Sounds from the purest heart seared into your soul: The voice of Margaret Price

Margaret Price

I came to know this deeply intelligent, very lovely lady years ago when I first came to the Met, and then a little more after I debuted. She was a hoot and an honest holler. A beautiful, refined soul that stayed blistering honest with self, friend, and foe if she had one, and her truthful wholeness was reflected in the silver creamy texture of her radiant instrument when she sang. Nothing was false and all deeply rooted in beauty and the eternal search for making it accessible if even for a moment. She lived in that, and I am sure a shining, sunny part of Paradise will be where she feels the most at peace and happy. God bless you and keep you dear Margaret, no one who ever heard your gorgeous voice will ever forget you…. and those lucky enough to have that beer and chat and puppies frolicking, and deep belly laughs with you are hopelessly sad to see you leave.

Such a beautiful legacy you leave. Weaved into every heart that loves beautiful expression and a soul heard when you hear them sing, you are the song long remembered nay’ forgot.

Here is a great interview with Mr. Eric Myers from Opera News with Dame Margaret Price….


Some divas are loath to use the “r” word. Margaret Price, now sixty-six, has no such illusions. “I retired nine years ago,” she says proudly by telephone from her 150-year-old Welsh farmhouse on Ceibwr Bay. “I’m so desperately happy that I’m living here. It’s a glorious place. I was looking for a house here because my mother comes from this area and I spent all my holidays here from the time I was very young. So I found this old farmhouse from 1860 and renovated it, and it’s just wonderful. It’s right on top of the ocean, with Ireland across the water, and it’s on three and three-quarter acres of land.” All that land comes in handy, as her passion is breeding and showing golden retrievers. Right now she owns five, and all of them lead glamorous lives on the show circuit.

“When I retired, I thought I was through with traveling,” Price laughs. “But I’m more of a Gypsy now than I ever was when I was singing. I bought myself a big old Chrysler – a lovely American car – and I took all the seats out of it, and now it’s a Dogmobile! I drive it all over. I just came back from London, and I’m going up there again on Friday, as we’ve got a big show there on Saturday. And then I’m going down to Devon the following Friday.” Retriever love is nothing new for her. “I came to the Met with two golden retrievers, and they had a ball. Jimmy Levine was always giving them toys, and the dressers were always giving them cakes. I would come and stay for six to eight weeks each time, and everyone adoring the dogs was such a big plus for me. I always felt welcomed there – very welcomed indeed.”

Once Price made her belated Met debut in 1985, it wasn’t long before she was able to emerge from the shadow of “the other Price.” Like that Price, she had one of the most purely beautiful voices of her time. She also possessed a vocal production that was just about flawless, paired with razor-keen interpretive abilities. But opera was never the be-all and end-all for her; she was equally well known as a lieder singer, and that training always colored her deep sensitivity to texts. Although she was physically large, even by opera-singer standards, she made you forget that immediately, so remarkable were her artistry, her gorgeous, expressive face and the sheer loveliness of her tone.

When Price first stepped onto the stage of the Met, in 1976, it was as a guest performer in Otello and Le Nozze di Figaro during a brief touring visit by the Paris Opera. Scheduling conflicts prevented her from making her actual Met company debut until an Otello opposite Plácido Domingo in 1985. Thereafter, she appeared with the company for the next ten years, though the total number of her performances at the house was small – six Elisabettas, five Desdemonas and two Nozze Countesses, along with one concert appearance with James Levine.

Price was a singer with plenty of temperament, but she knew how to keep it in proper balance with music and words. “Discipline” is a word that aptly describes her technique, and it’s a word that happens to be one of her favorites. “I’m very disciplined,” she states. “Even today, I’m a very disciplined person. I think that it paid off. You know, I never gave up my lieder recitals. The lieder helped the opera, and the opera helped the lieder. The discipline of singing lieder is that you have to do it without using a great operatic voice. It’s a controlled way of singing, which actually does help opera, because then you take that discipline you’ve learned into the opera, and you don’t tend to overblow, or oversing. If you don’t utilize control during a performance – if you give 150 percent of yourself, emotionally, physically and vocally – you’re a nervous wreck at the end. And you’re not going to last long. I tried, obviously, to be emotional, but never at the risk of losing my voice.”

Discipline – or, more specifically, self-discipline – was something she was forced to learn at an early age. She spent most of her youth in Wales helping raise her mentally handicapped brother and assuming many of her working mother’s household chores after school. She also had a drastic operation at four, the result of having been born with malformed legs. (Today, she continues to have trouble with her legs.) An engagement at a young age was broken off by her father, who decreed that she choose between a career as a singer or one as a wife and mother; ultimately, she never married.

Music helped get her through. “My father was a very good pianist,” she says, “who played for several of the very good Welsh singers of the time. He played for me as well, and he had a great collection of recordings of all the great, great singers. I used to put on his records at a small age and dance and sing to them.”

