n 1970, Beverly Sills launched her famous “Three Queens Trilogy” at New York City Opera by singing Elizabeth I in Donizetti’s Roberto Devereux. Now, NYCO has revived Devereux for powerhouse diva Lauren Flanigan. Recently the two sopranos shared their thoughts on Good Queen Bess and other matters with F. PAUL DRISCOLL Flanigan and Sills, now the chairman of Lincoln Center, had their conversation with OPERA NEWS in Sills’s office one morning last spring, shortly after Flanigan finished a run of performances of The Mother of Us All at New York City Opera. The tape opens in mid-conversation about singing and theater acoustics.
LAUREN FLANIGAN: … I sometimes think that we should have a reality session. In The Mother of US All my God, some of those kids were fresh out of college! I don’t remember what I sounded like fresh out of college, but it couldn’t have been what I do now, because now I’m used to singing in big venues like [the New York State Theater] all the time, and it’s a different, a completely different thing. And I’m used to singing all the time. In Mother of US All, this little girl [in the cast] … at orchestra rehearsal, this voice came out of her and I said, “Well, where has this been?” and she said, “Oh, we were just rehearsing!” I said, “There is no such thing as just rehearsing, honey!” A, you never know who’s going to be in rehearsal. Never. There are days when you mark, sure, but B, and most importantly, how are you going to get used to putting your voice in that theater — 2,000 seats, 3,000 seats, whatever it is in the State Theater — if you are not using that body and kicking that body into shape to get that out onstage? It doesn’t have to be...
BEVERLY SILLS: Why don’t we let the man ask his questions? [Laughs]
LF: Oh! So we’re starting now?
OPERA NEWS: We have started.
LF: We did? Oh, O.K., nobody said we were starting! I thought we were still shooting [photos]. We were just chatting. [Sits up straight.]
BS: O.K. Now we’re ready.
ON: Please tell Lauren how Queen Elizabeth came into your life. Whose idea was it?
BS: It was actually brought to me by my coach, who was Roland Gagnon. He gave me the score and said, “This should be your next project.” I took the score home, and I thought, “Yeah, later.” [Sills and Flanigan laugh.] I thought … I had another couple of ideas. At that time I was into French repertoire. Donizetti appealed to me in limited quantities. I was really quite enamored with Bellini — much more than Donizetti. And Roland, who was a French-Canadian and very temperamental and I am always so easy and laid back — threw the book at me and said, “Take the damn thing home again and READ it! Don’t look at the music. Just read the text and see what the woman has to say!” So I did. And I got hooked on a couple of lines, and I thought, “Oh, this old lady … hmmm. Maybe this might work.” So he really introduced me to it. That’s how I got her in my life. I will say this — and maybe now that you’ve done things like The Mother of Us All you’d agree — I am very fascinated, I was very fascinated, with characters who lived.
LF: Me, too. Oh, it’s fantastic!
BS: It’s fun to take [Violetta] in La Traviata and [give] her any color hair you like, make her any weight you like. You can do anything you want with her. I changed [Violetta] constantly. As I got older, so did she — miraculously! But when you are playing an historic character — like Queen Elizabeth, like Baby Doe there are preset boundaries. We all know what Elizabeth looked like. We all know that white makeup. If you put somebody onstage [as Elizabeth] with a pink face, you’re going to have an audience already turned in the wrong direction. There are certain parameters that you’re ruled by when you’re playing somebody who lived. And I enjoyed doing that. I loved Baby Doe, and finding out everything I could about her. That … fluffy kitten. So I really got quite taken with Elizabeth, and I began to collect a library of books about her …
LF: That’s what I’ve been doing!
BS: … and no two match. Everybody’s got a different concept of her. But I enjoyed getting to know her from an historical point of view. Of course [Roberto Devereux] is not historically accurate, but it’s not [so] crazy that you can’t deal with it. Of the three Donizetti “Tudor” ladies, she is portrayed in the most accurate way. Donizetti’s Anne Boleyn is just … he put in anything he wanted! And his Mary Stuart — the meeting between her and Queen Elizabeth is invention in much the same way. But in Roberto Devereux, the character of Hizabeth herself– while the history in the opera may not be so accurate, she is quite true to form. You can find aspects of her in history books that are very much present in Roberto Devereux.
