Soprano  Régine  Crespin
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


When thoughts turn to French music and singers of that style, one of the quintessential names that would appear on every list is Régine Crespin.  Having mastered her native literature, she went on to receive accolades for other styles and languages.  She sang all over the world in a career that spanned forty years on the stage and further seasons as a teacher.

Her roles included many of the best-known as well as some more rare, and early on she portrayed a couple of huge characters in settings by
“other” composers — Salome in Hérodiade of Massenet, and Brunehild in Sigurd of Reyer!  Her late stage assumptions included the title roles in La Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein by Offenbach and The Medium by Menotti, as well as the Countess in The Queen of Spades.  Her American operatic debut was in Chicago, after which she returned in a few seasons and was honored as a Jubilarian during the 50th Anniversary Season of the company.   

We met in March of 1996, quite late in her career.  Her voice, while still strong and vibrant, was decidedly lower than expected.  Listening to her speak, one would have thought she had always been a deep contralto rather than a soprano!

Her English was delightful
very French and very witty.  Several times she used a word and asked if I understood, and always it was either a word we normally use, or one that made complete sense in her context.  I have left many of her charming mannerisms in the text, and have only corrected a few instances to make the tenses agree from the beginning to the end of sentences.

Here is what was discussed that afternoon . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:    After a wonderful career as a singer, you’re now embarking on a new chapter as a teacher, and are currently here at Lyric Opera coaching some of the students in their School [the Ryan Opera Center].  Without mentioning any names, are you pleased with the sounds you hear coming out of the throats of the young people today?

Régine Crespin:    Absolutely!  There are a bunch of people here who are really good singers with good voices
not only good voices, but a good ensemble of qualities.  Really, they are very interesting and I am very pleased, because they are open to any suggestion, any advice, and even more than that, they are asking for it.  They are begging to work, to get some advice, which means they are flexible, open, and that’s nice.  No names, as you said, but there are at least seven or eight young singers that might be going to have a career.  I’m almost sure.  Pray God! [Laughs]

BD:    Beyond just the vocal equipment, what does it take to make a career?

RC:    Oh, my goodness!  That’s a big, large question!  [Both laugh]  It takes patience, work and work and work, and work again.  It takes a great amount of courage, and a great amount of humility to ask yourself every morning, “What did I do yesterday?  Was it good enough?  What was good?  What was not good?”

crespinBD:    Is it ever good enough?

RC:    Exactly!  That is a big question.  And what can I do better tomorrow?  But I repeat
patience and work, and again work and work and work and work.  And repeat and repeat and repeat.  We call that in France une longue patience, a long patience.  And also it’s a lot of imagination and curiosity to look around to see what’s going on with singing.  Is this bad or good, or very good?  What can I get from this one?  Can I be inspired by that soprano or that tenor — whoever it is.  One needs to be curious, not to live in a secret tower and not get any connection with the world.  They should read a lot, go to movies or to musical comedy, to concerts, recitals.

BD:    To keep the connection with the real world?

RC:    Absolutely!  Otherwise there is a danger.  You want to become an artiste — not only a singer, but an artiste
, which is a little different.  If you become a diva or a divo, there is a little danger to be easily separated from the rest of the world because the fans, the public, put you there.  They put you on a kind of pedestal where you are above everybody, and it’s very easy to take that too seriously.  So we should be careful of that feeling.

BD:    [With mock horror]  You mean to say the opera is not the real world???  [Both laugh]

RC:    No, it is not!  But it is not only that; there are many things which are important when we’re singing.  It’s our life, it’s our job, but yet we shouldn’t lose the contact with other people, with real life, with the world because it invades you.  This job takes all the strength you have, all your possibilities, your liberties.  It is difficult to resist that because you know you have to work.  You have to vocalize, you have to learn the part, you have to go to rehearsals in the theater or with a pianist if it is a recital.  So you are kept busy all the time.  It’s difficult not to become cut off from the rest of the world.  We are condemned, in a certain way, to become selfish.  We have to be selfish to protect ourselves, but we should be aware that we need the other people.  We give a lot to the public, and we are people who will receive, also, a lot of love, a lot of applause, a lot of communication.  We bring them some joy, some marvelous moments, but we receive also.  What I mean is not to lose that contact.

BD:    When you or the students are onstage, how much is the art and how much is entertainment?

RC:    What do you mean, exactly?

BD:    How much is the serious art, and how much is diversion?  Is there a balance between the two in a performance?

