The Composer Wants Exactly Seven Bricks
Interview with Grace Bumbry
– Trubadur: Some singers have perfect technique at their command but do not really care about interpretation. Others are brilliant vocal actors, but have technical problems. What is more important in singing?
– Grace Bumbry: You cannot say that something is more or less important in singing. If you don’t have proper technique, you can’t interpret the music well. Opera is energetically and emotionally a very, very exhausting vehicle. Technique allows us to sing with ease and freedom, without it we will never overcome certain difficulties, without it a singer’s carrier will never last long! This is simply impossible. Each singer should take one step at a time B like a child. The child first starts to crawl and only later does it learn to walk. It’s the same with us, singers. We first learn how to breathe, to vocalise, then we improve our skills, we learn to sing and interpret. If you start interpreting music before you have acquired proper technique and learned to sing well, you commit suicide. That is why for me technique and interpretation are equally important.
– At the beginning of your carrier you sang mezzo-soprano roles and then you moved to dramatic soprano roles, such as Aida or Salome. How was this possible? What type of voice do you have?
– Everything depends on the individual vocal instrument and, of course, the predisposition of the whole body. A singer should never be guided by the following way of thinking: OK, mezzos do these and those roles, so I’ll sing them too. Or: Miss X sang Aida and Amneris, why shouldn’t I do it? If you know your voice really well, if you’ve become friends with your vocal apparatus, you know which roles you can sing and which you shouldn’t even touch. When switching to soprano I was aware that I couldn’t start singing the whole soprano repertoire; for instance, I wouldn’t have been able to sing my beloved Violetta in Traviata, even if my voice range was high and I was able to deal with high tessitura. I dreamt about Violetta, but I knew that by singing it, I would have committed vocal suicide. But I also knew I could sing certain roles without anything terrible happening to me as a result. I look at the music, I see the score, I like the drama, I try to see whether I’ll be able to deal with the dynamics, to sing piano, forte, to sing cantilena I try and when I succeed, and I’m absolutely sure about it, I can present that role to other people. In many operas, I have sung both heroines: Aida and Amneris in Aida, Norma and Adalgisa in Norma, Azucena and Leonora in Trovatore, Venus and Elisabeth in Tannhäuser.
– There was an interesting case in London, because within one week you sang both Norma and Adalgisa in the same production. Alternating the roles.
– Yes, that was pretty difficult, not vocally, but because they are two different mentalities, two completely different characters. And you sing not only with vocal courage, you have to sing, first of all, with an awareness of the differences between the two heroines. Adalgisa is submissive, obedient and calm. She’s a child, a young girl, whereas Norma is a woman. The tessitura of both roles is similar, depending on whether the great duet is transposed or not. If there is no transposition, the range is the same. However, as I’ve mentioned, there is a crucial difference in singing the two roles: the colour of the voice changes and so does the character, the manner in which one character responds to the other. Norma is the dominating character, Adalgisa gives in. So I had to change the personality from performance to performance.
– Aren’t there any technical problems when you switch roles?
– Technique doesn’t change! When I sang my first Norma, my Adalgisa was Leila Cuberli, who is a soprano. The situation is completely different in Trovatore, for example. Leonora is different from Azucena not only because of her personality; vocally these are two completely different roles, so the difficulty here is of a different kind and I can’t imagine singing both roles within a short period. In this case, the role switch is fiendishly difficult in all respects.
– Which part was the most difficult one for you?
– Which one was the most difficult. Probably Turandot. It lies very high. It begins in a very high tessitura. It’s also a bit uncomfortable, if we take into account the declamations and recitatives with Turandot and Calaf: Straniero, ascolta. and then it gets even higher. And it remains high all the time. It’s still OK in In questa reggia B you have to sing high C and B flat. It’s like a whole expedition to those high notes. Expedition! The whole singing with Calaf is very high and, what’s more, you have to sing it slowly, thinking about those high notes. This calm, very static approach to high notes made Turandot seem the most difficult role to me. Another difficult part was Medea in Cherubini’s opera. For the same reasons. The part lies very high and the heroine is extremely emotional, at times very aggressive. If you sing beautiful melodies, it’s not difficult. But if you have to add emphasis and murderous aggression, this takes a huge amount of vocal and physical energy. When you decide to sing, you have to be prepared for all this.