ON: Lauren, do you work the same way in preparing a historical character — using portraits and books? Did you do that for Susan B. Anthony [in The Mother of Us All]?
LF: Yes. A year before I started [rehearsing the opera], I started collecting articles, reading books, anything on suffrage, anything on the movement in upstate New York, anything on Elizabeth Cady Stanton. But the interesting thing about Susan B. Anthony in Mother of Us All is that ultimately the piece is really about [its librettist] Gertrude Stein. And so I found that the more I got to know the piece, the more I really needed to know about Gertrude Stein. And then, what was really interesting was that the more I knew about Gertrude Stein, the more I needed to understand the process of writing.
ON: Why was that?
LF: Because it’s her language. It’s Susan B. Anthony’s character, but it’s Gertrude Stein’s language. It’s [Stein’s] way of speaking, it’s her way of communicating thoughts and emotions and the conflicts in human relationships. It’s not Susan B.’s. Susan B. Anthony wrote without punctuation. She underlined things that she wanted emphasized. She basically just wrote and spoke completely freely. Gertrude Stein was absolutely not that way, and [Mother of Us All] is not that way. The piece is definitive in its language, it’s definitive in its structure, in its musical structure, in how the music approaches the language, how it underscores the language. And what was then interesting, really — and why Gertrude was drawn to Susan B. — was that the way Susan B. Anthony felt about life and human relationships was how Gertrude Stein felt about language. So that’s the parallel. That’s why Gertrude Stein picked this very strange person, Susan B. Anthony, to be herself, really.
The more I understood about Gertrude Stein, the more I understood how she uses language. What she tried to do was to make language have parity with itself, so that there was no part of a sentence that was stronger or weaker than another. She says [in “Sacred Emily”], “Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose…. “There is a point behind that: the nouns and the verbs are equal. There is no object and no objectifier. There is no man and woman. She saw that the structure of language was male and female. This system of patriarchy could never not exist, because the way we speak to each other supports that. That was a very interesting part of the preparation of the piece. But then, ultimately, Mother of Us All was about being an artist, about being a writer.
During the preparation process, a whole sort of controversy started. I said, “I don’t think I’m really an artist — I’m an interpretive artist.” And everybody in the room went crazy, and they said, “No, you’re completely wrong.” And I said, “O.K., I start off as an interpretive artist, and then maybe somewhere in the rehearsing, and in the mix, and in the exchange I become a creative artist. O.K., I’ll give you that.” But I wanted to know about the act of creation, so I started talking to all my friends who were painters, who were writers, about what that’s like. To begin something like that.
Beverly, did you have a routine getting started? A way you always began things? No? You see, I don’t either.
ON: Did your process differ according to what the particular piece was?
BS: Yes. Some pieces appealed to me through the text only. ! just agreed to do them because I was so enamored [of] the text. Just the libretto.
LF: That is so funny — I’ve never heard anyone else say that!
BS: And if the libretto really appealed to me, I’d agree to do the piece no matter what the musical values were.
LF: That’s why I did [Hugo Weisgall’s] Esther!
BS: Yes! That’s why I did [Weisgall’s] Six Characters in Search of an Author! That’s a perfect example of it. Same composer. I never even looked at the music. It was that the wit of my part, the wit of that woman, the craziness of her, the use of the language were so fantastic. The music [she pauses] came later. I very rarely took a piece home only on musical values. It was the same thing with The Ballad of Baby Doe.
LF: I feel so good that you said that. Because sometimes I thought I was crazy. People would say, “Why are you doing this?” And I couldn’t really give an answer except to say that I loved the text. Or that I was so enamored with the idea of the project.
BS: Why would anybody want to sing the Coq d’Or? The appeal of [the Queen of Shemakha] is in how funny she is! The exchange of words between the King and this woman is just incredible! That’s the only reason to do it.
ON: When you said that there were lines that grabbed you when Mr. Gagnon gave you the Roberto Devereux score …
BS: The actual text of the libretto, yes.
ON: When you put together words and music, does Donizetti support what you discovered about the character?
