Soprano  Neva  Pilgrim

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


Neva Pilgrim, soprano, a native Minnesotan, graduated magna cum laude from Hamline University, received a Master of Music from Yale, and studied at the Vienna Academy of Music on a Ditson Fellowship. The recipient of a Martha Baird Rockefeller grant, NEA and Fromm Foundation commission grants.  [See my Interview with Paul Fromm.]  She has also received a Certificate of Merit for her significant contribution to the field of music from the Yale School of Music, an outstanding alumni award from Hamline University, and the Laurel Leaf Award from the American Composers Alliance. Ms. Pilgrim is known throughout the country for her extensive work with composers, many of whom have written for her.

She appears regularly in recital and as soloist with orchestras, having performed with the Chicago Symphony, New York Philharmonic, Brooklyn Philharmonic, Syracuse Symphony, and Clarion Concerts. She has concertized in Japan, Canada and Europe and appeared at such festivals as Tanglewood, Marlboro, Chautauqua, Monadnock, and Saratoga Baroque, as well as the International Computer Music Festival. Neva Pilgrim has 19 recordings to her credit and has soloed with such distinguished chamber ensembles as the Da Capo Chamber Players; Speculum Musicae; the Baltimore Chamber Music Society; and the Concord, Tremont, and Madison Quartets, to name but a few. She is artist-in-residence in voice at Colgate University and maintains a private studio in New York City.

--  Biography mostly from the Leonarda Records website 

What you are about to read is an interview with the distinguished American soprano Neva Pilgrim.  I say that because the next few lines of this introduction will seem a bit off-topic, but please bear with me.  There is a reason for the detour...

In the earliest days of automobile manufacturing, many men experimented with vehicles of various sizes and types.  Though unremembered today, one of the most significant companies was that which produced the Columbia cars in Hartford, CT, from 1895-1913.  My grandfather, Lawrence Duffie, was head of the department that tested the Columbia gasoline cars.  They also produced electric vehicles
— including most of the cabs that serviced New York, Boston, Washington, D.C., and other urban areasbut that is another story. 

In late September of 1903, Duffie, along with Bert Holcomb and a couple of others established the record for a non-stop trip in an automobile from Chicago to New York City
76 hours!  To read about this event, click here.  For more photos of the cars and drivers, as well as articles and other items, see my History of the Columbia CarThese days, according to the driving directions on the internet, the 800 mile direct route can be covered in about twelve and a half hours, to say nothing of the mere two hour plane ride!

One month shy of a century later, in late August of 2003, my girlfriend and I were taking a road trip of our own, and the first leg was a
“re-creation” of that original run.  I put the word re-creation in quotation marks because we did not follow the exact route the whole wayalthough we were told by locals in OH, PA and NY that some of the roads we were on were, indeed, at least 100 years old — and we certainly took our time and stopped conveniently along the way.  But we did follow the city-to-city path (which is noted in the newspaper reports) and felt the presence of the ancestors on several occasions. 

The point of all this is to show why we were in New York State at that time!  In planning for the trip, I also had arranged to connect with a few musicians along the way. 
As we traveled to the Berkshires, we met Phyllis Curtin.  To read that interview click hereEarlier, when we arrived in Syracuse we met Neva Pilgrim!  She invited us to her home, and we had a lovely time just chatting and laughing. 

While setting up to record our conversation at her dining room table, we spoke about her live concerts as well as her involvement with an ongoing radio series . . . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:    Let’s just start right there.  You’re involved in this Society for New Music?

Neva Pilgrim:    I am the Program Advisor and a founding member.

BD:    Does this mean that you then have to keep up with all of the new music that is being done and recorded everywhere in the world?

NP:    Only what’s sent to us.  [Laughs]  Had we had a budget, maybe then I’d have to go out and search for it, but in this case it comes to either the station or here.  All I have to do is listen and try to put together interesting programs

BD:    What is it that makes a piece of music — or a group of pieces — interesting?

pilgrim30 NP:    I try to find something that I think the general audience would like.  Every program for the radio is unique, different, just as it would be if it were a concert program.  It has to be something very special.  Every piece has to be good, but there must be a reason to hang it all together.  Tonight, for example, it’s classical music with Yo-Yo Ma, and Mark O’Connor where they are doing crossover, you know, bluegrass.  Also the Kronos Quartet where they’re doing a little world music that crosses over classical, and then a piece by a young composer that’s viola with computer.  That’s also crossover — acoustic and electronic.  To mix it up like that, I think, makes it more accessible to a general audience.

