Soprano  Wilhelmenia  Fernandez

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


Wilhelmenia Fernandez was born in Philadelphia on January 1, 1949. Her early training was at the Philadelphia Academy of Vocal Arts, followed by a scholarship at the Juilliard School of Music in New York City. Her operatic debut was as Bess in Porgy and Bess, for Houston Grand Opera, in a production which toured both the U.S. and Europe. She appeared in the 1981 film Diva by French director Jean-Jacques Beineix.

She made her début in Paris as Musetta in La bohème (with Plácido Domingo and Dame Kiri Te Kanawa), and at the New York City Opera in the same role in 1982. Since then she has sung in operas and recitals in cities all over the world.

Her more notable roles have been the title roles in Carmen, Carmen Jones (for which she received the Laurence Olivier Theatre Award in 1992 as Best Actress in a Musical), and Aïda (a role she has performed in Luxor and at the Egyptian pyramids). She has also made recordings of George Gershwin songs and of Negro spirituals.

Besides Diva, she performed on the soundtrack of Someone to Watch Over Me.

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

Wilhelmenia Fernandez was in Chicago in October of 1987 to perform with the Chicago Sinfonietta, led by Paul Freeman.  She sang Ah Perfido, Op. 65 of Beethoven, and an aria from La Wally, which she had sung in the movie Diva.  The orchestra had recently been formed, and she commented on their unity of sound.  
It sounds like they’ve been playing together for years, and years, and years, and that’s good because I have worked with orchestras who have been around for years, and years, and years, and they sound like they’re sight-reading.  So it was very refreshing.

On a day between rehearsals, she graciously agreed to meet with me in a quiet restaurant for an interview . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:   Thank you very much for taking time from a very busy schedule.

Wilhelmenia Fernandez:   This is my relaxation day.  If I weren’t doing this, I’d be in the store shopping, so this is safer for everybody!  [Laughter]

BD:   Do you like being a wandering minstrel?

Fernandez:   Yes!  Yes, I do!  It’s pleasurable, and I’m one of those few that gets to do what they like with the career, and with the life-time, so it’s nice.
BD:   Has the career been developing the way you wanted?

Fernandez:   Exactly, almost to the letter.  You have goals for yourself that you want to be here, and doing this sort of thing by the year 2000!  I’ve had to move some of my dates because I made those calls, but they’re happy.  It just wasn’t time yet, but it’ll happen.

BD:   You’re an opera singer and a concert singer.  How do you divide your career between those two phases?

Fernandez:   The different performances come in to my management.  Mostly what’s happening this rest of this year
, the latter part of 1987, is being completed with concerts and recitals.  Starting last January up until the end of July, I had only opera to do, so it’s worked out very well this year.  But during the year, I’m able to mix concerts with the opera, depending on what opera I’m having to sing.  Certainly, I’m not going to do Aïda one week, or for three weeks, and then jump into something Wagnerianwhich I don’t even sing anywaybecause that would be disastrous.  But having a mixture of the two, and certainly being able to have a rest with a recital or a concert, is quite helpful and healthy for me.

BD:   Healthy for the voice?

Fernandez:   Yes.

BD:   Do you ever feel that you’re a slave to the voice?

Fernandez:   No, not really, because since age seven I’ve only ever wanted to sing.  I began singing then, and at thirteen I saw my first opera.  Then that’s all I’ve ever wanted to do was be an opera singer, or a concert soloist, and I just went about in creating that.  I never thought I was really a slave to the voice.  I know I speak of it sometimes as a separate entity
myself and then the voicebut we are one.

BD:   Your voice dictates which roles you will sing.  Do you like the characters that the voice imposes on you?

Fernandez:   Yes, and it only dictates for a while, certainly until you get into a vocal maturity to move on to something else.  You can make the voice lighter for a particular role, and you can make it heavier and darker for a particular role.  But it’s quite chancy, because in doing that, you are stretching the vocal cords one way or the other, and that you don’t want to do.  You just want to mature gradually and evenly, so you don’t force at any rate to do one or the other, to go deeper, or to go higher, or to go lighter, but it can be done.

BD:   How do you decide which roles you will accept, and which roles you will either postpone or decline completely?

Fernandez:   I go by ear, first of all.  I listen to different recordings of the role, and with the score I’m able to determine vocally whether or not I’m ready to do it.  In doing just an aria, you don’t get a full picture of what you can do with it.  You have to listen to it, and you have to read through the score with a coach to really determine whether or not you have the stamina and the maturity to go through it.  That’s how I decide it.  Wagnerian roles are still too heavy for me to do, so I won’t even attempt those.  I am now moving into Verdi repertoire.  I attempted to do some Puccini, but for me he is still heavier than singing Verdi.  So I’m taking more time to develop into that kind of a more dramatic soprano.  In singing Verdi, I can still keep my lyrical control and my legato line going, more so than I can with Puccini.  But it’s a different progression, and it’s nice watching it grow and develop.  You have to take your time.  I only do one Puccini role a year, and the rest are Verdi or Mozart.  Mozart is probably the healthiest to sing.

BD:   Tell me the secret of singing Mozart.

Fernandez:   Oh, there is no secret.  If there is a secret, I don’t know it yet!  [Both laugh]  He needs a lot of discipline, but it’s a totally different discipline than doing Verdi or any other composer.

BD:   How so?

