Interview

With Juliana Yaffé for the Istanbul Arts Magazine



Q. Although you were born in the USA, you started working as a singer in Europe. Was there a special reason for this?

A. Initially, I thought that my career could begin here in the US. But then my voice teacher sent me to New York to sing for an agent, Willi Stein – he represented a lot of internationally active singers. Stein recommended that I go to Germany to audition for the opera houses there. At the time, I didn’t completely understand why he wanted me to do this. But once I was in Germany, I realized that it had been a very wise decision. There were opportunities to sing in America, but they were not on a consistent basis, because the opera houses there don’t have long and continuous seasons; whereas in the small country of West Germany, there were 55 year-round opera houses, all subsidized by the government, employing thousands of singers. At that time, half the soloists in the theaters were foreigners, and half of those were Americans. It was a perfect opportunity for me to learn many opera roles, sing many performances, work with many conductors and stage directors, and, generally, develop and hone my artistic skills. In addition there were opportunities to sing also as a guest in other theaters and to do orchestras concerts, oratorio performances, and song recitals. I spent twelve years in Germany, a wonderful period of personal and artistic growth. And now, I’ve sung over 30 opera roles, most of the major oratorio solos, and many dozens of song recitals all over the world.

Q. You have become well-known for the similarity of your recital style to that of the Dutch soprano Elly Ameling. Does it bother you to be associated with somebody else’s style, or, on the contrary, are you proud of it?

A. Of course, I’m always very flattered to, in any respect, be compared with this great song recitalist. I had the pleasure of seeing her perform several times, and I was familiar with all of her recordings. She was a consummate artist, a true master of the recital. She knew exactly which repertoire was right for her voice, she was fluent in several languages, and she understood style. Her recitals were always beautifully executed, intelligent, well-balanced, and warmhearted. For me, these were desirable qualities, qualities that were worthy of pursuing in my own work. Throughout the years, I have always kept her in my mind as I prepared my own recitals, working toward the highest level of vocal performance, but never sacrificing the integrity of the music and the words, and always bringing forth a genuine love for both the songs and the audience.

Q. Who are your favorite opera singers, or sopranos, by whom you are influenced, both from today and the past?

A. In the early days of my study, I was most influenced by the Brazilian soprano Bidu Sayao. My first voice teacher had sung performances with her at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, and he introduced me to her recordings. She had a voice type that was very similar to mine. I loved the way she would handle a musical phrase, and I loved the clarity and simple expressiveness of her singing. I adored the Italian soprano Mirella Freni and was very much influenced by her. In a certain way, I was influence by Maria Callas. I would never try to sing like her, but she brought together the elements of music and drama in such a powerful way. I was in awe of the control that Monserrat Caballé had over her voice. I didn’t always like her sound, but I liked how she handled soft passages of music. In the area of song repertoire: Elly Ameling, Erna Berger, and Fritz Wunderlich. Singer of my time? Mezzo soprano Frederica von Stade, fine technique, expressive, beautiful, and a good actor; Kathleen Battle (earlier in her career); Renée Fleming, one of the only singers, today, that sings truly “beautifully”; Kiri Te Kanawa, who was capable of some stunningly beautiful singing.

Q. Is there a composer with whom you feel a particular connection, such as Mozart or Bach, one whom you call “my musician?”

A. Richard Strauss, definitely. He understands, in his operas and his songs, how to write for the soprano voice, especially my kind of voice, a light lyric soprano (“silvery,” rather than “golden”). Similarly, Carl Orff, whose “Die Kluge” and “Carmina Burana” I have sung many times, and love very much. And Francis Poulenc: I’ve sung his opera “Dialogues of the Carmelites” and many of his songs. I seem to connect well to the musical language and sensibility of all these composers.