BD:    Having been a superb performer for so long, does that then influence how you select music which you are going to program, with or without your own involvement?

NP:    I’m sure it does because every program has to have a flow.  It has to have a variety of color.

BD:    Balance and contrast?

NP:    Absolutely, so people don’t get bored.  There has to be a little bit of drama, but not too much.  Being a soprano, of course, we always need drama.  [Both laugh]

BD:    As a soprano, you have this huge range of repertoire to choose from.  How and why did you get so involved in new music?

NP:    Because I knew a lot of composers who wrote pieces for me.  They asked me to sing them and I love doing it.  It opens your eyes and ears to another world, and that’s been the case since I was in college.  We did a lot of new music at Hamline.  We had this a capella choir of 40 voices.  Only five were music majors, and yet we did everything from memory — 12-tone pieces and everything!  When you are young and you get introduced to new sounds, new ideas, you are not so apt to get locked into a certain lifestyle or a certain style of music that you can only do.  But I have done lots of opera; I’ve done a lot of lieder recitals; I’ve done and recorded a lot of baroque music because I had harpsichordist friends to use.  So it depends on who your friends are.  [Laughs]

BD:    Then from this huge array of both old and new — and in the middle — how do you decide, “I want to learn this; I won’t learn that”?

NP    Usually I try to do it.  If somebody asks me to do a piece, unless I thought it was really awful I would go ahead and learn it and do it because you don’t always know a piece of music, or know how successful it’s going to be until you’ve done it.  I’ve talked to so many performers who say the same thing.  You look at a piece and you say, “Oh, this is going to be a great piece!”  Then you do it and it kind of falls flat.  Yet sometimes you do a piece of music, and when you first looked at it you thought, “I’m not so sure about this.”  Then you do it, and ten years later you say, “Wow, this is still a great piece!”  So I think you shouldn’t make your judgments, and this would be true of the audience, the listeners, as well.  Don’t judge too soon because the really good pieces keep growing on you. 

BD:    Do the really good singers keep growing on you too?

NP:    I think so.  I hope so.

BD:    What do you look for in a new piece that grabs you, or does it just automatically grab you or not?

NP:    You are looking for something that speaks to you, that there’s something interesting in it — whether it’s a wonderful text, or that they’re using the voice in an interesting way, or that they’re using it with various instruments that bring out different colors.  Who knows?  It’s hard to say because every piece of music is different.

BD:    Is the voice really an instrument?

NP:    Absolutely!

BD:    Do you mind being treated like an instrument?

NP:    I don’t mind at all.  The voice is the original instrument, isn’t it?  [Laughs]

BD:    But it seems that so many composers treat it like a clarinet or a cello.

NP:    Well, we can do that too.

BD:    Without damage?

NP:    Absolutely!  And we can also do things that are more spoken.  The singers I know who have done a lot of contemporary music, feel that doing new music keeps your voice limber because you are always trying out new things.  Probably the worst thing for your voice is to try to fill a big hall all of the time, because then you really tax the voice.  You are just trying to pull out a lot of sound, and that’s not as healthy as doing a lot of variety of sounds or employing a huge range.  Look at range in Mozart.  He has you going from a low G to a high B-flat; that’s over two octaves.  There is nothing wrong with that!  We think Mozart is very singable, so why should it be any different with contemporary music?

BD:    [Gently protesting]  Even though the intervals are different and the leaps and the jumps are different than in Mozart?

NP:    Yes, but you get those in your ear.  When I first did Webern, I thought it was a little hard, but then I got so I could whistle it on the way to the IC.  [Laughs]

BD:    Now it’s old hat!

NP:    That’s it.  [Laughs]

BD:    Is it encouraging that new music which is so very difficult and thorny, very soon becomes old hat?

NP:    That’s the way it’s always been.  People didn’t like Beethoven so much when they first heard it, but they learned to like it a lot and still do.  I’m sure it will happen.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Let’s talk just a little bit about opera.  You do some opera, but I assume more concerts and lieder recitals?

