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Interview with Roberta Alexander

La Clemenza di Tito

By Joel Kasow

LYONS, 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.

Operanet: 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 Atlantis...

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.

RA: 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.

Operanet: 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 time?

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...

RA: 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 detractors.]

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.

Operanet: 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?

RA: 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.

Operanet: 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 good guy.

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 Normas.

Operanet: I think Mozart must be the composer you have sung the most: Finta Giardiniera, Idomeneo, Nozze di Figaro, Don Giovanni, Clemenza di Tito...

RA: Cosi fan Tutte, Lucio Silla, Zauberflöte. I just added Silla last year.

Operanet: But not Konstanze.

RA: 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 accomplish.

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?

RA: 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.

Operanet: So that's on your want list, along with Beatrice Cenci...

RA: And the Marschallin, Sesto. My list is a mile long.

Operanet: You haven't sung recently with the Netherlands Opera, have you?

RA: Not since they built the new house [1986].

Operanet: Why is that?

RA: I have no idea.

Operanet: That's amazing. You live close by, for starters.

RA: 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.]

Operanet: 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...

Operanet: 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.

Operanet: Have you developed a sixth sense now, for the people you don't want to work with?

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.

Operanet: 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 right.

Operanet: Do you think that you may be discriminated against for certain roles in certain productions?

RA: 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.

Operanet: You've also been fortunate in the recordings you've made, not perhaps as many as you would have liked....

RA: No

Operanet: 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.

Operanet: If you're singing at the Met or San Francisco, which are much larger than any European house, do you feel the difference?

RA: 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 study,

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.


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