Reunion: Carol Vaness

Carol Vaness is a great singer — and an opinionated one. WILLIAM R. BRAUN talks to the soprano, who is now on the faculty of Indiana University's Jacobs School of Music.

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Vaness at work with mezzo Wallis Giunta and pianist Bryan Wagorn, members of the Met's Lindemann Young Artist Development Program
© Beth Bergman 2012
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Makeup and hair: Ralph Castelli
© Beth Bergman 2012
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© Beth Bergman 2012

For many years, Carol Vaness sang such a wide range of roles, with such an arresting combination of abandon and utter reliability, that it's possible to imagine that you know her. Yet a conversation with Vaness is full of gentle surprises. Speaking on an October afternoon from her office at Indiana University, where she is throwing herself into a full schedule of voice lessons and the production of an operatic triple bill with the same energy she always lavished on Mozart's Elettra, she drops the first surprise early. One of the defining moments of Vaness's career came at the Richard Tucker gala in 1991, when she sang the final scene of Samuel Barber's Antony and Cleopatra. Leontyne Price, who created the role of the Egyptian queen, not only was present but introduced the selection and then, as public-television cameras rolled, took a seat onstage. Vaness sang with such assurance that it seems logical to ask her if she always had that sort of overwhelming confidence. It turns out that she doesn't feel that she had it at all. "Well, I obviously didn't have the ability to say, 'Excuse me, Leontyne, would you mind moving off the stage?' It's not that it doesn't occur to me that it's nerve-wracking. I'm standing onstage thinking, 'Dear God it's a ridiculous situation, but might as well just keep going ahead.'"

That same sense of practicality, of taking the long view, informs the observations she makes about the vast changes in the opera world since her Met debut, which came in 1984 as Armida in Handel's Rinaldo. For example, Vaness sees the influx of stage directors from the spoken theater, often people with little or no operatic experience, as something that can be revitalizing in ways that are not immediately obvious. "I was lucky to work with Trevor Nunn early on, with Idomeneo at Glyndebourne, at the same time he was doing Cats and Starlight Express. He gave me as an opera singer a different way of looking at things. He actually spiked even more my interest in going back to the literature and/or the plays, even down to other things the composer had written at that period, which I'd certainly had a lot of interest in. But it wasn't really until we were trying to work on it from the theater aspect that I really studied in that way. You know, there are some people who have complained that the directors are ignoring the story entirely, or trying to change everything so much that there's hardly any emotional center to it — or that there's only an emotional center. I think people will complain about anything, to tell you the truth. My experience with Trevor was 'Okay, now I really know how to study.' And theater people bind you together in this wonderful, passionate ensemble. That's what they do, and just being able to get singers to do that in a world where everybody's flitting from place to place, because of how careers are, that's in itself a positive thing."

This is why Vaness finds it difficult to be negative about HD transmissions and television rebroadcasts, in spite of the fact that the HD experience bears virtually no relation to the experience of attending an opera. "HD is just another aspect of it, and it's inevitable in today's world. If the singers sing really well, it could be quite positive. For me, having seen the Met's Don Carlo in the theater and the Met's Don Carlo in HD, they are different shows. With the microphone right next to you, carefully miked for television, it is possible that something could come over quite well in HD and not necessarily come out well in the theater. There was someone who I thought in the theater, 'I can't really hear this person,' but it was very clear on television. If it's inevitable, I try to look to as many positive things as possible. The very fact that you get to, around the country and the world, hear Ferruccio Furlanetto sing Filippo is to me a wonderful thing. I love that. What remains to be seen is how other opera companies are going to react — what they have to do to bring an audience in to really fill the house, or to even make half a house nowadays."

The idea of filling an opera house had come up a few months earlier. After New York City Opera's final season at Lincoln Center, TheNew York Times ran a story about the possible causes of the company's troubles. In it, Vaness voiced her concern that audiences just hadn't heard of the shows in the repertoire. Asked what she might do if, like her pal Beverly Sills, she devoted a decade to running the company, Vaness doesn't wait for the end of the question. "I would love to do that!" she blurts in the next of the afternoon's surprises. "And I've had some thoughts about it. I would find a way to make it incredibly intimate. And I would look logically at, first of all, what the competition is doing across the street." (The reference to the Met is now a metaphorical one.) "And I would say, 'Okay, I can't put everything on HD, but what could I do that would dramatically really sell here that would be different from what they do?' I would look at all the composers that ever existed, including the ones that the Met is now picking up. I don't mind that the City Opera did different things, but I thought that it was a very bad choice that they did almost all different things with maybe only one thing that people knew. I think I would find a way to take some of the modern composers who are writing today, see what I think is good, and alternate it, put it with something like Figaro. But not when the Met's doing Figaro. And do a totally different Figaro. I think that there could have been more imagination in terms of the all-around scheme. And I would continue to do what they do to seek out young talent, American talent. But you have to be cautious about what people are doing across the street, because they have more money."

Among today's composers, Vaness is fond of Neely Bruce, who wrote Pyramus and Thisbe, one of the one-acts on the triple bill she is preparing. (The others are Hindemith's Hin und Zurück and Rachmaninoff's Aleko.) Asked for an example of a production she admires, Vaness mentions Jonathan Miller's Met version of Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande. "Personally, I had always loved the work but never loved it enough to go and sit there all night. But I loved it. To me it's like that production itself convinced me to stay in something that, I don't know, it's just water and a well and a girl walking around saying, 'Don't touch me, don't touch me.'" But there's also an unusual reason Vaness has a hard time sitting at some performances. "Being empathetic or sympathetic, my voice moves around when people sing. It's like I can feel if someone's doing something not quite right. I feel it in my own voice. In many ways I don't teach just by ear, I teach by what I'm feeling. Even if I'm not looking at you, I feel your larynx going up. If somebody is onstage, I can just feel that somebody's in distress."

