Vivica Genaux talks to Michael Miller about Acting, Regieoper, and Taking the Waters: the Interview, Part III
[Read Part I]
[Read Part II]
(Transcribed by Andrew and Lucas Miller)
Vivica Genaux has recently appeared in a George London Foundation recital at the Morgan Library, and Vivaldi’s opera Ercole has recently been released in a superb recording by EMI with Europa Galante led by Fabio Biondi, in which she sings the part of Antiope. This is the third and final part of an interview held on December 13, 2011.
MM I remember when I heard you in Paris in L’Italiana in Algeri—and I have to apologise that I never got a review out for that performance, which was great—but you were having some trouble at the time (At least it was announced in the house.), and all one noticed in the performance was that you were a little quiet for part of an act, and then you were right back into it.
VG I had three years where I was fighting tracheitis and finally have found the trick to getting rid of that, and so now I’m back up on form again. But that was a tough time. There are times, I mean, when your body changes with the years, and if you do start, like I say, those schedules work really well as long as you’re well. But the problem is that we have things programmed three years in advance on our calendars and the minute that you start having any kind of sickness or anything like that, everything just kind of snowballs, and you don’t have a recuperative time to fix health problems or any kind of problems with regular life even. I mean, it’s possible that one could have family problems or just regular things that people have to deal with on a regular basis in normal life, in another job, because they’re home and have their support network around them. So yes, that happened to me, I got tracheitis, and then it just kept coming back and coming back and coming back. It had been seven years that I hadn’t taken a break without singing. So I finally did take a month off, in February this year  for the first time, and went and did inhalation at a terme. There’s a spa in Italy near Parma that is really good for respiratory problems. And it’s been real good this year, I’m really happy.
MM How did you get on to that? Through a doctor or…?
VG My husband recommended it to me, because his daughter had had ear problems when she was very young, and they had said that they would have to operate, but he said no, and he took her to Tabiano, because he knew about this place. In the 1900s—up to about 1980 or so, but beginning around 1920—it was a state-funded kind of getaway for people. If you had any kind of respiratory problems, you would be given two weeks paid leave, and they would have busses that would come to Tabiano and to Salsomaggiore, to all of these thermal bath places, these cure facilities. And they ended up being big party towns because then you had all these single, merry people coming together for two weeks. They’d party. You’d do your cure, your inhalations or whatever the doctor prescribed, and then you’d party the rest of the time. Now it’s no longer funded by the Italian government, by the socialized medicine… It’s incredible. There are all these art deco buildings, beautiful, in Salsomaggiore. Huge hotels from the 1920s. Just magnificent. And also the thermal baths in Salsomaggiore are an amazing structure. Huge. And in great shape. They’ve maintained the thermal baths there. But a lot of these other buildings, the hotels are all closed because they never had to publicise, they had ten thousand people, I think, a month coming down, being sent by the government to use these services. They were just in-out, in-out. And now that it’s something that people actually have to pay for and it takes… you know, you do actually have to stay for two weeks to do a cure and people who have a normal job can’t do that either. And also, I think, with the command of the pharmaceutical companies in the world now, natural healing processes are not emphasized as much as they used to because nobody makes as much money off of them…
MM Gosh, that’s terrible. The medical industry is just…
VG Yeah…so anyway…I’m very fortunate to have been recommended that by my husband and I have to say I was pretty sceptical about it because, you know, you go and you inhale sulfur water, but it’s true. I mean, I think that’s something that we’ve…that I’ve kind of lost, that I didn’t have any concept of. The fact that local products—things consumed in the place where they’re grown—are very different from products consumed in other places, with transport. If I bring a bottle of prosecco with me from Italy, from the Veneto, it tastes completely different here in New York, and it tastes completely different in Alaska. It’s not the same thing, but the bottle is sealed and everything. It’s the same thing with these treatments, you have to go to the place. When you have a… Cointreau also, I went and did a concert in Angers in France which is where they make Cointreau, and Cointreau in Angers tastes completely different, it’s a completely different thing…it’s so amazing. You can drink it other places but it’s not the same creature. And so they do have these waters, you know, from various places—all these famous thermal baths—they do have products, and you can order them and use them in different places, but it’s a completely different thing when you do it on site, where the product is a natural phenomenon.
MM Yes, there are some wines that you almost have to drink where they’re made. Bourgueil and Chinon, that they make in the Loire, taste totally different, if they’re exported. They seem to be able to survive as far as Paris, and that’s about it.
VG Right! And the way they make coffee in Napoli…you can have a Neapolitan coffee maker, and it will not come out the way it comes out in Napoli, it just won’t. So, I think that was one experience that made me more aware of this concept of going to this place. And the thing is, Salsomaggiore is about eight kilometers away from Tabiano and the water is completely different. The Romans would go to these places—this has been a cure facility since the time of the Romans—and at Salsomaggiore the water has very high salt content, as would be implied by the “salso” in Salsomaggiore, and Tabiano invece—instead—is sulfurous water. And they’re right next to each other. It’s amazing.
MM That’s what comes out of the earth.