Q. How do you feel about today’s music? Which singers or groups are you listening to?

A. With regard to “classical music,” I’m sorry to say that much of today’s vocal music, in my opinion, is not well conceived. It’s not well written for the voice, and the words are not well set. Setting of text is of the utmost importance in vocal writing: bringing forth the inner meaning of the poetry, through musical setting, natural language accent, setting of words in particular areas of the singers vocal range. Many composers are just writing what they hear, thinking about the piano or some other instrument, but not a voice. It seems that they are not able to conceptualize the strengths and weaknesses of all the particular voice types, as they relate to the range in which they are singing, and the text being sung. In the case of every other instrument, the player is separate from the instrument, so there is a level of abstraction possible. With a singer, the instrument and the human being are one entity, the singer’s body is her instrument. This makes a big difference. I think the choices made by many composers of vocal music today are, unfortunately, poor. I’ll let you in on a secret: Almost every singer in the world will tell you the same thing I just did. In back rooms, we all talk about the problem, and we all pray that the next piece we have to sing in public, or that is written especially for us, will be truly well-conceived for our voice.

In the very small amount of time I have to turn on the radio, or play a CD, I listen to jazz music, I like jazz a lot. I listen to instrumental players as well as the jazz singer Diana Kroll, George Benson, Tierney Sutton and I listen to great folk/rock artists like Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, Paul Simon, and Robert Palmer.

Q. If you were not an opera singer, would you still choose another form of art? What would you otherwise like to be?

A. If I were not a professional singer, I would probably be a visual artist, probably a painter. I have such strong visual images in my mind’s eye, and I have good drawing skills. It would probably move into forms with more texture, maybe sculpture or multimedia art. I like working in the recording studio. I like that process and could imagine being involved there, in some way. Also, I might be a chef, since I love the texture, taste, and creativity of cooking. Gardening pleases me. Maybe I would buy myself a little pig and go search for truffles in the forest!

Q. Was there a musician in your family? How did you decide to become a singer? Was your future being shaped during childhood?

A. I come from a family of doctors (physicians), going back several generations on both sides, but they were music-lovers. Both of my grandmothers had good voices, and my maternal grandmother used to sing to us at night, when we were in bed. My mother was very good at the piano, and she made sure that all of her children learned piano and other musical instruments. It was an important part of our family experience. We grew up in a very small town in northeast Texas, and each of us was expected to participate in singing, or playing the piano at church services. When I became old enough, it was my turn to take over the piano duties. I wasn’t particularly good at it, but I had to do it. I already knew, at nine years old, that I had a good voice. I don’t know how I knew, but I did. Once, I heard a schoolmate sing, and I said to myself, “I can do that, and I can do it better.” The first time I ever sang for anyone was at age ten. I stood up on a table and sang “Over the Rainbow” (from the Judy Garland movie “The Wizard of Oz”) for my cousin, Charlie. My friends went to a bigger church, and I always preferred to go there and sing in the big choir. The chorus director heard me and asked if I would like to sing a solo at one of the services. That was my first “public” performance. I was 12 years old. From that point on, people noticed that I could really sing. I sang in the performances of Broadway musicals, at our school, and it developed from there.

Q. In addition to being a performer, you are a teacher, you have students. Which carries more weight in your life? Do you get excited about teaching? Does teaching contribute to your art? How is your relation with your students?

A. I consider myself, primarily, a professional singer. Teaching is a very difficult profession and can be very satisfying. But in teaching, you are living through other people. For this reason, I always keep my work as teacher and performer in balance. I make sure that I always have some creative project that is mine alone. I believe that the more performing experience I have, the better teacher I can be, for the following reason: I tend to be analytical with my own technique, trying to find the simplest and most direct way to the best result. So, I try to do the same with my students. My career has taught me that fine singing is a difficult to achieve, and it doesn’t come overnight. It requires a long-term commitment, patience and fortitude. I try to communicate this to my students. I hear so much poor singing in my profession, so I feel obliged to help young singers tune their ears to well-produced, clear, expressive singing that is free of tension. This is the tradition in which I grew up. I guess my students would call me a “very encouraging, nurturing dictator.” I’m very exacting in my work with them, but I do it in a way that is neither harmful nor degrading or condescending. They seem to improve, many have gone off to work as professional performers, and they never leave a lesson with a sore throat!