NP:    Yes.  I did a lot of opera, actually, before we had children and when we only had one, but when it got to be two, then it was a little harder to spend so much time away from home.  I did the standards — Magic Flute, Romeo and Juliet, Faust, and of course Bohème.  Everybody has to do that, but I’ve also done a lot of contemporary operas.  I did the American premiere of The Trial of Peter the Hebrew in L.A.  I did the premiere of  John Tavener’s A Gentle Spirit in Cleveland at the Aki Festival and then we did it here.  We did Vivian Fine’s Women in the Garden.  We did Conrad Susa’s Transformations; actually we’ve done it several times.  Just last summer I premiered a piece, an opera by a friend of mine from Oneonta, Carleton Clay, and I’ve been in another opera of his earlier.  I also did Tom Johnson’s Sopranos Only.  So I have done all kind of things.

pilgrim BD:    When you are on stage, do you like being another character?

NP:    Oh, I love it!

BD:    Is it therapeutic?

NP:    I think so.  [Both laugh]  In college I was double major — English and music — and I almost had a major in theatre.  That’s how much I liked theatre.

BD:    So you bring more drama to the music, then?

NP:    Well, let’s say I enjoy it.

BD:    When you walk out on stage, are you portraying a character or do you actually become that character?

NP:    I think you become that character.  You should become that character.  In that sense it’s no different from doing concerts or lieder because when you open your mouth to sing a Schubert song, for example, you’d better be living that text.  That doesn’t mean it’s you; it’s the poet and the composer coming through you.  That’s at least how I always tried to see it.

BD:    Where there ever any characters that you just couldn’t do because you couldn’t get around them or get a handle on them?

NP:    Hmmmm.  None that I think of.  Some I found more attractive because they were more interesting.

BD:    Let me turn the question around.  Was there any character that was a little too close to the real Neva?

NP:    [Laughs]  No, but I can tell you I love doing La Voix Humaine because I love Poulenc, and she’s quite a character.  [Laughs]  That role gives such a range of emotions to go through from beginning to end.

BD:    Sure, and you are the whole evening, then.  It’s a monodrama, a big scene for just you.

NP:    It’s a monodrama, yes.  It’s about 40 minutes, so you can still fit something else in.  It’s a great piece.

BD:    Is it grateful to sing?

NP:    Yes, very.  Poulenc is very grateful.  It’s wonderful for the voice.

BD:    Have you done it staged or in concert or both?

NP:    I’ve done both, but mostly staged. 

BD:    [With a gentle nudge]  Do you like talking on the phone anyway?

NP:    Yes, but you have to learn to hold a little bit away, otherwise you can’t hear out of one ear.  [Laughs]  And it doesn’t look so good either.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    I assume you have been keeping up with what’s been going on in the opera, as far as dramatics and staging and everything.  Do you approve of a lot of the new-fangled staging that’s going on?

NP:    If somebody has a good idea, I’m always willing to see it and see how well it works.  It has to keep evolving, has to keep developing, because as soon as something gets locked in things dry up and you end up with a dead art not a living art.  It’s better to have controversy and keep things flowing.  That’s my feeling.  I do think that some stage directors or lighting designers have more power now than maybe they used to, but these things wax and wane like waves.  It’s like styles of composition.  There are ten or twenty years where one style is kind of the in thing, and then that’s out and something else is in.  That doesn’t mean that in that twenty year period there weren’t some great pieces written that will live on forever, but it’s just the way fads are.

BD:    Are you optimistic about the future of musical composition?

NP:    Very much so.  I think it’s more diverse now than it has been in quite some time.

BD:    This diversity is good?

NP:    Diversity is very good.  Right now it just is verging on maybe a little too much “popular” maybe?  Composers are aware that they have to connect with the popular world, but it will come back again and the best of the popular world will be incorporated into some very profound works.

BD:    You’re not saying they’re selling out?

NP:    No, but they are maybe leaning a little bit more to pleasing the audience.  Really good music may take a little bit longer, but it will in the long run please audience.

BD:    Is it your job as a performer to please the audience, or is that the job of the composer?  Or is that the job of the audience?