BS: Sometimes. Sometimes, he really lets me down! [Laughs] l mean, I hate the idea that most of the time when you are singing Donizetti, you walk onstage and whup! You’re singing an aria! You know, give me a chance to introduce myself to the public as a character first! Please! Look at Lucia. You walk on, and about forty seconds later you are singing “Regnava nel silenzio,” which is a mad scene by itself. Of course, so much of his work is manic-depressive.
BS: You have this aria, in which [Lucia] is talking about dreadful things — again, I think of her talking rather than singing and all of a sudden she’s quite a chirpy little girl. But, as I said, l like Donizetti a lot. It was medicine to sing. It’s not anything that you have to make adjustments for. I talk that way about Handel. But that [Giulio Cesare] was probably the one piece that I took purely because I couldn’t wait to sing the arias. That was a different approach. That music is — I hate women who use the word divine, but I don’t know any other word to describe the extraordinary music of Caesar. But I loved singing Donizetti, and in the parts where I felt he was letting me down musically, I tried to compensate.
ON: Was that the case with Roberto Devereux?
BS: No. This woman was the most powerful woman in the world, and [Donizetti] treats her as such. I think that of all the women he wrote about, he was truest to her. He was really enamored of this character. He put all the vulnerability, all the power behind her, into the opera.
LF: What I really like about [Roberto Devereux] in particular is that just the basic [vocal] writing suits the text rather well, and then — because of when it was written — you can pretty much add your own little moments to make Elizabeth more tender or less tender. Do you know what I mean? If [the opera] were written now in that way, you couldn’t [do that], unless you were talking to the composer, and you said …
BS: “Fix the soliloquy!” [Laughs]
LF: Yes! Higher, lower, louder, softer. You might have some sort of negotiation there. But what I really like about [Devereux] is that the basic structure is so interesting that you are able to add your girlish moments and your more mannish moments and your moments of absolute stubbornness — and then you can take it back and have remorse. You can put that all in your voice. It’s why I love that repertory, and all that early Verdi stuff. For me, that’s the only reason to do that sort of thing. To let your imagination go crazy and start finding out who you are in the piece.
ON: Does that extend to the specific issue of embellishmment?
LF: That’s a large part of what I’m talking about.
ON: How do you feel about that, [Beverly]? You’ve written in your books about taking specific moments and coloring your voice in a particular way. Did you ever come up against a conductor who didn’t want you to extend a vocal line or embellish it in any way?
BS: Sure. [Charles] Mackerras on the [1969 Roberto Devereux] recording. He was a great “come scritto,” and we fought a lot. I’ve always said that I tried to use the ornaments dramatically. The [Lucia] mad scene with the cadenza was fully staged. There was no way to do that unless the director — either the ones I did with [Tito] Capobianco or Sarah Caldwell or once I moved Lucia to La Scala — I couldn’t do that cadenza unless he allowed me to do the same staging. It was not a cadenza, it was a dramatic moment.
When I did crazy things like [Marie in] Daughter of the Regiment, I deliberately over-ornamented, because I played her like a flake. I played her as a real dumb kid, so the ornaments were dumb. They were meant to be. If you didn’t get the humor of it, then that was my fault. It was overdone in the sense that they were stupid. They were just funny ornaments. And again, they were used and staged — no simple stand-and-sing. It’s much harder to ornament a woman like Queen Elizabeth …
LF: Oh, absolutely!
BS: … because she is not a frivolous woman. You can’t make her frivolous, she’s not an hysterical woman, so you can’t do hysterical kinds of mad scenes. I was able to do that in Anna Bolena, because at the end she was hysterical. Check the history books — she was on morphine, she was so frightened of her coming death. She was hysterical, so you could do a kind of ornamental hysteria. But with this lady, Queen Elizabeth, the ornaments have to be very powerful, because even in her most vulnerable moments onstage, the power is there. Even when she collapses, she is a powerful woman collapsing, so the ornaments can’t be capriciously added.
I’ve always felt — and I’m sure from having watched you perform, Lauren, that you feel the same way — that when you ornament it’s something very personal. It’s not walking to the center of the stage and saying, “Look, guys, I’m going to give you three trills on a high D.” [Flanigan laughs] It’s not that at all. I remember when I was a child, listening to Lily Pons. Of course, it was a different era, but I was awed that this woman could do all these funny little things with her voice, all those high Es — I mean, notes that only dogs could hear, they were so high. It was awesome in some way, and then as time progressed we all became more sophisticated and a little more discerning. We had more choices because of the recordings going into our lives. Those [records] let us hear other people’s approaches.
