with Roberta Alexander
By Joel Kasow
FRANCE, 1 April 1998 - Roberta Alexander is a singer whose career
I have had the pleasure of following since her professional debut in
February 1975 in the Netherlands, as Fanny in Rossini's Cambiale
di Matrimonio. A well-documented career on disc - alongside a
Glyndebourne video of Jenufa - shows that she has worked with
the leading conductors of the period, Haitink, Harnoncourt, Davis,
among others. Another highlight of her career was Bess at the
Metropolitan Opera. With this all, she is able to laugh at herself, a
frequent occurrence during this interview.
At the time you made your debut, you were a member of the
Netherlands Opera Studio, and you went on to sing in Susa's
Transformations, the world premiere of Viktor Ullmann's Kaiser von
Roberta Alexander: Kerry Woodward had
found the score and somehow managed to get the performing rights; he
brought it to Hans de Roo who was then Intendant of the Netherlands
Opera and who thought it was a great idea. He then showed it to Rhoda
Levine, the stage director, who thought it was wonderful, and they set
about casting it with the members of the Studio because it was, of
course, low budget; and then it's not a full evening with only about
an hour of music. We worked on it for about eight weeks, and right
after the dress rehearsal one of the cast broke or sprained something
so we had to cancel the first night. Once we started the performances
we all found it incredibly moving. We also performed it in Israel. We
were in Beersheva which has the Theresienstadt monument and there were
some people who had been in the camp - we were all blown away by the
experience. I was the Girl - that was a great season, I was the Third
Orange (Prokofiev's Love for 3 Oranges), the Fifth Maid in Elektra.
Operanet: But the Third Orange is the Princess
Ninetta, even though she doesn't have that much to sing.
But she's still the Third Orange. All the small roles were hotly
contested by the Studio members, and one of my less nice colleagues
said "I want to be the First Orange", not realizing that the
First Orange comes out and dies immediately. She deservedly got her
wish. And then I was the Second Woodnymph in Russalka, with Teresa
Stratas and Willard White. It was an exciting time.
Looking back now, for we're talking over 20 years ago, do you think
your career has gone along a path you could have foreseen at that
RA: I think it surpassed anything I ever
dreamed of. From the time I was a small child, it's all I ever wanted
to do. My mother was a singer, and I was only allowed to go to her
concerts if I didn't sing along.
Operanet: In fact,
you've had a remarkable career. If we go back to Der Kaiser von
Atlantis, that ties in with some of your recent activities, the
Entartete Musik series, particularly the operas of Bertold
Goldschmidt. They are such magnificent works...
They're totally different. The first one, Die gewaltige Hahnrei, I
don't know how they memorized it when it was done on stage. It was all
I could do, such a difficult idiom, and the orchestration was so faint
compared to what you thought you were going to hear, so that suddenly
your note would be in the bass clarinet. Meeting and working with
Bertold Goldschmidt was like encountering history. Then when we did
the concert in Berlin, I felt honored to be a part of it. And Beatrice
Cenci, I have been trying to get someone to stage that for me ever
since. It's right down my alley. The problem with Stella in Die
gewaltige Hahnrei is that she has to be naked, so I think I'll leave
that for my younger colleagues. Cenci just felt right, and it was a
momentous occasion for Goldschmidt, and I am pleased he was still able
to be there. I remember him saying to me, "I wish Hindemith could
be around now." [Hindemith was evidently one of his greatest
We talk about other music of the period,
including Manfred Gurlitt's Wozzeck, along with some other works by
the composer, leading to a vain plea for the Decca people to have a
look at the scores, vain because they have cancelled several projects,
including Hindemith's Harmonie der Welt.
You have had an extraordinary career, one of the luckiest singers,
with the chance to do Bach, Handel and Mozart with Harnoncourt, among
others. What's it like?
RA: Fabulous. That's all I
can say. I loved Cleopatra. Such great costumes, such a great cast.
You know, I learned that in three weeks. I was home hanging up the
laundry after singing the Beethoven Ninth with the Concertgebouw. I
was getting ready to sing Britten's War Requiem - and for the first
time in my life I was totally prepared - when the phone rang, and it
was Harnoncourt, who never calls anybody or talks on the phone unless
it's an emergency. He wanted to know if I could sing this Handel opera
that I knew not a note of, and I said yes. It's a big role, eight
arias and lots of recitative. Anne Murray was a wonderful colleague,
and I couldn't believe Mariana Lipovsek. You stood there with your
mouth hanging open.
