By Bruce Duffie
Marilyn Zschau (pronounced “Chow,” or, if you will,
“Ciao”) has had many successes
in opera in both America and
Europe. Born in Chicago and growing up as a tomboy in North
Carolina, she claims not to know anything about “this flirting
business.” She started out as a mezzo soprano but quickly found
her true range as a spinto/dramatic soprano. Her climb to the top
has not been easy, but her philosophy of life allows her to be patient
– things which she should do eventually come her way.
Among the things which have already come her way are
leading roles romantic, verismo, and contemporary operas.
Frequent characters include Tosca, Santuzza, Manon Lescaut, Odabella
(in Attila), Maddalena (in Andrea Chenier), Barak’s Wife (in Die Frau
Ohne Schatten), Leonora (in La
Forza del Destino), and Minnie (in La
Fanciulla del West). She has also scored success in
works such as Korngold’s Die Tote
Stadt, Lady Macbeth Mtsensk
Shostakovich, and Thomas Pasatieri’s Before
The following conversation took place during one of
Miss Zschau’s visits to Lyric Opera of Chicago.
Bruce Duffie: First, let
me ask you about one of your famous
roles – Minnie. What is she really like?
Basically, she is a very honest person who falls
into the trap of cheating at cards because there just doesn’t seem to
be any other way out. I think that audiences should forgive her
for that because she’s doing it to save somebody’s life, and I think
that that is very admirable. They’re trying to hang Dick Johnson
for something he didn’t do. He admits being a thief, but he says
he’s never killed anyone. She believes him and Jack Rance
doesn’t, and she realizes that Rance is totally
unscrupulous. Rance gives her his word that he will not chase
after Johnson, but as soon as the man is well again, they go after him
and string him up... So, she has to save him again.
BD: Is Minnie a virgin?
MZ: Yes. Oh yes,
definitely. In the last act she says
to the men that she’s given up her youth for them and been mother and
sister to them, and taken care of them as a cook and maid, and been
their friend. And when she’s talking to Johnson, she remarks, “I
don’t understand how somebody can love somebody just for an hour.”
BD: Is she happy at the
end when she goes off with Johnson?
MZ: Oh I think so.
It’s a bittersweet situation – she’s
happy and yet unhappy about leaving the boys and that place in
California which has been her home. So it’s sadness mixed with
unhappiness. She’s got him, but she’s had to give up everything
she’s known until then.
BD: Why is Fanciulla not known as much as Butterfly or Tosca?
MZ: I think it’s a bit
more difficult to grasp melodically and
musically. For the audience there’s a great deal of talking –
particularly in Act I – and if you don’t understand it, it can seem
like a great deal of music about nothing.
BD: Would it work in
MZ: I don’t know.
I’ve never done it in translation.
I’ve read the translation in my score and it’s really quite
laughable. Someone would have to do a really careful translation
of it; get a poet to do it so that it sounds as poetic as what’s
already there because the Italian is really quite lovely. It has
some wonderful sentiments, but you have to know what it is. I’ve
met a number of people who say the second or the third or the fourth
time they heard Fanciulla
they liked it a lot better than the
first. It grows on you. It doesn’t make the wonderful first
impression that Bohème
does, or Manon Lescaut where
the melodies are
all right there one after another. This one has everything sort
of intertwined and it’s much more complex. I enjoy it for that
BD: Let me ask about
translations in general – do you like them
MZ: It’s good for the
audience – if you can understand us.
Sometimes operas are so dramatically difficult that it’s difficult to
get all the words across through the orchestra. But for
myself? No. They usually don’t fit; the vowels don’t fit
way. The composer has spent a great deal of time writing the
musical line to make it easy – or as easy as
possible – for the singer to
sing the particular vowels that he has chosen on the particular
pitches. Invariably, you get a different vowel, and especially
female voice it is very difficult on a higher pitch. Sometimes
will stick a word on B or C that have “e’s” in them, which is
ridiculous. You cannot sing a pure “e” vowel up there without
sounding terrible. You can sing a squeaky “e” and sound like a
mouse, but that’s not what the audience pays to hear. A man can
sing pure vowels up to the top of his range, but that’s because he’s
an octave below where I am. But it’s difficult to project any
language. I was working on a piece with Thomas Pasatieri a few
years ago, and he had written some very awkward things. He
could sing them fine, but I couldn’t, and he changed them. He and
Frank Corsaro had written the piece and we wanted to change a few words
around, and Frank said sure. They were very flexible, thank God,
because there were a couple of phrases which were just impossible to
BD: You can do that with
a living composer, but do you sometimes wish that you could get Verdi
or Puccini to do the same kind of
MZ: Once in a while I
think, “If they’d only not written that
word up there…” There are some phrases that are very difficult, and you
have to cheat. You find those spots and work on them very
BD: In a role like
Minnie, where there only a couple of you
singing it around the world, do people compare you with Carol Neblett?