Q. Which country’s audiences have affected you the most? Why?

A. All audiences are great, if you bring them something really special. But I do remember at least three remarkable experiences. I was singing in Tokyo, as a guest in a performance with the Stuttgart Ballet (with the Tokyo City Philharmonic). I sang some arias from operettas by Jacques Offenbach. We expected the Japanese to be very reserved, as is their custom. But they went crazy. I thought they were most thrilled about the dancing, but when I came out of the stage door, after the performance, they flocked to me, and were as interested in my work as they were in the work of the prima ballerina. On this same level was a performance I did at the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires. That audience was incredible! Some of them drew pictures during the performance and presented them to us afterwards. They even rode on the bus with us, out to the airport. They talked with us, applauded us, and waved to us as we departed on the plane. It was such an amazing display of affection. Then there was my third major solo recital in New York City. New York audiences are very well educated and are not easily impressed. The concert hall was sold out, something very rare for a vocal recital. This recital was one of those few experiences in a singer’s career when just about everything seems to go as hoped. After my final song, there was a great silence, and then the applause broke loose like thunder. It was penetrating, going right to my heart. I understood that something special had happened between me and my audience, that night. I still think about that performance and think that, if that had been my final performance as a singer, I could die happy.

Q. Is there an opera house or an orchestra which impressed you, with which you worked harmoniously, or enjoyed the most? Or would you rather not differentiate?

A. For me it is less a question of particular orchestras or opera houses, and more a question of who is leading them. A great orchestra can sound very average under an average conductor, and a very average orchestra can sound great under a great conductor. Also, the work atmosphere that is created by the leader can make an experience good or bad. I’ve worked in great opera houses where the atmosphere is terrible. I’ve also had some of my best experiences in smaller theaters where the colleagues and the conductors and stage directors were marvelous.

Q. Do you believe in international contests, competition and awards? Do you think these feed the artist?

A. Although I, myself, have been the winner of competitions, I think that competitions are not a good indicator of whether a person is going to be a successful professional performer. Some musicians are very good in competitions and then just don’t have what it takes to be a performing artist over the long run. On the other hand, many musicians don’t make a big impression at competitions, but they have the richness of artistry and the blessing of a good work ethic, and endurance, over a long career. So, I think the underlying principle of the competition, the “gladiatorial” aspect of it, is ill-conceived. Competitions certainly can give a performer much-needed exposure to professionals, and to the outside world, and we know how valuable that is today (at a time when the market is flooded with talent). I strongly believe, however, that those who have gone on to have a big career, as a result of the competitions, would have had that career anyway. They seem to have something special that cannot go unnoticed, and they bring that out in every situation in which they present themselves.

Q. How did you meet your husband John Yaffé, who is an orchestra conductor and a pianist? What are the “pro’s” and “con’s” of both of you being artists and colleagues?

A. I met John “on the job.” He was engaged to conduct Donizetti’s opera “L’Elisir d’Amore” (“The Elixir of Love”), and I was singing the lead female role. I guess the elixir worked! The “pro’s” are that we understand each other. We understand the requirements and difficulties of our profession. We’re willing to make personal sacrifices, so that the other person gets the professional opportunities that they deserve. If this means that we don’t spend as much time together, or money has to be spent on career investment, there is absolutely no question that it should be done. We can “talk shop,” that is, talk about music and theater together. We have similar tastes, in most areas. I have ultimate respect for John’s professional opinion. If fact, I depend on it. At the same time, I am not afraid to dispute it, argue over it. It’s O.K. if we don’t agree, but most of the time we do agree. I could not be with a person that did not have this excellent sense of style and discretion. We have the opportunity to work together professionally, and we can help each other get jobs, depending on the situations that we are in, individually. The “con’s” are that we sometimes have a hard time being “practical,” that is, dealing with the mundane details of everyday life and the business of our profession. After all, we’re both people who are very focused on our artistic work. We have had to learn how to deal with practical matters, and we’re pretty good at it, now. In the beginning, there were financial difficulties, since both of us were struggling to build our careers as solo artists. Fortunately, that has changed. I say “fortunately,” because financial difficulties can put a tremendous strain on a personal relationship. We’ve been lucky to survive it. There will be long stretches of time when we don’t get to spend time together. Since neither of us has a job in which we work regular hours on regular days of the week, it difficult to coordinate our leisure time together. We know that we will eventually spend time together, and we do. But this kind of profession requires concentration, focus, sacrifice and commitment.