– You were the first black singer to perform in Bayreuth. Your success at the festival opened the doors to the European stages for many other singers.
– Of course, I was aware of that fact, but I didn’t sign the contract because of it. I signed the contract solely for personal reasons: I was given a chance to sing at Bayreuth, and I think that any singer B white, black, yellow or brown B would have accepted that prestigious offer of singing at the festival. Being a pioneer or a missionary wasn’t my objective. My objective was to sing Venus at the Bayreuth festival as best as I could. Obviously, the fact that I was black was controversial, but this was not my problem. You have to remember that many African-American singers encountered discrimination in the USA, so being discriminated against in Germany wasn’t anything special. I sang an audition, there were many other candidates, but I was chosen.
– There were many wonderful and unique artists in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. Each of them was a great personality. Today, almost everyone sings in a similar way, in a similar style, there are no great personalities. Why is it so?
– Most probably because singers don’t have time to develop at their own pace. Development does need time. It’s not simple. It’s like with any other kind of education B if you’ve got it, no one will be able to take it away. It’s the same with development. It requires time. There can never be an immediate miracle at school or opera studio. Singers have to learn technique painstakingly, have to mature, try to understand what exactly is in the score, what the composer’s intentions were. They should also learn their sensibility in order to use is consciously. The two singers that impressed me the most when it came to personality and charisma were Lotte Lehmann and Magda Oliviero. They instilled those rules into me. Two singers from completely different worlds, different generations, singing different repertoire. But they both had the same awareness and sensitivity to what the composer wrote, both Aobediently@ presented what the composer intended. They didn’t think: Oh, I have a wonderful voice, so I can sing whatever I want and how I want. A wonderful, so-called beautiful, voice doesn’t matter! Of course, it’s good to have it, but there’s much more to do in singing than just showing off a gorgeous voice. I think young people don’t realise it, they believe that they have great voices and that it’s enough. This is why their carriers are sometimes extremely short.
From the very beginning, as soon as I became aware I wanted to be a singer, I wanted to sing for a long time. Because it’s a wonderful feeling to be able to communicate with people in this seemingly unnatural and bizarre manner. People come to an opera house or concert hall to experience something, they believe they are in a different world. Schubert wrote a song about it, An die Musik. Music transports us to other places, provided, of course, we believe in the art of singing and provided we can believe the musician on stage.
The composers knew perfectly well what they were writing about, they were inspired by libretti or poetry. And they wrote music which, according to them, reflected the spirit of the words. We, singers, have to interpret their art very precisely and carefully, to recreate and understand their intentions, to penetrate their thoughts. I’m very fond of Puccini’s operas. He knew exactly what he wanted and what feelings he wanted to express with music.
The scores are like plans. Like architecture. An architect will want exactly four bricks in this spot and seven in another. Not four here and seven over there. There should be exactly seven bricks in the construction he or she has designed. Not four, not five, not six – seven! Singers put four bricks where there should be seven of them. If you read the score of a composition thoroughly, with all its smallest markings and guidelines, you will see the shape, the style. Unfortunately, not all singers realise that. They simply perform a melody. Or they learn from recordings, they will play a CD and learn from it.
– You have made quite a few official recordings but there are many more pirate recordings of your performances.
– I know. And I have nothing against it. I’m even happy about it. This shows how much people are interested in opera and how much they love it. And years after a performance I myself can listen to a recording of whose existence I didn’t even know.
– Thank you so much for the interview.
Tomasz Pasternak, Krzysztof Skwierczyński