Fernandez:   He’s a lighter composer.  He’s more fluid.  You have to have a lot of agility and flexibility to the voice, and, in having that, you must also be light.  You can’t take a lot of weight or heavy tones into the upper register in singing.  You’ll never finish the opera.  You’ll never get through it, so it’s just a matter of re-thinking how to stay light.  It’s very soothing on the voice because the voice is constantly moving.  You just stay healthier for some reason, and you don’t feel as tired at the end of evening... at least I don’t.  [Both laugh]  So, maybe I’m still doing it correctly.

BD:   Hopefully you’ll always do it correctly!

Fernandez:   Hopefully!

BD:   Do you change your technique at all from a small house to a big house, or from a concert hall to the opera house?

Fernandez:   I try not to change technique, because technique is something you should be able to fall back on in any kind of circumstance.  The technique remains rather steady and steadfast.  You can’t change acoustics in either a concert hall or an opera house.  There is no way you can do it, so you have to adjust.  If there’s wood, you try to use the wood if there’s a lot of wood around.  That’s very helpful because the voice can resonate on that.  If there’s carpeting and velvet you have problems, because that absorbs a lot.  You just hope for the best, and try to find the live spot on stage, and go for it.  [Both laugh]

BD:   And work with your projection?

Fernandez:   And work with projection, exactly.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Which is the role you’ve sung perhaps most often?

Fernandez:   In opera, it’s a toss-up between Aïda and Musetta, which are two opposites, but I’ve had a great deal of success in both.

BD:   Let’s talk about each of them in turn.  Tell me about the Ethiopian Princess.  What kind of woman is she?
Fernandez:   She’s a very complex woman.  She’s a princess.  I don’t play her as a slave.  I play her character not quite not the same as Amneris, because Amneris is a higher-being in this case.  But Aïda does have a personality that she has to bring out, that of being a princess in her own right.  She is being torn between two lovesher love of country, and her love of a man who is the enemy.

BD:   Does she feel that she is a victim being torn this way?

Fernandez:   She is a victim.  Her own country makes her a victim, and she is used and manipulated by her own father.  In order to win the war, her father has to use her, and so she is a victim of that.  She is a victim of the time, too.  She’s also a victim of Radamès, who is also trying to use her.  He loves her, but at the same time, he does a little bit of manipulating at the beginning
at least up until the third act, when he really does succumb to his love for her.  He does forsake everything for her, and I don’t think for a minute he really expected ever to get caught.  He would go off if there was a different fourth act, or a fifth act in this opera.  But all of that has to be portrayed.  Musetta, on the other hand, has fun.  She’s carefree, and a very loving person.  She is also very caring.

BD:   Then why is she so combative with her men?

Fernandez:   Oh, that’s just the flirtation she has to go through.  That’s the game she plays.  That’s what she feeds on!  But when it really comes down to it, Musetta’s the one who takes charge of the situation about helping Mimì by selling jewelry in order to get medicine.  She even helps Rodolfo and Marcello see what kind of woman Mimì is.  Musetta is a genuine person that can care and can feel, and it certainly comes out in the last act, in the prayer that she sings right before the medicine is being prepared.  That is very, very touching if you really stop to think about what’s going there.  This woman has stopped a moment, and she’s praying!  It’s really quite a moving moment.

BD:   What happens to Musetta in the
fifth act?

Fernandez:   [Laughs]  In the
fifth act she’s lives happily ever after with Marcello, because she makes that a promise to Mimì.  Mimì makes Marcello and Musetta promise that they would be happy.

BD:   Are they really happy after that?

Fernandez:   There’s a little turbulence every once in a while!  [Both laugh]  I like this turbulence.

BD:   So you enjoy playing these roles?

Fernandez:   Yes, I do.  I enjoy the different characters.  I don’t like being type-cast into one particular character.  After a while, you can only bring so much to the role, but I like being able to create a different characterization, and build each one because I’m always learning how to do that.  I can’t play Musetta as I play Aïda, or as I play Leonora in Il Trovatore.  They are separate women, and are all heroines in their own right.

BD:   These are all strong women.

Fernandez:   Very!

BD:   Do you like playing strong women?

Fernandez:   Yes, yes, yes!  I am preparing Tosca now, which is probably the strongest role that I’ll undertake... no, I shouldn’t say ever undertake, because there are still a few that I haven’t done yet that I will do.  This will be my third production of Tosca, which will be taking place in Prague in the spring.  In preparing her for this particular time, I’m finding different things than I did the last two times.  So it’s nice being able to watch the learning process, and watch the growth that I’m making.  It’s very interesting because the first time I sang it, that’s what I did
I simply sang the role of Tosca.

BD:   That was all?

Fernandez:   That was all.  I didn’t really go into depth about the strength that Tosca can have, and does have, and has to pull off.  She has to be a very strong woman, and a very manipulative woman.

BD:   She has to out-manipulate Scarpia.

Fernandez:   Yes she does, and that comes out musically and vocally.  I don’t do it so much dramatically, or by using a lot of body language, because it can be done, and should be done, vocally, just with nuances and being able to lighten the voice, and make it as strong as possible when she needs to be strong.

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

Fernandez:   [Laughs]  When does one take over from the other?  When in doubt, be dramatic!  [Both laugh]  There’s a lot of music out there that one can get very, very involved in.  You can forget vocally what you’re doing, and the dramatic will take over.  At that point you’ve already crossed the line, and it can be a little dangerous.  I remember during my first production of Tosca...  Luckily it was in a rehearsal situation, where during the stabbing of Scarpia I was so dramatic.  At that point, I had already crossed the line, and I could not drop the knife.  I was kneeling over the body, and I was just shaking.  It took five minutes for the director to come over and calm me down, and calm my hand.  I was just that intense into what I was doing.