NP:    It’s a combination.  The audience has to be open to listen, to hear, because if they turn their ears off there is nothing either the composer or the performer can do.  So they are very much a part of this.  Of course the performer wants the audience to love the work they are presenting because when you are presenting it you’d better love it.  At least you should be committed to it, or you shouldn’t perform it.  We know the composer believed in it or they wouldn’t have written it.  But that’s what makes performing so wonderful because every performance is different.  You may be doing the same composer and you are the same performer, but an audience makes it all different.  The hall you perform in makes it different.  The feedback you get makes it different.

BD:    Are you aware of the audience when you are singing?

NP:    Not consciously, but unconsciously.  You feel that energy, anyway.

BD:    You feed off of it?

NP:    You feed off if it, absolutely.  You can feel it whether you are getting through to them or not, even if they are just sitting there very quiet, you know whether or not you are communicating.

BD:    Is there any way to shake them up if you are not getting through as much as you want?

NP:    Everybody has a few tricks they try.  [Both laugh]


BD:    When you are doing an opera, it is obviously just one piece for the evening, or a double bill.  When you are setting up a lieder program, you’ve got to decide what it is you are going to do.  How do you arrive at a balanced program?

NP:    I always try to find things that would mix up familiar and unfamiliar.

BD:    Music or text or both?

NP:    Both.  For instance, one program that I did several times was all on text by Lord Byron.  This was partly because of the husband of a pianist who teaches at Colgate.  Her husband knew all about Isaac Nathan, and Isaac Nathan is the reason that Lord Byron wrote many of the poems, especially the Hebrew Melodies that he did.  But then, of course, Mendelssohn and Schumann and Loewe all set these texts as well.  So that was kind of fun, to go through and pick out two or three settings of the same text.  I didn’t do every one that they wrote, but I would try to pick out my favorites and pair them in this program.  I thought it was interesting that you have an English composer setting this, so we did those in English.  Then there is a German translation of it and how Loewe saw it, or Schumann.  Mendelssohn did some very nice settings too.  Anyway, that was fun.

BD:    Each program, then, has to be a little different for you or for the audience?

NP:    Usually, when you do a program several times, you are doing it for different audiences.  That particular one we did around the east a lot, and then in Europe several times.  So you don’t have to worry too much about that.  You still might make a change or two, depending on who you are doing it for.  For instance, when somebody wanted a longer program, then Vivian would throw in one of the Liszt arrangements of a song so that it was still somehow song-oriented.

BD:    [With a gentle nudge]  Isn’t all music a song?

NP:    I think so.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Have we gotten completely away from the idea that there are musicians, and then there are singers?

NP:    I hope so.  I hope so, because the really good singers are really good musicians.  There are people with wonderful voices, who, if they are not good musicians are not going to go very far.  There was a time when people could sort of spoon feed you, and you’d get out there and sing those few parts and make a big career.  But I don’t think that’s how you make a career these days.

BD:    Is this partly the result of the composers working with a few of the singers, to really work on their music and get their ideas across?

NP:    No, it’s more that the musical education of singers is better now than it used to be.  And conductors demand more.  They want to work with singers who are reliable, who can keep the tempo most of the time, who understand if they are singing in or out of tune, not just pouring forth a beautiful sound.  So I think it’s more the schooling.  When I was in Europe studying, everybody said, “Oh well, American singers are wonderful musicians.  They know how to train a singer to be a good musician.”  Europe is doing that now, too.  Before, they thought if you are musical and have a good voice, you can make yourself a good career as a singer.

pilgrim BD:    You’re an American singer, obviously.  Is there anything peculiarly American about your technique or about your presentation?

NP:    I wouldn’t say so.  No, I don’t think so.

BD:    You do some teaching of singing?

NP:    Oh, lots!  I love to teach!

BD:    Are you pleased with what you hear coming out of the throats of your students?

NP:    If I’m not as much, I’ll just fix it.  [Both laugh]  That’s the fun part, to try to figure out what it is that’s wrong, and how you can quickly, efficiently, and healthfully fix it.

BD:    Healthfully?

NP:    Healthfully, absolutely.  It’s very important, because if you can get their voice working freely, they can sing a long time and really enjoy it.  You don’t want to get out there and not know what’s going to come out of your throat.

