Face to Face

Renée Fleming and Broadway legend Barbara Cook compare notes, as F. PAUL DRISCOLL moderates.



hat happens when Cunegonde meets Arabella? Last spring, Broadway legend Barbara Cook welcomed Renée Fleming, who sings Strauss's heroine this month at the Met, to her Manhattan apartment for a conversation about rhythm and repertoire. 


OPERA NEWS: You both have the reputation of being able to sing such a wide range of music. How do you choose your material?

BARBARA COOK: Well ... my range of choices has changed. I think my ability to sing rhythm songs has grown. Because I was afraid of them when I first started doing these concerts, you know?

RENÉE FLEMING: What's a rhythm song?

BC: Well, I mean something like "Sunny Side of the Street," as opposed to ...

RF: You mean something that swings.

BC: Something that swings, exactly. I didn't really have very much confidence in my ability to do that. And I still think I do ballads better than I do swing things. But I enjoy them more now, and I've learned how to bite into them. What about you?

RF: How do I choose? Obviously, the first and foremost thing is whether or not the piece or the role suits my voice. My vocal consideration is divided into a couple of things: the technical, as in does my color actually suit the repertoire, and the dramatic. Is the orchestration going to cover me in such a way that I can't give the music what it needs? I very often will ask people who have been around for a long time -- I have a friend who's been an usher at the Met a long time, and I'll call him and say, "Who has sung this? Who sang this role at the Met in the last forty years?" And I know that if he is consistently naming singers who are spinto or dramatic sopranos, the part is probably not right for me. If they are singers who I know fit into my vocal category, then I'll look at it more seriously. I know I'll have more of a shot at getting it right. There are so many different considerations. I have to enjoy the libretto -- I have to feel connected to the story.

ON: Is Arabella an example in which you looked at the other singers who had preceeded you in the role?

RF: Oh, absolutely. And of all the Strauss parts, [Arabella is] the one that suits me best right now vocally. The character is difficult. She takes more effort than, say, the Marschallin, who is sympathetic from beginning to end.

BC: I saw your Rosenkavalier. I've seen you do a lot of things.

RF: I know! I've seen you there. I'm so honored every time that you come backstage.

BC: That [Rosenkavalier] was sooooooo beautiful.

RF: Have you ever considered doing the Marschallin?

BC: No. My God!

RF: You know, I'm basing this on what I know best of you -- other than Candide, of course -- which is [the 1994 Don Bluth/Gary L. Goldman animated film] Thumbelina.

BC: I sing just the one song in it really, but it's a beautiful song ["Soon"]. Barry Manilow wrote that.... Lovely, lovely, lovely. But the Marschallin? When I was doing Candide-- did you ever work with Leonard Bernstein? He was so extraordinary in many ways, but one of the great things about him was that he made you feel you could do anything. He was so supportive -- at least that's the way he was with me, because I had never done anything even remotely as difficult as Candide, and he just made me feel like I could do anything I wanted to with it.

I never even flirted with the idea of opera as a career, though. You know, when I was a kid, I had all these high notes, but I thought it was just me pretending to be an opera singer. I didn't take it seriously.

RF: Oh, I think we all start that way.

ON: Renée, you recorded Cunegonde's aria [on the 1998 album I Want Magic!]. Tell Barbara what you thought when you were looking at "Glitter and Be Gay" on the page.

RF: It reminds me of early Verdi, in the sense that the tessitura is so unfailingly high. And there are no breaks. I don't mind high notes if I can rest occasionally. But when it's a high tessitura combined with the fact that there are very few rests on the page -- that aria goes on for days. And then the worst he saves for the end. The last page! It's not that hard on its own, even with all those pitches, but as a result of what had gone on before, I thought my larynx was going to melt, it was so high. I've recorded it, but I don't think I could perform it live.

BC: Well, you have to understand that the first time I picked up that piece of music -- I don't read music, but I certainly know what all those lines above the thing mean. I know that. And ...

RF: Ha! Did you just say that you don't read music?

BC: No. No. You know, I've never had any real, real need to.

RF: I'll be darned.... And you didn't get it as a kid? Hymns, church, school?

BC: No. Anyway, when I picked up this music, I went in to audition for Lenny, and I didn't realize that Sam Krachmalnick, the conductor, was coming in. And they were late, Lenny was late, and one of the producers [Ethel Linder Reiner, in whose office the audition was held] said, "Perhaps you'd like to look at the music?" [Laughs] Now, I had never sung over a G in my life -- not onstage, not in public, never before in my life.... 

RF: Oh, my God! So here you've got a high E-natural!