Q. Being an internationally active artist brings a lot of difficulties and responsibilities. Do you complain about the intensive work pace from time to time? What does your typical day look like?

A. There is always a part of me that fights all of the hard work involved. After all, I’m a human being. I like to have time off, go to a movie, or just sit around a read a book. But I know that this work requires EVERYTHING of me, and although I feel like complaining, I know that I must do it, because there is great reward in it. Also, one must do this work while the body is still capable of doing it. With most of us that have had long careers, the mind, the body, the psyche, the emotions all drive us to do what we do, and we can’t imagine doing anything else at this time. I often tell young musicians, “If there is anything else that you enjoy doing as much as this, you should do that instead, because this is too difficult for anyone who is not OBSESSED with it.” For me there is no such thing as a “usual day,” because I don’t always teach the same amount, don’t always practice the same amount, and don’t always have the same project to work on. So, it comes down to reinventing myself every day, based on the momentary responsibilities that I have. And since my body is my instrument, I have to stay healthy, eat well, sleep well.

Q. You got involved in a project of recording the legendary producer Arif Mardin’s work at Atlantic Records. Could you tell us about that?

A. That project was very interesting, very intense, and very fulfilling. I love working together with composers, and I’ve had a lot of pieces written especially for me. It’s a very dynamic give-and-take. Arif Mardin is a very creative person, very spontaneous, and very open to singer’s input. He is very supportive and is famous for his ability to make artists feel comfortable in the recording studio. The story began with the recording of a song cycle for soprano and viola, written for me by the English composer Tom Williams. A friend of my husband’s, composer Robert Miller, heard the recording and thought that Arif would like it, so he gave it to him. At that time, Arif was reviving a couple of older songs he had written, and when he heard my voice, he decided that I was the soprano he wanted to record his songs. He sent me each song, I had one or two weeks to prepare it, and we went into the studio and recorded them. Then, Arif took a piece he had written for string ensemble, wrote words, and transformed it into a song for me, which we also recorded. Those were great recording sessions. I learned a lot about recording from Arif, for which I owe him a debt of gratitude. This last song became the basis for his one-act opera “I Will Wait,” which he developed for me and two other singers, and which we performed in a fully staged version with Encompass New Opera Theatre, in New York City, with my husband conducting. It is this aria, one other from the opera, and the two earlier songs mentioned, that audiences will hear on the upcoming performances with the Borusan Istanbul Philharmonic.

Q. What are your next projects?

A. I’ll be doing some auditions for some concert engagements, soon, I have an oratorio performance at Christmas time, and I’ll be doing another major solo recital in New York City. I’m preparing for a video project of Arnold Schoenberg’s “Brettl-Lieder” (“Cabaret Songs”). I’ve performed these all over the world, with costume, in a very successful version staged by my husband. So now, they are being filmed for television broadcast. But my biggest project for this season is a solo evening of Jewish folk songs, all in the Yiddish language. These are a wonderful combination of passionate, sad, happy, and poignant folk songs in remarkably evocative arrangements by the eminent arranger and choral conductor Robert DeCormier. I heard the arrangements on some old LP recordings from the 1950’s and 60’s by the singers Marthe Schlamme and Netanya Davrath. I was immediately enchanted by them, so I contacted DeCormier, to ask him if he would allow me to use them. They had not been performed since the recordings, so he was happy that I was interested in them. He generously gave me all of the instrumental parts for my exclusive use. I’m particularly excited about this project, because there has recently been a great regeneration of interest in Yiddish culture, in many countries of the world. I will be making all new recordings of these songs, and taking the program on tour around the world.




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