RC:    What I tell them very often, is exactly the answer to your question.  I tell them, okay, enjoy singing.  It’s a joy to sing, first of all; it’s a physical joy.  Enjoy to produce a beautiful sound.  Make them laugh or cry, but don’t laugh or cry too much yourself, especially with the voice.  Pretend.  Louis Jouvet was a very great actor in France before the war and after the war, and he always said, “You don’t cry; they cry.”  It’s very true.  It’s a very thin line between the real thing and the false thing.  We have to admit that we play, we act, we pretend to be a queen or a beggar or whatever it is.  We kill or we are killed or we kill ourself, but that is not actually true.  So what we sell is dream, in a certain way, and we have to know that, of course!  [Both laugh]

BD:    When you’re onstage with a character, how much is the composer and the librettist, and how much is the artist himself or herself?

RC:    Oh, you have to put all yourself in the part!  Absolutely, you have to give and be completely merged in the part, in the music, in the sound, in the vocal business.  But when you get off of the stage, it’s ended.  Sometimes it takes you a long time to become again yourself.  It’s not so easy when you finish a performance or a recital.  For me, it took at least three or four hours; that’s why I didn’t want to go to bed immediately.  I wanted to go to a restaurant, to drink a beer or some wine in order to quiet me down and be able to reintegrate the body of Crespin.  It’s a little tricky.  It might be dangerous sometimes.

BD:    Was it the same after a song recital as it was after the opera?

RC:    Absolutely; maybe a little less after a song recital, because you are not just one personage.  But if you sing an operatic role, you are that personage for three hours.  It amazes you, really; it gets in you.  I remember some of my friends, even my husband, said, “My God, I am on the stage with you.  I talk with you, and suddenly you’ve past the line, being in front of the public.  You are no more there.  It’s you, I know it’s you, but it’s not my wife.”  It was amazing.  I didn’t feel that.  But he said it’s something really amazing, how suddenly I disappear.  I am still there, but it’s not him.

BD:    Could he see the line coming back, and it was you again?

RC:    Yes, of course, I hope so!  [Both laugh]

BD:    In a song recital, are these lots of little different operas?

crespinRC:    Absolutely.  It’s a lot of different acts, a lot of little stories which are two or three minutes by a certain composer.  If you sing some song by Schumann, by Fauré, by Debussy, you jump to a genre which is light and funny or heavy or dramatic or sad.  So it’s a kind of like being a clown in the circus.  When they laugh, they jump and they do everything they are to do.  We are a little bit like this in recitals.  We have to jump from two minutes of a sad story, and then the next one is going to be a light one, a funny one.  The Fauré one is going to be French, and then we do one in German or Spanish and even English.  So it is a kind of a gymnastic, which is fun to do.  I might say it is a challenge, a fantastic challenge.  But still, you are alone in a certain way, with the music and the accompanist, but really alone to create a little story, one after another.  If you sing Tosca, for instance, you are Tosca all the way through, changing according to what’s happening, but it is still this woman.  In recital, it is completely different.  But for me, a recital which is well performed, well done, is much more interesting than the opera!  For me it was a fascinating world of imagination or creation.  You are really alone with the pianist and the music.  On the stage in an opera, you have a colleague, orchestra, costume, a wig, make up and so on.  You don’t show your real self.  In a recital, you have to be more open, more exposed.

BD:    You are more naked?

RC:    I say that all the time — we are naked in front of a piano, absolutely.  But it’s a challenge.

BD:    Is program-building for the song recital something that every singer must learn?

RC:    That is a big thing!  You have to know how to build it, to do a program.  I saw a recital not so long ago
no names and no place — but this was the most boring recital I saw in my life!  All the songs were beautiful, but they were all in the same mood; all the recital was in the same mood.  The artist who was singing was a good one, but it was all the same mood all the time!  You have to build.  The beginning of the recital must be a high point.  Then if you sing, for instance, a cycle with seven or eight songs by Schumann or Schubert or Mahler, you have to make some contrast in the choice of the cycle you are going to sing.  Then you have to think about the end.  The beginning of the second part, since the public have had an intermission and left the hall, you have to take them back and catch them again.  And the end of the recital has to be really the highest point.  So it’s a little playful to build the recital, to put that here in the second part or in the middle of the second part, to consider that is light and something else is not light.  It’s a little like a puzzle.

BD:    And all the time you have to be careful of the throat!

RC:    Yes.  We spend a lot of time when we make the choice of the program, because you have to try this or that cycle.  I think I would like to sing that, but vocally it’s not really for me.  So to build a recital, it takes you sometimes six months because sometimes you have to learn the cycle.  If you want to try to sing that cycle, you have to learn it and sing it, and then finally you say, “No, I’m sorry.  It’s not for me.”