BC: Well, I had a teacher who insisted on all of his students -- no matter what they wanted to do career-wise -- learning arias, and doing Mozart and so forth. And I resisted and resisted and resisted until we finally found an aria that I thought, "Oh, I can sing that." Or try to sing that, I should say. So I had worked on Butterfly-- totally wrong for my voice, but he was trying to get me ready to sing anything. So that was my legit repertoire. So when I saw all those notes in "Glitter and Be Gay," I kind of relaxed, because I thought, "There is no way on earth they are going to hire me to do this!" You know, what was going through my head was, "This is so nice. I get to have a nice chat with Leonard Bernstein, and so forth. Then I'll go home." But I got the job, and that song came with it! And it was very, very, very difficult, as you can imagine. I had never done any coloratura, I had never done any of this sort of thing. And I could not finish it when I began [singing it], it was like ... well, you know what it's like, Renée, it's like carrying heavy packages. You just have to set them down. And if you do it, I guess, long enough, you can carry 'em another block. Each week, longer blocks. Agh. And I thought, "This time, you've really done it, kid."

RF: So you learned it by rote, then. Somebody sat there with you until it was in your voice. And that was probably very helpful. My problem has always been that because I've known these skills all my life -- it's no credit on my part, because I grew up with two music people for parents and got all these skills handed to me as a small child, without ever thinking about it -- and it's not always an advantage to be able to read music well. What happens is that I procrastinate, and I learn things very late. I've taken on too much new music, because I knew I could do it. And all that takes a toll on your voice. The muscles don't have enough time to digest all this new stuff.

ON: Barbara, a lot of the roles you did involved eight shows a week.

RF: That I cannot comprehend.

ON: How do you sustain a performance under those conditions?

BC: Well, I had a teacher who certainly was wonderful to me. His name was Robert Kobin. He's been dead, unfortunately, for a long time. He just used to beat you up with the idea of how strong vocal cords are.

RF: So he gave you the confidence.




BC: Absolutely. He used to say, "You should be able to be hit by a bus and then stand up and sing!" He said that if you were singing properly, that you should only get better. Within reason, of course. I mean, I'm not going to sing ten hours a day, or whatever. But if you are doing it right, you should only get better. The muscles should get stronger if you are using them properly -- just like your other muscles! He didn't seem to have any qualms about me doing Candide, but let me tell you that Cunegonde was really a killer role. I told you that I had never sung all this fancy stuff before, right? Well, I used to come home so frustrated, because they wouldn't let me do the aria in rehearsal for ages, because they were trying to save me. Save my voice, that is.

I was so nervous about it, for a lot of reasons. One was that there were so many opera singers in the Candide company -- Irra Petina [The Old Lady], Robert Rounseville [Candide] -- and I was so in awe of them. I mean, I'm in awe of you sitting right here in my living room and all the stuff you can do that I've never even tried. And during rehearsals, I just thought, "One of these days, they are going to find out that I can't really sing this stuff, and they are going to get rid of me."

RF: I don't believe in saving. Especially if it's a new role.

BC: It was terrible, because everybody knew about this wild aria that had been written for Cunegonde, so they all wanted to hear it. And finally I said, "I can't wait any longer to sing this for the company." It was making me so scared. So I said to the rehearsal pianist, "Look. As people are coming back in from lunch, let's you and I be rehearsing this. Just running through it." And that's how I first sang it for the company.

RF: Smart. Not like, "O.K., now I'm gonna do it, so everybody sit down and listen."

BC: It was terrible how nervous I was. I'd been singing stuff like "I'll be loving you always," and here I was singing Cunegonde. You know what else is hard with that thing? Lenny insisted on the "Ha-ha-ha"s really being "Hha-hha-hha"s. No "Ah-ee-ah-ee-ah"s but "Ha-ha-ha-HA-ha-ha"s. And I was never, never able to do it the way he really, really wanted it done. He wanted the ...

RF: You mean the aspiration?

BC: Oh, that. I did do that. But what he wanted was the syncopation. So it would have to be [speaks, beating time], "Ha-ha-hahahaha. HAhahahaHAhahaha." You try that on for size. That's hard, because you are losing all that air.

ON: That brings up the question of rehearsal and working with the composer. You did so many Broadway shows, and those rehearsals are often painful gestation periods. How do you keep your focus with material going in and out of the show at every rehearsal and out-of-town performance? I read an interview with you about [the 1961 Dietz and Schwartz Broadway musical] The Gay Life in which you talked about having chunks of new material thrown at you the morning of a performance night. How do you keep the vocal pathway there?

