Coda

Listener of Note: Barbara Barrie

by BRIAN KELLOW

Coda Barrie sm 113
Barrie: Shakespearean actress, Oscar nominee — and operaphile
© Jon Ragel/NBC Universal, Inc./Getty Images 2013

BARBARA BARRIE: When I first started going to the opera, I was a girl, just out of college. I went to the opera only because the young man I was seeing had his parents' season tickets at the old Met. And I didn't know anything about opera, but I got a great dinner every time I went, and I was a starving young actress. Those first opera experiences were with no translations, so I had no idea what was going on. As the years have gone by, I've learned so much. I think that my ideas haven't changed — I just know more. 

I first saw Teresa Stratas do Liù, and I thought, "Now that's an actress." I also think Natalie Dessay is stunning. The only performance I ever saw to equal what she did in Daughter of the Regiment is Ruth Gordon in The Matchmaker, which you're much too young to remember. It was stunning, and I kind of fashioned myself after Ruth. Ruth and Natalie Dessay are like performers out of commedia dell'arte — true clowns. And yet Natalie Dessay is capable of reducing me to tears. They're bold and extremely funny and eccentric. I bought a ticket last year to the Met's Traviata to see Natalie Dessay. On April 9, I wasn't feeling well. And on April 10, I thought, I don't know why I'm home tonight. I had a ticket and forgot about it. I wanted to see her more than anything. It was one of the worst moments of the year for me. And I never get sick. I get cancer, and I get heart attacks, but I don't get the flu. 

Anyway, Ruth Gordon was a genius. She was very difficult. It's one reason I never worked with her and Garson Kanin — because she was the star, and I didn't want to be one of the acolytes. I actually did a play of Garson Kanin's, A Gift of Time, out of town. I replaced Marian Seldes, who had to go to the hospital for all these tests. So I went to New Haven, and Garson was directing it as well. And I was not very good in it. I went up on my second night onstage. It was shocking. So they called me into the hotel room, and Garson said, "Marian is better," and I said, "Get her back! I don't want to do it." Marian is so wonderful. I was so jealous when she played the Duchess in Daughter of the Regiment. I wish they'd offered it to me! 

OPERA NEWS: What's the first opera performance that really took hold of you?

BB: I was touring in Europe for the Theatre Guild, as Annie Sullivan in The Miracle Worker. I had a lot of time off, and that part was so exhausting. And in Berlin, I went to see Turandot, which I had never seen before. And I heard Jon Vickers do Calàf, singing "Nessun dorma" while lying on the floor on his back. That was the moment. And on that same trip, we went from Berlin to Stockholm, and there were invitations in our rooms for the stars — you should excuse the expression — to see The Rake's Progress, directed by Ingmar Bergman. So we went to this beautiful opera house, and the singers were often flown in by wire. And they sang as they were flying in. I couldn't believe that opera could be like that. Those two performances really began my love affair with opera. 

You know who was an opera fan and didn't even like to admit it? Lee Strasberg. I had two interviews in which I did not get into the Actors Studio. He said, "Why do you like opera?" He was so dismissive of me. And I found out years later that he went to the opera all the time. I don't know why he did that. Very strange. I guess it wasn't organic enough for him. It was one of the reasons I didn't get into the Studio, which was a big disappointment. 

ON: When you filmed One Potato, Two Potato, did you know that the director, Larry Peerce, had a famous opera-star father?

BB: Sure. Jan Peerce was a great favorite singer of my husband, Jay Harnick. It was Jay's idea to put Jan into Fiddler on the Roof, and he directed him. But Jan, for all of his shortness and Coke-bottle glasses, was very sexy. So many people said that Jan can't play Tevye. But Jay said, "Oh, yes he can." 

ON: What about an opera that you've struggled with and tried to like and couldn't?

BB: Well, it's a split answer. I think the music is gorgeous, but I think the libretto of The Mikado is so bad. The last time I saw it, I thought, they played the last scene first. But the one I will never see again as long as I live is Satyagraha. I had a headache when I left. 

Above everything, I'm a Jonas Kaufmann groupie. What a singer! And so sexy. The first time I ever heard him was when he did Tosca, and he played Cavaradossi. The minute he opened his mouth, it was so thrilling. I have a friend who sees everything, and we talked about how much fun it would be to get on a plane and go wherever he's singing. Just go. It's terrible to be a groupie at my age. But I am. spacer

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Current Issue: April 2014 — VOL. 78, NO. 10