VG Yes, and for me, as an American, everything is pretty standardized here, in my eyes anyway. You go to McDonald’s in New York and you go to McDonald’s in San Francisco and you get a Big Mac and the Big Mac is always the same thing. Because I never lived here that much, in the States, I mean. In Alaska there wasn’t that much…I think things in Alaska were also very generalized, everything is imported, all the fruits and vegetables were imported. We had very little self-production because of the long winters and the short summers and meat products, I mean, yes, you can eat salmon for a certain amount of time before it comes out your ears—and same can be said for moose and carabao and the products that we do have there on site—but other than that everything was imported. And so, for me, we had powdered milk and things when I was growing up and I never had an idea of this… I don’t know, like, maybe in South Carolina you get something great that’s a local product, and then you can’t get that in North Carolina, for example…I don’t know. So being in Italy…progressively, it’s been something I’ve become more and more aware of.
MM Yes, well, that’s gone in the States.
VG In any case, that’s what I do now, I set aside a month every year, because it really takes a month: you have to go for two weeks and then you can’t sing again for ten days after you do the cure, and then you can start singing again, so it really takes a month out of your schedule to get back to where you can work again. But, that’s good, it had been seven years since I’d done a real vacation without singing. I’d taken time off but I’d always been singing, preparing for the next project, singing almost everyday in those seven years and that’s too much. I did it because I was really enjoying what I was doing. I was enthusiastic and I had great opportunities but, this is a great way of enforcing getting away.
MM I’m glad you’re doing that. Now getting back to the Italiana in Algeri. In your interpretation of that part, I saw quite a lot of Mae West in it.
VG [Laughing] Ah! How fun! Yay! I don’t know, I mean, that was the first part that I ever sang was L’Italiana in opera, and it always felt really approachable to me because there are so many parallels with the American musical theater, which I had some experience with in high school, growing up. And of course I’d seen, and I love American musical theatre, and so that was something…She’s such a strong person, she’s kind of like a Hello Dolly kind of figure in a way. So, yes, she can be a kind of a Mae West, and that’s what’s fascinating about her also, is that she can be interpreted by any body type. They’re always looking for somebody skinny, so for me it’s great, I get hired. But I think the sensuality of the character and the commanding nature also, that Italian woman, there really is still that Italian woman who really commands and commands in a manipulative way and really accomplishes an awful lot with that. Again, being in America, I had never been familiar with that kind of personality type or trait or learning. Those kind of tools were not in my vocabulary. And so the way I could approach it was by watching the American musical theatre characters like Mae West, or something like that. So, yes, that was definitely in my mind in the prep phases of that.
MM There you are. And that wasn’t on the director’s mind?
VG No, no, no, no. I always say that for me L’Italiana is very much musical theater. Also because the libretto is written so well, the text is written so well. It’s not like Barber of Seville where she’s kind of a vacuous character, she’s vapid, she doesn’t really have that much to say or do. In that first aria where says, “Well, I’m gonna do this and if he tries to…” and then she doesn’t do anything, she just lets the baritone do all the work for the rest of the show, basically, and she just stands back and watches and giggles and then gets scared. So, for L’Italiana, she’s much more active.
MM Yes, she’s a powerful character.
MM And brassy.
VG Oh, yes, yes, yes.
MM Rossini is just amazing.
VG Yes he is, he has amazing stuff. And it’s interesting, we’re living in a time where there are more possibilities for doing other composers of that same time period who maybe are lesser-known. Two years ago in Vienna, I did the Meyerbeer piece, that really is quite similar to the Rossini style. So, it’s interesting now, being well-versed in Rossini. And you were talking about the Anna Bolena at the Met: you felt that it was done in a Verismo style. That’s always been my kind of gripe also, I guess, with Rossini. It has a tendency of being performed as if it were Verismo rather than Bel Canto. But, when you’re working in big theatres with big orchestras at 440 pitch, rather than what the original pieces were originally written for…with modern instruments, which are much louder and brighter and brassier than the original instruments were…it kind of takes a couple of your choices away.
MM Yes, I was reading an interesting article, a discussion between Geoffrey Burgess and James Brown, about pitch in Paris. It kept going up and up at the Paris Opera and it was hard on singers, of course.
VG Renata Scotto—I think it was in the ’90s—I remember hearing, that she was part of a group that was trying to convince big theatres to take the pitch down again, to come back down, and nobody wants to do it. And, I mean, I was at the point when I was doing Cenerentola, I used to carry my parts with me for the final aria a half-step down. And all the furor that that caused! Well, there are people…I think Plácido Domingo does that regularly. He re-pitches things. As does Jesse Norman. Everything she sang was basically adjusted to her voice. She sang it magnificently and nobody had anything to say. But because I was a young singer, “Oh, God forbid that you should change the pitch!” And, basically, by changing the pitch it kind of brings it down to what the original was. Not quite, because 430 wouldn’t be quite a half-step down, but there’s every reason in the book for being allowed to do it, but “No, no, no, no, no.” So I lost several jobs because of that.
VG Yes. And I also wanted… I was lucky enough to have the opportunity of doing a very small appearance in a Hollywood movie, also , because I’ve always wanted to see how film actors do that—working 16 hour days the same scene, 30 seconds of a scene and taking maybe up to three hours, four hours to get it in the can, and I think most of that concentration is knowing what your job is: What is your job? Is your job to facilitate the moment for that person you are working with at that time? …because the cameras are on him but he needs your focus and your attention in order for the line of sight and for the communication to be…right for his interpretation? Or are you there because the cameras are on you but you’re watching someone else? I was in a scene with Rosalind Pike and the others, but there was one point where the cameras were on me… No that’s not true. I was on stage, and I was supposed to be singing, and she was in the audience and the cameras were on her and she was watching me sing. And I was just…really…marking. They were playing a play-back tape, so I didn’t have to do it 9000 times and I was, I thought: “Oh, I can just kind of ‘ngah ngah ngah ngah’ because the cameras aren’t on me,” and then I saw her face, and there was this radiance and this intent and…just beauty in her face reflecting what she was hearing from me and I thought, “Yes I have to give her something, you know, I have to give her something to emote this.” …and so it’s all part of knowing where you’re…what your function is in the machine.
