At first glance, this compendium of interviews with great opera stars seems to be, as the dust jacket states, a book for singers only. Who but singers would be interested in reading Beverly Sills on breath control, Rise Stevens on mezzo versus contralto sound, Marilyn Horne on how to avoid sounding "hooty," Sherrill Milnes on voice placement, or Roberta Peters on the virtues of singing Mozart piano sonatas? As interviewer Jerome Hines indicates, these 40 interviews with everyone from veterans like Kurt Baum to current superstars like Luciano Pavarotti constitute an astonishingly rich source of technical information -- "free voice lessons from all my great colleagues" -- for singers who have the patience to sort through the frequently conflicting opinions and decide which techniques work for them.
But there is much more to this book than explications of vocal technique. Refusing to confine themselves to shop talk, these irrepressibly anecdotal artists offer splendid lore for opera fans, whether they sing or not. Beverly Sills, for example, tells us about the "overwhelming" experience of living, at age 24, with the legendary Rosa Ponselle and hearing her "walk around at eleven o'clock at night with a glass of red wine in her hand, singing Isolde, singing anything she pleased." Ponselle's accompanist tells how even the cows on the Ponselle estate were transported: "They used to push against that fence" when she practiced, "and they always got their heads caught in it trying to get nearer." Not everyone, however, is beguiled by these great singers. Birgit Nilsson reports that she was once raided by the New Orleans police, who burst in on her practice session, demanded to know what was going on, and compared the sounds she was making to the bellowing of a wounded elephant: "They weren't very much impressed with my warming up. It doesn't sound very nice."
Hines himself recounts all manner of revealing incidents from his career, such as the time he sang his famous account of "Boris Godunov" under Leopold Stokowski and discovered that the maestro "seemed to have no conception of Boris, understanding nothing of the words and drama." Shocked and indignant, Hines complained to his wife, soprano Lucia Evangelista, but she retorted passionately that she had never heard Boris sound so ravishingly beautiful under any other conductor.
We quickly discover that for many opera performers, singing, like conducting for Stokowski, is largely intuitive, while for others it comes only with scrupulous analysis and refinement. The differences in the way these artists sing spill over into the way they talk. From the precise, exacting, self-evaluations of Sherrill Milnes and Franco Corelli to the metaphorical reminiscences of Ponselle (in a touching interview conducted shortly before her death in May 1981), these conversations convey an appealing variety of personalities and approaches. The only jarring notes are Hines' cloying Christian pieties ("few have wisdom, which only God can give" . . . "It is all a gift of God"), which are more intrusive than inspiring.
Even when the singers are describing technique, they sometimes do it in a way that has universal, even poetic, impact. In the absence of a demonstration tape for his readers, Hines, an astute interviewer, continually challenges his celebrities to come up with images to reveal their secrets. Some of these are lovely, and they constitute the heart of the book. Ponselle describes her famous pianissimo as "pulling a thread through your nose"; Milnes describes the achievement of a lowered larynx as "rinken die Luft . . . drinking the air"; Pavarotti describes taking a breath before singing as pushing "like a woman in labor, giving birth . . . it is the same thing."
To many of these artists, it is indeed the same thing. Singing is not just an occupation but an intense, life-giving experience, one radically different from other transcendental experiences in that it is repeated night after night. For Louis Quilico, making the right sound is a form of sublime intimacy, "the same ecstasy" as making love. Opera singing is such a heightened experience that, as Rise Stevens explains, the emotion it releases must be nurtured and severely controlled if the singer is to survive: "Look at Callas . . . for me, the most thrilling thing one could hear--you always felt this was the last performance she could ever possibly do. She gave everything . . . I think there is a danger to that. You pay in the end."
This book, however, is the testament of the survivors, those who didn't pay. There are no suffering artists here. As they tell their stories, these idolized celebrities exist in a world where everyone swims, plays tennis, spends money, looks terrific, lives long (Kurt Baum, at age 80, had just completed a round of 10 concerts when Hines interviewed him), and exists for the present. "No one will ever be able to think of you in the past tense," says Beverly Sills; and her interview, the most sparkling and vibrant in the book, is the portrait of the quintessentially "schizophrenic" opera personality, who "goes home and prepares dinner at night" but can't "wait to get to the theater and become somebody else." This is a relentlessly cheerful book, but when artists like Sills are talking, the cheer is infectious.