BD:    Is this all just technique, vocal technique?

NP:    Every time you work with a singer you have to work on technique, and if they’ve got a really good technique, it doesn’t mean it still couldn’t be a little better.  But I work with a range of singers — some very professional ones and some just beginning high school students.  They are fun to work with, too.  I must say it’s great to get them started, especially when they are eager and good musicians.  You think you really can make a difference in their lives.  Sometimes older students come and they may have a lot of talent, but you have to help them unlearn some bad things.  That takes a little patience.

BD:    When you start with the very youngest ones, then you are giving them a solid foundation?

NP:    That’s right.  But it’s a big responsibility.  You want to be sure that you give them a really good foundation, so you don’t get them into trouble.  But I really love teaching.  You’ve got to always be present when you are teaching, to know exactly what’s wrong, and how you can fix it.  It
’s fun to hear that voice, that personality, and try to give them repertoire that they really can relate to.  I love to help them plan programs.  I always steer them in the right direction, but they ultimately have a choice.  Then we’re sure we have the right balance, but something that makes them distinctive.  I think that’s important.

BD:    Does it take a woman to teach a woman?

NP:    No.  Good grief, no!  The muscle system is the same.  I’ve had men teachers and women teachers, and I’ve had just as much success with tenors and baritones as with sopranos or mezzos.

BD:    What about a younger boy who is just going through the vocal change?  I would think that would be particularly difficult.

NP:    Not difficult, but you have to be patient because until the larynx is settled in, it isn’t always predictable.  I would say in that case, you just try to do things that are good for the voice in general.  Don’t try to make them sing something that is uncomfortable for them.  Give them repertoire that’s non-specific to tenor or baritone.  If they are a musical person, they will hear a recording of, say a tenor aria, and they will definitely want to make it sound like that.  Then they might do something that would hurt the instrument, so that’s why you want to give them non-specific items.

BD:    Are there ever times when you wish you could take every pop singer in the world and teach them how to sing beautifully from the diaphragm rather than just from the back of the throat?

NP:    Well, I think some of them could use a few lessons, yes.  [Laughs]  Sometimes students will come in and say, “Oh I want to sound just like So-and-so.”  Well, I happen to have heard So-and-so sing the theme song in some movie we went to, and I thought, “Oh dear!  I don’t think you want to sound like that or you will not be singing for too long.”

BD:    Then how can you convince them that they want to sing a different way?

NP:    You just slowly work them in, and finally, when you get their voice working wonderfully, you say, “Now that’s much more beautiful than So-and-so.”  But you have to do it first; that’s better than talking to them to try to convince them.

BD:    Let them feel how it is so much better.

NP:    I think that’s right, and if they have any gift at all for singing, they intuit or respond when something feels right or feels better.  And if they don’t, then you’ve got a hard work for yourself.  [Both laugh]

BD:    I won’t ask you for names, but I’m sure you’ve had a few hopeless cases...

NP:    Not too many...

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Let me ask a real easy question.  What’s the purpose of music?

NP:    Hmmm.  I don’t know that music has a purpose, but music has always been with people as long as there have been people on this earth.  It’s a very natural extension or outgrowth of what it means to be a human being.  I don’t think people can exist without music, and music, I don’t think, can exist without people.  I don’t know because we haven’t had that tested, but I think it’s absolutely natural and necessary to life.

shapey BD:    Is it art or is it entertainment?

NP:    It’s both.

BD:    Then where’s the balance?

NP:    That’s the thing.  It’s the balance.  There’s some great art music that’s also entertainment, and there’s entertainment music that’s not great art.  So some things fall in between.

BD:    Does that partly help you to select pieces that are more artful or more entertaining for what you want to do?

NP:    I like entertaining things, but I would say I like things that do more than that.  So when I choose, I tend to take things that have a little more meaning, that aren’t just entertainment, that make us feel something deeper or that point to something beyond what we, with our limited words, can understand.  When you hear great music, you understand all kinds of things you wouldn’t otherwise, or couldn’t put words to.

BD:    The music that you sing, concert music — is it for everyone?