BD:   [Quietly moving the chair slightly farther away from my guest]  I should warn all baritones that they’re in mortal danger!  [Both laugh]

Fernandez:   I thanked God this was a rehearsal.  I can’t imagine what I would have done had that been a performance situation.  I was happy it came out there, because then I knew it was time to pull back and do something differently.  I learned that I was able to take it to the most extreme, and then I could bring it back, and re-channel that new-found energy.

*     *     *     *     *
BD:   Do you sing any of your roles in translation?

Fernandez:   No, I’ve not had to do that.

BD:   Is it a good idea to translate opera?

Fernandez:   I don’t like translating them, I really don’t.  I feel that it does lose something in the translation.  It was written in Italian, and it’s so lyrical, so why do you want to mess with it?  [Both laugh]  Why change it?  I’ve tried it in French and it didn’t work.  I really didn’t like it.

BD:   You don’t like to have an extra step closer to the audience for these characters?

Fernandez:   No, it’s their turn to do their homework.  They can read.  It’s okay to have the libretto, and they should do their homework before coming to the opera.  When a translation is used, I think you’re asking the performers to not bring everything that they can bring to it.  They want us to bring it down to their level instead of coming up to our level, and I don’t think it’s quite fair.

BD:   Have you seen this new gimmick with the supertitles in the theater?  [Remember, this conversation took place in 1987, when supertitles were just starting to be used in a lot of theaters.]

Fernandez:   Yes, and I find it quite interesting.  I was one of those people who was very optimistic about how it was going to work, and so I purposely went to a performance that had the supertitles.  I was waiting to be convinced, and I was thoroughly convinced about it.

BD:   Oh, good!

Fernandez:   I was happy about that, because by sitting in the audience and watching the supertitles, I was much more in touch with what was happening on stage and with the singers.  I also found that people around me were more interested in what was happening throughout the entire evening.  During the intermission they were discussing what just happened, and what they just saw, and they were looking forward to act two and act three, and not where they were going to have dinner or drinks after the performance.  I said to one of them,
“That’s great, because we’re up there trying to create a story, and we can’t really do our job thoroughly unless you are with us.  So it worked out well, and I was convinced.  On the other hand, it gets a little hair-raising sometimes when the English does not translate word for word what you’re singing about.  In Trovatore we were singing about the sword and the daggers, and the men on stage had guns.  [Laughs]

BD:   Whose fault was that?  Is it the one who has done the translation for the titles, or is is it the director for putting in the guns instead of swords?

Fernandez:   I’m going to blame the director in this case, because it was an updated version of Trovatore.  It was not the traditional setting.  It was updated to the Spanish Civil War period, and when the titles arrived, the opera company was not licensed to tamper with the translation.  So it had to remain.  Basically, ninety-nine per cent of it was correct, but that other one per cent was a little shaky.

BD:   Let’s talk a little bit about the directors.  Do you like the ideas that modern producers have come up with in the last twenty or thirty years?

Fernandez:   It could be very dangerous for me to answer that!  [Both laugh]

BD:   Without mentioning any specific names...

Fernandez:   [Thinks a moment]  Some of them work, but some of them are a bit too avant-garde.  If you have people who are attending opera for the first time, they’re missing something if they’re not able to see a traditional performance, because in seeing an updated production and a new idea, they have nothing to compare it with.  They’re not really getting the beauty of the work, because the music was written in that period, and its poetic language is trying to be translated to the audience.  When you update it, some of that is lost.  Actually, a great deal of that can be lost, and you find yourself having to change the text, and you are not being true to the composer.  It’s a thin line that you walk when you try and do that.

BD:   But some of them are very successful?

Fernandez:   Some of them are very successful, yes.  Last year I did a performance of Aïda in Nice, which was updated to a timeless period of the year 3000.  It was taking place on a planet somewhere in the galaxy, and the costumes were all black leather and chains.  It was a little strange, and the whole mental attitude of the singers had to change, because here we were talking about an Ethiopian slave and an Egyptian princess, who are supposed to be young girls who are fifteen or sixteen years old, and now we have to re-think this whole situation of the year 3000!  How does one think in the year 3000 with leather and very exotic animals?  [Laughs]

BD:   How did the director handle the tomb scene?

Fernandez:   We suffocated under plastic bags which we put on our heads.  It’s a little bizarre, but you’re also asking your audience to wipe out everything they’ve seen before, and look at this new concept.

BD:   Are you optimistic about the future of opera?

Fernandez:    A bit.  I would like to see it remain as it is, meaning very traditional.  I’m one who is from the Old School.  I like the old ways of learning, of teaching, and of theater.  The traditional ways of opera have been so beautiful.  I know it continues to be very expensive to do opera that way because costumes are phenomenal now, and orchestra fees are expensive.  Artists’ fees are also growing, so it is a lot to consider, but there’s still a place for it, certainly.  I don’t think it ever will completely die out.

BD:   What is the place of opera in society?

Fernandez:   How do you mean?

BD:   In the philosophical sense, what is the purpose of music or opera in society today?

Fernandez:   It has a language of past, present and future, and it’s a way of keeping our tradition going.  It’s a European tradition, and I know Americans are trying to get closer to the European style of living.  It’s comforting, it’s enjoyable, it’s entertainment, and it’s fulfilling.

