You have to be able to sing in a certain language and make it sound like you speak it. You want the audience to think: “they know what they´re doing!”. What the audience thinks is everything. It´s not part of it- it´s everything. That´s why you have to sing meanings- not just words.
I ask myself, ‘What can I give my students that will make them better right away?’ Everybody thinks I’m a diction cop, and in a way I am, but audience perception is everything. What they think you know is more important than what you actually know. That sounds like nonsense, but it’s not. If the audience thinks you know what you’re doing, that’s what matters.”
In an interview, you once said “I took stuff from everyone- I was a huge thief!”
Maybe the word “sponge” sounds a bit nicer. For instance, take Hermann Prey. He was a good friend, and I loved his Lieder. Or take Franco Corelli, Carlo Bergonzi, or Richard Tucker, to take a few tenors: all of these great singers from the past, they would do something special. I would listen to them and I thought: “Oh, that´s beautiful! Now, where can I do that effect in my own music?” I was good at that, and that´s what I call being a sponge.
This is something you would advise young artists to do?
Well, yes! My wife and I have this program, “VoicExperience”, where we train and talk about all these things. As well-rounded artists, we need to sing everything- opera, Broadway, Latin, French mélodie, Lieder, Italian songs, Zarzuela, sacred music, Bach, Beethoven, Schubert, Haydn… If you don’t know Messiah, Elijah, The Creation, the Lord Nelson Mass. . . why don’t you know it? You better know a big hunk of it, because that’s where you’re going to be hired and show your musical guts as a soloist. A mezzo coming out of college is not going to get a job as Carmen. Having a career is not easy and is becoming harder nowadays, especially here in the United States. There is not a lot of opportunities here in the U.S., and there is certainly not much in China. It´s in all these German speaking theatres, where the work is. Austria, Switzerland and Germany. Therefore, I tell singers, if you want to be on stage, if it´s your desire to be on stage, you have to move to a German speaking town! And you have to speak the language.
I was lucky, I didn´t have to move to Germany or Austria. I was taken there. But if Karl Böhm hadn´t liked me and hadn´t taken me to the Staatsoper in Vienna? Not sure if I had done what I told myself at the time: If I´m not better one year from now, better in range, better in languages, better in nuance… then I´ll teach. I have music education degrees because I studied in order to teach.
Well, it seems like you did get better… but here you are, 55 years later, and you are teaching anyway.
Sure. As I tell my students: I just took out 40 years, 42 years actually, to sing around the world, and now I am doing what I trained to do: teach! And I love teaching.
You are a singer, conductor, teacher, but you are also an actor. One of your most famous scenes is when you sing Scarpia and are stabbed by Tosca. Falling over backward in a chair looks so realistic that the audience thinks you are hurt….
I worked out that staging in a new production in Munich and kept it for Berlin, Paris, the Met, and other theaters where the chair allowed it. It had to be the right kind of big chair, with a thick back that protects the fall. The trick is to push back with your legs like you’re getting away from Tosca, and that’s what pushes the chair over. The big challenge was to not make it look like a trick, but like it was really happening. If you’re going to do some physical activity on stage, it has to look like it’s really happening.
How many times did you “die” that way? You must have performed Tosca quite a few times.
Sure. I couldn´t give you a number, but I probably did around 150. Not every theater in the world has the right chair, but probably about half the time I made it work. The problem with it: it must not look like a trick, like an athletic peak of some sort. It has to look like it was an accident, and that´s much harder to do.
I would check the chair and I would try it. Falling backwards in a chair with a big back, you have to tuck your head and know that there are certain mechanical things so you don't get really hurt. Sometimes you get a bit banged up, but if you're willing to take a little discomfort or pain, it can be very effective.
You always tell your students to think about a reason for what they are doing on the stage.
When a singer tells me they’re coming on stage because they have to sing for four bars, that’s the musical reason. The character doesn’t know that they have to sing four bars. You, the singer, have to find reasons for things. You’re entering for a reason. That makes a huge difference. Or, often, somebody sings something and they politely turn, because they know the soprano sings next, and they wait for the soprano. I tell them, ‘You don’t know she’s going to say something. For all you know, the scene is over, and the sound of her voice stops you. The character does not know who’s next.