BC: I don't know. You just do it. That one, The Gay Life, was murder. I got a new song on a Monday evening, after the performance. I heard it for the first time, and I rehearsed it all day the next day, Tuesday. This was "The Label on the Bottle," a song with a bi-i-i-i-g dance number. And lots and lots and lots of words. And we put it in at the Wednesday matinée. I don't know how I did it. There is no way on God's green earth that I could imagine doing it now.

RF: I can't imagine that. I could never do that. But I guess I've done a lot of crazy stuff, too. Those first years in your career, when you're hungry and you're young, and when you're the underdog -- that's the easiest time to take risks, because you don't have the added pressure of expectation that you sense the audience has about what you are doing when you are better known, more established. That makes it much more difficult.

BC: I don't know about your early career. How was all that in the beginning for you?

RF: I did a lot of opera, with way too much new repertoire every year. I would say that I averaged five or six new roles a year, with a lot of obscure stuff that I will never do again. I learned a great deal from every engagement, but I was fortunate that I didn't blow anything out. But the real risks for me were things like my first Eva in Meistersinger in Bayreuth and my first Manon in Paris.

ON: Now that you are well established, and the audience and the business do have a certain set of expectations about what you do, what is it like taking on brand-new roles such as Blanche [in André Previn's A Streetcar Named Desire] or Madame de Tourvel in Dangerous Liaisons?

RF: New music is easy. There are very few expectations. There are no ...

RF and BC: ... comparisons!

BC: I don't know how you guys stand the comparisons!

RF: I don't either! I try to remind people of that. Imagine every pop singer in history being judged by "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes." One piece, or one small bunch of standard repertoire pieces. It's really ...

BC: It's cruel!

RF: It is singularly difficult.

BC: Oh, I do think it's just downright cruel, and that the critical microscope that opera singers are put under is outrageous. It is just silly.

RF: It's very difficult to stand up to that. And we're also compared mostly with recorded memories, or with just plain memories, which is very difficult. You don't get to stand next to one another, or appear in different theaters on any given night, and be compared that way. So it's sort of unfair. I try not to compete with anybody, other than myself, but there is a legacy that is very difficult to overcome. I have [on purpose] chosen relatively obscure repertoire --Thaïs, Rusalka, the Strauss roles -- that offers me something less standard than bread-and-butter Italian. When I take on Traviata for the first time, I am going to die over this issue -- the mantle of the tradition, the great, great divas of the past.

ON: How do you deal with that?

RF: I focus on what I want to do with the part. I am taking it on because I have something to say. You have to be hungry to try on these things -- voracious.




BC: It's up for grabs as to whether or not I would have had a career in opera, had I chosen to go that route. But in a way, I'm glad I didn't. Because I have a light soprano voice, and the kind of things I would have been asked to do are not interesting to me. I'd want to do Tosca! And Traviata! But I don't have the voice for those.

RF: That's very interesting. There are a lot of singers who've gotten into trouble because their natural Fach is not one they particularly enjoyed. I'm very lucky, because I adore my repertoire. There's really nothing ... there are a few roles that I might think about doing in the future, but there's very little that I'm not already doing that I wish I could do.

ON: When you perform in a full opera or a full-length musical, context is created for you. But you are both so good at creating these smaller worlds in recital or concert. Do you work on creating a specific mental image? A story?

RF: You know, it depends on the poetry. I'm touring now, and I'm doing [Debussy's] Chansons de Bilitis, which are a series of very beautiful, sensuous images. In "La Chevelure," which is the image of the hair wrapped around his neck and his chest, as I say those words, I do have those images specifically in mind. I try to see them. Very often, though, words express emotions, and ... say, that's another good question! Where do you draw the line, emotionally speaking? Do you think it's important to really feel every night the things that you say -- whether it's sadness or joy, whatever it is? Or do you think it alienates the audience when you are too involved?

BC: I've learned that it's o.k. to go farther than I used to be willing to do. I used to think that I didn't want to cry -- I wanted to suppress tears, because I thought it was kind of jerky to pull out all the stops like that. Then I saw a couple of people who did [cry] while performing, and I thought, "What the hell, it's pretty moving after all." I let it happen, and it's a good thing that I'm no longer worrying about holding that back. Because if it happens, it happens, and if it doesn't, it doesn't.

RF: Do you have to stop [crying] because you can't sing any more? Does your throat tighten up, and all those things?

BC: Rarely. But again, I would think that it's a much more difficult issue for you, because what you sing is more difficult. You know, I saw Otello in Madrid with José Cura and Elena Prokina. I was sitting very close, the front row or the second row, and I was amazed at what she was doing in Act III, when she's humiliated before the court. What she did was very moving, and she was crying. Real tears. And I didn't ever remember seeing an opera singer cry onstage, because of the very difficulty you mention. But I found it very moving. That act in particular just destroyed me. She was so delicate. She also sang a lot of it very softly, which surprised me. She didn't seem to be worrying about whether or not absolutely every note was going to be heard.

