JENNIFER LARMORE: INTERVIEW
By Joel Kasow
PARIS, 21 May 1998— After trying for almost a year, Jennifer Larmore
and I finally succeeded in arranging - by email - a long-planned
interview in the Paris apartment she rented for a long stay during the
preparation for and performances of Italiana in Algeria. Since
I first encountered the Atlanta-born mezzo in 1989 as Bellini's Romeo
at Vaison-la-Romaine, rapidly followed by a Cenerentola, Ottavia and Mélisande,
Larmore has become one of the leading Rossini mezzos of today, a fact
documented by her continuing series of recordings for Teldec. I
witnessed her capacity as a trooper a few years ago at a concert
performance of Handel's Giulio Cesare when René Jacobs started a rather
fast aria at what was evidently a faster tempo than usual, and a look of
total terror almost imperceptibly crossed her face, but she went ahead and
sang it as if it were the easiest thing in the world. Now at her artistic
maturity at her readily admitted 39 years of age, Larmore is eager for all
the challenges that may come her way.
Where did you get
I would say I've been training all my life: I started in
church, where I had fantastic choir directors. Choir was a really
important thing in my life. I had one of the best basic musical
educations you could get, because they were trying out something new
at the time in my junior high school, and that was a cooperative
program in music with the high schools to see if it would work, which
it did, and I think it's still in place today. I grew up in Atlanta,
in the city, and when I was about 15 we moved out to Marietta where my
father worked at the Lockheed Aircraft Corporation. I went to
Westminster Choir College and studied with Robert MacIver, who was
fantastic. He noticed that I had a natural voice and he didn't want to
mess it up. So we studied a lot of repertoire and languages and
pedagogy, and he fixed a few details here and there, but he mostly
gave me an idea of where I needed to go and helped me figure out what
I wanted to do. After I figured all that out and got out of college, I
met John Bullock through my husband, Bill Powers (American
bass-baritone), and I studied with him for three years, mostly
musculature and technique, and I hardly even sang an aria during that
time. It was mostly getting a solid basis to have a long career, to
understand what's going on in my throat.
Operanet: Was he
the one who helped you solidify the technique that enables you to sing
JL: To tell you
the truth, I always had the coloratura. I think that Rossini is not
only the virtuosity, but you've got to have a certain personality to
sing it and have an understanding of what's inside the music, not just
the notes on the page, and that's where I think some people make a
mistake, by not taking it seriously, saying "It's fluff - it's
not Verdi, it's not Wagner, it's Rossini so it's fluff. It's easy."
Excu-u-u-use me, it's not easy, and it's not fluff. Working with John
Bullock helped me to open up a high extension to my voice, learn how
to use it and what's going on inside, which of course is going to help
when you're doing something as hard as Rossini. Anybody who tells you
it's easy is lying. I can say that the coloratura is easy, I've always
had it, it's natural, I don't have to work too hard to achieve it.
What's hard nowadays in Rossini is that we have lots of movement, lots
of physical things to go along with it. It's not enough to just stand
there and sing as in the days of Tebaldi - I think that would have
been terrific [wistfully].
Operanet: But going back to singers of that
generation, Callas, Licia Albanese, Birgit Nilsson, to name a few,
there's a certain elemental presence that enabled them to act without
all the running around that only makes it more difficult.
JL: And a lot
of the power back then - which has since shifted - was in their own
hands, whereas today the power all seems to be in the hands of the
directors. And we do live in an incredibly visual society - videos,
Hollywood, movies, we have to see it with our own eyes, everything is
internet, which I love - so you can see why we are so physical on
stage these days. And that, more than anything else, more than singing
the music, makes it very difficult.
Operanet: Do you ever
get involved in a production that you regret, or think that the
director has lost his mind?
JL: No, because I've
learned my lesson, and learned it the hard way. I don't let all of
that get inside of me. If it works and works around me so that I can
become an integral part of it, fine. If I can't and it's absolutely
impossible for me to do it, then I'm going to stand there, first and
foremost, and burn up the stage where I sing. I'm going to give the
music everything I've got and let it all fall down around me. I don't
care because I'm going to do what I need to do first for the music,
because without that you haven't got your show.
Operanet: How about
the Dario Fo Barbiere di Siviglia?
JL: I liked that one.
Operanet: I walked
out of that at the intermission.
JL: His Italiana
you would not have liked. As brilliant as he is, in many ways I think
that his Barbiere really had nothing to do with the music or
with the story, it was movement for movement's sake, more of a circus
atmosphere. I admire him in a lot of ways for many different things he
has done in the past. Seeing him onstage as an actor and mime, I knew
I wanted to work with him because he had ideas; as I had been working
with another director who had a lot of ideas, I wanted something new
and different. When we did Italiana at Pesaro, it all went
around us - there were contraptions and people moving around, almost
like a Cecil B. de Mille or David Lean movie with a cast of thousands.