BD:    Is there a secret to singing French chansons?

RC:    [Laughs]  No.  A secret?  No, there is no secret.  No, I don’t think so.  You have to learn French, a little bit, of course, but we all do that; we sing in it.  It’s very common to sing in English and Spanish and in German, in French, in Italian.  You have to sing in three languages at least, so it’s not so uncommon.  With French, you have to, maybe, have some flair, and listen to the music, listen to the elegance of the phrases.  But it’s the same in German.  If you sing an Italian cycle it’s the same; if you sing some Spanish songs, you have to get in the — how can I put that?
— in the earth of Spain or Italy or France.  You understand what I mean?  In the roots, which is sometimes not so easy.  But it’s interesting.  It’s a fabulous search.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Coming back to opera for a moment, you were offered all kinds of roles.  How did you decide
yes I will sing this role, no I will not sing that role, I will put this role off for many years?

RC:    In fact, first of all, you don’t decide.  It’s your voice who decides.  For my part, I would have loved to sing Dalila in Samson et Dalila, but I couldn’t because I didn’t have the voice.  I would have loved to sing Lucia, but I couldn’t.  That would have required a high coloratura.

BD:    That’s interesting because those who sing Dalila usually say, “I would love to sing Tosca.”

RC:    You have to follow the voice you have, first of all.  Then in the repertoire you can sing, you might have a choice.  You may decide not to sing this or that.  I did some stupid choices sometimes, made a mistake.

BD:    But you can’t know that, though, until you’ve done it.

RC:    No.  For instance, I refused two or three parts I should have sung
— for instance, Don Carlo by Verdi.  I should have sung this part and it was Karajan who offered it to me.  For two years I said, “No, I don’t want to sing it.”  He asked why, and I said, “I don’t think it’s an interesting part.  You have to cross the stage with beautiful wigs and costumes and so on, and then to wait until the fourth or fifth act to sing a beautiful aria.”  He said, “You’re crazy, Crespin, you’re crazy,” and he didn’t talk to me for two years.  He was upset, and he was right — I was crazy!  But I thought it was not a part where I can show my qualities, so I felt it was not for me.  Another role I should have sung was Isolde.

BD:    [Somewhat surprised]  Really???

RC:    Yes, of course.  For four or five years I was in Bayreuth, and every morning Wieland Wagner, the grandson of Wagner, said, “Guten Tag, Frau Isolde.”  I replied, “No, Guten Tag, Frau Crespin.”  The first time I listened to that opera, it was Kirsten Flagstad who sang.  She had an enormous, beautiful voice, like honey.  And each time I opened that score and began to learn it, the voice of Flagstad was in my ears, and I said, “No, impossible!”

BD:    Did you never even sing the Liebestod?

RC:    Yes, I sang that in concert, but never the entire part.  But I have a good answer to that.  Leonie Rysanek never sang Isolde, and she said, “I prefer that people say, ‘what a pity she didn’t sing it,’ instead of saying, ‘what a pity she did sing it.’”  So I take that answer for me, too.

BD:    But you did sing several great Wagner parts — Sieglinde and Elsa...

RC:    Yes, Sieglinde, Elsa, Elizabeth in Tannhäuser, Senta, Kundry.

BD:    Did Wagner write well for the voice?

RC:    Not bad.  Not so bad.  The orchestras are too loud, sometimes.  But we have to remember, and Karajan was saying that very often, to sing Wagner like an Italian part.  And in fact when he wrote those characters, what we call now the Wagnerian style or the Wagnerian voice didn’t exist at that time.  Who was singing Wagner?  The ones who were singing bel canto things!  So Karajan was very, very insisting that we should sing all the Wagner parts almost like an Italian legato sound.  And he is right.  Kundry is a little bit special because she has a little crazy moment.  [Both laugh]  But for the rest of the parts, no, it shouldn’t be too difficult — if you have the voice to do it, of course!  You need a rather loud voice, but if you have the voice, you shouldn’t shout, you shouldn’t push.  No, I don’t think it is so difficult.

crespinBD:    Did you change your technique at all for a small house or a big house?

RC:    No, never.  Why?  No, no.  The technique is the same.  I remember when I did my debut here in Chicago — oh, wow!  This hall is really enormous!  But no, I don’t change.  I never had the idea to change something if it was a little hall or a big one, if the acoustic is good.  The acoustic is rather difficult here, if I remember... not difficult, but this hall is loud, big, and not round.

