Listener of Note: Shirley Knight

by Brian Kellow

Coda Shirley Knight lg 1015
As Polly in The Group, 1966
© United Artists/Photofest

SHIRLEY KNIGHT: Back in Kansas, we listened to the opera every Saturday from the Met. There was no television then. Our entertainment was going to church and 4-H and listening to the radio. And we always listened to the opera. My mom played the piano perfectly, without lessons. She would hear a Rachmaninoff piece, and she would figure it out and play it. And when I was a child, the person I loved was Roberta Peters. That’s who I wanted to be. I didn’t want to be Risë Stevens. (Laughs) I would walk around singing everything Roberta Peters sang, to the point that my mother would say, “I’d like to hear her.”

OPERA NEWS: You’ve been such an enthusiastic operagoer over the years. What’s a performance that remains indelible for you?

SK: Elektra — the first opera I saw at Covent Garden. When Birgit Nilsson sang that extraordinary “Agamemnon!” she started from one side of the stage and simply walked and sang that extraordinary line, all the way across the stage. Your heart stopped. I will never forget it. 

ON: Can you think of any of the plays or films you’ve appeared in that might be adapted as an opera?

SK: Well, one of the films that would make a wonderful musical is The Group [Knight appeared in Sidney Lumet’s 1966 screen adaptation of Mary McCarthy’s best-seller about a clique of Vassar graduates], because there are all the women, and then all of the guys. But I don’t think it’s an opera, do you? 

ON: Which other singers mean a great deal to you?

SK: Maria Callas. I saw her in concert in Los Angeles when I was very young. And then I got to see her when she was past it. She was in concert with Di Stefano. But I had all her recordings, so I was able to hear her in a way that…. You know what I mean?

ON: Is it true that experiencing Callas live made you give up wanting to be an opera singer?

SK: You see, my early experience with opera was not real, in a sense, because it was from the radio. I was a light soprano, and I think what happened is that all the roles I would want to do were probably not the roles I would be asked to play. I wanted to do Verdi! And then, in L.A., years before I saw her on tour with Di Stefano, I saw Callas in concert. And after the evening, I thought, “I will never be that good, and if I can’t be that good, I am not going to do it.” I thought, “Whatever I do, I’m going to be the best at it.”

In terms of guys, I am partial to Jussi Björling. Ooooooooohhh. There’s a certain sound that really gets your heart, and his always did. And the other one to me is Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. I learned so much about acting from watching him. Here’s the trick to being good at acting — it’s that you have to be in a place where you don’t know what you’re going to say, don’t know what you’re going to do, you don’t know what is going to happen. You have to throw all of that away. It has to be automatic. 

We saw Fischer-Dieskau at Carnegie Hall for the first time. Most singers and actors have a tendency to show you what they are doing and what they are feeling. Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau stood there, and he didn’t go to you at all. He allowed you to come to him. And so some people might think, well, he’s not really doing anything. But it is startling. I said to my husband, “He’s a great actor, because he’s not demonstrating.” 

ON: Why are so many actors now so busy “watching” their own performances?

SK: I think it’s fear. For example, none of the awards are given because somebody did something well. And I think what happens is a kind of desperation with people in their work. They have to do so much because they want these accolades. And it makes them seem desperate. You have to let all of that go and just think about your work, and either people will like it or they won’t like it. And what the hell does it matter anyway? Someone said to me, “What do you do that’s different when you’re onstage?” And I said, “Well, number one, they have to not know what I’m going to do before I do it. And then they are sitting on the edge of their seats. And the reason they don’t know what I’m going to do is that I don’t know what I’m going to do!” I mean, I think people applaud an awful lot of stuff that doesn’t deserve applause. Whether it’s opera or ballet or whatever it is. Maybe that’s part of the time we’re living in.  

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Current Issue: October 2015 — VOL. 80, NO. 4