As a singer, now you can make very definite decisions about how you want to ornament and what is appropriate. There could come a moment where Lauren will feel, in Elizabeth, that there is a need to do something here. It doesn’t become a showoff ornament, as in, “I can do fourteen trills in a row.” It’s a need to enhance the character that you are playing. In the early days, when I was just beginning, I didn’t have the clout to say, “Just pay attention and follow me. I have some discretion about this.” So in lots of my early performances, there were [peculiar] ornaments, or there weren’t many ornaments. There was also an era at City Opera where one of the sopranos did Lucia without any ornaments whatsoever. And that was a chore to listen to, let me tell you!
So, I think this ornamentation business, if you are a theatrical person, is not the need to show people how much you can do with your voice but rather the need to enhance the theatrical moment, to communicate this character to the public, to have them feel about her as passionately as you do.
LF: There are a few characters — [Massenet’s] Manon, for instance — where part of the character and the need to show off can come together in one moment. Do you know what I mean?
BS: Oh, that’s Manon’s character! That’s precisely it.
LF: Exactly. I’ve always felt that the distinction needed to be drawn between that moment when the character’s need and the need of your voice to thrill come together.
BS: Massenet, who was not famous for a lot of ornamentation himself, wrote in the Cours-la-Reine scene this wonderful, frivolous stuff for Manon. The quality of those cadenzas — those are perfect cadenzas for her. It is this young girl who’s on a kind of “high.” It’s brilliant, the way he wrote it. The gavotte is absolutely splendid for her. But Donizetti gives you a little more freedom. The comparison of a sixteen- or seventeen-year-old Lucia to a sixty- something-year-old queen, the most powerful woman in the world — you can’t possibly approach ornamenting those two roles in the same way.
ON: That speaks to the issue of what you discover “in the moment.” What do you discover in rehearsal, as opposed to pre-rehearsal preparation? It’s now spring. Roberto Devereux opens in the fall. Where are you, Lauren, in this process right now? Do you leave certain things to be decided in rehearsal?
BS: Lauren, who’s conducting?
LF: George Manahan. It’s a little different every time I do something. I tend to work with modern directors. Hmm. If I was going into something that I knew was a very old-fashioned production by a director that I knew did things in the period, that the lines were very well delineated, and that the conductor was of the same mind, then I think it would give me a certain amount of ground to make some decisions for myself about what I wanted to do before we started the rehearsal process. In my life, though, that almost never happens. Usually I am walking into a production that is [in] some way going to be deconstructed — that is, in some way, going to ask of the character something that I may not have considered or that may not have been considered in previous productions. Or the approach to the character may be from a perspective that’s unusual.
I’ll use The Turn of the Screw as an example. I loved that production that Mark Lamos did of Turn of the Screw [Glimmerglass, 1993]. It definitely is not a traditional take on Turn of the Screw. Now I had been in Saint Louis prior to playing Glimmerglass. [Opera Theatre of Saint Louis’s artistic director and frequent Britten colleague] Colin Graham said to me, “Oh, you must come, and we will go through it, and I will give you all the British things.” He was so dear and so sweet, and I thought, “Absolutely.” He was offering. I mean, as long as he didn’t say, “O.K., that’ll be five hundred dollars” — which he didn’t! So he literally took me from note to note, moment by moment through Turn of the Screw one day, for about four and a half hours. He gave me little things about British nannies, things about ways to speak to someone when you’re a servant, how you would address them, how you would present yourself physically. It was really neat, but quite a strict, traditional take on Turn of the Screw.