Operanet: You've sung Mozart
with any number of conductors. How would you talk about differences of
interpretation from one conductor to another?
They can be enormous. There are basic things that are the same. One is
the energy behind the music making, the other is the love for the
composer and the music. As long as both are present, I have no trouble
with whether they want you to cut off an eighth note earlier, or
whether they want you to go in and out, or they want you to "sing
out, Louise". What I don't like is conductors who ask you to do
things that are not in the score and were never meant to be there, or
terribly unmusical things. I think the great part of our profession is
the learning, that there is not "a" way to do something. You
should keep your options open and not say, "I do it this way",
because then you're shutting yourself off from artistic growth.
Granted there is a lot of difference in doing Don Giovanni with James
Levine at the Metropolitan Opera and doing it with Harnoncourt in
Vienna or even with Peter Schreier conducting.
And you were almost always Elvira? With Zerlina early on, I think.
RA: Only once, at the Met, my debut role. You have
to get in there and find out what it's like, what the house is like,
how your voice projects, whether you feel good, something unobtrusive
and not a lot of hype before you get there in case you fall flat on
your face - what a horrible idea. Vitellia in Clemenza di Tito is the
role I've done the most of all the Mozart girls, over 150
performances. And you start thinking, I did it the first time in 1983,
and the second time in 1984. And this is an opera that doesn't come
along all that often, but...It's such glorious music. I wish someone
would give me the chance to sing Sesto, just once I'd like to be the
Operanet: In fact, the two roles are
similar in tessitura.
RA: No, Vitellia goes higher
and lower. Sesto goes over two octaves, from b flat to b flat, while
Vitellia goes from a low g to a high d, which I do when I have it. The
role is not going to judged on that one note. It's something you
learn. I used to have sleepless nights until I finally realized, if I
have one on the day then I'll use it, and otherwise not. But in
Vienna, with the Vienna Philharmonic tuning at 448, by the time you
get to that trio you don't have a chance because it's now an e flat.
Now, if I had an e flat, I would really be famous, with Lucias and
Operanet: I think Mozart must be the
composer you have sung the most: Finta Giardiniera, Idomeneo, Nozze di
Figaro, Don Giovanni, Clemenza di Tito...
fan Tutte, Lucio Silla, Zauberflöte. I just added Silla last
Operanet: But not Konstanze.
Nor will I ever. I can sing "Martern aller Arten", all
right; it's "Traurigkeit" and the first aria that are so
difficult. That's right outside of what I feel comfortable trying to
RA: Yes, but I must add that I
absolutely adore singing Janacek. I'm dying to sing Makropolous
Affair. I haven't done Katja, and I'm not sure about it. She's very
different from Jenufa.
Operanet: Have you ever
thought about switching from Jenufa to Kostelnicka?
I've certainly thought about it. If my voice will go with me in my
thoughts. It's very hard. I've sung Jenufa in three languages, because
in Vienna they used to do it in German (with Rysanek opposite me),
while the Met did it in English and then finally at Glyndebourne with
Anja Silja [available on cassette]. It was marvelous, because it just
clicked between us, it was exactly right. The opera is not really be
called Jenufa - the real title is Her Foster-Daughter. If you ever
look closely at the score, you see it is about the Kostelnicka. If you
have a Kostelnicka who can give you your space, it's wonderful. if you
have to fight for it, you've lost the battle because you don't have
the means in the role; you have your moments, but they're nothing if
the other person doesn't allow you to use them - and Silja was the
greatest. Makropolous I want to do, badly.
So that's on your want list, along with Beatrice Cenci...
And the Marschallin, Sesto. My list is a mile long.
You haven't sung recently with the Netherlands Opera, have you?
Not since they built the new house .
Why is that?
RA: I have no idea.
That's amazing. You live close by, for starters.
Maybe that's it. I just don't know. My husband thinks it's great,
because if I have to work that hard when I'm home, it's not easy.
