be with any other language.  So I don’t think that I will master the comprehension of those languages either.

BD:    When you’re singing something in English, like Hansel and Gretel, do you work harder at your diction because you know the audience will get all the words?

JB:    I work very hard at my diction in English.  I try, but even then sometimes I think it’s hopeless in English.  That’s why I think subtitles really would have been so nice.  I’d love to try out surtitles above everything I do to see what would happen.

BD:    Should the surtitles in English be exactly the same words, or should they be just the sense of what you’re saying?

JB:    Probably the sense.  Translating foreign tongue operas into English is a losing battle because you have to take a singing line into consideration.  There are certain words sung on a high pitch that are either going to be totally not understood, or so ugly it’s not funny.  Other words that might be an exact translation have different connotations in English that might just spoil the meaning.  So they have to make all kinds of adjustments when making an English singable translation.  So as far as surtitles are concerned, if you translate it exactly, you would not be able to construct the piece into sentences that the audience would be able to readily grasp.  I don’t think it can be a literal translation but it can be literal in many ways vs. what could be a singable translation that we singers have to sing.  Surtitles will be quite a different issue, I think.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    How do you divide your career between opera and concert?

blegen JB:    Basically I sketch out what operas I’d like to accept and how I’d like to plan that out, and then I accept the concert and other engagements and basically work around that.  However, when I receive an invitation from maestro Bernstein to record The Creation, that just becomes number one in my mind, in my whole life.  [CD booklet cover shown at left.]  As a matter of fact, it was a very difficult thing for me to do because I really did a job on myself.  As far as I’m concerned Lenny’s just a genius.  He is a walking Mozart in every aspect, and what I demanded from myself was to start from the point of perfection and go from there.  When you go from that attitude, you’re going to lose, period.  So I did a real job on myself.  I had to recuperate.  I wasn’t myself for at least four or five weeks after that.  If he would invite me for something else, I just don’t know if I can go through that again.

BD:    When you’re singing a concert you’re in front of the orchestra but in opera you’re in back of the orchestra.  Does that change the vocal production?

JB:    Most established orchestras that have the routine worked out are really so expert that it doesn’t bother me much at all.  Then I use the rather standard technique for singing beautifully.  But a lot of orchestra concerts that I’ve done over the years are with smaller groups that might not be totally professional.  Even with the great orchestras
like the New York Philharmonic, Boston, Cleveland, Chicagothe soloists sometimes get the raw end of the deal.  They sometimes rehearse their regular orchestral repertoire in the rehearsal time.  They’ll allow the allotted time for that, and then I’ve come on for the rehearsal and I’ve only got one half hours’ worth of rehearsal.  This happened in Minneapolis with the Brentano songs by Richard Strauss.  Those are very complicated and are not done very often, and we had maybe a total of a half an hour rehearsal.  I was really burned about that.  Thank heavens the orchestra put it together just like that, but it really is hard on my nerves.  For singing with orchestras, where perhaps some of the players aren’t as professional and practically all of them are doing this repertoire for the first time, for me it’s like walking with lead shoes.  I have a beautiful aria I do by Bellini from his Capuleti e i Montecchi, his version of Romeo and Juliet, and when you start putting in bel canto ornaments and all and the whole bel canto style, it’s something that is so different from the usual things they play.  You have to be a real teacher in that situation.  It’s not as though I don’t like it; I’m more than happy to do it, but I want to be really careful.  I don’t want to step on the conductor’s toes.  I certainly don’t want to offend him and I don’t want to offend any of the musicians.  But either I do say something and show them how this should go or I’m going to get killed. 

BD:    If you don’t get much chance to rehearse with the orchestra, don’t you get a chance to be with the conductor and work with him in a musical rehearsal?

JB:    Yes.  I found the greater the artistic excellence and the technical expertise, the easier the collaboration.  The most difficult times are generally when it might be an inexperienced person, a dumb person, or an unmusical person.  That’s when it’s so hard. 

BD:    Do contemporary composers know how to write for the voice?  Again, I know I’m asking for a big generalization.

JB:    Yes, sure.  I haven’t done that much contemporary music.  I’ve been saving that as a certain compartment that I want to get into because I can’t wait to.  Surprisingly, right now I’m working up a group of three very short pieces by Webern.  They are atonal and they are serial. 

BD:    It’s a twelve tone system?

JB:    Yes, a twelve tone system and you have to use each tone before you can repeat any one of them.  A general opinion is that this is unvocal, but now I’m making some progress on it.  I want to do this.  I’m doing them in a couple of weeks at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and I definitely want to do them without music if I possibly can... which means I have to have such command of those songs because if I go off, forget it.  The whole piece is out the window completely and we would have to start from the beginning again.

BD:    You’ve got to pick the notes out of the air.

JB:    Well, that’s not a problem for me because I do have absolute pitch.  When I’m practicing it by myself, the vocal line is no problem at all.  But then when I get together with the pianist, then I catch myself and know the piano just pulled me off of my pitch!  It’s quite a complicated deal to put together.  I can have a much better opinion from personal experience after I actually get these songs under my belt, and I can say yes or no that this contemporary composer does or does not write well for the voice.  It’s going in the direction where I think I’m going to find out that it’s fine.

blegen BD:    So a role like Lulu, if you were not against the character, it would be something that you could sing and be happy with?