MM What was the film?
MM I don’t know that one.
VG Anthony Hopkins and Ryan Gosling were in it.
MM Oh yes, I remember years ago, I was a student in Cambridge—Massachusetts—and…I had about a ten minute walk from my apartment to the library, and, yes, my life was going back and forth from the library! Anyway they were shooting a movie on the street I was walking on. I think it was a Mel Brooks movie and it had Richard Widmark in it.
VG Oh my God!
MM Yes, this was a long time ago. And so, walking back and forth, going about my business, they were set up there on the sidewalk for hours, and Richard Widmark was just sitting there in this black overcoat, with a black hat, totally immobile, in his character, and just sitting there, doing nothing, hour, after hour, after hour…
VG …until they were ready for him for his first take
MM …and then he’d have a couple of minutes in front of the camera for that, no more.
VG Isn’t that amazing?
MM It takes incredible discipline to get through that, but I can understand it.
VG Yes, some people need to do that, but there are other actors who can just pop in and out [snaps fingers]. Some have method acting skills, you know, it’s just what works for their interpretation and their energy. I love reading, and one of my favorite things is reading autobiographies of artists because everybody has such a different experience in producing what they do. Alan Alda had a great one where he was saying, “my one piece of advice for anybody who wants to do movies or television: sit down as much as possible, [laughs] when you’re on camera. He said, “If you see me on MASH, I’m always sitting down with my feet up on the desk, because it takes forever to get a take, and so at least that way I’m always sittin’ down! Whereas it’s the dork who’s standing up and really trying to be energetic, well let him have it!”
MM Oh yes! [laughing]
VG It’s great, it’s really interesting to see what everybody finds as a… facilitator to producing that art.
MM Yeah it was fascinating last night seeing John Hurt in Krapp’s Last Tape because he’s primarily a film actor, and he’s…
VG …hmm yes, and I’ve always heard there’s such a difference, there’s always such a lot of actors who are very scared about that difference, or else they miss that dynamic of being live.
MM And just technically you could see he was just being very very careful and really controlling the performance…I mean he has plenty of experience on the stage but they did point out that, at 71, it’s his New York stage debut.
VG Yes…amazing…yes. I’ve read about that a lot, and I love listening to things like Inside the Actor’s Studio, and I listen to a lot of Fresh Air with Terry Gross on NPR: she interviews a lot of actors. You know, a lot of them either don’t really get the opportunity of giving such long interviews. I also bought the whole Dick Cavett series because he also did those long interviews. Long interviews. Now everything is, you know, just a take of 30 seconds [snaps fingers], and then we go to commercial, 20 more seconds with so-and-so and then back. They don’t have any chance to develop any kind of thought process or convey any actual ideas or knowledge about what they’re doing or their experience. It’s, it’s…
MM Yes, it’s fascinating, when they can come out with it.
VG Oh yes! For me it’s gold, because a lot of times there are things that maybe they don’t show in their work that I’m also doing, but these are things that I think about. There was one interview …with Bruce Willis, and it may have been Inside the Actor’s Studio. He was talking about…å he’s so known for his action films and he’s so boisterous onscreen, and he was reallyå interested in—now in this period in his life—this was some years ago—looking at stillness. And it’s something that on stage in opera…also oftentimes you feel like “Oh, I’ve been standing here for about five minutes singing this aria, maybe I should move, should I do more with my hands? should I be…It’s something that as a young singer you think about a lot more. It’s not something that I think about anymore, I’d have to say, that I’m…that comment really helped me a lot to make me feel secure in staying still and not feeling like you have to fill everything with hand gestures and…physical tension in order to get your intent across, but it’s something we don’t learn as singers, we don’t have that kind of education in theatercraft—in schools, in conservatories.
MM That’s part of, that’s a big part of the art of acting is just being totally immobile and doing nothing on stage.
VG And letting the audience come to you instead of feeling like you have to go to the audience! When I was first singing I would find I was standing basically on one foot. I would be standing with all my weight here on the front foot, and my back foot would be pointed practically and I’d just be on one toe of my back foot, because I was trying to get this music to the audience. I was trying to get my portrayal to the audience and I was going this way. And it’s not good, because you don’t have a good posture then for singing, the voice isn’t…you’re not physically centered for support, and you don’t obtain anything, I think, if anything, the audience tends to move back from that kind of aggression and that kind of trying-to-get-in-your-face-kind-of-thing. Instead, it’s kind of like the anecdote about the Sun and the Wind having the argument about who can make the man take his coat off, and the Wind just blows and blows and blows, and the man just buttons up harder, and closer and closer, and pulls up the collar around his neck; and the Sun shines gently, and gently, and so—slowly the guy, ah!, takes his coat off and relaxes and he lies out in the sun. And so I think it’s the same thing in art: you have to give the audience something to come into and there are moments where you can [snaps fingers] be aggressive and can give them a shock, or that energy, but it doesn’t…it shouldn’t be a constant, and it has to do with the character you’re doing.