NP:    Well, maybe not.  Does everybody like liver pâté?  Maybe not, right?  If everybody is educated and in that education they have literature, art and music, probably in that case art music would be for more of the general population than it is.  But not everybody is educated in that way, and maybe it’s because music educators don’t take their job seriously enough.  Sometimes it’s easier to just let them do show tunes they already know than it is to teach them some basics about music — how to read music and actually create their own music — which is very important for them to do.  If all music were taught that way, it might make a huge difference, but it’s not.  I think at one time it was.  My father was a farmer, and he had to learn Latin in school.  This was out in rural Minnesota.  He was well read, well educated.  Just imagine that!  Now we think it’s punishment if someone has to learn Latin.

BD:    How did you wind up from rural Minnesota into the arms of contemporary music?

NP:    [Laughs]  I went to Hamline where contemporary music and theatre was highly regarded.  Then I went to Yale where there were lots of composers.  Elliott Carter was one of my teachers in 20th century music.  So I did a lot of new music and I enjoyed it.  Then I went to Europe; I had a fellowship and did only opera.  I could have happily stayed there, at least for a little while, but there was no future for my husband there.  So we went to Chicago where he could earn his doctorate, and that was a great place.  I started singing with Ralph Shapey’s Contemporary Chamber Players, which was a wonderful experience.  I was a soloist at Rockefeller Chapel, and things just developed.  Then we came here to Syracuse, and when you’ve been in big cities and you’re used to action and new music, a couple of my friends and I got together and said, “You know, there isn’t enough action here.”  So we started a Society for New Music!  [Laughs]  We didn’t know how much work it would be.  We didn’t know how long it would last, but I think anywhere you are going to live, you have to help make it a kind of place you want it to be.  That’s the way I was brought up, being a good citizen from Minnesota.  [Both laugh]  We’ve all learned a lot.  When we started, our object was to encourage performers here to perform more new music and to give composers who lived here a reason to write music.  When we first came, this area was just circled with wonderful schools — Colgate, Hamilton, Cornell, Hobart and William Smith, you name it.  But the composers at one school, even though they are only an hour or hour and a half apart, didn’t even know each other!  So we started doing regional composers concerts, and we would tour them to those schools.  So everybody got to know each other.  As a result of that, Joe Schwantner and Chris Rouse got to be really good friends!  One reason that Chris got invited to teach at Eastman was because Schwantner had been there ahead of him.  Actually, Schwantner came from Chicago.  He drove over here and gave us some music at the end of the first year he was here because he had heard that we had this group just getting going.  We did his music every year while he was here.

BD:    That’s wonderful!

NP:    Yes.  So you meet all kinds of interesting people that way.  We’ve developed a quorum, maybe 20 or 25 people that we can call on for concerts.  Of course everybody is busy with their teaching and performing, so maybe this cellist can’t do it but there is the other one who could do it.  It is the same thing with violinists and pianists, and so on.  So everybody’s played with each other a lot of years, more than many string quartets.

BD:    And that, of course, makes a better performance, when you really know each other.

NP:    Absolutely, and you can rely on everybody.  They know how to do new music; they’re not afraid of it.  They don’t come in and complain.  Everybody knows their part when they come in.  They love it.  They really love it!  In fact, sometimes we hand out a piece and someone says, “This is kind of hard.”  But by the time of the performance, they’ll say, “I’d much rather do this than play the 1812 Overture one more time.”  Good musicians want to be challenged, and new music does that.  It keeps you on your toes and keeps you developing your skills.

BD:    Do you have any advice for composers who are writing music today?

NP:    Find some good performer friends because they will help you to see that it gets performed.  That’s how composers develop — by hearing their music performed, by hearing the response of the performers about what works and doesn’t work.  Sometimes composers overnotate things because either they don’t trust or they don’t understand.  When they get performed and they get to know performers, performers say, “You don’t have to do that.  If you do this we’ll understand it and it’s much easier to read.”  Those are just little things, but they are experience things that can save some time and get some results.

BD:    What advice do you have for audiences, besides just come?

NP:    Keep an open mind.  [Both laugh]  Definitely come!

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Have you basically been pleased with your performances over the years?