Operanet: How do you
feel when you're trying to sing with all this going on around you?
JL: You don't feel
real good. You would hope that the music could stand on its own. A lot
of directors, since they come from a theatrical background, don't
trust the music and don't trust the singers to do their job, which is
to bring the music alive. And the music can stand on its own in so
many instances but is not allowed to. And every once in a while, you
make a decision: I know who the director is and I know what he's
about, but I want to work with him anyway. You take it all in stride,
you learn your lessons and you do the best you can.
Operanet: Would you
work with Peter Sellars or Robert Wilson, for example.
JL: Why not? I'm
never going to say no, unless I have seen what they have done and
absolutely knew that I would be totally frustrated or that the music
would be subjugated or that I would not be able to handle it. I'm
never one to shy away from a challenge.
Operanet: If we look
back at the early years of your career, I remember the Mélisande
you sang in Marseilles...
JL: I really love
that role and I loved that production because it was flesh and blood,
and I'm a flesh and blood girl.
Operanet: How about
escaping from the Rossini "straitjacket", because many
people want to pigeonhole you there.
JL: That's okay.
People need to do certain things to make themselves feel comfortable,
and if it makes them feel comfortable, that's fine with me. And I love
Rossini and will do it as long as people want me to do it. If they
want me as a 45-year-old broad singing Rossini, I'll do it.
Operanet: What other
Rossini roles are you considering?
JL: Well, I've done
Arsace on disc, and if anyone offers it to me, I'll take it.
Malcolm in Donna del Lago, all the nice low ones.
Operanet: What roles
are you considering outside Rossini?
JL: Since there has
been, normally and naturally, an evolution in my voice - it hasn't
stayed the same since the beginning, nor could it have considering how
I've grown as a person, physically, psychologically, and the voice
should go along with all these changes - Carmen is coming. I'm
doing it for the first time onstage (I've done some concert
performances) in Los Angeles to open the season in Fall 1998 with
Domingo and then Jacques Trussel, a dear friend of mine, and Bertrand
de Billy is conducting. And I'd love to do Oktavian and some of the
other Strauss roles because my top is fine, like the Composer, but
there again people tend to think of me as more of a Mediterranean
singer, more the bel canto type, like Romeo (Bellini), and eventually
Favorita - when people offer it - and Adalgisa...
Charlotte that you were supposed to sing in concert in Brussels this
JL: You know,
nothing short of surgery - which is what happened - could have made me
cancel that. In my career of 11 years, I think I've cancelled only
three times, all for very good reasons, and this was dental surgery,
so that I was like a chipmunk for months. But I've already had some
offers for Charlotte. There's a future for me. But what I want people
who know me and like me to understand is that I'm not going to push my
voice. Whatever I sing, it's going to be with my voice and I'm not
going to try and be anything I'm not. My voice has grown a lot, as has
my back - my mother, who used to make all my clothes, even noticed.
That's lung power.
Operanet: To go back
to productions, last year you sang in the Pizzi production of Handel's
Rinaldo in Geneva, where you were all being pushed around on
JL: That was one of
the hardest things I've ever done. I thought that visually it was
quite beautiful, but it's very hard for the singers because we were
constantly having to balance ourselves and do all of the baroque
gestures, which - I must say - to do once in your career is not bad,
to learn what certain gestures mean, how to use your body in different
ways. It's not bad. I think the lighting was quite pretty.
Operanet: I think
one of the problems was all the posing, but the effect may have been
different ten years earlier when the production was new.
JL: It's like a
recording. Just a moment in time, like a snapshot. Not necessarily how
I'm going to sound tomorrow or the next day, but only that moment.
That's what's great about live theater too. When you're rehearsing
with people, you've got a certain dramatic rhythm, and there have been
times, like the Barbiere at the Unter den Linden (Berlin
Staatsoper) where we all looked at each other with the same thought
that one of us voiced: "Do you realize that this rapport will
never happen again." And people are still talking about that
performance. It was the Ruth Berghaus production which has been around
for 50 years, but it was Dmitri Hvorostovsky, William Matteuzzi, who
was hilarious, and me looking like the Marschallin in a white wig,
Carlos Chausson - it was just a melding of great personalities at that
moment. People said that they had been seeing that production in the
repertoire for 50 years, and finally they were belly laughing.