Yes, I would have really, I think, enjoyed—I don’t know how much I would have enjoyed—acting classes, I don’t know. But I would have enjoyed something, classes about…stagecraft. And acting classes, everything I’ve heard about acting classes has always been about breaking down barriers, breaking down barriers, and I’ve never been one that’s been easy for breaking down barriers; I have to be ready to break down barriers myself; I can’t be—do it—on command, and so I think that would have been really uncomfortable, but just that, the opportunity of listening, knowing how to walk across a stage! I learned that at Indiana University, not from any stage class, I learned it because I was in a musical theater class where we were doing scenes, and it was with Dr. Stoll, who was head of the Singing Hoosiers at the time and had amazing experience but wasn’t on staff as anything other than musical theater—music basically, not staging or anything like that, and we were doing a scene from Fiddler on the Roof. I walked across the…I had to cross the stage or something, and he said, “wait. Stop.” And he says to the class, he asks, “Do you know how to walk across a stage?” And I just walked from Point A to Point B and he said “No. You have to angle upstage and make an arch. You always…you never…there are rarely ever straight lines onstage, when you’re walking left to right. You walk up so that you always have an angle open with the audience, you always have that possibility of angling your voice out. If you’re walking straight across, you have to go like that [craning head], whereas if you’re up a bit but you can angle the body in a certain way that you have that axis with the voice—and that’s an acting thing that isn’t given to you. Nobody tells you that. And it’s gold—it’s something you can bring out of your pocket. It’s a tool you can use every single day.
MM Oh yes…I can remember, you know, when I was a kid, opera singers didn’t bother to act at all, they had no background in acting, and,,,
VG …we still don’t!
MM …didn’t try…
VG We try now, but we still don’t…
MM People do more of it.
VG We do more movement…and…
VG …and there is, yes, more intent, but there’s no…no training. There’s very rarely any training. And sometimes I think it probably was better in the park-and-bark days, because there was, I think…interpretation at least happening in those moments, even though it’s not acting, there was something there that was emotional that was being conveyed and maybe more honest than what one is asked, you know, if you’re asked to portray a role in a certain manner that’s not natural to you, it can be really awkward standing up onstage if you can’t…fill the gap between your interpretation of the character and the mask or façade that you feel that you’re being asked to portray by the stage-director, or the conductor, or the theater. If there’s a gap between those two it’s really awkward as a performer, so that is the challenge, and, I think, that’s something that people who are good onstage then pose to themselves…but because they have that kind of integrity, not because they’re asked to do it. I think a lot of…you can go through a career just having that façade and “acting”—in quotation marks—without something actually inside informing, or observation, or some kind of training, or technique to fill that out.
MM Yes, I was >amazed: I was reviewing an Onegin at the Met, and…Thomas Hampson!…he did an Onegin as a…well, not quite surly, but very somber, passive-aggressive sort of character, and I looked up the…what’s-it-called, the streaming videos
VG Oh, yes, the archives.
MM …Met Opera on Demand, or whatever they’re calling it now…but there’s the same production with Hvorostovsky in it, a totally different interpretation. He was a much more active kind of Onegin, always something going on with him, and he was more of an Onegin as a spoiled brat.
MM It was fascinating that this production could take such totally different interpretations, and there was no attempt to…
MM ..make them consistent in any way, in terms of the director’s interpretation of the characters…
VG That’s also, when you’re dealing with a house like the Met, when you have big front-line singers every night, you do have moments where a singer will say “Well, I’m here to perform, not to learn,” and so there could be some pretty substantial gloves on when he’s treating an artist so, and…but also if there’s somebody there—you don’t have the original stage director there when you’re doing a reprise like that—but if the stage director has enough knowledge, or the assistant who’s actually mounting the production has enough knowledge of what the original intents were, then maybe you can discuss it, otherwise they just kind of let you go. I did the Barber of Seville in Berlin at the Staatsoper that’s from 1968, I think, that’s older than I am.
MM Oh that’s the famous one…
VG The Ruth Berghaus—the Berghaus production—and every night that you do a performance, they say, “This is the 747th performance of the Berghaus Barber of Seville!” And the thing was, is that for me that was really an Arthur Murray School of Opera situation where “thou shalt put thy left foot here, because the original mezzo-soprano singing—or probably a coloratura soprano back then, actually that was more the trend—put her left foot there when she sang the first note of “Una voce poco fa” and “thou shalt do with thy hands…” and really it’s, it happened one time that I didn’t do this little gesture with my fingers during the duet with Figaro, I think it was, or maybe it was the Count, I don’t really remember, and a member of the orchestra came to me at the intermission, and he said “Frau Genaux, you sang this so wonderfully, but, I missed it, you didn’t do the gesture with your hands,” and it’s programmed: it’s like you’re meant to be kind of a videotape going through [laughs] the movements. And there are other occasions, like when I did the Semele at Champs Elysées two years ago. It was a remounting of the same production, but, David McVicar was there, and the choreographer was there, it was I think, hmmm, except for two of the singers I think everyone was different in the cast, and I was singing two roles of Ino and Juno, whereas in the original production there had been two singers for the two roles, and he changed a lot of things, so the production was very different than it had been in the first, so perhaps that was another example of…perhaps the stage director was on scene here at the Met when you saw that or perhaps Thomas had had a chance to work with him before, and had they had discussed…? Or maybe it’s just a situation where, you know, “You’re the star, do what you do!” [laughs]
MM Oh yes!