So I get to Glimmerglass, and at the presentation of the Screw designs, there was this giant green board coming down off the stage, and the walls are peeling white, and there are giant figures, and Peter Quint has wings, and he’s wearing a tuxedo. And I thought, “I’m so glad I already did this with Colin Graham, because I have no idea what we’re going to be doing.” But it turned out that what we were going to do was completely psychologically deconstruct the political correctness of the era when the piece was written. So it ended up that what I did [with Colin Graham] was the best kind of preparation for the piece. Because had I not done that, I would not have known where to begin and how to take that character [of the Governess] apart, how she could fall apart because of the constraints that society put on these women and on their jobs. If Colin Graham hadn’t spent all that time with me, talking about it with me and showing me where it was in the music, then when I finally got with the [new production’s] conductor and director, who were very much of a mind about how the piece was used psychologically, I would not have known that.
BS: When Capobianco and I began [working] on this piece, what he said was, “This Roberto Devereux will probably be the only absolutely traditional [production] you’ll ever do in your whole career.” And he was right. He took a very traditional, historical approach to it.
ON: Did he say why?
BS: Yes. He felt the character of Elizabeth was so well known that he wanted us to take advantage of that. To bask in it, really. In this case it worked extremely well, and we were very thorough. We copied the costumes, and the makeup was as dose to what she wore as we could make it. I think the fact that [Roberto Devereux] was going to be part of a [Donizetti] trilogy using the same throne was part of that solution. Tito was going to make a deliberate tie-in to Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII. I think there was no way to do three historically and theatrically different approaches to those three operas and still have them fit together as a trilogy. It was almost like a Channel 13 British package — they weren’t going to make any startling presentations. I must say that I thought it certainly worked. Tito was very scrupulous in preparing all three productions, and he and [his wife] Gigi shaped Elizabeth with me. This was a man who did historic productions — the Mefistofele for Norman Treigle, the Tales of Hoffmann, Julius Caesar.
For me, Elizabeth is [more than] thirty years ago. I lecture now, and it’s always interesting to me: I tell a story that in the beginning of my career, when I did Manon, it used to take me twenty minutes to become this sixteen-year-old girl and two hours to become Queen Elizabeth. And at the end of my career, it was taking me two hours to become Manon and fifteen minutes to become the Queen, and I knew then that it was time for me to retire! [Laughs] But they were fascinating times. But we’re talking thirty-five and forty years ago, and what was shocking in our time and what is shocking today are eons apart. Standards have changed. In some cases they have been raised, in some cases they’ve been lowered. In some cases, mediocrity has become an accepted level. Not for me. I was saying before you came that maybe I’m getting older and more crotchety, because I’m less tolerant of mediocrity. I don’t have patience with it. I would rather walk out of a bad performance than have to sit through a mediocre one!
LF: I won’t say in which context, but I recently went into a rehearsal situation, and after about two days, one of the young kids in the production came up to me and said, “Wow, your reputation precedes you.” And I thought, “Oh my God, what does that mean?” I said, “That sounds bad, that sounds really bad.”
BS: Did you thank him or slap his face?
LF: He said, “Oh no! When you weren’t here, we were having fun. And now that you’re here, we’re really working.” And I said, “Uh! It’s called rehearsal!” I couldn’t believe it! I just want that whatever I do is exactly what I want to be doing. And that is all I care about — vocally, theatrically, musically, dramatically. That’s what I care about, that when people are seeing me perform that there is no other place I would rather be. In this moment, this is exactly what I want to be doing. Which is kind of funny that it now ends up being Roberto Devereux, because I’ve been doing so much modern music lately that I am just dying to wrap my head around bel canto literature again. It’s such beautiful stuff, and there is such a great tradition behind it.
The only thing I’ve always wanted to know was … can I ask Beverly a question?
BS: We’re not on tape! [Laughs]
LF: When you were preparing this role, did [the way] people sang it in the past affect you at all?
BS: There was no past. Devereux had no [accessible recorded] history. I couldn’t even find an old pirate of anything.
LF: But were you aware of [Leyla] Gencer or anybody else who had sung it recently?
BS: I wasn’t into that stuff. I never collected pirated recordings. In the first place, I’m old enough that I’d seen a lot of them! [Laughter from both] It wasn’t necessary for me to find an old tape. I’d look at some of these things and think, “My God, I was at that performance!” [Flanigan laughs.] So in this particular case … there were Anna Bolenas around. I don’t think there were any Maria Stuardas around. But the point is that whatever did exist, it was not anything that I listened to.