NP:    Oh, up and down all of the time.  No one can get to a peak and stay there.  Life gets in the way.  [Laughs]  That’s also what makes a better performer — being someone who actually lives, who isn’t just existing in a fishbowl.  We all have good and bad performances, but we are always working, trying for that ideal.  When I was at Marlboro many, many years ago, Casals was still alive and playing.  It was hard for him to get around, but he said, in all honesty, that he was still trying to play the C major scale in tune.  Every morning he got up and worked on that.  I thought this is really interesting, to keep that in mind, that when you are a performer or a musician — I’m sure it would be the same for an artist or an actor — it’s a process, and you are not always going to get over the top rung.  But if you keep working at it, you are going to have a much more fulfilling life of performing.

BD:    When a cellist like Casals breaks a string he can put a new one on his instrument.  Do you ever wish you could take the voice out of the throat, work on it a little bit and then put it back?

NP:    No, but you have to take care of your voice.  There are some times when allergies happen to singers.  Years ago there was a lot of smoking that went on in airplanes.  I can tell you I experienced this, and lots of singers did.  You’d be in great shape and you’d get on a plane to go to a performance, and because the plane was filled with smoke, by the time you got there, it was like, “Aahhh!”  Where’s your voice?  A few things like that make a difference.  A baritone friend of mine had a food allergy and he didn’t realize that.  It caused some performances that he would rather forget about.  But you figure these things out and you keep going.  That’s what I mean about life getting in the way.  You always want a perfect performance, but you can’t ever guarantee it.

BD:    Do you ever get it?

NP:    No.  [Laughs]

BD:    It’s something you strive for, but can never achieve?

NP:    I think that’s right.  You may say, “That was a great performance!  But you know what?  This or that, that still isn’t quite the way I want it.”


BD:    You’ve made a number of recordings.  Are you pleased with them?

NP:    Some of them more than others, yes.  But again, people think that recordings are something that happens, that they are always under ideal circumstances.

BD:    [With mock horror]  That’s not the case???

NP:    [With a big smile]  They’re not, sometimes.  Sometimes you make recordings in the middle of the night because that’s the only time it’s quiet — in New York, for example.  But in general I would say the music comes through.  I hope, at least, that’s the case.

BD:    Do you sing differently for the microphone than you do for a live audience?

pilgrim NP:    Mmmmm, perhaps a little bit.

BD:    How so?

NP:     With an audience you are always thinking about the person in the back row, and if you do that with a microphone, where it’s picking up something 12 inches from your face, it may come on too strong.  You do learn to make those adjustments.

BD:    When you’re making the recording, are you at all conscious of the audience that will be listening in their living room a year from now or ten years from now or 100 years from now?

NP:    I don’t think so.  You’re trying to communicate what the music is saying, and be sure that everything is fitting together perfectly.  You hope it will come across.  No, recording is not as much fun as performing.  I think as a performer.  It’s wonderful when the recording comes out, but I would say that the actual recording itself is a little stressful.  Whereas when you get out and do a performance, it’s this one thing and you’re up for it, and you go through it and give it your all.  I think it’s more exhilarating.  Maybe that’s the way I should say it.

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

NP:    I would say I’ve had a wonderful career, absolutely.  I’m hardly performing at all now.  I did a recording earlier this summer, and have done a couple of things with narration, but I’m still singing, don’t get me wrong.  I’m not doing big solo things anymore, partly because as the voice ages, you can’t rely on it to do all of the things you once did.  So I keep working at it because it makes me a better teacher.

BD:    Your students will benefit from all that you have learned in your career.

NP:    I hope so because I don’t know how you can teach if you don’t know a lot of music and know a lot about how the voice works.  You may know it intellectually, but if you’ve actually had to experience it and figure out how to sing that night when you’ve woken up in the morning and had a sore throat or something, then you can help your students get through those times intelligently.

BD:    Even though you’re not singing as much these days, are you still learning?

NP:    All the time, and I hope I never stop.

BD:    Thank you for everything that you have given us — performances, the teaching, the recordings, everything.

NP:    You are most welcome.  My pleasure.

BD:    And thank you so much for your hospitality.  This has been just terrific.

NP:    It was fun!  Really!

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© 2003 Bruce Duffie

This interview was recorded at her home in Syracurse, NY, on August 22, 2003.  Segments were used (with recordings) on WNUR in 2004 and 2013.  The transcription was made and posted on this website in 2013.

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.