VG You never know…what the conditions are. More often, I think, in the big houses, it’s more “when you are a star…” I was doing the Berghaus, the Barbiere, I wasn’t…I was really really young so that it was more “do it this way, do it this way,” but I think when you get into a bigger house kind of situation you’re given the traffic pattern and then you fill it out as you feel appropriate, and that has to do with your interpretation also, I think there is more of a complicity between the…conductor and the singer in those conditions, and so maybe there’s a bit more communication there than with the staging.
MM I was out in LA to see Achim Freyer’s Ring. He was a disciple of Ruth Berghaus, and so I was doing a bit of research on it.
VG How was that?
MM Oh, it was awful. It was…it really rubbed me the wrong way.
VG I don’t know anything about it…I remember when they were doing it, and I remember hearing about it but I never heard about the end product, or what it came out to be.
MM Whew. Yeah. There was so much, I’ll email you the review I wrote… but, he was… introducing his own kind of concept of time and space into the action…where in some scenes you would have three Wotans, or he would double othercharacters …
MM … which I’ve seen done well in other cases, but he was also trying to create a different system of time where he would …
VG …so it’s like doing opera on the Multiple Universe Theory or something!
MM Yes, right, and so he would be anticipating things in the action beforehand, and he totally undermined the story line. And it became boring.
VG Oh wow!
MM And I’m never bored in the Ring.
VG But even though you already know what’s going to happen…I mean you’ve seen the Ring how many times, and you know the whole story, and you know tall the music, and you know what’s going to happen anyway…
VG How can you be a spoiler in it as a stage-director?
MM But it was just so frustrating and to have… Basically the way Wagner wrote it, it’s a linear story where one thing goes to another even though there are all these flashbacks in the narrative and whatever—it does go back in time—but when you start…it just…it just didn’t work. It was painful.
VG Mmm.. That’s what I felt about the Berghaus also, the… She didn’t have Multiple Universe Theory or anything like that in there, but there were these, what I call “blue-light” moments where I just felt like what I was doing made no sense whatsoever for reality and so for myself, and it’s proved useful for other productions too—I just call it a blue-light moment. I’m in a blue light, [laughing] for myself, and I just imagine myself in a blue light, meaning that I have perfect independence from whatever’s going on onstage; whatever I’m doing has absolutely no effect on anybody else. It’s just me! making my little hand movements like this, and nobody…it’s not gonna get any reaction from anybody, it’s not gonna…that’s my blue-light moment. And one, I went three times to do The Barber there, and the last time that I was there I did an interview also with a fellow who had seen the original production, and he told me, during the interview, he said, “Well, of all the mezzos that…or of all the singers that I’ve seen do this, you’re the one who is most similar to the original…
VG …intent. And I said, “Okay, after we finish the interview, we’re gonna go back to this: please, would you tell me what the original intent was, of this,because I’ve asked at the theater and nobody can: they just say “because you do it this way.” And so at a certain point you just stop asking questions, and you just go into robot mode, and you just do it that way. And so then he explained to me…kind of the whole…why it was so shocking, this production, and what the whole charm was and what Berghaus was trying to achieve, and what the whole Bauhaus and everything like that, and what the whole movement was about, and it just it helped, you know, to understand the context in which I was being asked to do these things which for me were completely nonsensical. It was completely hysterical to me that I got that from a reviewer, from a critic, you know, who I was doing an interview with…It was very valuable. But it was a shame not to have that…In some sense…
MM She was long dead, I guess, when you were singing…?
VG Yes, yes, yes. It would, in a way…when you’re doing a production like that—again not every singer is interested in that—there are those that have the façade between, the distance between the facade and their own selves, and they’re happy carrying around a little mask ofRosina onstage. I’m not happy, I’m not comfortable. It makes me feel really idiotic and out-of-place, and not comfortable. It would be really interesting for me as a singer to…when you go in for one of these productions, to have some sort of a presentation packet of material saying, “This was the concept. This was what was so revolutionary about the concept. This was what they were trying to achieve with this production.”…some kind of, you know…note from the director from when the director did it the first time, saying, “This is what I’d like to achieve,” and maybe even follow-up material: “In this scene it didn’t seem like it worked, and I’d really like to have this emotion come across, or this kind of conflict come across, or this kind of juxtaposition and complete disparity come across.”…it’s…when you get to work with a stage director who is involved, like David McVicar, you have time for those kinds of psychological discussions, and for me it makes me feel like a fish in water. When I’m in a production like that, I feel the difference. [snap fingers] Day and night. You’re not acting anymore you’re inhabiting the role, because you know your thought process from one step to another.
MM Yes, that’s what a good director ought to do. I remember years ago seeing Merchant of Venice in London. It was supposed to have Lawrence Olivier in it but he was sick at the time…
MM … so…Jonathan Miller had directed this, and it was a very Pinteresque kind of production—everyone in it was rather nasty—and there were all those pauses that belong to that style—people just letting lines hang—and so I saw it without Olivier early on in the run. Everything had a kind of knife-edge to it, and it was a slightly perverse production, but you could see the reason for everything. And then Olivier got better, so I went back to see it several months later—and the rest of the cast had really forgotten the meaning of what they were doing, and so there were these…really…actually, I think, they were simply ignoring a lot of the pauses by this point.