BD:   You used a word I want to pounce on,
entertainment.  Where’s the balance between the entertainment value and the artistic achievement?

Fernandez:   [Thinks a moment]  You have the artistic beauty with the vocal beauty, and with the dramatic beauty you are entertaining.  You are portraying a story.  The difference between opera and seeing a play is that the opera is set to music, so it’s dramatic that way.  A play or musical comedy is also entertainment.  It does have music, and it may have a happier medium to it, but Mozart operas are funny too.  The Marriage of Figaro is hilarious.
BD:   In that opera, which role do you singthe Countess or Susanna?

Fernandez:   Oh, the Countess!  I’m not quite dainty enough to do Susanna!  [Both laugh]

BD:   Tell me about the Countess.  Is she still happy with the Count at all?

Fernandez:   [Laughs]  I don’t know.  With all these strong characters I’m singing I think not, but she would whip him into shape.  [Both laugh]  But yes, they have an understanding.  It’s almost what you would have today... it
s okay, and as long as it’s not in front of me perhaps I could tolerate it.

BD:   Does she really forgive him in the fourth act?

Fernandez:   Yes, I do.  I always forgive him.

BD:   It’s interesting because this is one of the very few characters in opera where I don’t have to ask you what happens in the
fifth act.  We know what happens.  She goes off and has a child with Cherubino.  [Beaumarchais wrote a trilogy: The Barber of Seville (which is known through the opera by Rossini), The Marriage of Figaro, and La Mère Coupable (The Guilty Mother), which was made into an opera in 1966 by Milhaud, but is virtually unknown.]  Because we know that, should there be any special interplay in between the Countess and Cherubino that would hint at what is coming in the next play?

Fernandez:   No, no.  I like the space, and the mystery and the wondering.

BD:   What other Mozart do you sing?  Donna Anna in Don Giovanni?

Fernandez:   No!  I do Donna Elvira because she is much, much stronger than Anna would ever be.  I don’t want to say Anna is a wimp, but she’s not a strong character at all.  She’s indecisive.  She doesn’t know what she wants.  She is dependent a lot, and in life I am not dependent.

BD:   Is Donna Anna still a virgin, because Donna Elvira is certainly not.

Fernandez:   No, Elvira is not, but actually neither is Anna.  In all of her rage, I think deep down Anna is waiting Giovanni for to come back to her.  She seeks him out, and she did have that one fling with him at the beginning of the opera.  She keeps putting Ottavio off because her real passion is with Giovanni.  She’s waiting for somebody, if not Giovanni, then someone to come along like him, and Ottavio is certainly not it!  [Both laugh]  That’s why she keeps putting him off.

BD:   So Ottavio a real wimp?

Fernandez:   Yes, he is, because if he had any real guts he’d say,
“This is how it’s going to be, and we are going to be married.  I will take care of you, even if I’m killed in the process.  Enough of this!

BD:   Let’s talk about Elvira.  She’s madly in love with Giovanni?

Fernandez:   Yes, she is, and she prays to the gods that all of the vengeance be cast on her and not him.  In the aria Mi Tradì, she’s cursing him again, saying,
“Why did you leave me?  You’re a traitor, and you’re an infidel, but it doesn’t have to be this way.  Let me love you.  I love you so much.  Let all of the gods’ wrath be turned on me so you’ll be spared for me.  It’s all in her mind because she is a crazy lady!  [Much laughter]  But she does love him.

BD:   Obviously that’s not the real you.  That is Donna Elvira, but you’ve got to portray all that on the stage.

Fernandez:   [With a broad smile]  Yes, yes!

BD:   Is there any character that is perhaps slightly too close to the real Wilhelmenia Fernandez?

Fernandez:   [Thinks again]  I don’t know.  The more I’m learning, Tosca is getting closer and closer and closer to what I think I am about.  I say that because of the aria Vissi d’Arte.  I know that my life is geared to art, and without that I would just be floundering.  I don’t know what I’d be doing.  Maybe I’d be happily married and raising children, but I live for art, and art lives for me.  It’s there for me to have a niche in life, and I’m out there making my footprints in the sand.

BD:   It’s a complete life for you?

Fernandez:   Yes, yes.  It’s an interesting balance between my artistic life and family life, because I do have a fourteen-year-old daughter.  It’s quite something having a career, and watching that, and letting that be almost ninety per cent of my life, and it’s bad to say it this way, but then you squeeze in ten per cent for a daughter.  [Laughs]  It’s not really that way at all.  It’s not even fifty-fifty because I receive everything.  I’m most happy performing, but I am as happy with my daughter, and raising her, and creating a home and life for her.  Without any hesitation, if anything should happen where I couldn’t sing, or if it started getting in the way of her life, I would close the score in a second.  There would be no second thoughts about it.

BD:   You would table the career and come back to it later?

Fernandez:   Or not come back to it later.

BD:   [Very surprised]  Really???

Fernandez:   I have been fulfilled this far, so I would never have to say,
Well, I could have done such-and-such, and if I had continued with it, I might have been this far in my career.  If something happened vocally right this minute, I could honestly and truthfully say that I was blessed for a moment of time to have been able to witness such a career, and such a gift of God.  I have nothing to be envious of anyone else being able to continue on the career.  I did have one.

BD:   I do hope it goes on for many, many years!

Fernandez:   So do I!  [Both laugh]

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Have you made some recordings?