MZ: I’m sure they must
among themselves, but they don’t come to
me and say, “Well, she did this better, but you do that better.”
I have not heard a criticism that compares us.
BD: Does it bother you at
all knowing that a good portion of the
audience will have heard the recording with her?
MZ: No. If they
come to the opera and they’ve got an impression of one person singing
the role, they’ve got to be ready for a
different voice and different personality and a different
characterization. If they’re not flexible, then they should stay
BD: Is Puccini easy to
sing? [Vis-à-vis the DVD
shown at right, see my Interviews with Ileana Cotrubas,
and Thomas Allen.]
MZ: In Puccini, you’ve
got to know how to sing loud because the
orchestration is so thick. Most of his parts are a whole tone too
low for me. The whole tessitura is too low. I like the
tessitura of the Verdi operas like Forza
and Travatore and even
Attila. You can get up
into your head voice and feel more
comfortable. In Puccini you’ve got to concentrate all your energy
in the middle of your voice, and you get tired, extremely tired.
I was speaking with Alfredo
Kraus yesterday about Butterfly
and he told
me that in Italy and Spain many young lyric sopranos ruin their voices
trying to sing that role. It is for a spinto soprano. It’s
too low, it’s too long, it’s too heavy, and it’s too thick. If
don’t know how to sing really well and how to pace yourself, you
should stay away from Butterfly.
It’s a real killer. But
Verdi, on the other hand, has the phrases which lie really beautifully
for the voice. He seemed to know a great deal about
singing. The accompaniment is never so thick as in Puccini.
In Verdi, you don’t have to compete with the orchestra or fight with
it. If you have an insensitive conductor for Puccini, it can be
very difficult – especially if they want it loud.
BD: What can you do then?
MZ: I ease off. I
figure why should I push? I’m not
going to get more volume by pushing. I just relax and figure it
might pop out easier, and it usually does.
BD: Does the size of the
house affect that kind of thing?
MZ: I think so.
It’s much easier to sing Puccini in a
smaller house with good acoustics because you can hear the voice riding
the orchestra. In a very large theater – like this one in Chicago
– it takes
longer for the sound to hit the walls, so the reverberation time is
longer. You don’t really get instant playback from what you’re
giving out, so you just have to trust the feeling of it. You have
to know how your voice feels when it’s right. I remember one
performance when it was muggy and rainy and the atmospheric pressure
was heavy, and the acoustics were very different. Everyone was
complaining that night; it was definitely more “dead” in the house.
BD: Do you like working
with a scrim?
MZ: In the beginning I
used to hear so many horrible stories
about how awful scrims were that I thought they were terrible, but I
haven’t ever heard any complaints when I’ve had them. I don’t
think it affects the sound dramatically. It may take a tiny bit
of the sound away, but it doesn’t bother me. I don’t think about
them. I haven’t studied stagecraft or scenic design.
BD: Do you like all the
new ideas that are being brought into
MZ: I haven’t seen the
famous Aïda in
Frankfurt, but I understand
that it’s raised the attendance level, so I guess it’s good for
something. That production has the whole thing take place in an
office. Now that’s totally out-to-lunch as far as I’m
concerned, and not at all what Verdi had in mind, but if it gets people
coming to the opera and talking about it, and if they then are
interested enough to come to a “normal” production, then it’s done a
BD: Would you do a Fanciulla where you come in on
instead of a horse?
MZ: Sure, why not.
If you can interest a younger audience
that way and get people to like the opera better, fine. You can’t
change the basic fabric of the music.
BD: Is that the way to
get more people to come to the opera?
MZ: It might be for
certain places. In Germany,
particularly, they’re sort of far-out as far as theater goes.
They do a lot of strange and experimental things so it’s sort of
expected, but, there must be a certain amount of the German
public that appreciates the traditional. I know they had a
wonderful production of Eugene Onegin
at the Munich Opera, and it was a
huge success. It was old-fashioned and beautiful, and they liked
it, but they kind of have to be extremely beautiful. Otto
Schenck did that beautiful Tannhäuser
at the Met with wonderful huge sets like Wagner must have envisioned
piece. What I like in opera is wonderful direction; it is best if
got a director that can get performances out of the singers. I
really loathe opera where you go to see a drama and all you get are
people standing on the front of the stage singing.
BD: If you’re involved in
something like that, do you try to
inject some drama into the proceedings?