ON: Is [Otello] a favorite opera of yours?

BC: I've seen it a great deal, mainly because of José. It is glorious music, and I can't imagine a better opera. It's [Verdi's] masterpiece, surely.

RF: It's the perfect opera. The perfect marriage of the music and the text. Desdemona is just so beautifully [written] that you don't have to do anything. There are other roles where you are working for every phrase to bring a character alive. But not Desdemona.

ON: What's an example of a character that you have to work hard at?

RF: Definitely Arabella. She's not the most sympathetic character. When I first looked at it and read the libretto, I thought, "Well, the music is great, but I don't really like her." She's cold, she's dumping these guys in Act II, she's manipulative. So I've had to work hard to understand the context in which she was written -- what she meant to Strauss, looking hard at the scenes she's in from her perspective rather than a reader's perspective. Trying to discover a way of being her, rather than portraying her. It's a challenge.

ON: When you do a role like that in several productions -- first in [Houston in] 1998, then a short while ago in Munich, now at the Met -- do you keep the first production and what you learned in your first rehearsals with you, as it were?

RF: Yes. Then you build on it, always. It's never exactly the same, but the first production is always there to some degree.




BC: That's another thing about singing in opera. I don't know how you build up steam in a role in fits and starts. Look, Domingo has done, what -- four hundred Otellos? But over a period of twenty, twenty-five years? In Broadway terms, that's nothing. Just think, by the time we used to open on Broadway, we'd already done fifty performances out of town and in previews. Then you play it a year, and I don't know how that adds up; four hundred performances more? It's not unusual for a Broadway singer to have five, six hundred performances of something in less than two years.

RF: Right, right. I can't imagine that. It's funny -- a friend of mind has been singing Christine [in Phantom of the Opera] in San Francisco for six years, and she's on Broadway doing it now. And I don't know how many hundreds of performances of it she has done, but her voice is perfectly in shape.

BC: I feel that it takes me a relatively long time to get the kernel of some of these roles. For instance, you will sing something in opera for perhaps five performances, and it's that production, it's those people, and you have just five chances to get it right, and then you've got to go somewhere else, and you've got just three performances. Again, it's a whole new cast, it's a different director, a whole new set, new costumes. I don't know how you do it. I'd go nuts.

RF: I would go every year [to Phantom], and it would always be better!

BC: Better in what sense?

RF: The show was tighter every year, more alive, more impassioned. I would have thought the cast would have been laughing, they'd be breaking character, they'd be bored out of their minds, or having vocal breakdowns, because the muscles really don't like such repetitive action. For me, it would be the equivalent of doing minimalist music for an entire year. The same thing, every night. I am so impressed that singers can do that and keep it fresh!

BC: But Renée, think about it. In a Broadway show, if you have five or six songs, that's a lot. In an opera, you actually sing much, much more, right?

RF: Let me ask you, how do you maintain your concentration? How do you maintain your vocal quality and freshness when doing that kind of work every day?

BC: Well, it was easier then than what I do now [cabaret acts and solo appearances with orchestra], which is far more difficult than what I had to do on Broadway.

RF: You're still doing a show that runs every night.

BC: Very often now I'll have six or seven weeks of doing ten shows a week.

RF: How do you get inspired every time?

BC: I learned a long time ago that it only gets boring if you don't try to do it just as well as you possibly can that night.

RF: One of the things that make you great, and an icon, and a legend, is the word "interpretation." It's something that I am just now being able to focus on 100 percent, because for many years at the beginning of my career, I was still focusing on technique -- how to do things with my voice. What makes a great interpreter? What makes you a famous interpreter? What are the elements? I'm still wrestling with that myself.

BC: Well, first of all, I really think I'm a work in progress. Still. For instance, I've aways loved opera. When I was eight years old, the kids in the neighborhood knew that I was going to go indoors on Saturday and listen to the opera while they were finishing their games. I just always loved opera. And then when I came to New York, I didn't really see much opera. I was busy, trying to pay the rent and doing what I do. I don't know why I didn't go to the opera more often. It's only in the last fifteen years, maybe twelve years, that I've gone more. Lately, even more. Because of Cecilia [Bartoli], who really, really rekindled my interest. I didn't fully appreciate Domingo on records. It wasn't until I saw him live that I realized how great he was. He and Cecilia, and discovering José Cura just a few years ago, and you -- all of you, all of that, has fed me, in a way, and has made me want to take more risks in my own work. By that I mean that it has given me courage. Emotion is so high in opera. It's so high most of the time. You're not talking about "Oh, I skinned my knee," but "Oh, I killed my father!" You know?