BD:    It goes straight out, straight back.

RC:    Oui.  It’s far, really, but I don’t think I had any problem to be heard.  [Laughs]

BD:    Even if you did not sing differently for big houses and small houses, did you sing differently for the microphone?

RC:    Good question.  First of all, I hated microphones!  I wrote a book about my life and it has a chapter on microphones.  [Laughs]  It is a funny one.  For me, it was really a nightmare to record because I was lacking the public.  And you know, when you do a recording, you repeat; you do so many
takes, and then you go to listen, you correct, then you go back, and so on and so on.  So it becomes a little bit too mechanical for my taste and for my reaction.  After a while, I was lacking my spontaneity, my enthusiasm.  I was lacking the reaction of a public.  So finally I invited some friends, and said, “Just sit there and I will sing for you, and if you are happy, okay.”  But if that was not possible, if I was alone, I was imagining that somebody was there, somebody I loved very muchmy husband or a friend — and I was singing for him or for her.  I need that impression, that I was singing for somebody!  But yet, you know, all the singers are complaining about pirate recordings.  We shouldn’t, because I have heard many pirate recitals and operas, and I really saw there how it was spontaneous, more interesting in the interpretation, more alive than a recording made in the studio.  Absolutely there is a big differencefor me at least.

BD:    In the recording studio, do they try to get it technically perfect?

RC:    Absolutely.  And each time you record a phrase or an act or a scene, you think it is the good one, that it’s all you have to sing.  Then when you arrive at the sixth or seventh take...  I have a very good story about that.  In Genève, we made Les Nuits d’Été and Shéhérazade with Ansermet conducting, which is one of my most famous recordings.  At the end of Spectre de la Rose, the song finishes with, “que tous les rois vont jalouser” — all the kings are going to be jealous of my place because I’m dying on your heart.  Ansermet said, “Could we do that again?”  “Sure, maestro.”  And we did it, and we went to listen again and again.  I did something like eleven or twelve takes.  I was scratching my brain, thinking what does he want?  What shall I change?  What did I do wrong?  I didn’t understand.  Finally I said, “Maestro, what’s wrong there?  You seem not to be happy with that phrase.”  He said, “When you sing tous les rois vont, there is a little breath coming with the voice.”  I said, “Oh, God.”  And I explained, “Maestro, the rose is dying, so it is a last breath.”  And he said, “Oh, so we use the first take because it was the best.”  So this is an example!  [Laughs]  A funny one, but...

BD:    I have been told that often the first take is the best.

RC:    Very often!  But to go back to your question, I didn’t like very much to record.  I didn’t enjoy it, completely.  For a long time, I didn’t want to listen to my recordings.  When I would listen, I heard only the bad things, and I was upset — you should not have done that, you should have done it again!  It took me some years to be able to listen to my recordings.  But once in a while, if I listen to one of my recordings, once in a while I say, “Well, it’s not so bad, finally.”  But it’s difficult.  In a way, it is like if it is not me.  I am judging or feeling some things, almost like it is somebody else.

BD:    Because it’s finally so far removed?

RC:    It’s far, yes.  It’s amazing, yet I know it’s me, of course!  [Laughs]

BD:    Of the various operatic roles you sang, is there one that is perhaps too close to the real Régine Crespin?

RC:    Oh, oh!  That is a question!  Not really.  I’m thinking...  No, I wouldn’t say that.  I wouldn’t say I was preferring this one, or I lived this one better than this one.  But close to one, not really.  Maybe, maybe, maybe, maybe, the Marschallin, but no, I think I am completely different.

BD:    I assume, though, that there is something of you in each role you sang?

RC:    Of course, yes.  That’s certainly true.  In fact, if you ever are able to say that you were good in a role, it means that really it was showing you more than another one, that it worked some connection with you and your own self.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Is singing fun?

RC:    Yes, absolutely!  Sometimes
it’s a nightmare!  Sometimes it’s cruel, but it’s fun.  Yes, it’s great fun, a great pleasure.  We know that and we should never forget that.

BD:    Let me ask one last easy question.

RC:    An easy one?  [Laughs]

lpBD:    What’s the purpose of music?