VG Because they hadn’t meant anything, necessarily, they were doing it for effect and not for meaning.
MM Yeah they were doing it because they were told to do it a certain way. And you could see they really had forgotten what they were supposed to do to a certain extent. [Or perhaps Olivier modified the direction to suit himself.]
VG And then with Olivier as Shylock, was it different, or how was he…
MM Well, he was a lot more “colorful” than the person he stood in for [ironic laughter]…the person who stood in for him, I mean.
VG …and informed, anyway?
MM Yes, beautiful voice…and…distanced…on the stage he had a wonderful way of underplaying things.
VG Uh huh. I’m in the middle of an autobiography by Stephen Fry, and he was talking about how he went to—where was he?—in Cambridge I guess—yes, he was a Cambridge guy—talking about the tradition of the Footlights and Jonathan Miller and people coming out of that. He said that when he was a kid he was taken to see a play, and Lawrence Olivier was in it in a very small role. And he didn’t know who any of these people were. They came out of the play and his mother said, “What do you think?” and he said “I really liked that guy who sat and put his gloves on.” And that was Olivier!
VG And it was just a small cameo, a walk-on kind of part, but the elegance, the way he put on his gloves, Stephen Fry said, he didn’t know who he was, he was just a little kid, but he was just fascinated by that. Isn’t that incredible?
MM Yeah, that he made something special out of a small thing like that.
VG It’s true, when you’re dealing with props onstage, you think, “Okay I’ve got four beats to get my gloves on and then do this, and [laughing]—or you have to do a movement—or I’ve got to get my jacket on, and then…and you stop thinking about it as a natural movement…it’s something that has to be done [snapping fingers] in this amount of time so it becomes a stressful activity, and not a natural one, just the simplest thing. That’s a challenge for me always. I’ve never been really great with props.
MM Yeah there was a King Lear here, over at BAM, with Derek Jacoby and a London company, and everyone was very, very strong, except the Cordelia, who was the weak link in the show. I think just a very young actress and—well, maybe she just wasn’t that good—and it never dawned on me what a small part that is, that you really don’t have a lot of time onstage to…you really have very little time to…
VG …bring this person to life…
MM …to bring this great role to reality, and you really have to use every second you have onstage.
VG Oh it’s fascinating I really love the craft of it, and it’s something we don’t pay that much attention to. It was interesting: we did a concert of Farnace in Lausanne on Sunday, and then we had a signing afterwards, and it was just a concert version, so we were just standing in front of the orchestra, and one of the things that I’ve seen in some of the reviews after concerts and things like that is, and one of the things I enjoy about recitals also is being able to create the character in a recital situation even though you’re not in the opera—you know, with your costume and lights and whatever, with all the other singers, but some of the things that I’ve seen sometimes is that…I’ve been complemented on interpretation and getting into a character and changing characters from piece to piece: it’s something I really enjoy doing, and it’s something I don’t think about much anymore. And after the Farnace somebody came up afterwards and said “I just love your inhabiting of the role.” And I thought that was so amazing, I was so touched by that because I had four arias to do but everybody else had four or five arias to do as well. It’s a three act opera, and we’re just sitting onstage…in whatever your concert wear is. I just thought that was really neat, that was a great complement.
MM Yes, that was what struck me the first time I saw you perform at Tannery in the recital: you were taking your time, and entering into the character of each song.
VG I love that, I love that, and, it’s something that just happens naturally now. It’s something I used to have to think about a lot, you know, to think about where am I, and what am I saying— and I do that too, but I think it happens naturally now rather than having to really consciously think about it. I love singing concerts, and I love singing recitals. It’s something I really find a lot in operas, because usually I have a really dynamic character, somebody who’s making a big change from the beginning to the end of the opera, so I have a lot of opportunity to show those crux moments when you’re making a really important decision as to how to react to a stimulus, whether you’re going to act as you have in the past…are you going to make the decision to act differently? …and then you also have a moment where you’re looking back on…or you’re dealing with the consequences of that decision. Did you…? Now having acted out for the first time in your life does it look like you did the right thing? Are you remorseful for that? Are you happy about it? Are you wanting to continue with being…? Or if you decided to act as you have in the past, are you happy with that decision? Is it now time to make a different decision? Are you going to continue with the old decision? I have… I don’t have static characters. One of the characters that was really difficult for me was Julius Caesar because he’s 50..52…56 years old, or something, at the time of the opera. He’s established as leader of the Roman Empire. He’s Julius Caesar, and he stays Julius Caesar until the end of the opera. There’s really no…he has the beautiful moment at the beginning of Act II, I think, where he’s kind of shipwrecked, or lost, or whatever it is, but he really doesn’t have any character development. The character I really like doing is Sesto because he’s a young man. He sees the head of his father being presented to Caesar on a silver platter or whatever it is…and…he then has that really crucial moment of deciding, making the decision to really become a man, defend his mother…, avenge his father…Ah, those are really really interesting psychological moments to go through, and they give you just a huge, rich loam of earth to work with in terms of developing the arias.
VG And that’s what’s fun about doing concerts also. You change from character to character as the songs progress, or perhaps, if you’re doing a song cycle, you stay the same character but go very quickly through a life span, for example in the Frauenliebe kind of situation. Or you can have unrelated songs by the same composer where, however you find a common thread, or it’s just… picture, picture, picture of three different tableaux, three different characters, maybe even in the same situation. Or I have now, I do a lot of work with Pauline Viardot’s music, compositions which I just love, and there’s one…she did a lament, that has the same text as a lament done by Fauré, which was dedicated to her actually, and I love putting those together on a program, where you have the same texts set so differently by the two composers.