LF: But did the tradition of all those Lucias …
BS: Oh, the Lucias. Well. I’ll tell you a very funny thing — I didn’t ever want to sing Lucia. I have to tell you that.
IF: Ha. I am dying to sing Lucia, and nobody wants me to do it! Isn’t that funny?
BS: There will come a time. You’ll do it. For me, Lucia was something for later. Maybe. And then I did hear on the car radio — I don’t know whether it was a commercial recording or not, but it was Maria Callas singing. She was in the middle of the mad scene when I turned it on, and there was a line that she sang, “Alfin son tua, alfin sei mio.” [At last I am yours, at last you are mine.] And I thought to myself, “I have to sing that line!” I’ve always been attracted to a line or two. That’s always influenced me. In Baby Doe it was, “I’m not good at judging people — `live and let live’ is my motto.” And I thought, “That’s the way to play her, not as a whore!”
LF: Oh, absolutely.
BS: Because this is what she is — “live and let live.” Anyhow, that was my clue to Baby Doe, and when I heard this line in Lucia, I thought, “Maybe I’ll do that.” So that’s how I got into Lucia. Lucia was probably one of the most satisfactory roles that I did — certainly Queen Elizabeth was another. I never fell in love with Maria Stuarda. Of the three [Donizetti queen] operas, Stuarda was the easiest. I try to remember the happy times in London, making the recording, when Eileen Farrell was singing Elizabeth. Talk about having fun! I always wanted to do the Elizabeth in Maria Stuarda.
LF: I am going to do that.
BS: You are going to do Elizabeth?
LF: In the spring [of 2001]. Ruth Ann Swenson is going to do Maria Stuarda at Carnegie [for Opera Orchestra of New York]. So I get to do Elizabeth as a straight line through the Donizetti operas, and then City Opera wants to do [Benjamin Britten’s] Gloriana. So [I might] be Elizabeth for quite a long time.
BS: [Pause] Take a long look at Gloriana.
LF: Oh, I have. I know.
BS: That score has been at my house for forty years. [Laughs] Dusty!
LF: I’m also attracted sometimes to things by the way I’ve heard other people sing just a part of something. I’ve always wanted to sing Manon for no other reason than because of you. For no other reason. That [Callas story is] funny, because I once heard Maria Callas sing a line from La Sonnambula [on a recording], and I thought, “I’ve got to sing that. It’s so beautiful, the sound of that.” That often attracts me to something, just hearing how somebody puts something in their voice. I find it so compelling that I really want to put myself in that and see how they got there, and then see where I’m going to get, what that line means to me.
You know what I’ve found when I play historical characters — and I’m a little afraid of this, actually — is that they tend to be the characters that reveal aspects of my own personality to me more. The process of doing Mother of Us All was an incredibly emotional process for me.
LF: Up until now, that person [Susan B. Anthony] and Violetta are the two characters I am constantly in conflict with. Myself. They reveal my own femininity to me, they reveal my own humanity to me, they reveal where I thought my strengths were, but they weren’t really there, they were here. I feel that far more with historical women.
BS: That’s why I say they are more of a challenge. Because the audience has a set of given expectations already when they walk in and sit down — how you are going to look, and so forth. They know a lot about you, because they have read. So in a certain way, a little bit of your own humanity feels slightly restricted because there is always in the back of your head the fact that they know quite a lot about you. You’re not introducing them to Elizabeth.
LF: I find now that in that process of being restricted I end up having to consider something that I wasn’t planning on, or that I, Lauren Flanigan, was too stubborn to consider. Suddenly I’m feeling things, emotions that I wouldn’t even consider, while I’m walking home, or just in my apartment. They take over. I love that about historical characters: you have to give up so much of who you are in order to give in to who they are.
BS: I used to say that for me the theater was an escape. My time on the stage? I loved it. Because when I walked into that theater, I shed my own skin, totally. I couldn’t wait for the opportunity to be somebody else for a few hours. A lot of me crept into it, of course.
LF: It’s funny how you creep in, though.
BS: Oh, yeah.
LF: You can’t keep yourself out. Don’t you become so convinced about the immediacy of the character’s emotion that you are suddenly her advocate? You suddenly become the voice of Elizabeth, and suddenly it’s your emotion, it’s your thought, because it’s your voice. It’s like a drug for me, that part of it. It’s like a crazy drug for me when that happens.