Everything went wrong, of course, the sets fell down on me - they were
only sheets - and for the first time in my career I totally lost it,
with the audience laughing because of the way it happened. I leaned
out of a little window just a bit too far and all the sheets came
down. So Carlos Chausson who was singing Bartolo came out and said, "Ach,
du lieber, mein Haus is kaput", so the audience went crazy again,
and when he tells Rosina to get back in the house I said, "I'm
already in the house." From then on it was constant laughter.
Operanet: The other
day I was listening to some reissues on Mondo Musica of the archives
from La Fenice, and you could constantly hear the prompter. Most
theaters today don't even use prompters, outside the Met, Italy and
perhaps a few other houses. How do you feel about that?
JL: I can't have a
prompter. If he throws a word at me, I go "What?" I remember
working with Marilyn Horne, and I told her that I could not use a
prompter because it was too distracting, to which she responded, "Boy,
do we come from different generations."
Operanet: Would you
say this is true for most of the singers of your generation?
JL: I think so. We
go from job to job in this jet set age, and we have to be totally
prepared on the first day of rehearsal - which is not to say that the
older generation was not prepared - but as prompters are not so
readily available these days we learn not to rely on them. Sometimes,
however, it's very comforting to see that head down there, smiling up
at you, if it's Joan Dorneman (at the Met) or somebody like that.
Operanet: And you
could lose your place...
JL: I'm pretty good
about making up things if I do lose my place.
Operanet: Do you
then tell the prompter ahead of time not to bother with you at all?
JL: I have on
occasion been known to tell the prompter to keep his eye on me at a
particular place, because I have a block, and to throw me the words
should I freeze during a performance. The singer has to be smart
enough to know where he needs help and tell the prompter. Otherwise
they leave me alone.
Operanet: Let's talk
about the Carmen recording. Do you think you may have recorded
it too early?
JL: You can't look
back on it and feel regret. It's there. And I think I will record it
again. It was a real study for me. I had already sung some concert
performances, and I felt that I knew her as well as I possibly could
at that point. I told my husband, "People are either going to
hate this or love it, nothing in between." I sing it like it's
French art song, because that's what I believe. It's first and
foremost French music, but you've also got that dichotomy of the
Spanish woman in the French music, and there is really nothing Spanish
about it, not the language either. I really think it's chanson, and
that's the way I sang it. Maybe I'll sing it differently later. We'll
see. I'm looking forward to the performances in Los Angeles.
Operanet: Do your
interpretations change as you go from one production to another?
because I'm a reactor. That's the kind of actress I am; I like the
challenge of having different people around me and having to react
differently, so it's going to be different every single time. When I
do the Carmen with Placido, it's going to be totally different
than when I do it with Jacques Trussel. They're completely different
voices, different personalities, I know them differently. I've known
Jacques since I was 18, he's like my big brother. We were talking
about it and he said, "Ugh, am I going to have to kiss you?"
are also an important part of your career.
JL: About a third of
my appearances, but more and more these days. When I started my career
I thought, "I'm going to work really hard, because I want to, and
if I don't make it by the time I'm 35, where I'm making money and am
able to pick and choose what I want, then I'm going to quit."
Really naïve. And then 35 rolled around and things were going
nicely and I decided I'd like to work six months and take six months
off. Of course it's never six months at a stretch, but two weeks here
and a month there, but it makes a big difference because now I really
have time to prepare recitals. Having a good career makes it easier to
do the things you've always wanted but never had the time. A fairly
silent participant in this conversation, pianist Antoine Palloc who
appears often in recital with Jennifer Larmore, now enters the
conversation. They have known each other for 11 years, but have only
recently started working together.
JL: When I needed a
pianist for a recital at the Deutsche Oper in Berlin because the
people I usually worked with were not free, I thought, "Why not
Antoine?" I just heard him play for Norah Amsellem and it was
fantastic. I knew he was a fantastic pianist and so he came and played
for me. He got a standing ovation, and we then went on to do two
recital tours together, other recitals, and we've got a new disc, My
Native Land, which is all American songs. For Antoine and me, putting
together the recital programs, doing the research, is a big, fun part
of it all. We really enjoyed our last recital tour. The thing that
really makes me mad is that they never think that the accompanist is
important, and that is a pet peeve of mine. In all my recital
contracts, it is stated that the accompanist must be mentioned in all
the publicity. We're a team, and I don't think it can work if you're
not. We've done two big recital tours across the United States, plus
some concerts in Europe, but in America I was upset not to see young
people. In Europe, you do see young people at recitals.
because the visual aspect that you were talking about is lacking.
Operanet: Tell me
about the new production of Italiana that you're doing now at
the Paris Opera.