MZ: I try, but sometimes
you have to fight the director. If
they have the concept of something static and they’re just making
pictures, you might as well just give up and do it the way they want
and get bad reviews for being static and stiff. That’s
usually what happens to us – we get blamed for the bad performances
and the director gets praised when we do well. If we do something
for ourselves, the director gets the credit for such a wonderful job or
directing us, and usually he hasn’t.
BD: Can I assume you
MZ: I don’t always enjoy
it – it depends on the conductor.
I did a production of Tosca
in Wales recently that was really
painful. We had a wonderful conductor from Russia – Mark Ermler –
who had a very warm personality and was a very nice man and a
sensitive musician and a good conductor, but his tempi were so slow he
nearly killed all of us. It was physically painful. Our
abdominal muscles were sore for holding phrases really longer than they
were meant to be.
BD: Would an apt
comparison be to ask a person who does the 100
yard dash to run a mile?
MZ: Yes, or a miler to do
a marathon. I was telling
someone recently that doing Giulietta in The Tales of Hoffman is like
revving up to do a marathon and then doing a 100 yard dash. You
get to the end and you think, “Oh… it’s all over.” I’ve warmed up
for 40 minutes to sing 30 minutes of music.
BD: Do you feel cheated?
MZ: I do a little
bit. Offenbach was pretty bad to
Giulietta. He wrote a very nice aria for Olympia and a very nice
aria for Antonia and not a darn thing for poor old Giulietta. All
she gets is a measly little duet with a pretty tune that’s too low, and
a sextet that’s too high. It’s terribly difficult to sing.
BD: Will you keep this in
mind and turn down further offers for
MZ: I probably would not
do it again because it’s just a lot of
effort for 30 minutes.
BD: Would you ever sing
all three parts?
MZ: One of my teachers is
a former coloratura soprano in
Vienna – she is Lucia Popp’s teacher
– and she told me to learn
Olympia and sing all three parts, but I think people expect a lighter,
more bell-like sound than I could ever produce. My voice is too
big for that sort of role.
BD: Ever want to do Norma
MZ: I’d like to
– in fact I was offered Norma, but it was at a
time I wasn’t free. For that role, though, I’d take a lot of time
to prepare it and do it right.
BD: Do you enjoy
MZ: No. It’s too
angular. Composers don’t know
anything about the voice. They think you can flit around from
notes to low notes without going into any notes in between – like an
instrument. It’s extremely difficult for a voice to switch from
to chest; it was difficult when Mozart did it in “Come scoglio”
in Così Fan Tutte.
I shouldn’t generalize, I know, but most
modern composers have not studied singing and do not know anything
about it. I wish that they all would go have a few singing
lessons to realize the problems.
BD: You don’t want them
to treat you like a clarinet?
MZ: No, no, no. I
want them to treat me like a human being
with nice, little, tiny, skinny vocal cords that need time to
adjust. I think even conductors should study singing. It’s
a definite must for a conductor to know about breathing. Some of
them have no idea that you need a split-second for a breath.
They will give you a full second, and the music stops. That was
one of the troubles with that Russian conductor in Wales. He kept
giving me more and more time and I kept getting tighter and tighter;
there was no more spontaneity left.
BD: Couldn’t you
talk to him about this problem?
MZ: I did. For that
particular problem I told him
that I would do two phrases in one breath and he was not to give me any
breath-space. I breathed, but he never knew it.
BD: Do you generally turn
down offers to do modern works?
MZ: Yes. Lady Macbeth by Shostakovich is the
thing I do. Before Breakfast
by Pasatieri is different because
he’s a neo-romantic. He really writes melodies and is very
careful. That piece is not too melodic, but it was on that triple
bill of one-act American operas done at the New York City Opera.
Mine was in the middle of the three, so I was the meat in the
sandwich. Many people liked it the best. It’s a monologue –
40 minutes, one character, based on a play by Eugene O’Neil.
BD: Reminds me of La Voix Humaine by Poulenc, or
MZ: People often say I
should do Erwartung so
look at it and decide. I’ve turned down Lulu because when it was
offered to me I wasn’t vocally solid enough to sing it. I felt I
couldn’t do it justice. Whenever I’ve seen it, I felt I could
play it better than whomever I’ve seen. My voice seems to be
getting easier in the high range the older I get, and I’m still
learning things about my voice. I started out as a mezzo
and was trained as a mezzo, so that gave me a lot of vocal problems
that most sopranos don’t have. I was twisted in knots and had to
get the knots out of my throat. And it’s taken a long time
because I’ve been working at the same time. I never took a year
or two years off to just study. I had to keep working because I
had to keep making money. I was supporting myself and didn’t have
any extra money to take two years off.