Fernandez:   Yes.  The first recording is Negro Spirituals [shown above-left], and the second recording is of Gershwin songs.  Of course, there’s the recording of the sound track of my Diva, and I’ve sung one song on a jazz album.  It’s not a complete album of myself, but it is performed by Jamaaladeen Tacuma with a bass guitarist.  He wrote a lovely song called The Bird of Paradise, which is no more than a vocalise, and it is beautiful.  [Album is shown above-right.]  He contacted me and asked me if I would perform it, so I listened to it and it’s just lovely!  That’s the only input I have on jazz.  I’m not a crossover artist yet...

BD:   Are you pleased with these recordings that are out?

Fernandez:   I think they could be better, and again I’m saying that just through listening and reading different critiques about them, where vocally they were letter perfect.  The critics even mentioned that but, for instance, the Spirituals.  They were too perfect!  They didn’t really have a spiritual sound to them.  I don’t want to say
Gospel sound because it’s not Gospel singing, but I was very conscious of diction, and one shouldn’t be that cautious with diction in spirituals.  They can lend themselves to being a little more dialectic.  The Gershwin, again, was very polished singing, and most of the critics that I was reading were saying that they would have liked to hear a more pop-sounding voice.  But I don’t have a pop voice, and I wasn’t going to go to that extreme to make the record more popular, because it is very popular in Europe.  It’s been released for a couple of years now, but distribution has been quite bizarre.  It was more polished, and perhaps not sultry enough for some listeners, but it was sultry enough for me.  That’s all I can say about that one.

BD:   By being in the film, does that attract more audience to opera because of your presence in it?

Fernandez:   Oh yes, certainly!  That was one of the main reasons why I did the film.  I didn’t know it then, but I thought that I would be able use it as a vehicle of introducing classical music and opera, even some drama
not that I’m acting much in the filmto a completely different audience who are probably not accustomed to going to the opera or hearing classical music.  More and more, I find in doing recitals and concerts that the audience is younger and younger, and it’s because they have seen the film.  They come backstage afterward and they say they’re only here because of me.  They saw the film, and it was wonderful, and it really intrigued them enough to want to come and see a live performance or a recital or a concert.  Not only are they coming to see me, but they say they’re going to see some other people, and that’s great!  So, I’ve tapped on a few people.

BD:   Are there any other films coming along?

Fernandez:   Yes, I’ve just completed work on Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice in Stuttgart.

BD:   You are singing Euridice [shown below]?


Fernandez:   Yes, and Orfeo is a young lady by the name of Graciella Araya, who is South American, but I don’t know which country.  It’s not coming to the theater.  It’s just going to be released on video cassette.

:   Do you feel that opera works well on a small screen, or the large screen?

Fernandez:   Yes, I do.  It’s moving in that direction where you’re going to be seeing more and more opera on television and up on screen.  I enjoy the work of Zeffirelli in Traviata, and also Carmen, and Otello.  It’s time for that kind of exposure to opera.  I don’t think it’s hurt in any way being on the screen.  Nothing is going to ever replace the die-hards who want to see a live performance, and the performers are still there to do live performances.  I don’t think it’s all going to end up on 35mm film, or something like that.
BD:   Do you sing differently for the film?

Fernandez:   No, I would sing the same way in the playback, though it’s a little different.  It has to be different.  You’re hearing yourself, and then you have to lip-sync to that, and the synchronization is certainly much different because you have a just a slight delay, and you tend to exaggerate the mouth movement so it doesn’t appear that you just speaking the words instead of actually singing the words.  But then again, you’re not really singing.  You’re just lip-synching.   It’s interesting.
BD:   Do you sing any contemporary opera at all?

Fernandez:   [Laughs]  No.

BD:   Would you?

Fernandez:   [Laughs again]  Probably not.  The most contemporary piece I
ve ever done was called Dreamcaller by Joseph Schwantner.  It would have been a few years ago.  It was contemporary, but it wasn’t so atonal that you couldn’t understand it, and you couldn’t follow it.  It was still very lyrical and very nice, and I enjoyed doing that.  At one point when I was in school and studying, I thought maybe one day I’d be singing The Medium [by Gian Carlo Menotti] some place, but I don’t really lean towards that so much.  I like the standbys which are tried and true.

BD:   You mentioned Wagner a couple of times.  Do you long to sing anything of his?

Fernandez:   No, never!  I’ve sat through the Ring cycle several times, and still wonder what’s just happened.  This music is so repetitive.  It just goes on and on and on!  It never stops!  I don’t think I want to get into that kind of turnstile!  [Both laugh]

BD:   I take it you won’t sing any minimalist music?

Fernandez:   No.  I was going to try and go to the performance tonight [Satyagraha by Philip Glass at Lyric Opera], and then I was informed that the tickets were $80, and I don’t think I want to see it quite that badly!  But it all depends.  I might change my mind in the next hour or so.  [Both laugh]  I really would like to see it.  I’ve heard a few people say it’s really good.

BD:   Thank you for being a singer!

Fernandez:   [Laughs]  Thank you!  Without people such as yourself to sit there and encourage, and applaud, we could not do it.  Even the critics can be very important in helping guide a singer as to what’s right and what’s wrong, what’s good and what’s going to be bad.  I look at them both ways, and the ones I can’t use, I just toss away.

BD:   I assume that most of your reviews have been good and favorable.

Fernandez:   [Laughs]  Most of them have, but I’ve had my share of not-so-good ones.  Being brutally honest with myself, I had to read them, and I often had to say he was right.