You're so obsessed with what you're doing, that the other person is a
blank. But it is a great pity. I've heard all kinds of reasons, like
my voice isn't big enough for the house (and then you think, right,
they could hardly hear you in New York, as if a 1600-seat house is
really big) or I wasn't the type they were looking for for Jenufa,
which really gets right up my nose. They did once come to me in an
emergency and were stunned that I didn't have seven weeks free to bail
them out of an Idomeneo, and am I glad I didn't. It was dire. [An
opinion firmly seconded by the interviewer.]
I recently read an interview with Ileana Cotrubas where she lambastes
current trends in staging, and then a report that one of the reasons
Julia Varady has retired from the operatic stage is because she too
can no longer deal with many of the stage directors currently working.
RA: Somebody who tells me they need seven weeks to
stage Idomeneo, and doesn't even know that the opera is four hours
long, just doesn't know his business. Some of them have very little
musical background. It's not like Ponnelle - you can say what you like
about Ponnelle, but it was always from the music. He knew the text by
heart. It wasn't, "but you're all still singing", which
clearly indicates that the director is working from a printed libretto
because he had never listened to find out that there were an
additional five minutes of music for which he had to find staging.
You're flabbergasted that these people get a second chance, let alone
the first opportunity. I don't have the leeway to say that I'm going
to come in a half beat later in this production, that I don't feel
like coming in on 4 but on 4½. I don't have that option for a
longer pause. The parameters remain the same, which is why after three
weeks you're finished, or sometimes, after three weeks you've only
gotten to the middle of Act 1 because the person is worried about how
your hands are. And then, my own personal favorites are the set and
costume designers. Directors, if you're clever enough, you can
sometimes get around them and end up doing what you want to do, but
those costume designers...I swear, there's got to be a special place
in hell where they've got to where everything they've ever designed.
Designing helmets for an entire chorus with their ears covered, or
hats on tops of wigs that are so heavy that if you move your head it's
like your neck is going to snap, and then you're supposed to be
singing the most wonderful "Soave sia il vento" [trio from
Cosi fan Tutte] while you can barely move your head. And your hat has
wood in it to keep the shape. Stuff like that. Or 9 inch platform
shoes. I had to cancel a production, a revival, after someone called
me up and asked if I had seen the production...
This wasn't by any chance the Freyer Iphégénie en
Tauride? But those were stilts.
RA: Yes. I just
can't do that, physically. I told them that I was perfectly willing to
do their production, just put everyone else on their knees.
Have you developed a sixth sense now, for the people you don't want to
RA: There are a few people around where I
know, this is not for me. The "concept" is not for me,
because there is no concept. It's something they have brought in
themselves. Someone I find interesting, in a way, is Peter Sellars. I
would love to work with him, just because he's nuts. I think it might
be fun. The Don Giovanni he did I found really interesting. I liked
the twins, so that for once you don't have the feeling that of course
she knows that's not Giovanni. Giovanni is 6'5" and Leoporello is
5'2", and a porkette on top of that. Nice voice, though. I saw a
Pelléas I liked. It was the first time I haven't been bored out
of my head, with her running around with that "Ne me touche pas"
stuff. You just want to go up and smack her and say, "Oh, come
on, get some balls, girl". It's like the Countess. That's why
I've taken her off my repertoire. I sang her 40 times in one year,
beautiful music, wonderful music [followed by grimace of boredom].
After the Mozart year in 92, I thought if I see another Idomeneo or
Clemenza, I'm going to scream. And then, about four years later, I
think, hey, this is nice. I can't figure out why no one has ever
thought of me for Manon Lescaut. I would have loved to have done the
Massenet Manon and Thaïs, but I came along just after the revival
had come and gone. Now it's back again and I think, hmm, on a good
day, with good makeup, maybe. And Hérodiade.
When I spoke to Grace Bumbry, I asked why there was nobody around
today to take over the mezzo roles. She told me they were there, but
it's prejudice that stops them.
RA: She's very
Operanet: Do you think that you may be
discriminated against for certain roles in certain productions?
Well, my ex-manager told me that I would never be able to sing the
Marschallin because that's a "white" role - and this is two
years ago. It's still there, even with Cosi, one of my best roles. And
this last thing, Jenufa in Amsterdam: "We want a different type."