BD: Do you enjoy all the
travel that comes with a career like
MZ: Yes. It’s not
so boring as living in one place all the
time. I was in Zurich, Switzerland, for 10 years and didn’t go
anywhere and didn’t do anything, and it was horrible. I enjoy
seeing new people and traveling to new theaters and being here and
there and everywhere. The bad part is packing. Somehow your
clothing always seems to multiply. Even if you don’t buy anything
they just get bigger and won’t go back in the suitcase the
way they did the first time.
BD: How often do you sing?
MZ: I like to have two
days in between performances. I don’t like to
sing every other day. It’s extremely difficult and it’s wearing
on the body and the throat. I don’t think vocal cords are meant
to take that much. There is always a certain amount of strain in
a performance no matter how good your technique is. You’re going
to do something wrong; you’ll make a mistake or miscalculate a
placement of a high note, and it’s going to throw you off a little
bit. No matter how perfect anyone sounds, you’re going to be
slightly – or extremely – tired after a performance. The next day
is very difficult after a big role like Butterfly or Odabella or
Minnie. After any of those long parts that are very dramatic, I
don’t like to do anything the next day – not even
don’t do any singing; I don’t study. I don’t sing on the
day of, or the day after a performance. I can do a little bit of
day before. In New York I was trying to learn Attila at the same
time as the Pasatieri. Before one of the performances, I worked
for an hour and a
half on the Verdi, and I had a really difficult time with the
Pasatieri. So I learned my lesson and I never work that much the
day before a big performance. I’ll do vocalizes and I’ll do roles
that I know already, but nothing new – especially now that I’m doing
such long and difficult roles. Singing is a very difficult
business and I don’t think too many people realize just how difficult
it really is.
BD: Is the public more
sophisticated about opera today than, say,
ten years ago?
MZ: I think so.
They’re much more aware. Pavarotti has
done a great deal to interest more people in opera, and he’s done
a great deal for young singers. I saw the Bohème he did with his
contest winners, and he didn’t act like a “star” with them – as he has
sometimes done with other productions. So, I have a lot more
respect for him because of that.
BD: Are singing contests
of any value?
MZ: I don’t think they
are. I think they’re
worthless. I was in a couple and didn’t win a thing, and here I
am having a career, and those who won are nowhere to be seen. So
what does that show? It can show that you are a good competitor,
and it can show that you have a good voice. It doesn’t show that
you’ve got what it takes. It takes more than a good voice to have
a career. The nervous strain is much more at an audition, for
example, and it’s purely objective. Opera schools and opera
studios connected with the big companies are a much better idea.
The one here in Chicago is a fine example. Getting to sing a
few small parts in the big companies is great training – as long as you
don’t get stuck in the small parts. However, if you want to work
full-time on big roles in smaller houses, I’m afraid the answer is
still Europe. They have the year-round houses for the young
singers. The competition for the (comparatively) few roles
here must be fierce.
BD: Are there too may
MZ: Probably. I
don’t know – it’s difficult for me to
say. Some people are lucky and some people aren’t lucky.
And some people who aren’t as talented as other people have more luck
and are in the right place at the right time, and get the job that
perhaps someone else should have had. And there are others who
are pushed for one reason or another. They make big splashes and
die out and vanish, and you wonder why such a fuss was made over that
person. Sometimes it can be money or influence. I don’t
know anything about that because I auditioned and got a job, and
auditioned someplace else and got another job; so I got mine through
BD: Did you sing any
auditions that did not produce jobs?
MZ: I don’t think I ever
sang for anyone where I didn’t get hired
for one thing or another. Then after being in Zurich for 10
years, I didn’t have to audition any more – my agent just sent me
places where I was wanted.
BD: You’ve mentioned
doing a few things with this or that
internationally-famous name. Is it better to work with
well-knowns than with unknowns?
MZ: It depends on whether
the colleagues are nice; that’s what really counts in
performances. If you’ve got a really
great singer with a horrible personality, who is mean and nasty and
tries to upstage you, you don’t like that experience. I haven’t
had that experience very often, fortunately. I’ve been very lucky
things I’ve wanted to do have eventually come my way. Maybe not
this year or next year but in the following years they come. I
think you kind of make your own reality. If there are certain
things you want to do, eventually you will get to do them.
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Bruce Duffie is a staff announcer and the Public
Service Director with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago. He also
contributes interviews with operatic artists to several local
magazines. In the next issue of The
Opera Journal, a conversation
with stage director Nathaniel
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© 1982 Bruce Duffie
This interview was recorded in Chicago on October 7,
1982. Portions were used (along with recordings) on WNIB in
October of 1988. The
transcription was made in 1985 and published in The Opera Journal in March of
1986. It was slightly re-edited and posted on this website in
To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been
transcribed and posted on this website, click here.
broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago
from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of
2001. His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and
journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM,
as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.
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
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.