BD:   Then you learn from it?

Fernandez:   You do!  You learn from that, and you don’t do that again.  Or you get back with the coach, and you fix whatever you thought was going wrong at that particular time.  You hear yourself, but you don’t really listen to yourself.  Because I do the singing and thinking, I feel that I’m sounding wonderful.  Someone else can listen and they really hear what you’re doing.  You don’t really hear yourself or listen to yourself.  You’re pleasing yourself because you’re putting out, and you’re producing a sound that you think you want to hear, and what you think you should be sounding like, and it doesn
t come across to the listener quite that way all the time.

BD:   You need another set of ears to listen?

Fernandez:   You do.  Every once in a while you need that set which says to watch out.  That thing’s not quite right.  It’s not major, but you can help yourself a little by doing this with that.
BD:   Do you still go to the coach all the time?

Fernandez:   Yes.  It’s the one way of getting a good start on a particular role, or even on an art song.  You have to get to a coach to discuss it.  You discuss the period that you’re singing in, and the character if there’s a character to be had.  You also try to find out what motivated that particular composer to write the way he wrote, and to see what liberties you can or cannot take with it.  Going to a coach and working with a coach is multi-faceted.  A good coach can be very, very valuable because there’s so much information they can pass on to you.  It’s strange and it’s wonderful how much more he can still give me about the particular role.  We worked on Tosca last year.  Now we’re getting it ready again, and I’m still finding a flood of information that this character is able to give me.  It’s more than just how to sing on the principal and not on the interest.  It’s wonderful now.  I can sit back and realize I’m not totally expended at the end of the second act.  I still have somewhere to go with the character.  It
s how to use nuances, but even more to create the character and to create that kind of mysteriously strong woman that we’re trying to do without it being so vocal.  There can be a lot of drama in a whisper, as well as a very significant explosion on a note.  It can be really thrilling!  Sometimes it all depends on how you do it.  We’ve tried it various ways, and you find the one that’s going to work for you.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   What’s the next new role that you’ll be singing for the first time?
Fernandez:   I don’t have a new role I’m working on this year.  This year I do Aïda, Tosca, and Faust.

BD:   Do you sing any other French repertoire?

Fernandez:   No.  Faust is about it, and this is really going to be quite a feat for myself because I sing it in French and had a wonderful success with it in France.  Now I will be singing it in Belgium in French.  The general manager of the house is really taking a wonderful chance.  I like working with him, and he likes working with me.  He likes my work, and this is my third year back there.

BD:   This is in Brussels?

Fernandez:   No, in Liège.  I love Liège.  It’s a way of them really accepting me that I can sing their French now!  Belgian French is a little different from Parisian French.  Not that much, just a little, and the dialect is a little deeper.  [Pauses a moment to remember her last visit to the Windy City]  The last time I was here in Chicago, I did a voice-over on a Cheer commercial.  In fact, that was just a couple of months ago.

BD:   [Somewhat amazed]  Cheer, the laundry detergent???

Fernandez:   Yes!

BD:   Do you like doing commercials?  [Note that very early in his career, Sherrill Milnes did commercials for Marlboro cigarettes, and a few other products.]

Fernandez:   It was my first, and I’m not on camera.

BD:   It’s just a voice-over?

Fernandez:   Yes.  You just hear the voice, and it was very nice.  It didn’t take any time at all.  I’m doing the last eight measures of the aria from the film Diva.

BD:   [With a gentle nudge]  You’re not singing the Cheer jingle???

Fernandez:   [Laughs]  No, I’m singing behind the action.  It’s called
The Ice Cream Commercial because the gentleman walks on with a handkerchief, puts ice cream on the handkerchief, and pours the Cheer in.  He washes it the whole time I’m singing, and at the climax of the aria he whips it out and it’s totally clean.  He puts it in his pocket and walks off with the ice cream!  [Both laugh]

BD:   Should opera be used to sell laundry detergent?

Fernandez:   Do you really think it’s being used to sell it?  It’s a voice-over, and classical music has been invaded so much.  Now it’s in everything you pick up, or you even listen to.  It’s in a number of films.  I hate to say this at this late date, but I was introduced to the Four Last Songs of Strauss just from watching a film!  [Laughs]  Really!  I heard the music and it was so gorgeous.

BD:   Have you begun to sing them?

Fernandez:   I’m preparing them.  I’m starting on them.  That’s another whole realm of discipline in singing, because you have to have support and breath control of life, as they say.  You really do because they’re only beautiful when you can sustain a note like that, and keep the legato line.  It’s a beautiful challenge to get oneself to be able to do that the way it should be done.  I’ve heard a number of ladies sing them on recording, and I’m not that pleased with any of them.  [Both laugh]  They come close, so it’s time for me to do it correctly!  [More laughter]

BD:   Is this is the way every singer should think
that everyone else does it very well, but I can do it just a little better?

Fernandez:   You should have that kind of motivation, certainly.  It’s difficult enough when you’re sitting in an opera, and you know the role that’s being sung by another soprano.  You wonder why she is doing it that way, because you always feel that you can do it better, or at least you would do it differently.  The majority of the time you can do it better, but you can’t do it all.  You can’t sing it all.  You have to let someone else do some of them.
BD:   [Trying to be helpful]  You should go to operas in which you have no part!