BS: It’s a good high!
LF: [Laughs] Elizabeth is a little scary. That world she was in, who she was, how people related to her — that’s a little daunting, thinking that you can get your energy level up that high.
BS: Who’s the [Nottingham]?
LF: Mark Delavan. And Fernando de la Mora is Roberto Devereux. Mark Lamos is directing. And it’s Elizabethan, it’s not crazy. It should be interesting.
BS: It’s a hard piece to take out of its time. So much of it depends on Elizabeth in this piece. Frankly, the costumes and the scenery and everything else can be wonderful, but it’s Elizabeth’s world, and every single thing that happens happens as a result of this woman. It is not an opera that goes anyplace without her. In Lucia, you have the brother’s lunacy, you have the tenor’s craziness, it’s a piece where they all advance in tandem. [Roberto Devereux] is not like that. Nothing happens that that woman doesn’t force to happen.
LF: Right, and her moments of reflection are public, whereas in Lucia they are not always so. Sorry, but I’ve been watching your Wolf Trap video (of Roberto Devereux) …
BS: Oh! There’s a man over my shoulder, with a big, fat face, who manages to get in every shot! Go back and watch it for him! [Laughs] It’s so funny– he’s the star!
LF: And I’m fascinated, because when you look at that costume, at the makeup and the hair, and you think, “Wow, as Violetta we kind of look like ourselves no matter what.” As Baby Doe, which must have been wonderful for you, she really looked like you. It was you. The distinction between her and you — well, nobody ever made a distinction, it was just you that we thought of. That was what was so beautiful in that way.
BS: But Elizabeth’s makeup was grotesque. She used this alum, this white stuff, because she had these awful pockmarks.
LF: But to get the humanity past that grotesque stuff — that’s what I keep thinking, “My God, there’s the challenge.” You’ve got to get the tenderness and the power and everything, and make sure that the makeup doesn’t just set what it is, and then it never goes beyond that. Somehow, you made it come through, and I loved that. I loved those moments. You were kind of in one place, and then there was just the turn of the head or a movement within this dress, this thing that’s almost like a prison.
BS: That’s a clue.
LF: Oh, yes, yes! I kept thinking, “My God, she is a prisoner of herself.”
BS: And of the throne. Every time she got in trouble, she walked right back there.
ON: That was wonderful. It was almost like her dugout, or her penalty box.
BS: The body language of her sitting on the throne. [She demonstrates.] That was her everything — her father, everything was on that throne.
LF: I love that line in the first scene, “I love him like I love the throne.” Isn’t that one of her first lines?
BS: That’s why I say that the text leaps out at you. Who cares what you’re singing? It’s the text!
LF: I can’t wait. I am really excited.
BS: You’re going to have a ball. Guaranteed. Words of wisdom! [Laughs] This is what I do these days, see? I advise and counsel. That’s the story of my life now.
ON: Is there any question that either one of you would ask the real Queen Elizabeth if you could?
BS: Oh, there are huge gaps in what we know about her. I’ve never understood how she convinced a country to allow her that much power. There isn’t anything in the books that I’ve read that shows a gradual ascent or acceptance. At what point did she instill such fear into all those men that they allowed her to become the most powerful woman in the world? And she wasn’t decapitated. She went on into what was old age for that time.
LF: It is the thing I consider. What was it about her that put fear in all those men? They could have assassinated her!
BS: Exactly! Or turned her out in a minute!
ON: If you put it in terms of modern psychology, she did not have a very good relationship (or complete relationship) with either parent. How did she get such a strong sense of who she was?
BS: Well, in the opera, she does say that incredible line, “It would have been better for you to have incited the wrath of the gods than the daughter of the terrible Henry the Eighth.” Now, there must have been some thing between these two people, the father and the daughter. But there’s a gap there that makes me question why they didn’t put her aside, why they didn’t say, “Are you joking? A woman? To run the world?” Why didn’t they put her aside?
ON: Lucky for us that they didn’t.
BS: Otherwise we wouldn’t be sitting here! Which is very important — never mind the other great things in history that never would have occurred! But this moment!