MM In your recital at the Tannery you did the Loewe Frauenliebe und -leben.
VG The Frauenliebe.
MM …and that’s fantastic!
VG Isn’t it beautiful? And Craig plays that so well. He understands language, the German language so well, and he understands that time period, the musical language so well, it’s just…He plays it like no one else. He’s just amazing with that music. The way that he gives you time for the consonants, because with the German part of the fun is using all the “-sch-” and the “-schr-” and the “Schreck” and the “Druck” and everything. The consonants, and the [snapping fingers] “ck’” “ck,” the plosives.
MM Yes, you have to take your time with it.
VG And you have to be given time—a little bit—by the accompaniment. And some of those can be—in the Loewe—some of those are accentuated by a chord roll in the piano, so you can time those really…together, so that you’re doing those consonants together with that chord roll.
MM Yes. German is harder to pronounce than you think. I was listening to a recording Ian Bostridge did of Schubert Schwanengesang and some other things, and of course his German’s very good, but…it just wasn’t convincing…throughout you were aware it was a foreigner…speaking the German. His consonants were too thick. They were more or less correct, but exaggerated. Listen to Hans Hotter, and you’ll hear how delicate they can be.
MM And .. I don’t know what… other than just living a year in Germany or something like that…to remedy that.
VG But even…singing is so different from speaking. Also, it’s…who was it? …there was a documentary on one of the famous Austrian/German sopranos…Schwarzkopf!
VG It was a television documentary…they had filmed Schwarzkopf giving a lesson, and she was talking about “why are you saying ‘gebenn,‘ ‘gebenn’? When you sing, you don’t say ‘gebenn.‘ when you sing, it’s”geb’n,” “geb’n.” You have to sing it like you say it. It’s “gehb’n,” “gehb’n.”‘ And that’s one of the things that I really work on with my teacher, Claudia, and that’s her father, Ezio Pinza’s, philosophy: you speak the text. You really sing it as you speak it. Although he did every thing with an Italian position—I mean, he said, “you sing the French as though it’s Italian” [laughing] —which is a whole other argument too! But the pronunciation, that’s…half the fun in everything is doing the pronunciation. My German is far from perfect when I’m singing, but I really enjoy that…splashing around in the consonants in whatever language I’m singing.
MM Yes, yes. It’s an amazing language. I love seeing theater when I’m in Germany or Austria.
MM A friend of mine has gotten into Pierrot Lunaire, and she’s doing the Sprechstimme for that, and I…it came up that some of her gestures…and her German is really very good, but the gestures just weren’t quite authentic, so she really…got to work on that…immediately.
VG It’s always very interesting to me—I think rightfully so—we’re very harsh on ourselves and others are very harsh on us about our…our adoption of Italian and German and French pronunciation, and Polish and Czech, and all of the other languages now that we’re singing in, and how we are not…I think…I find that we’re very complacent about foreign singers singing in English…about how the pronunciation isn’t quite…But I always think of, you know, the famous Bernstein West Side Story recording where he was going off on José Carreras because he wasn’t supposed to sound like he was a Puerto Rican! [laughs]
VG And he really had a fit! You understand, then, the Italians, poor things, listening to us Americans and Germans and French singing in Italian. When you then hear an Italian singer trying to sing…They have all these pop shows on TV, Who wants… Who’s… Italy’s Next Star, or whatever it is, and they’re always singing American rock or pop music, and the pronunciation is just…I mean it’s dreadful..
MM [Chuckling] Yeah!
VG And instead…I am critical of that, but then…I’m critical of it to a certain extent, and then I think “Yep, but that’s what they’re thinking when you’re singing in Italian, honey!” [slapping thigh, laughing] that’s, I mean, that’s exactly it! So…it goes both ways. And I think you have to give kudos for trying, for the attempt, but I think….My first voice teacher was Dorothy Dow. She sang at Scala and she really…she put herself through Juilliard. She did the whole thing on her own. She wanted to be an opera singer, and she wanted to sing Italian opera, but in Italy they always gave her German—either Strauss or Wagner things to sing, and she said “Okay, I’ll do a Strauss, if you give me a Gioconda also,” because she wanted to sing Italian. So she was at Scala, and at one point they were on their break, and whoever the conductor was sat down at the piano and (Gershwin was the rage then.), he started playing Rhapsody in Blue. And she said that was the moment that it hit her, because he played it technically wonderfully, but it had an accent. Just playing the piano, it had an accent. It wasn’t American. It wasn’t Gershwin. It wasn’t the way an American would have played that piece. And, she said “I understood then what it meant for the Italians to listen to an American coming over to sing Italian opera.” It’s just, it’s not the same thing! And you can be as well-versed as you want, but you’ll always have a bit of an accent, I think.
MM Yes, and certain gestures are impossible for a foreigner…
VG That’s part of an accent.
VG That’s part of an accent: it’s a physical accent, a vocal accent, a visual accent, there’s something that’s just…
MM Yes, and it’s more the physical gestures than the actual language, in my friend’s case, she had some gestures that were just…American!
VG Right! And that’s an accent for me also. That’s an accent for expression.
MM And it’s fine, I didn’t think she should change it either, because she…she’s not going to turn herself into an…Austrian.