Fernandez:   That’s not as interesting, because even though you want to do that, you’re also very interested in the competition.  You’re interested in colleagues, and want to know how they’re doing.  I don’t tend to get envious of colleagues and peers because I am strong enough in my own will that I know what I can do.  I can only sing and use the voice of Wilhelmenia Fernandez.  I’ll never be able to sing like Leontyne Price or Jessye Norman, or someone like that
which was the first lesson that I learned.

BD:   I hope that the Four Last Songs opens up a whole new area for you as you progress going into some of the Strauss heroines.  Being selfish, I would like to hear you do them.

Fernandez:   You realize that if I can conquer just one of them, then I can start taking steps into moving into something else that is going to be equally as challenging the Strauss repertoire.  It’s beautiful.  To be able to do a Marschallin would be a dream because it is quite a piece.  But I haven’t had too many problems or set-backs with colleagues being envious.  There is room for everybody out there.

BD:   There’s enough work to go around?

Fernandez:   There is enough work, and there is not enough time to keep looking over one’s shoulder, trying to find out who’s coming up behind me.  Life is going on in front of you, and I am sure about what I can do.  If you’re going to worry about it, that’s going to be your problem.  I don’t have time to worry about things like that.

BD:   What other advice do you have for young singers coming along?

Fernandez:   You have to pay your dues in this business, and you have to wait your turn.  One should use each vehicle as it’s given to you, and find something positive in it.  It’s competitive, but you can be competitive without being vicious and vindictive about getting or not getting a particular role.  You can be envious, but at the same time you can do a little more homework about studying a role.  You might not be able to sing it for another ten years, but you have got to jump on it, study it, do the research on it, learn it musically instead of vocally first.  It is very important to learn music musically.  It’s hard to say you have to wait your turn.  That’s the hardest.  The most difficult thing to do is to wait, because you do want to have a career, and you do want to be singing.  Offers will come in.  They may not always be the best, and you have to have wisdom about what’s going to be good, or what’s going to be harmful.  You have to decide what you want from a careerwhether or not you want a short career or longevity.  If you start singing Wagner at twenty-three, it’s probably going to be a very short career!  [Both laugh]  But for longevity, you build slowly as you mature vocally, and as you mature age-wise.  You take your knocks, and roll with the punches.  That’s the only advice I can give.  Be yourself.  Be as natural as you can be, because then you don’t have to retrace steps.

BD:   That is all good sound advice!

Fernandez:   Yes.  It’s advice that you can take to the bank, and you can always lean on.  When I was younger, one of the first concerts that I heard of Leontyne Price was in Philadelphia.  I came home and I was crying.  My mother asked why, and I said that I didn’t ever want to sing again.  If I cannot sing like Leontyne Price, I didn’t ever want to sing again.  So my mother handed me a piece of paper, and a typewriter, and some pencils, and she said I had better learn how to type because I would never ever sing like Leontyne Price.  She said that if I did want to be a singer, and wanted to have a career, I must learn what Wilhelmenia can do.  That’s all you do
just be yourself, because you will never be like anyone else on this Earth.  You have to be yourself first, and be true to yourself, and be honest with yourself.  One person you cannot lie to is yourself.  You can do a lot of pretending, and you can fool a lot of the people, but you can’t fool yourself.

BD:   Very wise advice from your mother!

Fernandez:   Very, and I’m still thanking her for it.

BD:   Is she proud of you and the way your career has gone?

Fernandez:   Yes, and she’s able to sit back and enjoy it, just like I’m enjoying it.  I bring her to Europe on occasions when I go, and I can joke and say that she’s really not fond of opera.  But she sees what happiness I get from it, and how I have been able to bring to it to an audience.

BD:   Would she have preferred you to have been a Gospel singer?

Fernandez:   No, no, not at all.  She always knew I was going to be an opera singer.  She always encouraged me to follow that dream, and follow that goal which I had set for myself.  That’s all she ever wanted for me.  She does enjoy it when I sing, and when I go home I still attend the same family church.  I’m asked to get up and sing, and I still do it, and she sits there like a little peacock spreading her tail!  She’s not very boastful about her daughter the opera singer, or her daughter the film star.  It’s not that at all.  As far as I’m concerned, and as far as she is concerned, I am still her daughter.  I’m still Wilhelmenia, and I’ll always be that.  It’s the same for the congregation at the church.  It’s also that way for my daughter and her friends.  I’ve met them, and they’ve come over to the house when I’ve been rehearsing.  My daughter is very conscious about the practice time that I need, and when she does have friends over she says,
“Mom’s rehearsing, so we’ve got to be real quiet.  Or I’ll just stop and say, “You guys go ahead, do whatever you want to do.  I can pick this up some other time, and then I’ll jump in with them.  They don’t always like it, but I do.  [Both laugh]

BD:   Are you encouraging your daughter to go into music, or are you discouraging her, and trying to keep her away from it?

Fernandez:   I’m probably doing a little more discouraging than encouraging about singing.  She’s fourteen now, and she’s working on some studies to get a law degree.  She wants to be a real estate attorney.  Music-wise, she’s had a year of violin, and when the newness and the fantasy of playing a violin wore off, and it became work, and she really had to get down to some serious practicing, it didn’t quite figure into her game-plan.  She’s had three years of tap dancing, which was the first thing that she ever wanted to do.  Those legs are still kind of kicking, so I might have a dancer in the family.  We’re going to have the first tap dancing real estate attorney in the family...  [Much laughter]

BD:   ...who also plays the violin at weddings!

