For several years Brenda Roberts has been a faculty member and chair of the voice department at the Peter Cornelius Conservatory of Music in Mainz, Germany, and faculty member at the University of Mainz, School of Music. She taught voice to undergraduate and graduate students towards degrees in performance and music education, as well as courses in performance practices designed for opera and recital singers. She has also taught diction courses in German (which she speaks fluently), Italian and French. As chair of the department, her duties include extensive participation in the academic affairs of the Voice Department, juries, examinations, auditions, student advising, etc. She also arranged auditions with agents, theatres and schools in order to place students in their vocational fields of work. Her teaching duties included a course “Podiumstraining” for preliminary work in opera workshops, directing opera workshops and musical theatre productions, and teaching diction. She teaches voice to students of all vocal types and genders: Soprano, Alto, Tenor, Baritone, and Bass.
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This conversation was recorded at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, on August 5, 2003. Portions were broadcast on WNUR ten months later. This transcription was made in 2021, and posted on this website at the beginning of 2021. My thanks to British soprano Una Barry for her help in preparing this website presentation.
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My hesitation is that I find that these special areas are being used by well-known productions of well-known singers, but not, perhaps, the best of theater. If you’re going to put something on a video, it should be really good, and believe me, everything you see in the opera house — even in the big theaters — is not always the best.
Roberts: [Smiles] No, no. That’s an exception. You don’t do that every day, and, if you do that, then you usually say to yourself that I must take a day off.
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He worked with me one on one, doing coaching, too, and he was wonderful. Birgit Nilsson has always been my idol, but in those days she wanted everything really, really, really fast. She has even stopped her orchestra rehearsal and wanted it even faster. Now for me, Erich Leinsdorf was fast enough. That was the most amazing thing, because very often the other conductors want you to expand high phrases, and sing high notes, and that was what I was used to. Leinsdorf said he wanted this phrase sung from the beginning to the end with no breathing.
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Roberts: Oh, yes, because I can’t live without singing. I wanted to sing since I was eight years old. I had never heard an opera, and my parents had never heard an opera. I come from Indiana, and the first opera my parents heard was one with me when I was at Saarbrucken. They’d never heard an opera before that, so I was totally without background. Still, at eight I stood up in class and said I wanted to be an opera singer. Everybody laughed, and I wondered why they were laughing.
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They’re bankrupt, and they’re trying to find ways of still doing opera, but they’re cutting down productions and then they’re cutting down on the ones they’re doing, and they’re trying to draw the audience with musicals (https://yacsssdm.ru/hack/?patch=455), or just the light opera. They want the Ludwigshafen Orchestra to do their own concerts, and play the opera at Mainz at the same time. I sang with the Ludwigshafen Orchestra in their concert series with Eschenbach. There are big protests going on right now. I don’t know if that’s going to get better or not. Now here in the States you’re sponsored by private people and corporate sponsors. It seems to be doing pretty well.
Brenda Roberts: That’s a good question. It’s really difficult because you need a lot of concentration to bring it every time the same way. I’ve noticed more of a difficulty usually with an accompanist. Sometimes an excerpt is just wonderful and beautiful, but then he does something wrong and we have to repeat it. This is the trouble that a singer gets into — to find that same nouveau [newness] a second time, or a third time.
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A very, very well-known Elektra right now was my Chrysothemis for many years. I would imagine if she likes something about it that I did, she might have taken it from me. I don’t know, maybe not, but it would be very flattering.
Roberts: At Northwestern, and through my experience of watching a lot of opera, I learned that we should be singing actors, to look into the principals of Stanislavsky — his acting, and where he believed he had to get into the role. He really had to be the person he was portraying. Lee Strasberg went one step further, and said you must use your own experiences as far as you can to be able to use your own understanding of how you felt when things were happening. You were to use your own feelings and thoughts, and project them into the person you are playing, knowing what you think you need out of your own life, and to use it. I try to do this as much as possible. Opera singers don’t have ‘the fourth wall’. We have to sing to the public, and because we are singers we going to look like singers.
BD: Here in America, we get the feeling that European stage directors are always going off the deep end about this or that part. Have you been happy with some of the direction that you have got over the years in the various roles?
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Learning is not a process that stops for the mind or for the voice. I’ve been in this business now for a long time, and I’ve seen singers come and go. It interests me what my colleagues do, I often ask them if they have time to work on roles. More often I have gotten the answer, “‘Oh, my gosh, I have to go here today, and there tomorrow, so I don’t have time to work.
Roberts: Yes, because a lot of singers cancel on the very same day. I don’t know how it is in America, but in Germany you can cancel until twelve o’clock of the day of your performance. Now you try to find an Elektra at twelve o’clock when it’s going to be put on eight hours later.
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To find good Elektra covers, you must consider that there are only a few really good Elektras, and most of them are busy. Try to find two Elektras who are willing to take their time, and want to be just on call as a cover.