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Vaness, Wagorn and bass Ryan Speedo Green, another Lindemann artist
© Beth Bergman 2012

If larynxes are dropping in Indiana, credit Vaness. She feels that students, on the whole, are coming to graduate school with a good technique. "There are graduate students that come in who are faster than others, because they know how to listen. 

And it's really less about your technique as you come into it than it is about why you want this part of your technique to be good. They say, 'I want to get the high D,' and I always say, 'Okay, why?' And if the answer is 'Well, I want work,' then I'm going, 'There's no artistic reason? No other reason like an artistic reason?' I know that my goal when I first started was to be able to have a high D. And the reason I wanted to be able to have a high D is because I liked the part of Vitellia. But I let my students explore, and then I advise them as to my opinion of what I think their chances are, as opposed to limiting and saying, 'You know, you're never going to sing this.' Basically, everything that I did when I did something technically difficult, like Vespri Siciliani, I never went out and tried to sound like anybody else. And I think in today's world it's a different question in terms of how students hear things. They hear voices that record well, as if they are big voices, and students are often surprised that this is not a big voice in real life. One of the things that disturbs me in today's world is that indeed the voices that the houses are using are getting lighter. And more and more the lighter-voiced singers are disappearing sooner, which is distressing. One of the things I try to do at the graduate level, and wherever I do young-artist programs, like the Met, is try to make sure that people are technically aware of how to maximize focus in a voice. You're not looking to make your voice the biggest voice, you're looking to make your voice the most efficient and the most beautiful."

"I always have had a mid-sized voice," she continues. "However, my voice is really focused. And focus, being able to cut or fly over an orchestra, is different from a voice that blankets, like Maria Guleghina, whose voice is huge." Indeed, perhaps more than any other singer of her generation, Vaness has always been defined by the focus of her voice, coupled with an intense expressivity of phrasing. The combination made her especially suited to Mozart's operas, where she quickly became preeminent in six major roles. (In Don Giovanni she bobbed between Anna and Elvira.) The topic of Mozart is all but inexhaustible for her. Told that some of us consider Donna Elvira the most multi-layered character in all of opera, Vaness mulls it over. "Really? More than Fiordiligi? Elvira is a very intricate character, but it's very easy to make her into a caricature. That is, is it sort of funny the way she keeps popping up? Sort of. But she has to have as much strength as Giovanni. She's obviously the only woman he was with for more than one night. I don't know if any other women have pursued him so strongly, have gone to the depths. I think 'Mi tradì' is an incredible journey. The thing that troubles me is that I wish there were a little more for her in the epilogue, more than 'I'm going to the convent now,' or in the scene before the epilogue. Because there's more to her at that moment. I find her incredibly modern,

Fiordiligi, on the other hand, "is so much like me," says Vaness. "Really bull-headed. She has a lot of bull-headedness in terms of 'Come scoglio' — the idea of 'This is what I want,' so that when it hits her that, oh my God, could this really have happened to me that I actually love this person, when you get to the moment of 'Giusto ciel,' it's so heartbreaking that she can't stand it anymore. She has to admit it, she has super-high ideals and beliefs about if you love somebody. It has spoken to me at every moment in my life, because I make all these stupid mistakes." But there's another surprise in the air when she turns to the Countess in Mozart's Figaro, a role in which Vaness was particularly admired. "I didn't like it in any way, shape or form," she says bluntly. "I love listening to other singers sing it, but I don't enjoy the character. Now, I loved doing the recitatives, I enjoyed the work of that, just as I loved the recitatives in Così Fan Tutte. Between Riccardo Muti and Jeffrey Tate, I feel I really got my recits down. If I'm really scared, like on an airplane ride, I go through every recitative of every opera, and I mean everybody's part. I'd make a great Masetto. But I don't enjoy singing 'Porgi, amor' — never did. I don't like singing 'Dove sono' — never did. The ensembles are very low. And I'm not sure if honestly, in my heart of hearts, I could be as generous as the Countess and could ever say 'Più docile io sono, e dico di sì.'" This is the famous moment when the Countess forgives the Count for his cheating and his suspicions about her fidelity. But Vaness changes her mind. "Well, I've 'dico'd di sì' before, so that's a silly thing to say."

The remark is representative of Vaness's outlook — humorous, generous but self-aware. She can toss off the same sort of monologue about Oprah Winfrey's O magazine that you would get from Paula Poundstone. (The subscription was a gag gift from her sister. "It's not the brightest family, but we were pretty funny at least," she volunteers.) There are many reasons one might be pessimistic about opera today, but Vaness isn't having any of it. "I think opera has to move forward. The only thing I get pessimistic about is that because of the money situation in the world that there might not be as much work as I would wish there could be for the amount of talent. But I think that opera has to evolve. How can you love Mozart and be pessimistic that it's never going to be done well again? I just don't feel that way, I just think it will be done differently." Unbidden, she offers a hint of the reason her performances of even such prickly characters as Vitellia and Lady Macbeth were always so vitalizing, and why she continues to engage audiences in even the most demanding repertoire. (A few days after our interview, she was off to Utah for performances of Britten's War Requiem.) "Maybe there's a part of me that's naïve or childlike, but it's been hard to build cynicism into my personality. I never have felt particularly jaded. I still wake up every morning and go, 'Oh, it's a nice day, maybe something good could happen today,' and I sit with my coffee, and I go, 'Coffee is good.' And even on my worst day, when I'm jet-lagged and have to go to something I don't want to go to, like a faculty meeting or a casting meeting, even then I still wake up and think, 'You know, I really like coffee.'" spacer 

WILLIAM R. BRAUN is a pianist and writer based in Connecticut. 

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