Fernandez:   Right.  It’s my job though to at least introduce her to opera and classical music
to all music in factand let her pick what she would most enjoy.  Right now, naturally, she enjoys rock ’n roll, and pop music.
BD:   Is rock, music?

Fernandez:   Hmmm...  [With a big smile]  I’m not going to answer that!  Today, it isn’t, but that’s what they want to call music.  Rapping is not music.  I don’t know what it is.  It’s just talking faster than anyone can understand, but it’s something for them to listen to, and to relate to right now.  But we have a pact, my daughter and I, that for every two hours she gets to listen to what she calls music, she has to listen to at least a half an hour to an hour of what I call music.  So, it works out.

BD:   That’s a good trade-off?

Fernandez:   It is, because, like I said, I don’t force it on her.  It’s an agreement that we arrived at, and you’d be surprised that on Saturday afternoon when the opera comes on the radio, she will turn to it just to see what’s on.  Her favorite opera is Butterfly, so she’s constantly trying to search and see if it is coming on this week.  She’ll begin listening to it, and if it’s music that she thinks she’ll like, she will listen to it.

BD:   That’s good.  My instinct, of course, is to get the schedule so she knows when it comes on.  But it would be better for her to listen to a little bit of each one, rather than say she doesn’t need to listen this week at all.

Fernandez:   Right.  I told her to listen at least to the first fifteen minutes, or the first half-hour, and if she truly doesn’t like it, she doesn’t have to listen to it.  But those little pieces of exposure are important.

BD:   Once in a while they’ll grab her.

Fernandez:   Yes, yes.  She’s extremely critical of myself, and of other singers.

BD:   [Imitating a teenager]  
Mom, you were great tonight, [or] Mom you were terrible tonight!

Fernandez:   Yes!

BD:   [Surprised]  Just that way?

Fernandez:   Just that way, and she can tell you where you went wrong.

BD:   Oh, dear!  [Both laugh]

Fernandez:   Oh, dear is right!  I have a recording of one of the recitals that I was singing in Orange, France.  When the overture began for the aria from La Wally, all you can hear is her voice saying,
Oh no, not that again!  [Both laugh]  People were looking at her with scowls, thinking she doesn’t like that.  It’s not that she doesn’t like it, it’s that she’s heard it so often.  She sometimes asks me, Do you have to sing that one again, mom?

BD:   But everybody wants it!

Fernandez:   That’s what I said to her.  Everybody is here to hear this particular aria.  So she accepts it.  She even walks up to Plácido Domingo and calls him by his first name.  She walks up to Kiri the same way, and Jessye Norman, and Simon Estes because she knows these people because she’s been with me.  She’s been exposed to it all, and she’s very comfortable in an opera house.  She knows what she likes, and she can come to me and say,
“Hmmm… was everybody okay on stage tonight?  Was somebody sick?  Were they all warmed up?  They sounded flat, [or] they sounded sharp, [or] they’re really bad, mom!  [Both laugh]  She might come to me and say, “You were tired, weren’t you?  I tell her, Well, yes, maybe I was.  Yeah, mom, you were tired because you didn’t sound on top of the note like you can sound.

BD:   [Being supportive]  But then, when she says you were brilliant tonight, that must be extra special!

Fernandez:   That’s extra special, yes, and it’s special, too, when she invites friends who aren’t that keen on opera.  She invites them to come to performances because it’s her mother singing.  The friends will say,
“That’s your mother???  [Both laugh]  I’ve been invited by her school to come and do a lecture, and to sing, and explain what I do for a living.

BD:   You’re the show-and-tell for that day!

Fernandez:   I was the show-and-tell that day, and the kids go,
“You’re not her mother!  You can’t be.  Sheena [the daughter] doesn’t sing.  So, it’s a different kind of reward when it’s from family.  She’s had to grow with me really, and I’ve grown with her.  But she’s probably had to sacrifice and tolerate more than I’ve had to with her, because I imposed my way of living on her.  She’s had to fit into the mold.

BD:   But that was your life, and what you do for a living.

Fernandez:   It was my life, certainly.

BD:   And still is?

Fernandez:   And still is.  I can see the benefit from it now, and it’s nice because she has had the exposure, and she is protective, and very guarding.  She’s happy.  She’s pleased with what I’m doing.  She’s happy and sad to see me go, and she’s even more happy when I come home.  Yesterday I had to leave without seeing her, and I was almost devastated.  That was the first time I had left without seeing her, so when I got here to the hotel I called home immediately.  I asked her why she didn’t wake me up, and she said,
“Because you were up late the night before packing, and I didn’t want to wake you before I went to school.  I said, “But I didn’t get my hug, and I didn’t get my kiss, and I missed that, and she said, “But I’ll have an extra big one for you when you come home.  I said, “Okay, that’s a deal!  So, it makes it all worthwhile.

BD:   It
s just a week that you will be away this time.

Fernandez:   It’s just a week, and I told her, 
“Had it been longer than that, you would have had to wake me up!  She said, “Okay, I promise the next time I’ll wake you up.

BD:   Thank you for coming to Chicago.  I do hope that you will come back.

Fernandez:   I hope so too!

BD:   Thank you very much for allowing me to chat with you.

Fernandez:   Oh, it’s been my pleasure.

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© 1987 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in Chicago, on October 9, 1987.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB in 1994 and 1999.  This transcription was made in 2022, and posted on this website at that time.  My thanks to British soprano Una Barry for her help in preparing this website presentation.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.  To read my thoughts on editing these interviews for print, as well as a few other interesting observations, click here.

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

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