JB:    I can only surmise.  If my hunch regarding these Webern songs turns out to be true, which I’ll know soon, I will go ahead and assume that it’s possible that with Berg too, I would end up feeling the same way.

BD:    Do you know any contemporary American music beyond the Menotti things?

JB:    No, and I take all the blame for it.  I’ve had one or two comments come at me from a couple of different directions saying that Miss Blegen doesn’t do contemporary music or Miss Blegen doesn’t care about American contemporary composers.  The only thing I can say in my defense is that Miss Blegen does do a lot.  It’s not that I don’t want to do it or I don’t think it’s valuable, it’s that I haven’t put aside the time for it yet.  I’ve done very little so far.

BD:    You’ve recorded The Medium... [LP jacket shown farther down on this webpage.]

JB:    ...and I have recorded the Berg Lulu Suite with Boulez.  It’s on Columbia (LP jacket shown at right] and we won a Grammy for that, as a matter of fact.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    There are many times I’m amazed that singers can keep so many roles in their heads.  There are the standard roles, and even more when you have a wide repertoire.  You have to know all the words besides the music and stage blocking and everything else.

JB:    Well, to tell you the truth with me they go in and out of my head.  Generally my head is pretty much full of what I’m doing at the moment. 

BD:    How long does it take you to pick up a role you have not done recently?

JB:    Not too long.  It depends on what the role is and how long it’s been since I’ve done it before, and what the technicalities of it are and the complications.  One role I could call up right now immediately and sing would be Sophie.  [DVD cover and Hirshfeld caricature shown below.]  I could sing her again in five minutes.  All I would need would be five minutes to vocalize and get into costume.

BD:    Why does she turn you on so much?

JB:    Oh, I just love her so much.  I love all the girls I sing.  I just love them.  As a matter of fact, I regard my progress on loving them as a sign of my progress in understanding them, and in my artistry getting more and more profound.

BD:    One of my favorite questions
are Sophie and Octavian happy in the fourth act?

JB:    [Laughs]  No!  I don’t think so.  Sophie’s got an awful lot of spunk.  It’s hard to tell.  It all depends.  I haven’t thought too much about the fourth act... I have been giving quite a bit of thought to first three though.


To read my Interview with Tatiana Troyanos, click HERE.

To read my Interview with Kiri te Kanawa, click HERE.

To read my Interview with Kurt Moll, click HERE.

BD:    Do you ever wonder what happens to the character after the final curtain?

JB:    No.  Maybe I’m delinquent, but these are masterpieces.  From the first note to the last note is enough for a whole lifetime.  I only have one life.  I have been very seriously involved with at least ten girls, so that’s enough for me.  I don’t spend too much time wondering about what isn’t.

BD:    Tell me a bit about Gilda.

JB:    Oh, she is so wonderful.  Oh, I just love her.  She’s just great.

BD:    You don’t mind being carted in in a sack?

JB:    Oh, I just love to die!  [Laughs]  I don’t know how many girls that I’ve done die
Juliette and Gilda and who else?  I’d have to think twice about that, but it’s really lots of fun.

BD:    That’s right.  Being the lighter soprano you don’t die as much as the dramatic sopranos who always die.

JB:    Yes, right.  It’s a lot of fun.  I would have to say that dying is one of the easiest things of all.  The more dramatic you have to get, I found the easier it gets.  Pamina is very difficult for that reason.  She has to get subtle.  The easiest scene for me is a suicide scene.

BD:    By dying on stage, there’s such a finality to it.

JB:    I like it.  It gives me a feeling of triumph.  When you really are going to die, it represents that you have come to the end of that person’s life, so there’s an enormous scope there.  The scope of Pamina is unbelievable even though she doesn’t die, of course.


To read my Interview with Regina Resnik, click HERE.

To read my Interview with Jorge Mester, click HERE.

BD:    This is why I ask about Sophie in the
fourth act.  Superficially, it looks like Tamino and Pamina would be very happy in their third act.

JB:    They will be happy, very definitely.

BD:    But Octavian and Sophie in the fourth act probably would not be?

JB:    Sophie has so much growing up to do.  She is living in a decadent society anyway, a society that is going down.  I think that she would probably put a lot of emphasis on what dresses she’s got on, and whether her jewels are as large as some other girls’ jewels.  She has an awful lot of false values.  Theoretically she could go over into that direction, though in Rosenkavalier she doesn’t.  She doesn’t have false values there, but the whole ambiance, the whole context of it is all getting so decadent.

BD:    Are we getting decadent in 1986?

JB:    I wonder sometimes.  I really do wonder sometimes.

BD:    Is there hope for civilization?