VG And it can be charming! Depending on whose doing the—how do you say—who’s receiving the interpretation. We always think that accents are charming. We like accents, and we think it’s cute when an Italian sings, you know, “Lamori…” [laughs] you know, “all alone in the mooooonliiiiiight!” You know it’s charming. So it’s an accent. It’s a physical accent, it’s a…if you try to imitate how an Italian talks with the hand gestures, I mean, people always just go to this one, with the “What you say?” It’s not that. There’s a whole gamut that we can’t hope to assimilate, because when have not lived it, and we’ve not grown up in that. But you can imitate it and you can achieve a certain level of…assimilation.
VG And that’s what we do. That’s what acting is. That’s what interpretation is. And “interpretation” is… what’s implicit in “interpretation” is that it’s your interpretation, and it’s unique to you because your experience up to this moment is completely unique from anyone else’s.
MM Yes, that’s part of the…the pleasure of opera: you have a lot of international casts now, lots of Russians…
VG Yes, lot a Russians…
MM Poles…Ukrainians, and…along with Americans and….
VG And the techniques are all different one singer to another. It’s just fascinating watching…for me, last night .watching Faust, watching each of the principal singers…how the technique is different and where they go for placement in certain areas of the voice—really interesting! We’re all different.
MM …and it works, it’s part of opera, and a generation or two generations ago people wouldn’t even try doing a Russian opera in Russian…
MM There was nobody who could do it.
VG No. Or you’d have an Italian opera where one, the French singer, would be singing in French, the Italian in Italian, the Bulgarian it in Bulgarian—in the same performance.
MM Oh, yes.
VG That’s not too far back.
MM People just accepted it.
VG Of course. It was music, it was “interpretation,” it was…everybody was kind of going in the same direction [laughing].
MM Yes! [laughing] Could well…at the Met they could well have had no rehearsal at all!
MM The Met was notorious in the ‘twenties and in the earlier days for just not having rehearsals at all.
VG But that’s…today, to, the Vienna Staatsoper, when we did Barber of Seville, we had maybe 20 minutes of rehearsal, basically, in a little rehearsal room—not even onstage. In Munich when I did Barber of Seville—one of the reasons I stopped doing Barber was that there was no rehearsal, nobody wanted to rehearse Barber of Seville in Munich: the conductor wasn’t even there until the day of the performance.
VG OK. It’s McDonald’s to me.
VG I don’t like McDonald’s.
VG I mean McDonald’s has it’s place, but not for me, it doesn’t belong in the opera.
MM Have you done the Barber in Paris?
VG Yep I did. The Barber of Kabul…
MM Ha! [laughing]
VG Yeah I did that twice, I think…I didn’t enjoy that either. That was an interesting experience too, because it was a reprise, Joyce [di Donato] had done the first one, and then I came in for the second production, and it was a film director who was doing that doing it, and she was completely inaccessible, she never introduced herself. She came to rehearsals sometimes, but she just sat, she didn’t introduce herself ever to the singers, she never spoke to us, she just sort of sat there and glared.
VG If there was anything that she wanted to communicate, she said it to the assistant and then the assistant came and said it…That’s not necessary. I think it’s ridiculous. So!
MM Very popular production. When I saw it, it seemed to be something people would take their kids to.
VG Well, that’s good, it’s good to have something you can take your kids to at the opera. That’s good. And that’s one thing I enjoy about my rep is also that…I love Cenerentola. Kids always come to see that, and Barber also is a great kids’ piece, so, it’s good. I love comedies, you get to have people laugh and…that’s neat, I love, I love…I’m not a good comedian …in terms of timing [snapping fingers], and things like that, but the music helps, and I often get to work with really great artists who are great comic actors.
MM Oh you were pretty funny in L‘Italiana…
VG I was funny in Barber at Paris, because…you know, she has this veil over her head half the time but they didn’t… I’ve since now (Thank goodness for YouTube!), because I can see now how the Arab women actually keep those things on their heads: they have all numbers of pins and things up there, I didn’t have a pin because you had to take it off at one point, and I couldn’t be encumbered by a pin. But I was hysterical in that performance because half the time my veil was flying into the fountain there [laughing] on the stage and getting soaked and I kept having to—’krkt‘—ring it out and put in back on my head… oh!… that was so difficult! That was…it… the most difficult one, I think, I did was the Dario Fò production in Amsterdam, and there you were supposed to have this ball of yarn that was hanging from a prop, from the ceiling, so of course it was like 40 meters [laughs] of string hanging down to this ball of yarn, and you had a little embroidery…tamburo…what do you say… disk or
VG or, yes, an embroidery hoop…and you were supposed to kind of play tennis with this on [singing] “una voce poco fa” so it was [singing] “a se mi toccano dov’è il mio debole…” but it never came back on “debole” so it was like [singing] “a se mi toccano dov’è il mio debole…sarò una vipera e cento trappole,” always off, and, oh, it was dreadful…it was so hard.
MM Oh gosh!
The mentioned scene from Il Barbiere di Siviglia in Dario Fò’s production at Amsterdam. Jennifer Larmore sings Rosina.
VG So. Anyhow, you have what you need?
MM Oh yes! You’ve been very generous.
VG Thank you, it’s been lovely.
MM Yes, it’s been great. Thank you so much!
VG You didn’t eat your cake! I’m gonna have a piece of cake now too!
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