You've got one of the best Jenufas in the world living down the road,
the conductor, who is by the way your ex-husband, says, "I want
her", and the theater and the director say they want a different
type. What are you supposed to think? Another Jenufa story. A theater
in Italy where I was proposed for the role said, "No, we want
eine echte Bauern type". One year later, there was a panic phone
call. They had their echte bauern type and she was terrible, could I
come and start rehearsals. I said, I haven't changed, I'm still black
as I was last year, and I have no intention of coming down there to
help you out. You could have had me in the first place, but there are
limits. And who's to say that I would get down there and they would
decide they don't like me. It's out there. One of the great things
about Harnoncourt and Ponnelle is that they are totally color-blind.
It didn't matter a hill of beans to them if I was Fiordiligi or
Elettra (she doesn't have a family, so she's ok) or the Countess,
which I thought was great. And of course, Cleopatra, that's something
else. The only down side to that was the director, Frederik Mrdita.
That was the first time I ever showed my teeth, because I was always
very nice and polite to everyone, not retiring, but, you know, my
mother raised me right. I had arrived, I had my score in my hand,
trying to remember all my recitatives, and at a certain point he said,
"You have to go over there". I didn't react immediately, so
he said "What's your name, again?" I said, "It is Tony
to my immediate family, Roberta to my friends, and Miss Alexander to
you." And he got a face like a tomato, and immediately started
back-pedalling. Ann Murray said, "Roberta, he didn't mean that",
to which I replied, "Oh yes, he did". I was glad that, for
once, I thought of it at that moment and not two days later.
You've also been fortunate in the recordings you've made, not perhaps
as many as you would have liked....
Recitals for Etcetera (Ives, Mozart, Barber, Puccini, Copland,
Bernstein, Strauss), recordings of Elvira and Elettra, Salieri,
Telemann and Handel with Harnoncourt, Samson, Theodora, a video of
Jenufa. It's an amazing range.
RA: I like a lot of
different things. That's why I don't want to go around that Salomé
corner that I keep getting asked about every year. If I go around that
corner, I can never come back. Harry Kupfer wanted me to do it with
him in 1980, and it has since become a standing joke, anytime I want
to do it, just let him know. My ex-manager didn't talk to me for a
year because I turned it down. It was a revival, and I said that if
I'm going to do it, it can't be a revival, it has to be made on me.
Something else I'm interested in is Carmen. I'd love to try it. What
bothers me is that we've become so fixated on separating everything.
Where does this leave you? You've got the "tweeters" coming
in on one end taking over the Micaëlas, Ilias, Paminas, what we
used to call middle-weight lyric roles, with mezzos coming in on the
other end and stealing the other stuff, and the real lyric soprano is
left with such a narrow band and forced to find a repertoire. If you
look at, say, 50 years ago, people sang what was good for them. I
would have made a great Octavian or Composer or even Ariadne, but on
the other side you've got someone like Jessye Norman which makes it
impossible for Roberta Alexander to be taken seriously as Ariadne
because the voice isn't big enough, rather than looking at the size of
the theater, the rest of the cast. Things you can't do in a large
theater you can do in a small or medium-sized house.
If you're singing at the Met or San Francisco, which are much larger
than any European house, do you feel the difference?
I try not to, but it's more visual than anything else. Those
houses have such excellent acoustics that you don't need to do any
more than you usually do, you just think you do because you look out
and see this vast space. The trick is to do what you usually do most
of the time, and on occasion give a little bit extra to ride a
crescendo. And choose carefully what you're singing there. You hear
Kathleen [Battle] just fine, but she has all the overtones, Dawn
Upshaw is another. The voice isn't huge, but it carries. Once you know
that, it depends on what you're doing. If you're singing "Sono
andati" [the death of Mimi] at the Met, it's a whole lot
different than singing it at Covent Garden. One thing you do know in
America is that going back and forth between opera and lieder just
can't be done. It's so difficult because you're not able to fine tune
the voice. And in the United States, a liederabend takes place in a
hall that seats 3000 - your intimate little theater - but fortunately
they have closed off the top part so that there are only 2000 seats
left. It's not like the small hall of the Concertgebouw or the
Musikverein in Vienna.
Operanet: Are you a quick
RA: Pretty quick. And slower as I get older.
I just did Messiaen's "Poèmes pour Mi" for the first
time. When I looked at the first page, I said, I'm too old for this.
These are 64th notes, and I haven't sung 64th notes since I was in
school. I don't even know how to count this. And then I finally got
it, even though it took a while. And then I had the best time because
it's so wonderful.