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The only thing I ever wanted to do in my whole life was to sing. The best performance of my life was giving birth to my son, but I always wanted to sing. That’s all I ever wanted to do, and I only feel really fulfilled when I am singing on stage, and giving of myself. This is the thing that makes my life worthwhile.
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Roberts: I’m doing a lot of teaching nowadays, and I try to tell my students that we’ll use the visual, which sometimes affects trying to inhale the tone. We use our hands towards something, but then try to get away from it as soon as possible. You’re trying to sing a high tone, not to wrinkle your forehead, or laugh, or smile all the time. It’s important to try not to do too many of these vocal attitudes if you can. There’s a way to learn not to use them and still have the same feeling of lifting, or openness, or whatever you want. But we are singers, and I guess we will look like singers. If you really throw yourself into a role, and have a good stage director who does see it from the front, and wants to know you are getting what you’re trying to say, that is important. The public understands The Truth. It’s important, and that’s where a stage director will also help you show to the public that which you’re feeling. But you must bring that yourself into a production, and get away from operatic gestures.
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A recording of a live performance of Lohengrin has been issued, and is shown below-left. See my interviews with Kurt Moll, and Siegmund Nimsgern, who were also in that performance.
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Roberts is a member of the National Association of Teachers of Singing (NATS), the German Voice Teachers Association (Bundesverband Deutscher Gesangspädagogen) and the College Music (official website) Society. Over the years she has taught many seminars and workshops in vocal technique and opera production in Europe and the United States.
Roberts: More analytically, yes. What a singer has to try to do is forget the analytical part as much as she can. The hard thing to do is to get the expression into the voice, and that’s what a singer has to concentrate on. You want the intonation to be exactly on. That’s the perfect thing, and singers are unfortunately not perfect.
Roberts: That would be very idealistic. Remember, we’re in the business to make money [laughs]. But the most successful roles I’ve done are the roles I really love to portray. Doing Lady Billows in Albert Herring, for example, this old lady who is always interfering is very difficult for me to throw myself into. But I see throwing myself into outsider roles, like Elektra or Medea. I find them fascinating and interesting.
Do they want me to come in, or do they want to bring me in themselves? Every conductor does something different. You’ll find every conductor and every stage director wants to do something different.
Sometimes the text does not really give you the exact idea of what you want to sing. Sometimes it is in the subtext, as Stanislavsky techniques, or Strasbourg acting principles of singing. That’s what you’ve got to look at in anything you’re doing.
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Roberts: It’s a lark, but I don’t think I would do that. If James Levine would like me at the Metropolitan, and they have their Elektra, and would like me to do Chrysothemis, I probably would say yes.
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You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests. He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago. You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.
Brenda Roberts received both Bachelors and Masters degrees from Northwestern University, where she studied with Prof. Hermanus Baer and participated in master classes with Lotte Lehman and Gerald Moore. In addition to her years of studies in the United States, Miss Roberts spent a further year honing her craft at the Vienna Hochschule für Musik, as well as privately studying with Josef Metternich. She made her European debut in Saarbrücken as Sieglinde in “Walküre” and has since then performed at almost all of the international opera houses in major roles.
Roberts: I suppose, if the acoustics are very difficult, like cotton, or very dead. Then you might try to increase the brilliancy a bit. Maybe in some places you would want to add a little bit more tone in the bottom, or the middle range. When I talk about Truth, piano is piano. But if we’re talking about mezzo-forte, you could add a little more sound. You might try to do something like that, but really no because you don’t want to change your technique. If you try to change too much in your throat, or in your soft palate, you could get tension. So, no. There is one more thing, and that is to have enough support. You must be sure you are using that body correctly if the acoustics are difficult. Let’s look at churches, for example.
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BD: [Trying to be helpful] Maybe the answer is to give each of them half the performances. In a run of eight, give each soprano four.
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Roberts: No. I have my own productions, too. But the thing is that I get a lot of those calls when they know it is something that’s important. For example, Munich can count on me because I rarely make a mistake.
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That’s where Truth comes into it, through the real meaning behind that which you’re doing. That’s what you’re saying and feeling. The public, even one which is perhaps not so educated as in New York or Chicago or Munich or Vienna or La Scala usually knows if you’re telling the truth, if you’re singing the truth, acting the truth, or not. They usually have a good feeling for that.
First of all, opera is sometimes degenerate in the way it’s produced. The other is a financial factor. Opera must really get the young people interested. Where they are now interested is in the rock/pop, and computers. They sit on their computers instead of going to the theater.
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Conductors say I have the biggest voice in Europe. I don’t know how that compares with any voices in America, but I do have a big voice, and I don’t have to force. I’ve never had to force, and that’s a big plus to my voice.
You always have to do what he asks. When a producer or conductor says something, you have to what they say.