JB:    The first thing we should do is turn off our television sets.  That would be the greatest hope.  We should also stop driving around in cars.  Can you imagine how many enemies I’m going make by saying that?  I’m really outspoken, but I really do think this.  I think the television set is destroying the mind and the automobile is destroying the environment, frankly.  That’s exactly what I think. 

BD:    Despite all this, are you optimistic about the future of opera?

JB:    Opera as we now know it?  I don’t know.  It’s interesting having just mentioned TV.  There could be a new media coming, being born right now, combining electronic music and all the computer music.  This is a new media that’s being born now.  As to opera as we know it, sung live on the stage with the orchestra in the pit, wearing the costumes and all, I don’t know whether that will go on exactly in that form.


To read my Interviews with Sherrill Milnes, click HERE.

To read my Interview with Ruggero Raimondi, click HERE.

To read my Interviews with Sir Georg Solti, click HERE.

BD:    Even now they’re talking of the Met as being a museum.

JB:    That’s a good idea.  What’s wrong with that?

BD:    A living museum?

JB:    Yes, I think we need to have a museum where our great masterpieces are shown as they are.  I think they will live.

BD:    But then you get people like that director of the screwy Magic Flute at Aix-en-Provence trying to bring the living museum forward.

JB:    Yes, that’s what they are doing, and I don’t think that I’m knowledgeable enough really to try to take issue with that, per se.  It’s an interesting thing to think about, and I do wonder about it.  I guess I just don’t have any firm opinion.  I do know that I’m interested in approaching the work and getting down to basically what I feel the composer had in mind, and doing my best along that line.  I am a classicist in that way.

BD:    Is Rock music?

JB:    Oh sure, it’s music.  [Laughs]  It depends... let’s define
music.  I don’t dislike all Rock.

BD:    Is there any way that we can get more people who are into Rock into the opera house?  Or should we try?

JB:    [Facetiously]  Maybe we should take the people who are into Rock and take every one of their television sets away from them.  [Laughs] 

BD:    Bye-bye MTV.

blegen JB:    I rather like when my son comes to visit me.  As an assignment I deliberately made myself watch some MTV.  That’s a new medium putting the visual aspect and television to Rock songs.  I don’t have anything against it.  I don’t like malice.  I don’t like evil things, but I wonder whether there might not be some malice there... but I don’t know.  Evil is everywhere, as is goodness.  I’m sorry to see so much drug infiltration.  What I don’t understand is why people want to take drugs.  I don’t understand that.  Isn’t it enough to be what we were made by our natural creator?  Is that not enough for our one life to live?  That’s something I don’t understand and I’m very sorry to see the references made to drugs and things like that in Rock music.  I’m very frightened by that as a matter of fact.

BD:    For you, is singing fun?

JB:    Yes, it’s the most glorious thing!  I was slave driven to have to practice every day, and I just hated my mother for it for so long.  She used to tell me that someday I would see she was right.  In my adolescent years I used to challenge her and when I was going to see that she was right.  I wanted her to show me right then.  I wanted her to tell me how she was right, but she’d walk out of the room.  Now I’m just seeing she was right, but boy, what I’ve had to go through!  But she was right because here I am.  I’ve got the rewards for it.  Enlightenment is my greatest reward, and the experiences are another great reward.

BD:    Do you know how many mothers are going to read this and continue to push their kids into music saying the same thing?

JB:    My mother was a very special mother, and I think I’m a very special person.  I’m one of the people who managed to survive that.  Do you know how many girls didn’t survive it?  Let’s just talk about the girls whose mothers might have tried to live as my mother did, with their own fantasies of what they wished their lives would have been.  They tried to make their child live that, which is what my mother did to me, and for every survivor like I am, there are a hundred that didn’t survive.  So any mothers out there thinking they’re going to make their daughter do this, let me say that for every one that survives there are a hundred that don’t.

BD:    The odds are pretty bad then?

JB:    Yes, and that’s definitely not because of the music business.  It’s because psychologically and emotionally what you are doing to that child is something that they don’t survive.  Some of them even commit suicide.

BD:    Are there too many singers right now?  Or are there enough young singers today coming along?

JB:    There’s always room at the top.  I’ve seen an awful lot of talent and a lot of good singers now.  I’m sure there will always be room at the top, and I’m quite sure there will be enough talent for that.  The question, though, is will there be enough that will take it that seriously?  I hope that there will be ones at the top who didn’t have to go through all that I went through.  There probably will be a number of them.  There are a number of artists now that I probably didn’t go through what I did.  But for anyone out there who thinks this is marvelous and is looking at their daughter and telling her to look at the way Judith Blegen does it, nothing could be further from the truth.  They don’t know a thing about what I’ve been through, and they should not want their daughters to go through that.

BD:    In any event, thank you for being a singer.

JB:    Thank you for being a listener.  I’m indebted to you, believe me.



To read my Interview with Robert Shaw, click HERE.


To read my Interview with Michael Tilson Thomas, click HERE.




© 1986 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in Chicago on October 1, 1986.   Portions were broadcast on WNIB in 1991, and again in 1996 and 1998.   This transcription was made in 2016, and posted on this website at that time.

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

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.

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.