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
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 areas — but
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 Car. These 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 way
— although 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
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 here. Earlier,
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 . . . . . . .
Let’s just start right there. You’re involved in this Society for
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?
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?
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.
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
NP: I’m sure
it does because every program has to have a flow. It has to have
a variety of color.
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
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?
BD: Do you
mind being treated like an instrument?
NP: I don’t
mind at all. The voice is the original instrument, isn’t
BD: But it
seems that so many composers treat it like a clarinet or a cello.
NP: Well, we
can do that too.
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?
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
BD: Is it
encouraging that new music which is so very difficult and thorny, very
soon becomes old hat?
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.
talk just a little bit about opera. You do some opera, but I
assume more concerts and lieder recitals?
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. [See my Interview with Vivian Fine.]
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.
BD: When you are on
stage, do you like being another character?
NP: Oh, I
BD: Is it
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?
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.
there ever any characters that you just couldn’t do because you
couldn’t get around them or get a handle on them?
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?
[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?
very. Poulenc is very grateful. It’s wonderful for the
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?
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
diversity is good?
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
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?
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
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?
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.
program, then, has to be a little different for you or for the audience?
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
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.
BD: You’re an
American singer, obviously. Is there anything peculiarly American
about your technique or about your presentation?
wouldn’t say so. No, I don’t think so.
BD: You do
some teaching of singing?
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.
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?
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
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?
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.
about a younger boy who is just going through the vocal change? I
would think that would be particularly difficult.
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
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
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
BD: Let me
ask a real easy question. What’s the purpose of music?
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.
BD: Is it art or is
NP: It’s both.
where’s the balance?
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
BD: The music
that you sing, concert music — is it for everyone?
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
BD: How did
you wind up from rural Minnesota into the arms of contemporary music?
[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. [See my Interview
with Elliott Carter.] 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! [See my Interview with
Joseph Schwantner, and my
Christopher Rouse.] 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.
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.
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
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.
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?
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
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
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?
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.
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
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.
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
NP: You are
most welcome. My pleasure.
BD: And thank
you so much for your hospitality. This has been just terrific.
NP: It was
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© 2003 Bruce Duffie
This interview was recorded at her home in Syracurse, NY, on
August 22, 2003. Segments were used
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.
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
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.