JL: It's an
interesting production. The audience last night enjoyed it. There's a
lot of movement, but it works, with the costumes that can be kind of
tacky, with the sets that can also be kind of tacky, with the movement
that's a little tacky - it all fits together and somehow works in the
end. Even though we felt that some of the movement got a little
tiring, it works and people are laughing their heads off. I guess
that's the main thing. I felt I had to be an integral part of this to
make it work, so I'm tacky too.
Operanet: How do you
feel about surtitles?
JL: I love them, I'm
not a snob about them at all.
Operanet: But don't
you find that people are laughing in the wrong place because they are
reacting to the surtitles and not what's happening onstage?
JL: Yes. I say I
love them when it's a comedy because I like people to understand
what's going on, especially in New York where there aren't that many
people who speak a foreign language. Last night, however, they flushed
up the lights a bit in "Oh, che muso" which took me by
surprise as nobody had told me they were going to do that, and all of
a sudden I saw everyone's face in the audience looking up, so I
thought "Hello, I'm down here". That's a little
disconcerting, as it is when all the opera glasses come up and start
peering at you. But there again, I'm not a snob about it; if they feel
they need it, fine. The set-up at the Met is fantastic, that's the way
to do it, instead of craning your head and looking up and down all the
clearly feel that one of the most important things is communicating
with your audience.
everything. I love actually to see an audience, to bring them in, to
get them right there in the palm of my hand. That's half the fun of
it. We've gotten into the habit, wherever we perform, of asking for a
lighting rehearsal beforehand, so that there will be enough light for
people to read their programs and at the same time see my face really
well and also Antoine. When we do a recital, we are such a team and
feel like a team. It's not just me. I just read a wonderful review of
"Native Land" but it said nothing about Antoine. Imagine how
it must make him feel, and this is his first recording. We're thinking
about doing some French and Spanish songs. When we put together the
American songs, which I just loved doing, because I'm American, almost
three quarters of the repertoire came from Antoine (who studied in
America for four years at the Westminster Choir College and the
University of Michigan) who seems more American than I sometimes. He
and Bill and myself put this together, even too many to start with, so
that there is now enough for a second volume.
Operanet: And the
JL: I am in the
process, and don't think me presumptious, of writing a book for young
singers. It's the kind of book that I wish I had when I was starting
out. I'm interviewing people like Marilyn Horne, Placido Domingo,
Thomas Hampson, Renée Fleming, Matthew Epstein, lots of
different people from different areas of our business, conductors, pr
agents. When I look at young people trying to make a career today, I
wonder how in the world they are doing it. When I did it, certain
doors opened, but I also had a real clear idea of what I wanted to do,
when I wanted to do it and how I wanted to do it. But the young people
I talk to today, they haven't any idea, they don't even know what
their repertoire is. They don't know what they are, which path to
take. It's like teaching. At Westminster, you started student teaching
in your first year, so that by the time they had gotten to their last
year they knew whether or not they wanted to teach. I really look
forward to the day when I can teach. I may be the only singer who
feels that way in the whole world, because most of the people I know
don't want to teach. I'm always talking to the younger singers,
they're always picking my brain. I'm not that old, but they know I'm
out there doing it. I'm trying to compile from people in the know,
people out there doing it, it could be a manual, it could be a lot of
anecdotes, it could be checklists. I wish I'd had something like that.
A select discography of Jennifer Larmore:
di Poppea (Ottavia), Concerto Vocale, conducted by René
Jacobs. Harmonia Mundi. Orfeo (Messaggiera), Concerto Vocale,
conducted by René Jacobs. Harmonia Mundi.
Cesare (title role), Concerto Vocale, conducted by René
Jacobs. Harmonia Mundi.
Gluck: Orfeo ed
Euridice (Orfeo), San Francisco Opera Orchestra, conducted by
di Siviglia (Rosina), Chamber Orchestra of Lausanne, conducted by
Jesus Lopez Cobos.
(title role). Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, conducted by
Carlo Rizzi. Teldec
in Algeria (title role). Chamber Orchestra of Lausanne, conducted
by Jesus Lopez Cobos. Teldec
"Whither shall I fly?":
arias by Handel and Mozart, with Chamber Orchestra of
Lausanne, conducted by Jesus Lopez Cobos. Teldec
"Call Me Mister":
arias by Mozart, Meyerbeer, Tchaikovsky, Rossini, Bellini, etc., with
the Welsh National Orchestra, conducted by Carlo Rizzi. Teldec
"My Native Land":
. American songs by Ives, Heggie, Copland, Barber, Hoiby, etc., with
Antoine Palloc, piano. Teldec.