RC:    [With a thoughtful smile]  You think it is an easy one?  Oh, my God!  The purpose of music?  To charm, to make you dream, to take you out of your usual life with taxes to pay and taking the bus or the subway to work.  I think the purpose of music is to get people out of their usual occupation or life, and to give them a moment of pleasure, of good.  It is being in a dream in a no man’s land, where they can imagine whatever they want.  Even if they are not in the public, but listening to music of a recording, I think it’s that.  I have a story that maybe will illustrate what I want to say.  My recording of Shéhérazade and Nuits d’Été had been out for one or two years.  One day my secretary told me, “There is a gentleman who is calling very often.  He would like to talk to you.”  I said, “Oh, probably he wants a photo.  Ask him his name and I will send him a photo, and then he will stop calling.”  But she said, “No, he’s insisting.”  So one day I was there when he called, and I spoke to him.  He said, “Madame, I just want to tell you something very quickly.  Some months ago I was told I had cancer.  I didn’t want to go on to the end with the cancer, and I managed to get some pills.  When I decided it would be that night, I stopped on the way home and bought a bottle of whiskey.  As I was passing by a recording store, I saw your new recording, so I bought it.  I went home and started to listen to
Shéhérazade and Nuits d’Été, Shéhérazade and Nuits d’Été for hours, hours, hours.  I drank the bottle of whiskey, but I put the pills in the toilet.  I am still here, and I didn’t have the cancer.”  When he had told me this, I was really emotional and I said, “I want to see you.”  He said, “No, no, no, no, I just want to say thank you for what you can bring to the public, and the people.”  One day I was coming out of the Opéra in Paris, and I saw a young man of thirty or thirty-five, with a rose.  I don’t know why, but I said, “You are Mr. So-and-So?”  And he said, “Shhh!”  He didn’t want to bother me.  It was a fabulous story in my life because he was discreet enough not to insist to see me, but he just wanted to tell me how we can bring joy and happiness and dreams to the people.  In the beginning, I didn’t believe so much in that idea, but now I feel that it is... [pauses a moment]  not our duty, but we are here to do that.  We are on Earth, and we have a voice or a talent to play a piano or write or whatever it is, to give that to the others.  But in reward, we receive a lot of love in exchange.  It is a blessing.  I tell that to my young students all the time.  I say, “It’s a blessing to do a job that you enjoy!  Think about people who are working to buy a steak or a car, and they don’t like their jobs!  How many are in that situation and have to work like that?”  So if you do something you like and you enjoy, say thank you every morning to whomever you want, but say thank you!

Regine Crespin, French Opera Diva Dies at 80

by Tom Huizenga

July 6, 2007 - Regine Crespin, one of France's greatest opera singers died Wednesday in Paris. She was 80 years old.

Crespin was born in Marseilles and came to singing late, at age 16, a result of not passing the entrance exams for college. She made her opera debut in 1948 in Reims in the role of Charlotte in Massenet's Werther, and began to make a name for herself singing in other regional opera houses in France.

Crespin's breakthrough came in Bayreuth, the German town which hosts the annual Wagner festival in the opera house built by the composer. When she sang for Wagner's grandson Wieland, who ran the festival, she had to perform Wagner's music in French as she had not learned the original German. She was hired, quickly got a German vocal coach, and made her Bayreuth debut in 1958 in the pivotal role of Kundry in Wagner's Parsifal.

As her international career expanded Crespin began to make records. Critic John Steane has written eloquently about Crespin, calling her "one of the great singers on record." But, he points out, not everyone will be immediately drawn to her voice.

"Her singing is an acquired taste that becomes addictive," he writes. "The voice itself (strong as it is, and beautiful at a pianissimo) is unlikely to register as particularly rich or pure or even as original."

Among the records regarded as her best is the 1963 recording of the song cycle Les Nuits D'ete by Hector Berlioz. Steane focuses on the song "L'Absence," particularly the opening word "Reviens." Steane appreciates the care Crespin takes with that single repeated word, like a call out to a lover.

"We feel the voice going out into the distance," he writes. "The first 'reviens' is shaded down to make the echo; the last syllable grows as a call sent out into a valley."

Crespin had many triumphs in her career, including singing the role of the Marschallin in Richard Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier both on record—with conductor George Solti—and on stage. She also won rave reviews for her collaborations with soprano Birgit Nilsson, especially her portrayal of Sieglinde to Nilsson's Brunhilde in Wagner's Die Walküre at the Metropolitan Opera in New York.

In her later years Crespin was an effective voice teacher, giving master classes at Mannes College of Music, in New York.

© 1996 Bruce Duffie

This interview was recorded at the Opera House in Chicago on March 29, 1996.  Portions (along with recordings) were used on WNIB two days later, and again in 1997.  A portion was also included in the group of Jubilarians posted on the website of Lyric Opera of Chicago to celebrate their 50th Anniversary.  This transcription was made and posted on this website in 2010.

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

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

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