RF: Yeah.

BC: It's big, big, big emotional moments, and when I see singers, particularly José Cura, who is so passionate onstage, willing to go so far and pull it off, then it gives me courage to go farther in my own work, and to take off my emotional clothes even more.

RF: That's a great compliment. That we are feeding you, in a sense, now.

BC: Oh, absolutely! No question.

RF: And you are staying inspired and engaged in the process.

BC: Well, I think I sing a song better now than I did two years ago, or five years ago. And I think I'll sing better a year from now than I do today. I'm talking about interpretation, now.

RF: The relationship between singing and words. Do you think that words are more important to you? That would be a stereotype, obviously. Should words be more important to us [in opera]? Does a foreign language have anything to do with that?

ON: It speaks to what you said earlier, Barbara. You don't read music in the conventional sense, so are the lyrics where you start working on a song?

BC: It's hard to say. Because what draws me to a song very often is a line. It can be one line. And I think, "I want to say that." I don't think, "I want to sing that," but "I want to say that." Sometimes a melody can be very seductive, and I do think, "I want to sing that." But sometimes, even though the melody is beautiful, if the words are not something I want to say, then I will not do that song. You know?

RF: Right. I went through about thirty jazz tunes yesterday and threw some away based on text.

ON: What were you looking at the jazz tunes for?

RF: I've been trying to find time to do a jazz recording project for about five years. I started out as a jazz singer. As a student, as a kid, I did that every weekend for about two years. So I know all those standards and love them. We are going into the studio and trying new styles and new arrangements, and trying to find a new voice. I do these songs as encores after a recital, and [in that context] I can't suddenly sit down with a microphone and go into a different voice. It would be too disconcerting. I'm going back to my roots, really. We've discovered that if I stay in an octave that's at least an octave below where I normally sit in opera, it begins to work. It's very spoken, it's very intimate.

BC: I think one of the mistakes so many opera singers who do crossover make is that they don't understand how much it is true that less really is more in popular music. It took me a long time to get that, coming from the Broadway theater, and when I started on Broadway we had no amplification at all. In those days, you'd look out front, and your mouth had to be seen -- at least that's what Dick Rodgers always used to say: "I've got to see your mouth if you want me to understand the words!" Coming from that, I was singing much too much when I first started to do the kind of things I am doing now. I'd start a run on a Monday and be really tired by Wednesday. And Wally [Harper, her longtime accompanist/conductor/
arranger] would say, "You don't have to sing so much." It took me a long time to trust that advice.

ON: Does it bother you to go to the theater now and hear amplified voices, when your own era in the theater had no microphones?

BC: No. Doesn't bother me at all.

RF: I'd love it if there were just one theater that did musicals unamplified, even if it were an occasional concert. Just so that we could hear what it was like.

BC: If it is done well, the sound that is, it's O.K. You want the sound to sound as if it's coming from the stage, not the walls. The one thing I think is bad about the amplified sound in the Broadway theater right now are the microphones on the heads. They look like moles on foreheads. And the other thing is that performers depend on the microphones too much, so that they don't have what I call "musical-theater energy." There is a different kind of energy if you are performing to reach the back row or the balcony. You win some, you lose some. Because there are intimate moments where you can sing really softly nowadays, and without amplification we could never really do that.

RF: The other thing that disturbs me about it is that it is omni-directional. It takes a while for me to adjust, coming from my world, to figure out who's moving his or her mouth. Where's the sound supposed to be coming from? On the other hand, if I were singing six to eight times a week, I would want to be amplified. You've got to put blood and guts and your whole body into every phrase to overcome the orchestra ... and there is just no possible way you can hack that every night of the week. No way. I have a theory, which maybe you've heard, about these singers we read about from the nineteenth century. The ones who were doing Donizetti roles back-to-back at Covent Garden, for example. I think people sang in a completely different style than we do. Theaters were smaller, and I think people used only their head voices to sing -- which is not tiring. We -- even women, not just men -- are forced to sing with a lot more weight to the sound, because of the size of the modern orchestra. And those adjustments ...

BC: But those adjustments are what make it all interesting, right?

RF: Right.






photo credits: © Niels Busch 2001 (portrait, top of page); © Harry Heleotis 2001 (all others)

OPERA NEWS, December 2001 Copyright © 2001 The Metropolitan Opera Guild, Inc. 

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