When she went from Wales to London to begin vocal studies at Trinity College at the age of fifteen, she was a mezzo. Her stage debut at Welsh National Opera was as Cherubino, and one year later she made her Covent Garden debut in the same role, replacing an indisposed Teresa Berganza. “I got to know Teresa Berganza very, very well,” she says, “and I adored her way of singing. She and her husband at the time, Félix Lavilla, gave me an enormous amount of help, taking me to United Music Publishers in London and choosing Spanish repertoire for me to sing. I’ve got a lot to thank her for, and I still love listening to her singing.”

Price made the transition to soprano almost immediately and spent the next twelve years specializing in Mozart roles. The world took notice, and within a short time her international career was in full bloom. Mozart eventually gave way to Verdi, as she put her stamp on roles such as Desdemona, Elisabetta, both Amelias and even Giovanna d’Arco (in concert). The one Verdi role she tried on and soon abandoned was Aida. “I was always petrified of the Nile scene,” she explains, “as most sopranos are. That high C is so exposed and so dangerous. By the time you get to the second, you’re so exhausted – well, I was so exhausted! Once that was over, then I could relax and enjoy myself right through to the end. But everyone knows that aria is coming, and they want it perfect. I didn’t really sing a lot of Aidas. I just felt that it was such a tough nut to crack.”

Desdemona became a calling-card role for her, but it was not without its own perils, particularly the time she sang it with Jon Vickers. When this incident is brought up to her, she exclaims, “Oh, that’s so many years ago, I’d rather forget the horrors! He was a great singer, and I had a great admiration for him. It was just rather an unfortunate thing. We were doing Otello in the Paris Opera. And Plácido had been doing the Otello, and Jon said that whatever Plácido did, he would also do and wouldn’t alter the production at all. But when it came to it, he wanted to do it his way and nobody else’s. And, well, we had problems during rehearsal, at which he became very abusive [during the murder scene]. I was very scared, of course, because I was very vulnerable to him, and he could have really smothered me. He was told that he had to behave himself in performance. So he came to me and said, ‘Listen, this is how I’m going to do it, and I will stick to it.'”

Was there a price to be paid in moving from Mozart to Verdi? “That transition is not so unusual,” she stresses. “It’s the natural progression, if your voice develops and changes. But I didn’t give up Mozart entirely. I still sang Donna Anna, and I always came back to work at my Mozart, because it’s the best vocal exercise and healer you could ever have. When I sang Norma, for example, everyone was very astonished that I was going to be singing it and said, ‘Oh, you’ll never sing Mozart again.’ I sang some performances in a new production with Agnes Baltsa for Zurich Opera, and then when I came home, I started singing Così Fan Tutte in my music room – evening my voice out again, and getting the legato and the size back. Then I asked Wolfgang Sawallisch at the Munich Opera House if I could do some performances of Così Fan Tutte the next time they staged it. He said yes, and my voice was back to a Mozart voice again. I wanted everyone to know that I had not lost my voice singing Norma!” Even when she recorded Isolde under Carlos Kleiber (she never sang it live), she did it her own way. “I’ve always sung everything with my own voice – with a Mozart voice, if you will. I sang Tristan with the voice that God’s given me – I didn’t try to force it.”

Price’s respect for conductors such as Kleiber and Sawallisch was boundless, but today’s crop does not inspire such feelings in her. “I was privileged and lucky enough to work with some great conductors, like Solti and Klemperer and Jimmy Levine and Abbado and Sawallisch and Kleiber – and they were all so helpful. One of the reasons I gave up was because music was no longer the same as it used to be. The singers are not the same – the conductors are not the same. When I was doing performances with Claudio Abbado, he treated me as an equal and helped me through performances, and we were great friends. You can’t be a great friend with a conductor anymore, because they’re so concerned about their own career. They don’t work with the singers anymore – they don’t help singers. They don’t sit down with you and talk with you and say, ‘Listen, don’t do it that way – try it this way.’ You know, Abbado and people like him would say, ‘Why don’t you try and do that in one breath? You’ll sing it differently.’ So you’d try it – and it worked! I don’t think you get that from conductors anymore. They’re so egotistical. I feel sorry for the young singers that are coming up today. They’ve got to know everything, because they’re not going to get it from the conductors.”

When she was last interviewed by OPERA NEWS, in 1985, Price said, “If I look back at my own life, it’s been a pretty sad one, compared to some who’ve had more luck.” Twenty-two years later, she feels differently. “I was probably on a downer,” she chuckles. “As I’ve gotten older, I’ve really changed my mind. I think the hardships I had when I was young stood me in good stead for the future. I don’t regret anything. Now I’m very, very happy, and I can look back and say what a great career I had. I’m very proud of the things that I’ve done, and I’m very, very happy with the people that have helped me to get where I got. And all the great colleagues I had – the fun, the laughs. I wouldn’t have done anything else. My life has been a good life.”

ERIC MYERS is the author of three books. He has contributed articles to Playbill, Time Out New York and The New York Times Magazine and Arts and Leisure section.

~ by aprilemillo on January 29, 2011.

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